Tuesday, 28 July 2015

St Pancras to Pimlico Gardens. Part 2

Tottenham Court Road:

From Gower Street I pass down any of the side streets on my right and come out onto the long strait of Tottenham Court Road.

About a decade ago I moved to London and used the Tube daily to get to work. I would get the Northern Line down to Charing Cross and change for the Bakerloo Line. It’s a long tramp by foot along a maze of corridors and you become conscious of going past the same posters for films and London attractions again and again. It has a strange parallel here in West 1. I’ve never enjoyed walking down Tottenham Court Road. At its southern end it’s a block of media outlets and as you go north a never ending loop of chain eateries that come around again and again – Starbucks-Leon-EAT.-Pret a Manger-Itsu-Café Nero-M&S-Starbucks-Leon-EAT.-Pret a Manger-Itsu-Café Nero-M&S. 

Tottenham Court Road is also a thoroughfare teeming with charity muggers who implore you to speak to them as if trying to winkle some humanity out of a materialistic herd in its daily grind. They stalk the vulnerable - primary coloured predators oozing with pamphlet-sanctioned self-righteousness. My gripe isn’t the commendable charities they represent but the ubiquitous hard sell and the pretence of being friends that just want a quick chat. You know the terminus in this ride is the disclosure of your direct debit details. The same techniques were used to sell PPI.

If you look up above the bright branded shop signs, you’ll see cupolas, weather vanes and forgotten spires. I’m ashamed to say that it was only in the research of this post I first raised my eyes to see them. Something about streets like this just makes you look down and keep the blinkers on. There are a few remarkable buildings however. The Rising Sun has a striking white frontage. The building dates back to 1730 but was remodelled in 1897 by Scottish architects Henry Treadwell & Leonard Martin. Every curl and flourish in the stonemasonry begets smaller detail. During the beer nadir in the 80s and early 90s, it spent some time as Presley’s - an Elvis Presley theme bar. 

the Rising Sun

Roughly halfway down Tottenham Court Road there is a site of interest: Whitfield’s Tabernacle and its environs. The Tabernacle is actually an American church. The front entrance is almost obscured in the shade of a tree canopy and easy to miss. Architecturally it’s similar to some town halls and tourist information centres - a double stair leads up to the door from both sides. For me what makes the site remarkable is that it’s where the last V2 bomb to hit London landed demolishing the 18th century buildings that had previously stood there.

Whitfield's Tabernacle - easily overlooked

A few metres to the south in Tottenham Street is the side of a building with an impressive vertical mural. Through serendipity, the hulking BT tower watches over its shoulder offering a unique view to the onlooker. There is a small piazza in front and it’s a welcome break in the otherwise ceaseless chain store frontage. For as long as I’ve known the area it’s been haunted by the homeless and individuals with mental health problems. Trying to put myself in their shoes, I can see why this patch might seem like a small oasis of quietude compared to the perpetual motion of Tottenham Court Road. 

for me, one of the most unpremeditated but striking views in London

If you investigate further down Tottenham Street you’ll see an amazing pair of quirky and bespoke shops on Whitfield Street: Pollocks Toy Museum and Pollocks Theatrical Print Warehouse. Their uniqueness is only amplified by the repeat chain nature of their arterial street.

After continuing down Tottenham Court Road for a bit further, I turn right down Charlotte Street to visit The Draft House.

The Draft House Charlotte Street:

Firestone Walker Easy Jack IPA (keg 4.7)

Expensive beer. I bought it because of the rave about Firestone. Light copper in appearance with visible carbonation streaming up the glass side. Fine Lilly white head. Actually a gentle body with gentle carbonation. Peachy taste or maybe nectarine. For an IPA it's not very dry though that doesn't bother me at all. It's a fruity beer right through that leaves a sweet fructose aftertaste. This could easily get called a golden ale in Britain. In a way it’s a bit like Duke by Orbit Beers but even sweeter.

Beavertown Brewery Bloody 'Ell (keg 7.2)

This is billed as a blood orange IPA. It's very light pale gold on the eye with a high bleached white fine head. It's sweet like actual fruit juice by which I mean the juice you get when you chew fruit. There is either a big malt dimension or a big fruit sugar one - they're both carbs. It does taste of blood orange. I remember having red oranges in Italy when I was a nipper. There is a dry bittering hop. The blood orange does blot out flavor hops but why not? It's flavour enough.

I retrace my steps and stare down the muzzle of Tottenham Court Road. It is like some giant arrow hurtling towards Centre Point. I suppose there’s some beauty to this brutalist geometry but you need to get into the middle of the road to do it. Not to be attempted without a central reservation! The image below was taken early on a Sunday morning. Centre Point now marks the site of St Giles Rookery (a rookery was an old term for a building lived in by the poor of which there were many in 19th Century London - a slum).

Centre Point (uninhabited for its first 9 years) - dead ahead!

The Dominion Theatre stands at the corner of New Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. I’ve long identified it by the giant golden simulacra of Freddy Mercury striking his iconic pose at the front. Alas he's now gone (I only found out when I took the picture) as We Will Rock you has left the joint.

site of the Meux Brewery

In 1814 however, another building stood here. It was the Meux Brewery. It aged porter beer in giant vats much as Flemish reds are aged in foudres/Foedern today. On 17th October that year, one of the vats ruptured and caused a domino effect with the other vessels. About one and a half million litres of beer surged through the building in a bow wave destroying the roof beams. The deluge surged across the ground to St Giles Rookery opposite. 8 women and children (mostly in underground rooms) were killed either by injury or drowning. Nobody was found to be responsible in a court of law. The brewery even successfully reclaimed the duty it had paid on the beer. The verdict? The tragedy was officially deemed an act of god!

