Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Thirsty Traveller (part 1)

A London Craft Beer Guide


I have visited England three times, the first and most recent trips both culminating in a three day holiday in London. On my first visit in 2010, I visited many of the traditional tourist attractions and drank a lot of Real Ale. Though I found some nice pubs and drank some nice beer, I generally found the London beer scene to be rather lackluster.

Fast forward to 2013, and I cannot imagine a more vastly transformed beer culture if I tried.

When I visited in 2010, there were scarcely more than a half-dozen breweries operating within London. CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) listed thirteen breweries in its 2011 publication Guide to London's Best Beer, Pubs, and Bars. The current edition lists 36 breweries, with several more slated to open within the next year. The city has more celebrated beer bars than one can shake a fist at and the local brewers can barely keep up with demand. As a result, several breweries are planning expansions (two before the end of the month), and the London Craft Beer Craze doesn't seem to be slowing down.

I spent three days in London in February, with the hope of drinking as much local beer as possible. I came with the ludicrous notion that I might be able to taste it all, and I left realizing that I had only sampled a sliver.

What follows here and in the next several posts is an unofficial guide to London's burgeoning craft market, with reviews of my favorite breweries, bars, and beers. There were several breweries I wanted to visit and never made it to, and yet while this list is certainly inconclusive, it hopefully gives the London beer tourist a good departure point. After that, let your tastebuds guide you!

It took a while to find: off the beaten path and down an alleyway, Partizan Brewing is nestled amongst a row of industrial garages. Unmarked except for a big "8" above the door, I tentatively knocked and stuck my head in. "Hello?" I asked. "Hi Keith! Come in. Would you like a beer?" Scant seconds later, I was holding a beautiful Pale Ale, brewed with Amarillo and Pacific Jade hops, nicely balanced with tropical aromas and a light grassy bitterness.  

Andy Smith is the head brewer of one of London's newest – and smallest – craft breweries. Having opened just in October, his beer (which is only sold in 33cl bottles) is available at a small number of pubs and bottle shops in the city. He usually brews once a week and can barely keep up with demand.

The brewery itself is small: a row of fermenters on the left, and piles of boxes (with full and empty bottles) on the right. Sacks of grain are tucked in the back corner behind an overcrowded desk, and two whisky barrels sit against the back wall. (One of which was aging a barleywine that promises to be quite special. Its aromas were sublime!)

I asked Andy how we was able to get started, and it was then that I learned just how collegial the London brewers are. Andy used to brew at Redemption Brewery, and when he decided to leave and start his own business, Andy Moffat – the head brewer at Redemption – was encouraging and supportive. Redemption often shares ingredients with Partizan (Andy Smith often uses their yeast strain), and in turn, Partizan shares its ingredients with other brewers as well. (In fact, while I was visiting, the brewer from Brew By Numbers was picking up some yeast for a future brew.)

But it doesn't end with ingredients: when Andy opened Partizan, Evin O'Riordain (head brewer at The Kernel) bequeathed to him an entire brew kit – free of charge. This is a community that doesn't fear competition, but eagerly welcomes new brewers to the fold. 

Partizan produces a rotating selection of IPAs, Pale Ales, Porters, Stouts, and Saisons. Andy was particularly enthusiastic about his Saisons, as they are recipes he is constantly tweaking and changing. I tasted a small sample of his newest Saison (still in the fermentor) which had a lovely mustard seed aroma and a light peppery flavor. (Though it was spiced with black pepper, the beer contains no mustard seed.) It contrasted with his Spiced Saison (6.1%) which, though similar, had more cereal grain and citrus flavors, nice notes of clove, and the black pepper flavors nestled a little more in the background. 


Perhaps my favorite beer I sampled was his Foreign Export Stout, an easy drinking 8.6% beer with fantastic coffee, chocolate, and roasted malt flavors. The recipe is based on Young's now-retired 1970 recipe. Despite a particularly simple grain bill (I was surprised at the lack of black patent malt), Andy manages a phenomenal array of flavors that had me savoring every sip.

