Total Ales started life in January 2012 as a simple beer blog and for the most part it still is. We write stories about things happening in beer that excite and interest us and photograph the beauty in the beer industry we find along the way. We strive to be an optimistic voice in beer, focusing on subjects that interest us while hoping they will inspire you to feel the same way.
Whenever I travel the first thing I think about is what I’m going to eat at my destination. You may assume that beer comes before that, but you’d be wrong. Good food excites me just as much as beer and eating isn’t cheating in this town.
A recent trip to Leeds provided me with a good example of this. I’m always excited about an opportunity to dine at one of my favourite UK restaurants, Bundobust. Quite often I’ll head straight to this Yorkshire mainstay the moment I alight at the station, such is the joy I take from an opportunity to eat there.
At Bundobust they serve immaculate Gujurati-style Indian food. Think chaat with layers of crisp pastry interwoven with rich yogurt, and sharp, tangy tamarind relish, endorphin-triggeringly spiced bhajis and grilled-to-perfection paneer and mushroom kebabs dressed in chilli sauce and spinach chutney. I can’t get enough, but don’t just take my word for it—food critic Jay Rayner gushed about the chain when he visited its Manchester branch back in 2017.
As is often the case with the beer I drink, my enthusiasm for restaurants like Bundobust that are ever-so-slightly out of everyday reach makes them all the more appealing. This doesn’t give me the opportunity to take them for granted in the same way as I might with a preferred spot at home in London.
I also know that visiting London can be a minefield of choice for out-of-towners. There’s so much to see and do here, finding a spot to relax and refuel with some great food can all too often be an afterthought.
With this in mind I’ve put together a shortlist of some of my favourite places to eat that I think beer lovers will enjoy. Places that—importantly in this context—aren’t pubs. We know pubs are great and often their food can be too! However, there are some stunning restaurants in this town that are increasingly dedicated towards ensuring that their beer offering is on par with the dishes they serve. And these are some of the best.
Beer and Burger/Bleecker Burger
The easiest way to judge the food in any city is by the quality of its burger. Sadly in London, most burgers are trash and you’d honestly be better off hitting McDonald’s. Thankfully however, things are changing somewhat.
In fact they’re changing so much that I can’t pick between my two favourite burger purveyors in town. They both offer a slightly different experience, with an incredibly delicious burger at the focal point of this.
Bleecker has evolved from a simple burger van to having a few locations around town. My favourite of which is a toss up between the bustling counter at Spitalfields Market or the relative peace found at its restaurant just outside Victoria station. You need to order the double cheeseburger (because the greater the surface area of meat, the greater the deliciousness) and a side of angry fries. A pint of Kernel or Brew By Numbers IPA on tap is the perfect accompaniment. Do not speak to anyone or look at your phone while you enjoy this moment.
Beer and Burger have created an environment that should be all the more familiar to beer fans: a multi-tap wall, booth seating and plenty of neon. They’ve recently followed up their original Willesden and Dalston locations with a much larger and more ambitious project in Kings Cross. Where at Bleecker the burger is all about the patty, here it’s about sauce and meat juices oozing down your wrists as you eat the generously sized portion as quickly as humanly possible. Animal style, you might say. And as for beer, they’ve got 20 taps and about 150 bottles and cans, so take your pick, I’m not your mum.
What’s better than Thai food? The kind that’s cooked over hot coals, and is so well-spiced that it makes your eyeballs sweat while simultaneously leaving you in raptures. And that’s the kind of food you can expect at Shoreditch’s Smoking Goat.
I’m talking deep fried chicken wings coated in an almost resinous helping of umami-rich fish sauce and chargrilled mussels the size of your fist dripping in a hot lemongrass, coconut and chilli broth. The kind of broth that hurts but tastes so good you won’t care. And there’s great beer to drink if you can make it past the well thought out list of wines and cocktails. Beavertown Neck Oil will do, but you’re probably better off taking a friend and splitting a bottle of Burning Sky Cuvée.
Once described to me as a “Hawksmoor for everyday,” Blacklock is a meat-lovers paradise. And one that won’t break the bank. At each of this small chain’s three locations they specialise in pork and lamb chops along with various cuts of beef. I recommend going “all-in” where they serve you all of these atop flatbreads on a massive platter. The highlight being enjoying the dripping soaked bread washed down with a beer or two.
Your choice of beer at Blacklock should be a simple-ish one too. It’s a bit of a secret that these lucky devils have first dibs on pours from Harbour’s Hinterlands wild and sour beer project, headed up by former Redchurch Urban Farmhouse brewer James Rylance. Trust me when I say the cherry sour provides you with a harmonious combination of tart and salt when paired with the pigs head on toast.
Four Hundred Rabbits
Let’s not beat around the bush here, pizza is the food of the gods themselves. This is my guide to pairing beer with pizza: 1) get a pizza, 2) get a beer. Congratulations you are now a beer and food pairing genius and your book deal with Penguin is in the post.
