It isn't often I venture to a brewery I've never heard of which is nonetheless within walking distance of our London flat. Oh there are plenty of breweries I have never heard of that are within walking distance of the flat, but normally I can't be bothered looking for them. You know the drill. A squashed railway arch with a few rag, tag and bobtails of scraped together vessels; a hardly heated, cramped bar with German style benches, lookalike, barely drinkable, overpriced beer and that "What the fuck am I doing here when I could be in a nice pub?" feeling.
But last Friday, gripped by the news in London Drinker that Mechanic Brewery - no me neither - had introduced cask beer got me thinking that the mile and a half walk might be worthwhile. Easy peasy from here. Get up to Whitechapel Road, turn left after the Blind Beggar and you are nearly there. Now Whitechapel Road is a bit like Karachi in places with its street food stalls, clothing shops, Asian sweet and kebab shops and more. It is a polyglot place which I kind of like. Something for most people and interesting. We walk along there quite often and while no fan of Asian sweet shops, the kebabs and pakora always attract me.
Turn left, past Sainsburys and keep going. Council flats are the order of the day and the place gives off an atmosphere almost of a small town, though you are only a few hundred yards from the bustle and the buses. There is nobody much about. A railway line looms ahead and we turn right. Suddenly, abandoned old London taxis are everywhere. Old as in will never move again. Like a dinosaur cemetery, they lay as if awaiting discovery by some future explorer. Here and there lights in arches show people hard at work, dismembering carcases and applying them to bust up taxis. This is where London cabs come mostly to die and for some, a Frankenstein like afterlife as spare parts.
Under another bridge, the underside of which was littered with more of the dead, we see a row of lights. "That'll be the brewery" I thought. It was. An open metal gate, an arch with that heavy plastic drop down sheeting that you struggle to find a way through, but we did. Inside it was just as already described, but empty apart from the barperson. It was warm though and good sounds emanated from speaker above the bog - unisex - or is it gender neutral now - of course.
The beer list was fine. I tried three thirds. A mild, a curiously appealing lime stout and a more standard pale beer. E had a creditable can of Kolsch. I chatted to the operative. They don't have cask in the Tap and only do it for festivals, but he admitted many people ask for it, so a handpump will be installed. We agreed the mild would much better suited to it than keg dispense. As we drank up our host mentioned there is three other breweries round the corner. Thanking him,we left and went round in the direction indicated by the jerk of his thumb. More defunct taxis littered the streets. We saw no signs of a further brewery, just an old and derelict pub, with a single electric bulb, creepily lighting some upstairs room through tattered Addams Family like curtains. This looked like a fine place to get murdered, so we made our way by a different route, back to Whitechapel Road.
Mechanic Brewery is fine. You can see why it is named as it is. Quite good in many ways. We'll call back in daylight and maybe manage that elusive brewery crawl.
Still not been in the Blind Beggar. Must remedy that. It looked busy.
Sadly no spicy food for me.That was vetoed. Well no spicy Asian food anyway. My usual Vesuvio pizza from Pizza Union in Leman St was unlike them, sadly a bit overdone.
When I was young it was common custom in many pubs to "recycle" back to the customer, overspill from poured beer in the drip tray, Usually a tell tale pint glass with a few inches of beer stood by the drip tray and unless you watched like a hawk, a small amount of this was put in your glass first and then topped up with fresh beer. If you were unaware of this bad practice, or just not near the offending pump and thus oblivious - then that's what happened. Nearly everywhere. Breweries and landlords then, as now, make use of what they can to preserve stocks and gain margin. I was told once - though the truth of it may be different - that the reason tall founts, keg or cask were used in Scotland, was to make the visibility of the beer and therefore its freshness obvious to the customer. Attempted "slopping" the consumer became something of a game, where you'd fix the barperson with a gaze that said "Don't try it with me Pal" while he or she looked for ways to do it without you noticing.
I know this as I was both an avid watcher outer for such happenings and, in my years behind the bar, a reluctant exponent of it, though only when the Boss was there. When he wasn't, the drip trays were tipped down the sink and we also took great care to avoid wastage in pouring. I too, way in the past, have been warned by an intended sloppee - in no uncertain terms - not to try and do it with him. And rightly so.
This still goes on,but perhaps much less nowadays. I get the impression that in these times of Health and Safety and much better hygiene awareness, that most in the trade refrain from it, if not always, at least in most cases. I for one always try and look to ensure I see my glass filled freshly. Over the years I have though, pulled various people up for it and refused the pint. (A small amount of freshly spilled beer from a pressurised keg is unlikely to show much sign of itself. Not so in cask beer, where even a relatively small amount of flat beer can take the edge off the liveliest pint.)
Now sadly this meander down memory lane has a point other than me thinking fondly back to unsullied pints of Diamond Heavy or Tennents Lager. On Thursday I was shown in the most blatant of ways, that in some places, this malodourous practise flourishes, though fortunately I was the witness in this case, not the victim.
In London and in increasingly heavy rain, we took a stroll round Covent Garden buying Christmas cards and watching the world go by. In time we had a couple of pints of excellent stout in the Porterhouse Brewery in Maiden Lane and then in even wetter weather, headed somewhere that I could try a half of Sam Smith's Yorkshire Stingo, rarely if ever, seen on cask. A bit of drama ensued first of all as we entered though. A old lady was lying sparked out on the tiles, with anxious folks around her. In a booth overlooking the bar, we were asked to watch belongings as they fettled the woman in distress. I ordered a warm up pint of Old Brewery Bitter which had that distinct bottom of the barrel feeling about it. Not quite bad enough to call for a replacement, but which was half heartedly, half supped without enjoyment.
From the vantage point of the booth, I had a good view of the set of pumps (both cask and keg) at the bottom of the bar. The pub was rammed and the barstaff busy. One lad stood out. He fussed over a new member of staff, showing her how to pour, though to me he made a pig's ear of it more than she did. I first noticed that Sam's Nitro Stout was virtually headless though a bit of judicious swirling produced a slight one. Gas gone? Almost certainly. But he carried on regardless. After a few more pints the bitter went off. This would be interesting. With the sparkler still on (Just makes the operation less speedy and slick) two or three pints of froth were pulled into a jug, then poured into a couple of glasses, which along with the half pint or so from when the beer went off, they were put to one side. The customer waiting for his pint was further up the bar. His half pint of cask bottoms was then topped up with the new beer. Urgh.
The horror show increased in intensity. Next the jug was shared into pint glasses and the beer topped up again with fresh. Now much of this beer would have been in the beer line and thus bottom of the barrel. I shudder to think what it tasted like. Wheat beer was then taken directly from its drip tray, poured into a beer glass and the beer topped up with fresh. All such spillages were, in varying amounts, given direct to customers, but not to these that could see what was going on. Shocking stuff.
Now was this the rogue behaviour of one barman? Was he under instruction? Did he simply not know better than to do this? I couldn't say, but the pressure on Sam's landlords to deliver the maximum volume from containers is well known.
By this time, the old lady's relatives had come back. She was fine and was apparently in the habit of conking out. Her daughter took her off in cab, while the rest of he family returned to drinking. We didn't have another drink given what we'd both witnessed and went off elsewhere.
It was still pouring down.
So I didn't have my Stingo, a mere £7.40 a pint, but I will do before I go back North again. Just not in a very ornate pub in Holborn.
We nipped into the Citte of Yorke after, but it was rammed. Oh and in the other pub in Holborn we paid by card - as everyone else seemed to be doing. If Humph stops that in London, he'll have no business left.
Last word. I have a witness. E watched all of the horror show with me.
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer writer, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival from 2013 to date. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink.
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