The past few days in London have been hectic. Christmas is a big deal in Britain - not for the religious aspects naturally, but - you know - for shopping. Fighting through the crowds on Oxford, Bond and Carnaby has been my family’s prime occupation since we arrived. I’ve had a nasty cold though, so in between finding Perfect Gifts for our extended family, I’ve ducked away into various pubs for comfy booths, quiet places to blow my nose and sneaky half-pints.
The White Horse on Newburgh Street isn’t as well known as its Parsons Green namesake - which is famous for its beer garden and beer club - but is a good little retreat from the madness of Carnaby Street just a hundred yards away. The White Horse is a good example of a central London retreat. Well priced cask ales, congenial (or just genial, rather) atmosphere and knowledgeable barstaff are a given here - and those are three things I appreciate very much.
The White Horse is a decent pub. Nothing special, but indicative nonetheless. The lesson is this: a Cask Marque plaque is generally a good sign. See this outside a pub and you’ll get beer other than Tennent’s, Carling or Carlsberg, which, despite what your fantasies about British pubs might cause you to think, is sometimes all you can get – especially in the more gray pockets of Gray Britain.
London isn’t such a pocket, though, and great pubs are dime a dozen in good areas. Take my brother’s local, for instance. The Curtains Up in Barons Court is a pub and restaurant upstairs and a fully-functioning theatre downstairs. Sure, it’s not the biggest theatre, but last time I was here Abby Titmuss was starring in a play. That’s something, right? (Abby Titmuss is a Page 3 model, by the way, as if her name didn’t give the game away.)
It’s a wonderful spot: spacious, warm and buzzing. The food is delicious and the beer selection is great. You’ll find stuff like Blue Moon and Camden Town on bottle (Camden tip: their Hells/Helles is a good malty lager, but skip the wheat beer - it’s average stuff.) seasonal cask ales (Sharp’s isn’t half bad, but St. Nich’s Tipple, an alluringly red seasonal strong ale, is the best pick) and a dozen other beers on tap at any time.
The mulled house cider is the best pick though. Hot damn. Gratuitously steeped with anise, cinnamon and clove (and fortified with a lot of sugar), it’s warm, soothing and a wonderful hand-warming, belly-soothing tonic for bitterly cold evenings. Perhaps tonic is the wrong word, though, as one half pint sets you right to sleep. Not that I was complaining. Reportedly I was dancing quite a jolly jig on the way back to my brother’s.
Enjoyable times were had, and I’ll be hopefully delving into beers from Fullers and the Kernel Brewery in the new year. But for now it’s goodbye to London, and onwards to Dundee.
Let’s face it: ask most waitrons or bottle store employees about the differences between their beers and you’ll get a blank look. Even in cafés proud of their beer lists, you’ll likely find a dearth of intimate knowledge about what they’re serving – well, other than saying, you know, they’re “real” beers.
But what makes a beer “real”? Even Black Label tastes of something. (Hint: watery cereals and banana.) It’s no longer good enough to say that one beer is better than another because of its provenance or price. Beer drinkers, expert or novice, should be beginning to expect at least cursory knowledge of what makes a great beer great, much in the same way that a sommelier can tell you why a great wine is great. Luckily, a new generation of beer professionals are working to raise the art and science of selecting and serving beer to the level of wine service - in the States for now, at least.
Not that we want beer culture to become like wine culture. Wine culture, in the worst excesses that I have experienced, can be pretentious, unwelcoming and insular, despite the depth of its tradition, knowledge and variety. The affordability and accessibility of beer is something we want to preserve - but we need a better flow of knowledge about it, not only from our producers, from which brilliance usually flows unhindered, but also from the sellers and servers of their products.
This article from Slate describes how beer sommeliers - or, as beer author and educator Ray Daniels has termed them, “cicerones” - are taking hold of and influencing the ways in which Americans find and enjoy new beers on the market, introducing customers to new brews they might like, and pairing them with food to create an experience on par with any food-and-wine or food-and-spirit combination.
Find it here. It’s a good read - maybe South African beer servers can begin to take note.
