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What's new?
Pledges for my new beer book - Miracle Brew - are now closed. Book is out 1st June and available for pre-order here.
I've been accused of attacking cask ale. Here's what I actually wrote - decide for yourselves.
News about my next books!

Thursday, 21 August 2008

What it's really all about

I had a moment the other night that made me realise the single thing I love the most about this whole beer lark.

I was out with a journalist from Time Out Mumbai who had written a feature on my IPA voyage, (it's credited to me, but it was one of those 'as told to' jobs) and is now in London for a couple of weeks, and asked me to show him around a few pubs. He knew his beer and his been in London before, as his ability to teach me the rule sof bar billiards (a shameful gap in my knowledge) testified.

We confirmed together that the Dog and Duck in Soho serves the best-kept point of Timothy Taylor Landlord to be found in the south of England. Then we moved on to a Sam Smith's pub. He deferred to me on the ordering.

"Do you like Guinness?" I asked.

He nodded.

"OK, let's try a bottle of Oatmeal Stout."

The look on his face was one I see often in this situation. It's the look of having nailed it. His eyes bulged, his knees bent slightly, his mouth puckered, then stretched into a massive grin. "My god," he said, "That is amazing! I'm never going to drink anything else ever again!"

That this was Sam Smith's Oatmeal Stout isn't really the point. It's a great beer, but I've also had this same reaction to Goose Island IPA, Brooklyn Lager, Orkney's Dark Island Reserve, and Franziskaner Weissbier. Maybe you think none of these are the absolute immortals of the beer world, but they're all beers that, to someone who doesn't know craft beer, completely change their very perception of what beer can be. Their palate becomes recalibrated, the doors of perception are opened. And to be the person who gets to facilitate that, who gets to introduce someone to the sheer sensory pleasure of a great beer for the first time, is both a privilege and a great high all of its own.

The delicate relationship between beer and fashion

The nice people at Use Small Words e-mailed me and asked me if I'd mention thier website, where they make t-shirts and beer glasses featuring famous drinking quotes. I checked out the website and the designs are pretty cool - far better than the ones you get where someone just strips the words across the front - so I'm more than happy to oblige. They're US-based, so not sure about international shipping etc, but if you want to make that summer fashion statement on the beach, go check 'em out.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Book Review: London Pub Reviews

Dunno why, but I’ve been doing one or two pub reviews on here recently, so I thought it was about time I sang the praises of this book.

For a while I’ve been wanting to have a go at doing pub reviews a little differently, trying to evoke the atmosphere and character rather than rigidly evaluating the food and drink selection. After all, ‘atmosphere’ and ‘my kind of place’ are, in survey after survey, the main reasons people give for choosing a particular pub. Paul Ewen, author of the deceptively dull-sounding London Pub Reviews has beaten me to any notion I might have had about reinventing the pub review. If the dull, plodding, workmanlike-yet-practical Good Beer Guide exists at one end of a scale, Ewen, a Kiwi living in London, has pegged out the other extreme.

According to the blurb, ‘although wanting to follow the Kiwi tradition of working in English pubs, he was thwarted by a complete and utter lack of social skills, forcing him to write about them instead’.

And how he writes about them.

His warped vision often nails a pub’s character completely: the Dublin Castle in Camden reminds him of the alien bar in Star Wars, an observation affirmed by “the pierced faces, weird clothes and outrageous hair styles of the Camden locals”.

Each review ends with him being forcibly ejected from the pub. In the Holly Bush in Hampstead, this is precipitated by Liam Gallagher walking in, inspiring our hero to climb on the table and shout “I’M ON STAGE, I’M ON STAGE, I’M ON STAGE NOW!”

In the Jeremy Bentham, a university pub, he approaches the blackboard advertising the day’s specials and begins an impromptu lecture, attempting to keep order by yelling and hurling beer glasses to the floor.

For the first few reviews, you’re wondering if this man, Dom Joly-style, really did go to these pubs and do these things. He was in there, as his descriptions attest, and he does enjoy his real ale. (And the Bentham piece was originally commissioned for The Times Higher Education Supplement by my mate Steve Farrar. When Paul sent Steve the invoice, it included the itemised cost for the smashed glasses.)

But as the book progresses, we take off through the beer glass and into a world that Alice would recognise if she had been a Camden bag lady on a Tennents Superdiet.

