Sunday, 12 April 2015

London Nights

I may not have mentioned this much before now, but last week we took our first family holiday since about 2010 and we took it to London. Staying in a, frankly, rather nice hotel at the Walthamstow Central tube station and taking our meals from local supermarkets meant that it was a budget buster and a very pleasant few days. Our young children showed me how utopian my thinking was on visiting such things as the Natural History Museum (no, we didn't see any dinosaurs) and the Science Museum (looking really quite tired in places) as well as sojourns to the National Gallery (no, didn't get to see the Impressionist stuff) and tourist-y sites.

On one such outing, this time around Parliament Square (I know how to live) I noticed a Shepherd Neame pub and joked about getting a half there. Anna agreed and suggested that I do exactly that one day. That night, after checking and finding no shows on, Anna suggested that I go and do a half there and some other pubs too. I, of course, did not need asking twice. And so it came to pass that I spent a very nice evening, the night of the fire in Holborn, gadding about in London sampling ales and public houses.

Does this sound like your cup of tea? It doesn't? Oh, what about your pint of ale? Ah, well then, time to read more...

The first stop was the pub spotted outside Parliament Square, round the back of the QEII Conference Centre as it happens, called the Westminster Arms. This was actually rather lovely, as it turned out, and was filled with people discussing their jobs and possibly connected to ancillary services around Whitehall. It also had a decent ambiance of a working local and a goodly selection of ales from their parent brewery. At the end of a sunny but windswept day, compounded by getting on the wrong branch of the Northern Line (and thus having to get a District Line train to Whitehall), it was a welcome haven and an illustrious place to begin.

Reasoning that this was a bit special and that I really ought to try all things new I plumbed for some Early Bird from Shepherd Neame and took to the back area of the main bar to sample my gains. I didn't catch the ABV, couldn't see any on the tap and so had to guess at it being about 4%. The aroma was good, subtle, and full of citrus tang. This was to be expected from a spring ale and it seemed to fit the day nicely. Hoppy nose was supported by the taste that was heavy on the orange hops and with an almost absent malt. It rushed over the tongue like the wind across St. James's Park and blew through to a pleasant but bitter aftertaste that left you in no doubt that you had drunk a decent British ale with a penchant for focussing on the weather and in a negative way at that. The mouthfeel was thin and blustery, and I had been thinking about spring adages such as coming in like a lion and leaving like a lamb, in that case this ale fit the season beautifully and was worth a second but I decided to go for a wander and find a second pub.

A phone call to my father, as he works in the capital from time to time, as I walked up from Whitehall to Trafalgar Square gained the suggestion of the Sherlock Holmes. I am reliably informed by people who have been to London and lived there that this is something of a tourist trap and that it feels a little too kitsch. On entry I found the place busy but it appeared as though the people there were locals. Sure, the walls were festooned with memorabilia and there was obviously a tourist angle going on, but the conversations I overheard were about working and living in London between people who clearly saw this as their local. In that sense, I felt safe here.

Even better was the fact that this place had their own brewery in situ and so I tried Sherlock Holmes's Ale from the Sherlock Holmes Brewing Co. Again, I did not see an ABV on the label and did not ask. At a guess I'd put this around 3.8% ABV and the colour suggested that this was a chestnut ale. The aroma was musky and very much the working man's ale feel to it. Taste was therefore exactly as one would expect from a working ale: bitter and malty. A good creamy head allowed the malt to open on the tongue followed by a wave of fresh hops cresting behind it and then folding over like some great surfing wave and splashing smoothly toward the back of the mouth. Full mouthfeel after the spring thinness of the Early Bird with a peaty finish and feel to the aftertaste that remained bitter and strong. In short, this was very much a proper ale that was very inkeeping with the surroundings, if not with the tipple of Holmes's choice if memory serves.

After that I decided to check out the side roads from Trafalgar and ended up at what appears to be a well-known Camra haunt called The Harp. I was anxious to avoid pubs that seemed to have the same ales on selection so that I could try more and more interesting ales and this place seemed to fit the deal nicely. The bar was small but festooned with beer mats that had a large amount of ales that I have tried already and even more that I had been told of by proper beer reviewers as being worth a go and some even that ranked amongst beer drinkers favourites. It was lively, there was no music that I could hear and the people were actually very polite and friendly, which is not something I ever thought I would say about London. I guess pubs are just great levellers.

I opted for the very red Love Not War by London Fields Brewery. It was certainly very red in colour and the head was certainly vigorous and lasting. This was going to take no prisoners with its rich and smokey malt aroma that promised tales of city chases and dirty business conducted in side streets. The sort of ale that I imagine would be drunk by anarchists plotting how to boycott the First World War and support dastardly suffragettes and conscientious objectors. At 4.2% ABV it wasn't going to knock me out, always a plus in unfamiliar territory, but nor was it going to annoy me by being weak and useless. I figured that there was citra or amarillo (more the latter) hops that gave a big hit on the first sip, breaking over a deep but swift malt that drowned it all in cream before moving through to the fruity and full aftertaste. Watermelon or grapefruit notes throughout, verging on the tropical, and then it was lingering in the back of the throat, but not in a bad way. It left a mellow memory as I left to find more alehouses of a similar ilk and was much stronger than the ABV suggested.

