News, Nuggets and Longreads 23 March 2019: Choice, Cycles, Cask 2019

Here’s everything in the world of beer and pubs that struck us as noteworthy in the past week, from AB-InBev to Samuel Smith.

Hollie at Globe Hops, a UK beer blog that’s new to us, recently went back to Nottingham where she studied and noticed that many of her favourite pubs had tons more choice in their beer ranges, but somehow less character:

My brow furrowed. I struggled to articulate how it felt to me like something had been lost from the place, even though all that had really happened was that more options had been added. I’d loved the pub for precisely its niche; the reliability of excellently kept Castle Rock ales, the chance to try the brewery’s seasonal ranges, and guest ales from other small local breweries, such as the fantastic Springhead. But now there was a smorgasbord of choice that was almost dizzying. I quickly realised the problem; were it not for the recognisable brick walls and beams lovingly decorated with pump labels, I could be anywhere. The pub had retained its charm, but the bar choice had lost its accent.

(Via Peter McKerry | @PeterMcKerry.)

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Q&A: Which Classics Might I Have Missed?

“I was drinking a bottle of Proper Job yesterday and thinking about how I only started buying it after reading your blog. Later, I drank some Beavertown Gamma Ray and Magic Rock Cannonball and wondered if, by drinking fancy craft beers usually modelled on American style, I was missing something. Can you recommend any perennial British beers, the kind of thing you perhaps take for granted but that might have been overlooked by people who’ve only come to love beer since craft really took off?”* — Brendan, Leeds

That’s an interesting question and, let’s face it, exactly the kind of thing we semi-professional beer bores dream of being asked.

To prevent ourselves going on for 5,000 words we’re going to set a limit of five beers, and stick to those available in bottles, although we’ll mention where there’s a cask version and if it’s better. We’re also going to avoid the temptation to list historically significant beers that we don’t actually like all that much — those listed below are beers we buy regularly and actually enjoy drinking.

Four strong Harvey's bottled beers.

1. Harvey’s Imperial Extra Stout is a big, intimidatingly flavoursome, heavy metal tour of a beer that makes a lot of trendier interpretations look tame. It was first brewed in the 1990s to a historically inspired recipe. We didn’t used to like it — it was too intense for us, and some people reckon it smells too funky– but now, it’s kind of a benchmark: if your experimental £22 a bottle limited edition imperial stout doesn’t taste madder and/or better than this, why are you wasting our time? It’s available from Harvey’s own web store.

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News, Nuggets & Longreads 16 Jan 2016

These are the beer-related blog posts and articles that caught our attention in the last seven days, from low-alcohol beer to the eccentricity of Samuel Smith’s.

→ There have been lots of articles questioning the UK Government’s new alcohol consumption guidelines most of which, frankly, we’ve ignored as seeming shrill and defensive. This critical take-down from Adam ‘The Stats Guy’ Jacob, however, seems pretty well balanced and, crucially, offers a textbook example of how to disclose potential biases. (Via @PhilMellows.)

→ Those of you unable to drink for medical reasons, during pregnancy, because you’re the designated driver, or just because you fancy giving your innards a break, will be interested in Tony Naylor’s round-up of the best alcohol free beers for the Guardian. Conventional wisdom is ‘Don’t bother!’ but Mr Naylor found a couple of decent contenders:

The lemony, herbal saaz hop flavours that distinguish Czech pilsners shine through remarkably well. OK, it tastes cardboardy at the back, but this has more character than many alcoholic big-brand lagers. Shockingly good.

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Sam Smith Hits London, 1978

Samuel Smith Brewery pubs are a positive fixture in London today but 40 years ago, there weren’t any.

Samuel Smith Brewery pubs are a positive fixture in London today but 40 years ago, there weren’t any.

We’ve often wondered exactly how they came to have such a substantial estate in the capital and had gathered that it was a relatively recent development. Now, thanks to a recently acquired July 1978 edition of the Campaign for Real Ale’s What’s Brewing newspaper, we have all the details. The story is entitled ‘Sam Smith Rapped for “Own Beer” Pub’:

Samuel Smith, the Yorkshire brewers, have run into angry opposition to their plans for altering their first ever Greater London pub.

The Tudor Close in Petersham Road, Richmond, is a favourite local ale house serving such brews as Wadworth, Felinfoel, Arkells and Brakspear.

But now its new owners want to make big alterations to both the outside and interior… and replace the wide range of beers with Old Brewery Bitter, their only real ale.

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Unlikely Wow Factor

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It’s been a while since a beer delighted us, without quibbles and caveats.

That’s how life goes, of course: most beers — or films, books, cakes, or whatever — are absolutely fine without necessarily triggering swooning fits.

But still, we have made an effort to try a few new beers lately, hoping to find a gem, and placed orders with Beer Merchants and Beer Ritz with that in mind.

Multiple IPAs and US-style pale ales from British breweries, however, triggered the same reaction: “It’s fine, but nothing to write home about.” (Or, rather, to write a blog post about.) Grassiness; occasionally yeastiness; one-dimensionality… none gave us chills.

Maybe we’re just tired of beers which are all about hops, though, because  the two beers that did cause us to sit up straight, included to make up the numbers in our order from Beer Ritz, are members of the stout family: Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter and the same brewery’s Imperial Stout.

Now, these beers are by no means new to us, or to anyone else. When we used to drink in London, hardly a week went by without a bottle or two of the former, while the latter, being rarer, was a beer we would go out of our way to find. (Tip: the Dover Castle, Weymouth Mews, always seems to have it.)

