Perfect Pride and the fear of the shred

Last night at our local, The Drapers Arms, we enjoyed perfect London Pride: solid foam, dry bitterness, a subtle note of leafy green, wrapped in marmalade, with a lantern glow.

Delightful as this was, it also triggered a sense of frustration, because lots of people won’t believe us, because they don’t believe that Pride can be that good, because they’ve never had a pint that isn’t half-dead.

The thing about beer, and cask ale especially, is that all the subtle variables make recommending or endorsing any particular product a risky business.

It’s as if you’ve told people about a great song…

…and then when they try to act on your advice and listen to it they get, nine times out of ten, the shred:

Or like giving a film five stars but the only version on the market is the studio cut, pan-and-scan, VHS-transfer with burned in Dutch subtitles.

That’s why these days we tend to talk about specific pints or encounters rather than saying “Pride is a great beer” or “Tribute is fantastic”.

Or, alternatively, give mild endorsements with multiple caveats.

The best you can hope for, really, is that a beer will more often be good than bad when people encounter it in the wild.

A footnote: The Drapers had Pride’s beer miles listed as 6,120. It’s not as if it’s being brewed in Japan in the wake of the takeover, of course, but ownership matters.

BWOASA: Fuller’s comes through

Fuller's barley wine.

After our depth-testing was a bit of a failure last week, we were starting to get really worried: was this going to be a month of posts about the absence of barley wine, old ale and strong ale?

Then we realised there was at least one safe bet: Fuller’s.

The Old Fish Market isn’t a pub we’re mad keen on, tending to the businesslike in terms of atmosphere, though it does the job from time to time when we want a fix of one of our favourite London breweries.

Crucially, we also know it carries both Golden Pride and 1845 in bottles, and so on Friday night, before Ray caught a train to London, in we went for a bottle of each, with a chaser of ESB.

We don’t drink Golden Pride often, perhaps once every couple of years. There’s a lingering sense in our minds that it’s a bit… trashy, maybe? It’s not bottle-conditioned, it’s less complex than some other Fuller’s strong ales, and has a less interesting backstory. Which is why a mission like this is helpful in focusing the mind: it’s a great beer, and we’re lucky it still exists.

Copper-coloured and jewel-like, it delivered everything we expect from the ideal barley wine: sweetness, fruitiness, richness. Sherry, fruitcake, dates and prunes. Golden syrup, honey and brown sugar. An avalanche of marmalade.

Again, we found ourselves wondering where the boundary between this type of beer and old-school double IPA might lie. Perhaps side-by-side the distinction would be clearer.

Anyway, yes, here it is – the official standard reference barley wine, against which others should be judged.

* * *

We used to love 1845, the classic bottle-conditioned strong ale, but apparently we’ve grown apart.

Perhaps it was the close comparison to Golden Pride but, even at 6.3%, it seemed thin, harsh and unpleasantly earthy. As it warmed up, it gained some weight, and the bitterness fell back into something like balance, but it lacked fruitiness.

Its main effect was to make us really, really want a pint of ESB.

* * *

We’re lucky to have ESB, too. At its best – and on Friday, it was at its best – it’s a beer that brings the depth and density of a nip-bottle-sipper into the pub pint glass.

Even after drinking Golden Pride at 8.5%, ESB at 5.5 tasted chewy, charming and luscious. You know the flavours but, just in case: marmalade, fruitcake, mild spice, cherry and orange zest. Hot cross buns perhaps sums it up.

Maybe this is why we don’t drink Golden Pride more often – because ESB provides 80% of the pleasure with far less boozy intensity, while still feeling like a special treat.

* * *

We floated out of the OFM quite happy, feeling that we were finally on the right track.

Feelings about Fuller’s

On Friday it was announced that Asahi had acquired the brewing wing of Fuller’s, subject to rubber-stamping, and we felt, frankly, gutted.

Jess, being a Londoner, took it especially hard, though not, perhaps, as hard as the person who runs the London Historians Twitter account:

For Fuck's sake Fuller's. What's wrong with you?

With a few days to absorb and reflect we’re still feeling disappointed, despite commentary from those who argue that Asahi aren’t the worst, that it’s a vote of confidence of cask, and so on. It still feels as if someone you thought was a pal has betrayed you.

We know this is completely irrational, business is gonna business, and so on and so forth, but we kidded ourselves (or were seduced into?) thinking Fuller’s was a bit different.

Of course the signs were all there (the lack of respect for Chiswick Bitter, for example, in favour of anything they could slap SESSION IPA on) but there were positive indicators too – surely if they were going to sell up they’d have done it in 1963, or 1982, or… And why the interest in old recipes, in collaborations and so on, if there wasn’t some kind of sentimental attachment to the idea of the family business, heritage and beer?

Oddly, when the news broke, we were eating breakfast in a Fuller’s hotel-pub, and it seemed that the staff were as bewildered as us. As customers asked them for their views, they politely muttered, “We don’t know much about it, I’m afraid.” They appeared to be reading news websites and social media to work out what was going on in the company they work for.

We made a point of going into a couple more Fuller’s pubs over the course of the weekend, like mourners clutching at memories of the recently deceased. The beer tasted as good as ever – better, in fact, especially the stuff badged as Dark Star and Gale’s. Again, staff seemed on edge, in one case openly snapping at a beer bore who insisted on lecturing them about Asahi and how the takeover would ruin the beer.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that this was being talked about in several pubs we visited, including one non-Fuller’s pub, all of them, we’d have said, ‘outside the bubble’. People have heard of Fuller’s and were interested in this news, which got covered heavily in the mainstream press.

