Thursday, 31 May 2012

Shoreditch Supping

Mason and Taylor, Electricity Showrooms, Jaguar Shoes, Sebright Arms

Shoreditch drinking can be a mixed bag – too self conscious, expensive, but some really fun, little known and quirky places are dotted around. One of the only beer centric pubs here (there is huge scope for more – I have even heard Brewdog are looking) is Mason & Taylor. Clean and casual, with lots of natural light and simple furniture, it feels more like an organic café or a branch of The Gap than a drinking establishment. The bar presents small but effective draft beer selection – Hophead and a changing seclection of other small breweries on cask, with 5 or so beers on keg, including an emerging Shoreditch favourite, Brooklyn Lager, and all are available in one tasting flights. Downstairs contains a basement bar with a more elicit air, and this is the best place to get squiffy on pints of Cannonball and Jaipur. The bottle list is broad and well chosen and is designed to be paired with the very decent food on offer – rabbit and pigeon with a Bristol Southville Hop or a rauchbier with home smoked mackerel . It all feels a bit clean cut and restrained for this type of venue and the location on Bethnal Green Road, perhaps trying to please everyone, but offers a pleasant alternative from East-End boozers and has a more relaxed, open and accessible feel than many of the new craft beer led pubs.
A lot of front - Mason & Taylor
         Slightly more in the fold of hip Shoreditch pubs is Electricity Showrooms, just off Hoxton Square, with a funky revolving wooden door leading into a spacious and sparse room, knowingly treading the line between cool urban bar and old fashioned drinking pub. In the evenings it is more of a hangout for trendy people to meet each other, but in its quieter moments there is good coffee, food and beer to be enjoyed. Fish finger sandwiches with Brooklyn Lager is a winner, and the and the rest of the short pub classics menu is easily matched by a solid craft keg offering (Thornbridge, Camden Town and Sierra Nevada are usual suspects) and a couple of rotating cask beers, often from London breweries. A little light on character and bar staff knowledge, it is still a genuinely decent place to down a few while in this part of town. That is, if you are feeling wealthy – prices of bo food and beer are steep by anyone’s standards.

            Dream Bags & Jaguar Shoes – possibly the campest bar name in London – falls right in the middle of the shabby-chic Shoreditch ethos, full of people whose outfit’s look like a charity shop 80's range when it actually cost more than your flat screen. The name makes sense once you see it - the building used to be two separate accessory vendors – and once you get inside it's pretty good. Tasty pizzas at fair prices are served all day, and although the thrown-together, picnic tables in a laundrette vibe may not be for everyone, it is oddly fun. Ignore the different-but-dull lager on draft and have a cocktail, or better yet, some local beer. A good cross section of local breweries have their creations available, some are just a short walk away. From the large London Field’s range, the bitter and fresh Unfiltered Lager, and the rich and floral Apollo IPA are very good, but take a risk and have the Great Eastern IPA from Redchurch Brewery, which provides is a heady punch of ripe tropical fruit, caramel and alcohol and on top form can be sensational.

The Lucky Chip in action @ Sebright Arms
          The Sebright Arms is a great place to drink. Indifferent looking, and tucked away in a forgotten stretch of East London nestled among large building estates, it has a real local boozer atmosphere. Smokers stand in the small alleyway outside posing as a beer garden, while inside it is large, dimly lit and unremarkable, a den designed for drinking steadily and heartily. A few hidden corners allow clandestine meetings between illegitimate couples exchanging their soap opera dialogue, while the small area masquerading as a dance floor is home to cougars in short skirts and geezers in Ben Sherman shirts. Since a relaunch as a craft beer destination with the much lauded Lucky Chip burgers in house, the nights are busy and loud with hipsters and trendies, beer geeks and social media pilgrims. They come for East London Brewing, Redemption and Brodies on cask, Meantime and Camden on keg and Kernel in the fridge. They order the Kevin Bacon burger and fries, and they are happy this has been ticked off the 'must visit' list on whatever website they like. The burgers are great - soft, sweet buns meet rich, crumbly beef with the holy trinity of salt, fat and sugar in full effect. The chips are salty and inconsistent but it matters not with a pint of Big Chief. The cask beer can be a touch too warm, and the pull of twitter-approved food and beer on the social media crew feels unsustainable in this location, but for now, this is a gem.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

