Today, with its wood and tiles and punk soundtrack, [the Fenton] is almost as it was; Gill observes that the jukebox has moved rooms. “Pre-mobile phones, you’d have to go where you knew people would be,” Mekons singer Tom Greenhalgh explains, remembering “intense political debates and insane hedonism”, and legendary scene characters such as Barry the Badge. “A huge gay guy covered in badges from Armley Socialist Worker’s party. He was rock-hard, but then he could just grab you, snog you and stick his tongue down your throat.”
I was asked for my views by Carlsberg’s London-based PR company, who sent me some samples. The bottled version said it was brewed in the UK – presumably this means the Northampton factory – while the can says “brewed in the EU”. I said this made a mockery of the new beer being called “Danish Pilsner”… I added that 3.8 per cent ABV was too low to merit being called Pilsner: the classic Pilsner Urquell is 4.4 per cent and all claims to be a Pilsner should be judged against it. I found the Carlsberg beer to be thin and lacking in aroma and flavour.
A footnote from us: we were asked to take part in market research by Heineken earlier this week, which leads us to suspect some similar post-Camden reinvention is in the pipeline there, too.
After 12 years at this game, we’ve begun to spot cycles and patterns. One topic that re-emerges every couple of years, prompting just as much debate every time, is about the homogeneity of global craft beer. The latest spike was prompted by a blog post from Will Hawkes about a new beer from Thornbridge:
I appreciate being able to get what I want to drink in London, from IPA to witbier, but it’d be better if there was more that spoke specifically of London… What is the point of craft beer if what you get in Strasbourg tastes largely the same as what you drink in Glasgow? Mikkeller is opening a new bar in Paris later this month; Brewdog has dozens already. This is not exciting. Regional variety is exciting.
For what it’s worth, we didn’t have any trouble finding Helles in Munich last year, and last night stumbled straight into a London pub serving Harvey’s Sussex Best and Pedigree. The international craft beer approach might seem to dominate the conversation, but it’s a parallel dimension, clearly signposted, and easily avoided.
Ilaria Lodigiani, Heineken’s global director for its low- and no-alcohol division, said the next challenge was convincing people to drink it… The Dutch brewer’s strategy was simple but bold: build huge distribution quickly, and then back the launch with major multimedia advertising campaigns. “Non-alcoholic beers used to be seen as the uncool version of your brand, so they didn’t get a lot of marketing dollars,” Ms Lodigiani admitted. But for Heineken 0.0, the company spent big, she said, recommending that countries spent up to 25 per cent of their marketing budgets on the product.
Beer has followed wine in developing a global perspective. Once it was enough to rave about Greene King’s Abbot Ale and Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, just as wine fit to drink came from only three countries. But the smart set now moan about weakened purity laws, or scour the back end of Flanders for a beer rumoured to mash in a thermal spring before being sprinkled spontaneously with essence of syrup of figs.
Finally, from Twitter, there’s this, which is the second bit of evidence we’ve seen to suggest that, as we suspected, the first result of the takeover of Fuller’s is going to be the loss of a lot of their most characterful pubs:
A canned 13% barley wine with raspberries and vanilla at £5.99 for 330ml? If we weren’t engaged in this BWOASA mission for April, we’d have gone nowhere near.
A collaboration between Aberdeen’s Fierce and Newport’s Tiny Rebel, Bear Essentials turned up at Bottles & Books, our local craft boozatorium.
We drank it at home last night, approaching with some nervousness. This is where the twist is supposed to come, right? Well…
We didn’t really like it. It was strong, but tasted thin. It was complex and weird, but not in a way that pleased us – a jumble rather than a cavalcade.
Specifics: it was red, had low carbonation and a loose head, and smelled like Bakewell tart. The suggestion of almond and biscuit base carried through into the flavour, joined by a subtle mouth-tightening sourness, and a heavy layer of vanilla.
