Tag Archive for: Beer

Hoppiest days of the year? Definitely harvest time in Yakima, USA. Confession: I’d been pronouncing it ‘Yah-KEE-mah’ all this time, when it should be ‘YACK-i-maw’. Unfamiliar with Yakima? The name does crop up on craft beer cans, the contents of which increasingly rely on its prime product, hops. Oh, and it’s a lovely laid-back place to hang out in – preferably with a beer or two.

Yet it’s not a monoculture this super fertile agricultural valley in Washington State, irrigated by the Yakima River. It abounds in fruit, in particular apples, and its grapes produce some of America’s most thrilling wines, but there’s no escaping the hop in all its varieties – Cascade, Chinook, Centennial and the rest, now globally familiar. Some 75 per cent of US hops are grown hereabouts in ideally suited volcanic soil.

So it seemed a good idea while passing through the region to drop in on the American Hop Museum in the township of Toppenish, whose major claim to fame is the 70 hand-painted murals, of recent origin, evoking its Wild West past. They are more vivid than the museum, which is as dry as last year’s hop pellets. Still this project of local pride, assembling the rusty machinery and fading pictures of yore, sets the scene for the hopfest to come.

Of all the stop-offs on our San Francisco to Seattle road trip this wasn’t the most obviously touristic and yet we found it fascinating from the moment post-museum when we lunched in a pizza place where a dab of Cascade hoppiness joins tomato and mozzarella as the prime toppings, nibbles are called hoppetisers and the merchandise includes hop-branded babygros. 

Hop Town Wood Fired Pizza, was our recommended lunch stop. It used to be a street food operation before taking over the folksy tasting room of the former Piety Winery, Donald Wapato Road (there’s now a second branch down the road in Sunnyside). 

A house IPA, naturally, accompanied our $12 Porky Pine Prosciutto nine-incher, where pesto, parmesan, pecorino, prosciutto, pine nuts (all the Ps), tomato, hops and a balsamic reduction smothered the charred, springy crust.  

We also shared a Hey! Elote!, a spicy corn dip  with chicken broth, lime, cholula hot sauce, salty cotija cheese and cilantro (coriander). Testimony to the Hispanic presence in hop country. A third of the population in Yakima, at home in its sunny desert climate, is Hispanic. It’s an area full of tacos trucks and shacks. Locals’ pick? Tacos Los Primos 2 at 404 N 4th St in the city proper. If you’re adventurous go for the tripe filling.

Generations of Mexican hop harvest pickers are celebrated in liquid form by Yakima’s brewing trailblazers Bale Breaker. Each year, cocking a snook at Trump and his Border Wall bigotry, they are a major player in Sesiones del Migrante, a series of beers brewed in collaboration with Mexican and American breweries. Co-founder Meggan Quinn poured us the latest, a Mango IPA that defines ‘tropical’, in the brewery’s garden, sheltered by tall bines, for this is a working hop farm (its 1,000 acres have even even suppled the likes of BrewDog in the UK). 

The operation’s roots run deep. Megann’s great-grandparents planted the first nine rows of hops on the family farm back in 1932, a year before the end of Prohibition. Just a decade ago she, her husband and siblings persuaded initially sceptical parents a custom-built brewery on site might just work and it has. The beer are so popular across the Pacific North-West they don’t need to export. Topcutter IPA and Field 41 pale ale are their flagship beers.

What astonished us about one of the world’s premier hop-growing regions was the lack until recently of local breweries tapping into the resource… or speciality beer bars. That’s all changing fast on the back of Bale Breaker’s impetus. One of their brewers, former wildlife biologist Chris Baum, and four buddies set up their own brewing operation, Varietal with the premise of wild yeasts, sours, fruit beers and barrel-ageing – the fun, cutting edge stuff.

Check out the Hop Country Beer Trail or sniff around the taprooms of the Old North Yakima Historic District, where the closure of the Northern Pacific Railroad once hit the town hard. Now, as in so many other similar places, this is where the cool fight back begins. Highly recommended is Single Hill with its attractive taproom and terrace, serving the like of Cerveza blonde ale or or Island Reverie, a benchmark guava and passionfruit sour.    

Cider, or what they call hard cider, is a refreshing alternative to beer. The custom-built Tieton Cider Works on the edge of town offers sampling tours. With apples and other fruit sourced from the family’s own organic orchards it’s a clean tasting product, a world away from our own trad scrumpy; we loved the smoked pumpkin cider.

The best restaurant in town is Crafted on North 1st Street. Dan Koommoo is in the kitchen and his wife Mollie front of house. The couple chose Yakima because Mollie’s family is from these parts; Thai-born Dan is a James Beard-nominated Cordon Bleu chef with a glittering cv. Together they have created a casual contemporary dining space, from oysters to cocktails a total delight.

Sunday mornings are for mooching around town. We kicked off with excellent coffee and double fudge brownies at the Essencia Artisan Bakery, a short walk from the historic Capitol Theater. Rebuilt after a fire in 1975, it allegedly hosts the ghost of Shorty McCall, a technician during the 1930s, who hanged himself there after an ill-fated love affair. 

Dating back to 1912, the Sports Center – so-called because of a hunting theme not because it’s a place to play basketball – is equally haunted with staff reporting eerie chills and the sound of clinking glassware. All this dates back to the days when it was a brothel with Mafia connections.

Our Downtown Yakima lodging, the Hotel Maison has a more benign but equally striking history. Six storeys high, it was built in 1911 during the boom times by prosperous Freemasons as their club. Crowning glory was the hugely ornate Masonic ceremonial temple on the top floor, designed to replicate the throne room of King Solomon’s Temple. Long mothballed, it has survived the building’s conversion to a hotel, 

Elsewhere the comfortable hotel’s decor playfully celebrates its Masonic past and, of course, the pre-eminence of the hop. On our Saturday night there we sipped complimentary Tieton cider and watched the weekly ‘paseo’ of vintage automobiles, all adding to the period charm of the place.

The best place to sample Washington wine Downtown is the Gilbert Cellars, showcasing the family’s wines such as Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon. It saves having to trek out to their vineyard tasting room, but when in wine country it would be wrong not to sample in the wineries, all within easy reach of Yakima town.

I’d recommend the folksy Owen Roe Winery, an organically farmed estate whose reds are particularly impressive, the nearby Treveri Cellars, (tours for $50) sparkling wine specialists run by a German winemaker, whose top bottles have been served at White House receptions. 

Still the hop remains king hereabouts. A quintessential time to visit Yakima (fly into Seattle two and a half hours’ drive away) is autumn when the valley hosts its annual Fresh Hop Festival. This year’s date is October 5. A unique array of beers made with newly harvested ‘green’ hops showcases the individual character of each variety. Now that’s not to be sniffed at!

Standing your round goes back to ancient times. Beer was big in Ancient Mesopotamia. Who would have thought it? Witness the clay tablet above, dating back to 3,000 BC. Unearthed in what is now modern Iraq, it is in the custody of the British Museum. The cuneiform script details the allocation of a brew as payment to workers. Almost in the realm of Indiana Jones, this intoxicating breath of ale’s ancestry.

This August’s Historic Brewing Conference in Manchester delves no further back than 2,000 years later – when the Iron Age transformed Europe and our shores. There’s still  a lot to get through. Among a distinguished line-up of beer historians from across the globe will be Johnny Horn, co-founder of Scottish sour specialists Vault City, currently brewing at his new Holy Goat project in Dundee. His previous academic speciality was the archaeology of Iron Age Britain and he has published papers on drinking vessels of the period. So expect his talk on Beer and Brewing in Pre-historic Britain to be one of the highlights of the two day conference (August 5 and 6).

