Un-Real Ale Festival highlights new wave of London beer

Saturday last week brought my first opportunity to attend a kind of beer event that I expect will become more common in future.

The mischievously-titled Un-Real Ale Festival in North London, promoted by BrewDog’s Camden branch plus other local brewers and outlets, was described as an opportunity to sample beers “banned” from CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival this week on account of their being brewery conditioned or “keg” in the real ale drinker’s parlance.

BrewDog’s antagonism towards CAMRA is well known, the brewery seeing CAMRA’s cask- and bottle-conditioned position as shortsighted. This is a view I have a great deal of sympathy with. Modern keg is a million miles away from the filtered, pasteurised, gassed up, preservative laden (and usually under-strength) abominations that inspired CAMRA’s creation. Nowadays they’re often themselves unpasteurised and increasingly unfiltered (sometimes to the point of turbidity, see below), much in line with what CAMRA itself advocates.

That’s not to say that cask and keg are equivalent. Cask-conditioning in the pub (as well as bottle-conditioning) remains for me a peerless way – when executed to perfection – to add an extra dimension of complexity to ales (it doesn’t always work well for so-called “real lagers” in my view), especially Britain’s lower strength variations such as bitter and mild. But many (many) modern keg beers I’ve sampled, whether in Britain or abroad (check out many of the posts on this blog), have been excellent and they certainly offer outlets that aren’t geared up for “real ale” (i.e. most outside of the UK and quite a few in it) an opportunity to invigorate and participate in the global rebirth of interest beer and to spread the word.

BrewDog Camden is one of many London outlets drawing drinkers to new wave keg

At the end of the day, GBBF is CAMRA’s event and it makes the rules. But it seems a great shame that the Campaign’s trenchant, if sometimes inconsistent stance to keg (which I’ll return to in my next post) has left it unable to tap into the entrepreneurial spirit that the new wave craft keg brewers and their supporters have brought to the industry over the past few years, boosting beer’s credibility and appeal to younger drinkers. Still, one result of this cultural divide is the creation of events such as last Saturday’s Un-Real Ale Festival and more choice for real beer aficionados who can bridge the divide easily in the search for a decent brew.

The first port of call for Jon, Toni (my partners in crime) and I was BrewDog Camden itself, a compact and modern bar near Camden Town underground station. Having settled in, our first pint was BrewDog’s own Dead Pony Club, an American-styled but session-strength pale ale. This was really very good for a keg beer at only 3.8%, crisp, firm and well hopped with usual suspects such as Simcoe and Citra but not too citrusy. In my experience, low strength beers often fail to express their subtleties in keg form but Dead Pony Club, while it lacked the nuances that cask conditioning at its best can create, was nonetheless excellent. It was clear that expectations and benchmarks for this particular beer tour needed to be set differently to my usual ones.

Next was something we knew wouldn’t be available at one of the later stops on our tour but which I’d wanted to try, Camden Town Brewery’s Black Friday. Black Friday (4.8%) is another one of those oxymoronic brews that seem so popular at present being, in the brewer’s words, a “black Pilsner”. (Black IPA is the most common example here, while Luciferin Golden Imperial Oatmeal Stout from a collaboration between BrewDog and the US’s Stone Brewing Co is another).

“Alle Mann von Bord!”

While I was expecting something akin to a German schwartzbier at the lighter, hoppier end of the spectrum in practice Black Friday offered something slightly different being more herbally hoppy and crisper than a dark lager typically has a right to be and much as its Pilsner inspiration would suggest. The darkness was less manifest in the palate than in the colour, the roastiness being extremely subtle. I have to say I liked this one a lot.

While at BrewDog Camden we also took the opportunity to sample one of the Aberdeenshire brewer’s most notorious products, the 41% “ice beer” Sink the Bismark, “a quadruple IPA that contains four times the hops, four times the bitterness and frozen four times.” So named because of the jokingly jingoistic feud that arose with German brewer Schorschbräu over which brewery made the strongest beer, at £6 for a 25ml shot this seemed like a more affordable way to try this unctuous fluid than purchasing a 375ml bottle for £40.

With legs sticking to the glass like a barrel strength bourbon and a meniscus like that of oil on water, Sink the Bismark flavour-wise put me in mind most clearly of my first ever encounter with long-defunct Dorset brewer Eldridge Pope’s Thomas Hardy’s Ale, itself once one of the strongest beers in the world, albeit at a relatively puny 11.7%. That meeting, as a school boy at The Black Horse pub in Stondon Massey, Essex in around 1986 or ‘87, had clearly imprinted itself on my taste buds as memories of the prickly hoppy, warmly soothing Cognac-like fluid came flooding back across my tongue. While I’m glad to have “Sunk the Bismark”, and rather enjoyed it, I’m not sure I’ll be running back for more. Although its less strong but (I understand) more challenging older sibling Tactical Nuclear Penguin (32%) remains another frontier to cross sometime.

