Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Project Venus at the Rake

There’s a widely held belief that women don’t drink beer and don’t like beer. It’s no doubt true that more men drink beer than women. But whether that is because fewer women actually enjoy, or would enjoy, beer is more debatable. Perhaps the preferences are more cultural than taste-driven? Certainly, the beer world has come to be viewed largely as a man’s world, a concept that has been reinforced by the distinctly laddish slant to most beer advertising and the outdated perception of pubs as spit and sawdust, male-dominated, drinking dens.

In recent times some of the big beer companies have decided to tap into the female market by promoting beers aimed specifically at women. But they are invariably anchored on the questionable assumption that women and men want different things. That, in order to capture that market, you need to produce something “female friendly”, whatever that may be. That women prefer something, well, girly. So, when Molson Coors announced the launch of their Animée beers, their major innovation was to make one of them pink. No stereotyping there then. The best Carlsberg could manage was Eve, a low ABV, lychee-flavoured concoction made with rice. Although they do also have their “gender-neutral” Copenhagen brand. And, as for Chick Beer – well, even the Facebook and Twitter symbols on their website are pink. These seem to me to be nothing more than dubious marketing wheezes that do nothing to challenge stereotypes and plenty to reinforce them. Maybe it’s just the women I know, but most of them are quite eclectic in the types of beer they enjoy and would regard this nonsense as offensive were it not so laughable.

One initiative that is doing something to tackle stereotypes and raise the profile of women in brewing is Project Venus, a group of female brewers in the UK and Ireland, who are getting together to produce a collaboration brew now and again. Of course, as any fool knows, brewing was not always a man’s world. Long ago it was very much the province of women, although probably more in the nature of a domestic activity than a business venture. Once brewing began to get more industrialised, the role of women declined. Thankfully nowadays there are a fair few women back in brewing and the numbers seem to be on the increase. Project Venus seeks to publicise and encourage that.

Unfortunately, I missed the first Project Venus beer - Venus Jade, which appeared earlier this year. However, I was on hand at the Rake on Monday night to sample their second creation, Venus Rouge, and met a couple of the protagonists. The beer was made at Oldershaw brewery and the collaborators on this occasion were Kathy Britton of Oldershaw, Sara Barton of Brewsters, Michelle Haydock Kelsall of Offbeat, Sophie De Ronde of Brentwood and Sue Hayward of Waen. The beer is 4.2%, reddish amber in colour, hopped with Chinook, Summit and Cascade. There’s a moderate but assertive grapefruit presence in the aroma, with some floral notes. On the palate there’s a developing citrus character, with orangey/marmalade elements in the forefront, underlaid by a quite chewy, toasty malt backbone. Just a touch of sweetness is offset by a firm bitterness on the finish. Overall it’s a very drinkable pint with plenty of body. So, whilst it’s a beer made by women, it’s by no means a beer aimed just at women – anyone can enjoy this regardless of gender. I know I did. And I’m pleased to report that Kathy Britton assured me the women of Project Venus won’t be getting too pink any time soon.        

Monday, 19 September 2011

Chriso Is (a bit) Unwell

This week I have mostly been drinking ...
Last week should have been a busy one. Monday saw the launch of Windsor & Eton brewery’s Republika, a 4.8% pilsner made using Saaz hops and Czech yeast, at the Rake. Tuesday was the opening of the Tap East bar at Westfield Stratford City, the latest venture (Tap East, not the shopping city that is) from the guys behind Utobeer and the Rake, with an in-house brewery due to come on stream soon. Wednesday was the Quality SE1 Pub Crawl, with guest appearances from Kernel, Innis & Gunn and Sambrooks. Saturday was going to be a bash at London Fields brewery but it seems that was put back to Saturday 24th, unless I got the date wrong in the first place. And that’s without bringing beers festivals at the Sultan in Wimbledon and the Rose & Crown in Walthamstow into the equation. I say should have been because I missed the lot due to an annoyingly persistent snot-ridden bug attack.

