Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

I probably should have mentioned in my previous post that I wouldn't be doing any updates over the festive period. The next update will be on the 5th January. Hope you had a great Christmas and enjoy the festivities this evening. I don't believe in all this "dry January" nonsense so I'll be enjoying a few beers throughout the month and you'll be pleased to know I'll be keeping you informed.

See you in 2014!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Lady Ottoline and The Shakespeares Head, London

As unbelievable as it sounds, my life doesn't only consist of complaining about pubs and being disappointed by the condition of beer. In my life away from the adrenaline rush of beer blogging, I am a IT manager at a law firm, which is about as exciting as it sounds. One downside of being a manager is that I feel obliged to take my team out for a Christmas dinner. This is a problem because although my team do work hard and they more than deserve a delicious dinner in lovely surroundings, I don't really like spending money. This is not good when living in London as nearly everything is twice as expensive as you'd expect it to be. Even the Evening Standard newspaper at the low price of free is too expensive, as they should be paying me to read that toss. So finding places to eat that serves really good food, has a lovely atmosphere but is also reasonable is a bit of a nightmare.

After much indecision searching through the SquareMeal website trying to find a restaurant where the prices didn't make me fall off my chair in shock and awe, and convincing myself that I probably wouldn't get away with treating the team to a KFC family bucket, I took my team to a gastropub in Farringdon called The Lady OttolineI'd been here previously with a vendor who treated me to a pretty decent lunch. I remembered the food being very good, but I wasn't paying and everything tastes better when it's free. Would I enjoy it as much when at the end of the meal I would have to pry apart my dusty wallet and hand over my Visa debit card while desperately resisting the urge to weep?

The short answer is yes. We had a lovely meal at the Ottoline. I'm going to avoid going into much detail about the food because I can barely talk about beer coherently let alone pretend I can string together sentences describing dinner. But all the dishes, in particular my pork belly main, were well prepared, looked great and tasted delicious. Best of all the bill didn't cause me to have a heart attack, just maybe a bit of mild angina.

"Gastro" wise the Ottoline is a success. But for the "pub" side, I think outside of the Christmas season this would be a nice place to pop in for just a drink, which is unusual for a gastro. Although food is the focus there is a area set for drinkers in the atmospheric ground floor room and it doesn't make you feel isolated. But during December, with all the Christmas parties piling in, this place is pretty much just a restaurant. It's a shame it's not really possible to stop in for just a drink at the moment as  they do have a nice selection of ales, and my Dark Star Winter Meltdown and Purity Mad Goose were both in good condition. I did find the Winter Meltdown to be a little bland, but it seemed to be kept OK. Maybe it's just the way the beer is.

One place that is definitely catering to drinkers this Christmas season is The Shakespeares Head in Holborn. I came in here for the first time in a long time on Friday. This massive Wetherspoons outlet was absolutely heaving. I was fearing the worse as past experience has proved that 'Spoons staff in their Central London pubs seem to have trouble coping with pressure (e.g more than three customers waiting at the bar.) However I have to give credit to the team here, they were absolutely spot on. Despite a busy bar they were keeping things going smoothly. They even managed to smile and be polite, I had to pinch myself that I was actually in a London 'Spoons on a busy Friday night.

The beer was also in very good form. Apache IPA from Portobello was a hoppy, boozy treat and it sold out deservedly quickly. A half of India Pale Ale by Devils Backbone, a US brewer, sadly wasn't as good with a watery, limp flavour. Greene King's Abbot Reserve was on, and as I'd never tried this I gave it a go. I found it quite good, and I enjoyed its warming, fruity richness. Santa's Darkside from Naylor's Brewery was a standard dark ale but pretty tasty, and JHB from Oakham Brewery was a solid brown bitter to finish with. It's a credit to the staff that I was able to enjoy these beers served quickly. Food wise this is light years away from the classy Ottoline but my Wethernachos were edible.

Sadly the general atmosphere was the usual 'Spoons, bland, joyless and overlit. The crowd seemed to be even louder and annoying than the usual Friday night 'Spoons punter, probably because the Christmas season is in full swing. It wasn't really a place I'd want to spend a long time in. But if you're nearby and looking for a place to kill time with a pint or two, you could do worse than pop in.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Then and now - Farringdon and Covent Garden pubs

It's always fun revisiting a pub I haven't been to in a while because most pubs go through plenty of changes in their lifetime and at some places the experience can change every few months. This past Friday I had the pleasure of revisiting some pubs in London on a mini pub crawl with some good friends of mine. As I hadn't been to these pubs in a while I thought it would be fun to revisit my original thoughts and see if much has changed.

