Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Very passable, Obadiah

It is not often that I go to London for a beer launch. I make an exception when it’s one of Ron Pattinson’s historic beer projects with Goose Island.

The result of their last project was Brewery Yard, an aged IPA which was one of the best things I tasted in 2018. I did not want to miss out on this one: Obadiah Poundage, named after the brewery rep whose legendary letter is the closest thing to a contemporary account of the origin of porter.

Obadiah Poundage is an attempt to recreate something close to eighteenth-century London porter. Working with Ron and Derek Prentice, formerly of Truman’s and Fuller’s, Goose Island’s Mike Siegel brewed the beer to an 1840 Truman’s recipe, and aged it in a wooden vat. This “Keeper” was then blended with a fresh batch of so-called Runner, echoing the historic practice.

Sticking a beer in a vat for a while is the easy bit. The tricky part is getting the proper malt. Eighteenth-century porter was made from brown malt, but it was not the same as modern brown malt. You cannot make beer wholly from modern brown malt, as it lacks the enzymes needed to turn its starch into sugar. So a maltster had to be found willing to produce a custom batch of brown malt made the old-fashioned way.

I arrived thirsty at the ex-Truman’s pub The Golden Heart near Brick Lane. I love the way so many former Truman’s pubs are still standing and still wearing their old livery (branding the tiles that make up the frontage does confer a degree of permanence, after all).

After a few pints there, Derek leads us on a sort of tour through the site of the former Truman’s brewery in Brick Lane, with explanations and anecdotes where appropriate. I should say that this was planned and you can walk freely through the site; we didn’t get drunk and break in or anything.

Ron’s own account of the evening is here, though he has got the order of the pubs mixed up. So much for primary sources, eh.

Eventually we reach Goose Island’s London bar.

First, another couple of pints. Derek these days is involved with Wimbledon Brewery, who had produced a classic mild, XK. Obviously I wanted to try that, but it took a while to get some. Yes, I was in an East London craft beer bar watching everyone queueing up for cask mild.

Goose Island feeds us some pizza and then we get to taste the beer while Derek, Ron and Mike chat on stage with Emma Inch as compere.

The beer itself opens with a big aroma of slight acetic and brettanomyces notes. My first thought is “This smells like Rodenbach.” It’s surprisingly light-bodied, not thick as you might expect, and very smooth. Some raspberries leading to a finish of smooth dark chocolate and dry Goldings. Very dry finish with hop flavour but not much aroma.

The beer is blended in the traditional proportions of one-third stale vatted porter to two-thirds mild, young porter. I think a smaller proportion of stale would still be plenty. As fermented, it has a real degree of fermentation of 40%, which reaches 70% after vatting.

Derek tells of the old Truman stock ale which was brewed in Burton to 9% ABV and came down to London in hogsheads to be blended with a running beer and bottled. Supposedly that was quite sour. I can definitely see the added character such a mature, acidic beer would provide – perhaps that’s one of the things missing from some of the very strong beers made these days; they’re a bit sugary and one-dimensional and would benefit from blending.

Eventually we adjourn to another pub, the Pride of Spitalfields, where more pints are consumed. It’s an old school Fuller’s pub that doesn’t seem to have changed much since the 1970s. There are no airs and graces here, there is London Pride and ESB. You have to squeeze past the karaoke singers to get to the toilet, but everyone seems to be having fun.

As we break up at closing time and stumble our different ways, I think there’s nothing quite like a night in the pub.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

So many questions in Oxford

You can call me naive and ignorant if you like but no, I hadn't realised that Oxford was a touristy place. I know better now.

The town attracts visitors of all kinds, from those following a Europe-in-twelve-days itinerary, to obsessional fans of Harry Potter and Inspector Morse, to sociologists studying the mechanisms by which the depraved British ruling class reproduces and perpetuates itself.

I am finished my business in the town by five, and the closest pub to fall into when I get back to the city centre is the Crown. A familiar beer, Five Points Railway Porter (£4.40, 2/5) is still enjoyable served much warmer than it should be.

The Royal Blenheim is more to my liking. This is what a tied pub should be like. It belongs to the White Horse brewery and offers a full range of their own beers.

