Albion: the last days of May

The swifts have been arcing across the blue vault with their shrill screams for a while now. A prelude to Summer is temporarily passing through St Albans. Thunder and lightning had been forecast for Saturday but never followed up on their threat. 
This bank holiday weekend saw a modest splurge of seasonal events – only some of which I managed to attend. This short post documents enough to give just a flavour of St Albans at the end of this May.
The Craft & Cleaver hosted a small tap takeover to commemorate its first anniversary. I’ve seen tap takeovers by specific breweries or ones that represent areas like Scotland or Wales. This one reflected not even London but a district within it, in fact just Druid Street and Enid Street in Bermondsey. At the same time though, it showcased a modern phenomenon – a slice of pop brewing culture as that’s what the infamous mile is. It didn’t take all the breweries along it but arguably picked the most innovative ones: Brew By Numbers, Kernel (even if they can’t spell it) and Anspach & Hobday. I therefore slake my thirst with Triple C – cool American-inspired hoppy beer by the latter. Bizarrely, the gleaming metal & artificial light seems more natural than the crimson dusk outside. 
Walking through the park with the dog the next day, it’s shimmering and charged. The atmosphere is devoured like a sorbet. The haze lends a violet lustre to the usual tan boughs of horse chestnut and a platinum edge to blades of grass. The colours are like oil on canvas and the sprays of wild buttercups and daisies pierce it like backlit pinholes in its fabric. Copper Beech canopies are unreal, alien – photoshopped incongruously against the blue sky. Their purple burns on the retina like the acid of mezzotint. The air itself is intoxicated. It’s the buzzing sheen of heat and long shadows like this that crystallise memories of Summer for perpetuity.
The visit to the Craft & Cleaver was the sole endeavour indoors. The other haunts will take place outdoors in the greatest thing Britain has given the civilised world: the beer garden.
The first is at the Lower Red Lion where the garden has been re-landscaped for Summer. I go alone for a soft drink. Alas, the homemade lemonade is no longer on so I settle for a corporate one with a clash of ice cubes and a lemon wedge. The bead of condensation trailing down the glass reflects the sweat on my temple. The Lower Red Lion has injected fresh blood into the Union Jack by offering tea & cake in the afternoon during the summer. It’s like being British squared.
The beer garden represents a tunnel dug through my life. It started being excavated back when all the action happened under the picnic tables rather than above them. Those were the days of lime cordial, dandelion & burdock and the Topper, the Dandy or Beano. It runs under where I took my first sips of woody bitter when it needed to be ordered by my dad or uncle. 
Our iconic 3-piece tables that come into their own in Summer see and hear everything. The wood absorbs more spirit than beer maturing in Glenlivet casks but it’s of a different kind: when folk get together around them, it’s like people getting into a rowing boat – the structure leans and rocks as bottoms plonk themselves in and the conversation and eye contact is intense.
The planks ferry you through time – several hours can pass in the space of 15 minutes with the sustenance of ale. Before the conversation started going off in a multitude of tangents, the sun was baking you but now you’re shivering in the night pretending you’re not. You never bring a coat. 
Whatever happens in the world, as long as there are beer gardens, things will be okay.
I have rarely drunk cider but was drawn towards it this year as the Mermaid hosted over fifty with a cider festival. It’s not the fizzy Woodpecker or Strongbow that I remember (though some still are), but a drink whose bouquet and taste make it very difficult for this seasoned beer drinker to describe. The process isn’t familiar – it doesn’t reveal hops front of shop and malt after the swallow. It’s a different creature altogether. I need a new lexicon but the following is an attempt at my favourite. It’s pressed in Baldock, North Hertfordshire: 
Apple Cottage. Filthy Tramp Juice (6.7 ABV):
This nectar’s the colour of brandy crossed with pink lady apples. It’s crystal clear with a vague farmyard/hay aroma. There’s no carbonation but it glows like a lightbulb on the palate. It starts with that sharp tang you get when you bite into apple flesh. Only through stealth does the alcohol make itself known as your cheeks start to flush red. It’s so rosy and floral when it’s sloshed around the tongue. So smooth and gentle yet blood-warming and tingly.
One thing I recall about cider that hasn’t changed is how potentially dangerous it is – it slips down like fruit juice (which it obviously is with the addition of microfauna conducting an orgy). A perry I had before the Filthy Tramp Juice I almost downed in one forgetting it contained alcohol.
Finally, the White Hart Tap. It knows how to hold a beer festival and is an expert sourcer. The pub rotates its beers and pays attention when they are well received. It was the first to acknowledge the talent behind casks of Magic Rock and Cloudwater.
The range of beer on stillage in the garden marquee (25 at a time) shows beers from all over the UK but also demonstrates how the British palate has changed with regards to its ale. Out of them, only five self-identify as bitters but even they’ve been elevated by new world hops. There was even a Belgian Dubbel brewed by one of the pub regulars in aid of a local Alzheimers charity. The pub brews its own ale represented with the rest here on gravity; they encompass a liquorice-infused strong dark ale, a strong IPA, a pale ale and a single varietal: Mosaic.
Mosaic is an enigma to me. I can’t reliably identify hops but this particular one seems especially adept at disguise. I’ve had it as a single varietal before and it’s reminded me of blackcurrant or red berries or Bramling Cross or even cork but it’s also come across a bit like this one – dry grapefruit. Very Citra-esque. How come it varies so much?
The evening gloamed as I ended up discussing beer with some of CAMRA’s 1970s veterans and we touched on the sensitive issues of the Revitalisation Project (4 people around the table, 4 different opinions) and the EU referendum thereby breaking at least one pub rule about politics. Fortunately, religion didn’t rear its head to break a second. Nobody got hurt.
By a happier consensus, the beer of the festival was Mallinson’s Hop Slap from West Yorkshire – a beer that smells like a fruit salad and drinks with an easy abandon – the balmy night definitely helped influence that decision. I’d run the White Hart Tap’s strong dark ale a close runner-up.
There were other events and festivals I didn’t get round to visiting but this little quad represents a decent snapshot of Verulamium at the end of May. Bring on the main Summer!

