Saturday, 25 August 2012

Hackney Brewpubs

The Cock Tavern, Crate Brewery              

 From the London Overground train bound for Stratford, alight at Hackney Central (an action which no longer sounds worrying to many, post Olympics) for a beer at The Cock Tavern, a recently refurbished and reopened brewpub from the owners of The Southampton Arms in Kentish Town. They have clearly nailed the set up in NW5, and although that is with a more affluent collection of locals, here they have the bustling centre of Hackney (the town hall is opposite) and a trendy crowd of young revellers just to the south in London Fields. They haven’t just stuck to the Southampton Arms formula; they have run with it, providing 10 cask taps (2 for cider) and 8 keg lines for independent breweries, high quality traditional pub snacks for food and a barren space with distressed wooden furniture and creaky floorboards.
        The best thing about The Cock Tavern is the beer. Red Willow, Thornbridge and  Dark Star all featured on cask; along with a couple from Howling Hops, the beer brewed downstairs using the very same equipment that Camden Town Brewery started with at the Horseshoe Pub not long ago. If that success story is anything to go by, Howling Hops could well be a name to look out for in the future, but right now the beers are a little way short of that. If you name your brewery Howling Hops, there had better be plenty of them, which wasn’t really evident in the aroma or taste. The IPA was better than the Pale, but both were far too bitter, dry and thin without a great deal of hop character or depth – it is early days yet though and these are likely to improve. The Keg selection is perhaps even more exciting, with beers form Moor, Harbour and Magic Rock joined by some leading lights of London brewing – London Fields Lager, Brodies Kiwi IPA, Kernel IPA and Camden Town’s fantastic 1908.
      Beyond the impressive casting though, there is not much to entice and delight. At their North London venture, a dedicated crowd of locals and craft beer pilgrims in addition to live music and a small garden, lifts the experience so the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Here, with the blues playing through speakers, uncomfortable benches and lots of empty space, it feels too much like Moe’s Tavern without the comedy & drama – a bit hollow, masculine and downbeat. However, this as an attractive high street pub in an area that could well provide it with plenty of characters to fill the rafters, and become a cool, atmospheric place that people use as a reason to come to this part of town. 
            Just a couple of stops further East on the train is Hackney Wick, where one can find Crate Brewery. The property prices, cool cafés and the view of the Olympic Stadium may suggest otherwise, but this is definitely the middle of nowhere – fortunately it is well worth the trip. Hidden (it took a few attempts to find it) within an ugly car park, any initial scepticism is banished by the attractive outdoor seating area, with its sturdy picnic benches and the succession of herb gardens hugging the River Lea. Inside the converted warehouse, a compact island bar is surrounded by so much space and natural light that the fonts take on the role of gallery art; moustaches and playsuits alike examining the beer selection with obvious anticipation but a fair amount of ambivalence, so as not to disturb the achingly cool urban vibe bouncing off cold concrete and wood. Instead of the smell of wet malt and dry hops, the air is abundant with sweet dough and charred meat wafting from the pizza oven. They are seriously good - thin, crisp and hot with the unusual flavour combinations surprising and delicious – the laksa chicken was delightful.  
        Some decent German pilsners sit alongside a couple of English keg beers, and with a guest ale on cask. There is also a brief wine list and some ginger ale for those so inclined, but most are here for the house beers, brewed just out of sight in an area alongside the bar. Their IPA available on cask was clean and bright, a deep orange colour with a frothy head. This is a bit boozy for cask and lacks a bitter, hoppy finish, but this is still a very decent, drinkable beer. The Gold is clean and refreshing; with plenty of carbonation giving the dry, pithy citrus flavours an extra dimension that lifts it above the norm. The real winner though, is the Lager. Presented in smart looking bottles, it pours dark gold with a thick white head, looking attractive and appetising. Floral and biscuity on the nose, a little toffee sweetness upfront leads to buttered bread, citrus pith and a long dry, grassy finish. Clean, crisp, full bodied and balanced, this is an excellent example of an amber lager, reminiscent of Brooklyn’s version.
         There are plenty of places in East London this trendy, but very few are this much fun. Beer this good means the brewery is taking things seriously, and delivering it in this casual, uncomplicated venue is an ideal way to showcase their qualities. We could perhaps ask for a few more quality beers on the taps, in addition to getting their full range on draft, but if you do work your way through them prematurely there are a few decent bottles in the fridge, from the US and closer by - The Kernel beers look particularly good in this setting. This place is certainly at its best in the summer sun, but even in the depths of winter the beer will still be good, the pizzas hot and the tables will most definitely be full.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Beavertown Beers

