Cultures within the beer culture

CULTURES WITHIN THE BEER CULTURE:

Years ago I noticed a label on a bottle of beer I bought in a supermarket. It was a little speech bubble that stated “CAMRA says this is real ale”. I was intrigued. The beer in question was a bottle of Hook Norton Double Stout and very satisfying it turned out to be. Up till that point I’d never heard of bottle conditioning. The label went on to explain that the beer was closer to cask as some yeast had been added to the bottom to start a secondary fermentation within – just as the yeast does in casks. It was, therefore, a living product. This information would lead me to invest in the excellent Good Bottled Beer Guide by Jeff Evans and to follow the developing culture of bottled beer in Britain and beyond.

Around that time bottled beer represented to me beer from breweries like Badger (Hall & Woodhouse), Shepherd Neame, Wells & Young (2 breweries that had just merged), Fullers, Greene King, Brakspears and Marstons. These are all longstanding – mostly Victorian breweries. Bottles like Badger Bitter, Bishop’s Finger, Bombadier and Pedigree I’d remembered seeing for decades on shop shelves or being brought back from the off license by my dad.

I also paid a visit to a pub that year called The Rake in Borough Market. A tall slim man with a longer than average goatee introduced me to two beers behind the bar – one was on cask and one was kegged. Both were from a brewery he’d recently started himself: The Kernel Brewery. I opted for the cask version as I assumed keg beer was always gassy and inferior and before I could sit down with it outside, he grabbed a bar towel and wiped the rain water off a seat so I could sit down – a true gent. The man was Evin O’Riordain and I like to think he not only started a brewing revolution in London (and later the world), but an associated beard revolution too.

That memory shines a light on the two other cultures I would come to follow: cask and keg. To me at the time, keg beer represented drinks like John Smiths, Tetleys and Boddingtons. Brewdog had started brewing some amazing keg beers in Aberdeenshire and Meantime Brewing had started bucking the insipidity trend in Greenwich but I had yet to discover either of their beers. Cask beer was certainly on the up and carried an overwhelmingly rural and coastal identity. Each had a bitter or best bitter. The city didn’t seem to get involved in this romanticism. The branding always evoked the British countryside and the thirst brought about by horse drawn ploughing or ship rigging.

You might counter that bottle, keg and cask aren’t really cultures, simply three methods of dispensation. They’re certainly that too. I’m just arguing that they’ve fostered their own communities. I don’t go so far as to say the three cultures don’t co-exist today within good pubs and bars or that you only throw your lot in with one crowd, but natural selection has driven a change in evolution and speciation is happening. Through a zoom lens and from a safe distance, I just want to observe how these emerging creatures thrive in their habitats.

BOTTLE CULTURE:

Bottled beer in the U.K has changed dramatically. The pint measure – Al Murray’s “beautiful British pint” – should be 568ml in metric but is usually 500ml or 550ml once it’s been transferred to bottle. An odd exception to this rule comes from lagers imported from the Czech Republic and Poland that specifically come in 568ml bottles. However this measure is being increasingly nudged aside and replaced by larger litre sharing bottles and smaller 330ml bottles. This used to puzzle me but now I’ve embraced this change and it’s worth trusting it. A pint is, after all, a large volume of liquid and only naturally suits low ABV drinks. It came about in Britain as the masses would down them in the local every evening. It was never meant to compliment food in the U.K, rather it WAS the food. What we have now are breweries that are very much aware of eachothers’ output both nationally and internationally and want to concentrate solely on the taste and experience.

Generally, alcohol volumes have gone up and measures gone down. Taking one enlightened nationality as a lead (in this subject at least), the Belgians understood the notion of small not meaning lesser long before it was accepted here. Modern brewers have stumbled upon something our Walloon and Flemish cousins have known for centuries: Beer should be about pleasure and not strict default measures. Increasingly, the beer that brewers want to put in their bottles is beer that should be sipped and savoured. This pushes the volume down and the drinking experience up. In my local bottle shop in St Albans – www.beershopstalbans.com –rows of 330 ml bottles contain imperial stouts, multiple hopped IPAs, wood matured beers, sours, tripels and my favourite style in the world (thanks again Belgium) – lambics. None of these beautiful concoctions belong in a pint glass. None of these heavenly liquids should be knocked back. The bigger bottles – acting like equivalents of wine bottles – are for sharing (I pause here to think of how many I’ve finished by myself). The Belgians have form in this again. The sharing bottle is sometimes a magnum of Chimay or Saison Dupont. 

There is another way beer belongs to the international community: The unprecedented phenomenon of social media. Video sharing and live sites such as YouTube Hangouts have thousands of ordinary people broadcasting their own opinions and reviews about beer online. Why not? I find it amazing that a reviewer in Devon might regularly hook up with his or her online mates in America, Norway, Canada, Italy or New Zealand to talk about what they’re drinking. I think it has spurred the increase of beers from those countries into our shops – both web and street premises – as the experience is shared. In Britain, there is now a growing trend for beer clubs that send out beers by post so that the recipients can share their views at an allotted time on Skype! A long range get-together! Again, I think it’s wonderful. Word gets about amazing new beers and the reviews filter out into the wider global bibosphere.

There is another sideline that’s grown mostly due to the diversity of bottled drinks – beer glasses. I know that beer tastes the same regardless of the glass it’s in with some conditions, knobs and whistles to that last statement, but if that’s your gripe then you’ve missed the point. It’s about presentation which means being pleasing to the eye and therefore belongs with pleasure – something we’re maybe getting better at. As we buy more and more foreign beers, so the sales of tulip, chalice, flute, tumbler glass etc go up.
The bottled beer crowd doesn’t have any particular look or demographic as far as I can see – probably because of its international nature. Those on social media will generally be younger but that’s about it. There’s no geographical restriction and a lot of the produce is bought online so it doesn’t matter where you live (actually there’s an exception – bad luck if you live in Canada as I understand it’s illegal to send alcohol by post). Despite the long rangedness of it, it’s potentially the most social culture. 

BOTTLE TASTING NOTE:

Buxton Brewery – Red Raspberry Rye Berliner Weisse (bottle conditioned 4.9 ABV):   
The tart raspberry overwhelms any pepper note that rye can impart but is tempered by the dry sourness of the Berliner Weisse. Conversely, the thick caramel body of the rye keeps checks any sharpness from the raspberry. A sweetness emerges like a fruit coulis on ice cream. 

Sours have become very popular


CASK CULTURE:

There are over 1200 breweries currently brewing in the U.K and the majority of beer brewed is real ale. It’s beer that leaves the brewery unfinished and is tapped at the point of sale with fermentation still occurring in the cask. This is a testament to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). Countries across Europe have hundreds of food and drink traditions whereas in Britain the birth and demise of the industrial revolution may have been the reason for this nation normalizing tin and vacuum packed food. I feel that the only ingot preserved in our culinary treasure chest is cask ale. It’s a unique method and requires time and care when all else became speed, sterilization and convenience.

If it wasn’t for CAMRA, this section on cask might well have been an historical one instead of reflecting a healthy modern trend. Cask ale has pushed any self respecting licensee to know how to store, tap and treat beer – no simple task. It demands respect. This pride has also bolstered a culture where increasingly, the bar staff will offer you a taste first before you buy so you can confirm the quality yourself. This is a strong signal indeed. For many longstanding CAMRA members or just lovers of fine beer, the last decade has been the start of spring after decades of winter. Cask is everywhere now.

When cask ale is in good condition, the layers of malt, hop, carbonation and aroma throb like individually plucked strings. This conditioning comes about as yeast is still causing fermentation in the belly of the cask. Tiny micro-organisms are ingesting the sugars from the malt, excreting alcohol and creating carbon dioxide – the more consumer friendly sparkle or carbonation. Out of condition, real ale becomes something completely without character. It tastes used up, washed out like weak orange or sugary flat dregs. Once the cask is almost empty, other unwanted tastes can occur like cider vinegar. This is because the level has started to hit the finings – Isinglass is collagen from the swim bladder of a fish. Traditionally sturgeons were used but to safeguard their numbers nowadays breweries use cod instead. Finings are used to accelerate the beer dropping bright (clearing from sediment). Not all brewers use it – some are happy that there’s a bit of haze in the beer as are a lot of drinkers. In any case, drinking a mouthful of Isinglass is not pleasant.