But seriously, 400 Rabbits gets beer and pizza spot on. From beautifully simple toppings, to more adventurous slices like chipotle rolled goats cheese, rhubarb and piquillo peppers, they have a range to satisfy almost anyone. The beer follows suit, with a rotating menu made up of delicious beers like Lost and Grounded Keller Pils and DEYA Steady Rolling Man. A visit is the perfect excuse to begin your exploration of South London’s booming beer scene.
[Disclosure: I hosted a beer and food pairing event with Four Hundred Rabbits on behalf of Good Beer Hunting last year.]
This Michelin-starred institution founded by Trevor Gulliver and Fergus Henderson in 1994 not only jump started London’s gastronomic revolution but shook the entire culinary world. And they achieved this without publishing one hyperbolic press release, or throwing a single kitten out of a helicopter.
But what can be said about St. John that hasn’t been said a hundred times already? Perhaps that, despite being known for its nose-to-tail menu and tremendous selection of wines and spirits, is that this is a restaurant that takes its beer selection far more seriously than most. On the bar you’ll find beers from Siren, Wild Beer Co, Thornbridge and many more, including some expertly cellared cask ale. What could be better with your mandatory order of bone marrow and parsley salad? Nothing, that’s what.
Chef Tim Anderson is a goddamn hero. Why? Because he’s been talking about the joys of matching great beer and food since he won some TV chef thing in 2011 and that was a big deal apparently. But seriously, Nanban is a wonderful restaurant—hell I’m going to go as far as saying that it’s the London equivalent of somewhere like Bundobust, because unlike most restaurants it’s run by someone who legitimately gives a shit about great beer. And in 2019 people like this in the food business are still few and far between.
The ramen here is good, and not because it’s conventional—but because it’s fucking weird man. My go-to here is either the face melting curry goat ramen or the so-intense-you’ll-be-burping-garlic-for-weeks leopard tsukemen, so get both. Then make sure you get some chicken karaage for good measure and wash it all down with a Pressure Drop Nanban Kanpai yuzu IPA. But be quick. Rumour has it that it’s about to be dropped so the brewery has the capacity to crank out more DDH IPAs. For shame.
If you’re feeling f a n c y then why not check out London’s latest Indian food sensation, Brigadiers. Honestly, the fact that the beer world isn’t making fuss about a restaurant stocking great beer with 32 taps is a little baffling. That’s more than most beer bars in town! The reason is because sadly, London’s beer and food worlds still, for the most part, occupy different universes.
Perhaps though, spots like Brigadiers will be the ones to change that. Sure, it’s not cheap, but the chops are to die for and even better when smashing back a jar of Siren Soundwave or Thornbridge Lukas while you enjoy them. Restaurants that claim to be serious about serving good beer could learn a thing or two from a visit to Brigadiers.
Market Halls Victoria
What’s better than visiting a restaurant with an exceptional beer selection? Visiting a food court hosting 11 different traders, many of which already have an exceptional restaurant pedigree where there is also an excellent beer selection, of course! I’m talking the likes of Koya Bar, The Marksman, Roti King and Monty’s Deli. Market Halls presents visitors to Victoria with an opportunity to taste dishes from some of the finest restaurateurs in town and get a decent pint in the process. Often without waiting for a reservation or queuing down some rainy Soho backstreet for needless hours.
Enjoy, perhaps, a pint of Magic Rock Saucery, or the Market Helles, brewed by the folks at Harbour. And, due to the fact there’s literally no other reason to visit Victoria other than catch a train, you can go and eat a Bleecker Burger when you’re done. Because honestly, why wouldn’t you?
This Clapton wine bar is a spot that any die-hard beer lover should visit at least once. Why? Because of two reasons. Firstly because I swear that if you’re into your saisons and funky ales you’ll find a wine that’ll alter your expectations of what good wine can taste like for good.
The other is because you’ll receive the kind of service you want when you’re dropping £7.50 on a third of imported New York juice but don’t receive. Instead of queuing three deep at a crowded bar you get to sit at AN ACTUAL TABLE and have a CONVERSATION with someone about the flavour of what’s being poured into your glass, and maybe who made it. This is the kind of added value that’s so simple to create that’s missing from so many specialist craft beer bars at the moment.
And the food! The kitchen usually only opens in the evenings from Thursday through to Sunday, but the resident chef—currently Anna Tobias formerly of The River Cafe—produces well thought out range of small plates that pair perfectly with what’s in your glass. Beer could learn a lot from places like P. Franco. Let’s hope it does.
“Beer isn’t as good as this yet,” A smiling Paul Jones tells me as he tops up the glass in my hand. “But if we work hard enough it could be.”