And Sam Smith’s is not a trendy brewery, nor even very likeable — something which, being human, can influence our opinions.

The taste, though! In both cases, the word that springs to mind is luscious, and both share a tongue-coating, silky, fortified wine feel in the mouth.

Taddy Porter (5%, £2.62 per 550ml) is the kind of beer that we would like to be able to drink more often on draught, in the pub. Just over the line from brown into a black, and a notch beyond sessionable, it is boldly flavoured without being attention-seeking, the emphasis being on flavours of sweetened cocoa and plummy, dark berries. If you’ve ever soaked dried fruit overnight in black tea as a cake ingredient, you’ll get the idea. Perhaps the best bottled porter on the market today?

Imperial Stout (£2.16 per 355ml) makes more sense as a ‘double stout’ — not so dark and heavy as to insist on a fancy glass, a smoking jacket and the undivided attention of the drinker, but perfect for nights when you want just one beer before bed. The flavour is somewhere between chocolate brownie and Christmas pudding, with just a suggestion of something bright and green, like gooseberry, ringing in the background. Resolution: we should always have some of this in the house.

The source of the ‘wow’ in both beers is hard to pin down. Our best guess is that, being cleanly and simply made, without a fog of off-flavours and confusion, the flavours of dark malt and dark brewing sugars are really allowed to shine through, in instantly gratifying fashion. But that’s just a guess, and there’s not much point in asking Mr Smith to elaborate.

Like the 60-year-old we once saw steal the show in a nightclub by performing a series of expert line dancing manoeuvres across the centre of the dance floor, one of these beers in particular — Taddy Porter — has made itself a contender for our beer of the year, in the unlikely company of Magic Rock/Lervig Farmhouse IPA and Bristol Beer Factory Belgian Conspiracy. We’ll schedule a proper taste-off for December.

What Makes a Pub a Star?

Some pubs appear in Top Ten lists and pub guides time and again. They are the places that you must visit, according to the experts of Twitter and the Blogoshire.

But what distinguishes them from the many run-of-the-mill, perfectly adequate boozers that sit on corners and high streets throughout the country?

Our first thought was that star quality requires one or more of:

  1. ‘Cheapness’. This came to mind specifically because of Sam Smith’s and the Blue Anchor at Helston: the fact that the beer is unusually cheap is all part of the fun.
  2. ‘Character’. Hard to define, but can mean anything from an interesting history to unusual décor. Real character will divide opinion. It is also, we think, hard for a brand new pub to have character: it takes a few years to develop (but not as many as you might think).
  3. ‘Good beer’. This can mean something unique or unusual; a wide range; or a particularly expert handling of the product. A pub with good beer but no character, and scary prices to boot, had better have very good beer if it wants to be loved.

So, here’s our attempt to map a few well-known London pubs with those in mind. (Note the emptiness around cheapness: though many branches of pub chain Wetherspoon’s could claim to have good, cheap beer, they are rarely loved.)

Venn diagram: star pubs mapped by cheapness, character and good beer.

Looking at this prompts one suggestion for struggling publicans: if you can’t be cheap and can’t sell good beer (for whatever reason), make the most of ‘character’. It goes a long way.

Depends, how much did it cost?

Last week, this Tweet got us thinking:


Well, in a way, the answer is yes, but bear with us.

How do you reduce the price of beer when you’ve got a price point to reach? You reduce the cost of production, storage and distribution by

  • producing in greater volumes
  • using fewer and/or cheaper ingredients (e.g. hops)
  • conditioning/lagering for shorter times (see Tandleman on this here)
  • brewing your beer to be acceptable to the widest possible market.

It’s still possible to brew a good beer within those parameters and, in fact, we’ve had the odd pint of Sam Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter which rivals Harvey’s Sussex Best for complexity and zing. On the whole, however, the more corners are cut, the more industrialised the process, the less likely the beer is to excite anyone. Everyone got that likely, right?

While it would be wrong to answer the question “Is this a craft beer?” with “Depends, how much did it cost?”, it wouldn’t be reckless to bet that a pint that costs £1.30 will be a bit boring. It might still be satisfying, it might not be nasty, but it probably won’t be exciting.

Note: we’re not making the case for super-expensive beer; our beer of the year for 2011 costs £2.60 a pint. And the Sam Smith’s beer pictured above is anything but cheap…

Dark chocolate mousse and Sam Smith's imperial stout

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I often like to have a dark chocolatey beer for dessert, but I’d always been a bit sceptical about matching beer with sweet treats, particularly after some unsuccessful attempts.  For example, Young’s double chocolate stout just tastes like a watery bitter ale if you drink it with real chocolate.

However, having tried a dark chocolate orange mousse with Sam Smith’s Imperial Stout, I think it can work beautifully when you have a full-bodied and bitter beer. In this particular case, the mousse did bring out the bitterness in the beer, but in a fabulous way. It made the stout taste like really dark, unsweetened chocolate (not unlike Yeti by Great Divide). It certainly works better with chocolate than with cheese.

Recipe for mousse after the jump.

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East London riverside pubs – Surrey side

A few weeks back, we went for a riverside walk in the East End and blogged about various pubs there. This time, we went Surrey side, starting at Tower Bridge.

While the tourists were busy snapping the bridge, we were photographing the remains of the Anchor brewery. Or rather, one of the Anchor breweries. There were (at least) two on the south side of the Thames. The arguably more famous one was further upstream, on Bankside, and was home to Barclay Perkins.

The Anchor Brewery at Tower Bridge
The Anchor Brewery at Tower Bridge

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