I will be trying catch up on these missed opportunities, and to write something about them, before too long but in the meantime you will have to make do with a little piece about something stirring out in Suffolk. However, London Fields brewery will have to wait as next weekend I will be at the Borefts beer festival at De Molen Brouwerij in the Netherlands where Thornbridge, Marble and Kernel breweries will be flying the flag for the UK. Which means I will also miss the first beers from London’s latest brewing venture at the Botanist pub, from whom I received an invite to their launch on Thursday.

Between now and heading for Holland I will be attempting to drink and review a sizeable proportion of the sixteen beers comprising the Sainsburys Great British Beer Hunt, currently all sitting in my fridge. Although I have to acknowledge that The Beer Monkey, and several other, have stolen a march on me on that one. In addition, Monday sees the arrival of the brewsters of Project Venus and Venus Rouge, their latest creation at the Rake. And on Wednesday I hope to get to the Bricklayers Arms for the first day of their Derbyshire beer festival.

Just a few years ago, beer events in London were thin on the ground. Nowadays the scene has burgeoned and there is so much going on that even Londonites who never venture beyond the M25 are bound to miss something sometimes. I try to maintain a calendar of London-ish beery happenings but it is getting tough to keep abreast of every event. The expansion of interest in beer in London is immensely encouraging but also extremely annoying when it’s an unseasonal bug that’s to blame for missing out rather than simply a lack of time.

Winsdor & Eton Republika is available in bottles from the brewery shop (see brewery website for opening times) and at the Beer Boutique Putney & Noble Green Wines in London. Also available online from Beermerchants. The Rake bar also has bottles at the moment. More to follow when I’ve had a chance to taste the stuff. Look too for another new brew - Conqueror 1075, a stronger version of Windsor & Eton’s excellent Conqueror Black IPA, also available from Beermerchants.

Tap East is a bar located on the lower ground floor of the Westfield Stratford City shopping complex (deep joy), aiming to carry 6 cask beers, 10 keg taps and over 140 bottles in addition to beers from their in-house brewery which are due to debut in October. More to follow when I’ve been there.

The Quality SE1 Pub Crawl is a monthly event taking in some of the best hostelries in, er, SE1 - that means the Market Porter, Rake, Draft House & Dean Swift amongst others. Everybody welcome. The next crawl takes place on Wednesday 19th October.

London Fields is a new microbrewery in Hackney. So far they have made six beers, which were first available at an extended launch party over the bank holiday weekend. The event was so popular they decided to hold another. I have not yet managed to try any of the beers and have no information about outlets. More to follow.

The Sainsburys Great British Beer Hunt is an event at which beers from smaller brewers get a temporary slot on the supermarket’s shelves and the two winners are stocked for an extended period. Reviews to follow.

Borefts Beer Festival is a now annual event hosted by De Molen Brouwerij in the small town of Bodegraven in the Netherlands with choice offerings from hand-picked brewers from around Europe. More to follow.

The Botanist is a pub and restaurant near Kew Gardens which is the latest in a string of new brewers coming on stream in London recently. Additional information on their Facebook and Twitter pages. More to follow.

Project Venus aims to promote women in the UK brewing industry, drawing inspiration from the Pink Boots Society in America. More to follow.

The Bricklayers Arms is a pub in Putney which holds several beer (and also cider) festivals a year, showcasing around a hundred beers from a particular county and invariably including some very rare specimens indeed.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Beer and Food Matching

No, I’m not going to be jumping on the bandwagon of making particular beer and food matching suggestions. I’m just going to offer some observations on how the concept reflects on the way in which beer is perceived by us beery types, by wine drinkers, by critics, by the media and whoever else.  

