Insidious Stella Artois campaign sadly effective

The most recent issue of Marketing casually mentions, in an article on Stella Artois’ branding, that the lager contains “only the four traditional ingredients of beer” — malt, water, hops and maize.

So, it seems that the sneaky campaign from earlier this year has partially achieved its aim. That is, subtly linking the idea that beer has a limited number of traditional ingredients (as per the German purity law) with the four slightly different ingredients found in Stella.

Maize is not, of course, traditionally found in beer, and has only been included by sly brewers in the last century or so to reduce the cost of production and lighten the flavour.

Porterhouse Oktoberfest

A pint of porter at the Porterhouse (photo by 1gl, from Flickr Creative Commons)
A pint of porter at the Porterhouse (photo by 1gl, from Flickr Creative Commons)

The Porterhouse in Covent Garden is a funny place.

On the one hand, it sets itself up as a beer-lovers paradise, with an extensive beer menu containing pages and pages of text about the integrity, commitment and passion of its founders.

On the other hand, from the time it opens at midday, it starts to fill up with stag-dos, parties of posh people, ex-pats from Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, and confused looking middle-aged tourists. Most of the clientele — and we were looking — seem to drink wine, Magners, Corona or Porterhouse Chiller. Chiller, by the brewers’ own admission, is the least challenging of their beers (viz, it is very cold and fairly light in flavour).

So, it’s a beer-centred venue which could survive perfectly well if it didn’t bother dishing up any decent beer at all.

We’ve got a little soft-spot for the place, though, as it was here that we first tried Paulaner Salvator and some other beers that helped to open our eyes a few years ago. This particular trip was prompted by the Beer Nut, who told us that the Porterhouse’s own German-style altbier was on its way, and by his review of said alt.

We weren’t disappointed by the alt — it more than measured up the real thing, which we got to know and love earlier this year, and satisfied our persistent cravings. It was on the bitter, fruity side, similar to the output of the well-respected Duesseldorf brewpubs, and bore no resemblance to the rather burnt-sugar-like commercial alt from Schloesser which we see fairly often in London these days.

While we were there, and being fortunate enough to have a quiet corner to ourselves, we decided to reappraise the rest of the Porterhouse’s home-grown beers. Weird nitro-keg shaving-foam heads aside, the stouts are all pretty impressive compared to Guinness. And that, after all, is the management’s entire focus: beat Guinness. Bailey preferred the deeply bitter Wrassler’s; Boak liked the softer, maltier Oyster Stout. None of the other beers are mind-blowing, but it’s good to see such a range, including three lagers.

Maybe the chaps in charge could turn this venue over to the party people and open another somewhere quieter, where we can appreciate their hard work in the brewery? Perhaps next door to the Greenwich Union?

Photo from 1gl‘s photostream at Flickr, under a Creative Commons license. Thanks, 1gl!

Drinking in Elizabethan London

The Elizabethan Underworld by Gamini Salgado
The Elizabethan Underworld by Gamini Salgado

Gamini Salgado’s The Elizabethan Underworld is a fairly obvious attempt to follow the success of Kellow Chesney’s The Victorian Underworld, which itself was an update of Henry Mayhew. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating read, especially for those interested in London’s pubs.

The first thing to note is that, according to Salgado’s sources (all fully referenced and quoted at length), Elizabethan pubs were full of con-artists, thieves, pimps and whores. A ‘cony’ was anyone new in town, usually an innocent looking bloke from the countryside, who could be preyed upon by these criminals, therefore known collectively as ‘cony-catchers’.

In short, the Elizabethan pub was a kind of trap for bumpkins.

Salgado says:

There were different grades of ordinary and tavern into which the cony was lured by the cony-catchers, ranging from the fashionably expensive to the squalid.

He lists:

  • twelvepenny ordinaries — posh pubs for fashionable chaps to play dice or cards
  • citizens ordinaries — where skint professional types hung out, from bedsit dwelling bachelors to stingy lawyers, ‘the price threepence’
  • low ordinaries — ‘where eating and drinking was largely incidental to more dubious occupations’
  • alehouses — ‘often… the back kitchen of a mean dwelling, standing on some obscure back street, and… frequently unlicensed’.

A woodcut of an Elizabethan tavern scene

The latter sounds interesting, with more beer being consumed than wine, unlike the other types of establishment. According to Salgado, alehouses proliferated in the 16th century because people got fussy about their beer and were no longer keen to drink nasty homebrewed ale. Bigger brewers would sell commercial beer to amateur back-room landlords on credit, who would then only need to find a few tables a and chairs to make a bit of cash on the side.

Sadly, no mention is made of Pimlico Ale, which continues to intrigue us.

This is another in our series of pub guides for time travellers. See this post for info on London in the 1960s.

