Real Ale, it’s an emotive subject, for some people.
I’m fond of a beer or two as anyone who regularly reads this blog will probably have discerned.
One of my favourite beers is Fuller’s Extra Special Bitter or ESB.
Fuller’s themselves describe it thus:
Twice named World Champion Beer, Fuller’s ESB is one of the most decorated ales of its time. A winner born and brewed, it’s a strong, full-bodied ale that has delighted drinkers for decades with its smooth, mellow bitterness and superbly satisfying finish.
They continue with some notes from the brewer:
Rich mahogany in colour, ESB tempts with aromas of orange marmalade, balanced by soft malt toffee. The hops impart grassy, peppery notes alongside hints of citrus fruit – while the Pale Ale and Crystal malts bring distinctive biscuity flavours. A smooth, delicate bitterness lingers on the palate to give a supreme finish.
Now, that may all sound a bit Jilly Gooldenish (Gosh, am I showing my age here?) but what I can tell you from personal experience is that ESB is a cracking ale with hoppy bitterness, malt and yes, fruit and a hint of sweetness.
The cask version is brewed to 5.5% ABV, not too heady maybe but it tends to punch above its weight. Have more than four of these and you certainly know about it. It’s an ale for connoisseurs, to be sipped and appreciated, not quaffed and repeated; unless you are in some sort of autodestruct mode.
Happily, there is a Fuller’s pub in Chesham, The Queen’s Head in Church Street. I’ve been frequenting that pub since 1986, since way before it became a Fuller’s pub, but when Fuller’s bought it, along with their other beers they started to serve ESB there.
Once upon a time a gallon of Tetley’s Bitter up at the Hen and Chickens may have been the norm on a Friday night after work. Yes, I know, we were younger and foolish, and when you are younger your body can take the punishment – sometimes. Being older and wiser now of course, well, older at any rate, nowhere near a gallon is even attempted these days.
Nowadays, a few pints of ESB sipped slowly on a weekend afternoon is delightful and leads to a falling asleep in the armchair situation later when you get home and that’s all well and good.
Then there was 2020 and all that entailed, and the pubs were closed. In Chesham, the Queen’s Head was one of the last pubs to reopen, when reopening was an option. I visited other pubs, not that I’d ever been a patron solely of the Queen’s Head, quite the opposite, I liked to visit other pubs and drink other beers. Anyway, I didn’t return to the Queens Head until earlier this year, 2022. Yes, I know, shame on me but there you are.
Upon my return, the first beer I ordered in the Queen’s Head was of course a pint of ESB. Immediately warning bells sounded. The ale was dispensed with gusto leaving a frothy head. Now, although Fuller’s advertising blurb shows pints with frothy heads, ESB included, especially on their website, many of us soft southerners tend to like our ale, sans head, especially given the stupidity of the brim measure glasses that we are lumbered with.
For many years the good people at the Queen’s Head, no doubt prompted and encouraged but the small core of ESB aficionados that drank there, served a ‘flat’ pint, to the brim. Saying it’s a flat pint doesn’t mean that the beer had gone flat, oh no, the ale was always in fine condition, it’s just that it was served carefully and with no extraneous froth.
I took my pint of ESB to a table, verging towards forgiving the member of bar staff for the spirited dispensing of the ale. They were new-ish maybe, at any rate I didn’t recognise them from my last visit sometime in early 2020. I lifted the glass to my lips and sipped at the anticipated nectar.
I sipped again, then took a mouthful to get a really good taste of the stuff.
What was this? Where was the sweet-tinged bitterness, where was the malt and fruit? Where was my ESB?
OK, well, I put it down to it being the end of the barrel maybe. It wasn’t off, it hadn’t gone vinegary, it just wasn’t ESB as I remembered it. It was bland and uninspiring.
I made a second visit to The Queen’s Head a few days later and tried another pint of ESB. I gently rebuked, the young woman serving me for producing such a big frothy head, she put the glass back under the pump and poured a drop more in, displacing some of the froth. Same effect. Bland, not the ESB of old.
I made several more visits to The Queen’s Head, it’s a nice pub, I know people who drink there and there is usually good conversation to be had. I continued to ‘try’ the ESB, it continued to be a pale imitation of some other less interesting beer. I took to drinking the cider on offer, Cornish Orchards’ Gold which is a really nice cider and I steered clear of the ESB.
Then, a week ago last Saturday I tried it again, well, you have to live in hope, don’t you? Again, I was disappointed, so this Friday just gone I decided to go in search of a decent pint of ESB.
Back in the day, on visits to That London, a small group of us used to visit a Fuller’s pub called The Dove down in Hammersmith, just by the river. I checked that it was A) still there and, B) still run by Fuller’s. Yes, to both. With the aid of Google Maps (See? The internet isn’t all bad…) I searched for a couple of other Fuller’s pubs in that general area and cobbled together a sort of itinerary.
Friday dawned slightly cloudy but most of that cloud soon dispersed and the day became bright and sunny. I caught the 12:30 train out of Chesham. Changing for the Jubilee line at Finchley Road I travelled as far as Green Park where I changed for the Piccadilly Line to go down to South Kensington where I would change for the District Line and get a train to Ravenscourt Park.
Green Park, I had forgotten what a vast subterranean labyrinth that place is. After walking for about three days, I was at the Piccadilly Line platforms.
South Ken, again, had I thought about it I would have avoided this interchange with its hordes of museum goers but no matter, soon I was standing on the District Line platform.
I know what you’re thinking, it’s all a load of faff, far too much sodding about on the Underground but you must remember that I am a railway nerd and I chose that route precisely because it involved faffing around on the trains and I had chosen Ravenscourt Park as my destination as it’s the closest station to The Dove.
In days of old we’d simply rode the Hammersmith & City line from Baker Street to Hammersmith and then walked along King Street for about three quarters of a kilometre before dropping down Nigel Playfair Avenue, going under the Great West Road and popping up in Furnivall Gardens, a mere stroll from The Dove.
This time however, alighting at Ravenscourt Park I walked down towards King Street and turned left to walk the short distance to Nigel Playfair Avenue but to my surprise, the whole area was a building site! Nigel Playfair Avenue was nowhere to be seen so I had to walk further, going back the way I’d come on the train, until I came to Macbeth Street which I walked along until I came to the pedestrian subway there ,and emerged at the far end of Furnivall Gardens which was actually a fairly nice place to be as it allowed for a relaxing stroll through the greenery, with views of the river, after the turmoil of the Underground.
So, stroll through the park I did, taking a short diversion down to the river’s edge and then up to the entrance to Upper Mall, a name that sounds far more grandiose than this end of that thoroughfare really is.
I noticed the sign at the entrance to Upper Mall which said, “CYCLISTS DISMOUNT”, I noticed the sign on a bollard which said “No cycling” accompanied by the red prohibition sign of a bicycle in a red circle with a red bar across it. I noticed those same prohibition signs, albeit without red bars across the bicycle, affixed to the paving slabs. I noticed the cyclist peddling towards me. I noticed the sign for The Dove.
What is it with some cyclists? There seems to be a hardcore of militant cyclists who are out to deliberately break the rules, but I digress.
There was The Dove. Would there be ESB? More to the point, would there be good ESB?
To be continued…
Nigel Playfair or Sir Nigel Ross Playfair, he of the avenue, was an actor and director, known particularly as actor-manager of the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, in the 1920s. Yes, I had to Google him but there you are, he got a street named after him.