Blazing a Trail

 

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There’s a dumb way of thinking that judges each new bar or brewery in London to be somehow parasitic in its attitude towards the scene, trying to take a slice of the action for purely financial gain. Whilst that is no doubt the case in a handful of (usually rather obvious) cases, it’s a false and harmful view. Every part of London’s beer scene, especially those parts that make a go of it out in unclaimed territory, usually contribute something good. If they don’t, they soon fall by the wayside. Those that do contribute become the hub of a protozoic scene of their own. Last month I visited The Gun in the docklands and the Dragonfly brewpub in Acton, and it struck me that each of these pubs seem to be pioneering a mature and exciting beer scene in their respective areas single-handedly.

The Dragonfly Brewery at the George and Dragon pub in Acton officially launched on May 15th, and I was invited to taste some of the beers brewed by Conor Donaghue (formerly of the Botanist at Kew and the Lamb brewpub). The pub itself is a lovely place, it’s front wholly given over to the building that has been a pub since at least 1759, whilst the bar in the back room, a music hall once upon a time, is a gleaming chrome and brass affair on polished dark wood that evokes something more Continental, or American, or perhaps both, rather fittingly considering the beers being brewed.

 

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In a four-strong starting lineup (the strikingly authentic 2 O’Clock Ordinary best bitter; zesty, crisp and punchy Early Doors US-style pale; a sweet and subtly spicy Achtung Hefeweizen; and the nougaty-sweet and sharply coffee-tinged Dark Matter Stout), Connor has established a strong core range of technically accomplished and drink-by-the-pint beers that hint of great things to come. More impressively, the 2 O’Clock Ordinary best bitter on sale was the first beer Conor had brewed on Dragonfly’s brand new and oh-so-Instagrammable brewkit, installed behind the wonderfully-appointed island bar. You can read more about the beers and the brewery from the more detailed accounts of the launch night by Justin Mason, Matt Curtis and Steve from the Beer O’Clock Show.

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Aside from the great beers and the wonderful food (which include diet-busting beer accompaniments like deep-fried, breadcrumbed parcels of macaroni cheese and Dark Matter stout-battered black pudding fritters), the pub and brewery had something special about it. There was a certain shape, light and form to the place that seems destined to be a local focal point for good beer. The cosy front section of the pub, so reminiscent of the wonky-ceilinged and creaky-floored pubs of York, is a warm and welcoming place, whilst the airy, light and clean space of the brewery/bar area has the vibrant, lively atmosphere of somewhere like Camden Town Brewery. There’s no question that this place will be Acton’s flagship craft beer pub in no time.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, The Gun pub recently hosted its Spring Haze unfined beer festival. The Gun is a pub I’ve written about before, and between the excellent beer selection, high-end food and beautiful interior, there’s plenty to like about it (and, if that wasn’t enough, the people behind The Gun have something planned for Ealing which should be every bit as good, if not better). So why a festival purely for ‘unfined’ beer?

The issue of unfined and intentionally hazy beer has gained a bit of traction both in the blogosphere, and even on the websites of the national press, recently. The Gun’s manager and top beer bloke Barny sees the festival as a way of introducing the idea of unfined beer to a population that is either a) conditioned to be mistrustful of it and/or b) might not know anything about it. As more and more people enter the world of good beer through the offerings of the smaller, newer London brewers, more people will be trying ‘unfined’ beer and seeing it as normal. As far as they are concerned, if it tastes good, what’s the problem? For the more old-fashioned, the festival serves as an argument for the technical skill of the brewers represented on the bar.

Once upon a time, the idea of a hazy beer festival might have been the subject of a cartoon in a local CAMRA magazine. Whilst the breadth of beers available at Spring Haze, including offerings from ‘unfined’ stalwarts Moor as well as Beavertown, Pressure Drop, Windswept, Weird Beard, Brew By Numbers, Arbor and Gyle 59, demonstrates a slant towards newer brewers certainly, the beers themselves were hugely diverse. Moor’s black IPA, Illusion; the coconut edition of Weird Beard’s Fade to Black, Windswept’s Weizen and Gyle 59’s Toujours saison show that these aren’t just the much-derided London Murky pale ales of many a railway arch – these are technically impressive, innovative and well-brewed beers. It helps too that the Gun is such a great pub, with a great history (see below).

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Opening a shiny, multi-faceted gastro-brewpub like Dragonfly or running an unfined beer festival might seem like the type of thing to go down in Dalston or North London, but these things are happening in what, for London craft beer, is the wild frontier. There’s not even a whiff of cynical cashing-in or bandwagon-riding. These are simply great pubs, providing the kind of experience that wins people over to a scene that can seem to be just that: a scene.

So whether it’s by the wings of a Dragonfly or the hot iron of a Gun’s cannonball, there’s many a trail being blazed. When the newcomers are this good, it shows that London’s craft beer boom has far from peaked, and that if anything, those in the first wave might need to up their game.

100 Best Breweries Bonus Content: Drinking in Brussels

 

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À la Mort Subite

The second piece of ‘bonus content’ exclusive to this blog: some more material that didn’t quite fit in to the new issue of Craft Beer – The 100 Best Breweries in the World. In the new issue is a guide to some of the best bars in Bruges, but there wasn’t quite enough room for this brief guide to some of the best bars in that other Belgian beer lover’s paradise, Brussels. (You can read the first piece of bonus content – an interview with Camden Town Brewery’s Head Brewer Alex Troncoso – right here)

 

As a city, Brussels has many districts, though many of the bars are thankfully within comfortable walking distance of each other. With more bustle than Bruges, it’s nice to break up your drinking excursions with visits to restaurants and museums, though it’s just as easy to find a bar with a particularly good selection and bunker down for an afternoon. It can be tempting to settle at one location and work your way through the ten or so beers that have caught your eye. Feel free to do so, the other pubs aren’t going anywhere, the staff are friendly, and they have food, so why not just relax?

