The thing about London is I'm almost always in a hurry, going to a particular event and trying to squeeze a few beers in around it. The day after the 2015 Great British Beer Festival was different, however. The flight home didn't leave until quite late in the evening and there was nothing special I wanted to do or see. So I picked a neighbourhood which has a few famous London pubs in it, and spent the day exploring.
Holborn is the centre of the area I chose and that's where we alighted from the tube. A short walk along from the station is The Princess Louise, one of several Samuel Smith pubs in central London. It's not a particularly large premises but is made seem even smaller by its meticulous sub-division into a sequence of little snugs, each one communicating with a short length of the round central bar. The décor is classically Victorian, all coloured tiles and elaborate mirrors. None of this seemed to interest the early afternoon clientèle, all happy to concentrate on their cheap beers. The missus suffered through a ropey half of Old Brewery; a perfectly fine glass of Extra Stout for me. No new beer ticks, but a feeling that we were on our way.
Just a block away, The Holborn Whippet is a horse of a very different colour. From the people who brought us The Euston Tap, this has a fairly similar business model. It's bigger than the 'Tap, though still feels rather cramped, and has a smaller draught selection: half a dozen cask and a round ten keg beers. I decided to take my second punt on something from Manchester's Cloudwater, the Grisette being on offer. This low-ABV saison is 3.7% and a pale hazy yellow. The flavour is a riot of floral and citrus notes and I found lemons, lavender and bergamot in varying intensities as I sipped. The massive zingy refreshment here makes it seem more like an electrified witbier than a toned-down saison and it's all the better for that. Super stuff.
A Siren beer for the lady, Love of Work on cask. This is a golden ale with a very modest 3.6% ABV but nothing at all modest about its flavour: all funky hoppy dank from US hop varieties Amarillo, Citra and Centennial, and a rich tannic quality from the addition of tea to the brew. It's almost too heavy for a low-strength afternoon beer but absolutely fine for a half on the hoof.
Back to the middle of Holborn next, and we struck east towards the City. A little further along we came to the other Samuel Smith pub of the day: The Cittie of Yorke. The interior here is very impressive, with a clubbish carpeted front room and then a quite ecclesiastical hall at the back, housing Cyclopean breweriana (big butts), a long counter and a row of snugs. There's a bit about its history in this recent piece from Des de Moor: don't let the Tudor styling fool you, the building dates from the 1920s. Picking more or less arbitrarily from the bottle fridges, I drank a Samuel Smith Organic Chocolate Stout. It's 5% ABV and a dark reddish-brown colour. The chocolate in the flavour is by no means subtle, and barely tastes like proper chocolate at all. Instead it's the sweet, flaky sort of chocolate taste you get in powdered drinks: very artificial. There's a certain graininess to the base stout but not enough bitterness or dryness to take the edge off all that sugar. A pint was tough going and it's not a beer I'm likely to return to. Onwards!
The previous afternoon, at the festival, I discussed my sketchy plans for today with Mr Cornell who made a few recommendations for detours and one imperative order to have a beer in The Blackfriar. So, crossing into the City of London and skirting around the edge of Clerkenwell, we arrived at the pub which is just next to Blackfriars Bridge and station. The trees were in full leaf so it was hard to see the art nouveau exterior, but inside it's very impressive too: the walls of the L-shaped saloon covered in bas-relief friezes of monks at work.
The Blackfriar is a Nicholson's house so the beer selection was pretty good. Except I'm a total masochist and there was that Robinson's Trooper Iron Maiden novelty bitter which I've never had before. I'll give that a go just so I can say I did. And it's awful. It's not even boring brown bitter; it's harshly acidic sugary brown bitter, all builders' tea and puke. Bleurgh! And I see they've launched a brand extension now too. I'll let you know how that is if I find any.
For herself I suggested Lambton's by Maxim Brewery, solely because it mentions Citra on the badge. The urinal cake aroma also says Citra, and not in a good way. But the flavour is more gently herbal, simple and quaffable though finishing a little bit soapier than is pleasant. For a 3.8% ABV golden ale it's perhaps more flavourful than most, but it could do with some extra complexity added.
On the way back north again we cross Fleet Street where the Punch Tavern is. Martyn had mentioned that this is the motherhouse of big bad pubco Punch Taverns so, given its symbolic place in English pub industry debate, we stopped in. The exterior is very grand indeed, a tiled entryway leading to a far plainer interior.
