Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Golden Pints, 2011

My memory of beers, events, nights and other miscellaneous information not great, but for what its worth here is my list of the hits of 2011.

Best UK Draught Beer – Magic Rock High Wire, Runners Up - Redemption Trinity, Camden Town Gentlemans Wit

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer – Kernel Imperial Brown, Runners Up – Buxton Moor Top, Fullers Vintage

Best Overseas Draught Beer – Oscar Blues Gubna, Runners Up - Avery Maharaja, Ithaca Flower Power

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer – Bear Republic Racer 5, Runners Up - 21st Amendment Bitter American, Sigtuna Summer IPA

Best Overall Beer – Magic Rock High Wire

Best UK Brewery – Kernel, Runners Up - Magic Rock, Camden Town

Best Overseas Brewery – Odell’s, Runners Up - Oscar Blues, Victory

Pub/Bar of the Year – Craft, Runners Up – Southampton Arms, Old Red Cow

Beer Festival of the Year – London Brewers Alliance, Runners Up - Planet Thanet, GBBF

Supermarket of the Year - Waitrose

Independent Retailer of the Year – Kris Wines, Kentish Town

Best Beer Blog or Website – Pencil and Spoon, Beerbirrabier

Best Online Brewery presence - Brewdog

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year – Sam Adams Boston Lager and burger in New York, Schlenkera Rauchbier and sausage beans & chips

In 2012 I’d Most Like To… Go back to the USA, drink more British lager, and cook more with beer

Open Category: Best launch/event – London Fields Brewery opening night

A great year for Magic Rock, going from nought to sixty in no time – they get my beer of the year simply because the High Wire has been terrific in both cask and keg, but London has produced some excellent drinking this year with Trinity, a stunning session beer, and a late entry in the Gentlemans Wit from Camden, which blew me away. My foreign list is all from a visit to New York, which had all the great beers we get imported over here and more, just fresher. I haven’t drunk quality foreign beers from anyone more than Odell so they get the nod. Although Magic Rock have impressed me, as a London drinker Kernel win out, having made some amazing beers this year which I drink regularly. Craft had been great from the start, and actually improving through the months to become London’s premier beer drinking spot. It has been my best beer drinking year by some distance, with a first trip to the US and taking advantage of London’s emerging breweries, and hopefully 2012 will be just as good. I have drunk some great lager this year and hope to see more, especially from UK breweries, and I would love to see more craft beer in good restaurants, which there is currently not enough of.

Happy holidays and good drinking to all!

