Monday, January 15, 2007

The Market Porter (London, UK)


I lost track of the number of recommendations I got for Market Porter.  Unfortunately, the first time I stopped, it was just after 11 p.m. and everyone was rolling out the door to go home for the night. Oops. So I stopped in the next day, New Year's Eve day, and hung out at the bar for a couple of hours.

I started with Meantime, mostly because a Meantime rep told me to go to Market Porter for more of their beers. 20+ engines around the dark wood bar; I didn't really count, and never got past having beer from the firkins. I have a hard time passing up stuff I don't recognize, so Acorn Brewery and Daniel Thwaites were next, and then Moorhouse's Pendle Witches Brew and Harvey's Best Bitter. All good and very well served, as advertised. Looking at the website today, even more are offered and constantly rotatinggood place to survey the British beerscape.

Sitting at the bar, I met Jim, who very nicely looked up the number for my next stop, the Royal Oak.  Jim offered to let me use his mobile to call the Royal Oak, which I sheepishly had to admit I didn't know how to dial a UK number; so he called for me to confirm that the Royal Oak was indeed open for an afternoon visit. Later, I had a great talk with John and Laura about beer, politics, and culture. Market Porter was an excellent afternoon that truly matched my expectations of what a pub should be: friends and strangers engaging in good conversation over beers. In addition to the bartender having an exceptional beer knowledge, so were the people at the barreal beer people who knew and appreciated excellent brew. While I don't mind sharing the good beers news, it's nice to say things like "IPA" and "CAMRA" and not have to define it.

With such a short trip (5 days) and a lot of touristy stuff to do plus an unfortunate bout with a norovirus bug the first few days, I didn't have much time to just sit and enjoy a pub. Market Porter was basically my main time in a pub that I wasn't rushing off to see a giant clock or fireworks, and it didn't disappoint in the slightest. You can't go wrong stopping early (or often) at Market Porter.

Royal Oak (London, UK)


Checking out the Royal Oak was very rushedunfortunately, I needed to move on after an hour or so to meet Gloria at The Black Friar and get a place for the NYE fireworks by the London Eye. But still, my stop was memorable. The other reviewers give a good description of the Royal Oak, so I won't duplicate the information.

It is a bit hard to find, but worth the effort. I got here at all thanks to Jim sitting beside me at Market Porter. Walked into the local neighborhood snugly situated around the bar and side tables, or so it felt. It may have helped that Jim waved me over right when I walked in. One afternoon in London and I felt at home drinking in a local pub.  Not too busy on a Saturday afternoon, but I'm not sure how long they were going to be open on New Year's Eve yet.

 I went on the recom of Royal Oak being a Harvey's tied house. I had cask pours of Armada, Christmas, and Old Ale. Christmas was by far my favorite and a real treat drinking it on cask. Harvey's is hard to get in Minnesota, and the occasional bottle can be expensive. I needed some food to go with my quickly downed ales, so I ordered bread pudding which was rich, creamy and buttery. I grew up with bread pudding, but being of Dutch heritage, my family's version of bread pudding evidently isn't the same as the Brit's. A nice treat to go with my beer stop.

One of Jim's friends was Richard, who had a grey beard like a lion's main.  We chatted about the Great British Beer Festival as he had worked at it with CAMRA for years.  Richard also poured a bottle of St. Sylvestre 3 Monts for the bar, including his new American friend.  This beer camaraderie quickly led to interesting conversation about CAMRA, double IPAs and their purpose, Bunker Bierhall (sadly, he was the distributor for the beer I couldn't finish), and more that added a warm layer over my whole experience at the Royal Oak.

Just wish I had more time...

The Black Friar (London, UK)


If in London, just go and see The Black Friar, and you'll find out what's so cool about this place. Incredible decorationunique and beautiful mosaic designs on the walls and ceilings from the early 1900s makes it simply a joy to drink in. My wife and I got in just before last call on New Year's Eve, about 7 pm and had an Adnams Broadside and a London Pride. Beer was adequate  fresh, and well presented but not the main attraction.

New Year's Eve fireworks by the London Eye
While admiring the incredible features of the pub, a nice Irish man chatted me up about the various features of the pub as compared to others he's visited. Back at the table, he came over with a small CAMRA booklet that lists bars across the UK with similar historical significance and architecture. He was as passionate about the pub as many of us are about our beerseemed like a cool hobby, if you live a bit closer to the UK than I do in frozen Minnesota.

