Traveller’s Joy

Traveller’s Joy

I was a Londoner when I first kindled an interest in beer. At the time, there was only one shop for it: Utobeer in Borough Market. More shops began to proliferate around the time I moved away and I assumed that to “browse” beers on the shelf – other than macro supermarket staples – would always mean a trip to London.

However….

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Every Wednesday and Saturday is market day in St Albans

Of all the home counties, something spectacular is happening in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Over the last several years, beer shops have opened up in St Albans, Berkhamsted, Letchworth Garden City and Hitchin (Herts), and Chesham, Amersham and High Wycombe (Bucks). If this catchment could be approximated geographically, it very roughly describes the Chiltern Valley.

I’ve done some searching online for these shops’ equivalents in surrounding counties. I find, for example, one in Billericay for Essex and one in Reading for Berkshire (where I once lived), but they’re singular enterprises. Within Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, beer shops have happened in spates.

Although there are eight stores all within a short drive of each other (more if you include new breweries selling other breweries’ ale in their tap rooms), they are owned by just three concerns.

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Back in 2013, the Red Squirrel Brewing Co had just relocated from Hertford to Potten End near Hemel Hempstead. This was an example of East coast to West coast before it became synonymous with American IPAs (though long after rap music, which never really got down with real ale). It opened a bottle shop in August of that year in Chesham – the first beer shop. Red Squirrel soon followed up with shops in Berkhamsted and Amersham, and has just opened its newest venture in High Wycombe – the Emporium – which also serves small batch coffee and pizzas.

Over the Herts border, John and Ben (the latter working for Tring Brewery – I name them both as I know them and regularly frequent their shop in St Albans) trialled market stalls in St Albans, Harpenden and north London selling bottles from British breweries as well as from Europe, America and beyond. The success enabled them to set up a permanent shop in St Albans in October 2013. Last year, John and Ben also opened a second larger store in Hitchin to the north of St Albans.

In June 2016, a new brewery and tap room opened up in Letchworth Garden City: Garden City Brewery. Hot on its heels, and just a block away, Crafty’s Beer Shop opened to the public in what used to be a jewellers’ shop where the display windows lend themselves perfectly to the presentation of gleaming bottles.

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For Hertfordshire alone, I could see similar shops and tap rooms opening in towns like Watford, Welling Garden City, Royston (where sadly its brewery Buntingford has ceased trading), Baldock, Harpenden, Tring, and of course, Hertford.

I’ve been to the bottle shops in London. One difference between them and their more rural counterparts is that those in market towns are often right in the heart of them rather than out in the ‘burbs or under railway arches.

There is something special about a market town. Market towns are magical places where bunting suddenly appears. There is always the well-tended war memorial and it’s always afforded pride of place. Then of course there’s market itself – the white canvas village encamped along the main drag. I love the smell of meat being fried and the call of the stall holders who adopt an accent that verges on caricature…

“Cammin’ ‘ave a look! Two bawls f’ra pahnd, nar!”

When you join in the cattle-like drove of the customers, you almost start braying. The irony is that when it’s someone else’s market town, you join the herd wide-eyed. When it’s your own market town, you cut an arc around this human infestation in order to reach Tesco’s.

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The war memorial – an elemental part of the market town.

There’s something special about a bottle shop too. It seems to have come about through cosmic ordering and is rooted in both specialism and localism.

I remember visiting a proto beer shop a few years ago in Whitstable. It was an off licence and I say “proto” because there was a specific section set aside for Kentish beer which I was immediately drawn to. The same was true of one in Swanage for Dorset ales. At the time, they could only exist within the structure of a larger off licence.

But now the beer has broken free. Racks of wine from Gallo and stacks of Heineken cans are no longer necessary. There’s a more continental feel to beer shops – they often have seating on the cobbles in front. They have come to fruition and are evolving.

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Here the continental outside seating comes face to face with the British weather – the first bottle shop in otherwise gorgeous Chesham

Beer shops blur the edges between brewery tap rooms, shops and bars. This is in the context of supermarkets like Waitrose serving coffee and chain restaurants like Carluccios and Jamie Oliver’s flogging their own products – books, ingredients, cooking gear – within the eatery itself.

There is however, no confusion between the experience of drinking in a beer shop and drinking in a pub. This isn’t about the differing licences, either. With a beer shop, there is no illusion that you’re entering somebody’s lounge as there might be when visiting the Red Lion. The foundation here is basically the shop floor. The rest is added benefits. This is a much specialised form of the deli rather than the public house.

