Tag Archives: Nicholson’s

Hopping into Spring: an afternoon at the Nicholson’s Spring Ale Festival

Spring is in the air! Somewhere, no doubt, adorable lambs are gamboling through drifts of cherry blossom as fuzzy chicks escape their chocolate eggs and frolic among daffodils.

ICIP wouldn’t know, because we live in central London, where the turn of the seasons is celebrated in the time-honoured way… with a seasonal beer festival. Forget daylight savings: here we know that winter is [not] coming because the stouts disappear and you can’t move for wheat beer. Our buddies at Nicholson’s Pubs dropped us a copy of the menu for their Spring Ale Festival (which runs Monday 24th March to Saturday 19th April) so, using the mad skills we honed at Craft Beer Rising, ICIP charted a well-balanced, open-minded course through the ales on offer.

coleholeAlas, the best laid plans of beer bloggers seldom work out. By the time we arrived at The Coal Hole on The Strand for a run-through with its manager Annie Power, a number of beers had sold out, just two weeks into the festival. These included Loch Ness‘s Hoppyness, Revolutions‘ Clash London Porter, Adnams‘ Mosaic Pale, Itchen Valley‘s Blackcurrant Mild, Adnams & Camden collab South Town and Butcombe‘s Haka. Spring ales, Annie confirmed, are going down a storm. “IPAs are doing very well,” she told us. “People working in the City tweet us to say: ‘I’ll be there by five, I hope there’s some left!’”

And no wonder they’re selling out: you can score money off beer instantly (is there any better sentence in the English language?) by joining Nicholson’s Hop Circle IN THE PUB ITSELF, by scanning one of the many QR codes (those big square barcodes that you wave your phone at like you’re in The Matrix) around the bar. Luckily for us there is plenty left to taste, and we trust Annie to take us off-piste.

stonehengeWe start with a glass of Inveralmond‘s Ossian, a delicious, spring-tastic IPA. Rich and full, the well-rounded Fuggles balanced out other hops. The lovely Ossian nearly went down the wrong way, though, when Annie set out some glasses of bright green beer on the bar. This was our first taste of Stonehenge Ales‘ Sign of Spring, which Annie assured us was naturally green, not some kind of Frankenbeer. Yes, it was very zingy and refreshing, but it was hard to say where the citrus started and the optical I’M DRINKING LIME JUICE illusion ended.

solutionIn between puzzled sips of green, Annie explained why the festival was going so well. “This year they balanced the menu better,” she says, of Nicholson’s HQ. “They had mild and porters. Collaboration brews are very popular – people know it’s beer they can only get in a Nicholson’s.” Punters are voting for their favourite beers on Twitter throughout the festival, with the winner securing a guest spot at Nicholson’s pubs. At the moment the Pete Brown and Brains collaboration, The Solution, is in the lead (much to our delight – it was our favourite at the tasting we attended in March). Rich and fruity, it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to drink this again.

skinnersNext we try an offering from the Skinners Brewery – River Cottage EPA, brewed for the home farm of the TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. The beer is, Annie tells us, “typically Cornish”. It’s light, floral and delicate – and we were pleased to taste the UK Cascade hop holding its own. Jarrow Brewery‘s Isis, which we try next, is similar –  floral, citrus-y, well balanced beer. It’s sweeter than River Cottage but the hops round this off with a bitter finish. We move on to Ilkley‘s Rye and Dry – a great dessert beer, all caramel, sweet and citrus. Such a dessert beer, in fact, that ICIP’s tasting notes shriek in barely-legible shorthand “WHAT’S THAT FRENCH PUDDING?” A quick Google suggests oranges with caramel, which is exactly what this beer tasted like, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence it is French, but that doesn’t matter because it’s delicious. We finish with a mouthful of malty, toasty Balmy Mild by Cropton Brewery.

croptonLooking around The Coal Hole – which, early afternoon on a Saturday, overflows with tourists, but on weekdays draws a smart business crowd – we wonder if Nicholson’s is at risk of putting off its regulars by doling out green beer and cherry-flavoured ale. “We keep on the traditional ales like Fuller’s London Pride,” says Annie. “We don’t want to force the ‘Jims’ of this world to change their habits” – she nods towards an older man enjoying a quiet pint at the bar, probably blissfully unaware and unconcerned that a pair of over-excited beer bloggers are INSTAGRAMMINGTWEETINGPINTERESTINGTUMBLERING frenetically around him. “London Pride will continue to sell,” she adds. One trick of the trade, Annie tells us, is effective deployment of sparkler. The sheen and added fizz can give otherwise leftfield brews sudden mass appeal. “You have to gauge the customer,” she tells us. “The sparkler is handy with people from Yorkshire. They’re used to Tetley, for example, and we don’t sell that, but if you offer them a pint of cask ale with a sparkler they find a beer they can drink all weekend.” Ladies, she adds, have proved more daring than the blokes. Women have “a more discerning palate,” she concludes.

