The Flat, Warm Pints of London Town

Illustration: a flat pint.

I didn’t realise I’d missed London’s characteristically headless, lifeless, lukewarm pints of beer until I had one on Friday.

It was brown, weary-tasting, with barely a fleck of scum on the surface, and yet… I kind of loved it.

I’m not saying this kind of thing is good, or that I wouldn’t have preferred something with a bit of condition given the option, but confronted with it in that moment, it resonated with my homesickness like the stink of a hometown factory.*

For many Londoners, perhaps less so now than it used to be, I’m sure this is actually a preference: no space wasted by mere froth, maximum possible booze for your cash. I remember friends from my sixth-form college and Leyton Orient supporting days grumbling if they were served even slightly foamy pints: ‘What’s going on ‘ere — are we up Norf or summink?’

I didn’t say when I Tweeted about it but the pint in question was at the usually very reliable Royal Oak in Borough, our favourite London pub these days. I stayed drinking there with friends until we got booted out so it can’t have been so bad.

But that’ll do me for a while — back to cool, properly conditioned beers with proper heads now, I think.

* Not an abstract example — Bailey grew up under the foul cloud of British Cellophane and gets sentimental when he smells anything similarly disgusting.

Yarrow, Alecost and Nightmares

Old illustration of yarrow leaves.
Yarrow leaves. SOURCE: Köhler’s Medicinal Plants, 1887, via Biodeversity Library.

I’m all about Harvey’s at the moment. It’s all I wanted to drink in London the other week, and about all I’m interested in drinking now we’re back in Penzance.

Last night, I pulled something of theirs from the back of the stash that, somehow, I’ve never got round to tasting before even though we got several bottles as part of a mixed case last year: Priory Ale.

This beer isn’t on sale anymore but think of this as general commentary on beer with weird herbs rather than as a review and it might have some use.

It’s 6% — a bit indulgent for a school night but not madly so — but the kick is in the small print. It was released in 2014 to mark the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes and was ‘brewed using ingredients that were available to the Cluniac Order at the Priory of St. Pancras in 1264’. The mash included barley, oats and wheat and it was boiled with both hops and yarrow. It was then dry-herbed with alecost, rosemary and thyme during fermentation.

I can’t lie — on reading the blurb, my first thought was, ‘Uh-oh.’ Thyme and rosemary don’t really work in beer, or at least I haven’t yet acquired the taste, making everything a seem bit sickly and savoury.

On tasting it, my first thought was of medicinal shampoo, then of cough sweets, which I guess must mean some memory of menthol firing in my brain. Alecost is sometimes known by the name ‘Mary’s mint’ or variations thereon so perhaps that’s what I was picking up? The rosemary and thyme rose up as the beer went on, overriding everything by the end, like some kind of cotton bag you might hang in a wardrobe to give your bonnets a pleasant fragraunce. Or a leg of lamb.

Most disappointingly from my point of view, it lacked that distinctive Harvey’s character on which I am hooked.

It was not a relaxing beer. Being kind, I’d say it was stimulating, but maybe nerve-jangling is more honest. It put me on edge. ‘I think this is going to give me nightmares,’ I said on turning in.

And do you know, something certainly did.

QUICK ONE: Too Many Breweries: Bureaucracy Edition

We used to have a few breweries making lots of beer; now we have lots of breweries each making a small amount. That’s great news for consumers but a nightmare for the taxman.

I’ve long been fascinated by this because, in a past life, I had dealings with the section of HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs) that manages duty returns on alcohol. Back then, c.2003, it was quite possible for them to carry out a hands-on assessment of something like 98% of all beer production by visiting a handful of large brewing plants.

As the number of breweries has grown (we’re at about 1,500 now, from around 400 in 2002) I’ve often found myself wondering whether they bother inspecting at all, especially given that small brewers pay relatively less tax anyway thanks to progressive beer duty (PBD).

My assumption has been that microbreweries operate more-or-less on an honesty box system but I never got round to investigating with brewers, firing off FOI requests, and so on.

Now, as part of a wider point about fair play, this fascinating, tax-geek friendly blogpost from Dave Bailey of Hardknott Brewery has gone some way to answering my question:

Then, all of a sudden, the banking crisis and subsequent deficit hit hard. One day we decided to throw a whole tank full of beer away. I tried to contact the officer in HMRC and was told he had been moved out of the beer duty department and in fact HMRC wasn’t chasing the likes of us anyway. Funding to the officers was slashed and there was no one left to help us. We were almost told that we could do what we liked.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Dave was right and that some people had decided to take advantage of that situation. Fortunately for the Government this will probably be, to a certain extent, self-policing — that is to say, brewers will dob each other in.

Main image: HMRC by Steven Vacher from Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.

Hoptimystic at the Star Inn

‘I’m not putting it on until you’ve drunk that one,’ we overheard as we approached the bar of the Star Inn, Crowlas, on Friday afternoon. There was definitely what passes for A Buzz in sleepy West Cornwall.

‘What’s coming on then?’ I asked Steve the barman, eagerly studying the ‘Coming d’reckly’ part of the chalkboard beer menu.

‘Hoptimystic. It’s new.’

Cribbage in the pub with pints.We did our bit to help finish off the blocking cask by ordering a couple of pints of a perfectly decent Blonde from Great Heck and sat down to play cribbage in the corner by the fire.

Then, a couple of rounds in… Was there a sudden hush among the garrulous gang of middle-aged pals at the bar? Somehow, anyway, we just knew it had arrived and so drained our glasses before dashing up to to get in on the action.

Continue reading “Hoptimystic at the Star Inn”

Public Service Announcement: Barley Wine for Stir-Up Sunday

Every year, a week or so before Stir-Up Sunday, we start getting visits to the website from people searching for barley wine to put in their Christmas pudding.

It is a main part of Delia Smith’s recipe which, let’s face it, is therefore the official national recipe. I’d guess from this line…

If you can’t get barley wine (pubs usually have it), use extra stout instead.

…that the recipe was written in the 1970s when Gold Label was a national brand. You probably won’t find barley wine in most ‘normal’ pubs these days, though most supermarkets do carry Gold Label.

There are also plenty of other options.

Barley wine is a term used to describe strong British ales — sometime they’re dark, other times not, but they’re usually at least (these days, for tax reasons) 7.4% ABV.

Fuller’s Vintage Ale is one and this year’s version has just hit supermarkets. Most larger regional breweries (Adnams, Lees, Robinson’s, etc.) make a strong old ale which will do the job. Not many have ‘barley wine’ actually written on the label so just look for anything called ‘Old This’ or ‘Vintage That’.

Most trendy new breweries also make strong ales of one sort or another, although often very hoppy and bitter rather than sweet. If you have a specialist shop near you, and want to use a special beer for some particular reason, ask them for advice.

However, back to the puddings. With several years’ experience in making a family recipe, which just calls for ‘half a pint of strong beer’, I would make the following points:

  • You’re going to be adding spices, sherry and steaming the hell out of it for many hours so you’re not going to taste any beer at all in the final product.
  • The cheapest beer I’ve ever used was a bottle of leftover home brew, and the most expensive was some of the aforementioned Vintage ale — there was no difference in the end taste.
  • If you’re going to follow Delia’s recipe precisely you will end up with two half bottles of different beers. This might be a good opportunity to drink something nice on the side so pick beers that are good in their own right, e.g. Fuller’s Vintage and something like Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout.
  • However, if you don’t particularly like beer, just chuck in the required volume of whatever beer you have to hand — it doesn’t really matter all that much.