 

À la Mort Subite

Rue Montagne aux Herbes Potagères 7, 1000 Brussels

http://www.alamortsubite.com

No visit to Brussels, or indeed Belgium, would be complete without a visit to this most iconic and decidedly Belgian of cafes. The bar’s own lambic blends are a must-try: Gueuze, Kriek, Faro, Peche and White Lambic are all available on draught, and best enjoyed with a plate of meat and cheese.

 

 

Brasserie Cantillon
Brasserie Cantillon

 

Brasserie Cantillon

Rue Gheude 56, 1070 Anderlecht

www.cantillon.be

Whilst not strictly a bar in the traditional sense, the fact that some of Belgium’s finest beers can be tasted here makes a visit to Cantillon an essential visit. After taking a tour of the brewery, relax with some fresh Rose de Gambrinus, different aged lambics, or a bottle of something to take home.

 

Delirium
Delirium Cafe

 

Delirium Café

Impasse de la Fidélité 4, 1000 Brussels

www.deliriumcafe.be

The slightly mocking tone of the monastic décor here gives foreigners a taste of what might constitute Belgian humour. Delirium may not be a Trappist brewer, but many if not all Trappist breweries have their beers represented at their bar here, along with classics from across the country.

 

Le Poechenellekelder

Rue du Chêne 5, 1000 Brussels

www.poechenellekelder.be

Near the famous Mannekin Pis statue, Poechenellkelder (or the ‘Poeche’) is a friendly, well-stocked beer bar with a small outdoor space and lively atmosphere. The eccentric décor of puppets, rare beer glasses and, well, stuff, is all quite charming. Helpful staff are on hand to guide you through the extensive menu.

 

Moeder Lambic
Moeder Lambic

Moeder Lambic

8 Place Fontainas, 1000 Brussels

www.moederlambic.com

The original Moeder Lambic bar is in nearby Saint-Gilles, but this newer, city centre bar is the ideal end to a trip around Brussels. The range here is varied, and worthy of note for the occasional kegs of Gueuze Tilquin and offerings from Jandrain Jandrenouille and Brasserie de la Senne. Meat and cheese boards are de riguer food-wise.

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 You can read more guides to drinking in top beer cities in ‘Craft Beer: 100 Best Breweries in The World’, now available in newsagents and online.

The Week in Beer #0

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Sometimes, it’s hard to generate a whole blog post from the various flotsam and jetsam of beer things that happen. It’s not always enough – not so much a writer’s block as a blogger’s clog – a little cluster of thoughts that lack the electric impulse to become Something To Say. Still, I think that beer is always worthy of note, even if, or especially if, it’s mediocre. This is me having a stab at capturing the stray craft particles, the free radicals of my week, wrapping a big net around them putting a flag in the whole hoppy mess. Here are some beers I’ve had this week and what, if anything, they made me think.

Monday: Dry as a bone, but there was much to be said on Twitter about anger and reactions and beer styles and so on. Another Monday.

Tuesday: I was conveyed unto the Brewed Dog on the Shepherd’s Bush to meet and rejoice with the craft wanker brethren (and sistren). A tasty insult to history was enjoyed in the form of Gloucester Black Simcoe. Also of note: a Rye Bread Sour from Levain Franken that had a quaffable creamy note that made it one of those expensive beers you would drink by the pint with a winning lottery ticket. Also, my curiosity got the better of me, and I tried Hobo Pop, which proves we can now make American Stale Ale as good as them Americans and that. Hobo Plop, more like.

I then proceeded to drink an Amount of Beers Inappopriate for a Tuesday, but stuck to halves and two-thirds and so survived largely unscathed.

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Wednesday: Sixpoint’s cans of Wetherjoy arrived late due to inclement posting attempts. Others posted about them quicker than I, so I didn’t bother to add to the noise. My thoughts on the beers:

The Crisp – slightly too boozy, but largely by the book pils. weird pithiness throughout that gives a sense of Premiumness, but at what cost?

Sweet Action – a fresh, foxy delight of peach, mango and melon. Delightful and juicy. Likely to be cloying in larger amounts, but that exact portion felt heavenly.

Bengali Tiger – an orange pith heavy, grapefruit tart assault on my main face. Refreshingly uncrystally, robust yet accessible.

What does it all mean? Don’t know. Too tired of predicting the future. More interested in the choice of range: for example, why a lager, wheat/pale/cream pale and IPA? Imported European-style US lager in perfect condition to prove a point? Maybe. More likely to be the entry point to all this craft bollocks for your mate who’s with you when you order the pair for £5/6 deal. Hook him in, get him on the Sweet Action, job’s a good’un.

Thursday: BeerBods this week was Moncada Notting Hill Red, an accomplished, American-hopped red ale at 6%. Having had a couple of the brewery’s beers before (Ruby Rye on cask and Blonde in bottle), I was expecting good things, and the Red did not disappoint. Full in jammy and piney aroma, rounded in its nutty sweetness and caramel-soaked orangey, limey hop character, there was a lot to enjoy in this beer. I’ll pursue their other beers with interest.

(Given the thirst for something similar, I opened a bottle of Hardknott Infra Red, only to find it had gone a bit ‘craft’, with a lactic character reminiscent of Rodenbach and much of the hop character and toffee sweetness gone. Not wholly unpleasant, but not the beer on the label. So why did I keep drinking it? It had gone off – I should have immediately poured it away. Truth is, I actually liked what had gone wrong. Truly.)

