Surviving in a beer desert

These days, it’s easier than ever to get a wide range of decent beer in bottles. There are supermarkets everywhere, almost all of whom have a range of drinkable beer. But what do you do if there isn’t a specialist beer shop in your area, and you’ve tried everything in every supermarket?

1. Make sure you try *all* the shops in your area. I only realised by chance that what I had thought for five years was an organic veg shop near my house was actually a pretty big organic supermarket, with the full range of Pitfield’s organic bottled beers.

2. Co-op have some interesting beer, including a couple from Freeminer. CO-OP’s “Strong Ale” (brewed for them by Thwaites) isn’t that strong, and is full of caramel, but I like it anyway.

3. My local Londis (see their virtual store, pictured above) stocks a really good range of St Austell’s beers, including the bottle-conditioned ones. They are independent retailers who can choose what to sell, so they sometimes have weird and interesting beers, depending on how interested the managers are.

4. Some nice beers don’t have nice bottles – they look like tramps’ brew. Those are the ones you’ll find in your local corner shop. Guinness Foreign Extra, a world classic imperial stout, is available in almost every grubby corner shop in London. There’s quite a trend, too, for importing czech lager from smaller breweries. Corner shops often have “Lobkowitz”, “Ostravar” and other beers which are less well known than Budvar. Most of them are nothing to write home about, but they’re often better than tins of Stella. Roger Protz rates Svyturys Ekstra from Lithuania. My local Turkish supermarket stocks the unpasteurised version, which is even better. But the label is in Lithuanian, and it’s in a fridge next to Polish tramp brews (Warka Strong and Okocim Mocne).

5. Take away from pubs. Lots of Young’s pubs in London offer take away bottles, in nifty carriers, at about £1.50 a bottle. Lots of other pubs are also “off-licensed”. Try asking.

6. Order from the internet. Onlyfinebeer hardly ever have the stuff I order in stock, but the fact that you can pay for beer online and have it turn up behind your wheelie bin a few days later is great. Or try CAMRA’s beer club.

7. Read about beer. This is also better for your health than drinking it. Michael Jackson’s 500 Great Beers and Roger Protz’s 300 Beer’s You Must Drink Before You Die! have lots of photos of exotic foreign beers in provocative poses.

8. Brew your own. Get a decent book (I like this one) and order some kit (from these nice people, for example) and give it a go. I can’t describe the joy when, after a year of tinkering and reading, we managed to brew something which tasted as good as a real beer from an actual shop. Not just passable, but really good. We’ll never be thirsty again.

Beer history london

Pimlico Ale – update

We found another book that mentions Pimlico Ale, which I spoke about in this post a few days ago.

William Carey, in his weird, limited edition history of the area, published in 1986, writes:

The most popular ale drunk in London between 1570 and 1700 was ‘Pimlico Ale’ otherwise known as ‘Derby Red Cap’ from the pink tinge of its frothy head. At first produced only in Derbyshire at a farm location named “Pimlico”, it was brought to London in huge barrels down the Watling Way.

This is very interesting. What makes the head pink/red? Fruit could, but the head on some imperial stouts is reddish brown. More research needed – in books on Derbyshire, perhaps…?

Beer history london


In Charles Dickens’ 1850 piece “Three Detective Anecdotes”, the policeman Inspector Wield reports this attempt to get information from a witness:

When the play was over, we came out together, and I said, “We’ve been very companionable and agreeable, and perhaps you wouldn’t object to a drain?” “Well, you’re very good,” says he; “I SHOULDN’T object to a drain.” Accordingly, we went to a public-house, near the Theatre, sat ourselves down in a quiet room up-stairs on the first floor, and called for a pint of half-and-half, apiece, and a pipe.

What’s half-and-half? I asked myself.

Modern references (Beer Advocate, amongst others) say that half-and-half is a cousin or a variant of “black-and-tan”, and that it’s made by mixing pale ale and and stout. In fact, they specify a mix of Guinness and a “mild or bitter beer”. Dickens’ characters probably weren’t drinking Guinness, though.

An even earlier source – an 1820 treatise against the adulteration of food (Project Gutenberg e-text) – covers half-and-half in more detail. The author says that “every publican has two sorts of beer sent to him from the brewer… ‘mild’, which is beer sent out fresh as it is brewed; the other is called ‘old'”.

Half-and-half is a mixture of the two. So, instead of paying for a full pint of the “good stuff”, the consumer could shave a little off the cost by voluntary adulterating their beer. Presumably, they might also choose to do so because the aged beer was sour, and so a bit much to take on its own.

And it was in trying to come up with a quicker and easier way to serve mixed beer that London landlords invented “entire butt” (beer pre-mixed in the barrel, and coming from one tap) which in turn became the famous London Porter. Roger Protz and Graham Wheeler, in their excellent if eccentrically typeset Brew Your Own British Real Ale at Home argue that “the original London Porters were simply brown ales that were deliberately soured”.

So, how to simulate a pint of Victorian half-and-half? I’d guess that getting two similar beers (brown ales), souring one, and keeping the other fresh, is the best way to start. Failing that, a dash of something lambic in a brown ale might do the job.

I came across “Three Detective Anecdotes” in A Treasury of Victorian Detective Stories edited by Everett F Bleiler (Harvest Press, 1980), but it’s also available at Project Gutenberg for free.

london News

A brewpub in London

Stonch, of the internet’s Stonch’s Beer Blog, brings news of a new brewpub in London. For a city this big, it’s surprising there aren’t more (Stonch counts five). But then again, how much would it cost to buy or lease central a London property big enough to accomodate brewing and a pub?