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.
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 too long to twig that this is just a one-dimensional pun: yes it contains rye but it's not a witbier, being instead yet another pale ale. It's 5.7% ABV and a clear pale gold. Citra is running the show throughout, giving it a herbal aroma and a hint of urinal cakes too, all accentuated by a grassy sharpness which I'm guessing is the rye at work. There are some rounded orangey fruit notes as well, for balance, but it's still very much a beer where the hops are in charge.
Come to think of it, the same can be said for the brewery as a whole. They have a good offer going at Howling Hops and they've definitely got the hang of making these US-inspired hop kickers, often at very manageable British strengths. If you've been counting you'll notice that we only got eight tanks ticked off: the red and yet another pale ale (whose tap was misbehaving) will have to wait to next time.
But, as I mentioned, we left after six beers and took the twenty paces or so to the other brewpub in Queen's Yard: Crate. The brewkit occupies a unit at one end of the yard, while over at the other Crate has a beautifully set-up taproom, heavy on industrial-chic and with a magnificent terrace looking over the canal to the Olympic park beyond. I'd heard good things about the pizza so lunch was on the cards, but first: some beer.
I jumped in at the deep end with Crate Sour, a foxy amber colour and smelling interestingly orangey. I hadn't been expecting fruit. There's an initial fun tang on tasting but then a fusty staleness and a terrible cheese funk; bad, plasticky, Primula-grade cheese. Urrgh! Some ill-advised hopping, perhaps? I dunno. The slap of wet cardboard on the finish suggested that hops weren't its only problem. "It tastes like death" said my perspicacious companion, looking up from her own beer.
Not much fun was being had there either, it must be said. Crate Oceanic Pale Ale is your proper full-on custardy London Particular. Maybe it was the rainy summer afternoon by the canal, but it smelled overgrown to me: lots of nettles and similar lush green weeds. But that's all the hops got to say. The flavour is all savoury yeast completely drowning out any other flavours. It's not dreggy or bitter, not offensively yeast-bitten as such, but it is bland. The thought of picking something else to have while waiting for lunch felt too much like Russian roulette, so we moved on.
Since the new Truman brewery is in the neighbourhood we wandered around to look at that. Bearded men were trundling barrels around out the front, much as I'm sure they did in old Truman's Victorian heyday on Brick Row. A little further on is The Plough at Swan Wharf, which sounds like a traditional pub but is really another modern warehousey plate-glass-and-steel establishment. Truman uses it as a kind of unofficial tap, so where better to try their beers? I opted for Lazarus, on cask. It arrived a hazy orange and this time it did taste yeasty and bitter, with added notes of musty furniture abandoned in an attic. Zero redeeming features here but I can't say whether that's the beer, the dispense, or a combination.
At least the wife's half looked better. This was Truman Pale Ale from the keg, an attractive pale yellow. There are some pleasant resinous hop notes here but then it all gets horribly soapy and sweaty, not at all helped by the fact it was served far warmer than a kegged pale ale should be. Hopefully this is not as the brewer intended.
And those four last beers are the reason we had to return to Howling Hops on the way back to the train, to leave Hackney Wick on a happier note. More London pub-hopping to come later this week, but before that we'll be spending a bit of time at the 2015 Great British Beer Festival which began the following afternoon.
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