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.
Friday, 16 May 2014
Beers Of London Series
77. Dragonfly Brewery - 2 O'clock Ordinary 4.0%
I'm old. I often tell people this, in fact I've found that recently it has started to creep into my everyday conversation as if I feel like I need to remind people that 'it was different in my day' or it has started to become a badge of honour like the old person telling you how old they will be next birthday as opposed to the age they are now. I found myself doing it again last night. It's ridiculous really as I'm only 43, I'm in reasonable health and I still have a pretty good memory, and I am lucky to be particularly blessed with an ability to recall and place tastes and sensations that I have experienced before.
Last night I was fortunate enough to be invited to the launch party for Dragonfly Brewery at the George and Dragon pub in Acton, a 17th Century building and one of the oldest in the borough. It has been beautifully renovated, maintaining a period ale-house feel at the front (a board with a list of landlords going back to 1759 is a particularly nice touch) before opening up at the back into a cavernous space that houses the island bar and impressive brewery with it's stacked conditioning tanks and gleaming fermenters and brewing kettles. It really is a sight to behold and fits the space, that someone informed me used to be a music-hall in a former life, beautifully if a little snugly.
It was conceived by Robert Thomas of Remarkable Restaurants who own a small number of separately run pubs. For a long time Robert has wanted to produce his own beer and he persusded Johannes Lux the German brewmaster at Shanghai Brewery to plan and order the brewery itself, but to actually do the brewing he recruited Conor Donoghue. Conor had previously brewed at both The Botanist (whose beer I featured here ) and The Lamb, but when the latter was bought out by Mitchells & Butlers and its brewery closed he joined the team at Dragonfly with the rest of the kitchen staff following him over shortly after.
We had a very good evening. The beer (of which there were four on offer: Achtung! - an authentic German Weiss, Early Doors - a fruity Pale Ale, Dark Matter - a dry stout that was possibly too cold from the keg version I had although it was available on cask, and 2 O'clock Ordinary - a cask conditioned Best Bitter) and the food were very good indeed, as was the company (Matt Curtis, with his girlfriend Dianne, Chris Hall and his girlfriend Katie, Andrew Drinkwater, Bryan Spooner and my travelling companion and fellow Essex drinker Steve Bentall, who will be publishing his own take on the evening later on).
There was however one beer from the bunch provided that fired my imagination and brought back memories in a way I could never have expected or prepared for.
The 2 O'clock Ordinary is a beer that you might not think that remarkable at first sight. A 4.0% Best Bitter name after a cartoon of 1811 by Thomas Rowlandson depicting a raucous tavern early 19th Century, could be one that you might just pass by whilst looking for the latest tongue-wringing hop bomb, but you'd be missing out if you did. Incidentally, I was unfamiliar with the term 'Ordinary' to denote an eating house or tavern until Conor set me straight on the matter as I had assumed that it was used in this instance as way of distinguishing a standard or 'Ordinary' bitter from the more potent and therefore more expensive Special or Strong Ale. I remember asking for a pint of 'Ordinary' in one particular Young's pub, Hollands, just off Brayford Square in Stepney, East London, sadly no longer with us (it is in-situ I am told but boarded up and unloved) which was just behind were I first started work back in 1988. The beer was occasionally delivered by drays back then, and it wasn't too long ago really, with the big Shire Horses coming thunderously down the Commercial Road to deliver their precious cargo on special occasions. Johnny Holland, whom the place was named after (I forget it's previous name) had been the landlord for many many years, maintaining an authentic East End pub little changed since the Victorian era, with perfectly kept beer. It was a joy to drink there.
You might think I have digressed considerably, but last night drinking the 2 O'clock Ordinary it rekindled those memories and taste sensations that took me back to that pub, a pub that I first drank in 26 years ago. It poured bright, clean and fresh into the dragonfly etched pint glass and my senses were immediately filled with fruity caramel and echoes of dates, figs and hints of stewed apple. I couldn't resist it, and brought it to my lips with alacrity savouring its smoothness as it flowed down my throat. I was again struck by it's freshness, those caramel flavours alone satisfying me, quenching my thirst, transporting me to a place I hadn't visited for a very long time. There was more fruitiness in there too, dried apple and perhaps a fleeting notion of damson, and it finished beautifully with just the perfect amount of dryness to send me back to the glass for my next draught and experience the sensation all over again.
