Great British Memories (Notes from a return home) #4
THE BEST OF BRITISH BEER
Though I was guilty of the same when I lived in the UK, it breaks my heart to go home and see everyone drinking Fosters, Carling, Holstein, Budweiser and the like. For a first time tourist, raised on the knowledge that Britain offers some of the best beer in (and the envy of) the entire world, walking into an English pub and witnessing this abandonment of native culture would be like visiting France as an oenophile only to find they all drink German wine – except, that does not happen! I can understand why so many of my friends favor gaseous, thirst-quenching industrially-produced lager – it’s a lifetime’s habit, and habits are hard to break – but I can no longer join them. And though I haven’t gotten to the point of applying for my CRA membership, I’m certainly on the constant lookout for locally, or at least independently-brewed, British beer in every pub I stop at. Hats off, then, to the following:
Harveys’ Sussex Best, served all over Bexhill and the South Coast. Though it’s only 4.0% alcohol, it doesn’t feel like a “session” beer: it’s too rich and filling for that. In fact it’s just so damn good you feel the need to linger over a single pint of it rather than throw it down your neck and, as per a fine wine, it’s harder to imagine a greater compliment. Making up 90% of Harvey’s annual production, the Sussex Best won Champion Best Bitter of Britain title at CAMRA’s Great British Beers Festival in 2005 and 2006. I took a picture of a pint of this cask ale a couple of years back and it’s become almost iconic. Time to reprint it:
Thwaite’s Original and Thwaite’s Wainwright. This 200-year old Blackburn company is no-one’s idea of a micro-brew: it distributes German lagers and owns pubs as far east as The Barrel, in Walkington, E. Yorks (see a picture of this gorgeous pub – and others in the area) where I sampled a half of each of the above beers while watching the Man United-Chelsea game on Saturday TV. But it does offer tradition: low in alcohol and lightly malty, The Original dates back to the early 19th Century. The Wainwright, on the other hand, named after the Lakeland author, was only introduced for the Brewery’s bi-centennial a couple of years back, since when it has remained on tap. Lightly colored, it offers just a touch of sweetness in the midst of its classically malty taste.
Black Sheep Best Bitter. Located in Masham, North Yorks, the Black Sheep brewery has been in business barely a decade, but you can find its Best Bitter all over Yorkshire, and rightly so: less hefty than the Harveys from down South, a couple of points lighter in alcohol, it’s brightly golden and eminently quaffable, the kind of beer you could happily drink all day. I tasted this at the delightful Fleece Inn in Bishop Wilton on Easter Sunday, as I did the…
Consett Ale Works Steel Town Ale, as recommended by the Fleece landlord, whose “taster” filled a good quarter pint. The Consett Ale Works was established in Bishop Auckland, Durham, only in 2006. With all four beers named for the now-defunct Consett Steel Works – a brave and noble choice for a pub that could much more easily play off the romantic name of its actual home town – the Steel Town Ale is the brewery’s “session beer,” with a brown, caramel richness that belies its low alcohol status. Produced out the back of the Grey Horse pub, at the rate of just a few barrels a week, Consett is what my American counterparts would absolutely recognize as a micro-brewery – perhaps even a macro-brewery – and a promising one at that.
A pause, perhaps, to note that while I’m writing about beers from “oop north,” and talking of shuttered steel works, and while the old men in Yorkshire still wear cloth caps almost as a religious statement, don’t deceive yourself that the region is any kind of industrial or poverty-stricken wasteland. These are two of the cars that were parked at the Fleece on Easter Day. I have never seen a Vegantune before, and I imagine most vegans, being politically correct as they are, would flee at the very thought of it!
A couple of days earlier, on Good Friday morning, I had decided to replenish my carbs following a brisk ten-mile run with a visit to the Green Dragon, a long, narrow pub positioned opposite Beverley’s Saturday Market. The bar is lined with a long row of hand-pumped beers, and the server assured me that the choice changes daily. I settled in with half of…
Castle Rock Harvest Pale partly because, post-run, I needed just about the lightest beer in the house, and this was advertized as a barely intoxicating 3.1% alcohol. (We’re looking for carbs and hydration at this point, not alcohol!) I kicked myself when I saw that the Nottingham brewery’s beer was made with American hops – a case of coals to Newcastle, if you get my drift – but it was a gorgeous and innovative beer all the same, blonde in color, crisp in the mouth, and voted Best Bitter of 2007 by the members of SIBA, whatever that may be. It also turns out it was a more typical 3.8%, which probably explains why it went straight to my head. I ordered up a veggie breakfast to go with it – the staff readily adding additional mushrooms in place of my eggs – and settled into a table overlooking the marketplace. When the breakfast came, I realized why the Green Dragon boasts of its sausages as much as its beer: these were a blend of mushroom, herbs and whatever else and they were delectable. In fact, this may go down as one of the best veggie breakfasts I’ve ever had. So good that I returned to the bar for a half of…
Saltaire Copper Ale, from a brewery in the West Yorks town of Shipley. Visit the Saltaire web site and you’ll see that they are clearly in love with the whole process of brewing. The site does not, however, list even half the beers in production, some of which I assume must be seasonal. The Copper Ale, fwiw, lived up to name, lightly colored, a touch over 4% alcohol; I see elsewhere that it has been cited as offering aromas of “cereal malts, hedgerow hops and damsons,” and if you can think of a more archetypally rural British description… well, I can’t.
The Green Dragon not only excels in beer and bangers, by the way: it has a fantastic range of wine by the glass, too. Open at weekends from ten in the morning until midnight, it’s a perfect example of the modern English pub expanding its offering to stay in business at a time when some 40 pubs a week are shuttering their doors. That Saturday lunchtime, I was sat close to a couple of women, one of them clearly in her 80s at the very least, happily enjoying lunch with a glass of something non-alcoholic, and a family with young kids, enjoying beers, cokes and food. Over at the bar area, meanwhile, a handful of real ale drinkers were settling in to taste the day’s hand-pumped offerings, while signs up and down the pub emphasized the upcoming music, quiz nights and the like. Typically, I don’t visit pubs often in Beverley, but the Green Dragon will need to now become a regular pit stop.
And what of London? I didn’t drink much beer in many London pubs, to be honest. (And you may have noticed that I generally drank lighter beers on this trip than the heavyweights I could not back in my youth, or that I could have done on this trip too, were it more of a holiday.) I did spend a Friday evening catching up with two different friends at the Spice of Life in Soho, an old haunt that has also coped admirably with the demands of the modern age, serving a wide range of wines, plenty food, with quick efficient friendly service and, equally important, almost obsequiously polite security. Can’t speak so highly of their choice of brewery, however: the McMullen’s ales were generally flat and uninspired in taste, a shame given how much wonderful beer is otherwise on offer in the UK. I fared better, down the road after the Spice of Life closed, with Fuller’s London Pride, as friendly and distinct a pint as you can find in the big smoke. (And one that, unlike almost everything else mentioned here, you can also find in the States.) In the midst of what does, I admit, make my 3-week visit sound like something of a pub crawl, I should note that I had a solitary pint of Foster’s while out on the town of Bexhill on a Saturday night. Despite the fact that I must have drunk thousands of pints of Fosters in my teens and twenties, I hated it, could barely get it down me, and gladly went back to the Harvey’s Best. After all, I have a new habit now, and I don’t feel like breaking it.