Last Updated : 27/04/08
must admit to a teensy bit of satisfaction as I learnt I was to be working in London for four days just before xmas week for the first time in many years; yes, I know that I always maintain that I hate London and all that, but the scooper in me cried out for joy with the prospect of three new brewpubs for the list plus Meantime, Borough Market and the few other places worth a quick visit… so, it was with a lot of “Why me?” but also a percentage of “go on then” that I left the house at some bizarre hour on the Monday morning for the epic drive down to the Isle of Dogs in London’s Docklands where I would be working for the remainder of the week.
Monday 17th December 2007.
In the shadow of 1 Canada Square.
Almost five hours later I left the car at my Travel Inn in the unlovely eastern suburb of Beckton and took the Docklands Light Railway eastwards to my base for the next week at Poplar, after waiting four minutes to obtain the post-09:30 travelcard price! For those who don’t know where Poplar is it’s basically right alongside the Canary Wharf towers in Docklands, but I hadn’t anticipated exactly where we would be… our location was to be a portakabin in the DLR expansion project offices right in the shadow of the main tower (usually – and incorrectly – called Canary Wharf when it’s real name is one Canada Square) and worryingly close should terrorists choose that week to “have a go” at Docklands… this may sound as if I’m unduly pessimistic about such things, but in my defence let me say that on the 9th of February 1996 I’d been stood on New Cross station having visited the Crystal Palace Tavern and had seen (and felt) the IRA Docklands bomb explode a mere mile and a half away; this was as close to a bomb as I wished to get, thank you very much, and so I just hoped that the season of goodwill extended to terrorists too!
I was nominally the team leader which gave me carte blanche to sit on my arse all day and act as if I were working when I could be surfing the net or suchlike, but this isn’t really me – and, anyhow, if I gave the lads a hand then we’d get out earlier and earlier=more scooping time! We eventually escaped around 16:00 and so it was immediately off to the nearest DLR station at India Quay (out of the gate, up the stairs, work to platform in 53 seconds!) and the first train to Greenwich where I planned to visit the Greenwich Union pub and try as many Meantime beers as I possibly could!
The journey through the twilight of Canary wharf was undeniably impressive with the huge towers lit up from base to tip although I’m sure it’s not just me who thinks that maybe they don’t need to use so much electricity here? For anyone who’s not taken the DLR before let me tell you right now that if you don’t like the idea of a train driving itself then I’d recommend you walk! The little trams (for that’s what they are in reality, not trains) traverse amazing curves and gradients as they fit in around the landscape rather than trying to conquer it like “proper” trains do and give some great views of your surroundings but, as I’ve said, they do drive themselves and it’s always a thought that they might not realise they need to stop…
My tram behaved itself impeccably and I was soon trudging up Royal Hill in search of the Greenwich Union pub which had been on my “must visit” list for many years on account of the full range of Meantime beers on sale there. Now before I say anything else I can just hear some people muttering “Meantime? All bloody keg, why’s he drinking that crap?” and wish to answer this unjust accusation before continuing with my review of the place. Why? Because all their beer is unpasteurised (my main stumbling block for not counting UK non-cask beers) and the examples I’d tried thus far had been quite interesting… and, anyhow, they’re my rules so if you don’t agree then fine, but I think you’ll miss out on some of the best brews in London by not indulging!
In the Meantime…
I soon found the pub and I must admit it was nothing like I’d been expecting; I’d envisaged a large place with a broad frontage and pompous staff but that seemed to be the preserve of the Youngs pub next door (maybe not the staff, as I didn’t bother to check) and the Greenwich Union gave the impression of being a converted house next door to a proper pub! Still, here I was and so in I went, to find a decidedly modern-styled bar which stretched away into the distance. As the time was barely nudging five the customer base was decidedly thin on the ground and so I had the barstaff to myself; indeed, when I arrived they were all busy polishing various areas of the bar and seemed pleased to be able to pull some beer instead of cleaning the place!
Eight beers were available on tap, all unpasteurised, and I definitely wanted six of them plus the other two I’d only previously tried bottled versions at slightly different gravities… now that would be a good start to knock a large hole in my randomly selected target for the week of twenty scoops! I chose the Helles first and found it to be a very crisp, malty and remarkably Germanic-tasting brew with a pronounced dry finish; a good start! Pale Ale came next and this really was a stunner which looked innocent enough in it’s amberness yet had a flavour out of all proportion to it’s looks or strength had indicated; it’s decent malty body was overlain with bursts of citrussy, piney, resinous and bitter hops, followed by a surprisingly dry finish with yet more of those lip-smacking new world hops – simply excellent, and this one beer finally removed my ingrained prejudice that keg beer means bad beer…
By this point I’d realised that I could have tasters of some of the beers for nothing and so, not really wanting to try the fruit beers by the half-pint but reluctant to leave them unscooped, I requested tasters of the Strawberry and Raspberry wheat beers. To my surprise I received at least 100ml of each in baby Hoegaarden glasses and thus, by my rule 10 (quantity consumed) check, they passed muster and so were sampled curiously. The strawberry, as expected, was a hazy pink fluid with an unsettling note of vomit to the aroma; “I’m sure the last time I smelt a strawberry it wasn’t like this” I thought as I forced myself to sip it, taking care not to drink the imaginary carrots I sensed were floating in the glass. Thankfully the taste was vomit (and carrot) free but was way too marshmallowy, sweet and – for want of a better phrase – it tasted like the kind of beginner’s fruit beer often seen in trendy bars these days.
The raspberry was, thankfully, far better and even resembled a proper frambozen in appearance (salmon-pink), aroma (sourness and Brettanomyces on the aroma) and even flavour with some sourish fruitiness balancing out the undertow of bananary wheat beer… not necessarily the kind of thing I’d want to drink again, but a very interesting beer to sample and I was pleasantly surprised that it tasted vaguely like a proper lambic frambozen! With the fruit beers out of the way it was time to carry on with my scooping of the “proper” beers and so the next two were ordered; Union (4.9%) and London Stout (4.5%).
