Sunday, 9 November 2014
Beers Of London Series
78. Camden Town Brewery - India Hells Lager 6.2%
The Beers Of London series is back on my blog after a six month hiatus. In that time I've done a little travelling, written on a few beery subjects, help get Beer East Anglia up and running, and tasted some fantastic beer. The beer scene in the capital has expanded at an incredible rate from when I started this series back in April 2013, London currently has seventy-five (yes, that is indeed 75) active breweries (source: A London Beer And Pub Guide). Since I started this series a few that I have featured have closed for good, one has relocated to York, and at least one is on a temporary break, but who knows how many more there will be this time next year?
I remember that around twelve months ago people were talking about it reaching a 'critical mass' and there were grumblings from some quarters about this being a 'fad' with the pessimists warning that: "This bubble's going to burst in 3/6/12/24* months (*delete as applicable), you mark my words."
Thankfully, this hasn't happened and if anything the momentum has grown. Craft beer is almost mainstream with more bars opening in London all the time to service the needs of those literally thirsting for the next beer/brewery/collaboration/limited release to appear. It can no longer be called a fad, it has become a revolution, an upsurge in the appreciation of good quality beer, brewed by people with a real passion for what they do, who aren't afraid to experiment and push those boundaries, and there are no signs that this is abating.
Although Camden Town Brewery has only been in existence since 2010 it no longer seems like one of the new kids on the block, neither however does it seem out of date or traditional in any sense as it is constantly evolving, bringing out new and exciting beers on a regular basis. The India Hells Lager is the latest of these, and it could be argued that it is the most exciting.
"Why do you keep changing the beers, dropping some and bringing out new ones?" I asked Alex Troncosco, Head Brewer and Development Director, recently, "Is it that you just get bored?"
"Partly" he laughed "and partly due to the availability of ingredients. We're always looking to improve on what we've done before. Learn from that and make something better."
Earlier this week I was at the 'Our Good Lord Lager' event, part of the '7 Days Of IHL' hosted by Camden Town Brewery at a converted gallery close to Camden Road Overground station. This had been transformed into the 'Temple Of IHL', the venue for the whole weeks celebration and the official launch of their new India Hells Lager.
Where some breweries may have an evening launch of a new beer with bloggers and writers invited for a taste and a chat to the brewer and staff, Camden Town Brewery opted instead for a whole seven day celebration consisting of various events centred around the IHL, all except one of which weren't at the brewery at all.
The 'Our Good Lord Lager' session was hosted by Alex who talked extensively about the their three current lagers, the flagship Hells with it's crisp dry finish, the sharp, pine accented Pils, a beer that I actually prefer to the Hells, and the new India Hells Lager that replaces the USA Hells in this triumvirate. We were treated to some technical information on lagering temperature and conditioning periods, which is obviously a huge factor in enabling such crisp flavours and essential in producing a dry and clean finish, but I was interested to here him praise larger producers and the way they are able to come out with such a reliably consistent product. This is of course necessary, particularly as a brewery grows in popularity and builds a fan base of drinkers who want their favourite beer just the way they like it time and again.
Brewed with Magnum, Mohawk, Chinook and Simcoe hops, this India Hells Lager (or IHL for short) aims to deliver the high hop-hitting intensity of a US-style IPA coupled with the balance and dry finish of a classic German-style lager. Seen as the natural successor to their Indian Summer Lager, this is a little different from all previous offerings from Camden Town Brewery in that it is only available in cans.
It pours a golden yellow, a little hazy but only a touch, with a thin off-white head that dissipates into barely more than a whisper. The aroma is, as you might expect big and enticing, full of the promise of pine and peach juice, mango and passion fruit, and it has to be said that this beer delivers on that promise in spades. Sharp and bitter over the tongue, there's in incursion of biscuity maltiness before all of those flavours prominent in the aroma collide and explode, filling the mouth with juicy citrus bitterness, quickly followed by a sprinkling of sugared lime zest that cleanses the palate. It's this flavour, candied lime peel if you will, that takes you through to the finish, clean and crisp but with faint echoes of lime and a dryness that doesn't overwhelm but is just enough to make you crave more. There's balance here too despite it's frankly insane crescendo, with every element delivering pitch perfectly to become a beer that as a whole is much more than the sum of its parts.
This is a beer that will change your perceptions about what a lager is, and what a lager can be. A culmination of brewing experience and experimentation, a high point in the evolution of the craft beer revolution. Matt Curtis described this beer as a "game changer" and I'm inclined to agree, it really is that good. As I mentioned before it is only available in cans with a BBE of six months from canning, meaning Camden Town Brewery want you to drink this as fresh as possible. These should be widely available from next week, so go and pick some up.
Steve Bentall (pictured below) from the Beer O'Clock Show podcast, and after it was over we were able to get a brief interview with Alex (pictured above) which will feature on this weeks show (due out on Friday 14th November) and when this is available I'll post a link to that too. For full disclosure too I have to add that I was subsequently invited back for the 'Full Moon Party' at which all the beer (which was all IHL) and food was free of charge. This was a more informal affair, but was a good chance to catch up with some beery folk that I hadn't seen for a while.
Sunday, 2 November 2014
I Have A Thing About Blondes
In which I argue with myself about a style that frustrates me
I have a thing about blondes, they just don't excite me any more, and to be honest it's been an awful long time since I saw one that turned my head.
Obviously I'm talking about blonde ales here, or golden ales if you prefer, those straw coloured, malt forward, English pale ale variants.
They used to start appearing on bars in late April and early May, a trickle at first becoming a flood by June and gradually fading away around mid-October when the darker, stronger beers began to muscle there way back onto the scene. In some pubs they often are the only style of beer you can get in the Summer, and now they have tendency to pop up at any time of year, whatever the season.
They're easy to spot too, hovering around the 4.0% abv mark and with names that usually begin with the words, Summer, Sun or Sunny, or more predictably Golden or a misogynistic play on the word Blonde (or Blond) with an equally (dis)tasteful pump clip or bottle label to match.
"I mean, we're all lads together aren't we, you know, and it's just a bit of harmless fun. I ain't a sexist or nothing, some of my best friends are women and they'd tell you so. It's just beer anyway, and men drink it and we all like women don't we, right?"
The title of this piece is no mistake.
Exmoor Ales produced what is regarded as the first modern Golden Ale back in 1986, but it was Hopback's Summer Lightning that first brought my attention to the style back in the early nineteen nineties and these were both different enough for drinkers to take notice and embrace it fully. I have to admit that I still have a penchant for both of these beers and even though there were of course many copiers at the time, they would show up sporadically here and there and in fairly limited quantities which made them rather sought after. To use a well worn phrase, those were the days, and now things are markedly different.
It's not just these reasons however. I now find that these beers are just bland.
Last night I was in The West End Tap in Lincoln. This is a fine pub, previously called The Vine, but now rejuvenated and reopened as a Free House with a good selection of well kept and well chosen beer, cask, keg and bottle. I'm afraid I'm going to have to single out a beer here as it was this beer that got me thinking about this style and that beer was Atom Brewery's Blonde Ale. This is by no means a rant against Atom Brewery, I've enjoyed there beers every time that I've had them, their pump clips are easily identifiable (it's a kind of atomic cloud-like design in case you don't know) and the beers are clean tasting and refreshing. I had however just finished drinking Anarchy Brew Co.'s excellent Quiet Riot, and the Blonde Ale afterwards just tasted safe, nice enough but just well just like it should. I would say as well that the Atom was one of the best I've had, and before anyone wants to put me straight I am fully aware that Anarchy's Blonde Star is their biggest seller.
There are lots and lots and lots of blonde/golden ales out there and much as every US brewery seemingly has to have a big hoppy IPA in it's stable, the same can be said of British brewers when its comes to a Blonde. They're popular too as this article from the Guardian in February 2013 reports, this beer is seen a rise in sales being championed from all sides as the 'gateway' to real ale, weaning the lager drinker off their diet of fizzy 'Euro-lager' onto a more traditional English-style of beer (and we could argue that one for a while), but could it be the reason that they are so popular is that drinkers are swapping one bland style for another?
I'm not including Belgian Blonde ales in this mix of course, they are a different style entirely often full of fruit and/or spices, often high in alcohol and with a characteristically dry finish. They're a style I like a lot, and it should be noted that this post is my own opinion (although in discussion with my wife she was inclined to agree with me).
