Posts tagged ‘bar’

August 21, 2012

Finding pub perfection?

It was a beautiful warm and sunny evening last Friday when a friend and I popped into the cool dark interior of a London pub that was a much awaited first for me.  The beer options were immense and the first pint was hugely refreshing after the rather warm wander from the station.  It wasn’t empty, but it wasn’t so busy there was a problem finding a seat and no huge queue at the bar.  An old-fashioned grand street corner pub, it was pretty much perfect.  At least, it was, right at that moment, and that got me thinking.  FOrtunately for my drinking companion, I did my thinking out loud so he could join in rather than be completely ignored!

The perfect pub, like that immortalised in Orwell’s Moon Under Water, oft sought and rarely, if ever, found.  Was this it?  Was it at least *my* Moon?  Fleetingly, yes.  But then I realised that at least for me, the problem with finding the perfect one is that it is only perfect at a given moment in time.  That moment might be repeatable, might be due to various other conditions coming together such as weather, company, beers available and chosen, the size of the crowd filling the place, all sorts of reasons.  Or it might be more specific, that particular pub just at that exact moment in time, in those precise circumstances.  Either way, I realised that the reason that perfect pub is so elusive is that the target keeps moving.  What makes it perfect at a given time just isn’t the right think at another.

As I write this on the train I’ve not long departed what was, briefly, another perfect pub – a fairly regular and familiar haunt, practically on the station where I found myself with just enough time before my train, not too busy inside to get served quickly, and with a beer list of which the only fault was its role in creating indecision thanks to the excess of quality choices.  The right place at the right time.  There’ll be other times when it doesn’t quite cut it for me, and I couldn’t have substituted many other pubs for it at that time either, but while I waited for that train it was unbeatable.

It could have been quite disappointing to come to the concusion that there isn’t going to be a single one perfect pub for me, but on the other hand, I now know that there are lots of them, I just need to be there at the right time.  That’ll be worth a drink when I get to my next perfect pub…

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July 25, 2012

The Italian Job

It’s been a quiet couple of weeks for me, in terms of both tweeting and blogging.  Simply a case of there not being enough hours in the day and too many things going on at the same time – I’ll go into that in more detail in another post soon.  However, a major reason is because I was lucky enough to go to Rome two weeks ago for a conference.

Now before you start getting too jealous, this was for work (i.e. non-beer-related work) purposes with little opportunity for free time outside the conference agenda (no, honestly, that’s true!).  Even when you did have some free time Rome itself was actually some 15 miles away from the overpriced hotel in which we were holed up.  However, the opportunity did arise for a few hours in the city itself, and as would be expected I made the most of this time to sample a taste of the growing craft beer scene in Italy.

I’d seen favourable reports on Rome’s beer opportunities, with Mark Dredge’s Pencil & Spoon blog being particularly useful preparation.  A few minutes with Google Maps before I left and I established just how close three highly recommended venues were, so once I got into the city and left some colleagues cooing at the tourist sights (which I’d seen on a previous visit) I headed off to find Open Baladin.

The limitations in detail on the free map from the hotel became obvious as soon as I got within a couple of streets of where I knew I wanted to be.  It took a few circuits of the narrow back streets though until I found the one that I was looking for – on the map, for future reference, it is the unmarked road between the two other unmarked roads…

Nearly empty when I walked in, it was cool and refreshing compared to the fairly sweltering heat outside.  A vast array of bottles behind the bar, and taps upon it, greeted me and it took a few minutes to take it all in.  Sitting down with a menu I felt it only right to plump for the house brewry, and settled on Baladin’s Nora – a 6.8% Saison.  It was a good start.  Refreshing, just slightly tart, a fine example of a style I am beginning to really get into.  Of course it didn’t last long, and so back to the menu for another look.  Having already decided I’d try as many different Italian breweries as I could I moved onto an IPA, with LA9 (6.5%) from L’Olmain – nothing wrong with it but nothing special I’ve since concluded (as on checking my notes it didn’t drive me to write anythning further at the time!).  Time for a third beer, to be my final one here, and it was back to a Saison style.  My eye was well and truly caught by the description which my rudimentary mastery of the Italian language seemed to tell me was a Black Saison, and when it arrived indeed it was!  A collaboration between Extraomnes and Toccalmatto, Tainted Love (4.7%) tasted all Saison, but was definitely approaching black in colour with a malty aroma.  Possibly not quite as tasty as the Nora, but another delicious beer all the same.