St Pancras to Pimlico Gardens. Part 1

I exit St Pancras station from its western flank and pass through the courtyard of the British Library. There is a statue by Scottish artist Eduardo Paolozzi based on a print by William Blake. The figure is of Isaac Newton sitting hunched forward over a compass in the act of either tracing or measuring. There are several images of Newton by Blake – this statue is a study of a 1795 print and was installed in 1995 – a perfect 200 years later. 

exploited or deep in concentration? The sky holds the key

This statue may not be a simple homage to Blake, though. William Blake admired Isaac Newton but was sceptical about science unravelling the mysteries of life. He was a mystic and didn’t care for science casting light into the corners of his world. In the 1795 print, the background heavens are rich but the colours darken towards the subject’s compass - representative of the science. Newton’s body is rendered peachy and soft. Was Blake trying to point out that the pursuit of science can never live up to or fathom the beauty of god’s design? Possibly. Blake was a very spiritual man and forever seeing visions of Biblical characters behind the window panes of London’s streets. The face in the print also resembles Blake’s own youthful portrait more than any extant portrait of Newton himself. This could be interpreted as scientific reverence just being a youthful misadventure but maybe that’s reading too much into it.

The soft peachy flesh has been altered in Paolozzi’s creation. Newton has virtually become a cyborg reminiscent of the Maria robot in Metropolis. The joints and intersections of the body have become perfectly geometric. The possible gall stone that Newton is perched on in the original print has transformed into a flawless rectilinear trunk that seems to have strapped the sitter’s hips to it. Has Paolozzi dealt a side swipe to Blake that Blake in turn had dealt to Newton? Is the new statue saying that the study and application of science has illuminated and improved mankind? I believe so. Another effect of looking up at this statue on its high broad plinth is that the London sky fills in for the cosmos behind the subject on the original and can affect the sculpture’s mood accordingly: Under a grey sky the figure seems trapped and exploited. Under a summer sky the focus is on the subject’s face and the concentration thereon.

I go down Euston Road towards central London for a few hundred metres. Despite being a pathway for thousands of pedestrians, little thought has gone into their welfare with regards to road planning especially when crossing Churchway. Subconsciously, I always let a few people with a higher BMI than me get between me and the oncoming traffic. I reach Euston Square. There are two porches standing either side of the bus lanes.

The Euston Tap

Apart from the drinkers spilling out of the front being a clue, you’d never think the Euston Tap was a pub as you approach it. The building the Tap is in is an ex-lodge. It and the identical building directly opposite (that’s The Cider Tap if you love cider & perry) used to be a part of a huge foundation that linked them both – the Euston Arch. It was an imposing 21 meter high structure acting as the proverbial gateway to another land - a landmark that stood for Euston train station. 

The lodges policed the luggage, trade and packages entering and exiting the station. Rather than an arch, the proper architectural term is actually a propylaeum. It’s an ancient Greek gatehouse that would stand at the entrance to a holy enclosure. The Acropolis in Athens boasts the most famous one. The Brandenberg Gate in Berlin is another example. They became popular as monumental buildings at the mouths of secular or trade enclosures during the industrial revolution.

The Euston Arch was built in 1837 and might yet be built again. Amazingly, most of the chunks of the original have been located on the floor of the Prescott Channel  in the river Lee to the north of London. A campaign to reassemble them and reinstate the propylaeum has been launched by The Euston Arch Trust (www.eustonarch.org/). This campaign group counts Michael Palin as a patron and historian Dan Cruickshank (who actually rediscovered the fragments on a TV show in 1994) as a trustee. Were the rebuild to go ahead, I don’t know how it would affect the business of either Tap. It looks like they’d both get a mammoth pillar blocking daylight and hindering access to their main entrances.

Inside, the space is a cramped crescent around the bar which virtually fills the ground floor. Under a handsome wall plate, the beers are dispensed from the brickwork. Two boards number the beers that are on - the kegged ones to the left and the cask options to the right. There is also a narrow helical staircase that goes up to a seating area and the Neanderthal toilets upstairs. With beer(s) in hand, the ascent/descent is a task worthy of the Krypton Factor and a good measure of how much alcohol you’ve had. If the building continues to spin once you’ve alighted, make that glass your last. I love this place. There are No other venues like the Euston & Cider Tap.

don't lean too far over the bannister!

On this occasion I have four beers: 

Kernel Brewery Table Beer (keg 2.9)

Any pub that takes its beer seriously stocks Kernel either on tap or in bottle. This beer changes in recipe each time ranging around the 3% ABV mark. Table Beer is light custard in colour - looks like over-syruped lemon barley. Milky top. Aroma of grapefruit peel. On the palate the beer had a melon rind edge with a dry finish not far behind. Like most Kernel beers, it has a tingling carbonation. It's like tonic water.

