It was the coldest night of the winter so far when E and I made the half hour walk from our flat in E1, across Tower Bridge, at this time of the year mercifully, virtually tourist free, heading to Enid St in SE1 to give the newest Cloudwater Taproom the once over. We bickered our way merrily along through dodgy looking streets, though having been that way before, it is less dodgy than it appears. As often is the case of our minor disagreements, we were violently agreeing with each other; the difference in our preferred navigation being about "along one then over a bit", or "straight along and over a bit less". Such are the vagaries of thirty odd years together.
The Taproom is in a railway arch, brightly lit and narrow, with a cold store at the rear to keep the beers cool (certainly not needed that night) and for off sales. There is a bar, bottom right with taps at the rear in the usual craft style. A number of beers - ten or so - were offered in various sizes, all at £4 a pop. Waiting for our companion for the evening, beer writer, Matt Curtis, we started with a very decent Helles Tettnanger which was bang in the middle of the helles style and on a warm day would have been even more pleasurable. On Matt's arrival, we tried a few of the others with varying degrees of success. I liked the lightly smoked IPA - or maybe it was just pale ale, quite a lot, thought the Cranberry and Papaya Sour both smelled and tasted likely mildy gone off Vimto. Okay if you like that sort of thing, but worth £8 a pint? You tell me. Nothing really grabbed me, well, not quite true. The cold did. Like a vice. My hands were freezing as some acquaintances from The British Guild of Beer Writers remarked as they shook hands. It was bitterly cold and I worried for the barstaff. How cold? Well, frankly it would have caused Ranulph Fiennes to check his fingertips and cuddle his husky a bit more tightly. Maybe I'm just a bit nesh though.
Which brings me on to another point. What's the attraction of a bitterly cold railway arch with the sort of beers on sale that you can get elsewhere for around the same price, but in relative comfort? Beats me really, but there were quite a few people there on that cold Wednesday night. I have been in this neck of the woods in summer and sitting outside people watching - if you can get a bench or whatever - is pleasant enough, but so is sitting outside a proper pub. For me these kind of visits are an occasional "something different" thing, but I know for others it's a way of life and how they like to drink. Sure beats me, but as I say so often, in craft related stuff, I'm not the target audience. But in this visit at least, the company was good and of course beer - as it usually does - and this is what really it is all about - engendered the social lubrication that enhances and tranforms an evening out and makes your surroundings much less important than the people you are with.
We left eventually and having spotted a pub, new to us, along with Matt, we popped into the Marquis of Wellington to be immediately enveloped in warmth in a virtually empty, but very pleasant pub. The beer was pretty good too, so we'll be back.
This isn't a pop at Cloudwater. As railways arches go, this was a very nicely appointed one, with attentive and helpful barstaff. I'm sure we'll visit now and then when a trip over the river to Bermondsey beckons. (Or Bermo as nobody but Cloudwater calls it.)
Thanks too to the lovely folks from Duvel-Mortgaat for their surprise company, the excellent chat and the beers.
Readers will be aware that like a sinner repented, Cloudwater Brewery has returned to the cask fold after a period in the keg wilderness. It is good to see them back and to note they will shortly be joined by that other recidivist - sorry - returner to the shining path - BrewDog. Is this the shot in the arm that the ailing cask cause needs? I'm not sure, but it can't do any harm can it? Actually in the case of Cloudwater whose decent intentions are rarely called into question - certainly not by this writer - no it can't. In the case of BrewDog, let's wait and see.
Cloudwater has been seeking out pubs where their cask credentials are such that they will look after the beer properly, going as far as having a little interactive online map where you can seek out those who know how to coax the best out of beer from the wickets. Additionally, a vetting process, which while hardly the Spanish Inquisition, at least gets enough information about prospective sellers of the amber nectar to judge whether they'll turn it into flat vinegar or not. Good idea. Quality at point of sale is paramount and Cloudwater are to be praised for making such efforts as they have in the name of a quality pint.
