Thursday, 28 February 2013

I’ll have a Chiswick please

Sometimes you just want to sit in a pub on your own for half an hour.

It occurred to me while on my trek to West London: while I’m in the area, I could have a pint in Michael Jackson’s former local.

Nice to know that Michael Jackson favoured unpretentious back-street boozers, just like I do. The Andover Arms is literally up a back street in Hammersmith, surrounded by modest but immaculate terraced brick houses. It faces onto someone’s garage.

Outside, three separate doors mark the entrances to separate Public, Saloon and Lounge bars, long since gone. Inside, it’s a pub. A nice pub, a bit gastro but not too much so. Open fire burning, snob screens, pretty barmaid, two lads sitting at the bar drinking Kronenbourg. An ordinary pub scene.

Just enough customers to give a buzz of conversation, but not so busy that you can’t find a quiet spot to read the paper with a pint.

Chiswick bitter, as fresh as can be, the famed Fullers’ orange marmalade, delicately perfumed with Goldings. The pint is perfect.

Beer needs context, time and place. Chiswick isn’t usually among my must-buy beers – I’d seldom order it in a pub at home (on the rare occasions I see it), and I’d certainly never pay top dollar for a pasteurised bottle that had been shipped halfway round the world; but here, at this precise moment, it’s the only thing I want to drink.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Lamb Brewery, Chiswick

World’s first Brown Pilsner?
After an initial ordering confusion when I say “Helles” and the barman thinks I said “Guinness”, I get a beer and sit down.

I’m at the Lamb Brewery in Chiswick, London, much further west than I have ever ventured before. I am always on the trail of proper lager and have heard the Lamb brews some.

Darker than is typical and with a welcome bitter finish rarely found in German examples, Helles is a rich, chewy beer with loads of malt and notes of vanilla and foam banana sweeties, with a remarkable amount of body for such a weak beer (it’s only 3.8%).

It comes in an oversized jelly glass, like a stretched Hoegaarden, and as it warms up gets sweeter and breadier.
Location in a nice Chiswick back street

Gleaming copper-clad brewing kit

The brewpub itself is a combination of elements. Less hip and more expensive than the rough-and-ready setups of the East London micros, more rustic, it reminds me of German brewpubs, especially with the gleaming copper bar and brew kettle.

I’d come here if I lived nearby. I can imagine it’s a good place to spend an evening with friends.

On to the next beer. The so-called Pils is the darkest I’ve ever seen; the Lamb may have invented the Brown Pils (yes, I do ask if it’s the correct beer). More watery than the weaker beer, round and malty, dry and sweet at the same time. Muddy, no discernible hop aroma or bitterness. It’s not good at all and I gave up on this one.

The last beer I try is the American Pale Ale. Much nicer. Reddish and clear with a slight Cascade aroma. Nice resiny bitterness, it’s an enjoyable beer. Some sweetness, dry and toasty finish.
American Pale Ale in a nice glass, outside in the nice beer garden

Sunday, 24 February 2013

An unexpected session

A message. A message from Tim asking if I want to meet up for a pint at the Euston Tap. Well, why not? I’m hanging around at the other end of London so it takes me a while to get there. When I do,
I have some Yakima Valley hoppy thing from Buxton which is okay but quite generic. Tim is not so lucky, playing guinea pig to some much-feted special release beer the Tap has on, a murky soup smelling of citrus and Bovril.

Camden’s 7 hop lager is very nice, well hopped and with the typically Camden fresh pils malt character that they seem able to get into their lagers – juicy, vegetal, as sweet as chewing a stalk of grass or munching on freshly shredded cabbage. It’s so good I have another. And possibly another, around this point my notes seem to become unreliable for some reason.

Our “swift half” turns into a long, messy session. Somehow we end up in the Craft Beer Co in Islington. I have heard very good things about this chain, but the name would normally put me off; inside, happily, there is none of the wankiness the name suggests. In fact, they have quite a bit of the old retro clutter associated with old-school pubs – a piano in the corner; enamel signs urging the customer to “Ask for Whitbread’s Ale and Stout”; an ashtray, repurposed as a candle holder, advertising Charrington Pale Ale.