Buxton Brewery Jacob's Ladder (cask 2.8)

It’s a good choice to go for to compare how such a light ale comes across compared to Kernel’s. It’s a glowing clear marmalade with a patchy head. The first sip reveals a peachy softness. It's sweet and has a much gentler carbonation. The bittering does ensue but it takes a moment. It's on a delay. The lemony sweetness touches the tongue. The beer is swallowed and the bittering hop comes along about 5 seconds later. The body does come over as very light - something that didn't register with the table beer.

Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout (cask 4.5)

Dark brown/black and opaque. Micron thick light grey hop oil head. The taste is of sweet meat joint juices like Chinese spare ribs. This matures and becomes more like charcoal. The sweetened milk background endures though. The burp is of demerera sugar & sweet coffee dregs.

Orbit Beers Duke (keg 5.2)

It's a cloudy dark orange in hue. White patchy head. Punchy citrus fruit on first taste like tangerines & the skins. I don't know what kind of beer this is. It makes it more approachable. Sumptuous is a word that fits this ale. The only bitterness is from the initial citrussy taste. There's a pithiness but that's as close as it gets to becoming dry.

I leave The Euston Tap and continue along Euston Road until I get to Euston Square Underground Station. I use it as a Subway to come out on Gower Street to the south.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Lighter Fluid

Craft brewing has plundered the world of heavy Alcohol By Volume. In recent times, beer with a similar alcoholic content to wine was associated mainly with Belgium with its Dubbels and Tripels. British Barley wines - now commonplace - were more the stuff of legend recalled only by the elemental toothless djinn that haunt this nation’s public houses.

Now the hive conscience has registered the vacuum left at the other end of the booze spectrum and beers from the 2-3 ABV range are legion. Not only are we lucky in abundance, but in variety too. From sours and fruit beers to milds and tonic ales, low ABV beers are a growing trend. In that culture, flavour and refreshment have blossomed. Body needn’t always be compromised either.

I recently came across a perfect opportunity for a vertical tasting. Two breweries both with a 2.8 ABV beer on cask.

Three Blind Mice Brewery     Table Liquor (cask 2.8 ABV)

Little can be gleaned online from this brewery. There is no website but a busy Twitter feed. Despite that, their beers seem to be successfully doing the rounds of the craft beer pubs in London. They are based in the beautiful city of Ely in Cambridgeshire and this beer won silver at the 2015 Cambridge Beer Festival.

It’s lemon yellow and crystal clear with a white spittle of a head. I get lemon flesh in the aroma too and the accompanying dryness on the palate. It has a burnished metallic quality of copper coins like you get in good matured lagers. It ends with a dry aftertaste. Despite these notes, it’s quite a shallow ale insofar as everything that can be revealed does so in the first couple of sips. The body is quite weak but it’s refreshing and perfect for a summer thirst quencher. If you session this, you might get a bit of a digestive burn as the alpha acids have little to temper them (then again, you might not. I only had a half).

Siren Brewery    Half Mast QIPA (cask 2.8 ABV)

Siren Craft Brew requires little introduction as their beers are not only ubiquitous in the beer bars of Britain but in good beer bars and shops internationally. They have collaborated with many equally amazing brewers such as Crooked Stave, Arizona Wilderness, Hill Farmstead and Omnipollo and maintain their reputation as one of the country’s most innovative breweries.

QIPA stands for Quarter India Pale Ale - a reference to the unusually low ABV for the style. In appearance, it’s gold verging on bronze. It has a fruity aroma. There is the citrus but also the richer notes of darker fruit like blueberries. Initial sip is gentle and sorbet-like. There is a woodiness on the palate but also a sweetness like Brandy or Muscat grapes. It’s fruity rather than dry. I love it but I’m not sure what qualifies it as an IPA. A creamy soothing fruit basket - it could’ve been made by Danone. Tangy too like a fruit compote. The alpha acids seem easily held in check by the body. It’s my favourite out of the two beers.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Into The Unknown part 2

As a nation, when it comes to food and drink we have been both deprived and overwhelmed. The deprivation came firstly from the success of the industrial revolution. Industrial methods of containing, packaging and preserving food meant that tins, jars and packets could be sent to the four corners of empire shadowing the spread of industry across the globe itself. As a side effect, this safe but bland staple gradually eclipsed the British understanding of cookery as it had been known just a generation before. It was a method of keeping huge and far flung population chains going. 
Secondly, rationing during and after the Second World War lasted longer in Britain than anywhere in Western Europe. It finally ceased in 1954 after a span of nearly fifteen years. Home cooking had long become dependent on tinned, hermetic and powdered goods. In the new chrome post war Britain, sterility ruled. Breast milk for babies was out and formula mix in. Our national diet veered from overcooking combinations of flour, lard, milk, spuds and peas to the one available cheese made from fat and salt - to the horrors of corned beef and spam to the hallucinogenic rush from intakes of Tate & Lyle sugar, Bird’s custard or Hartley’s jam.
Continuing into the unknown, the beers is this 2nd article celebrate the the loss of homogeneity and the rediscovery of pleasure in Britain. For readability, the beers have been put under 2 headings though in reality each glassful is as unique as the next.

