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.
‘How come the cask hand-pump system didn’t develop in mainland Europe? Or am I missing something?’ Jordan (@timelytipple), Berlin
Instinctively, we thought, yes, Jordan’s right — you don’t go into a bar or the local equivalent of a pub in France, Belgium, Germany or points east and see someone pulling on a handle to draw beer from a cask into the glass. In Cologne and Düsseldorf you might see a cask on a counter with a trickle-tap on its side, or a grand and gleaming keg font, but not this:
But then we paused — was this always the case or are we, and Jordan, making the mistake of assuming that how it is now is how it’s always been?
I didn’t have the knowledge then that I have now, but I somehow knew you had to look after beer or it would spoil and, at worst, end up tasting like vinegar. A skilled publican knew how to care for beer and made sure it was only ever served tasting the way it should. But it seemed as though there must be a shortage of skilled publicans because wherever we went, in whatever town, we kept being served, flat, smelly and often vinegary cask beer. So I stopped drinking it.
BrewDog has just announced LIVE beer (their capitalisation) — a version of their session-strength Dead Pony Club packaged with live yeast and conditioned in the keg.
Of course they are obliged to present it as a great breakthrough, and deny that it’s anything like CAMRA approved real ale, for the sake of pride, just as CAMRA could only grudgingly approve of certain keg beers after much soul-searching. (See Chapter 14 of Brew Britannia for more on that.)
The thing is, quite apart from the fact we’ve been hearing gossip about this for months — tales of Martin Dickie and team earnestly studying cask ales with notebooks in hand in Scottish pubs, a false rumour of cask ale’s imminent reinstatement at certain BrewDog bars — it was inevitable BrewDog would do something with live yeast at some point.
Imagine how annoying it must be to know, in your heart of hearts, that beers with live yeast are interesting, are a part of tradition with a compelling story, are the beer equivalent of stinky cheese and sourdough bread, but that you’ve made it a point of principle not to do it in large part because your ‘brand values’ (modern, hip) are at odds with the Campaign for Real Ale’s (traditional, curmudgeonly), as well as for convenience. Not very ‘craft’.
Now CAMRA are finding a way to live with kegs (of a sort), and BrewDog are finding a way to live with real ale (of a sort), is it too soon to start dreaming of demobilisation and street parties? And might we see a BrewDog stand at the Great British Beer Festival in 2017?
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.