Thursday 30 September 2010

A Pub Of Goodness

A couple of weeks back, I was having a pint in the pub. As is my wont, I was belly-up to the bar, supping on a well-kept Dark Star APA.

To my left, a couple of middle-aged ladies in red cagoules were sipping halves of Guinness. As I drank, I was aware my neighbours were aiming to order another beer. They were German, from Berlin, unfamiliar with 'our' beer but keen to learn, and wanted something sweeter than their Guinness. The landlady was busy (the pub was packed) and asked if I'd help them out. I got them on Dark Star Sussex Stout and we got chatting. One of the ladies asked if this was a typical English pub, and I, reflexively, said yes.

An hour or so later, I wondered if I'd been honest with our visitors from the Mauerstadt. I wondered because I was in The Harp in Chandos Place.

Not typical? Well, I'm not sure I know of another pub in London selling upwards of 3,500 pints of cask a week. A pub with grub that consists of a choice of sausages or crisps and pork scratchings, a pub not the slightest bit family-friendly on the tourist track to Covent Garden.

A former Punch house bought out in 2009 by landlady Binnie Walsh and now selling a shitload of Dark Star beer through three of its eight beer engines as well as Sambrooks and Redemption, this is a pub with a reputation for good beer that could have played safe. Instead, Binnie has grown her business by bringing in beers from some of the best of the new generation of cask brewers.

So, I can't really say whether it's a typical English pub. I'm not even sure it's a template for success, and these days I'm not sure whether a CAMRA accolade like this makes me care enough about their mission for this to mean anything. I do know that, as an 'irregular', the staff are always friendly, service is prompt and beer is invariably in good nick. I'd like to think it is typical, but I get around and hear enough to know that many pubs in London struggle to keep a good pint - the head brewer from Texels told me he had a pint of cask served at 18 degrees, while Tandleman is never without his probe while on a trip Darn Sarf - and that's never been an issue in The Harp.

So, congratulations to Binnie and her team, and good luck for Pub Of The Year. I feel good about London and beer at the moment, and The Harp is one of the reasons why.

Monday 20 September 2010

London Brewers Strut Their Stuff

I'd previously referred to the nascent London Brewers Alliance. Being based in London, with a finger on the pulse of the beer scene, the good blogger has been tracking the development of this initiative, and indeed it has been subject to a good deal of interest in the trade. I, on the other hand, found out about it when I tried to send prime mover Phil Lowry a birthday greeting via Facebook.

Phil is a Renaissance Man of Beer. His day job, has been busy encouraging the UK spoogebeerian to empty their piggybanks with his enticing range of quality craft beers from around the world. He has also 'til recently been found making productive use of the brewery plant at Brew Wharf, drawing plaudits for his (and his associates') interpretations of the New Craft Beer, turning that venue from a restaurant that sold overpriced bottled beer, to a destination bar for interesting and drinkable cask beer.

He's opened himself to beer movements elsewhere, principally the craft brewing guilds located in some of the US beer hotspots, and he decided that London needed something similar to nurture the resurgent London brewing scene. He got a bunch of brewers around a table, got himself a nifty logo (left), and lo, The London Brewers Alliance was born.

Like London itself, the Alliance is a diverse and cosmopolitan group. Members include Fuller's, who brewed almost a quarter of a million barrels in the last year; Meantime, Sambrooks and Twickenham; brewpubs such as The Florence, Brodie's and the long-established Zero Degrees in Blackheath; and recent start-ups like Kernel Brewing in Bermondsey, Camden Town Brewery, and there's a seat for the craft brewers of tomorrow who currently express themselves as the London Amateur Brewers. There are brewers from London, Austria, New Zealand and elsewhere.

From top left: meta Phil Lowry; London Amateur Brewers; Lizzie & Jackie Brodie; meta Camden Town Brewery; Simon Siemsgluess (Zero Degrees) & Evin O'Rioirdain (Kernel); John Keeling getting down; Rabid Bat Fly (geddit?); I'm not stalking Mark Dredge - honest; two responsible licensees

The Alliance hopes to see an inaugural London Beer Week in Spring 2011 (New York's is next week, San Francisco has one in March), but in the meantime, they met their public on Friday 17 September at the London Brewers' Showcase, hosted by Brew Wharf in their impressive Upper Hall. A special collaborative Alliance London Porter was brewed at The Redemption Brewery in Tottenham, and 35 firkins will be available to the on-trade. Fullers have five, and are deciding which of their pubs will have it, says Head Man John Keeling.

I'm not going to bang on about the event itself at any great length. The general point is that there is now a body that isn't representing special interests or protecting a type of dispense. It's a body that will allow the new and young brewers to network with the established producers, and vice-versa, to hopefully find new markets for their products and reinvent a brewing tradition that might have stagnated, the way London has always reinvented itself, by attracting talent, ideas and energy from elsewhere. British brewing, London brewing, is patted benignly on the head by some of our overseas friends. Garrett Oliver is the most recent commentator to declare himself "disappointed". But we are opening up to new ideas, and when they eventually express themselves more widely, it'll be as a fusion of their ideas and our tradition, and London will be at the front!

