Friday, May 4, 2012

Southampton Arms, Highgate

In the ongoing adventures of the Top 25 London Pubs explorers, our intrepid team trekked north to the Southampton Arms in Highgate. An unassuming venue from the outside (the pub name is almost invisible in faded and flaking paint, the slogan "ALE CIDER MEAT" catching the eye), it's also basic and a little shabby inside. Rickety wooden tables and uncomfortable seats crammed into a small floor space before the bar on the long wall, some space outside which was closed off mid-evening (presumably out of respect for the neighbours), and the "smoking area" on the sidewalk out front which allows fumes into the pub.

The beer selection is great (more on which below). We weren't expecting to eat here, as it's not that sort of pub; if I had any interest in various cold cuts kept beside the bar, I might have been put off by the bartender chopping the meat, handling it with his bare hands and popping occasional morsels into his mouth as he did so. The pub rather proudly announces that they don't take credit cards, they don't have a telephone, and don't make bookings; this is billed as refreshing simplicity, but is really just poor customer service. The bar staff are similarly lackadaisical in attitude—serving locals out of turn and generally paying very little attention (I waited a couple of minutes at the bar at one point while three (count 'em) bar staff chatted among themselves or with regulars and made no attempt to serve anybody). The men's toilets deserve a special mention: situated outside, the privy is ventilated (read "open to the elements and bloody freezing") rather than cleaned.

In short, you wouldn't go to the Southampton Arms for the venue or the atmosphere, but of course we were there for the 12 micro ales and ciders on tap. My tastings over the evening are as follows:

The West Berkshire Brewing Company's Maggs' Mild: a dark though I don't think quite black ale (it was hard to give good colour descriptions in the dimly lit pub), almost flat with very little head and a slightly fruity aroma, maybe a hint of pear. This beer was startlingly sour on the first taste, with that slightly sparkly syrupyness of overripe fruit and some brandy tones on the swill, then subtly hoppy when swallowed. It has a very striking mix of flavours, but not a terribly interesting beer at the end of the day.

Thornbridge Brother Rabbit: a slightly cloudy, light golden ale with a healthy head made up of tight bubbles and the dusty smell of peach fuzz. There's a sweetness of white grape or kiwi on the first taste, some watery but very green hop in the mouth, which is more sweet that citrusy. There are more robust hops on the swallow, but the beer isn't very bitter on the whole, and has almost no lingering flavour.

Isle of Purbeck Best Bitter: a lovely looking brown/auburn beer with a thin smooth foam and the cheeky odour of cake lurking behind a fairly typical malt head. Some sour orange on the first taste with a hint of raisin and wheat, then a smoother olive bitterness on the swill. There's a gentle peaty compost aftertaste to a very quaffable, inoffensive swallow. This wasn't amazing, but a comfortable session ale.

Ilkley Medina Moroccan Saison: a dark brown beer with a creamy head and lingering meniscus. The aroma is of chocolatey smokiness, and the first taste is allspice and anise, then sweet and malty with tangy orange pith or kumquat on the swill; maybe even a hint of cardamom. The swallow gives satisfyingly bitter okra or capsicum tones. This is obviously not a session ale, but it was a lovely experience drinking half a pint of this novelty beer. Behind the superficial Middle Eastern hints, deep down this is an old ale with smoky, yeasty chewiness.

  • Raffaele's notes follow (including alternative review of the Medina):

Magic Rock Brewing: West Coast Pale Ale. An ale with a very healthy-looking amber colour. Overwhelming hoppy smell, with notes of lime and copper. Citrus and hops are very present at first taste, but is not as bitter as the smell would lead to think. At the swallow the bitterness comes out together with a lemongrass taste. The bitterness is well balanced by a smooth sweeter taste that suggests tropical fruits, perhaps pineapple. A refreshing, full of taste ale, maybe with a bit too much bite, but I could definitely get used to it.

Marble Brewery: Dobber IPA. A cask conditioned IPA, with a nice pine smell. At first taste the hops come through together with sweeter tastes like peach and elderflower. At swallow it gets a lot more bitter and citrusy, while the sweeter tastes get in the background, but still present, especially peach, rosewater. It's a very rich and strong IPA, one pint is enough for a night.

Wilkins Farmhouse Cider. A hay-coloured cider, a bit dusty and with a mild smell. It's a bit smokey as some ciders can be, but not overwhelmingly so. It's very palatable, the cardboard bill under the tap said medium, but I'd say medium/dry as it is slightly bounding. Would happily drink a few pints in a summer afternoon.

Ilkley Brewery feat. Pete Brown: Medina. A dark brown wheat beer, with a nice white head. It has a mild smell, with notes of caramel. At first taste it has strong malty flavours and feels spiced, with tastes of liquorice and juniper. At the swallow sweeter spices come through, cinnamon, cumin. Satisfying, slightly smokey after taste. Sweet and rich, but a very interesting combination of flavours (and I tend to like wheat beers anyway).

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