          A few months ago when I first visited Dukes Brew and Que, I very much liked the place, despite the small bar and patchy food. It was fun, good humoured and serious about craft beer, admirable qualities to be admired in a person as well as a business. Their house brewed beer was drinkable if rather uneventful, but given that most of the brewing equipment was visible from the dining tables, the bulky tanks protruding from an already cramped kitchen, and the fact it was a new born baby of a brewery, it was understandable. Fast forward to the present though and Beavertown have had some time to try and err, experiment and innovate. Their beers have tentatively emerged from the nest and are to be found sporadically across London - on draft in more adventurous pubs, but also in shiny new bottles in both bars and off licences. Four of their bottles are available in a local shop and set me back over a tenner for the lot, so they are now entitled to proper scrutiny.
          They look cool and understated, and it was nice to see a bit of spiel on the back about the story of the beer. The food matching suggestions are a nice touch, although oddly specific (you must have a balsamic reduction on your risotto or don’t bother darling) and the attempt to offer tasting notes through seemingly random tally marks against things like malt and bitterness is confusing and meaningless.

Neck Oil 4.3%
This beer looks good, an attractive dark gold rather than brown, and a nice frothy head. Fresh apples and apple skin hit the nose first, with strong caramel and stewed fruit underneath. The carbonation is pretty aggressive, stinging the palate with yet more crisp apples, a touch of honey, some biscuity sweetness and a floral, dry and grassy finish. It is very bitter and dry, with perhaps not enough body or malt character to balance it. Pretty decent though.

Alpha 1.1 Pig Swill APA 5.2%
Hazy, burnished orange and a creamy, cream coloured head. The aroma is huge - fresh sweet mango, pungent and perfumed lychee, ripe tangerines, sherbert, candy sugar and a squeeze of lime. One of the best aromas I can remember in a beer, it is slightly let down upon tasting. Bitter and dry from start to finish, there is a herbal, metallic presence that is drying, peppery and thin. Where I was expecting fireworks and fruity flavours form the hops, it is vague and underwhelming with no real punch or journey on the palate. I would say it tastes a bit old if I didn’t know that the opposite was true. This is not a bad effort though and I would drink it again.

8 Ball Rye IPA 6.2%
This is a deep muddy brown colour and doesn’t look great. The aroma is much better, initially giving off sweet chocolate, toffee apples and fresh coffee beans with a touch of burnt orange and something vaguely tropical. It is a big and challenging beer, bold, spicy and dense throughout, moving from some initial sweetness to a long, dry and bitter finish. The hops are outgunned by the heavy handed raw coffee and toasty, peppery flavours present, so the beer feels like hard work. Too much rye and not enough IPA for me, but plenty of promise if this get a few tweaks.

Smog Rocket 5.4%
A rather sexy jet black with a smart cappuccino head, this smells like breakfast in a petrol station – oily, sweet coffee, burnt toast and petrol. It is smoother and richer in texture than expected, giving plenty of charcoal and smoke but tempering it with liquorice and brown sugar for balance. A mildly bitter finish rounds out the most accomplished beer I have tried from this brewery, a restrained and highly drinkable smoked porter which is no easy feat.

         They clearly had fun making these and it shows with some things to get excited about here. However there are some inaccuracies on show in the beers and nothing in these bottles was genuinely excellent. While aspiration should not be discouraged, these are very ambitious beers for such a young brewery, and perhaps they are running before they can walk. Overall though, this looks to be an improving, creative enterprise with plenty to offer, and one of the best of the new breed of London breweries. I will be looking to drink more Beavertown in the near future, and so should you.