It’s April 2016 and we’re sat in the Duke’s Head, Highgate, enjoying a drink post a meet the brewer event we had just ran. Jones, the founder of Manchester’s Cloudwater Brewery is wearing the kind of Cheshire-cat grin, gleaming through that trademark bushy orange beard of his that indicates how excited he is to be sharing the bottle of wine in his hand. A wine he insisted that we ended our tasting with. It’s a Syrah from a winemaker called Jolly Ferriol from the Roussillon in the far south of France. And at this moment in time it’s the best wine I have ever tasted.
I’m told it’s a natural wine, meaning in this case that it has been fermented—much like a spontaneously fermented beer or low-intervention cider—using only the yeasts present on the grape skins at the time of harvest. It’s also bottled without sulphites additional to those that naturally occur in the wine. This seemed irrelevant to me at the time; I was more interested in the flavour, which was of intense cherry juice that burst on the palate like pop-rocks with every sip.
This should of been the start of my natural wine journey, but it wasn’t—at least not quite. It piqued my interest enough to remain on the fringes of conscious thought but having just gone freelance as a beer writer I didn’t have the time to dig in as I’d like, as 100% of my focus was on hops and grain. I never really got into wine because, unlike beer, I found it a little pretentious and wholly intimidating. Natural wine didn’t feel like that. It reminded me of beer in the way it felt free and easy and about making something delicious, but it also made me feel a little lost among grape varieties and regional variances. I had a few threads of information to grasp at but still found no way of making a rope.
This should have changed only six months later, when in October 2016 James Rylance (then of Redchurch and now heading up an exciting project at Cornwall’s Harbour Brewing,) came over to my house to record a podcast. He’d brought with him a bottle of white wine from a Catalonia-based (but Italian born) producer called Partida Creus and I could tell from his eagerness that he was excited to share.
Only, my corkscrew, the one corkscrew I kept in the house for when I occasionally decided to drink wine, had snapped in half. Instead I found something interesting yet crown-capped from my beer collection, and the bottle of Partida Creus went into the now vacant spot that the beer we enjoyed together used to sit.
There it remained for nearly a year, after promising I’d share it with James on another day. But he moved to Cornwall*, and one night I fancied a glass of wine. The two letters V and N in their bold, black type had been staring at me for long enough, I thought. So I chilled it down, cracked the wax seal, and popped the cork with what is now one of many corkscrews I keep in the house at all times.
What happens next is that thing which happens often if you obsess over what you drink. From the first notes of cider-like tang on the nose, to the crisp, green apple skins and delicate tannins on the palate, through to the sharp, yet familiar Lambic-tinged bite in the finish I was enamoured. I immediately wanted to know as much about this wine and the producer as possible.
From not caring about what VN stood for moments ago I now understood that it was short for Vinel lo Blanco and that this particular wine is a blend of White Grenache, Maccabeu, Moscatell, Vinyater, Xarello, Parsé and Parellada, from Partida Creus’ own vineyards planted on calcareous clay soils. I know that the grapes were harvested by hand, and not machines. That this was fermented using the yeasts present on the fruit and that no extra sulphites were added. I was making a rope!
I also now understood why crunchy was used as a descriptor for wines. And I crunched down on this bad boy until there wasn’t a drop left.
Now, when I saw the two letters which signify Partida Creus’ brand on a shelf, I was drawn to it. This is significant, because previously I had bought wine based on regional appellation or grape variety. Now I was buying wine like I buy beer. Having a tangible brand was the hook I needed to hang my jacket on and, now free of this bulky garment, I had the confidence to move around in the natural wine space with a spring in my step.
The letters on my second bottle of wine from Partida Creus were, like the wine inside, red, not black. They spelled SM and were short for Sumoll, a grape variety native to Catalonia of which this wine was made. Like its predecessor, this bottle kept handing me threads with which to make my rope stronger. These came in the form of its assertive acidity and tiny pricks of carbonation exciting the jammy flavours that my brain was fervently unlocking.
It had taken me a little while to get to this point, admittedly, but now it felt that my journey in wine was now really beginning. Most important to this was how my beer drinking and my wine drinking developed a symbiotic, not combative, relationship. They fed one another, inspiring new stories and new angles within those. I’m not sure I ever agreed with Paul that beer is still catching up with wine. They’re too different for that kind of comparison. But it’s fun trying to keep up with both.
*James, I still owe you a fucking bottle of wine and we’ll share it and it’ll be great.
Among the many beers in my fridge and those littered around my flat are two of special significance. They are the two beers I’m going to drink tonight—my first in three weeks. This is not a lengthy period of time by any means, but to give this some sense of perspective this is the longest period I have gone without an alcoholic drink in 15 years.
(For those interested, the beers are a mixed-fermentation wine barrel matured beer called Battle of the Trees from Beavertown’s Tempus Project and Rhythm Force, a Double IPA from NYC’s Grimm. Both were gifts from good friends which I am incredibly thankful for.)