In Effra at Brixton, the bar person is working the pumps “like a submarine engine room attendant, darting here and there pulling levers and plugging holes.” Paul’s small round table is “shedding its varnish like skin”, and a sign advertising the daily special – Jerk Chicken – reminds him how often he was called “jerk”, “chicken” and indeed “special” during his formative years.

In the Prince of Wales on Clapham Common, “My table was covered by a strange, grey, cocoon-like coating, as if it were soon to emerge as a more beautiful pub table.”

At the Half Moon in Herne Hill, the flowery pattern on the carpet comes to life, unties his shoelaces and empties out the contents of his satchel (yes, he carries a satchel).

A secret passage at the Eagle in Battersea Park Road leads him to the secret underground lake where custard comes from.

By the time we get to the King’s Head in Tooting, he’s carrying his disembodied head under one arm, which hampers somewhat his attempts to catch the rabbits that infest the pool table, mocking him from the pockets.

All this, and he still makes you want to visit the pubs in question.

The review on the cover, written by Toby Litt (another of my favourite writers) says it all in one brilliant sentence: Ewen has created the ‘Campaign for Surreal Ale’.

Marvellous. Buy this book. Make an unhinged Kiwi bastard happy. He deserves it.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Yin and Yang of JD Wetherspoons, part 3

My first post about JDW was a glowing account of their last national real ale festival. My second post about the chain was a scathing attack on one pub's out-of-control security thugs. For a brand that is supposedly consistent (whether you like it or not) across its 600-odd outlets, Wethersopoons really does offer both extremes of the pub-going experience.

Yesterday we see-sawed back to the good end. I went in my local branch, The Rochester Castle, for a quick pint, saw a beer from the Orkney Brewery (whose Dark Island Reserve is the past beer I've tasted in years) and tried a pint. It tasted like it had been diluted with tonic water and lemon, and had a very odd texture. Knowing how experimental Scottish brewers are just now, I had another sip. An assertive summer beer? No. If it was meant to taste like this it was a foul beer, and I didn't think Orkney capable of that.

I hate taking pints back to the bar. Eight times out of ten some newly-arrived adolsecnet antipodean barman will take a swig, say, "tastes alright to me," and you're in a battle of wills then. It's worse for me now, because a little demon pops up and suggests I point out that I'm a beer expert - which I am - but I still sound like an utter wanker if I say so.

But this one had to go back. I explained to the barmaid that it simply didn't taste right. She didn't ask for any explanation. She didn't taste the beer herself. She didn't say "well no-one else has complained", or any other of those passive-aggressive, anyone-who-says-the-customer-is-always-right-must-be-an-arse phrases. She took my pint off me, set it carefully aside, and immediately took off the pump clip of the beer in question, taking it off sale. She asked me what I'd prefer instead, served me a fresh pint, then took my dodgy one to the bar manager.

This is only what you'd expect from any decent pub. But I confess it's not what I expected from Wetherspoons. Deeply impressive. To redress the schizophrenic karmic balance they seem to maintain in the market, this probably means I'll be murdered next time I go in.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

From the sublime to the Ridiculous: The Piss Poor Pub on the Park, Hackney

Nice facade. Shame about everything else.

Each of us who cares about beer and pubs has a duty to warn the rest against the potential of being ripped off. After waxing lyrical about the Cricket Inn, I'm therefore compelled to bring attention to the Pub on the Park on London Fields.

It's a great building in a perfect location, with a beer garden and terrace looking out onto the park, across which lies Broadway Market - a lovely place to get your ricotta and sun-blushed tomatoes if Borough's a bit too busy. It attracts the shaggy-haired, ironically t-shirted artisanal bread-shopping crowd who love reading their copy of the Guardian while keeping an eye on the football, and markets itself accordingly: a charming array of mismatched furniture, and an excellent selection of ales and speciality beers on the bar as well as the premier league of 'world' lagers (you know the brands I mean, and I think most of them are decent beers. But if these are 'world' lagers, where do the other lagers come from? Space? Anyway, different topic).

So far so good - the perfect pub - until you order something to eat or drink.

They had Grolsch Weizen on tap. In bottle this is a stunning wheat beer, all the moreso for the low expectations you probably have when you see the word 'Grolsch' on the label. That'll teach you to be snobby about big brewers. So I ordered a pint of it. The barman had never heard of it before. I had to point it out to him on the bar. He gave it to me in a Stella glass. Nice touch there mate. I also ordered a half a Leffe for my wife, which was also served in a Stella half pint glass. And then the world turned upside down.