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Union Jacks

In an age where there are so many cooking shows and celebrity chefs on TV, I still find Jamie Oliver’s brand of chummy, enthusiastic authenticity very watchable. To back this up he has launched a chain of Italian restaurants, Jamie’s Italian, which aside from having a boring name are pretty good. Not everything is spot on, but they are affordable, interesting and the food is of a generally high standard, especially the pasta. So his new place, Union Jacks, was top of my go-to list when it opened, especially as the menu reads like a list of my favourite things – fish fingers, ham hock, pizza, ice cream, Kentish wine and craft beer.
          It is located in a recently made-over St Giles, in between Tottenham Court Road and Holborn, and the whole place is reminiscent of an outdoor shopping centre. This is not helped by the open, glass fronted restaurant, which does make the place feel too empty, exposed and not particularly relaxing, a bit like an airport coffee shop. At 9pm on a Saturday it wasn’t full, and it didn’t have the lively buzz of his Italians, perhaps a bit over designed and chainy, but the atmosphere was fine, the staff were attentive and the place looks pretty good inside.
       The ethos of the restaurant is British ingredients, but Italian style, with pizzas (flatbreads) taking centre stage. All the wines are from the Chapel Down producer in Kent – most of their wines are very decent, but if you can afford to splash out on the sparkling stuff then do, this is where they excel. The multi-talented producers also have a brewery, and two of their beers are the only ones available here. The Brut, a lager, great with the full flavoured, salty pizzas and a tidy bargain at £4 a pint, and for the same price you can have the IPA, which although unspectacular is thoroughly decent and is great with some of the chilli-liberal dishes on the menu.
         I could easily have ordered any of the starters, which ranges from classic, memory laden British comfort food like fish fingers and garlic mushrooms, to more modern inventions – bloody mary mussles sounds painful but is probably delicious. A plate of mini Yorkshire puddings with smoked trout read too well on the page not to order, and indeed the trout was light and sweet, and greatly enhanced by the crisp and fluffy yorkies – despite the fact they were overdone. A ham hock terrine was also not faultless – the piccalilli it came with needed more kick and bread was only offered once asked for. But at £4 for a generous serving, perfection is not required, it just needs to make you happy, and it did. In a similar trend to burgers, pizzas are getting some real attention across London, and there is no place to hide for bad examples. Thankfully Union Jack’s flatbreads are right up there with the best; ultra thin and crispy round the edges, sizable, and well seasoned. The toppings are distinct and thoughtful -  sardines and fennel, roast pork crackling and blue cheese, some classic combinations but perhaps not usually seen on a pizza. The ones we tried were the chilli freak and the Red Ox. It sounds obvious, but the chilli freak is lip quiveringly hot, the multitude of colourful firecrackers spread across the pizza really doing justice to the name. Served on the side is a small pot of goats curd for dippin’, which is both delicious and effective at cooling the heat, at least for the first few slices. The braised brisket, Red Leicester and horseradish in the Red Ox gave a rich, salty and decadent flavour, and I would definitely come back for another of these. All the flatbreads were between £9 and £12.
            A whole bunch of things we wanted for desert weren’t available, notably the Snickers ice cream, but we consoled ourselves with coffee and chocolate flavours, and a ‘retro’ arctic roll, which were all above average, especially the coffee ice cream which was dark, bittersweet and grown up. Add in brisk, pleasant service (which is not included in the bill, refreshingly), the very decent food and the £50 we paid for 3 courses and a couple of beers each, and this is definitely another ready-to-roll concept from Jamie which will be welcome in most high streets, and soon will be. Where it will actually be better suited is outside of the relentless competition and scrutiny of the capital, in smaller towns where they can really improve the culinary landscape and take on a more local, relaxed feel, which this original flagship restaurant will never be able to achieve given its location and design. I hope this concept succeeds and grows, it deserves to.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Brewdog Camden

If all I remembered from Saturdays launch of Brewdog Camden was an entire bar full of drinkers shouting ‘to evil!’ in unison, it would have been worth going. But there was more, so much more, that permeated through my spectacular hangover on Sunday morning, and that will make me return time and time again.  It was nothing really tangible that made me like this place so much, but a feeling, a buzz, an energy that was ever present on a launch night that genuinely felt like an event, something to be excited about, like something special was happening. The blokes on the door saying we’d just missed the tank, the barman confirming some rumours about upcoming events, the audible disbelief when James Watt announced ‘a blonde stout’ was now being poured. For some, like myself, it was a familiar product and brand, just bigger more concentrated, like moving from cigarettes to cigars. For others it was new and different, and the young, fashionable crowd were loving the over confident, propaganda style feel to proceedings, new phrases entering the lexicon as they drank wasabi stouts and black lagers.  
            One good thing about having your own place is that you can do everything your way, and be as rude as you like to the competition. The Brewdog gang have run with this idea, and the place screams of post-modern ambition and self-satisfaction. They openly lambast macro lager brands, while the deliberate lack of cask beer is a not-so-subtle middle finger at the CAMRA traditionalists. How much longer they can continue fighting wars on both fronts is debateable, but you have to admire the conviction.
               Camden is a perfect location, it has been crying out for craft beer for many years now, and together with the Black Heart just down the road, now has the beginnings of a decent beer scene. Inside is all bare brick and exposed steel, it feels ideal for swift pints and busy nights out with friends, perhaps not for lazy Sunday afternoons or relaxed evening meals. On my visit it was not worth the trouble of ordering food, but substantial snacks are available as well as pizza and burgers. The staff are excellent - friendly, cheeky, knowledgeable and generous, with tasters being offered before you have asked, regardless of the price of the beer.
             As I have mentioned, the beer is keg and bottles only, with essentially the whole Brewdog range available on draught (except 77 on my visit, which is a shame as this was going to be my first order), in addition to some rare and exotic things which will be ever changing. Twenty-something lines adorn the bar, and on Saturday Mikkeller, Evil Twin, Stone, Lagunitas and Port Brewing all had guest spots, so they are clearly going for the superstars of US and continental brewing. After waiting all night for the Lagunitas pale ale I wasn’t actually bowled over, but the Port Brewing Wipeout IPA was light, elegant and perfectly bitter. This was supplemented by the AB:08, which was interesting without being delicious, and Lost Dog, a collaboration beer with Lost Abbey which was rich and warming. Best of the home team was 5am, which seemed very popular, and Hardcore - juicy, bitter and alcoholic, as good as I have ever had it.

