Tag Archives: amber ale

Ruddy Darter at The Black Boy, Winchester

Ruddy Darter at The Black Boy, Winchester

My hometown is Winchester, in Hampshire, an hour southwest of London out of Waterloo railway station. Although small, it’s technically a city, the ancient capital of England, boasting a cathedral – with the longest nave of any Gothic cathedral in Europe, apparently. My mother says she often overhears tour guides saying the high street is the oldest in Europe too, but I’m not sure how that’d be qualified. (When it was a Roman city, the main drag was in the same position, if that’s any help.) It’s got an Iron Age hillfort, King Arthur’s Round Table (honest), some bits of medieval city wall, and even a few city gates, despite the Victorians’ best efforts to destroy the historical infrastructure.

It’s also got a lot of pubs, though many of them are pretty mediocre. Among the not-mediocre Winchester pubs is my old local, The Black Boy. (My old old local, The Mash Tun, died the death and now seems to be a tapas bar.)

I’ve been going to The Black Boy for, well, probably decades. It’s a great little pub, in a low-ceilinged old building, replete with plenty of novelty clutter (taxidermied beasts, eviscerated books), fireplaces (that are actually used in the winter), and plenty of nooks and crannies. More importantly, however, there’s also a decent selection of real beers. Not only that, they have a policy to stock local real beers, so expect stuff from breweries and Hampshire (mostly) and other parts of ye olde Kingdom of Wessex, like adjacent Wiltshire. Oh, and it’s friendly too – not something you always experience in British boozers.

The Black Boy, Winchester

The Black Boy always seems to carry Flowerpots Bitter from The Flowerpots Brewery in Cheriton, a few miles away from Winchester. I often choose their 3.8% bitter (so mild-mannered after all the strong Italian beers I’ve been drinking lately!), but for this visit to The Black Boy I sampled some of the other ales they had on and chose Ruddy Darter.

Although it’s classified as an English bitter by Beer Advocate and a Premium Bitter/ESB by Ratebeer, more specifically I’d call Ruddy Darter an amber ale, with its deep coppery-red colour. Andwell, the Hampshire brewery that makes Ruddy Darter, refer to it as a Ruby Ale, in a Premium Ale style. (Andwell, by the way, was founded in 2008; Ruddy Darter is their most recent beer.)

However you define it, Ruddy Darter is delicious. It’s got a fruity smell, which continues into the taste, which is also warmly malty, with a good sweet caramel flavour and mellow hoppiness. My pint was hand-pumped, with low carbonation, though I suspect the bottled version would be bubblier. (Something I experimented on a few days later with some beers from Holsworthy Ales, in Devon. Will write that up shortly.). Oh, and it’s named after a dragonfly, which is pretty cool. All in all, a very pleasant quick visit to an old haunt.

[Usual apology for quality of photos. One of my reasons for visiting Winchester was to get a new phone with a good camera, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to sign up for another 24 month contract or whatever.]

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Specchia White Night amber ale at Tree Bar

Last night, we had tickets to go and see Neneh Cherry and Fat Freddy’s Drop at the Cavea of the Auditorium Parco della Musica, in the Flaminio district of Rome. This is the area to the north of Piazza del Popolo,  the popular spot for tourists, shoppers and manifestazioni at the top of Via Del Corso, central Rome’s main consumer strip and sometime location of yacht races *.

We’d never been far into Flaminio, so were keen to check out a spot called the Tree Bar, and the Auditorium itself. The Auditorium was designed by Renzo Piano, who has more recently radically altered London’s skyline with the Shard, and was inaugurated in 2002. The complex consists of three beetle-roofed concert halls with the Cavea in between – a fourth, open air auditorium. This is where we were headed. But first, a beer.

The central Roman section of Via Flaminia (one of the city’s ancient routes, heading north) is canonically long and straight, and plied by trams. It’s lined with handsome mid-20th century apartment blocks and collection of tired looking markets, workshops and older, more historical buildings, along with a couple of stretches of open park. Tree Bar, a former kiosk, nestles in one of these.

Inside, it has has light, Scandinavian style wood fittings, outside there’s a terrace area that spills into the park. Some kids’ football kept escaping from their game – inside a dry fountain – and flying past us while we drank.

With its emphasis on aperitivo drinking, Tree Bar has a long menu of sparkling wines and cocktails, but thankfully there were also a few craft beers tucked in there too, with three bottled beers in a section marked “Birre Artigianale”. I didn’t know any of them, so asked the waiter what one, from a brewery in called B94 in Lecce, Puglia, was. He said it was a birra artigianale. Yes, but what type, I persisted, and he managed to come up with the fact that it was an amber ale. Okay, fine, that’s enough for me. He also said it was enough for two (a 75ml bottle), but Fran wanted a cocktail.