It was supposed to have been my last beer of the evening, a pint of the 'Ordinary' to see me on my way, but I had to buy another. This was a beer that commanded to be drunk in pints, and certainly not singularly. I was captivated and would go so far as to say that in my opinion it is the best Bitter being brewed in London right now, and the fact that it was Conor's first brew on the new kit is even more astonishing.
I am told that there will be a limited release of bottles of some of the beers available, not yet but in small batches, with notification of their availability only on the website, so get following that. The official opening night is tonight, Friday 16th May 2014, as I write, and I would strongly advise that you get along there soon to marvel at the place and taste the wonderful beer.
Being 'old' I have many experiences to draw on and some sensations that I wish to repeat again but which I begin to realise may be lost forever. To recapture one of them in a beer, however briefly, is rather magical.
Wednesday, 7 May 2014
Beers Of London Series
76. Late Knights Brewery - Hairy Dog 6.0%
Late Knights Brewery, are the forty-sixth different London brewery to have featured in this series, and although I've been aware of them for some time I wasn't able to actually get hold of there beer to review. At least I wasn't until I came across them at Craft Beer Rising this year when I had a good chat with Sanj from the brewery and was able to taste some of their delicious P.IPA, of which more later. Due to the nature of the beast I didn't make any tasting notes there, however I did manage to pick up a bottle of Hairy Dog their black IPA, and some e-mail addresses to contact them on.
A couple of weeks later I sent off a few questions asking about the brewery and their beer, and waited for a response. And waited. Thinking they had forgotten about my enquiry I gave them a nudge via twitter and a few days later they replied. The explanation for the delay was very straightforward and understandable, but I'm getting ahead of myself a little here. Let's start at the beginning.
Steve Keegan had been as an Operations Manager at Fullers for a few years but he was finding that 'big company politics' were holding him back. He was tasked with turning around under-performing pubs within their tied estate and reinventing them from scratch with a whole new design team, included his girlfriend, and he had quite a knack for it. The first two pubs to be so transformed were The Barrel And Horn in Bromley and The Union Tavern in Westbourne Park, and even though they were getting good reviews he found Fullers quite hesitant and uninspiring in their approach, so he started working on a plan of his own.
Approaching an old school friend of his, Matthew Power of Truefitt Brewing Company in Middlesbrough regarding producing some beers of his own. In September 2012 the first two beers, Crack Of Dawn and Wormcatcher IPA were produced, and at this point Steve was certainly burning the candle at both ends. Working for Fullers during the week, he would travel up to Truefitt on a Friday night to brew there, often working into the small hours, and two weeks later Matt would send the beer down to London on a pallet. The beer was extremely well received and with those nocturnal sojourns inspiring the name Steve handed in his notice to set up his own brewery. Late Knights was born.
Beer writer, Will Hawkes had put Steve in touch with Graham Lawrence, owner of Mr Lawrence Wine Merchants as they had a specialist craft beer section and who, completely by chance happened to have a vacant space just a few hundred yards from Steve's house that he could use as a brewery. Four months later, and with the help of Matthew, they started brewing with a 7BBL kit and 1 fermenting vessel producing 24 casks a week.
By this time he had recruited Mikolaj, with whom he had worked with at Fullers, and Martyn had come on board, and they had come to the conclusion that the best way to survive in a tough market place where they would most certainly be fulfilling the guest beer role, was to produce lots of different styles of beer. As they were producing both traditional beers and those, to use Steve's own words of the 'new crafty arsed hop-crazy' variety they hoped to avoid being pegged as one thing or another and to date are up to around 15 different beers, with many more that they can't wait to get out, including a Smoked Dunkel, a crisp Saison, and a big 7% American-style IPA.