So, having said the blonde ales are bland, generic, ubiquitous and wide-open to puerile sexist imagery I'll draw this piece to a close. Sales of Golden Ales are apparently booming so people are clearly buying and enjoying and it is therefore obviously a good thing for the beer industry as a whole. I'm also sure that the sales of these beers are helping keep some breweries heads above the waterline as it's a style that that people know and will turn to when they are uncertain of what to go for, using it as a kind of beery safety blanket. I accept this isn't necessarily a bad thing either, it's just ... it's just ... I have a thing about blondes ...
Monday, 13 October 2014
Beer East Anglia
Guiding the discerning drinker to the best places to drink in East Anglia
In the beginning there was the Good Beer Guide.
This fine book is an accomplished record of where you can arguably buy the best real ale in the country. A compilation of possibly the finest pubs in the United Kingdom where you can drink some of the best kept cask beer that can be found.
But do you only drink real ale?
In April of this year, those esteemed bloggers and authors Boak and Bailey reminded us of Pub Guides on the Blogs section on their website. At the time the East Of England section was looking a little sparse as Clive Stonebridge's top Suffolk pubs and the Pints and Pubs Cambridge Pub Guide had yet to be added. There was, and still is at time of writing no listing for Essex at all. Was it that much of a beer desert?
Having been a resident of Essex all my life, I knew that this was not the case and I was determined to put the record straight. Compiling a list of likely candidates drawn from my experience of drinking all over the county I soon had a decent sized list but I wasn't sure that I was entirely happy with. They were all good pubs but I didn't want to simply re-hash the Good Beer Guide into a 'Justin's Top Ten Essex Pubs' type format, I wanted something different.
Fortunately I wasn't the only one who was feeling like this.
Just before Easter I travelled up to my parents in Suffolk, stopping at the way at the Swan in Stratford St. Mary in Suffolk, literally a stones through across the border from Essex. It's a great pub, one that really cares about beer and choice, and just happens to be managed by all-round decent chap Ed Razzall. I had previously been to the pub at the beginning of February for a particularly beery day that has been referred to both before and since as the first, and you'll have to excuse my language here, #CraftWankerDayTrip . Ed was an excellent host to what was a particularly fine day drinking some wonderful beer.
On this particular occasion, my second visit, I was at the bar talking to Ed about beer in general when I happened to mention the need for a different kind of beer guide for our area. He looked straight at me from his side of the counter and said that he had been thinking of doing the self same thing. Without a moments hesitation we agreed to pool our resources and work together to write a guide to the area that would guide the drinker to places we considered to be the best places for beer in all its forms in our respective counties. Email addresses were exchanged and we both went away to plan and think of pubs and bars that really deserved inclusion.
Ed had mentioned that he had experience in setting up a website and take care of that side of things which was a huge relief to me, but before we could start writing we needed a set of criteria which we both agreed on and which we could use to ascertain which pubs were to be featured. Several emails later we had a framework which could hang this guide on.
The pubs should include:
Local beer from an independent brewer
At least three cask beers, at least of which one should fit the above criteria
Keg beer, local if possible, but definitely not a macro-lager
A good bottled beer selection including overseas beer
A range of glassware, with the correct glassware for the beer served (optional)
Staff that care and are knowledgeable about the beer they serve
We came up with a name, Ed asked a friend to design a logo for us and suddenly it was happening and the hard work began.
Compiling a list of likely pubs is one thing, many of them were pubs that I was familiar even when I asked local drinkers for suggestions via twitter, however getting round to visiting them all, seeing if they fit within our particular limitations and then deciding how and what we were going to write were another thing entirely.
I'd never done anything quite like this before and visiting pub after pub on holidays, weekends and straight after work, being objective and inquisitive, drinking and writing is actually far harder work than it sounds. Time and again I was disappointed as pub after pub didn't meet up to the strictures we had imposed however when one did it was hard to resist, and every pub that I visited that made the grade I paid another visit to within the space of a few weeks, quality control is important after all.
Eventually, after much discussion, writing, reviewing and co-ordination, trying to fit visits around our day jobs and daily lives, we had a core of pubs and reviews that we were happy with. This was all well and good, but we wanted something more so decided to include mini-biographies on all the breweries in our respective counties with Ed taking Suffolk and me Essex. Twenty-four mini-biographies later I was done and emailed it all off to Mr Razzall, the master compiler, to begin the mammoth job of assembling the whole thing.
It may not have escaped your notice that we have called our work 'Beer East Anglia' and you may well be wondering why we haven't included Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, and even than part of Lincolnshire below the Wash that constitutes the area we refer to geographically as East Anglia. This is simply because 'Beer East Anglia' is a work in progress, in fact there will be some more content and a few 'extras' appearing over the next week or so. We want to make this as fully comprehensive a guide as possible so if you'd like to contribute a review or even feel like taking on a county and think you can write in the same style and format, applying the criteria we have then please get in touch with either Ed at @edrazzall or myself at @1970sBoy . The reason we have decided to release this now is that we felt it was important to set this animal free and see where the ride takes us.
I hope you enjoy what we have done, so without further ado we give you:
Beer East Anglia
We'd love to know what you think of our guide, the pubs we have chosen or anything else connected to it, but most of all we hope you use it and enjoy it for what it is, a guide for the discerning East Anglian drinker.
Friday, 3 October 2014
And the wheel turns.
Craft / Post Craft.
Sometimes you experience something, read something, hear something, not necessarily all at the same time, but they all come together in a pleasingly harmonious way.
First of all, before I start I'd like to point out that I'm not going to be drawn into the "What exactly is craft beer?" debate.
I'd like to point that out but I can't because I am. Well, sort of.
I've been thinking about what I enjoy about beer recently. What turns my head, opens my wallet, makes click on a link or keeps me reading right to the end of a blog, or indeed a book? What changed me from someone who liked a few pints of good beer down the pub with a group of friends after work, to someone with an obsessive need to know everything there was know, to drink all that could be drunk beer-wise, to travel with an eye on where and what to drink, striving onwards as though beer was my one beacon in the darkness? What made me take stock of this situation, realise that I couldn't be everywhere, taste everything, and actually not really mind that much (well, maybe just a little bit)? Where am I now and where am I going next?
Age and responsibility play a big part in this of course. Things move on and you have different priorities, that is the way of things, none of us are stationary even if we wish it as the world around us is constantly changing and we can't hold on to a moment forever. Strip it all away and what we are left with is memories and desires. Memories of how things were, good times and not so good, and desires to push us forward, motivate us, keep us going. What is it that you remember fondly? What motivates you now, feeds your desire?
And the wheel turns.
If you've read my last two blog posts, or indeed have happened to have had a conversation with me in the last month of so then you'll be aware that I got rather excited about my holiday to Lille. If you didn't you'd like to then you can read Part One here and Part Two here. It's not essential to this post but it is pertinent so I hope you will excuse me for posting the links. We had a great time and I was both amazed and delighted with what I found there. I returned buoyed with enthusiasm and wrote a mini-guide of sorts contained within my blog offering a hopefully rounded view of both the place and its beer culture.
It ignited something in me, much as my trip to Rome had done two years before had done (you can read about it here and here should you wish). Something that made sense, something that eluded me. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, unpick the singled thread of thought from the muddled yarn, bring it into focus.
Then I saw this on twitter.
Now you might well think that I am referring to Joshua M. Bernstein's article for Imbibe (which you can find here) but you'd be wrong, it was in fact what Ramsgate Brewery had put on the label for Gadds' No. 3 that had caught Will's eye, and indeed it did mine.
This is what it says:
'THIS IS FRESH BEER - DRINK IT NOW.
Truly fresh beer, delivered direct from the brewery, is beautiful
thing and totally unlike the nationally distributed supply-chained
charlatans hoping to be tasty. It's for that reason we 'bottle condition'
our beer, keeping it fresher, and put only 6 months on our best
before date, so you know it hasn't sat on a shelf for months on end.
And it's also for that reason we only sell GADDS' No 3 in Kent, so
you know it hasn't been carted round the counties before you get it.
When it comes to beer... LOCAL is FRESH is TASTY.'
The statement itself is aggressive and self-assured, and up until the penultimate sentence you could be forgiven for thinking it was on the label of a BrewDog beer such is its arrogant tone. But in the same way it's proud. Proud of what it is and proud of where it's from.
"You want some of this?" it challenges, "then you'll have to come and get me!".
Still musing on the connection between my experience in France and that post, I was fortunate enough to be invited to Matt 'Total Ales' Curtis' first foray into public speaking at the Dukes Head in Highgate last week. Entitled "An Introduction To Craft Beer With Matthew Curtis", Matt acquitted himself admirably, leading us with clarity and passion through various beer styles and their histories, encouraging us to make our own tasting notes and share them with each other, ably supported by some of London's finest beer and all brewed within 8 miles of where we were drinking it.