Union turned out to be a dark brown lager vaguely in the style of a German schwarzbier; it possessed a caramel and treacly aroma which followed through into the taste augmented by toasted grain, treacle toffee and slightly bitter malty finish – not bad at all! London Stout was a far different beast, all coffee, frazzled barley and plain chocolate and had a taste which exploded on the palate; all these flavours milled around my mouth with bitterness and a lovely sweet nuttiness coming through late on to round off the mellow, roasted and complex finish superbly. This must be one of the best stouts – best beers, even – I’ve had this year and I was filled with admiration for a brewery which has definitely slipped under my radar until now on account of their beers not being casked; well, they’re definitely on the radar now!
As I supped the Stout and chatted with the sociable barstaff, one of the brewers approached and discussed the beers with me. He seemed very pleased I’d given the Pale ale such a high score and declared that it was the brewery staff’s favourite of the lot! I had to leave as I had a huge list of pubs to visit, but managed a spare minute to congratulate him on the beers and agree that most British beer lovers can’t get past the mental block of beer in a keg being good… as I said before, that’s their loss!
One’s off to Hampstead.
With Meantime well and truly cleared it was time for the first of the three new brewpubs on my list; I’d chosen the Horseshoe up in Hampsted as my first visit on account of it being the furthest away from Beckton, leaving the closer two for the following evening, and also I was in a good position to drop right onto the Northern line from Greenwich. A quick train to London Bridge was the first step before plunging into the warren which is the tube system where I found I’d forgotten just how deep the Northern line is and how claustrophobic and hot it can be down there! Half an hour later I was blinking in the evening light and gasping at fresh air once more as I emerged into the crisp evening at Hampstead tube station where, hopefully, I’d soon be in position to score some winners – and some food too as I was, by this point, starving!
I soon located the pub a short distance from the station and wasted no time in procuring myself a table by the bar. It was pleasantly quiet and relaxed inside as I studied the cask ales, finding Adnams on stillage behind the bar (why?) plus two of their own beers on handpull in the form of McLaughlins Summer Ale (3.6%) and Laurie’s Best (4.1%). I ordered a half of the summer before retiring to my table where I contemplated the menu and sipped the hazy pale ale. The first thing that sprung to mind was “How much?!” (the food prices!) and the second was “This tastes like homebrew” – and this wasn’t meant in a generous manner! As I slurped the beer again I could almost feel the masses of alpha acids stripping the tastebuds from my tongue, but again not in a pleasant way; I love very hoppy beers, some may say excessively hopped beers, but to me this simply tasted like the brewer didn’t really know what he was doing and had added way too many hops rendering the beer harsh and unpleasant. It was blessed with a thick malty body, intense for the ABV, on which the mass of piney, citrussy hops sat with dabs of lemon meringue and bitterness, before the malty, citrus, bitter and resinous finish with a slight hint of Brettanomyces in there as well; at least I couldn’t say this beer was boring!
Happy in the knowledge that work were paying, I ordered my food (Pollock on mushy peas with grey shrimps, mint and a side-order of buttered cabbage - £18!) and battled on with the Summer ale, trying my best to like it or at least come to terms with it’s boisterous character, and when the glass neared the end I found myself filled with a mixture of relief and sadness – now that’s one personality-splitting brew! I recognised that I liked the citrussy hop character and even the unusual finish had grown on me, but I still felt the hopping was way too coarse and needed a bit of the old Pictish or Brendan Dobbin magic to tame it a touch… but, don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a lot worse and I’d much rather have this kind of thing than a bland, hop-less and boring Regional beer any day of the week!
The other beer was ordered and so, hoping this wasn’t as unbalanced, I got stuck into it. Laurie’s Best turned out to be a deep amber ale with yet another hefty (but not as over-egged) dose of hops although these were of the Bramling Cross type with an attractive blackcurrant and leafy hop character which sat well with the toasty maltiness and increasing bitterness. Unfortunately, just as I was deciding that I quite liked it, the aftertaste kicked in and I had to hurriedly revise my opinion; the bitterness grew very harsh and all the flavours – rather than melding together – suddenly shot across my tongue in conflicting directions and refused to come together again which gave a very unbalanced and rasping finish; a shame, I thought, as it had showed a lot of promise early on…
My food arrived and was, as I’d expected for the price, slightly poncey and “nouvelle” but was absolutely delicious with the little grey shrimps (how very Dutch!) giving the mushy peas - and they were called mushy peas, not the irritating “pea puree”! - a salty boost to go with the perfectly cooked and tasty fish, plus the home-made bread was particularly impressive, so much so that I blagged a second plateful! I found that after my food both beers (I’d shrewdly saved a dribble of each) tasted a whole lot better; maybe the food had changed my palate or, more prosaically, maybe I was simply getting more used to them? Whatever, they remained on fairly low scores although I’d definitely come here again to see if they have improved and/or changed and will put the Horseshoe on the list for my next London visit.
As I prepared to leave, I looked around and found it hard to believe that this used to be a Wetherspoons – surely this must have been one of their original pubs which they sold off a few years back to concentrate on the huge drinking barns so beloved of Mr Martin? Whatever, it’s certainly an improvement on 99% of McSpoons these days!
Half an hour on the Northern line brought me back to London Bridge where, after a slight case of exit confusion brought on by a good number of years away from the place (that’s my excuse…), I was soon traipsing through my old haunt of Borough Market towards Brew Wharf. I remember in the mid-90’s this superb and atmospheric example of Victoriana was almost condemned to the scrapheap and was apparently on the demolition list until sanity prevailed; it’s now fully rejuvenated and it’s a pleasure to see the life around the place these days, although sadly it’s become a magnet for “city types” and lost, in my opinion anyway, some of it’s former decrepit charm… that said, it’s far better full of Tory bastards than as a pile of rusting iron in a scrapyard with the site used as a car-park! Don’t laugh, this almost happened…
I’d tried a couple of Brew Wharf beers previously and was determined physically to scoop the place in although, it not having existed on my last visit to London, I didn’t know where it was. This proved an easy puzzle to solve in that I simply followed some braying suited types along Stoney Street, guessing they must be heading for one of the pubs, and the courtyard soon appeared beneath the second railway arch. I squeezed my way inside between some prime examples of “once-a-year drinkers” suitably adorned with LED-encrusted flashing antlers and sidled my way to the bar where I found two home-brews for sale; game on!
