Nottingham owes its reputation to a mythical outlaw.
Not so long ago, the city became know for a rather different and less visitor-friendly kind of outlawry. That was a bit of a myth, too, of the tabloid newspaper kind. Not unlike the myth of Robin Hood, it was probably rooted in a seed of truth whose green shoots twisted and grew, nourished by the social need for moral certainties.
Nottingham’s identity has evolved since then. Today’s visitor will be charmed by a warm Midlands welcome, surprised at the abundance of nouveau, deco and arts-and-crafts architecture, intrigued by the network of caves and cellars carved into its sandstone bedrock, and, if they are so inclined, impressed by a thriving beer culture. The foundations of that modern beer culture—exemplified by cask ale stalwarts Castle Rock Brewery—now support a characterful arts-and-crafts-and-weird-science façade that ranges from crossover success stories such as Navigation Brewery and Totally Brewed, through environmentally conscious small-batchers Magpie Brewery, to the latest hype-generating machine to break into the national craft-beer consciousness, Neon Raptor Brewing Co.
All were present at last weekend’s Nottingham Craft Beer Festival, the culmination of Nottingham Craft Beer Week, as were local bottle shop Brew Cavern and neighbourhood “pourhouse” Junkyard, who brought sought-after beers from Scandinavia, the U.S. and beyond.
Let’s begin with Neon Raptor, not only because it has been creating so much buzz over the past 12 months, but also because it was, in a way, hosting this event: in 2018, the business moved its brewery and taproom into one of the premises in Sneinton Market, where the festival was being held.
The first thing to say is that this brewery knows how to make beer. Its flavours are clear and distinct, there are no signs of obvious errors, and alcohol content is well-integrated into its drinks. The second thing to say is that this does not necessarily result in tasty brews.
We opted for Sci-fi Staircase, a New England IPA hopped with Citra, El Dorado and Ekuanot, clocking in at a modest 4.4%; Passing Piranhas, a blackberry and raspberry Gose; and Never Forget Your Amethyst, an Imperial Stout with Turkish delight and mint chocolate adjunct flavours.
The absurd names, which give the appearance of a pin-into-the-dictionary approach to branding, signal that this brewery follows the now common practise of eschewing core beers in favour of ever-changing small batches that tweak the details of modern craft-beer styles. This approach is difficult to sustain for the long term and can be associated with a short-lived triumph of branding and hype over substance. I don’t think Neon Raptor fall into this category, in that they brew competently, but it may risk a lack of focus and seriousness that, ultimately, can render a brewery vulnerable to consumer fatigue—or simply to losing share-of-hype to the next new kid on the Untappd block.
Did the beers transcend their names?
Sci-fi Staircase is an efficient NEIPA. It’s nice to get a sessionable expression of this style that manages to pack in plenty of juicy flavour. The aromatics were a good balance of tropical fruit and green-hop burn, and the texture did not suffer from the claggy oatiness that often spoils these beers. As always, I could have used some alpha-acid bitterness in the mix, but that is a matter of personal taste.
The other two brews were less successful. Passing Piranhas was all blackberry and raspberry and no Gose. The faintest rumour of a distant memory of something tart was perhaps discernible, but it was not enough to banish the suspicion that we had just paid beer money to drink a sweetened fruit-pulp smoothie. Still, it tasted nice enough. We could not say the same about Never Forget Your Amethyst.
The idea of a Turkish delight stout made sense to us. A chocolate stout needs no apology. A mint-chocolate stout is more of a challenge. But a Turkish delight and mint-chocolate stout? We knew this threatened disaster, but we went and tried it anyway.
It was a disaster. Admittedly, getting all of those well-defined flavours into a cleanly-fermented Imperial Stout is impressive. But that doesn’t mean it ought to be done. The combination of rosewater and mint came across like eating Turkish delight immediately after swilling one’s teeth with mouthwash. We did find that, alongside a more traditional, salty-umami Imperial Stout, the sweet notes of Never Forget Your Amethyst came forward more prominently and made the whole concoction seem less artificial—but that would be an odd way to praise a beer.
It’s clear that Neon Raptor understand how to brew. It’s also clear how they have been inspired by the likes of Mikkeller, Omnipollo, To Øl and other Nordic extreme-craft pioneers. For longer-term success, the business may benefit from a less frenetic approach to variety and more considered recipe development and refinement.