I feel that it’s important to highlight that as far as I am aware there is nothing wrong with me and that I don’t think I have a dependency towards alcohol. But it does bring me immense joy—and hey, I guess that’s why I chose to write about it for a living.
The reason I stopped drinking for a short time was mainly because the pinch of my favourite jeans and the bulge of my silhouette were making me miserable and I wanted to do something about it. As I explained in a blog post made last month, cutting out beer—and its many calories—was the easiest way to do this. Combined with an increase in my regular exercise schedule, which involves running, now with a bit of swimming thrown in, I’ve lost 7lbs (3.2kg.) I can now sit on a plane for eight hours tomorrow safe in the knowledge that there won’t be an imprint of my belt buckle on my belly when I disembark.
This isn’t an immense amount of weight by any standard, but I can see and feel a difference. Enough to put a smile on my face. And hopefully, through continued exercise, I can continue to drink great beer, wine, cider and more while keeping it off and looking after my heart in the process.
What’s most interesting to me after this short abstinence however, is the fresh perspective it granted. Not drinking has revitalised my point of view on not drinking. It’s not that I simply really like drinking, but how enjoying great beer, wine and cider is very much part of the makeup of my day-to-day existence.
Surprisingly—to me at least—what I missed the most wasn’t the drink itself, but the culture that surrounds it. As I walked down Shoreditch High Street on my way to an event from the British Guild of Beer Writers showcasing alcohol free beers I passed some of my favourite bars and restaurants. I found myself pining to sit within them, simply to soak up the atmosphere. In that moment I felt that merely the sound of conversation and conviviality would sate my urge to drink more than any can or bottle of low alcohol vegetable water that has the indecency to call itself beer.
A couple of days later I joined a friend in one of my favourite pubs, The Pembury Tavern in Hackney, and felt tangible delight just sitting and bathing in the the great atmosphere a good pub provides. Sure, it might have been better with a pint in hand. But being able to enjoy such a space without one gave me a fresh slant on the importance of pubs as social spaces, and why we should use them, regularly.
(As an aside, I now have to confess I thought most of the alcohol free beers at the tasting were awful and tasted either sickly sweet due to additions of lactose for body, or of stewed cabbage. However, in true journalistic style I was too polite to say so at the event. Two exceptions included a lager called Lucky Saint, which tasted like a decent Bavarian-style lager and Adnam’s alcohol-free version of its flagship pale ale, Ghost Ship. The Citra notes in the latter caused me to experience a tangible-yet-brief rush of endorphins upon tasting, although sadly this only served to intensify my craving for a real beer.)
One other weird thing I experienced was the development of an intense craving for dark, bitter, salted chocolate after the first week or so. We don’t really talk about the fact that, despite fermentation, beer still contains a decent amount of sugar. My body obviously missed this, and a square or two of chocolate in the evenings helped satisfy my urge to drink far more than any bottle of kombucha, or non-alcoholic beer.
Perhaps the most interesting note on satisfying this particular urge was that a square or two was all I needed for it to go away. What I think this means—combined with my realisation that part of the reason I drink is to be among a culture, and not simply to drink something nice—is that I’ll probably drink less at home from now on. Too many times I have opened a beer for the sake of it, and now, perhaps, I have the tools at my disposal to stop this from happening.
Speaking of which, I’m going to go open a beer. Cheers everyone.
For many of you January will perhaps signal a period of extended abstinence. Maybe that means cutting out meat or dairy from your diet, or simply eating less. Perhaps you’ll try to quit smoking, or you’ll decide to cut down on your alcohol consumption, even to the point of giving it up entirely. You may even decide to supplement this by doing some exercise. You got that Fitbit for Christmas after all, so it’s surely time to don those shorts and head out for a gut-busting lap or two of the local park. You got this, champ.
For some people January is also a month of trying new things. That could be investing your time in something such as Tryanuary, which encourages folks to try new beers and support pubs in what is commonly their most challenging month. It’s also a time for starting new hobbies— perhaps knitting, writing that novel, or even starting that beer blog you’ve been daydreaming about for months on end now? Go on, you know you want to...
Whatever you path choose to hopefully make you mentally or physically fitter, happier and more productive in 2019, no one—absolutely no one—has the right to chastise you for that based on their own point of view. If someone wants to invest their time in improving their fitness, or lose a little weight, that’s a positive. Conversely if someone wants to spend time sampling new delights and furthering their culinary world view, this is also a good decision. We are all merely trying to avoid becoming a pig in a cage on antibiotics, after all.
After a lot of thought, I’ve decided to cut alcohol out of my diet for the majority of January, (up until the 22nd when a trip months in the planning will unavoidably put me in the path of a lot of rum.) I’m in my mid-thirties now, and despite running being a hobby of mine, I’m considerably less active now that I work from home and my desk is a few metres from my bedside.
