Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Golden Pints 2012


This is a summary of the year’s best beery offerings organised by Mark Dredge and Andy Mogg. Most of these categories are subjective and the strength of the choices are only as good as my memory, but when lots of people participate it does give an impression of who has been good this year and what to look for in the next. Here are my selections;

Best UK Draught Beer
Brewdog Dead Pony Club - I tried this several times in a couple of different bars just to make sure. And it really is very good – full of flavor, ever so drinkable and you can have plenty without falling over. Surprisingly brilliant and one was never enough, which is why it gets my vote. Two more beers that blew me away were Tiny Rebels Billabong, a little bit of Australian sunshine packed into a cask, and Camden Town USA Hells, which was everything you could want in a summer session beer.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
Lovibonds 69 – I had one bottle of this all year, and I’m still thinking about it. I also loved Kernels Table Beer, probably my favorite of their creations so far, and a few bottles of Redchurch Great Eastern IPA were stunning – a couple were a bit rubbish as well but when its good its good.

Best Overseas Draught Beer
Firestone Walker Union Jack & Double Jack. I can’t separate these two. The little brother is hoppy perfection and the big brother is boozy heaven. Both were so drinkable as to be properly dangerous.  I also have crystal clear memories of a Half Acre Daisy Cutter which was clean and beautiful.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
Half Acre Ginger Twin. My favorite beer on the planet. Deep, bitter and sweet. My great regret is that I shared it. I also absolutely loved Flying Dog’s Wildeman, which was funky and hoppy and great. £11 on a 750ml bottle of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace was so worth it I bought it again.

Best Overall Beer
Half Acre Ginger Twin.

Best Pumpclip or Label
Camden Town and Half Acre are very different but the branding on both is exceptional. The presentation of the Shepherd Neame Generation Ale was the years design highlight.

Best UK Brewery
Fullers. Excellent across the board - they were good enough already, but bringing Wild River into the fold and the emergence of Black Cab was enough to pull them ahead of the pack. Camden Town had a great year of brewing with several new beers that were original and delicious while their permanent range still impresses. Buxton continue to make beer that people want to drink, and I always look out for them on draft.

Best Overseas Brewery
Haymarket. As yet their beer is unavailable outside of their Chicago brewpub, but it gets my vote as the range, quality and freshness of every beer was outstanding. After drinking all 10 or so they had on offer, the only option was to order some more. My first taste of Firestone Walker this year totally lived up to the hype, and Three Floyds beers were always memorable.

Pub/Bar of the Year
Earl of Essex, Islington. A great vibe, good beer range and delicious food. Craft in Farringdon is unmatched in its ability to produce a range of cask beer in tip top condition, and my first visit to the North Bar in Leeds was very impressive.

Beer Festival of the Year
GBBF. A better venue and great people.

Supermarket of the Year
Waitrose. A better quality range than everyone else.

Independent Retailer of the Year
City Beverage Co, Old Street. Just for keeping me stocked with Kernel, Beavertown, Crate and American craft beers.

Best Beer Book or Magazine
Oxford Companion to Beer. Really good reading on the toilet.

Best Beer Blog or Website
Tandleman & Zythophile. I just like reading both of these guys.

Best Beer Twitterer
Who cares?

Best Online Brewery Presence
Brewdog’s sheer level of communication is slightly annoying but also impressive and usually funny. Camden Town has produced a nice website with an informative blog.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
Fish finger sandwich and Camden Town Unfiltered Hells at the Earl of Essex - A moment alone cannot be spent better than this without touching oneself. Half Acre Daisy Cutter and deep dish pizza, and also an Old Style and hot dog at Wrigley Field are the fondest memories.

In 2013 I’d most like to...
See the glut of dodgy London brewers improve quickly and get really good.

Open category – Best new London addition
Fuller’s Wild River. A great new beer for casual drinking. Crate’s brewery/bar/restaurant is all round fun, and Beavertown have kept improving their beer, food and labels to become a leading light in London’s brewing scene.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Are London Breweries Good Enough?

     At the last count the number of London breweries was up to around 30, from just a handful a few years ago. At first glance this is great news, not only for Londoners but UK beer in general. Those of us who live here can enjoy a wider, more eclectic selection of beers made locally, often direct from the brewery, which is great for freshness and engagement with the people who make the stuff. It creates jobs, competition, and makes it possible for more events and new bars to showcase beer in all its glory. On a wider scale, as a centre of population and wealth the potential for innovation, growth and impact is huge, hopefully leading to a surge in popularity of beer across all demographics throughout the UK, and a rise in the level of respect and esteem given to brewers. However these benefits will surely only be felt if the majority of brewers are producing good beer that people will not only want to drink when they see it, but actively seek out. And right now, that is not necessarily the case.
         One benefit of starting a brewery in a big city is the ready-made audience for your product and an abundance of investors to help you get started. Another is that there are plenty of talented people around with skills required for a new business, like marketing, branding, sales, business development and management. You can see these skills on show as a swathe of new breweries have started selling their beer across the capital. Camden Town, By The Horns, Rechurch and Moncada have great bottles and cool websites. Several have blogs, Facebook pages and twitter accounts. Crate and London Fields have created trendy bars around the brewery in the right locations to generate buzz and instant income. Sambrooks have done a brilliant job of getting their product to a huge number of pubs and off licences across town, and Tap East simply opened in Europe’s biggest shopping mall. For sheer passion and innovation, look no further than Beavertown and Brodies. There is a lot of enterprise going on here, and yet perhaps the one skill underrepresented is brewing.
         Brewing is generally not one of the skills in which there is an abundance of qualified personnel, so when 20 odd breweries arrive in less time than it takes to earn a degree or complete an apprenticeship, it seems likely that talent will be in short supply. While there are many of our breweries that succeed online, on the phone, in the accounts, on the bottles and at the pump clip, too few succeed in the glass. The ones that do are self-evident and the ones that don’t will not be named here as many of these are small, new enterprises that are rapidly improving. But learning on the job is not really acceptable when many of these businesses are charging in excess of £3 a pint and supplying to off-licences and pubs across London. Beers can range from simply dull to badly conceived, poorly executed, and even infected. In the last year alone, I have had under-conditioned lagers, diacetyl bombs that taste like best bitter with packet of Werthers Original dropped in it, endless sorry attempts at hop heavy beers that seemingly forgot about the malt, the odd vinegary pint, a few muddy swamps of yeast with beer hidden in it, and even 2 ‘pale ales’ that were dark enough to be stouts. This leads to the question of whether there are enough quality brewers to fill the demand.
       On the whole, the proliferation of London breweries is an exciting, positive development, and it looks set to continue. But this is only sustainable and desirable if quality beer is being made and an audience of craft beer drinkers are not dissuaded by high prices and an inferior product. Conformity and absolute consistency is not necessary but if too many bad beers reach our glass then the pursuit of the higher pleasures and elevated intrigue of craft beer is simply not worth it. I certainly hope that the majority of drinkers are not concerned and that standards continue to rise; my next pint will be a local one. But will yours? Is the current set of London breweries brewing to a high enough standard and if not is this due to a lack of talented individuals?