Ideally a cask should be drunk within three days (there are many variables but it’s as good an average as any). The casks themselves are bed-tempered and need a lot of nurturing. They arrive like divas and will only be ready when they’re ready. They may require wet nappies to keep them cool and won’t want to be disturbed for at least a day. The act of pumping their contents up through a beer engine with the hand pump also requires physical exertion. You need to work for that pint.

Not long ago, you’d get a bitter or a best bitter. There’s no particular difference bar a bit of advertising. With many lagers, substitute the word best for the word premium and it’s the same thing. In quite a short time, rediscovered and reinvented IPAs have taken off and gone stratospheric, stouts have made a big comeback and been joined by porters. This is confusing and a point of contention. Stout was originally short for stout porter – meaning a stronger version of porter. In my experience, a lot of porters are stronger than the stout from the same brewery. Milds are trying to make a comeback. Pale ales are going strong and golden ales have appeared. Barley wines are again popular, rye ale is here and black IPAs have gate crashed the party and trampled roughshod over nomenclature (IPA is short for India Pale Ale – you then prefix that with the word black). French/Belgian style saisons are another beer that casks well. I list these different styles only to prove the rise in popularity and to make this point: gone are the days of gold, amber and black. The colours are certainly there but any preconception we once had about what each colour tasted of has been washed away in the deluge of beer styles. 

The cask culture is still not as innovative as the keg and bottle cultures have become. However, cask does hold a few aces that don’t fare well through their methods. Firstly – green hop beers. These are beers made by using hop flowers that have gone from the bine to the copper within 24 hours in order to make the freshest beer possible. It’s usually made in September when hops are at their ripest. The heads ooze virgin hop oils and can have wildly different characters. Mild is another style which does have some presence in bottles but is just too polite to be kegged. The last is the most misunderstood beer of present times: bitter.

I read that artisanal brewers in America sometimes branch into casking beer so the practice may one day reach other shores permanently. Personally I think it could flower in places like Brittany where there is a potential bud already. Also Holland and Scandinavia are potential candidates. The climates are similar to ours and the beer is cellar cool rather than refrigerated. I doubt lands with hotter climates would be quite so eager. Over the past few years Wetherspoons pubs have hosted international beer festivals whereby foreign brewers fly over to Britain to make their own recipes in our own homegrown breweries. I’ve really enjoyed these projects and think they deserve a mention here.

I’d just settle for a half
Bringing brewers together from across the pond…

                                                           


Demographically, drinkers of cask ale are generally male, middle aged and white. This isn’t a post modern or right –on barb. It simply reflects that CAMRA now goes back to the early 1970s and most of its faithful followers have aged with it. I will make a couple of little criticisms amongst the effusive praise – the cask ale crowd is overweight. The population of Britain is overweight anyway but if you think this observation is unfair than go to a real ale festival and see for yourself. Another sling that I only cast at a small minority because I’ve experienced it a few times – some are only comfortable mixing with people from their own background. It’s probably just a generation thing. I stress, though that the overwhelming majority are convivial with everybody.

The cask ale crowd is very sociable. Likely to initiate conversation with any fellow drinker, they like to trade all the gossip about local breweries and the health of pubs. A local pub closure is treated as a funeral. They fight for pubs to stay open. The punters and the pub staff all have names and this crowd is likely to know what they are. Community is important. There is a great love of wide brimmed hats, T-shirts from beer festivals and interesting sandal combinations. There is a lot of suspicion about craft keg but it should be remembered that these guys remember the siege of Watney’s red Barrel and the near extinction of cask beer. They’re also the folk that turned that around. If you’re a new brewer keen to become known and sell to the public – especially if you want to cask the beer, CAMRA is good to have around and will be planning a local branch daytrip to your brewery to help you get the word out and make the beer vanish in the best way possible.

Cask is also political. CAMRA is a campaign. It has activated members, licensees and beer lovers to lobby politicians. It has successfully influenced chancellors’ policies and is never short of volunteers when staging beer festivals. I’ve met people who volunteer as a full time job travelling miles across Britain, sleeping in tents, assembly halls and buses just to help set up and staff beer festivals. This is no exaggeration. The Great British Beer Festival fills out Olympia in Kensington each year – a vast space. Every single pint pulled, every stall manned, each (XXL) fluorescent steward bib worn is by an unpaid volunteer. The festivals operate equally from small scale affairs in individual pubs to town hall capacity events. They operate both urbanely and rurally.

CASK TASTING NOTE:

Elland Brewery 1872 Porter (cask 6.5 ABV):
The brawn of this ale is plain to see. It pours a pitch crimson (not black) with a thin mottled mocca head. A head like that tells you you’d better sip rather than quaff. Freshly ground coffee assaults the senses. It’s stifling like a steaming Turkish one served in a Yurt. The mouthfeel is glossy and silky. It’s a comforting wheat pillow. There is a dry hop backwash that absorbs the moisture. The taste is of the dark sponge chunks in a Battenberg cake and freeze dried coffee granules. It’s sublime. You feel you’ve sat through a dessert.

Very worthy of its gold medal status


KEG CULTURE:

Welcome to the mother of creation. Welcome also to beards and a culture that is overwhelmingly urban. Welcome mainly to north & south east London. Both the Kernel Brewery and Meantime Brewing deserved the mention they got at the start as they helped start a movement that catapulted keg beer out of the most tasteless pasteurized gas quagmire into what’s become something sumptuous, new and exciting.

I gave the demographic for cask ale drinkers earlier as a way of contrasting it with the craft keg crowd (archives have been written about the meaning of craft beer – we’re not going into it here. For the purpose of this article I’m over-generalizing craft to mean keg which is wrong but saves time). Though still mostly male, it’s much younger and diverse. People are slim, muscular or skinny and look like they immerse themselves in literature, pop culture, live music, organic food and tattoo art. I find the scene very welcoming. I’m accepted even though I can’t grow an impressive beard. I associate it with people getting together from mixed backgrounds. It’s open minded and eager – constantly looking for the next new taste. As such, it doesn’t really do tradition – this can be a major strength when it comes to brewing. It fuses things together – craft beer with what you might call craft food. The brewer from unit 23 in the industrial park might join forces with the Karachi mobile food van in unit 42 and do delicious things together.

There are some words and phrases umbilically linked with craft beer in the U.K – pop-up (meaning a bar or festival that pops up for a couple of days and then disappears), street food, collab (a beer brewed by two or more breweries in collaboration), charcuterie, fair trade and railway arch.
By the last term I’m specifically talking about a phenomenon in London. Mostly in Bermondsey but also in places like Hackney, Peckham and Islington. Over the past couple of years, breweries have opened up within a linear walking distance of each other in Bermondsey. Under the ever present glowering of the Shard skyscraper, you can start with a Pilsner at Fourpure in a business park, continue for a porter in Partizan Brewing under a railway arch, then for a cherry sour at Kernel under a second arch. Thence for a coffee IPA at Brew By Numbers under a third arch. Gird your loins and stagger to the bottle shop for a Belgian lambic under the fourth. Crawl to Anspach & Hobday who share the premises with Bullfinch Brewery in the fifth railway arch for a smoked brown and a rye beer. Finally, get carried to the sixth and (at the time of writing) final arch for a bitter at Southwark Brewing. There is a real energy going on in these breweries. The people that create the beer will likely be the people serving you. They’re fanatical – the best way to be. You’ll sit or throng in the shadows of gleaming coppers and under the rumble of trains heading to and from London Bridge Station. It’s magical.

Like bottle has become, we’re sticking with sipping beers rather than pint downing. If you thought keg beer was tasteless, you should try a half of an opaque 11.2 ABV Bourbon barrel-aged rye IPA and think again. It’s colder than cask beer put the taste punches right through it – sometimes to the point of pungency like eating through to the melon rind. The new craft brewers are excited about flavor in its raw state. This is why so many craft beers are so hop forward. Even though it’s just one of usually four ingredients, you get hops that bitter, hops for aroma, hops for taste and for aftertaste. A combination of selected hops might start with an orange/peach aroma. There may be an intense grapefruit taste while another hop dries the tip of the tongue. The last hop may pucker the palate after the swallow. It’s an art in its own right. This is not the whole story, however. It’s through keg that I’ve been introduced to sours and table beers – low ABV drinks that though lighter, still need the respect of slow savouring. It isn’t just about hops and strength. There are some downsides to the keg culture: You’ll notice the price. You’ll really need to not mind paying £7.95 for that punchy half I told you about earlier.

