So Low You Can’t Get Under It

The Big Project has been great for making us visit pubs we might not otherwise have got to, such as The Prince Alfred in West London.

With a couple of hours to kill between hotel check-out and westbound train last Friday we searched for pubs nearby rather than rely on our old favourite, The Mad Bishop & Bear. Google turned up The Prince Alfred which immediately rang a bell for Boak: ‘It’s in Geoff Brandwood’s book – it’s got rare surviving snob screens. We have to go.’

We wandered through Little Venice, up one street after another of white stucco and genteel dustiness, until we found the pub sparkling with Victorian cut-glass glamour.

Fired tiles at the Prince Alfred, a Victorian pub.

Challenge one: finding a way in. The obvious door led to the dining room and lounge – rather bland, hovered over by a smiling waitress. There was a Hobbit-sized door under the partition leading to the cosier spaces around the central island bar but they surely couldn’t expect us to duck under, could they? Health and safety and all that. No no no.

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Magical Mystery Pour #22: Brixton Megawatt Double IPA

This is another beer chosen for us by Rebecca Pate (@rpate) of Brewing East. It’s an 8% ABV double IPA from Brixton, South London, which we got for £3.09 per 330ml via the Honest Brew online store.

Rebecca says:

Another high ABV beer, yes, but I was slow to discover Brixton Brewery and this was something I rectified in 2016. All of their core beers are intensely drinkable, but this is an annual release of their DIPA and it’s packed with some great flavours from both Northern and Southern hops, including three unfamiliar to me: Rakau, Mosaic, Azacca and Falconers Flight. I got to try the 2016 version in December at a bar only a minute’s walk from the brewery. In fact, I also happened to be there on the day that they showed up with the keg and was told to watch out for the neon orange keg badge when it was on… I love Brixton Brewery and this nice release is well-balanced and very palatable number. It’s the biggest ABV beer they do and it goes down in a flash.

Every now and then, not very often, our palates get out of sync — you say hints of tomato, I say notes of potato, let’s call the whole thing off, and so on. With this beer we both tasted more or less the same things but in terms of overall likeability it fell into no-man’s-land.

Brixton Megawatt DIPA in the glass.

Popping the cap released a burst of fruit aroma, as if someone had stamped on a tangerine, with a gentle ‘Tsk!’ Some beers won’t be controlled on pouring but this one was highly malleable, providing more or less foam depending on the angle and height of the pour — you know, like a proper beer. We ended up with an unmoving head of just-off-white over a clear body of orange-highlighted brown — a 2009 model DIPA rather than the hazy yellow generally preferred in 2017, then.

Noses in, there was hot apricot jam and, appropriately, but disconcertingly, a suggestion of toasted brown bread.

The flavour is intense, we both agreed on that — there really is a lot going on. It’s rather jumbled and muddy, an odd combination of peach and chocolate. It’s fairly well dried-out and light-bodied, but also fiercely bitter. And then a different kind of bitterness — the savoury burnt dinner sort — lands on top of that. Plus, finally, there’s some hot booziness.

Boak: ‘That’s really very decent. Almost rough but not quite. Characterful. I like it.’

Bailey: ‘Hmm. I’m not keen. It tastes like dodgy home-brew to me. I’m confused by all these dark beer flavours in a double IPA.’

We concluded, based on this beer and a couple of others we’ve tried from the same brewery, that Brixton isn’t one of those outfits aspiring for slick and clean so much as funky and textured. Not everyone will like what they do, which is great — we want more breweries that not everyone likes — but probably explains why they attract less buzz than some of their peers in London. If you like your beer impolite and punkish, give it a try. If you insist on a high polish, walk on by.

Magical Mystery Pour #20: Five Points Pils

The second of a series of beers chosen for us by Rebecca Pate (@rpate) of Brewing East is Five Points Pils, a lager from East London that comes in a can.