White chocolate stout? Pastry Framboise? Maybe. Barley wine? Only because the label said so. Nothing about the look, texture or flavour suggested any connection to Golden Pride or Gold Label.
So what does barley wine signal in a craft beer context? High alcoholic strength, sweetness, and the absence of either hops or roasted flavours, we think.
Let’s be honest, strong ale, the SA in BWOASA, is the least exciting part. We only included it, really, to give ourselves a fighting chance, suspecting that we’d find more strong ale than barley wine out in the field.
As it is, we’ve hardly encountered much at all – again, it is the wrong time of year – but even with only a few points of reference, a view of this niche is becoming clear.
Strong ale, AKA extra special bitter, tends to sit above best bitter in a given brewery’s range, in terms of both richness and ABV. Of course there are no hard rules but it seems reasonable to take 5% as the lower cut-off. Other words you might see on the packaging or at point of sale include ‘premium’ and ‘malty’.
Having checked in with Fuller’s ESB and 1845 at the start of the month, the next strong ale we encountered was Good Chemistry Extra Special, at 5.6%. Jess found it at Small Bar, and Ray had it a week later at the Drapers; when we compared notes, we found similar observations: juicy malt (but not juicy hops), roundness, brownness, liquorice, treacle and a hint of smoke. If you mixed Fuller’s ESB with Theakston Old Peculier, 50–50, this might be what you’d end up with. We both like it quite a bit, but it’s resolutely old-fashioned, and really demands snow and open fires, rather than blossom and lengthening days.
* * *
We had a bit of a debate over Goff’s Black Knight, 5.3%, at the Bank Tavern in Bristol city centre. Ray took against it – ‘Dusty, unfinished homebrew, an absolute crystal malt nightmare.’ – while Jess rather liked it, and didn’t detect whatever got his hackles up. It certainly is a beer with crystal malt to the fore, though, having that assertive toffee taste we used to encounter constantly a decade ago but which seems to have all but disappeared from commercial beers. It reminded us of when hardcore geeks used to moan about beers being ‘twiggy’. Really, Black Knight is all about body: mouth-filling, nourishing, almost enough to creosote a fence.
* * *
Palmer’s 200 at the Oxford in Totterdown is another blast from the past, a reminded of holidays in and around Lyme Regis in our twenties, when we’d groan at yet another line-up of brown beers in one damp old pub or another, and long for even the faintest whisper of hops. At 5%, it only just pushes its head out of best bitter territory, but looks, feels and tastes the part: red-brown, dense, sugary… one-dimensional. Boiled sweets and caramel. Sticky. We didn’t mind it (the faintest of praise) but perhaps we’re developing Stockholm Syndrome, because our drinking companion ordered a pint on our advice and looked almost hurt, as if we’d played a cruel prank.
* * *
What is the point of strong ale? Who really knows. To generalise, based on a combination of this recent experience and fading memories, it gets you drunk, and makes you feel full, but without offering much in the way of flavour, unless you really like 50 shades of sugar and something from the woodshed.
Of course the best examples have a certain magic about them but this style, perhaps more than any other, demands interesting yeast (Fuller’s) or some other sleight of hand to give it life.
On Saturday night, Tony Naylor declared the Old Bridge, Ripponden, ‘arguably Britain’s best pub’:
I am drinking a perfectly conditioned pint of Vocation’s Bread & Butter in arguably Britain’s best pub (Old Bridge Inn, Ripponden), and feel how religious zealots must after god reveals itself to them.
That prompted us to ask our Twitter followers, slightly mischievously, we must admit, to place their votes for Britain’s best pub.
When the replies started to tumble in, we realised the results might actually be somewhat meaningful, as certain pubs got multiple votes, and the names of cool-sounding pubs we’d never visited popped up.
So, we’ve decided to sort through the answers and turn them into a to-do list.
We discounted pubs that nominated themselves, obviously.
