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Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing: Howling Hops Oatmeal Pale Ale (3.5% ABV)

“3.5%” on a bottle label can be a depressing thing for the drinker to see.  If I know nothing else about a beer other than the ABV, if I see 3.5% I assume I’m in for something lacking in excitement.  A mild.  The most boring of brown bitters.  A thin stout.  Even where “New World hops” are advertised, you wonder if they wouldn’t rather be starring in something better, like a respected actor taking roles in artless films to pay a tax debt.

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There’s a small number of good examples of New World-hopped low ABV beers, but most are primarily cask beers and don’t carry over well to bottles, if they even try.  In particular they feel thin and dry, which can be fine, but not if you have a taste for big oily, sticky American IPAs. I’ve yet to try a passable 2.8% pale ale.

But sometimes you need something tasty in a bottle which will not challenge your sobriety.  For that I recommend Howling Hops Oatmeal Pale Ale.  I know, it sounds awful:  3.5% porridge pale.  An albino oatmeal stout.  From Hackney, no less.  But instead, what you get is a crisp citrus-hopped beer with a remarkable amount of body, and if you didn’t know better you might place it somewhere north of 5.5%.

I assume it’s down to the oatmeal.  If it is, perhaps oatmeal is the magic bullet for low ABV pale ales.  If it isn’t – and remember that I know less about the science of brewing than most people reading this – forget all of the above.  It’s still a really good little beer.

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One Scotch Egg, One Bourbon, One Beer: The Craft Egg Revolution

October 19, 2011 5 comments

I’ve been messing about a bit on Twitter recently regarding my increasing appreciation of Scotch Eggs.  Joking aside though, they’re a pretty superb bar snack: they can be bought in fresh from a good local supplier, kept in a fridge and sold to hungry customers with the minimum of serving time and presentation, but the maximum of stomach-filling proteiny goodness.  This is why I write the name with two capital letters: out of respect.

Bascially if you can serve cold pies in your pub, you can serve Scotch Eggs.  And frankly if you can serve pies and Scotch Eggs to drinkers, there’s pretty much a moral duty to do so.   This has been picked up on by a number of the new wave of craft beer bars, including Craft Beer Co and The Gunmakers in London and the Hawkshead Beer Hall in Staveley.

When I tweeted about this at the weekend, @CarsmileSteve informed me of the remarkable range of Scotches available at Sourced Market in St Pancras Station, alongside their range of Kernel and other great beers (which they refuse to put in the fridges, instead reserving that space for several varieties of uninteresting lager.  Who wants to drink a shelf-warm IPA?).  When I was down in London this week I took the opportunity to pop in and buy a couple of “Black Watch” eggs, made with black pudding; which must be the Black IPA of the Scotch Egg world.

I love black pudding, to the extent that it’s a starter at our wedding.  I love Scotch Eggs, to the extent that we’re going to Scotchland for our honeymoon.  I am therefore pretty much ecstatic with the tasty starter I had yesterday evening: warm black pudding Scotch Eggs with homemade picalilli and a bottle of Hawkshead Brodie’s Prime.  The Scotch Eggs at the Hawkshead Beer Hall are made with Brodie’s Prime, but a glass of it was an even better pairing with these: the dark roasty beer and sharp hoppiness both matched and cut through the earthy, savoury, fatty black pudding.

I considered for a fleeting moment changing the name of this blog to “The Scotch Egg Prole” and becoming number one on the Wikio Scotch Egg Blog Rankings, but  @unclewilco pointed me towards Forever Eggsploring, a truly remarkable and comprehensive study of the Scotch Egg that transcends the term “Scotch Egg Blog”.  It even has interviews on the subject with such celebrities as Dom Joly, Tom Kerridge and our own Dame Melissa Cole.

Not coincidentally, it appears that Craft Beer Co and Sourced Market get their classy Scotch Eggs from the same supplier: The Handmade Scotch Egg Company Limited.  Have you seen their selection? Chilli Scotch Eggs; Ginger & Apricot Scotch Eggs; Scotch Whisky Eggs; Scotch Eggs rolled in crisps…

You should really be able to find a Scotch Egg fit for any beer there, from barrel-aged imperial stouts to double IPAs, with some (vegetarian? smoked salmon?) stretching the bounds of the genre. Is this the start of a craft bar snack revolution?

For further beer and Scotch Egg related larks see this post by Mark Dredge.

Station To Station: The Booking Office, St Pancras Renaissance Hotel

July 20, 2011 5 comments

If you ever go to New York I recommend having a Prohibition Punch (as modelled by Kate, below) at The Campbell Apartment in Grand Central Station. The apartment, previously the luxurious private office of John Campbell, a jazz age financier and railway tycoon, was reopened as a bar in 1999 with a suitable cocktail menu.

