Saying goodbye to my old local, and hello GBBF
August 2, 2010

Photo of Steve Bolton by philfromdublin on flickr

Is a blog without updates really a blog?  The generous folks at CAMRA seem to think so, and have granted me a pass to the Great British Beer Festival trade session.

I wasn’t really sure I wanted to go, especially after hearing Laura and Dave had to give it a miss this year.  But then I was lucky enough to meet up with Laura this weekend, as she was visiting for the Knit Nation extravaganza.  We ended up at the Market Porter fondling roving and wool Laura had found at the knitting event and drinking halves of Harvey’s Bitter and Deeside Talorcan (a hearty, chocolaty stout with an impressive beige head and just enough bitterness and wood notes to really make it complex).

We then made our way to the Rake which was more than hospitable.  We sampled most of what they had on at the moment, as well as some remarkable bottled ginger beer and the Williams Brothers’ Kelpie which had a warm salinity at the back that was fascinating.  We met Nick who’d just come from the Utobeer stall, fully stocked with De Molen bottles.  We marvelled at their elegant, mysterious labels in true beer fanatic fashion.  Everyone prompted me to get the blog going again, and as you can see they were very persuasive.

The only sad news of the day was seeing the landlord of my old local, the Magpie and Crown, pulling pints at the Rake.  I asked him what the situation was and he told me he’d been forced out due to excessive rents after running the place for 14 years, offering stellar real ales from local breweries and lovely cider as well as the best Thai food I’ve had in London.  This is a common story all over London, another example of greed pushing out places with individual character , history and personal vision.  I never really liked living in greater west London, but the Magpie and Crown was one consolation.  I relished the notion that I could go down the street and never know what I might try, but knowing there would be something that I was perfectly in the mood for, and the music would be good and at the right volume and the punters just strange enough to be interesting.  And, you know, I’d always have the corner seat by the window.  The pub is still there but it won’t be the same without Steve, and I thank him for helping to make the time I lived there much happier, welcoming and full of fantastic beers.

Cartoon over the Hearth of the Magpie and Crown

So now it’s on to forming my beer festival game plan.  Last year I had a list which became useless within minutes as I realized the beers I most wanted to try weren’t there yet or were MIA or were trumped by bigger and better ideas from the beer hounds surrounding me.  Which brings me to the real reason I’m going.  It isn’t really for the beer at all (don’t tell anyone!) but for the fellow beer writers and brewers– where good beer is you find good people, it’s as simple as that.

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.

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