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.