I had joked prior to Matt starting to speak that I would ask him to define craft beer to those present, after all, I reasoned, how could you have an 'Introduction To Craft Beer' without actually stating what craft beer is? What I wasn't expecting was that when I put this to him at the half way point, he said that he already had an answer to that question prepared. As he had already talked about US beer and its evolution I expected him to quote a similarly US size/independent-type definition but he didn't, what he actually said switched that light back on in my brain, squaring the circle that I had been struggling with.
Stupidly I didn't write it down at the time but Matt kindly emailed it to me, taken from his notes. This is what he said, in essence if not verbatim:
'Craft beer is beer that is brewed using only the best quality ingredients
available and by the most skilled brewers who can straddle the fine line
between artisan chef and scientist. Craft beer should not be defined by
the size of the brewery but by the quality of what rests in the glass, a
summation of hard work and skill. The beers we drank tonight were all
local and of the highest quality, and were the embodiment of the spirit
of craft beer'
Experience, read, hear.
Looking at the three things together I had found precisely what I had been looking for. A definition of sorts that worked for me, made sense of what I was feeling. I wasn't looking to examine my relationship with beer, we've always got along rather well thank you, but rather to explore what I really enjoyed most about it in a wider context.
I am old enough to remember when great beer from all over the country, or indeed all over the world, wasn't available in your local bar or off-licence. Other than beer festivals where the beer could, and in many cases still is, hit and miss, the only way to discover new beer was to travel and experience it. The thrill of going into a pub and finding a row of hand-pumps in front of me bearing the names of local breweries and beers I hadn't heard of previously led me to travel all over the country, stopping on route where necessary, intrigued as to what I might find.
I wasn't obsessive, and I was often disappointed, but the holy grail was always a local, fresh, clean-tasting, delicious pint of beer. Brewery visits and tours a particular joy.
My palate began to evolve, and suddenly everything that I ever wanted from beer seemed to be available in vast quantities and from all over the world. I was the kid in the sweetshop, and in many ways I still am. I was getting an information overload from Twitter, Ratebeer and latterly Untappd and lapping it up, a cellar full of bottles and I was spending my evenings with my eyes fixed firmly on my laptop or iPhone screen.
Don't get me wrong here I don't really regret any of this although perhaps you think I should, but it wasn't really satisfying me. I found myself wanting more.
However, when I went on out to a London brewery event, went on holiday or visited relatives in other parts of the country my taste buds came alive, my brain switched on and my senses heightened, I was getting that thrill again.
My parents moved to Suffolk, not far from Southwold, about 15 years ago and I have taken great delight from drinking Adnams beers in the shadow of their Sole Bay brewery. There aren't many thing much better in life in my opinion than a pint of fresh Adnams beer standing outside the Lord Nelson on East Street facing the sea, a gentle onshore breeze bringing a salty tang to the nostrils that seems to work in perfect harmony with the contents of the glass. Similarly, and probably because of this I am also of the opinion that Adnams beer, the core range at least, doesn't travel that well on cask. It doesn't taste quite the same, and whilst the flavours are all there and can still be a fantastic beer, it lacks a certain vibrancy the further from Southwold I drink it.
Whilst I'd thought this for some time, it was only in light of my recent soul-searching that I realised that this was the essence of what of I was looking for all along.
You see, and I'm sure you already have, that what I thought I'd lost I actually had all the time. I'd taken myself, as I have taken you in this post, on a jumbled confusion of a wild goose chase, running up blind alleys in my brain and over-analysing the whole thing.
So here I am, back at the start. Enjoying beer, that hasn't changed, but enjoying it more now that I've worked through and cleared out the unnecessary clutter, the detritus of my own making.
I've found my definition, and it is most definitely my definition, but I also realise it doesn't really matter.
I'll continue to drink and enjoy beer from all over the world, especially if its fresh as recent tasting events at Ales By Mail and Mother Kelly's (Left Hand) have shown me, but knowing what I need to do to get that big big buzz again will keep me travelling, exploring and drinking in my native Essex and beyond.
Turning, turning, turning.
Monday, 15 September 2014
Lille. A Beer Odyssey and much more.
Part Two: Discovery
As you have hopefully read in part one of my Lille Beer Odyssey, the city had already surprised me with its beauty, the friendliness of its people and the beer available, so as Tuesday dawned we were awake and ready early, eager to head out and discover more of its treasures.
We had been fortunate with the weather too, far more than we were expecting as early forecasts were for constant rain during the whole of our visit. Luckily, aside from some notable heavy downpours early on in our stay, the clouds had stayed away and we were only to get one short shower again for the next two days, allowing us to enjoy the city in splendid sunshine.
On the tour the previous day we had made a mental note of some of the places that we would like to go to and some that we would quite like to see if we had the time. I rather fancied the Dutch Museum (Musee de Hospice Comtesse), particularly as I had heard that there were some exhibitions relating to brewing and some faithfully restored (well faithful to the Sixteenth Century anyway) interiors. The art gallery was a possibility as was, more out of curiosity than anything, the Charles de Gaulle Museum. I hadn't realised that he was born in Lille, and the museum is housed in the very building in which he grew up. The Lilloise are very proud of their son, and statues and references to him can be found all over the city.
Sitting in the hotel lobby I looked to see what time the museums opened and was startled to find that they don't, well not on a Tuesday anyway. Not only that but most of the shops are only open from 2.00 or 2.30 p.m. I suppose this accounts for their late opening in the evening, but nonetheless I found it a little odd that most places are shut on Sunday, with Monday being business as usual but then on Tuesday they all get a half days holiday again.
Undaunted we made our way into town, stopping for a coffee and a cake at one of the small chain of coffee shops that goes by the decidedly un-French name of 'The Notting Hill Coffee House'. Clearly somebody somewhere has thought this was a good idea, and it's no different to seeing an 'Edinburgh Woollen Mill' in most high streets in UK towns, however it did seem a little out of place to me.
After a while we found ourselves wandering a little aimlessly so decided to make our way towards an area of the old town we had previously not explored. The sun was out and it was particularly pleasant to be strolling the Place du Theatre as the clock on the Nouvelle Bourse chimed its midday lullaby from a Madonna to her sleeping child.
Making our way down a side street one of the children needed the toilet, and as luck would have it the Café au Point Central, on the corner of Rue de la Clef and Place des Patiniers, provided a welcome diversion. It's quite a non-descript place, and one you might just hurry by, your eyes fixed firmly on the end of the road, barely registering the few tables and chairs on the pavement and the covered drinking area directly on he corner itself. Heading inside it's quite a cosy little place although the big picture windows make it seem less cramped but it has a certain air of inevitable decay and 'couldn't care less' attitude that I find quite alluring in such places. I suspect its similar to the sense of well-loved cosiness that I find in an unspoilt English pub, but there wasn't the time to dwell on that as I approached the bar to see what was on offer. Six taps of mainly Belgian beers were in front of me, two of them from Chimay, and others which I can't remember, and a peculiar label on the end that I meant to ask the barman about at some point but failed miserably to do so. The reason for this is that my eye was captured not by the Rince Cochon pig but by a label next to it, bright pink and of identical design proclaiming itself to be 'Rince Cochon, Biere forte aux fruit rouge'. Two of these are duly ordered, a fact which I am frankly astounded by as Sarah doesn't have a great affection for fruit beers however we are not disappointed, particularly by the glass which is similar in every respect save one to the glass we had in Pub MacEwans, it is bright pink. This 7.5% beer is a delicious mixture of strong blonde ale and cherries, not too dissimilar to a Kriek, but with a very light finish. We drank it thirstily, and not even a sudden shower forcing us to take shelter inside could dampen our enjoyment of it.
Much refreshed we were again on our way, passing near the Salle de Celestines now dry, which used to be the main waterway into Lille, bringing goods from all manner of places to be unloaded in what was a thriving inland centre for commerce. Our destination was a little further along the Rue de Gand however, and one little visited by tourists as its situation and narrow approach mean it isn't covered on the bus tour. The Porte de Gand, otherwise known as the Ghent Gate was built as a way into the city through the Spanish wall during the city's expansion between 1617 and 1621. It is quite impressive and we spent some time there, taking pictures and exploring the moat and its surroundings.