Punk, Zeitgeist, Wipeout IPA - I think

        As much as I loved it, I can appreciate that not everyone else will, and there are some areas where they could improve. It isn’t cheap - £3.50 - £4 is not unusual for circa 5% beers in London, and you could do a lot worse than Punk and 5am, but if you want to take advantage of the full range it will cost you. As you get towards the higher end, Hardcore is £2.95 a half, AB:08 was £4.50 for a third, and it is £6 a shot for Tactical Nuclear Penguin. This is special occasion stuff, and I don’t mind one bit paying a premium for high quality beers when this much effort is being put in, but your money will disappear fast if you are here for any length of time. I would have liked a bit more life in some of my beers – everything was in good form but I have had the Punk better in recent weeks and others were not jumping out of the glass. The lack of cask (in the bar, if they stop doing it altogether that is a different story) may annoy some, but for no good reason given that you can find a heap of other good pubs serving excellent cask beer within a short walk.  

The smaller, downstairs beer list

         This place is not going to convince any Brewdog doubters – it is everything they encapsulate within a small square footage, amped up to 11, and a smug look on their face while they do it. But for everyone else this is a revelation – there is nowhere quite like it in London. I want craft beer in more places – theme parks, hotels, strip clubs, airports, train stations, cinemas and preferably my lounge. This is how we will get there; with organisations trying different tactics, tapping into existing culture and demand while asserting their own convictions and beliefs. London needed a bar like this; in fact it needs more than one, and I am sure there will be a few copycats out next year. Forgetting all of the hype and implications, this is a brilliant, cool place to drink amazing beer, and that is more than enough to ensure it is one of London’s must-visit beer pubs.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Leaving a permanent mark? – Camden Town Brewery, Camden Ink

On Wednesday evening Camden Town brewery launched their latest creation, Camden Ink, a 4.4% stout, at the Black Heart, a venue fitting in both name and attitude.  I was going to talk about this beer in conjunction with two other being launched next week, but I enjoyed it so much it needed it’s very own post.
       Camden Town will be familiar to those who drink craft beer in North and East London, but for those that don’t (shame on you), they have been around for a short while now, producing modern, exciting beers with an emphasis on quality and consistency. Their keg Helles and Pale Ale are quickly going from cult to mainstream favourites and appearing more regularly in bars across the capital.

The beer had a lasting impression... ha ha ha
          As the clever name suggests, the beer is inky black, topped by a thick, proud off-white head tinged with caramel, like a merengue starting to singe at the edges. It is roasty and alluring on the nose, with notes of coffee and bitter chocolate. Too many stouts are overly sweet, loaded with vanilla and molasses, which are heavy and cloying. This is not, instead delivering restrained flavours and a gentle bitterness which gives you a deeply refreshing, drinkable beer which does not feel like a session-ender, but a session starter.  This is not a stout for chocolate and cake, it is for oysters, good bread and butter, spicy food and beef burgers. It could almost be a dark lager, if it weren’t for the rich creamy head and smooth, palate coating texture. There is still a backbone here to satisfy the stout fanatics, but the beauty of this beer is the body; effortless to drink, compact and rounded without being viscous, the subtle softness pitch-perfect for keg, which tightens the flavours and adds vibrancy and energy.
         This should be on every bar in London that serves Guinness - it is better, and while not everyone would covert, many people would, and those that don’t should at least have to explain why not to my face.  

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Beers I Love. No. 1 - Wychwood Hobgoblin