Rhineland Blood

A recent visit to my local beer shop led to me buy a trio of Kölschs. Kölsch is simply German for Cologne-ish – from Cologne – the biggest town in North Rhine-Westphalia. The beer’s brewed with top-fermenting (obergärig) yeast and is then lagered in a cool Keller to reach maturity. It’s traditionally served in a cylindrical glass called a Stange. I find them clean and fruity. I’ve only just caught up with them.
The Braufactum beer (middle) doesn’t bear the name Kölsch because it’s not from Cologne. It seems to have taken an Italianate name form, possibly influenced by the craft brewing culture in Italy, which alludes to the city it’s inspired by but doesn’t hail from. It’s gone from Frankfurt to Cologne via Milan and then been imported into Britain.
None of these beers are bottle conditioned – a process that would actually ruin their beauty. Instead get them as close as possible to the bottling date. 
Braufactum Colonia 5.5%
It pours a light vanilla gold with a white elastic sputum. The liquid’s completely clear and glowing – delicious just to gaze at. On the nose there’s sugar and Weetabix with a distant note of vanilla. The carbonation brings the beer alive on the palate. On the taste, decaying apple skins and hints of unripe banana. There’s a touch of butterscotch and white grape too yet it’s also clean and cleansing like lemon. Lasting impression – light carbonation with vanilla sponge and bananas with a honey edge. There’s no bitterness whatsoever but it’s still mature. One criticism – a tiny bit watery due to lacking some body.
The reason our first beer doesn’t call itself a Kölsch is because that term is protected by the Kölsch Konvention and has PGI – Protected Geographic Indication. It can’t be brewed outside a 50km radius of the city. The law binds all member states of the EU but how its PGI is policed or applied isn’t clear. British breweries tend to label their takes as Koln or Cologne beers to avoid saying Kölsch so as not to Kontravene the Konvention (although Canopy Brewing does). However some brewers within the EU candidly call it the K word: Bevog is an Austrian brewery from just over the border. Their naming their beer Kölsch can’t have slipped under Cologne’s radar but I’m not aware of any legal action.
the flag of Cologne
One thing that strikes me about the image of bottles at the top is the amount of blood red involved. The Früh offering on the right half-replicates Cologne’s flag and is where the primary colour comes from. The three crowns are supposed to represent the Magi – the three Biblical wise men. Their remains were brought to the church on Ursulaplatz from Milan by the holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa in the 12th century. 
The other aspect of the town’s flag – the odd little squiggles – are supposed to be ermine tails which in turn represent virgins. The legend is that Saint Ursula (originally from around Aberystwyth!) was to be married to her foreign fiancé in the fourth or fifth century. She decided to go on a kind of gap year pilgrimage beforehand with a retinue of 11,000 virgins. It sounds like the plot from a tacky 1970’s Italian exploitation flick but wait – instead she and her fellow inter railers got massacred by the Huns on their way to Rome!
Reissdorf Kölsch 4.8%
A platinum beer – very light verging on water golden. It boasts a high white craggy head and runes appear around the inside of the glass from the lacing. The aroma’s of wheat and honey. It’s tangy but mellow with a crystal clear sparkling carbonation. On the palate, yellow apples, golden treacle, sweet conference pears and elderflower. It’s clean again. All these flavours are wedded together in a beautiful consistency. 
a white whippet looks on in bemusement
This is a 15th Century painting by Hans Memling of Saint Ursula standing in front of an archer. He’s taking studious aim at point blank and she’s raising her right palm as if to say “I’m fine, thanks”. The 11,000 virgins may in fact have been just eleven – the number increase might be down an inscription misinterpretation which would make it more likely as an event. Hildegard of Bingen (not far from Cologne) composed chants in honour of Ursula. Our Hild is also one of the first to describe the female orgasm and used to write about and brew beer too! 
In London, St Mary Axe in the city is named after a church dedicated to Saint Ursula and Saint Mary – the axe in question one of the alleged Huns’ murder weapons. It seems the church is convinced that the only venerable women are virgins. If you’re a female, it doesn’t matter what you do, it don’t want to know you unless your cherry’s intact. The church of St Mary Axe stood roughly where the Craft Beer Company in EC3 now trades and it’s in that chain I first had Tzara – Thornbridge Brewery’s keg offering of Kölsch! Coincidence? Yes!
The reason the church building is no longer there is because of a trade deal we had with Germany in the 1940s whereby they’d drop off bombs on our cities in exchange for many of our own being delivered to theirs. There used to be 40 breweries in Cologne but virtually all of them decided to discontinue and collapse at this time. Breweries in London copied this vogue.
Früh Kölsch 4.8%
Such clarity again! It’s a clear lens-perfect vanilla pale – more clarified than the glass it’s served in! The smell is gorgeous – honeysuckle, vanilla sponge and sweet cider, possibly the best smelling beer ever. The perfect gentle charge of carbonation that spreads the liquid across the palate – this is obviously a Kölsch strength and has been characteristic in all three bottles. The beer seeps in like osmosis – practically inhaled. The word delicate isn’t delicate enough to describe its levity but it still has body and nourishment. Its Brandy sweetness is balanced to a tee by its fruity sharpness – even a little dry tartness. Ends on a dryish finish but not astringently so. It’s the most far-reaching of the three. It’s liquid springtime. 
The style’s become one of my favourites and is that rarest of beers: one both me and my wife love. It’s not a complex or challenging beer style but one that elevates you towards a ray in the clouds. It can equal the fruit hit from the chopped flesh in a Pimms glass in a way which is subtle but hits the perfect note and amplifies down the glass. It’s available all year around but is particularly suited to spring and summer.

Früh Kölsch definitely wins this taste-off even with its stiff competition. In some bars in Cologne it’s served directly from an oak barrel and soaks up some of its woody flavours too. I’m looking at the Eurostar’s website now………

The Ghost in the Shell: St Albans part 2

Over the past couple of years, a number of pubs have closed in St Albans as they have across the country. The last post covered these losses but this essay covers the survival, the change and the new ground. To keep it simple, I’m not including pubs from small villages around the outskirts of St Albans.
DSCF3331 St Albans
This city is big enough to host a legion of pubs, shops and restaurants but too small to hide secrets. When a pub closes, you can bet it’s being hotly discussed around the bars of those that remain. Pub-goers here are nomadic and speculative – setting up camp in one pub then pitching up at the next. Locals don’t so much do a pub crawl as patrol a beat and I count myself as one of them. Much to the surprise of the ale-swillers, some recently closed pubs re-opened. I want to focus first on four pubs that initially shut: the Great Northern, the Crown, the Peacock and Bar 62. The reason they weren’t in part one is because they didn’t become ex-pubs after all.
DSCF3315 Peacock St Albans
The initial line circulating following one pub closure was that it was becoming a house. The next time I walked past, I saw O’Neill’s written above the door and became privy to the next rumour – the improbable word went out that it was opening as an Irish bar but wasn’t affiliated with the chain at all (there is already one branch of O’Neill’s in St Albans). I accepted this but what I didn’t realise is that it used to be St Albans’ branch of O’Neill’s until the chain found a unit closer to the town centre. The writing I’d seen wasn’t new but old – the paint had been stripped away to reveal its tavern genealogy. What’s remarkable is that even though folk have been in St Albans longer than me and remember when O’Neill’s was there, it still didn’t quash the rumour. Anyway, it re-opened as a much improved pub and kept its original title: the Peacock.
A similar thing happened to the Great Northern and the Crown. The former’s previous incarnation showed a pub in the worst possible way: it wasn’t welcoming to non-regulars (of which there was only a handful) nor did it care much for hygiene or beer. The inside was dark and sticky. Ale condition was negligent. The garden could’ve been one of the best in town as it descends in stepped levels to a pleasant view of treetops over distant allotments. Instead, I saw the same mounds of dog shit on the patio every time I passed and watched them become ever more grey and fossilised. The line was that it was turning into a restaurant. It re-opened as a completely renovated pub with a good beer range and proper kitchen. 
the gleaming tap range at the Craft & Cleaver
The Crown, being a large building quite far from the town centre was written off as housing. Instead it was re-carpeted, refurbished, the garden re-landscaped and then it re-opened. It’s now more family and food-oriented but the beer range has also improved. Lights have been installed on the inside so people can see and punters actually fill it out now. It has WELCOME written in big letters above the door.
When a pub closes down and disappears behind whitewash and scaffold, it’s like the construction of a mausoleum…. until the word gets out that it’s re-opening as an even more ambitious pub in which case it becomes a pupating brick chrysalis. Bar 62 (previously the Pineapple) went through this metamorphosis. When it unfurled its drying wings, it revealed a creature that had hitherto been known only in the capital – a meat & craft beer pub. It took off as the Craft & Cleaver complete with long-filament bulbs, wood floor, vertiginous stools and glass doors.
Some pubs come back from the dead, others change the orientation of their “swing”.
What used to be the Harrow on Verulam Road is now Mokoko’s Cocktail bar. It has won awards and as a non cocktail drinker, I shouldn’t have much interest in it. However, this is a place where people go to socialise and enjoy themselves. My experience of cocktail bars is this: I have a 330ml glass of overpriced lager while my wife has a cocktail and the cost is roughly similar. I accept that pubs don’t do good cocktails. If the bartender has to read the instructions while a 15 – minute queue develops then it shouldn’t bother with them – a separate bar is the only solution. My suggestion – serve small bottles of 330ml imperial porters/stouts/IPAs/barley wines instead of weak lagers in these venues; they are equivalent to the cocktails and similar in alcohol. They also look good in a stemmed glass. Though Mokoko’s isn’t a beery place, it’s still a great bar. After all, cocktails are people too.
What used to be a pub called the Spotted Bull has become the Brick Yard – a wine bar. It’s in trouble from objections to extensions it built and is at legal war with the community it backs onto over its licensing hours. It seems there is little life therein when I pass it and its future is less certain. My main criticism is the frosted windows and maroon lighting – it reminds me of somewhere 18 year olds go to celebrate reaching drinking age with a bottle of pink Lambrusco thrown in. Why can’t we candidly look in and see adults, candles and red wine? I’d happily share a bottle of Pinot over an oak table top.
12 years ago a pub on George Street closed down. It was called the Kings Arms. It then went through a multitude of incarnations. Just over a year ago it was a struggling restaurant called No 7. Not once did I see anybody dine in it and it subsequently died. Just up the road is an institution called the Boot. Its landlord acquired No 7’s premises and turned it back into the Kings Arms. It’s officially called Dylan’s at the Kings Arms (Dylan is the name of the proprietor’s chocolate labrador in turn named after legend Bob Dylan). It embraced craft beer and kept a trio of beer engines to keep everyone happy and now it heaves with punters. This is where you go for Darkstar, Brewer’s Union, Beavertown and Brewdog beers. It’s possibly also the only pub in Britain to boast a grey squirrel in bondage gear riding a badger under the auspices of a mounted Ibex. Rule Britannia! There is even a plan to start brewing here but no concrete details as yet.
DSCF3373 Kings Arms St Albans
the squirrel’s definitely the dominant half in this relationship
The Veer Dharma Indian restaurant on St Peters Street closed down after the landlord ejected the business for non-payment of rent. The restaurant relocated about 800 metres down the road but once the whitewash had been removed from its previous site, the signage heralded a new pub! It’s part of a chain called the Beech House and seems to have an affiliation with Marston’s judging by the beer range. It’s a bit like a TGI Fridays reincarnated as a pub.
Both the Kings Arms and the Beech House prove that new pubs do open even if many are disappearing nationally.
The Farmers Boy has been a brewpub since 1996 making it one of the oldest of the new wave. Landlord and head brewer Kevin Yelland has been brewing beer with New World hops long before it became the norm. The pub is home to the Verulam Brewery for onsite ale and has an alter ego as Ale Craft – beers that are sold on and off the premises. His most recent brew – A Romance of Hops – was a delicate piney humulone marriage to commemorate plighting his own troth on 2nd April. The same brewing equipment is also used by the Private Brewery of Bob and to make the house ale for That Little Place – a restaurant in nearby Harpenden.
DSCF3293 Farmers Boy St Albans
still going strong – the Farmers Boy
The past couple of years have seen a resurgence in house brewing. The Verulam Arms almost became a block of flats a few years ago but is now a successful pub and restaurant. Its alias – The Foragers – conducts trips into the countryside with its customers and the yield is brought back to the kitchen and cooked. Even with the modern vogue for brewing with botanicals, the Verulam Arms stands out. Last summer I went in and had a glass of sham-pagne – this was a 2% elderflower ale served over ice and sucked through a straw. It tasted of lychees. Deceiving boletes mushrooms bleed red blood when you cut them, the juice then turns blue when it hits oxygen! This amazing ingredient was used in an oatmeal stout and served at the St Albans Beer & Cider festival last year. It gave the stout an umami taste a bit like the nori sheets used to wrap sushi rice. They have just taken delivery of a new fermentor and have also brewed with douglas fir pine needles, Alexander, sweet woodruff, cherry wood and home grown hops.
DSCF3309 Saints Cloak Verulam Arms
The White Hart Tap on Keyfield Terrace got permission from her Majesty’s revenue and customs to brew and sell its own ale last year. Since then, landlord Steve and his staff have applied themselves to a commendable range of styles: heavy beer with Belgian yeast (one cask exploded in the cellar), American-hopped pale ales, fruity British bitters and a luxurious chocolatey dark ale in excess of 8%. Recently, some of the customers were invited to brew their own beer there and compete against each other on the bar’s pumps – the proceeds went to a local Alzheimers charity.
We live in a changing climate. Whether or not pubs are closing or opening, the beer itself is proliferating. Not only is the number of native breweries going through the roof, but the stuff’s increasingly imported too. So where does it all go to get drank?
One restaurant has put together a beer/cider list and it isn’t just Punk IPA or Lagunitas. Here’s an edited version:

Staffordshire Pilsner Freedom Brewery, Burton-On-Trent, 4.4% 
Greenwich Pilsner Meantime Brewery, Greenwich, 4.4% 
Helles Organic Lager Freedom Brewery, Burton-On-Trent, 4.8% 
High Five American IPA AleCraft Brewery, St Albans, 5.9% 
Blonde Ash Wheat Beer Grain Brewery, Norfolk, 4% 
Classic English Ale The 3 Brewers of St Albans, 4% 
Organic Best Bitter St Peter’s Brewery, Suffolk, 4.1% 
Slate Porter, Grain Brewery, Norfolk, 6% 
Organic Devon Cider Luscombe Drinks, Devon, 4.8% 
Polgoon Cider Penzance, Cornwall, 5%
The restaurant in question is Lussmans. It’s inspiring to see a restaurant that knows a good porter might compliment steamed mussels or a wheat beer could match cheese dishes, a bitter goes with a roast or a Pilsner with a curry. 
DSCF3224 Pudding Stop St Albans
This image is of a renowned local business called The Pudding Stop. Obviously, it’s not a pub but a dessert bakery started by a runner-up from the first series of The Great British Bake Off – Johnny Shepherd. He has gone to the trouble of pairing desserts not just with Sherry and wine but with beers and cider. For instance on the menu, maple & pecan sponge pudding is paired with Camden Hells Lager. I’ve also seen stouts from Kernel and cans of Beavertown beers. This experience of beer as a complimentary pleasure is new – it would be familiar territory to Belgians but it hasn’t been to us Brits.
DSCF3284 Beer Shop St Albans
I have spent so much money here……..
Lastly, this is the Beer Shop on London Road. It opened in 2013 after trialling a stall in St Albans’ Sunday market. The beer sold well. It now takes pride of place in an area of St Albans rapidly gentrifying and is going strong. As well as the known form of British, German, American and Belgian beers, it also stocks bottles from such disparate corners as Hawaii, New Zealand and Russia. The knowledge and expertise – including experience of brewing – is fostered by all three that work there. This is, in fact the beeriest place in St Albans as it’s a taproom too – 5 cask and 4 keg. This is where I first had beers by Kees, Cloudwater, Wiper & True, Green Flash, Jester King, Crooked Stave, Nogne. This is but a snapshot of a list that could go on and dominate the whole post.
It’s not possible to discuss St Albans and its pubs without mentioning a certain niche campaign group that has a strong connection to the area – CAMRA: the campaign for the restoration/revitalisation/real of ale (delete the appropriate words in the preceding sentence). CAMRA in South Hertfordshire still bears some of its original 1970s members and might be the most traditionalist branch in the country. It has its headquarters on Hatfield Road and a small pub on Lower Dagnall Street – the Farriers Arms – bears a proud plaque about where it all started. South Herts CAMRA keeps a beady eye on the popularity of craft beer (here defined as non-cask) and needs convincing of its virtues but it has helped threatened pubs stay open and is one of the reasons St Albans has 50+ pubs in such a small city.
DSCF2360 CAMRA plaque St Albans
*sigh*- brings a lump to the throat
I started the last post by pointing out that St Albans has weathered the cull quite well in regard to pub closures. What gladdens me is that as well as retaining a slew of good traditional pubs – some of which are getting even more involved with ale, it’s also changing the places where beer or alcohol is served and the demographics of the folk that frequent them. As much as I love cask ale and leather seating, I also crave the tastes of the modern craft brewing and the youth it attracts. I like the feeling of becoming an old codger surrounded by those that attained codgerhood ahead of me, but I also like the fact that wider audiences are increasingly being drawn to bars and beer and improving both. St Albans has over 2000 years of history – some of it pre-Roman. It’s good to know it’s got its gaze set on the future too.


The Ghost in the Shell: St Albans

Part 1

This post is about pubs in St Albans and how they’re faring up against the national cull. This is a city that’s weathering it better than others. St Albans is one of several towns in Britain that boasts the most amount of pubs per head of population along with Norwich and Canterbury. The jury’s out. 

The Black Lion faces The Blue Anchor. Despite appearances, they’re both private housing

As far as public houses are concerned, its heyday was back when it was a stagecoach town reaping the custom of travellers coming in and out of London. For the pubs that endured into our Elizabethan age, it’s more a change of culture at a societal level that’s closing public houses as well as breweries opting to sell stock to the lucrative housing market . This essay will be in two halves: this post will focus on the closures and the loss historically and into the present day. The second half will be about the future possibilities, as the more I see things evolve, the more I wonder if some of it isn’t a change for the better. I’ll write about beer resurfacing in different public milieux.

