Category Archives: london

Illustration: moody London pub.

Doug & Dinsdale, Pub Preservationists

Some friends recently moved into a house near a Victorian pub on a London back street.

“Everyone thinks we’re lucky,” says our friend, “but I went once and wasn’t made welcome.”

The rumour is that someone wanted to turn it into a gastropub like all the others in the area, but the family of gangsters who own it said no — they like it how it is.

That is, frozen in time c.1975, with bars on its doors, faded paintwork, dusty carpets, and a mere handful of customers.

Has CAMRA explored mob ownership as a way of preserving traditional pub character?

London craft porters.

Porter Tasting: Batch 4 — Taste of London

The purpose of this exercise, for those who missed the previous posts, is to find a beer that suits us, with a view to selecting finalists for a ‘taste-off’ before buying a case to see us through the winter. It’s not ‘the best’ but something much more floaty and subjective.

In recent years, a distinctive London craft beer character seems to have emerged, and the four porters we tasted this time all had it, to one degree or another.

It’s a particular kind of raw grassiness which is obvious, first, in the aroma — hay, dried herbs, dusty pot pourri — and then in a flavour which makes us think of the effect of drinking orange juice after cleaning your teeth.

At a guess, we’d say it’s down to a particular approach to dry-hopping, perhaps combined with characteristics of water and/or water treatments. Perhaps the close relationships between London brewers — shared kit, staff, techniques and ingredients — also contributes to the family resemblance between their beers.

At any rate, it’s so distinctive that we’re beginning to suspect we could identify blind, say, six times out of ten, beer from a London craft brewer. (Definition 2.)

It’s not something we have yet really acquired a taste for, but we know from ratings websites, Twitter and blog posts that other people really and sincerely enjoy it (they don’t have ‘duff palates’) and that’s rather nice: a return to regional distinctiveness in beer.

As far as we’re concerned, if there’s an end game in this ‘alternative beer revolution’, it’s that there should be more beers around that some people love and other people hate, rather than a mess of all-too-similar beers that no-one much objects to.

The beers

We tasted the folllowing beers at pantry-temperature (cool, but not cold) using the same glasses as for previous batches.

  • Anspach & Hobday Table Porter (2.8%/£3.40/330ml/Beer Merchants)
  • Anspach & Hobday ‘The Porter’ (6.7%/£3.50/330ml/Beer Merchants)
  • Beavertown Smog Rocket (5.4%/£2.80/330ml can/Ales By Mail)
  • Kernel Export India Porter (Columbus) (5.8%/£3.15/330ml/Ales By Mail)

This isn’t the first time we’ve tried Anspach & Hobday’s The Porter. Back then, we found it ‘classical’, which is to say smooth, clean, and without sharp edges. The beer we drank this week, by contrast, was challenging, complex, and a little lacking in finish. It poured like oil, threatening headlessness until a steady, off-white crema emerged from the body of the beer as it settled. Between us, we picked up just a touch of peatiness; a whiff of that Harvey’s Imperial Stout sweet-manure thing (dialled way down, but definitely there); and, at the core, something with the body and flavour of a chocolate milkshake. We didn’t dislike it, and we certainly found it interesting, but it’s not one for quaffing every night in front of the telly. There’s no ‘wow’, so it’s not a contender, though we find ourselves intrigued.

Their Table Porter (which we actually drank first, because of its low strength) was, frankly, over-carbonated — not quite a gusher, but it thought about it. The head towered over the rim of the glass, carrying with it a lot of vegetal, sneeze-inducing leafiness. At first, with the head in the way, the beer seemed watery, but as it settled, we were delighted to find something creamy and full-bodied. Burnt brown sugar and toffee just about defeated an insistent, off-putting background note of stewed greens. Though it’s one of the more substantial low alcohol beers we’ve tasted — an achievement in its own right — it’s not the beer we’re looking for on this occasion, certainly didn’t make us say wow, and is not a contender.