One such pub whose cask credentials are proven beyond doubt is the Flying Horse in Rochdale, CAMRA's Greater Manchester's Pub of the Year. On Wednesday night they had all four of the new beers on so as it is one of my usual Wednesday haunts, I nipped in to see what was what. This was rather a low key affair, with the pub being little busier than it normally is, though I noticed one or two local members of CAMRA throwing their heads round the door, specifically to try the beers.
On offer were Pale, DDH Pale, Brown Ale and India Porter. I started with a pint of Pale, a 3.8% golden brew which was decidedly murky. My companion had the same and we sipped cautiously. First impressions were good with a burst of fruit and hops, but as the head subsided, the beer was a tad grainy and watery and sadly became less enjoyable. It lacked the cleanliness and distinct flavours that I'd hoped for. Frankly I blame the needless opacity of the beer - but see below. This beer cried out to be cleaned up. Cautious by now, my next beer, DDH was ordered in a half portion. This looked and smelt similar to the Pale, but with a slightly soapier nose. The taste was more of the same with the hops not seeming to get along with the malt. The increase in alcohol to 5.5% was evident, but didn't help the cause that much. Again the beer seemed muddy, a little thin and imprecise. I didn't care for that one much at all.
I was getting worried by now. Brown Ale (4.6%), hardly my favourite style was next. Having had a taster and observing its pin bright clarity though, a pint was duly ordered. Now this was more like it. Full bodied, resinously hoppy throughout and with clean and distinct flavours, this was a beer of tremendous complexity and vibrancy. It was multi layered and classy and quite possibly the best example of a brown ale I've had in years. A lovely beer.
Buoyed up by the Brown Ale experience, India Porter was next. Would it reach the heights of my previous one? It did and in fact soared above it. No mean feat. Again clear, very dark, full of condition and a head a dormouse could have walked over without sinking in, it looked a treat. Frankly this is a stunningly good beer. A booming joy from start to finish. Resinous hops throughout, delicious dark malts and such a clean tasting beer. A modern take on porter which knocks all the sweet, dull efforts you normally see into a cocked hat. It had great drinkability too and at 5.3% I felt its strength was pitched just right. I loved it.
So what does this tell us? A few things. Cloudwater can brew bloody good beer and haven't forgotten how to do cask. The two beers I didn't like prove little. I and my ilk aren't the target audience for them. They are to keep their core audience onside while introducing them back to cask with something familiar. While I didn't like them, plenty will and I have little doubt they turned out as intended. Cloudwater are too good for that not to be the case. Getting not one, but (if you include BrewDog) two two high profile breweries back in cask production with an enhanced committment to quality at the point of dispense can only be good. I look forward to more; just tone down the cloudiness guys. To me it makes the beer taste cleaner and that is a good thing, though I reluctantly accept its all pervasive influence these days.
Conclusion? Mine's a pint of India Porter if you are buying. Even if you aren't, it still is.
So we have Cloudwater back on board cask wise and BrewDog too. I'll try that next week in London and hope for the best.
I'm glad I tried these beers at the Flyer. Tremendous condition is assured there. All beers were a very reasonable £3.50 a pint. In fact for the quality of the Brown Ale and the Porter, worth a fair bit more. Apparently they had sold very well during the day, which is good news.
I was in Scotland last week to see off my late mother's flat - you know - help my sister with all the remaining bits and pieces and discuss old photos of goodness knows who, as not only are the subjects of the photos all deceased, everyone who knows who they were are too. Very sobering and a reminder - hardly needed - that all paths lead ultimately in one inexorable direction.
Sounds like an excuse for a drink eh? Well I certainly thought so. I started off on the first night with a visit to the Captain James Lang, our local Dumbarton JDW. Cask to me has been hit and miss in there, despite its Good Beer Guide status, but they had Adnams beer on. I like Adnams. Proper beer it is. Adnams Nut Brown Ale and rather good it was too. Typical Adnams taste and more complex than I'd reckoned on it being. A beer that made you think. Chatting with my non drinking sister, I found three pints weren't a hardship. For a proper description of the beer, see the Beer Nuthere. I concur with his findings, even though these days, I'm more of a "good or shite" beer describer and as a rubbish blogger, I rarely take notes; rather I rely on my phone for photos of what I drank and my memory for how much I liked them. Not an entirely reliable modus operandi. Trust me on that one.