There were a surprising number of votes for Orwell’s the Moon Under Water, or similarly whimsical perfect pubs of the imagination. Lovely stuff but basically a smart-arsed way of copping out of answering.
Where people named multiple pubs, we’ve ignored all but the first one mentioned in their Tweet. That’ll teach ’em.
We noticed one satirical answer – the Wetherspoon in Preston that was controversially named best pub in town last week – but others might have slipped through the net.
First, here’s a list of all the pubs that got more than one nomination – a very decent list, which overlaps with our personal favourites to some degree.
The Great Western, Wolverhampton
The Hope, Carshalton
The Grove, Huddersfield
The Free Trade Inn, Newcastle
The Bell, Aldworth
The Old Ship, Seahouses
The Ship & Mitre, Liverpool
(We really must get to the Hope. This is getting embarrassing.)
Now, here’s the full list.
You might not like every pub suggested but the point is, to someone, somewhere, these pubs were special enough to warrant a response, which means they’re probably at least worth sticking a nose into if you find yourself in the area.
I ended up sat in Bottles & Books on my own on Friday night, hovering around the edge of a conversation about beer that made me feel totally ignorant and out of touch.
Bottles & Books is our local craft beer phantasmagorium, with fridges full of cans, a wall of bottles, and a few taps of draught beer served by the third and two-thirds measure.
On Friday, the discussion turned to IPA, and it was when I heard this sentence that I knew I was out of my depth:
Brut IPA died a death fairly quickly, didn’t it? And NEIPA just tastes a bit… old fashioned. It’s all about the Hudson Valley style now.
Hudson Valley? Is that a region? Yes, but it’s also a brewery, as profiled in this article, which has a headline apparently designed to annoy conservative beer geeks who already think brewing has been fatally compromised by the amateur tendency:
Hudson Valley Brewery Makes Beer Based on Instinct, not Instructions
Sour IPA is, I gather, the long and short of it, and sure enough, when Jess and I went to the Left Handed Giant taproom yesterday, there was one on the menu.
We gave up trying to stay on top of trends years ago but there was something intoxicating about all this new information, all the names and details, that made me think… Should we try?
The odd educational eavesdropping session probably wouldn’t do us any harm, at least.
What if we tasted beer in some sort of historic reverse? That is, starting with a particular type of beer as it is brewed today, and following it with previous episodes of the same beer… I ask this, and ask it this way, because the Game of Thrones returns Sunday, and like Zak Jason I didn’t start watching the series when it debuted in 2011 and haven’t since.
Emaillerie Belge is the last enamel advert producer in the Low Countries, and it has been making ad panels for Belgian breweries for almost a century… The company survived a tumultuous 20th century and several flirtations with bankruptcy. Now under new management, it’s working to recapture the glory days of the enamel ad industry, betting that its small scale, custom, and high quality output can succeed against low-cost, industrial enamel producers.
Rossini, then, was blander but definitely smoother and more full-bodied. There’s a bread or biscuit malt character that made me think of Bavarian helles more than Italian or Dutch pils. The finish was clean and the whole thing very satisfying to drink. Dull helles beats crappy pils any day of the week.
“When we told participants that a woman-brewed beer had won an award, they rated is just as highly as if it was brewed by a man,” says [Shelley J.] Correll. “It seems that awards vouch for the competence of the woman.”
Beer snobs also are unaffected by the gender of the brewer, notes [Sarah A.] Soule.
“We find that individuals who have some degree of expertise or who really know about a product tend to focus on its features and don’t care whether it’s manufactured by men or women,” she says.
I’ve been a member of CAMRA for thirty-eight years, for most of that period as a Life Member. I’ve done thousands of hours of unpaid work for it. When I took up Life Membership, at a bargain price available at the time, a friend made the point that he wouldn’t do so, as it removed the potential sanction of resigning, if the organisation took a policy stance he strongly disagreed with. To jack it in would clearly be an exercise in cutting off my nose to spite my face, and ironically would actually save CAMRA money. But if I was an annual member, I’d certainly think long and hard about whether it was worth renewing, and it makes me much less inclined to lift a finger to help the organisation except out of loyalty to friends.
