Categories
london pubs

Special grade mediocre everyday

We’ve been struck down by nostalgia lately and find ourselves yearning for a particular experience of the pub.

Maybe it’s birthdays. Maybe it’s the emotional impact of the two weirdest years we’ve ever lived through.

Or perhaps it was just that excellent pint of Young’s Special at The Railway in Fishponds in Bristol.

Whatever the reason, here’s where we want to be: in a slightly crappy Young’s pub in central London c.2008, after work, with rain turning to sleet outside.

We used to end up somewhere like this quite often back then.

If the Tube was knackered, or the overground trains, or both, we’d hang about until after rush hour. That often meant finding a pub.

There was socialising, too – with colleagues or friends from university, before everyone got kids, mortgages and hair trigger hangovers.

You rarely ended up in really good pubs. They were too small, too busy or too end-of-the-line.

No, it was usually a Young’s pub with shiny tables and bad lighting. There were usually lots of suits, a few cabbies, and maybe someone selling plastic-wrapped roses.

Being interested in beer, we’d make the best of it, working our way through every cask ale on the bar – Ordinary, Special, maybe Winter Warmer.

Then we’d turn to the bottles. Ram and Spesh, Chocolate Stout, Special London – the original hazy IPA?

Once or twice, to our glee, we even found the Oatmeal Stout brewed for the US market, marked up in pints and ounces.

It doesn’t have to be Young’s. Fuller’s or Sam Smith’s would do.

But it does have to be a bit damp, a bit warm, a bit weary. Our friends need to be there. And we need to be in our twenties again.

Is that too much to ask?

Categories
Generalisations about beer culture

Beer gardens that work

Young’s pubs in the West Country seem to do beer gardens unusually well by British standards – but maybe beer gardens are also getting better across the board.

This thought occurred to us as we sat in the garden at The Chequers at Hanham Mills last weekend, on what felt like the final day of summer.

Back in 2012, we gave the following general description of the British beer garden:

Wasps buzz around the hatchback-sized industrial waste bin, over by the wooden fence with its dropped slats. The concrete paving slabs under foot are littered with cigarette ends, knotted crisp packets and squashed chips. The remains of steak and ale pie sit on the next table over, as they have done for the last two hours. A tattered white Bacardi-branded parasol is threatening to break from its moorings in a gathering gale. The ashtray on your table overflows.

Snarky, perhaps, but we’ve seen plenty of beer gardens since that fit that general pattern.

What The Chequers gets right is, first, that its beer garden is built around nature.

The River Avon (the River River, etymology fans) runs along one side and mature trees stand overhead. It feels shady but not gloomy, fresh but not exposed.

The benches are wooden – worn but clean – with parasols where they are needed.

Our neighbours felt close but not too close, their conversations forming part of a warm collective hum.

It’s not perfect, of course. Between the garden and the green space up the hill there is a large car park, around which people were constantly manoeuvring large vehicles or simply running the engines. (What fuel shortage?)

At times, this did somewhat shatter the illusion.

In Germany, we’ve sat in beer gardens on ring roads that solve this problem with hedges and fences.

With pints of St Austell Proper Job at £4.65 and Young’s Original at £4.30 there’s clearly also a premium to be paid for the maintenance of a destination beer garden – and sufficient staff to adequately cover it. We don’t mind that; some might.

Sitting in the shade, feeling content, we started listing other similarly excellent beer gardens we’d encountered. There’s The Lock Keeper at Keynsham, the next stop along the Avon, for example. And, on the river Exe outside Exeter, two in succession: The Turf Hotel and The Double Locks.

Apart from The Turf, those are all Young’s pubs. Based on a brief dig around, it seems acquiring riverside pubs might be part of the pub company’s long-term strategy. If so, that’s not a bad move – what marketing types call ‘nicheing’ – and one we bet has worked out well for them of late.

If you subscribe to the view that every cloud has a silver lining, you might wonder if being forced to drink outside more often in the past 18 months has made British people take beer gardens more seriously. And improved beer gardens and outdoor service, too.

Now we think of it, this is where apps and table service really work. It seems odd to think that, in the summer of 2019, we’d have had to walk the length of the garden, up a flight of steps, through a busy pub during Sunday lunch service, then back again (after a scrum at the bar), every time we wanted a fresh round.

Categories
beer reviews breweries london

The Ram Rampant

The Young's brewery ram mascot on a London pub window.

Great beers can sometimes burn brightly before passing into memory. Young’s Ordinary Bitter, unlikely as it might sound, was one such beer – beloved by ale drinkers, legendary in its brilliance, until the light went out.

When we interviewed Michael Hardman, one of the founders of the Campaign for Real Ale, his eyes blazed as he talked about Young’s Ordinary. ‘It used to have an intense bitterness that was almost too much for some people,’ he said. A good beer tasting note will trigger a surge of desire and Mr Hardman’s brief comment, delivered with such passion, and as straightforward as the beer it described, did just that.

