Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The most incompetent pub in London?

While in London for the Great British Beer Festival I headed to the Bree Louise for a pint before before boarding my train home. I'd heard various stories about the place, that it was unpleasant, dirty, etc, but popular with the local real ale enthusiasts for the excellent standard of its beer.

This didn't put me off, because I've drunk in some pretty grotty places in my time, and know what to expect when the Good Beer Guide describes some back-street shebeen euphemistically as "a genuine local". In a way, I sort of admire the determined, grimly single-minded attitude that nothing else matters except the quality of the beer.

So I was expecting a spectacular pint, while accepting that the surroundings might be a bit dingy. They were indeed dingy, somewhat reminiscent of a Soviet-era works canteen, but it seemed clean enough and the smell was of disinfectant rather than piss and confined only to certain areas.

Brodies Citra, among other things, was on offer so I ordered a pint. Imagine my surprise to see that the beer drawn from the cask was flat.

Completely flat.

At the Bree Louise, they claim Brodie's Citra should be served like this.

Not not-as-fizzy-as-Carling flat, not only-a-loose-head-we're-not-in-Yorkshire-now flat, not past-its-best-and-losing-condition flat — totally, utterly, absolutely flat.

Zero volumes, 0 grams of CO2 per litre, however else you wish to express the absence of any carbon dioxide at all from the beer.

I smiled at the barman and brought it to his attention that the beer was flat. "Yes," he agreed happily, and explained that beer served by gravity was always flat. I looked around the pub and other people's pints, too, resembled still cider more than beer.
I could barely believe what I was hearing, bearing in mind that the Bree Louise has won awards, although to me it was already obvious that they don't understand the first thing about keeping and serving real ale.

I wished I had had my just-purchased copy of the CAMRA cellarmanship guide; I would gladly have made a present of it to the landlord at that moment. Alas, the book was locked away in the left luggage office at Euston station.

Although I'd wasted £3 on an undrinkable pint, I was more incredulous than angry. I didn't bother to complain; I was already laughing in the barman's face because the whole situation was so surreal and ridiculous.

Some people have previously suggested the local CAMRAnauts are so tight-fisted that they patronise the Bree Louise due to its practice of granting a substantial discount to CAMRA members. But this can't be the reason, because it's still not undercutting Wetherspoons, and at least Wetherspoons know how to replace a spile so the beer keeps its condition.

So can someone explain to me how this place wins awards?
Have I stumbled upon a secret cult, a microfaction I wasn't previously aware of who enjoy their beer with no CO2 whatsoever? Can beer be cask conditioned if it, well, doesn't have any condition at all? 

28 comments:

  1. I avoid this place like the plague, for the reasons you state. Flat beer and an awful atmosphere and layout. As for winning awards - I didn't know it had done - but sadly this kind of lifeless beer is not unusual in the capital.

    I wrote about it here: http://tandlemanbeerblog.blogspot.com/2009/04/bree-louise.html

    Sadly I went back once and had - well, flat beer. I haven't been back.

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  2. ewwww, ignoring the Carling comment that looks awful!

    It is a dreadful pub - the only thing I think it could win awards for is the awful smell. Been there once - never again.

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  3. Saying Carling is fizzy isn't controversial, is it?

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  4. To be fair I don't think gravity serving does beer any favours.

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  5. There still is a lingering school of thought amongst some "beer enthusiasts" in the South of England that condition in cask beer is per se a bad thing.

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  6. Ed: we'll have to agree to disagree there. I think it's the best way. Even a handpump is a compromise. The beer has to have enough condition in the first place, of course.

    Curmudgeon: the entire concept of cask beer only makes sense if it supposed to have condition. What's the point of a secondary fermentation otherwise?

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  7. Yes, Bree Louise was last year's CAMRA North London Branch pub of the year. Had a pint of Brodie's Citra from stillage there last night 16/8 which was flat and though still tasting OK was nowhere near as good as when I drank a couple of pints of this beer at the Old Fountain a few months ago. If that barrel had not run dry 4 hours after being put on I would have had more! To return to the Bree when making my occasional visits I usually stick to the beers on the 5 handpumps whose quality I generally find acceptable. I agree with Tandleman that average / mean standard of presentation of cask beer in London should be much better than it is. Most incompetent pub in London ? If only it was... Cheers,moleha4

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  8. @tandleman

    Sparklers would sort 'em out eh?

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  9. Not if the beer is flat it wouldn't. As Barm says you need condition, something that seems not to compute in London.

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  10. I'm not sure even a sparkler would manage to create a head on that. Although as I've pointed out before, the sparkler certainly is popular among third-rate pubs round my way as a means of disguising flat beer.

    I must be lucky, I usually get an acceptable pint in London. Mind you, I'm not there as often as Tandles, nor spoilt by living in Lancashire.

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  11. Bree Louise is dire, to be avoided at all costs!

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  12. "beer served by gravity always flat"?
    What a strange thing to say. I've got 2 pins on right here that have got loads of condition - we always QC our beers on gravity.

    Gravity can deliver beer with more condition than would be convenient with a pump - less issue w/ fobbing and wastage. Surely?

    Still, if flat beer is what their customers expect, then they'll carry on selling it.

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  13. StringersBeer: indeed, that's exactly what I would have thought.

    What is the maximum pressure a cask can take before it blows its shive? Certainly much more that you'd be able to pull through a handpump.

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  14. Barm. If you have beer that has enough condition to blow a shive it will be undrinkable until it has calmed down. High level of condition/co2 will 'churn' the beer and yeast/finings when first tapped.