De-evolution of beer preconceptions at Our Black Heart

Taking our leave of BrewDog’s bar – and, it turned out, of stronger brews, a tactic designed to extend our drinking time – we went around the corner to the second venue on the Un-Real Ale Festival’s itinerary, the Our Black Heart music bar on Greenland Place. A pint of Moor Beer Co’s unfined, and boldy cloudy So’Hop (4.1%) from a keg tap plus a truly awesome jukebox (we stuck on Devo’s rendition of The Stones’ Satisfaction for atmosphere) made our brief stay at this dark but airy – and at about 3.00pm virtually empty – bar nonetheless a worthwhile one.

In contrast, Camden Town Brewery, ten minutes walk north, was humming. This was the first time I’d made it to the brewery’s bar, which has been opening to the public on Fridays for a while now but has only recently started opening daily. With the brewery’s Twitter stream indicating that the keg version of its special Olympics-themed 1908 Pale Ale (the previous London games was held in that year) was running out fast there was no choice as to our first tipple. Inspired by recipes of the time dug up by brewing historian Ron Pattinson (whose Shut Up About Barclay Perkins blog is a must read for beer lovers) 1908 (5% in draught form) was crisp, well-hopped, hazy bronze and classically English. Despite being keg and using some American hops in addition to Goldings (CAMRA again take note!) I should have bought a bottle for later.

Next up was the unfiltered version of Camden’s now wildly popular – at least around smarter London pubs – Hells Lager (4.6%). I’ve enjoyed the odd pint of the standard Hells before but this being unfiltered put it into one of my favoured beer categories, as I’ve mentioned in these pages several times previously. Disappointingly this one didn’t quite hit the mark for me, being slightly acidic (at least after the 1908) and without the characteristic soft marshmallowy mouth feel of the best German and Czech examples. Although that doesn’t mean I won’t try it again given the chance. A blip methinks, although I’m happy for Camden to tell me it’s supposed to be that way.

1908 in name only at Camden Town Brewery

Having neglected to buy myself one of the awesome-sounding kimchi burgers at Camden we jumped on the London Overground at the next door Kentish Town West station and went one stop north to Gospel Oak for what was the fourth venue on the Un-Real Ale Festival itinerary, the excellent Southampton Arms, NW5. I’ve been to the Southampton before, its wide selection of real ales, quality kegs and unusual ciders (the latter particularly impressive for London) never failing to impress.

And it was cider that drew me this time, specifically the slaverously-named Badger Spit made by octogenarian Frank Naish (possibly the oldest commercial cider maker in the world) near Glastonbury in Somerset. Despite the obvious dangers of a pint of properly rustic, dry, acerbic 7% apple wine after five pints of beer I couldn’t resist.

That was followed up with with another beer, albeit something much more traditional than the new-wave kegs that had made up the bulk of the day’s drinks: a pint of cask-conditioned Clean & Jerk (3.8%) from the resurrected Truman’s Beers of east London (Un-Real Ale Fest was also serving as a showcase for small London breweries generally). Truman’s has fascinated me since I first encountered its beers a year or so back so much does it seem to be swimming against the tide with its nutty, caramelly and decidedly old-fashioned best bitter Truman’s Runner, inspired by a brew of the same name (albeit a porter) made by the original Truman’s in days of yore.

Cider-tracked at the Southampton Arms

Clean & Jerk didn’t really have a chance after the cider but it was a good example of a pale summer ale to a very English blueprint (i.e. not overly floral, more earthily bitter than many) and reconfirmed the house style I’d come to expect and enjoy.

Working out the best way to get back to our respective homes took us back to Camden and back to the now very much busier Our Black Heart where a quick pint of East London Brewing Co’s Jamboree (4.8%), again from a cask (was this a case of sub-consciously reverting to habit once inebriated?), was quickly sourced. Another English accented summer ale Jamboree’s extra weight rounded the evening off nicely for us as Camden’s night owls moved in to the bar and the surrounding area en masse.

Even without the slight artifice of the Un-Real Ale Festival as an incentive to drag my sorry butt into town our little pub crawl had been a fun way to experience a very different beer scene and experience to that which CAMRA’s GBBF exemplified from Tuesday, and which I’ll provide an update on shortly. But both are relevant and both vibrant. Which for the British beer drinker can only be a good thing.

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Author: The Tippster

Ex-journalist with a love of unusual and misunderstood beverages spanning over 25 years.

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