I’ve put on weight, and my hangovers last twice as long as they did a decade ago. 3 weeks might not be a very long, or even challenging length of time to quit drinking. But here’s the thing: I’ve been in the beer industry for only 3 years and I’ve already noticed the change it has had on my body. I am slower and heavier, and this has made me unhappy.
I also really like drinking, not just because it tastes nice, but because I like the way alcohol makes me feel. (That we enjoy alcohol for its inebriating effects and not just for its flavour is another conversation I’d like to have more often in the new year.) I want to work in the beer industry for a long time and enjoy alcohol for the rest of my life. Regular breaks like this one feel like a necessary step for the longevity of both of these things which I enjoy.
In 2019 we should be increasingly mindful of not just what we drink but also why we drink. It’s something that, I feel, needs to be talked about in the industry a whole lot more.
Each year I see friends and industry peers alike put their bodies through a great deal. Especially in the autumn, when there’s seemingly a three or four day long beer festival every weekend. I know some people that work every session at these festivals. I know they drink a lot at them, eat plenty of greasy food to sustain themselves throughout, and don’t get enough sleep. In order to support the people who put themselves through this I think that as an industry we need to be more open about why we do it to ourselves. I love to party as much as any of you but I would very much like to still be partying with everyone in 10, 20 or 30 years time.
So I’m going to be a little more mindful of my intake this year, and have a couple weeks off at this, the quietest part of the year for me socially, to see how, or if, my body actually appreciates it. I think no one who enjoys alcohol and wants to cut down should be chastised for doing so. However, I also think that if you’re doing ‘Dry January’ and you start making out like cutting down on alcohol is a Herculean feat worthy of titles like ‘Dryathlete’ (seriously, fuck off) then you need a reality check. Being mindful about alcohol consumption shouldn’t be an ego boost—you’re just trying to look after yourself after all.
The hardest part for me will be the Friday night ritual, that first beer that signifies the working week is over. So I have a contingency plan in Jarr Kombucha and Square Root soda. I’m also partial to a Bloody Mary, which are still delicious without vodka—how I make them anyway. As well as resting my body I’m also looking forward to giving my palate a chance to recalibrate. There’s a lot of great beer to look forward to and I want to be ready for it, this year and the next.
“Best” is a highly subjective and often contentious word. While it can allow one person to opine their fondness for a particular thing, that same opinion can be meaningless to someone else. It can even provoke ire in those that disagree, although, with sincerity, I hope you find my list of things I think are the “best” agreeable.
I didn’t do this last year for one reason or another, but this year I realised that getting these lists jotted down really helps me to process the last 12 months and approach the next 12 with a clearer head. I’ve also decided not to do the traditional beer bloggers ‘Golden Pints’ because what I ended up putting to paper didn’t really fit with the format originally devised by Mark Dredge and Andy Mogg back in 2008.
What follows are my favourite things within the world of food and drink of the past 12 months. This includes beer (obv) along with wine and cider—something I now take a far deeper appreciation in—and places, which could be a pub, bar or restaurant. I’ve also included links to my favourite writing, photography and podcasts within my own food and drink sphere from the last 12 months. Dig in.
Bearded Iris — Homestyle
I first experienced Nashville’s Bearded Iris when I was in town for this years Craft Brewers Conference. So enamoured was I with their flagship IPA, Homestyle, that I bought a four-pack home to share with friends. Unfortunately, this not-quite-hazy, yet still juicy, dry and tantalisingly refreshing IPA was so good that I finished the lot before I got the chance. Guess I’ll have to go back to Nashville at some point and get some more.
Burning Sky — Cuvée (Beer of the Year)
It’s dangerous to pick favourites as a food and drink writer, but fuck it, Burning Sky is my favourite brewery. I have loved every beer of theirs I’ve tasted this year. One beer, however, stands out from the rest—Cuvée. I feel confident enough to say that this blend of wine barrel-aged Saison and Lambic from Belgium’s Girardin is currently without peer in the UK. And that’s why this is my beer of the year.
DEYA — Steady Rolling Man
I keep telling myself that I’m over NEIPA. That this pint of juice is my last. Then I have another Steady Rolling Man. For my palate, this is the best example of a modern pale ale currently being brewed in the UK. While it has the Mosaic and Citra notes that have become a carbon copy favourite of every brewery and their mum, Steady has a little extra, perhaps the pine resin notes of Simcoe, or a dry and slightly bitter finish, that just makes it better than its competitors.
Donzoko — Northern Helles
How, at a spritely 24 years old, Hartlepool’s Reece Hugill has created 2018’s most exciting new brewery—without actually owning his own brewhouse and driving his cuckoo brewed wort to his small collection of fermenters—is a little beyond belief. That his flagship beer, Northern Helles, is also one of the most delicious new lagers to enter the market this year extends that feeling. While this isn’t a Helles in the traditional Bavarian sense, this is a stunning lager, and one that somehow condenses the Teesside spirit into a sublimely crushable beverage.
