07 December 2009

The whitest room in Hackney

For the third year running, early December has me in London for work stuff. When I escaped on Thursday evening and sauntered over to Hackney for the Pig's Ear Festival, my first stop was the nearby Pembury Tavern, one of London's pantheon of top-notch beer outlets. I was quite surprised by the interior -- eschewing any plushness, it's all hardwood, rickety tables and chairs chosen more for function than form. The large open space makes the whole place feel more like a parish hall than a pub. There were a dozen or so handpumps, but it was the keg font that caught my eye first: Moravka, a renowned Czech-style lager brewed in Taddington in Derbyshire. Its reputation is well-deserved: there's that grassy saaz aroma coming off a firm, almost greasy, body of malt. It's insanely drinkable and really should have been called "More-avka". I wasn't alone in liking it as every single other punter in the pub was drinking it too.

Time for one more, and I opted for Milestone's Sup-Porter. 'Tis the season, and all that. It's another powerful-smelling beer, this time of strong coffee. The body was a dark shade of ruby with very little condition to it, and the texture quite thin. It avoids tasting of cold coffee by letting up on the roasted flavours and allowing a little sour dark fruit kick at the finish. Only towards the end of the glass did the wateriness start to irk me. Time to move on.

I caught up with Team RateBeer at their usual table in the Ocean, where Pig's Ear was in full swing. The line up was very heavy on dark beers, which suited me fine. First up, Dark Star Porter which had little by way of roasted grain flavours but lots of lovely sour fruitiness: plums, damsons and the like, giving it an almost Belgian complexity. I decided to leave their imperial stout to the end, foolishly, as it was taken off before I got to taste it.

I couldn't pass up the opportunity to try Gadd's Faithful Dogbolter porter, another one I've read much about. Once again, it's fruits over roastedness, this time light summery ones such as raspberries and redcurrants. It doesn't sound very portery but it works really well, with supreme drinkability. At the other end of the spectrum was Shropshire Stout: loaded with nasty phenols for a severe TCP sharpness. A dry finish takes the edge off, but not enough to save the beer, and it gets its revenge with the bad bandage burps it induces. Evil.

Farmers Stout was much better: not particularly complex or different, just light and mild easy drinking with a hint of chocolate. Perfect for sipping while catching up with the banter around the table. And as the evening started to draw to a close, I got the one and only imperial stout of the evening in, Transforming Tomorrow by Cambridge Moonshine (sounds like a pedigree dog). This was pancake-flat and showed its from-the-wood credentials very clearly with a fresh and sappy wood flavour. In with that there's sticky toffee, dry roasted grain, and lots of heady alcohol. A lovely sipper. I'm not sure where Yates's Yule Be Sorry gets classified -- it's dark and strong but not stouty -- but it's lovely: very drinkable with a fascinating dry and funky complexity.

A few pale ales passed my lips during the evening. Skinner's Betty's Big Sister was one of them. There's a nice touch of fruitiness from the hops, but it's otherwise as unimpressive as the rest of the Skinner's range. Hog's Back A Over T strong ale was a lot better. At 9% ABV it has some very wine-like characteristics, yet avoids being any way hot or boozy. There are sweet strawberry flavours in it and just a tiny hops sharpness at the back, all set on a gently sparkling base. I was impressed.

Top pale ale of the evening, though, was an even stronger one -- the 10% ABV Pitfield Stock Ale. There were all manner of things going on here: juicy grapes, sweet sherry, and lots and lots of fresh English hops. Tasty and wonderfully warming.

I thought the foreign bar was a bit lacking at Pig's Ear this year, with not much from the Italians. However, one particular beer made up for all of this. De Molen produced a festival special, though without doing an actual new brew. Lood & Oud IJzer is a blend of two of Menno's top beers: Rasputin imperial stout and Amarillo American-style pale ale. The resulting reddish ale wears its bitter and fruity West Coast hops up front, but adds in the heavy stout body and the vanilla barrel flavour. Somehow, there's also a Belgian-style spiciness to it as well. Amazing. I've no idea why he thought it would work.

Kicking-out time was at an unreasonably reasonable hour, and I sauntered across to my lodgings, The Old Ship. I noticed on my way through the bar that they had Landlord on, so I decided to have my third ever pint of that while they cleared the non-residents (everyone else), and see if I could figure out what all the fuss was about. My two previous pints of this Yorkshire bitter were both in London and both had the same nasty harshness to them. At the Old Ship, however, they've got it right. All of the honey and peaches were where they should be, making for a lovely nightcap, cutting easily through my jaded palate.

A second pint was tempting, but I turned in early, leaving my drinking boots under the bed, ready to go on again the following day.

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