Tuesday, 30 September 2008
The Duke of Cambridge and Beer Exposed, Islington
If there can be any such thing as a "pariah gastropub", then it's the Duke of Cambridge in Islington. Opened as the UK's first 100% organic gastropub in 1998 it remains a solid, dependable place for a bite to eat but for some reason has in recent years attracted the kind of vitriolic backlash from foodies normally reserved for £95 burgers or when Delia "goes cheat". Part of the reason could be that while other food pubs in the capital have matured into rustic French restaurants or gone all "St. John" and started serving spleen and chitterlings, the menu at the Duke has remained steadfastly gastropub-traditional and is aimed squarely at wealthy Islington locals - think Feta Salad, mushroom risotto, Italian sausages - safe, comfortable and familiar. Not that there's anything wrong with that in itself, but the problem with limiting yourself to all organic ingredients is that you suddenly find you have to charge £15 for rabbit stew to make the numbers work.
It was a perfectly good rabbit stew - good deep flavours and a nice variety of herbs and veg, if very slightly overcooked rabbit meat and a bit tricky to dissect from the many tiny bones - but all the while there's that nagging knowledge that rabbit is vermin, and a very very cheap meat, and charging £15 for a stew that basically involves chucking the carcass in a big pot with some bay leaves and veg and boiling it for an hour is, well, a bit cheeky.
Fortunately, the reason for my journey to Islington wasn't only to visit the Duke of Cambridge. I was just after something to line my stomach on the way to Beer Exposed, a drinks festival billed as a different approach to beer and beer tasting and organised by an old acquaintance of mine, Des Mulcahy, whom I first met backpacking in Hong Kong all the way back in 2001. He and his colleague Matt Roclawski have scoured Europe and the world for the finest small producers and microbrewers and invited them all to set up shop in London's Business Design Centre to show us ignorant Londoners how beer is supposed to taste.
The contrast with the awful, cynical Toast Festival in Olympia the previous night couldn't have been more stark. On the way into Beer Exposed you are handed a tasting glass, which you use to get free (and often quite generous) samples from all the stalls in the festival. You pay extra for nothing, unless you are so taken with a particular brew you wish to purchase a crate or two to take home. And the range and quality of the drinks on offer at Beer Exposed are so high, and the passion and knowledge of the producers so infectious, that I'm willing to bet that happened quite often during the course of the weekend.
Organised throughout the day were talks and presentations from beer experts on a variety of subjects. We tagged along with a talk about the way hops are used in beers in the UK and abroad. It seems the story of artisan beer has parallels with that of old world and new world wines - namely that Europe started them off, the US took our processes and combined them with their superior raw ingredients, and now we're learning off the Americans and upping our game too. We learned about the International Bitterness Units scale and how different beers use the hops to different effects, balancing them either with a greater alcohol content (the sweet alcohol balances out the bitter hops) or by using a blend of different hops for a more complex taste. It was fascinating stuff.
It's all too easy for these festivals to turn into a corporate brewery trade fair, and the scale of the achievement of Des and Matt in resisting the pressure and money from the big boys and instead creating a gathering of unique, characterful producers is extraordinary. I'm sure that everyone that took the time to visit Beer Exposed has found a new favourite beer - I found about ten, special mentions going to Thornbridge brewery and the porter from Meantime. And if you didn't manage to make it this year, then keep an eye open for next. It'll be a sell-out, in a good way.
The Duke of Cambridge 6/10
Beer Exposed 9/10