London Beer Adventure

I’ve just returned from a week-long business trip to London. Since it wasn’t a vacation trip, two things were true: first, I was on my own. I didn’t have the family with me, so I was left to my own devices. Second, I was working most of the time, so I didn’t have all day to go doing all of the touristy stuff, and I’m not a big fan of touristy stuff anyway. This left me with a golden opportunity to experience the London beer scene, and that’s exactly what I did. I thought I’d share a bit about my experience there for Americans who might be traveling to London looking for beer, or those who just wonder what it’s like.

Blackfriar, and my big Guinness Discovery

Inside the Blackfriar

Inside the Blackfriar

My first stop was the slightly touristy Blackfriar Tavern, just on the north side of Blackfriar Bridge. They have good pub grub here, so I had a bite to eat, and tried a couple of the cask ales they had on tap. I first tried the Deuchar’s IPA, on cask. This is a British IPA, and it’s a pretty good one, but it’s not anything like an IPA in the states. The hop presence isn’t nearly as pronounced, and it’s not nearly as strong a beer. However, it is a well-balanced beer that’s very refreshing, and very easy to drink. I would order it again, but I didn’t, because I wanted to try as many beers I can’t get in the US as possible. So my next beer was Guinness.

Guinness Extra Cold at Blackfriar Tavern, London

Guinness Extra Cold at Blackfriar Tavern, London

The very first thing I noticed upon taking my first sip of the Guinness was how unbelievably cold it was. Even in the states they don’t serve it this cold. This was particularly shocking given that I’d just had a wonderful cask ale served at cellar temperature. Why was it so darn cold?

I took a look around the bar for clues, but there were none, so I asked the bartender why the Guinness was so cold and she said “Ah, it’s Guinness Extra Cold”, and she pointed at a tap that was clearly branded by Guinness with the “Extra Cold” label on it. My heart sank. When I asked if she had any other Guinness on tap, she said no. Oh man. Was all of the Guinness in London going to be like this? Turns out it wasn’t. It’s actually quite unusual in my experience to *not* be offered a choice when one orders a Guinness in London.

So how do they get the Guinness to be so cold? Do they put it in a separate fridge or something? Is it some kind of spooky glycol cooling system? What’s going on? Well, there’s no separate fridge. Guinness (or perhaps the distributor) provides a small refrigerator box that is small enough to be placed unobtrusively under the bar. The kegs are kept with the rest of the kegs in the cellar, so it is around 12C (around 54F) at the point where it’s tapped, but then it runs through this cooling box, which brings it down below 5C (around 40F). It’s far too cold for me. I serve the beer out of my kegerator at home at somewhere between 48-54F, and that suits me about right. I was not at all surprised at the beer temps in London as a result. When beer has actual, desirable flavors, this temperature is very pleasant!

Here’s the “Extra Cold” tap, for those on the lookout:

Guinnes "Extra Cold" Tap Branding

Guinnes "Extra Cold" Tap Branding

Note that it’s right next to what is perhaps the only lager in the place: Foster’s, which is also served super cold, and which I learned later also utilized a cooling box under the bar. Lots of pubs in London serve lagers that americans would recognize on tap, and they serve them very cold. The interesting thing is that if you’re in a pub frequented by locals, these beers seem to be seen as “alternative”, and you very well might not see them at all!

I read everything there was to read in this tavern, and it was a bit of an eye-opener. They had a pamphlet that would guide you along what I believe is a fictional trail of a mayor of London from long ago, hitting pubs along the way. All of them, I believe, are owned by the same company. You can tell because the food menus are largely the same, and the signs with pics of the food are exactly the same. Even some of the “guest ales” are the same between the different pubs owned by the same company.

IMG_0064To sum up my experience with Guinness, having now consumed it at several different pubs all over London, it’s not really all that different from the stuff you get in the US. It’s a great beer, yes. It *is* slightly different, and there *is* a difference between Guinness at different pubs in London, but it’s not the huge, sweeping, it’s-a-completely-different-beer type of experience that people talk about. For that, as I’m told by the locals, you really do have to go to Ireland. Someday.

The Toucan: Obsessive About Guinness

In the meantime, if you’re in London, and looking for folks who are obsessive about how the Guinness is served at their bar, check out The Toucan.

The Toucan recommended to me by a couple of locals as “the” place for Guinness in London. It’s in Soho, not a block from Soho Square. When you see the crowd outside, DO NOT be discouraged. As an American, when I first saw one of these crowds, I turned around and went to another pub. Turns out, it’s not a good indicator of how many folks are inside or how long it’ll take you to get a beer. See, in London, it’s perfectly legal for you to take your beer and step outside for a smoke, or to escape the bar’s interior, as most pubs are NOT air conditioned. Seeing the pic of the Toucan above, it looks like a good-sized pub, with a good crowd, but I was really shocked when I went inside: the entire interior of the bar is probably 10′x15′. People don’t come here for the scene, they come for the Guinness, and I figured out why upon being served my first pint.

I didn’t think too much about my first pint. It was served according to the rules and procedures I had learned myself as a bartender in the states. I took my beer and cleared away from the tiny bar to allow others to be served. I set it on the ledge to let it settle, and before I could take my first sip, the bartender walked over from behind the bar, and asked if he could “fix” my beer. I took a quick glance and didn’t really see a problem, but out of curiosity, I replied “that’d be great!” He took my beer, flopped off a bit of the foamy head, and repoured a bit back in. The result was what he was after:

IMG_0061The line should bisect the word “PINT” on the glass. His complaint about the beer he had just poured was “it’s falling a little low” — meaning the head was at or below the bottom of the word “PINT”.