Camden’s Gentleman’s Wit is a disappointment after the gorgeous lager – the egg and coriander notes (though I am told it is actually bergamot) make an over-spiced, unenjoyable omelette of a beer. Wild Beer Co’s Epic Saison is harshly bitter and one-dimensional, with no subtlety or depth.

After taking my leave of Tim, a nightcap – a bottle of Gadd’s Dogbolter to finish the night. I had bought this in Kent from the off-licence next door to the 39 Steps micropub. For some unaccountable reason I then went back to the pub and told Eddie Gadd himself that I had bought none of his beer, when I actually had. I am just going to ascribe this to the strange things that happen when you drink Dogbolter.

Dogbolter is one of those legendary beers that I’ve read about years ago but never actually drunk before. One of my favourite drinking books is a long out of print paperback called “Europe on 20 Litres a Day” that I bought in a remainder shop for a pound or so when I was a student. It came out when the Firkin pubs were still operating and still owned by David Bruce. The author’s handling of the chain starts off simply “It is wonderful at Bruce’s,” and he goes on to rave about Dogbolter in particular.

It’s because I never tasted that Firkin Dogbolter of old that is probably why I have assumed for twenty years that it was a strong ale. It turned out instead to be a light, chocolatey brown porter.

I am pleased to report that I woke up sprawled on the sofa with the lights still on. Dogbolter lives up to its fearsome reputation.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Kernel Saturday

Kernel Saturday has become a firm fixture in London. I haven’t been since they moved a few railway arches down the line into a much bigger brewery, so wanted to make a point of visiting. It feels just like the old one, but bigger, with room for many more people to mill about drinking beer. The queue to get served stretches out the door.

In front, as ever, the stacks of bottles and vertical drinking.
Drinking area
To the right, a long storage hall lined with picnic tables, which immediately give the place some of the atmosphere of a Bavarian beer garden – as does the notice saying it’s fine to bring along your own food.

At the end of the hall some wooden barrels have been set up. What have they been up to with those? They’ve been used to make a sour beer. I missed that one. While talking all the new beers, the sour one and the New Zealand-hopped pils, have been supped by thirsty hipsters. We stick to Table Beer and C.T.S. IPA.

But once we look behind the bar the improvement is jaw-dropping. The old brewkit was basically in a cramped cubbyhole right up alongside its little fermenters. In the spacious new hall a row of proper grown-up conical fermenters tower over us, facing the mash tun and copper. It’s still all manual opening of valves, but it’s less Heath Robinson than it used to be.
Beer Advocate area

“Nothing gets thrown away here,” says Evin; bits of equipment are still in use for super-small batch beers and experiments. The old brewing kit has gone to Partizan. There is now a bottling line, which must be a godsend, putting an end to the marathon hand-bottling sessions that used to take up so much time.

A brown plastic crate from Young’s of Wandsworth is in the corner, to be added to the National Inventory of Beer Crates From Defunct Breweries Lying About in Working Breweries. Every brewery I’ve ever been in has some of these, from Tryst to Tennents. I like it.

The only thing I don’t like about the new brewery is that it’s now a longer walk to the Royal Oak for a nice pint of mild afterwards. Nonetheless we still manage it.

Friday, 22 February 2013

A surprise from Sheps

On the way to East Kent to visit micropubs, we hit on a snag with the plan.

Because the micropubs are one-man operations, they open for a session at noon, and close in the afternoons, opening again at teatime. We are leaving London too late to catch the lunchtime session, so we have a bit of time to kill.

Well, we’re passing through Faversham on the way, the home of Shepherd Neame. No beer geeks seem to have anything much nice to say about Sheps’ beers. I haven’t drunk much of them either – the only cask beer of theirs you tend to see in Scotland is Spitfire, which never impressed me, and they also have a bunch of cheapie bottles often encountered in Lidl stores, which don’t inspire either but do the job if you want a beer and only have 99p in your pocket.

