Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Old Brewery in Greenwich

The latest stop on our tour of the Top 25 Bars in London was the Old Brewery in Greenwich, the flagship brewpub of the Meantime Brewery, just down the road from the brewery itself and with a wide selection of their own ales available. In brewpub tradition there are beer tanks on display in the restaurant section, and copper piping on show everywhere, although I didn't think anything was actually brewed on-site. The range of beers, on cask, keg, or in bottles, is impressive (with a handful of guests, including Adnams and Darkstar), although the prices are a good pound above the London pub average, and the service is truly abysmal. I arrived at the bar with only one other person being served by the single barman, waited patiently, only to have someone arrive beside me just in time to be served out of turn. Okay, shit happens. When this new customer (who at least had the grace to be a bit embarrassed) was finished, the barman just wandered off. I caught his eye, and he turned around with a disdainful, "Everything alright?" (If I hadn't been here to review the bar, I might have left already.)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Harp in Covent Garden

The Harp in Covent Garden is a famous prize winning pub and part of our tour of London Top 25 pubs. Unfortunately we found it quite disappointing. The location is the most central you can get, just a stone's throw from Charing Cross, Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden. And perhaps it may have been the best real-ale-oriented pub in the West End for a while, but newer, more comfortable pubs in the area may offer a similar selection.

This strikes me as a pub that would have performed a lot better when people could smoke inside. At least, the familiar smell of tobacco would have covered the reek that welcomes you when stepping in. There isn't much space where to move or sit; spilling some beer because of other guests' elbows is to be expected. The upstairs is quieter, but is damp, dirty and smellier than downstairs. We looked at the large amount of dust on the ceiling fans and were horrified when someone came up and switched them on. Our beers just ended up changing taste. This just isn't a good place where to spend a night. Perhaps it may be good for a quick pint before getting the train from Charing Cross, if you have a cold.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Cask Pub and Kitchen, Pimlico

This week's expedition to a Top 25 London pub involved a trek down to the Victoria/Pimlico area to visit the Cask Pub and Kitchen, just off the Vauxhall Bridge Road. The beer range in this place, a prodigious selection of bottles and pumps--on which see below--is without fault. The venue itself, on the other hand, was not really to my taste: it's more of a modern gastro-pub style bar, pretty open-plan inside, and the lack of carpets or any other soft furnishings combined with the crowded bar meant that it was uncomfortably noisy.

Service, while friendly and knowledgeable, was slow, and the one time we ordered a bowl of chips it was waylaid, therefore taking a complaint and half an hour to get to us. That said, the menu looked really nice; not a very wide selection, but better quality than your average pub grub. There must have been a dozen to twenty beers on tap (ten or so hand-pulled from cask), with a very wide range of both British and Belgian bottled beers in fridges both behind and to the side of the bar.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Mad Bishop & Bear, Paddington Station our continuing tour of Des De Moor's recommended Top 25 Pubs and Bars in London, we visited the Mad Bear and Bishop, a large, open-plan pub in the second storey above the concourse of Paddington Station. Despite the location this is a remarkably civilized pub, with comfortable seating, not too crowded with commuters, a good menu and a respectable beer range (for a tied pub, at least: almost no non-Fuller's titles on tap).

I started off the night with a Black Cab Stout, a Fuller's ale I hadn't come across before, and was very pleased indeed that I did. It's a pitch dark beer, but with a very dark red translucence rather than pure black; it gives off the aroma of dusty smoke, not as much harsh charcoal as most stouts, more like the dusty threshing of young wheat. The first taste is quite tart and sappy, with more yeasty bitterness on the swill, but a very pelasantly mild swallow. I suppose this is a stout rather than a porter, but it's one of the most mellow stouts I've had in a while. Very pleasing. I don't know why this isn't on tap more widely in London.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Twickenham Beer Festival 2011

On October 28-29 2011 we attended the Friday and Saturday sessions of the Twickenham Beer and Cider Festival. It's a nice venue (York House), although there was less seating available than in previous years (despite there also being less stalls: bottled beer seemed to be missing, and the memorabilia stall was basically CAMRA books and a couple of t-shirts). Not much by way of creature comforts then, but we were there to taste the real ale. Here's what I sampled (I didn't get notes from anyone else).