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Friday: The Gun in the docklands near Canary Wharf celebrated National Pie Week (no, not every week apparently) by offering a Pie and Beer Flight, which was about as close as it gets to my ideal use of a 6 x 12 inch piece of slate. Three mini-pies, each paired to a third of beer. Cockel and smoked fish pie matched to a third of Anspach and Hobday’s The Smoked Brown (a sweet, crispy and smokey boost to the pie); a venison and apple pie matched to Partizan Black IPA (total, lavish decadence); and a figgy fruit turnover-pie with Brew By Numbers Saison Wai-Iti and Lemon (a curiously warming and spicy combination). For £14, it’s achievable and enjoyable proof of thoughtful beer and food matching without being inaccessible or too geeky. Hopefully more to come from this increasingly impressive pub.

On a side note, it was here that I first saw Brewmeister in the wild: their Supersonic IPA was on cask. As I can no longer get away with chiding them without actually tasting their beer, I dutifully ordered a half. Would it be passable? Would it be great? Would it have travelled well, and would a clone of Punk IPA on cask actually be a bad thing? I never found out. Some bastards had drank it all. Ominous. I went for Siren Soundwave instead, of which there was plenty.

That’s all for now. Saturday and Sunday will be spent in York and Leeds, hopefully warranting a gushing blogpost in due course.

Golden Pints 2013

golden pints

The year that was 2013 saw ‘craft beer’, whatever the hell it is, become a truly, sort-of mainstream-ish and widely-noticed thing of some kind.

What I mean is, we in the beer blogoshire (hat tip to Boak and Bailey for that infinitely preferable alternative to the cold, corporate-sounding blogosphere) say more than ever before, but we communicate in increasingly fuzzy and inconsistent terms. The year has seen attempts to unify people and ideas, but there have been just as many fractures and splinters within already fractured and splintered groups.

There’s been a collective obsession with measuring What This Is All About, as people try and define Who We Are as drinkers and what beer is, as A Thing. I’ve read loads of blogs and articles this year about things in the present, events that are still unfolding, as if they are already history. Well, they’re not.

I hope 2014 sees a more patient and reflective attitude; less trying to define everything and more trying to understand things.

Many have struggled, even more so than usual, with their choices for this year’s Golden Pints, which has got to be a good sign. I have tasted some fantastic beers this year, many of which rank among the best I’ve ever had. I’ve even been asked to write what I think the best beers in the world actually are, which was of course broader in scope, but still a task laden with similar difficulties.

As with any test of naming the Best Thing You Had of That Type This Year, this feels more a test of memory than anything else. Taste as a sense is (I am told) the one with the strongest links to memory, so this should be easy. It isn’t, though, partly because of the vastly different flavours I’ve bombarded my palate with, but also because of the Inherent Obstacles in beer writing (the memory of a man drinking beer).

As with last year, I’ve tried to focus on what is new to me; beers that have Expanded My Mind in some sense.

Best UK Cask Beer

To ‘doge’ this issue: wow much difficult.

This should be an easy win for Oakham Citra, a beer that has been in almost perfect condition every single time I have tasted it. It’s a sensational pale ale that I will happily order a second or third pint of, and I say that as somebody prone to ordering as many beers in as smaller measurements as possible these days.

That said, even a shoddily kept, limply pulled, warmly-glassed, flatly served pint of cask Beavertown 8 Ball Rye IPA puts all five toes right into the nuts of any other cask beer in the country, including Citra, so there.

Best UK Keg Beer

This is an even messier decision to make. On a good day with no breeze and good-to-firm ground, a pint of BrewDog Dead Pony Club is hard to beat. It has a brightness all the way through its middle, right to the last drops that languish in the very bottom of the glass. Just delightful.

Unfortunately, Dead Pony is simply outclassed by the one-off wonder that was Kiwi Wit, the NZ-hopped version of Camden Town Brewery’s Gentleman’s Wit (thanks to Tandleman for reminding me of this). Only a single keg of that gloriously beer was made, a damned uncommon delight of gooseberries, grapes and citrus. Urgently address its absence from our lives, Camden.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer

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It would be remiss of me, given my constant harping on about canned this and canned that, not to award this to a canned beer. Even if I hadn’t been going on about canned beer all the time, I’m pretty sure that Camden Hells Lager in its exceptionally decorated can would have knocked my block off regardless. The freshest, crispest lager with the best possible protection from everything but your ravenous thirst. It’s the definitive version of Hells as far as I’m concerned.

Best Overseas Draught Beer

I spent the last part of my holiday in Belgium this year in the beer Mecca that is Moeder Lambic, and there tasted the sensational IV Saison by Jandrain Jandrenouille. It’s a beer so flavourful and wholesome and perfect that it outshone almost every beer I’d had on the trip, with the exception of…

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer

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I had Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus for the first time this year, at the brewery. No further explanation needed.

Best Collaboration Brew

Another tricky one. Wild Beer Co/Burning Sky/Good George’s Shnoodlepip is about as craft as it gets, and I mean that in a good way. An experimental but totally quaffable beer that is worth every penny and Does Things to your palate/mind.

On the other hand, Weird Beard/Elusive Brewing’s Nelson Saison had a purity and elegance to it that was quite disarming. If you asked which I would like to have four pints of right now, I’d pick the Nelson Saison every time.

Honourable mention goes to BrewDog/Brodie’s Berliner Weisse, which taught my face a new expression: Berliner Weisse Gurner Eyes. A proper gob slapper.

Best Overall Beer

Beavertown 8 Ball. It’s been present at some of my favourite moments of the year, and I think of it often. A total class act.

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label

I love Beavertown’s branding. All the little details, the boldness, the oddities, it’s cool without really trying too hard, i.e. the definition of cool. Once they (as rumoured) move into canning their beers, they’ll look sensational.

