A new generation of brewpubs
Soho, Mash innovative when it comes to both beer and food
Like the most fashionable restaurants, the newest small breweries have an increasingly cosmopolitan flavour, often with surprising origins. When the Augustine monks of Munnerstadt, Bavaria, sold their brewery to the local von Wallmoden family, did they notice that a lanky young man began to lurk behind the kettles?
Albrecht von Wallmoden, son of this brewing family, emerged to practice his trade at newish establishments like Flieger ("Flyer": it is a brewery and pub near the old Munich airport). Then he flew off to make beer in Croatia, China and Chelsea, New York.
Now he is waving a greeting to his neighbours at the beer restaurant Belgo before ducking into a cellar in Earlham Street, Covent Garden, London, donning his Jarvis Cocker spectacles and checking the progress of the Nottinghamshire barley malt and Washington State hops in his Red Ale.
The new venture's premises, in the most fashionable corner of "The Garden," is an arched cellar; beer was stored on the site from 1650 until 1905.
Covent Garden's newest asset is, confusingly, called the Soho Brewing Company. If the envisaged address in Soho did not quite work out, not to worry. The new venture's premises, in the most fashionable corner of "The Garden," is an arched cellar; beer was stored on the site from 1650 until 1905.
There are brand-new, gleaming copper-clad kettles above the entrance hall and fermentation vessels downstairs, behind glass. Between them, a long, stainless steel, bar and blond plywood tables heighten the message of industrial chic.
The Soho Brewing Company has in its first weeks produced three beers.
A lightly acidic, summery, quenching, Bavarian-style wheat beer has the natural fruitiness of the style, though less of the typical banana than a more perfumy, restrained, nectarine. These flavours, and clove-ish spiciness, derive from the type of yeast typically used, and the wheat; no fruit is added. This example also has a touch of colour, from amber malt, and a slight nutty smoothness.
An English malt, Kent hops and Yorkshire yeast are used in a golden pale ale that is light, dry and appetising. "Is it hoppy enough?" Albrecht frets. His first brew of this product could have taken more hoppy dryness; a second is more assertive. Despite the English ingredients, it has some of the in-your-face hoppy flavours of the pale ales made by American "micro-breweries".
The third of the early beers is in a style that might be termed Irish-American: a Red Ale, with a luminous, cherryish, colour and a soothing, toffeeish, malty, smoothness. Although the emphasis is on maltiness, there is a good underpinning of hop, this time from American varieties.
I was tempted by thyme sausage with celeriac and mustard but eventually settled on a splendidly juicy pork loin with a spinachy arrangment of mixed leaves, black beans, ginger and soy.
The food, by Andrew Parkinson, formerly of Quaglino's, is billed as "modern British," but has its own cosmopolitanism. The most beer-friendly dish? I was tempted by thyme sausage with celeriac and mustard but eventually settled on a splendidly juicy pork loin with a spinachy arrangment of mixed leaves, black beans, ginger and soy. Coincidentally, next day I attended a formal tasting at the brewpub and the management had chosen to serve the same dish.
The production of eclectic beers and foods under one roof is not unique, nor is the cosmopolitan flavour.
The former Benedictine monastery that now serves as Germany's best-known university faculty of brewing has among its few British graduates Alastair Hook. I wrote here about his work half a dozen years ago, when he was making outstanding lagers at a brewery in Ashford, Kent.
That brewery was short-lived, for a variety of reasons. One the problems was that the beers were too good: drinkers in Britain have become accustomed to the notion that lager should be tasteless, as most of the "famous" international brands intentionally are.
It is tempting to see British beer-drinkers as being divided irreconcilably into two conservative camps: people who want something cold, purportedly refreshing, alcoholic and undemanding; and those who understandably see no reason to deviate from a good, cask-conditioned ale.
In both camps, there are liberal wings. There are also more adventurous types who buy German or Belgian wheat beers, Trappist ales and suchlike, in considerable quantities, from supermarkets and would like to find such styles in pubs and restaurants. There are additionally blessed souls who sometimes prefer a beer to a gin-and-tonic or to a glass of wine with their dinner.
Alastair Hook has in the past couple of years been making beer for these more open-minded characters. He did it first at Mash and Air, the pioneering new-generation brewpub in Manchester. Now he is doing at the London branch, which is called simply Mash.
Alastair is easing back on the hopping in search of his own balance; I hope he does not tame it too much.
There is also a beer there called simply Mash, made with Nottinghamshire malt; Czech, British and American hops; and a German lager yeast. As Manchester's water is softer than London's, the capital version of this appetising golden lager is drier. It reminds me of a good Dortmunder Export lager. Alastair is easing back on the hopping in search of his own balance; I hope he does not tame it too much.
Mash likes to brew in its own style rather than following the classics. Its wheat beer uses a German yeast but is refreshingly spiced, Belgian-style, with cinnamon and ginger (the two conspire to produced a lemony taste). A Peach Beer is only lightly fruity, with a balance of malty dryness. "It is meant to be a beer, not a cocktail," observes Alastair. An Abbey beer inspired by the work of the Belgian monastery brewers is strong (6.5 per cent), with a big maltiness, but intentionally less rich than anything from the Low Countries. Try one after dinner.
I was glad to hear that Mash is selling all the beer it can make. I had worried that, in its retro stylishness and its wish to be a well-rounded bar and restaurant, it was hiding its beer under a bushel.
Here, too, the brewhouse is in the entrance, but when I called in for dinner the server neglected to give me the beer-list, and mentioned only wine as a possible aperitif or accompaniment to my meal. I almost forgave the distinguished restaurant reviewer who complained that she had been served the wrong wine while barely acknowledging that Mash is a brewery. Another reviewer was moderately enthusiastic about the food but said that he had not "risked" the beer.
Perhaps he was unaware that, like bread, all beer was once made on the premises. This practice never quite died, and in the last couple of decades has been greatly revived. One advantage of the brewpub is that the beer is fresh, and this should be evident in aroma and flavour. Another benefit is that, even if it makes only a standard British bitter, every brewery has its own house character, and these tiny new ones add enormously to variety of choice.
If the customers are not keen on a new beer, it may take a little longer to sell, but the brewpub will not have wasted millions on focus groups, market research or television commercials.
Most important, "micro" batches offer the opportunity to create beers in the same way that a chef tries out new dishes. If the customers are not keen on a new beer, it may take a little longer to sell, but the brewpub will not have wasted millions on focus groups, market research or television commercials.
Many of the brewpubs that were established in the 1970s and 1980s did little to innovate, but Soho and Mash represent a new generation, inspired by the lively new brewpubs of the United States, especially those is in cities like San Francisco and Seattle. The same is true of a brewpub called Pacific Oriental, due to open in Bishopgate, London, in July. This will marry "Pacific Rim" dishes with a Bavarian-style Pilsner, an India Pale Ale and a wheat beer.
To succeed, these new, cosmopolian brewpubs, with a prime sites and designy interiors, have to work also as restaurants. Apparently, the notion of a brewpub is difficult for some restaurant critics, though I fail to see why.
Can anyone with a genuine interest in food be lacking in curiosity about beer? I know of no wine writer who suffers from such myopia. Perhaps some restaurant reviewers are less interested in aromas, flavours and textures than in the arts of being a social columnist, pundit on popular culture, or critic of interior design. Let me reassure them, and any confused customers, that the brewhouses visibly highlighted in these places actually work. Yes, they contribute to the decor - but they are there to make beer.
Published Online: AUG 16, 1999
Published in Print: JUNE 6, 1998
In: The Independent