Soon enough we started to get hungry and made our way back through the Porte de Gand and on to Rue de Gand where we had passed all manner of restaurants previously. One in particular had caught me eye, a red and yellow restaurant that just screamed 'authentic', a hand-written chalk board outside advertising local dishes, particularly carbonade flamande of which I'm particularly fond and, even more interestingly, dried hop bines could be seen through the window. Arguing against the children's protestations that they wanted pizza or other Italian fare we made our way inside 'T Rijsel.
Inside we found a host of wooden tables surrounded by mismatched chairs, all but one occupied by what can only be described as loud, feasting locals. The hubbub of conversation and laughter was quite intimidating at first, made more so by the fact that every inch of space was used to accommodate diners. We squeezed our way through and sat down, looking around to take in the surroundings. In a similar fashion to the floor space, the walls were crammed with all manner of nick-nacks and bric-a-brac covering every shelf or pinned to every inch of wall space. The hop-bines we had seen from outside were found the adorn three of the four walls, with a feature made of the fireplace, no longer in use, but with a collection of kettles and teapots filling the space. The small bar at the far end proudly displayed three fonts, all Ch'Ti, with the Blonde, Ambree and Triple all available, with most of patrons bringing a glass of beer to their lips as they talked and ate. Their smiling, happy faces made us feel a little more relaxed as we were approached by a young girl proffering menus.
She asked me a question which I have to admit that I didn't understand, so I replied with the feeble answer of an Englishman in possession of a meagre handful of stock phrases in such a situation, "Pardon, je ne comprend pas, je suis Anglais". To my delight and surprise she answered me in faultless English and indicated she would return with the English menus. These were quite battered and unloved with one of the hastily scribbled 'Anglais' stickers fixed upside-down to the outside in one instance. The fact that the French find this kind of detail insignificant is a relaxed quality I rather admire although I'm too uptight to live my life in such a carefree manner.
Food ordered, the drinks arrived promptly and I eagerly drank my Ch'Ti Blonde, its clean and refreshing flavour, light, with a hint of lemon and floral notes acting as delightful aperitif, cleaning the palate in preparation for the food to follow.
The Ch'Ti Blonde, a beer once commonly available in UK supermarkets, is brewed by Brasserie Castelain situated in Wingles, 20 miles to the north-west of Lille, a brewery that has a relatively large portfolio of beer in a variety of styles although it is undoubtedly the Ch'Ti range for which it is most famous. The word itself is taken from the Picard language, quite closely related to French and is native to this region, and one to which has been given official recognition by Belgium but not interestingly by France. It literally means a native of the area and there is a local phrase "Quand un Ch'ti mi i'est a l'agonie savez vous bin che qui li rind la vie? I bot un d'mi!" - "When a 'Northerner' is dying do you know what revives him? He drinks a pint!".
My carbonade flamande, I simply couldn't resist it, arrived on china plate that looked as though it had been in daily use for the last century and from the aroma alone I knew it would be everything I had been looking for in this dish. The beef had been stewed in Ch'Ti Ambree with the addition of gingerbread and brown sugar, and it came served with chips, not French fries, but proper twice cooked chips. It tasted fantastic.
Sarah had Le Hochepot Pot au Feu Flamand, made with mutton, veal, pork and beef, while the children both had Le Poulet au Maroilles, chicken served with a local cows milk cheese sauce, all of which were pronounced amazing. The desserts similarly so.
Estaminet 'T Rijsel for delicious traditional cuisine cooked with love and care. Being the last to arrive we were also the last to leave and spent a good twenty minutes or so chatting with the friendly staff, the owner and even the cook who came up from the kitchen after a warm and busy service, ready to go home, but pleased to join in the conversation. Smiles all round, we bade our farewells and made our way out into the afternoon sunshine.
A slow walk around the old town was very much the order of the day after such a repast, and we meandered contentedly, taking pictures and window shopping as we went. Another visit to L'Abbaye des Saveurs was made and more beer purchased, and alongside the local beers I couldn't resist a bottle of De Struise Black Damnation XII - Nuptiale A2, their Black Albert, secondly fermented on peaches before being aged in Anguilla rum barrels. I broke my self-imposed 'French Only' rule on this occasion, mainly because I'd had this beer on my mind since I'd spotted it the day before. I plan to open it this Christmas, if I can wait that long.
Back at the hotel we got ourselves ready for what was to be our last evening in Lille. The sun warmed our faces as we made our way back into town and as we were too early for our destination, La Capsule, to be open we sat in La Place de la Bettignies and lazily watch the Lilloise go about their early evening business, reflecting on the time we had had so far.
On arriving at La Capsule, we found it empty except for a solitary barman and we made our way to the table at the far end with a quick glance at those enticing fridges as I walked by.
Wanting a lighter beer alcohol-wise to start with, I ordered a Pilsner de la Capsule (5%) brewed by Brasserie Thiriez, a refreshing peppery pilsner with a pleasingly dry finish, and just the right sort of beer to whet your appetite for more.
Brasserie Thiriez is a brewery in the town of Esqulebecq in the extreme north-east corner of France, quite close to the Belgian border, started brewing in 1996. It is housed in an old white-washed farmhouse, a building that was once home to another brewery, Brasserie Poidevin, which served the local community before closing in 1945. It's owner, Daniel Thiriez, gave up a career in Human Resources with a major supermarket chain in order to set up the brewery he is influenced by, and has a huge fondness for the beers of Belgium.
The bar had started to fill up by the time I went to order the next beer, the clientele ranging from students to an elderly couple, all ordering beer from the locally orientated menu. Sticking with Brasserie Thiriez, I ordered a bottle of the 5.5% Etoile du Nord, an interesting hybrid being a hoppy blonde ale, brewed using Bramling Cross with the participation of John Davidson, an Englishman formerly of the Swale Brewery in Kent, and finished with Belgian yeast from Brasserie DuPont. It poured a cloudy, muddy orange-brown which was largely the result of me clumsily dumping the yeast into the glass as I'm afraid I am prone to do. Its light caramel aroma leading to a big fresh-tasting mango, grapefruit, lime and blackcurrant caramel hit on a peppery digestive biscuit base. With its dry fruity finish this beer is a beautiful amalgam of styles and cultures with a modern fresh hop twist and one to look out for if you ever come across Brasserie Thiriez beers on this side of the Channel.
The children were starting to get a little tired and restless, so I made my way to the bar for one last drink at La Capsule. Unsure of what to have I asked the barman for a recommendation. He began asking me about beer styles and what kind of beer I liked and we soon fell into an easy conversation about beer in general, British beer and the beer scene in London in particular. Anthony, for that was his name, had just returned to his native Lille after studying brewing at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. He maligned that French brewers were traditional and slow to adapt to current trends, while I argued that it was important to keep the traditional styles and beers intact and not be too keen to rush to emulate the American brewers which he admired. He planned to set up his own brewery and was working at La Capsule to earn some money towards that goal, while working at local breweries where he could, in order to gain more experience. I wish him well.
I had indicated that I wanted a special beer, so after some deliberation and tasting, including a very palatable cask stout, he poured me a glass of the 28 Tripel, a 9% monster of a beer brewed by Caulier Developpement from Ghislenghien, Belgium. It pours deep orange with a shocking white head and the aroma of grenadine, orange, lemon and white pepper. With its slightly astringent, peppery orange-lemon boiled sweet flavour bordering on barley sugar, the alcohol becomes more apparent as you drink it, bringing a pleasant warming sensation to your cheeks by the end of the glass. It was indeed a fitting last drink to have there.
Saying goodbye, but not before buying a t-shirt (I'm a sucker for that sort of thing), we were hit by a sudden tiredness as we walked back into the main part of town. It had been a busy few days so we decided to end the evening with a light dinner back at the hotel. It was croque monsieurs all round, with Sarah and I having a bottle of the sweet pale lager Fischer Biere D'Alsace (6.5%) by Brasserie Fischer which was a pleasant enough foil to the fatty savoury saltiness of the cheese and ham toasted sandwich.
Side Note: Brasserie Fischer are a brewery I've been wary of since a trip to France back in the late 90s. I spent a pleasant afternoon in the sunshine with Sarah at a bar near St Jean de Monts in the Vendee drinking Adelscott, a beer brewed with whisky malt. We enjoyed it in that situation so bought a load of bottles home with us, only to find that I couldn't actually stand the stuff anymore. It was just too sickly and sweet, so down the drain it all went. The fact that they also first produced the travesty of a beer that is Desperados only serves to heighten my distrust.
I confess I haven't much to add regarding our last morning in Lille. Our train was due to depart at 2.30 p.m. local time, which gave us an opportunity for last minute gift buying after having our breakfast and checking out of our room. The problem with doing this of course is that you always come across a few things that you'd like to take home with you but realise that you have no space in your luggage for.