 

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Earl of Essex

           Comfortably sat a few hundred yards from Angel tube station, in the type of quiet, Georgian townhouse lined street that would give an estate agent wet dreams, is a welcoming and charming place that will make people want to go out drinking on a Monday again. This area is one of London’s great pub neighbourhoods – not only does alcohol soaked Upper Street loom to the west, but the Island Queen, Duke of Cambridge and Wenlock Arms all hug the same stretch of canal – but it has just been massively improved. The latest in a succession of revamped Islington pubs, The Earl of Essex does not conform to the increasingly predictable gastro pub model which has taken hold of so many establishments on and around Upper Street. Instead we are presented with something more committed, personal, and much more fun.  


          On a cold October evening, the steamed windows and hum of elated Friday night banter is about as attractive and welcoming as it is possible to be. Cramped but cosy, the central island bar buzzes with activity, staff occasionally pausing for breath to describe the characteristics of a wheat beer or recommending a lager. One wall is dominated with a huge board highlighting the beers on tap – eleven kegs and five or so on cask, with one or two ciders. Prices are clear, simple and unapologetic, so if you want a full pint of the good stuff you will have to pay for it. Three or four local beers (Camden Town, Crate) stood alongside some unusual names (XT) but also a few big hitting breweries – Marble, Magic Rock, Sierra Nevada. Best in show was Fubar pale ale by Tiny Rebel, which was incredibly fresh, citrusy, bitter and delicious, a Punk IPA wannabe that may be better than the original.
      Menus on the bar show that thirds are also available, and that there are plenty of decent wines to choose from in addition to the bottled beer list, which is short and pricey but also pretty irresistible. Dominated by sought-after American and Belgian breweries, bottles are both exciting and expensive (Clown Shoes IPA’s £15, Brooklyn EIPA £5) although this didn’t seem to put off the admittedly affluent local crowd. Also worth noting is the very decent food, not just big plates of bar food but a proper menu with thoughtful dishes, all with beer matching recommendations. This can sometimes drive the price of a meal up steeply, but the keen pricing of the dishes means one can afford to indulge - £12 for a steak and chips, deserts at £4. A very decent burger and a forgivably over sauced, overly sweet pulled pork sandwich were served with fantastic chips, the service swift and happily not included on the bill (we were sat at the bar).


       It is a genuine compliment to say that this bar feels like it has been lifted from a quiet neighbourhood in New York or Chicago. The colossal beer board, the robust and informal food, a keg and pale ale prioritised beer list, and the feel that this isn’t somewhere to start the night before moving on to louder, shinier places, but somewhere to see it through. You only need to check out the website of The Earl of Essex to realise the people behind it are beer fanatics, but given the mixed bag of quality London breweries are currently serving up, the news that a small brewery will be opening downstairs in November is slightly worrying. Hopefully they can give the same attention to detail to this as the pub they have created, which is a standout addition to an increasingly competitive market.  

Friday, 21 September 2012

The Hand And Flowers

      Although the Hand and Flowers resides in Marlow, an affluent and attractive town in Buckinghamshire, it is included here by virtue of sitting on the Thames, and is only a marathon or so outside of central London. It has been on the radar for a while now, after it was given some media attention last year on account of being the only British pub to hold 2 Michelin stars. Being a bit of a groupie for these essentially useless culinary accolades, I marched the missus out there under the pretence of a romantic lunch in the countryside – something all the more impressive given that she actually paid for it.
 
         When the reservation was confirmed via telephone a few days in advance, we were told to arrive on time, as there was no space to have a drink beforehand.  I know we don’t have a written constitution in the UK, but surely a pub with no space for drinkers contravenes some ancient law or commandment. I would hate to think that a posh restaurant in the commuter belt has been falsely claiming itself as a member of the pub club in order to be the best in its field - that’s just not cricket.
       From the outside it looks the part - quaint and pretty, a proper pub sign to lure in passing trade. Inside, you are immediately met with a bar, stocked with draft beers and optics full of expensive spirits. Stools line the bar, a fireplace is visible amongst wooden chairs and cloth-free tables, a small garden at the back welcomes the sunshine and the coffee drinkers, and it all seems right. But don’t be fooled – nobody sits in the stools, nobody even orders drinks at the bar. All the tables are set for diners, wine glasses sat mockingly empty next to expensive silverware. Even on a warm Friday afternoon, no one pops in for a glass of wine of a cold beer to start the weekend early, this is strict reservations only territory.
       There is a warm, casual atmosphere that is inviting and comfortable, the gin list is superb if pricey, and the cask beers were decent. Noble lager, from Greene King I was informed, was just the stuff to wash down a late lunch with. This general feel is somewhat at odds with the serious and seriously good food, and the Sunday best everyone is dressed in – people come here to eat and little more. And to be fair, it is very good. A parsley soup with bacon and eel was deeply satisfying and a pleasure to eat. Lamb breast with various accompaniments was classic meat and veg done with skill and accuracy. A mirabelle fool made something memorable from very few ingredients, and a soufflé was crafted with an expert hand. The famous chips here are worth coming for alone – crunchy and fluffy, seasoned to perfection. However a tomato soup was merely fine, and the sauce on the main course had been sat for too long, forming an unseemly skin - errors you should not find in a 2 star establishment. The £19.50 set lunch is an absolute steal, but away from this things get pricey quickly, with main courses starting at £25 and rising. Perhaps Michelin were feeling trendy last year, going for a bit of street cred with some starry pubs. But as much as I wanted to love it, the food here is not exciting, theatrical or technical enough to be put in the same group as Hibiscus, Le Gavroche, the Square etc. At no fault of its own, the Hand and Flowers is batting too high up the order.      
           I went to a pub and all I got was a lovely restaurant. To be a pub you don’t need shove Ha’penny, or the England match on TV, or pork pies, or a pool table, or even good beer. What you need is people to feel they can come in at any time and within reason, do what they please. Here you can do that, as long as you book in advance and have the duck.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Hackney Brewpubs

The Cock Tavern, Crate Brewery              

 From the London Overground train bound for Stratford, alight at Hackney Central (an action which no longer sounds worrying to many, post Olympics) for a beer at The Cock Tavern, a recently refurbished and reopened brewpub from the owners of The Southampton Arms in Kentish Town. They have clearly nailed the set up in NW5, and although that is with a more affluent collection of locals, here they have the bustling centre of Hackney (the town hall is opposite) and a trendy crowd of young revellers just to the south in London Fields. They haven’t just stuck to the Southampton Arms formula; they have run with it, providing 10 cask taps (2 for cider) and 8 keg lines for independent breweries, high quality traditional pub snacks for food and a barren space with distressed wooden furniture and creaky floorboards.
 
