On the 26th April 2012 the 7th annual Beer and Pie Festival hit the city centre of Lancaster, where three pubs – the White Cross, the Penny Bank and Merchants – served up some of the greatest ales and pies around. To celebrate our return to Lancaster after a long Easter break, a group of us from County College set out to discover what tasty beverages and pastry goodness the city had to offer. The atmosphere of the festival was fantastic, with most of the pubs seeming very welcoming and comfortable, but the Penny Bank undoubtedly was the best experience not just for the hospitality and cosiness of the venue, but for the perfection of the food. Steff, over to you for a review of the meat pies…
The first stop on our bar crawl was the White Cross, where we got stuck straight in to an array of interesting meat pies. These included a Sunday lunch Pie, sausage and chorizo and a chicken curry pie with a naan bread crust. Despite rumours about the chicken curry pie being the best one around, I was a little unimpressed as I felt it didn’t quite constitute a pie. It was really just curry in a bowl with an naan on top, which of course I didn’t complain about as it was very tasty, but I was expecting it in a bit more of a pie form. We all had quite different impressions about which was the best meat pie the White Cross had but the general consensus was that the Sunday lunch pie was the most flavoursome, although its texture was a bit too much like a stew for my liking. I was quite satisfied with what we had gorged on so far especially as the portions were a brilliant size, but I did hope for some improvement taste–wise as we gradually made our way to the Penny Bank with our stomachs already verging on bulging.
The meat pies of the Penny Bank were a lot more impressive, the best being the fidget pie which was filled with apple and ham flavoured with some cider. The mixture of sweet and savoury was really interesting and all the flavours complimented each other well, along with the pastry having a gorgeous crispy texture and looking a lot more like a pie than others we had previously encountered. Throw in a huge meat calzone pizza pie that was ultimately cheesy and wonderful and it’s safe to say the Penny Bank topped the White Cross by far. We felt like pigs at this point, but we quite happily and shamelessly rolled ourselves onto the last pub.
This final stop was Merchants, which started disappointingly as we were unable to try the very intriguing kangaroo pie. However, we managed to satisfy ourselves with what was probably one of the best pieces of our trip, the chicken, and pancetta and rosemary pie. This was beautifully creamy and the mixture of meat and the topping of herbs made it packed with flavour. Overall, despite an average start to the crawl, the meat pies had pleased me much with the best pub generally being the Penny Bank and the awesomeness of the fidget pie. This was also where our best veggie encounter also took place. Beth, over to you….
Being the only pescatarian on our expedition, I felt an extra challenge in finding the best pies. After all, not many meat-lovers would willingly choose a veggie option when there was so much meat about. At the White Cross, I proudly ordered the most interesting-sounding pie on the menu; Sweet Potato and Fiery Dragon Butter Pie. I simply had to know what ‘Fiery Dragon Butter’ was all about. Overall, it was a nice pie. A slight kick but it didn’t blow my head off which I was sort of expecting based on the name. It was tasty and creamy without being too heavy but ever so slightly bland. Still, I concurred that I would order it again and would still recommend the food.
Next was on to the Penny Bank, which was a celebration for all vegetarians out there. The pie we chose was the Calzone Pizza Pie, filled with feta, mozzarella, red onion, spinach and peppers. The danger here was that it might be too cheesy (if there even is such a thing). However, it was a classic combination of flavours which absolutely sang together. I resented having to share out my pie to the other tasters until they all agreed it was stunning. I believe the general consensus was also that it was better than its meaty counterpart – keep this on the menu Penny Bank!
At Merchants, I decided to extend my pescatarian privileges to the fish pie. This did exactly what it said on the tin; it was creamy, and chock-a-block full of smoked haddock, king prawn and sea trout. Had I not already eaten twice that afternoon I could easily have polished off the whole thing. Those who ate fish at the table also seemed to enjoy it, and I found my fork wandering back as it was incredibly moreish. Needless to say, I’d thoroughly enjoyed my day, and I recommend the pubs for delivering wonderful vegetarian/pescatarian pies. I also enjoyed my first real tastes of ale on this day, but seeing as I’m not an expert I’ll let Nick do the talking…
As a dedicated advocate of real ales, the festival held one goal for me: to sample as many of the drinks on offer as I could. The sheer number of beers on offer which offered as wide a range of different flavours and tastes, from pale, fruity beers that came close to lagers, through to black, oaty stouts and even a very nice barley wine at 8% vol and with a port-like flavour, became a favourite, and made the rest of the afternoon more interesting. The fair range of ales on offer meant that I was able to persuade both Beth and Steff, neither of whom are particular fans of proper beer, to try some of the speciality beers on offer, with more exotic flavours including beers that tasted of blueberries and one with strong overtones of strawberry. The wide array of local breweries showcasing their beverages created a lot of competition, and there were many stand out beers of all kinds, pale, bitter, amber, dark and fruity. The quantities of beer that were on offer meant that, when looking through the lists, choosing where to start was hard. However personally, I felt that the best pint was the Timothy Taylor Landlord; an amber bitter which was a mild, hoppy bitter. The two non-ale drinkers, however appreciated the toffee overtones of the Coach House Special pale ale.
The Penny Bank and Merchants, however, only had 11 beers each, which were easier to get through in order to give a full and complete review. Out of these, there were a few stand outs, the 8% Barley wine which, whilst tasting like a port and not strictly an ale, was very tasty. The Blueberry special, also from Coach House was another favourite of the non-ale drinkers, who enjoyed the fact that the whole thing tasted of nothing but fruit. The Beers served up at the Merchants were a mixture of light and dark drinks, which gave a good cross section of flavours, especially the local Lancaster Red beer.