Kernel Export India is a beer we’ve tried numerous times over the last few years and never really taken to, but people love it, and The Kernel more generally, so we felt we had to include it here for safe measure. It’s become a rather statesmanlike, steady beer — arguably part of the bedrock of the entire London scene, much-imitated and admired — but we still find the combination of high-pitched grapefruity hops and deep chocolate richness jarring. It certainly has wow factor, but the wrong sort — it’s just not our kind of thing. (Knowing this might be controversial, we actually tasted a second bottle on another occasion, and our view didn’t change.) It’s not a contender.

After all that, Beavertown Smog Rocket actually seemed positively mainstream — not a million miles from Fuller’s London Porter, clean and relatively easy-going. It had the London taste, yes, but reined in, and balanced with plenty of luscious sweetness and rounded orange-peel notes. On the chocolate-coffee axis, Smog Rocket edges towards coffee — specifically instant coffee cut with condensed milk. (Nicer than it sounds — think coffee cake.) It’s perhaps a touch thin but we liked that it didn’t demand all of our attention, and agreed that having a shelf-full would be no bad thing. It almost had wow factor, and so, sod it, it’s a contender, but how will it fare in close comparison to the big boys?

You can vote for your own favourite porters in this Beer O’Clock Show poll.

UPDATED 12:48 17/10/2014 to add explicit notes on ‘wow factor’, as per comments below.

Inside the Magpie & Crown, Brentford, on a Saturday night.

Passing Through Brentford

For reasons too boring to explain, we spent the last night of our holiday in Brentford, West London, where we set out to satisfy a craving for Fuller’s beer.

There are two Fuller’s pubs on the high street — the Beehive and the Six Bells. Though both are ornate palaces to booze c.1910, we chose the Beehive for the perfectly sensible reason that its exterior tiling and lettering is the more eye-catching.

The Beehive, Brentford.

Inside, we were bumped back down to earth by football on the telly and bright, functional lighting. It’s what you might call a community local — that is, people who actually live nearby drink there regularly enough to know each other and the staff by name — and we did get stared at just a little bit, even after we’d retreated to a table in Billy-no-mates corner with the lone crossword puzzle solvers and plastic bag clutchers.

The beer? ESB tasted good, though not as good as at the Jugged Hare on Vauxhall Bridge Road earlier in the same week, and the Pride was very decent, too. It is also the kind of pub that has Fuller’s Pale Ale in tiny brown bottles (we’ve not seen this since the Plough in Walthamstow c.2007, now a convenience store) and something we couldn’t resist trying: keg Chiswick bitter. We can’t recommend it, but that probably won’t surprise you.

When we Tweeted about keg Chiswick, we got into a conversation via private messages with a local expert who told us that (a) he’d been told never to go into the Beehive if he valued his life and (b) that the Magpie & Crown just up the road was a must-visit pub.

Now, here’s a thing: we’d instinctively taken the fact that the M&C is a freehouse in London as a warning sign. If it was anything other than on its last legs, wouldn’t a brewery or pub company have snapped it up by now? And it does look a bit tatty from the outside — has any item of pub livery aged worse than those Watney Combe Reid roundels? But we took our correspondent’s advice, left the Beehive, skipped the Six Bells, and went to the Magpie.

* * *

We found something that looked like a classic ‘real ale pub’ — resolutely un-trendy and, like the Pembury Tavern in Hackney, with shelves full of paperback sci-fi novels. Metal-band-T-shirt-and-pony-tail rather than ironic-moustache-and-no-socks territory. The clientele seemed to be made up mostly of Brentford’s hidden middle-aged, middle class, with the odd walk-in pub-crawler.

At second glance, we noticed a dangling sign advertising ‘Craft Keg’, as well as a decent lot of Belgian and American British bottles. We were after cask-conditioned beer, though, and loved what happened when we scanned the pumps: the chap behind the bar said, “Hello!” and then, pointing at each in turn, “This one’s good; this one’s very good; this is good but will be better tomorrow; good; very good.” This bit of showman’s patter found the sweet spot between a know-it-all lecture and complete indifference — much more helpful than (shrug) “They’re all nice.”

