Saturday, 19 July 2014

Probably the best lager in Bermondsey

There’s a fine line between being a critical consumer and being that miserable bastard who doesn’t like anything. I feel I sometimes err on the latter side too often. So it’s a great pleasure to come across a new beer I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Fourpure is one of the newest London breweries. But most of London’s breweries are new these days, and that doesn’t really tell you very much.

The beer I am so keen on is their Pils. Just Pils. No fancy barrel-aged hibiscus flower saison; it’s a Pils and a damn good one.

Occasionally your mouth tells you “wait a minute, maybe this is just a little too bitter”, and then you drink it again and decide it isn’t after all.

I have no idea whether Fourpure’s other beers are also as good as this, and to be honest I don’t really care. One beer as good as this is plenty for any brewery.

In Scotland Fourpure is available at bars and shops supplied by A New Wave. In London, I guess you can get it at the brewery. Possibly most of England is still missing out.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Grunt work

One side effect of the slow, self-inflicted death of traditional high street off-licence chains is that space has been created for others to get in on the act. Some of the most disruptive entries are corner shops or convenience stores. Now this is not strictly a new thing because I distinctly remember buying unusual beers from a licensed grocer in Glasgow twenty years ago; but more recently more and more such shops have discovered that there's a market for beer beyond the slabs of Carling and Kestrel.

It’s all the more delightful to come across one of these because you expect – well, I do – to go to the corner shop and be faced with a depressing line-up of bland, mass-market beers. How nice it is to be able to choose from interesting local beers instead.

On the south side of Glasgow is Maxwells, in the middle of the rapidly hipsterising Pollokshields. Walk in and you see the cans of baked beans, tea bags and disposable nappies. Then you notice the beer shelves, stacked with the products of independent breweries: Stewart, Cairngorm, SixºNorth, Williams and more. I am told by people who know about these things that the wine range is not half bad either.

But I’m mentioning Maxwells chiefly because I think it was the first shop in Glasgow proper (barring Whole Foods in Giffnock) to do take-away growler fills. For about six months you’ve been able to go in and get draught Williams Joker IPA or WEST St Mungo to take out. Since I was last in they’ve added two lines from a clown brewery in Aberdeenshire too.

Take-away beer has a long history, of course. Some pubs still have engraved glass panels advertising “Jug & Bottle Dept” or “Family Dept” where containers would be filled. That practice nearly died out, at least round my way; as long as I can remember, pubs have rarely seemed interested in catering for off-sales. And while I will drink cask beer in the pub until the cows come home, it doesn’t respond well to being decanted into a bottle. It loses carbonation going into the bottle, the temperature isn’t low enough to stop it frothing all over the place, it sloshes about while you’re carrying it and you end up with flat beer. Some cask beers are so stunningly good that they even still taste nice after this treatment, but that is the exception rather than the rule.

It’s no real surprise then that the new wave of growler vendors are all doing it with keg beer, which has enough CO2 that it can afford to have some of the fizz knocked out in transit.

In addition to Maxwells, Valhalla’s Goat has got their own growler station up and running in the last few weeks too. And I have just been to see the man who’s launching a pop-up growler shop in the West End. Chicago-born Jehad Hatu plans to open his “Grunting Growler” shop three days a week in the premises of the Bike Station cycle shop near Kelvingrove Park. The plan is not to raise capital to later open a permanent shop, but to first of all demonstrate that the business model is viable.

As a student, explains Jehad, he and his friends couldn’t buy beer on a Sunday because local regulations prevented liquor stores from opening. But restaurants were allowed to sell growlers to take away, so they would get those instead. The growler thus has something of an emotional import to him – he wouldn’t want to open a beer shop or a bar. He’s also keen to improve the standard of growler filling. Most places, he explains, just fill the bottle straight from the tap, leading to oxidised beer that goes stale quickly. Grunting Growler will use sanitised growlers and fill them with a device which first flushes them with CO2, then fills them through a tube from the bottom to minimise splashing. Jehad wants to serve beer in the best quality possible: he has good beer from great breweries and doesn’t want to be to blame for customers getting beer in poor condition.

Jehad will have four keg taps to start with, but dreams of some day expanding to as many as twenty-four. Beer will be about £6.50 a litre and the pop-up opens for the first time on Thursday.

Grunting Growler
Glasgow Bike Station
65 Haugh Road
G3 8TX
10am–6pm, Thu–Sat between 17 July and 9 August

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Nicht mehr haltbar?

Another sad chapter in the history of Woodlands pub the Halt Bar came to a close a couple of weeks ago, when the pub was found padlocked at unexpected times. However, the pub’s Facebook page was still being updated and various comedy nights were still taking place. In the latest issue of the Glasgow Guzzler we said that it was still open, because we weren’t sure and didn’t want to report it closed if it really wasn’t. Just a few days after the magazine went to print, though, it was impossible to be unsure any longer.