But maybe you could argue it’s in the eye of the beholder.

You also wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) session beer here as you might in a pub as that would defeat the object. It would be like filling cartons with a single sweet at the Pic n’ Mix. Yes, a beer shop is a confectioner’s boutique.

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I now feel that a market town isn’t complete without one – it fits in with the ethos perfectly. You inspect the wares on the shelves; try before you buy on the taps. What’s good? What’s local? But equally – what’s foreign, exotic and exciting in a sharing bottle?

Though I don’t want any more to be lost, the beer shop might one day gain as equal footing in communities as the pub.

Let me finish on this as proof of evolution. This is the beer shop in Hitchin. To me, it represents possibilities and the future. This isn’t a pub but a cross between a celebration and an analysis of beer. It’s been thoroughly thought out – the tasting tables separated from the bottle shelves as neatly as pub snugs used to be separated from the public lounge. The thing this establishment reminds me of most is a library – the archiving section and the reading section. This is the kind of set-up you get when you have an increasingly discerning clientele – the browsing and the study.

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Despite the onslaught of morris dancers, the beer shops in England’s market towns are leading the way. Beer has become a focus and a quest rather than a staple. The beer shop is something new in Britain. There is, of course, precedent in Belgium but the ones flowering in our market towns are raising the… what’s the word?

Bar.

2017

2017

2017: a year that doesn’t roll off the tongue

Well 2017’s here. Whether it will be as full of upheaval and death as its predecessor, I doubt. But if it is, then current affairs will replace benzedrine this coming year.

I’m sharing with you not so much two new year’s resolutions as two statements of intent. They almost contradict each other:

1 – drink more German beer on tap (which will necessitate going to London).

2 – explore the shire in which I now live instead of constantly visiting London.

Statement number one reflects that the best beer I had in 2016 waited until late December. It was a glass of Lagerbier Hell from Augustiner-Bräu – Munich’s oldest brewery. It was dispensed from keg at the Beer Shop in St Albans. At the time, the town was in a fifteen tog duvet of freezing fog so imagine how much more appealing this beer would be in the swelter of summer. Speaking of which, I also had a brief fling with Kölsch at the end of May (this time just in bottle) so that’s twice I got seduced by Deutsches Bier in 2016.

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German bottled beer is delicious – but I’ve had a taste from tap now

Lager is like the tide sweeping in over a salt flat. When it’s good it’s the most ravishing beer. It’s gorgeous and it’s always been there for me to ignore. Why?

My ignorance of German beer might also be linked to the fact that the bottled version often pales against its tap version. Apart from a few examples like Franziskaner Weissbier, I rarely see variety of German beer on draught – even in London. That’s why the Lager from the beer shop was such an eye-opener.

It’s also in stark contrast to IPA which has in one popular guise put itself on a path of convergent evolution with Um Bongo. IPA is rapidly becoming the syrup at the bottom of tinned fruit both in taste and consistency. It’s lovely but it’s beginning to miss an elemental part of beer: the refreshment.

The problem is I have been fixated on the British and the American with small cameos from Belgium for years now. In part, I think it’s because I’ve subconsciously convinced myself to ignore beer from large established breweries (unless, hypocritically, it happens to be Fullers). It’s time to put that right in 2017.

The second statement isn’t a swipe against the capital. I love it. It’s in me and always will be. I’ve worked for the same borough council now for over ten years so come into it each week. On my adventures around Westminster, I often pass pubs I don’t know and peer through the windows to try and discern the outfit that runs it and the beer it serves based on the pump clip silhouettes. I always used to put down markers for when I was off duty. We moved out in 2011 but the compulsion to go to London during down time carried on.

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the main drag through Sarrat

But this means I have neglected Hertfordshire where I now live. It’s to my great shame that it wasn’t until 2016 I finally visited places like Sarrat and Watford on beery days out. The older pub-goers I know in St Albans that are or were plumbers, milkmen and builders all know the surrounding areas. The people that moved up from London tend to be completely ignorant of them. In St Albans’ case, this isn’t actually a new phenomenon as it’s always been a commuter town and owes its wealth to the big smoke. On the street I live on, most people still work in London so the north/south commute is the norm. The east/west axis doesn’t exist.

