I went to college in a place that was built in the 1970s. The architecture was so alienating they filmed one of the Planet of the Apes movies there. In the science quad there was this little snack bar, basically a tiny white room with stools and small round tables, and a guy behind a bar, frying things.
The Rake, despite all its hype, is really just like that. Except the snack bar played music, even if it was just the college radio over a small sound system, and sometimes the guy behind the bar was chatty.
I ventured to the Rake with Knut and The Beer Nut last Friday and I was not surprised that the service was very forthcoming and they had amazing beers on. This was of course the Friday after the British Guild of Beer Writers Awards and there were lots of beer writers drinking in London. I was in Borough a couple days ago and thought, maybe it wasn’t just because I was with famous beer bloggers that the place seemed friendlier? Maybe they still have some of the Racer 55 on (I’m an optimist), or perhaps there’s something equally nice?
So I went in. As I studied the taps, considering, the guy behind the bar looked sidelong and asked me, “Are you alright?” Which to this American ear, sounds like the person asking thinks there’s something wrong. I know this is a particularly British approach to customer service, but it’s not “Do you want to taste anything?” or the simple, “What would you like?”
Already I’m regretting my decision to come here. I order the Left Hand Ginger Juju because it’s a beer I like and even though there are only about ten men in the bar, it’s still too crowded to get a good look at the other taps without pushing. A half pint of the underwhelming juju sets me back £3.20. It’s not as good as when I had it before– the ginger totally MIA, the mouth feel not peachy with soft effervescence but dulled. So I sit there nursing this luxury which really isn’t, next to a table of suited men. Since there is no music, I listen to their conversation: upping each other with business talk, foodie marketing strategies, which posh groceries are buying which and who is losing money, etc., etc.
You know you are in trouble when you’re in a pub and suddenly you want to put on your iPod. I should leave, but part of me is thinking I’m being too hard on this place. What I want from this place is to talk to the punters here about beer, about what beers are on and about what’s coming next. Isn’t that what this pub is for anyway? It certainly isn’t about ambiance or craic. Give the Rake a chance, urge myself on. So I go up and ask they guy to recommend one of the seasonal beers they have on tap at the moment– from my strained vantage there seemed to be at least two. He turns to the massive fridge of bottled beers and starts to forage.
But I don’t want a bottled beer. Unless I’m in Belgium, ordering a bottled beer at a pub just seems like a cop out. I love the living, unpredictable nature of cask beer, and I relish the I idea of visiting kegs, something that will only be around for a short while. A bottle– I have those at home!
I say, “What about a seasonal beer on tap?” but he doesn’t hear me. He presents me with a bottle of Anchor Christmas Ale from 2007, which is exactly the beer I would present to someone who asked me to suggest a holiday ale. So, we’re on the same page but I really wanted to drink something new. “A beer from the Home Country.” The joke falls flat. There will be no chatting.
Anchor Steam was the first “real” beer I ever had, the first local beer– I drank it before I could legally do so, back when I lived in SF; I didn’t really like it then but I thought drinking it made me authentic.
I would like to think I’ve matured but maybe I haven’t. I bought the Anchor Christmas as well as the other beer he suggested, the bottle of Hook Norton Twelve Days which I’d heard good things about– I was going to take it home to Mr. Malting. Those two beers set me back £8.00, plus a 50p fee for using my debit card.
The 2007 Christmas ale was so beautiful– the seamless melding of the dried fig, molasses and delicate, spicy hops finishing it like little twinkles of lights strung on a pine bough. It’s Yule and I’m happy! I thought, my nose buried in the novel I’d brought. I was content. Forgetting temporarily the dreary white box of the Rake and the fact that after I’d spent £12 on three beers that weren’t even pints, there was no soap in the ladies toilet. (I expect this from crusty old boozers– often the ladies is either pristine from never being used or utterly neglected. But the Rake have women working there. Do they not wash their hands?) Please, Ghost of H1N1 Christmas Present, let the men’s toilet at least have soap, I thought, and then drank a little faster.
Returning home, I presented the Hook Norton gleefully to Mr. Malting, the Christmas ale making me quite jolly. He replied, “Oh yeah! Did you get it at the offie on the corner?”
“No, the Rake.” My buzz quickly wore thin, “How much is it at the offie?”
“£1.75. Why? How much was it at the Rake?”
“Why did you go to the Rake? Didn’t you just go to the Market Porter?”