A quick half of the Wharf Robin (5%) was in order although I wasn't prepared for the price - £1.70 a half! I almost spat out my mouthful of beer as the barmaid relayed the monetary implications of my hasty purchase and decided that one was enough - £3.40 a pint is just outrageous for a 5% beer brewed 10 metres away! – and to top it all it wasn’t a particularly good beer anyhow being mid-brown, dull and malty with some toffee but no discernable “Christmas” character at all.
My glass drained, I was off and soon past the office parties and on my way to the Rake. I soon realised that I had no idea where it was and so headed for my best-guess – which was totally wrong and so shuffled back through the market looking for a pubby building. I could say that my inbuilt scoops GPS led me to it but I’ll play the straight man and admit I found it by accident, somewhere I’d probably have looked last if at all, but I’d found it and so wasn’t to be denied at least one scoop!
I’ve heard that the Rake claims to be the first new pub to open in the Borough market area for 100 years, but I can’t work this out as Brewwharf opened a few years ago and that looks suspiciously like a pub to me… regardless of this, the Rake is a small place with an overflow covered patio to one side without which I doubt they’d fit more than 20 people inside! I managed to reach the bar and found, on the taps, Verhaege Kriek and Cantillon Gueuze (Gueuze on draught?!?) amongst others although I chose a half of Dark Star Winter Solstice (4%) from the handpull – and regretted it immediately as it turned out to be one of those “Christmas spice” beers which I just don’t like at all! I grimaced my way through the brew and by the time I’d managed to finish the majority of it I didn’t feel like a lambic just in case the spice and acid should combine forces in my guts to produce spectacular projectile vomiting; now that would give the office parties something to screech about!
Promising myself I’d return the next evening and have a go at the winners in the fridge, I made my way back to the Market Porter where the scrum outside which I’d seen on my way to Brewwharf earlier seemed to have died down considerably and I managed to get inside with no real problems in the “once a year drinker twat” department. I surveyed both bars and was amazed to count four scoops available; with less than an hour until I had to be on my way back to the hotel (Beckton is a long way and the DLR finishes relatively early) I knew that I’d have to be selective and hope the ones I left would still be on the following evening. I started with Grainstore Three Kings (4.5%) which wasn't a Xmas beer by any stretch of the imagination and, amusingly, got me a bit annoyed… “Why has this dross got a festive name?” I ranted to myself, no doubt to the consternation of all those around me, and my frustration is evident in the score of 1 it finally achieved; “An average, malty ale with pear drops and sweetness - nothing festive at all” was my comment at the time, and I have no reason to doubt it.
Next up, with one eye on the clock, was Houston Wee Belter (3.9%) which was another weak brew with little festiveness to recommend it although at least this one had a modicum of hoppiness and a fairly bitter, malty finish with more hoppiness to round off; not bad, but certainly not great! So, after scooping 12 scoops for the evening - a ludicrously high tally for London by anyone’s book - I decided that enough was enough and so drained my glass and ambled off to the underground station for the Jubilee line to Canning Town and then “home” to Beckton via the DLR. One good thing was seeing the dome from Canning Town lit up like some weird space station and another good thing was the short walk to the hotel from Beckton DLR station; I could see my room from the station, always a good thing when it’s feckin’ freezing outside…
Tuesday 18th December 2007.
I was out of work early the following day – well, what’s the point of being in charge if you don’t have some benefits? – and was soon on a train down to Herne Hill where I hoped to scoop the first of the two new David Bruce, aka Capital Pub Company, brewpubs which had appeared during the last few months. Once out of the station, in a rare moment of observational excellence, I spotted a large pub sign (next to a Tote sport shop) pointing down an alleyway which led me straight to the Florence and thus my first scoops of the evening; this was going too well!
The pub was a large and airy place which nevertheless seemed to be fairly welcoming and relaxed so, with my stomach already grumbling at not being fed for a few hours, I chose a table in order to study the menu – after obtaining a beer first, obviously! The barman was Australian – a rare thing these days, how times change – and had obviously been primed to expect awkward questions from visiting beer scoopers as to the provenance of the house beers. He told me, after commendably checking with a colleague, that both the Weasel and Bonobo were brewed there and so that was it, two scoops straight off! I was soon in possession of both beers and also - to my stomach’s intense pleasure - had also ordered a haddock and chips on the basis that it came with mushy peas as, after enjoying them in the very posh gastro-brewpub the previous evening, I decided that I needed my northern mushy pea fix yet again…
Weasel was a hazy amber brew very much in the current British mould of pale, citrussy and hoppy beers, although at first it seemed a little simple for me with a plain maltiness overlain with citrus flavours with a leafy, bitter hoppiness. As I drank, however, the beer revealed more of it’s complexity and showed a resinous side to the hops and also a good balance of flavours so, although I’d still like a little more oomph for the strength, it was a decent enough attempt at a UK pale ale in the new American-tinged style and pretty drinkable if a little underpowered for the strength.
Bonobo came next and I immediately knew I should have had this one first; I’m not sure what style this is supposed to be, maybe a variety of brown ale or mild, but it’s definitely not the thing to follow a bitter, citrussy beer with! A deep brown ale, it had a plain caramel taste with a distinct fruitiness which petered out into a sweet, dull, caramel, toffee and demerera sugar finish with little of interest at all. I’d hoped, looking at the colour, for some nice dark maltiness but all I’d received was a draught of brown sugar!
The food was reasonably impressive, tasting reassuringly home-made, and was washed down with the remainders of my two beers and maybe even made the Bonobo taste better by cutting through it’s sweetness a little to reveal a more interesting crystal malt character beneath all that cloying sugary toffee. So, with my scoops supped and stomach satiated (for a while, at least), I was just in time to give my thanks to the barman and canter back up the alleyway to the station for a train across to Wimbledon, from where I could take the District line up to Fulham Broadway and thence to the Cock and Hen, the second Bruce brewpub of the evening.
And another one.
