A Shot at the Bar: The Bohemia and London Brewing Co

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It’s Wings Wednesday that typically brings me to North Finchley’s The Bohemia pub, the recently refurbished flagship pub from the owners of The Bull in Highgate. The offer of 500g of spicy Buffalo wings (some of the best this side of the Atlantic I’ve been assured) for five pounds is hard to resist. As North London goes, The Bohemia is very north, but more than worth the extra minutes by bus (134, 263, N20, 460, 82) or tube (North Finchley, Woodside Park) when you get there.

The place is wide and deep, lavishly furnished and skilfully halfway between modern and traditional, in proportions more in common with a spacious, town centre pub than anywhere else in London serving La Chouffe and Veltins on tap. Of course, the key difference here is the Bohemia is home to a brewery as well as a well-stocked bar – the London Brewing Co, which also brews at The Bull. Whilst the beers brewed at The Bull are packaged in casks, The Bohemia’s kit generally brews beer for keg.

The brewers have already turned out a wheat beer, stout, rye IPA and session IPA, which are naturally all available at the bar just a few metres away. Currently the most impressive of these are the ‘Stout’, displaying a creamy coffee yet dry, herbal hoppy character I’d most recently enjoyed in O’Hara’s Stout in Dublin, and the ‘Upright’ session IPA, which tasted every bit as good as fresh Founders’ All-Day – orangey, oily, boisterously bitter – but fresher. Brewer Daniel Vane has recently returned to London Brewing Co with plenty of ideas in mind, as recent shots of a brewday for a lychee pale have shown. He’s assured me there’s plenty more in the pipeline, some of which will be available at the forthcoming Northern Line Beer Festival on 22-26 April, which will feature beers from a number of celebrated Northern-Line-based brewers (including the new, Derek Prentice-helmed, Wimbledon Brewery) and will also include beer and book matching from Pete Brown and a beer-paired dinner at The Bull.

What I love most about The Bohemia, even more than the wings (somehow), is that there’s damned good beer there, made just a few steps from the bar. That distance travelled to the pub itself is compressed, folded and shrunk somehow by the difference made by that short distance between the brewhouse and the bar. There’s nothing quite like taking a gulp of daisy-fresh session IPA and being able to see where it was lovingly brought to life.

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Beer By The River

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Left: Lavender Hill honey beer, Right: Battersea Rye.

It’s funny to think of Sambrook’s as an old timer in the ‘new’ London brewing scene, but that’s pretty much what it’s become. Now at the ripe old age of five, it’s spent most of that time quietly claiming the handpulls and hearts of south London, with beers like Wandle and Junction. These stalwart beers (not unlikeable, but perhaps hard to think of as special) have been joined by the likes of Pumphouse Pale Ale and Powerhouse Porter, both acclaimed examples of their respective styles.

On Saturday I was kindly invited by Jo at Sambrook’s to their fifth birthday celebration. ‘Beer By The River’ was a joint venture with the National Trust, held at Morden Hall Park by the river Wandle. A fitting location, yet sadly hampered by damp and drizzly weather that had people hiding in the beer tents for most of the afternoon. The setting was a walled-off part of the park, with a stage provided by the Artful Badger, showing excellently named folk and indie acts such as Toyface and The Hallouminati. Two beer tents were separated by a line of food vendors: Ginger Pig, Dessert Deli and Fish Club. There was also face painting and a few ducks, chicks, rabbits from Deen City Farm (for the benefit of families attending the afternoon session – no adults were quaffing ale with their face painted like a tiger, sadly). The only thing missing was a view of the Wandle itself, which was disappointingly obscured by a brick wall.

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Folie Ordinaire performing on the Artful Badger stage.

Naturally, my main focus was the beer on offer, which you got two 1/2 pint tokens for on arrival. I was pleased to see a couple of Sambrook’s beers I hadn’t tried before: Lavender Hill braggart (honey beer) and Battersea Rye, a seasonal special for autumn. The Rye in particular was lovely: the pepperiness balanced with earthy British hop bitterness and a very indulgent palate of crystal and chocolate malt. It was by no means a Sambrook’s-only festival though. Gadd’s, Five Points, London Brewing Co and Tap East all had cask beers served on gravity behind the bar. My favourites of the day were the three beers from Tap East: Niwot India Red Ale, Smokestack Porter and their outstanding American Pale Ale. Their beers absolutely shone all day long, unlike that pesky sun slacking off behind the clouds. For a ‘small’ range of beers, it was incredibly varied in terms of styles, strengths and flavours.

The food selection was quite varied too, with plenty on offer for meat eaters, but perhaps a bit limited for vegetarians. Having said that, the beer battered halloumi from Fishclub was apparently very good indeed. I plumped for a very enjoyable box of fish and chips (line caught haddock and twice cooked chips, dontcha know, though one nearby Chip Wanker remarked he could taste that they had ‘only been cooked once’). That cost £9.50, though in real terms it was only £4.50 since the entry ticket also gets you a £5 food voucher. The fish and chips went down very nicely with a glass of Five Points Pale Ale, which, whilst seeming a little flat served by gravity, still had an incredible tropical fruit aroma.

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For most of the afternoon, the event was quiet, with sixty or so people plodding about the muddy field. It was a shame, because if the weather had been as willing as the Northern Line (spectacularly free of engineering works for once) it could have had a great atmosphere all day. Originally, the event was set to run as two sessions – 12pm-5pm and 6pm-11pm – but due to the decreased turnout, they instead ran them together. It was a shrewd decision, and the place really came alive just after 6, when the long-haulers decided to stay for ‘just one more’ as a fresh crowd arrived. It was around this time that I decided to cash in my voucher for a 1/3 pint of Sambrook’s 5th birthday celebration beer: their new No 5 Barley Wine. This 8.2% warmer was an impressively (and dangerously) drinkable beer, with banana, malt loaf and sherry notes ending in a curiously dry and moreish finish. Keep your eyes peeled for a bottled version.

I was glad that we stayed late, if only to see the event get the numbers it deserved. I think the ticket cost of 17 quid was a little over the odds for what was there on the day, but if it had been blessed with the glorious sunshine of a week or so earlier, I’m sure people would have paid hand over fist to sit there all afternoon with beer and music. As it was, having several excellent beers and some good food just about took the edge off spending the day in a damp field. I don’t wish to sound harsh though, because I had a lovely day, and look forward to more events like this in the future. Maybe a little bit closer to that lovely river next time…

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