Pub Crawl No. 38
September 8, 2010

Kake of the fantastic Randomness Guide to London and I have organized a Bus Route pub crawl, following the 38  through the city from Hackney to Hyde Park (and beyond?).

Won’t you join us?

Meet at Organic and Natural in Hackney at noon on the 19th of September. We’ll be hitting a wide array of pubs all along the route.

What Survives
December 23, 2009

Near Finsbury Park Station there’s a boarded up old pub, a matte lapis facade festooned with a remnant of London’s disappeared beers: Meux’s Original London Stout.  In every corner of London a mysterious detail hides a story; to note them is to chase ghosts.  Ghosts of the drowned; of the sudden, absurd death.  Even death by beer.

Meux’s was “famous for its black beer” and the great porter vat it was brewed in: 22 feet high and containing enough beer to supply more than a million persons with a pint of beer each.  According to Zythophile the brewery “…once brought a beautiful aroma of malt and hops to delight passengers on the tops of buses at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street.”  But British Historian Thomas Pennant describes it as exhibiting a magnificence unspeakable.

One day, this vat burst. The London beer flood was immortalized in Peter Pindar’s poem, “The Lamentations of the Porter-vat”

Here—as ’tis said—in days of yore,
(Such days, alas! will come no more),
Resided Sir John Barleycorn,
An ancient Briton, nobly born,
With Mrs. Hop—a well-met pair,
For he was rich, and she was fair.

And yet the pair quarrels, love-locked, waltzing disaster like petty gods.  Are these the genius loci of this Seven Sisters corner, driven from their original perch by the tourists flocking to see We Will Rock You musical playing at the Dominion Theatre which now stands in place of the brewery?  I imagine Meantime’s London Porter to be a fitting ode to these bitter, roasted ghosts.

1814.  It’s that hour when everyone’s at home. You run from a flood of porter, through the crowded tenements surrounding the brewery. The basements of the rookery fill.  Up on the first floor: a mother and daughter at tea and then not, the mother dead on the spot.  The daughter tries to swim and is dashed to pieces.  Running, a tidal wave of the stuff after you. Timber and neighbors, feral cats swept up in it. Drunk on the fumes. The drunk are dying.

There are rumors: in the nearby hospital the doctors minister to the injured who stink so of beer the other patients there demand beer too, almost causing a riot.

And following it all, punters with pots, gleaning from the porter river: knee deep or face first.

You would cup your hands–let nothing go to waste.

The Green Dragon’s Hoard
December 18, 2009

Sir Frank Brangwyn's etching of Southwark Cathedral

London, in its infinite complexity, forces one to be a creature of habit, to stick with what you know.  I return continually to the shadow of Southwark Cathedral, crossing the Thames over London Bridge, built up, as the rhyme goes, with needles and pins.  Pricked and tingled, you take Green Dragon Court into the rabbit warren of delicacies that is Borough Market.

I am not a foodie; the dead creatures hung and bled, laid out on ice– I will never get used to the ordinary cruelties.  I believe the best food is the simplest, the most humble.  And yet the plenty of this little chaotic market moves me.  So much of old London is gone, but there has been a market on the south bank of the Thames here since Roman times, and this particular location has existed for 250 years.

The cathedral shimmers golden in the early dark– I pass in its chiaroscuro. Soon I will be at the Utobeer beer stall picking out something new.  It’s started to snow, now, as if the weather conspires in delight.  Yule beer!

But, I have a secret. I’ve come here tonight because I suddenly find myself the kind of drinker that will run after a beer tweet.  The trip to the beer stall is just a ruse– I’m kidding myself that I’m not really headed, once again, to the Rake because I’ve heard they have cask BrewDog on: mysterious Equity for Punks.  I’ve never had cask BrewDog, and this is about to change.

I’ve resigned myself– it will be a grumpy affair.  I’ll order, drink up, take notes and leave.  The place is already packed at 4pm, but there’s still some BrewDog left so I order a half and find a vacant stool by an elegantly bearded gentleman drinking Rodenbach’s Grand Cru, “Are they doing something with this place?” He asks, “it seems even smaller than when I was last here.  It’s like a temporary classroom or something.  All the beer in the world to drink and nowhere to drink it!” (exactly.)  And then we remarked that normally no one talks to strangers in pubs in London and why is that?  This guy, mild mannered and charming is a beer person.  Every year he makes a pilgrimage to Belgium in his Volkswagon, loads his boot with bottled beers and returns via the Eurotunnel in Folkstone.  I love this idea– a beer road trip! it’s so American– but I keep this to myself.  He never drinks “real ale” but his first Chimay, years ago, blew his mind.  He’s joined by his mate, a fellow car-boot pilgrim who turns out to be this blogger.