"Seven pound seventy please, mate."

"I'm sorry? I thought you just said it was seven pounds seventy for a pint and a half of beer just then!"

"That's right. These beers are a little expensive, just over five pounds a pint."

Over five pounds a pint is not 'a little expensive'. It's taking the piss. Even the Rake , often criticised for its pricing, wouldn't charge this much for these beers, and their staff warn you in advance if you've ordered something super-expensive. The only beers they charge this much for are those that are rarely available on draught, and beers that you shouldn't be drinking in pints anyway becauise they're above 7%ABV. By contrast, here were two premium, 'speciality' yet freely available commercial brands, served in the wrong fucking glassware by a man who wasn't even aware that one of them was sitting on the bar he stood behind for six hours a day. I had been well and truly robbed.

After all that, the beer was deeply average. It tasted like Hoegaarden, not Grolsch Weizen, and these are two quite distinctly different wheat beers.

I then made the mistake of ordering food. All the main courses were basic pub fare and every dish came with chips. In this situation, with nothing better to choose from, I usually order fish and chips. I've been lucky recently, getting fish in pubs how it should be: crisp, golden, light batter, soft flaky fish inside.

In Pub on the Park, my luck ran out. My fillet of fish - if indeed that's what it truly was - had clearly spent much, much longer in a cardboard box in a deep freezer somewhere than it ever had in its native aquatic environment. The batter was thick and wooden, the deep, shit-brown colour of the last thing in the bottom of a deep fat fryer that hasn't been cleaned for a long time. There was a thin layer of something white and runny inside it. The chips were carboardy oven chips.

I would have complained if I thought this was in any way below the standard they aimed for, but as our plates were wordlessly plonked in front of us by a scowling woman who answered our query about salt and vinegar by pointing to a table on the other side of the pub, where we had to go and fetch our own knives and forks and salt, vinegar and sauce, all in those unbranded, cheap, nasty little plastic sachets you only ever see in dives and dirty motorway service stations, I knew there was little point.

The whole meal was inedible. Given that I left it, any server who cared one shred about what their customers thought would have asked me if the meal was OK. As the scowling woman came back to collect our still-full plates, she didn't say a word.

Pub on the Park is a down-at-heel, no-strings, back street boozer pretending to be a well-run, modern food and drink pub. Judging by how busy it was yesterday, it's getting away with this deception. Don't go there. Tell everyone you know not to go there. If this blog post changes one person's mind about visiting this pub, and deprives it of the twenty quid I wasted in there, I'll be happy.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Food of the Gods: the Cricket Inn, Totley, South Yorkshire

Times are tough for pubs, no-one's disagreeing about that. On Wakefield Road, between Barnsley and the village of Mapplewell, where I grew up, there are about seven pubs over four miles. When I was up there in July, five of them were boarded up.

Running a pub was never the post-retirement, easy option many people see it to be. But even today, if you put the work in, and you know what you're doing, you tend to do OK. I've never, ever seen a pub that does great food and a fine and interesting selection of well-kept ales on its uppers. Never. Just a few miles from those ghost pubs outside Barnsley, when the Acorn lads took me round Sheffield we found pubs like the Hillsbrough Hotel and Kelham Island Tavern were packed to the rafters. We literally couldn't squeeze through the door at the Fat Cat. These were clearly destination pubs that knowledgable drinkers had travelled to. The lesson for the local is that it needs to cast its net further afield.

While I was up north, Thornbridge took me to a pub I'd happily travel two hundred miles to for dinner - their latest aqcuisition, the Cricket Inn.

The pub is just outside Dore. Every northern town these days seems to have a village or suburb they proudly boast is home to the biggest concentration of twats - sorry, that should have said 'millionaires' - outside Knightsbridge. This usually means it's where the local footy team and their WAGS park their sports cars and it-bags. Dore is Sheffield's version, and the old animosity between Barnsley fans and Sheff Wednesday fans in no way influences my belief that local residents Chris Waddle and Carlton Palmer don't exactly compete in the glamour stakes with Wilmslow, where there is a profusion of far bigger twats.