Not long after I started drinking beer – for legal reasons let’s say I was in my late teens – myself and a group of friends started drinking ale, purchased from the local supermarket. The reason we started doing this is simple; one of our mothers bought us 4 bottles of Wychwood Hobgoblin for a night in, and we were hooked.
          At the time, beers in supermarkets were rather limited, although not in our eyes. All we had seen previously were 3 or 4 different brands of mainstream lager, which to us all tasted the same (I will leave that chestnut for another time). So 30-odd different beers on the shelves of ASDA, in differing shapes, sizes and colours, was very exciting. We started regular beer nights where we would buy a dozen or so bottles and mark them out of ten, discussing why we liked them and why we didn’t. Early on, reactions were questionable; we greatly disliked Erdinger and many other decent beers, yet loved Innis & Gunn and Spitfire. We gave marks for presentation, which usually meant that clear bottles scored highly. We weren’t all bad though - everyone loved Summer Lightning and Old Peculiar, and our favourite was Hobgoblin.
       We did this for a while, and quickly exhausted the supermarket range, going further afield to find new beers to drink. Thanet, where we grew up, was not exactly a haven for high quality beer, with one particular unenlightened company owning almost every pub it seemed, so it was a while before we discovered the pleasures of cask beer. I tried various beers on tap, but nothing that sticks in the memory. But then on a trip to Canterbury, we found the Hobgoblin pub on the high street, serving its eponymous drink, for an incredibly low price. It was dark, grungy, and alternative – for all of us MTV2 crowd it was heaven, a respite from shots of aftershock, bottles of Fosters Twist and Craig David blaring from the speakers. The beer was awesome – my first was gone in a matter of minutes. Perfectly kept, cool, a big frothy head, dark reddy brown liquid smooth as an angel’s jazz, sweet, rich, bitter and grown up. It didn’t matter that I was one of about 7 people under 30 who felt this way, but I thought this was cool as fuck.
            One of the things we loved was the marketing – the slogans, artwork and general ethos, form the cool bottle shape to the aggressively anti-lager sentiments on t-shirts and posters. I know there are many critics of the ‘Lagerboy’ ethic they used heavily back then, but it was exactly what we needed to get us into beer. It put words to our quiet outrage that lager was so popular and it was difficult to get a decent pint of bitter anywhere. Plenty of people made fun of us for drinking ‘weird’ beer, and this gave us a comeback, a sense of identity and virtue. It gave us permission to be outspoken and opinionated on the subject, and take a love of beer to a new place, one where we actively encouraged and persuaded others to try new beers, a quest that has been extremely fruitful. One year our rugby 7’s team were called the Hobgblins. We sucked. We didn’t care.  
          To be honest, I don’t drink Hobgoblin much anymore. The two bottles I bought as a memory aid for this blog are the first I have purchased in a couple of years. My tastes are now more geared towards pale and hoppy beers, lagers and the esoteric. I am guilty of looking too much for the new and different, while forgetting the old and reliable. There are many beers I like but rarely drink, not because I stopped liking them, but because I started liking something else and got distracted. Of course there is only so much time and many, many beers, but I once heard we should make new friends and keep the old, because one is silver and the other gold. I intend to renew some old friendships soon, starting with another one of these.

Picture from here

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Meat Liquor

One of the newest (and most rudely named) additions to London’s constantly growing collection of hip and trendy burger joints is Meat Liquor, tucked away behind Debenhams just north of Oxford Street.
 The reason I know it is hip and trendy (not being those things myself) is that I had to queue for just over an hour to get a seat, which is not at all unusual for the people who own this place. The previous outlet was MeatEasy in South London, and still in action is the revered MeatWagon, both of which have attracted praise and adulation for their meaty creations.
       The likes of Byron, GBK and other such chains, along with higher end places like Maze and Hawksmoor, have been at the forefront of an attitude shift which places the humble burger on a pedestal, something to be celebrated and respected, talked about, much as they are in places like New York. This seemed to occur in London pretty organically, a gradual rise in popularity and a trend towards pared back, casual eateries, with places like Byron becoming barometers for cool. Nothing here at Meat Liquor feels organic or natural; every ‘cool burger place’ g-spot is hit with purpose and planning. No bookings, so the line winds around the corner. Loud but considered rock music, and good looking, shouty, aloof waiters. No napkins, no cutlery, food on metal trays, cocktails in jam jars, dark lighting, craft beers, short menu. None of this is new, but it is all put together to create a little piece of New York – you could be in Brooklyn or the Lower East Side. Yet a few hundred yards from Selfridges and the Bond Street boutiques, it doesn’t quite ring true – a point made by the 20-35 year old, fashionable, affluent, tweet-while-they-eat crowd that are queuing at the door. A hidden gem this is not – but it does have kick-ass food.