I’m warming up to the Rake now, grateful for good company and a corner perch– though maybe that’s just the 3.7% Equity for Punks coloring things.  In silent triumph I’ve gone back and snagged the last pint.  It’s red and piny, velvety with a lacy head staying put through the entire pint.  BrewDog have done their hat trick again, producing a profoundly hopped beer that remains balanced with lovely caramel malt on the finish.

And then who should pass by the window but Mike Hill, one of the owners of the Rake.  Before moving here my idea of a quintessential Londoner was some Dickensian, lock-stock-and-two-smoking-Dalloways amalgam: forthright, funny.  That Londoner is rare, but Mike is one, with his voice of shale and tailings.  I had the luck of meeting him through Pete Brown and just immediately took to him.  He waves, comes in from the snow and we have a proper chat.

My table mates have moved on and are now drinking Delirium Noel.  The beer is starting to work; the elegant gentleman is praising the designer who came up with the little archetypal DT elephant, “It is exactly what a pink elephant should be. The essence of elephant!”

I’m on to the inevitable Death and Taxes, Moonlight Brewery’s schwartz beer, from my old stomping ground in the Bay Area. It’s impenetrably black and roasty, with a dense mouthfeel that betrays the style but makes me like it more.  I resist the homesickess that might be equally inevitable.  I’m a Londoner now.

Ale Power Posse, Activate!
December 10, 2009

Funnest and most clever: The Beer Nut at the Greenwich Union

Last week Friday there was a truly epic beer crawl with Knut Albertson and The Beer Nut– you really couldn’t ask for two better drinking buddies.  (When Knut laughs you know it’s a party!) I joined them at the Market Porter where there were a bevy of bloggers who I only recognized from tiny 75 pixel icons.  It’s a rather surreal experience, being left to guess who is who. Forgive me if I failed to recognize you or introduce myself, even if I’m a regular reader.

Knut and The Beer Nut were already well into sampling beers– the stage was set when I sampled The Beer Nut’s Pictish Sauvin Blanc, a swoony hop cocktail. It really put my Acorn IPA in its place.  It was entirely drinkable but just not stunning.

And just so, I spent the rest of the day making safe choices and really coveting whatever the Beer Nut was drinking! We moved on quickly to the Rake, a place I haven’t visited since the unpleasantness of last year.  The staff outnumbered patrons when we arrived, and they were ready to welcome “the names of the industry” (their phrase not mine) who were to be arriving that day.  Again, I loved Beer Nut’s Racer 55, bursting with fruits and crazy drinkable at 7%.  This would be the kind of beer I would give to someone who says they aren’t a beer drinker– balanced, fruity and surprising enough that someone who is antibeer might be converted.  I opted for the Cantillon Gueuze on keg which was delicious but perhaps kegging interferred with its mouthfeel the velvety sparkle turned up to a distracting brighness? And it was served a bit too cold (easy to remedy this by waiting..) Knut braved the BrewDog Nanny State, a beer I really found rough going when I tried it at the Equity for Punks launch.  It’s kind of a bitterly metaphorical beer– we all had to agree that any beer that still has a discernible malt character after such brutal hoppage is indeed remarkable, if not drinkable.

Knut drinking Meantime's London Porter

And then we were off to Greenwich, to the Meantime Union.  We were all quite disappointed with the London IPA on cask–  something I adored in the bottle, with its grapefruit intensity.  All that juicy presence was missing in the cask.  Mark Dredge (who joined us later) also tried it in the keg and said it was still missing all the best parts. We were also joined by Mark of Real Ale Reviews, who impressed me with his enthusiasm and perception.  (I will save my thoughts on the New Wave of young UK Beer writers and drinkers for another post.) After sharing part of a big bottle of London Porter my liver was telling me I really had to rethink this whole Beer for Life thing. I was getting tipsy, but I knew everyone had grand plans: there was the Wenlock in Hackney, and then off to see Jeff at the Gunmakers in Clerkenwell, and lastly back to the Pigs Ear Beer Fest back in Hackney. I was never going to make it.