I’d spent most of the afternoon working on this move rather than my proper work and so was reasonably chuffed when it all came together without a hiccup; 45 minutes later I was alighting at Fulham Broadway with my A-to-Z handy in search of my second new brewpub of the evening. A short walk soon brought me to my target which was poles apart from the Florence in character; whereas the Florence had been a rather posh foody bar with beer coming a distinct second, here in Fulham I’d found a proper pub with the copper on display at the front of the bar and not hidden away in the back room as had been the case in Herne Hill. Once at the bar it became clear that the same two beers were on sale plus Adnams Yuletide (4.5%), and so – after confirming with the sociable Irish barman that both house beers were brewed here and not at the Florence – I acquired a half-pint of each and prepared for another frenzy of scooping.
I must admit to being slightly sceptical that the beers were brewed on-site and not at Herne Hill, but a taste of each soon persuaded me that they were different – quite different indeed. Weasel was far less citrussy in character with more piney/resinous hop instead and, whilst decent enough, wasn’t really as interesting as it’s sister beer down in Dulwich. Bonobo, on the other hand, seemed to be much better on account of a decent chocolatey note to the sweetish, malty taste and much less caramel than the one I’d tried an hour previously and was, in this incarnation, a decent enough drink although I still think it’s a touch sweet for a prolonged session. With the house beers in the book my eyes turned to the pump dispensing Adnams Yuletide, which seemed to be a rather large scoop, and so I indulged in a swift half only to find it a thick, malty and chewy beer – not really my kind of thing at all – but saved by some subtle spicing with hints of cinnamon and even orange peel in there.
With the ticking completed I headed off back to the tube station and thence via the shiny new Jubilee line to complete my evening at Borough Market, and this time I had enough time for whatever was in the Porter… or I did as long as there wasn’t too many scoops on! I made one slight cock-up when I alighted at Southwark instead of London Bridge by mistake, but I soon realised my error of judgement when I saw signs for “Waterloo East” and so it was back down the escalators and then one stop on to where I should have got off the first time…
No matter how hard I try I can never seem to find the exit from London Bridge tube station that comes out by Stoney Street; maybe it’s one of these Harry Potter things where you just need to walk into the wall at the correct place and suddenly you appear, blinking with disorientation, in the heart of Borough Market? Magic platforms aside, I tried again to find the correct exit but still ended up at the main one and so trolled across to the Rake via the steps by Southwark cathedral and thence through the silent market where stocks were beginning to pile up in readiness for opening.
I was devastated to find that I’d missed the Cantillon on draught in the Rake and, even worse, nothing rateable had replaced it on the tap! Notwithstanding this hefty disappointment I was soon propped against a table with a Yeti in front of me… no, not a big hairy monster before anyone suggests that - I'm sure John Bratley was in the Wenlock - but a bottle of Great Divide Yeti Imperial Stout (9.5%). Despite the astronomical cost of £5 or so (I can't remember how much it was now, I think my brain has blacked it out lest I realise I was fleeced) I was determined to try this whopping brew as I love a dark beer as much as the next man, plus one with lots of hops (it being an Imperial Stout) might just be my idea of a really, really good time...
I must admit to being a little apprehensive as to whether the Yeti would be too over the top in the flavour stakes as, despite loving big, complex beers, I don't really like huge unwieldy flavours as anyone can brew beer like that; if the UK beer scene has taught me one thing it's that complexity married with subtlety and a delicate brush can create some fabulous taste sensations. Well, subtlety wasn't the Yeti's way at all and for the first few sips I wasn't sure; was this just another clumsy palate-blaster with no charm underneath all those huge flavours? Happily, this proved not to be the case the further I got down the glass as underneath the huge roast and spicy hop character lurked candy sugar, bitterness, rose-petal hops and a distinct spiciness with a huge blast of resinous, bitter hops. The finish was surprisingly balanced - despite the beer's obvious firepower - and I was impressed with the way the flavours were kept essentially in balance although there's no denying this is a big, burly monster of a stout and not for those delicate flowers who only like bland UK Regional beers!
Whilst I supped my Yeti some pompous normals arrived and the female one enquired whether they still had “That cherry beer I had in August”. The barman patiently informed her that the beers changed regularly but, luckily for her, they had a draught cherry beer on in the form of Verhaege kriek; now this I just had to see as, and I’m guessing here, I’d lay a penny to a pound that the beer she wanted was some hideously sweet concoction such as Liefmans or Timmermans and not something sour and lactic like Verhaege! The barman pulled a taster for her and she visibly recoiled as the glass came within a foot of her nose; her face was a picture of absolute disgust and I just wish I’d had the camera ready to record it for posterity! Her bloke took a sniff, which brought about the same reaction, and he muttered to her “that’s off!” Neither the barman nor I could be bothered to explain that Verhaege Kriek is supposed to smell like that and so he furnished her with some repulsive sweet fruity concoction which wouldn’t offend her delicate palate with which she retired, happy…
With plenty of time to spare I indulged in another winning American beer, Left Hand Blackjack Porter (5.8%) which, thinking about it, would probably have been best before the Yeti... it was a sweetish, smooth beer, very much in the “modern” porter style, with an almost chocolate truffle flavour and then sweet caramel and chocolate all the way down to the sweetish finish which, in my opinion, was a touch simple and lacking complexity and/or interest, although perfectly acceptable.
I then wandered across the market to the Market Porter to see how many of their beers had changed from the previous evening. This number was a ludicrous eight and I found myself in the position of requiring six of the beers on sale – I’d not a chance of clearing that lot up owing to the time I’d taken over my Yeti! So, I positioned myself at the front bar, and ordered my first two beers; Crouch Vale Xmas Pale (4.4%) was a nutty, malty and quite decent “supping” brew although not particularly festive whilst Derwent Christmas Light (4.2%) had an interesting winey flavour with quite a bit of aged character and Madeira flavours over the malty body; I’m not sure if this was intentional or not but, nevertheless, it was tasty and interesting!