A crawl in Clapham

We’re not going to let the fact that most of the tube doesn’t work at weekends at the moment stop us from exploring. A couple of Saturdays back, we decided to go to Clapham and investigate some of the interesting sounding pubs mentioned in various guides and websites.

What did we know of Clapham before this visit? Well, it used to be home to around 300 dreadful stripped-pine and chrome contemporary beverage appreciation spaces — the kinds of place which we suspect soured a lot of CAMRA types on modern pubs for good, with their cold atmospheres and selection of identical and bland ‘world lagers’. On the high street, at least, those are still in abundance, but now looking increasingly careworn and old-fashioned. All the men were wearing little hats and skinny jeans; the girls were in Uggs. Style over substance.

Off the high street, however, there’s plenty to enjoy — the kinds of pubs which fall between full-on trendiness and catering purely to old men.

Summer Lightning and Downton German Pale Ale Face/Off
Summer Lightning and Downton German Pale Ale Face/Off

Our first port of call was the Mason’s Manor Arms, which is in the Good Beer Guide and has been for years. It made the trek worthwhile. It’s a small, cosy pub set back from the street behind a small beer garden. The only concessions to 1990s-style Clapham trendiness are some well-worn sofas and a rather nice contemporary frontage. All the cosiness in the world can’t make up for terrible beer, but the Mason’s Manor has nothing to worry about on that front. Their Summer Lightning was astoundingly good. Downton’s German Pale Ale, their current guest ale, was a fascinating, confusing and delicious beer, evidently brewed with all-German lager-type ingredients and fermented English-style. Similar to Summer Lightning, but fresher and crisper. Timothy Taylor Landlord and Ringwood Bitter were also on offer and beyond criticism in their freshness and condition.

The Bread and Roses
The Bread and Roses

Comfortable as we were, we managed to haul ourselves up and out to make it along the road to the Bread and Roses. Now, on paper, this sounded like our kind of place: a pub run to raise funds for left-wing causes which offers a large range of guest ales and specialty beers. And it exceeded expectations.

First, the interesting beers on tap: Sharp’s Doom Bar, Sharp’s IPA, Purity Pure Gold, Budvar, Budvar Dark, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Stiegl (from Austria), Erdinger Weissbier and Maredsous Blonde. Then in bottles: Maisel’s Dunkelweiss, Brooklyn Lager, Brooklyn Chocolate Stout and Anchor Steam. Nothing we hadn’t tried before, but lots we were pleased to see on offer and, once again, all those we tried were fresh and tasty. We also liked the fact that there were lots of explanatory notes on the pumps and boards to explain what the various beers were like, and there were also suggestions on the menu as to which wine or beer would match with the food.

The pub itself is an old Victorian building decked out in late 90s trendy pub style, except that it also has paintings of left-wing orators in 19th century London, big screen football, copies of the London Drinker and numerous other things that undercut any sense of pretension. Why is this place not more famous? Why was it not crammed? Maybe being neither wholly trendy nor designed for old men makes for a hard-to-sell pub? It makes a point of being child-friendly, so perhaps that scared the GBG off. And, of course, it’s not right next to a tube station.

One caveat: the food was great and cheap (especially given the quality) but took a while to arrive (35 minutes) so don’t build your visit around a meal.

Our crawl was cut short at this point when we moved on in the drizzle to find that Microbar doesn’t open on Saturday afternoons. Another time. Clapham has a lot to offer, and we’re coming back for another session!

Notes

Both the Manor Arms and Bread and Roses are on Clapham Manor Street. The nearest tube stops are Clapham North or Clapham Common; alternatively, trains to Clapham High Street leave from Victoria and London Bridge approximately every half an hour. Microbar is technically Battersea, rather than Clapham, but it’s a fairly short stagger from the Bread and Roses; if you go along the Wandsworth Road you’ll pass the Plough Inn, now a Young’s pub, and an old, defunct brewery that goes back at least to 1869, before being bought by Simmonds and then Courage. Google map here, showing all the locations mentioned.

That's what Oktoberfest is about

Just surfacing after last night at Zeitgeist.  My stomach is turning somewhat thinking about beer, so this is not the time for detailed beer reviews.  Suffice to say, we had a great time, and so did our non-beer-geek friends.

Can’t really remember a lot about what I drank, but it was all good stuff.  Standouts for me were Scheubel-Sternbrau Dunkel Rauchbier and (in a bottle) Kanone Zwickl.   Go Go Go (but do line the stomach first…)

In case you’ve forgotten, all the details are here.  It’s due to run all weekend, and they may just have enough beer this time…we’d go back, but we’re Never Drinking Again.

Boak (never has my nom de plume seemed more appropriate)