HOP INN – SWINDON

Hop Inn
Devizes Road
Swindon
SN1 4BJ

SIXTH VISIT: WEDNESDAY 24 DECEMBER 2014

FIFTH VISIT: SUNDAY 21 DECEMBER 2014

FOURTH VISIT: THURSDAY 20 NOVEMBER 2014

I was up Old Town as I wanted to visit Magnum Wines to see if they had any stouts worthy of a little project I have planned. As fate would have it I came away with a bottle of Bear Republic Big Bear Black Stout. Of course, it would an absolute disgrace if I walked all the way up Vic Hill and didn’t visit the Hop Inn for a beer or three.

Despite being reasonably early on a Thursday afternoon there was already quite a few folk getting tucked into a beer. Thankfully, my favourite leather couch was unoccupied. I looked at the beer line-up but non of them were really calling out to me. I decided to go for a Westport Porter from relatively local boys Malmesbury. I’ve had a few Malmesbury beers in the past – they’re never as bad as I fear but never as good as I hop. The Westport was good. Not stunning but a pretty very enjoyable. So enjoyable that I popped back to bar for a second pint. The second pint tasted as good as the first. I was almost tempted to make it hat-trick but I decided my departing drink should be a bottle of Chouffe.

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THIRD VISIT: FRIDAY 1 AUGUST 2014

A couple of beers with the Swindon Twitter/Untappd massive.

I was the first to arrive. I perused the pumps and decided to go for a pint of Golden Fleece from Settle – it’s yet another beer from Yorkshire created to honour the Tour de France and, more specifically, its visit to Yorkshire. Quite a few people were already tucking into their beverage of choice but thankfully my favourite table was unoccupied. I plonked my ass down on the leather sofa and took a big slurp of my beer. It was okay but perhaps a little to earthy for my liking. My drinking companions arrived shortly before I’d got to the bottom of the glass. They both started with the Ticketybrew Stout and seemed to like it. I decided to give it a miss as I’ve never tried a Ticketybrew beer that I enjoyed.

I went for a pint of Arbor’s Petit Grand. It’s billed as a Saison. I don’t really consider Saison a true style. But trendy brewers and drinkers seem intent on it becoming one. And have arguably succeeded. Even though Saison isn’t a style, Petit Grand sure as hell ain’t a Saison. It’s a pale ale that’s had some elderflower chucked into the mix. It’s good but perhaps just a little too subtle. I prefer Arbor when they throw caution in the bin and experiment with no regard for failure. But I doubt such an approach to every beer you brew is a recipe for a sustainable business.

The beers were going doing swiftly and the chat was flowing freely and the pub was filling up nicely. I decided to make a slight change of direction and have a bottle of Chouffe. I love Chouffe. I much prefer it on draught when in Belgium or the Netherlands but a bottle is always enjoyable enough. It’s just a shame that the Hop Inn doesn’t stock Houblon Chouffe. One of our party had to depart to get home to let his dog out. The other decided to follow my lead and drink a Chouffe. His good lady wife was scheduled to pick him up at 7pm so we figured we had enough time for another drink each. He went for a Flying Dog Raging Bitch. I went for a Nøgne Ø Saison. Yeah, I know I’ve just said the Saison isn’t a style but Nøgne Ø Saison is one of my favourite examples of the (non) style.

When those two drinks were gone it was time for us to get gone. But I was quite ready to call time on this little session so I headed to the Plough on a quest for some Circle Cider.

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SECOND VISIT: 12 JULY 2014

I wanted to go to the bottle shop located just around the corner. My girlfriend wanted to go to boring shops to buy boring stuff. We struck a deal: she’d drop me off up Old Town and then go buy her boring stuff and I’d go have a couple of pints and score some bottles and then she’d pick me back up – perfect.