As if that weren’t enough, after he handed it back, and while I was letting it settle again, another bartender came by with a perfectly clean cloth to wipe of a tiny bit of foam that was just starting to slip down the side of the glass. That’s obsessive.

The Guinness there was extremely good. Does being completely OCD about the beer make it better? Perhaps not, but this kind of attention to detail insures that everyone has a wonderful experience, and this is the only bar I’ve ever seen where *everyone* on the staff seemed wholeheartedly devoted to fantastic Guinness. Not good. Not great. Fantastic. And it was.

By the way, for the record, while in London I *did* see a pub patron return to the bar with his untouched beer to say “we have a problem”. All he did was point to his beer, and the publican knew what the problem was. She took back the beer. It was DUMPED. He got a new glass, and a brand new beer, filled to the proper level. My mind was blown (that was at The Lamb — see below).

Branded Houses

Some pubs in London are “branded”. Many pubs have, in large letters, or on some sign, prominently displayed, a particular brewer’s name and logo. Inside you’ll only find that brewer’s beers on cask, though they may have some other beers on tap. Usually crappy ones. Well, those and Guinness. I’ve been to maybe a dozen pubs or so, and I only saw one single pub who just plain old didn’t serve Guinness, or any other beer not brewed by the brewery that owned them.

Anyway, this whole branding thing becomes a consideration when going out to a pub — or it can become a deciding factor in what beers people drink. It’s a double-edged sword. If you don’t like Young’s beers, but that’s the closest pub to you, you might drink it because it’s the best beer you can get within stumbling distance of your place. On the other hand, maybe you used to like Green King beers, but the pub nearest you that serves it has gone downhill — you might start frequenting the Fuller’s pub nearby instead and develop a taste for that. This kind of thing makes the entire beer drinking experience in the UK quite different.

It wasn’t clear to me whether branded houses were necessarily owned by the brewery, or if the pubs just had distribution agreements with the brewers directly. A local mentioned that these places were owned directly by the breweries. Seems like a whole lot of overhead for breweries to take on, but I guess if they can dictate their presence in the market, and in addition have an iron-clad grip on quality control from the brewery all the way to the pint glass, that’s pretty compelling.

The Lamb, and A Look Inside the Cellar

The Lamb - A Young's House

The Lamb - A Young's House

Not all pubs are branded houses, and some of them serve great beer. But I think my best experiences at pubs in London happened to be at branded houses. One was a Young’s house called The Lamb. This place is renowned by locals, in part because there are very few tourists there, and very few suit-and-tie types. The Lamb really is just a bunch of locals, and some excellent beer, and all of the good stuff was on cask. I had almost every beer Young’s makes that night, all on cask.

The Lamb is like a good number of other pubs in the city which are described as “Victorian” pubs, which usually means that there is a very large amount of ornate wood and glass work in the bar. This is pretty stuff, and lends to the sort of “authentic” London pub feel.

I got into a conversation with a publican at The Lamb, and we got to talking about the differences between how beer is stored, cared for, and served in the US vs. London. There are lots and lots of them. First, there are three different sized kegs, which I had no idea about. There are 9-gallon “firkin” kegs, 18-gallon kegs, and the more common 11-gallon (50 liter) kegs. In the US, all US brewers as far as I know use standard “half barrel” kegs: 15.5 gallons. Of course, if a bar in the US serves a foreign beer on tap they might get a different sized keg, but generally kegs are 15.5 gallons.

Another enormous difference is attributed to the serving temperature. In the UK, beer– especially cask “real ale” is me-lamb-cellarserved at cellar temperature — about 54F (12C). I didn’t really understand how enormous a difference this makes in the cellar itself until my new publican friend invited me into the cellar to see their operation. Here’s the thing: what we call a “cellar” in the US is really a walk-in refrigerator. What they call a cellar in the UK is, in fact, the ENTIRE cellar level of the building. See, when you’re only cooling a basement to 12C in an area that’s only barely above that even in the summer months, you can cool the entire cellar pretty cheaply and use the entire cellar as a refrigerator. However, in the US, it would be prohibitively expensive to cool an entire cellar to 34F (1C), which is the temperature that most US mass-produced beers are served at (unless you can get them colder!)

There’s SO MUCH room when you can use the whole cellar. See that white thing sitting on the floor? That’s a vessel that holds line-cleaning fluid. Since you can pretty much leave it there all the time and change it without wrenching your back climbing on top of the kegs, you can clean the lines more often. In fact, The Lamb cleans the lines between every single keg! I was floored by this. I thought the guy was pulling my leg, until another pub, unsolicited, told me they do the same thing! I assure you, Americans, this is not the case in US bars. At least not in the vast majority of cases.

Another difference is more specific to the kegs themselves: IMG_0040

There’s a bung there. It’s made of plastic. After a keg is delivered, it’s allowed to chill and settle for a few days. Then, a few days before serving, they insert a plastic pin in that hole called a “spile”. This first plastic pin is called a ‘soft spile’, and it allows some beer and gas to escape. At some point (and I’m not clear how they know when to do this), they take out the soft spile and put in a wooden one called a ‘hard spile’ which completely plugs the hole. This is all a part of the conditioning that takes place, and I believe it’s specific to cask ale — I don’t believe any of this takes place for plain old kegged beer served on tap, pushed by CO2.

Too. Much. Writing.

I had such a great time in London and I got to see lots and lots of pubs, and the people I spoke with were amazingly candid and friendly about their operations. I could write a book about London pubs, and would happily do it, but I can’t do it here on the blog. If I think of an interesting topic that would make a good blog post, I’ll post more, but until then, we’ll get back to homebrewing beer, drinking beer, and the regularly scheduled program, as it were ;-)

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