Beering of this magnitude takes planning: I ate a hearty meal before heading out and I stuck with halves and drank water between beers.  Even so, it caught up with me more quickly than I thought.  It’s not that I was crazy drunk, it’s just that I’m aware that getting beyond tipsy while inevitably traveling home alone from an unknown part of London without a planned route is a bad idea. (Edit: The link contains the offensive Cabwise PSA video aimed at rape victims and can be triggering.)  But I digress.

In London Bridge there was some difficulty at the train barriers.  All the guys were waved through but the Gate Keeper had other plans for me–I needed to go upstairs and buy a different ticket (I’d used my oyster on the way in, but it’s not accepted on the way out? Ah the joys of National Rail in London).  Luckily, thanks to an outbreak of fisticuffs on the second floor, I stealthily slipped by.

By the time we got to the Wenlock, I knew that to keep drinking was to just fuel the urban anger that had been stirred by the random officiousness and witnessing the full-on fight at the station wasn’t helping matters.  I had water and tried to regain my bearings.  While walking there I got a text from an old high school friend who was in town.  I invited him to come join us, not knowing that  plans were already in the works to move on.  I realized to keep going would be to keep drinking and eventually I would have to take a brain-addled approach to finding my way home from an unfamiliar part of London.

And besides, I really loved the Wenlock with its ramshackle crowd of local sports fans and myriad grey heads tucking in to their half pints.  There were beers I hadn’t even tried yet, and besides, I knew my friend from high school was going to love this place, with its dingy red carpet and massive cracks in the floor from which mysterious blue light poured forth.  I saw the guys off and went to meet my friend (thanks Beer Nut for the map print-out– I needed it to find my way back).

I can see the Wenlock becoming a a new favourite– people were very friendly– making room for us where there was none, and being generally quite amiable.  We both had Harvey’s Bonfire Boy.  From a distance the pump clip looked vaguely seasonal, like Father Christmas in a pith helmet. I love Harvey’s beers so we stuck with that for the rest of the night. The brewery website says this beer was first brewed in 1996 for the Emergency Services that fought the fire which destroyed the brewery offices.  But while I drank it I thought of it as a winter warmer sort of beer, with a lovely sweet malt presence and vague smoke, perfect for nursing in halves (though my friend was having pints), slowly the glow of it all returned as the two of us, having not seen each other in twenty odd years, caught up with the rapid passing of decades while the locals hollered at the telly and sang what to us, two American midwesterners adrift in London, sounded like shanties run aground.

Bad Sheep, Good People, Better Beer.
February 28, 2009

BrewDog has done it again, producing a lovely, drinkable beer that still challenges the modern, mass market idea of a lager.  Their black lager, Zeitgeist, was launched on Thursday night to a packed crowd at the Austin Gallery in Bethnal Green.  Congratulations to the staff who were welcoming and well organized, as well as the entire BrewDog posse who were just good people.

Zeitgeist label art by Heather Brennan

Zeitgeist label art by Heather Brennan

The gallery itself is an intimate space with a spirited mix of DIY and polish.  Downstairs Heather Brennan’s silkscreens for the labels were hung with clips, as if the beer and the spooky sheep-masked people had swooped into London, giving the evening the feeling of a Temporary Autonomous Zone. The masked everywomen/men in artwork were a little bit Wickerman, a little bit baphomet.  It’s sly nod to the wolf in sheep’s clothing, an apt metaphor for a reinvented lager, which is a style made yellow and insipid by herd-market brands.  But Zeitgeist is pitch black and full of flavor.  The masks are off!

Drinking this dark-as-night lager throughout the night contributed to this feeling that we were getting away with something.  The beer was one of the prototype brews where James and Martin asked drinkers to vote for the beer they would like to see added to their range. (I was most interested in Bad Pixie, a 4.7% wheat beer brewed with juniper berries and lemon peel).  I’ve been following their video blog with glee– the brewers put forth arguments for different styles and ingredients and let the readers decide.  BrewDog has plans to continue this drinker-participation with their website for the Zeitgeist, where drinkers will be able to upload missives and visual subversions inspired by the beer, thus making even the marketing of the beer a collaboration between the drinkers and brewers.   Portman group, I’d like to see you try to stop this!

