Taverns in Town #4: The Essex Head (Edgar Wallace), Essex Street WC2

These days, this pub is better known as the Edgar Wallace, having been renamed in honour of the prolific crime writer in 1975.

It really is a proper pub. It feels like it’s dripping in history with loads of vintage advertising and beer memorabilia on the walls and a great range of ales (eight hand pumps). I drank a tip top pint of Crouch Vale Brewers Gold.

The Essex Head

A 70s watercolour, as it is today and the interesting interior

At the Essex Head, Taverns in Town informs me, Dr. Samuel Johnson formed The Essex Head Club, where his literary contemporaries would gather on several evenings a week to debate the matters of the day. This dates the pub to the 1770s or 1780s.

Like its neighbour, The Devereux, it was originally named for the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I.

“The Essex Head is a very attractive tavern both inside and out, fitting decorously into its snug setting. During the evening, perhaps because it is smaller than its rival a few yards away, it is an altogether quieter establishment in which to pass idle minutes in conversation.”

It is position close to the Temple, monastic headquarters of the Knights Templar and the spiritual centre of the London legal profession for centuries. Along with its literary connections it simply oozes history.

The pub seems to have a decent reputation for food, although on this visit I didn’t see a menu or sample anything from it. The clientele seemed to be a mix of legal types and beer enthusiasts.

This is a pub I would recommend visiting, from an historical perspective and if you are a fan of great beer and beer history. It has certainly surpassed its previously more illustrious neighbour.

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The Tyranny of Choice: Why a Big Beer Range Could Hinder the Growth of ‘Craft’

When I first published a version of this article in March 2011, the craft beer ‘Mecca’, with dozens of beer options was a new concept. Now, in London, this type of bar seems almost ubiquitous as pubs race to have the biggest range and appeal to the craft beer mavens. This week came the news of the potential for more and more pubs to become free of the beer tie. This would be good for the beer consumer, was one of the arguments I saw, because it will increase choice. While I agree with this to an extent, publicans need to be careful about how they present beer to new or infrequent drinkers. This modification of my original article reveals why:

There was excitement as I travelled into London on the train after work on Monday. I was going for my first trip to Cask Pub & Kitchen in Pimlico to meet a former colleague for dinner. When I arrived it was heaving. It turned out it was a meet the brewer evening for Bristol Beer Factory. In the end we didn’t stay long. We couldn’t get a table to eat and it was a little too packed and noisy to have a comfortable conversation.

I consider myself knowledgeable and well-versed in beer styles and different breweries. Yet there was something I found quite intimidating about the place. Not in a threatening way at all. Yes, there were some superior beer ‘experts’ hovering at the bar.  The kind of people that make you feel a little uncomfortable if you seem uncertain about what to choose. But I can cope with that.

The choice was amazing. There were ten beers on from Bristol Beer Factory and then countless others on keg and in bottles, many of which I was unfamiliar with.  Great as it seemed, on the surface, it was this vast choice that caused most of my discomfort.

In marketing there’s a phenomenon known as the ‘tyranny of choice’. This pertains to retailing in particular. As people have become richer and as distribution channels have become more efficient, myriad new products have become available to us. In the seventies the average supermarket carried about 10,000 lines. Nowadays that figure is closer to 50,000. There was a time when you had a choice of two or three different types of orange juice at the supermarket, now it’s more like about 30. The received wisdom would have us believe that increasing choice will make us happier, but in fact the reverse can be true. During the cold war, this choice, relative to the Eastern Bloc was held up as a paragon. Increased choice appears, on the surface, to have improved our lives. But in actual fact, there comes a point where too many choices become stressful.

For an example of this, one only has to walk into the local purveyor of mobile phones.  The choices on offer are bamboozling. Handsets, price plans, insurance options. I just want a phone! The information I have to take in is too much and I leave befuddled to do some more research online. That’s why the insurance comparison sites have done so well. They curate the mass of choices down to a manageable number for you to compare based on your basic needs.

