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.