Sunday, 14 July 2013

Urban Sessions: Raising The Bar .. And Serving Great Beer

Finding the Moon Under Water in a 1930s Public Baths

When you imagine your perfect pub or bar you may well bring to mind Orwell's Moon Under Water where the 'architecture and fittings are uncompromisingly Victorian'. You might want 'plenty of elbow room' somewhere to go for 'conversation as much as the beer' although the beer and quality of it is of some importance if you're thinking of lingering a while. It probably needs to be reasonably accessible, comfortable and possibly have the option for food should you so wish, but as Orwell states about his fictional local, 'the thing that most appeals to me about the Moon Under Water is what people call its 'atmosphere' '.
Yesterday, a hot burning summers day, I took my family to Urban Sessions.
We arrived possibly a little too punctually at five to twelve (it doesn't properly open until twelve, but the doors were open so in we went) relieved to get out of the sun for a bit, and in need of some refreshment.
Urban Sessions is housed in a converted Public Baths (not a swimming pool, there used to be actual baths here) in Hackney Wick, East London (the Wick part in case you're wondering derives from the word 'Wyk' and means 'an outlying dairy farm') opened in 1935 on the Eastway as part of an urban regeneration scheme, cleaning out the slums that were common in the area and building good affordable housing to improve the conditions of the local population. It closed in the 1960s from what I can gather, before being converted and re-opening as a community centre called CR8, in 2008. Conceived by beer writer, international beer judge, good beer evangelist Melissa Cole in conjunction with Twisted Lemon Events promotion company and supplier, it plans to make over five hundred beers, as well as cider, spirits and food from various first class vendors from around London available between 11th July until the 31st October this year.
The entrance itself is quite unassuming, a door (admittedly a rather large door) with three pieces of white A4 paper with the simple words 'Urban Session' stuck to it. Soon there should be a pennant flying from the flagpole on the roof with the name and 'Raising The Bar' making it a little more obvious. As I mentioned in my previous post it is very easy to find, turn right after leaving Hackney Wick station (it doesn't matter which direction you're coming from) and follow the road round and through the Trowbridge Estate, past the imposing Victorian school and keep going. You'll see it right in front of you.
There's a short corridor, to the left of which are the toilets, but go straight ahead past the sign and head down the stairs to your left and you'll find yourself in a scaffolding clad sports-hall-esque space. Don't panic though, it's not about to collapse into a pile of rubble, the scaffolding is purely there to hang lights, bunting and signage from, but you can't fail to notice the two long wooden bars, one in front of you and one to your right, with a variety of different taps along with a couple of hand-pulls ready to dispense all manner of beery goodness. The tables are made from rough wooden boards sawn diagonally in half which does leave some rather awkward pointy ends which aren't particularly child friendly or easy to negotiate but it's early days and when I pointed this out all parties were in agreement so they could well be slightly altered. There's a small stage to the right, set up for a band when I was there, and a small DJ booth as well. Urban Sessions is not just about beer, it's in a community space and there will be bands, DJs, comedy acts and other events happening throughout its time there so you'll need to check the website regularly to see what's coming up next. There's also a cocktail bar providing fruit juices, ginger beer, bottled beer, spirits, wine and cider if you're that way inclined, and this was a boon as far as my children were concerned as they were provided with long glasses filled with crushed ice into which their juice of choice was poured, very welcome in the intense heat.
Heading outside through one of the doors in either corner you'll encounter the garden which although currently a rather dusty stony area, with table and chairs in similar style to the inside, is a large pleasant space with a canopy providing welcome shade from the sun or indeed shelter from the rain should it come. You'll also find food vans here although on our visit only burgers (including pork and stilton and lamb) or bacon butties were available, which were very nice however more choice considering it was lunchtime, or even some chips or crisps, would have been appreciated. They may even want to consider having a freezer unit with some ice cream or lollies in it, and I would have been very interested in sampling the Anchor Zymaster Flying Cloud Stout with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in, perfect for the blistering weather. There are plans afoot to make the garden a proper community garden but whether this will happen during Urban Sessions tenure remain to be seen. Beyond the garden is a decent five-a-side football pitch which was being used for local children top train on for the first hour we were there, although later on we were able to procure a football which my son and I had a kickabout on for half an hour or so, adding to his enjoyment of the day.
Out in the garden area, next to the burger van, you'll also see a blue inflatable arch structure. This is a sealable refrigeration unit and I was lucky enough to get a peek inside and see where the magic happens, all the beer is contained in kegs, key-kegs and casks here before being fed underground into the main hall.

