The Greenwich Union – on the up again

Publicity photo of meantime coffee stoutTo Greenwich then, to visit the Union again. We haven’t been there much recently, maybe once every six months, as we weren’t too impressed with the service the last couple of times, and Greenwich is a bit of a hike from our gaff.

However, we are delighted to report that the Union is on top form at the moment, and well worth a visit. More than a couple of visits a year, in our case. Especially because Meantime always seem to be tinkering with their recipes, so the beers never taste quite the same from one visit to the next.

For the uninitiated, the Union in Greenwich is the main outlet for Meantime’s beers. Meantime seems to divide beer lovers; on the one hand, it has many fans, on the other hand, the fact that it serves most of its beers in keg form makes it a no-no amongst hard-core CAMRA types those who feel that cask is the best form of serving beers. [See comments]

After today’s visit, we would recommend a visit even if you despise Meantime beers. You can find excellent and well-priced food, plus a good range of bottled beers from other brewers. They’ve obviously taken on board previous negative comments about the service on sites such as Beer in the Evening — service was excellent, with bar staff keen to plug the Meantime beers, offer tastings and advice and generally look after the punters.

But onto the beers. The specials on today were a Strawberry beer, and a stout, which was called something like London Single Stout. The strawberry was very pleasant – not quite the thing for the bleak midwinter, but refreshing and fruity. The London Single Stout was definitely streets ahead of the Extra Dry Stout, reviewed here in May by Stonch, and here by us. It’s not too fizzy, it has a lovely big body with all sorts of vanilla and coffee flavours. Very impressive for 4.5%.

We also thought that the Wheatbeer and Raspberry beers had improved. These are also produced in “Grand Cru” versions in bottles, and we wondered whether this had helped improve the quality of the “base” product. The wheat tasted of bananas, as expected, but also had a fresh hop finish. The Raspberry has got much lighter over the years (it’s barely red at all now) but delivers a beautifully balanced fruit flavour. Unusually for a fruit beer, you can also taste the malt and hops. Clever stuff.

The Pale Ale tasted like a cleaner, more sparkling version of Young’s bitter. The Pilsener is now only available in bottles, but is absolutely delicious – it tastes herby and spritzy. To finish, we had a Chocolate beer and a Coffee beer (also in bottles). They’re both marvellously thick and creamy; the coffee porter is probably more complex, but it would be difficult to pick a favourite from the two.

Weirdly, they didn’t have any Winter Time, and the bar staff were as confused as us about why not.

The Rake at Christmas and Great Divide Yeti Imperial Stout

If you want to get into the Christmassy spirit in London, a trip to Borough Market is a winner. Geese, game pies, mulled cider, and carol-singers under a tree. A real Dickensian wonderland (just wish they had Dickensian prices). All the better if you go on a weekday afternoon when you should be in work.

Having carefully selected some beers in Utobeer to go with Christmas dinner (more on that after Christmas) we retired to the Rake for a quiet drink or six. We hadn’t been for a few months – it’s rather difficult to get in the door in the evenings these days – and were pleased to see that what was on offer had changed considerably since the last time we were there. Not that there was anything wrong with the previous selection, it’s just good to see change and variety.

On tap; HopBack Entire Stout, O’Hanlon’s Goodwill, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, La Chouffe N’ice, Koestritzer Schwarzbier and I think Maisels’ Weisse. In bottles, another two hundred or so.

yeti.jpgOf the various beers we had, Goodwill was great in that it wasn’t just a standard bitter with some cinnamon in it. Instead, the brewers had gone for citrusy flavours and succeeded in creating a nicely balanced, warming bitter. Similar citrusy flavours abounded in Celebration Ale, which also tasted of peaches. La Chouffe was very tasty, but then at 10% it should be! All excellent beers.

But the star of the show was Great Divide’s Yeti Imperial Stout (in bottles). Now, we’d had a few drinks beforehand, so I’m not sure in the cold light of the morning I’d be as bold as to say it was the best beer I’d ever tasted (which I said a few times last night to anyone who’d care to listen…) But it knocked our socks off sufficiently that we ordered another one straight afterwards, rather than try a new beer. It’s 9.5% and almost jet black, with a gorgeous mocha-coloured head. It reminded me of an amazing hot chocolate I once had in Spain, which was 85% cocoa solids. Incredibly chocolatey, thick and silky, but not at all sweet. It’s very bitter (it proudly boasts “75 bittering units”) but the hop bitterness blends perfectly with the cocoa bitterness. It’s a sledgehammer of a beer.

Pretentious? Watashi?

Stout and Oysters is a classic combination. The problem is, neither of us much likes oysters, which is just as well, as they’re bleedin’ expensive.

But we do like sushi — especially the stuff that comes in polystyrene trays from the Japan Centre on Piccadilly.

bbporter.jpgLast night, we tried homemade “junkfood” salmon rolls with Black Boss, one of the Polish porters we picked up at the Great British Beer Festival.

We’ll tell you more about the beer in our forthcoming Baltic porter round-up but, for now, what we can say is: sushi and porter is a combination that works.

There didn’t seem to be any competing flavours, so both the beer and the food tasted distinct from each other.

With hindsight, we’d drink something a little drier and a little weaker — Titanic Stout would probably be perfect.

St Bernardus Abt 12 v Westvleteren 12

What beer-lover isn’t intrigued by the history and production of Westvleteren beers, the12s.jpg most reclusive of the Trappist producers? The angle that always caught our attention was the similarities (or not) between St Bernardus Abt 12 and Westvleteren 12. The St Bernardus brewery has its origins in a commercialisation experiment by the monks at the abbey of St-Sixtus in Westvleteren, whereby they licenced commercial production of the abbey’s beers to an enterprising cheese producer. The licence ended in 1992, and since then the St Bernardus brewery has continued, removing references to St Sixtus and Trappist beers.

There are various rumours about the similarity of the recipes; that they’re the same but the yeast and water are different; that once they were exactly the same but now they’re different for various reasons etc. We’re not beer historians, so don’t know what’s true and what isn’t; if you want to read more, an old article by Stonch with related comments and links is a good place to start.

12s3.jpgWe thought we’d try the two together and see how similar they were. We tried to make the experiment as fair as possible, serving them in identical glasses at the same temperature etc. However, our Westvleteren has been “aging” in our “cellar” for about five months whereas the St-Bernardus was bought last week.

There’s an obvious difference in that St Bernardus is 10% whereas the Westvleteren is 10.2%. Interestingly though, the St Bernardus (right on our photo) has a stronger body and better head retention.

As for colour – there is a slight difference, with Westy being more brown and St Bernardus being more red-black. But that could be down to the amount of yeast shaken into both.

There is a stronger aroma with the St-Bernardus – it smells like a good sherry, with lots of fruity flavours. As for the taste – we always struggle to describe the flavour of Belgian beers, but here goes. We’d describe both as fruity, but Westvleteren had more milk-chocolate flavours, whilst the St-Bernardus had more tangy apple overtones. St-Bernardus was both sourer and more bitter (though in a very balanced way). As you go down the glass, the St-Bernardus gets more tangy, whereas the Westvleteren gets sweeter.

We concluded that we would be pretty happy to be served both; Bailey had no preference but Boak preferred the St-Bernardus. But they’re definitely different beers with their own identities.

Of course there is a slight possibility we mixed the two up during the photo-shoot…

Notes

The Westvleteren website is here and has got to be my favourite beer related website… You should go there to purchase your share, but you could also have a look on the “top shelf” of various touristy beer bars in Brussels.

St Bernardus site is here. Their products are available in a few more locations, including Quaffs in London where we got ours.