When you walk into a pub though, you don’t have the luxury of being able to go away and do some research. You need to try a beer at least twice before you can form a real opinion on it. It’s difficult to form an opinion based on a taster. So what to do then, if like me you’ve walked into a packed pub and there is a choice of 300 or more beers? Well me, I like to try new things, so I just started on the left of the bar, checked the ABV wasn’t too high (it was a Monday night!) and tried the first couple. That fact it was so busy meant I didn’t feel that I could ask the barman for advice. And there didn’t appear to be any literature on the beer range to help me.

Cask is an extreme example aimed at the real experts. But it shows that pubs hoping to cater for a more mainstream crowd have an educational job to do. When faced with an enormous array of beer many of us will opt for the safe option. With more and more micro-breweries springing up, it’s only going to get harder. And that’s before we think about the vast array of new or re-introduced beer styles or hop varieties.

The publican needs to become the curator, selecting the beers and teaching his or her customers about them. Offering free tasters to curious punters is one option. But I maintain that you have to drink a full pint and most likely two, before you can judge a beer. Pubs must also make sure that they do keep a regular line-up behind the bar. People don’t  adapt well to continuous change and as we have seen, too much choice can cause stress. Tasting evenings and meet the brewer events are great, but whatever you do, try to be inclusive and not just appeal to the beer ‘geeks’.

I’d be very interested to hear what others think of this. Please comment below.

For more on the ‘Tyranny of Choice’, see this excellent article from the Economist.

Taverns in Town #3: The Red Lion Tavern, Red Lion Court EC4

I had wondered how long it would take me to come across my first Tavern in Town that was no more. Not long, it turned out.

‘Red Lion Court lies off the north side of Fleet Street, the second alleyway from Fetter Lane travelling east. Hidden away up this narrow thoroughfare is another delightful City pub, THE RED LION TAVERN, after which the court itself is named and which, in a different outward guise, was certainly in existence as early as 1571.’

The book goes on to explain that there may have been literary connections with Dr. Johnson and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but that these days (1973) the Red Lion is the favourite retreat of newspaper journalists from Fleet Street.

Sketch in the book, street sign, City dragon

Sketch in the book, street sign, City dragon

This was my first clue as to the closure of the pub. Fleet Street declined during the 1980s when News International moved their operations to a new, modern facility in Wapping. Could the Red Lion have been a victim? There are plenty of other pubs still trading in the area, so perhaps it was the tucked away location that did for the Red Lion.

A quick web search was pretty fruitless and I couldn’t identify the location from the pen and ink drawing in the book. All that the Lost Pubs Project could tell me was that the publican in the 1930s and 1940s was one William Lewis.

One website suggested that the pub for which the court was named was destroyed in the Great Fire. This is probably true, however, Taverns in Town tells me that 1970s Red Lion was a 19th Century brick structure.

Another website tells me that a pub stood here until the 1960s, but gave no more detail. Not helpful. Could the pub and its history simply have been wiped clean from the records?

These days Red Lion Court is a mix of office space and extremely expensive apartments. I could locate no sign of the pub and, even more frustratingly, very little of its history remains online.

Did you ever visit this pub? Can you fill me in on its demise?

FOOTNOTE: Please see the comments below from an excellent sleuth, who has discovered the sad fate of this pub. And for history geeks there are some fascinating maps.

The Beer Moment

A couple of blog posts caught my eye recently. They both talked about how there’s always a time and a place for drinking crap beer. First I read Mark Johnson’s extremely long post, which seemed a bit fed up with some of the snobbery around the craft beer ‘scene’. And then Pete Brissenden chimed in with a piece from his excellent blog about his love of drinking crap beer.

These views got me to thinking about a piece that I wrote about the ‘Beer Moment’ for the Session 63, back in 2012 on my old blog.

I deleted my old blog last year. So I didn’t think I had access to it anymore. Then I managed to find a cached version. So here is my view on the ‘Beer Moment’, first published on 4th May 2012:

“The beer moment. The moment that beautiful amber nectar rolls around your mouth tantalising your taste buds. The satisfying moment you swallow and contemplate the hoppy residue left behind. Except that’s not what it’s ever really about. The beer moment is all about context. It’s all about where you are, who you’re with and how you’re feeling at that moment.

