I like beer, a fact both my both wallet and waistband would attest to, which makes Tryanuary - a campaign encouraging people to try new independent breweries, beers, bars and bottle shops, and a riposte to the far more sobering Dry January - my kind of challenge. (yes, I'm aware it's February already, blame it on all the beer I've been sampling)
And where better to start then at Cheltenham's Jessop House; a stately Georgian townhouse that houses the first Wild Beer - the innovative Somerset brewers, renowned for their experiments with grains, grapes, and pretty much anything else they can get their hands on - bar and restaurant.
While Wild Beer may not have been new to me - I first encountered their beverages here while on a trip to Somerset a couple of years ago and have lost several nights subsequently drinking them at my local - a pub focusing on their drinks was. And although I thought I was already a consummate consumer of their brews, a look at the wonders on their beer board soon put me to rights.
Alongside their own beers (all keg) there are a few other gems on offer that on our visit included a fruity duo of Hawkshead Raspberry Sour and Magic Rock's Grapefruit Highwire, The latter of which we found an animated customer mixing together with Wild Beer's Bibble (an everyday pale ale) to make a craft turbo shandy while talking loudly about jazz clubs. Mmm, nice. (He was good fun!- TE)
We started with Hula, based on a keg of Sourdough (made with a Hobbs House bakery yeast starter) that 'went mental'. And I'm glad it did, as this was lip-puckering libation with notes of apple, lemon, vinegar and bread. It's certainly a bold and unusual beer, and probably not for everyone, but at 3.8% it made a light and zingy beginning.
What I really like about Wild Beer, as their name might suggest, is their passion for going off piste. We explored their untamed side by sampling three more of their sour/wild ales; Firstly was Zintuki, a blend of Ninkansi (their celebratory ale made with apple juice and champagne yeast) and Somerset Wild, which was good but didn't quite live up to the sum of its parts.
There followed Squashed Grape, a beer made using grape must from a nearby vineyard alongside wild apple yeast, making for dashing purple drink with a pleasant fruity funk and background mustiness I wasn't so keen on. And then the Modus Wine, a beer so secret one of it's descriptions is listed as simply '????'. I'll leave the tasting notes as a mystery to be discovered (and nothing to do with the fact it came after an evening of imbibing and I can't really remember....)
I do, however remember the last beer, the Millionaire salted caramel stout. I wasn't so much of a fan of their Yankee Sandwich (a peanut butter stout that's no longer available) but this struck a perfect bittersweet balance and clocked in at an eminently reasonable 4.7%.
After staggering back up the Bath Road to our hotel for the night, we both woke up feeling far more chipper than we ought to. And hungry; very hungry. The perfect opportunity, then to head back to Jessop House to try their set lunch menu - at a very competitively priced £14 for three courses - alongside another libation or two.
To drink, we went with the beer pairing, two third pint glasses per person, available with the set lunch for just 2.50 extra. Normally, as we had already drunk five of the twelve Wild Beers on the board the night before, I would have been keen to chose my own beer selection, less there was any duplication. But new year, new you and all that and I left it in the lap of the gods, or the bar staff, to decide.
First out were two brews we hadn't yet sampled; the Einsteinium lager for me - complex, as you might expect from these guys, but still retaining the easy-drinking nature of a good lager - and the Somerset Wild for the Ewing, a bolder, sharper beer, based on yeasts found in the orchards of the South West. It might look just like cloudy apple juice but it delivers a devilish punch
My calamari - in a change from the advertised squid with salt and preserved lemon - had been slow braised in a tomato sauce with a tangle of sweet onions and dill. Deceptively simple yet delicious, I've already been thinking about creating this at home; maybe with a few black olives and a good glug of pastis.
The Ewing's potted mackerel with Somerset Wild jelly (to match the beer, or should that be the otherway around) - served in an admirably decent portion along with a green salad - had a nice smokiness if a touch too much gelatine 'bounce' for my taste.
I actually preferred the crisp baguette served with this to my own wholemeal bloomer, and thankfully The Ewing felt the opposite, so we started a little bread exchange; two roundels for half a slice being the going rate.
The stars aligned again (or possibly it was a side affect of all the beer) with our next match, with two more untried libations. Madness, my choice, is their interpretation of a West Coast IPA. The label describes it as hops + hops + hops and it doesn't disappoint. The Ewing's pairing was Wild Gose Chase, a gooseberry infused saison that I've enjoyed before, but lacks a little of the fresh fruit zing the description promises.
The slab of pork belly, while lacking in a carapace of crackle, was still a fine piece of meat. Cooked until the fat had rendered and the flesh shredded apart at the hint of pressure from a fork, served on a bed of crushed roots and roasted leek, this was a winter warmer executed with a deft touch.
The fish was a creamy, smoky, thermonuclear dish of joy which proved a timely heat source for the Ewing, as the cold new year breeze blowing through the sash windows started to bite (I actually discovered that my boots had leaked and I had wet feet, and we all know that once your feet are wet and cold, you're cold - TE). It could have accommodated a little cheese in the mash (few things wouldn't accommodate a little cheese) and maybe a few peas (greens and salad are available as a side order) but was a fine example of its kind.
After enjoying a cracking visit-and-a-half up to this point, we ordered our puddings, a schooner of Millionare for me and a double espresso for the Ewing and sat back and waited; and waited and waited some more...
Finally, after a faintly farcical passage of play where everybody else around us (or the two other occupied tables) had been served their food and an attempt had been made to re-clear our table, despite having not actually having received our dessert, it transpired our order had been misplaced. And the doughnuts had to be cooked from scratch.
Ordinarily this turn of events might have pushed my mild-mannered Englishness to the limit. But apologies were profuse and after a gratis glass of Amouse Bouche - again one of their suggestions, and the penultimate beer on the board that I hadn't tried (don't worry, I picked up a bottle of the final untried beer, Brett Brett to take home and drink later) - was offered, along with another coffee for the Ewing, we were happy to hang on a little longer. It also helped that their was beer related literature to read and the Millionaire was going down very nicely.
Sadly the Shnoodlepip doughnuts didn't prove to up to the delay. While the concept was good - they are based on their Shnoodlepip beer that contains pink peppercorns, passionfruit and hibiscous - the oddly sized dough balls were dry and chewy, making me long for the tonka bean doughnuts at Drygate in Glasgow, one of my favourite puddings of last year.
The Ewing's Beeramisu fared better, being a clever Wild Beer re-imagining of the Italian classic. Sponge fingers were infused with their Wildebeest crushed espresso stout, layered with vanilla marscapone and topped with chocolate and cacao nibs. Rich, tangy and understated this pudding/drink hybrid marked a fitting start to Tryanuary and a great ending to a memorable (for mostly the right reasons) lunch.