The July Session – Atmosphere

session-logo-r-sm.jpgThis month’s Session topic has been set by Hop Talk, and is all about atmosphere. We have been challenged to talk about:

…the Atmosphere in which you enjoy beer. Where is your favorite place to have a beer? When? With whom? Most importantly:

Why?

We thought that we’d focus on the why — what is it that make for a good atmosphere?

  1. The time, the place. Obvious really, but we’ve had some great times in terrible pubs just because there’s something magical about the circumstances. For example, when you’ve stepped in out of a sudden shower, or from the freezing cold; or when you’ve taken a week-day off work, and you should be sitting at your desk, but instead you’re in the boozer, with two elderly alcoholics, a dog and a couple of bluebottles for company. Almost any pub feels good on Christmas Eve, or if your country has won in a big sporting event.
  2. The company. Who you’re with is probably the most important contributor to atmosphere — the worst pub in the world can have a great atmosphere if you’re with good friends. Remember, the point of the pub is to socialise! And it’s nice, too, if the other people in the pub are of different ages, classes, races and so on. A pub full of people in suits can be miserable. A pub full of football fans can be miserable. A pub full of students can be miserable. But mix them all up, and suddenly no-one feels on guard or out of place.
  3. Pubs you’ve hiked to on holiday. Any pub you’ve walked a long way to get to, perhaps along a coastal path, in the rain, will have a great atmosphere. A pint you’ve earned tastes twice as good. A pint of bog-standard Flowers at the Anchor Inn, Burton Bradstock tasted like nectar after four hours walking from Abbotsbury and, again, it’s great to know that you’re there when you should be at work.
  4. Decor. Small rooms, subdued lighting, rich dark colours. Pubs like that don’t always have good atmosphere, but they’re more likely to than ones with large, white, echoing rooms with bright lights. The legendary and brilliant Pembury Tavern in Hackney has only one flaw, perhaps best summed up in a graffito from the gents toilets: “This place is like an Anglican church”. (We should add that the atmosphere there gets better every time we go, and that for some people, it’s one of the main attractions.) Good pubs are designed so you can hear what your friends are saying but no-one else can. They’re intimate, cosy and comfortable, like a home from home. They shouldn’t feel too “corporate”, as Fullers pubs have started to do.
  5. Friendly bar staff. It’s not always the case, but generally a pub with a landlord as opposed to a “management team” will be friendlier. Nothing crushes the atmosphere quicker than dead-eyed, tired, grumpy staff wearing identical polo shirts glaring at you over the pumps. It’s not usually their fault — they’re underpaid and treated like drones. But it’s great when bar staff engage you in conversation, know about the beers and say goodbye when you leave.
  6. The lock-in. A uniquely British tradition, the significance of which has declined with the change to licensing laws. Until recently, pub landlords had to call “last orders” at 11:00 and kick you out by 11:20. The “lock-in” was where the pub landlord spontaneously decided that he liked the crowd he had in, so decided to flout the law, shut all the doors, draw the curtains, and stay open later. Guaranteed good night out. I’d name a couple of pubs famous for never shutting, but I wouldn’t want to get them in trouble. Often local Irish boozers (not big Irish chains). Nowadays, it’s supposed to be easier for landlords to get late licences, and we haven’t been in a lock-in since.
  7. Noise or music. It doesn’t have to be music, but some kind of background noise is usually a good thing. Beer snobs seem to have some problem with music in pubs, which I don’t really understand. It’s preferable to complete silence or — worse — an echo. A good jukebox can’t be beat. And the best ever: sitting in a beer garden in Munich listening to the hubbub of conversation, and a distant oompah band.
  8. Busy but not claustrophobic. A pub should be busy enough that it has some life in it, but not so busy you can’t get a seat after, say, 2o minutes. Claustrophobic pubs — anywhere in central London between 5-8 on a Friday, for example — are a nightmare.
  9. Beer gardens and town squares in the sun. This is a cheat, really, because the atmosphere is that of the town or city you’re visiting. Sunlight, shade, bustle and beer are a great combination. Watching the world go by under a parasol.. just perfect.

Note that good beer does not appear in this list. When we started to think about this post, we noted that almost all pubs where we’d had a truly amazing time had indifferent beer, at the very best. And we often choose to go to pubs with mediocre beer but great atmosphere whenever we’re meeting “normal friends” (ie those that aren’t beer obsessives). If it’s just the two of us, that’s different, but most people are not willing to trek to a “weird” pub because they have an interesting beer or two.

We wondered whether, in fact, “good beer” and “good atmosphere” were negatively correlated. How many times have you gone into a new pub with a “good beer” reputation, tried all the beers you’ve never had in as short a space of time as possible so you can move on and try somewhere else. We certainly have on day trips to,e.g., Oxford. Does this help create an atmosphere?