The venue is the new incarnation of Fairfield Social Club, appropriately in one of the city’s most historic districts, between the River Irk and Angel Meadow. And handily close to Blackjack Brewery. The creators of this unique event, exploring both the technical and social aspects of beer’s history, are Keith Sowerby, one of the North’s most informed beer enthusiasts, and Steve Dunkley, formerly of Beer Nouveau, specialists in reviving old styles.

Keith tells me: “The project is six years in the making and was gaining traction when the Pandemic struck. We had aimed to hold the conference in the old Fairfield Social Club railway arch, so there is some irony in our finding that their new set-up meets our needs so well.

“We have noted events which have touched on historic brewing before, especially in the States, but none aiming to systematically address the breadth of both the technical and social aspects of brewing ales, beers and other cereal based beverages, linking in forum and individual discussion over a few beers to our modern experience. We are guaranteeing that this will not be a dry event.”

Keith and Steve have lined up a sparkling array of speakers, including MC Emma Inch, a writer and home brew champion whose most recent podcast, Same Again?, explores the complex relationships between beer, pubs and mental health; four times Beer Writer of the Year and social historian Pete Brown; Jane Peyton, beer educator and Britain’s first beer sommelier of the year; and Mancunian ‘exile’ John Keeling, legendary head brewer at Fuller’s for decades.

From Norway comes farmhouse beer styles expert Lars Marius Garshol; from Minneapolis Doug Hoverson, chronicler of mid-West brewing; and from Toronto Gary Gillman, whose blog explores the technical aspects of brewing history. My wild card across the two days is the presentation from Irish historian Dr Christina Wade on Going to Hell in a Beer Barrel: Alewives, Demons, and the History that Connects them. 

If all this sounds a mite lecture room, fear not. This is a beer-led event. So much fun to be had. Alongside the papers there will be ample windows for socialising and networking. A special conference bar will be well stocked with recreations of historic and heritage beer styles. Expect some collaborations with local breweries (to be announced). And if one of the talks does tackle Prohibition we can’t see that having any tangible effect on intake.

  • Tickets are on sale now, priced at £70, giving access to both days, Monday, August 5 and Tuesday, August 6. Quite a bargain.  Buy them here.

A Proustian madeleine moment? With hops? Not quite. The lager in the iconic Budweiser Budvar tankard glass flaunted all the right credentials, including the distinctive huge frothy head, bringing back glorious travel memories. Yet the taste was subtly different from what you’d expect of the classic Czech beer. 

Adam Brož, the brewmaster of that state-run enterprise was at my elbow to explain their unique link-up with Derbyshire’s finest, Thornbridge. Our native Golding hops and Maris Otter malt give Czech Mates (a bit of an ouch name, but hey) its own tang, benefiting from the legendary Budvar yeast. Cheers – or, as they say in South Bohemia ‘Na zdraví’!

Budvar’s first ever collab outside its home country is not meant to replicate the original. At 4.8 per cent it is weaker and the maturation period is shorter, though considerably longer than most lagers including even Czech rival Pilsener Urquell. And don’t even mention the dreaded American Budweiser, which perennially bombards Budvar with legal challenges over the brand.

I am at a Czech Mates launch night in a Thornbridge tied house in Leeds, The Bankers Cat, and Budvar global ambassador Ridem is generously plying us with samples of Thornbridge’s crisp, well balanced labour of love. Like Adam, he is delighted that I have visited their iconic brewery in České Budějovice. I tell them how it was the final destination of an eye-opening pilgrimage to the Czech Republic (or Czechia as it now styles itself). That was in 2016. My previous visit to their country had been in 1976, just eight years after the Prague Spring and the Soviet crushing of Czech dreams of freedom. How different it all felt…

A land of fairy tales and golden lager

Advent Sunday in Český Krumlov (main picture) and the bells are ringing. The first sighting of blue sky in this most misty of autumns in South Bohemia has lured me out into the old town before breakfast. Winding alleys that had breathed mystery after dark are equally entrancing by day. Who needs Prague when you can have a place like this to yourself?

Except around the corner comes a selfie-driven Japanese coach pack. UNESCO World Heritage status means off the beaten track just doesn’t happen these days. Still this historic city, set in a horseshoe bend of the River Vltava (Moldau) and lorded over by an immense 13th century castle, wears its tourist honeypot trappings lightly. 

We are 170km south of the Czech capital, not far from the Austrian border. This has been territory fought over for centuries. When Germans ruled the roost it was called  Krummau an der Moldau just as the region’s main centre, České Budějovice, was Budweis (hence the brewery name, more of which anon). 

After the collapse of the Soviet empire and the splitting of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia Český Krumlov arose from decades of decay like some Sleeping Beauty. Which seems quite apt in a land entwined in folklore and fairytale.

Especially around Christmas when it all takes off. Well, Flying Baby Jesus does. When the Velvet Revolution kicked out Communism there was a rush to introduce Czechs to that burly guy in red with the white beard. They were having none of it. Their festive bringer of gifts is Ježíšek, variously depicted as a baby, toddler, and young lad (see the image below from a church we visited). 

On Christmas Eve families deck the tree and share a traditional Czech dinner of carp and potato salad, then the children are sent to scan the skies for Ježíšek. When a bell rings they rush back to find their presents have arrived.

Snacking on the Christmas Markets

The Czechs have the highest beer consumption in the world – 129 litres a head. Their food, from pretzels to goulasch via dumplings, sauerkraut, grilled meats and sausages, seems custom-built to match the foaming brews.

We were there at Christmas Markets time, more home-made affairs than the ersatz ones inflicted on the UK every November and December. In both Český Krumlov and České Budějovice I sampled these Czech snacks for the first time:

Trdelnik: a hybrid of cake and sweet pastry made from rolled dough that is wrapped around a stick, then grilled and topped with a sugar and spice mix.

Sazanka: a thin omelette on rye with gherkins and browned spring onions.

Kapri Hranolky: carp fries, the fish chunks spiced with cumin and ginger then floured and deep-fried. Delicious with a noggin of mulled mead, but I opted for a bottle of Krumlov’s own local beer, Eggenberg. 

Green man riding a catfish and other tall tales

My best present was discovering the unanticipated wonders of Český Krumlov. After being captivated by the view from the Castle of its close clustered rooftops encircled by the river came the defining focus of the stay: the Fairytale House – Puppet Museum. Here you could learn about contemporary puppeteering, even try your hand, but it is the marionette mausoleum aspect – some tableaux dating back to the 18th century – that captivated. Czech childhoods seem populated by sprites, witches and demons. None more creepy than the water spirit ”vodník”. This green man riding a catfish drowns unwary folk and captures their souls in a jar. 

Equally spooky is the White Lady who haunts the Castle and makes appearances in the nearby Hotel Růže. If the spirit is smiling, good news will follow; if she looks serious, and wears or carries black gloves, the news will be bad. Legend has it she threw herself off a cliff when her father refused to allow her to marry the man she loved.

Another Krumlov story, much more horrific, featured deranged Don Julius, bastard son of the Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf II. When he took up residence in the Castle in 1607 he was joined by the local barber’s daughter, Markéta Pichlerová, with her family’s permission. 

Tiring of her, he beat her up and threw her from a turret window – she escaped death only because a rubbish heap broke her fall. After she recovered from terrible injuries, the tyrant demanded her back – and then cut her into tiny pieces. In subsequent captivity in the Castle he degenerated into a human wreck and was probably murdered on the Emperor’s orders.

Near the knuckle – St Reparatus and Egon Schiele

A dark past but visiting the Castle nowadays is a jolly experience. The exuberant Baroque theatre is only open for occasional concerts and the two resident bears penned below the battlements are coy about showing themselves, but the 29 room Museum in the colourful tower is equally colourful and eccentric. Don’t miss the reliquary of St Reparatus, his bones gaudily embellished by nuns.