        The best thing about The Cock Tavern is the beer. Red Willow, Thornbridge and  Dark Star all featured on cask; along with a couple from Howling Hops, the beer brewed downstairs using the very same equipment that Camden Town Brewery started with at the Horseshoe Pub not long ago. If that success story is anything to go by, Howling Hops could well be a name to look out for in the future, but right now the beers are a little way short of that. If you name your brewery Howling Hops, there had better be plenty of them, which wasn’t really evident in the aroma or taste. The IPA was better than the Pale, but both were far too bitter, dry and thin without a great deal of hop character or depth – it is early days yet though and these are likely to improve. The Keg selection is perhaps even more exciting, with beers form Moor, Harbour and Magic Rock joined by some leading lights of London brewing – London Fields Lager, Brodies Kiwi IPA, Kernel IPA and Camden Town’s fantastic 1908.
      Beyond the impressive casting though, there is not much to entice and delight. At their North London venture, a dedicated crowd of locals and craft beer pilgrims in addition to live music and a small garden, lifts the experience so the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Here, with the blues playing through speakers, uncomfortable benches and lots of empty space, it feels too much like Moe’s Tavern without the comedy & drama – a bit hollow, masculine and downbeat. However, this as an attractive high street pub in an area that could well provide it with plenty of characters to fill the rafters, and become a cool, atmospheric place that people use as a reason to come to this part of town. 
            Just a couple of stops further East on the train is Hackney Wick, where one can find Crate Brewery. The property prices, cool cafés and the view of the Olympic Stadium may suggest otherwise, but this is definitely the middle of nowhere – fortunately it is well worth the trip. Hidden (it took a few attempts to find it) within an ugly car park, any initial scepticism is banished by the attractive outdoor seating area, with its sturdy picnic benches and the succession of herb gardens hugging the River Lea. Inside the converted warehouse, a compact island bar is surrounded by so much space and natural light that the fonts take on the role of gallery art; moustaches and playsuits alike examining the beer selection with obvious anticipation but a fair amount of ambivalence, so as not to disturb the achingly cool urban vibe bouncing off cold concrete and wood. Instead of the smell of wet malt and dry hops, the air is abundant with sweet dough and charred meat wafting from the pizza oven. They are seriously good - thin, crisp and hot with the unusual flavour combinations surprising and delicious – the laksa chicken was delightful.  
 
        Some decent German pilsners sit alongside a couple of English keg beers, and with a guest ale on cask. There is also a brief wine list and some ginger ale for those so inclined, but most are here for the house beers, brewed just out of sight in an area alongside the bar. Their IPA available on cask was clean and bright, a deep orange colour with a frothy head. This is a bit boozy for cask and lacks a bitter, hoppy finish, but this is still a very decent, drinkable beer. The Gold is clean and refreshing; with plenty of carbonation giving the dry, pithy citrus flavours an extra dimension that lifts it above the norm. The real winner though, is the Lager. Presented in smart looking bottles, it pours dark gold with a thick white head, looking attractive and appetising. Floral and biscuity on the nose, a little toffee sweetness upfront leads to buttered bread, citrus pith and a long dry, grassy finish. Clean, crisp, full bodied and balanced, this is an excellent example of an amber lager, reminiscent of Brooklyn’s version.
         There are plenty of places in East London this trendy, but very few are this much fun. Beer this good means the brewery is taking things seriously, and delivering it in this casual, uncomplicated venue is an ideal way to showcase their qualities. We could perhaps ask for a few more quality beers on the taps, in addition to getting their full range on draft, but if you do work your way through them prematurely there are a few decent bottles in the fridge, from the US and closer by - The Kernel beers look particularly good in this setting. This place is certainly at its best in the summer sun, but even in the depths of winter the beer will still be good, the pizzas hot and the tables will most definitely be full.
          

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Beavertown Beers

          A few months ago when I first visited Dukes Brew and Que, I very much liked the place, despite the small bar and patchy food. It was fun, good humoured and serious about craft beer, admirable qualities to be admired in a person as well as a business. Their house brewed beer was drinkable if rather uneventful, but given that most of the brewing equipment was visible from the dining tables, the bulky tanks protruding from an already cramped kitchen, and the fact it was a new born baby of a brewery, it was understandable. Fast forward to the present though and Beavertown have had some time to try and err, experiment and innovate. Their beers have tentatively emerged from the nest and are to be found sporadically across London - on draft in more adventurous pubs, but also in shiny new bottles in both bars and off licences. Four of their bottles are available in a local shop and set me back over a tenner for the lot, so they are now entitled to proper scrutiny.
          They look cool and understated, and it was nice to see a bit of spiel on the back about the story of the beer. The food matching suggestions are a nice touch, although oddly specific (you must have a balsamic reduction on your risotto or don’t bother darling) and the attempt to offer tasting notes through seemingly random tally marks against things like malt and bitterness is confusing and meaningless.

Neck Oil 4.3%
This beer looks good, an attractive dark gold rather than brown, and a nice frothy head. Fresh apples and apple skin hit the nose first, with strong caramel and stewed fruit underneath. The carbonation is pretty aggressive, stinging the palate with yet more crisp apples, a touch of honey, some biscuity sweetness and a floral, dry and grassy finish. It is very bitter and dry, with perhaps not enough body or malt character to balance it. Pretty decent though.

Alpha 1.1 Pig Swill APA 5.2%
Hazy, burnished orange and a creamy, cream coloured head. The aroma is huge - fresh sweet mango, pungent and perfumed lychee, ripe tangerines, sherbert, candy sugar and a squeeze of lime. One of the best aromas I can remember in a beer, it is slightly let down upon tasting. Bitter and dry from start to finish, there is a herbal, metallic presence that is drying, peppery and thin. Where I was expecting fireworks and fruity flavours form the hops, it is vague and underwhelming with no real punch or journey on the palate. I would say it tastes a bit old if I didn’t know that the opposite was true. This is not a bad effort though and I would drink it again.

