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Previous Pint Pleasures - February 27, 2001

guinness eileen

Wetherspoons, The Baptist Galleries, Rendezvous Street, Folkestone, Kent

Before starting on my review of Wetherspoons I'd like to insert this recent -- and quite relevant -- Bay Area story and pint review from my friend Mistah Rick:

"After a week with sinuses getting progressively snottier and runnier, I felt like I turned the corner toward health when I woke up this morning. But the phlegm had started settling into my chest, so I figured I'd be coughing up nice juicy stuff for the next week or two.

"But whether or not my olfactory organs were sensing properly, I craved a beer for the first time in a week, so I set out on my bicycle for Ben & Nick's [on College Avenue in Oakland, California, near the Rockridge BART station]. When I parked my bike and tried to lock it to a parking meter, I realized that I had brought the wrong key, so I couldn't lock the bike. But I didn't want to ride the miles back home, and it would have been a shame to pass up an opportunity for a pint. Fortunately, Ben & Nick's has big plate glass windows that provide a clear view of the sidewalk and street, and there was an empty table right at the window. Also, an Oakland Police car was parked right where I positioned the bike. For good measure, I took the front wheel with me and positioned the closed U-shaped lock against the frame and parking meter pole to give a slight illusion of protection. This worked fine. Nobody even looked at the bike.

"On tap was yet another new brew from Lagunitas Brewing of Petaluma: Ragwater Ale. Having been a disciple of their bottled IPA for years, having found their Maximus staggeringly good, having been lifted from the bleakness of the Xmas season with a taste of their cheery "Brown Shugga" (which isn't sugary in the least), I found it hard to imagine how they might press the delights of intense hop into other directions. So I thought with a name like Ragwater it must be something light.

"I was wrong. The first sip from the tasting glass jolted my suppressed taste buds with a sharp spike of hops that demanded I take a whole pint to see where it led. Sitting at the front table, watching the foot traffic and keeping an eye on my bike, I continued the exploration. After a few more sips I confirmed that it was a cleaner, more narrow-band spike of hops than their broad-spectrum IPA or Maximus. Analogous to music, is it possible to apply a hop-pass filter to beer to remove unwanted frequencies and refine it to a single note of hoppiness? Or is that what you get when you start with a single, possibly inbred strain of hops? It wasn't unpleasant -- just that it seemed a bit limited, monotonous; masterful, to be sure, but a bit disappointing from a brewery that you know is capable of producing a complex cluster of hoppy notes. It reminds me of the time I went to hear a winter concert by Chanticleer, the male a-cappella chorus, at the Mission Dolores church in San Francisco, where I imagined that their pure harmonies would resonate into divine intensity -- only to hear an entire concert of monophonic Gregorian chant.

"As my pint of dishwater -- I mean ragwater -- sang a single intense note to me over and over I watched a medley of activities out on the sidewalk. Two young people from a back table went outside and lit cigarettes, then stood there talking and shivering. They were joined by two friends, also with cigarettes. Then they were joined by young man who had poured my beer, who had beautiful waist-length dredlocks that seemed to vibrate gently to a silent music as he moved (perhaps something below my range of hearing). There hadn't been very many people in the pub to begin with, and now more than half were outside suffering on the sidewalk because of some stupid California anti-smoking law. Some time later a couple passed followed by a toddler with long curly yellow hair. After the parents passed out of my line of sight the little girl stopped and began tugging on something attached to a parking meter. She went on and on, and it almost looked as if she was stuck. The weird thing was, for the longest time it seemed to me that the parents had walked on and weren't coming back to get her. But they finally did. As I approached the bottom of my pint the policeman returned, it appeared. But he was walking with a woman who carried a package, and they walked right past the police cruiser. They stopped at a mini-van, and the officer stood by as she opened the sliding door and put the package inside.