Until then, there’s only one brewery that dominates any shelf its beers go on: Partizan. So, so pretty.

Best UK Brewery

I think The Kernel have hit – and maintained – a momentum that’s frankly astonishing. Every beer coming out of the new brewery in Bermondsey has been a showstopper. Freshness is key.

Best Overseas Brewery

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Cantillon. My trip to the brewery is etched into my mind permanently.

Best New Brewery Opening 2013

Three different beers in the space of an hour from Burning Sky were enough to convince me they are a new force to be reckoned with. The Saison l’Automne was just fantastic, sensible strength and bursting with flavour. Believe the hype.

Pub/Bar of the Year

Really tough. I’ve been massively impressed with BrewDog Shepherd’s Bush every time I visit, but it’s still early days there. I’m fairly certain it’ll be a contender for my favourite bar this time next year.

Really, there can only be one contender. It’s a pub where I’ve met loads of ace new people this year, and tasted some incredible beers on every visit. If pubs are places where people + beer x location = bliss, then the location in that equation for me this year has been Craft Beer Co Islington.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013

This is quite simple, really. My summer wouldn’t have been the same without Urban Sessions, a great place that had some of the best beers (including Nelson Saison) that I’ve had all year, in a location perfectly suited to the glorious summer we enjoyed. I really hope that something else like it will happen next year.

Beer Festival of the Year

If I have to pick one it would be London’s Brewing.

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I’m not joking.

I’ve been to plenty of beer festivals this year, from the daft and craft to the golden oldies, but London’s Brewing has to be my favourite because it took us all down a peg or two, and I think we needed that.

You need a good, solid fuck-up every now and again, especially in a movement that can occasionally get its head stuck up its arse fairly frequently, just to make it clear just how things really are.

It’s easy to get feverishly excited about the diversity and the variety and the experimentation and just how nice everyone is, but if you can’t organise a piss-up in a brewery, in a very literal sense in this case, you’re not perfect.

Never again etc.

Supermarket of the Year

Waitrose always seems to have just what I want, whenever I need it to, so I can’t ask for much more than that. Still, credit is due to M&S for getting an impressive range of beers in from some of the country’s best breweries. Popping into an M&S Simply Food in a train station for a journey-enhancing bottle or two of Citra IPA is heartwarming experience.

Independent Retailer of the Year

I’ve made an effort to visit Utobeer in Borough Market several times this year, and they’ve just about won the crown from Kris Wines, which has let me down a couple of times with a few past-their-best imports.

Online Retailer of the Year

Don’t use online retailers much, but all my Abstrakt Addict parcels from BrewDog were delivered without issue.

Best Beer Book or Magazine

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Joint winners:

Leigh Linley: Great Yorkshire Beer – every page written with real love for the subject matter. A lovely read.

Mark Dredge: Craft Beer World – the passion and excitement about every beer is representative of the very best aspects of the craft beer scene.

Best Beer Blog or Website

I’m going to cover this in a separate post at some point, so stay tuned.

Best Beer App

Untappd – if only for  the debate it creates about what beer apps should or shouldn’t be like.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer

Nothing has made me chortle this year as much as Let There Be Tim.

Honourable mentions for Boak and Bailey, for participating as much as analysing this year; Nate Southwood for never, ever changing; and Zak Avery for this tweet alone:

Best Brewery Website/Social media

@BrewDog is still the one to beat, though I love Wild Beer Co’s new website and Camden Town’s is very smart these days.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year

It’s been said elsewhere, but Fraoch and haggis at EBBC13 was sensational.

BONUS AWARD: The Tin Hat Trophy for Best Effort at Tackling the C-Word

After reading so many earnest, heartfelt pieces about defining ‘Craft’ this year, I found Craig Heap’s What is Craft Bear? and Defining Craft Beer Through the Ages to be the best and most useful contributions to the debate, because they made me laugh and not want to self-harm.

Here’s to next year.

In Bruges – Part 2

Some informative reading in Cambrinous, featuring TV's Alf, apparently.
Some informative reading in Cambrinous, featuring TV’s Alf, apparently.

In my last post, I covered two fantastic bars in Bruges: De Garre and la Trappiste. Below are two of my other favourite places I visited in Bruges: Cambrinous and ‘t Bruges Beertje.

Cambrinous, 19 Philipstockstraat

Cambrinous occupies one of those very ‘Bruges’ buildings: old red stone, zig-zagging to a tip like two sets of stairs at the top, oozing character and warmth. Some of the masonry on this particular building sets it apart. The King of Beer, Cambrinous himself, is depicted, straddling a massive barrel. Inside, a long bar overlooks a sunken seated area of booths and tables. We managed to get a window seat, where copper pipes and light fittings nestle in the corners.

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The beer list here is extensive, 400+ at any one time, and my eye is drawn to a brewery recommended to me: Brasserie De La Senne. Taras Boulba is their ‘Extra Hoppy Ale’, and in the glass it shines like freshly squeezed fruit juice. From Saaz hops alone it manages to squeeze out lemon, grapefruit, mandarin, lime and orange, building to crisp, dry, peppery finish. It’s a stunning beer, destined for enjoyment in sunshine.

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The food here was good too. Chicken and frites done simply but very well. Crisp skin on steamy chicken, crunchy fries and all washed down with the 2013 edition of Duvel Tripel Hop. Having missed the (by all accounts) sensation 2012 edition, I was eager to try this year’s interpretation. The hop bill is Sorachi Ace, Saaz and Styrian Goldings. The initial lemon/lime bittersweet balance finds depth in a silky, creamy mouthfeel, like lemon syllabub. Further in, it gains new qualities, a sharpness like a salad of peppery rocket and lemony vinigarette, before shovelling on pithy bitterness by the hop-kettle-full.

