London Notes

London Envoi

With a week in London just past, some reflections.

The city itself, on a first visit since 2011 (but some 20 before from the early 80s), is essentially what I remember except cleaner and more high-rise especially in the City. I think the wartime bombing finally has seen the City to a confident new era of building where parts will look more like Wall Street than anything else, or Wall Street meets Hong Kong, but interspersed of course with the many historical structures which survive.

The low-rise period from 60s-90s in other words, using materials that often did not sit well alongside older vernaculars, is now being supplanted by frankly brash and often creative high rise planning. Centre Point further uptown, built in the 1960s by a visionary developer, finally came into its own, helped on the way by the Canadian-designed Canary Wharf project.

The culture of the newsagent and traditional, full-length newspapers carry on to a much greater degree than here. Something about the tv in our room made me think I didn’t get a full impression: it was mostly American shows or channels, catering perhaps to the expected typical guest.

I used to like watching the English advertisements, but couldn’t find any. I think I saw ITV and the main BBC channel. Most of the coverage was on the royal wedding, so perhaps I didn’t get a fair impression again.

The food scene, always international since the 1970s, is even more so now, reflecting trends seen in any big city. But it’s always different of course too…

The Italian-style coffee bar seems to have replaced the traditional “caff” at least in central business London, together with sandwich specialists Pret A Manger who are everywhere – bigger than ever from its start 20 years ago or more.

English chains like Greggs for bacon sandwiches and similar add another slant.

Evenings we ate Indian and Turkish, mostly. Lunch was a sandwich and a beer. One nice thing was, while you can read daily how the seas are emptying, fish and chip shops abound and the stuff is as good as ever. And I found saveloys too, all good fryers carry them. These are slim, peppery-salty cured sausages, the term comes from cervelat, apparently.

I’ve talked about my beer experiences on Twitter for the ales, and made the point that mainline British bitter is essentially unchanged, this was based on a good dozen beers, some from old regionals, some from newer breweries (1970s-2018).

As examples of excellence: Harvey’s Best Bitter, say, or Young’s Bitter. London Pride disappointed this time, and I don’t favour the Fuller’s imports today either.

A CAMRA festival in Kingston-on-Thames confirmed what I saw in the pubs and on the retail shelves: U.S. craft styles are everywhere, mixing in and blending with the older U.K. tradition.

There is no clear demarcation between these two streams now except at their extremes and one has to know the differences to situate oneself properly. The new generation of drinkers won’t know, to them it’s one big arena of choice and they’ll choose what taste or fancy dictate.

We are long past the time when Londoners understood non-lager beer as bitter, mild or strong ale, Guinness and one or two other stouts, and a few bottled or canned types (brown ale, light ale, etc.).

But all the types you want today are available, if you know what to seek out again.

At most, “best bitter” among the dozens of beers at the festival denoted old-style bitter, of which some were great and some dull I thought. The worst were under 4% abv, thin and almost sourish on the palate but not off in any way. I think this does supply a certain taste, for sessions with those big bags of chips (crisps).

But when you find a superlative one, with a big clean English hop taste and good but not over-rich malt character, crystal-malt influenced or not, you know English beer remains at an apotheosis – and I had a few of those there and in town as well.

I tasted just a couple of the American-style pale ales and they were well-made, similar to here. The Wild Beer Company, which has a stand currently outside the Tate Modern, makes some very interesting beers using materials foraged locally.

Porter at the festival was unflavoured, a good thing imo, but rather licorice-tasting. Perhaps an excess of roasted malt? There was little porter in any case offered and one or two stouts as such: the action was in the bitter, pale ale, and a few milds.

I only had one mild which was superb, rich, perfectly poised, satisfying: like good German dark lager that changed nationalities.

For lager, the great experience was the tank version of Pilsner Urquell, available at the Draft House in the City at Seething Lane. People laud the unfiltered version available at the brewery in the Czech Republic, but I liked the tank version better as the beer does not benefit from the yeast haze, imo.

Other good lagers were Camden Hells, Praha (like a lighter Urquell), Moretti from Italy, and an outstanding Alboni (I think was the name) from Sweden.

One of the best was very fresh Cobra in the Indian restaurants, creamy with a good sweet malt and a fine bitter finish. It’s brewed in the U.K. now by Molson Coors for that market. The ferocious turnover in those establishments must help, but the beer has an obvious inherent quality and is high- or all-malt, clearly.

So, is their beer scene better to what we have, the same, different?  It’s different certainly, we have on average stronger beers, and the trends from the States tend to come here sooner.

But what we don’t have is the old-school tradition that still exists there.

And on average again, the lager is better there given the great European choices easily available to them and the numerous creditable local versions brewed.

It’s really a beer paradise, they’ve got the best of everything but as always, you have to know what to look for. Some of the nationally-distributed beers, which I largely avoided, were very disappointing.

Theakston’s Best Bitter in keg form (fizzy, chilled) for example, had to my taste almost no flavour. Its classic Old Peculier, on cask at Museum Tavern, Bloomsbury only partly made up for it.

But drinking a little of that Theakston’s keg, it made me realize why lager made such strides since the 70s. Even everyday bulk lager, Foster’s, Carling and the like, is more beer-like than that kind of ale.

Of course the new-style keg beers, the Shipyard or Bravo Pale Ales, Punk IPAs, etc., are excellent and completely different. Punk IPA was a great drop of beer there, much better than I’ve had in imported form, canned or draft.

Guinness on the other hand was very good in London, more on that soon – and on my illuminating Truman’s ale experience.

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