Winter has arrived, and it feels bitterly cold here in London. Not to be deterred The Hopflower ventures to North London to try a couple of Tap Rooms.

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Suddenly Winter has arrived, and it feels bitterly cold here in London.   Not to be deterred by this abrupt change of temperature however I ventured to North London at the weekend to try a couple of Tap Rooms.

I blogged last week about tap rooms in South London and I have previously blogged about Hackney, so in the interest of balance I feel it’s only right that I do a quick blog about my trip up North.

Now this trip was actually a birthday present from my wonderful siblings.  I’m a woman of simple tastes and I don’t need much so when it comes to Christmas or Birthday presents I’d rather have a nice day out.  My Brother and Sister decided to take me for lunch then to the taprooms at Beavertown and Pressure Drop breweries in Tottenham – they know me well!

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Now if there’s one thing we have all learnt its that prep is important; when going drinking its vital to line your stomach first.    So, we went to El Botellon, a Tapas and South American Restaurant on Seven Sisters High Road which proved to be a great choice.   It was packed and lively for a Saturday lunchtime.   After a few Tapas I had King Prawns in a coconut sauce which came with both Fries and Rice – a king-size portion of carbs to absorb a beer or two, job done.

With fully tummies we braved the cold – blimey was it cold,  and walked to the unassuming looking Lockwood Industrial Park around the corner from Tottenham Hale tube.    We headed first for Beavertown’s tap room.

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In amongst the brewing equipment were tables of people enjoying  a Saturday afternoon beer.  I made the point in my last blog that I like the family friendly aspect of Brewery Taprooms and Beavertown’s dog and child friendly atmosphere is no exception.

As well as the tables inside the brewery, there are tables outside and in a large heated gazebo.   It was very busy, and the atmosphere was buzzing ; Young, old, scruffy, smart or lycra cycling gear, no-one cares as it’s just a lovely relaxed place to spend some time.

The bar is in a side room and has a queuing system which is really efficient.   There is also a great take away selection which I took advantage of.  We perused the list of beers hanging outside the bar and I particularly liked that Beavertown mentioned Pressure Drop’s tap room on the bar menu.


I started with Hop Harvest 2018, 5.2%, a fresh hopped Saison with a bite of carbonation followed by mild tart notes as you’d expect from a Saison.    I thought the fresh hop notes added an interesting twist.

Next, I tried the Black Betty Black IPA, 7.4% .   I always love a Black IPA and this one is particularly good with notes of smoke and blackcurrant.  I liked this so much I bought  a couple of cans to take home.

I also tried a slurp of my brother’s  Beavo Lager, 3.9%, absolutely crystal clear Beavo is beautifully fresh.  Finally, I nicked a mouthful of my sister’s Farewell to Arms Sherry Sour with Cherries, 7%, which is a good well balanced Sour.

A selection of Street food including Vegan options was available and smelt tasty, but we were still full from our lunch and decided to move on to Pressure Drop’s tap room.


Around the corner, past a fleet of funky looking Beavertown vans bearing the brewery’s distinctive graphics Pressure Drop’s lovely brewery tap room was welcoming  in the cold weather.   Inside were a mixed clientele including toddlers, twenty something’s dressed up for Halloween and pensioners;  bright fairy lights and again plenty of seating on bench tables amongst the FVs; I love it !

First, I tried the fabulously pink Orla, a Blackberry, Damson and Bay Berliner Weisse which at 3.8% was a good beer to start with before hitting the Alive and Well Session IPA, 3.6% with Motueka and Columbus hops.

A cloudy blond beer with a hoppy nose, Alive and Well is bursting with resinous hops and has a finish of orange peel.

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By now it was early evening and getting chilli so something dark and warming was called for.   I had a bottle of Pressure Drop’s Street Porter, 6.5%.   This is gorgeous with notes of treacle and smoke.

Both breweries take deposits for their glasses.  The Beavertown glasses are straight sided tumblers like the ones used for cider in Spain.   I kept mine along with the cans I had bought as a little souvenir.   Pressure Drop also offer you money back on your glass or rather cleverly I thought a bottle of beer in exchange.   Unsurprisingly I took a beer.

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The Taprooms closed at 8pm which is probably just as well as we had got very cosy amongst the FV’s and mash tuns.   But off we went into the night, heading south of the river with our beer and glasses clinking in our bags.

Don’t let the cold weather put you off venturing to these tap rooms.   The staff are friendly and the crowds happy, so the atmosphere and great beers are enough to keep you warm!



Pride of South London. Maybe I’m just a bit of a Beer Groupie!

We’re the Pride of South London Crystal Palace fans sing as we enjoy a prolonged stay in England’s Football PremierLeague.   These days South London also has a lot to be proud of beer wise too.

I remember not too long ago admiring the Brewery Tap rooms in the States and being a tad jealous we didn’t have so many here in the UK. Not only providing great places to enjoybrewery fresh beers, tap rooms like breweries provide employment and are often family friendly; during a trip to the Brooklyn Brewery four years ago I was amazed when my New York friend was able to meet me in the tap room with her two-year-old son in his buggy.

Tap Rooms also help demystify breweries making beer attractive and accessible to a wider range of people.

Happily, things are changing with more and more breweries opening tap rooms nationwide.

In South London The Bermondsey Beer mile has long been a pilgrimage for beer lovers.  There are also tap rooms at the Brockley Brewery and Gipsy Hill Brewery.

Slightly closer to where I live two more Brewery Tap rooms have sprung up so I decided to visit a couple of Fridays ago.

I kicked off my evening at the Ignition Brewery Taproom in Sydenham which opened in September.

What makes Ignition a brewery to be truly proud of is the fact that it is a micro-brewery set up to train and provide supported jobs for people with learning difficulties in the area.

I met the founder of Ignition Brewery, Nick O’Shea  a few years ago through mutual friends.  At the time Nick was busy trying to win funding and support for the Brewery.   

Fast forward three years and Ignition Brewery have a brewery and tap room in Sydenham High Street.   

In my opinion surpassing Nicks original mission To increasethe number of jobs for people with learning disabilities and to produce great beers the Tap room also provides a community hub.  It is bright and welcoming with a relaxed feel.   The staff cheerful and helpful, and the choice of beer satisfies all tastes.   Ignition’s core range of three; Lewisham Pale Ale South of the River 4.2% abv, Jumpstart IPA 4.6% abv and Well Oiled Machine Porter 4.8% abv are all available in bottles.   On tap the night I visited were South of the River andJumpstart plus specials Blood Orange IPA 4.5% and Lewisham Brown Ale 3.8%.   