8 Ball Rye IPA 6.2%
This is a deep muddy brown colour and doesn’t look great. The aroma is much better, initially giving off sweet chocolate, toffee apples and fresh coffee beans with a touch of burnt orange and something vaguely tropical. It is a big and challenging beer, bold, spicy and dense throughout, moving from some initial sweetness to a long, dry and bitter finish. The hops are outgunned by the heavy handed raw coffee and toasty, peppery flavours present, so the beer feels like hard work. Too much rye and not enough IPA for me, but plenty of promise if this get a few tweaks.

Smog Rocket 5.4%
A rather sexy jet black with a smart cappuccino head, this smells like breakfast in a petrol station – oily, sweet coffee, burnt toast and petrol. It is smoother and richer in texture than expected, giving plenty of charcoal and smoke but tempering it with liquorice and brown sugar for balance. A mildly bitter finish rounds out the most accomplished beer I have tried from this brewery, a restrained and highly drinkable smoked porter which is no easy feat.

         They clearly had fun making these and it shows with some things to get excited about here. However there are some inaccuracies on show in the beers and nothing in these bottles was genuinely excellent. While aspiration should not be discouraged, these are very ambitious beers for such a young brewery, and perhaps they are running before they can walk. Overall though, this looks to be an improving, creative enterprise with plenty to offer, and one of the best of the new breed of London breweries. I will be looking to drink more Beavertown in the near future, and so should you.

Friday, 3 August 2012

World class performance from London

The eyes of the world are currently leering at London from both up close and afar, checking out our firm and ample parks, our long, curvy river and the muffin-top of sprawling suburbs hanging over our M25 belt. As locals and foreigners alike take renewed interest in the indefinable British culture, beer will inevitably take a leading role, being discussed, lauded, disparaged and of course consumed by the public and the media. At no time since I have been alive has London and indeed the UK as a whole been better equipped to showcase beer and pubs to a wider audience. Increasing standards of quality in food, design, service, diversity and of course the beer are evident across the board, with the absence of smoking creating cleaner, healthier environments for drinkers*. Whilst we have more breweries now than at any time since the Second World War, the obvious disappointment that must be mentioned is the diminished number of pubs in the UK, with mixed reports suggesting that around 20 a week are still closing.
        With this is mind it is all the more important to present and celebrate what we do have, and emphasise the things that are treasured parts of our heritage and culture, something that we can proudly show the world. I am sure during the next few weeks many tenets of British culture will be trotted out and shown off, only to be but back in cupboard once the last delegate leaves (yours ears are burning Morris Dancing). But not beer, not pubs. The Monday after the closing ceremony will see a mix of weary, embittered, joyous and indifferent members of the pubic walk through the doors of their local and order a pint, because we don’t need a special occasion, we just like doing it. But in the spirit of the season I will offer an unofficial Gold, Silver and Bronze to the best things about drinking beer in London which will be in no way a clichéd and arbitrary link to the Games.
Bronze – New and trendy craft beer pubs
          As the demand for interesting beer has grown, especially amongst the young and affluent in London, new bars and pubs have sprung up relentless across the city, latching onto the trend for expensive artisanal beer and a sparse, modern approach to design. They may be profit machines, lacking character in the pursuit of twitter trends and magazine write ups, and charging big money for extravagantly sourced bottles and overdressed food menus. But they are fun. They are cool, and new, and full of superlative inducing beers that are fun to share and exciting to drink. They often put as much effort into the food as the drinks and ordering thirds does not raise the eyebrows of the punter standing next to you. It is acceptable to talk about alpha acids and lagering times – this is the lovechild of an opium den and model train shop, geeky and intoxicating. Good examples of this are Craft in Clerkenwell, Brewdog in Camden, The Rake in London Bridge and Mason & Taylor in Shoreditch.    
Silver – Drinking in breweries
            The blossoming of London breweries over the last couple of years now means there are plenty of opportunities to drink beer at its freshest, as it was intended, and with brewers around to eulogise them. Some breweries operate tours which are great, but the real pleasure lies in the open house sessions where it is relaxed, informal and you can stay until closing. Add the brewpubs in to this equation and we have even more choices, often not far from each other, for drinking the beer while standing in the place it was born, a simple but priceless pleasure. Not only is this a shortcut to getting the best from the beers, it is also a brilliant way to find out what goes into making your favourite drop, and probably getting it a bit cheaper. The real benefit though is getting to taste the one off or modified beers that don’t make it to market – an unfiltered version of the lager or a barrel aged IPA. Food is not even a problem now as most will have vendors and street stalls flogging appetising snacks at all hours. These are excellent ways of seeing and living London up close and personal. Good examples of open breweries are Camden Town, London Fields and The Kernel, and those with brewpubs include Brodies, Meantime, and Beavertown.    
Gold – Historical drinking   
             For tourists and locals alike, London’s great treasure is its history. A centre of commerce, culture, conflict and governance, to drink in London is to become a cog in a vast organic engine that has shaped civilisation for centuries. It is possible to glug gin in the same dark cellars that Dickens would have, sip claret in Victorian saloons and down a bitter in hardy public houses that survived the blitz. London is a city that has had to continually rise from blood and ashes, and a contemplative pint in an old boozer with untold secrets and a proud past can be a humbling and inspirational experience. Good places to drink in some history are Ye Olde Mitre, the Lamb & Flag, Cittie of York, Olde Chesire Cheese and The George Inn.

* In patriotic mode I am temporarily forgetting the fact I do not like this law.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Fullers Produce Three Medal Winners