At the end of the nineteenth century St Albans lost a pub which, if it had survived, might’ve been one of the most famous historically. It was apparently in its doorway that the Duke of Somerset was slain in 1455 in the first battle of the War of the Roses. Shakespeare alludes to it in Henry VI part II. His nemesis Richard Duke of York says:

So, lie thou there;-
For, underneath an alehouse’ paltry sign,
The Castle in Saint Albans, Somerset
Hath made the wizard famous in his death

It was demolished to modernise Sweetbriar Lane which became Victoria Street. When I think of pub closures, I think of this as the first as wooden medieval overhang gave over to the robust red brick of Victorian build. The closure traces an arrow right to the present day.

These harpoons are absolutely everywhere

If you go to any of the streets leading off St Albans’ main drag and rotate 360 degrees, you’ll see harpoons sticking out of the sides of buildings. Most of them will have been pubs – the signs would’ve hung from them. These empty pikes aren’t the only clue to the city’s ex-public houses; you need only look at the names of yards, streets and even shopping centres. Close to the site of The Castle was St Peters Brewery. Though long gone, its presence is reflected in the Maltings Shopping Centre built on what was once its malting floors. One of the yards backing onto it is Half Moon Yard named after the Half Moon pub. The little alleys that cut through the Tudor buildings to the market place are also named after boozers like Queens Way (Queen’s Hotel), Lamb Alley (The Lamb) and Boot Alley (The Boot). Gloriously, that last pub is still going strong. Through to French Row, St Albans’ second shopping centre – Christopher Place – is named after The Christopher Inn. A 15th century pedestrian arch still survives with a hoofed and particularly front-heavy stone grotesque guarding one end.

A bound 15th century grotesque

In the 19th century the trade was driven by competition between the Verulam Road Brewery and St Peter’s Brewery. The two families – Searancke and Kinder – eventually had their businesses subsumed into even bigger concerns; proof that brewery takeovers are nothing new. Both were purchased by Adey & Whites which in turn was acquired by Flowers. It was then ingested by Whitbread. Just think of Russian dolls.

There were streets where every building was a public house, tap room or coaching inn. French Row and Chequer Street were cases in point. Holywell Hill’s eastern side was literally a long row of hostelries. To list all the pubs would require an encyclopaedia. 

Every Wednesday and Saturday is market day in St Albans. The large building is the town hall

The first swathe of closures in St Albans was actually attributable to the railway replacing horse-drawn traffic from 1858 onwards. Prior to that, the inns used to rely on the punters being literally ridden in from out of town. It wasn’t just ale and board for the travellers that was required but for the nags too. 

St Albans is just as famous for its many restaurants. Many were pubs: the Vintry became a Cote, Harry’s Bar became a huge Brasserie Blanc, the Bell became a Jamie Oliver Restaurant, the Cross Keys became a Bill’s, the Cricketers became an Indian restaurant, the Red Lion became a ZiZi and The Tudor Tavern became a Thai Square. Now in the yards that used to be occupied by stables, you’re more likely to see kitchen staff on their cigarette break crouching defeatedly against a wall – the perpetual growl of extractor fans their only company.

The age-warped but beautiful structure of what was the Tudor Tavern

With regards to the Tudor Tavern (which genuinely is from Tudor times), its loft spaces alone have been converted into several restaurants so maybe the chain will wish to apportion some of its seating, bar and cellar space to good beer some time soon. After all, when I walk past, the tables are never full – maybe that’s an omen. It would be a shame to ever lose those stone elephants, though.

Size certainly is a key issue. If the public house is also a coaching tavern with stabling for horses, it’s obviously a property of great size. In modern times, what becomes of such largesse? The horses ain’t coming back. Stabling was incorporated into the structure of the building – often occupying the heart of it so it’s not something that can easily be converted to a car park either. There are clusters of these architectural gems remaining in St Albans.

An ancient coaching inn on Sopwell Lane

One of the best preserved coaching inns in the country is at the corner of Sopwell Lane and Holywell Hill. It’s a private dwelling now but was once The Old Crown Inn. A bit further down the lane stands The Goat. What was former stabling is now an italianate patio beer garden. Another famous example is on Verulam Road. It was formerly The Verulam Arms (not to be confused with another Verulam Arms a block away – see part 2). In 1835 Queen Victoria and her large retinue stayed and had lunch there on their way back from Scotland to London. In this case, the body has remained intact as it’s been converted into something that benefits the many rooms and is even more essential to a community than a pub – a nursing home.

At the other end of the scale, a narrow boozer like The Bat and Ball is now the home of Lisa’s Star Nails. I love the fact that an old pub name can remain hovering high on the building decades after its demise. It was a Kent Holywell Hill Brewery tied pub.

On some houses we are also left with some antique stencilling and artwork. Now a private house, what used to be The Vine on Spicer Street still has a painting of a bunch of grapes above the door. The pub was originally leased by Gentle’s Yard Brewery just around the corner – a micro before the term existed. Still on the wall in fading letters: Benskins Fine Ales & Stout – this was the brewery that later took it over. Benskins hailed from nearby Watford and was once Hertfordshire’s biggest brewer. The brand name was used up until the early 1990s but actually belongs to Heineken now.

The below image is of a house in Tyttenhanger Green on the outskirts of St Albans. Historically it’s infamous. In the mid 1970s it boasted 18 cask ales at a time – possibly the only pub in Britain to do so. It was an early CAMRA destination in the days before people bothered too much about drink-driving. As you can see, it was called The Barley Mow and its once glowing illustration panel is fading away. The figures on it, just discernible, are ghosts. Instead of a welcome to walkers, if you attempt to wander down the public footpath that runs past its right flank, you’ll be funnelled into an ever narrowing squeeze by a row of parked cars before two massive Rottweilers launch themselves at you. Just a flimsy fence separates you from them. Scrambling out of the other end of the tight bottleneck you’ll come out at the A414 where traffic thunders past at 80 miles an hour. It’s one of the most unpleasant twists to a countryside walk imaginable.

One of the things most in contrast to my previous Ghost in the Shell essay about St Johns Wood is how many ex-pubs in St Albans have become houses or housing. Away from the big cities, this seems to be the default reversion. As well as The Barley Mow and Vine, I could also mention the Blue Lion, the Duke of Marlborough, the Black Lion, the King Offa, the Crow, the Blue Anchor and the Camp. The last two were McMullens tied pubs.

There is only one remaining McMullen tied house – The Peahen at the junction of London Road and Holywell Hill. It’s a big venue. It was once two pubs in the 18th century. The Peahen absorbed its neighbour the Woolpack in around 1852. It incorporated Kent’s Holywell Brewery which was later bought up by Adey & Whites. Nowadays under McMullens, it gets added revenue by portioning some of its space out. It must be the only pub in Britain that is also a jewellers, the White Rooms Business Hub (check it online – I’ve no clue what it is either) and four separate estate agents. It still bears its horse arch. Inside is where the Kent Holywell Brewery (Kent being the family name) operated up until 1936. It has one added architectural quirk – a balcony seemingly built to look down on the crossroads traffic.

Not just a pub but 6 other businesses. The view from the balcony isn’t worth it.

Referencing the area’s Roman heritage, the Camp was situated on Camp Road. It was tied to McMullens whose pubs have been sold in their droves over the past few years as a house sale is worth much more in the short term. Last year, there was a concerted effort by CAMRA to save The Camp. It was given ACV status but planning has been given for the structure to be pulled down and be replaced with a block of flats as no buyer has been found. I regret not getting involved as I thought there wasn’t the custom to sustain it. I went in twice. On both occasions me and my dog were given a friendly welcome but I couldn’t help but notice how empty it seemed apart from the several men at the bar. They looked like they spent their lives there. Even if it seemed me signing the petition would’ve made no difference, I’m conscious that if everybody took that view, stands would never be made. A brawl took place at the bar on its closing night as a group of morons decided to settle old scores. That didn’t help its cause either. I walked back there for the photo and couldn’t help noticing that the boards in the windows look like the pennies on a dead body’s eyes.

What used to be the Camp

If this post ends on a depressing note, I hope the follow-up post will act as its uplifting counterfoil.

The Writing in the Sand

The ancient spring….