B94 Specchia White Night, plus snacks, Tree Bar, Rome

When it arrived, a black bottle with a slightly muddle label design and the apparent name “Specchia White Night”, I told him not to worry, it’s not too much for one person – as I’m British. Nothing like reinforcing stereotypes.

Anyway, he poured and inch of so, and there wasn’t much head, and the liquid was a murky amber-brown. I poured more, a bit more vigorously, and got a better head. Head, or schiuma, is very important in the appreciation of Italian craft beers – all the descriptions mention it. My Guida alle Birre d’Italia 2013 says it’s a beer with colore ambra intenso con schiuma di buona persistenza. Which I’d have to disagree with – the head wasn’t very persistent.

I didn’t get much in the way of strong scents coming off it, bar malt and some melon, or apple. Which made a nice contrast to the more citrusy beers I’ve been drinking a lot lately. Taste-wise, the maltiness (from both malted barley and wheat) was combined with a fairly strong bitter hoppiness and yeastiness, along with some spice (cloves), caramel and even a soapiness. It was a reasonably drinkable beer, with a medium body, low-middling carbonisation and 6% strength, though perhaps slightly heavy for my tastes for a warm summer evening. Plus, well, another aspect of my Britishness – the name and label brought disconcerting flashes of White Lightning, a trashy cider from the early 1990s. An unfortunate association.

B94 Specchia White Night's label, at Tree Bar, Rome

Still, it’s always good to try something new, from a brewery I’d not heard of before. Apparently B94 was founded in 1994 by Raffaele Longo to make beers for his friend. It’s that step from home-brewing to commerce that’s the familiar narrative for many micro-breweries.

Having quickly consumed Tree Bar’s stuzzichini (a plate of appetizers/snacks often served at aperitivo time), we had a pizza too. The food wasn’t bad – the stuzzicini included some pieces of particularly nice frittata and they seem to use some wholegrain flours in their doughs. Thus fuelled, we dashed on up the road to get to the venue.

Neneh Cherry had, disappointingly, bailed (with no reason or excuse forthcoming online), and the support act were pretty noodly, but the Cavea is a great location, the overcast weather didn’t give way to rain, and Fat Freddy’s Drop – New Zeeland’s finest reggae-dub-soul-rave combo – were energetic and entertaining, taking us through their new album, Black Bird, and including a few old favourites. Though they didn’t do an encore. What’s up guys? Grumpy? Tired from the world tour?

Fat Freddy's Drop, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome, 3 July 2013

Via Flaminia 226, 00196 Roma

* “In December 1878 [the Tiber’s] floodwaters in the Via del Corso were so deep that a sailing race was held held there…” (p114, Whispering City, RJB Bosworth)

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Laboratorio Piccolo Birrificio’s Steamer amber ale at Necci, Rome

steamer at Necci

Last night we made it back to Necci, in Pigneto – the neighbourhood that was once on the wrong side of the railway tracks, but has now become something of a haven for (young, and young-ish, black-clad) people wanting to do a bit of boozing and yakking away from any crazy Roman traffic. Via del Pigneto itself has a great traffic-free section that’s packed with bars, but cross over another set of tracks, turn a few corners among the unique low-rise buildings – very different to the apartment blocks of other Roman neighbourhoods – and you’ll get to Necci. Or !Necci dal 1924″.

Now, as I wrote here, the whole “open since 1498” thing gets my goat. Innumerable osterie/trattorie/ristoranti proclaim their year of founding as if it’s somehow important even when they churn out mediocre food. Not so Necci. This is a place that’s doing so much right. Although it’s nearly a century old, and a neighbourhood landmark, and was the filmmaker Pier Paolo Passolini‘s main hangout when he made his breakthrough film Accattone (1961), it’s not stuck in aspic. The heritage is just part of the fabric of a lively, diverse venue that offers pretty much everything to all comers, any day of the week. Except, that is, a decent beer menu. More on which later.


Although Necci has all this history, and is a great place physically, with a funky interior and shady terraces, its success is also down to a unique scenario whereby it’s run by business partners Massimo Innocenti (manager) and Ben­jamin Hirst (chef), who took over the venue in 2006. Hirst? That doesn’t sound very Italian, and indeed it’s not – he’s a British chef. A British chef running the kitchens of an  Italian eatery? Yes. Shocking.