Craft Beer Co Leather Lane

Then: A well known mecca for ale lovers with a absolutely ridiculous price for pork pies.

Now: Every time I walk past the Craft on a Friday evening it's just so ridiculously busy. This is not just a mecca for ale lovers, it now appears to be a mecca for every office worker in the Farringdon area. This small pub gets uncomfortably busy as the large bar and bench seating down the side take up a fair amount of space, leaving not much room for customers. There is an upstairs but tables up there can be reserved so it's pretty much impossible to get a seat. Walking in the crowd were three or four deep waiting at the bar. It felt very claustrophobic.

But with such a fine selection of ales on offer I'll put up with the small space and risk of having a panic attack. Ales from stalwarts Dark Star, Thornbridge and Marble were on offer, and plenty other breweries were represented on cask and keg. A Thornbridge Christmas Ale was a solid take on the rather hoary Christmas Ale formula, a tasty red ale with a subtle spicy undertone. Marble Lagonda was a excellent example of a pale ale. The Marble guys know how to create a good brew. The pork pies remain stupidly expensive.

Verdict: Still awesome but visit during the week and eat food beforehand.

Ye Olde Mitre

Then: A charming little pub although the pint I had tasted a bit like coal. 

Now: I have been to this pub a couple of times since that blog post and I can't really say it's charming any more. Mainly because how much of a sausage fest this place is. Sure you get the occasional confused lady who has been dragged along by their beer loving partner, or the nervous looking secretary who has been forced to visit with their sweaty "hands on" boss, but mainly this place is filled with blokes. The beer was in good condition, my pint of Dark Star Original being a comforting, if workmanlike brown bitter. However with the pub over run with braying men the atmosphere is a little bland. We didn't stay long before moving on.

Verdict: Lovely beer but atmosphere is a bit sweaty

Holborn Whippet

Then: Beers are served from a wall that bleeds ale and a sterile atmosphere where I couldn't get comfortable.

Now: I wasn't too impressed by the Whippet last time but a revisit made me warm to the place. I still find the wall in the middle that bleeds beer a bit odd. I opted for a half of Arbor Oyster Stout which was in excellent form. My friends went for a Lagunitas IPA which sadly wasn't in the best of form and seemed to be end of the barrel. Maybe that's why it was a fiver a pint which is actually pretty cheap for a pint of this trendy American IPA. Like the Craft Beer Co the Whippet seems to be incredibly busy every time I walk past it and this Friday night was no exception. The staff were friendly and on the ball, and the atmosphere was jovial. A pleasant place for a drink and I'd be happy to go back.

Verdict: Liked it a whole lot more this time.

The Cross Keys

Then: Likeable, slightly sleazy pub with plenty of tat hanging from the ceiling. Boisterous atmosphere.

Now: This Brodies pub continues to amuse me. It just seems so jarringly out of place in trendy Covent Garden. It feels like a locals pub from the 80's with the copper pans and other assorted antique tat hanging from the ceiling and the deep red lighting. It's shabby and doesn't even pretend to be modern or relevant. The beer was good and I enjoyed a pint of Brodie's malty, comforting Mild. This place continues to attract a "boisterous" (e.g. pissed) crowd, and we eventually left after a group of gents clad in lederhosen got a bit too loud for their own good.

Verdict: Great beer, nice room, dodgy customers

The Harp

Then: "An ale oasis in a area filled with expensive, soulless bars packed to the rafters with confused tourists and twats"

The Harp remains a text book example of how to run an excellent boozer in Central London. Its location next to the very busy Charing Cross station means this pub is always packed but the superb staff make sure you get served as quickly as possible. I've got served here quicker when it's rammed than at other sleepy pubs where the staff are so dozy you end up waiting 10 minutes for a drink when there's only two patrons at the bar, and one of them is the pub dog.

This visit to The Harp didn't disappoint and I was supping a Dark Star American Pale Ale within seconds of arriving. The beer was a top notch hoppy treat. The Harp was a fine place to end this very pleasurable pub crawl.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Caterham Beer Festival

I'm not sure why I decided I should update my blog every Sunday. My life really isn't exciting enough to sustain a riveting, informative and witty blog post every week. I was at the point where I wouldn't have any content for today's update as absolutely nothing of note was happening in my life which was pub or beer related. I was starting to worry that I may have to do a post on what my definition of craft beer is, or complain about how evil pubcos are ruining the industry. Just as all hope seemed lost The Lovely Jemma's dad got in touch. He had won two wristbands to the Caterham Beer Festival but he couldn't go due to a previous engagement. Well I had no choice but to make use of the wristbands and I spent last Saturday afternoon sampling some tasty ales.