Monday, October 10, 2011

Top 25: The Euston Tap

Our first of 25 visits to the top London pubs was not too far afield. We went to the Euston Tap, conveniently located right outside Euston station. The tiny building that hosts it is a lodge once part of the Euston Arch demolished in the 60s. The bar area is simple and polished, there is seating outside and on the first floor, which can be reached by climbing some spiral stairs and is a bit claustrophobic. It looks like they did what they could with the space they had, but the Euston Tap is certainly better for a quick beer while waiting for the train rather than for a more relaxed pub evening; unless you're seating outside, that is.
The selection of beers and ales definitely makes up for these few inconveniences. They have 150 bottled beers, 20 kegged ales and 8 rotating live ales. Yum. I've been at this pub a few times this summer and always was lucky enough to have a really good time sat in the garden area. This time we were upstairs, which was less pleasant, but I nonetheless recommend this little gem, especially if you happen to have an hour to spare before catching your train. Hopefully my fellow pub explorers will say whether they agree in the comments.

But now to the beers that we tried. Unlike most of our beer tasting sessions, the marks and comments are personal to the person that had the beer. I gathered here as many comments as I could get, plus I include some tweets that were sent during the evening.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

50 weeks of beer tasting

Over the next 12 months, a group of us are going to visit each of the top 25 pubs in London (as defined in the CAMRA publication, London's Best Beer Pubs & Bars by Des De Moor), one every two weeks. The pubs, and a couple of shops, are plotted on this map, and the pointers will be changed to red after we visit each.

View Top 25 Pubs in London in a larger map

If anyone would like to join us, that would be great. We shall of course post tasting notes and any other information of interest to this blog as we go.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Californian Craft Beers

Last week, a friend very generously brought me six 22oz bottles of craft beer from California. I have been sampling them ever since. As expected, hops is very evident, with many double-hopped brews, but there's also a very interesting range of flavours and styles.

Lagunitas Lucky 13 (8.9%) is an orange-amber ale, bright and the colour of caramel, sparkly in the glass and looking almost exactly like Irn Bru. It has a strong fruity hops aroma, but with more berry than citrus; sharp at first taste, sparkly on the tongue and oaky. Mellow and smooth in the mouth, with hints of gooseberry or greengage, but an intense bitterness that lingers, and coarse on the swallow, with a sappy, slightly smoky finish with just a hint of capsaicin. Very complex and pleasing. (This ale lost points on the slightly cheesy label design, although some liked the tattoo-style quality of the image.)

Deschutes Hop in the Dark C.P.A. (6.9%) (from Oregon) is an opaque, darkest brown ale, syrupy with a creamy meniscus. It has a sweet hoppy smell of green fruit, with an undertone of fresh cacao beans. It was very sweet indeed, like mango or pineapple on the tip of the tongue, leaving a lingering hint of rose, and then an intense woody bitterness when swilled, with a suggestion of cherry and liquorice, but surprisingly mild on the swallow, with liquorice root and cardamon. A very interesting beer that mixes the hoppiness of a pale ale with the dark, sweet maltiness of an old or English ale. Not sure how well this would scale to an evening's drinking, though.

Russian River Pliny the Elder (8%) is a famous ale, especially among classicists (!), which certainly deserves its reputation. A light, honey-amber beer, still and clear and almost the exact colour of precious topaz, with the hoppy odour suggesting peaches and a carbonated soft drink. The first taste is of sour hops, but with an overwhelming sweetness of peach or very ripe pear, and then sharp green hops throughout, with a hint of honey and fresh mint. Most surprisingly, though, Pliny is very smooth and subtle on the swallow, with no roughness at all but the soft smokiness of caramel or crême brulée. Like its namesake, this beer is very cleverly put together, almost recherché, but perhaps too much to really enjoy it unpretentiously. A very fine pint, but not a quaffing ale.

