Tuesday 29 November 2011

No-Beer Bar Crawl

For months my mates and I have been meaning to do a bar crawl around London which involved no beer. As we always go from bar to bar drinking beer after beer, it seemed like a fun idea to try something different and see what the city had when we weren’t chasing hops.

It didn’t start off entirely successfully. We met in The Ship, a Fuller’s pub in Borough. The front row was on cask: Chiswick, London Pride, Bengal Lancer, ESB and Black Cab. A concession was made that the first drink could be a beer. It was Friday night and everyone had come straight from work, so we were thirsty and only a beer could slake that thirst. Besides, it was still early...

We started proper on cocktails at The Hide on Bermondsey Street, a piece of London which feels lifted from the backstreets of Brooklyn. A cool place, a bar lined with spirits and a thick menu to choose from. Mine was an Old Fashioned in a chunky tumbler. Others sipped from martini glasses, something virtually impossible to drink from without looking like a twat or an extra from Sex and the City. All tasted great but at £8 a glass it’s not something I’m drinking all night.

Next was gin. We decided to walk across Tower Bridge and get the tube from there – we were going to Barbican. This took longer than expected and was probably a mistake: we were very thirsty. Getting to The Larder, aka (to us, at least) ‘The Gin Bar’, I drank a great G&T in about 12 seconds and my thirst only increased. “Where next?” Wine? Whisky?

We ended up at The Old Red Cow. It was only around the corner. They don’t just do beer, someone said. Only the third stop and all six of us ordered a beer. We needed a DRINK. Some chased it down with whisky but most just had a pint while we battled it out over Connect 4. We’d started over two hours earlier and only had about a small volume of liquid. This was not what we’re used to.

Next it was The Lexington. A wall of 50 bourbons plus good beer. We order the bourbon but Sierra Nevada Celebration was also on tap and no one can resist that, can they? Another bourbon followed while we play foosball, plus a few mint-infused bourbon shooters. The bourbon and the beer are both excellent. And it’s a cool venue.

Others went on to a sherry bar before last orders while I jumped on a tube for the last train home feeling somehow like I’d failed as I’d ultimately not managed to last a night of drinking around town without going to beer.

The night wasn’t what I expected. I had a classic cocktail, a London-made gin, fantastic American bourbon and all were excellent and I got to see a few different bars, but such small measures were so different from what I’m used to when drinking with mates. And while everything tasted great, it just didn’t do the job that a pint does of being something uniquely satisfying to drink in volume. That’s what makes us able to drink beer all night long; it’s low ABV, it’s thirst-quenching but also thirst-inducing, and there’s also a more social aspect around it – a pint lasts a while and it just feels more friendly, more 'let's sit and talk shit' than a shot of vodka.

Sitting at home or at dinner with a bottle of wine is fine, sipping it through an evening, but out in the pub or in bars was a different experience. Maybe it was just that I was with my beer drinking buddies but it just felt weird. And while I love a wide range of drinks, it’s the variety which makes it most interesting and I think we’ve all learnt our lesson and that when wandering around London drinking it’s probably best to focus on beer and choose the others as extras. 

Sunday 27 November 2011

Where shall we eat?

We meet straight from work. Pints all round. How’s work? How was your day? Where shall we eat? All I’ve had today is a sandwich. Where shall we go next?

To the next pub. Pints all round. This is good. How’s yours. What you up to tomorrow? Did you see... have you heard...? I’m hungry, where shall we get food? Fancy a decent burger somewhere? Maybe that new place everyone’s talking about.

To the next pub. A couple of halves each. Try this one, it’s great. This isn’t so good. What did you order? What are the girls up to? How’s things with you two? Did you see the game last night? I need to eat something – where shall we go?

To the next pub. Just grab a half and go. They got any crisps? The barmaid was fit but the beer here is shit. No hanging around. Where next?

To the next pub. Pints all round. Fuck that. What the shit. She did what? Oh my god. I’m fucking starving. Need food.

To the next pub. Final pints all round. Stumble out, look around. Sandwich at the station or take away on the train?

Thursday 24 November 2011

Great British Pubs by Adrian Tierney-Jones

I read books because I want to go places and do things I’ve never been before, to learn new things or to see the things I know in a new way via the words of someone else. I love travel books, recipes books, history books, reference books, picture books, fiction and non-fiction. The best books make you feel part of the action or they make you want to be involved in it and experience it. A good recipe book makes you go to the kitchen, a great story makes you want to live a fuller, more exciting life. And a great book about pubs makes you want to sit in pubs and enjoy each of them for how unique it is.

Great British Pubs by Adrian Tierney-Jones, more than any other beer book I’ve read, has made me want to get up off the sofa and go places and see and do things. A book like this will list the familiar pubs which always get listed but what makes it different is that you see the places in a new way, you appreciate them differently. Adrian didn’t look to simply list 200 pubs, he looked for what makes the pub a great place.

