We hit York early on Saturday evening, wandering through the chocolate-box streets of one of the prettiest British cities I've ever visited. Dinner was in Nineteen on Grape Street (formerly Grope Street, the medieval red light district) where the food and service were both superb. The night was drawing in as we left, and that's when we noticed that York has probably the highest concentration of stag and hen parties of anywhere we've been. I mean, I live in Dublin -- I've been through Temple Bar on a Saturday night on more than one occasion (though never inhaled) -- but nowhere have I seen quite so many, and so elaborately coordinated, prenuptial piss-ups as were being conducted on the streets of York last weekend. It was, quite literally, as though everyone inside the city walls was absolutely hammered.
Searching, foolishly, in the old town for a quiet postprandial beer we ended up by the banks of the Ouse at the King's Head, one of those delightful novelty Samuel Smith's pubs where cask ale is unknown and if you don't want own-brand drinks you can naff off. We got the last available table so were spared the worst of the crush from the victims of drive-by fake-tannings and the men-behaving-stupidly. I recommended the Old Brewery Bitter for herself, having enjoyed the bottle I picked up in Switzerland earlier this year. Meanwhile I scoured the fridges for something interesting and came away with a bottle of Organic Cherry Ale. It's 5.1% ABV but tastes much heavier, with big boozy cherry flavours, somewhere between kirsch liqueur and cough syrup. The body was as big as this suggests, but there was just enough sparkle to keep it light enough to drink. My impression is that this beer is best served very cold, and the hefty flavour will stand up well in such conditions.
We left through the throng towards the south gate of the old city, almost passing by a civilised-looking pub, mistaking it for a restaurant, since every other licensed establishment seemed jammed with raucous bingers. But a peep in the door revealed it to be a pub and only when I sat down did I discover it was one I had marked on my map as a must-visit: Brigantes is York's current top CAMRA boozer, and I could see why. Rather like The Wellington it's modern, clean and open. In addition to the half-dozen or so cask ales from breweries both in Yorkshire and further afield, there was a small but solid collection of Belgian, German and American beers on offer, and staff who plainly knew their way around them and were enthusiastic about serving them.
To keep things local, my first pint was York Brewery's Yorkshire Terrier, but I found this bitter straw-coloured ale just a bit too heavy, waxy and tough going, so I swapped it for what the missus was having: the unalloyed joy of Timothy Taylor Best Bitter. This limpid amber beer starts off with a beautiful honey-sweet flavour and finishes on a bitter bite of the sort I've never met before. I would go so far as to say that Taylor's Best operates beyond the malt-hop axis in a delicious flavour world all of its own.
As we sailed towards last orders I got another round in and this time I picked Wentworth's Black Zac for me, a gorgeous dry roasty mild with lots of lovely charcoal flavours. Mrs Beer Nut had a Samba, from the Leeds Brewery, a company I've been well impressed with in the past. It's a very pale summer ale packed full of lemons and bubblegum, which we both rather liked. That took us through the bells (English pubs, eh? Bless) to the end of the drinking day, well for us at least: I'm sure the party which is York was only getting warmed up.
There weren't so many of the stag-and-hen crowd out and about bright and early last Sunday morning. The streets were rather quiet as we made our way back to the city centre. After some general meanderings of a touristic nature we found ourselves at the Three-Legged Mare opposite the Minster. It's another CAMRA award winner and another with helpful and friendly staff -- I sense a theme here. The York Brewery owns it, so obviously their beers are to the fore. And again obviously, I started with a pint of their well-renowned Centurion's Ghost. Colour me philistine (as usual) but I wasn't keen. This dark dark ruby ale had a slight haze to it, I think, but there wasn't a whole lot of flavour. Concentrating hard, there are bitter dark fruits -- plums and damsons -- buried deep in here, but I just couldn't get excited about it. Mrs Beer Nut was on another black tan-headed pint: Banks & Taylor's SOD. This was a definite cut above, displaying tasty plum pudding and blackberry notes. In the sunny beer garden, under the pub gallows, it made for slow, considered drinking. I might have garnered a pint of it myself, but we wanted to make the first tour of the day down at the York Brewery itself.
In an odd reversal of the old order, York Brewery is owned by a chain of pubs. It was set up in the mid-1990s as the first brewery in the city since the '50s but last year passed into the hands of Mitchell's Hotels & Inns. It's still a charming micro, though, with a ramshackle tasting lounge in the attic, which operates as a private members' club for anyone willing to stump up the princely annual subscription of £12. A half of Yorkshire Terrier was handed out on arrival, and I found this much lighter and more palateable than the previous evening's pint. After the short tour (the place really isn't that big) it was back to the bar to work through the collection.
The summery session ale is called Guzzler, a 3.6% ABV slightly hazy yellow ale. It achieves a wonderful malt-meets-lemons combo, a sort of lemon Horlicks effect that makes it sublimely refreshing and, well, guzzlable. No trip to England would be complete without a sports-related seasonal, and York had Ashes on. Because of the Ashes, see? Clever. It's a pale gold ale with a grainy malt character and definite dry/bitter hop notes. Dry, but not ash-dry. And last up was their malt-bomb, Constantine. Packed with smoky caramel flavours plus a spicy hop finish, I loved this.
Before getting too comfortable in our wing-chairs, with the sun streaming in the velux windows, we moved on. Lunch was in the Punch Bowl (the old-fashioned one in the city centre, not the Wetherspoons of the same name near the station). I was attracted by the Bass sign hanging outside. My disappointment with the lack of cask Bass inside was tempered by the delight of seeing John Smith's Cask instead. With the Tetley's I'd had in Manchester, I was generally quite positive about the whole cask-versions-of-crappy-keg-bitters thing. John Smith's didn't let me down, either: this red bitter is light and sweet with just a hint of sulphurousness keeping it interesting.
Emerging into the daylight from the back room of the pub, it was nearly time for the train to the airport. There was a tiny allowance for one more quick beer each, and the previous evening I'd spotted just the place for them...