Bear Republic Red Rocket Ale (6.8%) is a beautiful beer to look at, very dark red, like an auburn standing in the shadows. It fills the nose with malt and yeast as well as that undercurrent of tropical fruit so popular in these American ales, but has plenty of treacle and berry on the tongue; not very sweet, surprisingly, but with a coarse, hoppy overtone. It finishes with a deep satisfying swallow, with hints of elderberry and wild nettle. Not a bad beer, but not terribly memorable.

Speakeasy Betrayal Imperial Red (8.2%) fills a glass with very clear ale the colour of dark morello cherry or cola. The aroma is of dark chocolate and dried fruit, like a delicious rum and raisin fruit cocktail, and it is shockingly sweet on the tongue, like drinking a glass of port. In the mouth it is smoky with the bitterness of cold coffee, but leaving a chocolaty residue, and a bit too intense on the swallow; I couldn't help thinking that someone had spiked my beer with Vermouth. I wanted to like this beer, as all the ingredients were right, but I couldn't have drunk another glass of it.

Lagunitas Imperial Stout (9.9%): this impressive, pitch black ale is completely opaque with a brown-tinged foam ring, and smells gently hoppy with a hint of molasses. Sweet at first taste, with caramel and lime and a smoky spiciness which I can only describe as like chipotle, it is warm and chocolaty in the mouth, with hints of barley and malt, a really lovely balance of ale components. The strength really hits you on the swallow though, like downing a Tia Maria; it is sharp and bitter and syrupy, but also coarse and nutty. Unlike the Lucky 13, the Imperial Stout feels every inch of its 9.9% alcohol, and could never become a session ale in my book.

Monday, August 8, 2011

GBBF 2011, Earl's Court

We attended the 2011 Great British Beer Festival, at Earl's Court, on Saturday, August 6th, arriving about 13:15. At that time, most bars still had some choice of beers (although even then many were down to half the advertized range and a couple were already closed). Over the course of the afternoon the situation steadily worsened, however, until by 17:00 (when the festival still had two hours to go), it took 20 minutes of wandering around the entire hall (and Earl's Court is not a pretty place) to find a single bar that was still open. The "World Beer" bars all ran out before I had a chance to see much of them, and "New Breweries" was already shut down the first time I saw it.

By the end of the afternoon this frankly unsatisfactory situation had led to frayed tempers and an unruly atmosphere. (At one point a drunken idiot was trying to perform circus tricks with a plastic chair, and when a steward politely told him to stop this dangerous behaviour he began shouting at the poor man who was only tryign to do his job. The steward had to call security, but ending up standing alone for several minutes facing a baying mob growing to dozens of louts. When the security guard did arrive, he utterly failed to back the steward up, instead laughing along with the idiot and walking off. It's a telling sign that this dangerous behaviour was treated a lot less seriously than when a couple of louts decided to strip naked and perform cartwheels, only to be very swiftly apprehended and escorted off the premises.)

It's to be expected that toward the end of the last day of the festival some brews will run out before the end of proceedings day, but this year was the worst I have seen at any festival, local or GBBF. For someone who brought a party of six to the festival and spent nearly £50 on tickets, this poor show was completely unacceptable. Frankly I would rather pay a 20% premium on all beers for them to overstock and guarantee there's still a good choice at the end fo the day. I'll be making this opinion known to CAMRA. It will take some convincing to persuade me to shell out and attend next year, to be honest.

