breweries pubs

Checking in with Brewhouse & Kitchen

Our trip to Portsmouth gave us a chance to reappraise Brewhouse & Kitchen – a quietly successful chain built around onsite brewing.

We’ve been ambivalent about BH&K in the past.

Despite each having its own brewer, the individual bars trade under a collective name, with the same branding and similar décor.

As a result, they can feel a bit like business class Wetherspoons.

The beers rarely strike us as memorable, either, tending to the soft, hazy and, yes, homebrew-like.

The interior of a modern bar with scrubbed wood, bare brick and grey paint.
The Southsea branch of BH&K.

Still, sitting in the Southsea branch on a Monday afternoon, we were struck by a few things.

First, how busy it seemed, given the time and day.

(We realise the above photo makes it look otherwise but that’s because we go out of our way to avoid snapping pictures of strangers.)

Secondly, the diverse range of people it served: solo retirees, young parents, ladies out lunching, students, builders…

Thirdly, some of the beer was strikingly good – specifically the Helles lager.

That latter was a false alarm, though, because we noticed “Brewed for us” on the menu and asked “By whom?”

Shepherd Neame, it turns out. We tend to forget that SN is a substantial UK lager producer.

The other beers were decent enough, though, on cask and keg, across a range of styles. It’s always nice to encounter a cask porter, for example.

At the end of our week in Portsmouth, on Friday lunchtime, we visited the city’s other branch, in the centre.

This was the very first BH&K, established in a former Wetherspoon pub, which was a former Brickwoods pub.

It felt warmer and more organically publike than the Southsea outlet.

There was brewing underway, too, filling the bar with the smell of hot malt.

Knowledgeable, enthusiastic staff were keen to talk about the beer and give clear recommendations.

We enjoyed a notably orangey Witbier and, on the barman’s advice, Rockingham American pale ale.

Both were solid, as good as many beers we encounter in craft beer focused pubs in Bristol. Think Left Handed Giant, for example.

“This is amazing!” said a bloke at the bar. “I’ve never heard of this place but look at all the different beers you’ve got. Weird thing is, I’ve got some friends who are proper ‘alers’ and they’ve never mentioned it once.”

And that’s true. You won’t hear “alers” talking about BH&K, just as they don’t tend to talk about Zero Degrees.

There’s something about chains that’s off-putting, however properly things are done. You don’t know the brewers, only the brand, and the beer can sometimes feel like an accessory designed to sell macaroni cheese and “small plates”.

We wonder if it might be different if each bar and brewery had it’s own name and identity.

Would “alers” feel warmer towards The Portsmouth Brewing Company at The White Swan?

breweries pubs

Twenty-First Century Brewpub

A version of this post first appeared in the autumn 2017 edition of the Campaign for Real Ale’s quarterly magazine BEER and is reproduced here with permission.

To brewers, publicans and drinkers, there is undoubtedly something almost irresistible about the idea of making, serving and drinking beer within the same four walls.

If you’d been around three hundred years ago and ordered a quart of beer the chances are you’d be served something brewed metres away from where you drank it. The brewhouses weren’t necessarily on display but anyone who has ever visited the Blue Anchor in Helston, Cornwall, will know how a brewery makes itself known even from behind closed doors – with tumbling steam that carries the aroma of malt and hops. It seems to make the beer taste better and certainly adds to the romance.

Then, in the 18th and 19th centuries, industrial brewing developed, with production becoming ever more centralised in ever bigger facilities. By the mid-20th century a handful of big brewing concerns were operating across the country and the number of ‘homebrew houses’ had dwindled to fewer than ten.

But in the 1980s, as part of the post-CAMRA real ale boom with its rejection of the industrial and mass-produced, the ‘brewpub’ was invented. The primary driver in that was a brewery in the basement of a South London pub, The Goose & Firkin, set up by David and Louise Bruce in 1979. They opened several more pubs with their own breweries in the decade that followed, mostly in London. The Firkin chain made the Bruces’ fortune as they sold strong beer brewed on site to pubs rammed with the type of customer happy to pay a little more for something truly unique.

beer reviews

Vienna Beer at Zero Degrees

Graffiti outside Zero Degrees.

As part of our mission to visit every pub in Bristol* we popped into Zero Degrees on Saturday where, to our surprise, we encountered a beer of the year contender: a Vienna lager of astonishing perfection.

Something like fifteen years ago (wow) we used to swoon over Meantime’s Golden Beer, which was a kind of doppio malto affair, darker and heavier than a standard Pilsner but not sickly or sweet. It disappeared from Meantime’s roster more than a decade ago; thankfully, the Vienna Lager (5.3% ABV) at the Bristol branch of the Zero Degrees brewpub is a dead ringer.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Zero Degrees, a similarly lager-focused brewery founded at around the same time as Meantime in the same part of the world and targeting the same market, should sometimes produce beers that resemble Meantime’s. We haven’t dug into it but suspect some of the same staff have rotated in and out of those two breweries, too, over the years.

But, the Vienna… It was indeed golden — not quite amber, but definitely deeper than yellow — and balanced magically on the knife-sharp edge between all-about-hops and all-about-malt. It was advertised as dry-hopped but that didn’t translate into brashness. This is the kind of beer that stopped us shrugging about lager all those years ago — the kind of beer that makes us say, ‘Wow!’ without having any particular prominent feature to point at. (Further reading.) The wow factor is in the perfection of its structure, the precision with which each part does its job, the taming of weed and seed into perfume and biscuit when they can so easily end up all grass and mud. In the past we’ve had beers at Zero Degrees that lack life but this sparkled and glowed, and had a decent head, without being fizzy or like a bubble-bath.

An Oktoberfest beer also on offer was less successful (dense and dark, but sticky with sugar) and a sour cherry beer was almost brilliant except that the sourness had a faint suggestion of hangover sweat about it.

Overall, despite our ongoing problem with the chilly pizza restaurant vibe, we resolved to visit Zero Degrees again soon, and more often in general. Anywhere that is consistently brewing these Continental sub-styles, with only tasteful ‘twists’, deserves a bit of love.

We’re expecting this to take several years. We’re making the rules up as we go along, defining ‘pub’ as somewhere primarily defined by the availability of beer, and ‘Bristol’ as — gulp — the ONS definition. Visits made to pubs before we moved here in July don’t count; we both have to be present for a visit to register; but only one of us has to consume an alcoholic drink. We’re up to (checks) 72 so far.

beer reviews breweries london pubs

Stumbling Upon The Four Thieves, Battersea

We couldn’t resist following an official-looking brown tourist information sign pointing to ‘Brewery & Distillery’.

Having set out with no particular plan in mind other than to find (a) beer we can’t get in Penzance and (b) somewhere to enjoy lunch with baby-laden friends we trusted Clapham, in south west London, to provide. The sign actually directed just across the border into Battersea, to the Four Thieves.

This pub occupies a huge building — a former music hall — with decorative tiling throughout, high ceilings, dark corners, a jungle-like ‘gin garden’, a back room with breakfast buffet, a games room with arcade machines and ‘interactive experiences’, and, of course, a substantial glass-fronted brewhouse.

It’s got a touch of the 2005 about it — that curlicued boutique-hotel styling that was all the rage before the industrial look took over — which, frankly, made rather a pleasant change. (Or maybe we’re just getting old.)

Beer history videos

VIDEO: Home Brewing — On the House (1947)

The Golden Lion, Southwick, Hampshire: ‘In austerity Britain, this is one pub that never goes dry.’

From British Pathé on YouTube. (Note the glasses in the pub at the end: lots of dimpled mugs.)