New Pubs and Old Favourites #3: The Bricklayers Arms, Putney

We can’t quite call the Bricklayers in Putney an old favourite because we only made it there once, about a decade ago.

On that occasion, we were delighted to find a pub in London with beer from Timothy Taylor. Not just the then ubiquitous Landlord but the full range – Golden Best, Ram Tam, dark mild, and more.

But then we moved to Cornwall, and while we were away, the pub changed, losing its unique selling point and becoming just another London pub with a ‘great range of real ale’. People stopped talking about the Bricklayers, and we forgot it existed.

Then before Christmas, the buzz began again: Taylor’s was back at the Brickie.

We went out of our way to visit in the week between Christmas and the new year, despite Google’s insistence that the pub was closed on Fridays. As we approached along the quiet backstreet we felt reassured: the lights were on, figures were moving behind the frosted glass.

Bricklayers pub exterior.

Not many figures, though: we walked into an almost empty pub, and the people at the bar were into the last inches of their pints, making their long goodbyes.

It’s an exciting sight, a line of pumps with Taylor’s clips, especially when rarities such as the porter are there alongside the big names.

There’s been a little controversy about this brewery lately. Depending who you listen to, it’s either overlooked and underappreciated, or over-hyped and newly trendy, but we like the beer and have liked it for almost as long as we’ve been paying attention.

This time, there were some hits and misses. Landlord was off – a tribute to the power of the brand, we suppose – and the dark mild was simply muddy. Knowle Spring was sadly bland. The porter we’d been so keen to try seemed like a squirt of cheap cola.

But Ram Tam! Oh, Ram Tam. Another best mild, we think, and though people keep telling us it’s just Landlord with caramel… It doesn’t taste like Landlord with caramel. Perhaps we’re mugs being fooled by the optics, perceiving flavours that aren’t there, but we are perceiving them, so who cares.

A mother and father with moody teenage son arrived, made small talk, and agreed to try a mix of Golden Best and dark mild that the local CAMRA crawl had apparently enjoyed on its sweep through.

A regular arrived, concealing his drunkenness expertly until he’d been served, and then staring dumbfounded at a pint he didn’t really want. “I tell you what, I’ll have a whisky,” he said, but didn’t get one.

The fire flickered.

The boards creaked.

Faces appeared against the frosted glass, scattered into pink points, features scrunched in consideration. To come in from the cold, or walk on? They walked on.

Passing Thoughts on Yorkshire Beer

Collage: Yorkshire Beer.

We spent a few days in Yorkshire last week (Leeds-Harrogate-York) and reached a couple of tentative conclusions.

1. Timothy Taylor Landlord, like Bass, and probably like many other beers, can be so different as to be unrecognisable from one pub to the next. We’re not saying it’s an inconsistent product but that it has a lot of potential for change depending on how it’s handled by pubs. We had pints that were bone dry and stony, and others that were sweet and nectar-like — older and younger respectively we assume. We almost always enjoy it but there seems to be a real sweet spot where it becomes a little less cloying and gains a sort of peach-like flavour without completely drying out. Expert opinion welcome below, of course. In the meantime, we’ll keep testing our findings when we can.

2. We might have finally zeroed in on the essence of Yorkshire bitter. Tetley*, Black Sheep and Taylor’s Boltmaker, as well as looking more alike in the glass than we recall, all had the same challenging, hot, rubber-band tang. We’ve noticed it before in Boltmaker but honestly just thought it was on the turn. But there it was again in multiple pints of Boltmaker, in different pubs, even in different cities, and in multiple pints of the others, too. It’s most pronounced in Boltmaker (Jessica likes it, Ray finds it too much) and gentlest in the current incarnation of Tetley (Ray likes it, Jessica finds it rather bland) but definitely the same thing. This is where our technical tasting skills let us down, unfortunately. Is this maybe what people mean by ‘sulphurous’? Again, expert suggestions welcome.

* No longer brewed in Yorkshire, we know.

3. Northern pale-n-hoppy beer is more to our taste than London or Bristol takes on the same style, on the whole. We knew this already, really, but this trip confirmed it. Without wanting to seem dogmatic about clarity (we’re not) beers from breweries such as Northern Monk, Rooster’s and Ossett were perfectly clear with a lightness and dryness that made them impossible to drink in anything less than great hearty gulps. Even with plenty of flavour and aroma there’s a certain delicacy there — perfect engineering. We did find ourselves wondering if perhaps we’ve grown to prefer sparklers for this style because (per this post for $2+ Patreon subscribers) the notorious widget has a capacity for rounding off hard edges and smoothing out flaws. ‘Don’t @ us’, as the kids say.

The Pub That Does That One Beer Brilliantly

You know the kind of place we mean: it’s perhaps a bit curmudgeonly, perhaps a little old-fashioned, and everyone knows it’s the place in town to go for a perfect pint of [BEER X].