The villages and towns in Hertfordshire are connected by wiggly arterial bus routes that take time and often require you change at least once. Since moving to St Albans, I haven’t been on a single bus. I actually had to ask a local codger whether bus drivers take payment (my recent experience only being London) as I genuinely didn’t know. I was also given a piece of advice: never wait to get the last bus – it might never come.

But out there in Hertfordshire’s multiple ayots, garden cities and steads, there are breweries of mystery and brew pubs of legend. They are mine to discover along with the shaggy creatures that run and frequent them. I have big feet for my short body so I’d make an excellent hobbit. It’s finally time to cut across country in 2017.

Happy new year!

Herts and Souls: abroad in Hertfordshire

Herts and Souls: abroad in Hertfordshire

Watford has provoked fear in me for some time because I’ve usually driven in and its road system was designed by Hieronymus Bosch. Circling the town centre, you build momentum through centrifugal force and are either flung from the circuit into deep Hertfordshire or brought in by its gravitational pull. In fourth gear, you realise you need to cross four lanes of agitated motorists in the space of twenty metres. You exit like a dart to breach a chicaned car park entrance. I’d recommend drinking Red Bull before attempting it – in fact, the traffic could be sponsored by it.

I didn’t need to worry about that this time though, as I got the train that shuttles between St Albans and Watford Junction which is a genuine delight. It trundles back and forth along a route of just six stops and takes but sixteen minutes. Each time it sets off after a station, a recording of a “ding ding!” is played. I thought I could hear Ringo Starr’s voice narrating.

I was commuting to Watford to visit a unique local hero: Pope’s Yard Brewery – this way please ladies and gentlemen.

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under the road system can be more aesthetic than above it

Considering their almost walking distance proximity, the difference between St Albans and Watford is striking. St Albans is a cathedral city of strict masonry, building discipline and conservation areas but Watford feels very different. On the walk into town, it veers off in every architectural idiom at once. The office buildings at the top of Clarendon Road look like the round-cornered and smoked glass futurism of the 1980s and 1990s. The Victorian era Beech Grove Baptist Church boasts its ship-like hull. Then there’s the stocky frontage of the Palace Theatre, Edwardian in age. Deeper in, St Mary’s Church roughly dating from the 1200s squats awkwardly among the multi-storey car parks.

There is a tangible pride here too. It’s seen it in the murals on the walls along the subways that give pedestrians safe passage into the town’s heart. Watford is written in big colourful letters and illustrated in spray paint pictures.

The market here is an institution that goes back 900 years and still dominates. Part of it has been repackaged into a structure made from shipping containers and renamed New Watford Market.

The town centre is a bric a brac of chronology and style. It seems both up-and-coming and run down. Gentrification sits shoulder to shoulder with destitution. B&M Bargains neighbours Pret a Manger.

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does what it says on the tin

But there’s a creative energy here that St Albans is too prudish to acquire. St Albans has too much rectitude. Trashiness – a quality Watford has, comes with a kind of hunger for new blood. St Albans practices self-deprivation in this respect – its city centre looks like the browning photographs of itself from the nineteenth century and will be just as recognisable centuries from now. Watford is a bargain bin of civic projects. It’s alive.

St Albans is a tucked-in shirt, cobbled, IT manager-y, Waitrose-y, Jack Wills-y. You just know its pretty streets are heaving with conservation orders and neighbourhood associations that do mulled wine evenings – and they are! Whereas Watford has the freedom to keep redefining itself.

There’s an awkwardness to Watford too, though. When said aloud, it even sounds like it’s annoyed. The town’s chaotic but through some cosmic fairness, it’s just as difficult to negotiate through it by car as it is on foot. It’s like the town was planned to make life harder for both modes of travel without putting bias on either. Maybe the planners just got a fantastic deal on concrete.

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the flyover – Exchange Road soars straight over the town centre

And another thing, why does everybody cycle on the pavement here? I keep almost getting mown down.

Perhaps what tops it all is the brutalist concrete flyover careering straight over the main drag – Exchange Road built in 1972. That carriageway needs to stay because one day soon when 1970s brutalism isn’t the recent past but the sepia history, that structure will be as symbolic for Watford as the bridge is in Avignon. It will become a listed monument closed to traffic with a public walkway, visitors centre, viewing platforms and a sustainable coffee shop. Watford, the town on a roundabout, will become a UNESCO site.

A cold grey version of the Jetsons – vehicles orbiting in rings around the town and even soaring overhead on roads through the air. This was the future as we used to imagine it. Kudos to Watford for trying.