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Cambrinous’ menu is large, the service is quick, and the food is good. Everything there is very reasonably priced, too, but that goes for much of Bruges. What I really enjoyed about Cambrinous was the way it remained welcoming to families and tourists, but also provided a fantastic setting for hardcore beer explorers. Everyone was welcome and the beer was fantastic.

t’ Bruges Beertje, 5 Kemelstraat

This is The Place. You can’t go to Bruges and not visit Beertje. At least, that’s what everyone says. They’re right, too. It’s a truly wonderful bar.

[Scene missing]

The problem is, I had such a good time in Beertje that I somewhat shamefully forgot to take any photos while I was there. True, a great deal of beer had taken its toll on this weary traveller, but there was more to it than that. I remember at one point wanting to take a picture of the beer I was drinking at the time, Brasserie De la Senne’s Zwarte Piet, and feeling suddenly awkward about it. Without the convenient crutch of photos to show you what it’s like, I’ll try to describe what it was about Beertje that made me feel that way.

We initially tried to visit mid-afternoon, and found the place closed. This only exacerbated my thirst, and by our eventual return several beers later, I still felt as thirsty as I had done when I’d first found the place with its doors closed and beery secrets locked away. It was a hot night, and people were just vacating a table as we arrived. Thank goodness, I thought, because I couldn’t have stood and nursed strong beer in this heat. The air was thick with a warm fug and the bubbling swell of conversation. A tiny bar somehow fills one entire wall, with liquid miracles being dispensed as quickly as they could be found.

I could see why it didn’t open until later. This place had no patience for afternoon shoppers who had wandered off the main road. This was a place for the seekers; people who know, or want to. Acolytes, weary from their travel and bibulous exertions were slumped over tables with elaborate goblets on them. We come here to pray, you see. Pray that there is more to it all than just the day-to-day grind. Beertje felt a little like the pub of collective imagination, where the barman produces the exact drink you need from beneath the bar, like magic.

This is The Real Deal, I thought, as I had on several occasions whilst in Belgium. This is It. A real tavern, like out of all those books and scenes in films. Except that the staff here, studious fellows, seem more like librarians, or guardians of some mystic archives. Indeed, so small is the bar that they often have to descend into cellars below, presumably where their arcane library is. You can test their knowledge, ask them for things like this or like that, and they’ll present you with the exact thing you need but had no idea existed. Barmen nipping off to find this, that and the other all the time? Surely the service must be very slow, you’d think? Not a bit of it. It might be because the place is so small, but the whole operation runs like clockwork.

In the back room, there’s photographs mounted above the fireplace, in memoriam to the Beer Hunter himself, a man who introduced generation after generation to Belgian beer, and the potential to have an experience like this. When I saw those photographs, and tasted what that barman gave to me, I knew. I couldn’t start clicking my camera to and fro, it felt wrong, unseemly. This is The Place.

Bruges itself is a unique marvel. I’ve been to cities and towns with historical importance, picturesque beauty, and wonderful food and drink, but very few manage to keep all of that AND be a thriving tourist destination. Many have to drop at least one of those balls. You’d think that be particularly the case when one of the best things about the place is the beer. But maybe that’s part of why it’s managed to keep it all together. Almost everything in Bruges demands that you treat it with a certain reverence, the beer included. It’s a fun place, don’t get me wrong, but it also feels very grown up, thoughtful and comfortable with what it is.

The drinking culture here is driven by tourism certainly, but with no laddish swagger or uncouth excess. Overindulgence is almost compulsory, but you are encouraged to go about it in such a classy way that it doesn’t really feel like ‘going out drinking’. You just feel like you’ve spent all day putting your palate to work, enjoying sights and sounds, and there are few better things in life than that. Here’s to keeping it classy, and having a damn good time doing so.

Next in the Beer Diary: De Halve Maan brewery, Cantillon and bars in Brussells…

In Bruges – Part 1

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View of Bruges from the roof of De Halve Maan brewery

Bruges is beautiful place. I visited it during a particularly warm spell, when every part of the city seemed lit for camera. The tourist board must do all of its promotional photographs on days like that. It’s a wonderful place to walk around, and feels like a cultural waypoint that has drawn in equal parts of England, France and the Netherlands. There’s cobbles, those very specific step-like rooftops, little delis, lace shops, chocolatiers and of course: cafes and bars, where some of the world’s finest beer is available.

I’m sure that many of you reading this will have been to Bruges. This was my first time, so please forgive me if my gleeful discoveries are all old hat to you. This trip meant quite a lot to me, because Belgian beer has always been a bit of a blind spot for me, and now, I feel like I’m so much closer to understanding and appreciating just how incredible it can be. These are the happy musings of a man who finally gets what all the fuss is about. These aren’t all the places I went to in Bruges, but they are my favourites of the places I visited. Please do share your own in the comments.

La Trappiste, 33 Kuipperstraat

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Once a club and ‘rendezvous’ bar (a Belgian euphemism for pick-up joint), the 800 year old cellars on Kuipperstraat have been taken over by two men with a plan. I met the Manchester-born half of that partnership, Martin, who welcomed us into the cavernous yet cozy bar below the sunshine-bleached pavements of Bruges above.

The lighting is gentle, provided in some part by a collection of pretty, mismatched light fittings acquired from second-hand shops. The bar itself provokes memories of home, or at least the UK. Shiny T-bars and fonts spelling out more than just the usual selection of blondes and lagers. Behind, a glassware and bottle-festooned backbar display, along with that most modern of touches: chalkboards displaying their regular and guest draught beers.

