A Haunted Pint of Old Peculiar
February 26, 2011

The fireplace at the Black Swan Inn

Within the tiny city of York, circumscribed by the ruins of the medieval wall, there are myriad pubs.  I have not been to them all, and will probably never get to all of them.  York is also the “most haunted city in England.”   And I would believe it.

Even my own cottage seems to have a ghost, or so one of my house guests claims- he came down from the ceiling to greet her.  She described someone who looked a bit like Minty off Eastenders.

Ghosts are a part of the tourist trade here– men in stilts and archaic clothing hawk nightly tours, and on any night you can see similarly dressed men spinning yarns for gaggles of tourists who gasp and laugh at their storytelling.

Many of the churches are haunted but if one were to do a ghost-for-ghost accounting I would bet pubs would win out.  Just the other night I was in the Black Swan, a beautiful 15th century inn inside of the city walls.  It has an archetypal look, like something out of a fairy tale, with  black beams and iron fireplace, decorated antiques of rough domesticity– kettles, pots, bed warmers.  The space is intimate and friendly– you can hear everyone’s conversations and on the night I was there it was a convivial, fascinating crowd– ramblers, older women in bright colours sitting together, a woman in a cocktail dress with her suited-and-booted date.

At one point the pub was packed with a ghost-trail tour which ascended the stairs looking for  “Legs”.  He is, you guessed it, reduced in the afterlife to a pair of limbs.  There are other ghosts here:  a woman in white (isn’t she always?) looking after the fire, a man in a bowler hovering by the bar, waiting for someone.

The woman beside me kept looking around– at the Toby jugs on the shelf, lit from beneath and looking like disembodied heads, jolly trophies.  The iron chandelier, empty of candles, kept swinging of its own accord.   Over a door behind the bar hangs a set of Morris Dancing knives, woven in the shape of a pentagram.

These knives first became known to me watching the Wickerman as a girl in the early 80s.  (My parents forbid me to see it, which of course made me even more curious, and in many ways this film has had a formative effect on my imagination but that is for another post.) The knives appear in the famous masked “chop-chop” scene, where the be-wigged Lord Summerisle, played by a histrionic Christopher Lee, sends foaming barrels of ale into the sea.

The woman next to me shuddered and declared the place “creepy,” staring at the knives which I suppose could be a bit sinister.

Sword Morris Men in Hastings, May Day 2010

But I associate them with the joyful virility of this style of Morris, where men weave and interlace using the swords in a snaking puzzle.  (If anyone knows the name of this troupe pictured above, let me know so I can credit them.  They were amazing.)

That night at the Black Swan I had a Copper Dragon’s Golden Pippen, malty and light with a delicate bitterness, perfect served though the sparkler.  Then I unwisely changed to Theakston Old Peculiar, one of my favourite beers.  This pint tasted sour, as if the lines were not cleaned properly.  Next to Landlord, Old Peculiar has to be the most wildly varied cask ale I’ve ever had– no two pints are ever the same.  But this one had none of the characteristic dried fruits and dark malts, all the sweetness siphoned out of it.  I blame Legs.

The Moon in a Vivarium*
December 28, 2009

Image by Happyralph on Flickr

The Oakdale Arms is a forlorn little place, far from any bus stop.  Drunks and rowdies never seem to find their way there, and neither does anyone else.

Its clientele seemingly consist of people who work or live there: the most regular of regulars.

The whole architecture and fittings are uncompromisingly mid-80s. Everything, including the day bed covered with a zebra throw, has the solid ugliness of the late 20th century.

The great surprise of the Oakdale Arms are the vivariums.  One holds a “25 year old” bottom-feeder. Another contains exotic amphibians half submerged in black water, shimmying frantically against the glass. The landlord, almost eight feet tall in his New Rocks platforms, wears a bearded dragon around the premises.  There is no television.

It’s quiet enough to talk. All that one hears is the buzzing of fluorescent lighting in the glass tanks about the place.  Amid the peace of a menagerie stunned with existential boredom, the chirping of uneaten bugs.