My eye was immediately drawn to the pump clip for Tiny Rebel’s Dirty Stop Out but I decided that it would make a better closing beer than an opener. A couple of the beers on sale were from breweries that I’d never heard of before – Settle & Firebrand. The house ale from Ramsbury and Bristol Beer Factory’s Sunrise completed the line-up. I decided to head into minefield territory on go for Firebrand’s Rye PA (7%). There were a few folk in the pub but thankfully the leather sofa was free so I plonked my ass down there. A radio was quietly telling anyone who cared what was happening in the cricket. The Rye PA was good. When I was about half way down my half pint I was thinking that I should’ve been brave enough to go for a whole pint. I drained the last of the beer and trooped back to the bar. This time I went for a pint of the Settle Classic. It’s a bitter.  I won’t be young forever and there will come a day when all I want to drink is bitter – it happens to us all – so every now and then I like to get in a little bit of practice. The Settle is a good stab at a style that is much maligned and misunderstood.People were coming and going including a postie who had just finished his shift. When I was kid my stepdad was a postie and he was always home before noon and especially so on Saturdays. Posties working until almost 4pm on Saturdays seems like a backward step for society. I figured that I had enough time for another pint (and if I was very lucky a bottle of Chouffe as a chaser). As planned, I ordered the Dirty Stop-Out. It’s a very good beer – nice and stouty and nice and smokey. Some people were feeding the pub dogs pork scratchings. One of dogs farted. It was quite an impressive stench. So impressive that a man began opening and closing the door in attempt to waft away the odour. I couldn’t work out if he felt he was genuinely necessary or if he was just doing it for comic affect. My pint was almost gone and I still hadn’t received the call. I was just about to take the final swig then head to the bar for a Chouffe but my phone starting ringing. Time to hit the bottle shop.

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FIRST VISIT: THURSDAY 3 APRIL 2014

The Hop Inn has recently been crowned the CAMRA Swindon & North Wilts Pub of the Year 2014, and deservedly so. It’s only been open 18 months but in that time it has managed to sell several hundred different real ales and every one of them, based on my experience and the word on the street, has been in tip top condition. They also sell Freedom Four and Pils, Palm and Vedett Extra White. And they have a tasty little bottle selection which includes La Chouffe, Old Foghorn and a selection from Nøgne Ø. Not too shabby.

It’s a small place. Ideal microbar size I’d imagine. The décor trip is reclaimed wood and exposed brickwork. But it does it well. It’s not wanky and pretentious. It’s relaxed and natural. In the evening it can get pretty rammed – good for them but not so good for a guy like me who usually just wants a quiet corner to read – so I prefer to pop in on a Thursday afternoon. Today, as is the norm, I was faced with five cask choices: the house bitter brewed by Ramsbury, Chennai IPA from Kissingate, Hopfuzz’ The Goldsmith, Arbor Oyster Stout and one other that has unfortunately faded from my memory. I decided to kick off with a pint of Chennai – it was pretty decent and had a very pleasant lingering bitterness. I retired to the leather couch at the back of the pub. The landlord asked if I would like a newspaper to read. I was offered the Times or the Guardian. A small but impressive piece of customer service and it was made all the more welcoming by the fact I wasn’t offered the Sun or the Sport. I flicked through the paper in supped my ale. When the ale was no more I returned to the bar and ordered a pint of the Hopfuzz – it wasn’t bad but it wasn’t as tasty as the Chennai. As I idly passed the time some people came and went – the landlord knew them all. The Hopfuzz vanished so I bought an Oyster Stout. For my money Arbor’s Oyster Stout is up there with Hop Back’s Entire Stout as the nation’s greatest everyday all-day stout. Delicious. I visited the gents. They were clean and fresh smelling and had an unusually large number of penises crudely scribbled on the wall – perhaps it’s some sort of tribute to the fact that in a former life the Hop Inn was a sex shop. My cash supplies were depleted but I fancied cracking open the bottle fridge so I nipped out to find a hole in the wall. As requested, the landlord expertly guarded my pint and jacket during my absence. The bottle I went for was Nøgne Ø Saison. I’m pretty sure it was the first saison I tried and it remains a firm favourite, not just of the style but of any beer. It was served with a Nøgne Ø pint glass but a pint glass that only holds 350ml. The bottles of saison are 500ml which means you can have 350 of super clear beer then swoosh up the bottle to get a final 150 of beautiful yeasty murkiness. Lovely. I fancied another but I knew if I did it would be unlikely that I would make it home at a respectable time and in a respectable state. With reluctance I said goodbye. It was a perfect afternoon in the pub.

The Hop Inn is by far the best pub in Swindon and if it wasn’t for the Red Lion in Cricklade it would be the best pub in Wiltshire. Each time I visit I promise myself that I will visit more often. I really need to make good on that promise.