I had a bottle of the Well Oiled Machine, a sumptuous Porter, followed by a pint of Lewisham Brown Ale.   Not normally a favourite beer style of mine, the Lewisham Brown was great; rich and full bodied.

Other drinks including the ever-popular Gin are available so fear not if you have friends who have not yet been converted to the hopped beverage.

As well as drinks, there is a good selection Ignition merchandise for sale so opportunities to support this great business abound!

I was lucky enough to be shown round the gleaming brewery by a member of staff.   I always love a nose around a brewery – maybe I’m just a bit of a beer groupie!  The guys pride when showing us around was evident.   

The ultimate plan is to provide a model that can be replicated nationwide.   I hope to hear of similar projects in the future.   

This is such a great idea so keep up the good work Ignition.

Down the hill from Sydenham, is Penge Hight Street.   Like Crystal Palace Football club, Penge is also enjoying somewhat of a renaissance.   

With an emphasis on community not for profits community group the Penge Tourist Board are working hard to enhance life if this corner of South London by engaging with residents and local businesses.

One of the events on their website is a late night at the Alexandra Nurseries in November with beer from Southey Brewery.  

On the site of the now defunct Late Nights Brewery, Southey began life a few years ago and later opened their tap room

Tucked away down a tiny side street Southey Brewery’s tap room is charming and characterful .  Vintage fixtures and fittings, book shelves and a comprehensive drinks menu, this tap room is a little gem.   

Another great selection of beers were on offer the night I went with six on keg including Penge Pilsner 4.8% and a Belgian Wit 5.5% with Session Bitter and Pale Ale on cask.

I enjoyed a couple of pints of keg Black IPA which is always a favourite of mine but managed to resist the tempting packs on monster munch and the bowls of peanuts on the bar.

For non-beer drinkers or if you perhaps simply fancy a change there are wines and spirits including Tequila available as well as soft drinks if you have the misfortune to be the designated driver for the night!

The cosy atmosphere of the Southey Tap room made it an absolute pleasure and I was sorry when it was time to get my train home .   





‘This is nightmare and any minute I am going to wake up in the hotel room, right?’ The Hopflower looks back on a recent trip to food heaven San Sebastian


‘This is nightmare and any minute I am going to wake up in the hotel room, right?’ I asked my husband last Monday morning as I dragged myself out of bed ready for my first day back at work after a two week break.

The hotel room in question had been in the city of San Sebastian on the north Spanish coast in the Basque country.

San Sebastian or to use its Basque name Donostia has it all; the breath-taking sweeping la Concha Bay with its sandy beach stretching from end to end, Surfing, Football, interesting architecture and plenty of shopping.   It’s no wonder that along with the Wroclaw, Poland it was joint European Capital of Culture in 2016.

Foodies amongst you may know San Sebastian’s reputation for good food and it’s Michelin starred restaurants.   But the thing that keeps us going back is the culture of the Pintxos bars of which there are many in the city.

Pintxos are a type of tapas.   Gorgeous little morsels consisting often of a slice of bread, topped with all manner of delicacies such as cheese, Tuna, peppers or meats to name but a few possibilities.  They range from the simple to the downright extravagant.  Exquisitely topped pieces of bread aside, little pots of Gazpacho, mini skewers, and range of delicious croquettes also come under the Pintxo heading in San Sebastian.

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To clarify, what makes Pintxos different from the tapas you get outside the Basque region is the ritual that accompanies them.

According to all the travel books and articles I have read, the etiquette is you go from bar to bar having just one Pintxos at each with a drink.

When faced with bar tops heaving with platters of these works of art which in some cases look almost too perfect to eat, it is however hard to resist taking a few.    It really feels like the proverbial kid in a sweet shop scenario!

Coming from a family of food lovers who have been known to swoop on a buffet, removing clingfilm with absolutely no shame I have managed over the years to maintain a little decorum and resist piling up the large plate so readily handed to me by a smiling bartender.    But each time I arrive in San Sebastian, this discipline tends to go out of the window until I settle into the routine.

The Pintxos bars are spread throughout the city, but the largest concentration is to be found in San Sebastian’s Parte Vieja – Old Town.

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Here you can wander the narrow streets finding great Pintxos bars next door to each other.   You may approach what looks like a quiet street only to turn the corner and be met with a wall of voices and laughter as crowds enjoy the outdoor air.

Each bar will have its own speciality and I read recently the suggestion that to find out what this is you should watch what the locals eat.

In reality the bars are often packed so my advice would be just tuck in, taking whatever catches your eye.   Some Pintxos bars label their Pintxos but part of the fun for me is taking a chance.  I have yet to find one I haven’t enjoyed.

To my shame I speak very little Spanish and even less Basque, so once I have picked a few Pintxos, I show the bartender and at the same time order drinks and pay in one go.  In some bars they will offer to heat up Pintxos for you.     The costs may vary slightly from bar to bar but are pretty consistent with Pintxos averaging around 2.50€ each.

Don’t be put off if a bar looks busy.  Often the crowd will disappear into the night, probably respecting the ritual and moving on, leaving the bar you are in strangely quiet for a few minutes before another group suddenly appear.

It’s an informal way of eating and drinking which means that unless you really are unshakeable in your habits, no two nights in San Sebastian are going to be the same.

Pintxos and beer

Over the years we have found a few favourites which we always visit such as Meson Portaletas  at the harbour end of Portu Kalea.   A smart bar with a large sit-down restaurant.  If you are having Pintxos, there are bar stools and as is common with many of the Pintxos bars, high tables and ledges outside on which to rest your drink as you devour a pintxo or five.

Around the corner is a lively spot at the end of Mayor Kalea.   Overlooked by the beautiful church Basilica of Santa Maria del Coro, this corner of the old town is where large numbers convene.   Right here is the recently refurbished Casa Vergara.  We always loved the laid-back feel of this bar in its former incarnation and it has a very different feel now.  it is however still very good.  The food delicious and the staff friendly and helpful.