Wells and springs are vital lifelines to people in countries across the world. Though wells aren’t immune from contamination like radon and can vector many bacteria & viruses following floods, by and large they represent a source of safe mineral water. Compared to bodies of standing water, they’re healthier and essential to growing human populations. Even if in our part of the world modern plumbing has replaced their need, it seems amazing that our knowledge of their whereabouts can vanish in such a short space of time.

In this case, it’s the title of the road in the photo that acts as the historical marker. This is Holywell Hill (pronounced “holly well”) in St Albans, Hertfordshire. The well in Holywell alludes to what was an actual well or wells in the area. The etymology is to be found in many British place names and what’s surprising is that in most cases, the location of the well completely slips the memory. To take nearby London as a heavily industrialised example, the wells of Sadlers Wells, Wells Street, Wells Mews and Wells Rise are gone and would require archaeology to rediscover them. The well of Clerkenwell Green has a written history spanning from 1174 to the 19th century yet it was lost! It was only rediscovered by accident by builders in 1924. 

The holy well….

Miraculous healing powers were attributed to wells in Europe and they’d often develop an association with a saint. The well of Holywell Hill has its token legend: Saint Alban’s head was lopped off by a Roman and after it stopped bouncing and came to rest, the well sprang up. Another version has the saint announcing his thirst before execution and the water duly erupting from the ground. In this sense the myth follows the trope of wells the world over – perhaps the most famous being Lourdes in France. 

These natural springs end up having two histories: firstly a usage dating back to prehistory and secondly a “re-beginning” to tie in with early religious yarns before archaeology can more accurately trace their past retrospectively. This is the first way in which the history of the well gets obscured – usurped by the story surrounding England’s first saint in the 3rd century. All the background leading up to that point was erased as Christianity appropriated the British landscape.

Holywell House….

About halfway up the hill on the right is a blue plaque marking the rough site of Holywell House. It was lived in and used as a base for one of Britain’s most political dynasties: the Churchills. The family tree includes Sir Winston Churchill. The Duke of Marlborough was a title passed down 8 times – our ex-prime minister was second cousin to the most recent. The members of the family – boasting many MPs – swing both left and right in British politics from the Torys to the Whigs and back.

Ancient roads are often betrayed by their irregular curves but this road’s an exception. The trajectory you see shooting up the hill towards the centre of St Albans was the end of a straight path right from where Marble Arch now stands in London. It was the route the horses took to get to the first major conurbation outside the capital. This well-worn vector was interrupted for around 200 years as it diverted on a leftward berth to accommodate the property’s extensive grounds. The family pile here in St Albans, like that of the well, has now been eviscerated and the road bulge with it.

At the time our well was incorporated into the orbit of that mansion; it was preserved as a water feature in the landscaped grounds. Both the house and the gardens of Holywell House were demolished in 1837. Part of the land became a playing field and either a rumour or the truth about the location was kept alive – the original holy well was in that sward that later formed part of a school playing turf where it was marked at one end by a stone.

De Tany Court….

In 1984, the land that harboured the well was owned jointly by property group Tower McCall and the St Albans Playing Field Trust and was about to be built over by a five storey hotel. A stand-off between the landowner, the council and some locals ensued and led to what could be called a case of guerrilla archaeology. A feature was dug up – a rubble-filled hole which was presented to the council as proof of the well who weren’t sympathetic as permission hadn’t been given for the dig – it was technically trespass. Museum authorities said the contents dated from 1897 but it was capping an earlier structure. The locals appealed instead to Archbishop Runcie who shared their concern about losing such a holy relic and an official and legal excavation was carried out by museum staff. Despite all this, that hole still only ended up getting “probably” status.

The plans for a hotel were shelved and housing was built instead. A new cul de sac – De Tany Court – has preserved what may or may not be the original well inside a small courtyard. It’s neatly bricked around and covered by a grill. I often go and visit if I’m ascending or descending that side of the Hill and detour to peer down it. I’ve seen it stuffed with branches and on another occasion covered by splayed-out magazines. More disturbingly, I once encountered several dismembered dolls as if they’d been thrown in as sacrifices. 

The pub….

When I moved to St Albans in 2011 there was a pub at the bottom of Holywell Hill called The Duke of Marlborough (it’s the yellow building in the first photo). For anoraks such as myself who take an interest in such things, I looked into who the name refers to. The Duke of Marlborough pub was built in 1825 and so was witness to the large house and grounds of its namesake. Twelve years later, both its eponym and the huge estate had gone. This was also the pub that locals plotted in prior to their guerrilla dig for the well on that quiet Sunday in June 1984. The pub closed in 2013. It was one of the few I never got to visit before it vanished. Like lots of ex-pubs in St Albans, it’s only the harpoon sticking out of its side that betrays its original function.


Time laps away history’s details like writing in the sand: We have an ancient water spring whose history got obscured by early Christian mythology. This spring in turn was lost and remembered only in the name of its adjacent hill – Holywell. The forgotten spring was incorporated into the grounds of Holywell House. The house and its grounds disappeared, so too their swell into Holywell Hill. The original owner was suspended in history and mid-air by the pub sign of The Duke of Marlborough. After 188 years, the sign was taken down and the building became a house.

Michael Jackson: The Daddy of us all

Last Saturday I visited Mondo Brewing in Stockwell. It’s not your usual startup; it was founded last year with a wealth of previous brewing experience and a brand new 27 hectolitre brewing kit. Mondo and its vast range of beers have quickly been subsumed into national circulation. Its tap room has 15 taps of keg beer to choose from. The brewery’s name reflects where the inspiration for its beer comes from: the world.

As the catalyst behind Britain’s craft beer, America is well represented. In bottles and on tap there are takes on American pale ales and IPAs. There have also been steam Lagers and American brown ales. The European brewing culture is strongly evidenced too by Biere de Mars, Patersbier and smoked Helles. I have also had their blackberry Berliner Weisse, Maibock and Belgian dubbel.

The foudres/foedern ageing Rodenbach beer in Roeselare, West Flanders. This image has captivated me for years.

We’re increasingly taking this extensive range for granted but up until recently, countries stuck to their own. Where does this fascination for world beers come from? Not that long ago, IPAs and porters were positively exotic after their long hibernation in this country. Britain was Britain because of its bitters, keg lagers and stout. From this cosy parochial hole, it’s now a beer exhibition.

It’s impossible and misguided to attribute this revolution to one man, but if you could target a prime mover, it would be the beady-eyed, understated and amicable descendant of Lithuanian Jewish stock who, when speaking, reminds me of a drawling Ringo Starr. It’s Michael Jackson.

The great man himself. He would sometimes don a single white glove for a laugh to emulate his more famous namesake

A few things have made me think about him recently. It’s not just the fact my last post was about beer from Belgium and I alluded to him, but it’s also the “death harvest” of 2016. We’re rapidly losing our stars. I discovered Michael Jackson the same year he passed away – 2007. What I can’t recall is whether it was before or after the day he left us.

The first book I ever bought about beer – The Eyewitness Companion to Beer – was edited by him. It presented beer in a way I’d never seen before; a way obvious to Belgians but too deeply rooted in pleasure for us Brits. Though subliminally aware that Belgium and Germany boasted stunning beer glasses, it’s the first time I looked at them with a sense of covetousness. The colour and glow of the beer far outstrip the beauty of a wine glass posing next to a bunch of grapes. So much more character can be expressed through so many different hues, heads, glass shapes and colours!

It’s images like this that have sent folk like me on a quest

I’m reminded of my first taste of Duvel circa 2008. It was because of a photo in that book and it’s fair to say it set me on a quest that I’m still on. At 8.5%, Duvel was the heaviest beer I’d ever had and it felt it. That ABV seems so underwhelming now as beer gradually replaces wine.

He was the Alan Whicker of the beer world. I always end up thumbing through his books to get back to basics. Other volumes and encyclopaedias restate facts but Michael was the original explorer and he had first-hand angles on beer that couldn’t be found in standard literature.

At Mondo, if 19th Century peasants could be beamed into the brewery in their smocks, would they recognise the beer styles attributed to their culture or town? Maybe. Would they recognise the constraints that identify that beer for people of the present day? I’m not so sure.