Rebecca says:

This was my beer of summer 2016. Last year, I was entirely dedicated to sours and saisons, turning my nose up at pilsners in particular. My boyfriend favours the pilsner style, but I was perpetually underwhelmed. This year, my palate has changed, making me more receptive to pales and pilsners. And it just so happened that one of my favourite local breweries released this little number, which has become a staple in our household. I still enjoy sour beer in moderation, naturally, but I don’t miss the acidity burning my throat after a lengthy session… Instead, this clean and bright Pils is the perfect Sunday afternoon beer that pairs easily with food or can be savoured by itself.

We’ve encountered a few bottled Five Points beers over the last year or two and always found them fine but middling rather than mind-blowing, with the occasional venture into accidental complexity. We gather the way to really enjoy them is on draught, and some people we think of as fairly aggressively discerning (that is, grumpy and fussy) seem to rate them too, so we’ve put our past shrugginess down to a combination of personal taste and problems arising from packaging/storage/distribution.

What we hadn’t got round to trying was their lager, partly because we weren’t sure how a brewery whose beers tend to the hand-carved would cope with this most technically demanding of styles.

We bought our cans from Honest Brew at £2.49 per 330ml. It has an ABV of 4.8%.

Five Points Pils in the glass.

It looked beautiful in the glass — perfectly clear, golden, with a soft, steady, organically architectural foam. So far, so good: no misplaced haze, the right amount of carbonation, but not fizz.

We couldn’t get enough of the aroma, either — we just kept huffing away making happy noises and thinking of a sunny day in Bavaria. Unusually for a lager it is dry-hopped and that absolutely works, surrounding the glass with a perfume mist wholesome, green, leaping-with-life summer leafiness. This is the kind of small, non-showy technique we’d like to see more German breweries play with rather than jumping straight to double IPA.

(There might have been a discordant note of something pulpy and vegetal but we didn’t agree on that and, anyway, it was hardly distracting.)

People sometimes talk about wine or beer having ‘structure’ and it sounds daft until you taste one that does. Drinking Five Points Pils we could somehow sense the flavour’s three-dimensional shape and texture: a sandpaper-grit sharp leading edge; a round, fruity centre; and then a fantail of of chewy grain sweetness. It was light but never watery, mellow without being dull. It didn’t taste of dandelions or spicy salad leaves but that’s what it made us think of in some less direct way. A real market garden of a beer.

We spent a bit of time trying to think which other specific lager it reminded us of and then it came to us: St Austell Korev. Like Korev, it isn’t some leftfield ‘take’, but a sincere attempt to mimic the Real Thing — to simply give lager drinkers an excellent lager to drink rather than obnoxiously challenging them. We think, on balance, that Five Points might be better than Korev — less reined in, only by a whisker, but enough to give it the edge.

If you like German lager, you’ll probably like this. If you don’t like lager, it might even go some way to changing your mind, nodding as it does, very subtly, in the direction of pale’n’hoppy.

Four thumbs up.

About to wrap up our review there, a paranoid thought began to nag at us: given that it is so convincing and clean, how we can be sure Five Points aren’t Pulling a Camden (as it is known) and actually having some or all of it brewed in Belgium or Germany? Well, it turns out they are, under exactly the same arrangement, described in much the same words. After exchanging some messages, however, we know for certain that any Five Points Pils in cans is being brewed and packaged in London. The stuff you find in kegs in pubs, which we haven’t tried, is likely to be Belgian-brewed, but we are assured that is also unpasteurised and unfiltered.

It Is Even Worse in England: Mild, Bitter & Lager, 1933

Detail from the cover of The American Mercury.

In 1933 the conservative American journal The American Mercury published an article on the state of British beer and pubs by English journalist H.W. Seaman, who lived and worked in the US and Canada for some years.

We stumbled across it looking for contemporary accounts of ‘improved pubs’ but in its 15 or so pages there’s plenty of other gold to be mined. We’ll let you explore the rest for yourself but wanted to put the bit specifically about the state of our beer under the microscope.