What, then, is a spring beer? Something with lots of blossom, floral and citrus notes, light and quaffable? “The traditional idea of a spring ale is something that has connotations of pale, blonde, 4%, hoppy, zesty, not too much of anything,” Annie agrees. And yet – Nicholson’s has done a roaring trade in punchy, strong beers, bitter IPAs and, incredibly, porter. “This festival has made a mockery of that!” Annie concludes. Even better, the festival has proved something Annie knew well: that people will travel for a speciality beer. “We should be on that,” she says. “We should always have at least one speciality. This festival proves that that does work.” Beer drinkers in general have become more fluent – Annie tells us that the tasting paddles of three halves have proved very popular. This presents a certain challenge for Nicholson’s, too – pubs try to stock different beers to their neighbours, so that customers ‘doing the rounds’ don’t keep encountering the same beer. “It takes an extra bit of planning,” Annie agrees.

It’s time to bring up the “W” word, because it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Nicholson’s major competitor, Wetherspoons, runs their spring festival at exactly the same time. With three collaboration beers brewed with Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn, New York, on offer at the cheeky price of c£2.90 a can [check out fellow beer-blogger Nate’s review here], Wetherspoons have upped their game. “I always go and have a nose around,” Annie admits. “They’re getting better – obviously they’ve been taking notes from us! Some of what they were doing at the last one was an abomination. The staff had no clue and they didn’t have enough beer! It left a lot to be desired, but they are getting better. Competition is healthy.” Annie admits she is jealous of the canned Brooklyn collab. “I wish we could do that,” she sighs. But she thinks her prayers have been answered: Nicholson’s are to experiment with stocking some craft beer in bottles – and The Coal Hole is going to be at the forefront of the new initiative. “There’s a market there,” she confirms.

But Nicholson’s have little to fear from their competitors. Well-informed staff – of which there are 28 at The Coal Hole, 20 in Front of House – are one of Nicholson’s greatest sells. “I don’t expect them to love every beer; we change so often,” Annie says of the staff who are proficiently getting on with their day around us. “But I want them to know the basics. I’m not pretending they’re ale gurus – my cask master is! – but that is part of their education. A big winner for customers is ‘try before you buy’ – that’s good customer service. We ask: what do you normally drink? Then lead them from there. Some people are a bit cheeky but it still leads to a sale.” Regular readers may remember that ICIP like to close up our trips to Nicholson’s with a rare foray into the world of cider (ICIP admittedly frequently has no memory of this). Annie’s happy to oblige. One cider, Orchard Pig‘s Explorer, has already sold out. But we’re more than happy with a glass of astringent, green apple-y Aspall Cyderkyn and the smoother Orchard Pig Philosopher.

beersICIP leave Annie to her busy bar and stagger off down The Strand to The Coal Hole’s closest neighbor, The Wellington, to test the Nicholson’s ale diffusion and to decipher our notes before they dissolve completely into irretrievable squiggles and happy ticks. Sure enough, the bar is stocked with beers that weren’t on at The Coal Hole, so we close our day with the Rudgate Brewery Cherry Pale – as you’d expect, a very sweet floral nose, initially very bitter but tapering off to quite a flowery finish – and the light, sharp and grassy St Austell Proper Job.

The countryside can keep their lambs and chicks. Cheers.

The Nicholson’s Spring Ale Festival will run from Monday 24th March to Saturday 19th April at Nicholson’s Pubs across the country. You can find more information and a copy of the programme on their website.

Want more? Check out our coverage of previous Nicholson’s Ale Festivals (Autumn and Winter 2013) and of the beer and food pairing evening showcasing the Brains Brewery collabs which will be available during the festival.

– ED

Beer on the Brains

There are times when, as a beer blogger, you feel like you may well be the luckiest person on Earth.