The Union Tavern, The Parcel Yard, Wild River

With a discernible increase in attention being paid to beer in recent months, through blogs, magazines, newspapers, TV shows and on-the-ground discussion, it is important for breweries to be in the right position for positive exposure, both commercially and in terms of their product. Add the Olympics into this equation and it is clear that London breweries are in an exciting but competitive arena. Taking notice of this are Fullers, who have gone out and bought a new suit for the occasion. Not only have they recently opened two big additions to their pub range, one very literally and the other more figuratively, but hey have launched a new beer to stock in them as well.         
        Slightly off the beaten track in London terms is The Union Tavern in Westbourne Park. It almost feels as though two pubs have been sown together, so different are the ground floor saloon and the subterranean lounge propping it up. Downstairs is remarkable only for its miniscule bars (two of them, each around three feet across) and a reasonably pleasant terrace area which is not burdened with the radiance of sunlight but rather the red glow of parked London buses reflected in the murky green surface of the canal. Up in the larger main bar where musicians entertain a diverse crowd, things are quite exciting. A couple of familiar international lagers are surrounded by London centric craft beers – loads of them, on cask and keg – which cover more of our capitals breweries than any other bar I have visited. Fullers is the noticeable missing link – only Pride was available on our visit, as the pub clearly is not a mere outlet for its own creations. Perhaps it should be less modest – while it is interesting to drink draft Sambrooks, Moncada and By the Horns beers, they are way behind the curve in London brewing terms and a pint of Bengal Lancer, arguably Fullers best beer, would have been much appreciated.  
         Redemption and Kernel were much better, with two different beers on keg from the latter being a particular rarity. Once you have worked through the draft offering the fridge has plenty of intrigue. Stocked somewhat randomly with more London beers and some eclectic offerings from afar - Orval, Pannepot, Saison Dupont and Racer 5 for instance. The best thing I drank all night was a bottle of Lovibonds 69, a stunning crisp, dry and bitter IPA from a brewery upsettingly just too far outside the M25 to claim as a Londoner.
            With less of a local feel is the food menu, with the in-house smoker given free rein to do naughty things to meat. This is largely successful, with the pulled pork and ribs particular highlights, well complemented by quality chips and coleslaw. The occasional missteps of dry brisket and sausage and under-cheesed macaroni were forgivable, especially at this price, and a meal here is worth the trip even without the beery delights on offer. The salty, sweet and smoky array of food is a playground for those interested in beer and food matching, with more than enough styles available to make a night of it.  
        While one could suggest that the pub is a touch strong minded about its beery intentions (wine choices are little more than red or white) that would be mightily grouchy given the diversity of pubs in North West London and sheer number of wine/cocktail bars. Towards the end of the evening as the band were winding down and we were sampling the quite bewildering smoked nuts, some customers walked in and enquired if Budweiser is stocked. ‘No’ was the reply. Even ignoring the admirable commitment to London breweries, this is a pub with a huge amount to offer beer enthusiasts, and enough in the tank for those who just fancy a pint and some pork.
          If an isolated pub in the west is fine for a bit of experimentation and adventure, Fullers perhaps felt that in the eye of the storm they should fall back on tried and tested methods. The Parcel Yard brings the big guns of traditional British pub lore; in addition to almost all the Fullers beers available on cask, there is wood – old wood and plenty of it, memorabilia from times past, brown Windsor soup and sticky toffee pudding. They are going full throttle with old style English charm, which is weird given that the Grade I listed building is set within the cavernous spaceship that now encloses Kings Cross station, with its endless chain restaurants and giant touch screens for finding your way to the nearest Pret. After climbing some ugly metal stairs and entering the largest station pub in Britain, one might begin to wonder if this is some idyllic countryside antiquity somehow transported here through platform 9¾ a few fictional yards away, to this hyper designed Olympic junction. Of course, on closer inspection it is clear that this too, is hyper designed and ultra-modern, cunningly disguised as somewhere for locals to gather on cold nights as opposed to the tourist attraction it is, offering hordes of visitors a slice of Britannia. However rather than this being a regrettable drawback, it works beautifully, the creases ironed out and trendy flourishes added in to create something wonderful.
          The strength of Fullers catalogue is apparent, as their beers impress across the platforms of cask, keg and bottle. A cold pint of Discovery will be welcome in the Olympic months, and a well-kept ESB will soothe the soul before a trip home. Lager from the big boys and also Meantime, in addition to some guest cask beer, gives a balanced feel to the beer selection, although pretty conventional as you would expect. Far more exciting is the extensive list of bottled Fullers Vintage ales available at very respectable prices, ideal with some cheese but also with many of the dishes on a menu so deliberately British I think I heard it singing Jerusalem. The sheer size of the place allows for multiple rooms which are joined in theme but differ in atmosphere. The main bar is flanked by a large room which more closely resembles a restaurant, and also an airy space which feels like a courtyard in a French orangery. Traverse the branded iron staircase to find the open, attractive loft area which could be a wine bar in Brooklyn, with Baba O’Riley on the stereo another clue that this is a ‘we heart Britain’ pub with international ambitions.
         There are those that will dislike the stylised, theatrically presented version of an old school boozer, the elevated prices for both drinks and food, and the vast open style that can feel empty and impersonal. But the sheer scale of ambition and attention to detail on show here will be enough to impress the tourists, win over craft beer newcomers and please existing fans of Fullers. Despite the electronic timetable in the hallway showing departure times, this place is going to cause a few missed trains.
        Following the trend for breweries to have an American style IPA in their locker, Fullers have released Wild River, a 4.5% ‘double hopped’ beer with 4 different US hops providing the star attraction. As you might expect from this brewery, balance and drinkability are high priorities and therefore the beer is not an attempt at a hop bomb. What we get instead is a clean, dry bitterness with the hops providing a grassy, lemony flavour, more reminiscent of a hoppy English golden ale than a US IPA. Incredibly drinkable and moreish, it does feel too restrained in alcohol and bitterness to really shine (especially so given the name). It is good to see continuing innovation on the pumps from Fullers, and a move towards more modern seasonals would be pleasing as there are still some being regularly produced which do not live up to the high standards they have set in their permanent range.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Meantime @ Marks and Spencer

Having popped into Marks and Sparks recently for some fancy crisps, I came across some beers which I had not seen before. M&S always tend to have a very limited but interesting range of beers, many of which are produced 'exclusively' for them and branded under their own name. The Belgian and Italian lagers are not-so-subtle imitations of premium, brand name beers, but do a decent, cost effective job. The ones that caught my eye were from Meantime, the Greenwich Hospital Porter and Red Ale, both of which claim to be soley produced for M&S. The cynic in me wants to investigate whether these are merely existing beers with shiny new labels, but I am going to take them at face value and enjoy the ride.
Barrel Aged Greenwich Hospital Porter
The presentation of this beer is fantastic - contained within a sleek and attractive cardboard tube, the corked bottle has lots of strong black, cream and red, making it appear expensive and luxurious. Naturally then, it is very expensive, costing £10-£11 depending on where you get it. Granted, it looks great and is a easily shareable 750ml size, but at this price and only 6% alcohol it really better be something special. Deep, dark brown liquid is submerged by a proud and thick off-white head, the condition absolutely top notch. The aroma has a touch of smoke, burnt sugar and burnt toast, but it is not as big as you might expect. This is echoed on the tongue, the flavours muted and underwhelming. A hint of caramel and dark chocolate sweetness, some of the smoky, peaty richness from the barrel aging and a pleasing coffee bitterness, but it is also thin and has a meaty, sour petrol flavour which is lingers too long on the palate. Not a bad beer, but at this price it really needs to be very good – not quite big ,deep and rich enough, and not sufficiently complex for a barrel aged beer. 
Greenwich Red Ale
Another corker of a bottle – understated yet stately, the £5 you are required to exchange for it seems like a perfectly fair trade. The anticipation this generates is exacerbated by a bright, autumn red/brown body with a fluffy cream head, which looks incredibly appetising. It smells good too – rich and ripe, with apples and oranges the dominant aromas, and an undercurrent of sweet toffee. It is reminiscent of a big, crystal malt laden American IPA, with the classic Meantime apple skin element running through it. Slightly disappointing up front, this beer did grow on me as I worked through it. At first it feels under hopped and thin, the 4% alcohol underselling what feels like a potentially excellent profile of flavours, but the body is lacking, and there is not a huge amount of depth or clarity. There is some goodness in there – a crisp, peppery bitter finish, gentle caramel sweetness – but not enough to be memorable or exciting. Probably good with rich foods and cheese, it is very drinkable and I finished the lot in no time, which was only partly due to a nerve shredding England match. This may be just the job for the posh supermarket crowd, I just wanted a little more.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Bukowski