A lot of the information in these books/guides is now obsolete but it was Michael that helped move things on

Visiting Belgium, Michael was told that there was no such thing as Saison as he hunted them down. Was whoever told him far ahead of their time where a statement like that could maraud as critical analysis? His wanderings in the 1960s originally took in bronze coloured beers. These gave over to blonde. Some that self-identified as Saison were gentle and malty and to be found either side of the French/Belgian border. Some bieres de garde in France, he thought, were too tart and should be Saisons. There was no authority to consult and no need. If that’s what people drank why would they need to align it with beers of that name elsewhere? This gave me pause for thought when I recently compared Saisons and what they are supposed to conform to. Michael’s insight leads me to ask: Do we actually engineer traditional beer styles retrospectively? Up to a point I think we do but at the same time it’s unavoidable.

In Britain, we have enough trouble working out what is and isn’t a mild, telling a porter from a stout (or indeed a strong mild!), separating strong pale ale from India pale ale and modern strong-hopped bitter. However if the beer’s from another place and another time, it’s easier to surround it by definition because in a sense you’re starting from scratch.

Belgian beer is now rightly cherished in Britain and across the world

I love Michael for how he makes me thirsty. Though the photographs in his books compliment the text – they can never rival it. He employs a language that is sumptuous but stays clear of pretension. On Saisons for example, he says this:

“the crisp, cleansing, quenching, top-fermenting Saison”

It’s almost onomatopoeic in it’s delivery and succinct. An even more beautiful sentence gets straight to the heart of Lambics:

“(….) can shock at first sip – and seduce to the point of obsession anyone who truly loves sensory exploration”

Like a haiku – the perfect choice, economy and aim of words. On me, it’s both frustrating and spurring as a budding beer writer. As Clive James once said, “All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light”. Michael’s words positively refract. The only thing I never get are his comparisons to Jazz music and its stars – something I can’t be converted to. They soar straight over my head.

His opinion was so valued, that when brewer Ivo Bosteels created a new style of beer with Champagne yeast, he needed it to be served to Michael. Our subject couldn’t make it to Belgium because of work commitments so Ivo drove all the way to Parsons Green in West London for Michael’s appraisal because it just couldn’t wait. It’s that reputation that makes Michael the daddy.

Mr Jackson also helped champion cask ale and wrote about it in a way that causes salivation

Our fortune is in the variety of beer and the technology that makes it. Saison may have been a light beer brewed for farm labourers during the summer months in Heinault – but it’s also a beer brewed across Europe and America at every conceivable strength. Unlike the ephemeral thing that inspired it, it knows it’s Saison because it says it is – it’s written on the clip.

It’s in a large part because of Michael Jackson that when I visit London I see biere de mars, Maibocks, Wits, Alts, Pilsners, Kolsch and Rauchbier and the distortions that arise from each being given the dubbel/tripel treatment. And why not? Let’s just agree that quad is a step too close to the jaws of madness.

In London, these styles will only represent a tiny fraction of the beer consumed but they will dominate in column inches and on social media. This last quote about how a style doesn’t travel far is worth reading; it was about Biere brut – the Champagne beers mentioned above:

“Progress might be slower in the Anglo-Saxon world. Belgian beer does not easily penetrate its Eastern frontier”

The beer in question was Ivo Bosteel’s Deus – a heavenly beer served in a flute glass and the drink I celebrated my 36th birthday with. It stands proudly on the shelves of beer shops across the nation. The frenzied brewing of world beer has taken over our cities. How attitudes have changed and I think it was Michael Jackson that got them to.

Saison International

What was a rural beer from Heinault in Wallonian Belgium has had a huge revival. If it’s possible for a style to change its spiritual home, than Saison has. Not only is the style being recreated in each new brewery in Britain’s cities, but it’s long been a native of America and is to be found there more than in its lands of origin. Its stamp is in the more modern term farmhouse. It also shares custody with Lambic for wild beers, is a bedfellow to cider and can even stare down white wine.

I find  Saisons are usually cask-averse – better from keg or bottle. There have been some notable exceptions, (Erasmus by Red Squirrel and 13 by XT Brewing by my own bias) but they’re notable precisely because they’re exceptions. Saison is better cooler. It was always supposed to refresh – not to be sessioned in pints.

As my control subject I’m nominating Saison Dupont by Brasserie Dupont. It was one of only 12 listed Saisons in Michael Jackson’s 1991 guide to Belgian beer. This Belgian Saison is as rated internationally as it’s possible to be. It’s a hazy straw gold with notes of hay and white wine on the nose. It has a strong carbonation and tastes of Champagne and decaying fruit. It hits the roof of the mouth and dries you out. When I think of the style, I think of this. It’s the high bar I’ll be hoping the following beers reach.

The beers in this tasting come from three countries:

We have a fellow Belgian – St Feuillen Saison 
We then have a Brit – Buxton Brewery’s New world Saison (no link at the time of writing).
We also have Anchor Brewing’s Saison from the USA.

St Feuillen Saison – unfiltered can 6.5 ABV:

It’s custard yellow and quite cloudy with a white hop oil silken head. It smells of wet straw and lemony hops but with a touch of honey too. The honey note is most pronounced when you sniff the can’s opening. This beer’s perfect from the fridge – the carbonated liquid leaps over the palate and cools the roof of the mouth. 
On the taste I get notes of grass, elderflower and chamomile tea. It has a creamy mouthfeel that reminds me of chewing on barley stalks which really pushes the countryside analogy along. It has a medium dry finish a bit like a fruity white wine and even a sweet nutty aftertaste.

Buxton Brewery New World Saison – bottle conditioned 6.3 ABV:

It pours an amber orange. The head top builds up into a proud elastic white cloud which lasts the distance – I’m guessing from the addition of wheat. It has a very tangy aroma; very musty with an Alt-y stickiness and orange peel zest. It’s delicious to inhale. 

It has a charging carbonation but a light mouthfeel – both things that compliment and reinforce each other. I taste caramel too. There’s a bitter spirit estery edge and brandy grapes. There’s a dry mouthfeel and dry finish. It parts on sticky and throaty orange UFO sweets followed by a fruit belch. The head remains down the glass like velvet grouting. It had me on the aroma alone! 

Anchor Brewing Saison – bottle 7.2 ABV:

This third high ABV Saison is made with the addition of lemongrass, lemon peel and ginger. It decants a gorgeous glowing amber and is light-refracting crystal clear with a soft lily lather on top. 
It smells like a really malty beer like Shepherd Neame’s Bishop’s Finger or an ale of that ilk – something I certainly hadn’t expected. Maybe it’s a light dose of ginger coming through like ginger loaf. I get sponge cake – lemon drizzle with a touch of blitzed grass. It has a very subdued carbonation too like a malty cask bitter. This isn’t the first time I’ve picked up British cask beer notes on an American beer. I never expected to find them in a Saison.
On the sip I taste pear drops, malt loaf and orange lockets. It’s tangy on the roof of the mouth. I like this beer but wouldn’t have recognised it as a Saison – especially not like the control subject at the top of the post. There’s no particular dryness. It’s fruity and glucose all the way through. Badger Bitter? Ringwood Old Thumper? I can’t get these old boys out of my head.
My palate has dictated a clear winner in this taste-off:
Anchor’s Saison bewildered me and comes last as I didn’t get the levity, the carbonation, the sourness or frankly the soul associated with Saisons. Its greatest draw was its colour. If it had called itself simply “Spring Ale” which is also on its label, it would’ve made more sense.
St Feuillen’s Saison comes second. It was a delight to the senses too and proves that the style doesn’t suffer any ill effects from the canning process either. It reminded me of the tastes and smells (the pleasant ones) of the farm.
The medal goes to Buxton Brewery with their New World Saison. The only problem is it wasn’t around for long being (appropriately enough) a seasonal as is its counterpart Old World Saison, but I don’t know whether it’ll be brewed again. It proves that new world hops can really compliment a Saison provided you don’t let them take over. It retained its lightness and carbonation and delivered much of its character on the aroma. At 6.3 ABV just be careful swinging that scythe, though.

We love golden harvests, smocks, rosy-cheeked peasants and all things bucolic and wholesome – especially when it’s from a completely imagined past. Whether or not Saison started as a low alcohol summer slaker for farm labourers, or whether there have always been heavier Saisons isn’t certain; something pondered by Michael Jackson in his Great Beers of Belgium. When it was first published in 1991, the author actually had to hunt Saisons down within Belgium. He was partly responsible for making it popular in America, and Britain was in turn influenced by that vogue in the USA. 
Let’s raise a toast to Michael for bringing it to all of us!