We normally finish the night next door at Casa Alcalde   This being our favourite for a few reasons.  There is a huge and varied range of Pintxos on offer which are arranged beautifully so very tempting.   The staff are friendly and extremely efficient which makes for speedy bar service.   This bar has a lovely feel to it possibly due to its great history illustrated by the old photos displayed on the walls.

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If this slightly frenetic way of eating really isn’t for you, a lot of the bars have seating areas to the rear where you can enjoy a slightly more sedate meal.  You will however probably pay more this way, and quite frankly miss out on the fun.

But let’s not forget the drinks this being a beer blog after all.   In most bars, if you ask for a beer you will get familiar faces such as Estrella Damm or Cruzcampo.   There is however a local award-winning lager called Keler which is sold in some places including Casa Alcalde.

Beer is reasonably priced averaging 3€ for a large glass – quantities can be a tad random, but you will always get a fair amount for your money.


If you don’t fancy beer there is a good selection of local wines including Txakoli.    A light white wine made from young grapes so not complex but refreshing and being a local speciality is readily available.  In the bars of San Sebastian Txakoli is ceremoniously poured from an arm’s length into the glass, thus splashing against the glass, releasing the fresh, slightly citrus flavours.


FYI another local tradition of the bars in San Sebastian is ringing the bell when a customer leaves a tip so don’t be alarm if you hear the bell, it doesn’t signify last orders!

Also available in abundance is Sidra.  There are many Sidra houses selling a selection of the local Sidras straight from the cask.   Like Txakoli, Sidra is a significant part of the local culture, and with a good glass of Sidra costing as little as 2€ it’s a great option.   It is possible to visit local Sidra producers for a tour and tastings – definitely on my to do list.

Sidra from the cask


What I have yet to see in a Pintxos bars sadly is local craft beers which is a shame as San Sebastian has a good selection of microbreweries.

In 2014 I blogged about a craft beer bar I had visited in San Sebastian, which when we checked last year sadly appeared to have closed.  There is however a craft beer bar also in Parte Vieja called Iratxo Taberna, (San Juan Kalea, 9), where I enjoyed a gorgeous drop of the local Basqueland Brewing Project’s IPA in 2017.

I am a fan of the Basqueland Brewing Projects beers, a favourite of mine being their Arraun Amber Ale.  I used Arraun in a beer tasting at the Hoppers Hut micropub, Sidcup, South London last year when I suggested it’s caramel notes make this ale great with burgers.  It would however compliment many a Pintxos perfectly.   It is a really good beer.



Parte Vieja contains a high density of Pintxos bars, but San Sebastian comprises different neighbourhoods with different personalities.   Across the river, a block or so back from the surfers Zurriola beach is the district of Gross.   Small shops and cafes line the sunny open streets and it was amongst these that two years ago we discovered the Mala Gissona Beer House.

Stumbling across the Mala Gissona Beer House amongst everything else that San Sebastian has to offer was the icing on the cake.   The bar has a bright, contemporary design with wood and metal furniture and brickwork wallpaper depicting the whale imagery used in Mala Gissona’s branding reflecting the Basque heritage of Whaling.

When we visited this year a mixed bag of non-obtrusive music played; everything from The Jam, Reggae and 1950s Rock and Roll.  The staff were super friendly, helpfully taking me through the range of beers on offer and advising me about a forthcoming tap takeover of Barcelona brewery Black Lab.

Between us we had their Red Bay, a rye red ale, the Apatxe APA and another Basque favourite of mine their Höfn Porter   From their food menu, we had locally produced Burgers topped with cheese, a fried egg, accompanied by mayo and fries – perfect before a snooze on the beach!

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The Mala Gissona Brewery have been going for four years and the Beer House opened around two and half years ago.   If you went to Craft Beer Rising in Brick Lane earlier this year you may have seen their stand and they also hosted a Beer tasting at the Tapas Room in Tooting Broadway Market, London.   All good news as it signifies I hope the intention of Mala Gissona to play a part in the UK beer market.


The Basques are very proud of their heritage and tradition.   Around San Sebastian are numerous shops selling local produce such as locally mined flavoured salt, meats, tinned sardines and increasingly local craft beers.   Mala Gissona’s beers as well as being available from their Beer House can be bought in bottles and cans in the old town, Basqueland Brewing Project Beers are also available as are other brewer’s such as Gross.   All positive signs that beer has been embraced as part of the Basque Heritage.

San Sebastian is a feast in so many ways.   We tend to go at the end of August which coincides with the 31st August celebrations marking the razing of San Sebastian by Allied forces in 1813.   Brass and Drum Bands in traditional dress march through the Parte Vieja, the sound is incredible.   Also, on the first two Sundays in September boat racing is held in La Concha Bay.   Rival teams battle it out on the sea and their supporters can be seen around the city and in the bars in their team’s colours.   This makes for a lively but friendly atmosphere.

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Towards the end of July is the annual Jazz Festival.  Live music echoes around the city with the bay as an amazing backdrop.


Year round the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of San Sebastian are a treat.   So, I say forget what the guide books tell you and load up your plate!   Holidays don’t last forever after all, a fact I am all too aware of as I sit typing this with memories of Pintxos still fresh in my mind…



There’s a Buzz around South London; The Hop Flower conquers her fear of bees for the sake of Beer


What do you buy the man who has everything? This is the problem I face every Christmas when trying to pick presents for my husband. He loves shopping and has a birthday soon after Christmas so it’s a tough job thinking of original gifts.

Luckily he has lots of hobbies and also aspirations to own a smallholding in the country so when I saw the Hiver Experience – Urban Beekeeping and Craft Beer Tasting advertised, I thought Bingo!

Now a few years ago I took him on a Bee and Chicken keeping course at Bourne Place in Kent.   It was great,we met some adorable chickens but we didn’t get to meet any bees or drink beer!

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I first heard of Hiver a while ago and although I am not always a fan of beer with things added – fruit, chocolate, chilli etc when it’s done well the results are fantastic. Hiver don’t add honey at the end of the brewing process but add it for the fermentation. The result is subtle notes rather than overly sweet beer.

So last Saturday we headed to Bee Urban in Kennington Park. Really easy to get to just a few minutes from Kennington tube station, we were greeted by the lovely Floriane who along with Beekeeper Barnaby looked after us.

The two hour session started with a talk from Barnaby who explained about the hive inspection we would make and showed us a few of the tools used by bee keepers.