We had heard about a market that took place three times a week at Place du Concert while we were on the bus tour two days previously but this turned out to be little more than a few stalls serving bread, cheese, vegetable, seafood and linen, one of which was being questioned quite animatedly by the local Gendarmes. Beating a retreat we ducked into a nearby shop in search of a bottle of water for the children. This turned out to be an organic and health food shop and alongside the lentils, pulses and rice was a whole shelving unit devoted exclusively to organic and gluten-free beers and ciders, all of which were French in origin. I was both surprised and impressed by the range available but sadly I had no room for beer, and these weren't the type of gifts we were looking for so we ventured on.
There had been one place that we had passed on a number of occasions that I was keen to go to, and that was the Bellerose Café (8 Rue Royale). We had passed it a number of times, and it had seemed to be permanently closed. As we approached I could see to my delight that it appeared to be open, however my delight quickly turned to disappointment as the staff seemed more intent on smoking on chairs that blocked the entrance than serving customers and we passed quickly by.
Eventually, gifts purchased, and after one last walk around the town, stopping for a coffee at Café Leffe (3 Place Rihour) (worth checking out for the fantastic mural along one wall) we decided that we were just killing time and that lunch was in order. There wasn't really a decision to be made, we all knew where we wanted to go, so we made our way down Rue Faidherbe to our destination on Place de Gare.
So it was that we had our last meal in the city where we had had our first, Brasserie Les 3 Brasseurs. In fact not only did we eat at the same place we practically had the same meal as our first visit, burgers all round except for my daughter who resolutely wanted the same pizza as when she arrived. As for the beer, I opted for the only one on the menu that I had yet to try La Belle Province (7.0%) a US-style red ale, sweet caramel on a tart syrup base, it's very name summing up our feelings to this particular corner of France.
It was with a heavy heart, but with the sure knowledge of a holiday well spent that we collected our bags and made our way through EuroLille itself and out the other side to Gare Lille-Europe to catch our train home. We had embraced a city that we had no preconceptions of and in turn the city had embraced us. We had eaten well, drank well, and most importantly we had met some fantastic people who had given up their time to discuss their passion, whether it be for beer, food or the city itself. Those four days away had felt like a week, and with it being so close, so accessible, so friendly and with much more to explore, we knew that we would return soon. Our hastily planned holiday had taken us to a city that was so much more than a stop on the way to Belgium, but rather a gateway to a culture and a people with a smile on their lips and a beer in their hand that had captured our hearts.
Travel Information: We travelled to and from Lille by Eurostar from Ebbsfleet International, a journey of an hour and a quarter, and we stayed at the Novotel Lille Centre Gares (49 Rue de Tournai - map) a short walk from both stations and the city itself. In fact it was handy for everything we wanted and was clean, comfortable, functional and friendly. I'd certainly stay there again.
The Beers Of France by John Woods and Keith Rigley (The Artisan Press, 1998)
This really is the only book available in English about French breweries and their beers. Detailed and informative it is still a useful thing to have if you are interested even though it is now 16 years old.
Histoire de comptoir 2014-2015 (Stories of the counter) by Bertrand Deueyer is a guide to 165 of the best beer cafes around Wallonia and Brussels if you're feeling adventurous. It also has a small section on France and Lille in particular, handy if you're planning on using Lille as a base to explore or touring the area.
Le guide des Brasseurs et Bieres de France by Robert Dutin (MA Editions, 11 June 2014) is an 800 page guide featuring all 590 breweries in France and over 2000 brands of beer. It also has a very detailed section on beer and food matching, something I wouldn't have expected to see in a book from a nation so entrenched in its wine tradition. Times are changing. This is available on Amazon (search under 'Le guide des bieres') for £22 and highly recommended.
Biere Magazine I featured in part one of this travelogue, but worth mentioning here again and also well worth picking up if you want to know what is going on in French beer at the moment.
Foot Note: You may well have noticed that I have increased the size of the pictures in Part Two as I wasn't overly happy with the definition of the smaller size. In order to maintain consistency I have similarly returned to Part One and increased the picture size there to match. I hope that they aren't so intrusive as to spoil the flow of the writing and the enjoyment of the reader.
Saturday, 30 August 2014
Lille. A Beer Odyssey and much more.
Part One: Exploration
How and why we went to Lille is a story in itself, and not one I will go into here, but suffice to say that less than a week before we spent four days in the capital of the Nord-Pas de Calais region of French Flanders we had no notion that we were to get any type of summer break at all.
I suspect that many of you, as I have done, gazed uninterestedly out of the window as your Eurostar train pulled into Lille station, a seemingly unnecessary stop on your way to Brussels and maybe beyond, with your head full of all the good things that Belgium, where beer is almost a religion, will have in store for you. Or perhaps you have noted on your return journey the seemingly otherworldly metal flower sculpture, contorted and a touch garish. Beyond it Euralille, a metal and glass monument to the nineties combined European business and shopping experience looks wildly uninviting. You may not even look up, thinking instead of your arrival home and journey's end. It was however it was into this vista that I, in the company of my family ventured on a rainy Sunday morning into the city beyond with little knowledge of what lay beyond save that of the situation of our hotel, a mere fifteen minutes walk from the station.
The name Lille, or 'L'Isle' - the island (Rijsel in Dutch or Ryssel in French Flemish) derives from the fact that the original settlement was built on an area of dry ground in the middle of a marsh and has fallen under the jurisdiction of the Spanish, the Dutch during the Spanish War of Succession, was briefly occupied by the Austrians in the aftermath of the French Revolution and inevitably, due to its close proximity to Belgium, by the Germans in both World Wars. Its residents have an affinity to both their country, France, and the region of Flanders and this mix can be seen in both Lille's architecture and its inhabitants. It is a city that made its wealth from cotton and the textile industry under Napoleon, one that is friendly to visitors, a city that is much more than a stop on the way to Belgium and, as I found to my surprise and delight, one where beer not wine is very much the preferred drink.
As we were too early to check into our room, we left our bags at the hotel and ventured out to find somewhere to eat, having a couple of hours to kill before everything would be ready for us. Heading off towards the centre of town, we were a mere three minutes from our starting point when we came to Le 3 Brasseurs opposite the Gare de Lille Flandres, the station terminus for SNCF Intercity and regional trains and not to be confused with Gare de Lille Europe, although it is nearby.
Le 3 Brasseurs (22 Place de la Gare) is one of a franchise of brewpubs, of which this was the first, opening in September 1986, and which have now spread to several areas of France as well as French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Reunion, Canada and Brazil. All the beers are top fermented and details of each, as well as the different sizes and glasses available are found in the newspaper/menu 'La Gazette' placed almost casually at every place setting of every table, excluding those outside. It is in French, although if your language skills aren't quite up to the challenge then an English version (la version anglaise) is available on request. The brewpub itslef is easily spotted on approaching by the large numbers of wooden barrels on the exterior above the awning, and on venturing inside you will find plenty of wood panelling and a variety of seating arrangements. Passing the bar on your right hand-side the brewing equipment is just beyond, and should you get to the main dining area at the very back of the brasserie (French for brewery, although most brasseries do not brew beer) you will cross two reinforced glass windows set into the floor revealing the fermenting vessels in the cellar below. The walls are adorned with various tin signs advertising old French breweries and beers, of which these are probably the only remnant, and it is worth having a good look around if you have the time.
We visited La 3 Brasseurs on several subsequent occasions, but as we wanted lunch we settled on a mix of burgers and pizzas between us, all of which were tasty and reasonably priced, but as you may expect it was the beers that caught the eye of my wife and I. We both went for 'la degustation', a tasting board of four of the main beers available. The first of these was the Blanche (4.7%), a rather tasty Witbier with a deliciously sharp bitterness that married rather well with its soft gentle spiciness, and a good start to our beer exploration in the city. The Blonde (5.2%) was next, with sharp grapefruit and lemon zest dominating, followed by L'Ambree (6.2%), wonderfully malt heavy with lots of toffee caramel and a beautiful burnt sugar flavour throughout. Last on the board was the Brune (4.8%) a US-style Brown Ale, brown sugar sweet with a gentle fruity hop undercurrent, and this went particularly well with the crème caramel I had for dessert.
Lunch over we headed back to our hotel to check in properly, finding that the sun had come out for the afternoon, and after a quick freshen-up we were out exploring the city once more.