Our highlights from the festival came from closer to home. We took two great beers from Boutilliers, a brewery working out of a farm shop in Kent that was unknown to me; and two from Little Earth Project, a Suffolk-based, mixed-fermentation farmhouse ale specialist that I knew, but whose beers I had not tasted.
Boutilliers’ Club Kids Never Die comes with a silly craft-beer name, but was in fact a determinedly non-silly Saison that delivered buckets of estery yeast character. Starting out with citrus boiled sweets before rounding into sweet-fruity Refreshers, with lemon and violets sitting behind a gently tart and spicy finish. This was a light but complex taste bud stimulator that would have been ideally suited to a sunnier and warmer day than the one with which we were blessed. Doki Doki, a Bavarian Hell, was even better: its soft carbonation was a good base for an indulgent mix of sweet maltiness, honey, grains, grassy herbs and pepper, and a finish that was more fragrant than bitter. This was authentic enough to take us right back to Munich in 2017, and reminiscent of Hacker Pschorr’s interpretation of the style.
From Little Earth Project we took the aptly-named Zingiber Sour, a gently-tart ginger-infused beer that impressed with the natural freshness of its ginger aroma; and the excellent Three Grain Saison, a lustrously amber-coloured, oak-aged beer that led with citrus before delving into depths of honey, spice, vanilla and barrel tannins, backed up with a robust lactic-acetic sourness.
Elsewhere at the festival we picked up a lacklustre Grisette, a disappointingly dry and earthy Pastry Stout and a chemical-tasting Apple Saison. A rather homebrew-phenolic, heavy, dark-hued Tripel was just about saved by its bright orange-zest aroma—the vestiges of a Chimay-derived yeast, perhaps?
But, to end on a positive that better represents the quality of the festival, a special mention should go to the Junkyard bar, whose stall was pouring brews from Omnipollo, Dugges and others.
The latter’s Banana, Toffee and Chocolate Imperial Stout would have been a good example for the folk at Neon Raptor. It was a completely unrestrained banoffee pie in a glass, unashamedly sweet and banana-crazy, but tempered with just the right level of salty black malt character—exactly what one looks for in an end-of-festival, pastry-stout pudding beer.
A visit to Nottingham as a beer tourist cannot go by without popping into Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem Inn—for a pint, for perusal, and for the paganish sense of parody peregrination at which the name impishly hints.
This famous old public house, now part of the Greene King estate, is notable for being carved out of the sandstone rock upon which Nottingham Castle looms, high above the city. The caves behind its frontage probably served as a medieval brewery or beer cellar. The whole thing may or may not be “the oldest inn in England”. There appears to be no evidence to back up the advertised date of establishment of 1189, and the fact that 1189 was also the year of Richard the Lionheart’s accession to the throne is suspiciously convenient. One thing is for sure: the building itself hasn’t been standing for a millennium; most of it looks to be of early 17th-century vintage.
You are in luck if you’re a tourist who likes to hedge her bets on these sorts of things: two other claimants to that title are located a stone’s throw away, although neither are quite as photogenic as Ye Olde Trip.
It seems that Nottingham has more myths than a brewing historian.
The myth-making extended to the beers in Ye Olde Trip, too. The proud boast that nine cask ales are on offer glosses over the fact that half of them are either Greene King staples or Greene King-owned brands pretending to be local brews. That should take nothing away from the excellent condition in which we found those beers, however. Both brews we sampled were cellar-cool, bright and fresh, and crowned with lusty, creamy foam.
Moreover, one of them was a genuine, far from simply nostalgic blast from the past. The Nottingham Brewery’s Rock Mild is a proper, no-nonsense Mild Ale. Its rich and malty aromas lead into coffee, chocolate and caramel on the palate and a dry finish, with just a hint of hop bitterness to keep things interesting.
This was a satisfying and moreish brew, just right to warm the cheeks for a bit of exploration through the rough-hewn nooks, crannies and chambers of Ye Olde Trip’s dark interior—not to mention an intriguing foil to the mad-science experimentation of the festival beers which marked the beginning of our visit to Nottingham.