Tastings School - London calling

Tastings School

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London calling

Andrew Catchpole looks at the beers and breweries of Greater London, Middlesex and Surrey

London’s best known contribution to the beer world is the treacle dark, burnt-bitter edged, thirst-slaking beauty that is porter.

This original London stout was possibly created by one Ralph Harwood of the Bell Brewhouse in Shoreditch in or around 1722 (a plaque still marks the spot). Whatever its origins, porter soon caught on – and probably gained its name – from its popularity with the hard-working porters of London’s vibrant meat, fish and vegetable markets.

Its re-emergence as a signature style with both old established family brewers and recently established microbreweries is a welcome testimony to the ever improving quality and sense of place accorded to London’s beers today.

Surrey, too, has gained ground during the past couple of decades and now boasts award-winning microbreweries and brews to slake a discerning thirst.

There have been losses, including the much loved Pitfield Brewery in Shoreditch, which is being forced to relocate outside London due to absurd rises in local business rates and rent. At the other end of the scale, Guinness left off its London brewing operations last year.

However, this new millennium has witnessed the opening of Battersea (2000), Meantime (2000), Grand Union (2002), Twickenham (2005) in London, plus cool, modern brew restaurants like Mash and Brew Wharf.

All these award winners were matched by Hog’s Back (2002) and Surrey Hills (2005) in Surrey. Add old favourites Fuller’s and Young’s into the equation and the capital can hold its head high.

When 41-year-old city strategist Stephen Nockolds jumped ship to set up the 20 barrel Battersea Brewery in 2000 he set himself a tough goal. His aim was to produce small batch beers modelled on historic London styles using ingredients sourced as locally as possible.

“Good beer hasn’t been so difficult to make but I always knew it would be hard to access the market,” he remembers. “It was a tough challenge so I thought ‘go for it.’” Six years later, with his hoppy Battersea Bitter (4%), lighter-style Pegoda (3.7%) and superb Power Station Porter (4.9%) in pubs and restaurants around London and the South East, Battersea has established a reputation a purveyor of fine quality beers. Nockolds will produce limited release, own-label beers for customers and is happy to conduct tours by arrangement. www.batterseabrewery.com

When Trevor Gulliver, of St John and Bread & Wine Restaurant fame, declared his Brew Wharf bar and restaurant open last year, ripples of excitement ran through the London food and drink writing mafia.

It hasn’t disappointed. Set in a cavernous space under old Victorian rail arches, this thoroughly modern brew-restaurant provides a funky canteen for visitors to the adjoining Vinopolis wine complex.

The Wharf also makes a great destination in its own right, serving up well-executed modern British food alongside a broad selection of drinks while giving pride of place to its aromatic, moreish Wharf Best (4.2%) and Wharf Bitter (3.6%) beers. Made respectively from 100 per cent Goldings and 100 per cent Fuggles from Kent, these are joined by roster of European-style beers from Meantime in Greenwich. www.brewwharf.com

The mighty American brewer Anheuser-Busch firmly planted its stake in British soils in 1986 when the Budweiser Stag Brewery in south-west London went on line with production of Budweiser lager (5%).

Born of the old Watney’s estate, the Stag Brewery had seen Carlsberg, Holsten and Fosters brewed under license since lagering facilities were first introduced in 1977, before finally becoming a joint venture between Anheuser-Busch and Scottish Courage in 1995. In 1997 it became a wholly owned subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch.

Bud, as it’s universally known, was later joined by Bud Ice (4.7%), plus fellow American brand Michelob (5.2%) and Michelob Ultra (5%). Anheuser-Busch’s Mortlake brewery joins a portfolio of 10 breweries in the US, along with one in China, and supplies the UK, European and Middle Eastern markets.

Global continuity is the name of the game. Every week samples are flown back to HQ in St Louis for quality control tastings in the CEO’s tasting room.

Once again, this year, Bud will be highly visible in its ongoing sponsorship role to the World Cup. www.budweiser.co.uk

Beer was being brewed on this Chiswick site back in Oliver Cromwell’s time 350 years ago but the present day family-owned and run Griffen Brewery traces its origins back to 1845.

Fuller, Smith & Turner’s excellent range of beers, including London Pride (4.2%), ESB (5.5%) and Chiswick Bitter (3.5%) – all Champion Beers of Britain – have been slaking the thirst of Londoners (myself included) for years.