Just as near the knuckle is some of the raw, explicit imagery inside the Egon Schiele Art Centrum. The Austrian painter died in the Spanish flu epidemic, at just 28, in 1918, the same year as his inspirational mentor, Gustav Klimt. This gallery in a former brewery exists because Schiele’s mother came from the town and he spent time here, enraptured by the Bohemian forests, before being driven out because of his bohemian (as in unorthodox) lifestyle. This is charted in exemplary fashion alongside changing exhibitions of current artists.

The Museum Fotoatelier Seidel is an altogether sedater affair. This house/studio of early 20th century photographic pioneer Josef Seidel is a time warp with its abundance of original cameras and props. He was a chronicler of a pre-war, pre-Soviet age and the images are fascinating. 

All these attractions are within close walking distance. The best passport to seeing them is the Český Krumlov Card, covering five museums and the Krumlov monastery complex. For a single adult it costs £15

Czech craft beers and a castle crammed with antlers

Visiting castles is bound to work up an appetite… and a thirst. Hluboká nad Vlatou, 10km north of České Budějovice, is home to a very stately pile. The 13th century Hluboká Castle was transformed into its current Neo-Gothic Windsor look in the 19th century by the Schwarzenberg family. They had downsized from Český Krumlov Castle to this 11 tower, 140 room, glorified ‘hunting lodge’. In the hall the Schwarzenbergs pose en masse in a family photograph of the time, the menfolk itching to get away and blast the life out of all the stags they can bag. You can’t move for trophy antlers and gun racks throughout the public rooms, only the odd manic boar’s head breaking the plush monotony. 

There are various tours on offer, after which you will probably be ready for a  substantial repast at the village’s characterful restaurant, Solidní Šance. Specilaity is potato pancakes stuffed with cabbage and pork. The house strudel is benchmark stuff, too. To accompany there’s a range of unfiltered and unpasteurized ‘Czech-style craft beers’ brewed in-house at the Pivovar Hluboká, using Budvar yeast, Czech or Bavarian malts and Žatec hops. Go for their Žatec semi-early red, if available.

Some 20km to the west of České Budějovice is another UNESCO heritage gem, the model village of Holašovice. Ranked around a village green are several dozen houses refashioned in the 19th century in the ‘Folk Baroque’ style aping noble mansions. Think lacy, colourful gables.

I’m told the number of houses has remained constant throughout Holašovice’s  800 years of existence and most are still lived in by villagers. Two taverns, a chapel and a blacksmith are here to serve them, and No.6 of the 17 farms in the village offers a fascinating collection of bygone rural tackle. Thought-provoking indeed our lugubrious guide’s demo (without animal) of how to castrate a sheep.

Our journey’s end – the refreshing city of České Budějovice

But then the whole trip was full of quirky revelations. The main purpose of our visit to České Budějovice 25km north of Český Krumlov was to visit the brewery but on a guided tour around the town every building seemed to boast an odd back story. Climb the 250 steps to the top of the Italianate Gothic-Renaissance Black Tower (1577) and you are rewarded with a spectacular view over Budějovice’s vast main square and the Blanský Forest in the distance. The abiding memory, though, is of the goat who once shared the tower apartment with the guardian.

Walk over to Piarist Square. On one side is the steeply gabled Salt Warehouse, once an armoury, today a motorcycle museum. Inset randomly in the facade are three reliefs of stone faces, believed to represent a trio of thieves beheaded.  On the other side, high on the exterior of the Church of the Sacrifice of Our Lady, a frog-like gargoyle bulges just below the roof. It recreates a frog crawled into the foundations of the Dominican church during construction and kept causing the church walls to crumble; in the end, it was ejected from the foundations. It is said that its sculpture used to be placed lower, but the stone frog has been crawling upwards step by step until it reaches the roof and then the church will collapse and it will be the end of the world.

An equivalent doom will arrive when the vast underground lake that supplies the perfect, pure soft water for making Budvar beer runs out. It’s not going to happen any time soon but it’s a nagging long-term quandary for the state-owned brewery that upholds the country’s beer traditions, lagering (slow conditioning) its top-fermented, burnished gold beer for 90 days in comparison with just 25 for arch-rival corporate-owned Pilsener Urquell in the northern town of Plzeň, where the classic beer style was created.

Budvar are meticulous, too, in sourcing locally only pale Moravian malt and Saaz whole hops (not the pellets used by most brewers, even the of the artisan craft persuasion). It was a glorious sight watching hops being loaded into one of the gleaming copper vessels.

So does Budvar Budweiser taste better at hallowed source?

At the end of our Budvar Visitor Centre Tour we tasted the end product in the cellar. Patiently conditioned and unpasteurised, lacily frothy fresh from the tanks, it lived up to Garrett Oliver’s tasting note in his magisterial Oxford Companion to Beer: “Refreshing, showing a rich malt and vanilla aroma, and fine, floral hop character. The finish has a fine balance of juicy malt, tangy hop resins, and a delicate hint of apple fruit.” Quite.

Oliver touches at length on the decades-long legal wrangling over naming rights with the US brewing giants Anheuser-Busch, who produce their own (vastly inferior) ‘Budweiser’ and Bud Lite. At the height of the squabble Budvar was saved from a takeover by them after the intervention of then president Vaclac Havel and today worldwide sales are soaring. In the fairy tale land of Bohemia they like happy endings.

Budějovický Budvar Brewery, n. p.K. Světlé 512/4 370 04 České Budějovice. To plan your (highly recommended) Brewery Tour visit here. End your tour with a meal at Budvar’s own restaurant 100 metres away on the corner of Pražská and K. Světlé streets. The rich, dry Budvar dark lager is a consummate match for the house speciality, goulasch. For full tourism information about Czechia visit this link. Jet2.com fly regularly from Manchester to Prague. České Budějovice is two hours south of the Czech capital with Český Krumlov a further half hour away.

My memories of Indy Man Beer Con 2022 remain vivid, culminating in a desperate tumble down uneven Edwardian stone steps as I scrambled to use up my remaining drinks tokens at the end of the Saturday afternoon session. Miraculously, like some charmed mountain goat, I arose unscathed. Most of my tokens had been spent at the 3 Fonteinen stand, supping their sublime Belgian qeuzes. I hope this year’s emphasis on sustainability at the UK’s best craft beer festival doesn’t preclude such overseas legends.

This year’s IMBC, returning to Manchester’s Victoria Baths for its 10th year, is all about discoveries. Last year’s joyful event introduced me to the ‘honeyed epiphany’ of wasp yeast. Thanks Wild Beer Co (a sign of the difficult times for the industry it has since collapsed into administration).

There’s already a sweet smell of success about Indy Man 2023 (October 5-8). Tickets, frozen at 2022 prices, went on sale on Thursday, May 18 and already both Saturday sessions are sold out with tickets ‘running low’ for both Thursday and Friday evening sessions. There is greater availability for the Friday afternoon and Sunday afternoons, where tickets cost £14.50, as opposed to £19. For true devotees there are also Full Fat tikcets for all sessions at £75. To snap up your slot before it’s too late (plus advance deals on token bundles) visit this link. Breweries involved will be named nearer the time. International participants will have to guarantee their beers are transported to the festival in a way that uses the most carbon efficient modes of freight.

Tokens will function in the same way as they did in 2022: namely, that it’ll be one token for one third of a beer across all three days. Organisers will also be reinstating the ability to sell back unused tokens to the festival at the end of each session. Which could save this over-keen punter from ale-addled dismemberment!