I can think back to lots of beer ‘moments’.

Sitting on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, an hour or so before sundown, perfectly relaxed, chatting with my wife and sipping a glass of Moza.

Toasting the wonderful news of the engagement of great friends with a pint of standard, mass–produced lager – because that’s what there was.

Eating an absolutely astounding burger in the Cheesecake Factory in Union Square in San Francisco with my first ever Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

The synchronised pulling of ring-pulls on our cans of lager as the 8.30am football express pulled out of the station, seemingly on a mission solely to deliver us to the pub in a Northern outpost for opening time.

And going back a few years, the confidence booster, the Dutch Courage required to talk to a particular girl or help you feel like the centre of attention.

You see, context is everything. No one beer moment is ever the same, even ones that seem to be. Every day is different, your mood is never the same. You’re with different people, doing different things.

And that’s what’s so great about beer, for me at least. Like no other drink, it caters for all of those different needs.

Whether it’s putting a bad day behind you, just chilling out or slaking a mighty thirst.

Or savouring an amazing steak at a special dinner out, accompanying a meaty pie in the pub or just with a simple sandwich for your lunch.

Or feeling part of a group, connecting and bonding with your mates or following a ritual or tradition.

Or celebrating a birth, a marriage or remembering someone recently lost.

Or just letting go, cutting loose and partying.

That’s why I love beer. It’s the drink for any moment. Any moment can be a beer moment. And the moment is usally a better one for the beer.”

How do you feel about this topic? What’s your favourite crap beer moment?

Taverns in Town #2: The Devereux, Devereux Court EC4

The Devereux is the legal tavern to surpass all others’, says Taverns in Town, ‘a City tavern par excellence…The greatest satisfaction is to be derived from observing the unsanctimonious countenances of members of the judiciary during their moments of respite in The Devereux’.

I looked up from the book and took a look around me. The flashing quiz and fruit machines, the gaudy Taylor Walker advertising and less than authentic looking chalkboards made it difficult for me to imagine when this place was in the upper echelons of London drinking establishment. When you step into a pub you look for a certain vibe, but here it was lacking.

I was somewhat saved by the fact the Taylor Walker’s beer festival was on, which at least saved me from having to drink some generic offering. I chose the Longman Copper Hop from my adopted home county of West Sussex. It was kept well and I perused the food menu, looking for any evidence that it could match the description in Taverns in Town of a ‘high reputation for chops and beefsteaks, served in civilized surroundings’. Not so much.

Devereux

A sketch from the 70s, as it is today, inside the pub (sorry – poor lighting!)

The Devereux does have an interesting history. During the 18th Century and right up until 1843, this was one of London’s foremost coffee houses – The Grecian – a favourite haunt of both Oliver Goldsmith and Sir Richard Steele, founder of Tatler. It became The Devereux in the mid-19th Century, named after Robert Devereux, the 1st Earl of Essex, who was a friend and confident of Queen Elizabeth I. The pub now stands on land the was once occupied by Devereux’s London residence and a stone bust high on its façade commemorates him.

Other than Taylor Walker’s website claiming a haunting, which seems most likely to be an attempt to attract tourists, my Google search didn’t give me much more on this pub, which by London’s current standards is in a position of mid-table mediocrity. Inoffensive, but I don’t feel I’d be compelled to return given other, better options nearby.

Taverns in Town #1: The Seven Stars, Carey St WC2

On a sunny October afternoon I strolled from my meeting in Farringdon, across Holborn Circus and down through Lincoln’s Inn Fields to my first ‘Tavern in Town’.

When you walk through the Inns of Court, past barristers and QCs in their finery, it’s not like you are in the city at all. Quiet, leafy courtyards are surrounded by imposing buildings from a bygone age.

The Seven Stars purports to be London’s oldest pub. A sign outside suggests that the building has been present since 1602, pre-dating the Great Fire by 64 years and saved from disaster by its position, in those days, right on the outskirts of the city.

