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.

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