With the burger assault on London clearly not abating, I visited another semi-permanent, fully trendy burger bar in Shoreditch. Box Park, straddling Shoreditch High Street station, is a long term, pop-up shopping mall and food court, with those involved given solid, compact and unglamorous booths to strut their stuff. Downstairs is top end high street fashion; upstairs is a collection of cafes and restaurants, mainly small chains and independents. In amongst some appealing places to eat is Bukowski, a burger and fries joint that sticks to the brief – no messing around with fancy sides, no desserts, quick service and cheap prices.
         I say cheap – the ‘purist’ burger is £5.50 and well worth it, the large chips (£2.50) are both actually large and fantastic. None of the burgers break a tenner, most quite comfortably, and all are of good quality. Some may still find the prices steep at what is essentially a glorified Ikea cupboard serving fast food, but compared to prices and standards further west, this seems accessible and fair.  
          Triple cooked, beef dripping chips are the highlight of a menu which is high on flavour and a little way short on texture. The straight up ‘purist’ burger was meaty and rich, and the flavour of the beef was dominant as you would hope, but the meat was a tad dry and too compacted, the bun too reminiscent of a dry cake. A £9.50 rib burger was tasty, but the smoked cheese overpowered the meat and there was not enough of the promised maple bacon jam. The accompanying Waldorf coleslaw was delicious but little consolation for those expecting burger induced fireworks for their tenner. A Mexican style pulled pork bun was big on flavour, but too uniform in texture, depriving us of the pleasure of chewing on dry, charred bits of pig for the sake of easily swallowed but easily forgotten tenderness.
         
So to the beer. 3 different bottles of Hopdaemon as the only options is a pretty odd choice, but actually not a bad one. They clearly like these beers and it is easy to see why – the Green Daemon lager is a brilliant, refreshing and quenching accompaniment to salty, rich food, and mine was gone in minutes. Bigger and bolder is Shrimshander IPA, its dark amber depths delivering punchy, slightly sweet citrus upfront with big amounts of hop bitterness and alcohol at the finish. This is great with the pulled pork and with the cheese on the rib burger. A slender list it may be, but far superior to the macro lager most chain restaurants will offer, and at £3.60 for 500ml bottles it is really good value. Cocktails are a fiver and very decent, but again only a few options are offered. Bukowski is yet another quality, affordable place to eat with craft beer on the menu, and although not the best burger in town, this is something to be happy about.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Craft Beer at the Zoo

The summer promotion of ‘Zoo Lates’ - an adult only open air bar, nightclub and food market set within the confines of London Zoo - is a slightly odd, but thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an evening. You can tuck in to some Polish pierogi or Mexican tacos, sipping a large plastic glass of Pimms, all while watching lions have their dinner and stick insects making sweet sticky love. It is not a reserved and peaceful occasion to marvel at nature’s most wondrous creations – it is busy and boisterous, with animal costumes, face painting, a disco and a carousel in full flow, all with hordes of participants. Remember this is adults only, with ready access to alcohol.  
               Right in the middle of all this commotion (just out of earshot of the tigers) is a self-described ‘real ale bar’, a beer festival style tent with several casks lined up to dispense beer via gravity, and a couple of keg lines. The tent and garden are given identical space to the directly adjacent Pimms bar, which was predictably busier but not hugely so. The beers on show were impressively sourced – this was not a random selection of well-known ales you might find in the supermarket. It was focussed on London’s finest (I believe this was set up in conjunction with the London Brewers Alliance) with Redemption, Fullers, Camden Town, Meantime and Sambrooks all available on a visit earlier this month, and more promised for subsequent events.

            The Redemption Trinity I had was perhaps not the finest version I have tried (tasting slightly  dull), but it was well conditioned and still a cut above the usual stuff available at events and tourist havens like this, and at £3.50 was fairly priced given the location. The range is solid, with plenty of opportunity to match pale and dark beers with the variety of food on offer, and the keg option is great for those looking for refreshment in the evening sun. The point here is that this is a pleasing development – first and foremost to see London craft beer being championed to a clearly affluent, touristy crowd - but also to see it done at the type of event where the usual offering is mainstream lager at exaggerated prices. I would like to see craft beer appearing and thriving in new & different environments from bars and restaurants, like theme parks, hotels, theatres, concerts and stadiums. This feels like progress is being made towards that end, and being welcomed by the public. It seems unlikely that something of this nature would have been in palce a few years ago, which is a positive and exciting sign for London's breweries. 
Has anyone seen craft beer/real ale being served in other interesting locations?