Thursday 16 September 2010

Doing The Texels Twist

To The Rake for the UK launch of the Texels range of beers from The Netherlands. I'd previously participated in a tasting panel which sampled the full bottled range from the brewer, and lo, it has come to pass that Utobeer have agreed to distribute them, and their draught counterparts, in this country.

Interestingly for a Dutch brewery, they haven't looked to Belgium for inspiration, but rather Germany, brewing all of their beers in accordance with the Rhenheitsgebot (or, probably more accurately in the 21st century, the Biergesetz). Similarly, they've resisted the urge to brew a pilsner or lager-style beer. Instead, brewmaster Maurice Diks brews only top-fermenting ales ranging from a 5% Wit to their 9.5% Storm Bock.

A 5-foot bottle of Skuumkoppe; Maurice Diks signs The Rake 'Wall of Fame'; a typical Rake scene; Eyerlander Amber

The brewery is based on the island of Texel (pronounced TeSSel), which is the first in the archipelago formed by island masses stretching up to Denmark - it's about 20 minutes by ferry from the mainland. The island was enlarged by poldering an adjacent landmass (Eyerland) in the 17th century, and now supports some 14,000 inhabitants involved in tourism, agriculture, and management of a protected wildlife habitat that takes up a third of the island and has been accorded UNESCO World Heritage status. The local sheep population outnumbers the people by two to one, and provides noted local produce including lamb, cheese and wool.

Texels produces approximately 5,000 hl of beer annually from an 18bbl plant (I estimate). All of their barley and wheat is sourced from local growers, who take orders at each harvest, and send the brewery's grain to Belgium to be malted. Hops are sourced from Poperinge in Belgium and southern Germany, and they use their own strain of yeast in all of the beers. Apart from wheat, the only other adjunct used is sugar to help the yeast with the higher ABV beers. All of the beers are unfiltered and so some secondary fermentation takes place once racked or packaged.

The Rake had all of the beers available, and Maurice Diks conducted some tutored tastings. Their biggest seller is Skuumkoppe, a 6% dark wheat. The name refers to the foam which forms on a wave, and is said to come from a term coined by Texels' beachcombers. For me, the standout beers were their Wit at 5% - a refreshing but not overly carbonated beer which drinks well below its ABV; the draught Goudkoppe (Gold Cap, 6%) is a delicious hoppy ale with a drying, almost tart mouthfeel and a long finish. It has an obvious relationship to a smaller brother, the Amber at 5.5%, beautifully balanced with some sweetness and a gentle floral hoppy finish - it reminded me of a good pint of Youngs Ordinary; the Texel Bock, at 7%, has some fig (or dates - I couldn't make my mind up), toffee and liquorice and a warming finish. The Dutch have an annual Bockbeer competition every October, and this came first in 2009.

Most remarkably for a brewer with an eye on German brewing (their brewing copper and some of the other vessels were acquired from there), Maurice Diks brews a 'barleywine'1, Storm Bock, at 9.5%. Big alcohol warming on the tongue, which gives way to a complex palate in which I picked up raisins, some hop bitterness and a long finish. I asked him why he brewed this, and he replied that one year, he had an idea for something different, just to sell in the visitor centre adjacent to the brewery. After a couple of years, demand meant he started bottling it. The beer spends 3 weeks in the fermenter, then is aged in the bottle for 9 months before release.

To protect the island producers, a local association endorses genuine Texel produce with a quality mark, and the brewery participates in this. This whole idea of local provenance, of partnership and co-operation with local producers, while undoubtedly an economic imperative in a small island community, has a nice ring to it. And it feels as if it's a good time to extend their reach. London is undergoing a beer renaissance. The London Brewers Alliance promises to put high-quality, locally brewed beers in front of an increasingly discerning and demanding drinker. Good pubs offering wide ranges of the best beer from around the world are seeing increasing footfall. The way Texels approach their craft, they ought to fit right in...

NB: What's the 'Texels Twist'? Maurice Diks likes to do things slightly differently, so he says all of his beers have a 'twist' to them.

1Having read Martyn Cornell's treatise on whether there is such a style. I thought I'd better put this in quotes.

Friday 10 September 2010

"Real Brewers Don't Sue Each Other..."

Thus spake Brendan Moylan, owner of the eponymous brewery and restaurant in Novato, California, following the news that fellow CA brewer Tomme Arthur of Lost Abbey based in San Marcos, had filed suit contending breach of copyright over Moylan's use of a stylised Celtic Cross as a bar tap handle. Lost Abbey claims the design is too close to their own, and since they share markets, could cause confusion. Moylan says he has been using the design for some 15 years, and that "...first use is first use, and arrogance is arrogance."

