Wednesday, 14 March 2012

To the Wild West, in search of a decent pint

The view from Jackson Hole
 "...dare I say it, sometimes a pint of bitter just isn't quite exciting enough. Sometimes I'd like something challenging, something that is a bit different, that slaps me round the chops and makes me think..."

A couple of years ago any article on the subject of beer would have to spend at least a couple of paragraphs talking about how the image of real ale was changing, and no longer a preserve of fat blokes with beards and CAMRA membership cards. Nowadays, with the exponential growth of the UK craft brewing industry and us young metropolitan types falling over ourselves in search of beer from the likes of Brewdog and Kernel, craft beer is said to be at the dawn of a new era!

Most food and drink writers talking about this subject tend to concentrate on the increasing appearance of beer on restaurant menus as a sign of this rehabilitation, but I think this is largely misguided. If you're going to a smart restaurant, you'd have to be a big beer fan to eschew the wine list in favour of a craft brew, no matter how good. Whereas, when you're out for a few drinks on a Friday evening, having something more exciting to choose from than fizzy lager and a couple of bitters is ideal. But outside of specialist bars and the odd pub, and despite some of the hype, finding interesting beer remains a struggle.

This really came home to me when I recently spent a couple of weeks skiing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. By the way, the quality of the skiing there is immense- if, like me, you fancy yourself as a powder stoked ripper, get on that plane and go immediately. But, aside from the skiing, what also struck me was the quality of the beer on offer; not just in the odd bar, every place we went to had a fantastic selection of interesting and very tasty beers to sample. The town has its own brewery, the Snake River Brewery, whose excellent beers were found in most of the local bars and restaurants, and even the imaginatively titled Thai restaurant, Thai Me Up, had its own micro-brewery.

There is a really thriving craft brewing scene in these parts. The website lists 16 craft breweries just in Wyoming, the least populous state in the USA, with a boat load more listed for neighbouring Colarado (I didn't bother counting them all, but well over 100 and probably close to 200) and plenty, plenty more elsewhere. Evidently Britain has its own very distinguished brewing history and I am not disparaging what the likes of Adnams, Sharp's, Timothy Taylor and Shepherd Neame have to offer, but dare I say it, sometimes a pint of bitter just isn't quite exciting enough. Sometimes I'd like something challenging, something that is a bit different, that slaps me round the chops and makes me think what the hell is this.

You can of course find beer like this in the UK. Brewdog for example, whether you like their marketing or not, produce some really interesting beer. Not stuff that you'd necessarily want to drink every day, but brews like their '5am Saint', with its distinctive tropical fruit aromas, challenge our perception of what beer tastes like. The best thing about Brewdog is that they've gained a lot of traction through the quality of their beers and aggressive marketing campaigns, so you can find their stuff in most of the major supermarkets, the odd pub, and in their own bars in Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Nottingham and London.

Obviously Brewdog are not the only punks in town and the likes of Kernel, who are based in Bermondsey, Meantime in Greenwich, and Magic Rock from Huddersfield (who even say on their website they were directly inspired by the US craft brewing scene) are all doing a good job in expanding the palates of the nations' drinkers. But they aren't available everywhere, so where should you head in search of an interesting pint?

My drinking is pretty much limited to London, but if you do a search or check websites like The Guardian and Time Out, they have fairly comprehensive lists of pubs and bars where they serve craft beers. However, as you insisted, some of my own recommendations are listed below:

  1. Draft House: There are three draft houses in London; Tower Bridge, Northcote Road and Battersea. They serve shed loads of good and interesting brews and I like the atmosphere in them too. 
  2. Craft Beer Co: On Leather Lane, between Farringdon and Chancery Lane, Craft beer Co has lots of beer, decent pork pies and apparently they have imported brews you won't find anywhere else.
  3. Cask: On Charlwood Street in Pimlico, Cask isn't the kind of place you'd come to hang out with the hipster crowd - it reminded me of a student union. But for some serious craft beer action, it's one to check out.
  4. The White Horse: The Sloaney Pony label may put some people off, but if you're a bit of a schweff and fancy a night off the champers, then head down to Parson's Green and prepare for nirvana.
  5. Byron: Not only do Byron serve some of the best burgers in London (as well as superb courgette fries), they have also just launched their new craft beer list. It was here I first had Little Creatures Pale Ale, a cult beer from Fremantle in Western Australia, which is one of my faves! Sadly it seems to have disappeared from their new list, but there's 11 other craft beers to check out, so plenty of consolation.
If you're more used to a pint of Fosters, try some of the beers / bars mentioned above and do your taste- buds a favour!

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