Selfridges is an urbanite’s food paradise. Under the swarming floors of designer goods, Chanel-toting Japanese women and faux-fur coats is a food hall devoted to oddities and foodie indulgences. A store in which the very forefront of consumer and luxury goods have made their names for 102 years - not to mention the shop floor on which Louis Blériot displayed his Channel-crossing plane after his famous 1909 flight – its food hall is where new brands on the London food scene meet their first popular critical tests. Do well here, and you might just make it.
While you can buy pork crackling crisps, Marmite flavoured dark chocolate and a £15 000 bottle of whiskey, it’s beer selection has seen better days. Although you used to be able to pick up any number of brilliant beers, both local and international, the selection has been pared back a bit, and seems to be mostly geared towards people physically eating in the food hall and not those shopping for ingredients.
But it’s not as if it’s bad: I picked up a couple BrewDogs, a trio of beers from Meantime, a London brewery about whom I will be doing a Tasting Notes post later this week, as well as a house ale brewed in the oldest inhabited house in Scotland called Traqauir. Besides, the sheer amount of niche and specialty products rubbing shoulders with each other in one space can be overawing on your first visit, especially if department stores are a novelty to you.
I’ll be writing about all my purchases later this week, but until then, I hope you find these few photos titillating to your foodie and design senses.
There are few things as nice as walking out of this hundred year-old store with a luminous yellow bag in your sweaty, sweaty grasp.
Last week I began a series for Durban Is Yours, notable for being recently voted SA’s Best Music Blog at the SA Blog Awards, as well as being edited by my friend and sometimes-dickhead Bob Perfect. This week’s piece is a quick (and rather polemic) overview of Kwazulu-Natal’s most influential microbreweries, including Shongweni Brewery, Nottingham Road Brewery and Zululand Brewery.
An aside I wanted to make in this piece that I couldn’t due to space constraints was that this month sees the closing down of Ballito’s Luyt Brewery, the second coming of ex-SA rugby chief, fertiliser magnate and sometimes-racist Louis Luyt’s four decades-old brewing project. Although Luyt wasn’t the best beer, and its history has been famously fraught and difficult (its tussle with SAB over market share in the 1970s was characterised by dirty tricks and politicking), its microbrewery gave a small speck of personality to what has become a monstrously bland and overgrown seaside town. As far as I know, the beer will still be produced on licence in Stellenbosch, but the closing of the Luyt’s premises on the North Coast, due to a “misplaced expectancy of support from the Ballito community”, is still a sad thing.
I suppose the lesson is: support your local brewery. This series, which should comprise four or five parts over the next couple months, will hopefully help put that message across. Give it a read here.
So, I’m in London. It’s a great place. Bracingly cold mazes of cars with iced windscreens and streets of unfairly attractive people under the crispest of blue skies. Although South Africa is my home, Britain is where most of my family live, including my brother and sister-in-law, who I am currently visiting for the next few days. I then travel to Dundee in Scotland to spend Christmas with my mother’s mum, and then to Maryport in England’s Lake District to spend New Year with my other grandmother.
As a family, we like beer very much. Even my brother’s dog Gizmo loves a little lick of beer every once in a while, although it always seems to make him go into sneezing fits.
I arrived in London this morning after an overnight flight from Johannesburg and got straight to buying Christmas gifts for my extended family. After being out, unshowered and profoundly travel-tired on Ken High Street for about five hours too many, I got back to my brother’s and was very happy to find out he’d stocked his tiny fridge with a few beers for me to try. We delved straight in as the sun set at four o’clock. (The South African summer is something I should appreciate a lot more.)
First up was Laverstoke Park Farm Organic Real Lager, a strange-looking Helles with a child-drawn label and little else extraordinary about it. With nice biscuity and sweet malty notes on nose and palate, coupled with easy drinkability, I found it refreshing, if somewhat ordinary. But then I looked at the label.
On the back it reads, under a seemingly unremarkable quote, “Jody Scheckter ‘79”? You mean, like, Jody flippen Scheckter, South Africa’s only Formula 1 Drivers Champion? I thought it was queer coincidence, but it wasn’t: after retiring from Formula 1, Jody Scheckter started an organic farm in Hampshire, about 40 miles outside of London, where he produces organic meats, produce and beer.
Now as one of the foremost organic farmers in this part of England, he’s looking to produce a biodynamic sparkling wine by the end of next year. Very seldom does a man manage to lead two massively successful careers in one lifetime - Scheckter, South Africa’s biggest motoring legend, has turned out to be one of them. Unfortunately his Helles is more notable as a by-product of a particularly South African oddity than a good beer, but I’ll seek out his ale too.