He cites the P.IPA that I had at Craft Beer Rising as a real turning point for them, with Mikolaj working a malt bill that wouldn't overpower a fresh berry IPA. While Steve was away on holiday, Mikolaj managed to get hold of some hops from Poland that worked superbly to this end and an astonishing beer was born.
Late Knights isn't just about the beer though as they have opened the Beer Rebellion in Gypsy Hill, the Brighton Beer Dispensary, and with the London Beer Dispensary soon to open in Brockley, another Beer Rebellion in Peckham as well as more pubs and a bottle shop in Ramsgate then you can begin to see why there was a slight delay in replying to my initial enquiry. They also have plans to open a bakery in the works, and have a weekly output of over 100 casks with more than 30 people under their employ which they hope will rise to 50 by the end of the year.
The focus is very much on sustainable growth, not over-stretching themselves and having a strong business plan, and they have grown with the business, from one fermenter leading to two and from one pub leading to another, the future for Late Knights looks very bright indeed.
And so, on to tonight's beer. Released in October 2013 shortly after the success of the initial brews, Hairy Dog was one of Late Knight's earliest recipes. Brewed using a single hop varietal, Apollo, this black IPA was 5.5% in it's earliest cask form, however it is now up to 6.0% in its current incarnation. My most recent encounter with this beer was at The Locks Inn beer festival in Geldeston, Norfolk, where it was available on gravity dispense and disappeared rather quickly, but it is the bottled version that I shall be tasting tonight.
It pours a deep dark inky brown with a thick creamy head and an aroma that, whilst not overpowering, laying as it does beneath that dense covering still has some nicely enticing liquorice, blackberry and something that reminds me of fresh crusty brown bread dipped in a meaty, black cherry wine reduced gravy, and this becomes more prominent as it warms. The carbonation scrubs the tongue immediately as you drink it, bringing an initial bitterness that has a nice umami edge. Deeper into the flavour there's lime and grapefruit zest all tumbled together with liquorice, bitter chocolate shavings and a drop of espresso, with every element holding its companions in check and neatly wrapped in that pervading dry prickly bitterness. The finish has a touch of dark cherry chocolate that dries and slowly dies with a little lime zest and orange marmalade chunks that it carries with it.
This is a very good beer and although it isn't a 'crafty arsed hop-crazy' monster of a black IPA, by having all the flavours in balance with each other it is extremely drinkable. I finished the glass very quickly and immediately wanted another, finding myself wishing I had a third and a fourth to follow.
It still remains the only Late Knights beer I have had to date, but I'm now on the hunt for more. The story of how I almost didn't even have this bottle to open today is one best left for another time.
Wednesday, 30 April 2014
Beers Of London Series
75. London Fields Brewery -
Bootlegger Series: Double IPA 7.2%
Even though I've reviewed London Fields Brewery beers before, I've picked up a couple of beers from them recently that I'm not only anxious to drink, but I think are noteworthy enough to write about.
The Double IPA is the sixth beer in London Fields Bootlegger Series, focussing on alternative styles, high abvs and alternative ingredients. There were three released last year, an oak-aged Weizen Doppel Bock, a Pumpkin Ale and an American Black Ale, which have been followed up with a Chocolate Porter, a Marzen and the Double IPA in February, March and April this year respectively. The additional fact that this bottle was only delivered to Sourced Market last Thursday and that I'm keen to review it as fresh as possible is another albeit understandable reason for this post.
As I want to get on and drink this beer I shall only inform you that it's brewed using Chico Ale Yeast (also known more formally as Wyeast 1056) and huge quantities of Amarillo, Chinook and Simcoe hops before I open it up. I hope you're ok with that? Good, shall we begin.