Other world beer vertical tastings:

Tea-infused Beers
Strong Black IPAs

Discomfort Zone: Argy Bargy Black Barley Wine

Argy Bargy Black Barley Wine – bottle conditioned 10.4 ABV

Argy Bargy is the lovechild of three breweries but just because this love making involves a trio, does it make the sex any good or are there too many limbs, a lack of co-ordination and nobody’s sure who goes first? Arbor Ales got together with Steel City Brewing and Hopcraft for this fit of passion.

The liquid is impenetrable to the light – opaque, glossy, inky. The self-effacing milky oil of a head is a thin garnish. The more generous head in the photo was departing as I took it.

The aroma is of spirits, black chocolate and liquorice. There’s also neat alcohol lurking with menace and the abandon of subtlety. It verges on unscrewing a bottle of white spirits.

I taste it. It has a milky mouthfeel with a whisky edge and tingles on the roof of the mouth with a spoonful of dark freeze dried coffee. It’s hard to get past the aggression of the aroma – it blots everything else out impairing the sensory process. It leaves the mouth desiccated with a suggestion of nutmeg – something I usually find sickly. I often write about beers belying their strengths but this doesn’t. It’s as heavy as you’d fear it to be. The problem with the spiritous wall is that it blocks everything else. It is however, a new beer for me.

The beer this reminds me of most, bizarrely, lies at the other end of the scale. It’s also often black and I find usually without much depth – a mild. If you were to give a mild steroids and four hours to live, it might taste like this.

It’s hard to describe a beer that teases the place where the senses intersect so you can’t say that it smells or tastes like something in particular. This could be brought about by alcoholic vapours but I’ve had similar chimeric sensations with deep nitrogen injection into beer and with things like Goses. You resort to memories of sucking on rags, salting food, entering a cupboard where a fuse has blown or sensing a metal work shop. What is it? Petroleum? Heated lubricant? Burnt ozone?

Black IPAs aren’t loved by all but they are by me. Some people find the mix of flavour profiles too turgid, others of a sensitive semantic disposition just hate the oxymoronic title. Whether you love them or hate them, you get a balance of sorts – the hoarse scorched malt or coffee at one end, and the parry and cut of sharp hop notes at the other. A black barley wine on the other hand, is more like hitting a cloud bank.

Lasting impression: An echo like the sonorous clang from metal striking metal. Has this been conjured up by an unconscious linking of petroleum jelly?

I’ve looked at other reviews online and it seems mine holds more doubt and negativity which is why people should disagree with me.

The problem beers like this have on the drinker is that you become 90% sure that you don’t like it but it’s the agitated 10% that keeps pestering you to pucker your lips back around the glass. It’s beguiling. It’s always the beers I’m not sure I like or not that do this. I’m not sure whether I don’t like it or whether I’m unaccustomed to it. Any thoughts out there?

For more discomfort, see:

Around the World in Bermondsey

It’s a bizarre phenomenon. Bermondsey and its infamous mile is now a part of the everyday in the tight Neighbourhood Watch close that is the beer community. Although it’s now familiar as are many of the fellow pilgrims I see on it, it hasn’t habitualised itself to me yet. When I tread it – especially the Eastern reaches – it’s still surreal and magical. You cast out away from the pubs & bright lights into the industrial veins of the capital and around the back of a branch of Screwfix in a business park. 

I think the reason there is optimism and wonder is because it smacks of new vitality where there was previously decline and neglect. Also, the breweries/tap rooms are flourishing in crevices that would’ve seemed inhospitable before – a case of life overcoming the odds.

Much has been written about the breweries and the event itself. In this post, I want each beer to act as a shortcut into the land or style that inspired it or else to throw light on something connected. I want to show Bermondsey as a microcosm of the brewing world.

Last Saturday, for the first time this year, I decided to strike out to Fourpure at the easternmost end. The sun came out and we were caressed with the first real warmth of the year – something that definitely influenced my decision to hike the full distance. This weather called for something continental, cool and golden – a 2/3 pint glass of photogenic Pilsner. Fourpure’s pilsner (4.7 %) is a clear glowing vanilla with a delicate body. It’s well carbonated, lemony and dry – the dryness increases down the glass. 

The word Pilsner is derived from the German spelling of the town of Plzeň in the Czech Republic. The town is also famous for the original manufacture of Škoda automobiles founded by Emil Škoda. Coincidentally, that name is both a surname and the Czech word for “shame”. 

There has been much myth-making about the traditions associated with the most famous Pilsner – Pilsner Urquell. Ur-quelle means original source. It’s often cited as the first golden lager but how accurate is that claim? Here Des De Moor shows why he’s one of the U.K’s most celebrated beer writers.
I leave Fourpure and head back towards the sounds of Mill Wall fans arming for war along Bermondsey’s high streets. The next stop is the Eebria Tap Room tucked down Almond Road and I find that all the taps are by another South London brewery – Orbit Beers. The outfit from Kennington – just three minutes away as the pigeon flies – has currently taken over this arch. 

Orbit Beers started out by concentrating on mainly European beer styles and I opt for a third of their Rauch Alt Nico – a 6.2% dark smoked Alt Bier. It’s dark amber with charred red meat on the palate. The body’s of a liquid malt consistency. The beer’s sticky on the lips.

There is a lot of debate over Germany’s purity laws – the Reinheitsgebot. Does it represent an institution that guarantees consistency and quality or is it a dogma that restricts innovation and experimentation. It’s both, but what I wasn’t aware of is that it never covered all of Germany. Here’s a fantastic blog piece by Daft Eejit Brewing:

I’ve so far had three thirds – that’s a full British pint of European beer brewed in Bermondsey and am now walking the two hundred feet that will take me to Belgium. This is the everyday oddness I love.

In the cupboard-like arch of Partizan Brewing, I opt for half a pint of a raspberry and lemon Saison. This 3.8 % Saison is blushing pink with a fluffy candy floss head. It’s both sweet and tart – the lemon gives its wince, the raspberries their juices. It’s completely opaque and has a mineral water carbonation. The taste reminds me a bit of rolls of love hearts sweets.

The beer style (usually unfruited) isn’t just a native of Belgium but hails from across its French border too in places like Nord Pas de Calais. Beer styles aren’t the only things France and Belgium have in common, and seeing as the beer is bright pink, I’ve chosen to shine a light on the surrealist movement.

I leave both Almond Road and continental Europe to make my way straight past Britain to our ancient cousin Eire. I want a beer that contrasts completely to the pink Saison. I want something black, full roasted and dry so a dry Irish stout fits the bill at Brew By Numbers on Enid Street.

The sun’s still out as I sit on a pallet and my mind wonders about the style. The things I can’t get out of my head are recollections of Dave Allen talking about how the Irish treat death. My mind then moves onto Guinness and how it used to be the default beer for many drinkers who would otherwise have gone for cask. I was definitely one of them but aren’t now.

A post by beer blogger Stonch last year demonstrated how much of a raw nerve Guinness still is – I’ve linked to this post for Stonch’s original text but also for the floodgates bursting open in the comments section.

And so to Anspach & Hobday – an innovative brewery even in the context of the Bermondsey Mile. I scan the beers on and choose firstly to be transported to the American/Canadian border with a cream ale and then return home to London and the Thames with their porter.

Cream ale is brewed with both a lager yeast and an ale yeast (though not simultaneously). It often includes sweetcorn in the mash as well as rice – this one just sticks with sweetcorn. You can taste the juices of the sumptuous yellow grain/vegetable/fruit like you were eating it off a cob. It’s another beer that should become more appealing as the summer heats up. 

Prohibition forced brewing out of America last century so beer was smuggled across the Canadian border. How do you suppose two countries with such a shared history and culture decided where the border went? Rivers? Mountain ranges? Other obvious geographical features? Instead it looks like it was a case of British colonial straight line syndrome. Enjoy.