From a couple of sources, it became clear the brewing staff were in shock, too. Head brewer Georgina Young:

It was a long and very emotional day.

Here’s what one Fuller’s employee said to us in a private message on Saturday:

I wish I knew more – we all found out yesterday… It’s a rational business decision but a devastating one for beer. If we are not independent, what’s the point? What do we still represent? All this stuff about brands and growth is pretty meaningless to Fuller’s customers who will just be pissed off.

Maybe this will not damage the beer in the long run, who knows. We’re aware it’s a controversial view but we’ve been really enjoying Young’s recently, ironically in lots of Young’s-branded pubs where the average punter probably doesn’t realise the brands and the pubs parted company years ago. We’d certainly be quite happy to walk into pubs and find cask ESB alongside Pilsner Urquell. (And Frontier Craft Lager hurled into the skip of history.)

What we do worry about is those hidden gems – the non-flagship backstreet pubs in West London where grey paint and fake ghost signs have yet to take hold, and which still feel vaguely like boozers. They’re either going to get trashed, or ditched, aren’t they?

And we worry about whether this means Fuller’s, as a brewery, will stagnate. What will motivate disenfranchised staff to try new things, or throw themselves into reviving old recipes? It’s been hard to find London Porter in any format for a couple of years – will this finally kill it off for good, along with poor old Chiswick? Look at Meantime: the quality or the core beer may be good, but the breadth of the offer is now distressingly bland.

All that’s kept us going into Fuller’s flagship plasticky, faux-posh corporate pubs for the past decade is the beer. We go to the Old Fish Market in Bristol because we crave that distinctive yeast character once in a while, not for the branded coffee and gin experience in surroundings that resemble a hotel lobby.

We don’t know how this will turn out. We’re not going to boycott Fuller’s. We’re not ‘butthurt’. But something in the relationship has changed, and we will probably end up drinking less Fuller’s beer without thinking much about it.

News Pubs and Old Favourites #1: The Forester, Ealing

We spent the gap between Christmas and New Year in West London, on the hunt for Proper Pubs. Four stood out and we’re going to give each one its own post.

Jess first visited the Forester in Northfields, Ealing, in 2016, during research for 20th Century Pub, and has been trying to get Ray there ever since. It’s of academic interest, being built in 1909 as an early Improved Pub to a design by Nowell-Parr, and retaining a multi-room layout with lots of period details.

It also happens to be a suburban backstreet corner pub – our current favourite thing. As we approached, it peeked into view between the corner shops and terraced houses, like a steampunk cruise ship at berth.

It’s a Fuller’s pub, too, which means touches of the corporate, but not to an oppressive degree. It helps that the light is kept low and (not to everyone’s taste, we know) the music loud, so every table feels like its own warm bubble.

The Forester, Ealing -- interior.

The locals seemed well-to-do without being posh, sinking beer and gin, and throwing out the odd raucous joke: “Bloody hell! When you bent over then, Steve… Either you’re wearing a black thong or you forgot to wipe your arse.”

They ignored parties of outsiders – a group of what we took for professional footballers on tour, all designer shirts and hair product; a trio of twentysomethings, apparently from the middle east, when-in-Rome-ing with pints of Guinness – without apparent malice.

The beer was excellent, too – Fuller’s as Fuller’s should be served, gleaming and brilliant beneath clean arctic foam. The ESB in particular was hard to resist, demanding to be treated like a session beer, which maybe it is at Christmas.

We made time to visit twice during a four-night trip, which should tell you something. You might find it worth a detour next time you’re in London.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 24 March 2018: Glitter, Ilford, AK

Here’s everything we’ve read about beer and pubs in the last week that excited us enough to hit the bookmark button, from glitter beer to Kölsch.

And what a week it’s been — a positive flood of interesting writing, lots of it on the hefty side. We’ll never work out the rhythms. It’s just odd that some weeks we post five links and think, well, that’s it, we’re done, and then on other occasions… Well, brace yourself.

Madeleine McCarthy (L) and Lee Hedgmon holding glasses of glitter beer.

First, a story we didn’t expect to care about but which did something interesting: it actually changed our minds. Glitter beer is the latest Oh, Silly Craft Beer! trend, easy to dismiss out of hand, but Jeff Alworth made the effort to go and try some and was won over:

What you can’t appreciate from still photos is that glitter exposes how dynamic a beer is. The tiny flecks ride the currents in bands and whorls, following the convection of released carbon dioxide or the motion of the drinker’s hand. As you look down into the glass, you see it roil and churn. It’s riveting. Beyond that, imagine drinking a green, shimmering Belgian tripel and trying to make it track to the taste of, say, Westmalle. It’s an object lesson in how much appearance factors into our mental formulation of “flavor.” The slight breadiness and vivid effervescence have fused in my mind with the qualities that define a tripel; looking at Lee’s beer, I was forced to go back to the basics of what my palate could tell me.

We’re not saying we now desperately want to drink a glass of sparkly pale ale but if we see one on sale, we’ll definitely try it, which is not what we’d have said last Saturday. Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 24 March 2018: Glitter, Ilford, AK”