A sketch from the 70s, as it is today and inside the pub

A sketch from the 70s, as it is today and inside the pub

Taverns in Town says that ‘Apart from being one of the smallest legal pubs, it is also one of the most praiseworthy’ and goes on to tell a little of the history of the place, surmising that if it was erected while England was still under Elizabethan rule then it would have been one of the earliest buildings here, because the Fields of Lincoln’s Inn really were fields in those days.

I came across a cosy and attractive pub, tucked away behind the Royal Courts of Justice, already busy with early Friday evening trade. I ordered an excellently kept pint of Dark Star Hophead and retired to the snug at the side of the bar to read about the pub circa 1973.

The pub was originally called the ‘Leg and Seven Stars’, a corruption of the ‘League of Seven Stars’, an allusion to the United Provinces of the Netherlands. So originally this was probably a watering hole for Dutch sailors and tradesmen. There had been some debate over whether it had also been the basis for the ‘Magpie and Stump’ in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, however the book asserts that this is unlikely to have been the case and that another nearby pub, no longer with us, was the a more likely candidate.

My next task was to Google the pub to understand whether the 1973 account was accurate and to see how people feel about the pub today. The pub has the same good food reputation that it had in the 1970’s (‘the patrons demand good food and wine and they receive them both’) and is still a well kept secret of ‘in the know’ Londoners and the legal profession. In addition, these days it is also famous for its colourful landlady Roxy Beaujolais and its well known pub cat, often to be seen atop the bar enjoying some treats. Sadly, neither was present in the bar on my visit, but I did get to experience the precipitous climb up an atmospheric, very old and narrow staircase to the toilets upstairs.

This is a good pub and with its low, beamed ceiling certainly does have a feeling of antiquity and something to attract the tourist who would like to see something of traditional London. As an added bonus for those wanting a photo opportunity there is a row of old red London phone boxes across the street.

I’d like to think that it can survive another 40 years in the same rude health, having managed more than 400 to date. If it’s not a pub you are familiar with, then I would recommend popping in for a pint and to soak up the history.

Spoiled for Choice (or not, as the case may be)

Recently I embarked on a London pub crawl of sorts around Fleet Street and Holborn. Part of my mission was to visit four of the 48 pubs in my Taverns in Town project. At the same time, I wanted to try out some new ‘craft’ venues to compare and contrast the old and the new.

What struck me most was that today, in London, if you want great beer you would have to actively go out of your way to avoid it. I visited seven pubs in all and the choice and range was astonishing. I drank a varied assortment – Dark Star Hophead, Longman Copper Hop, Buxton Moor Top, Crouch Vale Brewers Gold, Burning Sky Plateau, Konig Pils, Siren Undercurrent and Dark Star Green Hopped IPA – and for each choice there could have been two or three worthy replacements.

London

This is a far cry from my arrival in London late in 2000. Chain and theme pubs dominated the scene – All Bar One, O’Neills, Rat & Parrot, Slug and Lettuce, Hogshead – and you were basically choosing between Caffreys, Guinness and John Smiths as your keg ‘ales’, some fancy European lager like Becks or Staropramen or an interesting oddity like Hoegaarden. You really had to search to find the hidden gem of a pub with interesting beers at decent prices. And as for local beers it was Youngs or Fullers. Full stop.

We are lucky to be living through this craft beer boom and proliferation of new and interesting pub concepts with excellent beer ranges. As with any trend, be it fashion, coffee shops, free newspapers it tends to start (or at least gather pace) in London and then radiate out to other major urban centres like ripples on a pond, before rippling back to fill in the gaps.

A few weeks ago I participated in the Horsham Ale Trail. Compare and contrast the beer list from my London trip with this Horsham ‘showcase’ – Dark Star Sunburst, Birrificio Angelo Poretti, Hepworth Sussex, Taylor Walker 1730, Bill’s Beer, Greene King Crown Ale, Kings Horsham Best, Hepworth Conqueror Stout, (bastardised) King & Barnes Sussex, Fullers London Pride – only 3 or 4 out of 10 that could hold a light to my average evening out in London experience.

