Now the reason that my lady and I were in the Lake District for my birthday at end of March this year was because I had complained to Virgin trains. The reason for a strongly worded email was the result of a crap journey to Stockport; for which I was given two first class train tickets to anywhere their trains went in the UK. Before some smart ass asks; no I wasn’t complaining about the state of Stockport.
Though I would be remiss if I didn’t give my readers a wee amuse-bouche of what one might expect to encounter at Stockport station after a shit journey on a Tuesday lunchtime. As I strolled out of the entrance in search of a cab, a bored child hurled a mostly empty coke can in my direction; it just missed me. A few feet away, oblivious, his equally disenfranchised looking pram toting mother swore loudly into her phone. Nuff said.
So after our free 1st Class journey to Oxenholme and a round the houses cab journey to Kendal we arrived at our superb B&B. Beech House does a bang up cooked breakfast and is easily one of the most cozy and inviting places I have stayed in the UK (no small feat). I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who finds themselves in Kendal or anywhere near Kendal.
It was a short train ride from Kendal to Staveley the home of one of Cumbria’s finest; Hawkshead Brewery. There was a stack of twittersations fired back and forth as I tried to arrange a peek round the 20 barrel brewhouse. But arriving on a Friday evening the day before a big private event was inopportune to say the least. Thankfully on premises they’ve built a large, modern, spacious brewery bar that serves their beers in cask, keg and bottle as well as kicking out some good grub. Plus it was open till 11pm. Result!
I was wearing a grin a mile wide as I strolled into the airy, wood bedecked barn of beeryness (which I managed not to photograph); because it’s exactly the kind of place that is transforming the culture of beer drinking in this country. There weren’t any nooks with beeping fruit machines, nor a toilet that looked like it had last seen a mop in the late eighties. Not even a bar propped up with leering untrusting locals looking to lynch a Canadian Londoner beer geek.
The Hawkshead brew hall was bright, clean, buzzing with the laughter and chatter of people of all ages. Kids dashing around as their parents caught up with friends. Couples young and old in for a meal and a few pints. The kind of place I would spend way too much time if it was my local, which must have been the case for the folk of Staveley as it the joint was packed. We managed to grab a recently vacated table and armed with the food menu and some instructions from my dear lady I waded past tourists and toddlers to the bar. Busy as it was I didn’t have to wait too long to be asked what I might like from a smiling member of staff. I ordered a couple taster sticks and an assortment of edibles.
Back at the table we worked our way through Stick 1: Bitter/Windermere Pale/Red and Stick 2: Brodie’s Prime/Dry Stone Stout/The Illusionist.
Stick 1: was ok enough with the Red coming out top it with some nuttiness, red berry tartness and nice texture. However, I found the balance and the “feel” of the Bitter and Windermere a fraction out, in terms of what I look for in those sorts of beers.
Stick 2: full of dark beers was much more enjoyable. My favorite was probably the Dry Stone, I do love an oatmeal stout and this one had it all; black treacle, espresso and a texture that bordered on the sensual. Brodie’s was fresh, chocolatey with a hoppy bite. I know it’s not the done thing to say a cross word about Magic Rock, but my least favorite was probably the Illusionist. This much heralded colab with Hawkshead, though interesting lacked something for me and wasn’t up to the level of other two.
My dissection of the beers was slightly interrupted as our grub landed. Scotch egg & piccalilli: warm, eggy, tangy and piggy in all the right places. Deep fried whitebait & tartar: crisp light batter, rich mayo gherkin pickle saucy and crisp fishy yum yum. Sticky BBQ baby back ribs: stucky sweet, smoky finger sucking tasty. Homemade fish goujons with garlicky butter were a delight; crunching not too greasy batter and moist fish. The piece de resistance though was a Yorkshire pudding filled with: local beef braised in Brodie’s Prime and horseradish sauce. The missus and I were literally elbowing each other out of the way to lick the plate, it was that good. There were corn fritters and mushrooms on toast too but were less inspired. But it all got eaten, so couldn’t have been that bad.
By this stage the sticks had run dry, so I opted for a half of the Lakeland Gold to wash down the remnants of our eclectic tapas feast. That familiar refrain was back though, some missing notes that left me wanting.
Deciding on whether to have dessert or not was a no brainer as they had baked Alaska a la Lakes. Brodie’s Prime made an encore soaking the chocolate brownie base, add poached damsons, ice cream all cocooned in meringue and baked. Sounded like heaven and looked a dream when it arrived, but unfortunately upon eating, it came up a little short. Certainly tasty, but not enough ice cream and the brownie could have done with another good glug of the B.P. if I’m honest. Ah well…
The evening was edging on we were running short on trains back to Kendal, but surely there was the time for a quick night cap? After a short debate with myself I decided on two halves from their speciality range: Hawkshead IPA and NZPA (New Zealand Pale Ale) both on keg. Rather sadly I enjoyed neither and disliked the NZPA so much I didn’t even finish it. My issue? The hopping*. I am all for big hops in beer, but it needs to be balanced. The resin character was so astringent that simpled overpowered almost everything else going on in the beer. Which was a shame.
Despite some of their beers tasting out of tune (in my humble opinion) my visit to the Hawkshead brewery and beer hall was a very pleasant experience. It is a beautiful inviting space in which to enjoy good beer, tasty food and warm company.
Walking outside I was struck by the quiet and the thick darkness beyond the glow of the beer hall windows; a muffling cloak of coal, punched through in places with sparkling diamond stars. It’s easy to forget that such a world exists when we live in a big cities. The roar of jet engines and millions of lights filling up our senses. My breath came out as steam and we wandered our way to Staveley station.
*Now there will be people who disagree or call me anti-hop (love hops I do). But for me good beer (or wine or spirits or food) should have an equilibrium. I would go as far to say that balance is probably the most important factor when I am assessing a food or beverage. When it’s in perfect harmony; a drink or plate of food is lifted from the simply good into the magnificent.
Postscript: I recently came across Hawkshead Lakeland Lager in bottle at one of my local pubs and so gave it a try. I am an optimist and really wanted to be impressed so as to dispel my reservations about some of their beers.
It reminded me of Grolsch. Which sadly is not a good thing.
Won’t stop me trying their beers again though…