We went to The Black Friar on the recommendation of a London BA that I had cold contacted ahead of the trip. Beyond helpful, not only did we get a pint but I don't think we would have gotten the timing right to get on the Westminster Bridge for the display.  Nor, would we have known that bars in London close early on New Year's Eve.  As it happened, we had only a small amount of drama when I couldn't get back on the bridge after a potty break, a consequence of a couple of pints and a small bladder.  A one-stop tube ride under the Thames and I found Gloria again, and we passed the time talking to a guard from the Iranian embassy and his family while waiting four hours for the midnight fireworks.

My last day of 2006 was an afternoon at The Market Porter followed by feeling like a regular at the Royal Oak and ending with a draft in The Black Friar, possibly the most beautiful pub I've raised a glass, and a spectacular fireworks display over the London Eye.  In short, a day that is my best argument for beer travel.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Belgo Centraal (London, UK)


We show up at Belgo Centraal for dinner on a Saturday, which, as tourists, we should have come earlier in the trip, but I got a flu bug on the flight over, so it wasn't until the end of the trip that I was up to multiple beers and a big meal. The line looked long and the bar was packed, but the wait was about half of the 45 min they told us it would be. BC has a sorta industrial chic look, lots of shiny metal and exposed heating ducts upstairs. The whole place, including the one room bathroom with opposing stalls and single hand washing area w/ friendly attendant, felt a bit like a night club, but not everyone was young and under dressed.

At the bar, I ordered a Brugs Tarwebier, a very good wit, and my wife a Huyghe Fruli on tap. Both excellent and well served. Bartender was effusively apologetic for having to change the keg for my beer, but it was worth it. We were just thinking about what to drink next when our names were called for a table.

So, we're told to wander downstairs and immediately we see the open kitchen and monk-dressed waiters and waitresses. Many of the tables are like giant picnic tables with groups set beside each other, though I noticed that a bit of space was left between groups who weren't together. My wife and I sat at a table for two around the outside of the main seating section, which we preferred. Still tight and close, like sitting at most Cheesecake Factories, but there's a much better sense of privacy in spite of being close. In the states I generally hate being that close because it's impossible to sit without hearing conversations and generally invading each other's space, but it wasn't a problem here.

We ordered the Bouchee aux Champignons Sauvage, a puff pastry filled with wild mushrooms and button onions that was covered in an Orval and truffle cream sauce. Very spectacular. A salad was the only other vegetarian option, but when the one option I have is so awesome, who cares. Better than I expected really, since the place specializes in mussels, which a third to half of the tables had at some point. Service was very good in spite of being full, except my Orval was a bit slow in coming when I wanted to drink it with the meal.

For dessert, I had a bottle of Hoegarden Grand Cru, which was a good choice as well. My wife left for the hotel since I was heading to a brewpub across the street, Bunker Bierhall.  I turned to people watch while finishing my beer and it was a wide variety of young and old with a myriad of languages, quiet dates and raucous laughter. Very fun place and well worth the visit. I was informed later by some Brits while sitting at Market Porter that the 12% suggested tip on the Belgo bill is truly optional and need not be paid. Not that it bothered me much to pay it since it was a fine experience. So, five beers and a shared entree was about 30 pounds, so it is a bit pricey. We ate at the local grocery store Marks and Spencer most of the trip, so no worries to splurge for this one.

Belgo Centraal was a wonderful experience and highlight of our trip to London.  I recommend it to anyone heading to England.

Bunker Bier Hall (London, UK)


If you're going to stop at Bunker Bier Hall, I recommend doing it before going to Belgo Centraal across the street. Brewpubs are few and far between, so this was the only one I had a shot of doing on my short trip to London, but I'm glad I didn't go far out of my way.

The downstairs bar was dark and seedy, and a lot of young, hipster types, mostly drinking cocktails and malternatives. Only about a third of the people I saw were drinking beer. I wasn't expecting much after reading the reviews, but the bartender warning me that the Soho Red is more of an ale scared me--rightfully so. I sat and drank the astringent red with little body for a bit and decided that it wasn't worth the effort to finish, so left it sit on the table and walked out. Guessing that if I had tried some of the lagers, I would have had a better experience, but at three pounds a pint, it adds up fast with the poor US currency rate, so $6 dollars seemed too high a price to test my theory when we were running low on pounds near the end of our trip.

Oddly, at the Royal Oak, I met Richard, who said he is a rep for Freedom beer, and that he was sad to hear my negative experience. From the discussion, it seems that Freedom is working hard to improve and brew good beer. Maybe the lagers are better; maybe I had a bad night. My very short experience was not good, but probably also not a fair test. I wish them luck.

4/18/13 update.  Website is down and one source said this brewpub is closed.