Our previous trip to the Campbell Apartment was one of the reasons I wanted to visit the new Booking Office bar at St Pancras. The recently-opened Renaissance St Pancras Hotel occupies part of the huge and ornate Midland Grand Hotel (1873-1935) as designed by Sir Gilbert Scott, after whom the new fine dining restaurant headed by Marcus Wareing is named.  A lot of thought has gone into recreating the glamorous history of the building, from the décor to the historic recipes in the restaurant.

The Booking Office bar, which was the old ticket office, stands between the hotel lobby and the first floor platforms from which the Eurostars run to Paris, beside Carluccio’s and The Betjeman Arms. The room itself has a hugely high ceiling. On what was a very warm summer’s day it was a nice, cool place to relax before the train back to Leeds.

We ordered a couple of cold beers to start with and had a good light lunch: a chicken and avocado sandwich for myself and salmon fishcakes for Kate. They had a number of Meantime beers on keg including their very pleasant London Pale Ale. The beer came in pewter tankards, which was a first for me. I’m not entirely sure if it added or detracted from the beer, but it definitely looked good and kept the lovely crisp pale ale cold and refreshing. 

In common with the recipes used in The Gilbert Scott, the drinks menu in The Booking Office is intended to hark back to the era of the original Midland Grand. The beers may ruin this theme slightly by being on keg rather than cask, but they are of good quality (Meantime, Harviestoun). Meantime attempts to replicate old beer styles so the method of dispense perhaps shouldn’t matter quite so much.

However where the focus lies is the cocktail and punch menu. I had a Billy Dawson Punch Rocks, a nicely boozy punch which came in a small copper mug with fruit floating in it. Kate had a nice lemony concoction made with egg white, the name of which escapes me.

Of course the bill was a bit steep, but The Booking Office is a very special place to sit for a while, soaking up a little bit of glamour and a nice punch. As railway waiting rooms go, it definitely beats the first class lounge in Kings Cross.

Zythogeography: The Jerusalem Tavern and The Gunmakers, Clerkenwell

June 10, 2011 8 comments

There’s a great feeling of history to certain parts of London, much of it lumped together incongruously. Smithfield is a good example: the hygenic but necessarily gory work of butchers and poulterers in the covered market goes on as it has on the site for 1,000 years, just beside the nightclub Fabric; the site of the Carthusian monastry on Charterhouse Square; the 900 year old but extant St Bart’s Hospital; and the sprawling ’60s brutalist Barbican complex.

I decided to walk back from the City to Kings Cross after a meeting this week, taking in a bit of London on a warm June evening. I walked through Smithfield’s Grand Avenue when the stalls were very much closed (Smithfield is a hive of refrigerated lorries full of carcasses and traders trading in the very early hours) and up into the area where everything from the Michelin-starred restaurant, to the street names, to the presence of a striking museum shows the name of St John, because of the Priory of St John of Jerusalem founded here by the Knights Hospitallers in Clerkenwell in the 12th century.

Another remnant of the monastic order is the name of the Jerusalem Tavern on Britton Street, a pub which, as Martyn Cornell explains in the post that inspired me to visit, only dates back to 1996 but recalls the St John of Jerusalem Tavern on a site around the corner. The building however is much older than the pub (c.1720), and is decorated with a pleasant wooden austerity, with Hogarth prints on the wall (Beer Street and Gin Lane included, of course). Oh, and a stuffed fox.

It’s run by St Peter’s Brewery from Suffolk, who I generally think of as having nice bottles but unmemorable beers. However I did enjoy an Old Style Porter from the attractive cask-themed tap on the back bar. It had a surprisingly dry hoppy freshness paired with a cocoa powder sweetness.

Moving on, I wandered North West through Clerkenwell to find The Gunmakers on Eyre St Hill. I don’t know if The Gunmakers is a historic pub, or has any links to The Worshipful Company of Gunmakers, one of 108 livery companies that you see referred to in names and buildings (such as Plaisterers Hall) across the City of London: the various Worshipful Companies of Butchers; Poulters; Vintners; Brewers; Apothecaries etc.

The landlord of the Gunmakers is Jeff Bell, aka ex-beer blogger Stonch. It was a bright, airy pub inside on this summer teatime, with a selection of four beers on the handpumps, including Purity Mad Goose. I was obviously struggling to decide at the bar and was offered a taster if I liked. I tried Ascot Ales Gold Cup, and liked it enough to order it and a homemade Scotch egg.

The Gold Cup was in great condition and had a nice light red apple and orange flavour to the bitterness that made it a good pairing with the Scotch egg and English mustard. I decided that I really liked the Gunmakers, which seemed to have a good, welcoming and chatty atmosphere, just the place to relax for a while with a crossword or chat with friends over a few pints of a nice pale ale. The full menu looked appealing too.