I don’t know it yet, but the White Horse WHB (£3.30, 4.5/5) was the one of the best beers of my entire stay in Oxford. How do you get so much flavour into a beer of 3.8%? Huge perfumey aroma, massively sweet on the palate and then a balancing bitterness enough to leave you smacking your lips. Not quite bright but I gather that’s a feature. I had only been vaguely aware of White Horse before; this was one of those pints that makes you want to seek their beer out again.

There is some fine banter at the Royal Blenheim. Customer: Oh, imperial stout, a pint of that — Barman: It’s 12%, sir — Customer: I don’t care!

I’m hungry now. The Blenheim’s internet menu had tempted me with the promise of pies, but the kitchen is closed tonight. It’s time to make a move.

Just round the corner is the Bear, a Fuller’s pub, where I am lucky to bag the last free table. ESB feels like the right thing to order on a chilly Monday night in November. When it arrives, it costs £4.75 and is, and remains, murky (1.5/5). It tastes rich, sweet and extremely fruity.

The room of ties

The barman seems surprised by my paying in cash. I guess the the minimum £3 spend on a card wouldn’t really buy you anything other than a bag of crisps in here. I down my pint in the back snug, which is decorated with a framed necktie collection, and leave.

The Turf Tavern is a lovely, cosy pub but clearly trading on Morse-derived fame. The trouble with this kind of pub, the kind that is lucky enough to have a tourist trade even in November, is that the very small front bar gets clogged up with tourists who have never been in a pub before, and do not know how to keep out of the way of others who are trying to get in the door or get to the bar. Never mind, they’ll learn soon enough.

Some kind of bitter from Butcombe is on offer here and is OK (£4.50, 2.5/5). The front bar is a health and safety disaster waiting to happen, as the lanky barman constantly has to stoop to avoid hitting his head on the low beams behind the bar.

I’ve checked the menu in four previous pubs and can’t wait for food any longer. When my sausage and mash arrives, the sausages appear to have been cooked shortly after I left Wolverhampton this morning. Well, it’s food, and cibi condimentum esse famem, as Socrates said. Maybe I should have forked out for dinner in the Bear instead. But I have a strict rule that if the beer isn't good in a pub, the food won't be either. At the Bear I suspected it; The Turf kind of confirms it. What is wrong with pub companies?

It’s not far to the White Horse, a far cosier pub. As you enter there is Tribute, Doom Bar and Landlord, but go round to the front of the bar and a further three handpumps offer Brakspear Oxford Gold, White Horse and Shotover Prospect.

The last of these, from a brewery I’ve never heard of before, demonstrates that beer isn’t necessarily good just because it doesn’t come from a corporation. It’s extremely bland with a touch of caramel and aroma-free bitterness. But for once, it’s not the pub’s fault the beer is poor.

Possibly the biggest disappointment of the evening is the Eagle and Child. Who wouldn’t want a pint in J.R.R. Tolkien’s local?

Unlike almost every other pub in Oxford, it’s deserted in here tonight. A dreary range of pubco beers adorns the bar. The staff in pubco pubs are often compensated slightly for low wages, it seems, by being allowed to use the place as their personal disco, irrespective of what the customers might like to hear. Oasis blares through the nearly empty pub.

They don’t have pubcos in Middle Earth, which is why the ale in the Prancing Pony and Green Dragon is much better, I suspect, than in the Eagle and Child.

“My happiest hours are spent with three or four old friends in old clothes tramping together and putting up in small pubs,” wrote Tolkien’s friend, fellow Eagle & Child regular CS Lewis. Are there any of those pubs left?

On the way into town on foot the next morning, I spy the word “brew” on a sign across the street.  I take a closer look just to check it’s not a nanobrewery. It isn’t – it’s a coffee place – but I’ve stumbled on a charming mews and found one of the pubs I was looking for.


The Gardeners Arms offers Wainwright, Rev James and its house beer from Greene King, which is what I have. It’s a pleasant enough elevenses beer, with some spice and a little bit of sulphur, though on the tepid side. I am the first customer so perhaps the beer hasn't been pulled through yet, or maybe that’s how people like it here; I have possibly already mentioned that I get a lot of room temperature beer in Oxford.

