Friday, 16 May 2014

Beers Of London Series 77. Dragonfly Brewery - 2 O'clock Ordinary

Beers Of London Series
77. Dragonfly Brewery - 2 O'clock Ordinary 4.0%

I'm old. I often tell people this, in fact I've found that recently it has started to creep into my everyday conversation as if I feel like I need to remind people that 'it was different in my day' or it has started to become a badge of honour like the old person telling you how old they will be next birthday as opposed to the age they are now. I found myself doing it again last night. It's ridiculous really as I'm only 43, I'm in reasonable health and I still have a pretty good memory, and I am lucky to be particularly blessed with an ability to recall and place tastes and sensations that I have experienced before.

Last night I was fortunate enough to be invited to the launch party for Dragonfly Brewery at the George and Dragon pub in Acton, a 17th Century building and one of the oldest in the borough. It has been beautifully renovated, maintaining a period ale-house feel at the front (a board with a list of landlords going back to 1759 is a particularly nice touch) before opening up at the back into a cavernous space that houses the island bar and impressive brewery with it's stacked conditioning tanks and gleaming fermenters and brewing kettles. It really is a sight to behold and fits the space, that someone informed me used to be a music-hall in a former life, beautifully if a little snugly.

It was conceived by Robert Thomas of Remarkable Restaurants who own a small number of separately run pubs. For a long time Robert has wanted to produce his own beer and he persusded  Johannes Lux the German brewmaster at Shanghai Brewery to plan and order the brewery itself, but to actually do the brewing he recruited Conor Donoghue. Conor had previously brewed at both The Botanist (whose beer I featured here ) and The Lamb, but when the latter was bought out by Mitchells & Butlers and its brewery closed he joined the team at Dragonfly with the rest of the kitchen staff following him over shortly after.

We had a very good evening. The beer (of which there were four on offer: Achtung! - an authentic German Weiss, Early Doors - a fruity Pale Ale, Dark Matter - a dry stout that was possibly too cold from the keg version I had although it was available on cask, and 2 O'clock Ordinary - a cask conditioned Best Bitter) and the food were very good indeed, as was the company (Matt Curtis, with his girlfriend Dianne, Chris Hall and his girlfriend Katie, Andrew Drinkwater, Bryan Spooner and my travelling companion and fellow Essex drinker Steve Bentall, who will be publishing his own take on the evening later on).

There was however one beer from the bunch provided that fired my imagination and brought back memories in a way I could never have expected or prepared for.

The 2 O'clock Ordinary is a beer that you might not think that remarkable at first sight. A 4.0% Best Bitter name after a cartoon of 1811 by Thomas Rowlandson depicting a raucous tavern early 19th Century, could be one that you might just pass by whilst looking for the latest tongue-wringing hop bomb, but you'd be missing out if you did. Incidentally, I was unfamiliar with the term 'Ordinary' to denote an eating house or tavern until Conor set me straight on the matter as I had assumed that it was used in this instance as way of distinguishing a standard or 'Ordinary' bitter from the more potent and therefore more expensive Special or Strong Ale. I remember asking for a pint of 'Ordinary' in one particular Young's pub, Hollands, just off Brayford Square in Stepney, East London, sadly no longer with us (it is in-situ I am told but boarded up and unloved) which was just behind were I first started work back in 1988. The beer was occasionally delivered by drays back then, and it wasn't too long ago really, with the big Shire Horses coming thunderously down the Commercial Road to deliver their precious cargo on special occasions. Johnny Holland, whom the place was named after (I forget it's previous name) had been the landlord for many many years, maintaining an authentic East End pub little changed since the Victorian era, with perfectly kept beer. It was a joy to drink there.

You might think I have digressed considerably, but last night drinking the 2 O'clock Ordinary it rekindled those memories and taste sensations that took me back to that pub, a pub that I first drank in 26 years ago. It poured bright, clean and fresh into the dragonfly etched pint glass and my senses were immediately filled with fruity caramel and echoes of dates, figs and hints of stewed apple. I couldn't resist it, and brought it to my lips with alacrity savouring its smoothness as it flowed down my throat. I was again struck by it's freshness, those caramel flavours alone satisfying me, quenching my thirst, transporting me to a place I hadn't visited for a very long time. There was more fruitiness in there too, dried apple and perhaps a fleeting notion of damson, and it finished beautifully with just the perfect amount of dryness to send me back to the glass for my next draught and experience the sensation all over again.

It was supposed to have been my last beer of the evening, a pint of the 'Ordinary' to see me on my way, but I had to buy another. This was a beer that commanded to be drunk in pints, and certainly not singularly. I was captivated and would go so far as to say that in my opinion it is the best Bitter being brewed in London right now, and the fact that it was Conor's first brew on the new kit is even more astonishing.

I am told that there will be a limited release of bottles of some of the beers available, not yet but in small batches, with notification of their availability only on the website, so get following that. The official opening night is tonight, Friday 16th May 2014, as I write, and I would strongly advise that you get along there soon to marvel at the place and taste the wonderful beer.