    I think cask beer tastes better and retains condition when served via gravity. People drink with their eyes. Up north punters still expect beer to look like keg stuff, so pubs use sparklers to the detriment of the beer.

    Having said that the alarm-bells would be ringing if a was given a beer with no head whatsoever.

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  15. Thanks for the warning about the Bree Louise, folks. Having read all the comments above, I'll definitely give the place a wide berth, next time I'm in town.

    Curmudgeon, I don't know who these Southern "beer enthusiasts" you refer to are. Beer that is lacking in condition isn't worth drinking in my book.

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  16. "Up north punters still expect beer to look like keg stuff, so pubs use sparklers to the detriment of the beer."

    Can't let that pass. Fucking nonsense!

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  17. Completely agree. When this place popped up on the beer radar a few years back I thought it was just what we needed, especially as the nearby Head of Steam had gone into decline.

    But the reality was different - yes, they have a decent range and a discount for CAMRA members (which I never claimed although one barman asked if I wanted it - what me, a CAMRA member, however did you guess?) but the beer is just about always in a poor condition.

    Every few months I'll give it another try then wonder why I did...

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  18. You'll like this! 17/8 ca 22.00 hrs. Having enjoyed a convivial evening at several Borough Market boozers I felt the need for a pit stop in the Euston area before continuing my journey and I thought I'd revert to my usual m.o of drinking one of the beers on handpump at the Bree Louise. Brewdog 5 a.m Saint was duly ordered upon which the barman walked to the other side of the bar to pour a pint from the stillage despite a pumpclip being on one of the handles.
    Beer itself tasted OK but for me was again too lifeless, and as far as I could tell at this stage of the evening not matching the quality of the same beer which I last drank @ the Cask, Pimlico on the Brewdog Abstrakt 02 evening a month or so ago. Was in too good a mood to complain I'm afraid!! Cheers, moleha4.

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  19. @Paul Bailey - when I was a member of a CAMRA branch in the South-East in the 80s, there was certainly a school of thought amongst some older members that cask beer should ideally be served at room temperature, on gravity and without any discernible head. You used to get letters in "What's Brewing" complaining that cask beer in t'North and Midlands was full of gas and indistinguishable from keg.

    I suspect that attitude (and the people who held it) has largely died out now, but places like the Bree Louise suggest it still has a few adherents.

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  20. We quite liked the BL, but are apparently in the minority. Perhaps we had that rare experience: we caught something which is usually rubbish on a good day? That pint looks appalling. The Pembury sometimes serves beer very flat, too. I don't want it to be fizzy but a soft tingle on the tongue is surely to be expected?

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  21. This reminds me of a similar experience with the Flowerpot in Derby a few years ago. This is (or was) a pub with some similarities to the Bree Louise - a bit bohemian and down at heel, but obviously something of a mecca for local beer enthusiasts.

    It seemed that not only was there a policy of not using sparklers (which is fair enough) but all the beer was coming out of the pumps markedly lacking in condition (which isn't). I think I complained about one pint and was told that was the way they liked it there.

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  22. Not a pub i'm going to rush back to any time soon.

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  23. On the subject of CAMRA's euphemistic pub descriptions, its Heritage Pubs Guide describes The Portland Arms in the East End of Glasgow as:

    "[T]he most intact of Glasgow's unspoilt pubs, has an island bar interior in a 'streamlined' Art Deco style. It is a popular drinkers' pub which gets packed when Celtic are playing. A single-storey brick building with polished stone frontage is still owned by the same family since it was rebuilt in 1938 by Thomas Sandilands & Macleod. This remarkable survivor has a splendid oval bar counter with a 'zebra-like' veneer panelling and match strikers all around the metal rim. The original island gantry has a lighting canopy above it. All the walls are veneer panelled; there are Art Deco fireplaces on the left- and right-hand sides, and original fixed seating with wooden dividers and match strikers on them.

    In front of the entrance door is the small unchanged 'Family Dept.' (jug and bottle) with its small hatch to the bar. On the left at the front is a small office now used as a cleaners' store. In each of the four corners of the pub are tiny sitting rooms, the front ones having part glazed partition walls and the one on the right is labelled 'Ladies Room'. These all have veneer panelled walls, fixed seating around just one table and bell pushes. The only changes since 1938 are the replacement of the original geometric-patterned floor covering and modernisation of the toilets."

    I'd describe it as The Murderer's Arms though even its selection of Tennent's Lager and McEwan's 80-/ beats even the most recherche cask ale served completely flat.

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  24. Ah, "popular drinkers' pub", another expression to watch out for.

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  25. Curmudgeon: So a few people, from one CAMRA group, thirty years ago once said something and it's still relevant today?

    "... but places like the Bree Louise suggest it still has a few adherents."

    Is it not far more likely that they can't keep beer and use the "that's how it should be" line as an excuse when confronted about it?


    Tandleman: "sadly this kind of lifeless beer is not unusual in the capital."

    I don't think its any more common in London than anywhere else. There are good pubs and bad pubs all over the country. We just have more of both in London. No?

    Chunk.

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  26. The hole in Mark's argument is that the pub was relatively full and other people, rather than rioting as you might expect, seemed happy enough drinking beer that was as flat as water. Or perhaps they'd also complained already and found it like banging their heads off a wall.

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  27. Barm: Or they don't feel it's right to complain, or they can't be bothered to complain, or some of the casks were in bad nick but not all of them, or they weren't drinking cask beer.

    Or perhaps a combination of the above.

    Are you saying you tasted all the beer on offer, it was all in the condition that the pint above is in and that drinkers were showing a preference for beer like that over well conditioned beer? I would be stunned if that was the case

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