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The beer menus here are more than just laminated lists of names. Martin has ensured that almost every bottle beer they sell has a picture and description, to help people make wiser choices. He’s also more than happy to help guide anyone towards their ideal beer. Martin is a converter, a true believer in talking, showing and sharing. He’s one of those truly great bartenders, who goes about the day-to-day serving of great beer with a palpable sense of glee and accomplishment.

He shrugs off the bar’s commerical ties to AB-Inbev as an easy compromise. In exchange for stocking 4 of their brands, he can stock 8 other draught beers, 12-14 guest bottled beers and 80 regular bottled beers at any one time.  Belgian classics like St Feuillien Blonde and Troubadour Magma were stocked alongside Birrifico del Borgo’s Re-Ale and even the likes of Bateman’s Mocha and Marble Lagonda IPA (a nod to Martin’s Mancunian roots). While many bars can knock out a range of a few hundred bottles (see below), places like La Trappiste are a rarer, more precious thing. Here’s a bar with a real conscious identity that will always be able to surprise you.

De Garre, off Breidelstraat

We visited this place twice. The first time was the best, for a few reasons. First of all, I didn’t know where De Garre was, only roughly were it was supposed to be. I didn’t know, for example, that it is down that little alley. So after several reconaissances, actually finding it was one of those proper Beer Moments ™, where the joy of finding somewhere almost equals the taste of the beer. Almost.

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The second time we visited was when we were tired and thirsty, having spent the balmy evening walking the streets and finding Billy Bragg doing a free gig on the Burg Square. The first time at De Garre was still the best though, because we met great people there: a couple from Preston and an older couple from, I think, Michigan. We never learned each other’s names (though to me, the American chap shall always be Bill, given his enormous resemblance to former President Clinton). Bill was a homebrewer (in that off-handed American way, you know, he just has a whole part of his house plumbed in for it, cold store, that sort of thing, real casual) and he was talking to the couple from Preston about beer local to Bruges. I chipped in that I’d just been to De Halve Maan (coming soon to a future blog post), and everybody started talking all things beer. We had the upstairs part pretty much to ourselves, and we had a great, happy few hours of sharing beer and stories.

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De Garre as a pub/cafe/bar is a very intimate, oak-beamed, cozy place that encourages conversation. A little too cozy, actually. The second time I was there I banged my head on the way out of the toilet. It feels almost British in layout, but naturally with a focus on bottled beer as opposed to draught. The taps should not be ignored, though. In fact, you are quite likely to be offered a glass of the house blonde beer, Tripel van De Garre, on the way in. Naturally, it comes served with some complimentary cheese. Highlights from the beer menu on our visit include Hercule Stout, a muscular 10% stout named after legendary Belgian murder-solver Poirot, and Troubadour Magma, a sort of rich, rye-super-ESB that had that trademark Belgian Balance ™ covering up its 8.2% strength.

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De Garre reminded me a lot of Arcadia in Leeds, which coincidentally was where I had ‘proper’ Belgian beer for the first time. It felt quite poignant to come to the source of both the beer and Arcadia’s aesthetic inspiration. De Garre is a very warm, welcoming place, that becomes more than just bricks, mortar and beer. Its intimate atmosphere and perpetual background sound of cheerful conversation make it a charming, rewarding place with a life of its own.

In Part Two: Cambrinous, Bruges Beertje and my thoughts on drinking in Bruges…

Bath Ales and Beerd: Craft Beer in the West Country

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I came across two very different outlets of modern British beer in the West Country at the weekend. One was a highly-evolved descendant of that old, artisanal, hand-prepared chestnut: the gastropub. The other was a very on-trend, hipster-magnetic craft beer and pizza joint that still had a unique character all of its own. Both places are owned by Bath Ales, which owns a handful of pubs in the Southwest, mostly around Bath and Bristol.

Graze Bar, Brewery and Chophouse is, as you might guess from the name, more than just a gastropub. It is the third Graze that Bath Ales has opened, following more traditional-looking outlets in Bristol and Cirencester. The Bath incarnation is part of the newly built foodie-centric Vaults development around Bath Spa train station. Graze is actually on a level with the station’s platforms, but is accessed by stairs or lift from below. Graze is very large, about on a par with Bristol’s Zero Degrees, and the similarities do not end there. Unlike any of Bath Ales’ other pubs, the Graze in Bath has a microbrewery plant in the midst of it. It didn’t seem to be active at the time of my visit.

Aesthetically, however, Graze couldn’t be more different to Zero Degrees. Instead of dazzling chrome, Graze is all about pine, Bath stone, copper, brass and soft leather. The whole place is like a purpose-built pub-showhome, and is quite beautiful. I would suggest checking out that link above to see for yourself. I couldn’t capture it easily on a smartphone camera. Basically, Graze is a long rectangle shape with glass walls on its longest sides and balconies outside them. One side overlooks the city, the other provides a view of the picturesque countryside beside the train station. A shiny island bar lounges in the middle, and everyone looks pretty pleased to be there.

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The food is geared towards fancy cuts of beef, pretty little starters and vibrant seafood. The beer has a upmarket mainstream selection, alongside ales and cider from the parent brewery. I had the market special fish of the day, which was a beautiful smoked haddock kedgeree (£13). I had this with a pint of the Special Pale Ale (Bath SPA – geddit?), and may have found my beer and food match of the year so far. SPA is brewed with lager malt, making for an extremely clean and lively beer with a simple and gorgeous peachy, grapefruit character. The fish melted in the bubbles of the SPA, the smoke was enhanced, then sweetened. The spices in the kedgeree were lifted and boosted by the lightness of the beer and its carbonation. The hops didn’t clash with the heat but became a part of it somehow. It was one of those meals that makes you think: I MUST know how to make this at home. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Graze is a really special place, and an absolute must-visit for beer and food lovers in that part of the West.