Hill Farmstead — Anna
A lot of praise is heaped on Vermont’s Hill Farmstead—and that’s because, yes, they do brew better beers than most other breweries. I was even lucky enough to try a few this year. The one that stood out for me was Anna, its flagship dry hopped Saison. The intricacy of the fruity hop and yeast notes in this is mind blowing. Anna is as intricate as a house of cards but it’s magic is in its simplicity and how well these intricacies manifest on the palate. It’s a complex beer for simple times.
Little Earth Project — Organic Saison
When narrowing my final list of 15 beers down I was torn between this beer and a couple of different beers from Gloucestershire’s Mills Brewing. What nosed this in front was experience. Tasting this on cask at Affinity Brew Co’s Cask 2018 was one of those moments where time stops and is captured in a Wachowski style ‘bullet time’ frame. The balance of lemon-sharp acidity in this beer reminded me of some of the best Lambic I’ve tried.
Lost and Grounded — Keller Pils
Ah, Keller Pils, where do I start with this beer? If my award for ‘Beer of the Year’ was down to volume alone then this would win hands down. This is the best lager being brewed in the UK at the moment. Thing is it’s not terribly consistent—and I love that. There’s always a little tinkering going on in the background, be that the profile of its acidity or malt structure. Sometimes the hops blow you away, and sometimes they sing you a little lullaby before you go to sleep. I hope I never get bored of drinking this beer.
Mahrs Bräu — aU
It’s near impossible for me to order this beer without breaking into a rendition of Warren Zevon’s ‘Werewolves of London.’ What at first generated mild embarrassment I now embrace with relish (Zevon’s record is a total banger after all.) Where Keller Pils gives me a reliably bitter beer, this Franconian lager provides the kind of malt profile strong enough to build bridges.
New Belgium — Transatlantique Kriek
Out of all New Belgium’s wonderful foeder beers, Transatlantique Kriek—a blend of a strong Golden Ale and Kriek imported from Belgium’s Oud Beersel—was perhaps the most uninspiring. That all changed in 2018 when the beer ceased to go through Pasteurisation prior to bottling. Somehow this years vintage came alive in the bottle, with endless notes of cherry Tangfastic mingling with Champagne-like carbonation. Several bottles may have made it into my cellar. (Disclosure: I produced an event in collaboration with New Belgium earlier this year.)
North/Track — DDH IPA
Despite my NEIPA fatigue I struggled to take this beer off my list. Watching North and Track shoot to increased prominence this year has been a delight, and testament to the hard work both breweries are putting into their recipes and QC. I tasted many, many Hazy IPAs in 2018, from all over the world. But this was the best. Most of these beers do have an alarmingly similar (and somewhat tiresome) hop profile, but the combination of the right balance acidity and a dry finish made this one shine brighter than the rest.
Odell — IPA
They say the classics are always the best, and this year I returned to the beer that started my beer journey with gusto. I was initially saddened to see this brewery pull out from UK distribution, but waiting a few months for a taste of this beer fresh from the brewery tap made me realise why. At its freshest, this might just be my favourite IPA (even more so than Pliny the Elder, which I have long claimed to be “the one.”) More reason to drink as much of this banger while the going is good.
Surly — Todd the Axeman
In a world of IPA defined by ‘East Coast’ and ‘West Coast,’ Surly’s Todd the Axeman should be an example to all. This beer combines all the juice of the East with the resinous kick of the West with an almost effortless finesse. A beer I’ll order every time I see it.
The Five Points — Hook Island Red
A late entrant, but no less deserving than any of the others on this list. And, surprisingly to me, the only cask beer to make my final 15. I felt my eyes widen the moment I saw this wonderful rye-infused Red Ale return—on the pumps at Five Points brewery tap The Pembury Tavern no less. Such was the balance of sweet malt, spicy rye and resinous hop that I had to go back to the pub the very next day for more, and the day after that. A magnificent beer from one of the UK’s most under-appreciated breweries—by some, at least. (Disclosure: I have previously been hired in a professional capacity as a photographer by The Five Points.)
TRVE — A Present for Those Who are Present
I haven’t had the opportunity to drink many beers from magnum-sized bottles this year, but of those that I did, TRVE’s A Present for Those Who are Present hit the highest mark. For a brewery with such a small footprint, the nuance and delicacy within their Saisons is remarkable, and none more so within this particular beer. Visitors to Cloudwater’s Friends and Family and Beer festival next year will be in for a treat if they visit this brewery’s stand.
WeldWerks — Medianoche Reserve
Here’s the deal: I don’t like pastry stouts—I find them to be repulsive. But then I’m also the person that skips dessert and heads straight to the cheese course after a meal. One thing I do love though is Bourbon, and well executed expressions of this within beer. With Medianoche Reserve, WeldWerks have not only forged a pastry stout I don’t hate, but have imbued it with the kind of Bourbon character collectors of the spirit would fork out hundreds of dollars for. An impeccable beer.