For a dyed in the wool modern craft beer connoisseur, a pint of nuanced cask ale might be an unattractive proposal. No immediate slap of gratification. Indeed, he or she might find it difficult to taste anything even though it’s there – there are after all soft pinks as well as blood reds in the flavor spectrum. The brewers of this beer are true gourmands enveloped in the joy of sensation, taste, colour and aroma. This is why it’s such a natural bedfellow with artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, burgers and other street food. I imagine the craft brewer with his or her eyes shut in indulgence. Like Miley Cyrus they sit naked but for Doc Martens and swing defiantly on that wrecking ball – smashing through the staid restraint of traditional British brewing. These are the new libertines that live for the pursuit of sensation and pleasure.

To give an example of the kind of beer that’s out there, on a recent visit to the Craft Beer Co in Covent Garden I sampled Evil Twin Luksus one – a beetroot sour, a Weird Beard/Northern Monk collab – Blueberry Saison (it sadly didn’t pour blue) and a Siren Craft Brew Haunted Dream – a pumpkin porter!

KEG TASTING NOTE:

Siren Craft Brew – Haunted Dream (keg 6.5 ABV):
Smells like red cherries that have been processed into a frozen dessert. It’s ink black – even held up to the light. A cool carbonated mouthful. There is 6am coffee and a torn (fruit)flesh sweetness. Makes me think of melon rind but it’s the pumpkin. There’s a dry Kirsch chocolate aftertaste.

The Craft Beer Co at Covent Garden


Personally I frequent all three of these cultures. The odd thing for me about good beer in the U.K is that the beer I’d drink in a pub is never the same as the beer I buy in bottles. Drinking in a pub is obviously about drinking in pints and the emphasis is on balanced subtlety made to last that volume. There can’t be too much alcohol and there needs to be plenty of body to sustain it along with conversation. 

By comparison, keg beer is usually in a half, third or even two thirds stemmed glass and it’s about being hit with a flavor and usually a higher ABV. It’s cooler in temperature and I tend to get less of an aroma compared to a like for like cask version but the things that are attempted in the name of brewing passion make it all worth it. 

There is a long running advert for Hobgoblin Beer by the Wychwood Brewery (now Marstons) featuring the hobgoblin demanding “What’s the matter Lagerboy, afraid you might taste something?” I still see this image on T-shirts and for sale every time I go to the Great British Beer Festival run by CAMRA. Now, though, this question could be asked to drinkers of cask ale from a craft keg hobgoblin. “What’s the matter Caskboy?” CAMRA can ill afford not to endorse products whose selling point is the potency of the taste. CAMRA was formed by some young men who were fed up with bland gassy beer taking over the U.K. The keg beer I’ve talked about here bears no relation to that. It seems that the argument I hear now is that it’s not about taste but balance. 

Could the cask boys now be goaded by a craft keg goblin? I hope not


Real ale superiority has become an article of blind faith for some. There are, however, many in the consumer group that have opened their arms to craft keg. A bit like in the House of Commons, the leader has to be careful what they say because to sense the landscape has changed and let a long held ideology fall would be to incur the wrath of the backbenchers – the old guard – and the removal of the leader. Could The Great British Beer Festival come to include keg and stalls from Meantime, Brewdog, Camden or Kernel? I think there is some movement but it’s in small increments.

When I buy beer in bottles it changes again. I rarely want a draught bitter in a bottle – I want it on draught. Even bottle conditioned, it never seems to have the same condition. With bottles, I get to control the temperature, the glassware and the pour. I can savour the beer in a snifter glass, my face forming a hermetic seal with the glass bowl so I can inhale the perfume. I get to swirl it, agitate it and study the text and artwork on the bottle. 


The only genuine mark of quality to me is the personal experience you have with the beer. It goes beyond how it was made and even what it contains. Which sensations does the liquid open up in you? Like anything people are passionate about, splits and cultures are inevitable be it art, music, food or the subject of this article. Find the time to dip you bread in each culture because right now beer in this country is the best it’s ever been and the talent looks set to continue on this righteous ascent.

In defence of bitter

IN DEFENCE OF BITTER:

I believe the very first beer I ever drank was decanted from a can. I can’t remember where or when it was or even which country I was in. I do recall the sterile odour of copper and I didn’t like it. It reminded me of the sensation of putting batteries in my mouth. If it was purloined like my first warming taste of Bailey’s Cream, then it was probably by me sipping the dregs from the bottom of an adult’s glass. Their supervisory skills had likely been “relaxed” by the same lubricant. 

My next clear beer memory puts me in double figures. A slightly older family member had been successful in buying a bottle of Guinness from a garage. We smuggled the contraband down a side alley and actually poured it out into each other’s cupped hands! That taste was different. I recall a taste akin to chocolate or coffee cake and a moussy body and thinking that it didn’t taste like beer. It had been black in the bottle but light brown and sticky in our hands which we continued to lick clean after the bottle emptied. 

I also remember some funny looking bottles of Vorboden Vrucht, La Becasse and Leffe in a fridge at home. I was fortunate in that my folks had lived in Belgium and my dad had kept his taste for its beers. But those were stronger characters and would be discovered later in life and an article for another time.

We journey forwards to an appreciation that started a few years later: I was fortunate to be exposed to a very positive influence: Brakspears Brewery – originally based in Henley-upon-Thames in Oxfordshire (it was later taken over by Wychwood Brewery which in turn now belongs to the Marstons Brewery portfolio). The ale in question was a bitter.



It seems that bitter in Britain is becoming unstuck. Throughout my life it has been shorthand for British beer. It’s been the brown/amber/golden pint that constitutes the default beer when a customer doesn’t specify. It almost became extinct, was resurrected and propagated but is rapidly being seen as boring and being associated more and more with the past.

As with all cask beer, we have the problem of beer being out of condition – obviously a cellaring and demand issue. A highly hopped American style IPA might retain enough of its fruity citrus personality after a few days past its best. Likewise a chocolate stout may still be sweet enough to drink after a week – particularly if both these beers have a high ABV. The softly spoken but exquisite balance of the bitter – with its low ABV – suffers completely. Its layers get blurred and it becomes tasteless – often drinking like over dilute squash. I know – I’ve drunk plenty of them. A lot of drinkers who haven’t had the benefit of a good bitter on top form may simply have the “flat” experience and disregard it.


                                                             



Bitter also has a distinct lack of air miles. Though some types have been emulated in America like Fuller’s ESB, it gets no international takers as a style. Imperial stouts, IPAs, barrel aged beers, saisons and Pilsners and many more are reproduced the world over. Bitter isn’t. You could argue it’s the British climate. Hotter countries would like a beer that’s a bit sharper, cooler, lighter and sexier? Perhaps. But there is a host of European countries with similar climates.

The real problem with bitter is when you try and define what it is. Most beer styles have a feature that identifies them. It might be the bouquet of hops, the intense chocolate, the tart sourness, the crisp refreshment or the alcoholic warmth. Bitter’s stage piece is its balance. It’ll have a sweet malt layer tempered by a bitter layer and an aroma.  Beer should obviously just be about the taste and the experience but bitter’s lack of loud characteristics can leave it sidelined into a corner without a bespoke neon sign.

Another problem is that bitter arose by chance as a style through a vogue for brighter beers to countermand darker ales like porters and milds. It never came about by design and consequently I can’t set any defining lines between what you could call a bitter and what you could call a pale ale or a golden ale other than their appearance or the expedient use of malts. The Brakspears bitter of my teenage years with its sweet honey note could easily be defined as a golden or a blonde ale. If for instance, it were more golden yellow than brown -such as Fuller’s Chiswick Bitter- does it leap out of the bitter category? It need only darken slightly to get reclassified as a stout. I have seen both York Brewery’s Centurion Ghost Ale and Tring Brewery’s Colley’s Dog labeled as stouts but by taste they’re both dark bitters.