Zoo Lates is on every Friday in June & July

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Dalston Drinking

The Fox, The Railway Tavern, L'Entrepot

Cheap rent and an industrious spirit have long been at the heart of East London’s reputation for innovation, trend setting and start-up businesses. While street food, cocktail bars, clubs and niche industries have thrived in the last decade, until recently brewing and craft beer were significantly underrepresented in the area. Apparently there were a few people looking to correct that situation, and in a very short time the area has welcomed East London, Redchurch, Beavertown, London Fields, and Hackney Brewing amongst others. The craft beer pub landscape has also seen some recent additions, as imperial stouts and IPAs start to compete with ginger mojito’s and espresso martinis on a Thursday night session. The variation and novelty of craft beer which appeals to drinkers is matched by the appeal to proprietors, who can cash in on the acceptance of high prices and increased marketing savvy of the brewers.
        With less of a commuter presence and a more localised, community feel than Shoreditch to its immediate south, Dalston has long been a good place to drink and eat. It just got markedly better, with The Fox reopened and refurbished as a ‘Craft Beer House’. An unfortunate location has this proud looking building on a rather ugly stretch of Kingsland Road, the contrast felt sharply on entering the handsome, comfortable and spacious bar/dining area. It feels like a proper pub – lots of dark wood and a simple, raised bar overlooking the basic space. The beer selection is very kind to lovers of pale, hoppy beers – American kegs with some big hitters in Sierra Nevada and Anchor Steam cry out to be consumed, and Bernard have a 3-tap permanent font to themselves. British beers take the limelight on cask, with more light and hoppy styles on show from some excellent microbreweries like Bristol Beer Factory and Dark Star. Some darker stuff would please a few more people, and I would really like to see a focus on London beers on draft, as opposed to just in the fridge (though there are several to be found here). This is not the biggest or rarest selection in town, but it was carefully selected and had quality and reputation as a running theme.
        The short, snacky menu looks ideal for the mood and style of the pub, and on our visit the chips were damn good, the first real test of any pub kitchen. A great draw here is a small but nicely kitted out roof terrace, a quiet sanctuary for a contemplative pint in the warm air, or just a great place for a cigarette, if you have not been converted to clean living by the smoking ban. This feels like a fantastic mix of the traditional and the modern, with the focus on quality beer not overriding the desire to provide a relaxing and sustainable drinking environment for anyone who might fancy a tipple, whatever that may be. The obvious concern to mention from our visit was that it was nearly empty, a symptom perhaps of the location, but hopefully something which can be remedied by the launch of a proper website and social media presence.  
         This is a destination pub by itself, but if you were in need of an excuse, The Railway Tavern is a short walk away and is also worth a visit. This pub comes from the clever people who own the Pineapple in Kentish Town, one of the best in an area full of great drinking spots. On a quiet, attractive residential road a few minutes from the epicentre of Dalston, it is a compact space, with a shallow bar at the front supplemented by some appealing nooks and corners. Good to look at from both inside and out, it has a lazy afternoon feel about it, as though its pulse never quickens and voices are rarely raised. The emphasis is on cask beer, with 6 hand pumps dispensing real quality, with Brewdog, Dark Star, Thornbridge and some local stuff from Sambrooks on show on our visit. Adnams Ghost Ship was particularly good, and some Meantime keg lager was also appreciated, especially with the decent enough Thai food being served up at sensible prices. The general impression here is that you get what you put in – they provide a chess set and some board games, some decent beer and comfy seats. If that isn’t enough for you then hit one of the livelier, louder bars a few hundred yards away. But if what you want is a pleasant, unobtrusive place to meet a friend or read the paper, then look no further.

        Also worth mentioning if you are in the area is the fantastic L’Entrepot, a new wine bar on Dalston Lane. Set back from a dull stretch of road, this wine shop, warehouse & bar hybrid looks clean and fresh inside, cavernous and industrial yet sleek and accommodating, while also providing big park benches on the street for summertime drinking. A broad and interesting menu of concisely described wines by the glass, all at affordable prices and all very nice, is bolstered by a range of beers from Kernel and Redchrurch. A simple, appetising collection of small dishes to accompany the wines and a knowledgeable staff make this establishment a great place for something different, as you are unlikely to find somewhere quite like this (or as good) in other areas of London. Very cool and very impressive.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Shoreditch Supping

Mason and Taylor, Electricity Showrooms, Jaguar Shoes, Sebright Arms

Shoreditch drinking can be a mixed bag – too self conscious, expensive, but some really fun, little known and quirky places are dotted around. One of the only beer centric pubs here (there is huge scope for more – I have even heard Brewdog are looking) is Mason & Taylor. Clean and casual, with lots of natural light and simple furniture, it feels more like an organic café or a branch of The Gap than a drinking establishment. The bar presents small but effective draft beer selection – Hophead and a changing seclection of other small breweries on cask, with 5 or so beers on keg, including an emerging Shoreditch favourite, Brooklyn Lager, and all are available in one tasting flights. Downstairs contains a basement bar with a more elicit air, and this is the best place to get squiffy on pints of Cannonball and Jaipur. The bottle list is broad and well chosen and is designed to be paired with the very decent food on offer – rabbit and pigeon with a Bristol Southville Hop or a rauchbier with home smoked mackerel . It all feels a bit clean cut and restrained for this type of venue and the location on Bethnal Green Road, perhaps trying to please everyone, but offers a pleasant alternative from East-End boozers and has a more relaxed, open and accessible feel than many of the new craft beer led pubs.
A lot of front - Mason & Taylor
         Slightly more in the fold of hip Shoreditch pubs is Electricity Showrooms, just off Hoxton Square, with a funky revolving wooden door leading into a spacious and sparse room, knowingly treading the line between cool urban bar and old fashioned drinking pub. In the evenings it is more of a hangout for trendy people to meet each other, but in its quieter moments there is good coffee, food and beer to be enjoyed. Fish finger sandwiches with Brooklyn Lager is a winner, and the and the rest of the short pub classics menu is easily matched by a solid craft keg offering (Thornbridge, Camden Town and Sierra Nevada are usual suspects) and a couple of rotating cask beers, often from London breweries. A little light on character and bar staff knowledge, it is still a genuinely decent place to down a few while in this part of town. That is, if you are feeling wealthy – prices of bo food and beer are steep by anyone’s standards.


            Dream Bags & Jaguar Shoes – possibly the campest bar name in London – falls right in the middle of the shabby-chic Shoreditch ethos, full of people whose outfit’s look like a charity shop 80's range when it actually cost more than your flat screen. The name makes sense once you see it - the building used to be two separate accessory vendors – and once you get inside it's pretty good. Tasty pizzas at fair prices are served all day, and although the thrown-together, picnic tables in a laundrette vibe may not be for everyone, it is oddly fun. Ignore the different-but-dull lager on draft and have a cocktail, or better yet, some local beer. A good cross section of local breweries have their creations available, some are just a short walk away. From the large London Field’s range, the bitter and fresh Unfiltered Lager, and the rich and floral Apollo IPA are very good, but take a risk and have the Great Eastern IPA from Redchurch Brewery, which provides is a heady punch of ripe tropical fruit, caramel and alcohol and on top form can be sensational.