But I believe in giving them a fair crack. We’re going to drink Master Brew in Faversham, on the grounds that if it’s going to be good anywhere, it’ll be here, on their home turf.

Faversham is a company town – it seems to be wall-to-wall Sheps in nearly all the pubs. We wander down to the market square, admiring the neatly hand-painted signs that most of the shops seem to have. Just as we pass the brewery itself, a massive roar and a cloud shooting into the sky indicates a sudden release of some sort of pressurised gas.

Hoping we haven’t just witnessed a horrific industrial accident, we take a look in the brewery shop. It has a bar. I like the idea that someone at the brewery was planning this and thought “You know what this town needs? One more place selling our beer!”

I was quite keen to try the new historical recreations Sheps have recently brought out. I already found the India Pale Ale in Morrison’s at home. It was good, dry and minerally as a pale ale should be, but somehow lacked the magic that makes you want to drink another. Here I pick up its partner, the Double Stout.

With fifteen minutes before our train is due to leave, we drop in to the Railway Hotel at the station. On the back wall a banner states, bluntly, “We are not as cheap as Wetherspoons.” Fortunately, I don’t demand that of pubs.

The Railway has etched glass and worn wood, and, if I remember rightly, tablecloths. Not much seems to have changed here since the 1970s by the looks of things. Even the pump clips have the long since superceded Master Brew branding of a generation ago. It is wonderful. I feel like I’m drinking in one of the pictures in Michael Jackson’s New World Guide to Beer.

The grandmotherly landlady greets us with a dazzling smile. Two pints of Master Brew, please. Two pints of bitter, she repeats, gently correcting me. As if in this town bitter couldn’t possibly mean anything else than Master Brew.

Do you know, the bitter is rather good. Perfect condition and nice and cold. Slightly astringent, lightly and mildly yeasty and subtly but freshly hopped. I was right!

We can even get plastic glasses to decant the remains of our pints into before we run across the road to the station. 

At Faversham we jump on the train with a few minutes to spare. Then with exactly one minute to spare we realise we are in the wrong portion of the train. The train splits here with one part going to Dover and the other to Ramsgate. A mad dash gets us to the front part.

The bottled double stout is OK but not great. A big foretaste of roasted grain gives way to a thinnish and disappointing finish. People have told me to go for Sheps’ darker beers rather than the pale ones. My experience here is the opposite: I wish I was back having another pint of bitter, which is not at all the preference I was expecting to have.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The micropubs of East Kent

Got any peas?

Something which has not received nearly as much attention as the growth in London’s nano- and microbreweries is the way that so-called “micropubs” have been springing up. They have been featured in the broadsheets and on the BBC, though mostly as a novelty story. However there is an in-depth feature on them in the latest issue of BEER magazine.

While there are a few elsewhere, their heartland seems to be Kent, where the first one, the Butchers Arms, appeared a few years ago. The first imitators were in other parts of the country, but in the last couple of years more and more have opened closer to the first and the corner of East Kent is now dotted with them.

The story is basically that a few pub-lovers, driven by high business rates and unwilling to be tied to a rapacious, parasitical pub company, have rejected the road of taking over an existing pub, and instead just rented an empty, cheap shop unit, acquired a licence and and started selling beer to friends and neighbours.

In a parallel development to London’s keg-focused new breweries, the micropubs sell real ale and nothing else. You might get a glass of wine, a pie or some cheese if you’re lucky, but otherwise they are dedicated to cask beer. No lager, no spirits, no food, no TV, no music. Just people crammed into a tiny space drinking whatever ale from a local small brewery the landlord (are they even called landlords?) has available. In this they hark back to a time when public houses really were just someone’s house, open to the public to have a drink.

I thought all this sounded wonderful and made plans to take a day trip from London to see a few of these places.