Sup up! Communal beer fun before Indy Man

Real ale diehards will, of course, home in on London’s Olympia for the Great British Beer Festival (August 1-5). Personally, I find supping on this kind of scale overwhelming. More manageable is a local CAMRA event such as the 35th Stockport Beer Festival (June 22-24) at its new venue, the Masonic Guildhall. One of the best trad gatherings, it promises over 250 beers ciders and perries. 

Still, I don’t expect I’ll make it there either, but I have purchased advance tickets for two delightful festivals at once under the radar breweries, respectively in Lancashire and Derbyshire, that book-end big brother Greater Manchester.

Rivington Brewing Co Farm Trip (August 31-September 3)

I’ve voiced my admiration before for this farm-based craft brewery with its scenic hilltop beer garden. Across one special long weekend they fill it to the brim to showcase their favourite beer peers. This year they welcome over  60 breweries from across the globe, pouring across 50+ lines, natural wines, gin and cocktail bars, local street food vendors and live music. Book here. There is availability (£12.50) on the opening Thursday and the Sunday (Family Day) and a few tickets for the Friday, but Saturday is sold out. Also a limited amount of caravan/campervan packages remain.

Torrside Smokefest (September 16-17)

Franconia is the German home of Rauchbier. Hence this single-minded New Mills brewery have named one of their beers after it, brewed with 85 per cent smoked malt. Each year across two eight hour sessions they replicate the Bamberg heartland of this style. You have to book in advance an there are £15 tickets left for the Sunday. Book here. For your £15 you get a memorial glass and your first distinctly smoky third, then access to over 20 similar tipples plus smoked toppings on your pizza.

Summer Beer Thing (June 30-July 2)

Meanwhile, there’s always Indy Man’s little brother, which used to be based in Sadler’s Yard before Cloudwater Brewing picked up the Pilcrow and turned it into Sadler’s Cat. Now  Kampus’s canalside garden will be host its eclectic range of craft beers from across the UK. A big plus in this buzzing urban neighbourhood are ballast options from the likes of The Great North Pie Co, Nell’s Pizza, Madre and Pollen Bakery. Tickets for the three weekend sessions range from £6 to £10 (including branded glass). Buy them here.

Poretti, Moretti, Peroni? As if they were concocted on a Scrabble board (big score for Mezzogiorno, but I digress), all those big Italian beer brand names sort of morph into one generic light lager. That’s what they taste like to me. Still, on a (let’s pray) sunny August Bank Holiday Weekend in Manchester’s Cathedral Gardens they hit the spot to accompany pizza slices, arancini, even gelato. Yes, Festa Italiana (August 25-27) is back for its sixth outing. With, you guessed it, sponsors Poretti offering a new upfront attraction.

Equally refreshing is the presence of newer blood at the demo counters. Yes, there will be returning veterans such as Jamie Oliver mentor and UK brand ambassador for Parmigiano Reggiano Gennaro Contaldo and Giancarlo Caldesi (Return to Tuscany, Saturday Kitchen, Sunday Brunch), alongside Festa founder Maurizio Cecco. But they will be joined by rising stars such as Great British Bake Off 2021 winner Giuseppe Dell’Anno and Masterchef UK 2021 quarter-finalist/ICG Cooking Competition Award winner Sofia Gallo. Another huge Festa fave is pastaia Carmela Sereno Hayes offering pasta classes for all ages.

The line-up has been announced in a week when Maurizio has also been celebrating the first birthday of the latest outpost of his Manchester empire, Salvi’s, set among the four colossal towers of Deansgate Square. Prosecco and Poretti (naturally) flowed freely at the big party in this sleek, buzzing restaurant.

Festa Italiana offers an alternative immersion in all things authentic Italian and gastronomic . Think al fresco meets dolce vita in the shadow of the National Football Museum and the Corn Exchange. Street food and workshops aplenty. Music is also very much part of this very family-friendly, free-to enter festival. Want to sing along to That’s Amore? Or Tu Vuo’ Fa L’Americano?At the live music stage your chance will come. Possibly fuelled by ample sips of Poretti…

The Birrificio Angelo Poretti will be pouring at its ‘iconic Piazza’, pairing its beer with food at a sit-down dining spot. This ‘Grande Tavole’ experience is a ticketed event on Saturday 26th with the area open to all on Sunday 27th. 

The last time I wrote about San Diego it was as a staging post on my road to discovering that the Brussels Sprout is cool in California. The foggy, coastal area south of San Francisco grows 95 cent of the American crop and it’s definitely not cool there to boil the little bullets into mushy oblivion. My Brassica oleracea gemmifera Damascene moment came in a downtown taproom, when shrimp tacos were accompanied by tempura sprouts – their natural hint of bitterness in harmony with the hop.

The Golden State’s Sprout Love is quite mainstream. Check out the menu at the Desmond Restaurant in San Diego’s Kimpton Alma Hotel on Fifth Avenue. For $19 you can order a plate of sprouts with dashi broth, Japanese curry, scallions and a poached egg. When I used the Kimpton as my base for exploring California’s most southerly city its culinary emphasis was elsewehere – on dishes from across the Mexican border 20 miles to the south.

Sprouts weren’t really what brought me to San Diego, though. Of all the places to live the West Coast dream it has few equals. Immoderately blessed with perfect weather, surf culture and pristine beaches, its laid-back attitude belies its history as a major deep sea harbour for the US Navy. 

So many major attractions to see but sometimes Seaworld and Aquatica, San Diego Zoo and the USS Midway Museum, based upon a legendary aircraft carrier, may have to take a backseat to exploring the possibilities of the city’s many cool hang-outs. Here are 10 suggestions to make you want to get up and go…

Go to the Park

Sounds a dull place to start? Not when you are talking Balboa Park, which stretches across 1,200 acres and encompasses everything from the 660 species San Diego Zoo to nearly 20 museums and a host of other venues in glorious lush gardens, the Japanese one the pick. Best place, for an overview is the California Tower, closed to the public for 80 years but now open for tours via seven sets of winding stairs from the Museum of Man. You are rewarded with a spectacular panorama of the city. You almost duck when low  planes fly past. The Park, a National Historic Landmark, is named after Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa, in honour of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, held on the site. A Balboa Park Explorer Pass costs from from $56 for one day, giving access for up to four venues. For full city tourism information visit SanDiego.org.

Go El Greco

It seems appropriate that in a US city with so many Hispanic ties that the San Diego Museum of Art, among the country’s finest, should boast such a strong Spanish collection. Francisco de Zurbarán, Murillo, Juan Sánchez Cotán’s iconic Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber and, of course, El Greco. Check out his glorious Adoration of the Shepherds and the unearthly Penitent St Peter. The SDMA is not just about Old Masters; you’ll find benchmark collections of Indian art and 19th and 20th century American paintings and sculpture. All set in one of Balboa Park’s original Mission-style buildings, with a Platereresque frontage inspired by Salamanca in Spain.

Go fly a kite

After all that history it’s time to get the wind back in your sails. And where better than Embarcadero Marina Park? We didn’t exactly fly our own kite but it was good to see lots of them fluttering against the backdrop of the mighty Coronado Bridge. The breezy harbour-front Embarcadero walkway is jogger and dog walker heaven, while Seaport Village offers a cluster of folksy gift shops. The harbour is where it all began for San Diego back in 1542 when Juan Cabrillo sailed into the sheltered Bay. Loma Point, where the explorer stepped on shore is celebrated with a scenic National Monument. There are breathtaking views from here and the adjacent Ballast Point Lighthouse.

