Sunday, 10 May 2015

Helsinki Part 2 - Helsinki Beer Festival 2015

After the slightly disappointing visit to the One Pint Pub, it was time to head on to the main event - the Helsinki Beer Festival. It was taking place in a building known as the Old Cable Factory, a massive former, erm, cable factory which has been converted into an exhibition space. But before we got there, there was one more pub on the way that I wanted to try out. Amsterdam is a large, airy modern pub owned by the same company as the excellent Kaisla. Despite the name of the pub it downplayed the Dutch theming, with the odd reference to a bicycle being the only concession to our Dutch cousins. The beer list was sadly nowhere near as exciting as Kaisla's, and again I didn't notice anything on cask. The pub had a mini festival on showcasing IPA's, so I felt it rude not to try one. Notkea IPA from Panimo & Tislaamo Teerenpeli was a rather good example of the style, with a lovely hoppy finish that was very enjoyable.

After this pre-game drink it was onwards with my pals to the festival. Although the festival started at 12pm we got there for 4pm, as the entertainment started at 10:30pm and quite frankly it looked unmissable:



We wanted to be concious for these guys so the later start was a good idea. As with anything beer related in Helsinki the entrance fee wasn't cheap - 17 euro to get in, although we could check in our coats for free because we had pre booked. The cloakroom check scam was one of the more annoying things about Helsinki - just about every bar after 11pm required you to "check in" your jacket into the cloakroom - an easy way to charge an entrance fee without charging an entrance fee as everybody wears a jacket there! After the cloakroom check in we walked into the large main hall - its factory history showing quite clearly with the high ceiling and industrial decor.

Unlike the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) in London Olympia which lets in lots of natural light to brighten the proceedings, the Cable Factory's large windows had been completely blacked out, leading to a dark and slightly foreboding atmosphere. However unlike the GBBF the crowd in Helsinki where mainly young, so maybe they appreciated the more clubby surroundings. The place was packed with breweries local and international plying their trade. Apart from a "British Ale" bar on the upper level, the majority of the beer was keg. This didn't really matter in the end as the majority of the beers I tried were very tasty.

I sampled many beers throughout the evening. A guide in English listed the award winners and other notable beers. Highlights for me were Thor Bock by Suomenlinnan Panimo, a supremely drinkable Bock style beer with excellent, easy drinking malty flavours. Hillbino's Rye Hiffer IPA by Panimoravintola Bruuveri was an excellent IPA, with big hoppy flavours in the finish - top stuff. Sadly the food offering at the festival wasn't anywhere near as good as the excellent food selection at the GBBF. I spotted around five stalls selling grub, including BBQ, Burgers and German sausages, the last of which I decided to grab some tasty, and inevitably expensive, currywurst. It was washed down with Hainfelder Spezialbier Dunkel by Brauerei Hainfeld, which matched the food very nicely indeed. My favourite beer of the festival ended up being one from the local Helsinki Brewery, their IPA being a top notch example of the style - hoppy, fruity, and not to heavy on the booze.

We managed to stay awake until the entertainment, and Martti Servo and the boys didn't disappoint with a very enthusiastic performance. The Finns absolutely loved them - singing along merrily, dancing wildly and there were even a couple of conga lines. I didn't understand any of the lyrics apart from one song where you were expected to shout "sauna" during the chorus - I was happy to oblige. This was clearly a kitschy act with a bit of cult appeal and it was a lot of fun. Look them up on YouTube for an idea of their act. An excellent end to a well run and very pleasurable beer festival.

In my next update I'll be telling you a bit about the pubs I visited on the Sunday and Monday after - yes somehow despite drinking my weight in booze at the festival I managed to cram some more in at some very good Helsinki boozers. See you soon!

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Helsinki Part 1

A few weeks ago I visited Helsinki with a friend of mine for the annual beer festival that was taking place. I'd never been to that part of the world before and a beer festival was a good excuse as any to visit, so I took the opportunity to spend a long weekend in this charming if chilly city. We were going to the festival on the Saturday, so I had Friday night to explore some of the pubs in town. After doing extensive research on ratebeer.com, I had a list of decent pubs recommended by the crazy beardies on that site. It looks like over the past few years Helsinki has really embraced the craft beer scene, and there's been an explosion of pubs serving decent beer, including an inevitable BrewDog. I intended to visit as many of these boozers as possible!

First up was Oluthuone Kaisla, a large pub centrally located by the train station. This pub looks deceptively small from the outside, but once inside it's surprisingly cavernous, and as I ventured deeper and deeper into the pub more and more rooms revealed themselves. With plenty of nooks and crannies and a buzzing atmosphere this was a comfortable place to enjoy a few beers. My friend had already staked out a table, so it was down to the tricky business of choosing what to drink. The beer list was extensive, with plenty on keg and bottle, but sadly nothing on cask. I played it safe on my first beer with Kukko Pils from Laitilan Wirvoitusjuomatehdas (get ready for more crazy brewery names throughout this post) as I needed something refreshing and sharp after being cooped up in a packed plane. The Pils certainly fit the bill, clean and refreshing and a pleasure to sup. My next beer was more adventurous, the Hoppe IPA from Suomenlinnan Panimo. This was a big IPA with bold, brash flavours and it was absolutely delicious.

I was prepared for Finland to be expensive beer wise, but those two beers came to a combined total of around 14 euros! Apparently the alcohol tax had just been raised again - I'm sure it was merely coincidence that it happened just before a beer festival was due to take place. Despite the initial shock of the prices I very much enjoyed my time at the Kaisla. It was like a larger than life version of a Wetherspoons but with a jolly, classy atmosphere and music being played.

