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.

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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.