I should add at this point that I am terrified of bees, wasps, spiders , daddy long legs in fact anything smaller than a cat freaks me out a little but particularly all things bug size that fly and/or sting . So when Floriane explained how during the hive inspection we should hold the frames, despite her calm reassuring manner I felt a tad nervous.

I sometimes tell myself that it’s good to do things that scare me plus in this instance I reasoned I would at least get some beer at the end of it !

So clad in our beekeeper suits looking a little like telly tubbies we went with Barnaby to the hives.


Barnaby opened a hive and passed the frames around one by one pointing out the various cells and types of bees. I took the first few frames remembering Floriane’s instructions. Despite being nervous of passing the frames I soon felt at home with the bees buzzing around me and actually enjoyed observing them close up.

To be honest I felt safe in my bee suit and looking at the bees was fascinating but I was convinced I would drop one of the frames and hurt all the bees. They are such amazing little creatures !


Once out of our beekeeping suits and in the safety of a nearby gazebo Floriane gave us a talk on the Hiver Beers including a beer and food pairing.

First we had the Hiver Honey Beer.   Described on the bottle as a ‘British Blond Beer’ this has an ABV of 4.5%.  Golden Blond in colour with a creamy white head consisting of tiny bubbles, this Blond has an interesting nose of honey and malt.   The local honey used in this beer which we also got to try gives this Blond subtle floral notes of elderflower.  There is just enough natural carbonation to give a tingle on the tongue and the honey notes are subtle throughout.

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Refreshing and very drinkable the Blond paired beautifully with the manchego cheese we were given.

We then had Hiver’s Honey Ale, a British Brown Ale also 4.5% .   Containing Blossom and Heather honey the Brown Ale is actually more of an inviting reddish brown with a creamy loose head.   The nose has malt with medicinal notes from the honey.

Like the Blond, the honey notes although present throughout are subtle.  However in the Brown the honey gives more depth with caramel and fruit notes. The roasted notes from the darker malts also came through making this a rich but balanced Ale.

Good with the salami we had been given I felt the Brown Ale complimented the fruit loaf fantastically.


Floriane’s knowledge of beer , bees and honey was brilliant and made for a really enjoyable tasting session.

Bee Urban are a community project who are involved with educational work. I’m sure you’ve heard how important bees are to the environment and our survival but if like me you are nervous of these little fellas a visit to Bee Urban will give you a new respect and fondness for bees and the amazing work they do. For example Floriane told us that during it’s lifetime a bee will produce just around half a teaspoon of honey – yes just half a teaspoon and they never stop working!

As well as introducing me to some great Honey Beers, the Hiver Experience helped rid me of my fear of bees.  If however you really can’t face meeting the bees Hiver have a tap room in Stanworth Street near Tower Bridge so you could cut out the middle bee and head there to enjoy some Hiver Beers .

Wherever you try Hiver beer however remember how hard the bees work and savour every mouthful!



Let me take you down the A303, to a selection of Skinner’s wonderful beers, their swanky new labels and the stories that inspired them.

Sometimes the old adage ‘If it aint broke, don’t fix it’ doesn’t ring true and this I would say is the case for Cornish Brewery Skinner’s who in recent months have given their beers a funky new look.

I love Cornwall. I have visited many many times and always find it hard to leave this wonderful county. Well I say county but as an outsider my observation is that being ‘Cornish’ is in fact an approach to life – an ethos if you like. Economic factors and the wildness of the weather can make life in Cornwall tough. Many of the people I have met in Cornwall possess a pragmatic yet almost spiritual approach to life. This paired with the creativity which seems to ooze from every corner of Cornwall make it a spellbinding place.

The new labels are little works of art!

In this creative vein Skinner’s have collaborated with six artists to produce a new set of labels for their award winning core range. Skinner’s, a family run brewery just outside Truro town centre have been going since 1997. The new labels they have created are little works of art!

The artists include Stevie Gee who has designed for Fashion brand Vans, Rose Forshall whose work has featured in The Times and in one of my favourite shops Anthropology plus Nick Beringer who having designed the original Betty Stogs has given her a makeover – well of sorts. Nick has been involved in Skinner’s since it began so knows Betty well and rather than glam her up (perish the thought) this brazen woman has been given a new sparkle and is now shown holding court rather than the lone figure she once was.

So let me take you down the A303, past Stonehenge into Kernow and to a selection of Skinner’s wonderful beers, their swanky new labels and the stories and backdrop that inspired them.

First up the woman herself Betty Stogs. Cornwall is known for being the land of myth and legend and the story of Betty Stogs is one of a somewhat lazy woman whose baby was always grubby and had only Betty’s cat for company most of the time. One day the ‘Small People’ took the baby and cleaned it up before leaving it on some moss for Betty to find. Not before Betty’s husband had returned home however and he was pretty angry with her.  

This story has a happy ending as Betty learnt from this episode and became a more attentive parent.  

Described by Skinner’s as a ‘Brazen Cornish Ale’ this Betty Stogs however is in no way shabby. Amber with a lacy head and a 4% ABV she has a nose of caramel and malt. Once you start drinking Betty the malt notes continue accompanied by dry woody notes. I would love to sip Betty Stogs with a Cornish Pasty – of course. Either traditional or cheese and onion would work. Just beware of the seagulls and maybe the mythical ‘Small People’!

Fancy something lighter for a day on the beach? Try Skinner’s Lushingtons Sunshine Pale Ale.  

Now in my experience the weather in Cornwall, even at the height of summer can be a bit hit and miss and I know having lost my car in the terrible Boscastle flood twelve years ago. But when the sun shines and it does, there is nowhere better to be than on a Cornish beach such as Crackington Haven or Trebarwith Strand with a Cornish Ice Cream.

Lushingtons Sunshine Pale Ale has a wonderful new label reminiscent of a Hawaiian shirt- you know the sort worn by some of us in the 80s and often seen at the GBBF.  

The label sets the scene perfectly depicting blue sea surrounded by orange and red skies.
Lushingtons has an ABV of 4.2%. Grassy and hoppy on the nose, this beer does not have a heavy mouth feel so is a great session beer. With jammy notes and hints of lime it’s perfect with that Ice Cream or a Cream Tea.

Lushingtons Sunshine Pale Ale has a wonderful new label reminiscent of a Hawain shirt

Step things up a notch to an ABV of 4.8% with i, which Skinner’s describe as an ‘Untameable Pale Ale’. Very lively out of the bottle Porthleven has a citrus kick that hits the back of the mouth.  

