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Ale and farewell, London Drinker

Added: Monday, March 12th 2018

London Drinkers

There could hardly be a better venue for a London beer festival than the Camden Centre, within striking distance of three main railway stations –Euston, King’s Cross and St Pancras. But the doors will close for the final time this week when the London Drinker festival ends on Friday evening.

It’s not because the festival lacks success. On the contrary, it’s one of CAMRA’s longest running and most successful events. But the Camden Centre is due to be knocked down and redeveloped and finding – and affording – a replacement venue is difficult if not impossible.

London Drinker has been a showcase since 1985 for good beer, especially beer brewed in the capital. There’s no doubt the festival helped to kick-start the revival of brewing in London. Back in the 1980s there was only a handful of brewers left in the capital and such famous names as Charrington, Courage, Manns, Trumans and Young’s had either closed or would soon disappear.

But today there are more than 70 London breweries and 150 of their beers will be on show at the festival. London is once again an important brewing metropolis and this rebirth is due in no small measure to the commitment of the North London branch of CAMRA and in particular to the work of the remarkable Cryne duo, Christine and John.

Christine Cryne
John Cryne

John is a former national chairman of the campaign while Christine has served on its national executive and is also a past organiser of the Great British Beer Festival. Both are still active in CAMRA but London Drinker is arguably their greatest and abiding achievement.

The festival also played an important role in my development as a beer writer. Back in the 1980s and shortly before London Drinker opened, I spent a convivial evening in a pub called the Waterside Inn with Michael Jackson – that’s the beer writer, not the other one.

The inn (now closed) was off York Way at King’s Cross, a short distance from the Camden Centre. It was a vast barn of a place overlooking the Regents Canal and offered a good range of beers. Michael and I supped bitter from the Leicester brewer Everards and he remarked: “Bit nutty this.”

I agreed but we both thought that “bit nutty this” was an inadequate description for a complex beer. At the time there was no Beer Academy or similar organisation to help educate writers. We had to work it out for ourselves.

A few weeks later I turned up at the London Drinker festival armed with a notebook, sipped small measures of many beers on offer and attempted to work out why – from pale gold to jet black – they smelt and tasted the way they did.

Inspired by my sessions at London Drinker I went on to talk to brewers, maltsters and hop growers and slowly amassed knowledge of the role played by the key ingredients in beer. I put this knowledge to good use in the several editions I compiled of the Real Ale Almanac, which gave tasting notes for British cask ales.

It was hard going at first. For many drinkers, including CAMRA members, beer was something you poured down your throat and you didn’t ask too many questions about how it was made. I recall attending a CAMRA meeting in Scotland where a member held up a copy of the Almanac and said: “Hey, pal, what’s this nonsense about a beer having a chocolate aroma and flavour. Are you taking the ****?”

The meeting dissolved into derisive laughter and I felt isolated. But I had the last laugh. Today there are dozens of beer writers busily producing books and columns about the myriad aromas and flavours of beer.

And CAMRA continues its educational role. Many festivals –including London Drinker – feature tutored tasting sessions and few people attending them would laugh if they learn that heavily roasted malt does impart a chocolate character to beer.

And with the “hop revolution” of the 21st century – with brewers using not just English hops but varieties from the United States, mainland Europe and as far away as Australia and New Zealand --we all better informed about the piny, woody, spicy, peppery and floral notes the plants impart.

There will be lumps in the throat as well as fine beer in the glass this week. Well done, Christine, John and your colleagues in the North London branch for your great contribution to Britain’s beer revolution.

*London Drinker, Camden Centre, Bidborough Street, London WC1 (behind Euston Road). 150 real ales from London brewers, imported beers, cider, perry, mead and English wine. Pub games, home cooked food all sessions. Tutored tasting sessions. Wed 11.30-3pm free, Thur 11.30-2.30pm free; Wed & Thur 5pm-10.30pm £4, £3 CAMRA members; Fri 12-10.30pm £4, £3 CAMRA members. Last admission 10pm. Wheelchair access.

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