We meet Phil in Ramsgate, expecting to have a pint or two with him in a pub and then make our way back to Broadstairs in time for the evening session. Instead he offers, unbelievably generously, to stay sober and drive us around visiting whatever micropubs we want. Well, we weren’t stupid enough to say no to that. Would you?

First though, a quick roll around Ramsgate itself. After visiting pretty Faversham on the way, the depressed dock town looks grim, but the pubs are attractive enough. In the Artillery Arms we have Gadds IPA, hoppy and a bit sticky. Gadds beer seems to be everywhere, and rightly so (we got to our fourth pub before there was no Gadds on offer).

The Churchill Tavern on the seafront is a seaside pub. Maybe it’s its location, facing to Belgium across the sea, that makes me fancy it’s similar in style, externally at least, to the cafés of Oostende. Here we taste an unfortunately treacley and oxidised Dark Star beer and more Gadds – No. 5 this time.

Observe the Tomson & Wotton signage
In the White Swan in St Peters, nothing much seems to have changed for a generation or more. We walk through the public bar before settling in the saloon. I don’t think I’ve been in a pub like this before, not in this country, though the pale wood everywhere reminds me of some of the more rustic places in Germany. Beers are Gadd’s Seasider, Oakleaf Nupth’ale and Outstanding Blonde, which is far from outstanding. A quick look at the ornamental Fremlins elephant high up on a shelf, and we’re off again.

Our first micropub proper is one of the newest. The Why Not in Broadstairs, only opened in December 2012, is a converted shop, rather brightly lit. There is Goacher’s beer – Gold Star – here and we make an exception and stay for a full pint. It’s good, sweet buttery vanilla balanced by a bitter finish, though if I had a cask ale brewery I wouldn’t name my beer after a brand of chip shop vinegar; that would be tempting fate. There’s a pub quiz about to start, and halfway through our pints a couple of delivery guys from the local takeaway arrive with a huge order of food and people start setting plates out on their table and getting ready to dig in.

Did I mention chip shop vinegar? Up a bit from the Why Not is the Fish Inn, an apparently ordinary chippy. We pop in just for a snack really. Those “cod bites” – 10 for £3 – should do, I think, expecting battered chunks the size of ping-pong balls. When the huge parcels appear, we can only gawp in amazement: each “cod bite” is a piece of battered fish roughly a third of the size typically served alongside chips. Phil’s portion of chips would feed a family of four. My hunger is sated after two of the cod bites (I eventually finish eating them all on the train back to London).

Almost as new as the Why Not is the 39 Steps, operating only since November. It’s a more dimly lit place, and the only one we visit which has an actual bar – in the others the beer is fetched from a stillage in the back room. Okell’s Olaf Mild and Milk Street The Usual are on here, with the casks behind an air-conditioned plastic curtain. Some people from Gadd’s are drinking here, including Eddie Gadd himself, but sadly we don’t have time to hang around for long.

I never knew I wanted to drink in a pub named after a Two Ronnies sketch, until I found out that such a place existed. The Four Candles is the smallest pub so far, but we manage to squeeze in. According to the pub’s website, Broadstairs, where Ronnie Corbett had a holiday home, was the location of the original hardware shop on which Ronnie Barker based the sketch. Dark Star Original and Gadd’s Dogbolter both come rather flat, but the ambience is fantastic. There’s a cycle club, whose rides are relaxed and place a high priority on getting back to the Four Candles for opening time. My favourite so far. It’s difficult to believe this one too has only been open since August. A cup of tea for Phil and once more we’re on the move.

Phil says the micropubs attract an audience who do not feel comfortable in what I shall (for want of a more accurate term to differentiate) call “commercial” pubs. The service can be charmingly amateurish – in one we very nearly walk out without paying, and when we (of course) apologetically turn round to pay it turns out it had slipped the landlord’s mind too. That’s despite us all having shaken his hand on the way out.

For my part, it seems really exactly the same phenomenon as the hipster nanobreweries of London. Only the generation they appeal to is different, but there’s the same intimacy, endearingly makeshift set-up and the same sense of abandoning the traditional model and starting again from scratch.