I’ve noticed that people talk more and more about balance and less and less about taste when it comes to comparing cask ale to (colder) craft beer. As a huge lover of craft keg I’m not beating that drum. I accept that bitter and kegging don’t make good bedfellows. You don’t get the aroma and cooled down you won’t be able to appreciate each of the components that make up the sum of its parts as well as you would from a well kept cask.

Beer appreciation is better today than it’s ever been. The ingredients and the flavours are cherished, exaggerated and combined. Technology and methods develop to create new tastes. Ice cream equipment has been used to gradually dehydrate liquid through freezing to increase alcohol content. Beers have been seeded with yeast from bizarre sources like beards – look up pogonophobia! They’re pushed up to 1000 bittering units turning the beer opaque from the alpha acids. New adjuncts (other ingredients outside malt, hops, water and yeast) have been tried like chipotle, fair trade chocolate, jellyfish and sheep bones.



In the current climate of massive hops, added aromatic layers from barrel aging in spirit casks, bodies made with 10 different malts and beer/apple/wine hybrids, where does the humble bitter’s USP come in? It would never survive the boardroom in an episode of the apprentice. Bitter just isn’t like that. 

A good balanced bitter is subtle rather than dull. When I get my hands on a well conditioned pint, I can usually smell a sweet malt dimension or a floral/woody/zesty hop aroma. Roll it around the tongue a bit and you may get notes of plum, leather or blackcurrant. The malt is often like rich tea biscuit or caramel. There might be an added bitterness in the aftertaste that exacerbates the next mouthful. These notes might not register high on the taste Richter scale but they each complement each other and each good bitter is a different combination. There might also be the smoky acridity of a bonfire or a vanilla sweetness. No one layer rises up to dominate in good bitters. It’s more like the satisfaction you get from fresh olive bread. The components are delicious but restrained. It’s simple but good for the soul. 

To me there’s another benefit comes about through bitter’s calm harmony: as more of your senses get wrapped up in a certain bitter, you end up forming deep connections between the subtle flavours and the local surroundings. I get these associations from different bitters across the country. The Brakspears Bitter I started on still gives me thoughts of Oxfordshire, my youth and honey (apis mellifera on the logo – the power of suggestion?). Woodfordes Wherry still makes me think of apricots and red sunsets on the Norfolk mudflats. Chiltern Ale tastes of marmalade, burning spring wood and conjures up glowing fields of oil seed rape. Your senses are all plugged in together like this and subtlety seems to be the key.



If the condition is good and the beer is sparkling from good casking, than bitter is one of the most divine beers. Each level improves with the drinking. They get into your happy zones through osmosis but you need to give them the time. Also, you might notice they have a very sessionable ABV so have a chat with the others around the bar – you could drink quite a few of these.

Bermondsey

The Beer Mile:

Over the past couple of years, breweries have opened up all over London. I’ll suggest a collective noun and call it a sparge of breweries. Sparging (or lautering) is when hot water is gushed through grain to extract the sweet wort – the pastry body that beer is built on.

There are plenty of vacant railway arches and industrial lots in London so many budding brewers have set up business in them. In Bermondsey just south of the Thames, a brewing neighbourhood sprang up by chance but has developed its own consciousness and can now be technically be called “a thing” in its own right. 

The first brewery of this generation was Kernel. It was soon joined by the folks from Partizan, Fourpure, Brew By Numbers, Anspach & Hobday, Bullfinch and Southwark. There is also The Bottle Shop where you can drink the stock on the premises so this can be included amongst the destinations. At the time of writing – eight separate beer entities exist along the mile.

In order going from east to west with the one furthest from Tower Bridge Station, the breweries (and shop) are: Fourpure, Partizan, Kernel, Brew By Numbers, The Bottle Shop, Anspach & Hobday/Bullfinch (same arch) and Southwark Brewing. 

If we start on the assumption you’re a visitor to Bermondsey and will need to get back to the National Rail or tube system afterwards, it makes sense to start at the furthest point and gradually make your way back to Tower Bridge. You could do it the other way around instead but be aware that you’ll end up in a business park under the influence of multiple beers and in a part of London known only locally. You’re unlikely to recognize anywhere. It’s not a long walk to Bermondsey tube station from Fourpure, but it’s easy to get lost. If, however, you work your way back towards Tower Bridge Station, you’re coming back to Borough – an area most Londoners and tourists know. You’ll also be guided safely back by the Shard skyscraper – a constant presence on this outing.




There are other factors to consider too. The jewel in the crown (to me at least) is Kernel. It shuts at 2pm whereas the rest are open until 5pm. If you can take drinking early in the day then it’s not a problem but even if you just gave yourself half an hour per location and assuming you had one beer per stop – you would have to have had either 5 beers first if you came from the west end (Tower Bridge Station – Borough Market) or 2 beers first if you’d come from the east end (Bermondsey Trading Estate). All that beer would be need to be downed before half past one in the afternoon. Personally I would suffer.

Another factor is a potential problem to me but might be fine for many drinkers: Southwark Brewing is unique in the beer mile insofar as its ales are very traditional and all casked. It’s a different kind of beer to some of the brutes you’ll likely find on the route. If you’re doing the trip east to west, do you really want to finish by drinking a bitter after punchy high ABV IPAs, tart sours and imperial stouts? It’s an issue for me. I’m by no means saying the traditional beer is lesser, just a bit calmer. If it’s your last destination, there will have been an escalation of beer styles and strengths leading up to it. On my last visit, they had started serving 5 hop – an American inspired hoppy beer that might end the mile nicely but I actually do love a good bitter if it’s on offer, just not after a beer arms race.

After a few goes and some fine-tuning, this is the order in which I actually do the mile – it looks a bit mad at first: Southwark, Kernel, Fourpure, Partizan, Brew By Numbers, Anspach & Hobday/Bullfinch and finally the Bottle Shop if I think I can manage it too. 

All this is so I can enjoy a bitter/pale ale to whet the whistle and then go straight to the brewery – Kernel – that closes early so I can appreciate it properly. This means I start at 12:30 – 13:00. I can just about live with that. From Kernel I then go out to the furthest brewery and start working my way back. I leave the Bottle Shop for last – it’s only a few doors away from Anspach & Hobday/Bullfinch so the bother of retracing steps back and forth doesn’t become an issue. If you’ve never done the mile before, here are my directions from London Bridge Station:

Come out of London Bridge station on the Duke Street Hill exit. Simply turn right (downhill) and keep on walking along for ten minutes. You go past an entrance to The London Dungeon and one for The Britain at War Museum. Duke Street Hill becomes Tooley Street. You will eventually find Druid Street on the right. Go down Druid Street – it goes through a little housing estate park/seating area and then bears you left and hugs the railway arches. The first brewery you get to is Southwark Brewing at number 46.

                                                             



Southwark Brewing – along with Fourpure Brewing – is one of the larger venues on the beer mile. By chance, each sits at the eastern and western poles respectively. Southwark Brewing is also the best lit. Inside the room is scallop shaped with the brewing equipment down the narrow end. It’s airy and spacious with wooden picnic tables and leather sofas. It also has free internet WIFI. It’s the newest brewery on the mile so maybe with time it’ll start to resemble the organized chaos of the others and accumulate its own teetering stock columns. It has a neat sawn wood effect bar and a charming emblem – an elephant rearing with one foot on a beer barrel. There are four beer engines. With the occasional exception, it’s the only brewery that casks the beer on the mile. It also stands out from the others insofar as the beer is very traditionally English. 

The proprietors have been in the industry for 30 years whereas the founders of the other breweries are younger and comparatively new to the game. On this visit there was Bermondsey Best Bitter, London Pale Ale, Gold and 5 Hop – a modern take on American hopped beer. I was given a taster of 5 Hop and it was grapefruity and bitter like Citra – much more in keeping with beers you’ll find in the other venues. 



I wanted to start this crawl with a couple of lighter drinks though, so I had a half of the Best Bitter and a half of the Pale Ale. The Bermondsey Best Bitter is 4.4 ABV and is a gloriously glowing burnished oak in colour. It has a sherbert tanginess to it – not unlike the Fullers yeast – balanced against a ginger biscuit malt. There are notes of orange peel. It’s quite woody and dry on the finish. A very robust bitter that screams English. The London Pale Ale is 4 ABV and a light sweet corn gold. It’s immediately floral – a bit like elderflower or a light touch of custard. A very light sudsy body. As it went down, it does bitter up a bit and had the same woodiness as the bitter.