Charlie Medlar was a maltster from Norfolk. He transferred to Watford from Mitchells and Butlers… He certainly was a funny bloke, and people used to come just to hear him say, “Blast my heart”… We had several cats which, as you can imagine, were encouraged to make a home – one of the bins for storing malt seemed to be their favourite place. There was never a problem with vermin, so they were doing their job satisfactorily.
Finally, from Twitter, a photo that captures perfectly the quality of light the best pubs achieve:
The Horseshoe, Clerkenwell Green. The accents are very different to those of the watchmakers and printers that drank here when I first visited. pic.twitter.com/Rydmp9z8ja
On Sunday afternoon, we mounted another barley wine hunt, eventually hitting a big fat bullseye at the Bristol Beer Factory brewery tap.
Now, a reminder: the hunting is half the fun. We went to the Wild Beer Co bar at Wapping Wharf where there was nothing that quite fit the bill, though it was certainly nice to check in.
We detoured via the Coronation having got into our heads that it might have Gold Label barley wine in the fridge. It didn’t but (i) it was an #EveryPubInBristol tick; (ii) had fantastic Hop Back Summer Lightning; and (iii) was just a straight-up great pub we’d somehow overlooked until this point.
Even if we hadn’t found any BWOAS (barley wine, old ale, strong ale) we’d have been quite happy with this expedition, but at the final stop, the BBF bar, we saw a very exciting chalkboard.
It was bottled (but that’s quite appropriate for this style) and out of reach on a top shelf so the tall barman had to stand on tiptoes to fetch it for us.
It was bottled in October 2015, had an ABV of c.10%, and cost £5 per 330ml to drink in. Not cheap but it seemed fair enough to us, especially once we got our first sip.
It’s dark and deeply coloured but not black – hold it up to the light and, yes, it gleams blood red. It smelled like stir-up Sunday. It tasted stale in the historic sense, matured to perfection, leathery and luxurious. There was a touch of acidity, but really just a touch, seasoning rather than dominating. It sat on the palate like hot porridge and golden syrup – oh, no, like sweet grain from the mash tun.
We were reminded of the one bottle of Good King Henry Special Reserve we’ve ever tasted, and of Harvey’s Christmas Ale. Suddenly anxious that we might never get to taste it again, we sent the lad up on his toes again to fetch four more bottles to take away.
This mission, it must be said, is going better than we ever expected.
The Kings Head and Eight Bells by John Cooper.
In 1964 Batsford published a guide to London with a twist: it was about where to go and what to do on sleepy Sundays. Such as, for example… visit the pub.
We picked up our copy of London on Sunday at Oxfam in Cotham for £3.99. It’s not a book we’ve ever encountered before, or even heard of.
We haven’t managed to find out much about the author, Betty James, either, except that she wrote a few other books, including London and the Single Girl, published in 1967, and London for Lovers, 1968. She was older than the girlish tone of the book might suggest – in her late forties, we gather – and twice divorced by the time she was profiled in the Newcastle Journal in 1969.
Before the main event, individual pubs crop up here and there – the Grapes in Wapping is accurately described as ‘an old sawdusty river pub’ where the staff give directions to a particularly good but hard-to-find Chinese restaurant.
One of the best lines in the book, thrown away in an itinerary for a walk, is, we’re certain, a dig at male guidebook writers of the period who couldn’t resist rating barmaids:
The Colville Tavern at 72 Kings Road… [has] the best-looking barman in London. Ask for Charles.
Pubs are given real, focused treatment in the dying pages of the book, which is a statement in its own right.