In the meantime, however, I was able to sample a few beers in the early part of the afternoon when they were still available. My notes (posted at the time via Twitter) follow:
  • Magpie's Midnight Porter: this was a very nice looking, completely opaque, very dark brown beer with rich and ripe, slightly musty aroma; it was dark and earthy on the first taste, quite smoky and smooth on the swallow. I was pretty happy with this start to the session.
  • Herok & Howell's Tantallion Sunrise: a very clear pale ale with a green, almost lime-hinted fruity aroma. The first drop on the tip of my tongue filled my mouth with citric sweetness to an expected degree. When I took a bigger swig and swallowed, it proved tangy and coarse, full-bodied and satisfying. A very nice drop indeed. I know Belhaven, who own Herok & Howell, and like the Edinburgh beer style in general, but this beer was new to me. I'm happy to have found it.
  • Cropton's Yorkshire Warrior was one of the few Yorkshire ales still available when we arrived, a dark beer with auburn highlights and an aroma of creamy coffee. It's coolly sour on the first taste, but has a heavy woody finish. I liked it, but probably wouldn't drink several pints in a sitting.
  • Wold Top's Gold: a cloudy gold beer with a light smell of tropical fruit, not very strong, but enough to put me off: it might work on a summery day out by the river, but standing around in a crowded warehouse in Earl's Court I wanted something heavier. On the tongue it was sparkly like peach spritzer, but a coarse hoppiness follows very quickly, and this pint was very bitter on the swallow. A pretty good balance overall, once the initial shock was past.
  • Quantock's Stout: a pitch black stout with a chocolatey aroma, but not at all sweet on the tongue; quite a rough smokey finish, in fact. A nice taste but not really a session ale (or at least not at this time of year).
  • Isle of Purbeck's Best Bitter: a light bitter with a nice heathy aroma and subtle but not watery first taste; quite smoky and harsh on the finish, but in a good way, satisfying rather than tearing the throat. Although from my notes I seem to have liked this one, I have no recollection of it.
  • Grainstore's Rutland Panther: a dark ale with orange highlights and a soft mulchy odour, like wood softening in the rain. A mild and slightly fruity sweetness on the tongue, which proves to be deceptive as this beer delivers a kick-in-the-throat smoky finish. Strong stuff. Worth a try, to be sure.
  • O'Hanlon's Stormystay: a slightly cloudy light amber, sweet oak-charcoal malt aroma, as if there's some whiskey in there. There's a thick chewy sweetness when you first take it in your mouth, no bitterness in finish. Drinkable, but didn't tempt me back.
  • Arundel's Black Stallion: an opaque rich brown old ale with the aroma of fruits of the forest, sweet and tangy. Strangely sweet on tongue with a very clear taste of cherry, very ripe on the swallow like a good old ale should be, but an almost bloody aftertaste. I'd like to try this again to be sure I hadn't just bitten my tongue when I drank this or something.
  • Left Hand's 400 Pound Monkey: the one American microbrew I was able to get hold of this time. A bright, pale, very fruity IPA, with a hint of tangerine in the first taste. After that it was more hoppy, bitter and ferrous on the swallow. I may look this out next time I'm over the water.
  • Hepworth's Conqueror: we finished the night with this memorable pint. Holding it up to the light was like looking into the eyes of sheer darkness; sniffing the glass gave a whiff of fire smoke. The first taste was of a steely barley mash with a hint of rust, and swallowing gave a mouthful of sticky sweetness. Very impressive, but again not something you'd drink all night.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Tied House in Mountain View CA

Finding ourselves in northern California, a state that offers fine locally produced microbrews, but with the usual problem of nonexistant transport to anything further than cheesy campus sports bars serving watered down, fizzy lager, we decided to track down a Californian brewery/restaurant, distance being no object this one night. In the end we picked the Tied House in Mountain View, which was only a $25 cab ride away, and served a most satisfactory range of food. As for the beers:

I started with the Ironwood Dark, which was billed as an "English style" brown ale, and was very good indeed: nice and malty, with a hint of overripe fruit in the odour, sweet to the tongue and then satisfyingly bitter on the swallow. My only complaint was that it was served a little too cold and fizzy for my liking, but it was still a great brew. (Ryan noted: "a nice malty dark brown ale, not too hoppy or bitter.")

