07 September 2015

Howls aplenty

I suspect that Her Majesty may not have paid a visit to the royal lock-up in Hackney Wick for some time. That's not to say Queen's Yard hasn't seen a lick of paint recently: au contraire, the entire neighbourhood, just across from the gleaming Olympic park, is resplendent in every colour the spraycan industry currently produces. But there's a definite sense of defiant down-at-heel-ism about the small industrial space that houses half a dozen or so enterprises. This being London 2015, it's not surprising that two are microbreweries.

Unlike down Bermondsey way, the Queen's Yard pair are open normal pub hours all week. It was early on a quiet Monday afternoon so we had all of Howling Hops to ourselves. And you really feel the emptiness in this space: it's laid out beer-hall style with rows of long tables and benches on the concrete floor under bare hanging bulbs. A full working brewery occupies the other half of the premises and it looked like kegging and bottling were taking place while we were there. The main draw sits, appropriately, between the public and production areas: Howling Hops is London's only tank bar, with ten three-metre tall serving tanks each pouring a different beer. Everything is presented by the two-thirds pint in dinky handled mugs that look like they were sourced in the Czech Republic. There was nothing for it but to get to work: you start on the left, I'll start on the right, and we'll meet at tank 6. (Not really, but you get the idea.)

First for me, after the long Underground-Overground schlep from Heathrow, was Howling Pils. Refreshment was my goal and, yes, I suppose this delivered it. It's not very exciting, though. 4.6% ABV and slightly hazy, smelling vaguely of asparagus and dry chalk and tasting a bit musty, with that burlap thing brewpub lagers sometimes have. I'd have thought, perhaps irrationally, that the whole tank dealy would be ideal for fresh, fun lager, but I suspect their heart isn't in the style. The high proportion of pale ale variants probably should have told me that.

For the lady, a go of the 4% ABV brown ale Running Beer. The plaques on the tanks helpfully list the hops for most of the beers and this one employs Citra, Chinook and Centennial, it said. It's rather pale, more amber than brown, really, and the aroma offers an interesting mix of pungent green hops and sweet milk chocolate. Very bitter on the first sip, it settles to resins, then back further to tropical fruit, and ripe squashy mango in particular. The texture is a little thin but the hop fun more than makes up for this.

Starting at the baseline pale ale, Riding Ale (for cyclists, of course) is 3% ABV and uses a combination of four American hops, leaning heavily on bittering varieties like Galena and Nugget. It's a pale yellow, thin again, but there's nothing slim about that aroma: a full, heavy, heady, fresh citrus burst. And powerfully bitter, casting any sense of balance gloriously to the wind. After a moment or two a sherbet softness comes out but it never quite loses that watery quality. Nevertheless, this ranks with the best of London's hoppy table beers in my estimation.

The standard Pale Ale is a very English 3.8% ABV, utilising not-at-all English Citra, Simcoe and Mosaic hops. That Simcoe spiciness hits you right in the face to begin with, followed by the juicy tropical decadence of Mosaic. They make a superb double act. This one's not watery but light and sinkable, reminding me a lot of Ireland's own Via Maris, on a good day.

And finally for this round, a big jump to Howling Hops IPA at 7.5% ABV. This is a dark amber colour and slightly hazy. It's very heavy and sticky, utterly lacking in freshness or zing. Instead there's a bitter caramel effect with a touch of oily hop resins. A sudden change to a minor key after the previous happy sing-along numbers.

Next to it there is Black XX, not badged as a black IPA, but along those lines, and 5.5% ABV. It's a dark cola-red and smells of spicy red cabbage: very Eastern European. Fresh green veg is a major part of the flavour, providing an almost metallic acidity next to big liquorice and strong coffee. It's not especially thick but does manage to convey a burnt tarry effect that gives an illusion of body. Quite an enjoyable sipper.

Six beers in we decided it was time to move on and explore further. But, for reasons which will become clear shortly, it was necessary to return to Howling Hops before we left the district altogether. My last one was Howling Hops Smoked Porter. I found it a little lacking in body the way a 5.6% ABV beer shouldn't be. The flavour is pretty simple too: pleasant chocolate, light smoke, a gentle hop complexity in the finish, but nothing worthy of the steam train powering along on the poster. It could do with more of everything.

And finally for herself Rye Wit. It took me far