If your heading to Urban Sessions then I'm assuming that you'd be heading there for the beer, and what a selection there is. The bars are divided into rough areas, which are, when I was there at least, from left to right, general European, British, including quite a few London breweries and an impressive Meantime keg tap (with a nice touch on its base), Italian, US, Belgian, and German. Another thing of note, and a very good thing in my opinion, is that there are no pint or half pint glasses, only thirds or two-thirds. Considering the huge array of beers available this encourages sensible drinking and enables you to try and enjoy many more of the beers on offer whilst still maintaining a considerable degree of relative sobriety. It's all about pace you see, there is no need to rush when the beer is this good and there are plenty of people around and very willing to discuss beer with you. I've mentioned this before so you may well be aware that my wife loves beer, particularly US style IPAs, Pale Ales, Saisons, Wheat Beers, and ... well pretty much anything really, so we always enjoy a chance to drink together, and when the children are with us, and especially when they feel relaxed and comfortable, we enjoy ourselves all the more. Being able to drink beer by the third over some time with conversation, activity and exploring the various areas meant that we were able to taste many many different beers (we shared some of the thirds you see) and talk about what we were tasting and the brewery that made it, picking out flavours and elements that we liked, without worrying about becoming drunk at any point. I'm also fortunate that my children are accustomed to going out to pubs and restaurants and know how to behave in those situations, not charging about and getting in everyones way, causing vexation among those seeking a quiet drink and a chat, and they were made very welcome by all the staff who happily engaged them in conversation. My son particularly has a real interest in beer, and although far too young to have a drink of his own (he's only just seven) happily sat and joined in with the various conversations we had.
I was particularly delighted at the attitude and genuine friendliness of the staff, and it really did more than anything else to make my visits (we left to do some shopping at Westfield in Stratford before returning later on) so relaxed and enjoyable. They were engaging, with interesting backgrounds and stories to tell as well as being interested in what I had to say and my views on my experience there. It's very much early days there so they are looking to make tweaks and changes where needed to make sure everyone has the best experience possible and not rest on their laurels, which is very much to their credit. 
As we were about to leave Melissa Cole arrived. Although tweeting each other a few times I had met her briefly a few weeks before at Duke's Brew and Que for the launch of the Moor / Beavertown collaboration beer RYPA and we had talked a little about the Urban Sessions project then. She came up and said 'Hello' and I introduced my family, and asked me about my experience there. We talked for quite a while about beer, the set up, changes that could be made, the beers on offer, those to come and my weird beer/banana split 'cocktail' experiment that sort-of worked before we had to go. She was genuinely friendly and again seemed very interested in what I had to say and I left with the impression that this is a real labour of love but one she is determined to get right. It's my opinion that they are well on the way to getting it spot on, all it really needs is customers.
At know point while I was there was it busy which considering how good it is was a real surprise. If you're reading this and you are still deciding whether or not to go then I don't really know what else to say to convince you, or perhaps I do ...
In case you were wondering, here's a list of the beers I tasted while I was there:
Weird Bear/Elusive Brewing - Nelson Saison, Magic Rock - Salty Kiss, Magic Rock - Simpleton, Magic Rock - Curious, Sierra Nevada - Blindfold, Anchor - Anchor Summer Beer, Flying Dog - Easy IPA, Old Dominion - Hop Mountain, Ilkley - Siberia Rhubarb Saison, Boon - Kriek, Brew Fist - Spaceman, and Birra Del Borgo - Cortigiana. I also had tasters of quite a few more, so you can see there's plenty there to delight most beer orientated palates.
At the start of this piece you'll remember that I alluded to Orwell's The Moon Under Water, highlighting areas of his essay, which first appeared in the Evening Standard on 9th February 1946, which in my view make up the kind of pub or bar that I enjoy. The fixtures, fittings or architecture at Urban Sessions may not be Victorian, the eclectic mix of doors and bric-a-brac was sourced from markets and reclamation yards, but It's setting does provide that sense of prestige associated with a Victorian municipal building whilst at the same time embracing its modern use by the local community and beyond. There's also plenty of room and as I'm sure you'll have gathered from this post, plenty of good conversation to be had. It's comfortable, having the option of food should you want it, but most of all, and most importantly it has a wonderful atmosphere, a relaxed, chilled ambience that is very special and increasingly hard to find in places serving fantastic beer.
So, inevitably, the question that you're asking me now is: "Did you find The Moon Under Water ?"
Quite possibly ...

No comments:

Post a Comment