First, Mr Seaman makes clear that he found no evidence of British beer being adulterated:

Hop substitutes are used, I regret to say, but the roots of duodenal ulcers are not there. English ale is probably as clean and as honest as ever it was. But it is unhealthily weak.

Then he says something which counters the romantic view of English session beer:

Ale to be wholesome must be strong. The German- and Bohemian-type beers which America favored in the old days and will now favor again exert their humanizing influences not violently but gradually, and the patient passes through an infinity of pleasurable states before attaining the final, beatific anesthesia. Ale, however, is intended by the Almighty to deliver its message at once. Its appeal is unsubtle.  Three half-pints, and you know you have had it. If it is strong, it has vastly sweetened you and your surroundings. If it is weak, it has soured your stomach and your outlook.

In other words, chilled lager chills you out while British ale ought to knock you out.

Another startling statement comes next though perhaps we might write it off as pandering to an American audience:

My present homesickness, in fact, is less for good ale, on which I was weaned, than for the softer, kindlier brews that were later revealed to me—the light American beers of the Pilsner and Munich varieties, that came up cold and clear, with a creamy collar that clung to the glass. Their going down was as lovely as their coming up.

Yes, American beer, which even now some British drinkers take to be uniformly awful with Lite Lager in mind, was more enjoyable than British mild or bitter. He reckons that’s partly because it was cold but points out that British ale doesn’t work when chilled — it just turns ‘thick and flat’.

Patzenhofer Lager advert, 1937.

Next, he mentions the availability of Continental lager beers in London, providing further evidence for our argument that lager was the ‘craft beer­’ of its day:

It is true that Münchener Lowenbrau and Pilsner Urquell, perhaps the noblest brews of their respective orders that are obtainable today, are on tap, in good condition, in certain dispensaries of the West End of London, but their high price, thanks to the tariff, puts them out of reach of more than nine-tenths of the people.

(Consider the trajectory of lager in the decades that followed and think for a moment about what that might mean — moral panic over Hop Hooligans off their faces on licence-brewed American IPA in 2086?)

PUB SIGN: 'Public Bar'.

He also provides a handy key to the class status of the various styles, as well as some telling tasting notes (our emphases):

Call for ale in the saloon bar of a London pub, and the barmaid will say, ‘Other side, please,’ jerking her wet thumb in the direction of the public, or four-ale bar; for ale in London is a vulgar word. The middle-classes there drink bitter, a pale, golden beer so sharply hop-flavored that foreigners find it undrinkable. Burton, in London and certain other cities that have come under the Cockney blight, is a generic name for a dark ale of standard strength or less, whether it is brewed in Burton-on-Trent or elsewhere. Its social status is above mild and below bitter; although its price is that of bitter, it is rarely seen in a West End saloon bar. In the North, beer of similar character is called strong mild. Bitter is unpopular in Scotland; the ale of that country, dark and sparkling as Miinchener, is excellent, and is commonly kept and dispensed at a lower temperature than English ale.

Seaman, being a professional man, drank bitter, of course. There’s another nugget there for those of us tracking the evolution of golden ale, and sharply hop-flavoured sounds very appealing. It would be good to find later comments from him — he died in 1955, as far as we can tell, so would certainly have had chance to try the earliest keg bitters, for example.

Finally, there is this statement which seems to be spoken directly to 2016 through some kind of Time Tunnel:

[The] words can and growler, in the American sense [are unknown in Britain]. Nobody above the rank of chimney sweep could afford to be seen carrying home the supper beer.

There is a red herring here, which has caught out a couple of people lately: mentions of cans in sources from the 1930s and earlier often refer not to sealed tins as we know them but to small pails or jugs, i.e. canisters. That mention of growlers still works though, except that nowadays carrying a takeaway container of draught beer is an almost exclusively gentrified behaviour, isn’t it?

N.B. After World War II The American Mercury ceased to be merely conservative and became ‘virulently anti-Semitic’ so watch where you step if you go wandering off through the archive.

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.