Wednesday, 27 July 2016

A call to arms - the pub division bells of Westminster



I push through the glass door of the Blue Boar and ascend up a curving stair to be met with what looks like a concierge. He, like the others around and behind the bar, is dressed in a smart black waistcoat with a pressed white shirt gleaming through the lapels. Everyone sports a name badge.
“Is it okay just to come in for a drink?”
“Of course, sir - it’s a bar!” He gestures towards it. 
Outside the summer’s blazing. The fridges and beer founts glow in the comparative darkness making them all the more alluring.
“And er… I understand you have a division bell on site for MPs when there’s a vote?” Further words trail off as he arrests me with an eager beam. He turns and I follow him under glass cases housing models of politicians past and present. We come to a polished metal boss on the wall - I’m looking at my first ever division bell. 



Around the palace of Westminster, division bells haunt six pubs and a multitude of restaurants, bars and clubs. They’re called division bells because when they go off they recall MPs to a vote. The MPs divide by chamber to vote into the ayes and the nays. 

Though I’ve included the Blue Boar as a pub, I’d make a distinction and call it a bar despite its pubby title. It’s dark and cool - shelter from the baking heat outside. It’s tidy, shining and clean but not sterile. The staff are friendly and perambulate as official welcomers. There is no cask beer but there is keg from Meantime so I climb up on a stool and hang my bag from a hook under the lip. I order a half of Yakima Red and it’s served in the brewery’s balloon glass with beads of condensation trailing their way down its bulge. It’s chilled, cherry-like, resinous and dry. It really hits the spot and is as photogenic as an advert.


As you don’t pay up front, I do begin to worry how much this refresher might cost. When I settle, the bill’s served to me on a little tray and I’m relieved to find it’s only £2.70. For those of you channeling your inner Arkwright and screaming “Ow much?!”, anyone familiar with central London will understand that it could’ve been much worse. 

They let me keep the beer mat and I even leave a £0.30 tip. Visiting a cubicle in the gents, I find the end of the toilet roll has been folded into a point. After I’ve finished, I use my best origami skills to reinstate it. There are no hand driers - just laundered individual flannels. Absolute class.

I leave the Blue Boar and proceed down Broadway to my second destination on Storey’s Gate: the Westminster Arms - a Shepherd Neame pub. I walk in and it’s wood panelled everywhere. Soft leather stools describe the room’s circumference under neat elbow shelves. There is no furniture in the middle of the floor which means that when it’s busy, it’s a hive of humans buzzing in symphony. There are also upstairs and a downstairs rooms which are more for tourists looking to eat. I don’t explore them. 


There’s a young man and an older man serving. Both seem to be French or Belgian so I suspect father and son. When you cross the threshold the elder asks “can I ‘elp you?” There are ceramic demijohns perched on high and I also notice some of the upper panelling at the wall/ceiling junction: old brewery advertisements proclaim Stock India Pale Ale (KK) and East India Pale Ale (AK). What I love the most is the pub’s original telephone number: simply Westminster 365. I’m looking for something else though. I approach the younger barman and get as far as the word division and he points it out on the wall behind me - it’s a beauty of walnut, bakelite and iron.

Often when a two thirds majority is needed to pass a motion, the speaker (currently conservative MP John Bercow) will shout “empty the lobbies -divisiooon!” and the bells will then sound for exactly eight minutes.






I order a pint of Master Brew and sit at the window. Like the decor, the beer glows like burnished oak. On the taste buds it’s treacly and malty. It’s desperately English and reminds me of a Werthers Original dissolving on the tongue with a background hint of leaf litter. I never used to regard staple Shepherd Neame beers in this way - this has come about due to the comparative harsh, garish and aggressive souls of modern craft brewing. When you go back to them, older bitters taste more and more like Nesquik.

To get to the next pub you to go straight past Parliament Square and the east wing of the houses of parliament then traverse one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in Britain to visit St Stephens Tavern. It’s one of a handful of London pubs run by Hall & Woodhouse, aka Badger from Dorset.


Both the interior and exterior of the pub are amazing. The outside is a sloping goods delivery access that looks directly at Queen Elizabeth tower (remember - big ben’s actually the bell inside). It’s at once a cacophony of sound - vehicles beeping, engine noise, tourists, people playing music - and complete serenity. I think it’s the surrealness of facing a postcard brought to life that takes the auditory sting out of it. The staff all have ear pieces - they’re “plugged in” - like the agents in the Matrix.