Most often these days, it seems, BEER X is Bass. Certainly in the West Country that’s the case, and there are famous Bass pubs in Penzance, Falmouth, Bristol and no doubt many other places. Here’s a bit we wrote for our now defunct Devon Life column:

Several pubs that sold great Bass 40 years ago are still doing so and one of the country’s very most famous Bass pubs is in Plymouth… The Dolphin on the Barbican is a place to drink, not to dine or pose. There is a range of ale on offer but the main event, as it has been for as long as anyone can remember, is undoubtedly Bass. An ornate plaque outside the front door advertises ‘Bass on draught’; a huge Bass banner hangs behind the bar; and the beer comes in straight-sided vintage-style pint glasses bearing the famous logo…. Though Bass may not be the beer it once was, at The Dolphin under the stewardship of veteran publican Billy Holmes, it still has some of its old snap and crackle, with a chalky dryness and a wonderful mild funkiness. It is unfussy but certainly not bland…. The Dolphin is by no means the only Bass stronghold in Plymouth, however. At the Artillery Arms in Stonehouse Belinda Warne has been learning its ways for 20 years. ‘It’s temperamental,’ she says, reflecting the popular mystique that surrounds the beer. ‘I’ve known it be fine and then, bang, there’s a clap of thunder outside and it’s turned bad in an instant.’

Becky's Dive Bar, photographed by Grant W. Corby (we'd still like to get in touch with him) and supplied by Eric Schwartz (pictured right).
Becky’s Dive Bar, photographed by Grant W. Corby (we’d still like to get in touch with him) and supplied by Eric Schwartz (pictured right).

Becky’s Dive Bar, all the way back in the 1960s and 70s, made its reputation on being one of the few places in London you would ever find Ruddles, for example, and we once made a pilgrimage to Putney in search of Timothy Taylor Ram Tam. (That pub sadly gave up on this unique selling point.) The Museum Tavern in Bloomsbury, a nice pub but otherwise unremarkable, is a go-to place for Theakston Old Peculier.

We reckon the King’s Head here in Bristol is on its way to gaining a reputation for its Harvey’s Sussex Best which seems to be permanently on offer and as good as we’ve ever had it. The Bridge Inn round the corner seems to have a similar relationship with Dark Star Hophead, a beer we still love despite its ups and downs.

For this model to really work the beer ought to be from another part of the country, the further away the better, and ideally one that doesn’t have wide national distribution through Wetherspoon pubs or other such chains and pub companies. But that doesn’t have to be the case: the selling point is really absolute reliability. If you fancy a pint of BEER X, the pub will have it, and because they always have it, and perhaps not much else, they’ll both know how to care for it and get through plenty. (See: Proper Job at The Yacht Inn, Spingo at The Dock.)

The publican has to hold their nerve, of course, when all the other pubs in the area are offering three, five, ten, twenty guest ales, plus kegs, plus bottles. How long does it take to build a cult reputation and a steady clientele around selling one beer really well? Years, probably — perhaps decades. And if a customer craving BEER X turns up and it’s not there you might find yourself back at square one.

What are some of your favourite One Beer Done Well pubs? Let us know in the comments below.

The Great Porter Flood of 2017

At some point in the last year a memo must have gone round all the traditional-regional-family brewers: let’s brew porter!

So far this year we’ve noticed new ones from:

And that’s before we get into debatable cases such as the revived Truman’s which has a vanilla porter in development.

Have we missed any others?

We’d guess this has been enabled by the trend for small pilot plants which enable large breweries, otherwise equipped to turn out tankerloads of one or two flagship beers, to produce styles with less mainstream appeal on the side. For a long time this was often cited as the reason for the lack of dark beers — they don’t sell enough to warrant a full brew — so this might also bode well for other marginal styles such as mild.

We’re also firmly of the view that porter is a more dignified way of meeting the current demand for novelty and variety than disappointing cod-American IPAs, or beers that are supposed to taste of Tequila.

Whatever the reasons and motives we’d be quite happy if October-December became a sort of semi-official porter season across the country. Imagine knowing that you could walk into almost any halfway decent pub and find porter on draught — imagine!

Londorval & Landlorval

Last night, we blended funky Trappist pale ale Orval with two classic British best bitters, Fuller’s London Pride and Timothy Taylor’s Landlord.

Our thinking was that mixing beers with somewhat similar characteristics — pale malts, old-school European hop varieties –would add complexity through subtly harmonies.

We poured around three-quarters of a pint of each British beer and topped up to a pint with Orval.

First impressions were not good. Both blends gained a Granny Smith character that was most pronounced in ‘Londorval’. That is a component of Orval’s flavour, yes, but, watered down, as it were, it became a grating, insistent irritation.

Bottled Landlord isn’t a favourite of ours but, of the two, ‘Landlorval’ was the better blend. Still, as the pint progressed, it began to seem ever more thinned out and gutted like… This might sound silly, but like a pint of Worthington Cream Flow from a keg that’s been sitting around for months in a hotel bar.

So, there you go: Orval doesn’t improve every beer to which you add it after all.

We can’t promise that this will be the last time we blend beers with Orval but it will probably be the last such experiment we bother writing up. If you come across a good combo, let us know.