Our last stop is the original, the Butchers Arms in Herne. We’re short of time and I hadn’t realised how far away Herne is from the other villages. Poor Phil is nervous that we won’t make it and we already have a Plan B of taking a later train from Canterbury.

We dash in. The original micropub, and still the smallest! There are about eight customers and it’s fairly full. Oakham JHB! They have JHB! Quickly we sup our half pints while admiring the old poster on the wall of beer labels from defunct English breweries. Meat Stout seems particularly intriguing. But there’s no time to think about Meat Stout – a tweet from Phil, who’s stayed outside, getaway driver style, telling us to get a move on. We need more JHB – fortunately the Butchers does carry-outs and we hurry out with two pints of it in a lemonade bottle. And we do make it to the station on time.

Having thanked Phil once more and boarded the train, we sup the lovely cold beer with relish on the way back to London. I always think there’s nothing quite like drinking freshly drawn cask beer on a train, and our only regret is not taking the four-pint bottle instead.

I am eternally grateful to Phil Lowry for local knowledge and heroic driving. Also thanks to Mark Dredge and Pete Brissenden who also kindly gave me lots of tips for Kent pubs, even though I changed my plans at the last minute and ended up not using any of them.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Old and new

I have to confess: since I’ve been visiting London I’ve always been a Young’s drinker. Always Ordinary, I’ve never liked Special. On early visits Ordinary seemed mouth-puckeringly bitter, a taste I delighted in, especially sitting in the beautiful Lamb in Bloomsbury on idle afternoons.

Since Young’s closed I’ve made an effort to appreciate Fuller’s more. This would be easy enough if it weren’t for the preponderance of poorly-kept London Pride in mediocre pubs. I have only really enjoyed London Pride once, and that was when I’d cycled six miles uphill in the sun to the pub.

My friend detests London Pride and refuses to believe it’s party-gyled with Chiswick. I think the lower gravity and dry hopping of Chiswick make a more balanced beer. I’m certainly not drinking London Pride when I travel south, as it’s the only Fuller’s beer that turns up at home with any regularity. I want the stuff I’ll never see on draught in Glasgow.

The perfect opportunity presents itself in the shape of the relatively new Parcel Yard at King’s Cross, which by offering almost the complete range of Fuller’s cask beers is as good as having a brewery tap in the centre of the capital.

The refurbishment is definitely a success; it seems as much of the original partitioning as possible has been preserved, ancient woodwork covered in layer after layer of paint, and it’s almost always possible to find a cosy corner where there is some delightful old beer advert to look at. But it feels contemporary too, and it’s spacious – important in a railway station pub; there’s nothing worse than trying to struggle through a cramped pub with luggage.

I’ve found a seat where I can leech electricity from the pub to charge my phone. Time for beer. Chiswick – dry, minerally and astringent. My pal arrives and we spend an hour or so catching up. Black Cab – sweet, licorice and roast coffee. And I’ve spotted the latest Past Masters beer, Old Burton Extra, so we split a bottle of that – a bit metallic as sometimes happens in bottled beer, but full and rich with solid sustaining bitterness, just what I imagined it was going to be like. Cask Bengal Lancer to finish, with typical marmalade and lychees.

But we can’t stay here forever. “Let’s go to Hackney and drink keg beer,” I say, surprising myself as much as my friend.

Redchurch Brewery is situated in a railway arch (like a remarkable number of the new London breweries), down a narrow cobbled lane in Bethnal Green. On Thursdays, and Thursdays only, they open up the brewery to serve their beer to the public. As luck would have it, I arrived in London on a Thursday.

The address is easy enough to find, and you look in through the glass doors at what is clearly a brewery, with fermentation vessels lined up along one wall, and East London-typically, someone’s bike leaned up against some malt sacks. Don’t see anyone drinking here, though. Try the door and … it opens!

Aha, we hear the chatter from upstairs, so up the metal staircase we go and find ourselves in a pleasant space with Joy Division playing and a cluster of people around the bar in the corner, where two bearded young guys are pouring beer from taps mounted on the wall behind them. I say bar; it’s built of pallets, like most of the furniture.