Skinner’s recommend Porthleven be paired with spicy food, kebabs or smoked meats – I love a brewery that include informed food pairing notes on their labels so kudos to Skinner’s for this. I would enjoy kicking back and watching surfers such as the one on the label in the Cornish sunset with a Porthleven and either fish and chips or some locally caught Mackerel-perfect! I guess the ‘untameable’ reference is a nod to the Atlantic. Famed for surfing but is certainly not a force man will ever tame no matter how well we surf.

All I would need to finish off the perfect day would be a visit to the Cobweb Inn, Boscastle for a few more beers and some live music. If you are in the area the Cobweb is one of the best pubs I have ever been to and worth spending at least one evening in. The evening may well turn into the following day but a full Cornish breakfast and a bracing stroll on the beach and you’ll be as right as rain.

Once recovered should you fancy picnicking on some sandwiches of locally caught crab I would suggest you grab a bottle of Cornish Knocker.  

Skinners describe Knocker as a ‘Ground breaking Golden Ale’ which is a clever play on words. Named after fabled creatures that feature in Celtic mythology but are particularly prevalent in Cornish folklore, the Knockers were said to knock on the walls of mines. This knocking was believed by some to be a mischievous act designed to cause the wall to cave in (hence the ‘ground breaking reference). Others however believe it to be a benevolent warning to miners that they were in danger. I feel the need to explain this in case you have images from old fashioned seaside post cards in your head…

Cornish Knocker is Skinner’s Golden Ale with an ABV of 4.5%. Mango aromas lead to a crisp, fruity ale with a short snappy dry finish.

As well as collaborating with artist, Skinner’s worked with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of River Cottage and came up with English Pale Ale (EPA)

EPA has floral notes from the cascade hops it contains. It also manages to combine notes of wood and malt. The result is a nice mix of sappy dryness and a soft woody finish. For me a perfect partner to a lump of Cornish farmhouse cheese.

Skinner’s worked with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and came up with EPA

So many great things come out of Cornwall and beer is certainly one of them. Skinner’s range with their witty and clever new labels does not disappoint and although widely available don’t wait for them to come to you. If you have a chance to visit GO WEST!














From exotic fruit to world class beers – M & S on a high street near you

First Beer Tasting

First Beer Tasting

According to my research in 1968 they started selling avocados – exotic for the 1960s and possibly in part responsible for the unfortunate fashion for avocado bathrooms in the 1970s. A bit more conservative, in 1981 sandwiches made an appearance on their shelves for the first time and talking of conservative in 1986 they received an endorsement from the Iron Lady herself. When asked where she bought her underwear Margaret Thatcher apparently replied “Why, Marks and Spencer of course. Doesn’t everyone?

Back in the here and now, last month that great British Institution Marks and Spencer’s were named Retailer of the Year at the International Beer Challenge for the second year in a row.

M & S’s beer sales have increased by 41% since last year and as well as awarding M & S the Retailer of the Year title the International Beer Challenge also awarded 27 medals to the M&S range including a gold medal for their Mosaic Pale Ale.

Good news indeed as when this was announced I had just been invited to the first M & S Autumn Craft Beer launch.

my local hero!

my local hero!

I had already seen the vast range of beers in M & S shops. It’s not unusual to see supermarkets selling own brand beers brewed with breweries these days. Morrison’s and Sainsbury’s have stocked a range for some time. This is great as the beers are decent and brewed with well know breweries such as Ringwood and Shepherd Neame. They are priced very competitively too.

What stands out about the M& S range however is the breweries they have worked with. Independent outfits such as Hogs Back, Sambrook’s and Westerham so I was very keen to familiarise myself with the range. And with fifty three beers what a range it is! The selection includes a Craft range and a Single Hop range as well as their own brand bottled beers range which comprises beers from all over the UK and Belgium and includes gluten-free beers.

The team responsible for bringing these beers to M & S tell me all the beers are blind tasted so chosen for their quality rather than by brewery. All the bottles feature food pairing suggestions and have featured in M & S’s Dine In offers.

Eye catching and appealing

Eye catching and appealing

Particularly eye catching is the branding of the craft range. The labelling is designed to look like brown paper with bright text and logos-contemporary design that’s eye catching and appealing.

I headed for the craft collection first trying the Five Hop Lager produced by Hogs Back Brewery who are based not too far from me in Surrey. Hogs Back brew the wonderful stalwart TEA and also in their range is the adventurous Montezuma’s Chocolate Lager.

Their Five Hop contains Fuggles, Perle, Centennial, Herzbrucker and Tethanger hops. The result is a golden lager with notes of corn and malt. Light and easy drinking at 4.5% abv and available in 568 M & S stores so you should be able to get hold of a bottle.

Sticking to Lager for my second beer I had the wonderful Ash Brook Red Lager 4.7 abv from Freedom Brewery, a micro brewery in Staffordshire. This rich red lager has an emphasis on
malts with three used, two of which are organic. It is an unusual rich lager with notes of caramel and toffee. I really like this take on lager which was awarded a Silver medal at the International Beer Challenge.

It should also be noted that both these lagers are vegetarian and vegan friendly.

Next I had Island Hopper Pale Ale 4.5 abv which was awarded a Bronze at the International Beer Challenge. Produced by Windsor and Eton brewery Island Hopper is so called as it containshops from both Britain – Sovereign and from New Zealand Nelson Sauvin. I could really taste the gooseberry from the latter in this pale straw coloured beer which would be great if you want to convert a white wine drinker to the beauty of beer, especially a vegetarian or vegan as this beer also ticks both these boxes.

Another local Hero

Another local Hero

Another Bronze winner from the Craft range is the Battersea Rye 5.6% abv from Sambrook’s. A great beer which skilfully combines fruity notes from Bramling Cross hops with a malty backbone.

And finally from the Craft range one of my favourite, if a little contentious beer styles, the new Black IPA 6.5% abv from the Purity Brewing Company.

It’s actually more brown than black with an attractive lacy head. This IPA contains smoked, crystal and black malted barley as well as malted rye. The hops used are Cascade and Chinook. This IPA has a full bodied mouth feel, possibly from the rye with smoky and woody notes which suggest to me the Chinook hops are a more dominant.