You cannot get dinner at the Oakdale Arms, though the barmaid is eating crisps so they must have them. There’s no stout for your pewter pot or china mug.  Instead, there’s Santa Slayer with a dominating copper tang, and middling Milton Dionysus, not really fitting of the name.

But now is the time to reveal something which the discerning and disillusioned reader will probably have guessed already. There really is such a place as the Oakdale Arms.  It’s just down the road, past the Harringay Superstores.

*apologies to Orwell.

The Rake, Take Two
December 11, 2009

Conquest of Planet of the Apes, my alma mater

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?”

Left Hand Ginger Julu label

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!

Anchor Christmas Ale, 2007

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?”

“Nevermind!”

“Why did you go to the Rake?  Didn’t you just go to the Market Porter?”

Well, exactly.

Is it time to adopt a pub?
March 18, 2009

Would you adopt this Dolphin?

Would you adopt this Dolphin?

According to CAMRA  39 pubs are closing every week.  The Times online projects apocalyptically that “last orders in Britain’s last pub would be called for the final time one evening in June 2037.” There have been excellent discussions on Boak and Baily’s blog about why pubs are closing and what class might have to do with it.  The conclusion, it seems, is people just stopped going to them.

Some pub owners like to blame the smoking ban, but I can’t be the only person who spends more time in pubs now that I can breathe in them.  In the long run this will be one of the wisest adaptations of pub life.  Maybe some publicans just can’t see it yet.

But must we save pubs from extinction?  Pubs aren’t pandas, are they?  Sure, one could argue the pubs’ once-thriving habitat has come under threat from pubcos, cheap supermarket booze and home entertainment, but should they be seen as victims in need of charitable donations of time and money?  As Pete Brown has pointed out, they are businesses, after all.  Businesses must evolve and adapt to survive.  (Unless of course you are an investment bank, but I digress.)

Unlike endanegered species, pubs don’t have to wait for generational mutations to adapt. They can do it now.  The CAMRA leaflet encourages intensive community involvement and has creative suggestions about combining services in a pub–a hairdressers, a takeaway or a post office, but clearly these are aimed at village pubs.

To fully grok CAMRA’s argument, one must do a fair bit of reading of pdfs– probably more than the average drinker is willing to do.  The point is that development has been so aggressive that many pubs face becoming something else altogether–luxury flats for example.  The CAMRA literature does not address mismanagement, which might be a key reason why so many pubs are becoming unviable.

As I consider CAMRA’s statistics and the sheer number of dead pubs, it is a bit overwhelming.  But I would be lying if I said that I didn’t want to see the pubs in my immediate vicinity– The Fox and The Dolphin– evolve or just die off.  I don’t go to my locals.  Why should I “donate” my money to pubs that don’t provide what I want, or are unpleasant?

The Fox is nice enough inside.  But I have often had a pint of ale that’s gone off, and the staff sometimes have warned me off the ale, “Because there have been complaints today.”  The food, usually mediocre, has taken a turn.  It will be placed in front of you, shamelessly, without a word, sometimes almost inedible.  (How is it possible to burn a whole plate of chips?) The small mercy is that the portions are always quite mean.  The servers are young and ever-changing.  Once, I brought a friend there and he found a hair in the head of his pint.  When he brought it back to the bar the server said, “that’s not my hair,” shrugged, fished it out and gave the pint back to him.

I have a local even closer to my flat called The Dolphin. I have watched crews film commercials and an episode of Peep Show there.  From the outside it looks lovely, but I have never been inside.  This pub, when it’s not full of extras and movie crews, is scary.  Last night at 2 am, I lay awake listening to punters toss the picnic tables at each other while hurling invectives.  And this went on for an hour while the pub was seemingly still open.  It was Saint Patricks Day but this happens even on non-drinking related holidays.  I’m dreading summer.  Since they’ve made an outside smoking area, messy brawls and middle-of-the-night shouting matches are routine and will only get worse as the weather improves.  At least they’ve stopped the amplified, al fresco karaoke.  The landlord of this pub as taken on an evil cast in my imagination.  What kind of person is so hostile to his customers and community that he would let this happen on a regular basis?  And why, exactly should I save him from anything?