An oldish bloke next to me was taking notes on his beer consumption and so I struck up conversation, feeling comradery with a fellow scooper amongst this mass of normals, and found him to be some kind of scooper although his ideas on the subject were rather unusual! He claimed that he wrote down the beers he drank but didn’t count them up and also seemed to be under the impression that a “ticker” was someone who counted their beers and a “scooper” was someone who bottled! I attempted to put him right but I’m not sure my explanation changed his opinion very much and so decided to let him get on with his non-counting scooping and ventured around to the back bar to get another winner.
I returned with Felstar India Pig Ale (7%) which, as the name suggests, was a left-over from the recent Pig’s Ear festival. It was a thick malty brew which, if it was trying to be an IPA, had missed the target by an absolute mile as, despite being strong enough, it had virtually no hoppiness or bitterness and ended up being a sickly, thick malty syrup with pretty limited appeal. I spent so long forcing this beer down that I didn’t really have enough time for another and so, safe in the knowledge that I had one more evening to enjoy the beers on offer, I bade the closet scooper goodnight and trudged off into the frosty evening towards the underground station and then back to the hotel, pausing on the Jubilee line to reflect on how much the closing train doors sound like the noise some mythical monster’s jaws might hypothetically make… what the fuck was in that Felstar beer?!
Wednesday 19th December 2007.
Four scoops straight off.
What to do on my final evening in the capital had me in a quandary during my work time; should I venture into the city and try out the Bünker brewpub which I’d not visited for at least 8 years and then onwards to Porterhouse (in the hope of an Xmas special) and then a few other bars on my list, or should I do the Wenlock and see what scoops were available there? I soon decided on the Wenlock as, during my time working in London, it hadn’t offered that many winners and in it’s new quasi-scooping pub guise I figured that I might pick up three or four scoops if I was lucky and then, obviously, it would be back to Borough Market for the Rake and Market Porter yet again!
I took the Northern line to Old Street station then walked along a vaguely familiar road, following my A-to-Z carefully, towards the Wenlock. As I trudged along it all started to come back to me and, as I traversed the vaguely dodgy road towards the pub, I remember the Wenlock always being further than I thought it should be from the tube station – well, this time was no exception! This really is the Wenlock’s Achilles heel, if it has one, it’s distance from the tube stops… or is that just me being a lazy bastard?
I was soon inside and, despite eight years having passed since I’d been there last, not a lot had changed from what I remembered; the central bar was still there and the general atmosphere was still boisterous yet sociable with a decent crowd inside belying the pub’s rather out-of-the-way location. I took up position at the end of the bar and surveyed the pumps, finding that I required four of the beers on; that wasn’t bad for a visit out of the blue I thought, and immediately set about my scoops with Pitfield Old Nick (4.4%) which was also a brewery winner as I’d not had any Pitfield beers since they moved to Essex. A pale, slightly spicy beer with some indefinable hops, it was average with nothing of real interest and so it was with some trepidation that I got a half of Boggart Natalis (4%).
You may wonder why trepidation… well, I just don’t like the taste of Boggart beers these days; to me they have an overriding phenolic edge which just isn’t pleasant and, as they never used to taste like this, I’m assuming that something is wrong and so generally don’t bother with them unless there’s nothing else. In the Wenlock, however, I thought I’d give it a try just to see how it had travelled… and the result was predictably dire with a horrible toffee and cod liver oil TCP-esque taste ruining my tastebuds for the rest of the evening! As you can probably guess, this one didn’t get finished and I finally resolved not to bother with Boggart beers again – that was their final chance!
As I wrote my notes, I observed Burnley behind the bar and so, having read a lot about him on scoopgen, was pleased when he realised I was a scooper and came over with a pumpclip to show me. “Need this?” he queried, showing me a White Rose clip, to which I replied the affirmative! He informed me that Martin the Mildman would be along soon and he was putting Martin’s 10,000th beer on just for him… this evening was definitely the one to pick, I chuckled, as a possible six scoops were now in the offing! My next winner was Brew Wharf Pioneer (5.4%) which, ironically, cost me 70p less per pint than it would have in the brewpub… irony aside, it was about as average as the Wharf Robin I’d had two nights back; a deep-brown, caramelly brew with a hint of spiciness but overall bland, toffeeish and without any real direction as to what it wanted to be and ending up as a bit of a mess.
My final scoop of those currently available was yet another Pig’s Ear surplus cask, Saffron Pig’s Ear IPA (6.5%), which followed in the footsteps of the Felstar I’d sampled the previous evening in being a simple, strong, thick and malty beer with little in the way of hop character or bitterness and it finished way too sweet for it’s flavour to hide. As I struggled through the Saffron, grimacing as I did so, Martin arrived and so Burnley proceeded to pull through two more beers in the form of Alcazar Martin’s 10K (3.7%) and the White Rose (brewed at Sheffield brewery) Alchemy – both winners!
Like being in Sheffield…
Unfortunately, the White Rose was repulsive; a huge aroma of Diacetyl (butterscotch) drowned everything else and told me that this brew had something seriously wrong with it… I tried to drink it, honestly, but I really dislike Diacetyl and so over half the glass was returned to the bar as slops! Martin’s beer, however, was a totally different beast with a plain chocolate flavour overlain with plenty of spicy, bitter hops and then even some rum/Christmas cake flavours in the aftertaste; bland this wasn’t!
As I supped Burnley suddenly began pulling two more beers through and I realised that I could, theoretically, score eight beers in one pub if these two were scoops! The first one was indeed a winner, Nethergate Red Santa (4.2%), and so – amazingly – was the mild in the form of Mighty Oak Oscar Wilde (3.7%) which I’ve not had since Mighty Oak moved breweries… I got half of each and then engaged in talk with Martin and then Kev, the landlord of the Lower Red Lion in St Albans, who just happened to be at the far end of the bar sampling the wares! When Burnley found out who I was he was even more sociable and the two beers went down almost before I had a chance to write my tasting notes… too much drinking and ranting, not enough thinking!
The Nethergate was their usual bag; a decent, full, very malty brew with toffee, honey with a dab of chocolate and not too many hops yet pleasant enough, whilst the Oscar Wilde was a lovely supping beer, very much in the style of a southern brown ale, with caramel, maltiness, toasty grain and a smooth almost “caramac” toffee finish; interesting and tasty! I glanced at my watch and knew that I’d not have time for the list of city pubs which did guest ales and I’d been hoping to visit but, fair’s fair, had I done all of them I don’t think I would have picked up eight winners as I’d done in this one superb pub! So, resigning myself to doing these the next time I was down in London, it was time to get back to Borough Market yet again and see what the Porter was offering.
