I’ll be up front as usual on these matters, I was invited by Ember Inns PR agency to visit one of their pubs to taste their new house ale, brewed by Black Sheep. They provided me with a very well presented tankard and a number of pints of the beer itself and travel expenses.
Ember Inns are a chain of pubs across the UK with 166 food led pubs in total. They have 5 pubs around the West Yorkshire area, clustered around West and North Leeds area. I was invited to visit the Brown Cow on the Selby Road running out of Leeds. Normally I’d not give these places a second look as pubs which are attached to a hotel are more there to feed the residents than serve a decent range of ales, and by their admission Amber Inns are a food led chain. The pubs is of fairly typical chain decor, neutral colours, a variety of seating, with distinct adult only and family areas, something I appreciate even as a parent myself from both sides of the fence. First impressions were good of the place, not too busy on a wet Saturday lunch, but a range of customers from families eating, to groups having a few pints before heading into town, to diners. There were a good number of staff on duty, all of which were keeping up with day to day duties when not serving customers. It’s good to see.
My contact was Kevin, the Cask Ambassador at the pub. I was surprised on inspection that the pub had 10 real ale pumps with 3 regular and 7 guest. The long bar holds these pumps in three banks. You should note here that beers the pub can select are from Ember Inns “Seasonal Range”, a curated list from head office of 30 beers update quarterly. There were at least 6 ales on the bar I’ve not tried, and the ones I’d had before were choices I’d have easily picked if not here to taste a certain beer. The range of beers, brewers and styles was well balanced and wasn’t dominated with household names. My concern was, as a food led pub, freshness of beer over 10 pumps would be a problem, but the pub runs 80/20 wet to dry meaning that the majority of its turnover is derived from drinkers. They typically aim to turnaround a cask in 4-5 days tops, and those that don’t shift don’t get ordered again, of which there had been a few.
You’d have thought with 10 pumps, all generally selling whilst fresh, Ember Inns would give the pub SIBA access, where they can order any beer which they distribute, but knowing large pub chains, the criteria for getting onto that list can be tough with financial targets and ordering levels usually being the thing which uplifts a pub, but I’d ask Ember Inns to look again at the Brown Cow as giving them SIBA access which would benefit both parties.
I rarely drink big brand ales such as Copper Dragon and Black Sheep now, saving for when there is a limited ale selection at a pub I visit and I revert to a known brand over lager or a now over cooled Guinness. It was these beers which got me into real ale in the first place, so I know they are solid dependable sessions ales which aren’t going to give you any surprises.
Now lets get onto the nub of the article, the Ember Pale Ale, they display the Black Sheep sourcing prominently, but they don’t need to, this could come from no other brewery than Black Sheep. Be it Black Sheep Ale, Riggwelter or Golden Sheep, their beers have the same under note, best described as earthy and solid. Looking at the tasting notes, this has Maris Otter malted barley, Fuggles and WGV (Whitbread Goldings Variety) hops. Interesting to note that the British Hop Association has this to say about WGV “has a distinctive and robust flavour and although Goldings features in its name, it is more likely to have Fuggle pedigree, based on its Farnesene content”.
Flavours in the beer they note include a “biscuity flavour from the barley…..with a herbal edge….with peppery and minty taste”. The beers I had settled well and were clear and had obviously been kept well. Looking at the tasting notes Black Sheep put for their Best Bitter, there is a number of points of commonality, so it is no surprise that it tastes much like its more famous brother. It is a decent session ale, easy to drink, with good solid base flavours and pleasant on the tongue, but the herbal, peppery and mint notes don’t quite fight enough to get out, it needs a touch more “pop”, especially when competing with 9 other ales on the bar. However this beer will sell well across the 144 pubs it is being put in, of that their is no doubt, it’s got the Black Sheep badge and a taste that will appeal across the board, and for Ember Inns that is job done.
I also eat here (at my own cost) and the food was spot on, I had the ultimate burger, chips swapped out for mash and no bun. The burgers with egg, bacon and cheese was well presented on a wooden board, the meat was well cooked, moist and of a good size to the point where I only managed under a half of the second burger which comes with this. The mash was good as well, something many pubs fall over on. The customer service was spot on from all the staff, and from my advantage point near the bar, this seemed to be the standard. As I’ve always said give people a good beer and good service and you are more than halfway to having a good pub.