Thursday, November 29, 2012

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED IN LONDON, BEER SAMIZDAT?

Last month I was given the chance to spend four nights in London, England on a work-related sojourn. Three of my evenings were spent drinking beer at London's up-and-coming craft beer bars. I didn't really go into much reportage on this trip here on the blog, as I normally might have, because for whatever reason I burned out on beer and on writing about it four weeks ago, and wrote my silly surrender post "The Disinterested Beer Reviewer". My surrender, as is obvious, was very short-lived, and as I knew it would be. I thought I'd take a moment to let you folks know about what's happening in London beer-wise, because you just might find yourself there one of these days, thirsty and eager, as I was. If you live there, you can let me know how close to the heart of the "scene" I got.

To get ready, I read this article in the New York Times about London beer, as well as this guide within Time Out London. It was clear, and even more so after visiting, that England beer culture is undergoing a renaissance, driven as much by American and Belgian beer trends as by a general shake-up in how pubs and bars are licensed and run in the UK. While I was there I walked into a Whole Foods (!) on the Kensington High Street and found a beer-related fanzine of sorts, which I can't seem to find any reference to online….London Beer Guide or Real Ale Monthly or London Drinker or something like that. Anyone know? The articles detailed all manner of new brewers, experimenting with US-based IPAs, Belgian darks, new fruit-infused versions of English bitters and so on. There seem to be nearly a dozen in London alone, most who've opened just in the past 1-2 years.

The night I landed, I checked out a small, two-level place called EUSTON TAP. It looks like it's built inside a Roman column, and is right in front of the Euston tube stop (there's a separate cider bar as well). These folks were exceedingly friendly and helpful to the American in their midst, answering my pestering questions & directing me to local brews I might want to try. I didn't want to mess up and drink, say, an Irish beer. I had an English Double IPA from HARBOUR BREWING and a traditional porter from SUMMER WINE BREWERY while there, and tried to stay awake amongst the beer dorks and happy couples who surrounded me. It truly was a different vibe than at your classic English pub – loud, boisterous and very much a young, craft beer-loving crowd, comparing tasting notes and going deep into the menu to try new things.

After work the following evening, I wandered on the south bank of the Thames until I found my destination right at the foot of the Tower Bridge: THE DRAFT HOUSE. This is a chain of new pubs that "aims to do for beer what our culture has done for food and wine over the past twenty years. Namely, we take its provenance, cellaring and serving seriously". Bravo! This was a peaceful and mellow place to park my carcass for an hour on a Tuesday night. It was here that I had my best beer in London, a single-hop IPA from THE KERNAL BREWERY called "Chinook IPA". Apparently the brewery itself was right down the street, and there were a number of really interesting looking 12-ounce bottles from Kernal, all with the same basic beige label. Single-hop IPAs, at least five different types (a la Mikkeller), as well as an imperial red and several other styles. I totally wanted to find a way to get to the brewery during their open house hours, and perhaps someday I shall. If anyone can provide some more info on these guys, please do so in the comments.

Final stop in my London beergasm, and perhaps a bridge too far, triggering as it did my beer burnout, was my favorite of all three places, THE CRAFT BEER CO. Wow. This place is as knockout a beer bar as I've ever been to, including DC's Church Key/Birch & Barley; Chicago's Map Room; Seattle's Brouwer's CafĂ© and San Francisco's La Trappe and City Beer Store. It has taps from all over the world – small American micros; Belgian masters, and many of the aforementioned new wave of British brewers. It's a crazy, loud and boisterous environment, and because I had a "business meeting" here, I behaved and only had two pints (from local brewers ILKLEY and MAGIC ROCK), as well as many "scotch eggs", an excellent trad British food. Here's what Wikiepedia says on the latter: "A Scotch egg, also known as an egg devil, consists of a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage meat, coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried.". God damn they were good. Healthy, too!

So yeah, no question that London is now a craft beer destination of the highest order. It was always one of the cradles of beer culture, of course, and in my 3 or 4 visits here over the past 25 years I've never failed to find wonderful pubs and delicious ale. Yet now the city is embracing and celebrating the world beer taste explosion the way so much of America is, and it's a wonderful thing to behold and partake in. Just watch your back for beer burnout, as it'll get ya, even across the proverbial pond.

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