Partizan Brewing
8 Almond Road
South Bermondsey
London SE16 3LR

I have often reflected on the sorry state of the American export-food market. While in the US and most of Europe, one can find a plethora of French, Indian, and Italian restaurants, German-style beergardens, and English and Irish pubs. The United States biggest contribution to exported cuisine, on the other hand, is probably McDonald's. Why, I have often wondered, is there not an international market for American BBQ? Be it Kansas City, Texas, Memphis, or Carolina, it represents a uniquely American collection of flavors that is really, really wonderful.

Well, I can worry no longer, for it would appear that Kansas City BBQ has landed in London.

Dukes Brew & Que is the home of Beavertown Brewery in the Hackney region of east London. Beavertown is an example of a young brewery on the expansion fast-track: brewer Logan Plant opened the joint in early 2012, and is already planning an expansion that will double their size and capacity. (The expansion is set to open in mid-March.)

Beavertown regularly brews five different beers: a Rye IPA, a Black IPA, a Smoked Porter, an American Pale, and a Bitter. They also brew an experimental beer each month in their "Alpha Series." Their Alpha Series Saison had just been released the morning I arrived.

I wasn't able to taste everything, but what I did taste was very good. Smog Rocket, their Smoked Porter, is a very drinkable beer at only 5.4%. With mild chocolate and light decaf coffee notes, there is only the slightest hint of smoke in the background. In fact, if I hadn't been told it was a smoked beer, I may not have even known.

The highlight beer was 8-Ball, a 6.2% Rye IPA. I could sit and smell this beer for hours, as it has a fabulous aroma of lemon and tangerine. Brewed with Cascade and Centennial hops, it drinks like a high-citrus IPA with a bit of a kick with the rye really cutting through. The beer proved to be the perfect accompaniment to my ribs and ranks among the best Rye IPAs I've ever tasted.

As for the food, I enjoyed a couple of meaty pork ribs, slathered in sauce with a side of fries. The food is expensive (£10.25 for two ribs, £2.90 for fries), though tasty, and the atmosphere is rustic and fun. The bar also has several guest taps and a sizable bottle list. 

(Amongst the bottles was Bear Republic's Racer 5 IPA, and the bartender was clearly very excited about the beer describing it to all of the patrons as "one of the best in the world." I suppose I take the beer for granted; though I like it, I've never thought to give it such lofty praise. It's always interesting to hear a foreign perspective on American beer!)
If you find yourself in Hackney, Beavertown is certainly worth a visit, though I highly recommend arriving before 6pm. The bar opens at 4pm, and once food starts getting served at 6, the place fills up fast. There are maybe ten or so bar seats, so if you're coming with a group, call ahead and make a reservation.

Duke's Brew & Que
33 Bownham Road
De Beuvoir Town
London N1 5AA

The London Brewer's Alliance isn't really a brewery, but rather – as the name suggests – an alliance of several London-area brewers. According to their website, the LBA was founded in 2010 and includes forty area breweries. 

I include them here for two reasons. The first is that it really represents the uniquely collegial attitude amongst the city's brewers. (Case-in-point: the end of their mission statement expresses the intent to "support the improvement of brewing skills among the membership.") The second is that they collectively brewed one of the best beers in the entire city.

Brewed on on the tenth of August, London Stout is a 6.8% beer brewed in the Kernel Brewery. Evin sketched the first draft of the recipe, and each of the other brewers made suggestions or changes until they arrived at the ultimate version that was finally released. Apparently, this is the first beer the Alliance has done together, though there are supposedly plans for doing more.

I was able to taste the London Stout twice: once in bottle and once on cask (the latter was – according to my bartender – the only cask made of the beer). Both are amazing, but the cask version has a richness and a velvetiness that simply can't be found in a bottle.

The beer has rich chocolate flavors with light cherry wood smoke and hints of action figure rubber. (I mean this in the best of ways!) Super smooth and delightfully balanced, there is a slight warming in the back of the throat that gives way to a bittersweet mocha finish.

I don't know how many bottles there are left of this beer, but if you can get your hands on one, do so soon. You can also stop by The Cock and see if they still have it on cask. It's a special beer, and when it's gone, it's gone.

Next issue: The Kernel, Brodies, and many others, as the Thirsty Traveler continues!