A Week in Wales
Last Updated : 19/08/10
- A Week in Wales -
eading through my notes, looking out of the window with a blazing sun beating down upon me, it’s hard to believe that just a couple of weeks ago I was driving around the more remote parts of Wales – frequently in monsoon conditions – searching out new micro-breweries to scoop. Well, it did happen and, luckily for you, I’ve written up yet another piece of rambling gibberish for you to read if you’re that way inclined; if not, I’d press the “back” button right now…
Work was due to take me all across Wales so I thought that, as I’d not tried many of the new micros which had sprung up recently like so many toadstools after a rainstorm, I’d try and visit as many of the brewpubs and breweries I passed as possible with the rider that I couldn’t really be arsed to go trekking miles out of my way – not being desperate these days and all that – plus I didn’t want to drink beer from most of the ones I’d had the misfortune to try in the past year as infected, TCP-tainted crystal malt bogwater isn’t really my beverage of choice.
After an evening’s research along the path of my jobs I’d amassed enough gen to satisfy my “reluctant scooping” gene and so, bottles sterilised and packed, it was off along the M4 westwards towards my first stop on this roadtrip of micro-brewing discovery.
“Don’t believe the internet”
My scooping trip proper began on a Wednesday afternoon in Carmarthen; I’d managed to complete my day’s work by 13:00 and thought that it would be rude not to pay a visit to the Coles brewpub out at Llanddarog which, mainly owing to my inherent laziness, I’d never managed to get to before despite it being a very short distance off the main A48. I’d checked on the Internet that the pub would be open do imagine my surprise – then bemusement, then annoyance – when I discovered it to be closed! I parked up and wandered over to the building to check that the lack of interior lighting and generally deserted air really meant that it wasn’t open but, before I could reach the door, I was met by the landlady who informed me, rather gruffly, that they were closed on Wednesdays.
“Not according to your website you’re not” I protested, still hankering after a scoop, but this was not to be forthcoming as I was told that no matter what the internet said they were definitely closed all day on Wednesday… cheers then!
So, as the first of my target brewpubs – literally – slammed it’s door in my face, I turned about and headed back into Carmarthen to repeat the crawl I’d done a few years previous with about the same level of scooping success – one winner – although it was a relaxing wander around with some decent beers and, after a while, I’d forgotten all about Coles and was planning my scooping for the following day.
The unexpected winners.
Llandeilo was my first call of the day and so, after following my instructions to park in the CJ’s supermarket car park, I decided that I may as well have a quick look for any bottled beers whilst I bought some supplies for the next few days away. My arms were soon laden with bottled water and butties – I always think I won’t need a basket and end up juggling stuff like some YTS circus performer – when I stopped dead in front of the bottled beer aisle with mouth agape; Neath brewery, who the hell were they?
I must admit that, not being desperate for UK beers these days, I’m not really up to speed with the UK beer scene that much and, whilst researching this trip, I’d discovered breweries in places I’d never have believed would be able to support one. So, imagine my surprise – hence the over-dramatic reflex – when confronted by a row of five different Neath brewery bottles! I attempted to carry one of each along with my assorted other stuff but soon realised that I’d definitely need a basket and so had to put everything down at the side of the aisle before trolling off in search of an unattended basket to load up… which I proceeded to do with all these unsuspected bonus scoops!
Way out west.
Thinking to myself that the trip was now going a lot better, I headed off to Fishguard and thence on to my next beery destination, the remote Gwaun Valley brewery at Pontfaen, situated five or so miles out of town on a very narrow, very windy lane which was made twice as dangerous by the lashing rain which blasted into my windscreen making a racket like a machine gun. I don’t enjoy driving at the best of times so being on a snaking single-track lane in the pissing rain – driving a car I’d only had for three weeks – wasn’t exactly my idea of fun, and I was very happy to finally reach the farm where a sign promised me a “free tasting of cask ale”; well, I suppose I could have two sips!
The brewery is located in a nicely renovated barn out the back of the farm although, thanks to the sideways monsoon which enveloped the area, I didn’t get much of a look at it as I ran from car to door in a matter of seconds yet still got soaked through! Once inside, I wiped the rainwater out of my eyes and could then see a Porter brewing plant, lots of bottles and two young women busy with brewing chores and so I watched the goings on – watching brewing is always fascinating to me – until they were able to break off and see who this was who’d braved the ferocious rainstorm.