Inside the ceiling seems to make a bid for the sky and the windows follow them all the way up. Each vertiginous pane is also etched and has its own taylor made curtain which in turn has its own taylor made cords with tassels. Mirrors behind the bar are backlit. There are double-topped circular perch tables (similar to a cake stand on top of a coffee table). There’s a TV screen on mute showing BBC parliament.


Most beer engines dispense Fursty Ferret but there’s also Tanglefoot and First Call. I order a pint of the latter. It’s dark, sweet and tangy. Again, it’s been awhile since I had any of these beers and part of me wonders if they forgot to add the hops.

In the run up to the division, the preceding debates can last hours so many members of Parliament scurry off to nearby watering holes instead and remain there until their respective bells ring.












I gaze up at the division bell which I saw as soon as I walked in. It’s high up the wall here fronted by a grille. It looks like the bottom half of a grandfather clock; an actual clock face right above it bolsters that comparison.

I choose to cross back over the road and walk directly under the Queen Elizabeth tower in order to cross Westminster bridge and backtrack along the southern bank of the Thames. It’s worth it just to photograph the palace over the water. I cross back over Lambeth bridge into Millbank to get to Romney Street and the Marquis of Granby - a Nicholsons pub.

The Marquis of Granby is a one room pub. It’s busy but most of the customers stand outside. There are luxurious burgundy leather couches and copper-topped tables. Two electric chandeliers give the interior a yellow feel. In a recess behind the bar, I’m surprised to see four casks on gravity tilted forward but none of them are yet ready to dispense. I opt instead for a pint of Trumans Runner - it’s dark amber and balances the malt with a sharp citrus zest. It’s the best thing I’ve had on cask today.


The obvious question pops out and a woman behind the bar points me towards it. She surprises me when she says that it was going off every half hour on the day the commons voted on whether to keep Trident - Britain’s nuclear defence system. I presume there must have been other votes on the day. 

Members of Parliament have just eight minutes to get to the relevant chamber in the palace of Westminster and vote. Once the eight minutes are up, the chamber doors are barred.







The Marquis’ division bell is the most interesting thus far. It looks a bit like a pair of binoculars mounted on a wooden noggin. Below it, a few sentences about its function have been hand painted in italic. Spotting my interest, a woman called Prue gives me her own little hand written card. So far I’ve been impressed by the hospitality of staff in all the pubs - especially since they’re toiling in one of the most tourist-saturated slices of the capital. They’re true grafters.

The next stop is on Parliament Street for a pub that stands virtually opposite Downing Street. The Red Lion is a Fullers pub. The inside needs to be visited to be believed: there are round window recesses perfectly encompassing their round tables. Hogsheads are also used to put drinks on. Behind the bar, and arguably forming it, is a one-piece wooden scaffold accommodating clocks, bottle shelving, ceiling columns and fridges. There are political portraits on the walls and two massive chandeliers. Even the hand pumps are taylor made - the most sturdy brewery-branded pulls you’ll see.


On the downside, the Red Lion has the least majestic division bell so far to the point that the woman serving is quite apologetic about it. 


I order a pint of Oliver’s Island and take a few oblique shots with the camera. Because of the crowd, I can’t get a straight shot at it. As you’ll see - my photo is as underwhelming as the bell.

Members of the public and tourists often run outside at the ringing of the bells - they assume it’s the fire alarm.









The last stop is a Taylor Walker pub called the Prince Albert on Victoria Street. The division bell is upstairs in a dining lounge with restrictive opening hours so it’s actually a return visit. When I go upstairs to immortalise it, it’s a beauty. The twin bells gleam in the peachy light.

To get from here or indeed the Blue Boar to a voting chamber in the house of commons within eight minutes would require an MP to break Usain Bolt’s sprint record in my opinion. It’s not just the length of Victoria Street or Broadway, but having to negotiate the traffic lights around Parliament Square and then getting into the palace and its labyrinthine corridors itself.

When you think about it, lots of MPs must stagger through the chamber to vote when they’re under the influence of alcohol.









The Prince Albert interior is a mecca to Victorian pomp and confidence. The colours are walnut, burgundy, cream and black. Every pillar, table, elbow shelf and chair leg seems individually turned on a lathe. Light is multiplied through mirrors behind the bar. All the windows including the panes on the saloon doors are etched. I have a half of Trumans Swift - it’s golden, clean, dry and lemony.


It seems our MPs would rather be out drinking than taking part in a debate. Perhaps they're more like us than we give them credit for.

I found that the pubs containing division bells are utterly proud of them and keen to point them out. Most installations look lovingly polished too.




Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Getting a brew on: tea-infused beers



Coffees with heads you could stick flakes into have usurped our dainty cups of tea. When visiting people’s homes, tea was always the default offering. Coffee was a backup choice - back there with cocoa, hot chocolate and Ovaltine. Perhaps Britain’s decline in the world correlates with the dearth of raising our little finger. 

Beer and coffee hybrids can be quite special. The alcohol relaxes and loosens you out, the coffee stimulates and hones you to a point. I find that on occasion the mixture of booze and caffeine can bring on a headache - especially if its ABV pounds into double figures.

This vertical tasting sees beers from Siren Craft Brew in Finchampstead, Hammerton Brewery in Islington and Pope’s Yard Brewery in Watford. Each different beer style has been blended with the herbal, the relaxing and the invigorating: tea.
         


Siren Craft Brew - Vermont Tea Party - bottle conditioned 3.6%

loose leaf pale ale with earl grey tea and lemon zest 


This beer is based on Siren’s original tea beer - Love of Work. The yeast is from Vermont. Citrus zest has been used to complement Chinook, Citra, Equinox and Amarillo hops. 

Decanted, the colour is lemony and turgid. The head rocks up like white nougat. You can hear it popping like Rice Crispies as it declines.

On the nose I certainly get the lemon zest but also some dark gritty malt like pumpernickel bread. The carbonation is zinging. 

The malt in the aroma isn’t reflected on the palate. Lemon is the strongest taste that comes through. It’s easy-going, maybe not surprising considering its svelte ABV.

I like it. The beer made no claims of having a complicated character. It’s perfect for sipping outside in the summer - ideal for watching Wimbledon. The refreshment’s similar to a lime cordial or a lemon squash with the added “herbal high” of the tea. I do get a calming feeling; my heart rate feels as though it’s slowing.


photo source: Wikipedia


The leaves of the traditional tea plant - Camellia Sinensis - contain L-theanine linked with reducing mental and physical stress, improving cognitive performance and lowering blood pressure. When brewers dry-hop, it’s virtually the same process as adding tea leaves to hot water. The heat teases out the oils and flavonoids.








Hammerton Brewery - Baron H - bottle conditioned 5.8%

earl grey black IPA


Baron H is short for Baron Howick, aka Earl Grey - the Prime Minister the tea is named after. This ale is hopped with Chinook, Cascade, Mosaic, Columbus and Summit. 

The colour of the ale is deepest cola burgundy. The head is beige and beautiful; it builds high into a whisked batter of mismatched bubbles.

The aroma is appetising: a mixture of bergamot, ginger and chocolate malt. It smells more like a seed-based or wholegrain snack bar.

First sip is like a draught of coffee but it harbours friends with benefits. You’re led through a solenoid able to shoot you down three legs: the calming tea earthiness, the buzzing roast caffeine hit or the sweet stout creaminess. In fact, you’ll travel down each simultaneously. 

It has a smooth malty mouthfeel too but the carbonation gives it vitality. There’s even a fennel note - presumably from the earl grey. There’s also a mild Marmite note (I’m a lover rather than a hater btw) and an zincy mineral water edge.

There’s loads going on but it’s well compiled and eminently moreable. You’l feel sated at the end.


photo source: Wikipedia


Tea today is a varied creature. For one thing, unlike coffee beans, it isn’t actually anything specific. Different teas (more accurately “tisanes”) are made from different plants, buds, petals, fruits, roots, leaves and stems. In the last week alone I’ve had peppermint, stinging nettle, popcorn and roast almond tea.









Pope’s Yard Brewery - LSP - bottle conditioned 10.2%

lapsing souchong porter 


This porter is made with many malts - Maris Otter, Crystal, torrified wheat, roast barley and black and chocolate malt. Target and Golding hops are then used with molasses.

The beer in the glass is pitch black and impenetrable to light. All I can see is the reflection of my nose made bulbous by the glass’ curves. There’s a brief head the colour of brown sugar that releases a sigh as it goes down; high ABV beers don’t often retain a mousse.

On the nose I get bitumen and liquorice. It smells like a rich dark dessert. It’s tantalising. The liquid when you rock it back and forth is viscous - again, no surprise for such a boozy heavyweight.

When I sip it with my schnoz almost touching the surface of the beer, I get peripheral minty notes on the inhale and get memories of Vicks VapoRub. You can feel the alcohol pixellate you but thankfully you can’t taste it. Bergamot comes through as you down it. It’s sticky on the lips like figs and there’s a taste a bit like biro ink.