With some reluctance I dragged myself out, and headed on just across the river to Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa (aka the Football Bar).  I was glad I decided to tear myself away from the beer selection at Open Baladin, because there were some crackers here too.  A much smaller, cosier bar panelled in wood as opposed to the open, slightly industrial feel at the previous venue, I felt quite at home here.  Tipopils (Birrificio Italiano, 5.2%) was on the bar giving me a chance to try this beer which I’ve seen raved about.  It was nice, and better than many pilsners I’ve tasted, but didn’t exactly set things alight for me.  So that gone, I moved along to yet another Italian brewer, Brewfist, and their Spaceman IPA (7%).  This was a marked improvement, and is a beer I’ll keep an eye out for in the future.  It was overshadowed though by what followed – D’uvabeer (brewed by Loverbeer at 8%) was a sour ale and I loved it.  A dirty, cloudy, raspberry red in appearance, and a gorgeous tangy taste, I think I’d have stayed for a second if time wasn’t running out, my appetite building up, and the bustle of Bir e Fud calling me from across the street.

So, I picked my way through what was becoming an increasingly busy Friday evening street scene and found a space inside the bar where I could see the beer selection and order some food.  Back to a Saison with Duchessa by Borgo (6%) and followed by Rehop IPA from Toccalmatto (5%).  This was definitely the top IPA from my selections of the evening – it cut through the strong flavours of tomato and basil from my plate and asserted itself forcefully but deservedly onto my tastebuds.  Really good stuff.  Too quickly though it was time for one last throw of the dice, and I plumped for a nice light(!) Imperial Stout to finish off on.  Verdi (Ducato, 8.2%) was a fine bold beer and a pleasant way to finish off a tour of 9 Italian beers from 9 different brewers.

So, conclusions?  Well I’d now love to go back and spend some more time discovering the craft beers of Italy not least through the bars of Rome, and would advise anyone visiting there to call into one or more, and make sure you allow yourself plenty of time to appreciate it!  The two highlights were Rehop and D’uvabeer, though in fact I’d quite happily drink any of the beers I tried again, and again, and again.  Clearly Italy knows a thing or two about making good beer, and in Rome at least there are some great places to sample them.

As a footnote, I had to double-take as I wandered back past an off-licence window, when I saw various bottles of Hardknott and other UK beers lined up on the shelves…

February 29, 2012

The constant quest for variety…

Variety. It’s a double-edged sword. I guess like everything else it is best applied in moderation. When it comes to beer I have a preference for trying new things, seeking out beers and brewers that I haven’t tried before, or dabbling in styles that are new to me. On arrival at a beer festival I’m almost certainly going to be heading towards the names of breweries that I haven’t had the chance to sample in the past. Sometimes this can result in finding a little gem, other times I find something I’ll know to avoid next time – that’s part of the beauty of beer, there’s so much scope for variety, as long as you open yourself up to the risk that there are some that simply don’t appeal.

On the other hand, taking this approach sometimes means I’m torn between the new and unknown territory waiting to be explored, and the more comfortable, familiar, favourites that you know are worth a revisit. Especially when it is a known favourite that you only get to have once in a blue moon. Exploring new things was what brought me to taste Magic Rock High Wire, which instantly became one of my top beers of 2011. Even better that I was able to taste keg and cask versions on consecutive nights and discover both great similarities and subtle differences in the two. As a result of this discovery, what was a new beer to me is now one that tempts me away from experiencing other new beers on the occasions when I encounter it again.

My favourite venues are also those that provide a good variety, particularly where the range is sufficient for me to swap between pale and dark, strong and light, hoppy and mild. But more than that, ideally I want to move between cask, keg and bottled beers too. For a new pub to really capture my heart it needs to offer me the maximum variety. There’s been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere about how my nearest city of Birmingham needs to have a great new beer venue, and for me it will be one that offers me all of the above. The most recent new addition to the central Birmingham pub scene does well in the cask and foreign bottles stakes. The whispered-about rumours of a Brewdog bar would bring some great keg and bottled beers. Both will be priority detinations for me (assuming in the latter case it actually happens). But if swapping between cask and keg also means changing venue then I’ll reserve the right to remain just a tiny bit disappointed. I keep in my mind another firm favourite – the Euston Tap – which is not unique in its offering of a wide range of good cask, keg and bottled beer and very much look forward to the day when a similar “one stop shop” opens up a little closer to home.