Get in my way and I will do this to you.
           A properly sexy menu delivers very decent sticky Buffalo wings, with a life threateningly good blue cheese sauce, and a pork slider was big and tasty. The fries and onion rings were faultless, but the burgers are the real home run. Great burgers should make you feel dirty, sticky, slightly ashamed, like you got laid 12 hours ago and haven’t showered yet. The ‘Dead Hippie’ at Meat Liquor makes you feel like you just had sex with the entire staff of the Camden branch of McDonalds and then bathed in hog fat. Juicy, salty, yielding meat inside a sweet, soft, pillowy bun, with various bits and pieces to lift the flavour to more than itself. Satisfying on a primitive level, but also exquisitely judged textures and seasoning.
             40 quid for 2 people to reach a level of extreme, not even another waffer-thin-mint level of fullness, and have plenty of fun doing it, is a bargain in this town. The food makes up for any affectations, any my only real complaint is the drinks menu. For somewhere with an actual bar, serving American classics, only 2 bottled craft beers, and no draught beer or bourbons of any kind is criminal. I won’t be dragged into the ‘best burger in London’ debate, as it is too subjective for me to offer anything valid, and I simply haven’t tried them all. I will say that this is the most I have enjoyed a burger this side of the Atlantic, and even the thought of queuing in the blistering cold probably won’t stop me going back for more after some Christmas shopping in John Lewis next month.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

North Road

Farringdon is cool. Clerkenwell, Midtown, whatever you want to call it, is one of the best places in London to work, hang out, eat and drink. For my money it’s the best place in London to drink beer, and pretty high up on the list for everything else. It has buckets of history, side streets with hidden gems, big fancy bars and casual lunch spots, and serious drinking and eating destinations. An ideal place to take the other half for a post payday evening, which is what I did.
           Before dinner we stopped in at The Larder on St John Street, which anyone in the EC1 area should consider doing if you have an hour or four to spare. This is a proper restaurant, but skipping straight to the spirit menu at the bar, especially the gins, is the thing to do. Do let the barman upsell you; the good stuff is pricey but totally worth it, and the knowledge behind the bar is good enough to get you where you want to be. Their ‘Gin of the Month’, Bulldog, and Purity vodka, both with tonic, were excellent, although I will probably revert back to my favourites next time, like Sipsmiths or Chase.

Then on to the point of the evening, basically next door; North Road, a newish restaurant with an even newer Michelin star. This was motive enough to come and eat here, but the real reason was the frequent comparisons between this place and Noma, a super-restaurant in Copenhagen that should need no introduction, but usually gets a lengthy and reverential one. I have wanted to go for a while, but it would basically be a choice between lunch there or a place to live for a month – besides which they don’t let commoners like me book a table. So we went to what is apparently the closest thing to it in London.
           We opted for the restaurant equivalent of the cheap seats – ‘may have a restricted view’, with the 6-7pm pre-theatre menu, an absolute steal for £22, especially as this includes a glass of very decent Australian wine. Many acclaimed places offer a time-limited menu like this in town, but I haven’t been to one that does it better - most of the dishes appear word for word the same on the main menu, just for double the price.

                                                                             As with its Norwegian inspiration, North Road has a sincere dedication to all things local, fresh and wild, with a penchant for unusual ingredients and flavours. The ethos is simplicity and elegance, with as many foraged, raw elements as possible and handsomely presented. On this front it excels on almost every level. We were first given some canap├ęs – something falafel-esque made with dock leaves and dandelion, pickled quails eggs and some damn fine pork scratchings. Fresh bread was perhaps even better, served toasty warm in its own little sack with homemade butter – I was quickly approving of this place.
         Starters brought raw scallop slices decorated with herbs and rye, and a beef tartare with a quail’s yolk hidden amongst sorrel leaves. Minimal cooking, but everything tasting of itself and marrying perfectly, and presented with affection and care. A main course of sea bass and celeriac was arguably the highlight, with a burnt hay sauce lifting the flavour of both fish and vegetable to a different level. A slight misstep in overly firm artichokes was   overcome by a slick puree of the same root and a rich, flavourful mutton loin.

A quince and apple stack with toasted oat ice cream tasted of exactly that, and was pleasant enough. A carrot and sweet cicely desert was a symphony of colour and texture, crisp, refreshing raw carrots giving way to sugary, aniseedy ice cream and a sponge lighter than a Greek pension fund. Everything a dish at this calibre of restaurant should be – fun, memorable and different.
     After a very decent coffee and more service that suggested we were big spending regulars, it felt almost embarrassing to be parting with just 55 quid. Cooking of this quality is, thankfully, quite common in London – just across the street St. John prepares slightly more rustic dishes with the same accuracy and flavour. But cooking this precise, full of imagination and also restraint, and more importantly at this price, is very rare. I will certainly be returning for the front row seat that is the tasting menu (yours for £65), but as long as the pre-theatre is still on I will be coming early and often. Just follow the North Star.