Water, malt, yeast and hops. These are the four ingredients for beer. The hop is the latecomer in the quartet. It was popular in Bavaria long before it came to Britain. The Dutch finally introduced us to it in about 1400 and neither us nor the rest of the world has looked back since. Countries like Belgium have been adding the fifth ingredient for hundreds of years in the form of cherries, apricots, coriander or orange peel. In Britain, we’ve been more staid with our breweries. Mostly, our beer quenched the indifferent thirsts of workers of the industrial age. It was about quantity though some spices or added sugars may have found themselves into some Christmas brews. The following beers commemorate the magic that can be brought about by experimenting with that extra ingredient.

Siren Craft Brewery Love of Work (cask 3.6)
Siren is of my favourite and most experimental breweries. I love the fact that their beers can be found on cask, keg and in bottle and stride the whole ABV spectrum. I found Love of Work on cask in the Craft Beer Co Covent Garden.
Added ingredients are all the rage but tea should really be given serious shrift when combined with hops. When I raised the glass to my lips, I realised that both tea leaf and hop cone are subjected to a similar process to achieve the same result: Both are immersed in hot water to release the oils in the flesh. Also, each can be considered a relaxant. In fact, hop tea is becoming popular as just that. 
Tea leaves contain L-theanine – linked with reducing mental and physical stress, improving cognitive performance and lowering blood pressure – ironically joining in a tug of war with the alcohol pulling in the opposite direction. The end result is actually a kind of tea or tisane containing Earl Grey leaves and Amarillo, Citra and Centennial hops. Thinking about it, they seem more natural bedfellows for the tea than adding fat rich milk from a cow’s udder and a teaspoon of refined sugar. 

Love of Work is a pale glowing golden with a dappled white head. It smells as though there is a squeeze of lemon. It’s light, crisp and peachy with the tea working its charm on the inhale. I’m reminded of a toned down Vicks Vapour Rub. It has a calming effect on the drinker. Some people add a squeeze of lemon to their tea ‘cause it brings out the tea’s flavour even more in the same way seasoning meat with salt brings out the flesh flavour. It’s a lovely beer – the malt and the hops react on the back of the palate whilst the high zingy note resonates at the front. With regards to whether there is a fruity, dry or bitter aftertaste, it just seems to wash itself away - a clean aftertaste. Actually once you’ve drained it – quite soapy.

The Foragers Saint Cloak (cask 4.5)
The Foragers is the alter ego of a pub called the Verulam Arms in St Albans. Customers are taken out on foraging missions to the local countryside and return with the spoils. These are then cooked and served up. Recently, they installed a small brewing kit in the garden and cask their own ale as well as cultivating their own hops up a trellis on the back fence. Their skills of flora and fungi identification mean that unlike most people, they know the flavour profiles of things like yarrow, coltsfoot, common inkcap, wild Douglas fir, Lady’s smock, hogweed, sheepsorrel, ground ivy and mugwort. They take this knowledge and apply it to ale mixology to produce some of the most bespoke and locally sourced beers there are (1). 
They made an oatmeal stout brewed with sweet woodruff – the same plant added to the green Berliner Weisse (Berliner Weisse mit grunem Schuss). After I’d had the stout I tried some of the woodruff syrup made on site. It’s used to make cordials or added to spirits. The hit I got from the glass was overwhelming and contradictory. One plant I can identify in hedgerows is Garlic Mustard or Jack of the hedge. You can eat the leaves and they do taste and smell of acrid garlic. A cloud of it buffeted me along with an intense sweetness like the iodine in cough mixtures. On the palate it tasted of undergrowth, undilute Ribena and chlorophyll. How often do you get that in your beer? In the beer though, it was a milder story: It tasted of sweet chocolate powder and had that aroma too. Light mocca froth. Gentle carbonation. It was a bit like drinking a crunchie bar complete with the tangy orange grouty filling. There’s also something soft like vanilla petals. Malty mouthfeel. Leaves a decent dry coffee cake aftertaste.

Fullers Brewery Oliver’s Island (cask 3.8)
Oliver’s Island protrudes from the Thames and is visible from the brewery in Chiswick. Fullers always has a seasonal but they also bring out beers to outlast the season and become semi-permanent. This beer replaces Discovery and should end up being available all year round though starts off very well as a refreshing spring/summer ale. I  include it here not as a revolution in brewing but as a palate cleanser roughly halfway down the list. It’s also here to provide some relative ease in an article featuring challenging beers. It’s really here though, because I love the beer and it’s new. Adding orange peel to British ales isn’t pioneering but I’ve never knowingly drank a pale/golden ale/bitter with the addition of orange peel. It contains Goldings and Liberty hops - the latter are related to (and come from) Hallertau hops used for aroma. When you also add the fact that wheat is used in the mash, this is obviously inspired by the continental witbier tradition (2).
It’s light golden amber with a rocky white head. Despite it’s spiritual similarities with Wit - the liquid is crystal clear. Marmalade/peachy aroma. First taste is of citrus zest. Marmalade and apricot continues on the palate. It’s a bit like devouring a handful of easy peeler tangerines. There’s enough malt in the body to transform this from a session beer into a nectar. The orange peel provides the high summery note all the way down the pint.
Writer Melissa Cole helped Fullers come up with the recipe and I think it delivers. This could so easily become a preferred session beer for thousands and can be equally enjoyed by drinkers of cask ale, lager or witbier - incidentally, all three are usually available in Fullers pubs so could easily stand in for that pint of Chiswick Bitter, Frontier Lager or Blue Moon should those lines run dry. It’s clever from every direction. 
Fullers has been brewing for 170 years now and has both been the maintainer of tradition and a hub of innovation. Its Fullers Reserve series - high ABV beers bottle conditioned and aged each year from a different recipe - now goes back almost 20 years to 1997. Since that time Fullers has seen countless breweries shrink back to a core beer before disappearing completely or being absorbed into a huge portfolio as the breweries ingested each other like Russian dolls. It’s still pushing out the effortlessly tasty as well as providing the challenging. It’s one of the few giants keeping apace.