It’s a lovely pub with a genteel, slightly Laura Ashley look, run by a couple who I have apparently interrupted having their lunch. The landlady says that the house beer is as close to the extinct Morell’s Varsity ale as Greene King can get it. As it’s the same badge brew I can drink in my Belhaven local in Glasgow, I’d be quite surprised if this were true, and it makes me wonder what Greene King’s sales people have been telling their customers. Still, Morell’s brewery is clearly fondly remembered here.

On the other side of the lane is the Rose & Crown, a much more rustic pub. A wide, half-boarded corridor leads to a front parlour with a piano and a back room where the bar is. Another White Horse beer, Village Idiot, is on offer here and it’s spectacular: pale and hoppy with citrus and a pleasing dry, bitter finish. Isn’t it awkward when you find the best beer in town as you’re about to leave? Despite the new world hops the beer feels very much at home in this gorgeous little pub.

Back in the city centre I pass The Grapes. Oh yes, that’s the West Berkshire Brewery place I read about. It looks trendy and you can‘t see any handpumps from outside. A US IPA is resiny and oily, and once again served at room temperature, even though someone else had been drinking it before me. Ironically enough I had given the mild a swerve out of fear it would have been sitting in the lines.

A group of older gentlemen are sitting opposite me at a table and one of them comes to the bar to ask for another pint in the same glass. Which he gets, despite the pumps having a swan neck which is thereby immersed in his dirty glass. Isn't that illegal?

In the famous Covered Market, after buying some cheese, I stop at the Teardrop, which is a nanopub – or in this case, a market stall with a licence. There are two other customers and it's full. I have a quick third of Ale X from the owners, Church Hanbrewery. Quick because it’s undrinkable crap and I can’t finish it. The yeast bite and lemony sourness are very unpleasant. Has it gone off, or was it shite to begin with? Why don’t they notice?

There doesn't seem to be anywhere to drink near the station so my last beer is at the Oxford Retreat, a recently refurbished, would-be upmarket place on the way. Brakspear’s Oxford Gold is copper, with a bit of spiky, orangey hop and decent bitter finish but ultimately on the bland side. Yet again, served at room temperature.

Maybe the beer will be better in London. (Spoiler: it was).

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Factory beer, craft beer


I found this short piece in an old newspaper and it seems that beer geeks have been arguing over the same nonsense, with an equal ignorance of the brewing process, for well over 150 years, and probably longer. 

I do hope that today’s self-described “craft” brewers are not cheating by using metal vessels and artificially-generated power in their breweries.

The steam-powered breweries increase constantly in number and it seems they shall quite soon squeeze out the other breweries, or force them into imitating them. As in so many other [trades], the machine seems to make manual labour almost redundant in the brewery. The question must be asked: which beer is preferable, that produced by steam or by hand? Experienced beer conners prefer the latter. The reasons are:

1) In steam brewing much more metal is necessary, which cannot fail to have a deleterious effect on the beer. If the beer stands for some time in a tankard, beer conners believe they can detect a peculiar smell, or even cloudiness or sediment in the glass.

2) The power of steam processes all parts of the malt more heavily, so that the draff is without flavour or nutrition; all the reserves to be found in the barley and malt end up in the beer.

3) The steam brewing takes place too quickly.

4) Hand-made beer is supposed to keep good for longer, when the cask is open; steam beer becomes undrinkable more quickly.

5) Steam beer is supposed to be much lighter.

Why does the consumer seem to prefer to drink steam beer? Because the big brewers also control the retail outlets; because the beer is sold more quickly in larger towns; because the big brewers too use natural methods to make the beer pleasant and drinkable.

The machine shall continue its advance; the small breweries shall gradually disappear; only factories and beer-tappers shall remain. The soul of beer will disappear and with time become a myth, a lost paradise.

Such are the views and fears of the old beer conners.

Allgemeine Bayrische Hopfen-Zeitung, 23 March 1862 (My translation).

Sounds familiar.