Next I decided to move along to the Single Variety Hop beers and I had to try the Mosaic Pale brewed by Adnams as this won a Gold medal at the International Beer Challenge this year.
Mosaic’s nose is bursting with hops and the taste is really good with earthy, grassy notes. At 4.2% and available in 562 M & S this should go down a storm.

First in line for a gold medal

First in line for a gold medal

Moving closer to home I helped myself to a glug of the 9 Hop Kent Pale Ale from Westerham Brewery – living so close to Westerham how could I not?? But I should confess I had
previously bought this beer at my local M & S and I am not surprised it was awarded Silver in this year’s International Beer Challenge.

9 Hop has a beautiful fresh hop taste and coming from someone who has been enjoying the finest Kent Green Hopped Beers recently that says something of this beer’s hop character. 4% abv so easy drinking and available in 588 stores.

Second to Kent in my heart is Cornwall so I couldn’t resist the Bronze medal winning Bottle Conditioned Cornish Red Ale from St. Austell Brewery. Being the first brewery I ever visitedmany many years ago I have a soft spot for St. Austell. At bit stronger at 4.9% this Red Ale has a good rich flavour with notes of candied sugar. It obviously makes the journey up the A303 well too as it’s available in 503 stores.

It was getting late and my fellow beer tasters were beginning to leave so I decided it was time to hit the home run with two special beers I had been saving till last.

As THAT time of year is approaching I tried the new Southwold Christmas Ale also brewed by Adnams. A rich amber beer with mild Christmas cake fruit notes. It’s good to see a Christmas beer that isn’t simply stuffed with nutmeg or other spices and at 4.2 abv one you can enjoy for all twelve days of Christmas if you do so desire.

Finally I headed for the Monnet Cognac Barrel Aged Greenwich Ale. Ales aged in spirit barrels are a favourite of mine and for six months a portion of this beer was aged in M & S’s
own Monnet Cognac barrels. Brewed by Meantime, this 6% brown ale has a red hue and a nose of Christmas cake. Lighter than a lot of barrel aged beers I have tried, this ale has a pleasant level of carbonation and with notes of candied fruit and malt is an extremely accessible barrel aged ale. The 750ml bottles are presented in a attractive tube and retailing at an incredible £6 the Monnet Cognac Barrel Aged Greenwich Ale makes a fantastic Christmas stocking filler.

Fantastic stocking filler

Fantastic stocking filler

Talking to team responsible for these beers it’s clear they share my enthusiasm for bringing excellent beers to the masses and predominantly British beers at that. And it’s easy to see why so many of the range were awarded medals at this year’s International beer challenge.

As mentioned Christmas is on the horizon so for a little bit of early Christmas shopping, or some ‘research’ for those Christmas tipples take a leaf out of Maggie Thatcher’s book and
head to your local Marks and Spencer’s.


The Big Apple – and I’m not talking Cider

I love New York – it’s a cliché I know but I do and each time I go I feel more at home.   The city feels safe and in my opinion as the unstoppable force of globalisation marches on Londoners and New Yorkers look pretty similar.

We shop in the same shops, watch the same TV and share social media platforms which enable the flow of cultures across borders.

There remain however differences. We moan about our trains but the New York Subway is sparse and grey – we after all have cushioned seats, something I’ve not seen on the New York subway.

If you prefer travelling by car you may be in for a bumpy journey as some of the roads are in a pretty poor state of repair.

But there is one area in which I would argue we here in the UK – this nation of great brewers and beer drinkers could learn a thing or two and that’s the image of beer.

I am sure you don’t need me to tell you about the explosion of beers from the USA in recent years or the subsequent trend over here for British brewed US style beers?   Big exuberantly hopped beers featuring those now familiar names such as Cascade, Chinook and Amarillo.   The emergence of APAs and the growing number of US beers available in supermarkets even in my sleepy suburb.   That’s the unstoppable force of globalisation at work you see – from New York or California to… Orpington!

What a choice!

But it’s not just about choice; here in the UK there are barrel loads of fantastic breweries offering a myriad of beers.    But it is still unusual to see extensive beer lists in restaurants or beer and food pairing notes on menus – even in pubs.   Now don’t get me wrong, things are slowly getting better – I have marvelled at the extensive beer menu at Harrild and Sons in Farringdon, deliberated over the Craft beer section on Byron’s menu and of course the ever growing band of Micro pubs in the South East alone demonstrates the growing interest in beer but I believe we have a way to go.

Now I last visited New York almost nine years ago.  At the time I discovered the Heartland Brewery bar at the foot of the Empire State Building. I remembered a splendid beer selection and was so impressed I bought a Heartland beer glass home for my husband – at least I think I paid for it…

Beer inside Heartland Brewery's Chophouse

Amazingly the glass has survived all these years as I am happy to say have the Heartland Brewery.   The Brewery has in fact been going since 1995 and is 100% employee owned.

During a recent trip to New York I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find the bar again but a quick search on the internet revealed that there are in fact three heartland brewery bars in New York -see

Late on a Saturday afternoon we checked out the Heartland Brewery and Chophouse by Times Square (127 W. 43rd St, New York NY 10036)

Anyone who’s been to New York will know Times Square is less of a square but more manic junction – imagine Clapham Junction tenfold combined with the bright lights of Piccadilly and Leicester square and you get the idea.  It’s more than a tad seedy and commercial but the crowds flock there.

The Heartland Brewery and Chophouse was packed. We managed however to tuck ourselves into a cosy corner at the end of the bar and were given beer menus by a chirpy barman almost immediately.

bar pumps in the Chophouse

Typically for American beers the ABV’s were quite strong so we started with the Indian River Light at 3.50%– more session than light to us Brits.   My husband then opted for the Red Rooster Ale – a malty red ale with a warming 5.5% ABV and I had the award winning Farmer Jon’s Oatmeal Stout which was fantastic at 6% ABV.    We intended to have just two beers but when our friendly bar man offered us another we thought why not and had a final half each.

The atmosphere at the Chophouse was buzzing.   We had dinner reservations nearer our hotel but I hope to go back for dinner in the future.  The menu is extensive and features beer and food pairing suggestions so elusive here in the UK.

Heartland Brewery Chophouse

Not wanting to be amongst the before mentioned chaos of Times Square 24/7 we had opted to stay in a hotel in the Tribeca district where we stumbled upon bars and restaurants offering great beer right on our doorstep.

