Archive for December, 2008

Feeling good was good enough for me
December 23, 2008

Cherry Bomb Ale

Cherry Bomb Ale

In all the beer talk it really boils down to a feeling: being drunk is sublime.  And at Christmas time you have this tidy rationalization:  It’s festive!

Christmas in London is my favorite time of year.  Unlike Christmas in LA, which could be surreal at best and cloyingly commercial at worst, Christmas in London is warm and comforting.  There’s enough of a pagan edge:  it’s all holly and ivy, with Jesus on the sidelines.  People who all year have pretended not to know you live next to them or shop at their store every week suddenly recognize you and say hello.  There are baked goods soaked brandy and port and rum. And let’s not forget those paper crowns.  (Never trust anyone who takes themselves so seriously they won’t wear their paper crown).  And of course there are various winter ales.

On Sunday I went to the Red Lion in Isleworth, my favourite pub in the badlands of greater West London where I live.  The place was decked out with tasteful evergreen garlands and glass icicles.  I tried every winter ale they had on, maybe six in total.  The Youngs was good but the best I forgot to note– it had nutmeg and clove as well as a subtle gooseberry note.  I’m a terrible ticker not to have written it down.

I started to complain that I had had halves of all these beers and wasn’t even tipsy.  Mr. Malting returned from the bar with a 6% monstrosity: Hanby’s Cherry Bomb, a mediocre ale, not unlike an IPA scented with cherry, and tasting of it too, but the kind of cherry in Cherry Coke.  Basically fake cherry. I suppose it’s a testament to my tipsy-ness that I finished this half pint and, laid off and skint as I am, by the time I was done I felt all was right and well, even if the same could not be said of the the state of things, or the beer I just finished.  I was almost ready to sing, hello world I’m your wild girl…

At the bus stop we met a gentleman waiting for the same bus…he was going for a piss-up with his daughter.  In the U.S. no one would admit to doing this on a Sunday night, but hey, it’s Christmas in London.  Apparently he’d already started celebrating without her.  On the bus he confidentially leaned into us and asked what we thought of all these people, you know:  immigrants.  When we reminded him we were immigrants he changed his tune, literally, and started singing Tie a Yellow Ribbon…

My family tells me this was one of the first songs I apparently danced to as a wee little one watching the Tony, Orlando and Dawn variety show.  (The same song decades later would spawn the cynical, pro-war “yellow ribbon” campaign)  I hadn’t heard that song in maybe as long, and I sang with him.

And then, after telling us of his heartache, he sang a perfectly in tune version of Bobby McGee, full of duende on the 237 bus.

Some things can only happen with beer.

Dignity Takes a Holiday
December 10, 2008

Mr. Malting drinking lager at Butlins, ATP

Mr. Malting drinking lager at Butlins, ATP

Last weekend we went with a group of friends for a heavy metal weekend at the Butlins holiday compound in Minehead.  It was All Tomorrows’ Parties, a music festival headlined by the Melvins.  I’d never been to a Butlins before, and was even misspelling it as Buttlands (I blame my inner Beavis) until I’d seen the sign. I didn’t think about beer until I got there and was confronted with the range of mediocrity: a couple forgettable lagers, Guinness and Blackthorn cider.  The first night I drank the cider which made me feel as if I were poisoning myself, and not slowly.   I looked longingly at all the people carrying around their pints of Guinness.  Guinness is usually my choice when confronted with nitro-banalities.  I thought how bad could it be?  Guinness was my gateway beer– paving the way for my adventures in real ale.  I would drink it and feel nostalgic, right?

Wrong.  It was a terrible pint– thin, too sweet and flat.  And it cost £3.50.

The next day we went into town and stopped to get some local beer– Cotleigh and RCH, both Somerset breweries, have yet to disappoint.  I finished the Exmoor Beast (Exmoor Ales), a beer I’d enjoyed at the Twickenham Beer Festival.  It’s a straight up porter with a warming alcohol front.  I watched as Mr. Malting drank not only the Barn Owl but the Pitchfork as well… (I curse the day I coaxed him to try better beer!  That Barn Owl was mine!) I was left to bang my head to Mastadon while sober, or drink the nitro swill.

You can guess what option I chose. I wondered if the camp looked better to those who were drunk?  If really getting hammered would have lessened the feeling that we were all in a human storage unit?  If it would have dulled the flashing machines waiting to eat our money and blotted out restaurants serving ration-like food that had been dried, frozen or tinned and blanked the bars serving the same yellow lager that was soaked into the carpets. In short: beer, beer everywhere and not a drop to drink.

So, when confronted with a mediocre line-up, what is your tipple of choice?  Or, for those of you with a penchant for the heavy, what is your perfect metal brew?

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.