I explained I was involved in a brewing company as I sampled two beers from already open bottles (they only have cask beer at weekends) although I had to work hard not to grimace too much as the beer wasn’t to my taste and tasted as if there were very few hops used in it’s production, plus it carried the tell-tale cardboardy tang of Nottingham ale yeast. After trying all three beers on offer I’d decided that the brews were, frankly, pretty poor and hoped I didn’t have to lie too much when asked for my opinion; this is the main reason I don’t generally get too friendly with brewers as I’m not a particularly good liar and you never know who wants to be told the truth and who wants to be told their beers are great no matter what the facts are…
“Not really my thing” I said through clenched teeth when asked what I thought of the beers although, as I’d come almost to the ends of the earth in search of these massive scoops, I bought a bottle of each to try at home as – surely – they couldn’t be as bad from freshly-opened bottles, could they?
The surprisingly big kettle.
Braving the monsoon conditions again I headed off up North to Bangor where I had a hotel booked although, predictably, I had more beery visits planned en-route. Somehow, probably owing to the atrocious road and weather conditions which – at times – meant that I actually had to concentrate on my driving rather than singing along to Mad Sin on the CD, I totally forgot about the Tynllidiart Arms brewpub until I was far enough past it to make a backtrack way too time consuming. I consoled myself that I’d be back that way the following week and, anyway, they never have any beer on…
My next destination was to be the Snowdonia Parc brewpub at Waunfawr which I’d last visited a good 12 years previously when it had first begun brewing and I was frantically hoping that the beer would be better than it had been the last time I’d visited! I knew that the Welsh Highland narrow-gauge Railway was planned to pass right by the pub but was totally unprepared to see an absolutely massive Garrett steam loco and accompanying train of dinky little carriages loom out of the mist behind a wall where I’d not expected a railway to be!
Predictably the rain eased to a mere downpour as the pub hove into view, making a mere jog all that was required from car to door in contrast to the frantic dash I’d done at Gwaun Valley! Inside all was as I remembered and I was relieved to see three beers on sale as, embarrassingly, I’d totally forgotten to check whether the pub was still brewing and had spent the last ten miles fervently hoping it would be…
Initially I was gutted as one of the beers I’d had back in 1997, the summer beer Cwrw Haf, was on handpump but a quick check revealed it to be almost 1% weaker than the brew I’d already scooped! Happy to have three winners to go at, I indulged in a half of Haf (!) as I chatted to a very old, very drunk yet very sociable bloke at the bar who seemed impressed by my speed-bottling, even more so when I told him I was going to drink them all in the hotel that night!
“My daughter Carmen does the brewing” he explained, gesturing at the pumpclips, “but I still prefer the Stella”…
Having tasted the beer I was pretty sure that, despite it not being anywhere near hoppy enough for me, it was of decent quality and definitely better than Stella but, ever the diplomat, I simply nodded and asserted that if he didn’t like cask ale then that was all the more for me!
I bottled up the remaining two beers in quick succession – with the Cwrw Haf remaining the best of the three on account of a suggestion of hops in it’s flavour – then it was off to Bangor and my hotel where the bottles were drunk and provided a modicum of satisfaction in that they at least tasted like beer unlike some other Welsh Micros I could name.
The smallest house.
The following week I was back in Aberystwyth and, with my job finished by 11:00, I decided to ring the Tynllidiart Arms and ask if they had any beer on. I must admit I almost didn’t bother as I was under the impression that the pub rarely – if ever – brewed these days and so didn’t hold out much hope of adding to my tally of six Tynllidiart brews… so imagine my surprise when, not only did they answer the phone at 11:15, but I was cheerfully informed that, yes, they did indeed have their only beer on the bar and opened at midday but if I were to roll up before then I’d be more than welcome to sample it…
Ten minutes later I was pulling into the little car park opposite the pub and wondering how long it had been since I’d last been here; at least ten years was my eventual best-guess! I spent a few minutes peering through the window into the tiny brewery which, just in case you don’t know, is situated in the old outside gents’ toilet which gave it’s name to the brewery during one phase of it’s intermittent operation – Ty Bach, meaning “little house” in Welsh but colloquially meaning toilet – before venturing into the pub where I half expected to see an empty pump.
