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.

QUOTE: Joseph Conrad’s Silenus Beer Hall

Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent is set in London in the 1880s and features as a key location an imaginary German beer hall called The Silenus — a haunt of violent revolutionaries.

We made passing reference to The Silenus in our short e-book about German lager in Victorian and Edwardian London, Gambrinus Waltz, because it demonstrates the suspicion with which German beer halls in Britain came to be viewed in the run up to World War I.

For his fictional composite Conrad borrowed a location from two real establishments, Darmstätter’s and the Tivoli, which stood near each other on the Strand, while its name would seem to be a reference to an entirely different establishment, Ye Olde Gambrinus, which we think is pictured above in a photograph from around 1902.

Anyway, here’s a chunk from Chapter 4 of The Secret Agent via the Project Gutenberg edition, in which Comrade Ossipon meets The Professor at The Silenus:

Most of the thirty or so little tables covered by red cloths with a white design stood ranged at right angles to the deep brown wainscoting of the underground hall.  Bronze chandeliers with many globes depended from the low, slightly vaulted ceiling, and the fresco paintings ran flat and dull all round the walls without windows, representing scenes of the chase and of outdoor revelry in medieval costumes. Varlets in green jerkins brandished hunting knives and raised on high tankards of foaming beer.

‘Unless I am very much mistaken, you are the man who would know the inside of this confounded affair,’ said the robust Ossipon, leaning over, his elbows far out on the table and his feet tucked back completely under his chair.  His eyes stared with wild eagerness.

An upright semi-grand piano near the door, flanked by two palms in pots, executed suddenly all by itself a valse tune with aggressive virtuosity.  The din it raised was deafening.  When it ceased, as abruptly as it had started, the be-spectacled, dingy little man who faced Ossipon behind a heavy glass mug full of beer emitted calmly what had the sound of a general proposition.

‘In principle what one of us may or may not know as to any given fact can’t be a matter for inquiry to the others.’

‘Certainly not,’ Comrade Ossipon agreed in a quiet undertone. ‘In principle.’

With his big florid face held between his hands he continued to stare hard, while the dingy little man in spectacles coolly took a drink of beer and stood the glass mug back on the table.

News, Nuggets & Longreads for 4 June 2016

Illustration: government stamp on a British pint glass.

Here are all the blog posts and articles from the past week that have captured our attention in one way or another, from ponderings on the pint to the state of Orval.

Whether you like to drink your beer by the pint or in smaller measures is another of those fault lines between Them and Us in British beer. Chris Hall (who works for London brewery Brew by Numbers) considers whether the fact that the pint is the default UK beer serving is distorting the market:

Even in the most wide-ranging, smaller-serving-focused craft beer bars in the country, we remain interested in filling a pint-shaped hole, and if it remains an unchangeable line in our programming, our industry will remain defined by the beers that fit this space, and not by what we could, or perhaps should, be brewing.


The brewhouse at Orval.
SOURCE: Belgian Smaak.

2015 Beer Writer of the Year Breandán Kearney considers the state and history of the brewery at Orval in a luxuriously long post at Belgian Smaak, which also has lots of juicy detail for home brewers and the generally inquisitive:

The malt bill is an evolving one, barley varieties such as ‘Aleksi’ and ‘Prisma’ used previously having been replaced for example with the ‘Sebastian’ variety. ‘It is difficult to speak about varieties of barley malt because a lot of them disappear for new ones,’ says Anne-Françoise [Pypaert]. ‘Brewers don’t have much control on that because farmers value varieties with a good yield. What I can say is that we use two pale malt varieties, one caramel malt and a little bit of black barley.’

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads for 4 June 2016”

Comfort Beers: Fuller’s, Young’s, Sam Smith’s

We were in London last week to pick up an award, see friends, work in the library, and look at pub architecture. That didn’t leave much time to drink beer.

When we passed the Red Lion on Duke of York Street at 6 pm it had burst its seams, spilling suited drinkers all over the pavement and road. We returned at 9 by which time it was quieter and we slipped into the coveted back room. It’s an amazing pub, the Red Lion — really beautiful, full of cut glass and mirrors and warm light. There’s a reason Ian Nairn gives it a whole page of soupy swooning in Nairn’s London. The woman behind the bar pulled the first pint, paused, and said, ‘I’m not serving you that. It doesn’t look right.’ She turned the clip round and suggested something else. Impressive. Oliver’s Island, pale and brewed with orange peel, continues to be decent enough without igniting any great passion on our part. ESB, on the other hand, seems to get better every time we have it — richer, more bitter, ever juicier. Same again, please. It gave us hangovers but it was 100 per cent worth it.

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News, Nuggets & Longreads 19 March 2016

Here’s the best of what we’ve read about beer and pubs around the internet in the last week, from London to Lisbon.

→ Des de Moor has published a free update to his book The CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer, Pubs and Bars accompanied by some state-of-the-nation commentary on London’s beer scene:

London breweries continue to expand whatever their size, with Moncada and Redemption among those in the midst of long-needed upgrades. The startup rate has definitely slowed, though, and the brewery total in my latest update is down to 75 from 78 last July: a handful of closures include the last remnant of the 1970s Big Seven in London at the Stag, Mortlake, and a number of would-be brewpubs that evidently found it easier to sell other people’s beer.

→ For the Midlands Beer Blog Collective Bob Maxfield and Dave Hopkins interviewed the people behind Birmingham’s craft beer and pinball bar, Tilt, eliciting a great case study of what’s been going on in British beer in the last decade or so:

I fell out of love with CAMRA when, some years later, while following a Ramstein tour, we decided to visit the Brewdog Bars we had been reading about. I then found Stirchley Wines who did a half decent selection at the time and had a bit of Great Divide and some Mikeller. They had all the Brewdog stuff and it was at that point that I started to get really excited, and begun to get more involved with Beer Advocate again, and started trading beers with others.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 19 March 2016”