It’s a book about what happens in pubs. It includes what the places are actually like in a physical sense but it goes beyond that and it tells you what makes it different, it tells of the things that happen inside, it paints the scene in the surrounding area, it’s about the local beers drunk at particular moments, it shows off the enormous variety of places to drink and a narrative runs through it which forms a patchwork story of the life of the pub: conversations overheard, stories told, pints poured, barmaids, landlords, tourists, local communities in action. And that’s what makes this so interesting and separates it from other pub books - it's a travel book as much as a reference guide.

Reading this book makes me want to go to every pub in it. It makes me want to sit at the bar and sip a pint of local beer while listening to what’s going on around me. It makes me want to understand for myself why the pub is such an important place.

GreatBritish Pubs is definitely one for the Christmas list. 

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Troubadour Magma

I first had Troubadour Magma at the Snowdrop Inn beer festival, one of the best beer events I’ve been to in a long time. It was the last beer of my day, downed as we were walking out the door. The first mouthful made me stop, take another gulp, then sit down. I immediately wanted to finish the glass and order another. It was incredible. Why had I never had this beer before? It’s a strong Belgian beer dry-hopped with American hops. Imagine a Tripel meets an American IPA.

But I was drinking it as I was leaving. Lauren had hold of my empty hand and was pulling me out the door. She’d already sat and watched me drink beer for too many hours and it was time to go. With one hand in hers, the other was rooted in the pub through the grip I had on my pint glass. Lauren versus a 9% beer, with me stuck in the middle. Both had the potential to knock me out but one was about to do it before the other had the chance...

Then for my birthday last week Lauren puts a big box in front of me. Ripping off the beery wrapping paper, it contained all of the best beers from the Snowdrop – Saison Dupont, Anchor Bigfoot, Odells IPA and Troubadour Magma (it also had some Mikkellers and more Anchor – Lauren did good).

Magma (9% ABV) had two days in the fridge before I busted it out. Tropical fruit, fruit salad sweets, vanilla ice cream with raspberry sauce, a perfumy fragrance, mango, roasted pineapple... Not many beers smell like this. The body has a sweetness to it but that balances the bitterness at the end. The hop flavour rocks, there’s a dry finish to it all, and each mouthful is different and interesting and exciting. A brilliant beer. It’s the best Belgian beer I’ve drunk all year, in fact.

When Belgians do American hops well, they really do them well. This, Vivan Imperial IPA, IV Saison, Chouffe Houblon. Delicious.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Wasting hops

The day has come.

I didn't think it ever would.

I definitely didn't think it would be so soon...

But I now think there is such a thing as using too many hops in a beer.

And there are breweries out there wasting perfectly good hops in search of loopy lupulin levels.

I love hops. I love it when a beer uses lots of them. But some beers just use too many. These beers, otherwise perfectly excellent, are thick and tangy and overpowered with hops. They sting the tastebuds, blunt the enjoyment and they bring a wow that is on the shocked side of the reaction rather than the pleased side.

Hops are incredible little things. They make beer exciting whether used liberally or with balance. And I want to be able to taste the hops. I want that hit of aroma, that quench at the end of the gulp, that clinging bitter feeling that makes me want to drink more, but I don't want to feel like I've just licked a hop sack or sucked on a handful of pellets. The thing is, when you use too many hops it just tastes too intense, too muddy, unclear. That’s what I don’t like. It’s great to use lots of hops but I want a clarity of flavour from them, not just an upper cut to the uvula.

Hops are aggressive in a way that malt can’t be. Malt can be big and soft and cuddly whereas hops can be fighty and screamy. Skill from a brewer is finding a balance, even if that balance is weighed down on one side or the other. Getting that balance right means I’ll drink more than half a pint of it or order another bottle of it.

I love hops but recently I've tasted too many beers which use too many hops.

Am I alone in thinking that hops are being wasted unnecessarily or have others find beers that are just too bitter to enjoy?

Sunday 13 November 2011

Beer with a view

The insides of pubs are fascinating places. Each unique with their own quirks of personality whether from the people or the way it's decorated. It makes pub going interesting and varied. The outside of pubs are interesting too: crusty old buildings with a big back story, new bars which shine under illuminating lights, pubs that look wonderful or horrible and then deliver the opposite inside. But what about the view you get when facing away from the bar and at the things around it.

Yesterday we went to the Free Trade Inn in Newcastle and the view was as amazing as the beer list. A flat stretch of the Tyne, bridges, big old buildings, a setting sun. A fantastic city centre view. Other pubs, The Bull in Horton Kirby or The Thatchers Arms in Mount Bures, have views of unending countryside. Some hang into the sea like Whistable Brewery Bar or, just along the beach, the Old Neptune. Some sit at the foot of mountains, some at the top of big hills, some show the city off while others are surrounded by green.

What better than a great pint with a stunning view. There must be so many other pubs with incredible views, backdrops and surroundings. Where are the best?

Thursday 10 November 2011

Trust in the pub

There are over 800 breweries in the UK – how many would you like to try a beer from?

My answer is over 800. I’d love to drink a beer from every brewery in the UK. Even better would be a couple of beers to see the range of what they make.