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So what of the other side of the Bath Ales estate? Well this is a story in two parts. First, the bar itself. Beerd is a ‘craft beer and pizza’ joint in the studenty, trendy Cotham area of Bristol. Its name, with a very Bristolian sense of humour, may poke fun at the both real ale and craft beer hipsters (the free WiFi password is ‘beardyweirdy’) but that is where the jokes end. This is a cutting edge craft beer bar that provides a cool, credible location to choose between quality cask and keg beer. The stainless steel handpulls (featuring Bath, Black Rock, Penryn among others) are topped with mismatching BMX handlebar grips, whilst the keg beer taps (including Anchor, Wild Beer Co, Palm, Moor) stick out of a giant wooden cask. All right, maybe that’s another joke too. There’s also a solid and ever-changing selection of bottles to rival a BrewDog bar.

The rest of the décor is more mismatched craft beer chic: kitsch plastic chairs alongside metal stools, and formica tables next to old driftwood topped tables. The wallpaper is a very cool pastiche of beer brands, and the whole place has a trendy student vibe that still feels welcoming to all ages. It’s a very Bristol kind of place, friendly and alternative. You can imagine something like it existing there whether there was a beer renaissance going on or not. The food range is slightly more than just pizzas (one nice idea is that you can have any pizza’s toppings as a salad instead), but not a lot more. There’s lots of responsibly sourced vegetables and deli-quality Italian meats.

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I went for an Artichoke, Roasted Pepper and Rocket pizza (about £9), and added some Prosciuttio and Salami because I’m worth it (an extra £2). I ate the first half with Wild Beer Co’s Spellbound, a Brettanomyces yeast golden ale, which wasn’t entirely intentional but it worked better than you’d think. The spicier esters from the lively yeast played along well with peppery rocket and the crispy base. The rest of the pizza was finished with Moor’s Nor’Hop, which was simply sensational. The hops danced with peppers and the rocket, the carbonation melted the crispy base in my mouth, and the sharpness cut the oily, salty meat and cheese to bits. An amazing combination, so delicious that I forgot to take a picture of it until I’d almost finished it.

It gets even better. Beerd is no longer just the name of the bar, it’s also now the name of Bath Ales’ new microbrewery operation. Two of Beerd’s new beers were available on the bar: Big Small Beer and Dark Hearths. Big Small Beer is a low ABV (2.8%) pale ale with a ferocious hop bill, balancing a light body with thick portions of soft fruit and sharp tropical juice. Dark Hearths is a ‘peated porter’ with an oily body and Schlenkerla-like stickyness to its smoke character. Both were really, really good. More beers are on the way, and those two alone mark Beerd out as a brewery to watch. As far as I can tell, Beerd is brewing in a separate part of Bath Ales’ main brewery. That little microbrewery plant in Graze seems to be a separate project.

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The idea of a ‘perfect pub’ is not a new idea, but exciting beer destinations – those sorts of places that we will happily take awkward, multiple-connection-strewn journeys to find – are certainly a big part of the current beer renaissance. Bath Ales’ approach is exciting. By creating different beer destinations that different people will enjoy, they are embracing the diversity that good beer encourages.

Duke’s Brew and Que

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I had been eager to visit Duke’s Brew & Que, the original home of Beavertown Brewery, for some time. I regularly hear tales of the place’s meaty wonders and beery delights on Twitter, and the verdict is almost unanimously positive. Beer from Beavertown hasn’t disappointed me yet either, so I finally visited on Friday evening and arrived with an enormous thirst and appetite.

If you don’t know about the menu at Duke’s, it’s basically the menu of a BBQ in paradise. Huge ribs of pork and beef, burgers, pulled pork, sliders, steaks, salads *cough* and so on. It was relatively quiet when we arrived at 5:30pm, but got busy very quickly from 6:00pm onwards, and was heaving by 7:00pm. It’s worth noting though, that the staff provided a brisk and excellent service all evening. Once you start seeing the platters of incredible food being served, it’s little wonder they operate a strict booking policy.

The beef ribs, arguably Duke’s signature dish, are about the size of, well, a massive cow’s ribs. Seriously, they are enormous. This time (for I shall return for those behemoth ribs), I picked the burger, with added bacon and Monterey Jack (see picture above). That came to about £15 (though the basic burger is cheaper). My other half chose the pork ribs and a side of fries, which came to about the same price.

I’d heard good things about the burgers at Duke’s and I was not disappointed. The beef patty was juicy, flavoursome and well-seasoned. The bun was glazed and crispy, almost to the point of being dry, but in balance with the incredible relish, gherkins, tomato and cheese (which coated the beef like a gooey blanket), it was all simply sublime. The bacon alone almost had me in tears. It ranks above Dirty Burger and about on a par with Lucky Chip’s Royale with Cheese. But with what could I wash it all down?

It would have been a crime not to try some Beavertown while I was there, and a new blend, Anakin’s Glow Stick (also above), was on tap. Anakin is a bewildering blend of Beavertown’s Smog Rocket smoked porter and their Gamma Ray pale ale, resulting in a unholy bastard amber/brown ale that was as thick as mud and smelled of both beers at the same time. I maintained my cynicism up until the first taste.

It shouldn’t work. It really shouldn’t work, but it does, and then some. The muddled malt bills of the bright, zesty pale ale and dark, roasted, smoky porter intertwine with almost artificial intelligence, balancing across the palate before detonating in a crispy, sharp, bitter and smoky finish that paired magnificently with the beef in the burger. The hops cut through the cheese, the smoke added to the mustard in the relish, and the carbonation wiped the gherkins clean off my palate all in one sip. It was a beer and beef miracle.

If like me, you have regrettably postponed a visit to Duke’s, then I hope the above goes some way to assure you that you need to stop what you are doing and go there right now.