I was to be disappointed because despite finding the Hop Gardens of London (and yes, they were all about the hops) I was firmly in China Town, the West End (I caught a street performance by a juggling gymnast) and crowds. All the pubs here seemed to be owned by Nicholson's and they all had the same four ales on offer. As a consequence I eschewed them all and caught the Northern Line to Mornington Crescent because of the game of the same name.

Sure enough, on stepping from the station and taking more photographs than would be strictly sensible, I was confronted with a pub called The Lyttleton Arms. I couldn't believe that this was anything but deliberate, given that one of the founders of Mornington Crescent (the game, not the tube station or the area) was the one and only Humphrey Lyttleton. Of course I just had to go in and sample some of the ales. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was independent enough to have an entire selection of ales that I had never heard of, much less seen that night, and a music selection that was pleasingly different from what I had heard in my travels about the West End, very much more '70s and easy listening with a few subversive tunes thrown in for good measure. Sparsely populated but friendly bar staff, there was a feeling that this was a good place to be a local and a desire to visit there again someday.

I went with a Knight of the Garter, a golden ale from Windsor and Eton Brewery that came in at 3.8% ABV. The aroma was very familiar and also very nice, something of citra or cascade hops about the tropical smell that came from the rather light golden ale with little in the way of lasting head. There was tropical fruit in the taste too, oozing out from beneath that head at first and slowly giving way to a more unobstructed delivery. It was very citrus-y in the way that it veered toward being lemon and lime in taste, with the sweetness over the top enough to cover it from being too bitter. This was a bit of a shame as I am rather enamoured of raw lemon from time to time. There was little appearance put in by the malt, preferring to wait in the wings and provide the breadth to the mouthfeel without ever asking for centre stage. The taste was thus overwhelmingly hops and spears of yeast delivered through the subtle and rather clever carbonation. It was funky, like the pub it was served in, and none too shabby. Definitely worth a punt if I see it again.

Then it was back on the tube and a long ride back to Walthamstow Central where I made a beeline for the pub that was near where we were staying. Not least because at the start of my trip I had bobbed in to see if a half could be had but without having stopped to get cash out to find that there was a minimum of £5 on a card. Curiously I had failed to notice that this had the same selection as the Nicholson's pubs despite its boast of having real ale on cask. It did not. It had some good ales, sure enough, but these were not on cask and the selection that was trumpeted (and rightly so) on the chalkboard outside were only in bottles. It was thus a disappointing end in The Goose after the entertaining trip that I had had. Still, seized by the fact that this would be the last chance to sample ales from London for a while I got in two.

First up was the obvious choice of Fuller's London Pride that I had not partaken of that evening after spying a Black Cab Porter in The Harp and waiting to see if it came up again. It didn't. This was the most London of all the ales that I tried in the evening. Amber, 4.5% ABV, and with a creamy lasting head. Perfectly pulled, well presented and handed across in a manner I expected from London barstaff - smiles but no interaction. The aroma was heavily malty without much in the way of hops or yeast to break it up, a dense march of malt across the square of my nostrils. Then the taste followed and was much like the aroma - malt, steady and sure but decidedly boring after the ales that I had sampled. It lacked a hops punch or a yeasty spear and the malt was a bit samey. Indeed, there was a reliance on being pulled to give any character at all, mainly creamy, and I was thus very disappointed by the ale in general, which may not be fair. Mouthfeel was thin and uninteresting and I was glad to move onto the final ale of the evening.

Night was drawing in, the wind had picked up, and even the streets of London were cooling down. I knew that the family were waiting in the hotel room and that one of them had been sick in my absence. Time to end this. I opted for Einstoek by Oelegrd, an Icelandic ale (I can't do umlauts for some reason, hence the addition of 'e's for pronunciation) weighing in at 5.6% ABV - easily the strongest of the night. It had been chilled in a fridge and was also the most expensive of the night - I was very surprised to find that pint prices matched the ones in my more usual locale. It was pale and fizzed alarmingly on opening. I suspect it had not been chilled long. There was a heavy alcoholic smell from this one that obscured any hop character or malty comfort. The taste was similar, a light malt and then straight into a harsh and unforgiving alcohol taste that dominated any hops but left a strong impression. This was an ale for an occasion, like a volcanic eruption or glacial calving, but ill-fitted to the end of a night in London. Overall it was harsh, warming and dry. Better than the competition in the bar but not the best of the evening.

Overall then, I had two winners from the evening. The best ale, by a country mile, was the Love Not War from London Fields and the best hostelry had to be the funky and understated environs of The Lyttleton Arms which deserves a second visit. It seemed to make a big deal of steak meals, so maybe a good place to visit with the family to have a meal and play a few rounds of the local variants of Mornington Crescent, if I can pluck up the courage to ask the barstaff for any house rules we need to be aware of after the 1967 ruling on local stipulations when playing above the line.

No comments:

Post a Comment