From Monday until Saturday this Sunday is the Local Public House of somebody else in whom once has no interest whatsoever. However… on Sunday at the hour of noon it is entered immediately by the knowledgeable tosspot in order that he may refresh himself in convivial company, while his wife cooks the joint to which he eventually return too late to avoid unpleasantness… Meanwhile, the regular visitor to this Sunday Pub (whose Local Public House it is from Monday until Saturday) will repair to another Sunday Pub because it is considered not schmaltzy to take drink in one’s own Local Public House upon a Sunday.
This very old pub is impossible to find. You can wander around the chi-chi little mews surrounding it, absorbing the untraceable emanations of Guards subalterns and debutantes without actually ever seeing anything but a chi-chi little mews… A dread silence occasionally falls upon the place… [because] somebody has mislaid a debutante.
The Kings Head and Eight Bells in Chelsea sounds like fun, with people drinking outside in the embankment gardens on Sunday morning, or blocking the road ‘where they risk being knocked drinkless by other cognoscenti in fast sports job’. It is, Ms. James says, ‘exclusively patronised by absolutely everybody who isn’t anybody’. Sadly, this one seems to be a goner.
The interior of the Square Rigger by John Cooper.
Of course we got really excited at the description of a theme pub, the Square Rigger in the City, near Monument Station:
Fully rigged with seagull cries and the sound of breaking surf there is also an enormous social schism between the Captain’s Cabin and the Mess Decks both 1 and 2… ‘Tween decks there are rope ladders, sails, and yard-arms and that. Together with a lot of beautifully polished brass bar-top.
Back to those classic mews pubs of west London, the Star in Belgravia, of course, gets a mention, and rather a cheeky one: ‘Well now… The best thing we can say about this pub is that all the aforementioned missing debutantes may be discovered here… recovering… And some of them simply aching for the utter, utter blissikins of getting mislaid again as soon as possible’.
The Windsor Castle in Kensington apparently had ‘Luscious sandwiches’ and quite the scene going on, with actors in the bar and ‘a pig ogling a cow in the pleasant walled garden’.
The last pub tip is given reluctantly:
There is of course one Sunday Pub to which afficionados resort of a Sunday evening. However, it could so easily be completely ruined by hypermetropic invasion that I hardly like to mention it. This is the Lilliput Hall, a Courage’s house at 9 Jamaica Road SE1, where, at around 9 pm, commences the best not-too-far-out jazz this side of paradise. The hundred per cent professional group renderings are led by the guv’nor, Bert Annable, a name to be conjured with in the business, since he’s worked with Cyril Stapleton and Paul Fenoulhet, among others.
Then we realised there was at least one safe bet: Fuller’s.
The Old Fish Market isn’t a pub we’re mad keen on, tending to the businesslike in terms of atmosphere, though it does the job from time to time when we want a fix of one of our favourite London breweries.
Crucially, we also know it carries both Golden Pride and 1845 in bottles, and so on Friday night, before Ray caught a train to London, in we went for a bottle of each, with a chaser of ESB.
We don’t drink Golden Pride often, perhaps once every couple of years. There’s a lingering sense in our minds that it’s a bit… trashy, maybe? It’s not bottle-conditioned, it’s less complex than some other Fuller’s strong ales, and has a less interesting backstory. Which is why a mission like this is helpful in focusing the mind: it’s a great beer, and we’re lucky it still exists.
Copper-coloured and jewel-like, it delivered everything we expect from the ideal barley wine: sweetness, fruitiness, richness. Sherry, fruitcake, dates and prunes. Golden syrup, honey and brown sugar. An avalanche of marmalade.
Again, we found ourselves wondering where the boundary between this type of beer and old-school double IPA might lie. Perhaps side-by-side the distinction would be clearer.
Anyway, yes, here it is – the official standard reference barley wine, against which others should be judged.
* * *
We used to love 1845, the classic bottle-conditioned strong ale, but apparently we’ve grown apart.
Perhaps it was the close comparison to Golden Pride but, even at 6.3%, it seemed thin, harsh and unpleasantly earthy. As it warmed up, it gained some weight, and the bitterness fell back into something like balance, but it lacked fruitiness.