I love the elephant motif


Exit the brewery and turn right. Continue to let the railway arches be your guide. You’ll pass Anspach & Hobday/Bullfinch and then the Bottle Shop after a couple of minutes’ walk. When you get to Abbey Street, you’ll find the pavement runs out on the north side. Go under the bridge and cross the road so you’re still travelling west. Find the arches on the south side and follow them again. You are now on Enid Street and you’ll pass Brew By Numbers. Go past it for now and continue straight on. You’ll get to a couple of small side roads. Cross Spa Road and walk down Rouel Road until it shares a corner with Dockley Road which you’ll see disappear under 2 bridge arches – one vehicular, one pedestrian. Ahead stands a huge stilted structure associated with the railway. I don’t know what it is but it makes a good landmark. The Kernel Brewery is tucked inside Dockley Road on the other side of Dockley Road from the tower and behind some railings. It’s Arch 11. Because it has virtually no identifying sign and because people aren’t spilling out of the front like the other breweries, it’s very easy to miss and I still do.

“resting” between wars of the worlds


Kernel was the first brewery in this neighbourhood and was originally sited very close to where Anspach & Hobday/Bullfinch is now. It outgrew the former premises. As mentioned earlier, it shuts to the public at 2pm. Another restriction – well indicated within – is that you can’t take any drinks outside. That accounts for the lack of punters hemorrhaging from the front entrance – a clear visual clue to location with the other breweries. 
The arch is actually two archways joined down the middle. The left leg contains all the staff bicycles hooked to walls, brewing equipment and serving bars, the right leg is the public space. Bottles can be bought at the front but the fresh beer is around the back.

Easy to miss – Kernel


It seems darker than the other breweries because you’re more cut off from the daylight. Once inside, it feels quite clandestine due to its withdrawal. Strip lighting illuminates rows of benches with long tables and the atmosphere evokes something else for me too – an air raid shelter or a war room. How much more London could it feel?

The Kernel website has a mission statement – a couple of sentences of which always come back to haunt me when I’m there: “Beer deserving of a certain attention. Beer that forces you to confront and consider what you are drinking.” The reason these words whisper to me when I’m there is because I often find myself sipping a beer and then holding it aloft to stare in wondrous disbelief. It’s like a weird double take. Staring at the liquid and getting it to catch the light won’t somehow divulge its secrets. Even so, I’ve done this with a few beers but it’s with a Kernel beer I do it most often. Many beers have been my favourite over the years – Evenlode by Thornbridge, Chiltern Ale, Elland 1872 Porter, Taras Boulba by Brasserie de la Senne. Now I’ve had Kernel’s Biere de Saison – 5.1 ABV. It’s so light in colour – a pale yellow wash like over dilute lemon squash. The aroma is exactly like white wine rather than beer. Gentle carbonation. White sauvignon grapes and uric acid on the palate. Light milky mouthfeel. It’s fruity rather than dry and the most delicate beer I’ve ever drunk. In short, it had me confronting and considering what it was because I couldn’t fit this beer into my usual nose, malt, hop, body & aftertaste template. It reprogrammed me. 

Utterly divine Biere de Saison
An unbelievable range




Another recent contender was the London Sour Cherry – 4.5 ABV. It’s dark crimson with a lactic head. Stewed cherry skins on the aroma. The cherry carries the flavour perfectly. It fills out every corner of sourness. It levels it, taming the edges making it not too tart. It’s intrinsic to the beer like it’s not an adjunct (added ingredient). It has good carbonation. Again, Not the malt body & hop layering most beers are constructed from. On further reflection it was like a beetroot smoothie and it sounds daft but actually makes sense – cherry and beetroot have similar flavour profiles. When you add the “echo” of the sour beer to the cherry it enhances it to be more like the blousiness of beetroot. A beetroot smoothie or beetroot and plain natural yoghurt are the tastes and textures that stayed with me. My palate – like everyone else’s – is individual so it might not be exactly as others might experence it. Both drinks are divine and simply reveal new dimensions in beer to me. I’ve hardly made a secret of my fondness for Kernel. Currently, it’s my favourite brewery on earth.

If you can bear to, leave Kernel and make towards that towering industrial plant that looks suspiciously like one of H.G Wells’ tripods biding its time. Follow the path it stands in – it’s called Lucey Way and it follows the railway with tenements backing onto it. After a few hundred meters you’ll come out on St James’s Road and be facing Blue Anchor Lane as a continuation of Lucey Way on the other side of the road. Cross over and follow Blue Anchor Lane. It comes out onto Southwark Park Road. 
Turn left at a pub called The Blue Anchor and proceed down the main drag passing a couple of pedestrian crossings. It’s a good area to get battery chicken legs fried in buckets in. You catch up with the railway again as it goes over the road and you see a mini roundabout and a pub called The Ancient Foresters on the corner of Galleywall Road. 
Go down Galleywall Road all the way and you hit upon Rotherhithe New Road. Turn left and walk until see a large industrial/business estate on the other side of the road – Bermondsey Trading Estate. Cross the road and go through the main entrance with the security cabin at the gate – so far, nobody has been in it when I’ve gone past. Walk in and follow the road camber around to the left. You’ll ask yourself – as I did – whether this is some kind of wind up. Where’s the next bar? Down a manhole? There are some interesting signs reminding you not to urinate against the wall but keep going – it will be worth it. You go under the railway yet again. Once you’ve gone under the arch, you’ll see Fourpure Brewing beckoning you from unit 22.

Plus an illustration too!
It really is there – Fourpure




The Fourpure Brewing Company is the only site not under a railway arch but it’s still within spitting distance of one. Like Southwark Brewing, it’s spacious and has the added facility of a ping pong/table tennis/wiff waff table. The shining brewing equipment gloats against the back wall.

It seems these guys like making trips to America to have some of the native influence rub off on them. They’re also the only brewery that always has a lager (in this case a Pilsner) on – something I’ve not yet tried. Their Amber (5.1 ABV) had a high light beige froth helped up by the natty branded tulip glass. I got butterscotch and a hint of cloves. The taste of Theakstons Old Peculiar also rears up – probably from the clovey note. It has a really springy malt base and buzzing carbonation. Dry aftertaste. If anybody is in doubt about keg’s ability to deliver all of the weapons in beer’s arsenal, let them try this. As a whole, the beer reminds me of a brune abbey/trappist style beer but the route it came by is maybe more American. So it’s a British take on an American take on a Belgian beer – simple. 

 





When you come out blinking in the sun, cast a look right and you’ll see the Shard keeping tabs on you in the distance. I can never seem to anticipate which direction it will pop up from. Retrace your steps out of the business park – careful not to urinate against any walls – and go back down Rotherhithe New Road and up Galleywall Road as far as The Ancient Foresters. At this point turn right and immediately right again before you walk under the bridge. This is Almond Road and Partizan Brewing awaits you under arch 8.


Beware the eye of Sauron….

                                                         


When I was recently there the outside was a bit of a building site. Drinkers mingled with guys in high-viz jackets working on the railway. Partizan is the smallest brewery on the mile and when I walk up to it, it reminds me of a crammed closet whose contents are tumbling out. It’s also enchanting whenever you catch sight of a fleeting train overhead and the whole watering hole rumbles. 




There is a small serving bar. Most of the beers are bottled at Partizan but there are always a few on keg. On this occasion mine was a glass of Pale ABC (Amarillo, Bravo, Chinook) 4.5 ABV. It was a light custard colour and opaque from the alpha acids. It had a parching lemon rind bitterness which siphoned up all my saliva. It was maybe a bit turgid but would’ve held its own with an equally snarling Roquefort cheese and it balanced on a stack of palates as romantically as a jug of cider on a haystack.

Opaque from the apha acids
The cupboard

                                                           



Go back towards The Ancient Foresters and return down Southwark Park Road to The Blue Anchor. Turn right up Blue Anchor Lane and refind Lucey Way. In the distance, you’ll see the Shard first of all hide behind a tree and then behind the stealth H.G Wells tripod. Go past Kernel (now sadly shut) and get back to Enid Street. Brew By Numbers is at arch 79 and can be identified by the crates outside and the consumers lounging and supping on them.