Later in the evening I moved onto the Oatmeal Stout, a more typical American beer style, which was also a good example of its kind: pretty rich smoky odour, but served too chilled and frankly a bit watery on the first taste. It was more satisfying to drink in hefty mouthfuls, and offered good bitter smokiness on the swallow with a hint of fragrant cedar charcoal that made it a little more unusual.

Ryan moved onto the Alpine Gold, which he reports as "an easy generic pils style without being too watery" (explaining that he "thought it would be a better pairing for the baja veggie burger"). One of our companions also tried the New World Wheat beer, but found it too sweet and bubblegummy, and on that advice none of the rest of us risked it.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

E2 Beer Tasting

It's been a while since our last beer tasting, but we finally got together for another one, this time in the London East End. We were six like last time in TW1, but with three different people. Without knowing, we went through some of the beers we had last time and we mostly seemed to agree with previous comments. Most of the beers were bought in Sainsbury's, Waitrose and the off license next door, which has a surprisingly decent selection of English ales.

Badger - Poacher’s choice (****.)

An ale with brown-red, autumnal colours. A rich, smooth smell with hints of fruit. Berry and cherry flavours at first taste, but it gets more complex with liquorice and smokey aftertaste. GB found it more tart than fruity on the swallow. This was our first beer of the night and its warming richness made for a good start. 22/30

Jennings - Cumberland Ale (**...)

Light amber, bright yellow color. A very interesting smell, herby, almost grassy. GB thought of sage stuffing. The taste did not live up to the smell. It was quite tart and sparkly at first taste, then growing yeasty and bitter at the swallow. MV found it similar to certain Portuguese beers. 13/30

Ringwood - Fortyniner (***..)

Orangy colour, like honey. A sweetish, hoppy smell, a bit powdery. It tickles your nose. Tangy but quite rich already at first taste. A bit of a bitter aftertaste. On the swallow it gets even richer and complex with oaky and woody tones. It’s a lovely ale, with a great balance. 20/30

Hogs Back - OTT (Old Tongham Tasty) - Brewery conditioned (**...)

A dark ale, with a very dark red colour, almost black. The smell lives up to expectation: notes of treacle, syrup. GB even suggests a hint of decomposition. KR (a med student) can taste formaldehyde at first try. Others found it quite filling, smoky as if burning wet wood, peaty. The vaguely treacle, syrupy smell is also present at the swallow, reminding MV of burnt caramel.
Interesting ale, but possibly too rich. We didn’t quite finish the bottle, so none of us would get to the bottom of a pint, I guess. 13/30

Black sheep - Black sheep ale (***..)

We ended up with five bottles of this one. Clearly very easy to find! It’s a quaffable, simple ale. MV calls it “mostly harmless”. A good session ale, but nothing stands out. The color is dark amber, the smell is weak but notes of hops and fruit can be found. Malty and tangy at first taste, quite fizzy. GB finds a bit more complexity at the swallow, defining it slightly smokey. 19/30

Batemans - Triple XB (***..)

This is a Vegan pale ale, a surprise from the off-licence next door. I had good expectations about this one. I really liked it and will buy it again, but most people found it average. Dusky amber colour, sappy, grainy smell. GB could smell pine needles in it. At first taste I found it stronger than expected, very hoppy. GB found it slightly numbing. At swallow it gets more complex, oaky, subtle and woody. 20/30

Thwaites - Very nutty black (***..)

This is a bottle conditioned ale, and one that we also had last time, when we scored a similar result. Opaque in colour, dark brown. The smell is citrusy and sour. The first taste confirms it with tart and lemony notes. At swallow GB finds it chewy, MV can taste some hazelnut. Refreshing for its citrus notes, but hardly nutty at all. 16/30

Box Steam - Funnel Blower (*****)

Bottle conditioned real ale. I'm not sure, but this might come from GB's stash so it might not be too easy to find. If that's the case, then it's a pity, because this is the winner of the night. This ale was also scored before, always with pretty high results.
A pure black, coffee-like colour. Hints of coffee, chocolate, vanilla and cappuccino. Very inviting. At first taste it's smooth, a bit coarse, full-bodied. RV finds notes of liquorice and SC of fig.
At the swallow MV thinks of the roasted barley drink often used as a surrogate for coffee. This dark porter was rich but refreshing, not at all cloying like some porters can be. 29/30

Fullers - Honey Dew (***..)

