Saturday in London
I’ll be honest – I’ve always had a bit of an aversion towards London. It’s always felt too large, too crowded, too busy. Lately, though, the aversion has chipped somewhat. London Craft Beer Festival was the first beer festival we did in London, and besides enjoying that thoroughly, we also enjoyed the hungover day after, touring street food and some craft beer bars.
We had already decided that for Beavertown Extravaganza, we would take a whole weekend, so that we would have enough time to explore around. Being the obsessives we are, we looked through everything that a craft beer, cocktail, and food geeks could want to visit. We ended up deciding that we would do the Bermondsey Beer Mile and a tour of Shoreditch cocktail bars.
After getting some breakfast (trendy, but big portions and huge cups of coffee – good!) we headed up to Bermondsey for the beer mile. We didn’t know much of what to expect, as we had not toured that part of London before. I was vaguely aware that the railway arches in Bermondsey had been a spot of congregation for several of London’s best smaller breweries, as well as some beer shops and other producers. I wasn’t quite as aware of just how abundant it was. Every hundred meters or so, we would notice something and think, oh they’re here too.
Our first stop was the chaotic street market on Maltby Street. If not for our hangover, it would’ve been a very enjoyable experience, with interesting purveyors all around. Given our state, however, we chose to reclude ourselves at a bar for a coffee and a donut while we recovered our senses. The second stop, our first beery one, was the Bottle Shop, an industrial craft beer spot with a stunning selection of bottles, and a couple of taps. We had some fairly unimpressive Arizona Wilderness beers from tap and continued to browse through the bottles. I couldn’t find anything that would draw me in at a reasonable price point, and got a bit disheartened at the whole proposition.
Yet, we pushed on, to the veritable Brew By Numbers, who have long been one of my favourite UK breweries. It seemed a familiar industrial demeanor, with the added note of a wallful of barrels. But, unlike the Bottle Shop, it was absolutely full. This, at around 2pm. And unlike the Bottle Shop, their taps did not disappoint – indeed to the degree that we ended up having four rounds in there. There were the funky numbers 22 | 01 and 01 | 29, a blend of wild beers and an oyster and seaweed saison, respectively; there was the brilliant coffee porter 10 | 09, which was simply super tasty, and the murky juice bombs 05 | 25 and 21 | 13. That one brewery can do all of these styles so well is a testament to their skill and vision. I picked up a couple of bottles to go too, the Põhjala collab Kolm Null Null Kolm and La Pirata collab 18 | 05, as well as a beautiful branded t-shirt. All in all, Brew By Numbers was extremely convincing in being able to provide a great variety of beers as well as a nice venue.
Our next stop was Partizan Brewery, which has never hugely impressed me. Their spot, too, was extremely full, and we chose to just have one round of largely unremarkable beers there. Another day, with another tap list, it might have been very enjoyable, but alas, we chose to move on quite quickly to the Eebria Taproom. Not a brewery, but a beer shop specializing in direct-from-brewery deliveries, we popped in to avoid the quick bit of rain. Their taps were dedicated to smaller British breweries, with our flight containing Thornbridge, Salopian and a new brewery to me, Yeovil. The Thornbridge seasonal pineapple sour went down a treat, and the Salopian red ale worked well for what it was. Yeovil’s Pale Ale seemed to be a bit of an oddity, at 7.3% and in keg. Our last stop was the Fourpure brewery, clearly the largest of the bunch, given its availability in supermarkets nowadays. Despite its impressive looks, a flight of six beers was largely a disappointment, bar the tasty Oatmeal Stout. Perhaps at that point we had already been beered out for the day, and Fourpure suffered for that.
After a quick break and a dinner at the excellent Cay Tre, we headed out into the night for the second part of our plans. We had high hopes, seeing as London is one of the world’s cocktail capitals. There certainly wasn’t a lack of choice – it seems as if in London you can’t walk more than two blocks without encountering a neo-speakeasy or some other horribly convoluted concept of a cocktail bar. We thought that the generically named London Cocktail Trading Company would provide a classic cocktail experience without too many frills. Boy, were we wrong. What follows is a pure and honest rant, so if you are so inclined, skip the next paragraph.
I love cocktails, and I especially love cocktail bars. What I don’t like, is when cocktail bartenders think they are just about the smartest people in the world, and that all rules are to be broken. They are not. When I order a cocktail, I expect it to be in a glass. Not in an egg shell. When that same cocktail is sold as a Sazerac and tastes like toothpaste, I start to lose my patience. Though not much of that matters, because the whole place is so dark you can barely see your drink. And so loud that trying to talk about the cocktail is impossible. London Cocktail Trading Company was everything that is wrong with the current mixology movement, and just a massive, massive disappointment.
Our next stop was an underground bar called The Whistling Shop, which had a menu focused on exploring the world. The Menu was again gimmicky, with my cocktail containing a red pepper foam and Ryoko’s coming in a whale-shaped glass, but at least they were tasty – and their olives were very, very tasty. Nonetheless, we wanted to move on, so walked over to a whisky bar called Black Rock. It caused quite a stir amongst certain people when it opened, because of its odd, but impressive concept. The bar – not that there was an actual bar – was a smallish room, dominated by a hundred or more year old half of a tree trunk, which had indentation filled with the house cocktails, aging away in the wood. It was truly something to behold. Those wood-trunk-aged cocktails were good, too, with the Old Fashioned variant being particularly excellent. Despite the unconventional setup, the service followed classic bartender rules; always offer water, always be hospitable, et cetera. I also had a stiff smokey old fashioned, which was expertly made and very tasty indeed.
At the point at which we left the Black Rock, the night was getting late and we were getting a wee bit tired. Given that, we were lucky (or unlucky) that we were guided to go to the bar directly upstairs from the Black Rock, called The Devil’s Darling. I say lucky, because it was, by far, the best bar of our trip, and unlucky, because it was open until late, and caused me to have perhaps a cocktail too many. When we first entered the bar, it was strikingly different from the loud, dimly lit places we’d been in before. Here, it was all bright lights and soft vinyl music. It was also empty. As we sat down at the bar, the enthusiastic bartender provided us with a rarity in the UK; a warm greeting and not just water, but bar snacks and a free glass of sparkling wine. It instantly made us feel welcome and relaxed. The drinks menu was three drinks, daily changing, all classics. We started off with a Singapore Sling and a Vieux-Carre variant, the name of which eludes me. Both were delicious and followed by several others, partly spurred on by a vigorous conversation with the bartender about cocktails and spirits and anything else relevant or irrelevant. The Alaska with Plymouth Gin was absolutely stellar, and comes highly recommended. The cocktails may not have been experimental or experiential, but they were damn good and served in a pleasant atmosphere. I wish we could have spent the whole evening there.
I may still not love London, but our adventures there have certainly taught me a thing or two about it. That it can be brilliant, historic and innovative at the same time. And that it can drown in excess, of loading ideas on top of ideas to the point where the starting point is completely lost. Loud and brash and attentive and fun. It might not be comfortable (especially for your wallet!) but it is fun, even when it is the type of perverse fun one gets from hating something so very much. I won’t love you, London, I never will, but once in a blue moon, I’ll get on that damn Ryanair flight, bite my lip and order another round.