The best beer for me is one that doesn’t sit neatly within a style. Traditionally, a beer style whether it’s a bitter, saison, mild, wheat or rye beer only became a style through conformity and the restricted availability of local ingredients or the established import of others. I believe we also have a tendency to look at what is or was common and see this as a rule to regulate following beers. Originally, it may have been brewed that way through simple expediency. 
We categorise beers because it’s necessary to get a basic vocabulary. With that, you can then have a conversation. So far so good. When I pick up a bottle in a good beer shop and it has beautiful illustration but no defining words, I too ask “what kind of beer is it?” in anticipation of the answer containing at least one familiar term. Deep down though, I know that the simple answer will still leave the beer’s character unexplained because even within the restrictions of that term, the experience could go a thousand ways. That’s the beauty of the alchemy at the heart of beer. It’s not just the ingredients, it’s what the brewer - through their vision or by simple fluke - has transformed them into. With the three following beers, “what kind of beer is it?” can only be answered by “how much time have you got?”.

De Halve Maan - Wild (bottle conditioned 9)

Like Fullers, the Halve Maan (the Half Moon) or Maes brewery is an institution that keeps up with modern trends. As an institution, it goes back a lot further than its Chiswick cousin. The original brewery dates all the way back to 1564 but was acquired by Leon Maes in 1856. At the time he visited England to find out more about modern brewing before setting up a hop kiln and malt house back in Bruges (The newly merged Fuller, Smith and Turner would have been just over a decade old at the time – it would be amazing to discover he visited [3]).

This twist on their Tripel lobs a grenade into De Halve Maan’s own traditions. Tart beers be they Flemish Reds or Lambic help define Belgium. Now it’s only after the popularity of Brettanomyces has circumnavigated the entire globe that it finally returns to explore the crannies within idle reach of whence they sprang! (4) This is testament to the international buzz of collaboration and experimentation, but also to the massive diversity in beer from such a small country like Belgium. It’s taken the whole world to make a North West Flemish brewer take just one step into its own back yard and nearby Pajottenland  – home of Lambic brewing - to look for inspiration. This is the world of regional and international brewing distorted through the prism of a carnival mirror.
Straffe Hendrik Tripel is refermented with Brettanomyces and aged for 3 months before the beer is released. It’s a beer that should also be laid down (meaning stood up) to age for years.  It pours a glowing light copper. There’s a pale hop oil constellation on the surface. The aroma instantly betrays the beer’s secret – that it’s strayed from its roots. The sour pungent Brett aroma is almost like uric acid – it wheezes into you. Once the liquid trickles down the gullet though, the original Flemish Tripel sweetness is still there. There’s candied apples and a touch of Cognac. However, almost in the way of a British bitter, an evening out of characters is achieved – the sweetness is lifted - and to some extent neutralised by - what would be the eye watering Brett. At 9 %, the beer delivers a happy warmth.

Wild Beer Company Ninkasi (bottle conditioned 9)
New Zealand hops are becoming very popular - even outshining American hops. They enjoy a golden and very specific terroir. The tastes and aromas are typically like a Carmen Miranda fruit basket. Like sours, Britain is also becoming more and more acquainted with wild beers - these are beers seeded spontaneously by wild yeasts in  the atmosphere and can be hard to achieve. If it’s a sideline rather than the main output, even if it works it needs to be well away from the regular brewing kit as the cultivation of wild yeasts will end up finding its way unbidden into the bottom or top fermenting beers. If these points weren’t enough for one beer than consider this - fresh Somerset apples have been added to this and the beer is undergoing a secondary fermentation in the bottle with Champagne yeast! 
This beer gets its name from the Sumerian goddess of beer and Alcohol. It pours dreamlike into the glass - a cloudy golden yellow. There’s a lily white hop oil swirl on top. The aroma is funky and lends itself mostly to the apples -masticated juicy white apple flesh. The mouthfeel is silky and I can feel my cheeks going red from the brandy like warmth of the alcohol. It feels like a cross between beer, cider and brandy.

Buxton/Hanging Bat Brewery  Berry Saki Bastard (bottle conditioned 10)
This beer contains an unbelievable combination: Sorachi Ace hops, Saki yeast, raspberries and white wine.
Pours a Flemish style red burgundy. Creamy milk of a head. The aroma is tart like a fruit coulis - the raspberries come through but are soured further by the white wine. It may be the saki yeast. The nose is a red fruit balsamic. The taste is softer than the nose suggests like the top red layer on strawberry cheesecake. There is a touch of Rodenbach about it with a tangy carbonation that really lifts the beer - it doesn’t come over as 10%. The mouthfeel is creamy. I get notes of red wine rather than white. The taste fizzes on the roof of the mouth. It warms up as the alcohol starts to glow. Despite this glow - it’s fruity and refreshing. The white wine only comes out on the burp  (subtly undertaken of course). It’s a cocktail! The more you drink it, the sweeter it becomes.