Horsham

My adopted home is about 40 miles from London and has a variety of town centre pubs, but since the sale of the King and Barnes estate to Hall & Woodhouse in 2001 we are far from spoiled for choice. The local Taylor Walker pub and Wetherspoon probably offer the best choice where ‘craft’ is concerned (which tells you all you need to know), but both do support local breweries pretty well too. And because of the Hall & Woodhouse domination, away from those venues, you have to be really lucky to find anything from any of the excellent local breweries (Hepworth, Kings, Weltons, Kissingate, Firebird and of course Dark Star) in the town centre. Where pubs do have an ale range, they tend to be tied to a less than adventurous pub company.

Horsham is stuck between London and Brighton and waiting for the ripple to rebound. Whoever sets up a decent pub with a great range of local and ‘craft’ beers will do well, if the thriving brewery shops and supermarket shelves, usually stripped of premium bottled ales, are anything to go by. So if you are a London drinker reading this, count your blessings and go out and try as many different pubs and beers as you can all over the city. If like me you are stuck in the land that beer forgot, don’t worry, it will arrive soon: I just hope we can last it out.

King of Beer Festivals: London Craft Beer Festival 2014

I read with interest last year about the London Craft Beer Festival (LCBF) and the controversy surrounding it being pitched against the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF). As I had grown somewhat tired of the GBBF in recent years, I decided this year to try out its hipper, trendier cousin in East London.

I stayed with my friend, and drinking companion for the evening, Tom in Clapton. On the way to his house I checked out his nearest boozers on the wonderful Craft Beer London app. Within a mile of his house he has four 5-star rated craft beer establishments, with a further five within two miles.

My Host

My Clapton host with the most

When I moved to London 14 years ago, people didn’t go to Hackney after dark and, in any case, it was hard to reach by public transport and there was nothing much to see there. It’s testament to the gradual gentrification of London’s suburbs and the craft beer explosion of the past five years that this is now a beer (and food) destination, attracting folks from neighbouring areas, thirsty for the latest and greatest brews.

To the festival

Thursday evening began in a rainy queue outside Oval Space, Hackney’s premier event space. With no umbrella the only consolation was some free beer being handed out by Camden Town Brewery from a smart little van. However, we were soon in and had our hands on five beer tokens, good for a third of a pint each, our festival programme and rather stylish beer glasses.

The glasses were marked with a third of a pint line for your token-based big pours and a taster line, which allowed you unlimited small (90ml – about a sixth of a pint) pours from any of the brewers exhibiting. Before the event, a few people had questioned me on the value of the £35 entry fee and whether I’d get my money’s worth. Let’s examine the difference between the GBBF and the LCBF:

GBBF

LCBF

Entry

£8 for CAMRA members / £10vin advance / £12 on the door

£35
Programme

Free for CAMRA members / £2

Free

Glass

£3 – sale or return

Free

Price of six pints of beer

£21

Free

So in actual fact, price-wise there’s very little in it. Can you drink six pints at LCBF? Well that’s roughly five big pours and 26 small pours. So it depends on your capacity and how much you chat rather than drink. There were 21 breweries with about 70-80 beers to choose from, so there was plenty of choice. And that’s before we even take Visit Flanders into account.

Flantastic

Flantastic

Our ticket to LCBF also entitled us to visit the Flanders exhibition in the ‘Pickle Factory’ across the road. Here there were live beer cookery demonstrations and breweries giving out cheese and yet more free tasters of their beer. Het Anker, with their wonderful Tripel, Westmalle with their exquisite Dubbel and Duvel Moortgat with tasters of Liefmans, Vedett, De Koninck and Duvel made this a wonderful diversion from the main event.

So what’s particularly good about LCBF?

One of the great things about LCBF is that you actually get served by, for the most part, the people who actually brew the beer. This doesn’t thrill me in a celebrity spotting kind of way (although I was oddly star-struck by Stuart Ross from Magic Rock), but actually being able to talk beer with truly knowledgeable people was absolutely brilliant.

