Hey Laaaaady
April 9, 2009

Can you spot the laydeez?

Can you spot the laydeez?

I’ve spoken before of my love of the Ship Tavern in Holborn, and I visited there yesterday.  The celebrations of Cask Ale Week were definitely on: a Theakston Mild and Bitter being the most significant and tasty offerings. After a day of checking out dead things in jars at the Hunterian Museum, nothing satisfies like a lovely pint of bitter!

Two American friends were visiting and were drinking the mild. I tried to explain the philosophy behind Cask Ale Week but it was difficult.  While perusing the official website, I had little luck figuring out how to find a participating pub, or even what events were on, (don’t get me started on the picture of the well groomed college students on the site’s homepage.  It’s just odd.) I was guessing when I explained it was a way to celebrate a distinctive national beverage that has been coded as unfashionable.

In the US, the microbrewery revolution has changed the kind of beer most people I know drink.  The offerings at most stores are quite varied now. Many Brits who have never been to America think it’s still the land of Bud and Coors, but in metropolitan places this is not the case.  My friends ordered pints of mild without having to be coaxed to do it, and one of them was…wait for it…a woman.  That cask ale is associated with old bearded men was impossible to convey to them as we were sitting in the lively Ship, surrounded by all kinds of people who were drinking ale.  (It’s true the women were mostly drinking, you guessed it, white wine.)

My friend Laura picked up a flyer announcing the events of Cask Ale Week at the pub, one of which headlined with the pun, “femALE” day.  It addressed us as Ladies, and my friend said, “See, they’ve gone wrong right there.  Ladies?”  To an American ear the word lady is an insult.  It’s something Jerry Lewis yells.  No one wants to be addressed as a lady– which either means you are a granny, a member of the Christian Right or the recipient of some stranger’s anger.   Here it’s perfectly normal, and even polite, to refer to a woman as a lady.  I still vaguely resent it, and all the ideas that come packaged in that word–which is probably why I engage in such unladylike activities like beer blogging.

The flyer suggested we try some cask ale for £1 on the 15th of April, technically two days after Cask Ale Week is over.   Presumably we don’t have to wear a hat and gloves to partake of our cheeky half, just a pair of XX chromosomes.

Sassquash Mild
April 6, 2009

Drinking the mild I brewed four weeks ago.

Drinking the mild I brewed four weeks ago.

That moment you crack open a beer you have brewed yourself– it’s kinda magical, kinda scary.  It’s hard not to load it with harbingers of life in general (if the beer is shit does that mean I’m shit at life? What if it’s good, but not good enough?  Am I consigned forever to mediocrity?)

I am a worrier, and drink beer as a way to regulate certain personality flaws, this being one of them.  But my first solo brew is totally drinkable.  Sure, the body is thin, and there is no head to speak of.  The carbonation level threatens the delicate flavors– in short, a hyper active child only a mother could love.  And I do love it.

I shared it with friends, and we were all eating pizza and playing with a Blythe doll.  It seemed like the thing to do, as my beer wasn’t going to put hair on anyone’s chest.  It’s a shandy-like beer, a return to childhood, to the furtive sippings of forbidden stuff.   My friend noticed the chocolate malt and the biscuit, and she’s not even a beer-head.  She also said it was squash-like.  For non-Brits, squash is a refreshing, fizzy fruit drink. I don’t think it really tastes of squash but the mouth-feel is certainly reminiscent.

Sassquash.  It’s as good a name as any, and my friend is pretty darn sassy.  I realize now, just like Adam in the garden, naming things is a certain privilege.  Just so with beer.  I love the ‘in-joke’ names of home and micro brews that crown this anachronistic labor of love.

I don’t want to spend my entire brewing career churning out fizzy lifting drinks.  Now I have to figure out what exactly went wrong here, and how the next batches could be improved. But where to begin?

It’s Brew Day
March 8, 2009

Steeping the malt grains

Steeping the malt grains

Today I attempted to brew a mild, this time without the help of my friend Bob, brewer extraordinaire who taught me how to brew on my recent trip back to the States.  (He’s also the guy who originally turned me on to beer.)