The centre of Lille is very well-contained, rather like Bruges in some respects, with everything radiating from the central square, the Grand Place, although much of the old town takes a little exploring before its geography is firmly fixed in your mind and you can navigate with confidence. It was into this area that we wandered through first. Unfortunately it being Sunday not much was open, something you may want to consider if planning a trip there, and we walked past many closed shops and bars although it was useful for getting our bearings. After dodging a sudden deluge of wind and rain that sprang up seemingly out of nowhere by hiding in an entrance to a courtyard down a side-street, the remnants of ex-Hurricane Bertha we later discovered, we stumbled across La Capsule, closed but noted for a return visit, and the imposing Cathedral. As our feet were a little soggy by this point, we worked our way back to the hotel calling in at the Carrefour supermarket nearest to where we were staying to pick up some sandwiches. It was late in the afternoon by this point and we were all a little peckish, but to my surprise and delight they also have quite a decent range of local beer, and cans of La Goudale, Ch'ti and Rince Cochon were duly purchased.
After a quick repast back at base, changed and freshened up we set out to explore once more, this time heading off in a different direction, walking through and around the main shopping area. We passed tables of diners enjoying a variety of dishes from a variety of countries, noting of course that the drink of choice on most tables was beer, and trying to sneak a look at what beers they were drinking. I confess that I had one eye on the time having noted the opening time of La Capsule earlier on and shortly after 6.00pm we ventured back into the old town.
As we approached La Capsule (25 Rue des Trois Mollettes) I was relieved to see that the lights were on and an advertising board outside showed that it was open. It is not unusual to find that opening times of small shops and bars can be flexible in this part of France, another similarity to its Belgian neighbours, and on occasion they can be closed for weeks on end whilst the proprietors take themselves away on their annual holiday. I needn't have worried as I was later informed that this is bar that is open all year round, although only evenings and opening times do vary.
Situated on a corner it is a relatively small place, an intimate venue with the dark wooden bar along one wall, high wooden stools of similar hue pushed against it and a few tables, each with four chairs around them, tightly packed together adjacent to it. The bar itself with its 12 keg fonts will be your focus as soon as you enter, and it drew me towards it as though I were in some kind of trance, however upon entering further I noticed two large fridges filled with bottles, some vertical but many intriguingly horizontal, laid on wooden slats, as well as two hand pumps at the farther end of the bar.
Deciding to stay with Lepers, I plumped for the Angelus Ambree (6.5%), a beautiful dark amber beer, again with a white head, and a burnt sugar aroma leading to a bitter toffee taste, a hint of coriander and a crisp but lingering caramel finish. This also went down rather nicely as we played word games with the children and discussed our wishes plans for the following day and soon enough I was off to the bar once more.
This time however, as I am often prone to do, I became engaged in conversation with some of the regulars, and friends of the owner, whose fluent English exposed my mournful French. We talked about beer in general, and they were anxious to find out why we had gone there whilst I in turn wanted to know more about the local beer and the hand pumps on the bar. I was delighted to discover that one of these was actually a cask of one of my new companions home brew, a stout in the 'English-style' they said, and it had been on a few days. I immediately asked to try some, but as the barman pulled on the hand pump the cask blew, throwing out the dregs at the bottom much to my disappointment and there wasn't another available. I opted instead for the recommended Moinette Blonde (8.5%) by Brasserie DuPont as I had sadly exhausted the French selection that evening, with its lemon and coriander seed flavour and warming alcohol working its magic and reminding me it had been a long day.
Saying our farewells, and promising to return before we went back home we left having been made very welcome, the children particularly pleased with the 'high-fives' they got from those I had been chatting with. The cool night air seemed to invigorate us, or maybe it was the communal Agentine Tango dancing in the central courtyard of the Vieille Bourse on Grand Place that we witnessed, however after a meandering stroll we called in again at Le 3 Brasseurs. This time, a little peckish, we had some wonderful pastry-like bread sticks with dips paired with La Fleur Des Flandres (7.0%) a black pepper dominating blonde ale over a pastry-accented malt base, unusual but delicious, although I later found out that it is named after a local pastry delicacy. This proved to be our final stop of the evening and we were soon back at the hotel, satisfied after a wonderful first day and full of anticipation about the rest of our time there.
Monday morning and we were up and out reasonably early, and you'll have to believe me when I say that 9.30 a.m. is early when you have children, especially when they are tempted by the breakfast buffet. Our first port of call was L'Office de Tourisme which is housed in a rather impressive fifteenth century building built for the Dukes of Valois-Burgundy, the Palais Rihour at 42 Place Rihour and just a short walk for the Grand Place. Not only did we pick up the most accessible free map of the city here (the one we acquired from the hotel lobby the previous day was far too small and covered in advertisements) but we found that we were in time for the 10.00 a.m. bus tour, the first of the day, and 12 euros each (or 40 for a family ticket) too good to miss. With only the four of us and half a dozen elderly French tourists we had a relaxed and informative tour on a bus driven by a genial driver, with the places we had visited the day before being put into both historical and geographical context as well as highlighting places for us to visit during our stay or on a future visit. If you want to take this tour then I'd recommend getting there early as by our return an hour later a substantial gathering were waiting for the 11.00 a.m. departure.
Walking back through the Grand Place after buying some postcards the children wanted to get their own pens to write with despite me having a perfectly serviceable one on my person so we called in at the library-stationers-newsagents situated there. Pens purchased I noticed that they had the latest issue of Biere Magazine which I bought for my perusal.
By this time we were all thirsty, the standard of the coffee at the hotel was drinkable but unremarkable, and the children peckish so we made our way along Rue Esquermoise to House Meert, a confectionery corporation founded in Lille in 1761, which is not only home to two shops housing the most elaborate and extravagant chocolates, cakes and pastries, but also a small but beautifully ornate tea room designed and little changed since 1909. If you are familiar with Betty's, the renowned Yorkshire tea rooms then you will know what to expect. Drinking some very fine coffee indeed, if a little pricey, and munching on lemon macarons, I flicked through Biere Magazine in more detail hoping to find out more about French beer and its producers. When it comes to reading and understanding the written word my rudimentary grasp of the French language serves me somewhat better that it does in conversation, where I often find myself searching for the correct verb and noun (is it masculine or feminine) leaving the perplexed recipient of my mumblings looking at me in a sympathetic manner.
Biere Magazine is published every three months, quarterly if you prefer, and is available for 5.50 euros at larger newsagents, by subscription or online. The current issue, Juillet-Aout-Septembre, which has a young lady pouring a beer on the cover has a large banner headline featuring Brooklyn Brewery as well as 350 years of Kronenbourg and the Heineken Beerology Contest, as well as various Beer Trips and Visits. Inside the format is very easy to follow with everything laid out and presented neatly, with interesting interviews, pictures and reviews in a format similar to any who subscribe to the US publications Draft or All About Beer, or the Belgian Beer and Food Magazine will be familiar with. The majority of the articles concern Belgian beers and breweries, apart from the article on Brooklyn, but there is also sizable French content much to my delight. When it comes to reviews, flavours are easy to interpret with phrases such as "florale et fruite : peche jaune, orange plutot sucree" and "dominante chocolat/café avec du fume" being relatively easy to translate, with the latter taken from a review of Brewdog's Tactical Nuclear Penguin (which is above a review for Brewmeister's Armageddon) from the Cave A Bieres in Paris. It's an interesting magazine if you're at all interested in what is happening beer-wise with our closest continental neighbours, and if you're not frightened of using a dictionary or translation software for some parts then it may well be worth a look.
After visiting the (now open) shops and taking in some of the local sites pointed out to us on the earlier tour we bought sandwiches and drinks from a local store akin to a Pret-a-Manger (which also sold local beer and cider by the bottle and can) and ate on the benches lining Rue Faidherbe between Gare Lille Flandres and the Place de la Theatre in the glorious sunshine. Having finished and disposing of our rubbish we began walking back towards our hotel whereupon rain clouds appeared, seemingly from nowhere and hastened our previously leisurely pace as the storm broke.
An hour or so later, the two X-Boxes in the hotel lobby providing diversion for our children while we chatted and read, we headed out in the opposite direction to that which our travels had previously taken us, towards Place Simon Vollant and the impressive Porte de Paris built between 1685 and 1692 in honour the capture of Lille in 1667 by Louis XIV. The nearby Parc Urbaine was an opportunity for the children to let off a bit of steam, and by this time it was late afternoon and there 'just happened' to be a nearby bar that I was keen to visit.