Susy Atkins' beer & food matching
There has been some noise on Twitter about an article written by Susy Atkins in the Telegraph on the subject of matching beer and food. It’s a topic that seems to be cropping up with increasing frequency. A sign perhaps that beer is beginning to escape its flat cap, pie and a pint image and moving into more “respectable” territory, whatever that may mean. Of course, plenty of us beer enthusiasts have known that there’s more to it than swigging pints down the pub for years, even if we often feel more comfortable enjoying our beer in a more lively social setting than in an upmarket restaurant. And there are those beer drinkers who feel that it’s proper place is as a social lubricant in a pub, without too much swirling, sniffing and other analysis. Some would find the thought of discussing food and beer pairing in a fancy restaurant an anathema. For some, even the idea of gastropubs (or whatever we are supposed to call them these days) is repugnant, as the regular drinker can be, or at least feel, marginalised.

The truth is that beer can be enjoyed in a whole range of social settings and at a whole range of quality levels. Despite the efforts of the populist media to convince their readership otherwise, it’s not all kids getting blitzed on the High Street on Saturday night and tramps drinking Special Brew on park benches. Of course, wine has not traditionally been seen as an intoxicant favoured by irresponsible drinkers (unless you count Buckie as wine) but the perception of it has changed massively during the 40 years or so that I’ve been exposed to the joys of booze. Back then, wine was largely seen as the preserve of the well heeled, generally drinking wine from the classic French regions. For the rest of us it was a rarity, consumed mainly at meals on special occasions and on the occasional restaurant visit. And, for the general population, pretty unremarkable, not to mention downright dire, plonk was seen as oh so sophisticated – anyone for a Blue Nun nowadays?. Things have moved on. Good value, everyday drinking wines, often from the New World, are as likely to be consumed on their own as paired with food and the names of many grape varieties have long since entered the common lexicon.  

So, the concept that wine is a drink for many situations and comes at many quality levels (and prices) has gained general acceptance. Although a vague awareness that beer might have a similar versatility is on the increase, progress is slower than I’d like and certainly hasn’t reached the stage of general acceptance. Susy Atkins expressed the view that there's a major push to persuade “us” that beer is just as great a match with food as wine and that beer enthusiasts and bloggers are in the vanguard of the pushers. She may have a point there. She also said “and, you know, they're right to a large degree (even if wine is more versatile)”. Leaving aside the question of how much beer and food pairing research she has actually done, the general view expressed on Twitter was that her piece was a step in the right direction but still carried an air of condescension. And there's no doubt that wine snobbery is still alive and well in certain quarters. Perhaps beer snobbery will become the new wine snobbery?

The fact is that, with a few exceptions, there is a high degree of ignorance about beer in the wine and food world. The majority of better restaurants lavish much attention on their wine list but their beer selection is desultory to say the least, if not entirely absent, and certainly appears no more than an afterthought. Places that wouldn’t dream of serving wine that is no better than cheap plonk to their customers seem happy to offer widely available beers that are poor examples of their style and can be picked up from any local distributor. Guys, Leffe Blonde is not a top-notch example of a Belgian ale. And when the Michelin-starred Quilon restaurant started to display an interest in beer, amidst some ballyhoo, the best they could manage for a Belgian style wheat beer was Blue Moon.

Now, those who know me will be aware that, as well as beer, I’m rather partial to a decent wine or a good whisky and not immune from blathering on about them a bit too. Needless to say, when I visit a restaurant, I’m going to have a few drinks - it’s usually in a social context and having a few drinks is what I generally do socially - and, partly because the beer selection is likely to be piss poor, it’s usually going to be wine. And you know what? Whilst I might make some effort to avoid obvious clashes, food and wine matching is not always something that is at the top of my agenda. For me, the essence of a good restaurant experience is good food, good drink and good company in comfortable surroundings. The drink is integral to the restaurant experience but is not immutably bound to the culinary experience. In fact, I am less than convinced by the concept that synergies between food and drink often produce something that is greater than the sum of the parts. The higher up the quality ladder I go the more I am likely to savour that experience outside a purely social context - although there is joy too in sharing choice creations in the company of friends - and the less I want it adulterated with competing aromas, flavours, textures or whatever. I have a bottle of Chateau Margaux sitting at home waiting for a suitable occasion to be opened and what food I should pair it with when that time comes is not in the forefront of my mind. The same goes for a bottle of Alesmith Barrel Aged Speedway Stout that sits close by.