Then there are the tantalising seasonal beers including the creamy bite of London Porter (5%), mellow, tawny Red Fox (4.3%) and refreshing summer slurper, Discovery Blonde Beer (3.9%).

These beers also put in a welcome appearance in bottle-conditioned form and if you have a chance do try the superb Vintage Ales (see inset).

In 2005 Fuller’s boosted its pub estate to 362 with the acquisition of Hampshire brewer Gales, strengthening its reach south and westward beyond London and the South East.

London Pride is the number one selling premium bitter in the UK and we can expect further exposure to both Fuller’s and Gales brews.

A Lancastrian by birth, John Keeling, Fuller’s engaging brewing director of 25 years, says he blends northern pragmatism with modern thinking for the best brews.

“There are unpredictable, seasonal variations to brewing and so it is not always 100 per cent correct,” he says. “But as in the world of wine or whisky, these little differences are what interest and delight by giving personality to the beer.” Millions of Londoners seem to agree.

Tours of the historical Griffen Brewery take place on Mon/Wed/Thurs/Fri. www.fullers.co.uk

When Grand Union Bitter (3.7%) won Champion Beer at the 2006 SIBA awards this merely crowned a glowing list of gongs handed out since brewing started at this Hayes-based micro in 2002.

Director Tony Wise, who has a separate wine and spirits distribution business, previously owned the five barrel Old Kent micro before setting up Grand Union with a 10 barrel kit previously at Oliver Peyton’s now defunct Manchester brew-restaurant Mash & Air.

Grand Union’s head brewer Mark Broe has wooed critics and public alike with its ever evolving ranges of both seasonal and monthly-released single hop variety beers. To date the Single Hop Series has seen 30-odd different beers made with hops such as Amarillo, Chinook, Fuggles and Boadicea sourced from around the globe.

“So far,” says Wise, “we are nowhere near having to repeat ourselves.” These are complimented by more traditionally English seasonals, including Mild (3.6%), IPA (5.3%), Autumn Ale (4.4%) and Old Ale (6-8%), plus regulars such as the Bitter, Honey Porter (4.9%) and Stout (4.8%). Tours by arrangement. www.gubrewery.co.uk

In the four years since Hog’s Back swung into production with a 10 barrel capacity in a clutch of barns on an 18th century farm, production has risen from 3,000 to 40,000 pints a week with 500 outlets regularly supplied.

In addition to many awards, including CAMRA’s Champion Best Bitter for its Traditional English Ale (4.2%) and again for its A Over T winter bitter in 2006, Hog’s Back regular and seasonal range of 20-odd beers and a boost to 20 barrel capacity have ensured its place as Surrey’s largest brewer.

Hog’s Back was founded by Martin Zillwood- Hunt, his brother John and Tony Stanton- Precious, with brewing now in the capable hands of Maureen Zeiher. T.E.A is joined by a raft of sprightly-named beers such as Hop Garden Gold (4.6%), Hair of the Hog (3.5%), Rip Snorter (5%) and Santa’s Wobble (7.5%), plus much else besides. Contact the brewery shop for details of brewery tours. www.hogsback.co.uk

There had been funky brew-bar-cumrestaurants before but when socialite restaurateur Oliver Peyton first openedMash London in 1998 he shook up perception of beer’s place in the world.

With a combination of vibrant orange brewing tanks towering behind plate glass and cool, ultra-modern, minimalist décor for the multiple bar and restaurant areas, plus the elevation of beer alongside wines, cocktails and spirits on the drinks list, the London in-crowd was won over.

Think Cornish crab salad with a Belgian Wheat beer (5.5%) or perhaps Festival Golden (5.4%) with a tuna burger, or try the Mash Taster tasting tray of brewer Rainer Dresselhaus’ current selection of beers. Mash must also be the only brewery with its own florist on site. www.mashbarandrestaurant.com

Following a career spanning Freedom and the launch of Oliver Peyton’s Mash concepts, master brewer Alastair Hook finally went it alone in 2000 with Meantime Brewing in his native Greenwich.

The philosophy was simple: to explore and reveal the full range of flavours possible in beer and introduce these to a deserving public. Unlike many micros, Meantime has gone way beyond the boundaries of traditional English beers, adding such delights as Grand Cru Raspberry (6.5%), Chocolate Beer (6.5%) and Viennese Amber Lager (5%) to its range alongside IPA (7.5%) and London Porter (6.5%).