This partnership is something that’s potentially unique in the Roman restaurant scene. After all, Italians in general are bloomin’ sniffy about the idea of foreigners being able to cook, and yet here’s a Brit proving them wrong, and overseeing a far more interesting menu than many places in Rome. I say that in part because the inventive dinner menu features not just the usual Roman offal, but a lot of fish dishes too – which can be a rarity in osterie/trattorie/ristoranti here, despite the city only being 20km or so from the sea.

It’s not just all about dinner at Necci though. It’s a café with a pasticceria on the opposite corner, a shop, a lunch venue and a great spot for an aperitivo. Indeed, it’s there I had my first (excellent) sbagliato: a “wrong” Negroni, made with vermouth, campari and prosescco instead of gin. They even have an decent wine list. The only disappointment for me was the selection of beers.

The whole ethos for Necci, according to the Projetto Gastronomico section of their site, is an emphasis on organic produce from Lazio and central Italy, and everything made on the premises – “from the cornetti (Italian croissants) to the bread, from the gelato to the tagliatelle, from the cakes to the gnocchi”.

The site uses the word autarchico, which translates into English as autarkic… Yes, I didn’t know that one either, but it means self-sufficient, independent. (They’re exactly the sort of principles I’d like to apply if I ever run a food business.) The site also says Hirst, who initially studied art history before getting into cuisine (working in France, the US and Italy, with experience in patisserie and vegeterian food, though there was little of the latter available last night) works to recreate traditional osteria dishes – but the ones that people may have forgotten. It’s slow food without the rhetoric, apparently. So, in amongst all this, why don’t they have a few more Italian craft beers? Although Massimo flagged up one Italian craft beer on their menu, Steamer, when we came to order, the waiter seemed to determined to sell me a Stella Artois. Which isn’t just industrial muck, it’s decidedly not from Lazio or central Italy or Italy at all. And yet Lazio alone boasts several microbreweries producing interesting, quality beers: Birra del Borgo, Turan and Itineris, to name but a few.

steamer label

Still, we had a great night, and the Steamer was delicious. It’s brewed by Lorenzo Bottoni under the label of Laboratorio Experimental Brews / Laboratorio Piccolo Birrificio (“little brewery lab/workshop”). The site has a section called Manifesto, where Bottoni talks about how his brewing is always a collaborative experience. Which is nice. Clearly Bottoni and his chums between them have a lot of knowledge and are deploying it to produce interesting beers. They don’t seem to have a fixed brewery location, but seem to be a kind of brewing flying squad. Well, not flying – cycling. I like them even more as, from a quick jaunt round their Facebook page, they seem to be pretty big on bikes. Bravi!

Anyway, Steamer. It’s a hoppy amber ale. But not that hoppy. Middlingly hoppy. On the nicely designed, informative site, the Laboratorio gives the IBU (International Bitterness Units) as 39.7, which puts it on the cusp between mellower pale ales (usually 20-40 IBU) and hoppier, more bittererer IPAs (usually 40-60 IBU, depending on your sources and on type). The hops in question here are a mixture of Cascade and Amarillo from the US, and Nelson Sauvin from New Zealand. Which makes me happy and strangely emotional, as I’ve spent a lot of time in and around Nelson, a marvellous little town that’s played a key role in NZ’s craft brewery scene.

Steamer’s fairly strong, at 7.6%, but goes down smooth, with a body that’s almost verging on the milkiness of a thick stout or porter. A fruity aroma is accompanied by a caramel and biscuitty taste, the latter possibly arising from the interesting use of malted rye, instead of barley. All in all, a highly notable beer. As the site itself says, it’s something that was developed In risposta allo strapotere delle IPA-DIPA-APA, una birra luppolata il cui amaro si accompagna alla setosa ruvidita’ conferitale dalla segale, that is “In response to the excessive power of the IPA-Double IPA-APAs, a hoppy beer in which bitterness is accompanied by the silky coarseness of the rye.” Okay.

So yes. I’m really enjoying Necci. Although I’m disappointed by the presence of generic and or non-Italian beers on the menu, I’m encouraged by the fact that the one Italian artisan beer included has clearly been chosen with care. I just wish this place was nearer where I live…

Necci, Via Fanfulla da Lodi 68, Pigneto, Roma
+39 6 9760 1552 / necci1942.com / info@necci1924.com
Open 8am-1am, seven days a week.

Laboratorio Piccolo Birrificio
piccololab.it / info@piccololab.it


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