The world's great cities pose a problem to the traveller who visits them. What makes them the world's great cities is their inexhaustable nature: there's always something new to try, or something old that you've just never got round to experiencing yet. And it's very easy to find favourite haunts, be they museums, markets, restaurants or pubs, whole favourite neighbourhoods even. For the traveller, indulging in such familiar comforts comes at a huge opportunity cost: the experiences that you've not yet had, the markets not yet browsed, the pubs not yet troubled for a pint and a pickled egg.
London is of course one of the world's great cities, and tantalisingly close, as I can easily get from my front door to any front door in London in under five hours. But I never have enough time when I'm there. For my three-day visit over the Easter break I took a decision to snag myself firmly on one horn of the traveller's dilemma and devote my trip to new experiences only. Sorry The Harp, sorry The Euston Tap, sorry The White Horse Parson's Green, The Rake and The Jerusalem Tavern: you guys sit tight, I'll be back in a bit.
Meanwhile, I based myself in Southwark, under the shadow of the ever-present Shard. Off the Gatwick train and a beeline down Borough High Street for introductory pints at The Royal Oak. This neighbourhood pub is the London footprint of Harvey's of Lewes, and both brewery and boozer are famed for their down-home, no-nonsense, high-quality offer. On Sunday that took the form of a pint of Harvey's Best Bitter and a game pie. I've never had a bad pint of Harvey's Best and I was happy to leave all thoughts of ticking and exploring to one side for a moment. It's a sublime orangey spicy beer and no different in a Harvey's house to anywhere else I've had it, which is a very good thing indeed. Thus fortified, it was off to do more exploring.
We didn't go too far, to begin with. Just up the High Street again and in to The George. This place is about to get a lot more famous as the subject of Pete Brown's forthcoming book Shakepeare's Local. And it's delightfully picturesquee, tucked away in a yard down an alley and made up of long thin passageways with bars and seating squeezed in where there's space. Greene King are running the show these days, though oddly had none of their new IPA brand-extensions on tap. So first tick of the trip was the house beer George Inn Ale, a brown bitter of reasonable quality: nicely tannic with a bit of raisinish fruitiness in the finish, getting increasingly toffee-like as it warms. Next to it was London Glory, similar but with less colour, less flavour and only a touch more roast. Still completely surplus to requirements, however. The guest ale was Straw Dog, a wheat beer from Wolf Brewery and absolutely dire: a clear yellow, it's sharp and sour at first, building to an overly sweet bad-lager syrupiness. Unfinishable.
We headed eastwards next, dropping in for a quick one in The Dean Swift, near Tower Bridge. I was pleased to find Siberia on, a rhubarb saison from Ilkley Brewery, produced with the assistance of Melissa Cole. I loved this: lots of fresh and juicy red berry flavours on a light and quite dry base. The near-6% ABV is well hidden. The missus opted for Camden Ink, a keg stout though one mercifully served without nitro. It's an intensely heavy beer with lots of gorgeous roast grain on the nose. Tasting starts with a gentle caress of chocolate followed by a major jolt of espresso. I wouldn't say it's exactly sessionable, despite a very reasonable 4.4% ABV, but it is a beautiful example of how to do stout well.
I stuck with Camden Town Brewery when we moved round the corner to Draft House. Just four cask beers and a bank of keg fonts serving beers from home and abroad (including a couple from Dublin's Porterhouse). Camden Pale Ale was among them and is another winner. Coming from the Irish beer scene it was quite familiar: 5% ABV, almost blonde in colour and loaded with zingy citrus. It went great with the smoked cheese and bacon burger.
That brought day one to a close. Venturing north of the Thames was on the agenda for Monday.
Westmalle Dubbel - *Origin: Belgium | Date: 2008 | ABV: 7% | On The Beer Nut: October 2007* It's a longtime favourite today. Westmalle Dubbel goes back to the very beginnings...
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