Instead, happily, there it was; Gwrw Gwynant is the name of the new beer which the pub brews exclusively for it’s own consumption – well, with a brewlength of 41 litres they aren’t going to be supplying many other places – and I sipped on a half as I chatted with the landlord about his future plans for the brewery which include seasonal beers and bottling as the pub attracts – as befits the smallest commercial brewery in the world, for which they have an official certificate – a steady trickle of beer tourists out to scoop one of the rarest beers in the UK.
Unfortunately, the brewer wasn’t around so a tour of the brewery (tour is perhaps a misnomer as it would have been a head-through-the-door tour!) wasn’t possible, but I did glean that the ingredients come from Golden Valley brewery in “kit” form with all the malt, hops and yeast required to brew a batch of beer sent out in one package; that’s one way of doing it, I suppose, and it seems to work quite well in this case.
Remembering the brewery in it’s various past incarnations I wasn’t expecting a great deal in the taste stakes but, surprisingly, this beer wasn’t bad at all! It had a full honey-malt body with some toffee then a hefty bitterness came through and increased in intensity to a slightly sweet, malty aftertaste, balanced by a good bitterness and suggestion of hops; not bad at all, and certainly the best beer I’ve had from the brewpub in my 14 years of visiting!
A final scoop.
A few days later I was off on my travels again and, driving from Brecon to Abergavenny, I thought I’d call in to the Tower hotel in Talgarth, home of Rotters beers, on the off chance that it would be open; after all, I was vaguely passing! This was yet another Welsh micro I’d only heard of recently and, although the news from fellow scooper “Welsh” Richard was that the beers were ropey at best, desperation overcame my dislike for rancid beer! Parking up in the quiet village centre I soon found the hotel – there wasn’t a lot else there, to be honest – but it didn’t open on Mondays until 16:00 and, as the time was a mere 11:30, there was no way I was waiting that long for a scoop, even less so as I’d already been warned off the beers.
So, on to Abergavenny where Tudor brewery is located. It had begun life as a small plant at the rear of the King’s Arms but had now, apparently, upgraded to a larger brewkit and moved out to an industrial unit with the pub brewery now of unknown status; some sources said it was still used and others that it had stopped production… well, there was only one way to be sure, and that was to visit the pub and find out for myself!
Having first called into work and informed them I’d be back in half an hour, I wandered the short distance along to the pub where I caught things in the five minutes of panic before opening; barstaff hurriedly restocked shelves, a chef ran for the kitchen with a crate of vegetables, a butcher tried to attract someone’s attention in order to deliver some meat and various other waiting staff milled around looking as if they didn’t quite know what to do but ought to appear busy as everyone else was.
Deciding to leave things ten minutes until the melee calmed down I checked out a deli just down the road where I saw, to my immense satisfaction, all three Tudor beers for sale in bottle-conditioned form meaning that if any weren’t available in the pub at least I’d be able to scoop them there! Returning to the King’s Arms all had quietened down considerably with old couples shuffling inside and ordering pots of tea and lunches. I followed them in but my interest was along more beery lines; I surveyed the pumps to see that only one beer was on sale, Blorenge, and that bottles here cost more than the deli down the road; half of Blorenge it was, then!
Again I wasn’t expecting much from a new Welsh brewer but, once more, was pleasantly surprised; maybe I should amend my low expectations of Welsh micros… at least until I sample another half of brown, infected swamp water? Maybe, and if more Welsh beer were like Blorenge then I definitely would! Deep golden in colour, it had an attractive sweet, fruity aroma with grassy hops and a touch of citrus which suggested mandarins. The flavour was very similar, sweet and malty (although maybe a touch too sweet for me), counteracted by a fairly bitter dryness with more grassy, fruity hop, although the bitterness veered into harshness at the finish which took the edge of what had been a pretty decent brew.
After my scoop it was, unfortunately, time to do some work so off I went via the deli where Tudor’s remaining two beers were acquired in bottled form for later consumption along with a very nice chicken and leek pie for my dinner and that was that, my final Welsh micro-brewery (for now) had been scooped, as the following week I was working around Birmingham…
It had been a week of highs and lows, as expected, with the low being Gwaun Valley and the highspot being Tynllidiart Arms’ latest reincarnation and Tudor’s Blorenge, but at least I’d not had any stereotypical crystal-malt infected bogwater on this trip which is never a bad thing in my book!
© Gazza 19/08/10 v1.0