"Daddy's taking us to see a model railway" yelped the excited young'un as our train pulled into York. Two rows away I felt a pang of sympathy. Daddy hadn't done his homework. It's a few years since I was last in the city, but even I knew that the model railway in the old station tea rooms had closed and relocated some time ago, replaced by the leather banquettes and dark woodwork of the York Tap. Daddy had this explained to him by the receptionist in the neighbouring Royal York Hotel as I was checking in. I'm sure the family found something fun to do instead, but I wasn't disappointed at all: three days in this fantastically beery English city, staying right next door to the town's top pub for serious beer geekery.
I had been travelling since before 6am, with a pause for the full, salty, Irish at Dublin airport. By noon on the muggy July day I was tired and incredibly thirsty, in need of a pick-me-up. The Tap offers twenty casks plus a dozen or so keg beers. After a full lap of the bar I settled on a pint of Gentleman's Wit, brewed on the remote windswept moors of Camden Town. This arrived as fizzy and hazy as one might expect, a washed-out shade of pale yellow, kicking off with immediate aromas of spiced boiled sweets. One long pull wiped the thirst clean off my palate, the second brought soothing vaporub notes of chamomile and similar herbs. The bergamot with which it's brewed comes later, adding a drier, tannic element. While a boon when the beer is fresh and cold it does introduce an unfortunate soapy aspect to the taste if it's allowed to get warm. But for the first two-thirds, this was exactly what I needed: a super-refreshing quencher which avoids all the pitfalls of wonky witbier: no watery lack of body and no cloying sweetness.
I felt I should pay my respects to the county next, and opted for Ilkley's Mary Jane. It's a golden bitter of 3.5% ABV and my pint showed worrying clumps of yeast lava-lamping around in it. The aroma is quite sickly and sugary while the flavour is unpleasantly sharp and soapier than the foregoing beer. I suspect that I was served the dregs of the barrel but it was hard to imagine what the underlying beer was supposed to taste like, if not this. Still, at a mere £2.70 a pint I wasn't going to start a debate and simply moved on to something I reckoned would have a bit more wallop.
Colorado Red: another Thornbridge-Odell collaboration, 5.9% ABV and "massively hopped". Yes, that'll do. There's a little haze but that doesn't distract even slightly from the gorgeous chestnut red colour. The blurb is a bit of an overstatement, however. No hops, massive or otherwise, are apparent in the aroma, just some light cocoa and turkish delight. There's perhaps a little back-of-throat bitterness in the finish but the centre ground is all creamy milk chocolate plus a touch of the familiar mandarin Odell hops. A welcome upgrading of plain brown bitter, this, but no more than that.
Somebody must have been enjoying it because the Colorado Red was gone soon after, replaced by another from Thornbridge: the inquisitive Wye. The unique selling point of this golden ale is the generous addition of cucumber (in the recipe not in the glass). A dry green vegetal nose starts it off and there's a very clear, crisp, cucumber bite in the flavour, lingering long in the palate and even reasserting itself in cucumber-flavoured burps. Thankfully there's enough lagerish golden-syrup malt to keep it more like a beer than a cucumber alcopop, though once again the hops are lacking.
I finally hit the hop jackpot I'd been seeking with Marble's Lagonda IPA. The aroma is understated but it delivers a massive bitter punch on the first taste followed by an intense flavour of concentrated tinned peaches. Yum. You get a bit of a harsh acidic burn, but it's not unpleasant and the finish is clean: not hanging around oilily on the palate the way some of these intensely hop-forward beers do. When it's gone, it's gone.
I started to hit the law of diminishing returns with the York Tap selection at this point. Kirkstall's Dissoloution Rye IPA had some interesting orange and lavender flavours going on and thankfully none of the harsh grassiness that usually puts me right off rye beers. There was no indication that it's all of 6.2% ABV but even odder were the massive yeast clumps that sat in the liquid, suspended as though in jelly. What's up with that?
Blue Monkey's Infinity was quite nice: extremely pale with some sherbet and lots of the mineral qualities I've found in all of their beers. Hambleton Hurdler is a better-than-average brown bitter, buttery with an extra strawberry tartness I enjoyed. Can't say the same for Black Jack First Deal. In fact this brown bitter was almost completely undistinctive.
It was almost as an afterthought on my last session in the Tap that I opted for a bottle of the Export India Porter from The Kernel. Everything they say about it is true: incredibly smooth for a bottled porter with a complex bittersweet flavour profile including dark chocolate and rosewater. I'd go so far as to say it's damn near perfect, as this style goes.
I did venture out from the York Tap on a couple of occasions during the stay. One of these was a bijou pub crawlette in the company of York resident Ally of Impy Malting fame. We met, perhaps appropriately, in The House of Trembling Madness, a poky attic bar above the best beer shop in town. Tragically the Hardknott Cool Fusion had just run out so I started off on a 7% ABV US-style double IPA from Ilkley called, with appropriate racial sensitivity, The Chief. It's a very hazy orange colour and packed with pleasantly zesty mandarin notes. None of the hop burn I might have expected from something branding itself as this style. Ah well.
Following Steve's advice, I dragged us across the street to The Punch Bowl, now under Nicholson's management and alleged to have a much improved beer offer. Well, it's still a rambling low-ceilinged traditional pub and was quite quiet for an otherwise bustling Thursday evening. John Smith's was still on cask but there was also Cropton's Hawaii 340. I was expecting big Pacific hops in this pale ale but the biscuit malt flavours are dominant. Ally enjoyed it, but it wasn't for me. I think I did better with my XT8, a stout from XT Brewing down in Buckinghamshire. A nicely balanced number this, with quite an intense roastiness offset by full-on liquorice sweets. Predictably, our crawl wound up back at the York Tap. Cucumber beer for all!
My solo adventures in York brought me, of course, to Pivni (rebadged since my last visit) for a swift pint of Fyne Ales Rune. The Scottish masters of pale 'n' 'oppy are at it again here: 3.5% ABV, a very pale gold, and gorgeously, gobsmackingly, bitter. It's waxy and harsh at first but this calms down soon after providing tart raspberries and crab apples. Puckeringly good. I downed it fast enough to leave time for a swift half of something else. From the keg selection I opted for Mary's Maple Porter from the Brooklyn Brewery. It looks the part of a 7.5% ABV porter: a lustrous and silky black. I found it hard going to drink, however, with lots of hot and heavy fruit esters plus cloying milky coffee. It's akin to trying to down a boozy banoffi milkshake, and a half was more than enough.
The Maltings was last on my hitlist, a poky ramshackle boozer just inside the city walls. It was busy but the layout meant I was still able to find myself a quiet corner, just opposite the toilet which some design guru saw fit to install in the room. Stars 'n' Stripes by Rooster was first up, a beautifully clear pale ale of 4.2% ABV. There's a nice balance of grapefruit and bubblegum notes here: pinchingly bitter followed by soft fruit notes like lychee and white grape. It did get a little boring half way down but was eminently sinkable while I thought about what to have next. And that was the beer of the trip: Brasscastle Brewery's York 800 imperial stout. 8% ABV yet only £1.90 for a half. You have to laugh. Under the tan head sits an immensely complex beer, introducing itself with big and tart red fruit notes of cranberry and redcurrant. There's a little touch of putty which suggests oatmeal to me, as does the silky smoothness. Only after swallowing does the dry roast flavour make itself felt. End to end beautiful.
So yeah, not bad beer options in York. Not bad at all.