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.

SMALL BAR – BRISTOL

Small Bar
King Street
Bristol
BS1 4DZ

FOURTH VISIT: THURSDAY 4 DECEMBER 2014

THIRD VISIT: SATURDAY 20 JULY 2014

A little deviation from my original Bristol Beer Week crawl. But it was a good deviation as it gave me the opportunity to catch up with some Bristol buddies and drink a pint of Moor’s Nor’Hop and can of Beavertown’s Gamma Ray. I love Small Bar as there’s always a buzzing vibe in the place. I look forward to the day they open a branch in Swindon.

Small Bar

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SECOND VISIT: FRIDAY 18 JULY 2014

A brief pitstop en route to the beer fest at the Bag O’ Nails. A little cluster of people occupied the outside table and few more milled around the bar. I ordered two thirds of an Evolver IPA by Wild Beer. It’s an interesting take on an American IPA but one I’m not particularily bothered about trying again. Outside it was a gloriously hot day and even though the air condition was working impressively you could still feel the heat poking it’s head around the corner of the door. I’ve only been to two drinking dens on the entire planet where customers have free and easy access to a drinking water tap. Most places are happy to give you a free glass of water if you ask but the Great Divide Tap Room in Denver Colorado and Small Bar in Bristol have a self service water tap. The water in Small Bar is amusingly served via a beer tap topped with a Stella clip. While working my way through my two thirds of Evolver I knocked back three pints of water. Shortly before I left Bruce, the owner of Small Bar, stopped by for a little chat about the joys and perils of importing beer from far flung places. Then it was time to get the crawl back on the road. I headed to the Tuns.

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FIRST VISIT: SATURDAY 18 JANUARY 2014

Small Bar is the newest of the King Street Three and, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. Despite the name it isn’t really that small – something to do with switch from the original intended location I believe. The interior is fantastic: dimly lit, distressed wood, barrels – it’s like a smuggler’s den but with trendy bespoke fixtures and fittings. The upstairs ‘library’ is a bit brighter than downstairs but I always feel like I’m crashing a private party when I venture up there.

I’m not entirely sure why but I was way more drunk than I should’ve been when I rocked up here. I can remember ordering a Bad Seed IPA – I think I enjoyed it. I remember wolfing down a Chomp burger – I think it was good. I remember ordering a bottle of beer – I have no idea what it actually was. I vaguely remember chatting to loads of folk I know – I have no idea what we chatted about or how annoying I was. I had a pint of Vader Shuffle by Tiny Rebel – I only know this because I logged it on Untappd.

At some point we left and went to the Academy for the Half Man Half Biscuit gig.

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).

* * *

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

RED LION WINTER BEER FEST – CRICKLADE

Hop Kettle Brewery
Red Lion
High Street
Cricklade
SN6 6DD

FIRST VISIT: FRIDAY 28 FEBRUARY 2014 (with a slight return on Sunday 2 March) 2014

The first of what will hopefully be many Winter Beer Festivals taking place at the Red Lion in Cricklade.

Friday nights are always busy at the Red Lion and the beer festival would undoubtedly make this one busier than most so was I mildly concerned. The Red Lion is a great pub but no pub is great when it’s overcrowded. But I shouldn’t have been concerned because Tom and his crew know what they are doing. I should have known they would have a plan and that the plan would be a good one.

The beers were served from inside the Hop Kettle brewery, onto which a spacious and heated marquee was attached – spacious enough for several picnic benches coupled with plenty of standing room. The extra space was great but the real value of the marquee was the fact that it allowed the beer to be sold from inside the brewery – an excellent touch that gave the festival an extra stamp in the cool column. Another excellent idea was to have a wall of the marquee that doubled as a beer info point: each beer had a landscape piece of A4 paper on the wall which featured a print out of the pump clip art and tasting notes. There were printed programs available but the info wall served as a focal point that brought people together to share likes and dislikes and have a general chat about beer and whatnot.

Twenty five beers were up for grabs – 22 cask and 3 keg – alongside seven ciders. Cask beers were from (among others) Arbor, Dark Star, Hawkshead, Roosters, Tiny Rebel and Wild Beer. The 3 keg beers were Anchor’s Flying Cloud Stout (Zymaster Series No.3), Burning Sky’s Saison a la Provision and Barrel Aged Sunturnbrew by Nøgne Ø. All in all it was a pretty impressive list.

I started with a Hop Kettle Flapjack Black (Buffalo Trace BA). The original Flapjack Black was by far my favourite beer of 2013 so I was keen to see what being stuck in a bourbon barrel for four months had added to the mix. I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed. If I’d never had the original unadulterated version I’m sure I’d be raving about the BA version. But I felt the bourbon barrel smoothed off the jagged curves a touch too much. I like my breakfast stouts to be a little bit rough and uncompromising, which I why I feel it’s a style that always works better from the cask than it does from the keg. It was a disappointment. Not a true disappointment. Just a disappointment when compared to its illustrious predecessor. Like comparing Adventure to Marquee Moon.

Next up was a genuine disappointment: Bourbon Milk Stout from Sonnet 43. It tasted like a weak JD a coke that had been left on the mantelpiece overnight. The overall condition of the beer was fine but the taste wasn’t to my liking. Third up to bat was Old Stock Ale from Tiny Rebel, which was far fruitier than I was expecting it to be despite the tasting notes stating it was fruity little number. It was just the lift my senses needed.

Time to switch to keg!
Burning Sky are a brewery that folk have been shouting about for several months… and even several months before they had a beer on sale. When I turned up at the Red Lion Winter Beer Fest I still hadn’t tasted a Burning Sky (Call yourself a Beer Geek!?) Time for that to change. If Sorachi Ace is the hop that splits the beer community, Saison is the beer style (It’s not a style!) that splits the community. I like saisons but I’ve begun to grow slightly mistrustful of them as some breweries seem to chuck out a new one every other week. But Burning Sky’s a la Provision is a great example – a slightly sour liquid sherbet with a definite Belgian yeast hit. Lovely.

After a couple of palate fresheners it was time to return to the dark and moody beers.
Keg hit number two was Anchor’s Flying Cloud. It’s thick and indulgent – exactly how a 7.4% stout should be. Next up was the beer that had got me most excited when I’d perused the beer list prior to attending the festival: Nøgne Ø Sunturnbrew Oaked. I was not disappointed. A smoked beer that’s been smoked then smoked again.. then smoked again… than allowed some time and space to mellow out. Smooth. Luxurious. But with a little bit of an edge. A fantastic experience for all of the senses. (On the Sunday I returned for a two pint growler fill of the Sunturnbrew Oaked – it paired perfectly with a lazy afternoon spent watching superhero movies.)

Time was now against me as my designated driver wanted to get to the fish n chip shop before it closed at 10. I nipped back to the bar for another dose of Flapjack Black and decided that despite my earlier appraisal it warranted a growler fill. Then the party was over.

There was a great crowd at the festival. Several people I know. Several people I recognised as Red Lion regulars (or at least irregular regulars like myself). And loads of people who were first time visitors. But, if the ones I chatted to are anything to go by, a fair few of those first time visitors will be returning to the Red Lion soon and often. And the local CAMRA party had a sizeable contingent in attendance.

Great beer + a buzzing crowd = a perfect festival.

The summer edition should be taking place in June – when a firm date is announced you should stick it in your diary.

EDIT: The Red Lion Summer Beer Festival will commence on Friday 27 June 2014

KODAK Digital Still Camera