However, with a bit more consideration, we thought of a few places that do manage to pull off both great atmosphere and great beer:

  • The Rake, near London Bridge. A tip from Stonch, which we can’t drag ourselves away from now we’ve found it. Great range of beer, very friendly, enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff. Very busy, but we’ve got a seat within 20 minutes every time we’ve been. It’s tiny, which is, in fact, probably what gives it a “buzz”, even when there are only 10 people in it.
  • The Fitzroy Tavern, near Oxford Street. A nightmare in the evenings, but on a Sunday afternoon, a lovely place for a pint. Victorian style booths break up what is actually a big space, and make it feel more intimate. Sometimes there’s music, sometimes not, but there’s always the sound of the street outside. And we love several of Sam Smith’s beers “real” or not.
  • Quinn’s, Camden. It’s a normal pub — one that looks too scary to go into at first glance — with a mixed and friendly clientele, but which also has fridges full of great German and Belgian beer. Sitting drinking Schlenkerla Rauchbier in a normal pub is how it should be.

This was a great topic!

Baltic mild? Ochakovo premium dark (light)

We thought we might have discovered a new beer style yesterday – one not covered by the Great American Beer Festivals 75 (75!) categorisations. This style is “Baltic mild” and we discovered it by drinking “Ochakovo premium dark” yesterday.

On our never-ending quest for Baltic porter in London, we had examined a bottle of this in Utobeer (the excellent beer shop in Borough Market, featured in this blog a couple of weeks ago). However, from what we could decipher of the bottle (it’s all in Russian), it didn’t seem like it would be a porter, particularly at 3.9%. So we put it back and went for something else. We may have even madeOchakovo dark premium some unfair assumptions, along the lines of “it’ll only be another tasteless dark lager”.

However, we then went to the Rake bar, Utobeer’s “sister” pub round the corner. What started as a swift half or two rapidly became a session. (A table came free. It was a sign)

We noticed the Ochakovo in there and asked the knowledgeable barman about it. He hadn’t tried it either and wasn’t sure what style it would be. We tried to decipher the label but there were no obvious clues. So we gave it a go.

It looked good – very dark-brown colour with burnt meringue head. The aroma was very tempting too – dark sugar and slight chocolate notes.

As for the taste – it initially tasted strongly of molasses; sweet, but not overly so. It was hardly bitter at all, and not particularly fizzy for a dark lager. The bottle didn’t say whether it was top or bottom fermented, but we assumed bottom. A medium-full body – pretty good for something that’s only 3.9%. It was very drinkable – could definitely have drunk a lot more of these.

The seemingly-contradictory “light” reference in the title comes from the Russian description on the label and is presumably a reference to its “weak” strength. At the risk of making gross generalisations, it’s rare to find good Eastern European beers under 5% (at least in the UK), and certainly rare to find one this tasty.

So: dark colour, weak strength, low bitterness, strong malt flavour, probably lagered – ladies and gentlemen, I give you Baltic Mild.

Of course, on sober reflection the next day, I think this probably falls fairly and squarely into the category of “Schwarzbier”;

“These very dark brown to black beers have a mild roasted malt character without the associated bitterness. This is not a full-bodied beer, but rather a moderate body gently enhances malt flavor and aroma with low to moderate levels of sweetness. Hop bitterness is low to medium in character. “

But if the good folks behind the Great American Beer Festival can define a new style on the basis of one or two beers, then so can I.

Boak

Notes

  1. The Rake is at 14 Winchester Walk, London SE1 9AG (near London Bridge). It’s an excellent but tiny pub / bar, set up by the people at Utobeer. They have around 10 beers on taps, in different styles, and probably a hundred in bottles. Friendly staff too. Beers cost around £3 – £3.50 a bottle. They do not appear to have a website, hence no link – will happily add one if someone can provide!
  2. Internet searches have revealed that Ochakovo are based in Moscow and are one of Russia’s biggest beer producers, but exports so far seem to be limited to the ex-Soviet Union. Haven’t had any of their other stuff, but I note that they were experimenting with an unfiltered, unpasteurised beer that lasts no more than 14 days. So perhaps we can add Baltic “real” ale / lager to the list too? You can currently get Ochakovo premium dark from Utobeer and the Rake bar, together with another pale beer they do.
  3. The beer classifications comes from the Great American Beer Festival’s listing, which I found here. There was a good debate on Lew Bryson’s blog (Seen through a Glass) about the US v UK approach to categorising beer. Personally, I’m not too bothered about styles when I’m drinking beer, but I find it useful to read about more detailed classification systems when trying to brew the stuff.