Due to an unexpected funeral which I wasn't involved in, family plans were put aside the next day. I decided a little trip to Glasgow would fill the hiatus. Charing Cross area was just a hop away on the train, chosen mainly for the State Bar and the Bon Accord - where - and I have mentioned this before - I had my first ever cask beer in 1974. But firstly the Griffin opposite the Kings Theatre. Years since I've been in there - all wood and glass with an old and comfy interior and a horseshoe bar. One other customer in only, reading the paper and drinking a pint of Tennents, so at least I knew it had been recently poured. Duly ordered from a silent barmaid - no warm welcome there - it was cold and gassy, so I swirled to release some carbon dioxide, knowing that if the pipes are clean, there was a chance to get something good from this Scottish standard. It wasn't bad after an atmosphere of CO2 was dismissed, but not hitting the mark. My solitary drinking companion left with no goodbyes exchanged. I entertained myself by watching a glum faced stocktaker, take all bottles down from the gantry and solemnly inspect by eye before noting the contents on a sheet. It was soothing stuff as he tutted his way around the bar. Finally, my pint finished, I slunk out casting my eye without success for the now disappeared barmaid. Like my erstwhile fellow imbiber, I too, left unnoticed for pastures new.
Just up the road is Henglers Circus, a large, bright L shaped Wetherpoon bar, which although it has a fair bit of low level chairs and tables, would be much improved by some bench seating. It was quite pubby with plenty of folks of varying ages dotted around, chatting, eating, reading the paper or just watching passers by through the large windows looking out to Sauchiehall St, where, and this happens a lot, they were digging up the street in my honour. The greeting was very warm and friendly and unbidden the barman after ascertaining I wanted beer, rattled through the offerings. By way of compare and contrast, I had a very decent pint of St Mungo from West Brewing in Glasgow. I took in the pleasant atmosphere and enjoyed a leisurely people watching. I didn't have the cask, but some did and I know from past visits it is reliable enough to deserve its GBG entry.
A mere hop and a skip away is the State Bar, renowned in real ale circles. Well Glasgow ones anyway. I used to regularly sup there in 1976 when I did my Supplementary Benefit training in nearby Pitt St. Then it was an all chrome and black keg bar and looked nothing like the traditional pub it is now. Odd if you think about it. Only half a dozen in and again not much of a greeting, but GBG form Fyne Ales Everyone Loves Simcoe made up for that as did bumping into an acquaintance of mine. The beer world is small really.
My intended final stop was the Bon Accord just over the M8. Busy and welcoming - big smiles and hellos - and beer from one of my favourite breweries, Stringers. Yellow Lorry was in Good Beer Guide form as I was drawn into a discussion on an inadvertently locked down laptop. This widened with plenty of people offering solutions, but it still wasn't working when I left 45 minutes later. This pub never disappoints even if Hewlett Packard laptops do.
Now I know you are asking yourself. "What about the Tennents?" I had intended to go back to Dumbarton at that point, but seeing a pub sign down a side street by the Mitchell library,I couldn't resist. The Avalon is odd. Just check out the reviews. Inside, like a souped up scene from Still Game, a few denizens chatted to each other by the simple process of bawling in jokes and asides at a volume wholly incommensurate with the size of the pub. The barmaid was friendly enough and as the range of beers on offer was more than limited, I opted for Tennents Lager. It was a cracking pint. Clean, fresh and very enjoyable. CO2 levels were good and as I surveyed the slightly down at heel boozer, I felt content, swigging mouthfuls of TL and listening to the patter.
Resisting the temptation for more I headed for home. Back in Dumbarton as I left the station I entered what used to be McCafferty's Railway Tavern. I was a regular there many moons ago when it was actually run by Hugh McCafferty. Many a pint of McEwan's Export was consumed in there back in the day. Now it is a recently opened Indian Buffet Restaurant called Haveli having been closed for a number of years. Now I'm not the biggest fan of this kind of eating, but it was handy and five minutes walk from home. Apart from four women it was just me, but I had one of the best lamb bhunas I have ever had and one of the best pints of, you've guessed it, Tennents Lager. The welcome was great too from the waiter and his dad who had cooked the bhuna.