This was my first visit to Caterham and as I exited the train station I was disappointed by just how nondescript the town centre is. Most market towns seem to be working from the same identikit template these days, packed with the same stores and brands. However I did appreciate that Waitrose and Morrison's were across the street from each other so you could quickly tell a residents social standing in Caterham depending on which one they ventured in too.

The festival was taking place in Soper Hall, which was a very pleasant venue for a beer festival. There were two rooms serving around 40 ales plus a few ciders, and all the ones I tried were in good condition. Highlights included Black Cherry Mild from Kissingate Brewery, a delicious fruity and chocolate stout which hit the the perfect middle ground of sweetness and malt. Jarl from Fyne Ales was also on offer, and I enjoyed a half of this accomplished, crisp and hoppy ale which I think is deserving of the many awards it has won.

I remembered to take pictures! Here's Soper Hall
Things took a turn for the bizarre when me and The Lovely Jemma decided to venture out for some lunch. Although the beer festival had some interesting looking food options including a wood fire pizza van and another stall selling tapas, it was all outside and I didn't fancy standing out in the cold shoving food down my gullet. I consulted the mobile version of the Good Beer Guide and found a pub nearby that sold food. Using Google Maps we set forth. Google Maps is a great tool but I really wish it would warn you of any steep gradients when giving directions. We ended up walking up an incredibly steep hill and by the time we reached the top I was wheezing and sweating like a demented puffin.

Still at least there was food on the horizon and we walked into the pub, The King and Queen. Walking in I noticed a distinct lack of menus. No matter, we found a comfy table by the log fire and I went up to ask the barmaid for a food menu. "We don't do food any more" was the apologetic response. Apparently the landlord had recently changed and the new landlord doesn't have a license to serve food. By this point we were both ravenous so we rather shamefully left the pub having purchased nothing and went on a quest for food.

This is where things went a bit weird. We found a pub down the road called the Royal Oak, and a menu outside the pub proclaimed there was food, although oddly they claimed food was served in the Royal Oak "Cafe." We walked into the pub and this was a real locals pub/mortuary. As we walked in the customer chatter went a bit quieter and we got strange looks as we were under the age of 50. I ignored it and headed to the back of the pub where a cafe sign was displayed. As we headed into the back room we must have went through some kind of time travel portal as we appeared to be in a Northern greasy spoon caff from the 70's. Except it was in the back room of a pub. "It's like we're in Blackpool!" exclaimed TLJ as we took a seat. All the caff clich├ęs were there - we got offered tea or coffee, served in big sturdy mugs, asked if we wanted a newspaper, the menu was made up of mostly pork products and chips, and we got offered bread and butter with our meals. It was as greasy spoon as you can get. But we were in a pub. Utterly bizarre but the server was very friendly and the food was pretty good. I really wish I took pictures of the place but I was worried if I got my camera out I may end up getting burned alive by the regulars due to using the devils tools. I didn't sample an ale, this didn't really seem the type of place to cater to real ale drinkers, but I did see a lonely Harveys handpump on the bar. In fact the landlord seems rather proud of their lager selection according to their Google page:

Landlord, Alan Lander, says that the pub prides itself on the quality of its beers and lagers.He said: "We are owned by Enterprise Inns which means we can serve a bigger range of beers and lagers. For example you would not normally expect to see both Carling and Fosters available under the same roof."

Lots of happy drinkers inside the hall.
Back at the beer festival, I was pleased to see that breweries from the South East area were well represented. I sampled Nektar from Cronx Brewery, a new startup based in Croydon who are starting to make a name for themselves. The ale was incredibly bitter, maybe too much, and I could start to feel my mouth turning in on itself. There were some sweet notes but this was a bit to much of a bitter thud for me. Still there was promise there and I look forward to trying more of their beers. The Westerham Brewery Double Stout was a more skilful, robust beer, but as they've been going for a lot longer than the Cronx boys maybe that isn't surprising. A rich, tasty stout, this was the perfect beer to have before heading home in the cold winter air.

Overall this was a well organised, friendly and very enjoyable beer festival. The only downside was that there was no seating area, but space was at a premium so I can understand that they wanted to pack in as many punters as possible. I look forward to going back next year. I may even pay for admission!