Pub MacEwan's (8 Place Sebastopol) is a short walk away, via Rue Jean Bart (passing the Former Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy and the Former Faculty of Science where Louis Pasteur did some of his work on microbial fermentation and the discovery of yeast) and Solferino, and is easy enough to find if you head clockwise around the square. With its green and red awning it is outwardly unremarkable, however venturing inside and past the main bar area leads you down a passage to a beery grotto with bottles and other breweriana tastefully collected along the brick-covered walls, with a bottle of Duvel lit artistically on a plinth. There is an extensive tap and bottle menu, with the latter on the wall in the 'grotto', and we opted for a Rince Cochon (8.5%) in its distinctive glass with a seated pig supporting the stem. A bright golden coloured Strong Pale Ale with a thin off-white head and a peppery, yeasty aroma, it is light and refreshing considering its strength with a good prickle of carbonation. The flavour has a delicious white pepper bitterness with honey dancing playfully in the background and a finish that combines this sweetness with an apricot tang. Originally a French beer produced by Artisans of Beer, following their bankruptcy it has subsequently been brewed by Brewery Huyghe (of Delirium Tremens fame) and Haacht, its present home since 2010, and although now technically Belgian it retains its French affiliation. This was the only beer we had here, to my later regret and we didn't have the chance to go back later on, but at the time we were keen to explore the area further, although a word must be said about the toilets which are communal, classically French with a low brick wall separating the urinals and, I am reliably informed, a dodgy lock of the cubicle which may call for some judicious singing or humming should you choose to take up temporary residence.
Strolling around Lille in the warm evening air is a very pleasurable experience. The majority of the shops close at around 7.00 or 8.00 p.m. during the week, giving us plenty of time to wander in and out, past the cafes and restaurants with their smattering of early evening diners (8.00 p.m. is the traditional time for dinner in France and when the restaurants really start to get busy) and we made our way through the gathering crowds and back into the Old Town, all the time enjoying the hustle and bustle, stopping to examine places of interest to us and making a few modest purchases along the way.
Our evening promenade took us close to La Capsule, although that wasn't to be our destination that evening, however we made our way down a side street a croissants-throw away, to 13 Rue de Vieux Murs, home to L'Abbaye des Saveurs, not only the finest beer shop in Lille but arguably one of the finest in the whole of France. One of the very few articles on beer in Lille I had read prior to travelling there was this one by beer writer Des de Moor on his excellent Beer Culture blog so I had a good idea what to expect. The shelves are lined with all manner of bottled delights, most of which, to my elation were 'des produits Francais' and Sarah (my wife) and I assembled an interesting selection on the counter top over a number of minutes, conscious of how much we could physically carry on this visit.
In addition to the French beer on offer there is, as you may well expect, a sizeable amount of Belgian beer to take your fancy with lots and lots to tempt you to open your purse or wallet. As with La Capsule, with which it is linked, there are many bottles of vintage Cantillon, laid down carefully on wooden frames behind a padlocked cage, smiling invitingly at you despite their expensive yet affordable price tags. By this time the children were starting to get restless and hungry so I quickly paid and we left carrying our prizes carefully.
Perhaps it was a bit of a cop-out, but the children wanted burgers and pizzas (it was a holiday) and partly as I was keen to try the bottled beers but as it was half-way between L'Abbaye des Saveurs and our hotel we ended up at La 3 Brasseurs once more.
Dinner for me was l'assiette gourmande, a platter of mini regional specialties including a Carbonade Flamande, salted bone marrow, a hot and cheesy dish not unlike welsh rarebit and actually called 'welsh' and a potjevleesh, a Flemish terrine comprising lots of different meats. This was washed down by sharing a large bottle of La Lilloise (6.1%) with its spicy peppery mango aroma, heavily carbonated, with the taste being incredibly fruity then incredibly dry in quick succession and very good indeed, followed by another large bottle, this time of La Triple (7.9%). This had a fresh and zesty pine aroma, translating into a grapefruit and white pepper bitterness in the taste. It's finish was light and fruity, and on reflection these bottles, with there swing-top caps, were two of the most delicious and satisfying beers we had during our stay.
Afterwards, back in the hotel bar we had a nightcap of a draft Affligem Blond (6.8%) each (obviously not the children) while we discussed what we had done and our plans for the days ahead, whilst the local football team, LOSC Lille (Lille Olympique Sporting Club) drew disappointingly in the match being shown in one corner of the room.
Tired but happy we retired to our chamber, pleased that we had found a place with much more to offer than we had previously thought.
Part Two: Discovery ... coming soon
Monday, 30 June 2014
Children In Pubs
A Guide For Parents, And Other Users
This has been a while in the writing, in fact you could say that it's taken me just over eleven years as that's how long ago we found out that we were having our first child. However the ideas first began to take form when I read this post regarding dogs in pubs by Leigh Linley in September last year, and there are some similarities as you will see, and brought into focus more recently by this post by the Innspectre where he offers a poll at the conclusion asking whether people would like to ban children from their local given the option.
As a parent, and I feel it necessary to make this disclosure now if you hadn't already surmised it from the paragraph above, I feel that it is important that children are allowed into pubs for reasons I will go into further as I progress. I am not however advocating that pubs are places that children should spending a large proportion of their time in, far from it. The pub plays a part in community life, but the key word here is part unless you are a publican, then obviously it is your livelihood, and should be regarded as an aspect of that.
I also don't wish to come over as pompous or pretentious, I am merely drawing on my experiences and in the hope that it helps. I'm not the ideal parent by any stretch of the imagination, nor do I pretend to be, but I am merely passing on things that I have learnt, sometimes through trial and error but mostly through using common sense. Nor is it an instruction manual. This is a far cry from my usual posts, in fact it's about as far removed as you could get, and may not be relevant to those who usually read my blog, but maybe one day it will be.
When Sarah, my wife, and I decided to have children we didn't do so because of the expectations of others or because we thought it might be a good idea, but rather because we felt we were ready and that we wanted to start a family. This was a conscious choice on our part, nobody made us do it, and by doing so we realised that our lives would change. We could not carry on as we had always done. We knew this and we adjusted our lifestyle accordingly.
Our daughter was born in January 2006, a full 18 months before the smoking ban in public places came into force in July 2007. Some pubs and restaurants had already anticipated this and set aside, sometimes as just a token gesture, smoke free areas or banned it voluntarily altogether. Being regular pub users prior to my wife's pregnancy we found that we scaled down our visits quite a bit, but not altogether an this was as much out of prudence, babies cost money, as out of the application of common sense. When we did go we went earlier in the evening when there were less people about, so less chance of smoke, and more chance of getting a seat. Our local pub had a separate area of the restaurant that was smoke free, so we found that we ate in there more often with beer accompanying the meal (for myself that is) rather than the purpose of the visit. In this way we still saw the same faces at the pub but, and this is just as important, they saw us. They would ask about the pregnancy, when the baby was due, what were we having (which we didn't know), all the usual questions that would be asked in any other social situation, which is exactly what this was.
As the pregnancy was shared with them, it was really no surprise when we arrived one day with a baby in a car seat. We still ate in the restaurant on occasion, and people came to look at the baby and at the same time respected our privacy and we theirs. If we were out for the day and we came to a pub that we chose to have lunch in we didn't just take the baby in, barging through the doors, pushchair, bottles, wipes, nappies, change of clothes and all, but I, and invariably it was me, would go in and have a quick look around, a quick pre-visit reconnaissance mission. Going up to the bar and asking if children are allowed in, and then stating the age of your child or children is always advisable. Firstly you can get a good idea of the clientele. Are there children in there already? Are they eating? What was the atmosphere like, because if people look openly hostile to you going in on your own then do you really want to bring your child in there? Secondly you could get the lay of the land. Is there music, and if so how loud? Was there adequate spacing between the tables to accommodate a pushchair or, given the all-clear, would it have to be folded outside prior to entering the premises, and was there somewhere out of the way that it could be stored? Ideally you would have had a look at the menu and whether you wanted to drink the beer there prior to doing all of this as suddenly deciding you don't want to eat there when you're settled means negotiating baby and pram back past those you may have inconvenienced getting there in the first place. This isn't going to win you any friends and should you wish to go back there again soon you might find that they are not so benevolent.
Similarly, in more clement climes the pub garden, if there is one is a boon to parents with small children, particularly if it is large and open and can be accessed without going through the main body of the pub itself. I would recommend finding a spot away from everyone else if possible, a shady corner is ideal, especially as you may want to keep your child away from the sun, and if your child cries, and children do, then it won't impact others as much. Try also to pick table away from smokers, but don't forget that you have chosen to be outside and they are perfectly within their right and the law to smoke. Should it become a problem then move, go inside or leave, however if it isn't directly interfering with you or your child then let them be.