Next up was Robinson’s Old Tom, a highly-acclaimed strong ale from Stockport that was first brewed in 1899. First impressions were good: it has, among other things, just about the nicest embossed bottle I’ve ever seen. Sometimes good looking bottles translate into uninspiring beers, but I was happy to find that Old Tom lived up to its appearances.
Pouring dark brown with a very lacy beige head, it lets off pleasing wafts of sweet alcohol, dried dark fruits and just the faintest touch of caramel. Although it has thin mouth feel and little complexity on the palate, it is deliciously sour-sweet with sherry-esque and raisiny notes abounding especially. It’s not quite full or articulate enough for me to consider it the best ale I’ve ever had, but probably still a must-try for anyone making the trip over here.
My brother and I finished off our first afternoon of drinking with a small-batch filtered oak aged beer from Edinburgh. Innis & Gunn’s Rum Finish, a relatively unknown beer in Innis & Gunn’s varied repertoire, is an odd beast. Aged for 57 days – the Rum Finish is the middle child of three aged beers they produce; the others are aged for 47 and 102 days respectively – it manages to imbue what would ordinarily be (as I’ve been told about Innes & Gunn’s usual ale offerings) a less than stellar strong ale with tantalising echoes of oak and rum. It’s fruity and spicy and not something I’m particularly used to, but it is very well-balanced and went down a treat with dinner.
Although it’s not even close to being my first time in London, it’s my first time here as a serious beer drinker. If you have any recommendations about beers that I should try while here or anywhere in the United Kingdom, leave me a comment either here or on Twitter at @SUIPEXCLAMATION.
I spent this past fortnight in my hometown of Durban unwinding, recharging and catching up with friends after a long and difficult past few months. While I was there I decided to revisit a few beers I used to enjoy at home before I moved down to Cape Town, mostly just to see if my good memories of them still held up now.
Shongweni Brewery’s Robson’s East Coast Ale was a beer I used to drink often on holiday, so it was one of the beers I picked up from my local bottle store on my way home from buying ingredients for the fifteen bunny chows I decided to make for my mates last week. (For non-Durbanite readers, you might need to know that a bunny chow is a quarter- or half-loaf of bread hollowed out and filled with curry. They’re bliss. And I made vegetable masala bunnies – the obvious choice, really.)
The East Coast Ale’s golden tones and connection to the place I grew up in – in name and Shongweni Brewery’s proximity to it – taps into the rich vein of feeling I imagine most people have for their hometowns. I hadn’t had it for quite a long time, but I remember it being sweet, foamy, soft and utterly drinkable.
But retrospection is often rose-tinted. Despite my fond memories of it, Robson’s East Coast Ale turned out to not be one of Shongweni’s best. Don’t get me wrong: it’s probably above average compared to most South African micros, but I’ve had better things from both Shongweni Brewery and others since I last tried the ECA.
The ECA is a blond ale made with Brewers Gold and Challenger hops, and pours yellow-orange with a quickly-dissipating, finger-thick white head. With the unusual promise of soft yellow fruits on the nose – mango and pear especially – what follows is surprisingly unnuanced: a little thin maltiness, a slight sweetness and just the tiniest bitter pinch (Shongweni Brewery rates ECA at 25 IBU). Its thin carbonation and soft mouth feel make it drinkable but unfortunately it’s not the most satisfying beer, especially when compared to Robson’s West Coast Ale and Durban Pale Ale.
That said, it goes down well with a bunny and, with a light body and 4% a.b.v., it’s certainly sessionable, if you’re that way inclined.
Shongweni Brewery say that “the people of [the East Coast] are exciting, diverse and full of energy and optimism. We wanted to capture this spirit of the East Coast in our beer and we think we have.” But with a lack of any praise-worthy nuances, maybe the East Coast Ale doesn’t speak so well for my childhood home – especially when the West Coast Ale is an almost universally celebrated beer – but maybe it isn’t meant to be the cosmopolitan option. Golden and easy-going is what best defines the East Coast anyway.
Robson’s East Coast Ale, 550ml bottle, 4% a.b.v.
Pros: Gorgeously golden; easy-drinking; very good with heavy food.