Modern brewing throws hundreds of darts at a board to see which, if any, hit. In truth, even the ones that find it don’t stay in for long. To me, it’s a testament to passion that big breweries are needing to keep up with small capacity guys leading the innovation. It seems as though every big established brand is hastily erecting an Ikea shed around the back to set up a micro and brew something radically different from what’s being sluiced into the bottle plant at the front. They’re hedging some bets on their own future - to mimic is to survive.

It’s difficult to tell whether our current beer obsession is part of a larger food revolution. The need to reacquaint ourselves with flavour and raw ingredients seems intuitive but this hunger for the alchemy of brewing isn’t limited to us. It’s been hugely influenced by the U.S and is reflected in Scandinavia, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Holland and now Spain too. Their dietary backgrounds have not been the sepia culinary woes of Blighty – yet we’ve all now find ourselves on the same journey.
Whatever the reason for this modern day St Vitus’ dance, it’s international, forward geared and draws on, but is unrestrained by tradition. We should just celebrate the fact that it’s here.

1 - A note on the beer’s odd title - it refers to Saint Amphibalus. Saint Alban (after whom our city is named) is Britain’s earliest saint - he was executed by the Romans in the third or fourth century. He himself had been converted by a priest who needed shelter from the Romans. To protect him, Alban went out dressed in the priest’s clothing and was apprehended. History has not recorded the priest’s name - Ambhibalus is Greek for cloak - the item of clothing which Alban donned so his saintly title was back engineered from that. Amphibalus was made a saint hundreds of years after St Alban - a kind of ancillary saint to help bolster the city’s thriving pilgrimage industry. Two saints for the price of one! As you’ve read this far - one more colourful detail - according to the (ahem) legend - when Alban was beheaded by the Roman, the executioner’s eyeballs popped out of his head and either landed in his hand or rolled down the hill with Alban’s head. This is not only illustrated in stonemasonry relief on cathedral walls but commemorated each year when two school children dress up as or carry giant eyeballs on poles in the annual St Albans day procession.
2 - The same ingredients used to make Oliver’s Island also seem to be in the recipe for a celebration ale commemorating Fuller’s 170th anniversary. That beer has a heavier 7% ABV.
3 - Straffe Hendrik means Strong Henry. It’s a dynastic title the family has kept going ever since Leon Maes.  Each male inheritor is the new Henry. Currently it’s Xavier Vanneste who should qualify as Henry 5th.

4 - Actually Brettanomyces means “the British yeast” and is found all over the world. In contemporary times though, Belgian beers have been the influence behind the popularity in America and now Britain. One strain is inspired by Belgium though - Brettanomyces bruxellensis.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Into The Unknown part 1

On the bars in Britain there are fewer and fewer permanent taps. Once a pub without a Guinness, Fosters or Heineken badge was unknown – now it’s increasingly common. When I enter a pub I’m drawn first towards the round oaken cask beer pumps. They stand polished, reassuring and defiant. Brewers deliberately go for a unique shape to their pump clips. The Thornbridge shield, for example, can be identified by silhouette from the street outside. The craft keg taps are more reminiscent of the detail on Isaac Asimov paperbacks – gleaming alien antennae or eye stalks hovering over the bar. You need to scrutinise them more closely. 

Walking into a decent pub now requires similar actions as going into a library. You inspect the clips and badges like you do the titles of books on the shelf. Any tasting notes on the clip become the blurb on the back cover. Basically, you browse, rubbernecking around humans and other obstacles. In quite a few pubs where beer is the focus, looking around at the other punters you could be forgiven for thinking they’re there to study too – each lost in his or her own world trying to pin down the notes in the beer like an impregnable first chapter. 

Good to have a rich and diverse reading selection

The “permanent” is often on the end of the cask or keg tap line-up and there are two kinds of drinker – the ones inclined to go for the usual and the ones that decide to go for the unusual. Overwhelmingly, I’m the latter. I’m drawn to the unknown - unchartered volumes.

In advertising, there is a much used tool called the sonic trigger. It’s used on television and on radio – usually towards the end or trailing the advert. It’s an auditory short cut that delves right into our memory banks. Jingles for products we may last have seen in our childhood can be instantly called back up. A good example is the four note trigger for Intel Inside or the five xylophone notes that are struck at the end of the Holidays Are Coming advert for Coca Cola - they instantly recall the luminescent snowbound lorry. 

There is a similar process to the sonic trigger involving sight and smell on the memory when tasting beer. When the sensation you’re anticipating doesn’t arrive and is replaced by another, however, you are forced to question what you thought you knew. When my palate is washed with what it’s unaccustomed to, it makes my mind crash and restart. My brain prizes open neural pathways to try and surround the imposter on a reconnaissance mission and start a file on it. With the unanticipated, I have to do a  double take and zoom out mentally so what were once the edges of the map are pushed further into the centre and I can get a bird’s eye view at what they really are - localised districts within a bigger picture. It transforms a beer rule into a beer colloquialism. When this happens it’s akin to opening your eyes and realising you’re not where you remembered being when you shut them. 