The Holborn Whippet

Although it seems new craft beer bars have been opening every month for the past couple of years now, the Holborn Whippet may well have more significance than most. Previously bars have been largely placed in areas just outside of central London where independent bars and eateries thrive, where there are obvious opportunities to reach a discerning and affluent crowd of drinkers looking for individuality over convenience – Camden, Brixton, Shoreditch etc. But the Whippet – so called because of an ancient Bloomsbury pastime of whippet racing before their drinking – is bang in the centre of town, where a mix of office workers and tourists usually indulge in chain restaurants and bars with pints of cold lager.
           On the day I visited, it was seemingly about 40 degrees centigrade, and most of the punters (there were many) were stood outside in the sun, but drinking pints of Thornbridge Pivni and Bernard Light instead of the usual Peroni. The bar is reminiscent of the Euston Tap, with a small central bar offering cask and keg options chalked up above the taps, and at pretty reasonable prices for the location. They have only been open a week, and it is still very much in pre-launch mode, with the kitchen closed (soon to be a grill-based operation with an emphasis on burgers) and the décor Spartan. The space is used well, with seats around the perimeter and large milling areas around the bar. Big windows allow you to effectively people watch, and the pedestrian road it is situated on is great for outside drinking.

           The beer list currently reflects the location – a relatively conservative selection that wont have beer geeks salivating at the very thought, but will provide a genuine alternative for those local workers who would usually be on the macro lager. Many of the beers were pilsners, bitters and stouts, recognisable styles for the more cautious craft beer drinker. Brand name breweries like Dark Star, Thornbridge and Williams Bros were prominent, along with bigger names form Germany and the Czech Republic, although it was nice to see some beers from Gadds, a Kent brewery rarely seen in London. From the more unusual stuff, Maisels Weisse Hell was delicious in the warm air, and a Kirkstall Framboise was keeping my missus very happy (although the sight of 2 women drinking this through a straw was very upsetting).
           For a craft beer devotee, this is clearly a welcome addition to London’s bar scene. More importantly, it is a stride towards making great beer more available and apparent to the drinking public who wouldn’t normally seek it out. It is still very much living out of it suitcase, but lets hope this place can mature into a consistent and quality operation that we can all enjoy.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

EBBC12 - 'Live' Blogging

This was supposed to be posted live at Saturday’s live beer blogging event at the European Beer Bloggers Conference, but I was too busy grilling the brewers, talking to people and enjoying myself to do it. So I have gone for a stream of consciousness approach, basically giving my scribbled pen & paper notes as written.
        This was a speed-dating approach, with 10 tables of bloggers being treated to 10 different beers in 5 minute tastings, with the brewers present to give some back story and answer questions. It was incredibly good fun, and also a good showcase for the differences in approach of brewery PR (some were professional and methodical, some were relaxed and unprepared) but also the differences between drinkers. Many drinkers poured away the beers after a few sips, regardless of the quality, whereas some finished them all. A few people had clearly made up their mind about beers before they were tasted; many more were inquisitive, open and honest which made for a highly social activity. Here are my thoughts as they occurred.
Innis & Gunn SPA 7% - Good looking bloke presenting, good looking beer. We quiz him about the clear glass bottle, but we are not mean. That is pretty easy because the beer is not terrible – smells like vanilla ice cream and doughnuts. It tastes of toffee, toast, and Danish pastry, with a touch of smoke and a touch of bitterness. Not for me but some may like it a lot.

Leeds Brewery Hellfire 5.2% - the bloke is not quite as good looking as the last one. Pale straw colour, not much aroma. Crisp, light, fresh and very decent. Drinks almost like a lager, the guy says its good straight out of the bottle – I agree.

Otley Oxymoron 5.5% - they give us snazzy cards and beermats. This is from a keg and looks like coca cola. Black IPA. Smells like blackjacks and fruit salad sweets. It is sweet to start with a touch of liquorice and spearmint. It finishes dry with burnt toast and citrus flavour. Interesting.

Brains Dark 4.1% - Welsh girls! Thin head, very black. The nose is butter and caramel, but the taste is better, smooth, chocolate, liquorice, and a savoury, herbal note. Decent.

Marble Earl Grey IPA 6.8% - unlabelled bottle, exciting. It is a cloudy amber colour, and smells of orange, lemon, strawberry and vaguely like tea. It is drying on the palate, herbal, sweet lemon and bitter orange pith. Bitter form the tea and the hops. Brilliant, my favourite of the session. 

Roosters Baby Faced Assassin 6.1% - this is sweet and fruity, with apricot and yoghurt in the aroma. Needs to be colder and have more condition, and it is a bit too restrained and shy. Still delicious though, full of fruit and gentle bitterness.

Great Heck Stormin Norman 6.5% - this is a bit ‘whatever’. Decent enough, the flavour of a session pale but too strong in alcohol. Pleasant and nicely bitter but unremarkable.