Go Gaslamping

It’s not all exhilarating green spaces. In a transformation typical of many American cities The Gaslamp Quarter, a once dead downtown, is now the centre of a food and drink-centric nightlife. A long period of neglect preserved the Victorian architecture of this 16 block historic district. Just wander around, looking up at the ornamentation of buildings such as the Romanesque Keating Building, ornate, domed Balboa Theatre and the hallucinogenic Louis Bank of Commerce, once home to a favourite bar of Wyatt Earp and the notorious brothel, the Golden Poppy Hotel. When your neck starts to get stiff there’s an abundance of bars to recover in. Restoring the green wrought-iron gas lamps (they actually run on electricity) was an inspired move to inspire after-dark footfall. We succumbed, dining at upmarket seafood restaurant Lionfish in The Pendry Hotel on Fifth Avenue.

Go for a beer

Ever-impressionable, where better to dip into San Diego’s unrivalled craft beer scene than the pioneering brewery that calls itself Ballast Point? It caused quite a splash in 2015 when it was bought for $1billion by an an international beverage group; last year its major rival Stone was snapped up by Japanese giant Sapporo. Craft is no longer all about plucky minnows. All quality dilution fears allayed at Ballast Point’s original brewtap up in the Little Italy district. The flagship Sculpin IPA, served unfiltered, was fantastic. Elsewhere, you are definitely spoiled for choice; there are over 150 breweries – check out the likes of Modern Times, Border X, Karl Strauss, Societe and Belching Beaver.

Go to market

Little Italy, these days more chic eaterie and art gallery territory than Genoese fishermen’s  slice of the ‘Old Country’, does offer the pick of the city’s farmer’s markets – the Little Italy Mercato open Wednesday and Saturday, straddling several streets, its 175 vendors showcasing the richness of Southern Californian food culture. We had brunched first at at Herb and Wood – immaculate baked goods, Kombucha, house-made bone broth and savoury specials such as salmon rillettes on avocado and sourdough. Very different to the Mercato, though equally buzzing, is Liberty Market, a seven days a week artisan-led operation in a former naval training complex. It’s an eclectic mix with a vintage comic bookshop rubbing shoulders with a feminist museum and and a bistro/boutique brewing facility run by Stone. The focus, though is the globally-influenced food hall, where you’re spoilt for choice. In the end I went for a trio of ceviches plus oysters and a sea urchin from the Poke Bar. Washed down in the ‘Mess Hall’ with sour beers sourced from the comprehensive Bottlecraft beer shop.

Go plant based, heavy metal brunch

As with craft beer and small batch coffee roasts, we in the UK are always playing catch-up with our West Coast cousins. So too with San Diego’s vegan culture. Combine it with a heavy metal ethos and you get Bar Kindred, cool even by the cool standards of its South Park setting (North Park isn’t bad either if you are into foraging for vintage vinyl, thrift store chic, hipster brews and chakra practitioners). There’s no booking at Kindred, so get there early for breakfast cocktails, drop biscuits with mushroom gravy, then brunch mains that might deliver calypso beans, soy curls, maitake mushrooms, charred kale, jicama salsa and Creole aioli. Ask if you can sit under the giant four-eyed snake wolf. No wi-fi. Well, we said it was heavy. 

Go grab a coffee 

Locals claim the city’s coffee culture rivals or even surpasses Portland and Seattle’s. Amazingly there are 1,900 coffee shops in the city, so definitely a risk of caffeine overload in your quest for the best. I asked the locals and they came up with this trio: Black Horse (North Park, Normal Heights and Golden Hill) and the Barrio Logan district duo Cafe Moto and Cafe Virtuoso, the latter organic. A current fad elsewhere is to spike your morning ‘bullet’ coffee with a shot of omega-3-rich flax oil or fat-burning coconut oil. Avoid.

Go to the beach

There is a string of strands to show off your beach body all along the coast. We ended up at La Jolla, which boasts some of the USA’s most expensive beach front real estate and boutique shopping to match. Ostensibly we were there for kayaking to the La Jolla Sea Caves with the added carrot of possible whale or shark watching but, gauging the ocean swell, I chickened out and instead sauntered the length of the beach for refreshment at Caroline’s clifftop cafe at the fascinating Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Lunch was at award-winning Galaxy Tacos. Ask for the terrace; order the essential Baja rried fish with chile lime crema, avocado mousse, cabbage, pico de gallo or the more unusual Lengua (tongue) with cilantro, onions and  avocado salsa verde. Sprouts here come roasted with chipotle mayo. If you stay until sunset I’d recommend a cocktail and sea view at Level 42 at ‘California Modern’ restaurant Georges at the Cove. 

Go hiking

The coastline to the north of La Jolla offers a string of laid-back beach towns, seafood and surfing, along the legendary Route 101, but before you get to all that take in the managed wilderness of Torrey Pines State Reserve. The name gives away its raison d’etre – preserving 3,000 endangered examples of the US’s rarest pine tree, Pinus Torreyana, which only grows here and on Santa Rosa Island off Santa Barbara. Below the 1,750 acre clifftop reserve you’ll find one of the last great salt marshes and waterfowl refuges in Southern California. The well-kept trails – family-friendly or more testing – provide stunning views of the Pacific. ‘Beware of rattlesnakes’ notices made me watch where I was putting my dusty Vans.

Go Chicano

Eighty colourful, politically provocative murals under a fly-over? Chicano Park is the emotional epicentre of the Barrio Logan district. Its painted pillars depict the life and struggles of San Diego’s Mexican community. Back in the Sixties, when the Coronado Bridge was constructed through it, the Park itself was the cultural focus of these struggles. It still is, its cultural importance confirmed by being granted National Historic Landscape Status in 2017. The street art has spread out across the Barrio now as vacant warehouses have become creative spaces and live music venues and authentic Mexican food is a big draw. At La Cuatro Milpas the tortillas are made fresh each day, while fish and chorizo are the tacos of choice at Salud! by the San Diego Taco Company. Alongside the Barrio coffee already mentioned there’s also a strong craft beer presence with the likes of Iron Fist and Border X Brewing (try the Blood Saison made with hibiscus). If all this has whetted your appetite for Mexico proper? Cross the border into Tijuana, the city once called ‘Satan’s Playground’. Be sure to sample Caesar’s Salad in its hotel birthplace (or if you can’t make it, try my recipe.)

I seem to spend far more time in taprooms than actual pubs. Only the other day, in Manchester, I popped into Bundobust Brewery to sample their new Bombay Sandwich-led menu with a couple of in-house beer pairings, naturally, then sashayed the 300 metres down Oxford Road to check out the beer and bar formula at the new North taproom. This latest outlet of the Leeds brewery of that name opened a couple of weeks ago, but rail strikes and Biblical downpours deterred me from trekking in.

It was worth the wait, but does North’s count as a taproom proper? Perhaps we play a little fast and loose with the definition. Surely a taproom has to be an on-site bar in the brewery whose beers it pours? North now have a string of venues, but the taproom proper, in this pedant’s eyes, is at their Springwell production base alongside the brewing vessels.

After this nit-picking let’s salute the Age of the Taproom. No longer just a rickety bar and a fridge servicing some garden furniture among the mash tuns, in the teeth of a chilly blast whipping through an arch’s open doorway. 

Not that I’m knocking this prototype, habitually offering great beer at source. It’s just that some serious, and seriously brave, investment has also gone on of late. Trading up or key part of a fresh new package, they draw me in.

I’m not alone in being a devotee of those lavishly illustrated online compendiums (compendia?) of the world’s most beautiful independent bookshops or libraries. Lit porn, let’s call this fetish. From my own experience, nowhere beats the Livraria Lello & Irmão in Porto, with an honourable mention for Manchester’s own Portico Library. I’m biased there, though, as a card-carrying member.