An organic ale, quite easy to find. Lager-like colour, with a subtle smell of honey. At first taste the honey is quite present, and mixes well with hoppy flavours. GB finds it light bodied but sappy at swallow. It’s a very quaffable, summery ale. 20/30

Badger - Fursty Ferrett (***..)

This ale is quite refreshing and easy to find. It has an even ambery, gingery colour. Complex -but not too rich- smell of red fruits (RV), malt and tree honey (GB). It’s a bit harsh at first taste with some earthiness and honey flavours. Quite satisfying when swallowed, with woody notes and a hoppy aftertaste. 21/30

Morland - Old Crafty Hen (***..)

This is a version of the Old Speckled Hen blended with an aged ale. We had mixed feelings about this one with RV and GB scoring high and KR and SC scoring low. Light mahogany colour, yeasty but kind of sweet smell (caramel). MV mentions sourdough. Rich and full-bodied already at first taste. A bit sharp, cidery. SC thinks of overripe fruit. Complex at swallow, with notes of candy, oak, old wood. Slightly dry, something that I really appreciated. 20/30

Meantime - Chocolate (***...)

We all thought this deserved a three. It’s very well presented and certainly sets high expectations, which are not fully met. Cola-like color, dark red. The smell is of burnt chocolate. At first taste it's cloying bitter, with just faint notes of cocoa. At swallow it tastes a lot more of chocolate rather than cocoa, even with notes of milk chocolate bar. There was definitely a lot of effort to make the chocolate stand out, but possibly not in the best possible way. 18/30

Friday, April 22, 2011

County Durham LocAles

Last week I had the opportunity to spend several days in Durham (the north of England one, not North Carolina, where I've spent a fair bit more time), and I resolved to keep my eye out for locally brewed real ales in the pubs there. Disappointingly, the first pub we visited, on the recommendation of locals and students alike (The Shakespeare), served beers from Kent, Cornwall, and Edinburgh, but nothing with even a shouting acquaintance to local.

By the end of my stay, I did come across four beers that were vaguely local (if you count North Yorkshire and Tyne & Weir as well as County Durham itself: I haven't looked up and measured to see if these truly qualify as CAMRA LocAle in that part of the country):
  1. We found Jarrow Brewery's Rivet Catcher on the first night, which was a bright, amber-gold colored ale with quite a coarse, gritty aroma and a bitter, fruity taste with a good balance of hops. A little tart on the finish, but overall a pretty satisfying quaff; one to come back to. (tweeted here)
  2. Later I had a couple of pints of Stable's Silver Buckles IPA, which was a light-colored ale with a sweet odor, and a very mild first taste; honey, hops and malt were present in perfect balance, and there was a hint of herbs on the swallow. Beautiful. (tweeted)
  3. I was only able to manage one pint of Hambleton's Nightmare, described as an Extra Stout Porter, which was a really interesting blend of two dark beer styles. Not quite black in color, with red and brown light coming through when you hold up the glass, but quite a sharp smoky aroma, suggesting the coarseness of a stout. On first taste, however, it's fruity and slightly tart, but then disappointingly watery; it has a very smoky bitter finish. Not bad, but not a keeper. (tweeted)
  4. In a popular town-center pub on the last night, we had a pint of Consett Ale Works's Red Dust (served chilled, to my dismay). This was a dull, dark russet in color, with a creamy head and very little odor; I'm not convinced it wasn't from a hydro-keg, to be honest. There was some subtle sweetness in the first sip, a cloying hint of overripe fruit, and some berry on the swallow. It's unfair to judge this beer given how badly it was served, but I wasn't impressed. (tweeted)
On the whole, I like the way they drink their beer in Co. Durham. I'll be back. (And I'll be taking notes.)