"Did this all add up to some absurd drama? It certainly adds nothing to my own tale, except to let time pass and give the beer time to take effect and warm up a bit. At some point I realized that I had totally forgotten that I was sick. I felt fine. Sometimes all I need is a little jolt to shake off the last illusion of being ill. And the beer got better too. I realized from the beginning that it was served way too cold. As is my habit when I get down below the last inch in the glass, I wrapped my hands around the base and tried to impart whatever warmth I could summon into the brew to see how it affected the taste. This time I noticed a most dramatic change. As the last sips warmed to room temperature a bouquet of subtle floral aromas awakened on the surface of the brew. And as I consumed the last sips the single note of hops broadened into grand polyphony. My gustatory space suddenly broadened from a cramped nightclub into a concert hall. It became clear that, by the fault of this pub's serving temperature, I had listened for 45 minutes to the reference note sounded by the principal violin and that the rest of the orchestra, having finally thawed their hands, were playing the first chords of a romantic symphony just as my beer was running out. Is there nothing that can be done to stop California pubs from serving their beers so damn cold? Would it help at all if I had them warm a glass with boiling water before pouring my pint?"

I'll have to remember the warming-a-pint-glass-with-boiling-water trick for my next visit to a J.D. Wetherspoons pub. Considering my first Wetherspoons experience I'm not sure just how soon that will be. I'll admit, against the advice of several friends, I'd been very curious to visit a Wetherspoons. Although the pub chain is known for chilling its real ales, at least young people are buying them as a respectable alternative to lager and alcopops. And you can't beat the prices, either. Although the 45p cappuccinos aren't worth wasting your time on (see my current Double Shot Buzz column), £1.49 for a pint of real ale, even if chilled, is a bit irresistible.

And so I had a chance to visit the Wetherspoons in Folkestone. Although many of the more than 435 Wetherspoons pubs across the UK (and 110 more planned for opening in 2001) are in the CAMRA Good Pub Guide, the Folkestone pub hasn't reached that status. Situated in a converted 18th-century Baptist church, the pub features the original stained glass windows, organ pipes, and a hand-painted ceiling of fluffy clouds across a blue sky. Grecian statues guard the indoor garden by the entrance, and cosily inviting booths wrap around both floors. There's even a pulpit upstairs where one can hold forth and preach the Gospel of Real Ale if one has had a few too many pints.

On this quiet Monday afternoon a friend and I met another cinematographer friend in a corner booth housing a small library of sorts. John was sipping a pint of Colley's Dog (5.2% ABV, Tring Brewery, Tring, Hertfordshire), which I think may have imparted a frank but full dryness reminiscent of many Pacific Coast porters I've tasted. The reason for my uncertainty and lack of faith in my own sensations had nothing to do with the fact that we were sitting in a church. No, it was simply because this dark, complex beer was served at a temperature that would refresh a Polar bear! It could have been a pleasantly warming winter quaff; instead it was more like a frozen black margarita. Colley's Dog is one of seven new cask-conditioned ales by Tring, all named after Hertfordshire ghosts, myths, and legends. It makes me think of Bonnie, the tricolour collie with whom I grew up. When I was sad and needed comfort I'd bury my face in her warm fur. But if I tried burying my face in this icy pint I'd probably end up with frostbitten lips.

Andrew and I had pints of Tormented Turnip (4.5%, Kitchen Brewery, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire). Although most Kitchen ales have been quite good, this was a bit sour, very light in colour, and extremely Arctic and frigid. I never realized turnips could survive in Polar regions. Perhaps this is proof they can't.

Like the McMenamin's pub chain in the Pacific Northwest, J.D. Wetherspoons tends to open its pubs in converted churches, banks, opera houses, cinemas, supermarkets, carpet shops, furniture emporia, boutiques, and even bomb sites. Started in 1979 in London by 24-year-old law student Tim Martin, the chain offers a range of real ales in a music-free environment with areas available for nonsmokers and cheap food served all day. Although some of the food offerings almost look tempting, I'm a little put off by Wetherspoons' current campaign to promote their burgers as being a better value than McDonald's. In fact, the recently published Guide to UK Restaurant Brands announced that as far as new openings per year go, Wetherspoons is ahead of all other UK pub chains and second only to McDonald's. Exciting news, isn't it?

You can amuse yourself with these and other fascinating facts by browsing through the latest copy of Wetherspoon News, available at your local Wetherspoons. Did you know, for instance, that Wetherspoons plans to create 3,000 new jobs in 2001? Or that on Monday nights you pay just £1.00 for a bottle of Budweiser? Are you foaming at the mouth yet? Be calm, my frozen, shivering heart...

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