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Christ, it's been a busy two weeks. Anyone else suffer from all-the-work-comes-at-once syndrome? After a relatively quiet Christmas, the New Year's been nuts, but the upside of this has been the opportunity to break up a couple of days in London on business with a visit to The Euston Tap.

It's been the #1 venue on my list since reading Adrian's great review back in November. So, what other venue to meet an old friend and catch up over a beer or three. Despite the initial confusion over where the taps are (they're behind the bar, sticking out of the wall, US-style), we then spent the next five minutes deciding what to have. This sounds like a chore-but in reality it's refreshing; it's been a while since I've been stumped by choice. Opting for a Thornbridge Wild Swan and a refreshing, grapefruity Camden Pale (followed by some Bernard in excellent nick),we caught up, whilst every once in a while commenting on the friendliness of the staff, individuality of the space (did it used to be a public toilet, anyone?), the prices (excellent for London) and the sheer range, both on tap and in the monolithically-sized fridges that flank the bar. It's going to be really hard to be in London and not visit, now my cherry has been popped. Visit it. I was so lost in the beer, conversation and the moment, I didn't even take any pictures. That doesn't happen often. Also, if you visit the website and watch the slideshow, you'll see a certain Mr Avery propping up the bar - and if it's good enough for Zak, it's good enough for you. Visit their website for further info.

Back to the North, and I pleaded and fought to take a day off on Thursday to attend the National Winter Ales Festival in Manchester. It's always a pleasure; well run, well organised, a great -and truly seasonal - beer list, and a nice, airy venue. Inital thirst adequately sated by an Okell's Alt - all toffee, caramel, and bready, malt led sweetness - I began on my beer list for the day. Stand out beers? SummerWine's Diablo IPA had all the trademark, golden sweetness for an SWB beer, and, to my mind, delivered a much more aggressive, spicy hoppiness than thier P6 Range. Wonderful stuff, and I'm glad I saved it until last, such is the hop attack. Hardknott's Infra-Red proved too much of a temptation from the bottled bar; and it refreshed the palate following a day of darker beers. One beer I'd had my eye on last time but missed was Robinson's Chocolate Tom. Surprisingly, I got practically no chocolate apart from a mild, milky chocolate hint at the end of the sip. It was, however, a good beer - plummy, red-fruit dominating the palate, with a hint of spice and the aforementioned chocolate-creaminess wrapping the whole package up. Sweet, but not cloyingly so, it was Christmas cake in a glass. Goacher's Fine Light perked things back up with mellow, unmistakable EKG hop notes before I made my big discovery of the day.

This was Hopstar's Smokey Joe Black Beer. I have never - and I really mean this - come across such a well-balanced chocolate beer. Layer upon layer of Dark and Milk Chocolate, a slight hazelnut/almond nuttiness providing a little sharpness, and light as a feather. An absolute diamond of a beer, and at 4.0 abv and not too cloying, I actually went back and had another half. It's not often that happens at a beer festival, either. It won Silver in the Stout category - and rightly so.

My usual drinking buddy, Chris, had never visited The Marble Arch, so obviously the route home was circumvented by a visit. Over post-festival halves of Utility Special, we opted to try the small cheeseboard and a share a bottle of Stouter Port Stout - what a beer! Damsons, Plum, Raisin, Sultana all peeking out from rich smokiness and a surprisingly light finish for a stout. Again, the environment, beer, excellent cheeseboard (and it really was - we opted for 'chef's choice' but really wish I'd have made a note of what we ate) and conversation prevented me from taking too many pictures, but good pubs have a way of doing that.