This is an extreme example, but if CAMRA really does support consumer choice, consumers will chose some pubs over others.  The reality is some pubs will close if they can’t compete.  There are some pubs–like the Intrepid Fox in Soho–that were beloved of many and well-used but gentrification has killed them off, the blow dealt so rapidly no one had time to organize against it.  Though CAMRA presents a detailed guide for rallying community involvement and even ownership of an endangered pub, that might well be impossible in a place like London.  The guide seems geared to more rural areas, places with a “village pub”, and this is acknowledged in their Public House Viability guide.

On a recent visit the barkeep changed the number to 2182.

On a recent visit the barkeep changed the number of real ales to 2182.

My local is not the closest pub to me, but it is where I spend the most money.  It’s the Magpie and Crown in Brentford. The staff are always friendly and on top of things, and I’ve never had a bad pint there. Last night I had the light, hoppy Twickenham Grandstand with some of the best Thai food in London from Magpie’s kitchen.  While sipping my cracking pint of Acorn Old Moor Porter (some serious coffee bitterness and a very dry finish) I wondered why I was a CAMRA member at all, since their campaigns didn’t seem to address my concerns as a young, female London drinker.  (Take it to the top? Not really a problem.) I have only recieved one copy of What’s Brewing since I joined a year ago, so I may be out of the loop, and I have never felt compelled to go to a meeting as I’m sure I would be completely out of place amongst the older fraternity there.  But while Joy Division and The Jesus and Mary Chain were on the pub sound system, I considered my good luck at having adopted a magpie, and congratulated myself for doing my part in the campaign.

The Magpie and Crown features in Rankins novels as the Flying Swan.

The Magpie and Crown features in Rankin's novels as the Flying Swan.

Waiting at the Rake
December 1, 2008

On Friday I went to the Rake, the smallest bar in London.  I’d been to the Rake before a couple of times after work.  It’s essentially a room with a vast beer selection (basically a representation of what’s on offer at the comprehensive Utobeer, the sister stall in the Market) There are a couple of tables and chairs and a fenced-in ‘garden’.  I’m glad the place is doing a good business but I’ve never been able to actually sit down inside because it’s so rammo– I’m reminded of how often having ‘fun’ in crowded, pricey London is a lot of work.

I was invited via this blog to the kick-off of the BrewDog week at the Rake– a tasting at the bar at 4:30. I was gleefully excited to get this invitation, as BrewDog is my favourite British brewery, consistently making potent and daring brews, pushing traditional styles.  Edgy juxtapostions mark the flavors of their beers.  I also love their puckish branding, their playing David to the Portman Group’s Goliath.

I showed up at 5 for the tasting, thinking it would already be in full swing.  The bar was packed with people drinking beers, only they weren’t BrewDog beers.  Weird. I had brought my friend Petra who is a journalist for National Public Radio back in America, telling her about BrewDog and the complications of the Portman Group troubles, which interested her. Earlier in the week we tried some BrewDog Storm my friend Liza had stashed and Petra announced it was like drinking a house on fire.  Precisely!  Though my palate delighted in this, hers did not.

On the occasions I’ve gone to the Rake I have had the naive expectation that the people working the bar might enthuse with me about the beers, maybe suggest something or explain what’s on tap.  Bars like this in America would definitely have this forthcoming attitude, but there is the typical London service going on– cursory or cowed. Could it be that places earn their names, and the Rake is ultimately a cad, a heel of a beer joint?  (Hogarth’s progressed to Bedlam.) My verdict is still out.

On Friday the vibe was no different. I overheard a guy who I thought was the proprietor talking about BrewDog and I butted in, apologizing for interupting–  asking after the BrewDog beers and if there was a tasting on.  He told me the beers would be on hand  pump next week and I should come back then.  I mentioned the press release I’d been sent, but he turned back to his friend to say what a coup it was that they had the BrewDog beers on offer for a week, and clearly the conversation with me was over.  I had no idea that the tasting was actually going on upstairs at that very moment.  I didn’t even know there was an upstairs at the Rake.  I only learned of this the next day.

