Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Bath Pub Review: The Royal Oak

The Royal Oak

Toilets that approach Division Two football ground standards, paintwork that would have to be touched up just to qualify as ‘scuffed’ and beer garden divided from the main road by a few flimsy fence panels. To the undiscerning eye Bath’s The Royal Oak probably isn’t the acme of boozers, it probably isn’t even a passable pub.

And yet this frayed but friendly freehouse is actually one of humanity’s finest creations. Perhaps that is a slight exaggeration but it definitely snuggles somewhere below the eradication of small pox but just above the moon landings. Because during the three years since this boozer first re-opened its slightly ill fitting doors after decades of decay, The Royal Oak has rapidly become the finest in the city.

Now that might be hard to believe for anyone who knows Bath’s magnificent selection of historic pubs with their wood-panelled snugs, warming fires and respect for fine ale. But it has to be remembered that people were happy buying bread in vast-indigestible wedges - before someone came up with the idea of slicing it.

What really separates The Royal Oak from the superb Old Green Tree and the beautifully preserved Star is the variety and the majesty of the beer. There are ten ales and two ciders on offer at any one time, and with no regular pints and no fixed breweries the brews changes on an almost daily basis. So once a barrel is empty, on comes a different beer, from another microbrewery and probably from another part of the country. And while local producers are heavily supported, if you can keep drinking for long enough, pretty much any SIBA-brewed ale will appear in front of you at some stage. Well, what do you expect from the twice Bath CAMRA pub of the year?

The range of ale of offer is simply immense. From gloriously smoky stouts to fragrant pale ales, there are beers of all styles, colours and percentages. From Hopstar to Brewdog and Marble to Arbour, the only thing that unifies this diversity of booze is that every ale will be from a British microbrewery. They aren’t just impeccably looked after though, these beers have been mollycoddled into a state of perfection. Yes, if the sweet lord firstly existed, and secondly, worked in cellar management, he’d fit at the Oak, and not just because of the beard.

But surely such constantly changing ale can be mystifying to minds dulled by a diet of mundane Bests and poorly kept IPAs? Well it could, except for the cleverly positioned glass in front of each pump. For these are examples not samples, and their colour and condition reveals more about the beer than any educated guess based on percentages or pump-clip information. Generous tastes of each drink are offered though, and without the muttering that others pubs often proffer with each mouthful. And if that isn’t enough information, you can also always ask the bar staff’s opinion, because as the sheer amount of facial hair on show demonstrates, these guys know a lot about beer.

If the ever-evolving ale list isn’t to your taste, the Oak can still draw you in; with local artist’s work on the walls, a real fire in winter, two Czech lagers and a Belgian beer on draft. There is also music too. Played by groups of all sizes, styles and standards, it is performed at seemingly random times and on differing days. The Wednesday night Irish free-for-all is the only real fixture, which at least makes the twee twiddlings of the endless jigs and reels easily dodged.

The best way to avoid the repetitive beat of the bodhran or the busy front bar is to venture into that most rare of things in Bath- a beer garden. Where other pubs in the city scatter plastic chairs on a slab of scorched concrete, this is a child-friendly green space with shaded picnic tables and disabled access (another local rarity). Sure, the main road is only the other side of the fence, but once you have a pint in your hand there is still tranquillity to be found even in town.

Despite this being a pub in which you can make a meal of the beer, culinary options are limited to ‘British tapas’: pork pies, pickled eggs and crisps. That hasn’t always been the case though, because over the last few years as the building has been transformed from shell to successful business, menus have come and gone. From fried pub staples to pizza, and even at one stage a beautifully bold offal-led selection, many chefs and style have been tried and many have departed. And food is probably the only thing that The Royal Oak truly lacks, unless you include pretension and sparklingly clean toilets…

Monday, 11 August 2008

Here For 'Beer'

Congratulations to CAMRA - Now there are three words that go together as naturally as bacon, lettuce and tomato, or high, blood and pressure. But the newly redesigned membership magazine of the organisation, Beer, is a lovely thing.

The old Beer was as dour as a union newssheet, designed in Pagemaker and written with the pace and sparkle of a last will and testament. Not only did it reinforce the image of ale drinking as tweedy and relevant to ‘the yout’ as The Archers, but it actively reeked of fust.

Now all that has been swept away by the glamour, gloss and gloriously tactile paper stock of a newsstand magazine. But there is more than just full-page photography and cheery illustrations to this redesign because finally, the features have become both engaging and relevant.

The main reason for the change is down to the new contributors. Bloggers Melissa Cole and Stonch have been brought in to debate gastropubs, Guardian noob Ben McFarland chips in with a tidy piece about pubs and Martyn Cornell again demonstrates that having a vast knowledge of beer doesn’t automatically have to mean produce copy that borders on the hypnotically dull.

All the old faces also remain though: Protz, Nowak and Moor. But with their word counts judiciously reduced, their columns no longer meander and shamble. The only truly false note is a beer-science piece that instead of giving us a slice of Heston-like insight into brewing descends into a rant about denying Australians work-permits.

Full credit for this mini-revolution must go to editor Tom Stainer for giving Think Publishing the time, the budget, and the words, to turn the publication from an embarrassment to an asset. Now if only they can do the same for the monthly mortification that is What’s Brewing

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Gordon Browns Everyone Off

It had to happen eventually: Gordon Ramsey has (temporarily) put his face to a beer. Not because the agro-chef is a noted ale drinker, but because there are few surfaces left on this planet that don’t bear an image of his wrinkled map on them. From a couple of gastropubs and a handful of restaurants to hundreds of off-licenses, his empire spreads unseen like a fungal infection. And his pitted visage menaces passers-by from so many posters that many tourists probably leave Britain convinced that we live under a personality cult, equivalent of Stalin’s at the height of his pin-up powers. It must be only a matter of time before his investment group have the Martian canals re-bored to resemble a telescope-friendly version of the valley-like crinkles on his weatherworn head.

Mercifully the whole venture was mercifully confined to a segment on his F-Word TV show – a programme/brand extension that attempts to bring the Top Gear demographic to the world of cuisine – i.e. there is bellowing, there are celebrities and there are arguments so facile, so malformed and so ill-conceived that they must have stemmed from the slopping lobes of Clarkson himself.

And it was while Ramsay was presenting this tit-a-thon that the diva of dinnertime spat out Timmy Taylor's Landlord, Brooklyn Chocolate Stout and Meantime IPA claiming that only the most bland and flavourless beers could possibly be consumed with his food. So to create his own ale he decided to emulate Innis & Gunn's wonderful oak-aged beer, a brew that draws much of its flavour from Bourbon casks, except that Gordon’s brew was reportedly pale, sweet and about 8%.

So while his drink is mercifully not available in any shops, the question has to be asked. Do superstar chef endorsements enhance or embarrass the real ale movement? Is the publicity good for beer even when what they are saying is negative? Do Michelin stars mean you know anything about ale? Does Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall sneaking a bottle of a Hall & Woodhouse’s Stinger into shot make you want a face full of nettles or just ensure that at least the ITC are watching? And what about Neil Morrissey dabbling in brewing? Has he raised the profile of real ale or raised the unpleasant memory of the pitiful Men Behaving Badly?

Hit the button below to comment or just shout at the screen until the spittle flows…