I was using  his recipe because it turned out so well the first time, but I had a hell of a time finding the ingredients and had to substitute some of it.  I had to go to Surrey to get the crystal malt  (thanks to the very helpful Richard Burns at Cheers Brewing) and Grotusque sent me the magnum hops from the US.  (It seems the variety of hops available in the UK is very limited– or am I missing some amazing supplier? At this point hop distribution should have recovered from last year’s shortage.)

Once I got the wort going I was encouraged– it filled the whole flat with that comforting smell: the hominess of bakng bread with the halo of Bacchanalian promise. It’s in the fermenter now– hoping I get to see a bubbling airlock tomorrow.

Brewing by Candlelight
January 17, 2009

Last night I brewed my first beer with Bob. In the dark.

It’s a mild, and because we embrace irony we’re calling this low gravity beer Blackout Mild.

You see, right as the wort started to boil, the lights went out all over Echo Park.  We had to do the rest by the light of two stubby little candles. Originally Bob had suggested we call the beer 28 Days Later Mild because he had devised the process to last the month-long duration of my trip here.

You don’t think about light until you have to do without it.  The yellow candlelight shifted the shadows of the normally bright kitchen, and the neighborhood cat kept coming in and jumping beside me, startling me.  Worrying over the steaming wort I felt like a witch at her cauldron.

Later we started freaking ourselves out saying it was the 28 Days Later Mild, whispering, “Turn out the light!” lest the infected find us.  And, why yes, we were drinking Bob’s home brew at the time, a delicious American Pale Ale.  Thanks for asking.

We woke up this morning to electricity and the joy of a bubbling air lock. Glory to the micro-organism!

Three Nights of Beering
August 9, 2008

GBBF-- a grim venue in which to get your buzz on.

GBBF-- a grim venue in which to get your buzz on.

“Why would you need to go to a festival to get beer?” The guy from the mail room, who’d stopped by the new high security den in which I work, asked. My co-worker had just informed him that I was going to the GBBF again, after having gone almost every day this week. They found this hilarious.

I told him there were hundreds of beers by small breweries, beers you could never get at your local pub or off license.

“Stick with the big names, that’s what I say. You know how they’ll taste. You know what they’ll do to you.”

I have to admit that after three days of drinking countless and varied thirds, I see a sliver of wisdom in this man’s words. You see, I don’t feel so great. Friday night my feet were covered from blisters– after working 8 hours in heels and corporate costume, I now stood for another five drinking. And then I spilled mild all over my only good work skirt, and I wasn’t even drunk. I was in serious beer overload.

It’s hard to get drunk happily at the GBBF. There’s a lot of trekking around, looking for the beer you want, and then queuing, and then more walking around looking for a small, calm corner in which to enjoy it. You realize there is really no such thing, so you drink it while being jostled by unfriendly crowds. And then with the next 1/3 of a pint it starts all over again.

If Tuesday belongs to the professionals, Wednesday belongs to the obsessives, the tickers. Thursday belongs to the suited hedonists: City workers drinking as fast as they can before their 9 o’clock train. And Friday belongs to all the people you’d rather not drink with. Friday is one giant stag night. Groups of men roam, roaring in unison every time a glass breaks or they win at something or just because they think they need to jump-start the craic. They’re wearing purple western hats usually reserved for desperate fun of the hen night, or tams with “ginger” hair attached, or jester hats. And it’s not even hat night. That was Thursday. And there are more women on Friday, but they are tarted up in the tiniest skirts and stilettos.

After wringing a half pint of mild from my career-wear separates, I’m really no better. I just wish I was drunk like them and maybe none of it would matter.

But the thing I realized as I watched a saintly CAMRA volunteer set up the “roll the barrel” game for the stream of drunk asshats (in America the equivalent would be frat guys, but in the UK I’m not sure) I realized why I came every night wasn’t just for the beer, or the spectacle of machismo, but the sheer wonder of this volunteer-run event. To work unpaid in the dismal Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre with drunks and beer obsessives sounds like its own kind of hell. You’d have to really love beer to do this. I hope they all got lots of it.