However, the big question for me when constantly seeking variety is whether a one-off tasting of a particular beer can be a reaonable basis on which to make a proper judgement of it. Is it right to dismiss a brewer’s range because you tried it once and it wasn’t to your taste? What if it was badly-kept (confidence here depends how well you know your venue I guess) or at the end of a barrel? I’ve had the same beer in the same pub a few days apart, and it can make a huge difference. What if you’re basing your experience of a whole style on a single example which might even not be classified very well? If you never try anything of that style again on that basis you could miss out on something you actually would really like. And sometimes I find it takes time for some beers to grow on you, when it would be easy to dismiss on a first tasting.

I think the answer, for me, is that you can’t make a sweeping judgement based on a single sample, it is necessary to revisit, maybe at a different time, in a different context or a different place, and try again. But in the quest for variety, for new experience, sometimes that opportunity doesn’t always come again, or by the time it does, you’ve forgotten the details of the previous experience altogether. That’s what I find anyway. Maybe I should be keeping notes of what I’ve tried, so I can check back more readily. I certainly don’t want to give up on seeking out new beers, sticking just to what I already know. But perhaps there is also some merit in returning to old favourites more often as well.

What I do know above all else is that there is a stunning variety of beer out there, and I’m happy to keep experiencing as much of it as I can!

January 20, 2012

Where’s the Birmingham Tap?

Maybe I’m not looking in the right places, but it strikes me that Birmingham is missing out on the wave of craft bars (by which I mean those who sell “craft” beer whether it is in keg, cask or bottle) that are readily establishing themselves in lots of other places.  Don’t get me wrong, Birmingham has some great pubs and bars, and there are plenty of places to find a decent cask ale (some of which may or may not be craft depending on your stance in that debate!) both in the centre and further out, but where are the likes of the Euston / Sheffield / York Taps, the Brewdogs that are springing up north and south of the border, the various other craft beer outlets that I’ve seen or at least heard of in London, Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds, York, Sheffield, Bristol, Nottingham even (and apologies if there are others I’ve missed).  Why has the “second city” (putting aside any other claims Manchester may make to that title!) not caught up with this exciting wave of new beer?

Is the Birmingham population not interested enough, or at least perceived to be interested, in quality beer?  I find this hard to believe.  Quality and variety in cask ales isn’t really hard to find.  Within a few minutes walk of New St Station, my preferred catchment area as it allows a quick stopover between trains, there is the vast range to be had at the Wellington, the newly opened Post Office Vaults, the Shakespeare, Bennetts, Old Joint Stock and several others.  They all have their own charms and flaws, but they all serve a good selection of cask and generally serve it well.  Some also have a good bottled range, but this tends to be European beers rather than the current UK stars.  Move northwards out of the centre and the Jewellery Quarter is establishing itself as another good beer destination, or head south of the Bull Ring and you can stumble upon some real gems too.  So we’re not short of places to find a decent pint.

So is there another reason why Birmingham is slow on the uptake?  One thought that occurs about the list of cities above, is that they are all big student centres.  Is that part of what fuels the spread of craft bars in these cities?  But Birmingham has universities too, so what’s different?  Comparing individual universities, the University of Birmingham has the 10th largest student population but is behind 2 institutions in Manchester and one in each of Sheffield, Leeds and Nottingham – all of who appeared in my list of craft bar cities.  Moreover, once you start combining all the universities in each city London leaps right up the list but Birmingham still struggles to make the top five.

Now, I don’t for one minute think that the only factor involved here is student populations, but there does seem to be some correlation between that and the emergence of craft bars.  And to be honest, Birmingham never seems to me to have the same student vibe as say Manchester or Nottingham.  So maybe Birmingham just isn’t demographically quite right to be at the forefront of this new wave.  To be honest, when I think back to the opening of the Wellington over ten years ago, it seemed to be a turning point for the widespread availability of good cask ales in the city.  What I don’t know is how the rest of the country was faring – I certainly didn’t have the same awareness of the beer scene nationally that I do now.  It seemed like a revolutionary change in Birmingham, but maybe it was actually just catching up with other more lively cities then too.

Whatever the reasons, I guess Birmingham may just have to wait a bit longer before it catches the bug.  On the other hand maybe someone is planning something right now, and change may be just around the corner.  I look forward to the day when I can jump off a train at New St and see both cask and keg beers from the likes of Magic Rock, Summer Wine, Hardknott, Camden and lots of others, across the bar, and fridges stocked full of the best UK bottled beer as well as international ones.  In the meantime I’ll keep enjoying the good cask ales I can find there and get the rest of my “craft” fix where I can.

Or maybe you know where in Birmingham I’m failing to look hard enough, and point me in the right direction?