I wrote about the struggle to save the Halt from redevelopment when it was under threat from the pub company in 2012. Then the owner Punch wanted to gut the place and turn it into an anodyne food-led bar of the kind that litter nearby Bath Street. But a loud campaign (as well as the fact that Punch apparently couldn’t find anyone willing to put in the six-figure investment they had in mind) prevented that happening. Instead, Punch appeared to have realised what a gem they had on their hands and leased it to new operators, who gave it a lick of paint, put some candles in wine bottles on the tables and tried to make a go of it. A year ago, it seemed to have been saved.

Unfortunately, even this very mild gentrification drove away the previous clientele of hipsters who had appreciated the cheap White Russians, and while I quite liked both the old and new guises, the beer was painfully expensive for what it was. Occasionally I’d go in and have a pint of mild – I discovered the splendid Cotswold Spring OSM here – but I wouldn’t have two or three as I might otherwise have done. More importantly, I couldn’t get friends to go there with me when they could get much more interesting beer 25% cheaper  at the State Bar round the corner.

As time went on, the tenants played it safer and safer, trying to sell Black Sheep Bitter and even Tetleys. At £4 a pint. The inevitable closure followed.

It wasn’t the tenants’ fault. The beer couldn’t be any cheaper, because they were having to pay through the nose for it to the pubco. I have no doubt the reason for the pub’s failure is down to Punch’s greed in trying to squeeze more profit out of the pub than it was actually able to generate. CAMRA in Scotland is therefore rightly demanding that the pubco adjudicator legislation the Westminister Government has at last introduced should be followed by the Scottish Government too, and preferably strengthened.

On the positive side, the Halt will not be closed for long. A couple of days ago the painters were in giving the interior a coat of light grey. The rumours are true: the local West brewery is taking over the bar, supposedly as a pop-up. It might seem an odd time to take on a new bar. Demand for West beers is now high enough that on sunny days the brewery has difficulty keeping its own beer hall fully stocked.

Weirdly, the bar is going under the name “WEST on the corner”, missing the opportunity for some sort of linguistic pun – “haltbar” in German means something along the lines of “tenable”, “hard-wearing” or “durable”. Perhaps not the most appropriate name for a pop-up, but it will be sad to see the historic name disappear. I hope it doesn’t.

The sign was ugly but it’s still a bit sad seeing the pub denuded

Sunday, 6 July 2014

England’s Franconia

For several years I have talked about making a trip to Dudley to drink dark mild. It started as a joke, but the more I found out about the beer culture of the Black Country the more serious my plans became. I learned that the home of the famous Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild was round there, and also the Swan, in the 1970s one of the four remaining old-time home-brew pubs in England.

Most of all I had heard old CAMRA boys speaking with reverence of a brewery called Batham’s, whose beer was divine nectar. But you can’t get it anywhere else; you have to go to the Black Country for it. I made up my mind to go.

I'm meeting an old friend in the Lamp Tavern in Dudley, because it’s the most central of the pubs we want to visit. And because it’s a Batham’s pub and I want my first drink of the day to be my first taste of these legendary beers. C is already there by the time I arrive; he has a pint of mild in front of him, so I get one too.

The mild is heavenly. When we switch to the bitter, it’s even better, a golden revelation of a beer, sweet and substantially bitter all at the same time. Very few British beers really taste of malt to me, but this one does. We learn from the barmaid that the Lamp is more a bitter drinkers’ pub … which doesn’t surprise us. 

There are a couple of surprises behind the bar too. Bottles of Gold Label (I thought they’d been discontinued years ago), but not brown nip bottles: stubby green bottles like the ones cheap French lager comes in. And the pork scratchings. This part of the world is famous for pork scratchings, of course. But this pub sells four different brands of pork scratchings. That’s taking scratchings seriously. 

Our next stop is the geographically nearest: Ma Pardoe’s aka the Swan. Either it’s not as close as it looks on the map, or we get lost on the way. 

Never mind. We pile in to the parlour bar, see no pumpclips, so head through to the back to see what’s on. Ah. No pump clips here either. They don’t use them – the available beers are just chalked up on a blackboard. There’s a surprise for me here too: on ordering two pints of mild, I am immediately asked “light or dark?” We go for the dark, which is delicious. After circumnavigating the warren of interconnecting rooms, we end up in the beautiful red front bar and have a pint of the pale mild. Which is also delicious. There’s also “Entire”, another slighty stronger amber beer, not a porter as you might expect, and Old Bumblehole (arf, arf, etc.).