Wine and Cider
Fuchs und Hase — Pet Nat Vol. 1
At the start of 2018 I still barely understood what pétillant-naturel meant other than if it said “pet-nat” on the label I wanted to drink it. I love what a crown cap signifies on a bottle of wine. It says: crush me. And with this fresh and fruity effervescent white from Austria’s Fuchs und Hase, I crushed it whenever the opportunity presented itself. If you like light and fruity Saison, put this on your bosh list.
Garage Project Crushed — Tropical Phantasm
“I wanted to make a wine that tasted like a NEIPA,” Garage Project’s Jos Ruffell told me at an event I helped put together earlier this year. He was describing one of the wines from the New Zealand brewery’s ‘Crushed’ range, and not without reason. Here was a wine that tasted like liquid juicy fruit, with the haze to match its objective. A perception-altering wine if ever there was one.
Judith Beck — Beck Ink
This was the wine I drank the most of in 2018. It’s good value, it’s an incredibly delicious dark red, and you can give it to anyone that says they “don’t like natural wine” and change their mind. At once unctuous, tart and fruity. A banger, at fifteen quid. Stock up now before everyone else cottons on.
Little Pomona — The Unicorn
Herefordshire’s Little Pomona are one of a small selection of new wave cider makers demonstrating that there is more to modern British cider than Tom Oliver alone. I enjoyed many ciders from this producer over the course of this year, but this slightly sparkling, slightly sweet cider stood out from the rest. Oh, and I adore the branding too.
Oliver’s — The Mayflower (Wine or Cider of the Year)
Thirteen pounds. That’s how much I paid for a 750ml bottle of this incredible beverage—which weighs in at a not inconsiderable 9.3%—in a pub. I shared some of it but mostly I enjoyed the bottle to myself. A blend of Rum, Whisky and Red Wine matured ciders, then cut with Ice Cider, the breathtaking tasting notes make this cider sound, on paper at least, like something of a car crash. The opposite is true, the product being one of singular, stunning definition. It’s still available, it’s a tenner in a good offy. Get some while you still can.
Partida Creus — SM
One thing that frustrates me about most natural wines is how little information is included on the label. The beer and wine worlds are more distant than even I imagined in many ways, but lovers of modern Saison and Geuze should be paying attention to this Catalonian producer. There’s a funk and acidity to their wines that any sour beer lover should be able to hang their hat on. Just don’t expect to learn anything about the wine from the label. (I can at least tell you that SM refers to the Sumoll grape variety, good luck with the rest.)
Patrick Sullivan — Rain 2017
I bought this bottle of wine as present for my Dad, to mark his retirement this year. He hated it. As much as Dad likes to explore booze like I do, when it comes to red wine he likes big, tannic, old school reds. Not crazy, bright pink, juicy nonsense like this. And that’s exactly what this is. I’m unsure if it’s worthy of its £40 price tag, but then I’ve never tasted a wine quite like it. Even more bonkers than a wine from the same producer which was actually called ‘Bonkers.’
Two restaurants have provided me with a jaw dropping dining experience this year, and they share the same building. Upstairs there is the Basque-inspired BRAT, with steak and turbot cooked like you’ve never tasted it before, and a formidable wine list designed by fellow restaurant, Noble Rot. Downstairs is some of the most endorphin-inducing spiced Thai-style cuisine, and lots of good beer to boot. Neck Oil on tap and Cuvée in the fridge. Yet the beer comes second to the amazing food.
Every time I try to leave Hackney this place stops me. Every. Fucking. Time. And I love it. The best neighbourhood cocktail bar in London bar none. Tiny Martinis for a fiver. Shots of Fernet Branca. Cans of Pils in the fridge. The best copy on a cocktail list you’ll ever peruse. You will try to nip in for a quick one and you will always fail.
The UK might not be quite ready for a bar that deals exclusively in sour beer, but Denver certainly is. Goed Zuur (Flemish for ‘Good Sour.’) oozes class, the space is cosy, the staff attentive, the food excellent and the drinks list mental. Try the butter flight (yes you read that right.)
P. Franco (Joint Place of the Year)
I’d like every self respecting hospitality enthusiast to visit P. Franco for a glass of wine. As much as I still find most wine bars to be achingly pretentious when compared to a beer equivalent, P. Franco just gets it. This 20-seater bar, which is basically a big table in the middle of a wine shop, packs in enough vibe for 200. The real highlight though, is the way the staff engage and qualify you, no matter how busy they appear to be. Without this venue the entry barriers to wine would not have been broken down for me this year. This is my joint place of the year for that reason. (Their food is awesome too, but more on that in a future post.)
The Harp — Covent Garden
Such is my love for The Harp that I have started making excuses to visit Covent Garden—a part of London I dislike—just to visit for either a pint of Best, Hophead or maybe some fresh Kernel. It’s a true London gem, and the first pub I always recommend to visitors to our fine city. Even when it’s at its busiest, they’ll always, somehow, find room for you.