Brewer crush?

Brewer crush?

Another nice aspect is that if you don’t like a beer you haven’t actually paid for it, so you don’t feel bad about pouring it away into one of the buckets provided for glass swilling. So if something’s not to your liking you don’t have to nurse a pint of it for half an hour while your companions are enjoying theirs.

And then there’s the entertainment. A backdrop of extremely funky tunes, played by excellent DJ’s accompanied our Thursday night drinking and the line-up of bands and DJ’s for the other sessions looked, I was informed by more knowledgeable companion, stellar.

What of the people? What was the crowd like to drink with? Well, one thing that struck me was the vast array of people there. If I had feared an achingly hipster tone to proceedings, then I couldn’t have been more wrong. Sure it was younger than any beer festival I’d ever attended (I felt a bit old in fact – at 35!) and there were one or two impressive beards on display, but generally speaking this was simply a collection of beer lovers. And I suspected that most of them would have been happy to visit the GBBF as well. We were all simply brought together by a general love of beer.

The beers

There were some absolutely wonderful beers on offer, with ABVs ranging from 3.0% to 12%+, styles ranging from lagers to pale ales to stouts and porters, and a whole host of flavours including Dandelion and Burdock, Lemon Sour and Coffee. I tried at least one beer from every brewery and was on my way back round the room again when time caught up with us.

Beer of the festival

Beer of the festival!

My beer of the festival had to be Weird Beard’s Double Perle – a fabulous, much stronger, 100th brew edition of their Black Perle dark IPA. Honourable mentions must go to Weird Beard’s Holy Hoppin’ Hell, Thornbridge Halcyon (kegged only the day before and tasting amzing), Howling Hops’s Rye Gose, Buxton’s Ace Edge (yes – a Sorachi Ace version of Axe Edge) and Siren Sound Wave. I have to say, I didn’t taste a bad beer and some were truly delightful, even exceptional.

Will I be back?

I can’t wait for LCBF 2015. And I’ll be telling all my beer appreciating friends about it too. The only thing I might improve is the range and price of the food. Overall though, this is a wonderful festival, not to be missed. 10/10.

The return of Sussex Brews

I used to tweet and write about beer. Under the name ‘Sussexbrews’ I had a well read blog and 1,200 Twitter followers.

But I became disillusioned with the whole ‘craft beer bubble’. The thing I’d spent years being interested in and talking about was getting big.

And I didn’t have anything left to say. So I deleted my blog and my Twitter account. Lost without a trace, never to return.

A couple of things recently made me change my mind and start tweeting and blogging again.

First I went along to the Horsham Spring Equinox Beer Festival. It was a great event, with lots of excellent local beer. I felt the buzz again.

We met a great couple called Lari and Pat all the way from Colorado (where they work at Pike’s Peak Brewing).

Why were they in Horsham, I wondered? Whenever they are in the UK they pick a beer festival to come to and this was it.

Pat was fed up with the hoppy race to the bottom that’s going on in the US. I agreed. A trip to New York in 2012 had led me to the same conclusion and said I feared the same here.

Craft hops at the expense of the real craft of creating a well balanced beer.

We shared a mutual love of the English session beer. And  I realised that my love of beer isn’t a fad or trend.  I need to be expressing it and telling people about it again.

Then I read a great article by Jeff Alworth (@beervana): Zen and the Art of Appreciating Simple Beers.

It’s about beer appreciation being a circular journey.

“First you love beer naively, out of a simple joy.

Then your head gets filled with a bunch of crap about what’s good and you begin disliking beer out of blind prejudice.

Finally you come back to appreciating beer for its own nature.

(And conversely, that appreciation makes you aware of how many intense beers are badly made and lack the harmony and integration that are the hallmarks of a good beer in any style).”

This article really made me wish I hadn’t jacked it all in.

So here I am. Blogging again. And tweeting again. Thanks Jeff, and thanks Pat!

You can check out my Twitter feed: @strangebeers