ICIP had one of these moments the other day when an email pinged into our inbox from Nicholson’s Pubs. Their Spring Ale Festival was coming up and they were going to be debuting some special brews in a four-course beer and food matching dinner, hosted by Ben McFarland, Beer Writer of the Year. Would we like to attend, they wondered?

Oh, go on then.

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“I’ve been writing about beer for 10 years and this is definitely the most exciting time to be a beer writer or a beer drinker,” says Ben after welcoming us to The Globe in Moorgate. Looking at the line-up for the evening, we feel inclined to agree with him.

DSC_0012We hit the ground running, amusing our bouches with a dish of mixed olives and crumbled feta cheese, served with The Solution, a 6% abbey-style Belgian dubbel brewed in collaboration with Pete Brown.

“What we have here is an aperitif beer,” says Ben. “Normally with beer and food matching, you start with a light beer and a light dish and move up in intensity. But we thought ‘sod it’, and we’re going to go in there with the big guns.”

We are pleasantly surprised to see a dubbel on the menu: it isn’t a style you tend to see often, even in the craftiest of craft beer pubs in the capital. “Belgian beer seems to have been lost in the craft beer renaissance,” Ben agrees. “People don’t appreciate that the Belgians were the original punk brewers; people have been making wacky beers in Belgium for a long time. They have more indigenous beer styles than any other country in the world.”

The Solution is a fantastic beer to start the evening with – full-bodied and complex, its range of aromas and flavours gets every sense firing. “It’s got Czech Saaz hops as well as classic British Syrian Goldings, which makes it very earthy,” says Ben, “and it’s been brewed with a traditional Trappist Ale yeast, the fruitiest you can get. So it’s estery, hints of cloves in there, banana notes as well.”

The beer has a sweet chocolately nose, with flavours of rich raisin and a hint of coffee. Initially sweet, it gives way to a lingering, hoppy tang that mingles with the salty olives and feta deliciously. We consider our appetites well and truly whetted for the next course.

DSC_0016Three C’Son (5% ABV), served with our second course of chicken liver pâté, is a complete contrast to the dubbel. Brewed in collaboration with Adrian Tierney-Jones, this saison is named after the three American hops – Centennial, Columbus and Citra – that give the beer its zingy and refreshing bite.

In comparison to the dearth of dubbels about, Ben notes the recent popularity of this style. “In craft beer at the moment, everyone seems to be making a saison,” he says, “and they all taste completely different. I think it’s becoming an umbrella term for a lot of different styles. If it’s refreshing and it’s hoppy, and you don’t want to call it a pale ale, you call it a saison.”

DSC_0018Filling in some background, Ben explains that variation is a real feature of saison beers. “Saisons were brewed by farmers in Wallonia for their saisonniers who worked in the fields. There was no refrigeration which made brewing in the summer difficult, so it was brewed in the winter and kept until the summer, while the grain used in brewing could then feed the animals, so it was a massive cyclical thing.” Crops changed each year, and the availability of other ingredients varied, so it was rare for two brews to ever be alike. The only key characteristics of the style, Ben says, are that the beer should be refreshing, have some residual sugars to keep the workers’ energy up, and should be fairly low-alcohol: “people were using sharp instruments like scythes – not good when you’re shit faced”.

The beer is brewed with pilsner and wheat malts which gives body but also leaves the beer with a pleasant haziness. We didn’t get much from it in way of aroma, but it is incredibly light and fresh on the palate, with an almost astringent quality from the citrussy American hops which eases off into a pleasantly sour finish akin to a wheat beer. This cuts through the palate-coating pâté beautifully; a perfect match.

DSC_0024The tantalising scent of black pig and apple burgers alerts us that it is time for round three, and we are served up our next beer – the 5% Rye-Catcher. This beer was brewed in collaboration with Glenn Payne, who had come along to the event to explain his inspiration. “One of the nicest beers I ever tasted was a rye beer from an Austrian brewery and you don’t often see them in Britain. It was a beer style that was underrepresented here and I saw this as a marvellous opportunity to get it out there.”

But there is a reason that brewers tend to give rye a bit of a wide berth, explains Brains’ Head Brewer, Bill Dobson: “The reason brewers use barley malt is because barley has a husk. Whenever we brew with a grain that doesn’t have a husk it creates problems – we need that insoluble material as part of the mash filtration process,” he says, apologising for getting technical. “Other cereals like wheat, which you had in the saison earlier, we can use up to a certain amount, but then things start to get sticky and gloopy. Instead of making a nice mash you get something like wallpaper paste. You have to be very careful.”

