Monday, February 8, 2010

Absent Friends

Well, I hope you all enjoyed your Super Bowl Weekend as much as I did. Growing up in New Orleans, I never thought I'd live to see the day that the Saints won it all. This may indeed be a sign of the coming Apocalypse. Is it true that the last symbol carved into the famous Mayan calendar is a fleur-de-lys?

Thinking about my salad days in the Crescent City eventually lead me to thinking about other things from my past that are no more. This week I'm also lecturing my beer class on British beer styles, so my thoughts naturally turned to days spent in London pubs, drinking wondrous beers.

My first experience with British cask ale was in November, 1987. I was a young Lieutenant on the USS Silversides (SSN 679), and we pulled into Portsmouth in the south of England after over 10 weeks at sea. A buddy and I managed to wrangle a day's leave, so we hopped a train and headed for London. As soon as we reached London and exited the station, we stopped at the first pub and ordered a pint.

By sheer luck, it was a Young's pub.

If you've spent anytime in London, you know that their are (or were; it's been almost nine years since I last trod its dirty streets) two regional brewers: Young's and Fuller's. They both brewed excellent beers and I drank them both regularly, but Young's was my first and always remained my favorite. When wandering around London or the surrounding countryside and in doubt about where to stop for a "proper pint", one only had to keep an eye out for a sign marked with a ram, the symbol and mascot of Young's; once you saw that, you knew you were OK.

If you've never had cask-conditioned ale, then it will be hard for my words to convey to you just how wonderful it is, fresh and sparkling from the hand pump, bursting with lovely hop aroma and a bracing (but by no means overwhelming) bitterness. If you've never had any, perhaps you will get to experience it in Britain or at one of the increasing number of American brewpubs which are serving their beer on cask. I know that Glacier Brewhouse in Anchorage regularly has an one of their ales on hand pump, and there may well be others in the state that I don't know about.

After that first visit in 1987, I returned to London whenever I could, trying out new pubs and breweries, until in 1998 I was stationed there. From 1998 until 2001, I lived and worked in the heart of London, walking from my flat just off Baker St. to my job at 7 N. Audley St. My local pub was The Turner Arms on Crawford St, a free house, where Nigel the landlord kept both Young's and Fuller's on. To this day I have a Young's sign hanging in my bar at home that I traded Nigel for after a long night of drinking. It was a wonderful three years.

As for Young's beers, first they had their regular bitter, which was called, unpretentiously enough, Young's Ordinary. Take it from me, it was anything but. It was wonderfully refreshing and dry, with a nice blend of fruit and hops. Then there was their Special (my usual drink of choice), a little darker in color, a little stronger in alcohol, and a little hoppier. Its bottled version is called Ramrod, after the brewery's ram mascot.

Speaking of bottled versions, Young's London Special Ale is the name given to Young's Export when it's packaged that way. This beer is one of the few true English IPAs to survive from the golden age of the mid-19th century. Bottle-conditioned, hoppy, earthy, and strong at 6.4%, for my tastes it is the finest bottled beer Britain has ever produced, hands down. Even when I lived in London, it could be hard to find; on more than one occasion, I had to have my neighborhood off-license (that's British for liquor store) special order cases for me.

In those days Young's was brewed at their Ram Brewery in the Wandsworth region of London. Located on the River Thames, beer had been brewed at that site since at least 1576. It was the oldest continually operating brewery in Britain. I toured it twice during my stint in London, and it was a magical place. They still delivered casks to near-by pubs via horse-drawn drays, with the horses (along with the brewery's namesake mascot, a ram) stabled at the brewery. The brewery itself was a mix of old and new, with fascinating pieces of industrial archaeology (like a steam engine dating from 1835) scattered about.

Unfortunately for beer lovers everywhere, Young's is a publicly owned company, so at the height of the housing bubble in Britain, the riverfront land it sat on was more valuable than the beer it produced and the history it represented. Sold off for 450 million pounds (about $800 million at the time), the brewery closed on 25 September 2006. It's to be turned into high-rise apartments and another shopping mall. Lord knows there aren't enough of those in the world.

Of course, the final irony is that due to the collapse of the housing bubble, the developers who bought the land are in financial trouble. Near as I can tell from reading news stories at a distance, they haven't even gotten final design approval, much less built anything. No telling if they ever will.

A sad end to the 430 years of brewing at the Ram Brewery.

Young's is still brewed elsewhere, but I doubt it can ever match up to what it once was. And that, my friends, is a real tragedy...

Well, enough about absent friends. Let's talk about what's here now. I saw a new beer at the local Safeway in Soldotna, one of Sam Adams' Seasonals, their new Noble Pils. My wife Elaine loves a good pilsner, so I snagged a six-pack. Poured into a classic pilsner glass, the beer is a pretty deep golden color, with a white head of dense foam. The aroma is appealing, with slight citrus and plenty of clean hop notes. The taste is a bit more complex than that of your typical pils, with each of the five noble hop varieties used (Hallertau, Tettnanger, Spalt, Saaz, & Hersbrucker) making their presence known. Crisp and clean on the palate, with plenty of carbonation. Very refreshing, just like a good pilsner should be. Not sure why this is their January to March seasonal; I'd think a brew like this would be more appropriate to warmer weather. Despite that, it's an excellent beer; if you're a fan of pilsners (and who isn't?), you should give it a try.

Well that's a wrap for this week. See last week's blog for upcoming beer events. By the way, if you're a fan of Alaskan Brewing's Baltic Porter (I certainly am; see my review on 11/17/2008), I have a bit of bad news. Alaskan only brews this beer once a year, in September, but they currently don't plan to brew it in 2010. It may be back in early 2011, but the folks at Alaskan aren't sure. So you might want to lay in some extra stock to tide you over. It's a great beer to cellar and should age very well.

Until Next Time, Cheers!


Anonymous said...

You might wanna try the Sleeping Lady for a hand pumped cask conditioned ale...

Bill Howell said...

Thanks for the head's up! I couldn't remember if Snow Goose had any on hand pump or not the last time I was in there. I'll be in Anchorage on Saturday, so I'll try to stop by and have some.