We can’t say he didn’t warn us, though, that in 2012 Young’s Ordinary had become a shadow of its 1970s self. Having worked for the brewery as a PR executive for 30 years Hardman watched with sadness as, first, the brand lost its great champion, the company’s eccentric chairman John Young, who died in 2006 and then as, in 2007, the historic Wandsworth facility ceased brewing and moved production to Charles Wells at Bedford.

For London ale drinkers this was a ravens departing the Tower moment, leaving London with a mere handful of breweries and only Fuller’s as an independent of any size. There were reassurances that extensive testing had been carried out to assure continuity and even rumours that the last batches of Wandsworth-brewed Ordinary were being blended with the new version to ease the transition. But Wells could point at specification sheets and test results all they liked: the beer changed and people who drank it regularly knew it.

Bedford-brewed Ordinary wasn’t terrible – we drank plenty and enjoyed it – but veteran drinkers would push it away, shaking their heads at its sheer… ordinariness. Wells & Youngs, as they were then known, could brew something like Young’s Ordinary but could not breathe into the essential spark of life.

At the same time, Young’s London pubs, for so long a kind of defensive line against modernity, were also sold off and became a separate company. They generally continued to serve Young’s branded beers, however, so that, superficially at least, not much changed beyond a general ‘smartening up’. On trips to London we would invariably end up in one or another, either out of convenience or nostalgia, and check in on Ordinary. This was a sad, fruitless habit until the summer of 2014 when, suddenly, the beer seemed to jolt out of its coma – paler, drier, and more vigorous than we’d ever known it. But we doubted ourselves – perhaps it was a one-off? Or wishful thinking?

Young's Ordinary.

But, no: since then, the beer seems to have got better every time we’ve encountered it. It knocked our socks off at the Prince Alfred in Maida Vale earlier this year and now, after making a point of trying it in multiple pubs in four corners of London, and also in Exeter and Bristol, we want to underline this point: the sickness has gone and Young’s Ordinary is once again A Great Beer.

On our most recent trip to London at the Flask in Hampstead — a gorgeous Victorian pub whose discreet partitions and ornate details will frankly make any beer taste a little more interesting — we drank luminous, comically foaming pints of it that are among the best beers we’ve enjoyed this year, full stop.

It isn’t one of those 2017 beers perfumed with pine, citrus, mango or green onion. There’s barely a flavour note to latch on to, in fact, beyond a suggestion of minerals and lemon peel. But it has the austere structural elegance of a Victorian railway terminus, with a snatch of tame funkiness for seasoning.

We’ve been telling people the good news, and now we’re telling you. After all, with Charles Wells selling up to Marston’s, this resurgence might not last.

Categories
london pubs

So Low You Can’t Get Under It

The Big Project has been great for making us visit pubs we might not otherwise have got to, such as The Prince Alfred in West London.

With a couple of hours to kill between hotel check-out and westbound train last Friday we searched for pubs nearby rather than rely on our old favourite, The Mad Bishop & Bear. Google turned up The Prince Alfred which immediately rang a bell for Boak: ‘It’s in Geoff Brandwood’s book – it’s got rare surviving snob screens. We have to go.’

We wandered through Little Venice, up one street after another of white stucco and genteel dustiness, until we found the pub sparkling with Victorian cut-glass glamour.

Fired tiles at the Prince Alfred, a Victorian pub.

Challenge one: finding a way in. The obvious door led to the dining room and lounge – rather bland, hovered over by a smiling waitress. There was a Hobbit-sized door under the partition leading to the cosier spaces around the central island bar but they surely couldn’t expect us to duck under, could they? Health and safety and all that. No no no.

Categories
london pubs real ale

Comfort Beers: Fuller’s, Young’s, Sam Smith’s

We were in London last week to pick up an award, see friends, work in the library, and look at pub architecture. That didn’t leave much time to drink beer.

When we passed the Red Lion on Duke of York Street at 6 pm it had burst its seams, spilling suited drinkers all over the pavement and road. We returned at 9 by which time it was quieter and we slipped into the coveted back room. It’s an amazing pub, the Red Lion — really beautiful, full of cut glass and mirrors and warm light. There’s a reason Ian Nairn gives it a whole page of soupy swooning in Nairn’s London. The woman behind the bar pulled the first pint, paused, and said, ‘I’m not serving you that. It doesn’t look right.’ She turned the clip round and suggested something else. Impressive. Oliver’s Island, pale and brewed with orange peel, continues to be decent enough without igniting any great passion on our part. ESB, on the other hand, seems to get better every time we have it — richer, more bitter, ever juicier. Same again, please. It gave us hangovers but it was 100 per cent worth it.