To avoid this problem, Brains used two different types of rye, – a traditional rye malt and a rye crystal, giving the beer a vibrant red colour and spicy, malty base. “Many of you will have tried rye bread and this has that almost indescribable characteristic flavour… almost a nutty taste with a hint of caramel,” says Bill.

Beer and burger matching is very much in fashion right now, but it tends to be hoppy American IPAs which get trotted out time and time again. Rye-Catcher offered something a bit different while still providing the citrussy American hop hit to cut through the fattiness of the meat (Apollo, Columbus, Amarillo and Citra).

DSC_0036Draining our glasses and packing away our last few chips, we think we’re probably done for the evening. But suddenly we are confronted by the biggest slabs of sticky toffee pudding you have ever seen, and bottles of the strongest beer of the night, the 6.5% Boilermaker.

This beer was brewed in collaboration with Ben McFarland and his colleague from Thinking Drinkers, Tom Sandham. “Tom is a spirits expert and I’m the beer guy, and we thought we could probably do something to combine the two,” says Ben. “The Boilermaker is a beer and spirit cocktail which comes from the steelworkers in Pittsburg. It’s a very sophisticated drink: it involves pouring whisky into a shot glass, putting it upside down in a beer glass and as you drink the whisky blends into the beer. That’s what gave us the idea.”

Wanting to keep things local, Ben and Tom approached the welsh whisky distillery Penderyn, and not only barrel-aged their beer in old whisky casks but also threw in some oak chips infused with whisky while it was maturing. “Little did we know that Brains were giving Penderyn the wash from their beer to make the whisky, so there was already an established link between the two, and it all came together really well,” says Ben.

DSC_0034“It doesn’t bear much resemblance to what you’d call a classic IPA; there’s a sweetness there that we don’t necessarily associate with that style, but then as we’ve seen with craft beer today styles blur and blend into each other.” This lends itself perfectly to the gargantuan pudding we are currently shoveling down. “It goes well with the sticky toffee pudding because it has the caramelised notes to it. It’s not massively carbonated… this is calmer, more ‘cask’ and has more of a port-like quality which goes well with the dessert.”

The beer is rich and smoky, taking the edge off the face-puckering bitterness of the hops you usually get with a strong IPA. You also get a gentle hint of cool burn from the whisky barrel-aging.

Not content with sending us to toffee-beer oblivion, Nicholson’s also doles out a shot of whisky with each serving. “We couldn’t get any Penderyn, so we’ve gone with Laphroaig – peaty, smoky, really pungent,” says Ben. “The link between beer and whisky is such a close one  – people don’t associate it enough.”

The four special Brains beers are part of a line up of no less than 50 cask ales and ciders that will be available during the Nicholson’s Spring Ale Festival, which is running between 24th March and 19th April. Exhausted by the trauma of eating a sticky toffee pudding the size of a small child and sloshing with beer, ICIP leaves The Globe excited about the prospect of getting stuck into their fantastic line up very soon.

ICIP will be visiting the Ale Festival over the next couple of weeks to bring you a review of some of the beers available so look out for our write up soon. In the meantime, check out the festival programme on the Nicholson’s website. There’s a really exciting line up with plenty of lighter blondes and golden ales for the Spring.

– PS

Nicholson’s Autumn Beer Festival

Ah, the autumn beer festival season. Pavements run with beer, plastic pint glasses crunch underfoot, air thick with the smell of barbecuing street food. You’re more likely to be rained on than you are at a summer festival, but you’re also less likely to keel over from dehydration after the 11th pint.

Two of Britain’s biggest beer chains have run “beer festivals” within weeks of each other this autumn: Wetherspoons (ran October 16-31) and Nicholson’s (running 21 October – 17 November).

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“Beer festivals”, we say: by nature, they’re short, packed, ticketed, temporary affairs. Pilgrimage-spots for the beer-lover. Part of the fun is sampling a one-off brew and, for the London-based boozer, luxuriating in the week when some of the best ales in the country come to you (travel outside the north circular? Me? What?). Can big chains recreate the magic of the summer beer festival? Can you have as much fun sprawled on the floor of your local ‘spoons as you can in the long, lush charred remains of grass, cigarette ends and syringes in London Fields?