The beers is this article all represent a deviation from the norm. They are here because they left a mark on me and subconsciously I’ve been cataloguing them. Newer breweries with myriad methods of dispense are represented in part one. I’ve put them under two general themes for readability but in truth each beer is uncategorisable. 


Beer is the most versatile drink. Set free, it has started to stalk other members of the food and drink community. It’s blagging its way into cocktails. It has broken into, squatted and stolen the identity of spirit casks. It threatens white wine - intimating in hushed tones that it can compliment more dishes than it can. from a near identical stalked glass it whispers identical notes. For a while now it’s been hijacking dessert too. Might it have started becoming the dessert? If the following three beers were a bit thicker in body, then a dessert spoon might be entirely appropriate for them. 

Wild Beer Company Millionaire (bottle conditioned 4.7)

Chocolate or coffee stouts are nothing new. What’s happening now is that as much scrutiny is being put on the added ingredient as the beer that hosts it. It’s not simply bars of chocolate or a sack of coffee beans anymore. The provenance and ethos of the producer are just as vital. It’s now an unwritten rule that if there’s a local coffee shop the  brewery elves visit, shagged out after a deep muscle mash, there is a collab beer with that fair-trade coffee shack in the pipeline. 

The coffee or chocolate is beginning to eclipse the water, hops, yeast and malt. It’s not enough to have a coffee beer. Coffee’s own portfolio is being subducted with relish by the brewery’s. You can have an espresso stout, a latte stout, a hazelnut and vanilla porter or a white coffee milk stout. It doesn’t end there. This subduction is now pulling in coffee’s accoutrements! The biscuits too were thrown into the copper boil - only the crockery escaping. There is digestive biscuit beer and a salted caramel beer. There’ll be a custard cream or hobnob one soon.

Millionaire is a very dark chestnut brown and light doesn’t seem to impregnate it when held up. You need to shake a head up - you’ll get a mocca milk out of it. The aroma tells you this is going to be interesting as you get notes both of milk chocolate and the coast. The mouthfeel is like a silk lined duvet. I taste UHT milk and salted caramel. The sweetness is a bit like a masticated flapjack or a half digested coffee creme. Malty aftertaste.

Thornbridge Brewery Cocoa Wonderland (gravity cask 6.8)

Kate and Anne are self-proclaimed cocoa girls. They run a chocolate shop/café in Sheffield called Cocoa Wonderland hence the beer’s title. Each year from October 13th to October 19th it’s national chocolate week in Britain and it’s when the cocoa girls brewed this collaboration with Thornbridge. It also served to commemorate Cocoa Wonderland’s 10th anniversary as a business. They want more women to drink beer and the word experimentation hardly suffices to sum up their ideas. Reading their blog, they’d shine as craft brewsters. They’ve mixed stout with Prosecco – their “black velvet cocktail” and suggest making their Thornbridge chocolate porter into a beer float – serving it in a glass with ice cream! I tip my hat. 

Dark crimson with a beige spittle. The taste is like abseiling through peat layers. Initial roast coffee and coffee cake. It gets deeper and needier like Tiramisu. There’s an almost petroleum dimension to it. Buzzing finish like the charge I used to get on the tip of the tongue from Sherbert. Sludgy carby body. If you’ve ever plunged your spoon with abandon into the foil seal of a cocoa tin and been enveloped by the “flock” cloud - you’ll understand this tasting note.

Brooklyn Brewery Black Chocolate Stout (bottle 10)

Brooklyn Brewery is synonymous with the term craft beer. 20% of beer exported from the US is from them. Their flagship beer is Brooklyn Lager, but this stout is as far as you could possibly get from it. 
Though called Black Chocolate Stout, this beer has no chocolate in it - the massive chocolate hit comes from no fewer than six malts being included in the mash. Hops take a  back seat - in fact they’re completely burned out by the simulated cocoa onslaught. when you pour this out, you can’t hold your arm out far enough to conceal the aroma. It comes and assaults you. It’s of dry unsweetened 80% black chocolate. Such a high ABV isn’t conducive to forming a head so you have to twirl it up - it’s a coffee/brown bread brown and doesn’t hang around for long. It’s extremely dry both on the sip and the aftertaste. You both drink and inhale neat black chocolate. It’s the kind that’s used for dusting Kirsch liqueur chocolates. Drinking it is like munching chocolate bourbon biscuits. It dehydrates you, sticking your tongue to the roof of your mouth. It forces you to lick your desiccated lips like a reptile. If it shows anything, it’s how sound an ingredient malt is. Drinkers of pale but massively hopped IPAs should try this - it’s every inch the brute the IPA is.


The beers represented here were made by breweries just a few minutes’ walk from each other in Bermondsey. The breweries here have no sunken boreholes to draw their own water from. A lot of the brewing process is necessarily outsourced; there is little chance of kilning or hop growing under a railway arch. Ironically, this makes the world their oyster as they’re not inhibited by what is local. The only thing they could truly bring inhouse is cultivating the yeast (1). They are part of a new trend in public drinking - what you might call focals rather than locals. Apart from a small minority that live in the area, the customers are coming from across and from outside of London. The breweries are part of a phenomenon that reflects both a pilgrimage and a pub crawl.