The Swan is a wonderful pub. There are great pubs in nearly every city, but very few of them have the magic of this place. It’s this magic that reminds me of Franconia. Old, wood-paneled, multi-roomed taverns, brewers who carry on doing things as they always have, not paying much attention to what trends are moving in the metropoles, and all this in a region foolishly regarded as a backwater by people elsewhere. And yet these pubs are completely embedded in the local community and couldn’t exist anywhere else in the same form. I’m even starting to like the local accent, which is much pleasanter to listen to than the malicious caricature of it you sometimes hear on television.

With some reluctance we leave the Swan, and the reason is that we are trying to get to the Bull and Bladder in Brierley Hill before it gets dark. 

Batham’s Bitter is golden with very little, if any, caramel or crystal malt.
More evidence that bitter is not always brown.
This pub, also called the Vine, is regarded as Batham’s brewery tap. Again, there are multiple rooms and the pint-pulling is done by two silver-haired matrons. More Batham’s Bitter is drunk here. Not just by us, by everyone. It seems that almost everyone in the pub, including most of the women, has a pint of the golden beer in front of them. You can definitely see how the brewery survives with only a few tied pubs.

Oh, it’s gone all dark by the time we leave…

There is one more pub we want to see with some urgency: The Britannia. The peculiar feature of this pub is that it has a room with no bar counter at all, just a set of beer engines mounted by the door. That room is only opened on Saturdays, so this is our only chance to see it. By the time we arrive the pub is bouncing and there’s no chance of getting a seat in the holy room, but we get to stand in the doorway at least.

When planning this trip I thought that four pubs in a day wasn’t very much, but it was more than enough; I could happily have spent all evening in any of them. There is one pub I had been hoping to visit that we couldn’t have gone to even if we’d had time: The Shakespeare, recorded in CAMRA’s National Inventory and detailed in issue three of the wonderful Doghouse magazine. But just a few days before the trip I learn that it closed back in September last year.

We make it back to the Lamp in time for a last pint of Bitter – about three minutes before last orders in fact.

The next morning there is some culture in store. Well, the pubs don’t open until twelve and you have to fill the morning somehow. The Black Country Living Museum is a splendid collection of old buildings, painstakingly dismantled and reconstructed on this site to form pseudo-original streets. There are various shops, a trade union hall where we get a decent breakfast, a working fish and chip shop, trams and trolleybuses – and a pub.

The Bottle & Glass in the Living Museum
The pub is the Bottle and Glass which once stood in nearby Brockmore. It’s pretty much exactly as it was fifty or a hundred years ago. It’s wonderful to sit in one of the sparse little rooms next to the coal fire. Even better is the knowledge that there are still pubs like this out in the wild round here.

The Bottle & Glass does still serve beer, but as they pour it in plastic cups, which kind of ruins the experience, staying for a pint here is not a must-do.

(These niggles aside, it’s a far better reconstruction than the terrible mess Glasgow has made of the pub exhibit in the Riverside Museum. That is nothing like the interior of the old Mitre Bar that it claims to be, and the whole thing seems intended to remind people of the evils of drink more than anything else. As for being able to get a pint there, even in a plastic cup, forget it.)

It’s easy to spend hours at the museum and still only scratch the surface, so by the time we leave it’s well past opening time and I’m starting to fancy a refreshing glass of beer. I know where, too – the Beacon Hotel in Sedgley. We have saved this pub till last, as it’s the home of the potentially dangerous 6% Sarah Hughes mild.

Once again I have misjudged the distance, and we waste valuable drinking time walking to Sedgley. It’s only around three miles, but in the sunshine in our hungover state it feels like ten. I don’t recommend it; the walk is neither pleasant nor useful.

On the way we unexpectedly pass the Holdens brewery, but don’t have time to stop, because it’s Sunday and afternoon closing is still sacrosanct here. We are in danger of not reaching the Beacon in time at all. But we get there, and at eighteen minutes to three are standing on the other side of the road. Walking for miles in the scorching sun has a slight tendency to make you thirsty: five minutes later I am queueing at the serving hatch for my second pint. The beer that slides down so fast is Amber; despite the name it is golden in colour. Thanks to the Amber taking the edge off our perishing thirsts, and to the generous drinking-up time the pub allows, we are able to treat the following pint of Ruby Mild with the respect it deserves.

Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild in its natural habitat

The magically restorative power of the Mild means that after just the 45 precious minutes in the pub we are relaxed and refreshed again and able to jump on the convenient next bus to Wolverhampton for the train home.

I was expecting to be disappointed in this trip and have my romantic illusions destroyed. Instead I found a real living beer culture, both surprising and endearing. OK, central Dudley is a bit run-down, but the pubs are magical and the beer is even better. I can’t wait to go back.