Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Inns and outs in London

After a long, bitter slumber where the essential question was whether you were a fan of beer served without the addition of gas ("real ale", mind you) or with (lagers), the British beer scene and in particular London has made a remarkable recovery,  in terms of exciting new craft breweries, over the last few years.

The success of BrewDog may have helped, kicking in a few mental doors, because now new breweries are founded all over the United Kingdom. Even in Wales. According to a recent article in The Guardian, the number of breweries in the UK has more than doubled in ten years - Britain is now home to more than a thousand breweries!

This post is a brief recount of my trip to London in May 2013, my first in more than two years.

Bird's eye view of London from The Shard

This famous city needs no introduction so instead I'll say a few words about another topic that greatly interests me: History. London is famous for its historical sites and museums, in particular the British Museum, and one of the points on my agenda this year was to visit its Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition. I also wanted to see an exhibition from a more recent historical period, the life and art of David Bowie at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Alas, they both fell through. The David Bowie exhibition because it was sold out until the end of June and the Pompeii exhibition because it was so popular that when I finally got inside there was no way I could see the displays and much less read the display texts because people were literary standing on top of them. So, museums in London are out of the question for me.

However, I did get to experience one great thing not related to beer, and I mean great as in impressively large - or rather tall. The Shard or Shard of Glass is a skyscraper built near London Bridge in Southwark from 2009 to 2012. At 306 meter it is the tallest building in the European Union. Like most tall buildings it has an observation deck, The View, on the 72nd floor - some 244 meter above the waters of River Thames! This deck opened up to the public in February 2013, just in time for my trip. Like the earlier mentioned museums, the observation deck at The Shard is very popular but in this case I was willing to spend close to an hour in line to use my £25 ticket.

When I finally got up there I knew it was worth the wait, the view from The Shard is absolutely stunning. From such a height you'll see how the Thames twists and turns its way through London and you'll get a better understanding of the layout of the city, from the Docklands in the east, via Tower, the City, Westminster and Southwark. I would recommend going in the morning, for two reasons. The first is that the queues won't be that long (they tend to accumulate, especially if there has been a technical problem), the second is that the sun (if the sky is clear, and that's a big IF in England) will be in the east or south east, allowing you to capture great photos towards the west (Southwark, Westminister) and north (City, Tower).

Tickets to The Shard can be bought in advance from their website or on-site, if not sold out.

The Shard seen from Borough High Street

London pubs and inns
There is no way anyone can do justice to the rich beer culture in London in a single post, based on a brief 2-day visit to the British capital, so this is just my pick of places with a focus on the new ones that didn't exist when I last was in London or that I didn't know about earlier. While Euston Tap was the hottest thing back in 2010, now you've got BrewDog Camden and the two pubs of the Craft Beer Co, at Clerkenwell and Islington. This time, I also visited an old inn and the site of what was once the largest brewery in the world.

BrewDog Camden - the first outside Scotland

BrewDog Camden
Located at the intersection of Greenland St and Bayham St, a block from Camden Town tube station, BrewDog Camden opened its doors to the public in December 2011. It was the fourth BrewDog pub to open up and the first one outside Scotland.

As all the other BrewDog pubs, the one in Camden shares a youthful, modern design with bare brick walls, simple furniture and a large, dominating bar. It offers around ten BrewDog beers and some 4-6 guest beers on draft, in addition to a good selection of bottled beer from craft breweries around the world.

During my visit, BrewDog Camden offered the rare Dana + Eldorado blend of IPA is Dead on draft, it was a strange blend that I found hard to drink. I much better liked their Bracken's Porter, named in honor of the BrewDog mascot, the Labrador Bracken, which passed away last October. There was two other new beers from BrewDog on draft, 10 Heads High and Punk Monk. The former is a tasty imperial amber ale of 7.8% and the latter a special version of their regular Punk IPA, brewed with a Belgian yeast-strain and dry-hopped with Chinook, that I found really captivating. Among the guest beers, De Molen Lentehop and Saison Dupont, the modern benchmark for saison, were the two highlights for me.

I found the atmosphere in BrewDog Camden really nice and got enganged in beer discussions with several locals on both of my visits to the pub, including a long one about the merits of English bitter.

After having visited the BrewDog Aberdeen and Edinburgh pubs in Scotland, I feel I can conclude that this is a concept that seems to work equally well in London. Well done, BrewDog.