Now I have a new crush. The other day social media granted me a peek at Wiper and True’s new Old Market taproom (above) in Bristol and I was smitten. No one’s going to recreate the look of  those palatial, ornate Victorian city pubs, even less centuries-old thatched and beamed country inns. But in the 2020s there’s a stream of spectacular (yet functional) taprooms created by the new wave craft breweries. 

The hypothesis is simple – when there’s a dwindling number of outlets for your wares in a competitive market invite your customers around to your place. Taste all the latest beers, meet the folk behind them, support the brand. Maybe grab a bite from the current street food operation in residency. Wood-fired pizza fuels that US bar-room feel.

Still with one UK brewery going under each week due to financial pressure (that’s according to my pal, Pete Brown, doyen of beer writers) a taproom can be a scary investment. I was shocked when ultra-cool Wild Beer Co went into administration recently, their planned, crowdfunded showcase mothballed for too long.

While I was compiling for Manchester Confidential (in tandem with staff writer Davey Brett) a piece on the city’s mooted ‘Piccadilly Beer Mile’ and its legacy (parts one, two and three) a mood of optimism against the odds was evident. Below I’ve widened my net to pick out some favourite taps across the land.

North Brewery, Leeds

Let me kick off my tap bucket list with the aforementioned Springwell, set in a former tannery along post-industrial Buslingthorpe Lane. North only unveiled their new site in November 2020, moving a mile up the road from the original brewery they had launched in 2015. Softy, softly. The brewing arrived a full 18 years after founders John Gyngell Christian Townsley had opened North Bar in town, arguably the UK’s first craft beer bar proper, but everything they have done has been worth the wait. Springwell has now doubled brewing capacity and created an airy taproom and beer garden, James Ooi’s formidable Little Bao Boy dishing up the ballast.

What to drink: ‘Transmission’, North’s signature tropical and piney IPA – East Coast meets West Coast.

Northern Monk, Leeds

Earlier than North they established a bar presence in Manchester but atmosphere-wise it’s not a patch on the original ‘Refectory’ above the brewery in The Old Flax Store of Marshall’s Mill, Holbeck. From Monk’s inception in 2014 the brewing operation and taproom worked in tandem, linked by founder Russell Bisset’s cute take on the traditional monkish bond with beer. I feel rival North has overtaken them in both profile and overall beer quality, but the bare brick taproom is still a sweet, off-the-beaten track spot to linger in. Yet it’s just a 10 minute walk from Leeds train station.

What to drink: Worship their decadent annual ‘Heaven’ – just the 12.5 per cent, featuring maple syrup, chocolate and vanilla, and aged in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels.

SALT Beer Factory, Saltaire

An old tram shed is home to this offshoot of Ossett Brewery but with its own distinctive, craftier range helmed by Colin Stronge. I know him from his time at Marble in Manchester before a peripatetic journey involving Black Isle, Buxton and, yes, Northern Monk, but it is his inspirational work at SALT that won him UK Brewer of the Year before Christmas. The £1.7 million micro-brewery opened up in October 2018. Its actual tap among the equipment only opens at weekends, but the Salt Bar + Kitchen at the front is open seven days a week, its wood-fired pizzas heartily recommended (my tip: the Moroccan lamb).

What to drink: ‘Tram Double New England IPA’. Not the obvious link, it’s a beer name-checked for a double twisted silk thread weaving term. Expect a lot of USA and New Zealand hops in the mix.

Verdant, near Falmouth 

Just the 400 miles from Saltaire, West Yorkshire to Penryn, Cornwall and the shiny new home of one of the UK’s great pioneers of US-style hop-driven beers. These hazy IPA  specialists were founded in Falmouth proper eight years go, but the swanky new state of the art brewery and taproom is four miles upstream in Penryn, the original port when Falmouth was just a marshy foreshore. It’s a 20 minute suburban trek to Verdant from Penryn Station. Well worth it; the interior is spectacular and, guess what?, there’s some toothsome wood-fired pizza.

What to drink: ‘Even Sharks Need Water’. Juicy hop and yeast driven  NE IPA that tastes of sherbet refresher sweets with lashings of peppery mango, lemon and grapefruit.  Smooth, full and fun to drink! That’s the brewery blurb, but they’re not wrong.

St Mars of the Desert, Sheffield

And back to God’s Country and the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire. Here in the former industrial heartland of Attercliffe, surrounded by ranks of contemporary factories/depots, you’ll find an unshiny taproom that’s so old school it has inkwells. Well, not quite, but you get my drift, as soon as you penetrate the picket fence, bearing the sign “Please don’t let Grimbold the dog out”. This brewery specialise in “hoppy koelship beers, foeder-soured stingos, rustic lagers, deep malty dark beers and Benelux-inspired creations”, according to their website. Koelship? Pronounced cool ship, it’s a long, slender, open top stainless steel vessel akin to those traditional Flemish/Dutch koelschips, originally made of wood, whose high surface-to-mass ratio allows for more efficient cooling of the wort in the brewing process. Full details in this report. Whatever, SMOD is a quirky, civilised boozing bolthole. The taproom will re-open in March 2023. 

What to drink: ‘Jack d’Or’ Belgian-style saison. Originally conceived at the Pretty Things brewery in Boston, original project of SMOD duo Dann Paquette and Martha Holley-Simpson.

Rivington, north of Bolton 

Let’s stay pretty rustic at a farm-based brewery that initially suffered profile-wise because it was just outside Greater Manchester. Ben Stubbs and his farmer brother-in-law Mick Richardson launched their brewery in 2014 next to the dairy operation and hilltop camping site with a spectacular view of Rivington reservoirs and Winter Hill that is now shared with the beer garden. The ‘taproom’ is a converted barn and find the marquee a more copacetic drinking hole, especially when the site is hosting the annual ‘Farm Trip’ festival. Dough ‘n’ Co are in residence serving burgers from Wednesday to Sunday and pizzas from 4pm Friday and all weekend.

What to drink: ‘tI has to be ‘Never Known Fog Like It’, a 5.2 per cent New England pale ale, whose success was instrumental in giving up his day job. Hazy and hopped with Citra, Mosaic, Simcoe and Chinook, it never fails to charm.

Wylam, Newcastle

Palace of the Arts is a posh address for a brewery. Factor in its tap serves Sunday roasts as well as burgers and is shortly hosting gigs by the likes of Kula Shaker and Mr Scruff and you realise what a unique venue this is even before you get stuck into the delicious range of beers brewed there. The Grade listed building in parkland was originally constructed for the Great North East Exhibition of 1929. Former music promoter Dave Stone has been the driving force since the brewery, once a run of the mill cask operation, moved into the Palace in 2016.

What to drink: Again let’s stick with the standard bearer, ‘Jakehead’, the first IPA the brewery ever created. Brewer Ben Wilkinson is proud of its mix of British malt character and a tropical US take.

Runaway, Stockport

After almost a decade in an arch on Manchester’s Dantzic Street, Mark Welsby’s pioneering craft operation, is currently moving to a sizeable new home in Stockport, so the taproom like the brewery and barrel store – is still very much a work in progress. When it opened as a pop-up (with pizza from the redoubtable Honest Crust) for three weekends before Christmas the response of local was ecstatic. Reassuring in troubled economic times, for Mark, who told me: “Taproom ambitions are key to the move. We’ll offer a food menu. The scene is not just about craft beer any more. Natural wine, proper cider, small plates all have their place at the table. We’ll have space for barrel ageing, too. More control over our destiny. If it doesn’t work, then it’s all down to us.”

What to drink: I’m tempted to recommend ‘Yuzu Sour’. based on a classic Berliner Weisse but substituting pure Japanese citrus for the usual sugar syrups, but with winter still engulfing us will plump for Runaway’s American Brown Ale. another transatlantic hybrid, robust British maltiness mating with Yankee pine and grapefruit pithiness.