On Friday we sat outside looking to recognize someone.  (I was told in the invitation that the brewers would be at the bar.)  As I waited, I marveled at the crowd the Rake attracts–  well-dressed media types and boomer-aged foodies who love beer so much, or the hipster craic that comes with drinking £4 bottles of beer, that they will stand outside on a rainy midwinter night to drink it. I was no different, and probably worse, as I sat on the rain-wet bench for two hours, waiting to perhaps see another beer blogger or even the brewers I’d come to meet.  I actually spurned my usual investment-banking-office-wear that day and dressed festively in my favourite black dress which remained hidden the entire night under my bulky winter coat. If a non-beer person asked me what I did on Friday, how could I even explain this behavior?

While I waited I had some of BrewDog’s Trashy Blonde and then the Speedball, but I took no tasting notes, my heart just not being in it.  Petra was after a Kriek, and all they had on was Boon, which I’ve never tried.  She had some Morte Subite Olde Gueuze which she affectionately dubbed ‘pickle juice beer’ and then switched to the candy-coloured comfort of Sam Smith’s cherry lager.

This week a full range of BrewDog beers are on at The Rake in Borough Market, along with some in the cask on hand pumps.  Initially I drew up a list of the beers I wanted to try, in specific order.  But now can’t motivate myself to go and stand outside on a winter’s night drinking them silently amongst strangers, no matter how fascinating the beers themselves might be.

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.

Cleopatra’s Fruit and Martian War Machine Coolant
August 24, 2008

In the Olde Ale House at the Red Lion Beer Festival

In the Olde Ale House at the Red Lion Beer Festival

This weekend was the Champions Beer Festival at the Red Lion in Isleworth, which I consider practically my local. Even when there’s not a festival on, this pub has at least 7 guest taps that are ever changing, and the women behind the bar know their stuff and are always happy to recommend something based on beer you already like.

Walking in, it was hard to know that there was a beer festival on. There were no banners or signs leading people to the small outer cellar where all the casks were arrayed. In fact, when I was sitting at the bar a woman asked what ciders were on and the guy behind the bar looked bewildered and then told her “Only Strongbow.” I had to butt in and tell her to go in the back where they had three different kinds. After she left the bar hand turned to me and joked, “You made me look bad.” But did he not know there was a festival on?

A man and his two sons came up and squinted at the taps and kind of looked around. When we told them there was a room full of casks in the back worth checking out the old guy said, “You’ve been here for a while have you?” and the younger ones repeated what we said in American accents. I suppose we amused them. (In London, talking to strangers is mistaken for drunkeness. Or being from nutterville.)

I confess I actually didn’t drink any of the featured “Champions” from the GBBF and went straight to the Proper Job, after having read about it on Boak and Bailey. While not as sparkly as I had hoped it was lovely in its hoppy spice. I starting thinking about hops, and how for the longest time I associated very hoppy beers with something medicinal or astringent. I have gradually learned to like them. The first time I ever saw a hop was at my brewer friend Bob’s– he and Edie were having a tasting and they’d strung garlands of hops around. The smell was really comforting and herby and they were beautiful. Now that I knew what they looked like they didn’t scare me as much. And then I realized that different hops have different flavours, and the key was finding the ones you liked. I love estery hops but still can’t abide anything too piney…don’t think I ever will.

And speaking of estery– my favourite was probably Derventio’s Cleopatra Fruit, recommended to me by the woman behind the bar with Cleopatra eyes, no less. It had apricots in the nose and throughout the palate but it was actually quite dry.

there is way too much going on on this pump clip

there is way too much going on on this pump clip

Mr Malting of course stuck with milds. The Bateman’s was forgettable. The Martian Mild, which Wayland claimed was “used as a coolant by the Martian War Machines on Mars” was sweet and sour, not unlike some kind of candy we had as children. We concluded that Martian war technology must be cooled by Werther’s Originals. Still, it was a good beer– made even better by the sense of marketing absurdity.