Visible from our 12th floor window for example was the AOA restaurant and bar so called as it sits on the Avenue Of Americas.

Offering classic meals such as burgers and pizza plus an interesting array of salads – Kale Salad topped with candied peanuts anyone??  AOA also has an amazing beer list comprising both US and export beers.  Twenty six beers on draft and just over eighty bottled!!   We spent an evening grazing on AOL burgers whilst working our way through the beer list on which we made an impressive dent.   My till receipt totals $178.99 – Food $50, Tax $14.59, Service Charge $27.40 and the balance..? yes Beer!

Between us we had from New York Kelso Nut Brown Lager, Bronx Brewery’s Pale Ale and Six Point IPA.  Moving further afield we tried Lagunitas New Dogtown Pale Ale , Founders All Day IPA all at $8 and my favourite of the night Founders Porter $7– quite a hard night’s work!

The food was great and I couldn’t have asked for better so close to the hotel in terms of beer lists.   I implore more UK restaurants to follow suite !

Brooklyn Brewery

Despite having great beer destinations in Manhattan travelling a bit further across the East River to Brooklyn is a must do for all beer geeks as located in the Williamsburg district is the Brooklyn Brewery.

Easily and quickly reached on the subway from Manhattan – so not too long on those hard seats Williamsburg reminds me of the funkier areas of London as there are little cafés, bars and vintage shops full of gorgeous creatures – the male of the species often sporting beards whilst the women look effortlessly bohemianly beautiful.   Round the corner from all this über coolness is the Brooklyn Brewery.

Funky Williamsburg

Brooklyn Brewery has been brewing in some form since the 1980s and has been at the Williamsburg site since 1996.   Brewery tours are available seven days a week but you need to book Monday to Friday.   Even if you don’t fancy a brewery tour (sometimes it’s just enough to enjoy the end product right?) the brewery is a venue in its own right as there’s a gorgeous tasting room which is open Friday night, Saturday and Sunday.  The space is huge – nothing fancy mind just plenty of room to unwind with some great beers.  If like me you like a souvenir or two there’s also a shop that sells merchandise – clothing cool enough to be seen wearing in Williamsburg plus books and beers.   I treated myself to a bottle of Hand and Seal which I am lovingly saving for a special occasion.

Brooklyn Brewery’s Master Brewer is Garrett Oliver who is a beer hero of mine.   Garrett has been Brooklyn’s Brew Master since 1994 and prior to joining Brooklyn had researched beer extensively in Europe including in the UK.

Shop and tasting room, Brooklyn Brewery

If you haven’t got a copy of Garrett’s book The Brewmaster’s Table I would strongly recommend it as it contains a wealth of knowledge on beer types, brewing, beer history and beer and food pairing.

To my delight Garrett had agreed to take some time out of his busy schedule to show me around the brewery.

Garrett started the tour by pouring us a Brooklyn Half Ale, a very drinkable Saison at 3.5% abv before taking us around the brew house which is an impressive set up.

Garrett told us how at Brooklyn Brewery they encourage the brewers to experiment devising trial beers – some never get beyond the brewery walls but others are more successful.   During the tour we happened upon a guy cutting up lemons for an experimental brew…..

A highlight of the tour was going into the room where the barrels used for ageing the beers are stored.  These barrels come from around the world and have in the past been used for spirits such as Bourbon and Rum.   The aroma given off filled the room with the rich evocative smells of Christmas.

Those lovely Barrels

We finished our tour at the tap room where Garrett proceeded to pour us beer after beer to try.  Amongst those we sampled were some of the experimental beers, the fantastic Barley Wine style Hand and Seal which is aged in bourbon barrels and an amazing Kriek.

Whilst enjoying the beers we chewed the fat over matters such as the image of beer amongst the public, brewers and chefs, what the UK beer scene is doing in comparison to the US and sexism in the beer world.

Beers we tried with Garrett

It was a great afternoon and I’m very grateful to Garrett for sparing time to show us around.

If you are a bit of a beer fanatic and are planning a trip stateside be sure to take your beer list and a pen as I am sure you will find plenty of the brown (or gold or red) stuff to enjoy.

Brooklyn Brewery against the New York Blue Sky


Forget the earthquake there’s far more exciting things coming from Kent! Shepherd Neame’s 1215

When a 4.2 magnitude earthquake hit Kent in the early hours of last Friday I was tucked up in bed having spent the evening enjoying a limited edition ale from Faversham’s Shepherd Neame.

The ale in question was Shepherd Neame’s 1215.  So called as it commemorates the forthcoming 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta.  Faversham has a copy of the original document hence the connection.

You would expect quality from the Kent brewery who have produced classics such as Bishops Finger, Spitfire and the Whitstable Bay Collection – the Pale Ale from which was a favourite at a beer tasting I recently hosted for the Honor Oak Women’s Institute.

Meet some of the family

Meet some of the family

Shepherd Neame is after all Britain’s oldest brewery and according to their website over half their employees have worked for the brewery for over ten years   The continuity brought by long serving staff is apparent in the consistency of the excellent beers produced by Sheps and 1215 is no exception.

Based on medieval recipes used in the days before hops were commonly used in beer 1215 contains fennel, the appetizing sounding Mugwort and the equally tempting Woodruff.

But don’t let these odd sounding additions put you off!

Dressed to kill in it’s smart brown box featuring the Shepherd Neame red seal 1215 promises much and delivers even more

Looking gorgeous in brown and red

Looking gorgeous in brown and red

The deep brown traditional English Ale becomes a pleasing red when held up to the light. The ale has a rich nose with fruit – especially damson.

My first sip immediately made me think of whisky as 1215 has that spirit like richness that I love in strong brews.   I also got treacle and a slightly dry aftertaste which gave a great finish to the ale.

Only 1215 bottles of this limited edition ale have been released  – mine is number 569, but as part of Faversham’s Magna Carta weekend Shepherd Neame are running brewery tours on 14th June when you can try 1215 – see their website.

At 8% 1215 should be enjoyed at a leisurely pace rather than treated like a session – that could make your earth move!

1215 deserves a closer look

1215 deserves a closer look


Micro in name – Mega in appeal. A journey in Kent to sample some of the fine micro pubs the county is known for.