Sureshot, Manchester

Even James Campbell, Manchester brewing royalty (Marble and Cloudwater) must be surprised at the rapturous reception for his new post-Pandemic project across the UK. Alongside a raft of playfully conceived and marketed hop-driven brews he has leapt in with a taproom that’s boldly open six days a week. It’s twice the size of the brewery next door in an arch once home to Track. The tap manager is Lucy Clarke, whose CV includes Cloudwater, Siren and bottle shop Epicurean. Draught cocktails (and mead from a member of the team) add to the jollity.

What to drink: A hard choice with such a hyperactive list so let’s go with the latest offering, a New England IPA,’Have Thee Nowt Moist?’, accompanied by the ‘dry’  wit of the Campbell spiel: “Our first (proper) release of the year is this worthy knight, questing for moisture in a land of dryness. Dripping with Bru-1 Lupomax, Citra BBC & Galaxy hops, pineapple and citrus joust for the favour of thy taste buds. Henceforth, this January shall be known as Moist January! As we banish the dry and embrace the damp.”

Track, Manchester

It’s not the right time of year to enjoy the large suntrap garden, but the stylish taproom itself, open six days a week, is dazzling and airy, a stunning repository of craft (and cask) curated by bar manager Dev Parmar. The current food pop-up from Greek specialists Taka Taka Mam is also worth the 15 minute trek up from Piccadilly. Ask for their epic ‘Zeus Platter’. Dog and family friendly, it’s a haven for cyclists too. The project was inspired by a two year round the world cycle ride by founder Sam Dyson where he discovered the craft breweries and taprooms of the States. Staying active, Track also offers its own running club, One Foot Forward (at the end of the 5km run there’s a welcoming glass).

What to drink: Sessionable pale ale Sonoma is the signature beer, particularly appealing in the cask version, but Track also excel in the stronger DIPAs. Try the new version of Sea of Stars, 8 per cent,100 per cent fresh Nelson Sauvin hops, so all resinous fruit on reamy base of pilsner malt, oats and wheat.

Torrside, New Mills

‘Eclectic’ doesn’t do justice to the range at this special place tucked away by the canal in a Derbyshire mill town. Smoked and barrel-aged beers are the speciality of this operation set up in 2015 by a trio of home brewers (one of them a Japanese translator). The taproom opening is sporadic. The next one is Friday, March 25 and Saturday, March 26. For the rest of the 2023 dates visit this link and look out for their annual Smokefest festival, which is what it says on the bottle. They even offer smoked snacks – cheeses, meats, nuts and tea cakes!

What to drink: Any of the ‘Dogs of War’ series in sharing bottle (you don’t have to share). To encourage a snooze on the train ride home perhaps go for the ‘Swiss Guard Sighthound Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Porter’ (10.5 per cent).

Bundobust Brewery, Manchester

Back to where we started in quest of a Bombay Sandwich. For the record this exotic toastie, available 12pm-4pm every day bar Saturday, is filled with potato and spinach, green chutney, red onion, tomato and vegan Cheddar, seasoned with chaat masala and served with sambhar. The combo of Gujarati vegan/veggie snacks and craft beer has been the group’s big selling point since the original Bundobust opened in Leeds in 2014. The Manchester Piccadilly branch followed a couple of years later, ahead of the Bundo Brewery ambitions being finally realised in September 2021. A basement of the city’s Grade II-listed St James Building has been transformed into a US brewpub style integrated brewing facility and bar dining room. Both Manchester venues stare up into a great glass atrium and share quirky design touches. Here each chair is made from 40 recycled plastic water bottles, while school-style desks have been repurposed into beer hall-style tables, complete with “I Woz ‘Ere” etchings.

What to drink: Brewer Dan Hocking, once of Holland’s world-renowned Uiltje Brewery, has been very active in collabs with other breweries, including a dark mild with Thornbridge, but the perfect match for the spicy food offering is the in-house, 4.8 per cent Dhania Pilsner with its hit of citrusy toasted coriander seeds.

Such a joy when two of my favourite food and drink passions consummate a relationship and the twin offspring are equally appealing. That’s what happened when Balance Brewing and Blending met Polyspore to create a brace of tremendous mushroom beers, available to buy now.

I tasted both Freckled Chestnut and Lion’s Mane from the bottle at the collab’s launch in the upstairs bar of Manchester’s Port Street Beer House. Both sets of business partners were present the christening – Will Harris and James Horrocks of mixed culture, barrel fermentation specialists Balance and Polyspore specialist mushroom growers Mike Fothergill and Dylan Pybus.

I’ve profiled both groundbreaking operations in recent months, visiting their respective bases in North Western Street near Piccadilly Railway Station and in the Radium Wrks Altrincham (Balance are currently moving to Sheffield Street nearer the station). Read those respective backstories here and here.

The collab beers, named after specific mushroom types, were scheduled for release at IndyManBeerCon at the start of October but weren’t quite ready Will and James (ex-brewers at Track and Squawk respectively) are nothing if not particular. The presence of Wild Beer Co at the festival, where I tasted their wasp nest yeast beer, reminded me that the Somerset-based brewery had once brewed a mushroom beer of their own called Breakfast of Champigons. It was a one-off. Down to, I suspect, a reluctance of even the most avid funkheads to grasp the fungi flavour in a glass.

Still there was a rapturous reception across the Pond for repeated batches of Texas farmhouse brewers Jester KIng’s Snörkel – a saison brewed with alderwood smoked sea salt and oyster mushrooms.

All very exotic but how do the new Balance brews stand up? They started off life in a single barrel, filled in December 2021. According to James: “This barrel was chosen as a base due to its nicely balanced acidity, fruity funk and clarity of flavour. The beer was split between two tanks, one had Lion’s Mane mushrooms added and the other had Freckled Chestnut mushrooms. The beer married with the mushrooms for just over a week before being bottled and laid down to condition.

“The wonderful mushrooms grown by Polyspore have imparted their own distinct character while letting the beer shine too. Lion’s Mane shows some really nice citrus character with vanilla and gentle umami whilst Freckled Chestnut has more earthy tones and nuttiness with a beautiful savoury element.”

Spot on. The brewers prefer the more up-front funk of the Lion’s Mane; I marginally prefer the Freckled Chestnut’s more brooding charms, which will open out surely with a year or two’s bottle ageing. Visit Balance’s website and both limited edition beers, priced at £18, appear to have sold out but, as with previous releases, you may be able to seek them out at specialist bottle shops. 

Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)is often cited as a myco adaptogen –  a class of fungi credited with medicinal merits across the centuries, especially by the Chinese. Hence it features in an IPA, part of a recently launched vegan and gluten free beer range called Fungtn. At 0.5per cent it is ‘guaranteed’ to keep you ‘hangover-free’. 

Personally, I’d rather take my chances and drink deep of the strikingly pure and complex 6.5 per cent Balance embodiment.

Showing my age. Just realised it’s 30 years since I sat down in the cinema to watch Delicatessen. I expected a celebration of pastrami on rye and coffee-toting waitresses with attitude. Instead I was served a post-apocalyptic, cannibalistic black comedy packed with butchered body parts. 

I blame a movie made two years earlier for my cinematic naïveté. The one where the Meg Ryan character simulates orgasmic cries. The one I always think of as When Harry Met Deli because that scene was set inside Katz’s on New York’s Lower East Side. And, yes, I have visited that apotheosis of all the kosher eateries recalibrating the Old Country in the New World. The touristy sign quotes the film dialogue: “Hope you have what she had.” We ordered differently.

There was a cluttered buzz to the joint, the queues to get in filtered through a ticketing system. The food? Not really star quality. And not really the global template for the Deli  these day, definitely a devalued catch-all term just like bistro and brasserie. Yet neither of these are synonymous with a sandwich shop.