ICIP went to the White Horse in Soho, a Nicholson’s pub, to find out.

White Horse-13This year’s autumn festival marks the chain’s 140th birthday and showcases 50 cask ales (and ciders) on rotation. Your local will change the beers it has on offer every week or so – and will do so in consultation with nearby pubs to make sure one area isn’t flooded with the same IPA. Nicholson’s Cask Masters, the company’s trained beer experts who select the beers on sale in pubs, are on hand in each pub to talk punters through the range and offer recommendations.

The brand does a great line in nostalgia, buying up old British pubs in prime locations for (at least in London) the ultimate Dickensian drinking experience. It’s given them some fantastic locations in London – Soho, the West End, the City – but, as Nicholson’s Assistant brand manager Ben Lockwood tells us when we meet him for a glug-through the beers on offer, it doesn’t always make it easy to accommodate events us excitement-hungry Londoners require, like a real ale festival. And it is these excitement-hungry young drinkers that Nicholson’s hopes to attract with its IPA-heavy festival. Sales of cask ale are on the rise, Ben tells us, and the chain has seen a shift in the age of its punters to a younger, 25-34 audience.

DSC_0024Set around an old-style public bar, which dominates the centre of the pub, the White Horse creates what Ben describes as a traditionally British experience, particularly when coupled with the expertise and local knowledge of the landlord – Nicholson’s well-trained staff, who Ben says are encouraged to talk to customers and offer them samples. But – in the White Horse, at least – you run the risk of entering through the wrong door, having your view of the festival obscured by the bar, and leaving none-the-wiser. This is one potential pitfall of holding a festival in this kind of environment. This is the tradeoff, we guess, for holding a modern beer festival in central London in an environment built for 18th century gin-sippers.

However, this certainly doesn’t affect the quality of the brews. We kick off our tasting with a half of the stunningly delicious Great Heck, an American IPA (5.5%). You can taste America in its breadth of the “c” hops – Cascade, Chinook and Columbus among others – but it’s well-balanced and warm enough to earn a place in an Autumnal line-up. Next up is Thwaite’s 13 Guns, another 5.5% stuffed with New World hops but brewed in Blackburn. It’s lighter than Great Heck – despite being the same abv – but as there’s a lot of halves ahead, this is no bad thing.

DSC_0021We wondered if Nicholson’s beer choices reflect the average punter’s beer taste – and particularly if they are mindful of the ever increasing number of women beer drinkers. “Times have changed,” Ben tells us. “Women drink what they want.” He isn’t surprised to hear we like dark beer – and remembers when a half of Guinness was the quintessential lady’s tipple – but says he would probably recommend something blonde and lemon-y, around 3.8%, to a first-time festivaller.

We move on to Nicholson’s own Porter, brewed by St Austell to a recipe from 1910, which makes an interesting change. Hopped with Fuggles and Styrian Goldings, it’s a rich, dark toasty beer. We were interested in the brewer’s choice of British hops, but Ben told us that a popular taste for zingy, new world hops is endangering home-grown varieties.

Feeling slightly guilty, ICIP tucked into his next suggestion – Broughton’s Hopopotamus (3.8%). Following the Porter it feels a bit lighter – this would make a tasty session beer. Although now the Amarillo, Cascade and Chinook taste less like grapefruit and more like GUILT. We finish off with a half that isn’t part of the festival – Cameron’s Gold Bullion (4.3%) – but makes for a light beer with a citrus-y finish.

Avowed cider newbies, we weren’t sure what to do when Ben offered us a parting half of Orchard Pig’s Explorer Bib (4.5%). ICIP wondered what we were missing when we walked straight past the wall of ciders at the GBBF – and, turns out, we were missing quite a lot. This cider is fragrant and smooth, packing more punch than you’d expect from it’s 4.5%.

We staggered out of the White Horse pub-based beer fest converts. It’s all too easy to sniff at big-brand endeavours like Wetherspoon’s festival – but corporate dollar, at least in Nicholson’s case, has devolved to local expertise (in the form of its Cask Masters), a great spread of beer. You’ve got almost a month to enjoy them – meaning there’s less of an excuse for panic-downing eight halves of whatever you can reach – and, crucially, you can have your fill without fear of being swept into the Thames by a passing seasonal hurricane.

Nicholson’s Autumn Beer Festival runs until 17th November.

– ED