I liked the Kaisla so much I returned on the Sunday evening where it turns out they do a special promotion - pints for the price of a half. I doubt the barmaid had seen a smile so wide as the one on me when she told me the news. This much welcomed promotion brought the prices down to an almost reasonable level. I enjoyed pints of Pekko Pale Ale by Malmgårdin Panimo and Plevnan Smörre IPA from Koskipanimo, both of which were very suppable and in the case of the IPA packed full of big flavours. They tasted even better as I was only paying around 5 euro a pint instead of 8 euro! The promotion did highlight an irritating habit of Helsinki pubs where they do not halve the price of a pint when ordering a half - it was always a little bit over.

Back to the Friday evening. After the Kaisla, we moved on to The Black Door, a solid interpretation of a British pub. Two handpumps were on the bar, serving Skinners ales, including Cornish Knocker. I dread to think how much it would cost, and I'm not a huge fan of Skinners anyway, so I stuck to the Finnish keg beer. Diane was a new beer from the local Maku Brewery. It was a bit rough and ready and needed a bit more work but it was pretty tasty. The pub was packed and lively with young and old alike, some tables with big groups and some customers happily enjoying a pint on their own. Helsinki is one of the few cities I've been to outside of the UK that captures the spirit of British pubs, people are here to drink and chat, but it's done on a bigger and dare I say better scale. The rest of the night was a bit of a blur as I ended up in a Russian bar which served only one beer (Carlsberg) and one vodka before ending up dancing like a idiot in "authentic Oirish" bar Molly Malones. I think I drank a Kilkenney. It's not important. I had a lot of fun.

The next morning I wasn't feeling so much fun, but after a hearty breakfast it was time to head to the Beer Festival. By lunchtime I had perked up a bit and decided to try a couple of more pubs on the way to the festival. First up was One Pint Pub, a well respected little bar at the bottom of a block of flats, it was so well hidden I had a bit of trouble finding it. With its dark glass and low lighting I thought the place was shut from the outside, but through the gloom I could make out some punters. Walking in there were only three punters in, all sitting at a table to themselves reading a paper. With no music and no fruit machines it was a bit like being in a very small Wetherspoons. My half of Red Neck Ale from De Proefbrouwerij was OK - a bit of a limp IPA and not as strongly hopped as the label suggested. There was a huge selection of bottled beers available, plus plenty of keg from little known breweries, but it all came at a cost - this was the most expensive of the pubs I'd visited so far. The atmosphere was dead so I left after my half, but I imagine this place can get quite jovial when there's a few people in.

That's it for now - next week I'll tell you about the festival and some more pubs I visited in Helsinki. See you on Sunday!

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Croydon

After a splendid afternoon in the comfy surroundings of Carshalton, it was time to head to the grittier climes of Croydon, a half hour bus ride away. Croydon has the air of a place that was built with great intentions, in this case an attempt at being a New York style city of business, but the time and money wasn't really invested into it to pull it off so it got left behind and forgotten about. It's a real shame the council can't do more with the place as there is huge potential with its decent transport links and plenty of office space available. Apparently the monstrous American shopping "mall" experience Westfield will be moving in, but judging by their soulless labyrinths in Stratford and Shepherds Bush, I'm not expecting much from them - it will likely end up being a glamorous playground for bored scummy kids to hang about in.

Despite Croydon falling far short of what it initially promised, it does have some decent pubs. I'd written about two of them previously and this time I tried out a few pubs mentioned in the Good Beer Guide that I hadn't been to before. First up was the Skylark, right on the outskirts of town. This is a large Wetherspoons, and probably the most generic Spoons I'd visited in a long while. No excitement here, just the usual muddy brown/red carpet, slightly sticky furniture, dim lighting, collection of bored single elderly punters and a long bar serving a big collection of ales. Their beer festival was on and I tried a Bedfordshire Clanger from Banks Brewery which to be honest was a bit of a mistake. It was ludicrously bitter and a chore to drink - it was if they'd messed up the quantity of ingredients during the brewing process and couldn't be bothered to fix it. I tried the new burritos Spoons are doing now and it was fine - a bit like having a Tesco ready meal but tasty enough.

After this lacklustre experience I was looking forward to the Green Dragon, a popular pub that gets good press. This large centrally located pub is right next to the Tiger Tiger and Reflex nightclubs, so no doubt a good place to load up on booze before attempting to have a dance. Five ales on handpump were on offer, plus a barrel of Black Sheep was being gravity dropped. Nothing really stood out as exciting from the ale selection, and I went for a Dune Raider from the Sunny Republic brewery. Sadly this was another disappointing ale, with a limp watery flavour - it needed more oomph. There was a smattering of young and old customers in on this dreary Thursday afternoon, and while music was being played when I walked in it cut out shortly after, leaving a bit of an odd atmosphere. I have a feeling this place might be more fun in the evening.

The last pub on my tour is owned by the former landlady of the Green Dragon. The Oval Tavern is a surprisingly large pub in the middle of a largely residential area. The Lovely Jemma works nearby and I had no idea this pub existed until I saw it mentioned in the guide - I thought it was all houses in the area! The decor inside is a little shabby and studenty but it has charm, there's also a large beer garden accessed by a flight of stairs. I was the only customer in but it was a comfortable enough place to enjoy a quiet half. Sadly I was lumbered with another beer that wasn't too great, although it was my fault for not reading the label correctly. Blue Boar from Everards is a standard bitter but with honey and mead chucked in, and unfortunately I didn't realise this fact until it was too late. I was basically drinking boozy Lemsip. Luckily the amusing posters dotted around the pub and the good music being played made the drink go down easier.

With a lot of live music events on as well, The Oval is having a good stab at being a community boozer, and I wish them all the best. I look forward to returning. Next week I'll be telling you all about Helsinki which I visited over the weekend, hence why this post is a few days late. Hope you can join me!