Spot the difference? The tap handle in the middle is actually an ancient Celtic cross uncovered in the churchyard of St. Teath's parish church in Cornwall, in the late 19th century. Maybe the parish council should be suing Lost Abbey... (NB: I 'borrowed' the tap handle pics from

Tomme Arthur is a brewer who doesn't get much love among craft brewing fans, with a reputation as an arsey and difficult customer who loves himself a bit too much. His beers are usually regarded as tickerific, however, and can be found in the UK these days. He also popped up at the last Wetherspoon's Beer Fest, but has baggage for releasing under-conditioned and poor quality beers, and then not taking remedial action to resolve complaints. All of this has been exhumed on the ticker sites as drinkers queue up to take sides. Some wags have asked if he intends to sue any brewer who releases flat beer, while Moylan's legal team have noted that the Celtic Cross has been used for many hundreds of years.

Seems to me that if you were in a pub with both, you wouldn't order by tap handle, you'd speak to the bartender or check the board before ordering, so it all sounds a bit pointless. Arthur says that their handle is "iconic", and that it's a focal point as they don't spend on advertising. Seems to me a lawsuit is one way to get your name out there for free...

Thursday 9 September 2010

The Mighty World Of Marble

To Cask Pub & Kitchen for their latest Meet The Brewer event, featuring James Campbell and Dominic Driscoll from Manchester's highly-regarded Marble Brewery.

I'd identified Marble as one of the 'Coming Wave' of new innovative British brewers in my GBBF piece, but they're no new kids on the block. The brewpub has been established for over a decade, and they've recently augmented their original 4.5bbl plant with a new 12bbl kit. Word is out and the rest of the country are keen to sample their beers. Mark Dredge fingered them as one to watch with his last post of 2009.

Leading up to the event, I was able to uncover some information about Phil Lowry's nascent London Brewers Alliance. This is a new umbrella group for all London brewers, from the smallest (Southwark's Kernel Brewery) to the largest, Fuller's, and Phil has made room for amateur brewers as well. It was interesting to me that, in the week that Roger Protz in 'What's Brewing' recounted the apparent antipathy of 'family' and regional brewers to their smaller colleagues during this year's GBBF, that Phil should have successfully been able to establish a collective that can accommodate brewers large and small. I'm sure I'm not the only observer of the UK scene who has looked at the US Brewers Association with some envy at the way they can leverage their influence into successful programmes promoting craft beer. Somehow we need to stop the confusing babble of different voices which dog British brewing's attempts to send positive messages about good beer. I'm hoping to report more fully on LBA in the near future...

Back to Cask and Marble, and while the gathering waited for the arrival of the Marble boys and girls, I chatted with Martin Hayes of Cask. Some year and half back, this pub was the notorious Pimlico Tram. If Ofsted did pubs, it would have been failing and in special measures. In less than 14 months, Martin and Peter have turned the place around, creating one of the most impressive destination pubs in London. As well as a commitment to offering well-kept cask ales, they, like other visionary operators, don't view keg as some ghetto at the end of the bar for crap lager and Guinness. A range of German and Belgian beers sit happily alongside the beer engines, and the recently-installed fridges offer a huge (but pricey) range of bottled beers from European classics all the way up to hard-to-get American spooge.

Visit The Rake at Borough Market, The Evening Star in Brighton, North Bar in Leeds. All of them are committed to offering the best beer they can, regardless of dispense, and they're all successful. In there somewhere is one of the challenges for CAMRA's 'fitness for purpose' review. Cask isn't the only way, 'craft' is in there, too.

Peter smiles nervously while waiting for Environmental Health to start asking awkward questions; Mark Dredge looking like he'd rather be in a bath of beer; are you sure Dobber is a big marble?; Dominic with his cupcakes; a cupcake

So, after a comedic interlude where BrewDog stoat-crashed the bar following their own launch of AB:03 at The Rake the previous night, it was Marble's show...

The Unusual Suspects

Ten casks on offer, punters four-deep at the bar, and Dominic Driscoll's cupcakes. I'd tried a couple of the beers previously, so this was a chance to have a proper look. As well as their regular offerings (the magnificent Pint being a standout), they brought some of their newer beers. They explained the odd numbering/coding of the beers. Prefix 'W' is from the new brewhouse, while four-digit numbers are from the old. The 1732 was fruity and refreshing, the W90 (a sister beer with different hopping) was drier with grapefruit bitterness, the Dobber (a big marble, says James Campbell) full and rounded with a long, slightly warming finish.

James Campbell and Dominic Driscoll do their routine. Take That are from Manchester, you know...

My evening ended with scrounging one of Dominic's cupcakes. He was a bit down about them, as it seems Phil Lowry's were better in a taste-off earlier in the afternoon, but I thought it was pretty good. He shouldn't give up the day job, though...

Several of the attendees are regular visitors to the Marble Arch in Manchester, and after last night, I mean to rectify that omission from my own pub experience.