With all my scoops supped – an amazing eight – and most of the scoopers drifting away, I bade my thanks to Burnley who absolutely withered me, on his way out into town, with the news that “John Bratley will be back in a minute, he lives upstairs!”; I’d not seen Bratley for years and a chance to say hello would be great. I went to dispose of some excess beer before the long-ish walk back to Old Street and then, as I headed for the door, who should walk in but Mr Bratley himself! A quick exchange of pleasantries was in order before we went our separate ways, Bratley to have his tea and me off to the tube station. On the way back I reflected on how little he’d changed physically over the 14 years or so I’ve known him… I know, looking at old phots, that I’ve changed considerably (outwards, mainly, plus a general loss of thatch) but Bratley hasn’t change one iota – he still resembles Catweazle on a bad hair (and beard) day!
My final scoops in the smoke.
Half an hour later I was in the Market Porter trying to reach the bar through a tangle of bodies belonging to screeching “once-a-year” drinkers who I suppose I owe one thing – their drinking had resulted in a vast turnover of the beers and now meant that I required a further three scoops which hadn’t been on the previous evening plus one which had! I began with the oldest one, Clarks Top o’t Tree, which was sadly a fairly bland, golden beer with little of interest or seasonality about it. Moor Santa’s Moor (4%) came next and this was a rich and nutty beer, dark brown in colour, tasting of roast grain and a decent dollop of wininess in the complex finish; good stuff indeed, and actually fairly festive in taste although not, as per usual these days, in strength.
Suddenly, through the throng of gesticulating arms and sweaty bodies, came Burnley: a man on a mission! He quickly ordered his two scoops and we had a conversation of sorts as he necked them; I say of sorts as the shouting tossers all around seemed to think that in order to be heard half a metre away it was necessary to bellow at the top of their voices at each other and then, for good measure, tack on a pretentious braying laugh just to make sure they were keeping their decibel count high enough. I’d already acquired my next beer, Hambleton Belly Warmer (5%), which was a fairly average malty beer with a hint of treacle to the taste and some fruitcake richness, although I noticed that Burnley drank his two halves in the time it took me to sip my way through just this one!
One last scoop was then squeezed in before my tube back to Beckton for the final time, and Grindleton Plum Duff (4.3%) was a good choice; a rich thick and malty brew, it was deep brown in colour and shot through with a delicious toasty, toffee-malt character and satisfyingly festive aftertaste which belied it relatively low strength. As I drained my glass a bloke sidled up and asked me if I was Gazza; curious to know who he was I decided to admit to this and, despite forgetting to ask for this piece of gen, I was regaled with praise for Scoopergen and how it had helped him find beers on his last trip abroad… this kind of thing makes me realise why I do the site and that, if I were someone else, I’d love to find all this gen in one place…
So, with a warm feeling inside from the beer and kind words about scoopergen, it was back off to Beckton where I found a mini Ice-age had swept through in the preceding couple of hours leaving everything coated in a thick layer of industrial-strength ice… it’s grim down south, you know…
I hold by my assertion that - for the size of the place - London has a pretty poor beer scene. Okay, so the area around Borough Market is thriving nowadays with a brewpub (however expensive) plus the ever-popular Market Porter and new Rake, but there’s not a lot else around pub-wise to threaten the scoops count unduly. Put it this way, you have to work a lot harder for your winners in London than you would in Sheffield or Manchester and it’ll cost you a damn sight more!
I’m glad to see the Wenlock continues to spiral upwards in the scooping league table and there’s not a lot of pubs which could provide me with eight winners in a session – although, to be fair, some of these were put on for Martin the Mildman and so five/six is probably a more realistic estimate, although this in itself is a very respectable tally. The Wenlock’s problem is that it’s somewhat out of the action and the time taken to get there eats into your drinking time, a problem which affects other pubs such as the Pembury and Dog & Bell; in Manchester you can walk from the furthest pub (Crescent) to the other furthest (Marble) in around 25-30 minutes, whereas in London you’re looking at that between each pub… but that’s what you get with a city the size of London, I suppose.
The number of brewpubs in London was once one of the highest counts in the world when the Firkins were brewing (although which ones actually brewed was never totally clear) but then plummeted to a mere handful when they – and the old guard such as the Orange and Yorkshire Grey – closed. Now, thankfully, the numbers are back up to seven brewpubs plus a couple of micros although, to be honest, the new brewpubs didn’t do that much for me and it’s kind of sad that I prefer the beers from the two producers who dispense from kegs, albeit unpasteurised, in the form of Meantime and Zero Degrees. Saying that, a visit to all the new brewpubs is recommended to see a broad variance of pubs and styles of beer and so, if you’ve not done London for a while, now is a good time to do it before any sudden wave of closures rips through the current brewpub stock as it has done many times in the past.
I scored an astounding 34 beers during my three evenings in London, although this figure was slightly distorted by scoring every beer in the new brewpubs and the Greenwich Union (plus the Xmas beers in the Porter) and so maybe a more realistic figure at a different time of year would be a dozen or so… still, this isn’t too bad and also I didn’t have time for some of the multi-beer free houses which I wanted to try such as the Pembury, Dog & Bell and the Oakdale – maybe next time! Then let’s not forget the brewpubs surviving from the last decade, Bünker (previously Soho) and Mash, which again I wanted to re-visit but simply ran out of time!
So, London is improving as a scooping city, but it still has a fair way to go yet to challenge the likes of Sheffield…
Getting around London.
…is expensive. Yes, it is – there’s no denying it – but I must admit to being impressed with the transport system as it got me to within a few minutes walk of where I wanted to go with the minimum fuss although, having travelled on it for months on end years back, I know things can go spectacularly wrong sometimes! The best move is to purchase a travelcard from one of the machines at any tube/DLR station which will set you back around £5 for a day’s travel as long as you start after 09:30 in the week. Most of the pubs are within zones 1 to 3 so all you really need is a zone 1/2/3 card and you’re valid for almost every pub you’d need to get to in London.
