Thursday, 20 March 2014

Beer and there in East Twickenham

One of the fun things that local CAMRA branches do is to organise monthly pub-crawls, and my branch is no exception. Not only are they good social occasions, but they are a chance to visit areas and pubs that I don't often drink in – they also help the branch keep in touch with what's going on in that area.

Last night it was East Twickenham, an area which seems to have smartened up in recent years, yet where the trade has seen a bit of turmoil with pubs either lost to property developers or under threat – the two can be related of course. I missed the first pub on the list, the Aleksander freehouse (formerly a Young's pub called the Marble Hill), which was unfortunate as I'm told it was offering Oakham Citra and two Thornbridge ales.

Fortunately when I caught up with the other eight or so chaps in the Crown it was pretty much the highlight of the evening. Four ales on, all in excellent condition. A few years ago this was a pretty scruffy pub, but after it was refurbished and reopened last year it's now a delight – comfy, attractive, friendly service, and reputedly the food is good too.

Two clips for the same beer!
From there it was a stiff trot to the Old Anchor. I don't think I'd been in here since it was a Youngs pub – it's been a freehouse for a couple of years now I think. It's also been under threat for longer than that, and now the end is near – for its current incarnation at least, which is probably why only two of its seven handpumps were in use, offering Ringwood Best and Jennings Lakeland Stunner. Barry the publican told us he's leaving at the end of April, and that plans have been submitted to turn almost the entire building into flats and also to build over the garden. The building's frontage is locally-listed however, so the developers say they will keep a tiny bar open there. I don't understand how they will get these plans through when they include no provision for parking, which is already in short supply.

Then it was a stroll down to the Thames and the riverside White Swan. Another freehouse, the pub is raised up from the street and it looked like yesterday had been one of the days when the high tide floods both the road outside and the beer garden. Was this also why it reeked of fish, or was that left over from lunch? Either way, I think there were five ales on, all reportedly in fine condition, including my choice of Flack Catcher, a tasty bitter from a brewery I'd not heard of before, Flack Manor.

That was supposed to be the end of the crawl, but a few of us had been discussing the other changes in the area's pubs, in particular from the cr*ft beer perspective, so we decided to pay a quick visit to the relatively new Ales & Tails cocktail bar and 'craft beer house'. Although they advertise having eight cask ales, only two pump-clips were visible, one each from the Brighton and Hastings breweries, and both sadly tasted slightly sour. Fortunately, they had had just put on a third ale, Clarence & Fredericks' American Pale Ale, and that was excellent – but then I've not had a bad beer yet from this new Croydon-based brewery.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Drink London at London Drinker!

While it's often London's new keg and bottled beer breweries that get the limelight, cask ale microbreweries are on the up as well. So where just a few years ago you'd have been hard pressed to have a real ale festival with more than a dozen interesting London-brewed beers, this year's London Drinker Beer Festival claims that around 50% of its ales are from London.

Indeed, for the second year in a row the festival – which finishes today, so you still have time to get to it if I can get this online quickly – has a whole bar devoted to local beers, or LocAle, as CAMRA calls it.

I managed to try several yesterday, and also met several of the brewers – among them Clarkshaws, Clarence & Fredericks, Five Points, Late Knights and Twickenham – as we had all been invited along for a Trade & Press session during the afternoon break. (LDBF still has a 3-5pm break on its first two days, though not on the Friday – it gives the volunteers a bit of a break during what would otherwise be a very quiet time, plus it lets them do free admission for the lunchtime-only sessions.)

LDBF is 30 years old this year, and proudly bills itself as "the longest running beer festival in London in the same venue" – that's the old Camden Town Hall (now the Camden Centre) on Bidborough Street, opposite St Pancras station. It's a few years since I spent time there – it usually coincides with a big trade show in Germany where I had a regular work gig, so I've often been out of the country.

It's a great festival for trying a wide variety of cask beer. This year had plenty of volunteer staff so I never had to wait very long, and while there were a couple of beers that I didn't like, all those I tried were in good condition or better.

I know some people dislike how crowded LDBF can feel by early evening, but I recall from past years that if you take advantage of the seating in the balcony not only do you get elbow room and a place to sit, but you can also see that the crowds are actually a bit illusory. Sure, there's lots of people standing around, but somehow the shape of the big square main hall makes it look worse at floor level than it is, whereas from above you can see the free space as well.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

An evening of Clouded Minds and Viking Kings

I managed to indulge both my main interests last night - first, a talk at UCL on the impact of 1066 on Scandinavian royal hagiography[1], and then a walk around the corner to the Euston Tap.