Friday, 4 November 2011

The Session #57: Guilty Pleasures & Beery Confessions

This is my first ‘Session’, and apparently I am required to talk about my guilty pleasures and beer confessions. Am I blogging or in rehab? Anyway, I will give it a go.
I would be happy to name my beer-related guilty pleasures, but they are too many to mention - I am both guilty and pleased most of the time. To be honest, my guiltiest please is beer itself. It is bad for me (in the quantity I drink), it costs a fortune, and it regularly makes me behave rather silly, not to mention leading me astray to beer trips on different continents, frequent nights out and regular hangovers, all of which do not please my other half. So to take a slightly different approach, I will confess some of my beery confessions – opinions that at some point or another (or perhaps still) I have firmly held. It is not pretty.

  • Desperados is awesome. Maybe the best beer ever.
  • I can drink 15 pints of Gadd’s No. 3 without being sick and pissing all over my parent’s hallway.
  • The Hobgoblin ‘lager boy’ slogan is the cleverest thing I have ever heard – I will say it to anyone I see drinking lager.
  • Brewdog only make good beer, and only have cool marketing.
  • Everyone who drinks beer should be a CAMRA member; they are an immutable force of good in the world.
  • Wetherspoon’s is the pinnacle of pub drinking, and they should be sought out wherever you go.
  • Beer is better than wine.
  • American craft beer is too sweet and all tastes of pine.
  • Clear glass bottles are cool.
  • Cask beer and bottled beer is the only way to drink beer.
  • Budweiser is terrible.
  • Budweiser is incredible.
  • Beer and food matching is nonsense.
  • Sour beer is god’s way of punishing us for past sins.
  • Beer never goes off, it just ages.
  • Dogs can’t look up.
I have many more of these, but I think revealing them would open me to ridicule. Thankfully I am now enlightened. I’m going to have a whisky now because it’s basically just beer that’s been aged longer.

This month's Session is hosted by Steve at Beers I've Known.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

London Brewers Alliance – Showcase

This Saturday just gone, the London Brewers Alliance had jolly good knees up above a wine shop in London Bridge. More accurately, they held a showcase of London breweries, a beer festival really, above Vinopolis and Brew Wharf. It was a cracking night out, with a good time apparently had by all. Last year’s inaugural event was eclipsed comfortably, both in terms of the number of breweries in attendance and the turnout, with the large room packed out by mid-evening.
     Once again I was struck by the knowledge, passion and friendliness on show from the breweries, turning the seemingly very steep £20 entrance fee into a relative bargain once all the free samples and generous over-pours were in full swing. The crowd was pretty young, and the beers were strong – I did manage to get home several hours after leaving, though which route or mode or transport I took is anyone’s guess. I apologise to anyone who experienced my drunkenness first hand.
          Owing to my intoxication I cannot recall every beer that passed my lips, but there were some standouts, both good and not quite so good. Plenty of new breweries were on show as well - it was my first experience of Moncada from West London – the beers were solid and their modern approach to the branding was really impressive. I also had some beer from Kew Green that made me want to visit their brewpub and have some more. Less impressive were the beers from Redchurch, but as they are brand new I’m sure they will improve. I was warned off trying some of the other new breweries in attendance by friends, again perhaps just teething problems. Worst of the bunch for my money was the festival beer – I thought it smelled like melted strawberry ice cream, was overly sweet and had no backbone or bitterness. Too many cooks perhaps.
       On the plus side we definitely have some real high quality brewers in London these days. The best beers I drank all evening were from the London Amateur Brewers who were pouring generously all night. I had a very decent oatmeal stout, a peachy pale ale, and an outstanding Belgian Dubbel that I was longing for ages after it had gone. Kernel brought their usual array of top notch beers, most of which were gone pretty early. I thought their export stout on cask was a particularly good, soft and sweet with loads of chocolate.  
       Another winner was Camden Town, who put the most effort out of anyone into their stand and it paid off, as they seemed to be surrounded by drinkers all night. Their beers were excellent as usual, and if left to my own devices I would have drunk the Red all night long. Slightly less high-tech were Brodies, distributing their beers from a freezer which gave them a welcoming temperature, if a somewhat slushy texture. I still thought the Red and the Black IPA were delicious though.
       On several counts the event was a huge success I thought – it was a great fun night with lots of quality beer on show, and also I discovered a bunch of breweries that I previously knew nothing about. The crowd was diverse and friendly, but more importantly was much bigger than last year, proof if it were needed that craft beer is encroaching on the mainstream. Two small gripes also – it shut way too early, the beer glasses were almost snatched out of our hands at 10pm on the dot – I don’t know about anyone else but that was not past my bedtime. And the major concern is that despite the popularity of craft beer and the resurgence of London breweries, we are likely to have to wait another year for the next one.