The Lucky Chip in action @ Sebright Arms
          The Sebright Arms is a great place to drink. Indifferent looking, and tucked away in a forgotten stretch of East London nestled among large building estates, it has a real local boozer atmosphere. Smokers stand in the small alleyway outside posing as a beer garden, while inside it is large, dimly lit and unremarkable, a den designed for drinking steadily and heartily. A few hidden corners allow clandestine meetings between illegitimate couples exchanging their soap opera dialogue, while the small area masquerading as a dance floor is home to cougars in short skirts and geezers in Ben Sherman shirts. Since a relaunch as a craft beer destination with the much lauded Lucky Chip burgers in house, the nights are busy and loud with hipsters and trendies, beer geeks and social media pilgrims. They come for East London Brewing, Redemption and Brodies on cask, Meantime and Camden on keg and Kernel in the fridge. They order the Kevin Bacon burger and fries, and they are happy this has been ticked off the 'must visit' list on whatever website they like. The burgers are great - soft, sweet buns meet rich, crumbly beef with the holy trinity of salt, fat and sugar in full effect. The chips are salty and inconsistent but it matters not with a pint of Big Chief. The cask beer can be a touch too warm, and the pull of twitter-approved food and beer on the social media crew feels unsustainable in this location, but for now, this is a gem.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

The Holborn Whippet

Although it seems new craft beer bars have been opening every month for the past couple of years now, the Holborn Whippet may well have more significance than most. Previously bars have been largely placed in areas just outside of central London where independent bars and eateries thrive, where there are obvious opportunities to reach a discerning and affluent crowd of drinkers looking for individuality over convenience – Camden, Brixton, Shoreditch etc. But the Whippet – so called because of an ancient Bloomsbury pastime of whippet racing before their drinking – is bang in the centre of town, where a mix of office workers and tourists usually indulge in chain restaurants and bars with pints of cold lager.
           On the day I visited, it was seemingly about 40 degrees centigrade, and most of the punters (there were many) were stood outside in the sun, but drinking pints of Thornbridge Pivni and Bernard Light instead of the usual Peroni. The bar is reminiscent of the Euston Tap, with a small central bar offering cask and keg options chalked up above the taps, and at pretty reasonable prices for the location. They have only been open a week, and it is still very much in pre-launch mode, with the kitchen closed (soon to be a grill-based operation with an emphasis on burgers) and the décor Spartan. The space is used well, with seats around the perimeter and large milling areas around the bar. Big windows allow you to effectively people watch, and the pedestrian road it is situated on is great for outside drinking.

  
           The beer list currently reflects the location – a relatively conservative selection that wont have beer geeks salivating at the very thought, but will provide a genuine alternative for those local workers who would usually be on the macro lager. Many of the beers were pilsners, bitters and stouts, recognisable styles for the more cautious craft beer drinker. Brand name breweries like Dark Star, Thornbridge and Williams Bros were prominent, along with bigger names form Germany and the Czech Republic, although it was nice to see some beers from Gadds, a Kent brewery rarely seen in London. From the more unusual stuff, Maisels Weisse Hell was delicious in the warm air, and a Kirkstall Framboise was keeping my missus very happy (although the sight of 2 women drinking this through a straw was very upsetting).
           For a craft beer devotee, this is clearly a welcome addition to London’s bar scene. More importantly, it is a stride towards making great beer more available and apparent to the drinking public who wouldn’t normally seek it out. It is still very much living out of it suitcase, but lets hope this place can mature into a consistent and quality operation that we can all enjoy.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

EBBC12 - 'Live' Blogging


This was supposed to be posted live at Saturday’s live beer blogging event at the European Beer Bloggers Conference, but I was too busy grilling the brewers, talking to people and enjoying myself to do it. So I have gone for a stream of consciousness approach, basically giving my scribbled pen & paper notes as written.
        This was a speed-dating approach, with 10 tables of bloggers being treated to 10 different beers in 5 minute tastings, with the brewers present to give some back story and answer questions. It was incredibly good fun, and also a good showcase for the differences in approach of brewery PR (some were professional and methodical, some were relaxed and unprepared) but also the differences between drinkers. Many drinkers poured away the beers after a few sips, regardless of the quality, whereas some finished them all. A few people had clearly made up their mind about beers before they were tasted; many more were inquisitive, open and honest which made for a highly social activity. Here are my thoughts as they occurred.
      
Innis & Gunn SPA 7% - Good looking bloke presenting, good looking beer. We quiz him about the clear glass bottle, but we are not mean. That is pretty easy because the beer is not terrible – smells like vanilla ice cream and doughnuts. It tastes of toffee, toast, and Danish pastry, with a touch of smoke and a touch of bitterness. Not for me but some may like it a lot.

Leeds Brewery Hellfire 5.2% - the bloke is not quite as good looking as the last one. Pale straw colour, not much aroma. Crisp, light, fresh and very decent. Drinks almost like a lager, the guy says its good straight out of the bottle – I agree.

Otley Oxymoron 5.5% - they give us snazzy cards and beermats. This is from a keg and looks like coca cola. Black IPA. Smells like blackjacks and fruit salad sweets. It is sweet to start with a touch of liquorice and spearmint. It finishes dry with burnt toast and citrus flavour. Interesting.

Brains Dark 4.1% - Welsh girls! Thin head, very black. The nose is butter and caramel, but the taste is better, smooth, chocolate, liquorice, and a savoury, herbal note. Decent.

Marble Earl Grey IPA 6.8% - unlabelled bottle, exciting. It is a cloudy amber colour, and smells of orange, lemon, strawberry and vaguely like tea. It is drying on the palate, herbal, sweet lemon and bitter orange pith. Bitter form the tea and the hops. Brilliant, my favourite of the session. 

Roosters Baby Faced Assassin 6.1% - this is sweet and fruity, with apricot and yoghurt in the aroma. Needs to be colder and have more condition, and it is a bit too restrained and shy. Still delicious though, full of fruit and gentle bitterness.

Great Heck Stormin Norman 6.5% - this is a bit ‘whatever’. Decent enough, the flavour of a session pale but too strong in alcohol. Pleasant and nicely bitter but unremarkable.

Slaters Ales Top Totty 4% - ooh, what an offensive name! Come on, there are more offensive things on maps of France. The beer is OK, extremely well-conditioned and sparkly. Not much in the aroma or the flavour, but crisp, clean and refreshing. I would drink it again. 

Camden USA Hells 4.6% - Cool bottles, cool beer. Easy drinking with a gentle pithy, citrus flavour and refreshing finish. One of the few I have had before, and I have had it better, but still good.

Adnams Ghost Ship 4.5% - she has an iPad! This is clean, crisp and decent. It is slightly metallic and not bitter enough but is well conditioned and easy to drink.