The Tap was rammed when I got there, not too surprising I suppose given that it was just before 7pm on a Friday. So I got my first beer and after saying an unexpected hello to a CAMRA colleague who was already there with a mate, I left them to their chat and headed upstairs.

Sloe Walker
I stayed mainly on the cask ales, most of which seemed to fit one of two extremes – either porters and stouts, or London Murky in the New World Pale Ale mould. Which is to say, cloudy[2] golden ales with some underlying sweetness, tropical fruit notes, and lots of hoppy bitterness. All the cask ales were also flying off the bar – 50% of the time I requested a beer, it had run out before I managed to get any.

At the dark extreme, Moor's Sloe Walker – a version of Old Freddy Walker matured with sloes – was excellent. It was rich and complex, with a wonderful blend of flavours, including plummy (sloe), treacle, coffee and liquorice.

Dolce Vita
At the pale extreme, the stand-out ale was a 6.2% New World IPA from a brewery I'd never heard of, Clouded Minds. Called Dolce Vita, it's a cloudy dark gold, with tropical fruit and citrus aromas, touches of orange juice, a green-hoppy spiciness and a firm dry-bitterness. So I looked up the brewery and found its website – just a holding page for now, though – plus its rather more informative Twitter and Facebook pages, discovering in the process that it's a new London micro, which seems to have been brewing commercially for about six months.

People had been coming and going at my shared table all evening, so it was no surprise when a couple of guys took vacant seats and joined me. It was a surprise however when one of them invited me to taste the pint of black beer in his hand. It was an even bigger surprise when he introduced himself as Riccardo, the head brewer at Clouded Minds, and the beer as his Black Pike black IPA, which is rather tasty!

It turns out he's a former home-brewer turning pro, and that Clouded Minds is currently brewing on a one-barrel pilot plant based in Hornsey, North London. There's six beers in the current line-up and most of the production is cask-conditioned ale, though they also bottle the Dolce Vita and Black Pike. He's Italian, hence some of the names of their ales.

So's the Berlin Wall...
The size of the plant only gives them around 140 litres or four nine-gallon firkins per brew, so there is not a lot of their ale about. It seems to be doing very well though, and Riccardo said they will be moving to a larger industrial unit with a bigger brewkit later this year, "maybe by July." He also said a proper website should be up soon.

And while I did have an IPA last night that was better than Dolce Vita, that one was Ridiculously Close To Sanity, a 6.7% keg beer from Danish megastar brewers To Øl – not really a fair comparison! So all in all, Clouded Minds is definitely one to watch.

[1] It's more interesting that it might sound! King Harald Hardrada was the golden boy: wise king, great Viking and battle winner, the man who escaped Constantinople despite the Byzantine Empress's desperate (nudge nudge) attempts to stop him.

By all the norms of early medieval king's-saga-writing, his trip to England in 1066 should have been a walk in the park, yet he got his dead arse handed to him on a plate by King Harold Godwinson. How on earth could this happen?!

The saga writers came up with all sorts of explanations: it was the pagan Norse fate goddesses the Norns, even though Hardrada was a devout Christian (like his sociopathic shit of a half-brother Olaf the Fat, called by some Saint Olaf); it was English sorcerors (boggle!); it was greed leading him to misinterpret his warning dreams; or it was the Trollish landvættir (land spirits) of England. Apparently Scandinavian writers were still trying 150 years later to come to terms with his defeat at Stamford Bridge (three weeks before King Harold was in turn defeated and killed by Duke William of Normandy).

In the Anglophone world we tend to think of 1066 from an English perspective – how it moved England from almost being part of Scandinavia to being part of a wider Western European (Frankish) world, but we have forgotten how the "loss" of England must have impacted the Scandinavian world and psyche. As I said, interesting stuff.

[2] Satirised as London Murky, the current fashion for unfiltered beers doesn't worry me as such, not least because it's been going on in Germany for a decade or more, and it's kind of historical anyway. However, it's almost as if some London brewers are taking the piss by deliberately over-murkying things, which is just silly.