Slaters Ales Top Totty 4% - ooh, what an offensive name! Come on, there are more offensive things on maps of France. The beer is OK, extremely well-conditioned and sparkly. Not much in the aroma or the flavour, but crisp, clean and refreshing. I would drink it again. 

Camden USA Hells 4.6% - Cool bottles, cool beer. Easy drinking with a gentle pithy, citrus flavour and refreshing finish. One of the few I have had before, and I have had it better, but still good.

Adnams Ghost Ship 4.5% - she has an iPad! This is clean, crisp and decent. It is slightly metallic and not bitter enough but is well conditioned and easy to drink.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Bad Beer, Great Pint

Sitting in a sun bathed stadium in Chicago, the gentle rumble of the crowd finding their seats rippled through the plastic chairs beneath us. The sweet smell of hot dogs and popcorn wafting through the aisles was comforting and evocative.  The excited chatter of thickly accented sports fans bounced around so that one conversation was indistinguishable from another. It occurred to me that I was on a cold, cramped plane hours before and now sat warm and free in a revered temple of American sport. I sipped my pint. It was unquestionably wonderful – every minute of the half hour or so I spent drinking it were exciting, relaxing, pleasurable and fun. It was a pint worth crossing an ocean for.
        The problem with that is that the beer itself wasn’t great – we don’t get Old Style over here but think of macro American lager, pale and slightly sweet with no trace of hops or depth. This is not the first time this has happened either – I distinctly remember being at the darts last year and hugely enjoying a pint or two of Kronenbourg. I vaguely remember about another 3 pints, and don’t remember the last few at all. Similarly, a pint of Fosters at the Emirates was just as good - accompanied by a chicken balti pie, the air thick with anticipation and openly celebrated disdain for the opposition, it was exciting and heady. A Budweiser after a cold, rainy afternoon playing golf last year was nourishing, familiar and unchallenging in a wonderful way.  The low point of this was surely the cans of overpriced Red Stripe at my university leaving ball – I drank plenty, revelling in every mouthful.
          After thinking about his I have decided that first and foremost, I love beer. I cannot think of another beverage with which I would be quite content paying serious money for a lacklustre version of. Yet I do this regularly in bars, pubs and stadiums around London when there is little else available, drinking pints of macro lager which result almost no change from a fiver. But I inevitably enjoy them. Not in the same way as craft beer, which can provide excitement, pleasure, flavour and memories all on their own. Ordinary beer needs the infinite possibilities and pleasures created by company and circumstance. I will always continue to seek out great beers – but for me a great pint doesn’t always begin and end with the merits of the liquid inside the glass.

Friday, 4 May 2012

The Session No.63 - The Beer Moment

What is the beer moment? Good question. For me it’s those things which are not associated with taste, smell and colour, rarity or price, that actually are the heart and soul of drinking beer. It is the reason; the intangible quality of beer that exists because of you and in spite of you, that keeps you drinking pints of beer in the pub long after other drinks have been discovered and newer habits learned. It means that the trends can change, your tastes can change, but the sentiments remain. It is indefinable, but here are a few examples of what I mean.
        Getting a round in – a rare and wonderful phenomenon in which people willingly spend their hard earned cash on one another, with no guarantee of reciprocation. This may be when you are 17, getting in the jugs of lager because you look the oldest, or being the unlucky sod that has to leave the ground before the half time whistle to get the beers in at the football. Either way, like Christmas, it is somehow better to give than receive – a moment of community.
          Penny in the pint – to this day I will down a pint of beer if someone puts a penny in it. Illogical, for sure, but a part of the sense of loyalty and heritage I feel to my very early drinking days on the school rugby tour. Almost all the other guys were older than me (and better players) but I was instantly accepted after I eagerly joined in with the challenge. This led to several years in which this custom was readily applied on nights out at the local Wetherspoons, a social contract with fellow drinkers which created both a bond of friendship and elevated drunkenness. A wasteful, irresponsible and irreplaceable moment of dread and delight.  
          A new beer in a new land – no matter what activity I engage in, or how long I am there, a sip of the local beer in a foreign land instantly draws a connection between myself and them unlike any other. A strange Eastern land can become familiar with a bottle of Tiger, and memories of summer holidays in Greece come flooding back with a cold Mythos – a moment of affinity.
         What do you want – whether this is a brief discussion with the barman or a bunch of mates looking at a long line of pump clips, a discussion of what you like and desire is a time of deep soul searching and inner contemplation. What do I want? This is an epic question, but broken down into ‘something pale and hoppy’ or ‘rich and malty’ or ‘the usual or something different’, life can be simpler again. It delivers a sense of control and autonomy which silences the mind and soothes the spirit. A moment of clarity.