Being 'old' I have many experiences to draw on and some sensations that I wish to repeat again but which I begin to realise may be lost forever. To recapture one of them in a beer, however briefly, is rather magical.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Beers Of London Series 76. Late Knights Brewery - Hairy Dog

Beers Of London Series
76. Late Knights Brewery - Hairy Dog 6.0%

Late Knights Brewery, are the forty-sixth different London brewery to have featured in this series, and although I've been aware of them for some time I wasn't able to actually get hold of there beer to review. At least I wasn't until I came across them at Craft Beer Rising this year when I had a good chat with Sanj from the brewery and was able to taste some of their delicious P.IPA, of which more later. Due to the nature of the beast I didn't make any tasting notes there, however I did manage to pick up a bottle of Hairy Dog their black IPA, and some e-mail addresses to contact them on.

A couple of weeks later I sent off a few questions asking about the brewery and their beer, and waited for a response. And waited. Thinking they had forgotten about my enquiry I gave them a nudge via twitter and a few days later they replied. The explanation for the delay was very straightforward and understandable, but I'm getting ahead of myself a little here. Let's start at the beginning.

Steve Keegan had been as an Operations Manager at Fullers for a few years but he was finding that 'big company politics' were holding him back. He was tasked with turning around under-performing pubs within their tied estate and reinventing them from scratch with a whole new design team, included his girlfriend, and he had quite a knack for it. The first two pubs to be so transformed were The Barrel And Horn in Bromley and The Union Tavern in Westbourne Park, and even though they were getting good reviews he found Fullers quite hesitant and uninspiring in their approach, so he started working on a plan of his own.

Approaching an old school friend of his, Matthew Power of Truefitt Brewing Company in Middlesbrough regarding producing some beers of his own. In September 2012 the first two beers, Crack Of Dawn and Wormcatcher IPA were produced, and at this point Steve was certainly burning the candle at both ends. Working for Fullers during the week, he would travel up to Truefitt on a Friday night to brew there, often working into the small hours, and two weeks later Matt would send the beer down to London on a pallet. The beer was extremely well received and with those nocturnal sojourns inspiring the name Steve handed in his notice to set up his own brewery. Late Knights was born.

Beer writer, Will Hawkes had put Steve in touch with Graham Lawrence, owner of Mr Lawrence Wine Merchants as they had a specialist craft beer section and who, completely by chance happened to have a vacant space just a few hundred yards from Steve's house that he could use as a brewery. Four months later, and with the help of Matthew, they started brewing with a 7BBL kit and 1 fermenting vessel producing 24 casks a week.

By this time he had recruited Mikolaj, with whom he had worked with at Fullers, and Martyn had come on board, and they had come to the conclusion that the best way to survive in a tough market place where they would most certainly be fulfilling the guest beer role, was to produce lots of different styles of beer. As they were producing both traditional beers and those, to use Steve's own words of the 'new crafty arsed hop-crazy' variety they hoped to avoid being pegged as one thing or another and to date are up to around 15 different beers, with many more that they can't wait to get out, including a Smoked Dunkel, a crisp Saison, and a big 7% American-style IPA.

He cites the P.IPA that I had at Craft Beer Rising as a real turning point for them, with Mikolaj working a malt bill that wouldn't overpower a fresh berry IPA. While Steve was away on holiday, Mikolaj managed to get hold of some hops from Poland that worked superbly to this end and an astonishing beer was born.

Late Knights isn't just about the beer though as they have opened the Beer Rebellion in Gypsy Hill, the Brighton Beer Dispensary, and with the London Beer Dispensary soon to open in Brockley, another Beer Rebellion in Peckham as well as more pubs and a bottle shop in Ramsgate then you can begin to see why there was a slight delay in replying to my initial enquiry. They also have plans to open a bakery in the works, and have a weekly output of over 100 casks with more than 30 people under their employ which they hope will rise to 50 by the end of the year.

The focus is very much on sustainable growth, not over-stretching themselves and having a strong business plan, and they have grown with the business, from one fermenter leading to two and from one pub leading to another, the future for Late Knights looks very bright indeed.

And so, on to tonight's beer. Released in October 2013 shortly after the success of the initial brews, Hairy Dog was one of Late Knight's earliest recipes.  Brewed using a single hop varietal, Apollo, this black IPA was 5.5% in it's earliest cask form, however it is now up to 6.0% in its current incarnation. My most recent encounter with this beer was at The Locks Inn beer festival in Geldeston, Norfolk, where it was available on gravity dispense and disappeared rather quickly, but it is the bottled version that I shall be tasting tonight.

It pours a deep dark inky brown with a thick creamy head and an aroma that, whilst not overpowering, laying as it does beneath that dense covering still has some nicely enticing liquorice, blackberry and something that reminds me of fresh crusty brown bread dipped in a meaty, black cherry wine reduced gravy, and this becomes more prominent as it warms. The carbonation scrubs the tongue immediately as you drink it, bringing an initial bitterness that has a nice umami edge. Deeper into the flavour there's lime and grapefruit zest all tumbled together with liquorice, bitter chocolate shavings and a drop of espresso, with every element holding its companions in check and neatly wrapped in that pervading dry prickly bitterness. The finish has a touch of dark cherry chocolate that dries and slowly dies with a little lime zest and orange marmalade chunks that it carries with it.

This is a very good beer and although it isn't a 'crafty arsed hop-crazy' monster of a black IPA, by having all the flavours in balance with each other it is extremely drinkable. I finished the glass very quickly and immediately wanted another, finding myself wishing I had a third and a fourth to follow.

It still remains the only Late Knights beer I have had to date, but I'm now on the hunt for more. The story of how I almost didn't even have this bottle to open today is one best left for another time.