The brewery is rammed with equipment meaning that most customers drink outside through necessity though there are several tables inside. It’s the mad laboratory feel to this one I find so endearing. A sign indicating the queue for the toilet produces an orderly line through the towering brewerania unique to this site. The facilities are used in all the other stops but a proud conga line only forms in this one alone. 

Brew By Numbers, as the name suggests, uses a number system for its beers. The first number is the style, the second the recipe. The style might have numerous recipes so you augment the second digit accordingly. Style 1 is for saison, 2 is for golden ale, 3 for porter etc. There is an amazing range including Berliner weisse, witbier, brown ale, barrel aged and brett aged. 

Style 16 is for red ales and red Ale “Tap” Coffee was on cask (it’s the third red ale recipe so 16/3). It has a 5.4 ABV and is gravity dispensed. It’s cloudy brick red with a light beige bubbly head. Rich and malty, the coffee comes straight through. Freshly ground barista coffee assaults the nose. Like an expressionist painting, you feel you can’t just depict the subject but must become the subject – get inside it. Well this gets inside you. There’s something else I find about coffee when its heat is temperate. When it goes cold – or conversely warms up if it’s been crushed with ice in a trendy “frappucino” – I find the caffeine becomes more potent. When I’ve had coffee in a sealed thermos cup that has cooled down, you open it and the diffusion of heat has changed the air inside leaving condensed droplets. If you drink it at that point, you get an added fug that the heat had hitherto overwhelmed. The caffeine is felt more, like a tuning prong being struck inside you or a growling Northern Line rumble within. It’s that rumble that menaces within this beer. It’s definitely not something you could drink a lot of though it’s one of the most remarkable beers I have drunk (remember my remarks about not ending the mile on a bitter?). You feel you may have to do a few star jumps before leaving to try and get it out of your system. It’s brewing genius.


   



Leave stage right, cross over Spa Road, go under the bridge and get back on Druid Street. You’ll hit The Bottle Shop first at 128 Druid Street. Anspach & Hobday/Bullfinch is just a few metres away at 118. I suggest you pay them a visit first.

Anspach & Hobday own the brewing kit in arch 118. The Bullfinch Brewery use A & H as a cuckoo brewery. Most of this arch is taken up by equipment and stock. Several picnic tables inside and several outside. The staff of either brewery man the same bar and serve any of the beers brewed on site.



Anspach & Hobday Smoked Brown 6 ABV. This was the first beer they sold to the public and quite bold as many new brewers launch straight into the powerfully hopped new world beers instead. It’s quite a murky dark mahogany. Tangy and smoky like charred bacon. There is a coffee dimension too. It’s almost like the juices running from a stake but refreshing and, ironically, sets your own saliva flowing. To contrast this, I then went for the Bullfinch RyPa 5.8 ABV – it was bright tangerine in colour with a thin rocky head. Slightly hazy – I think from the chill. It was full of the sweeter citrus fruits. Orange and mango are in there. Didn’t get any pepper from the rye on the first sip though there’s definitely caramel in the body as in other rye beers. Further sips bring out pineapple and melon zest on the palate. Both beers are pictured sitting pretty atop the same key keg.



Anspach & Hobday Smoked Brown





….and Bullfinch RyPa



Finally leave arch 118 and nip back to arch 128. The Bottle Shop originated in Canterbury and much to the delight of Londoners – hasn’t added any “London weighting” onto the price of its wares. If the previous seven breweries weren’t enough, you can now savour some of the best beer from around the world. There are also a couple of taps for fresh beer. The Bottle Shop has stocked beers from foreign breweries that have only exported to them and nobody else in the U.K like Green Flash from the USA. The venue is similar to 118 but has the added feature of an upstairs gallery you can sit in. If all that weren’t enough, they also regularly pay host to other breweries that come and do a tap takeover in the premises such as Siren Craft Brewery or Weird Beard. The Bottle Shop will also deliver to your home as an online stockist.

Here’s one I finished earlier – Brasserie De La Senne

                                                           


The only reason I save The Bottle Shop for last is firstly to gauge if I can actually drink anymore after completing all the breweries. Secondly it’s mostly a psychological thing about moving onto bottled beers. They might be stronger and more carbonated. You might also decide that instead of continuing to drink right now, you’ll buy some interesting bottles and weigh your options at home later.


Brasserie De La Senne – Zinnebir bottle conditioned 6 ABV. This Brussels brewery is named after the culverted and hidden Senne river which still seeps under the Belgian capital. Though a huge fan of Belgian beers, if they have a default problem it’s that they can be too sweet. Sugar is often added to beers in Belgium. Brasserie De La Senne is a complete departure from that. Its Zinnebir is so crisp and zesty – somewhere between the glacial crisp of a Pilsner and the strong zest of an American IPA but light in body. It’s light golden in colour and just refreshes – something else a lot of Belgian beers don’t do.

What grew from the vine………….

WHAT GREW FROM THE VINE………..
A few years ago I was in Brittany on the northwest coast of France. I had gone there to celebrate a family member’s milestone birthday. It was a big affair. People converged from all corners of France and a couple of contingents came from Britain. My aunt – who we stayed with – managed to cater for about twenty of us. Three extensions were put on the living room table. All the outside plastic furniture came inside to make the gathering possible.



The Brittany coastline is much like our Cornish coastline but on a bigger scale


Like every region in France, it’s effortlessly brilliant for food and drink – especially the seafood. We were also introduced to buckwheat pancakes. Buckwheat – ble noir is used as the default base in most local baking. You’ll find cider served in ceramic cups –  une bolee a cidre. Localism may be a bit of a fetish in Britain. In France local ingredients have always been assumed. Because people there were never dependent on the tinned, the instant or the vacuum-packed, they have always bought meat, fruit and vegetables because there was never a supply/demand hiatus between the farm and the folks living nearby.

At my aunt’s house we each had a heap of the doe-eyed langoustines on a plate to our left, which, with a lot of labour, was worked into a plate of gutted shells to the right. My wife had to show me how to open these crustaceans without self-injury as my cack-handed attempts simply mutilated them and my fingers. A second cousin who sat opposite me peeled them all before savouring them. When he’d finally achieved the two respective heaps, he looked up and found everyone else had finished eating. He hadn’t even started. However, the culinary experience I remember most is that bottle of wine.



Not a langoustine but a little Breton rock pool native

The host – my uncle – used to work for a french Telecom company. One year he was given a magnum of red wine as a business gift. He decided to finally pop it to celebrate his mother turning ninety. I recall that the wine was from 1988 making it about twenty years old at the time. Unfortunately I have no memory of the grape or the vineyard. We had big bulbous wine glasses with slender stalks. This sticks in my mind as it added to the sense of something being special. They weren’t the usual glassware. At the time I thought somewhat Englishly that they were ballooned to receive great volume. In fact it was a modest glug in the bottom. All that room was to get your nose in, push the rim into your cheeks and take in a deep breath. It was unbelievable. It was like getting intoxicated by inhaling a lavender cloud. The swish of ruby liquid we swirled around the base was so potent and beautiful it was a shame to drink it. But drink it we did. It was like being an open sluice and letting liquid velvet trickle in. Petals seemed to shimmer before my eyes. I didn’t keep any proper notes but the memory is replayed (and embellished) daily in my mind. It was my first experience of fine wine.

In some ways it was unfortunate. It put me onto wine and I wanted to relive the experience back in England. I would initially buy wine from three sources: Firstly pubs where it’s ridiculously expensive. The quality varies but it’s generally dry. What you pay for a small glass in Blighty might be what you pay for the bottle in France. Secondly, supermarkets. Obviously it’s cheaper. Most of it is new world – a patronizing term but patronizing to us as Europeans. I imagine bumpkins in cassocks gazing wide-eyed across the ocean. They’ve heard strange talk of untamed foreign lands off the map of the civilized world. We obviously still think we’re in the 18th century. In return, maybe consumers in North and South America should refer to European bottles as pre-enlightenment wine.