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VAULTS – DEVIZES

Vaults
St John’s Street
Devizes
SN10 1BN

SECOND VISIT: SATURDAY 27 SEPTEMBER 2014

We’d frittered away most of the day doing bugger all so decided to salvage something from the first day of the weekend by going for a wander along the canal at Devizes then popping into the Vaults for a beer or three and some takeaway. The canal walk was very pleasant. We saw a heron, a cat who was friendly but more interested in scanning the grass for voles than chatting to us, and a boat that appears to be named after the Pink Floyd album that was released after the departure of Roger Waters.

The Vaults wasn’t busy but it wasn’t empty. I got served straight away. I didn’t know any of the beers that were on but I knew most of the breweries. I decided to start with a pint of Goldie Lookin Ale, which is brewed by Tiny Rebel in collaboration with everybody’s fifth favourite comedy rap band, Goldie Lookin Chain. Prior experience of Tiny Rebel’s lower ABV beers meant I wasn’t expecting it to be especially flavoursome but I was surprised. Goldie Lookin Ale packs a lot of flavour into a pint glass. It’s got a nice bit of low-level bitterness but that is perfectly complimented by the fruit cocktail punch flavours. A very tasty beer. So tasty I went back for a second. I was tempted to go for a third but decided to try a Toffee Cog by Kissingate instead. Sadly, this was a big disappointment. Thankfully, it didn’t tasty of oily cogs but unfortunately it didn’t taste of toffee. Perhaps it’s not meant to. Perhaps it’s just a name. A name that’s a tad misleading.

It was time to go and get something to eat but before doing so I needed to score some takeaway beer… a Sourdough by Wild Beer Co (a tasty wee sour); an IPA Simcoe Citra by The Kernel (simcoe & citra – what could go wrong? nothing); an Un/limited Double IPA by Bristol Beer Factory (my fav beer of 2014); a pint bottle of Breakfast Stout by Arbor (the perfect way to start a Sunday).

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FIRST VISIT: WEDNESDAY 30 JULY 2014

Devizes is the capital of Wadworthshire and consequently it’s difficult to discover any beer in the town that isn’t brewed at Northgate. But since October 2013 The Vaults, owned by Kennet & Avon Brewery, has been boldly trying to change that. From the outside it’s a modest looking affair. The width of the property is only approximately 20 feet so I was expecting an establishment of microbar stature. But I was wrong. It doesn’t actually get any wider but it goes back a hell of a long way and there’s also a basement, which I’ve yet to explore. The fixtures and fittings are all very craft: old doors used as tables, wooden crates used as lamp shades, agricultural artefacts uses as art, that kind of thing. Even when it’s pretty much empty it still has a quaintly upper-middle class vibe. It doesn’t seem like the kind of boozer where rowdy behaviour or even raised voices and cuss words are tolerated. Of course, that’s just an assumption but it’s an assumption that’s given some credence by the fact it closes at 9pm every night, which is the time when those crazy pre-loaders like to hit the streets and the pubs. I like the place.

The cask line-up offered two or three from Kennet & Avon alongside Fresh from Wild Beer and Cat’s Tongue from Circle Cider. I started with a Fresh, which was on top form and followed it with a couple of halves of the Cat’s Tongue. Circle Cider are based in Swindon and have been knocking out some great tasting ciders for the last couple of years. I always try the cider when I see it on sale and the Cat’s Tongue is the best yet – beautifully dry but with a decent lick of fruity sweetness. I decided to bring this little drinking session to a close with a beer from Kennet & Avon – it is their pub after all. Pill Box is good in a trad sort of way. It’s certainly a well made beer but not one I’d choose to drink time and time again.

It was time to hit the road home but not before purchasing some takeaway. The bottle list at the Vaults is pretty sizeable and home to all the greats of the UK brewing scene and some from further afield. I opted for a Nacken by Siren and Omnipollo, a Limelight by Arbor, a London Sour from The Kernel and a Hadouken by Tiny Rebel (I had to buy a Tiny Rebel beer after the bartender praised my Tiny Rebel beer carrier).

The Vaults is a very welcome addition to the North Wilts beer scene. I’ve always enjoyed having a mooch around Devizes and now there’s an extra reason to go there. Lovely.

Vaults