Monday, 24 October 2011

The Southampton Arms, Kentish Town

Until quite recently this was my local pub. It was with some regret that I changed that situation, largely owing to how scandalously expensive the neighbourhood it sits bang in the middle of is. This place is not particularly new, but I figured start with what you know - and there are few drinking holes I know better than this one.

Ale. Cider. Meat. The wonderful sign that I see regularly on the already ridiculous activity of an evening run, which makes it seem all the more unjustifiable that I am outside rather than in. It adorns a small public house just south of Parliament Hill in an ever more affluent region of North London, one in which predictable new ventures spring up weekly to absorb the disposable income of the aspirational locals. But rather than finding one of the new wave of smart, comfortable, and one-size-fits-all gastropubs, you discover a rather spit and sawdust, elementary little drinker’s paradise, under a bridge and on a main road.
        The Southampton Arms has overtly rustic benches that stretch the length of the small bar, in addition to a piano and the all too uncommon pub dog. A real fireplace, more wood, an outside men’s bathroom and a small concrete outdoor seating area continue the impression that this is not a swanky new cocktail bar, but something more elemental, more lasting.

        It has a very local feel for a place that quenches the thirst of many tourists, and long travelled lovers of orchard fruit and hops. The mission statement above the bar is challenging and exclusive – only beer and cider from small independent producers (they claim to be the only London pub doing this). However the heart of the place is very simple – give people decent beer, cider, pub grub and a place to sit, without charging the earth for it, and they will probably have a ruddy good time. And what’s more, come back.
        This approach leaves the bulk of the work to the quality of the products, which is where the pub largely excels. 12 beers on draught, including 2 permanent kegs of the very local and very excellent Camden Town brewery. The remaining 10 cask ales generally covers the brand names in UK craft brewing – Thornbridge, Brewdog, Dark Star and the like, in equal measure with interesting less known offerings that will be new to most casual ale drinkers. 8 Ciders, including some fantastic brutes matured in whisky and brandy barrels continues the artisanal selection, often in addition to a mulled something or other. Beyond this they have wine and spirits and other stuff – but why would you bother?
          Pub snacks best describe the chalkboard of food options, but superior pub snacks certainly. The sausage rolls and pork pies are worth a go, especially if you wish to avail yourself of a few different hoppy treats throughout the evening. This is a really fun place to drink, full of atmosphere and hospitality, while still maintaining a sense of the local and a real public house. There are already several quality pubs within drinking distance, the Bull at Highgate, the Pineapple, the Bull & Last, and when, as we’re promised, Brewdog set up shop in Camden, this section of North London is going to have a pretty impressive pub crawl. And this place might be the best of the lot.       

Friday, 21 October 2011

A sip in the right direction...

I have been drinking beer now for the better part of a decade, yet it has never really appealed to me to document or catalogue my experinces and opinions on the subject.
Firstly because I seriously doubt anyone would be interested, and secondly because I have always thought of beer, and drinking in general, as an instantaneous, personal and tangible activity which does not translate well to the written word. The beer drinking experince can be joyously communal and deeply intimate simultaneously, something a retrospective blog cannot really hope to capture or do justice to.
However over the last few years both the craft beer and blogging landscape in the UK have grown and matured considerably, to the extent which it would seem rude not to join the party. One of my very bestest buddies is currently the topping the charts of the UK beer blogging scene, and if nothing else it will be nice to have a more public forum to contradict and mock him.
This is merely intended to be an account of beer and food (and stuff) in and around London, from my perspective, as a gluttonous consumer and voracious drinker first and foremost. I apologise in advance for what is sure to be a criminal lack of knowledge, both general and specialist, an unrefined palate, and a legion of grammatical; errors.