Craft Beer Co. Clerkenwell, the highest rated pub in London

Craft Beer Co, Clerkenwell
The original Craft Beer Co pub opened up June 2011 in 82 Leather Lane in Clerkenwell, it is currently (July 2013) rated slightly higher on RateBeer than the second Craft Beer Co pub, which opened up in Islington last year. I had heard much praise about this place and knew that former BrewDog-employee Tom Cadden was involved, so I had high expectations when I walked in their front door a couple of hours after the noon opening.

The pub offers 21 (3x7) taps with draft beer and, as far as I could count, 15 beer engines serving real ale from cask. Personally, I'm not a big fan of real ale since so many English bitters, the most common type of real ale, taste so similar to me. However, at Craft Beer Co they had real ales from some of the new English craft breweries, including Dark Star and Tiny Rebel, so I did try a couple. The pub also offers some 400 types of bottled beer, so there is plenty to choose from for a beer tourist.

Because I arrived early in the afternoon, it was fairly quiet in the bar and I found a good spot to sit down, but I suspect the place can get a bit packed at night as there really isn't that many places to sit. Thus, I would recommend going early, both for the seating and to be able to ask the bartender about beer.

Harbour Imperial Chocolate Stout No 1

Because of the high number of taps I decided to focus on the draft and cask beers, many of them from small craft breweries in the UK. There were three new breweries that caught my attention, two of them with beer on draft:

  • Weird Beard Five O’clock Shadow is an interesting take on an IPA, at 7% abv it's more malty and sweet than most American IPAs. Weird Beard Brew Company is a fairly new craft brewery, founded in 2012 by two award-winning homebrewers, Bryan Spooner and Gregg Irwin. They started out borrowing brewing time until they opened up their own small brewery in Boston Business Park in Hanwell, London, early 2013.
  • Harbour Imperial Chocolate Stout No 1 is an 8.7% abv imperial stout aged on bourbon barrel, a smooth, rich and well-balanced beer that impressed me more than any other English beer I had on this visit to London. Harbour Brewing is another young craft brewery, located in North Cornwall in the south west of England and launched in 2012 by brewer Rhys Powell and his friend Eddie Lofthouse.

The third brewery was from Wales and had a real ale on cask:

  • Tiny Rebel The Vader Shuffle is a 6.3% abv oak-aged Belgian-style porter(!) It was a sweet fruity beer, very flavorful, and it really impressed me as a good cask ale. Tiny Rebel is a small 16 hl craft brewery launched in early 2012 by the brothers-in-laws Gareth Williams and Bradley Cummings. Originally a hobby in a garage they opened their commercial plant in a 3,000 square foot industrial building in Maesglas, Newport, becoming the first micro brewery in this city.

Enjoying the Anarchy Citra Star at The Rake

The Rake
Whenever I'm in London I always visit Borough Market near London Bridge in Southwark, home to the brewpub-cum-restaurant Brew Wharf, to the traditional real ale pub The Market Porter, to Utobeer beer shop and last, but not the least, The Rake. The Rake is a really tiny pub owned by the people behind Utobeer, it has a small "beer garden" area in the back and what it lacks in floor space it gains in selection of quality beer. There is always something good on draft, usually from up and coming English craft breweries, so The Rake is a great place to explore new English breweries.

During my May visit, The Rake was running a campaign for a new craft brewery called Anarchy Brew Co from Morpeth, Northumberland, in the north of England. Four Anarchy beers were offered on draft, Short Fuse, Citra Star, Crime Scene and Grin & Bare It. I tried Citra Star, which was an excellent hoppy blond ale (hopped with Citra, I would assume) and Crime Scene, a tasty 5.5% amber ale. Both were excellent brews, especially for such a young brewery which came into operation as recently as January 2012. I expect to see more great beers from Anarchy Brew Co in the future.

The George Inn - the last coaching inn in London

The George Inn
In November 2012, English beer writer Pete Brown published his latest book "Shakespeare's Local" in which he describes the bygone era of coaching inns in general and The George Inn in particular. It's a well written book that inspired me to do a pilgrimage to the last remaining coaching inn in London. But first a few words about London's coaching inns.