The standout of the milds was the Hobson’s classic. Roasty, roasty comforting and still light. I had a half pint of it myself.

I regret not having a full pint of Old Scatness– a beer I loved at the GBBF. But I thought I should try new things. Interestingly, there were absolutely no disappointments, unless you count the band, who took over 40 minutes with a sound check. There was an accordian, a fiddle, a mandolin and a stand up bass…our interest was piqued and we waited. And waited while their fussing began to squash any potential joy they might make once they got around to making it.

Eddie

Eddie

More entertaining was the Red Lion’s gregarious Pomeranian, Eddie. I’ll forgive the band and the lack of signage. With a dog as cute as Eddie, and knowledgeable women behind the bar, plus not a single dud in the line up (at least of what I tried), this festival was a winner.

Hotter than a Match Head
July 28, 2008

Market Porter, Borough, SE1, originally uploaded by Ewan-M.

On Saturday night I found myself at one of my favourite London pubs, The Market Porter. When I first saw this pub I was meandering about Borough Market doing some cheese flirting and getting tipsy on dry New Forest cider. There on the corner was a typical looking pub, but somehow it wasn’t. Typical, I mean. Sure, it’s famous and everyone knows about it. Everyone but me and that’s OK– most of London is like that. Discoverable.

There’s something about that area around the Southwark cathedral that’s maze-like and human-scale in a way much of London isn’t. On that day I looked past the City workers in their identical black suits and saw inside the many many taps and little tables where girls with flowers in their hair sat drinking. Being a bit drunk already I made a note to return, which I have done over and over.

What I love about the pub is that despite its City banker clientèle, or the hipster-with-mortgage demographic that visits the place it seems to exist outside of this. So many pubs in London pander to these folk but not this place which is full of freaks and bohemians, tweedy flaneurs. And real ale nutters. I went to the back of the bar, where the balded, bearded real ale gargoyles guard the taps. It’s hard to see past them but I spy Harviestoun “Behind Bars” which I’m willing to try based on my devotion to their Bitter & Twisted. Plus, I like the name. As usual, I’m served immediately despite the crowds. The bar staff is always friendly and attentive.

Meanwhile Mr. Malting is on the futile search for milds. It’s his first time here and he still doesn’t believe me that it’s a decent place because he can’t find a mild. He’s even searching the pump clips displayed on the ceiling as proof this place maybe had a mild on at one time so perhaps it’s ok, but he’s still whinging on about how we could be at the Royal Oak instead drinking Harvey’s Mild.

I prompt him to try the Harvey’s Bitter which is my default choice. (I know people love TT Landlord but I’ve had a couple terrible pints of that stuff. Harvey’s was the first bitter I had that I actually “got”– where I understood why people would like this style of beer.) I admit that at this point I was wishing I had some Harvey’s Bitter because the Behind Bars was more like “Convict Fairy Burst”: metallic, detergent-like. I was happy to have only a half pint to finish.

At one point Mr. Malting and I looked longingly at the new, silver Meantime taps, specifically the Union dark lager. It was the hottest night of the year and I wanted to drink something that didn’t feel like work, something that met me halfway. At £3.50 the pint of Union was quite dear but it was cold and crisp-yet-malty, with a lovely head and bright mouth feel. As I sat there blissed with this continental style beer I thought about summer– how so much of British life is designed for rain and cold that when summer hits, as it has been doing more fervently each year, it seems most of Britain just runs out into the sun to get a bit of colour. But the heat is still on on most of the buses, everyone is still in wool suits, and the beer is still cellar temperature, even if that cellar just isn’t that cold anymore.

I’ve had enough year-long summers in Los Angeles to last me a couple lifetimes. Bring on the rain, the damp chill so I can drink my comforting bitters and stouts happily again.

Two Americans Walk into a Pub…
May 25, 2008

I have been to the Magpie and Crown in Brentford on several occasions. It is a short bus ride away from my flat, and I can confidently say the beer is the best I’ve had in London. The clientele is diverse and strange, many coming in from the nearby tattoo shop, and the landlord is friendly and clearly passionate about real ale.

