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.

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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.