What new world wine also means is that the wine has to travel hence the need for preservatives – CO2 in powder form – sulphites. Though organic wine is increasingly available, more shops having organic sections, virtually all wine retailed in the world has added sulphites. By EU law, it needs to be stated on the label if more than 10mg has been put into a 750ml bottle. The problem is though, how much more than 10mg may have gone in? A bottle of cheap Chilean Merlot once gave me both a migraine and a bout of asthma. I think high sulphite levels were at least a contributing factor. This brings me to where I got the bottle from and the third and worst place to buy wine in Britain – newsagents/corner shops. There’s nothing wrong with them but it’s about whatever can be gotten cheap to sell on. If you pay £3.99 for a bottle festooned with golden award medals you get what you deserve. Whoever bottled it in Chile knew exactly which country to export it to.

Wine shops became available to us when we moved to London and we’d often haunt the Nicholas chain (I think it’s become Spirited Wines now – was that strained title committee born?). I’d buy decent bottles at the cheap end – not usually going above £12 as there were enough pleasant bottles in that price band. One day I had a good bottle of Pinot Noir from Burgundy and that’s what I strived to get each time thereafter. I was obsessed. The wine had been pleasantly sweet. It had notes of blackcurrant and maybe black cherries. I didn’t taste sharpness. I remember the fact I loved it more than I remember the actual taste. Again, I made no note of the vineyard or vintner.

My third memorable occasion with wine is quite recent. A friend from The Republic of Georgia came to stay with us in Hertfordshire and she brought with her a bottle of white wine from her father’s vineyard. Wine making goes back 7000 to 9000 years in Georgia. It might be the country wine originated in. Georgians have a unique storage method: they have a big subterranean pot called a churi which is buried so only the rim of the neck protrudes above ground. The runoff from the crushed grapes is poured straight into it and it’s then sealed. 

This method of storage keeps the wine cool during the blistering Georgian summers and ambient during frosts. It also imparts a certain earthiness to a lot of Georgian wine from the clay churi just as drinks aged in spirit casks do from the wood. People have them in their gardens to this day – some of them are so large that when they need to be cleaned out, somebody needs to be lowered into the darkness by rope. Most families make their own wine – something not even the French, Italians nor Spanish can claim. Most of the reds I’ve tasted have been from the Khvranchkhara grape reputed to be Joseph Stalin’s favourite. It reminded me of a sweet dessert wine bordering on Port and I wasn’t too enamored with it.

The white wine in question that had been brought from Georgia though, was made in the Khakheti region close to the capital Tbilisi. It was made with with Rkatsiteli grapes. The wine was cloudy – this fascinated me. I’d never seen cloudy wine before. It had no sulphites – literally fermented grape juice – therefore organic. It needs to be drunk within a couple of days of opening – not a problem with me. I could taste the grape sediment. It reminded me of a grape cider. By this I don’t mean a pasteurized cider by Bulmers/Magners/Rekorderlig with a fruit flavour prefix. I mean a sweet sedimented nectar from a single ingredient. It still had sour tanginess but had none of the lip drawing astringency of popular European varieties like Riesling or Sauvignon. It possessed instead a floral sweetness straight from the grape flesh. It even had good depth to the body. In beer, the malt would account this for. In wine it’s just the fruit.



The bottle of white wine from Georgia





‘Tis the Saison to be jolly

Saisons:


I find that good saisons have an edge – something about the body that targets and hits the roof of the mouth and whispers of apples wet and decaying in oak barrels, leaves turning autumnal red and crabapples bletting. It’s funky, pushing a savoury note towards sour. It really brings to mind the experience of fruit on the turn. And then there’s the cork haunting the palate too. Something sharp laid down in the Spring for refreshment during the Summer – the French Biere de Garde tradition. You get a hit of things bottled, a tartness – things vinous. XT Brewery’s saison (named ‘14’ with an ABV of 4.5%) is all of these things and I’ve had it on stillage and via beer engine. 


A non-British beer style, saison works well with casking. Live carbonation seems to suit it and it succeeds where a lot of wheat beer, Pilsner or lager from the cask often fail to live up to their European kegged or bottled counterparts. It’s also quite hazy conjuring another link – cider and the thoughts of summer and harvest again. To filter and clarify the beer, one thinks, would be to remove its soul.


Wine has terroir – a combination of the soil, the sun, the rainfall and the climate. Single varietal grapes in wine couldn’t be a more authentic taste of the region as the fermented fruit constitutes the sole ingredient (preservative sulphites aside). Cider can also have this origin specific accolade but with beer it’s a bit more complicated: It may be that the four ingredients DO come from one region but it would be rare. In Britain the hops increasingly come from America or New Zealand. The malt can be sourced, for example, from Branthill farm on the north Norfolk coast and the yeast will be the brewery’s own – often originally donated from another brewery. Some beer makers have a borehole to their own spring water – others start with mains water which they often ‘burtonise’ – chemically adding gypsum salts to the water. I’ve found that this gives beers a sodium note a bit like some mineral waters. 

All these ingredients, however, and their method of use can still produce a beautiful saison brewed from anywhere. They still fill the romantic drinker’s mind with visions of the rustic farmhouse idyll. Beer has the ability to conjure up whole fictional scenarios. The same might be said of a heavy full roast stout bringing up images of the fireside and winter. Some of it has been imagined for us by the beer’s name and some of it through advertisement and pump clip illustration, but I think some of it suggests itself. If you get your hands on a light crisp Pilsner or a cool wheat beer, hot weather, outside tables and sun flooded cobbles spring to mind. There is a kind of taste & aroma synesthesia at work throwing up memories that aren’t necessarily your own. 


This has a huge versatility and potential. There are light session beers for lengthy socializing around the bar, high alcohol imperial stouts and barley wines to be sipped with a sweet dessert, sparkling champagne yeast-seeded beers that belong in a magnum served from an ice bucket for special occasions. There are porters for when it’s cold outside, wheat beer and Pilsners for when it’s hot outside, smoked beers, sours, lambics and highly hopped IPAs  scream out to be accompanied by a cheese board. Crisp lagers and Indian food were married in heaven, fruity bitters and rye beers are perfect with red meat dishes. Basically beer has a story and a setting that goes with it at every turn. For whatever the food, climate or occasion, there’s a beer that goes with it and enhances the experience. 

There has in recent years been a huge amount of influence and counter-influence across the globe about beer. The new world (a patronizing term for America, Australia and New Zealand when we refer to beer – include South America when you refer to wine) has space, land and climate in its favour. Vineyards and hop gardens abound. Generous sun can cultivate hops with potent oils meaning punchy flavoursome beer. 

The styles are often British – barley wines, pale ales, India pale ales, ESB, porters and stouts. Sometimes Belgian – dubbels, triples, abbey and trappist style beers. There’s French – biere de garde/saison, German – weissbier, rauchbier, kolsch and Berliner weisse sours and Czec -Pilsners. However, the passion in the efforts to recreate them often produce beers of fantastic quality which are then copied, emulated and given a new twist. The style ricochets from nation to nation. New world brewers are at least as good at (but often better) at making saisons, Pilsners, dubbels, IPAs and porters as they’re given a refreshing new lease of life from the wealth of their native ingredients. 

                                                                                                                        
Though each of the four main elements of our drink may qualify for an OAC (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) – a badge of origin that cannot be used outside the named region, the greater sum of its parts has no need for it. It’s an international effort. Each country discovers the product and as David Bowie announces in the Zoolander walk-off cameo, each party then “duplicates and elaborates”.

You’ve tried the Colorado Citra hopped saison Milan – it’s over to you

The vinous note, the taste of cork, the fug of softening apples and a multitude of sunburst colours form a hazy liquid. That saison was poured by gravity from a cask in a British pub garden in Summer. It hasn’t been anywhere near a French farmhouse in Nord pas de Calais. It came from Long Crendon in Buckinghamshire but it could have also come from a Bermondsay railway arch or a small town near Milan, an industrial estate in Brussels or from a gleaming new brewhouse in Colorado. It’s a saison and it comes with its own romantic baggage. Beer needs no terroir, just an alchemic passion from the brewer and the welcoming senses of the drinker.