Tennents Lager is no Augustiner Helles, but when not over gassed it is a full bodied, clean beer with a slight ting of hops. Sadly too often it is not sold at its best.
I met with a pal the next night in the Henry Bell in Helensburgh. This normally reliable GBG entry offered me two pretty undrinkable pints, though both charmingly exchanged. I reverted to gin and when the crew from RFA Fort Victoria arrived mob handed from HM naval base at Faslane, we avoided the hordes at the bar by using the JDW app. Brilliant.
My last disappointment was on the way home when the Smoking Fox just outside Central Station had swapped the delicious Heidi-Weisse from West for Blue Moon. WTF?
It is an opinion that some won't agree with - controversial maybe - but I've usually found craft beer bars a bit samey. All shiny and sharp surfaces like Gordon Ramsey's kitchen; industrial chique instead of comfy decor; a stainless steel wall of taps and the barstaff's backs for a view. The Americans, as always, have a lot to answer for, as have their unimaginative worldwide copycats. Why can't we have some more craft bars with individual character? Nonetheless being a reluctant democrat in such things, I sometimes find myself in them, usually with gritted teeth and quite often wearing, if not a sulky expression, a boat that shows faintly concealed resentment.
Thus it was in Malaga a few short weeks ago. I and my companions, (E excluded), had dutifully jotted down the must visit places of the crafterati and round them we traipsed. I think we went to around five. Six if you count the visually appealing Cruzcampo Brewpub, La Fábrica - a magnificent and brilliantly designed space with decent snacky food and a very shiny brewery producing slightly boring but incredibly competent and faultless beers. In each bar, the same odd tasting take offs of beer styles from abroad. A muddy pale ale, a wheat beer, an overhopped, unbalanced IPA, a badly made porter and some murky one off, masquerading as a saison or a NEIPA (interchangeable in their awfulness and who knows how they should taste anyway - the brewers clearly don't? It made you shake your head with wonder that any brewer worthy of the name would let the bloody stuff out to trade. And always, well very nearly, an amber beer that everyone tries and then pulls a face at, before wondering why brew this insipid style at all? The only saving grace really was, here and there, an Imperial Stout, so alcoholic, dark and dense that brewing faults were disguised to the point of non detectability.
Was I just unlucky? Is it just Malaga? I don't think so. While undoubtedly more competently made beers were to be found in Barcelona with the same friends last year and without them in Berlin, earlier this one, the general samey picture didn't change. And why anyway for goodness sake, would you want to replicate abroad the experience you can find in any craft beer pub in Manchester, Liverpool, London, New York and everywhere else? It's the modern equivalent of demanding sausage egg and chips or pie and beans, no matter where you are in the world. You pay top dollar for the experience too. That at least is consistent the world over and is the one thing that can be relied on.
Having said all that, Malaga is a great city to go to. Just get to the real Spanish bars around the giant market or anywhere away from the very touristy centre and you can have a great time in traditional surroundings. El Cid by the market was small and not at all self concious. Our entry caused no wonder or resentment at all and as we perched in a corner, four little tapas were presented with a smile. Victoria beer and the house wines were damn good too. In fact cheery little bars on every corner, even on main roads in the city centre, were a feature of the town and away from other visitors you certainly got a feel for the vibrancy of them and the way they are used by locals. Welcomes were always warm too, unlike the general indifference of the craft bars.
So what's the lesson? If you are a fussy old duffer like me, when abroad just visit local pubs, drink local beer and wine and mix with local people. If you want to drink craft - carry on, but don't expect it to be much different from home as an experience.
Interesting too to compare basic Spanish beers. Least liked were San Miguel, Mahou and Cruzcampo, though none were bad. Very much liked were Victoria and the lovely and gluten free Estrella Galicia.
Funnily enough in the tourist centre some excellent house wines and great grub can be found at very reasonable prices. Gambas al pil pil? Yum yum.
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. He also judges beer at both the International Beer Challenge and the World Beer Awards.
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