Two posts in a month is pretty impressive stuff, I know. What can I say? I’ve been busy doing other things, mainly legal work and traveling. I’ve just returned after a lengthy trip to Britain, perhaps a bit lengthier than I had expected due to the faux-snow attack we had here in New England.
For the purposes of this site, my impressions of the trip can be boiled down to these thoughts. There is a lot of real ale going on in London and its environs and a lot of people are drinking it, both young and old. It could definitely have been the types of bars I was visiting, but we hit a few dozen places over more than ten days and everywhere we went, people were drinking cask ale. Yes, they also drank the hell out of cheap lager beer but cask made a pretty good showing. With that said, on average, the cask ale ran the gamut from undrinkable due to overwhelming butter and “British yeast” notes, at least to my palate (a small percentage of beers tried), to average and fine (most of the beers), to outstanding (also a very small percentage). Had a very bad Fullers ESB at the Old Bank of England pub where I so enjoyed it five years ago or so but an excellent Adnams Broadside down the road and some good HopBack in Oxford. Also, Sam Smith’s pubs were, in terms of atmosphere and beer quality, the tops (Alpine Lager was a savior at times). The other thing that surprised me a great deal was the near complete dearth of beer styles available at these pubs. Even pub’s with great reputations, such as the Market Porter in London with its 8 or so casks, served an overwhelming amount of bitter. Perhaps you might find a golden colored ale that was a touch hoppier but generally speaking it was all bitter all the time. Not a single mild, stout, or porter to be seen (apart from Guinness and the quite enjoyable Export Stout from Sam Smiths). The one exception to this was that I frequently found pubs were carrying Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I have no particular idea why and never saw anyone order one, but it was there. This sort of style fidelity makes for a pretty boring beer experience after a few repetitious days. Eventually, we had to break the mold with a night drinking lambic at the cheesy Belgian-themed Belgo Centraal restaurant in London. I think we often take for granted the diversity of great beer styles we have available to us in almost any bar here in America, from a gastropub to an Applebee’s. I’ll be perusing the tap handles tonight with a new-found sense of wonder tonight.
Last thought: the Michael Jackson archive in Oxford is truly an impressive sight, with nearly 30 big file cabinets filled with material. Ranging from his own personal tasting notes on what seemed to be every single global brewery to his very personal research into Parkinson’s treatments, it was an illuminating few hours. I was cheered to see that he counted as part of his extensive library a copy of my book, The Good Beer Guide To New England, though I don’t think he ever cracked it. It was also a touch uncomfortably voyeuristic to read the inscriptions many fellow beer writers made in their tomes offered to the Bard of Beer. In my whirlwind visit to the archive, I came across a lot of excellent material and left with many new questions I hope to answer in the future. A fastidiously organized pack-rat, I’m also surprised at just how in demand Michael Jackson was in every imaginable way and how well he documented it all. Along these lines, it was interesting to see just how hard the craft brewing community courted him and tried to curry his favor, starting from the earliest days. Michael counted many brewers (not just crafts) as among his “clients”, an interesting revelation to say the least.
I was also very surprised to learn that despite having been open for more than two years, I was the first person to actually ask to see the archive.
Cheers to the good folks at Oxford Brookes, including the friendly Don Marshall, for their assistance in gaining access to them. I hope to return soon to peruse the rest of the interesting materials on offer there.