It’s fitting I end on a beer that for me symbolises London. Some of the best examples of the style are brewed right here in Bermondsey. Porter, the ancestor of the dry Irish stout and many others has come back to claim the capital and here, close to Rotherhithe docks, it really feels like it’s come back home. It’s fully roasted, full-bodied, rich and all the other adjectives that mandatorily go with porter. Ansbach & Hobday’s just happens to be better than most. 

One widely believed derivation of the name of this style is that it was the labourers’ – the porters’ staple drink. As a way of celebrating them and to for a link to maritime London and the past coming back to life, I present to you Jack Dash. He was an unofficial union leader and ex-porter and docker who rocked the political world 45 years ago. This footage is totally biased in his favour but regardless of the stripe of your politics, this man (whose name sounds like a super hero’s too) will make you want to jump up out of your seat and salute. Jack Dash – a true demigod and demagogue.
Look out for a couple of the songs sung by the elderly with a glint in their eye – “there ain’t no beer in ‘eaven – I ain’t goin’ up there” and “show me your yoyo tonight” proving London’s old age pensioners have always been partial to a bit of smut.

Pyretic Pokers in Porter and Black Breakfast Braggots

I recently took my father out to The Harp near Covent Garden. Over a pint of Twickenham Dark Mild, he related a memory he had from Essex in the 1960s: He had lived in Tolleshunt D’Arcy where there was a pub called The Thatchers Arms run by Elsie & Sid (originally from the east end of London). The beer at the time was Truman’s Bitter and in the colder months the locals would heat a poker in the fire until it glowed red. They’d then plunge it into their pints of bitter whereupon the ale would broil.

A couple of days later I was looking through my Twitter feed and came across the following:

SirenCraftBrew @SirenCraftBrew Mar 30

One of the specials on show @pubcathope Friday is this brand new, pilot batch Breakfast Braggot. Stout meets Mead


For some reason, I’ve put both the account of ales being heated by pokers and the launch of one of the most innovative beer hybrids into the same mental folder. It was a subconscious act but it has to do with the nature of staples, pleasure and technology, but above all culture. The two phenomena are just snapshots from a long evolution of beer and communal drinking – whether that community be in the flesh in The Thatchers Arms or on a social medium (if social media is ever singularised). Let me tease these things apart.

We’ll start from the beery beginnings in this country: Gruit was one of the alcoholic drinks of the British Isles and was the original cocktail. It was a time before yeast had been isolated, where fermentation occurred with fingers firmly crossed and the plants that went into it may have changed from village to village and family to family. It was a time before we’d adopted the preservative and clarifying benefits of hops. Ground ivy would’ve gone in instead or mugwort, yarrow, nettles, sweet gale, horehound, heather or kelp. It would often have been flavoured with the fruits of the hedgerow too. This proto-beer would almost certainly have been cloudy and possibly quite soupy.

Fast forward to the 19th century where buildings had been built with malting floors, hops had been trained into bines, the water had been Burtonised and the yeast isolated into powder form. The temperature could be accurately read and controlled, the boil accurately timed and the alcohol content calculated beforehand and confirmed afterwards. Weights and measures were hotly scrutinised by the government.

Zoom ahead to the 21st century where, apart from cleaning out the spent hops & malt, all the brewery functions can be controlled by computer. Inspiration or competition doesn’t come primarily from the closest brewery but via the internet. A new brew from a small producer in Colorado has motivated you to try and import a new hop variety, mix it with a Scandinavian yeast culture and roast it over peat to up the ante. You’ll be reading and watching reviews of your beer from across the world.

I’ve been told another recollection from a work colleague from east London who recalls the same red hot poker treatment but with pints of porter instead of bitter. He reckons the practice in central London died out because of The Clean Air Act which was applied in 1958 and in effect up until 1964. The act prevented a lot of inner London pubs from putting a fire in the hearth or persuaded them to move onto gas or electricity. In St Albans, every publican and punter I’ve asked over a certain age confirms the practice so it was common at least in the London-centric parts of East Anglia. There is also evidence of folk adding pinches of ginger to heat it.

CGI has become so advanced these days it’s impossible to tell what’s real anymore

I currently work for a central London council and can vouch for the fact I’ve never seen a working fireplace in any dwelling – be it an affluent Mayfair apartment or a one bedroom council flat in Kilburn. The closest I’ve seen them in is zone 2 – some of the pubs in Hampstead.

Has the poker trick reminded me of little fancy gimmicks of culture – shamrocks traced into the heads of pints of Guinness, cider thrown over chunks of ice, the lemon wedge added to bottles of Corona or even the lumps of butter that are now being dropped into cups of coffee? If the reason was to stay warm during the colder months and spirits were outside your budget, wouldn’t a cup of tea have worked better? Why weren’t the pubs just mulling cider or beer with spices and fruit? Maybe it wasn’t a thing then – just not the culture.

Siren created Uncle Zester – a sour citrus braggot I reviewed just before the new year. It was outside my comfort zone and instead of reining things in, Siren has cranked up the juice to bring an even freakier monster to life by crossing the mead with a stout. I get excited when a new beer tries to stare me down. I want the chance to try and pin its shoulders to the deck. But this is a new emerging culture of experimentation; we’re seeing a beer not as refreshment or even sustenance, but as a challenge. Nobody would stick a red hot poker into the stout braggot because it isn’t a staple but an education.

I read the tweet about the black breakfast braggot whilst in the Cask and Kitchen in Pimlico – notorious for its informed selection and the first of the Craft Beer Co pubs. I showed the tweet to the folks behind the bar like it was a Top Trumps card to beat the gamut of exotic offerings they already had on tap. Whether or not I like Siren’s new offering, I desperately want to try it.

The items are footnotes in the long history of beer, the making of which changes as do the cultures that appear in its wake. I see these events like neat little dioramas of which there are hundreds – little figures in smocks stand around an oak tun in one whilst tiny LED lights light up the edge of a poker in another booth. A phone screen illuminates faces of tiny models behind a bar in another – that last one’s me in The Cask & Kitchen bemusing the staff.

The future is just the present but more so. Based on this trope, a few observations: 

Breweries like Siren (others include Buxton, Beavertown, Anspach & Hobday, Weird Beard, Magic Rock) are actively cross-breeding styles. There is logic to this – beer is generally four ingredient groups that can be mixed into a finite combination. Why not reach out beyond this quad to blend with mead, cider, spirits, tea, coffee and wine.

This is where it gets schizoid because simultaneously, we focus increasingly on each ingredient in the beer over the sum of its parts. As a drinking public, we’re more aware of what effect each ingredient actually has on the beer. There are definite splitters – people that seek out a beer based on the hops or yeast and currently, that seems to also be a trend. 

Yeast and hops seem to be leaving the beer and taking on their own identity. Some hopheads’ thirst for lupuloids makes it seem like the beer’s actually holding it back. Sure you can make a hop tisane, but it’s still trapped in a liquid. Some yeasters just want the tombstone crepitus of Brett. Similar cracks might appear between the malt and water too. 

What if individual ingredients could be set free? As a simple step from breweries showcasing single hop varietal beers, will we at some point start dividing beer up like Michelin starred restaurants deconstructing dishes into their composite parts?

Here is the cell in my parting diorama – little figures in a see-through pub with a retro hanging sign.

Ye Olde Smartephone & Appe is a traditional pub with an original 2060s aerogel bar. On Thursday in the activity zone, there’s the classic workout for old age pensioners – Wrecking Ball by Miley Cyrus is beamed from an antique flat screen with suspended balls and foam mallets. Clothing is optional. On the perspex wall behind the bar is a red flag with tassels bearing the acronym SPBNK – The Society for the Preservation of Beers from Nitro Keg. 

In the chiller stand bottles of Snatch – sparkling Burtonised water. At a neoprene table sits a yeaster; he chomps on a heavily leavened Brett bap which he dips into hop oil. In the Snug, a woman gets stuck in to a bowl of Marris Otter & rye porridge and in the vaping section a man tokes away. Eyes closed, he’s lost in blissful abandon as he blows a Cascade & Amarillo smoke ring. 

Ye Olde Smartphone & Appe is an old boys’ flat cap pub – it’s full of ageing hipsters. They disapprove of the new fashion rapidly taking the world of brewing by storm and it’s being installed here on a glowing crystallised fount – a brand rated across the globe by the younger generation of beer geeks – Watney’s Red Barrel.