All the beers we tried were in good nick and well-made, and if we didn’t especially like a couple of them, it was purely because they weren’t to our taste. (We weren’t taking notes, hence no specifics, but there were beers from Thornbridge and Hardknott among others.) It’s certainly no surprise that the local CAMRA branch loves the place.

It won’t appeal to everyone — pubs with personality never do — but it might just be your new favourite. If you find yourself out West, it’s surely worth a bus ride and the price of a pint to find out.

* * *

We got another pass at Fuller’s on the way out of London with our now traditional pre-train lunchtime session at the Mad Bishop & Bear at Paddington, where we can report that cask Chiswick tasted better than ever. What a great beer.

Native or Local?

Illustration: government stamp on a British pint glass.

Reading around the blogoshire today, there seems to be a connection to be made between two interesting posts.

First, Matt ‘Total Ales’ Curtis reports on the Hop & Berry, a pub in Islington, North London, which sets out to act a showcase for the booming London brewing scene. (See Beer Guide London for the list we always refer to.) Our first thought was: “Beer geeks visiting London from overseas will find a one-stop-shop very handy.”

But then there’s Joe ‘Thirsty Pilgrim’ Stange writing of a recent trip to London:

As a Traveler with Thirst I don’t really care about British ‘craft beer.’ It’s OK as a curiosity. As a journalist it’s interesting. But these days you can get aromatic, bitter IPA nearly anywhere in the world. Even Costa Rica. Even Germany. Why would I drink that in the UK, which has its own, special, underappreciated thing? Yes, I can see how folks who have drunk brown bitter all their lives might be bored with it. I’m not.

It seems that native style, then, might be a more important idea than local manufacture.

Thought experiment: if you were to visit Berlin, would you feel you’d had a more authentic experience drinking American-brewed Berliner Weisse, or locally made Cascade-hopped IPA?

Fourpure Pils

Fourpure Pils -- can and glass.

As lager lovers, we’re always keen to try British brewers’ attempts, especially when we’ve heard good things about them from fellow beer geeks.

Bermondsey Beer Mile brewery Fourpure’s Pils has generated plenty of attention, partly because it comes in that most contentious of containers, a 330ml can.

Trusting our peers, rather than dabbling with one or two, we included half a dozen (@ £1.95 each, plus P&P) in our last order from Beer Merchants, placed at the height of the recent heat wave when we were craving things cold and refreshing.

At first, we were a little disappointed: compared to the cans of St Austell Korev we had picked up from the local CO-OP (@ about £1.10 each) Fourpure Pils seemed rather rough-edged. Last night, however, having emptied the last two cans and crushed them against our foreheads with a roar (obviously not) we concluded that it was good stuff after all.

It is, for one thing, far from bland: by the standards of most beers calling themselves Pils, it has a pronounced wild-flower, blackcurrant, stinging nettle hop aroma, back up by a robust, parching bitterness.

The hint of roughness remained in evidence, however — somewhere in the brewing and packaging process, we’d guess there is oxygen where there shouldn’t be, leading to a persistent stale, papery note in the background. It’s much, much cleaner than our home-brewed lager (plastic bucket, no temperature control) but there are similarities.

Depending on your tastes, though, this might read as that much-desired quality — ‘character’.

We couldn’t resist one final experiment — would it taste different necked straight from the can? Side-by-side with a serving in a fancy stemmed tasting glass, we noted to our surprise that despite this practical issue…

…the aroma was actually far better, concentrated through the tiny aperture into a needle of bright hoppiness right up the nostrils. From a glass, though still punchy, aroma, flavour and bitterness all seemed generally gentler.

In conclusion, we’d buy Fourpure Pils again, and look forward to trying it on tap when we get the chance.