With just a single pint of beer in me, I had to get back to Leeds, so wandered up towards Kings Cross. I found out that I’d been lucky in deciding to walk it and explore a bit of London, as those who had rushed to get back had been caught up in the delays caused by a lineside fire in Doncaster. Fortune favours the leisurely.

Nose To Tail Drinking: St John Bar & Restaurant, Smithfield, City of London

April 14, 2011 5 comments

Some time ago there was a debate on the blogs about restaurants and beer. I was generally in agreement with James from BrewDog and Neil from Eating Isn’t Cheating that it was odd that otherwise excellent restaurants, who take such care over their menus and wine lists, seem to regard beer as an afterthought at best and at worst an annoyance.

Whereas I would accept that most restaurants might face difficulties getting through a cask of real ale in a reasonable time, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have a good stock of bottled beers and perhaps replace the dull macrolager they have on keg with a more interesting craft equivalent.

I was very pleased to note that on a recent visit to St John Bar & Restaurant at Smithfield that there were some great beers on offer. I’d previously been to St John Bread & Wine at Spitalfields and the only beer available was Meantime Pilsner.

However I had been impressed that, even though the selection was limited, they’d gone for a local beer from an interesting brewery rather than the Peroni that almost every restaurant seems to think is the best they can do these days.  The Pilsner also went very nicely with the simple quail and quince starter and truly wonderful chicken and ham pie I enjoyed that Friday evening.

The beers available at St John Smithfield on this occasion included a few Meantime ones on keg: London Pale Ale; Wheat Beer; Helles and Union. There were also cask beers available: Black Sheep and Hyde’s (although which Hyde’s beer wasn’t clear from the blackboard pumpclip). I had a refreshing London Pale Ale followed by the Union, which was a nice, slightly smoky version of a Vienna-style lager. The bar staff also seemed to know what they were talking about, which was good.

Sitting in the bar rather than the restaurant we were able to enjoy Michelin-starred food to go with the beers. I should perhaps explain that St John’s founder Fergus Henderson is famously the leading light of “nose to tail eating” (also the name of his book), encouraging the creative use of offal/”fifth quarter” cuts that have passed out of use in these squeamish times.  I had the signature bone marrow salad (which came in the bone with a silver pokey-scoopy device with a kind of forked-tongue shaped end) followed by a snail, spicy sausage and chickpea stew and then some madelines.

The bone marrow was a little bit disappointing: a little bit oily and fatty in texture (in a not unpleasant way) but quite bland in taste.  It was an experience nonetheless.  The snail and sausage stew, however, was really very nice and I’ve been a fan of their madelines since going to their restaurant in Spitalfields.

I would definitely recommend a trip to St John, especially because the bar menu is very reasonably priced, as you can see from the sample menu.  Six dishes and five or six very good pints of beer came to £64.  However, I would recommend you take a friend or partner with a sense of adventure regarding food (as well as good taste in beer and/or wine) to make the most of it.

Uncommon Market: The Rake and Brew Wharf, Borough Market, Southwark

March 19, 2011 4 comments

A trip to London for work means an early start, a lot of train time and usually a fairly hectic day (or couple of days) of work when I get there, and a late finish. However every cloud has a head on it, so I decided to use the opportunity to explore the beery delights of Borough Market, which was less than a mile’s walk from my hotel near St Paul’s.

After a picturesque walk across the Millennium Footbridge that runs between St Paul’s and the Tate Modern, I followed the South bank of the Thames to London Bridge. The first place I came to that was on my list was Brew Wharf, a large, spacious, minimalist modern bar under railway arches.

It was quite busy, so I took my half of their own 1 Hundred IPA and went to stand outside. It was a malty, US-style strong (6.3% or thereabouts?) IPA, but on cask. It was quite amber and malty in the way a lot of US IPAs are, and had a nice piney, furniture polish bitterness. It was a very tasty beer indeed, but… Sacrilegious as it was to think, on this of all days (being the 40th anniversary of CAMRA) it probably would have been slightly better on keg.

I then wandered around slightly lost in an enjoyable kind of way, in the shadow of the half-built Blade-Runneresque Shard that now overlooks the street food vendors of Borough.  I popped my head into The Market Porter, a pretty, large, traditional pub with a wide selection of cask ales, but it was also a bit full for a solitary visit.  After a while I finally found The Rake, which must actually only be about 20 metres from Brew Wharf.

The tiny and neat bar had a wealth of incredible bottles, as well as two Sierra Nevadas (Bigfoot and Celebration) on keg and a few cask ales. However, I’d come here for the Kernel. I bought a bottle of Kernel Citra IPA to drink and another to take home, along with a Kernel Export Stout, a Kernel Black IPA and a can of Caldera Ashland Amber Ale, also for the bag.