Its main effect was to make us really, really want a pint of ESB.
* * *
We’re lucky to have ESB, too. At its best – and on Friday, it was at its best – it’s a beer that brings the depth and density of a nip-bottle-sipper into the pub pint glass.
Even after drinking Golden Pride at 8.5%, ESB at 5.5 tasted chewy, charming and luscious. You know the flavours but, just in case: marmalade, fruitcake, mild spice, cherry and orange zest. Hot cross buns perhaps sums it up.
Maybe this is why we don’t drink Golden Pride more often – because ESB provides 80% of the pleasure with far less boozy intensity, while still feeling like a special treat.
* * *
We floated out of the OFM quite happy, feeling that we were finally on the right track.
Nik [Antona] and Tom [Stainer] are quick to point out that a proposal to allow CAMRA beer festivals to include key kegs was supported by the necessary majority and many festivals are now supporting this change.
“A number of festivals have key kegs with explanations that are not dogmatic about the different ways beer can be served. I accept that we’ve poor about explaining this in the past,” Tom says. “We need to represent all pubgoers.”
“We may revisit Revitalisation in a few years,” Nik adds, “but in reality we’re doing it now. Younger people are drinking cask but they want to try different things – they want to drink good beer but not necessarily from casks.”
Superheros have origin stories — and so do craft brewers. Read the side of your can of saison or pale ale, or click the ‘about; page on the website for a crowdfunded, East London brewery, and you’ll get a story of two friends who met while travelling, a career change driven by passion for beer, or a frustration at the lack of quality IPAs available… ‘Tom and Dave met in China on a rock climbing tour around Asia,’ reads Brew By Numbers’ history, while Bianca Road begins: ‘It all started back in 2014 with a bike ride, 4800 miles from San Francisco to Miami.’
In a departure from Brettanomyces’ notoriously slow fermentation times, the yeast popularly known as Brett Trois was also said to work nearly as fast as the traditional brewer’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae… At Omega Yeast in Chicago, however, the yeast scientist Lance Shaner was starting to have some doubts. “This strain was becoming the strain that people were using for 100% Brett beers,” Shaner says. “It just started to accumulate all this circumstantial evidence.”
I was round my next door neighbour George’s house for a BBQ last year when I mentioned to him that I had spotted the grapevine growing in his garden. George hates this grapevine and has been trying to kill it unsuccessfully for years. I had to look out from my bedroom window to see it as it was hidden behind a massive bit of wood to stop it overtaking the garden. This year it had been particularly prolific and George knocked on my door a few weeks later with a massive sack of grapes. We’d spoken at the BBQ about my brewing and so he thought I might like them. He thought correct.
We didn’t actually share any commentary on last week’s news of the takeover of Magic Rock by Lion, perhaps because… there wasn’t much? This week, though, Mark Johnson has come out spitting:
The aspect that changes each time comes through personal attachment. It has already been suggested to me that northern beer communicators are a little more defensive this time than they have been previously… Whether right or wrong, northern or southern, capitalist or idealist, one thing remains true – you don’t get to decide how I feel. You don’t get to decide for anybody else what their reaction should be.
Whatever happens, beer drinkers should see this [new Carlsberg Pils] as a victory: a brand that for so long has been committed to mediocrity is suddenly making something quite nice. This has only happened because of the changes in beer over the past decade or so. Forget the milkshake IPAs and sour pilsners for a second and think back to why this whole phenomenon began: to get better beer on the bar. That’s what has happened here. Whether you try it or not, this new Carlsberg is a big win for drinkers. Multinational brewers may be buying up your favourite breweries, but you and people like you have changed how they operate on a fundamental level.
And finally, look, we’d normally avoid highlighting stunt beers, but HENDOS!
PEOPLE OF THE NORTH. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
The beer is real, we’ve brewed a Bloody Mary Porter using @HendoRelish and it’s launching today!