Pub and Beer gen.
Here I will list all the pubs described in the lengthy gibberish above, telling you how to get there, plus any information you might need to know about each one when (and if) you arrive.
Greenwich Union, 56 Royal Hill, Greenwich. Open: Mon-Sat 11:00-23:00, Sun 12:00 – 22:30. ()
Nearest station: Greenwich, on border of zones 2 and 3. Take a Dartford-bound train from Charing Cross or London Bridge to Greenwich. Exit the station, turn left, and walk along Greenwich High Street until you see Royal Hill on the other side of the road in around 250 metres. Walk up this hill, and the pub is around 150m on your right just past a Young’s pub which, obviously, I didn’t look into! If you’re arriving via the DLR note that, on exiting the station, you are in a dodgy-looking alleyway and come out onto Greenwich High Street 50m or so further away from Royal Hill so just turn left and follow the above.
This is Meantime’s brewery tap which sells their entire range of beer, eight on tap (keg but unpasteurised) plus the rest in bottle. It’s nothing like I thought it would be, I half expected some cosy, rambling old pub… it’s very modern yet likeable with sociable staff and you might even get to meet one of the brewers in there (I did!). It also feels like it’s out of the city, maybe in some backstreet in a suburban town, giving a far more relaxed and “un-London” atmosphere to it. So, take off the “keg beer” goggles and get yourself down to this great pub, the pale ale in particular is a stunning beer!
Horseshoe (McLaughlin’s), 28 Heath Street, Hampstead. Open: Mon-Sat 10:00-11:00, Sun 10:00-22.30. ()
Nearest Station: Northern line to Hampstead (Edgware branch), on border of zones 2 and 3. On exiting the doors turn left and walk along Heath Street (not down the hill, that’s Hampstead High St!) for around 50 metres and the pub is on your left.
Everything you’d expect from a modern “gastro-pub” is here; the minimalist décor, the uniformed staff, the general feel of genteelness… there’s no doubting that this is a food pub firmly first and a brewpub second and they do seem to underplay the beer side of the operation. I ate (I was on expenses!) and, although the food is pricey, it was pretty good and whilst not being a huge portion was tasty, well-cooked and definitely something more than your usual pub food. The beers, however, weren’t that good to my taste, being rather homebrew-like, but I’d definitely go out there and try it again if I’m working in London again. It’s also difficult to believe this used to be a Wetherspoons; I’m assuming it was one of their original pubs (i.e. not converted shops) and fell victim to the cull of small premises a few years back.
Brew Wharf, Brew Wharf Yard, Stoney Street, Borough Market. Open: Mon-Sat 11:00 – 23:00, Sun and Bank holidays 12:00- 17:00. ()
Nearest Station: London Bridge, Zone 1. You can tell this place is pretentious as it even has it’s own road… well, yard, but you get my meaning! Most scoopers will know the Borough Market area well but, if you don’t, leave London Bridge station and head for the obvious landmark of Southwark Cathedral over Borough High Street. Take the steps down past the cathedral and navigate your way through the heart of Borough Market to the other side where you’ll find Stoney Street; if you go the right way you’ll end up by the Market Porter. Turn right, and Brew Wharf is on your left just before the next railway bridge set back in it’s eponymous yard.
A very un-English brewpub this one, it immediately reminded me of Lemkes or Brewbaker in Berlin with it’s brickwork arches, but sadly there the similarity ends… whereas Lemkes is cheap with good beer and food Brew Wharf seems to be aiming squarely at the “city” types who demand stuff that’s expensive – surely it must be good if it costs that much? – and this approach is working judging by how full it was on my visit. The cask ales, brewed on the plant behind glass against the far wall, are ludicrously expensive and not that good either, then you have the bottled beer list which has some highlights but is way overpriced. It’s a shame as this could, in a different city, have been a great brewpub… but in London there are just too many people with too much money to bother making much of an effort.
The Rake, 14 Winchester Walk, Borough Market. Open: Closed Sun and Mon. ()
Nearest Station: London Bridge, Zone 1. From the Brew Wharf, exit the yard and turn left under the railway arch and then immediately right into Winchester Walk where the pub is right in front of you.
A new pub in the revitalised Borough Market and, I must say, a welcome addition to the area. It’s small inside with a decent-sized patio to the side and serves four guest foreign beers, two cask ales plus a fridgeful of bottles from all over the world. Owned by the people from Utobeer, this is a very welcome addition to London’s beer scene and makes Borough Market even more of a “must visit”.
Market Porter, 9 Stoney Street, Borough Market. Open Mon-Fri 06:00-08:30 & 11:00-23:00, Sat 12:00-23:00 and Sun 12:00-22:30. ()
Nearest Station: London Bridge, Zone 1. Most scoopers will know where this place is but, if you don’t, follow the instructions for Brew Wharf above and it’ll become obvious - or, look at the map.
A famous old pub which used to brew it’s own (malt extract) beers in the 1980’s, this much-expanded pub – the area furthest down Park Street is the old brewhouse – serves ten cask ales to a generally appreciative clientele which makes it London’s most prolific scooping pub. It’s been done up a bit since the mid-90’s when I used to frequent both it and the classic Wheatsheaf a few doors down (now just a Youngs pub, sadly) and is now a much better drinking experience all round. The building opposite next to Neal’s yard housed the Bishop’s brewery in the late 1990’s. Note the morning opening session which is to cater for traders at the superb Borough Market opposite.
Florence, 133 Dulwich Road, Herne Hill. Open: Mon-Thu 11:00-00:00, Fri 11:00-01:30, Sat 10:00-01:30 and Sun 10:00-00:00. ()
Nearest Station: Herne Hill, on border of zones 2 and 3. Take a “First Capital Connect” train (no, I’ve no idea what it means either) from Blackfriars, or a South Eastern service from Victoria to Herne Hill. Exit the station via the main exit and, across the road slightly to the right, you’ll see – next to a Tote shop – an alleyway and a tall pub sign for the Florence. Go down this alleyway and the pub is at the end of it, on the right, facing Brockwell Park. To get from here to the other Bruce brewpub. The Cock & Hen, take a train for Wimbledon or Sutton to Wimbledon (every 25 minutes or so) and then change onto the District line to Fulham Broadway.