From medieval times and well into the 19th century, people or goods going to London would travel by horse, first by horse and carriage and later on the fast stagecoaches that we know so well from cowboy movies. But you could only enter London during daytime, when night fell the city gates would close to keep peace and quiet in the city. If you came from the south, the road to London went through Southwark which in those days were outside the city (the gate was on London Bridge). If you came late or brought goods to be sold at the markets in London the next day, you wanted to stay at an inn as close to London as possible so that you could get into the city as soon as the gates opened the next morning. Thus, Borough High Street in Southwark, which leads straight onto London Bridge, was lined with inns from medieval times.

From the street a coaching inn would not look very impressive, as it was just a large gap in the wall, large enough for a stagecoach to pass through, but once inside in the cobblestone yard the galleried inn would stretch out on both sides, with stables for horses and rooms for rent.

With the advent of the railway in the mid 19th century, the coaching inns went into decline as fewer and finally no travelers or goods came through Southwark on coaches. By the 1870s only one inn remained, The George, and even this one was facing extinction when its north range was pulled down in 1874, to make space for Guy's Hospital. Fortunately, the south range survived and is now protected by the National Trust.

Nobody, not even Pete Brown, knows for sure how old The George is or whether the famous bard used to frequent it (The Globe is located in Southwark, so Shakespeare must surely have been a guest at some of the inns) but historical records show that The George existed at least as early as 1542 in what is now 77 Borough High Street in Southwark. The current building dates from 1667, when it was rebuilt after the Great Fire of London the year before.

Though most of the guests at The George are tourists, at least when I was there (heck, I'm a tourist too), I found the atmosphere charming. The old and crooked facade of the galleries, the secluded yard which reduced the noise from the busy street outside and the old interior, it really gave me a sense of pre-Industrial era England.

The George also serves a decent fish and chips dish and offers five real ales on tap (all from Greene King, unfortunately), so it's a nice place to go for lunch. If you come for lunch you'll also beat most of the crowd, since The George only opens at 11 am (except for noon on Sundays), making it easier to find a table in the yard, when that is open during the summer, or in one of the rooms inside the inn.

The former Truman Black Eagle Brewery in Brick Lane

Old Truman Brewery
Feeling inspired, by the visit to The George and a blog post by beer writer Martyn Cornell, I decided to check out some more beer, or rather brewing, history in London. This time in Brick Lane in the East End, near Spitalfields, where the buildings of the former Truman Black Eagle Brewery can still be found.

The history of Truman's Brewery goes back to 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London, when the Black Eagle Brewery was established on a plot of land next to what is now Brick Lane. It grew steadily until the 18th century when demand for Porter led it to expand more rapidly, becoming one of the largest porter breweries in London. Its growth continued into and through the 19th century, in 1873 it purchased the Philips Brewery in Burton and became the largest brewery in the world. This was a clever move since porter was losing popularity to the pale ales of Burton.

After three centuries of successful growth, the second half of the 20th century brought more difficult challenges for Truman, now known as Truman, Hanbury & Buxton. One thing was the stiffer competition from big national and international beer groups, but just as serious was the lager craze that swept across England in the 1970s and 80s. Truman had its heart in British ales, not in lagers, so this was a disturbing trend to the management of the brewery. Just as it was to serious British beer lovers, who went on to found CAMRA in 1971, in defense of British cask ales. Unfortunately, Truman's Brewery had no similar tactics to play and struggled on until 1989, when the management gave up the fight and closed down the brewery in Brick Lane.

The former Truman's Brewery

Some 25 years later, the old brewery chimney with the letters "TRUMAN" can still be seen, the gate with the black eagle is still there and references to Truman, Hanbury & Buxton can be found on many buildings along Brick Lane and adjoining streets. The former brewery buildings now houses shops, night clubs, pubs, restaurants and art galleries, so they're kept alive, sort of, but I still felt sad knowing that a brewery that had been successful for 300 years had been closed down so recently.

Shoreditch High St is the closest tube station and if you decide to go there are two other tings to check out. The first thing is food, if you like curry you've come to the right place since Brick Lane is at the heart of the city's Bangladeshi-Sylheti community, giving it the nickname Banglatown. Brick Lane is lined with excellent curry houses. The other thing to check out is the Old Spitalfields Market, it lies on the other side of Commercial St and is one of the top markets in London, offering fashion, food, vintage and general market. It's open seven days a week.

When in Rome ...

More photos from this visit to London can be found at Flickr: The Shard and London beer.

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