Our beers of the week

(by peter)

Recently we’ve had the opportunity to taste through some very fine local beers from Manchester and Stoke-on-Trent.

This is all part of research I’ve been doing prior to filming with sports channel ESPN on FA Cup Final day (Sat 14th May). The concept is a breakfast show with a gastronomic angle (think: posh fry up and beer – all responsibly couched, of course) focusing on products local to the two finalists: Stoke City and Manchester City.

It’s been a great opportunity to get to know some of the local tipples from these historic brewing areas.

The best story I’ve come across has to be that of Stone Banker (4%), an ale brewed by the small-scale independent Lymestone Brewery based in Stone, Staffordshire.

This gently hoppy, very easy-drinking ale was the brainchild of Lymestone’s Ian ‘Brad’ Bradford, a lifelong Stoke City supporter. All Lymestone’s beers use the word ‘Stone’ in their name (the one exception being the brilliantly named ‘Ein Stein’ featuring a picture of you-know-who on the label).

Bradford’s moment of inspiration came when Tony Pulis, the Stoke City manager, mixed his metaphors during the FA Cup quarter final game. When West Ham player Frederic Piquiones scored following what appeared to be a blatant offence, Pulis described the incident as a ‘stone banker handball’.

After Stoke won the tie and went through to the semi-final at Wembley, Bradford decided to launch a beer to celebrate. ‘It was a big risk,’ he told me, ‘with thousands of bottles sitting in the brewery’ – but the risk appears to have paid off so far, with Stoke reaching their first ever FA Cup final (despite them being one of the oldest professional football clubs in the world).

There is even talk of the beer becoming a collectors’ item – though more for the Stoke fans than for its inherent capacity to improve in the bottle, given its style.

The ale is lightly fruity and with a fine froth – moreish and unchallenging, with notes of dried herbs. (Susie described as ‘like rolling in a haystack’ – I think I know what she meant…)

Also in the Stoke corner is the coffee-scented, bottle-conditioned Titanic Stout (4.5%), produced by the famous Burslem-based brewer owned by brothers Dave and Keith Bott.

Dave and Keith take their beer very seriously. Keith is the president of the Society of Independent Brewers, while their website proudly proclaims that ‘Beer is our national drink and should be afforded the same reverence as the French give to wine. If anything our product is superior having a much wider range of flavours.’

We couldn’t possibly comment…

Either way, this terrifically dark, almost meaty stout is undoubtedly an iconic brew from these parts and winner of multiple beer awards. It also makes a mean gravy and Yorkshire pudding ingredient, according to a source at the brewery.

Switching focus to Manchester, Hyde’s is an historic, family-run brewery which has been on the scene since 1863. It runs a network of 66 tenanted and managed pubs across the north-west and also has a decent portfolio of both draught and bottled beers.

We tried both their Jekyll’s Gold (4.3%) and Manchester’s Finest Premium Ale (4.7%). The latter, brewed with Fuggles, Target and Challenger hops, was our clear favourite from this stable, with its malty, wheaty aromas and a tangy, fruity, succulent flavour profile – moreish and easy-going but with decent hopping.

But perhaps the most distinctive, audacious and impressive of all the beers we sampled has to be the wonderfully named Moonraker Strong Ale (7.5%) from JW Lees.

This Middleton-based brewer, which has been going some 183 years, uses Lake District water and its own yeasts. We tried its Coronation Street Premium Ale (4.2%) – tagline ‘made with northern soul’ and featuring Northdown and Golding hops – which was juicy, fruity and with slight iodine notes, a delightfully approachable and moreish ale.

But it was the Moonraker that stole the show. Its treacly, liquorice-infused aromas led onto a palate that, while heavily flavoured and heftily alcoholic (at 7.5%), contrived to be beautifully balanced. It was the beer equivalent of a full-bodied red wine – one to be drunk in respectful moderation, and with a pensive countenance.

As it happens, the Managing Director of JW Lees is apparently a big Manchester United fan, even through the brewer is located nearer the City ground as the crow flies. It seems his staff are keen on a result that would leave him most displeased…

I’ll be talking through these beers live on ESPN on Saturday 14th May 2011 from 8am, with presenters Mark Durden-Smith and Robbie Savage.