Owned by the Capital Pub Company - David Bruce's new baby – this is a large, modern, open plan pub with a relaxed atmosphere and decent, reasonably priced food to go with the two beers brewed on-site using the 5-barrel plant which lurks in the back room plus one more cask ale, generally something from Adnams. Not somewhere I’d necessarily go for a drink out of choice, but there’s a lot worse places around.
Cock and Hen, 360 North End Road, Fulham. ()
*** This brewpub has been sold to Youngs and no longer brews ***
Nearest Station: Fulham Broadway, zone 2. Take the District line (Wimbledon branch) to Fulham Broadway, exit the station into the shopping centre and go straight ahead and out through the doors. Turn right and follow Fulham Broadway around until Vanston Place heads off right. Carry on along Vanston Place to the end, through the bollards then across Farm lane and past the church on your left until you reach North End Road where you’ll see the pub across the street in front of you with it’s illuminated golden chicken (you’ll know when you see it!)
A fairly traditional pub with a big surprise: a copper at the end of the bar, how very European! Another member of David Bruce's new Capital Pub Company chain, this long and dark pub serves the two beers brewed here plus another guest and seems to major on being a pub although food is, apparently, served too. Overall a slightly upmarket yet reasonably traditional take on a pub which, as a bonus, brews it’s own beer!
Wenlock Arms, 26 Wenlock Road, Hoxton. Open: 12:00 onwards daily. ()
Nearest station: Old Street or Angel, zone 1. Take the Northern Line (Bank branch) to Old Street, exit the station, and head north along City Road. After around 500 metres, just after crossing Shepherdess Walk, you’ll see Windsor Terrace on your right which is a strange arc of a road with some flats at the end. Go down here and, after crossing Micawber Street, follow the slightly dodgy-looking Wenlock Road for 100 metres until the pub appears on your right. You can also get here from Angel station, in that case simply walk south along City Road until you reach Windsor Terrace and then as above.
One of the “old skool” in London for scoopers, the Wenlock has been worth a visit for at least the last 15 years but it’s only relatively recently that it’s started to become a real challenger to the Market Porter for London’s best scooping pub with a steady throughput of winners and, if you’re lucky, cellar runs too. The Wenlock’s main problem remains it’s location out in a kind of no-man’s-land with both it’s nearest tube stations a frustrating ten-minutes walk away, but it’s still an essential visit when in London and probably has the rarest beers you’ll find in the capital on any given day.
Other London pubs I didn’t have time to try…
There are quite a few pubs in London which are worth a look but, owing to the sheer size of the place, they are frustratingly difficult to reach in a short time and therefore it’s out of the question - if you have a limited time, as I did – to do them all. So, here I list some “further reading” for anyone with more time than I did! My Google London beer-map is here...
Dog & Bell, 116 Prince Street, Deptford. Generally has three guest ales on.
Utobeer, Borough Market. Beer stall on the market open Friday (1200-18:00) and Saturday (09:00-16:00) with a large choice of beer from all over the world. They also own the nearby Rake which explains the beer policy there!
Porterhouse, 21/22 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. Large, loud and usually packed pub which serves the beers from Ireland’s largest Irish-owned brewery!
Zero Degrees, 29-31 Montpelier Vale, Blackheath. Deceptively large place which does some excellent brews, all served under pressure, plus proper pizzas from a wood-fired oven. Nice location too.
Bünker, 41 Earlham St, Covent Garden. This was a fairly unique brewpub when it opened (as the Soho brewing co) with a very continental feel, beer from taps, decent food... it changed it’s name to "Freedom Soho" after the buyout by Freedom in 1999 and again to the current moniker following it's sale in 2003. It’s still brewing but I've not been for years!
Oakdale Arms, 283 Hermitage Road, Haringey. Gets good reviews from those in the know.
Pembury Tavern, 90 Amhurst Road, Hackney. Up to ten beers on cask with Milton being particularly popular here; I’ve never been but I hear it’s well worth the trip.
Castle, 26 Furnival Street, Clerkenwell. Not visited, but apparently has a decent beer selection. Closed, like many city pubs, at weekends.
Edgar Wallace, 40 Essex Street, Temple. Apparently has some guest ales worth trying.
Trafalgar, 23 High Path, Merton, Wimbledon. Has a decent range of ales, but it’s a bit of a trek out in the wilderness of suburbia…
Jerusalem Tavern, 55 Britton Street, Farringdon. St Peters brewery-owned pub, tiny and atmospheric, like drinking in a wardrobe. No scoops unless you need St Peters beers on cask, generally 4-5 available.
Hooper’s Bar, 28 Ivanhoe Road, Camberwell. Apparently has a couple of guest beers on.
Microbar, 14 Lavender Hill, Battersea. Good range of foreign beers and gets good reviews from beer lovers in London.
Apparently, Mash, 19-21 Great Portland Street, has now closed - thanks to John Paul Adams for the gen!
Beers and Pubs of the week.
Quite a difficult one to call is this; the pubs I visited were of such divergent character that it’s difficult to pick which I particularly liked without resorting to the old favourites out of laziness yet not including new ones simply as they were “different”… As for the beer, I must say I was disappointed by the products of the new brewpubs although I did manage to have a few cracking beers during my three evenings in town… so, here’s the results of my labours!
© Gazza 15/01/2008. V1.01
|Meantime's Greenwich Union pub at Greenwich - funnily enough.||The upmarket Horseshoe "resto-brewpub" in Hampstead||Market Porter, Southwark||Brew Wharf Southwark - home of the £3.40 pint!||A new Bruce venture - the Florence brewpub at Herne Hill.|
|The other Bruce brewpub - the Cock and Hen in Fulham.||Real copper in the Cock and Hen brewpub, Fulham, a Porter's installation.||The Wenlock Arms, Hoxton.||Canada Square, Docklands, from my office window... well, portakabin window...|