But we don't really do that kind of glamour in South Yorkshire. The Cricket stands at the foot of a low range of Pennine foothills, dry-stone-walled fields rising gently to the bruise-coloured ridge. Even when the drizzle is siling down – and you have to assume it will be – the view is diverting.

Inside, the pub is a warren or rooms with stone floors, oak beams and muted, earthy Farrow & Ball-style paints. A mixed collection of solid tables, chairs, benches and old school pews create an informal, relaxed ambience, and the clincher is that you can’t book a table anywhere. This isn’t a gastropub, just a pub that does really good food. And how.

The Thornbridge lads – Simon the CEO, Alex, Paul – had mentioned that we might be popping in. Chef Jack, had replied, “Oh, I’ll put a few snacks on for you then.” So we didn’t need to look at the menu, but I did anyway. It’s a big A3 sheet. One side manages to give a brief history of the pub before going on to explain the principles of beer and food matching and supply a few recommendations, all in less than about 200 words. The other side boasted big wooden sharing platters, British Isles seafood, home-made pies, Sunday roasts and sandwiches, many with suggested pairings of Thornbridge ales and other beers.

And then Jack appeared with a piece of slate about a foot and a half square. “A few snacks” were piled upon it: pork crackling, sausages, gravy, fries, olives, anchovies, prawn skewers... there was far too much here for one table. And then another, identically-sized slate arrived, groaning under ribs, potato wedges, monkfish cheeks, steak & kidney & cow-heel pie, home-made black pudding.

Simon leaned over to me. “You’ve got to watch Jack. He’s a feeder. I come in here to catch up with some work and at half nine in the morning he’s sidling up going, here, see what you think of this, or try a plate of this.”

The ribs were marinated in a sticky, viscous mix of Thornbridge’s strong, inky St Petersburg porter, orange juice, Demerara sugar, brown sauce, garlic, ginger and Tabasco. The meat slid form the bone.

I ate the first nice Scotch egg I’ve ever had. Jack spends an hour making them. It’s his ambition to make a Scotch egg that’s still soft in the middle. Given that you have to boil the egg first, then shell it and cook it again inside its meat casing, this would require a considerable degree of skill. He’d almost managed it with this one.

And then, the food of the Gods. Simon, who is right about most things, made a colossal mistake when he described the piece de resistance as a Sheffield fishcake. As any fule kno, it’s called a Barnsley fishcake. We were both in a good mood, so we compromised and christened it a Yorkshire fishcake. (It’s listed on the menu, diplomatically but a little boastfully, as the ‘Cricket Inn fishcake’.) If you think a fishcake is a small disc deep-fried in radioactive orange bread crumbs, you had a cruelly deprived childhood. If you think a fishcake is all salmon and herbs mixed up and pan-fried, you’ve been spending too long in middle-class gastroworld. A Yorkshire fishcake – a true fishcake - is a collection of fish offcuts sandwiched between two large scallops of potato, covered in crispy golden batter, served with mushy peas – like it was here – or curry sauce. It was the taste of my youth. Here it was matched with Thornbridge’s Lord Marples, a delicious caramel colour and a deep, sweet flavour. Together in the mouth, this sweet maltiness combined with the fish to invent new flavours and textures, spiralling off into heaven.

This was good, honest pub food, the kind of dishes that have been served for generations, but treated with the same degree of dedicated perfectionism you’d expect in a top restaurant. What better template could there be for today’s pub? The Cricket is not the first pub I’ve encountered with this philosophy – the Marquess in Islington springs to mind very quickly – and every time I find a pub like this business is booming, and the walls are filling up with awards and adulatory press clippings. This is how you do it. It’s not the only way to beat the crunch, but it’s a very joyous one.

We did as much damage as we could to the slates before begging for them to be taken away. I heaved a sigh of relief, which turned into a whimper of fear as chef Jack reappeared with a big apple pie in a traditional 1940s white tine dish with blue piping, nine different ice creams, a Bakewell pudding, crème brulee, a chocolate sponge and a treacle tart, and a cheese plate. And lots of custard, “Cos everyone loves custard,” he said, as he covered the last available inch of the large table top.

Thornbridge were already the most exciting and innovative young brewery in England. As they continue to seek out pubs they can do this to (the pub company, BrewKitchen, is a joint venture with Richard Smith, Sheffield’s most celebrated cook), they look like raising the bar on what a pub should deliver too.

You could almost forgive them all for being Wednesday fans.