Of course, whisky doesn’t generally have to cope with the straightjacket of being viewed very much in a culinary context. In these times when drinking alcohol for the sheer enjoyment of it can be represented as “irresponsible”, emphasising the food matching qualities of beer is understandable but I wouldn't like to see it go too far down that route either. Maybe respectability through food matching is an inevitable step along the way to wider appreciation. But the truth is that beer is a supremely versatile drink that can be celebrated in many different guises, in many different social contexts and in many different places. Despite the constant tales of woe about pub closures, more brewers than ever are providing more variation and more opportunities for us to revel in those experiences. We beer enthusiasts have never had it so good and, thankfully, others are starting to catch on too. Long may that continue. Just a little bit faster would be nice.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Highgate calling – The Bull & London Brewing Co

Highgate is not an area I visit too frequently and the Bull - not to be confused with the Bull & Last, a distinctly gastroesque joint down the hill on Highgate Road - is not a pub that had ever generated a blip on my radar before. Until, that is, news came my way that Dan Fox, previously manager at the White Horse in Parsons Green had taken over the reins and an in-house brewery was planned. From what I can gather the Bull had latterly been a gastropub, which closed a while back and had since been squatted.

The new venture opened its doors a couple of weeks back but the first beers from the brewery were not ready in time for that and their launch date was announced as 6 September. So it was that yesterday found me marching up to the top of the hill (I lie – I took the bus), and part way down again, to the Bull. The exterior looked spick and span with some tables and parasols on the raised patio out front. Inside was clean and uncluttered with bare boards and a cool, but not sterile, contemporary feel. Upstairs, two more interconnected, spacious rooms continued the theme. Having eaten before going out, I did not try the food, which looked to have an American slant – the menu included such items as sliders, fish tacos and pulled pork.

But, enough of all that, what of the beer? There were five handpumps (or was it four, I forget) on the bar, a number of  “craft” kegs and a solid bottled beer list. Beers from Odell, Fyne Ales, Kirkstall, Oakham, Offbeat and Thornbridge, amongst others, have already been through the taps. When I arrived the handpumps included their own Beer Street and a house beer made by Redemption.  I don’t know whether the latter will be a permanent feature or was just a stopgap until their own beers came on stream. Before long a firkin of their second beer, Nervous Energy, was tapped by Steve, the brewer, and generous free samples dispensed. Nervous Energy then joined the other beers on handpump on the bar. I meant to have a longer chat to Steve but I never got round to it so I don't know his brewing background. What I do know is that he was previously with Dan as cellarman at the White Horse.

Somewhat surprisingly, given the proliferation of new breweries in recent times, the Bull has managed to bag the name London Brewing Co, which must be something of a coup in itself. The Beer Street was a 4.0% amber, traditionally styled bitter with plenty of robust, earthy bitterness and a firm, slightly minerally mouthfeel. Straightforward and pleasantly drinkable although the backing malts perhaps felt a little raw. The Nervous Energy was a 4.8% golden American Pale Ale using Cascade and US Brewers Gold hops, also with plenty of bitterness, a spicy edge, that firm minerally mouthfeel again and a twist of grapefruit on the finish. The gravity-dispensed sample was a touch short of condition but hand pumped version was more lively, although a touch more aroma hopping would not have gone amiss. As the first beers out of the brew house, these are no doubt, to some extent, something of a work-in-progress but are a decent, solid foundation.

Clearly, given the location and the background, the Bull has the potential to become “Sloaney North” but the OK-yah element was not too much in evidence yesterday. This was a very enjoyable and convivial first visit and I wish Dan, Steve & the rest of the team all the best for the future. I’m sure I’ll be back before too long. 

13 North Hill, Highgate, London N6 4AB
Highgate tube or various buses
0208 341 0510
Twitter (brewer):