The Great Northern Railway Tavern
2018 was the year when, finally, the pub I have lived closest too for seven years became my local. Thanks to a not insubstantial Fuller’s-acquisition-led upgrade and some skilful direction and beer buying from manager Jess Tereise, this place has become a true gem. Both locally, and for visiting out-of-towners.
The Marble Arch
Such is my enthusiasm for this pub that when I caught sight of it for the first time in many months this September, I bounded down Rochdale Road with gusto. This pub has everything, from the decor, to the locals, to the vibe, amazing food and stunning beers. So good it converted me to preferring my cask ale sparkled. And that’s saying something.
The Pembury Tavern (Joint Place of the Year)
I was excited when I heard The Five Points had acquired the Pembo (as it shall henceforth be called) located a mere 100 metres from the brewery and on the five-headed junction from which the brewery takes its name. I was worried when I heard they were refurbing it, because this was a pub redolent with character—although perhaps in dire need of a fresh lick of paint. What they did with it though, was beyond expectation. It has, in a few short months, cemented itself as my favourite beer destination. It’s also run by the absolute boy Pete Walker and serves stunning pizzas from Capish’s Rachael Jones. And it’s five minutes down the road from P. Franco and Every Cloud. My little triangle of East London joy.
Writing, Photography & Podcasts
I wasn’t in the right kind of headspace to enjoy much of other people’s food and drink writing this year BUT what I did enjoy I did so immensely. What follows is some of my favourite content produced in 2018. Much of which is from Good Beer Hunting, which is where my head was buried deep for much of the past few months.
Special mentions go to Stephen Buranyi for his piece on Natural Wine in The Guardian, which is adept at showing both sides of the much talked about industry. I adored Michael Kiser’s interview with Taylor and Dan Suarez, seeing a worrying amount of myself in the latter (but who isn’t a little bit of a control freak, right?) I continue to be endlessly compelled by the Hudson Valley brewery.
Nicci Peet is doing some of the most important work in beer communication with her Diversity in Beer photojournalism project. After you’ve admired her photos you should throw her a buck or two on Patreon. And finally, shoutout to my buddy Claire Bullen, who for my money produced the best piece of beer writing in 2018 when she profiled The Kernel. I was lucky enough to be the first person that read this piece after Claire herself, and nothing has stopped me in my tracks quite like it since. I can’t wait to read what she, and all beer writers produce in 2019. Here’s to the new year.
“Blind, spinning and out of phase, rioting in rolling waves. Your eyes are the middle of hurricanes. And I'll follow you all the way down.” — Preoccupations, “Decompose” (Flemish Eye, 2018.)
It’s been a month. A month of both tranquil calm—after a couple of much needed weeks of reflection spent in my home-from-home, Fort Collins—and a month of freneticism, be that born from excitement or frustration. It’s all of my own doing, of course. Saying “no” to a lucrative contract with a leading beer website was probably foolish, but for my own well-being and—most importantly—my ambition, it was absolutely necessary.
I cannot express how important the last three-and-a-half years at Good Beer Hunting have been. Without my time there I would not have learned the skills necessary to be able to leave it behind and still carry on as a freelance writer and photographer. I will be eternally thankful for that. I’m not happy with how it ended, but that’s a story to be told over pints at the bar and not in a blog post.
I am, however, now excited for what 2019 might bring. New opportunities, new projects and hopefully a manifestation of work born of ambition, not frustration. Three weeks in New Zealand should do the trick (although despite the trip I shall still mostly be working, a boy has bills to pay after all.)
Still, that leaves me with what to do with this website. The beer blog that kickstarted a career. Logically, as I’ve been trading under the name Total Ales for the majority of my freelance work, I saw fit to turn it into a portfolio of sorts. Or at least something that makes pitching a little easier if a client wishes to have a look at what I’ve been doing before deciding to pay me to do something for them.
You can now view my most recent photography via my new portfolio page and events I’m hosting by the cleverly-named events page. I’ve left all the old posts intact in case anyone is feeling weirdly nostalgic (yes, even the terrible ones.) But as for writing for myself, I think I might need a time out, and, potentially, a blank slate. We’ll see what 2019 brings, I guess. Oh and don’t forget if you’re enjoying my work you can sling me a few bob via my Ko-Fi account.
I am still very much looking for new opportunities. So if you happen to be a commissioning editor looking for some clean, yet entertaining copy (delivered on time!) Or you’re a beer business looking for someone to take nice photos for you, I’m probably your guy. Hit up the contact page and drop me a line.
Merry Christmas and a happy new year to you all. Here’s to twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom.
— Matthew Curtis
New Material by Preoccupations is my favourite album released in 2018. Listen to it (gratuitously and on repeat) by clicking here.