The best place to sample Meantime’s Continental and English beers is in the brewery’s own pub, the Greenwich Union, tucked away on an attractive backstreet in historic Greenwich. www.meantimebrewing.com

David Roberts set up Pilgrim in 1982 moving to the current Reigate site (a former bakery) in 1985 and has since been winning local and national awards for his beers.

These include the smoothly bitter-sweet Surrey Bitter (3.7%), the original fruity and maltedged Pilgrim’s Progress (4%) and a good, balanced Porter (4%). Beer is mainly sold in the Surrey area though the best place to sample is at Pilgrim’s one tied pub in Epsom, the Rising Sun.

In addition to Pilgrim’s own range of beers the pub boasts an incredible international selection of beers from all four corners of the world – importing being Roberts’ other main business. www.pilgrim.co.uk

While octogenarian family chairman John Young is full of beans and charming mischief, it is chief executive Stephen Goodyear who buckles under and applies himself to the serious daily business of running this much-loved Wandsworth icon. And it’s a partnership between modern and old that certainly works.

Family-owned Young’s lays claim to a site with the oldest continuous history of brewing draught ale in Britain and the old wells are still in evidence beneath the Ram Brewery, itself established in 1831.

Sadly, Young’s will be forced to move from its cramped site soon but there is no news forthcoming yet. Behind the distinctive Ram logo lies a company with 380 tenanted and managed pubs, centred on London and the South East, plus a strong portfolio of cask conditioned and bottled beers.

Young’s Special (4.5%) is deservedly a smooth-drinking London favourite but don’t miss out on the excellent, bitter-sweet richness of Winter Warmer (5.5%) or a whole host of other goodies including the honeyed summer brew Waggle Dance (5%) or the hoppy, fruitdriven freshness of St Georges Ale (4.3%).

The range extends even further in bottleconditioned form with tantalising seasonal beers such as Old Nick (7.2%), Kew Brew (5%) and Christmas Pudding Ale (5.5%) in the range.

In addition to brewery tours rounded off by a tasting in the wonderful tap room (beware the chairman’s door!), Young’s also offers brewery accommodation next door at the Brewers Inn. www.youngs.co.uk

Fullers Vintage Ales
This year will see the 10th anniversary of Fuller’s Vintage Ales and, for a lucky few, the opportunity for a vertical tasting at the Griffen Brewery in Chiswick.

Every vintage is a blend of the year’s finest malt and hops crafted by brewer John Keeling to create a very special limited edition beer.

Each individually numbered ale continues to age beautifully (well past its legally necessary ‘best before’ date) for years. When I last tasted the range a couple of years ago the older vintages were developing gracefully, revealing a complex dark and intense fruit character with honeyed, toffee and raisony notes and a rich, creamy mouthfeel. My advice is to snap up the latest vintage while you can.

London, Middlesex and Surrey Brewers

Battersea www.batterseabrewery.com Selected beer: Power Station Porter (4.9%)
Brew Wharf Southwark www.brewwharf.com Selected beer: Wharf Bitter (3.6%)
Budweiser Stag Brewery Mortlake www.budwesier.co.uk Selected beer: Budweiser lager (5%)
Bünker Bier Bar Covent Garden www.bunkerbar.com Selected beer: Soho Red (4.5%)
Freedom Brewing Company www.freedombrewery.com Selected beer: Soho Red (4.7%)
Fuller’s Chiswick www.fullers.co.uk Selected beer: ESB (5.5%)
Mash W1 www.mashbarandrestaurant.com Selected beer: Mash lager (4.8%)
Meantime Greenwich www.meantimebrewing.com Selected beer: Viennese Amber Lager (5%)
Young’s Wandsworth www.youngs.co.uk Selected beer: Winter Warmer (5.5%)
Zerodegrees Blackheath www.zerodegreesmicrobrewery.co.uk Selected beer: Black Lager (4.8%)

Grand Union www.gubrewery.co.uk Selected beer: Honey Porter (4.9%)
Twickenham Fine Ales www.twickenham-fine-ales.co.uk Selected beer: IPA (4.5%)

SURREY Hog’s Back www.hogsback.co.uk Selected beer: TEA (Traditional English Ale 4.2%)
Leith Hill Brewery www.ploughinn.com Selected beer: Tallywhacker (5.6%)
Pilgrim Brewery www.pilgrim.co.uk Selected beer: Progress (4%)
Surrey Hills www.surreyhills.co.uk Selected beer: Shere Drop (4.2%)

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