One Hell of A Hammer

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Cold. Eyes scrunched into the wind, fists punched into pockets, jaw clenched into face, walking at a forward-slash angle, mouth sneered in defiance. Cold.

There are those that were prepared. Soviet greatcoats, gloves like chinchillas, hats stolen from Buckingham Palace guardsmen, boots like tanks. Then, the Unready: flimsy suit jackets with lapels upturned, scarves wrapped forlornly around heads, trousers flapping around legs like sails.

‘There’s only one thing for it,’ each of these people realise in crystal-like moments of clarity.

Hot. Barely-absorbed suntan lotion running down your face in rivers of sweat. The lenses of your sunglasses hot enough to cook an egg on. Praying in thanks to your ancestors and whoever invented flexi-time. Lighting the signal fires of supermarket briquettes. Pulling out Those Shorts and That Shirt from the wardrobe. Hot.

‘There’s only one thing for it,’ each of these people realise in crystal-like moments of clarity.

Despair. The failed interview, the lost job, the lost friend, the failed relationship. Slaps on the back, squeezes of the shoulder, hugs, encouraging smiles, muttered curses and small words. ‘There’s only one thing for it…’

Elation. Jubilant, exuberant, exalting, life-affirming joy. The nailed interview, the new job, the big win, the big three-oh, the perfect day, The One. Fist pumping, jumping, happy swear words and ear-to-ear grins. ‘There’s only one thing for it…’

Nothing on telly.

That new place.

Heard they have new beers.

Film doesn’t start for an hour.

Long wait before next train.

When all you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails, so the old saying goes.

But it’s one hell of a hammer.

Craft By Design

The Beer House in Waterloo station.

A guy walks up to me and asks ‘What’s Punk?’. So I kick over a garbage can and say ‘That’s punk!’. So he kicks over the garbage can and says ‘That’s Punk?’, and I say ‘No that’s trendy! – Billie Joe Armstrong

A clumsy comparison, you’re already thinking, but bear with me. Whatever ‘craft’ beer is, it is generally agreed that whilst it’s hard to define, you know it when you see it. The same applies to modern ‘craft’ beer bars and pubs. They can be very traditional looking, like the Southampton Arms. They can be bare-brick-and-granite hipster magnets like BrewDog Camden. Whatever the decor or the theme might be, you know it when you see it. Admittedly, this is normally because there are 40 taps crammed onto the bar, but the point stands.

There’s an increasing number high-end beer venues in the UK, especially in London. They stand apart from well-established real ale havens that have ten or more ales on, even though they might share the same patrons. They are identifiably ‘a thing’ as popular vernacular would term it (‘Oh, is this a thing now?’ ‘Yes, definitely a thing’). So we have not only a boom in specialist beer, but also in specialist beer outlets.

As Boak and Bailey recently blogged, there are a number of signs when a boom is about to peak, and ultimately, decline. The most damning and certain sign is when the niche thing in question is adopted whole-heartedly, and replicated perfectly, by larger, wealthier, mainstream competitors. Have we already reached that point with craft beer? Definitely. It’s been happening in the USA for years, as the recent ‘Craft vs Crafty’ debate has proven. Even in the UK, bigger brewers are starting to place value in ale brands that only a few years ago were seen as dead weight. So what about the outlets – the places where we all drink and experience this wonderful beer?

Will mainstream pub companies attempt to replicate the success of BrewDog’s bars?

I recently found myself with half an hour to kill in Waterloo station, and happened across the promising-sounding Beer House, which also has branches in Charing Cross and Paddington. After descending a couple of flights of stairs, I found myself in a well-appointed, pubby sort of bar that was quite large but still definitely part of a train station. The wood panelling, leather-cushioned benches, chalkboard beer menus and random spray of manufactured ‘vintage’ art all said ‘modern pub’. The beer selection was spread across several chilled T-bar fonts and four different handpulls. The chilled fonts had a couple of token mainstream lagers, but most were beers like Erdinger Dunkelweisse, BrewDog 5am Saint, and Flying Dog Doggie Style. The food menu boasted deals on classic Americana; hot dogs, burgers etc. alongside pubbier fare. Prices were Train Station x London + Craft, but this was to be expected.

Given all of that, it still had all the necessary ingredients to make a pub that I would like. So what perturbed me about this place? It was the way they were put together: a case of the Uncanny Valley, where advanced robotics creates something disturbing because it is close-to-but-not-quite human, applied to a pub. Here was a venue owned and operated by SSP, Compass, or one of the other catering companies that run the franchises in train stations, but created to mimic our modern idea of a high-end beer venue. There was a palpable synthetic quality to everything, not helped by the fact it was in a generic, train station unit. The deliberate way in which ‘fun’ was injected into the chalkboard writing, the barmaid’s look of confusion when I asked for one of the heavily-advertised paddles of tasting thirds, the fact that the staff were clearly from one of those Pumpkin Cafes; these all created little glitches in the Matrix until I found myself questioning everything about it. It’s hard to explain myself without sounding like a weird pedant, but that’s what it was like. That sudden certainty that everything has been deliberately chosen to replicate something you like, that if you punch a hole in the wall you might see a lab of men in white coats ticking boxes of clipboards.

Is this the future? Should I have a problem with it? There wasn’t anything in particular about that place that I disliked, but I worry about the long-term consequences. We are used to paying higher prices for beer that costs more to make, by people that have higher overheads and smaller workforces. If more mainstream chains of craft beer bars spring up, will smaller chains of outlets get priced out of the game? Will brewers that cannot provide the quantities (that born-again bigger brewers  of ‘craft beer’ can) face decline and eventual closure? Am I making too much of this? I certainly hope so.