A lovely CAMRA volunteer encouraged me to try my luck at the tombola– only a pound to play, and you are guaranteed to win! When I won a little stuffed ram toy she whispered, “If you don’t like it you can pick another.” But how could I? I’d already won.

My tombola win and a half of Chocolate Cherry Mild

My tombola win and a half of Chocolate Cherry Mild

Here are my tasting notes:

Abbeydale Black Mass: a thinner stout, quite hoppy– almost soapy.

Anglo-Dutch Brewery, Tabitha the Knackered: a favourite of mine from the festival. Golden amber with an orangeflower water nose. Slyly warming at 6%. Refreshing but complex.

Bushy’s Oyster Stout: Another favourite. I would like a glass of this right now please. Very close to Porterhouse’s version, minus the salinity and with more chocolate happening.

Dunham Massey, Chocolate Cherry Mild: An amazing beer, exactly like its name except that it’s not too sweet at all, balanced by a gently hoppy finish. I drank a lot of this.

Mighty Oak, Oscar Wilde Mild: It was tasty but through a major party foul I ended up wearing most of this.

Valhalla, Old Scatness: Named after the Iron Age village in Shetland and brewed from the ancient grain bere, this was really a light but satisfying beer– one which I went back to again and again. While in the Okneys we lived on the local flat bere loaves and the fresh white cheese made at a farm near our cottage. I thought this beer would have gone perfectly with these lunches. It made me long to go back to the Outer Hebrides.

Thursday was a blur of ciders– the most memorable was Rathay’s Old Goat with its mossy, forest creature nose and very dry finish.

I had several other milds and a few other stouts but I neglected to make note of them.

Doing Two Things at Once
May 11, 2008

dove pub

Having lived in London for three years, it’s just long enough for me to understand I’ll never get to everying, and there are no more secrets to discover. Everything has been marked and claimed and remarked and I will present little new light. This is the case with the famous Dove pub in Hammersmith, the oldest riverside pub in London, where James Thomson composed Rule Britannia and William Morris got pissed.

It was purchased by Fuller, who still owns the pub, in 1796, but it existed as a pub for at least 100 years prior. I had walked past it many times while strolling by the Thames there, and it looked so cozy but I never went in until yesterday. One of my American brewer friends is attempting to replicate Michael Jackson’s favourite drink, Fuller’s Mild, and has been prompting me to do field research because I live close to the brewery. I thought it being the “Month of Mild” for real ale drinkers they were bound to have it on tap at this Fullers pub.

It was one of those hot days where Londoners are a bit miserable but won’t admit it, and everyone is forcing themselves to have fun, wearing things that don’t come naturally to the English, like plastic sandals and board shorts. The Dove was packed with people in this mode, all drinking Pimms and Lemonade or bottled cider. On ice. Why is it this is the only time you can find ice here, in this atrocious manifestation? Anyway, the promise A FRIENDLY WELCOME SERVED ALL DAY, outside on a chalk board, gave me a twinge of trepidation. In my experience any pub which claims this will offer you nothing less than tepid animosity inside. But one lives in hope.

Upon entering, another chalkboard sign offered a new way to drink Fuller’s honey beer– “TRY HONEYDEW ON ICE” I cringed. I cringed some more while scanning the taps: all bog-standard fair– Guinness, Carling, Fosters, save four Fullers taps– no mild. I went for my usual choice of Discovery, which is one of despair. I’m not that keen on Fullers ESB or Chiswick Bitter. I’ve had many a crap pint of Discovery, too. The only thing is, when I tried to order at the bar, the bartender took the order from Mr. Malting. He then asked if he wanted anything else and I piped in, “One pint of Discovery,” and the bartender mysteriously walked away to wait on some guy in affected apres-surf gear next to me. (This is a rather common occurrence in pubs– where I am passed over for a man next to me– but I digress). Plus, there was no loo roll in the ladies. Warm welcome, my ass.

So M and I split the pint, crowded into a corner. Of course it was beautiful inside with low ceilings and wooden rafters, and I imagine it would be cozy on a winter’s night but today I had to wonder, sweatily, why had all these people come here to drink the same thing they always do, with the same people? With the countless pubs in London, why suffer one that is coasting on its atmosphere and history? M and I used the time to plot our next move. Inspired by Knut Albert’s beer blog, we decided to check out the Magpie and Crown in Brentford, a steamy bus ride away.