When faced with deciding what to do to celebrate my birthday recently I had no hesitation in telling my husband that I fancied jumping on a train to the Kent seaside to go on a micro pub crawl.
Micro pubs are becoming prevalent in Kent – see


For those of your unfamiliar with the concept a micro pub is a small establishment often located in former retail premises.  They are independent and serve real ale, cider and maybe some wine but this varies from pub to pub.  They may have limited opening hours and some will serve bar snacks which tend to be good old British favorites such as scotch eggs, pork pies and pork scratchings.  A no mobile (cell) phone policy may be in place as may one of no music but this varies from pub to pub.

So on a sunny July Thursday we started our crawl at the Wheel Alehouse, Birchington on Sea   Located in a street that looks like any other provincial high street the Wheel takes you by surprise.  The interior is filled with nautical paraphernalia and I got the feeling much fun had been had collecting all the ships, parrots and other bits and bobs on display. The wheel raises a lot of money for the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) by holding pub quizzes and has a nice community feel.

We were greeted warmly and made to feel very welcome.  For my first beer I had Mauldons Mid Summer – pleasant seasonal golden ale with a 4% ABV whilst my husband had the Cottage Brewery’s Call to Arms a light cooper fruity bitter with an ABV of 3.8%. I had this for my second half whilst my husband had Cottage Sticky Wicket 4.2 ABV – traditional ale with nice hints of toffee. When researching our pub crawl I had referred to that modern day oracle the internet but the regulars in the pub were very knowledgeable and helpful giving us suggestions for what pubs to try next and how to get to them.

Next we jumped back on the train to Broadstairs, a lovely traditional British seaside town with a sandy beach, beautiful architecture, seafront gardens and a bandstand. I used to holiday here as a child but hadn’t visited for almost twenty years. I was pleasantly surprised at how I still loved the place.

Next on our ‘to do’ list was the Thirty Nine Steps but the nice men in the Wheel had recommended the Chapel which is round the corner from the Thirty Nine Steps and that’s where we headed first.

Blink and you could miss The Chapel as although not micro in the sense that it’s not tiny inside, it’s housed in a second hand book shop so easy to miss. It is well worth seeking out as another friendly welcome awaited us from a very helpful women behind the bar who as well as being passionate about the books, was also passionate about the local produce on sale in the pub which included good local beers, a great local menu and more ciders than I have ever seen in a pub.  These ranged from lemon to ginger to chilli ciders.   Now although I don’t mind an occasional drop of cider I tend to stick with beer but faced with the array of ciders on offer, I could quite happily have spent an afternoon trying them all- maybe that’s another blog…

We stuck to beer and ordered a Hopdaemon’s Skrimshander IPA 4.5 ABV – which according to the aforementioned barmaid who also happens to be a linguist means whale bone whittler.  This beer is a favorite of mine and didn’t disappoint. The Chapel has wall to wall books and a mixture of long tables, benches and arm chairs.  There was music playing but this didn’t bother us.
Upon chatting to the barmaid some more I discovered the Chapel is the sister pub of the Lifeboat micro pub in Margate And despite their policy of local produce they also feature regular guest ales which are generally CAMRA award winners. Feeling peckish we decided to try the menu.  My husband had local sausage and mash which looked amazing and I had a Biddenden steak and ale pie with mash which was really tasty and at £10 for both was an absolute bargain especially for good local produce.


When we’d first arrived at the Chapel a helpful customer had recommended the Wantsum Ravening Wolf, I think the word he used was ‘awesome’ but at 5.9% ABV we shyed away. With food in our bellies however we thought we’d be brave and share a half.   We were very kindly served a quarter of a pint each in individual glasses – what lovely service!

The Ravening Wolf was indeed very good.  A pale gold ale which despite a lingering aftertaste belied it’s strength – dangerous! After once again admiring the wall of ciders on our way out, we had a quick stroll along the beach as it was a beautiful day before heading to the Thirty Nine Steps.

The Thirty Nine Steps is different from the two previous pubs with a more contemporary interior of high wooden tables and stools.  The walls are adorned with old brewery mirrors and posters from various productions of The Thirty Nine Steps – the pub is so called as the novel of the same name was apparently written and based in part in Broadstairs.

The casks of beer are displayed behind glass doors which looks good and the hundreds of pump clips displayed on the ceiling and a map on the wall showed that beers from all over the UK had been served at the Thirty Nine Steps.   These ranged from Worthington White Shield to specials from Kent brewery Old Dairy who had brewed a special beer for the Broadstairs folk festival. We had the Time and Tide brewery’s Spratwaffler pale ale 3.7% ABV which is pleasantly citrusy.  We then had the Wards Best 4% ABV accompanied by a pork pie and a scotch egg as a little snack to keep us going. Like the Chapel the Thirty Nine Steps had music playing which again didn’t feel intrusive – in fact I overheard another customer say to his companion ‘the Smiths are playing and the beers good – I’m happy’


I finished with a half of Lytham Stout 4.6 ABV smoothly bitter on the tongue and a finish with notes of cherry – my favourite of the day as I am partial to stout even at the height of summer.

Both the Thirty Nine Steps and the Chapel had live music that evening which may stray away from what purists look for in a micro pub but probably reflects the local Broadstair’s culture of the arts- not only do they have a folk festival every August – this year from 8th till 15th– see  but they also have a Dickens festival every June as Dickens was a frequent visitor to the town which he fittingly in my opinion referred to as ‘Our English Watering Place’  see I enjoyed trying all three micro pubs which are very different in feel and direction.   This shows how much scope there is within the ‘micro pub’ to appeal to a wide range of people.   My wise husband however made an interesting point – given the success of micro pubs he mused how long will it be before one of the large pub chains take one over?

From what I know of the people behind these pubs I would be surprised if they were to sell to a pub chain however the idea did remind me of discussions I’ve had regarding the use of the term ‘craft beer’.  I have nothing against the use of the term ‘craft’ but the point has been made to me that big brewing companies use it to trick consumers into thinking they are getting a craft – artisan if you like beer, when in fact what’s on offer is simply a mass produced beer masquerading as a craft beer.

Could the same happen to micro pubs? If they cotton on to the success and appeal of these small independent drinking holes, will the large pub chains start opening mini versions of their pubs disguised as independent micro pubs….? Whether or not this is likely I urge you to go sample the genuine article now – a friendly welcome and good beers in a unique atmosphere awaits you.

The Chapel