Friday, 3 August 2012

World class performance from London

The eyes of the world are currently leering at London from both up close and afar, checking out our firm and ample parks, our long, curvy river and the muffin-top of sprawling suburbs hanging over our M25 belt. As locals and foreigners alike take renewed interest in the indefinable British culture, beer will inevitably take a leading role, being discussed, lauded, disparaged and of course consumed by the public and the media. At no time since I have been alive has London and indeed the UK as a whole been better equipped to showcase beer and pubs to a wider audience. Increasing standards of quality in food, design, service, diversity and of course the beer are evident across the board, with the absence of smoking creating cleaner, healthier environments for drinkers*. Whilst we have more breweries now than at any time since the Second World War, the obvious disappointment that must be mentioned is the diminished number of pubs in the UK, with mixed reports suggesting that around 20 a week are still closing.
        With this is mind it is all the more important to present and celebrate what we do have, and emphasise the things that are treasured parts of our heritage and culture, something that we can proudly show the world. I am sure during the next few weeks many tenets of British culture will be trotted out and shown off, only to be but back in cupboard once the last delegate leaves (yours ears are burning Morris Dancing). But not beer, not pubs. The Monday after the closing ceremony will see a mix of weary, embittered, joyous and indifferent members of the pubic walk through the doors of their local and order a pint, because we don’t need a special occasion, we just like doing it. But in the spirit of the season I will offer an unofficial Gold, Silver and Bronze to the best things about drinking beer in London which will be in no way a clichéd and arbitrary link to the Games.
Bronze – New and trendy craft beer pubs
          As the demand for interesting beer has grown, especially amongst the young and affluent in London, new bars and pubs have sprung up relentless across the city, latching onto the trend for expensive artisanal beer and a sparse, modern approach to design. They may be profit machines, lacking character in the pursuit of twitter trends and magazine write ups, and charging big money for extravagantly sourced bottles and overdressed food menus. But they are fun. They are cool, and new, and full of superlative inducing beers that are fun to share and exciting to drink. They often put as much effort into the food as the drinks and ordering thirds does not raise the eyebrows of the punter standing next to you. It is acceptable to talk about alpha acids and lagering times – this is the lovechild of an opium den and model train shop, geeky and intoxicating. Good examples of this are Craft in Clerkenwell, Brewdog in Camden, The Rake in London Bridge and Mason & Taylor in Shoreditch.    
Silver – Drinking in breweries
            The blossoming of London breweries over the last couple of years now means there are plenty of opportunities to drink beer at its freshest, as it was intended, and with brewers around to eulogise them. Some breweries operate tours which are great, but the real pleasure lies in the open house sessions where it is relaxed, informal and you can stay until closing. Add the brewpubs in to this equation and we have even more choices, often not far from each other, for drinking the beer while standing in the place it was born, a simple but priceless pleasure. Not only is this a shortcut to getting the best from the beers, it is also a brilliant way to find out what goes into making your favourite drop, and probably getting it a bit cheaper. The real benefit though is getting to taste the one off or modified beers that don’t make it to market – an unfiltered version of the lager or a barrel aged IPA. Food is not even a problem now as most will have vendors and street stalls flogging appetising snacks at all hours. These are excellent ways of seeing and living London up close and personal. Good examples of open breweries are Camden Town, London Fields and The Kernel, and those with brewpubs include Brodies, Meantime, and Beavertown.    
Gold – Historical drinking   
             For tourists and locals alike, London’s great treasure is its history. A centre of commerce, culture, conflict and governance, to drink in London is to become a cog in a vast organic engine that has shaped civilisation for centuries. It is possible to glug gin in the same dark cellars that Dickens would have, sip claret in Victorian saloons and down a bitter in hardy public houses that survived the blitz. London is a city that has had to continually rise from blood and ashes, and a contemplative pint in an old boozer with untold secrets and a proud past can be a humbling and inspirational experience. Good places to drink in some history are Ye Olde Mitre, the Lamb & Flag, Cittie of York, Olde Chesire Cheese and The George Inn.

* In patriotic mode I am temporarily forgetting the fact I do not like this law.