Suffer the children, for the Old Brewery belongs to such as these
May 13, 2010

The Old Brewery, Greenwich

Last weekend I met Chris at the Old Brewery in Greenwich, a place I’d been eagerly waiting to visit since I’d heard plans of its construction a year ago.  I am a fan of Meantime’s beers, and what Alastair Hook the brewer has done in redefining historical beers is truly exciting. With the Old Brewery, Hook has used part of Wren’s grand Old Naval Hospital  for his new brewpub, making beers inspired by the space, including a porter.  It is a glorious idea, but one that, on the afternoon I visited, felt much like stepping into a brochure, a concept rather than a welcoming space. Perhaps this is the problem with so much history– to respect it is to care for it and make it live somehow, but in doing so how do we make room for ourselves in it?

Hook has done a wonderful job surmounting this paradox by brewing traditional London beers but using processes and philosophies from both the German brewing tradition as well as the American craft brewing movement.

I had read much about the brewpub on blogs and other reviews, so I imagined something a little different.  It is a brew pub, in that the beer brewed is served there, and you can even sit near the gorgeous copper vats. Though you will be surrounded by a sea of buggies and families who, though I’d like to think are admiring the shiny beer apparatus, aren’t there for the beer at all, but for the space which they are using as a pit stop on their day out visiting the “interactive learning stations” (this curmudgeon shudders) of the Discover Greenwich exhibition next door.  On the day I visited, this cafe/brew pub felt more like a National Trust tearoom.  In the main room there are aproned staff serving up chocolate muffins and sandwiches, and in the bar there are many very efficient and helpful staff, there’s just not enough space or tables to sit comfortably.  On the rare occasion the weather behaves, the outside beer garden looks promising if a bit overly-groomed.

The Old Brewery

I didn’t take any pictures.  These are promotional photographs.  Much like estate agent documentation, they distort the space slightly, offering a perfect angle. The place just isn’t that big, which shouldn’t be a criticism but if it’s going to be an overblown creche, I would prefer to drink elsewhere.

But drink we did.  Between Chris, Mr. Malting and myself we must have tried almost all the Meantime beers on keg.  They were all quite tasty and refreshing, though in danger of being somewhat interchangeable, their differences were so subtle.  The exception was the wonderfully named Hosptial Porter which was exceptional, and at 8% quite dangerous. A delicious lactose note laced with  lots of deep chocolate, quite balanced with a soft mouthfeel and no sour note or alcohol tang as I had been expecting.  It did seem to have medical properties, lightening my rather grumpy mood.  (It’s not that I don’t like children, I just resent the private space of the parenting endeavor invading on the public space of the pub, which it too often does, becoming an obnoxious spectacle of entitlement, but at the risk of losing my readership I will stop now). Chris commented that Meantime’s dark beers are much better than the lighter ones and I fear he may be right.  The London Pale Ale, so blissfully zingy in the bottle, remained a ghost of itself in the keg (MarkBeer Nut, Knut and I found this to be the case when we visited the Union Pub last year, and our consensus must remain.) However the London Porter as well as the stout are outstanding beers both on keg and in the bottle.

I wonder if in the evenings the cafe is transformed into something closer to the promotional images?Though to be fair I’m a bit put off by the white tablecloths.  That is really taking gastro to the extreme– I look at it and think where’s the awkward wedding seating chart? I don’t know if I would travel the hour and a half it takes for me to get to Greenwich unless I can be promised something between the creche and the precious, upmarket dining experience, no matter how good the beer is.  Though, if they do that Tudor recipe, and put it on keg, the anachronist in me is just going to have to brave the buggies.

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Greenwich Beer Fest Blues
July 19, 2008

Wednesday was my birthday so I had the grand idea I would hit the Greenwich Beer Festival on its first day to catch everything fresh. It took me forever to get there, as the Docklands Light Railway was severely delayed. When I got there it wasn’t very busy, it being a weekday afternoon. It was on the gorgeous grounds of the Royal Naval College and there was plenty of space to lounge in the grass and there were even chairs and tables available– that’s how uncrowded it was.

The James Evans Giraffe band was on stage doing a kind of Rutles version of New Orleans’ Professor Longhair’s Tipitina. I admit nothing scares me like white-baby-boomer-property-ladder-blues/jazz. (You know, music for the chaps who buy Ron Wood’s paintings for their second homes in the South of France). I was happy that this band dispelled my dread– no bids at authenticity here, just eccentric interpretations.

Beer-wise, I started off with something I thought I knew– Twickenham’s Sundancer. It was pleasant enough for looking over the tasting notes and planning the next few hours of drinking, but it wasn’t the beer I thought it was. Perhaps I had it confused with Sunchaser? Or maybe it was just that subtle difference between casks and contexts.

I looked longingly at the cider line up but knew that it would get me drunk too fast and ruin my palate. I decided I would start with the lighter, hoppier beers and move to stouts. I planned to end on Meantime’s London Porter, having never tried it. I knew I could get it at Waitrose and it would be the same, as it’s not in a cask, but I thought it would be appropriate, being that I was in Greenwich and all that. I never got to try it but I will explain later.

Mr. Malting had a mild masterplan– he was going to try them all. His favourite was the Woodforde’s Mardler’s Mild. I started with Oakleaf’s Hole Hearted, which was lovely– peppery, floral and refreshing. Next was West Berkshire’s Dr. Hexters– I’ve like all the beers I’ve tried with them. It was drinkable but would have been better complimented with food rather than by itself.

Then I went dark– Burton Bridge’s Bramble Stout. Complex and dry juxtaposed against a very sweet nose. I wrote down that cheese & Branston pickle would have gone well with it. I must have been hungry. I particularly liked the copper tang in the middle.

Then followed Nelson’s Blood. I was almost put off by the vegetal stink. It was the first day of the festival– how could it have gone off already? It tasted ok but was hard to get through. Disappointment continued to the Milestone Black Pearl– described as an Irish stout, it had the thinest mouthfeel of any Irish stout I’ve ever tasted. The “burnt toast” description in the tasting notes was more like burnt brisket. Mr. Malting tasted it and we both agreed that the swamp gas aspect couldn’t be gotten past. I poured it out.

My next move was to the Exmoor Beast. It was lovely but I made no tasting notes. As I was drinking I noticed everyone was ordering full pints, many people going back for the same thing over and over. I didn’t see many tickers here at all. Was I the only one taking notes? I wondered how they really managed this– pint after pint after pint. This is not a new revelation though–I’m still in England, where people can put away six pints in a session.

But, you know, sometimes they can’t. I noted an table of old men near me who had been drinking round after round all afternoon. One completely hairless geezer with the leather skin and upmarket casuals of someone who winters in Spain, stood suddenly and countless pints coursed out of him. With zen calm he reached into his mouth in mid-spew to pull out his false teeth. Everyone, including his mates, sat around drinking and eating as if this were not going on right next to them. (Brits are very down on anti-social youth but to be honest much of the bad drinking-related behavior I’ve witnessed has come from men old enough to know better.) I never in my life thought I would say this but you know, shame has its uses. Sometimes shame is good.

I had a half eaten cheese bap in front of me, which I had planned to eat with the London Porter in a kind of happy birthday salute to my chosen home, but I instantly lost all interest in eating or drinking anything more. It could be that old man was just reacting to the Celtic-jazz-fusion act that had just come on stage. Someone behind me snorted, “For fuck’s sake! Anyone play the recorder want to take over?”

Yep, It was time to make the two hour trek home.