There was a meagre selection of beers on the small bar, from which we got a half each of Marston's EPA. Marston subsidiary Brakspear used to have a beer called EPA. Is this related? Anyway, you know that whole thing about cask beer in London being terrible? This was a poster child for that. It looked awful in the glass, a murky orange, and the yeast off-flavour almost completely drowned everything else in the light 3.6% ABV bitter. Enough pithy hop zing survives to make it palateable but it's very obviously not how the brewer intended this beer to be served. Boak and Bailey had better luck when they beat me to The Punch several weeks earlier. Our halves may have been from the bottom of the same cask they got. So there wasn't much to keep us here.
The next landmark pub is down an alley off Hatton Garden. Þe Olde Mitre looks like it's been left standing while modern London washed around it, perhaps more akin to something you'd find in Brussels. There's a small poky public bar at the front, a larger saloon to the rear, and an endless stream of tourists. Including me, obviously. These days Fuller's is running the show and they have a new beer out, a 3.8% ABV golden ale called Oliver's Island. I wasn't impressed; it's a dull mix of marmalade and biscuits, very plain fare indeed. The mediocrity was thrown into sharp relief by sublime Oakham Citra on the next tap over.
Our exit point, King's Cross station, was in sight and after the last two wonky beers I felt sorely in need of a hoppy lift. As it happened we were passing BottleDog. A can of something for the road? Standing in front of the fridge I vacilitated between a few of the canned options and eventually settled on Wild Beer's Bibble, a 4.2% ABV pale ale with American hops. And even swigging from the can this has a fantastic impact. It's quite dry and the hops are super fresh and leafy. It's not juicy as such, but properly seriously bitter: green papaya and sterner pine. I've no notes on the appearance for obvious reasons but it tasted pale: the malt wasn't saying much here. If it's this good walking up Gray's Inn Road I bet it's fabulous sitting down with a pint.
Palate newly awakened it was on to the last stop of the day before Heathrow: The Queen's Head. I had tried to get in here on a solo pub crawl a couple of years ago but it had closed early for Christmas. Today, the doors were wide open to let a cooling summer breeze flood the open and airy single barroom. The draw here is that it has its own brewery, somewhere: it's not on display that I could see. Two beers from onsite were available so we got a half of each.
Her Majesty is a pale ale and the sort that gives London Murky a bad name. Opaque orange is par for the course but this also features an acrid bitterness that coats the mouth and possesses the senses. There's a kind of mouldy fruit bowl flavour which builds until it feels like you're drinking from the back of a bin lorry. Set it aside, as I did (and I never do), and it still won't leave you alone: there's a residual taste of concentrated chemical furniture wax. This is a pale ale straight from a horror movie, mocking and torturing the palate, and never quite staying dead.
"So how's yours?" I asked. My wife was drinking Lady In Red, which was brown and disgustingly soupy looking. The nose has a playful Laphroaigish quality but one sip opens that out into a honkingly awful phenolic infection made worse by a slick greasy texture. The bitter yeast bite which would destroy any other beer provides relief in this one. "The trick is not to breathe and suppress your gag reflex," she answered.
I'm guessing everyone knows that you just don't drink the house beers at The Queen's Head. And you don't have to either because the guest line-up is excellent. We couldn't leave London on the worst beers of the trip, so two safeish bets to go out on. Another Cloudwater beer for her, their Summer IPA on keg: a big-hitter at 6.8% ABV. It doesn't taste its strength, however, being light and spritzy: all bitter jaffa in the aroma turning to fresh coconut in the flavour. I took the soft option of Redemption Trinity. This is a golden cask ale at just 3% ABV so I'd say a tough style to brew and keep. Mine had some pleasant gunpowder spicing, but also a wet cardboard oxidation tang that took a bit of the shine off. The haze probably also had something to do with it not being as good as I've been told it normally is. The Curse of the London Cask strikes again.
Between this lot, and Monday's spotty offerings in the north-east of the city, I came away with the impression that we're not actually doing too bad in Dublin. I think your chances of getting something enjoyable when picking randomly is rather better in Dublin's beer specialists than in London's. Perhaps I should have just gone to The Royal Oak and The Harp and left it at that. Certainly, departing England for the third time in five weeks, it seems very clear that northern England leaves London, and Dublin, standing when it comes to beer quality, variety and price.
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