On the palate it’s tangy with a fruity spiritous edge - stewed dark fruits - plums, blackberries, damsons, and black cherries. It reminds me also of the brandy you get in Kirsch chocolate liqueur sticks

It doesn’t weigh as heavy as you might think but considering the punch it packs, isn’t quite as interesting or intense as it could be.


Conclusion?
               

The Lapsang Souchong porter is still worth investigating but outmatched in this taste-off. With another palate, another mood and another climate these thoughts could change.

My runner up would be Vermont Tea Party for its sunlight. The brewery is building a portfolio of bold recipes that occupy each weight division. This beer’s been brewed at the right time of year and quite a few hours could be whiled away on this. I think it could also be great on cask. I will seek it out for this summer’s beer garden sittings.


Baron H definitely wins this session. There’s so much going on you can dine out on it but it’s not so heavy you couldn’t have a several of them. It’s just right for its bottle dose. Each sip is a short cruise around the senses. I love how none of the characteristics overwhelm one another. I think it would go really well with an evening of Scandi crime drama on TV and a slice of coffee cake.

other tastings:

Heavy Black IPAs:
Heavy Rye Beers:
Flanders Beers:
Black Bean Beers:
International Saisons:
Kolsch Beers:

Thursday, 14 July 2016

On writing...


Alec Latham

The context:

I am in awe of some beer writers and they’re as varied and personal as the beer styles they scribe about. What I love is that writing about beer has become such a widespread phenomenon that the bar is constantly being raised. Unfortunately, this also means that there’s ever more competition to beat and to judge your own abilities by. 

On July 14th this year, I’ll have been in full time employment for twenty years since plunging in at eighteen - unfortunately my job has nothing to do with beer or writing. It was seeing this anniversary hove into view at the end of 2014 that spurred me to finally start writing and I’ve been keeping it up ever since. I used to be good at writing back in school so hoped I could still churn a readable paragraph. I was thrilled to get published by Hop & Barley in my capacity as an essay writer and later by doing Moor Beer taste comparisons. I’ll also be published in CAMRA’s beer magazine later in the year. 

I should make something quite clear right at this point - I don’t really know what I’m doing but I care deeply about the fact I’m doing it. I stopped going to school at fifteen and my highest qualification is my driving licence. I crave to be better at writing. I want it to be as beautiful as Kernel brewery’s Biere de Saison. I hope my passion goes some way to making up for my lack of training.

The field:

There’s plenty to consider if you want to write for an audience. First and foremost, how do readers even know you exist? Assuming the audience gets as far as seeing what you’ve written as a website link, how do you actually hold its attention? I apply this to how I read others’ work. What I read on the computer is different to what I’ll read on a smart phone because of the format.  Longer posts will suffer on a phone screen as they’re forced into a narrower vertical channel but be under no doubt - the smartphone is now the primary vector for written articles.

Des De Moor writes about beer but also about walking and I will stay with him through a 5000 word post even though (pun completely intended) it’s a trek. But I still need to wait until I get back home and fire up the computer for him. 

Short posts of several paragraphs are more likely to be read from start to finish so I can easily manage pub curmudgeon whilst standing at a bar. Personally, I like to write substantial posts because there’s a lot I want to get down. Retrospectively, I hope I learn a tiny lesson each time.

I’d like it if someone was suggesting ways I might improve this short post right now. What I need is someone to tell me when only I find something I’ve written funny or when I’m rambling, going off on a pointless tangent, splitting paragraphs apart or misguidedly forcing others together. I need to know what the reader thinks and at what point I cease to be original, make sense or merit its attention.

The solution:

I don’t believe I’m alone in wanting this kind of feedback as us writers want to be read and remembered. We want to improve our game. This is why I’ve set up a London-based group through the website Meetup called The London Beer Writers. It’s been a slow start but if you are London-based or London-centric (I live in St Albans) and would like constructive feedback about your writing, please join it - it’s completely free.


It works like this: We meet up in a quiet pub with a good beer range and bring our written work on laptops or printed out. However many there are, we offer our work in a circular way round the table so if there were four of us, we’d take the member’s work from the left and give ours to the right. We’d then repeat this so everyone’s work had been seen by every other member. Each time we’d make notes about what we think (constructively of course) and when everybody’s read everyone else’s work, we offer our feedback to the writers one by one. This way we can get a better insight into our strengths and weaknesses and exploit and address them respectively. 

If our thoughts are dry, I’ll supply a paper with little questions to get some responses coming. Above all, I’d like to help you and learn from you. So how about it?


