Monday 26 March 2012

The Beer House, Charing Cross

Having heard about this via the London City of Beer project, I dropped by there last week, along with two Danish friends who were in town. The first challenge was finding the place – it has quite a small frontage inside the railway station next to the ticket gates, and while its windows are full of interesting-looking bottles, they make it look more like a shop.

Formerly the Boadicea, it's an odd space inside, nicely done up and comfy enough, but windowless – that frontage is actually a fake – and it still has that transient feel you get from station pubs. Add over-loud music and the fact that the bar also seems to be the entrance-way to various station back-offices and storerooms, and it doesn't encourage one to linger.

On top of that, while the beer's not bad, there is no real ale and quite a bit of the keg beer is not really craft. The place's operator, a company called SSP which calls itself a "food-travel operator", touts it as craft-beer focused, but on the bar are Heineken, Krombacher (Pils and Dark), Moretti and Amstel. I have some bad news for SSP's marketeers: "Foreign" does NOT equal "craft".

The rest of the keg range includes Vedett, the inevitable solitary kriek for the fruit beer fans (Liefmanns, in this case), Aspalls cider, Innis & Gunn Original, and two from Meantime – the London Pale and a seasonal, which was Dunkel Weizen when we visited.

All but a couple of the 15 keg beers look to be regular, the other one that may change being the single US tap, which was Brooklyn Lager last week, although the blackboard said it would be Anchor Steam. Flights of three thirds are a fiver (pints are £4.50 and upwards!), and one or two of those would probably sate your curiosity.

The bottled range is a bit more interesting, including a decent range of US ales and lagers plus unusual examples from places such as Sweden, Vietnam, Iceland and Cuba. All are pricey however – some are almost £6 for only 33cl. Also on offer is pub fare such as pies and cheese plates, the hot food is microwaved from frozen and of variable quality.

All in all, it comes over as an attempt at doing a low-maintenance version of the Draft House or Craft Beer Co, but a lazily-developed and band-wagon-jumping one which misses the point – where are the seasonals and oddities? Where is the fun factor to mitigate the high prices? To be fair though, it has only been open a few months and may yet develop and improve. For now, it might be worth a try as a stop on a crawl – or if you’re waiting for a train...

PS. If you have one of SSP's Bite discount cards, you can use it at the Beer House to get 20% off both food and drink - or you could when last I tried. It means the three-thirds flights are £4 which isn't too bad for central London.

Beer bus ahoy!

The mission: travel to Hammerpot Brewery in Sussex, drink lots of their beer (as a quality check, naturally) and award them the certificate for Beer of the Festival at last October's Twickenham Beer Festival. Then travel home via sundry pubs, doing more ale quality checks on the way. Yes, it really was that simple, and yes, it was a great day out...

Well, I say simple – the hardest thing was staying on schedule, as the first few places we went we could cheerfully have stayed longer. On arrival at Hammerpot, a five-barrel brewery in an industrial unit that's basically a giant, heavy-duty polytunnel, we were welcomed by head brewer and proprietor Lee, his assistant Tom, a firkin of Hammerpot Pale Ale, and a pin of Bottle Wreck Porter – the afore-mentioned prize-winning ale. Indeed, since it won our award it has gone on to win an even more prestigious one: the gold medal for Porters at CAMRA's 2012 National Winter Ales Festival.

Chatting to Lee was great fun – as well as being an excellent brewer he is also a good salesman. As a result, not only was our bus laden down with purchases of bottled beers, but he also shifted a fair quantity of Bottle Wreck Porter Marmalade and Bottle Wreck Porter Mustard! A tour of the brewery also reminded us what's possible on a relatively tight budget – vessels repurposed from other processes, the original 2.5 barrel fermenter turned into a cleaning tank once the five barrel kit came in, and so on.

Lee mentioned that he is also doing more specials and seasonals now. I see that the Magpie & Crown has Hammerpot Oyster Pond Stout on this week, which I've never seen before, and in the brewery we spotted pumpclips for Choc Wreck Porter – this has only just gone out in cask, and I have no idea where or when it will be available!

Sadly, the brewery is only licensed to 1pm on Saturdays, so it was back on the bus all too soon and off to the fleshpots of nearby Chichester for an hour and a half of beer hunting. We started on the outskirts with the Four Chesnuts (sic), a lovely little pub which seems to specialise in mild – Ballard's Midhurst Mild on our visit. It's a tasty brew, ruby-red with hints of tart fruit and roast coffee, and some bitter chocolate in the finish.

From here we headed into the city on foot, reaching the Bull Inn by the city market, which is noted for serving O'Hagans sausages. The plan had been to hit a third pub before rejoining the bus, but the fact that there were about a dozen of us, all thirsty and hungry, kind of stymied that as it meant we briefly overwhelmed the kitchen. Never mind, halves of Langham Hip-Hop and Bowman Quiver slipped down very nicely during the wait for some very tasty sossies.

Back on the bus, the next stop was the Cricketers at Duncton. This is a gorgeous old country pub with a lovely garden, the house beer is Triple-fff Moondance and the guest was Bowman Wallops Wood – the former very nice, the latter OK but a bit dull.

The sunny weather held on for our last stop too, at the picturesque White Hart, Stopham Bridge, right next to the even more picturesque medieval bridge over the River Arun.
It seems to specialise in LocAle - both the beers I had were local and in excellent nick: Arundel Gold and WJ King Horsham Best. I'm reliably informed the food was excellent, too.

All that was left after that was an hour and a half driving back into London on the bus, surrounded by slumbering figures, and wondering whether the battery in my smartphone would last out. (It did but only just!) The only drawback is I've been absolutely knackered today, otherwise I'd do the whole thing again in a jiffy...