Magpie and Crown Pub

Both of us had been by this pub many times and even asked friends about it who wrinkled their noses at the idea, no doubt put off by the fact that it is a local boozer and also caters to the “Beardy Weirdies”, or real ale lovers, as Stonch so affectionately puts it. I knew as soon as I walked in that this was the place. Despite the ugly, worn out carpet and footie blaring on the wall, I could see countless taps gleaming before me, all with beer I haven’t tried yet. I noticed they even had Fentimans, my favourite non-alcoholic drink.

I started with Crouch Vale Blackwater Mild, a total winner– it was, well, the blackest of blacks and beautifully balanced. Unable to resist an Essex beer named after a place in Texas, I tried Crouch Vale’s Amarillo next. Holy cow! This beer had an aggressively estery nose– yellow roses, you could say. And the hops seemed actually spicy, a bit like lemon pickle if you’ve ever had it. I shouldn’t have liked this beer. Maybe it was because I was sitting next to my own Texas sweetheart, but you know, I was so into it. I tasted a couple others but it was the Amarillo that merited a second pint.

beerboard

As I sat sipping, the crowd of chunky men watching the footie started in on a rather ugly conversation about the government taxing white Englishmen while Muslims just get away tax-free. I thought, yeah, this is why beer culture is not considered cool in this country– there is all this racist nationalism tied up with “real ale”– a false sense of authenticity. But this is a topic for another post.

Meanwhile, as the men had at it, a tiny woman with a sensible bob and Liberty handbag came in and ordered a pint of mild, and sat across from us, drinking it quietly. I overheard one of the men yell, “I’M NOT A WOMAN, I CAN’T DO TWO THINGS AT ONCE.” The mild-drinker wrote something down and checked her makeup in a little brown compact. At the bar, the only other woman in the place sat hunched in her dirty winter coat, carefully raising her glass to her face with one violently trembling hand. I took notes and drank, noting the model ships, freshly dusted, on shelves all around. One was actually made of Shweppes cans. The governor (named Steve– thanks, interwebs) in a shirt that said THE LIVER IS EVIL AND MUST BE PUNISHED, was busy filling a stein with a German beer with a head as voluminous and dense as mousse. Try that next time, I promised myself. In fact he told us that if we came back in three days all guest taps would be changed again. I think I can wait that long.

EDIT: Comments are closed for this post, which has been distorted out of context on another site. I am receiving comments that are not relevant to this post. If you want to talk to me about beer, great! Please do.

Pubcrawling with Jack-in-the-Green
May 2, 2008

May 1st isn’t celebrated widely in London, but the handful of people who do honor this day of class struggle and pagan roots do it in fantastical style. Yesterday I went boozing with Jack-in-the-green, a leafy giant and his attending bogies, men dressed in green rags and ivy crowns. Following them were a motley group of musicians. We wound our way through the streets from one pub to the next, startling the suits and rushing commuters.

We started with Adnam’s May Day golden ale while waiting at the Charles Dickens for the revelers to show. In our pessimism– they were over 40 minutes late– we turned to Sharpes Cornish Coaster. But once they arrived– rather mysterious and triumphant– we were treated to a pint of bitter by a kind, green-faced gentleman from Hastings named Jim.

Later we switched to milds– Harveys Sussex and Knots of May to be exact. While the pub lit up with fiddling, tin whistles and squeeze boxes, I decided the malty, easy drinking mild would become a favourite of mine. It’s a shame the style is so rare. (CAMRA devotes every May to celebrating this style– otherwise I might not have even tried it, or perhaps the pub we were in might not have had it!)

I ended the night raising a pint of Harvey’s Best Bitter with green-bearded brethren. (I now understand why 1,200 Best Bitter drinkers signed a petition to have the drink restored to a local pub in East Sussex after it was removed from pub-owning giant Greene King. People here care about beer, they really do.)

I took no notes. I was too busy dancing.

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