After that, we relax with a few beers. It is after all what motivates us ;-)

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Albion: the first days of July

From behind the tree line, a red kite ascends with the heat. Its blazing orange wings and tail twist to knead the thermals’ contours. It hangs in slow motion above the canopy and then, in silence, drifts diagonally like flotsam on a tide. Below, tiny red UFOs hover and alight on the white umbels of cow parsley: Soldier beetles are mating in their own tiny canopies. It’s summertime in Hertfordshire.



In the park, a large human male with bleached white legs plods along with all the confidence of a man who’s had his trousers stolen. He wears new sandals from TK Maxx. His partner accompanies him, studying his expression. 
“So what should we do then?” she asks with arms firmly crossed. It’s a summer’s day after all, the possibilities are manifold. The Neanderthal feigns racking his brain but she reads it out for him.
“You just want to go to the pub don’t you?”
The man falls even more silent. Memories of wanting to jump back into the pool as a young boy are blinding all rational thought.

Summertime in England doesn’t just mean exposed flesh and a few weeks of warmth, it heralds a change in a town’s acoustics. This is achieved by pubs simply leaving front doors wide open. During the other three seasons, the babble of conversation can be heard but stays locked within the pub’s walls only briefly breaking cover when a door heaves open to unload a punter. Otherwise to passers-by, it’s like Radio Luxembourg with the dial set at one. In the summer the noise ambushes the lazy streets - outbursts from an invisible crowd bayonet the peace: Sonic irruption.


I walk past the Six Bells on a sweltering day. A Sid James-esque laugh booms out from the open doorway and I immediately know who’s inside - it’s not his usual local. I can picture his stance, the way he holds his head and grabs the bar like it’s a railing on a heaving ship. I can even see the mischief and the spittle glistening on his grin.

It’s amazing what else you can see. You don’t actually have to be there, you just need to let your sensors reach out. There is zen in this.

I pass the White Swan and a cry erupts out of the door and windows like lava. An emergency consultation in my head identifies it as a goal being scored. England must have scored, but wait - this pub’s the Irish pub. Maybe it’s Ireland that just scored. I walk on. Moments later, I hear the same throat-rending scream almost cause two other pubs to collapse. Wingbeats chop the air as pigeons scatter upwards. Now I know that England have scored and I don’t just know when they score but when they get close. The customers’ eyes are my eyes. I hear pained exclamations wailed in perfect chorus. Even though my sight can’t pierce the brick, I can see their hands rammed against their temples as if to stop their heads from coming apart. The other side has just scored against them. Downy pigeon feathers fall slowly back to earth.


On the inside in the comparative dark and cool of the snug, a man with leather skin tries to master his sea legs. He gains on the bar. The publican he was expecting to speak to isn’t there or is hiding - a young woman’s serving instead. Two identical hands are raised - each holding aloft a trembling index finger. He squints so that they merge back into the one.
“Tell…tell Justin ‘e’s a good man.” He draws breath anew as if a powerful tagline is about to follow. 
“Tell ‘im from me ‘e’s a good man…. and you’re a good man too.” For a second, the lucky member of bar staff toys with finding a compliment in that. That second evaporates. With what might’ve been a flourish in a soberer dimension, he turns and sways like an worn MFI bookshelf towards the bright rectangle of outdoors. His head and shoulders are red and smouldering. The union jack shorts and white Nike socks give him the air of a toddler taking his first steps and then he’s gone - enveloped by the light. A moment later a sound like sizzling bacon can be heard. The barmaid goes back to staring at her smartphone.

Teen males walk around bare chested - their sweaters looped back over their heads so the sleeves bounce on their shoulders like wobbly antennae. CAMRA veterans wipe the perspiration from their foreheads and look around to check who’s watching before eyeing up the corporate lager taps.


It’s the annual St Michaels Village folk festival. The pubs disgorge themselves - they turn inside out spewing the drinkers onto the road. The streets become the public bar and inside is transformed into outside. The Rose & Crown has raised the standard of Britishdom by holding an ice cream van hostage in its own car park. Men and women in straw hats and bondage gear charge at each other and smash sticks. Obscure little gaggles demonstrate their ethnic group’s traditional dancing inability. Alcohol is served in the grounds of both the parish church and the primary school.


A man with a white beard and a paunch edges through the throng with bells strapped to his ankles. In his left hand is a pint of bitter and a clashing stick, in his right a ninety nine with a flake. He looks from one to the other realising he hasn’t thought this through. His blouse inflates for a moment as a breeze picks up. The ice cream runs down his wrist and a dollop hits his wooden clog with a splat. In summertime in England, this display of sartorial mental illness becomes the most normal thing, and I for one feel reassured.