Last week a heavily tattooed American sat drinking with a tattooed Dutchman and they got to talking politics in between discussing classic cars. I overheard the American, “Your people hate my people.” The Dutchman concurred amiably. I’d like to think anything can be discussed over a pint, especially a pint of lovely Twickenham Blackbee as I had there today. Steve, the landlord, brought over some roasted potatoes for us which were especially delicious, and when a game isn’t on the telly there’s The Stranglers, Meatloaf or Ian Drury on the stereo. It’s quickly becoming my favourite place on a Sunday afternoon.

Today, a scraggly geezer with a gin nose leaned into Mr. Malting and me as we sat conspiring, “So what’s it like to be in love?”

I giggled, which is usually my response for any conversation I really don’t want to enter into. It’s a habit I’ve been waiting 30 years to outgrow.

“What’s the matter with you? Why are you laughing?” He’s annoyed already and he hadn’t even properly met me.

I replied, “That’s a complicated question.”

Which led to the inevitable, “Are you Canadian or American?” When he heard we were American he asked, “Going around the globe with your machine guns, where do you get off?” Having neither owned a machine gun nor traveled around the world, I couldn’t really tell him. This proud member of the empire on which the sun never sets was drinking German weiss beer, in case this matters to anyone. He then offered an anecdote, “I met one of the likes of you, after 7-11 (I didn’t correct him) and I offered my condolences. But it’s no surprise, is it, after what you did to the Red Indians?”

I have never actually heard the term “Red Indians” used by a living person before. It was almost quaint. I wanted to say that my ancestors, as well as their crimes, were most likely the same as his, but I said nothing.

“Why are you here, anyway? Is it by choice?” He pried.

“I work here,” said Mr. Malting.

This man pointed to his chest, “You are sitting across from a genuine Englishman. Take a good look, we are a rare breed, most now being black or brown.” I took a good look, his face so blanched with booze it was the colour of his long, lank grey hair.  He looked like a ghost.

At which point we turned to our pints and I wondered if this would be on the “Life in the UK” test.

In the Meantime
May 14, 2008

While real ale in itself isn’t going to change white, male “boy’s club” feel of beer drinking in the UK, it does have the potential for wider appeal with women and people of color. How is this going to happen?

One possible way is that beer will be marketed to separate race and gender demographics. People will buy it from supermarkets and drink it in front of the telly.

Where is the fun in that? Beer is a social thing, a bonding agent. Beer has the potential to really bring people together joyfully. What if real ale culture harnessed that anew, starting with pubs and festivals radically rethinking their base?

Perhaps the nationalistic, tradition-based advertising approach of many British pubs, festivals and breweries is not ultimately the way forward if real ale is to have more appeal. In the changing landscape of Britain it must have wider appeal to really survive and grow.

Meantime– which doesn’t produce cask-conditioned ale– is an amazing example of British beer adopting international styles and learning from the American microbrewery revolution. Easy-drinking kolsh and Munich styles plus Strawberry cream, blackcurrant porter and raspberry ale are beers that will appeal to women, but they aren’t marketed patronizingly at us. Also the packaging in the grocery store and the pub spoke to me: bottles with a beautiful font and a great name. They were elegant, back to basics and yet full of London magic (Greenwich Mean Time– time begins here–).

The Greenwich Union pub did not disappoint, and echoed the branding effortlessly. Everything was perfect down to the details: the glasses were appropriate to the style and brewery branded, and even carefully sprayed down after pouring by the bar staff so they wouldn’t be sticky. The beer itself was perfect in every way– the kolner seemed quite accurate especially– I suppose it can’t be called a kolsh because you can’t hear the bells of the Dom in Greenwich! The dunkel rivaled my favourite of that style– Andrechs. The raspberry was specially perfect for drinking outside on a summer’s day. The sunny Union garden did remind me of happy times with friends in the beer gardens of Bavaria. It was a Sunday afternoon and there were many more women here drinking– maybe even outnumbering men. Though it was still a predominantly white crowd.

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