I went out to the beer garden at the side (which probably more than doubles the size of the tiny pub) and sat down on a bench to enjoy what turned out to be a wonderful beer. On the Twissup people had mentioned how amazingly fresh Kernel beers taste, and on the evidence of this first one, they weren’t wrong. It was a truly lovely, refreshing, bittersweet beer, like the cool morning dew on a mango tree.

I went back to the bar for a De Molen Hel & Verdoemenis (“Hell & Damnation”), which was my first De Molen beer. The closest I’d come to De Molen before was Marble’s take on Vuur & Vlaam. Hel & Verdoemenis was a very nice imperial stout with all the warm, dark, roasted coffee flavours that lend themselves to contented contemplation. However, it was also very drinkable relative to its strength, which is well over 10%, and it probably went down a little quicker than intended.

I had sat down next to a table of gents talking in an informed way about beer and ended up being brought into the conversation. It turned out that I was sitting next the owners of The Rake and Utobeer (Richard and Mike), Nigel from the drinks importers James Clay & Sons and Gildas from Chimay’s export team. They were all very friendly and happy to talk about beer, the legend that is Jeff Pickthall, the Lake District, the interelationship between monasticism and clericalism etc. You know, the usual. I must remember that I owe Nigel a drink if I see him again.

As it was getting late and I was getting tipsy, I decided to head back to Brew Wharf, which had calmed down a bit. I sat at one of the long tables and enjoyed a plate of sausage and mash and another Kernel bottle, this time the Pale Ale South. This was another very, very nice beer, not quite as mindblowing as the Citra but with the same wonderful freshness.

I’d had a fantastic evening and enjoyed some great beer. I was only sad that Kate wasn’t here to enjoy it with me, but at the very least that gave me an excuse to come back soon with her.

As I walked back, my heavy bag clinking with local beers on my back and the huge, baroque dome of St Paul’s dome shrouded in mist looming over the river, I thought that London wouldn’t be such a bad place to live. But perhaps I wouldn’t appreciate it as much if I did.

This Is Euston Tap

February 15, 2011 3 comments

An early finish following a day of work in London and a pre-booked railway ticket left myself and a colleague at something of a loose end. Fortunately I had a plan B, and it involved The Euston Tap, the relatively new, tiny craft beer bar at the front of Euston station from the people who brought us The Sheffield Tap and Pivni in York.

From Euston Square I dragged my reluctant colleague through the pouring rain to the porterhouse stone building at the front of Euston proper. Unimpressed as he was by the almost entirely male clientele, even he was forced to admit how great the little bar looked, with the big copper-coloured back bar with American taps and peculiar, CAMRA-baiting unpumpable hand pumps. With little room or no room to sit downstairs, we shared a minor grumble over the lack of coat-hooks under the bar.

On each side of the bar there were fridges of European (on one side) and American (on the other) bottles. “Not cheap”, my colleague noted, and his Northern intuition was in this case correct: these are fancy imported beers with prices to whiten the hair of casual drinkers. He balked at a £20 bottle of Mikkeller, and double-balked at a £43 bottle.

The excellent selection of casks ale was much more reasonably priced, especially for That London, so I recommended a couple of pints of Marble’s Driscoll’s End. Impressed with this, a really robust, hoppy cask ale, we moved onto two keg beers, an O’Dell 5 Barrel Pale Ale and a Matuska Raptor, a Czech IPA.  After starting with a pretty severely hoppy beer (again), it took me a while to appreciate the finer nuances of the Raptor.  An earthy, lavender taste melted into a solid bitterness in the aftertaste.

My colleague went to meet a friend, leaving me to try Sierra Nevada Celebration on keg, which had a oddly cold, flat mouthfeel.  However it did have a nice solid malty, astringent bitterness.  Next was  Thornbridge Brock on cask, which was dark, with a creamy mouthfeel and smoky, bready flavour.  I then had a half of BrewDog Alpha Dog, which, after the pounding my tastebuds had already taken, came across initally a bit like a boring brown beer with barely any aroma, but did have a very nice finish.

Just like in the Sheffield Tap, it’s very easy to go a little bit mad in the Euston Tap, but I did manage to drag myself away with only a couple of bottles of Stone Oaked Arrogant Bastard and a bottle of Lupulus (by, erm… some Belgians, I think), after a slightly confused (on my part) conversation with the helpful barman.  I happily and purposefully strode out through the rain back to King’s Cross for the train north.

As it turned out, the entire train network had collapsed in a gibbering heap that evening, so I ended up drinking one of the Oaked Arrogant Bastards accompanied by a Tunnocks Caramel Teacake, which was the only thing I could afford from a vending machine whilst stranded for a time in Doncaster station.  They went pretty well together actually.  It certainly beat the usual can of John Smiths Smoothflow on the East Coast service.

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