I’m guessing that some of it will be incredibly good, surprising, interesting and beers that I’d like to drink again and again. That’s why I’d like to try them all. But there will be a lot of beer made which isn’t delicious. Some will be badly brewed and should never be sold while others will be boring or lacking quality. And some beers will inevitably suffer at the hands of the pub serving it.

It’s a lottery of whether that pint you order is going to be good, which is why drinking in pubs you trust is a good start.

There are three London pubs I drink in more than any others: Southampton Arms, Craft and The Rake (there are others I trust but go to less often - I guess I'm too busy chasing hops in the beer bars). I trust these pubs to not put crap beer on the bar: they order beer from breweries which they know are good, they look after the beer and they sell it fast which is good for tap turnover. I know that I can go into one of these places and always get good beer. It’s not about the number of taps either: if these bars only had one keg line and one cask handpull then I’d still be confident that I’d get a good beer. And the selection isn’t just about finding new and over-hopped beers to drink, if a pub will always look after their beers and serve them in perfect condition then that’s as good as anything else. Finding places like that make me want to return regularly.

It’s hard to know if you can trust a new brewery or not (branding is a good start – if care and attention has gone to that then there’s more confidence in the beer) but by finding a good pub who you know chooses the best beer, there’s the safety net against a bad pint. It’s good to be able to walk into a pub and know there’ll be too many beers on that you’d like to drink.

At the same time, one of the great things about drinking in different pubs is the unexpected: the unexpected great pint, the unexpected great pub or the unexpected which happens inside them. Sometimes you have to take a hit with a bad or boring pint but there’s always another pub around the corner and you never know what you’ll find there.

Do you return to the pubs you trust for good beer more than searching out new pubs? Where are you most likely to drink beers from new breweries? 

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Beer at Weddings

Last weekend I went to my third wedding of the year. There were three casks of beer there (the groom loves beer – that’s how we met); two from Kent Brewery and one from Brodies. That’s a great thing to arrive and see because weddings so often have rubbish beer (the other two weddings this year were pretty good, too – I guess I’ve been lucky).

It did leave me thinking something that often rolls around my mind: what beers would I want at my wedding?

The thing is: when I’m at a wedding I don’t want anything crazy or complicated. It’s a wedding so it’s not about the beer, even if I do want to still drink nice bottles. That means the beers need to be simple.

I’d like to brew a special beer for it, either commercially or on a homebrew kit. It’d be something which could age for a few years – a Tripel or barley wine. This would just be available in big bottles for sharing and just for the wedding speeches (if I couldn’t get my own beer then the speeches would need a favourite, probably Orval).

I’d also want bottles for everything else. I like drinking from bottles and think they’re easier to carry than pint glasses, especially when jumping around on the dance floor. I’d want a good lager. Something for everyone to drink (because not all my friends are beer geeks) and something cold that I can gulp all night – Camden Hells would be it. Then I’d want something pale and hoppy because I love hops. It needs to be fresh and super fruity, so a good pale ale or IPA – Racer 5, Odell IPA, Sculpin IPA, Blind Pig IPA (I’d pay a small fortune to get my favourite beers there). I wouldn’t pair anything with the dinner but might have a couple of cases of something big and strong with dessert just because it’s my big day and I can.

Moving away from the beer as the night ends, I’d want some spirits – a bottle of bourbon (Maker’s Mark works) and a whisky (something smoky like Laphroig or Ardbeg). And then I’m done and the late-night fish finger sandwiches and pizza arrive for everyone to eat.

Lauren doesn’t drink booze so she’d want Coke Zero. She’ll be in charge of organising everything else while I make sure the bar is fully stocked. Sounds like a good deal to me.

At the brewery we get regular requests for beer for weddings so it’s something that people want, and why not? I don’t want to drink crap beer on my wedding day – I want the best beer I can get and the beers which mean something to me; they aren’t the centre piece but it’s good to have a nice beer in one hand and your bride in the other.

 What beer did you have at your wedding? Or what would you want at yours?

Friday 4 November 2011

The Session #57: Guilty Pleasures

Guilty pleasures are wonderful things. There's a simplicity to them which makes you feel like you've misbehaved at the back of the classroom or stolen a biscuit while your mum isn't looking. It's a big bowl of pink Bird's trifle, fish fingers and oven chips on a Friday night, a bag of pick n mix at the cinema. It's being a kid whilst being an adult.

With beer it's different. It requires a grown up approach because there's no link to childhood. It’s then about doing the things you probably shouldn't and taking a lot of simple pleasure out of it.

For me that means one thing: drinking a beer straight from the bottle. Cold from the fridge, the crown cap is flicked off and the glass middle-man is left out, favouring the direct route. It makes beer feel different, feel naughty, like I'm a poorly behaved beer geek.

It’s not for every bottle and every beer. 500ml handfuls are not cool, bombers or 750s just make you look like a desperate alcoholic, bottle-conditioned beers get a bit roughed up and strong beer just feels like driving too fast in the opposite direction, but 330s of lager or pale ale are perfect. Forget the glass, the swirls and the sniffs, take it straight from the fridge, a kiss of the bottle opener and then one on the lips.

And even better than bottles? Beer straight from the can. What's your guilty beer pleasure?

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