What interested me most about the beer is that it seemed to combine my own beery dilemma with elegant balance.  What should I brew next? I love chocolate malt, but then I also love American-style hoppage, so as I was musing on the possibility of brewing another chocolaty mild or a daring American Pale Ale.  Then BrewDog comes along and makes a lager that combines these two beloved notes– chocolate and estery Chinook hops.

The highlight of the evening though was meeting James Watt, the brewer.  Brewers in general are generous people who have a love of life, and James is no exception.  What most impressed me about him was his passion for brewing and his sincerity.  These characteristics carry through in the BrewDog beers which push boundaries while remaining trad.  They’re daring while never underestimating the drinker.   This is what I love about the brave guys at BrewDog: they embrace paradoxes with veracity– no surprise my favourite of their beers goes by the same name.

State of the Art
August 25, 2008



why?, originally uploaded by velvetdahlia.

Since I couldn’t take any decent pictures of the pub where we found ourselves on Sunday, here is me drinking a pint there and vaguely protesting the impromptu documentation of said drinking.

Yesterday I visited a friend in hostipal in Euston and used it as a reason to check out Bree Louise, a pub I’ve read about on several beer blogs.

It’s a bit like being in some old bachelor’s living room. It’s the kind of place men feel comfortable letting it all hang out. The crowd was basically farting geezers (wish I was exaggerating) and laddish young men with teeshirts that read: “Drink till she’s cute” and “Let’s play carpenter. We get hammered and I nail you.” The bare white walls and grubby red carpet, coupled with the furniture that looked like cast-offs from a chain pub all added to the complete lack of anything resembling ambiance. It was one of those places that made me wonder why the hell I go out looking for beer in these alienating spaces. It must be the masochist in me.

There were several beers on gravity, but it was impossible to make heads or tails of them because in some instances the brewery wasn’t listed with the name. The overly eager bar-hand kept saying, “I’m ready when you are, what do you want?” I chose at random the Doombar and the Beartown something or other. When I finally ordered, he said, “That’s 4%– it’s going to go straight to your head!” Which was actually kind of cute. When we presented our CAMRA cards we got 50p off each, making the round £1 cheaper.

The beers were rather forgettable, except the Doombar which was tasty but seemed a bit flat and thin. Maybe it had gone off? We tried the Iceberg and the Atlantic IPA also but I took no notes.

They had a list of what casks would be tapped next. I can see how this would be ticker heaven, if all you cared about was beer and not where or how you were drinking it.

The sinister Mr. Malting guarding the half pints.

The sinister Mr. Malting guarding the half pints.

The Ship Tavern
June 25, 2008

The Ship Tavern Stained Glass, originally uploaded by currybet.

On Sunday I was wandering around Covent Garden with friends and we found ourselves in Holborn. There is only one pub I know there and they are usually closed on Sundays but we tried anyway and– wonders– The Ship Tavern is now open on Sundays. This tiny back street pub is over 400 years old, but it’s not resting on its history or pandering to tourists (even though it seems to be featured on a “Haunted London” walk– I’ve never seen a ghost there, or a throng of tourists for that matter, but apparently during the reign of Henry VIII it was a place where clandestine Catholic mass was held. Some of the priests were found and executed in the tavern).

The people working the bar there are always friendly. Sunday they had on four real ales which the landlord offered for us to try. I fell or the Everards Sunchaser– very light and delicately hoppy, served a little cooler than cellar temperature, it was perfect for the rather hot day, as was the dark, cool pub which was lit with candles. We sat in a both that was stocked with lovely old books. The place was quiet, just my friends and two deaf women signing to each other. On the stereo Nina Simone and Dawn Penn made it feel like a home-away-from-home.

Who’s With Me?
May 29, 2008

Last Orders on the Underground

The Final Circle Line Party. The booze-on-the-tube ban goes into effect on June 1st. Say it’s a protest or hedonist last harrah, but you really can’t have an opinion unless you show up. 9pm. Liverpool St. Station, Circle Line Clockwise Platform, rear of train.

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