A more positive perspective is the combo of grocer’s and cafe, ideally the latter feeding off the raw materials and store cupboard essentials of the former. A good example (with the bonus of a well-stocked wine shop and bar) was the late, lamented Lunya in Manchester, the original of which is still going strong in Liverpool. That is Spanish with a Catalan influence; the Italian equivalent, equally family-run, is Salvis’ Corn Exchange outpost in Manchester’s Corn Exchange.

My ideal deli though would be a suburban provisioner. The supplier of an impulse wine purchase, a decent cheeseboard, charcuterie, olives and bread to carry home around the corner. Even better, if the budget allows, to be able to tuck into all that stuff upstairs above the shop, augmented by an eclectic beer offering, including the owner’s own acclaimed lager.

Factor in the natural progression 100m away of a sibling butchers/fishmonger with its own eat-in small plates deli counter and it could only be Wandering Palate – The Movie and Farm & Fish – The Sequel. Location? Upwardly mobile Monton, the posh banlieue beyond Eccles. The first is the debut deli of Will and Emma Evans; the second their collab with The Butcher’s Quarter, which has two further outlets in the city centre.

It has taken me a while to trek here. As I sit in the window of Wandering Palate at 190 Monton Road, first with a De Koninck Bolleke, a Belgian amber-coloured pale in the glass of that name, then with a Bodegas Manzanos Gran Reserva Rioja Will brings me a selection of ‘picky bits’.

They are his Manc version of pintxos or cicchetti. The baguette bases are from Holy Grain, arguably Manchester’ best bakery, like Wandering Palate shortlisted at this year’s Manchester Food and Drink Awards. The toppings are sourced from the deli shelves. My favourites the Trealy Farm venison and juniper pâté with salsa verde and truffled Baron Bigod cheese with baby onions.

Time for browsing. A smaller beer collection (“we needed the fridge space for other items”) than you’d expect from Will, who co-founded Manchester Union Lager. That’s on tap here ahead of its unveiling in tank form at Manchester’s new Exhibition food hall this November.

Wine is a major player, though with a substantial natural wine offering, much of it sourced from Les Caves De Pyrene. Coffee comes from Yorkshire’s Dark Woods, charcuterie from Manchester’s own Northern Cure, cheese from The Crafty Cheese Man and much more.

Emma Evans is an acclaimed artist, whose canvases you can check out in the upstairs bar. She also hosts regular life drawing classes there. Probably more my thing is Wandering Palate’s Wine Club Wednesdays with free corkage.

Farm & Fish at 190 Monton Road equally aspires to be a community hub. It recently hosted a Polish wine tasting. But my eyes were for the meat and fish counters. I inevitably splashed the cash, coming away with a kilo of  ox cheeks and a robust boiled crab. I could happily have sat in the window there with a further wine as evening fell… to survey the Monton ‘paseo’.

It’s the beery equivalent of Beaujolais Nouveau – well kind of. I’ve never twigged why, Kent apart, we don’t celebrate the UK’s new ‘green’ hops harvest by brewing with them. Virtually straight from the stalk. It’s a big thing in the craft ale heartlands of the USA.

On a road trip stop-off in Washington State’s hop capital, Yakima, we were devastated to discover we were one week early to join in the annual ‘Fresh Hop Party’. Bet it was an epic celebration in the heart of the fertile volcanic soil where 75 per cent of American hops are grown. Cascade, Chinook, Centennial and the rest.

Victoria Baths on Hathersage Road becomes the epicentre of UK beer culture for four days

At Indy Man Beer Con at Manchester’s Victoria Baths (Sept 29-Oct 2) we aim to make up for that miss in a small way by sampling ‘Hops are Green’, an Extra Special Bitter created by JW Lees specially for the festival, returning after a  two year hiatus. 

We suggest you do the same. Nominally sold out, IMBC have just released a batch of extra tickets.Tickets are available for the following sessions: evenings 5:30pm-10.30pm  Thursday/Friday/Saturday; daytimes 11pm-4pm, Friday/ Saturday; and on Sunday 1pm-6pm. Buy via this link but hurry!

Of all the area’s traditional family brewers 200-year-old Middleton-based Lees are the ones who get down most with the craft beer kids. They’ve long shared with Cloudwater some of their legendary, long-lived yeast strains. Just this week I tasted a Cloudwater ‘JW Lees’ DIPA in a can that was quite splendidly balanced – at 9%!

Lees’ own ‘Hops are Green’ is a quite different beast, inspired by a need to start a conversation about sustainability in beer. The industry is facing multiple challenges from climate change and inflation to water shortages and demographic shifts. 

Independent Manchester Beer Convention (to give its full title) and JW Lees wanted to explore how you might brew with a lower carbon footprint, which helps the brewer run a successful business, delivers a beer which the craft beer drinker loves, but which doesn’t break the bank. Beer brewed and drunk locally, with more locally sourced ingredients could be part of the answer.

That means marking the sustainble progress made by domestic hop growers rather than importing from far-away Yakima (or even New Zealand). Groundbreaking Brook House Hops in Herefordshire fits that bill admirably.

Matt Gorecki, Head of Beer at the festival told me: “We all love American Hops and we have for years, but we can’t ignore what people like Brook House are doing right here on the doorstep.They’re growing some mega stuff! When we first spoke to JW Lees and heard Michael’s story about working with the same farmers and fields as his grandfather we just felt that we could bring together the best of both worlds.”

Lees were definitely up for it. Head Brewer Michael Lees-Jones, said: “We are experienced in adapting as the world changes around us.  In order to stay relevant and to keep pouring beer for the next 200 years we need to remain curious and to experiment with different ideas. We think it is great that the IMBC team are asking questions about sustainability in beer as we consider how we can be a more sustainable brewery.”

I haven’t tasted ‘Hops are Green’ yet, but like the sound of it – an Extra Special Bitter. “Typically a malt forward brew using English yeast and firm but not over the top hopping, it will be finished using freshly harvested green hops from the forward thinking hop growers at Brook House.” 

So what are Green or ‘Wet’ Hops?

An ingredient  with a lower carbon footprint due to their lack of time in an energy intensive kiln, where hops are usually cured to preserve and intensify their flavour. They’re used in an array of seasonal beers in the US around harvest time but curiously not so much in the UK. They’re grown in Herefordshire and were transported to the brewery by road. It will preview at the festival and be available at several JW Lees pubs as well as Port Street Beer House.

This beer is the first in a series of beers produced with sustainability in mind, with Cheltenham based Deya Brewery, picking up the baton to create the next product following the festival. Any brewery wishing to get involved can contact the IMBC team through their social media channels.

Welcome back Indyman

Since its inception in 2012 Independent Manchester Beer Convention (Indy Man Beer Con/IMBC) has proved a world class showcase for the most forward thinking breweries from the UK and beyond. Everything about it (apart from the amount consumed) is different from the traditional beer festival. Not least the venue – the Grade II listed, architectural gem Victoria Baths.

Inclusivity and diversity are part of its appeal. And great street food. This year’s focus on sustainability and environmental awareness of the impact of the brewing industry sees special, cross-Atlantic collaborative brewing and innovative approaches to recycling spent products.

It’s a big step up from that first pioneering IMBC, created by Jonny Heyes, founder of Common & Co (Common, The Beagle, Nell’s Pizza, Summer Beer Thing). Just two rooms were used, hosting only 20 breweries. Nowadays more than 60 breweries will occupy every nook and cranny . From the main ‘stages’ in the old swimming pools to tasting areas and snug bars in the Turkish Baths, the breweries will pour a selection of their beers to thousands of beer lovers and converts alike.