It pours a murky orange brown, it has had plenty of time to settle and it was poured carefully so I'm assuming that is its natural state - which I don't mind one bit, and throws a good off-white head that quickly fades to top the beer nicely. The aroma screams pine and orange peel at you from the outset, but there's also mango in there and more than a pinch of white pepper mixed up with some fresh green spring onion and a few leaves of lemon balm. I could quite happily sit here sniffing this for quite some time to be honest as all these smells roll around just inside the lip of the glass, its really rather lovely. Smooth and quite muted over the tongue, I really expected a beer with this sort of aroma to bite hard with bitterness but instead its slick and rather dignified. A delicious creamy toffee flavour makes way for some sharp citrus, a sticky concentrated orange sauce with some grated grapefruit and lemon peel before this is washed away by some a dainty peach cordial, it's a satisfying rise and fall, not abrupt but gentle and full of taste. The finish dries to leave the sensation left from sucking an orange boiled sweet, perhaps a little barley sugar too, sticky and oily with a sharp spike of bitterness that somehow takes it to a different place, like a summer walk in a damp forest, warm and dank which lasts for a long long time.
If you think that I like this beer you'd be spot on. You might not have gathered it from my admittedly short preamble but I wasn't sure that this beer would deliver on the hyperbole written on the label (you'll have to read it for yourself when you get a bottle to see what I mean) as I'm a natural cynic when it comes to such things. This is however, a balanced and smooth beer, full of flavour without being mouth-puckerinrly headache-inducingly so, and above all it tastes fresh fresh fresh. I love it and if you can get a bottle and drink it soon then I hope you will too. A schizophrenic beast of a brew indeed.
Sunday, 27 April 2014
Beers Of London Series
74. Fourpure Brewing Co - Oatmeal Stout 5.1%
When it comes to deciding on what to call your brewery it can be a tough decision. Do you want to call it after the area you're brewing in, something with an historical reference, maybe your name or nickname is included in it, or perhaps you want to be esoteric and maybe sneak in a clever pun?
So when home-brewing brothers Daniel and Thomas Lowe formed Foupure Brewing Co. in 2013 they thought about four basic ingredients: malt, hops, water and yeast, and maintaining an attention to detail, a commitment to exceptional brewing and a purity of purpose, then the name came rather naturally to them.
Coming from a family with a passion for travel and discovery, holidays were spent travelling both at home and abroad visiting local breweries and sampling the local beers and although they find it hard to pick out specific beers and breweries as influences, Sierra Nevada (for quality, innovation and passion) and New Belgium (for it's commitment to employees and the environment) in the US, and Fullers (family brewers and supporters of the industry) in the UK are cited when pushed.
Based in South Bermondsey, which has a growing reputation due to the famed Bermondsey Beer Mile which is becoming a 'must visit' Saturday destination for lovers of good beer, there are two additional members of the team, Josie and John, and have a capacity of about 30 hectolitres which is just over 18 UK Barrels, or around 5280 Imperial Pints. The range consists of six core beers with various special, one-off beers available at the brewery most Saturdays although their Imperial Wit will, one of the latter will be available to a few selected accounts very soon. You will also be able to find some of their beers in cans from early May, everything except the Stout and the seasonals, ready for what promises to be a bumper Summer of canned offerings for lovers of good beer.
Their Oatmeal Stout pours a very dark brown, bordering on black, with its beige head flaring briefly before settling down into a thin covering on top. The chocolate and coffee aroma is quite sweet with the merest hint of black pepper and burnt toast lurking under the surface, emerging more fully as it warms in the hand. The bitterness is first felt at the back of the throat before moving majestically forward, and the beer has a decent body with that hint of creaminess you would expect with this style. Dark chocolate, burnt toast and to a lesser extent coffee are the dominant and clearly flavours in what is indeed a very clean tasting stout, but the carbonation carries a little cola with it and a pinch of dry peppery spiciness that nestles nicely in the centre of the tongue. The finish is dry and a touch oily, echoing the chocolate and coffee notes that follow this beer along the whole of its length, and feels rather satisfying for a good while after the glass is empty.
I have read reviews of this beer that have described it as rather thin and tasting a little of cold coffee so I took the precaution of allowing it to warm for about an hour after I took it from the fridge and was justly rewarded. The care taken to produce it is certainly evident, and while it's not a bruising heavy-weight of a beer it would sit perfectly at the beginning of an evening where a barrel-aged Imperial behemoth was the final chapter.