Brew Wharf – interesting idea, poorly executed

Having bought a load of fantastic beers from Utobeer (see previous post), we popped over the road to Brew Wharf to see what the fuss was about.

Brew Wharf opened in October 2005 as part of the Vinopolis empire at London Bridge. This is a brewpub/restaurant with a couple of house brews and some of the Meantime range on tap and around 30 bottled beers from around the world. Sounds good?

Many others don’t think so. It is pretty much universally panned on Beerintheevening.com and fancyapint.com for bad service and expensive drinks. It doesn’t seem to be popular for its food either; the magazine Time Out called it “a bad restaurant with very good beer”.

I have very mixed feelings about it – there are some strong pros and cons.

Pros

Goose Island IPA

  1. One of the Wharf brews (I didn’t get which one, but it was either Wharf Best or Century Ale) was very fresh and tasty. A pub with its own beer is shockingly rare in London, so this in itself is a plus point.
  2. Someone had obviously put a lot of thought into the bottled beer list; there was a good range of styles, and some absolute crackers on the list. As well as Meantime Chocolate and Coffee, they stock the excellent Goose Island IPAfrom Chicago
  3. They have a good range of glasses to match the beers. This may sound like a minor point, but we believe that the look of a beer contributes enormously to the overall enjoyment, and we’re always impressed when people make the effort to serve the beer in the right glass.

Cons

  1. The service is pretty poor; a couple sat down next to us and then left after 10 minutes of trying to get served at the bar. One of the bar staff tried to take my drink away before I’d finished.
  2. The prices! They were charging £5.65 for a bottle of Schlenkerla Rauchbier. Now this is a nice beer, and perhaps used to be rare, but it’s not that difficult to get hold of these days. The Pembury Tavern in Hackney does it for half the price charged here.
  3. I could see what the reviewers meant when they said it was soulless. There was quite a nice atmosphere on the terrace but the pub itself would be pretty dreadful without it.

Is this the way to get people into beer? Not sure. Despite the fact it was a brewpub with a large beer list, I didn’t get the impression they were out to convert people. Most of the customers seemed to be drinking wine or Budvar. Perhaps descriptions of the beers would help? This could potentially be a good place to bring someone you were trying to convert – but the Greenwich Union is much cosier and has a similar (if not the same) range of bottled beers.

So would I go back? I can’t imagine having a cosy pint there, but it’s quite a good place on a weekend afternoon to pretend you’re on holiday – pretend the prices are in Euros and that the service is just down to misunderstanding…

Boak

I hate hi-ball glasses

tumbler1.jpgThe Greenwich Union – Meantime Brewing’s “brewery tap” – serves half pints in clean, simple, “tulip” stem glasses. Fuller’s recently introduced similarly elegant glasses for Discovery and Honey Dew. They serve everything else in tall, fairly narrow tumblers, with room for a head. The Pembury Tavern in Hackney Downs, again, used taller than normal half-pint glasses, with room for a head.

Not all pubs are doing this kind of thing.

I’m really getting fed up of ordering a half and getting what looks like a tooth glass, full to the brim, with a grey scum instead of a head. The pints in these pubs look fine, so it’s not the beer, or the technique – just the glass.

I’m kind of used to that with ale, but last night I was served a half of Meantime’s Helles lager in a straight, short, half pint tumbler, with no head. It tasted fine, but looked dreadful. Like urine, frankly.

This wasn’t a dodgy pub next to a railway station, with fly-blown windows and an incident board outside: it’s in the good pub guide.

Landlords – get nicer glasses!

Photo from glassware supplier barmans.com

Meantime Extra Dry Stout

Publicity photo of meantime coffee stout

After a visit to the Greenwich Union, I can confirm that Meantime‘s seasonal “Extra Dry Stout” isn’t all that exciting, as Stonch has already said. It was too fizzy on the tongue, and a little thin-bodied.

I followed it up with a bottle of coffee stout, which has always been, and remains, incredible. They’d run out of chocolate stout, but there were enough chocolate flavours in this to do the job for me. Smooth, chewy, bitter…. just perfect. And Cooper’s Australian “Best Extra Stout” was just slightly better again. The extra 1.5/2% alcohol – they’re both just over 6%, while the dry stout is 4.5% – and the extra body really makes a difference in their impact.

But I trust Alastair Hook to get it right. I think we can expect to see the recipe tinkered with for some time to come. Meantime’s wheat beer was pretty dull at first, but has evolved into a thing of beauty (especially in its strong 6.5% grand cru incarnation).

I also suspect that we’ll see a “Taste the Difference” stout in Sainsbury’s in the next year or so, based on this recipe.