It couldn’t be any more basic. The arch is clad inside with corrugated steel, just as it comes from Network Rail; there is somewhere to sit and some lights. That’s it. I love it. Going to the loo, you wander through the brewery past fermenters and boxes of hops. It’s the kind of informal, intimate space you can only get in the tiniest of operations.

Baltic Street Porter is rich and roasty, Great Eastern IPA hoppy. They are a bit generic – very similar to what they do at Kernel, though that’s hardly a condemnation – but good.You should buy some.

More and more breweries are springing up in East London. And in my view there couldn’t be a better area for this to happen – it means that I can stop and feast on beigels in Brick Lane on the way home. I prefer Beigel Shop, but Beigel Bake is also very good.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Barley supplies in Germany in 1948

With food of all kinds in short supply in the years after WW2, brewers in the British zone of Germany made several attempts to get permission from the military government to use barley, says an article in March 1948 in the newly-founded young news magazine Der Spiegel.

The brewers first requested 46,000 tons of barley to make 15 million hectolitres of beer. When both this and a second request was declined by the Brits, the brewers asked for 37,500 tons of barley with which to make 11 million hectolitres of 1.7% small beer. For comparison the peacetime production across the country had been 45 million hl at 12%.

I think the figures the Spiegel calls percent must be degrees Plato rather than ABV, otherwise they don’t make sense. 12 Plato would give us a beer of around 5%, which sounds about right for peacetime beer. That means the 1.7 beer is even weaker than it looks, as 1.7 Plato is next to nothing.

“The British zone is the driest region in all of Germany”, the Spiegel notes. The British had banned the production of all alcohol, whereas in the French zone a 2% beer was permitted and 3% in the Russian zone. 

Just 17 of the 250 breweries in the British zone were allocated barley for making beer. They brewed beer for the NAAFI at 8.5 (this must surely also be Plato. I can’t see Tommy quaffing an 8.5% ABV beer, or being in a fit state to keep order the next day), and were permitted to make 50,000 hl of full-strength beer for export. This went to the old German export markets in South Africa, South America, Egypt and Australia.

Before the war Germany had been exporting between 600,000 and 900,000 hl. Now the brewers were having to turn down export orders because they had no barley to brew with.

As you might expect, there was political pressure not to “waste” scarce grain on brewing beer. The brewers argued that the 46,000 tons of barley they wanted comprised only 0.75% of Germany’s grain consumption – the equivalent of one thin slice of bread a week per person. It was even suggested (by whom is not clear) that bread ration coupons could be used for beer.

Enter the wily Professor Dr. Hermann Fink, who managed to argue convincingly that it was better to make beer from grain than to feed the grain to animals. At least, convincingly enough for the northwest brewers’ associations at whose conference he was speaking.

His argument is summarised in this charming diagram. After making beer you can feed the spent grain, yeast and trub to cattle and pigs, which builds more fat, apparently, than just feeding barley to pigs.

The comparison comes out expressed as vital, nutritious fat: 60 tons if using the barley as animal feed; 74.3 tons if the grain is processed into beer first.

Brewing vs. animal feed

42,300 hl full-strength beer or 500,000 hl small beer
and 45 tons malt shoots and 225 tons spent grain

710 tons full cream milk
682 tons buttermilk and skimmed milk

23.7 tons of butter fat
50.6 tons of pork fat
Total 74.3 tons fat

The brewers were unsurprisingly delighted by this convenient discovery, and made sure to make use of Prof Fink’s argument in their representations to the military government. It had little effect: the occupying commanders pointed out that British and American breweries were also having to restrict their output to conserve grain. The beer consumption of the USA had dropped by 35% since 1946 and the British were drinking only 1.9 million standard barrels, down from 2.5 million in 1946. (Since this is expressed in standard barrels, it’s quite possible the Brits were drinking the same number of pints of weaker beer, or even slightly more.)