I have already mentioned this but if your child cries then it is your responsibility to deal with it. If it is as simple as giving the baby attention then do so. Going for a short stroll, rocking the pram gently, or engaging the baby directly by pulling faces, playing peek-a-boo or rattling a favourite toy can work wonders, but please don't ignore it. Having seen people continuing a conversation with a screaming baby beside them, seemingly oblivious to it, as an onlooker it grates with you and can lead to confrontation and that is not an ideal situation for you or baby. Showing that you are dealing with it will usually be treated with knowing and sometimes sympathetic glances.
Other things to consider are feeding and changing. Remember to be respectful of others and not arrogant and overt. Of course you may breast feed, it is perfectly natural however there are some that may be uncomfortable with it but a discreetly placed shawl or moving to a different area and finding a quite spot will help save others blushes, and you might want to have a few ready prepared bottles handy just in case. When changing a baby, and while more places have changing facilities it is still not ideal, retreating to the car, if you have one and came in it, or a visit to the toilets is always the preferred option. It is also an aspect to consider on that initial fact-finding mission I mentioned earlier. Remember that the pub is accommodating you and if it won't suit your purpose for the length of you visit then you might want to consider somewhere else.
2. Infants and younger children
As your child grows you find that the general paraphernalia that used to be omnipresent is no longer required. You travel lighter, unburdened by the trappings of early parenthood and experience a degree of freedom that you may have forgotten you had.
With this new found freedom comes a new set of responsibilities and challenges for a parent visiting a pub. The children are more inquisitive, more active and are easily bored, so this needs to be factored into any visit.
Bringing your children to the pub to eat, eating out occasionally, or even regularly sitting at the dining table for meals is the easiest way to get you child to behave correctly in a social environment. Children will copy adults readily and teaching you children their responsibilities to themselves and others is important. If your children know that it is unacceptable to keep getting up and down from the table, that running around a pub or restaurant is inconsiderate and dangerous and that singing, shouting or talking loudly is unnecessary and rude then they will refrain from doing so. I am under no illusions that this is an ideal situation. Despite us telling them my children have, with the exception of running around, at one time or another been guilty of all of these things, but sitting them back down and engaging with them, whether it be with a rebuke or explanation, has worked every time. Ignoring it, from my observation, never works. No surprise there.
Engaging with your children is also important to prevent boredom, so playing word games such as eye-spy or Boticelli will help pass the time when waiting for food or service, or even just sitting round having a drink. Remember to keep the volume down to around normal conversation levels, you don't need to whisper, that's frankly ridiculous as it's a pub not a library, but just be aware of the proximity of others. Colouring books, puzzle books and reading books may well be available in the pub, but it is advisable to take some with you just in case. Toys can be option, however things can get lost or broken leading to unintentional upset and commotion. Mobile phones, iPads and hand-held games will also keep your child occupied but these are very insular and don't really teach your children how to behave socially in a pub, and although with applications such as Untappd or immediate social media interactions such as Twitter see more of us reaching for our phones to review, relate or compare, try and keep this to a minimum. Far better at encouraging interaction are board games, and many pubs have these out for use or kept behind the bar, although if you are eating then they are best left to afterwards.
Pub with good size gardens provide good spaces for more active children, and arriving early will often give you time for them for them to run around if so inclined without disturbing others. It should be stressed to them that they will need to come and sit down if other people arrive so that they are prepared for this. Pubs with playground areas are welcome but be sure to keep you children visible at all times as you would anywhere else as they are not pub-run babysitting facilities but amenities to entice families to visit. A walk to or from a pub can also provide exercise, particularly as children get older, and means they will be more willing to sit down with you when they arrive.
3. Older children
One of the primary reasons for visiting a pub is to consume alcohol. There's no getting away from it, and I suspect that you might be wondering what took me so long before bringing it up, but the reason I've left it until now is that I wanted to address the subject of children and alcohol consumption from two angles.
The first is from the parents responsibility when it comes to their personal intake. I'm not about to preach and this isn't an anti-alcohol polemic, but it is important that you have a responsibility to yourself and, more importantly, your children when it comes to your drinking. If you ensure that you are able to undertake your parental role and keep within your ability to cope should an emergency arise then you shouldn't go far wrong. Being a parent isn't something you can switch on and off at will as the mood takes you, and if you limit your visit to the pub to an hour at most, three if you're eating, then they will accept it as part of normal recreational activity. They will then see it as a place to relax, much as you do, but not a place to get drunk. visiting earlier in the day, or in the early evening as I mentioned above will also mean that they are not exposed to drunken behaviour.
The second aspect, and a far more contentious one is introducing your children to drink. It is important to know the law with regard to this especially as you could end up in serious trouble should you fall foul of it, particularly as ignorance is no defence.
The law states*
It is against the law:
-To sell alcohol to anyone under 18 anywhere
-For an adult to buy or to attempt to buy alcohol on behalf of someone aged under 18. (Retailers can reserve the right to refuse the sale of alcohol to an adult if they are accompanied by a child and think the alcohol is being bought for the child).
-For someone under 18 to buy alcohol, to attempt to buy alcohol or be sold alcohol.
-For someone under 18 to drink alcohol in licensed premises, except where the child is 16 or 17 years old and accompanied by an adult. In this case it is legal for them to drink, but not buy, beer, wine and cider with a table meal.
-For an adult to buy alcohol for someone under 18 fro consumption on licensed premises, except as above.
-To give alcohol to children if they are under 5 years old.
It is not illegal:
-For someone 18 or over to buy a child over 16 beer, wine or cider if they are eating a table meal together in licensed premises.
-For a child aged 5 to 16 to drink alcohol at home or on other private premises.
*source: drinkaware.co.uk, link here.
Of course, I'm sure we can all recall instances of ourselves or others buying alcohol when they were under age, and I'm not going to get into that debate here. It is however my view, and I have to stress that this is my view from my experience, that a sip of alcohol, and in my case that is always beer, and never strong beer, includes the child in a social occasion where alcohol is present. They only have one sip, a second is refused, and this is regulated by holding the glass so that the child does not consume too much.
I recently took part in a 'brew off' with Pilsner Urquell at the White Horse in Parsons Green, the results of which will be known on 15th July, however one of the speakers was a taste psychologist whose name I have unfortunately forgotten. He spoke to us about the taste of beer, and particularly about the bitterness of beer, and how for many of us overcoming that bitterness and teaching our taste buds to enjoy beer is almost a rite of passage. The reason we do this, apparently, is that we see older members of the community socialising, enjoying beer and having a good time and that in order for us to be part of that, to experience it for ourselves we overcome that initial aversion and learn to enjoy it.
For this reason I feel that introducing your children to alcohol in a responsible way is important, but don't force it on them. Give them the option of a taste should they so wish but do not be persistent in the face of a refusal. It after all their choice as well as yours.
4. Other users
As pub users ourselves, parents or not we have a responsibility if children have been permitted. Remember that it is the licensee's right who they allow onto the premises, and we have to respect that no matter what our own opinions may be. It's not clever to swear around children, in fact it may be argued that it's not clever to swear at all, however we must accept this does go on in pubs but exposing children to foul language is not our choice.
On the flip side I think we have a responsibility to tell those in charge if we feel a child is being allowed to behave in a manner that is disturbing others or endangering themselves. It is up to the licensee to police their pub as they see fit, and unfortunately or fortunately depending on you point of view we do have a choice, and that is to either stay and put up with it or go elsewhere. I would caution against interfering directly unless it is affecting you physically, and even then it is best to exercise restraint.
I think I've achieved what I set out to do, which is convey may experiences and offer some guidelines with regard to taking children to the pub and being in a pub with children. I may well have gone into more detail than is necessary in some areas and missed out others but I have drawn on what I have learnt and observed.
Having children is a responsibility, but it is also a blessing and a privilege insofar as you have the ability to bring someone into your world and to introduce them to things that are important to you, and tell them the reasons why. Following what I've written provides no guarantees that you children will appreciate what you do, none of us are exact clones of our parents, nor does it mean that they won't abuse alcohol in the future, but it does mean that the should see the pub as a part of society and community, see alcohol drunk responsibly and in moderation by people enjoying themselves, and actually enjoy the experience of being there and interacting in a social capacity for themselves.
You may be interested in this article from the Morning Advertiser in December 2012 by licensing lawyer Piers Warne regarding children in pubs.
And this debate appeared on the BBC news website regarding aggressive parents in pubs.
Finally this article by Katharine Whitehorn that appeared in the Observer last month (May 2014) while quite narrow has an interesting observation by G K Chesterton at the end.