The happiest room in London

The Happiest Room in London:

                                         
Just under a decade ago my I moved to the Metropolis and an interest in beer followed soon after. I started to rediscover cask ale (I’d had the good fortune to know it in my teens) and get acquainted with beer journalism. I increasingly found myself peering through the windows of pubs and bars to see if I could make out a row of gleaming pumps – something my eyes have become very adept at. These days I subconsciously identify the beers by clip shape alone – even from long distances or while I’m driving! The brain is an obsessive thing – it goes so far as to name the pub company based on the beer selection.

One summer’s day I was close to Covent Garden and walked past what seemed like a small back street boozer. It looked packed – even though it was the afternoon. Hanging baskets whose floral contents ranneth over gave succor, shade and colour to the frontage. The windows were of stained glass and portrayed a certain stringed instrument. They had been opened to reveal a host of sepia faces blinking in the sunlight. It looked dark on the inside and I pretty much dismissed it at the time. In any case, I couldn’t see any beer range from the street. Oddly enough, I don’t remember the first time I went in. Except that I would have realized that the pub was a deep vault on the inside like a tardis. The bar was sideways on to the door so obscuring its secrets. As far as I can recall, it was the first and only time I entered that pub from the front.

When visitors come and we meet up in London, this is the venue I bring them to. I have brought family from Britain as well as abroad, met up with friends from work and one from school I hadn’t seen in 20 years. I’ve also brought overseas friends to this temple. The trick is to take them down St Martin’s Lane in the heart of theatre land and then plunge them down one of the narrowest alleys in London – Brydges Place. Daylight gets cut off and your shoulders virtually scrape along the walls as your eyes scan the shadows in each hidden doorway. It seems like a mugger’s paradise until you reach a black wooden door with a shining brass boss – it’s flanked by two hogshead halves used as pint shelves. Ivy climbs the wall, engulfing the gutters. Sometimes some of the doors adjacent and opposite burst open to reveal other bars or even opera staff desperately seeking the comfort of a roll-up and sanctuary from the divas inside.

Push against the boss and the heavy door heaves open. You’re hit by a wall of warmth, the buzz of conversation and you are bathed in a red carpet glow. The gallery before you stretches out and the shape and placement is almost like boarding a ship from the poop deck. There’s a twisting staircase to your left leading to the upper floor. Ahead a bric-a-brac of paintings and mirrors adorns the walls – ballet, portraits, opera, romance. The lighting is soft – given off by both lamps and chandeliers. Ceiling fans keep the place temperate. All the decor oozes a nostalgic charm. Contented humans fill the long floor space. It’s one of those rooms where you navigate through bodies with but an inch – often with foaming pints taking the lead like antlers through the herd. When you draw level with the bar, it’s under a canopy of pump clip shields that have accumulated over years. They overlap like iridescent scales and have taken up so much space it’s like there’s a psychedelic zeppelin moored permanently above the bar. It gets slightly bigger on each visit. The bar boasts ten gleaming hand pumps that dispense some of the best kept ale in London.



A beer canopy


This is one of the pubs I don’t seek to sit down in. There are several tables, wall shelves and many stools but my very favourite spot is directly facing the pumps with my back against the wall. It sounds odd but you’re probably in a line of people doing the same thing. This pub achieves a service feat I’ve yet to see equalled in any other pub – when a pump clip gets turned away – meaning the cask is empty; another clip will revolve 180 degrees from the very same beer engine within 10 minutes proclaiming a new beer! This means the line has been cleaned and the cask replaced. Though you don’t see the elves responsible below deck, it happens live like pit stop engineers tending to a formula 1 car. To a beer fanatic the changes become a spectator sport. My heart leaps when the clip reveals a brew from Thornbridge, Green Jack, Oakham, Crouch Vale, Whitstable or many others.


Watching the bar staff (many of which have been there for years) is like watching army medics calmly operating under heavy shelling. It’s also a great place to people watch. Many celebrities and MPs come here. I’ve seen Melvin Bragg, Tom Watson, Ben Bradshaw and I’m pretty sure I saw David Mitchell running outside to take a call on his mobile recently. You watch the pumps and you gaze at the aforementioned pump clip cloud, kaleidoscopic, heavy and pregnant as though ales of all hues are about to start pouring down with a clap of thunder. This is also where the number of humans reaches critical mass in the evenings – something that only enriches the conviviality.

There is another shore to this oasis and it’s upstairs. Up the narrow twisting stairs and past the broom closet toilets (the gents is in any case but it’s well tended), there is a very attractive space. It looks very much like a lounge in a theatre or opera house where people take drinks during the interval. More paintings on the wall add to that effect along with a leaflet stand for local attractions. There are a couple more ceiling fans and the low seating is plush. Deep leather armchairs congregate around small coffee tables. There is also now a running shelf that accommodates a row of stools along the wall. A window opens out onto the sounds of the west end. Inside though, it’s still and quiet. Elegant though this room is, if I’m alone, I prefer to be back downstairs in the thick of it. The two rooms are stylistically the same yet feel as though they could be in completely different buildings.






With regards to the beer range, it has consistently been one of the best outlets in London to get cask beer from the newest London breweries. It is part of the CAMRA Locale scheme. In recent years it always served Dark Star Hophead, Harvey’s Bitter and Sambrooks Junction. More recently, I’ve noticed that there is often a Palmers Brewery beer from Dorset on. Otherwise its constantly rotating guests come from every corner of the British Isles. Binnie Walsh, a London legend originally from Ireland is the woman responsible for turning this pub into the establishment it is today. She retired last year but there are still regular sightings of her prowling the joint.

The pub was recently bought by Fullers Brewery. The brewery hasn’t simply loaded the pumps with their own beers however, and considering the pub’s glowing reputation for variety is well minded not to. On my last visit, London Pride was on (where isn’t it?) along with Firecracker by Gales (it’s also in the Fullers’ portfolio). The rest were as varied as ever. Real cider and perry are sold too. There is also some craft keg coming into play – Kernel Brewery always has a tap. A good bottle list steadily grows though I’ve never wanted to deviate from the perfect condition of the cask beer to explore it. There are other pubs for that. This pub is cask.

Over the years I’ve had some very positive beer experiences in here. Here are some of the ones that stand out – not necessarily in chronological order:

Saltaire Brewery Cascadian Black – a beer which I found compelling at the time as red fruit in the body conflicted with the dry citrus hop character. There were notes of cranberry syrup cordial (like a popular French drink called Grenadine). I even picked up star anise. It was the collision of roasted dark malt, sweet fruit and the cascade hop that stuck in my mind.



Thornbridge Brewery Wild Swan – this sparkling glassful knocked me sideways. At the time it was my first encounter with the full force of new world hops. The ale was crisp, very pale and clean with a glowing white head. The hops were a grapefruit explosion. The malt a respectful custard crème acting just as the support act.


Clarkshaws Brewery Gorgon’s Alive – I’d tweeted to the brewery about how the body was like mineral water: lifted, vaulted with even a hint of sodium. They use burtonisation. The body still has a glorious toffee depth to it though. It was the first time I’d really appreciated how that can change a beer’s profile as, being a London brewer, the local water’s very soft. Accordingly, there was a mineral water quality to it from the gypsum salts.




Dark Star Brewery London Brick – this was a meal in itself. It poured a viscous body (6 % abv) with tastes of bitumen and ginger loaf. It was like chlorophyll versus unctuous malt sweetness and was the same dark red as its eponymous tile.

Boris Johnson speaks at Conservative Party annual  conference


There are fantastic new places opening on a monthly basis in the capital and I try and seek out as many as I can. Even though more and more bars are run and staffed by beer fanatics and the quality and variety of beers out there becomes giddying, this pub predates that boom and is still my favourite. 

The staff team is attentive and toil professionally at the coalface during serious crowd heat. You’re served quickly, warmly and considering it’s in the west end – at very reasonable prices. The hospitality and service is second to none and despite its recent takeover, the original members – bar Binnie Walsh – are still there. It’s truly a super magnet that bends the roads and alleys around it so they all lead to its back door. I feel it had a part in bringing me up. 

Within metres nearby are the Crypt of St Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, the Strand, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery as well as dozens of theatres. However, when I’m in London my way of thinking is this: the best thing about this pub isn’t its proximity to them, the best thing about them is their proximity to this hallowed bastion. By the way, it’s called the Harp.