What’s also encouraging is that I see more new breweries employing whichever dispense method they think best serves the beer inside. I love my cask ale but it doesn’t do justice to Pilsners, witbier, Kolsch or sours. I love my keg/key keg beer too but it cannot handle bitter or full roast stout as well. They embody the ideal – choosing the best from each persuasion and often trying them through both. The following three have been chosen under the above heading as mouthfeel or body aren’t adequate to describe what they have to offer.

Anspach & Hobday Peated Gose (keykeg 3.8)

Gose is a beer style that originated in the town of Goslar near Leipzig. It came close to being bombed to extinction as the Kolsch style almost was in the Rhineland. Gose is a sour beer made from a mash that is at least 50% wheat and then soured with salt – either from a sodium-heavy water supply or by the addition of gypsum. It’s also often spiced with coriander and belongs cladistically with other sour Germanic beers like Berliner Weisse or Witbier. Today these styles are probably emulated more out of Germany and Belgium than in them. You’re as likely to see Gose brewed in Bermondsey or Colorado as Goslar. 

As the name suggests, this beer has been peated by barley grain being dried and toasted over a peat fire. What would happen if you took such sourness and added the smoky boreal sweetness of the ancient mulch? You get a very interesting ale. My mind boggles at the fact that a matter thousands of years old has been used in the making of this. There’s a lot of history in this glass. 

It’s light daffodil coloured and opaque with a white oil head. The mouthfeel is a glossy cream and one of the most distinctive things about the beer. It reminds me of custard but the texture is much more. It’s a bit like sucking on a salted cloth. The carbonation is gentle on the tip of the tongue. It tastes a bit like carob or a rich sweet flaky pastry like baclava. You then add table salt. The Gose sourness starts to emerge like an apparition. There’s dry white wine. I find it so hard to describe. It’s also a bit like white chocolate if you salted it -  almost a white version of Millionare from the Wild Beer Co but made in a radically different way. To experience the almost thixotropic (2) quality of this beer, you need to get down to the brewery on Druid Street and have some fresh.

Brew By Numbers Irish Dry Stout Nitro (keg 5.4)

This beer was an education to me. I was once asked by my cousin how come the bubbles are actually travelling downwards down the side of a pint of Guinness. I mumbled some kind of an answer but didn’t actually have a clue. Now I know: they’re nitrogen bubbles and they’re heavier than air. Nitrogen isn’t very soluble in beer and when you drink it you get the sensation of something trapped within it. The bubbles will eventually find the pint’s head through the rotation of the liquid. In Guinness, it’s still smarting from the momentum of a pressurised dispense and so charges around. This Nitro Dry Stout was dispensed with the same method. In addition, the tap was deliberately agitated so the liquid fell out in slops and splashes to help the head & creaminess along.

As any CAMRA member has been radicalised to believe – nitrogen bad – carbonation from natural fermentation good. This is therefore a controversial choice, but when you outright claim the nitrogen as the beer’s selling point and actually use it for specific effect, it changes things. It becomes an ingredient in its own right.  This beer is notable not so much for the easily identifiable flavours of chocolate and coffee but for the texture of the beer and a sensation which seems to wire other senses together. The mouthfeel is glossy – almost emulsified. The sensation is similar to what I experience if a fuse has blown. It’s like burnt ozone and it permeates throughout the liquid and then seems to permeate through drinker like osmosis.

Anspach & Hobday Cream Ale (keykeg 5.2)

I’d never heard of cream ale before. As a style, it comes from the northeast and mid-Atlantic states in America. Traditionally it’s made with rice, corn or both as part of the mash and is often seeded with both lager yeast and ale yeast. The style is often put forward as a competitor to Lager as it’s equally as refreshing and often hopped with Cluster or Brewers Gold. One of the best things about innovation though, is that you get to treat tradition like a buffet - just take the parts you want and then tweak with it items you brought along yourself. 

This is another beer that has texture sharing equal billing with taste as a selling point. The ale was made by using corn in the mash then seeding the ale firstly with ale yeast which was skimmed off at the surface. Then the temperature was lowered and the beer seeded with a lager yeast. It was hopped not with First Gold or Cluster but Sorachi Ace. This led to an almost oxymoronic creamy comforting texture paired with the sharp piney Sorachi Ace hop. The creamy mouthfeel and hop sharpness are like straddling two roads – one gravel and one tarmac and just cruising along.

Increasingly, it’s only in tied pubs you’ll find permanent shields whether it’s ESB in Fuller’s or Bishop’s Finger in Shepherd Neame. I do go back to these old friends from time to time and hope that the drinking of familiar ale honours my memory by replaying it in high definition. To defibrillate the library analogy though, I’ve rifled through those dog eared tomes before and want to explore the labyrinthine aisles for virgin material. The acquisition of new beer is crucial.

1 - Anspach & Hobday are doing exactly that. Yeast traps have been set around the brewery to trap wild airborne yeasts. Beer will be seeded with it under the title ArchHouse to reflect its railway arch origins.

2 - thixotropic - substances that, depending on whether they’re being poured or agitated, change viscosity but return to the original state. If you’ve ever made custard and watched it run then solidify in runnels from the whisk - that’s thixotropy. I first found this word years ago working for the council. In an emergency situation I climbed over a wall covered in anti-climb paint. It doesn’t come off and clothing has to be destroyed. The paint stays in solid state so it won’t run down the walls but liquefies when you put your hands in it.