During a quick weekend at home I headed to my local and enjoyed the simple delight that is Fuller’s London Pride, which is one of the best beers in the world. Let me tell you why I think that.
Name: London Pride
Style: English Pale Ale
Numbers: 4.1% ABV (cask), IBUs unknown (guesstimate 30)
Brewer: Fuller’s of Chiswick
If I had to name the one beer I’ve loved most in my life…
Well, okay, that would be Guinness. But coming in a close second would be Fuller’s London Pride, one of the most perfect beers I’ve ever put in my mouth. Growing up, it was my local beer.
My hometown is called Epsom, in the county of Surrey. Which I tell Americans is the Connecticut of England.
Epsom is famous for a popular horse race called The Derby and the damn-near-useless Epsom salts, but also for sitting smack in the middle of the London commuter belt. It is on the exact edge of Greater London. (I used to say I could turn out of my house one way and see no green till I got to Big Ben, or turn the other and pick a course through field and farmland all the way to the south coast.) Fuller’s, a venerable brewery dating from 1845, is a mere 15 miles away in the London district of Chiswick.
Contrary to the preconceptions of many an American beer geek, we English don’t all sit around sipping tankards of the locally brewed best bitter. Alas, England is as dominated by bland, sulfuric macro lager as the USA. When I turned drinking age and headed out to the pub, my friends would neck pint after pint of Stella Artois, Carlsberg and Fosters. All of which, I was convinced, were brewed in the same industrial tank on the outskirts of Birmingham, despite their (heavily advertised) Belgian, Danish and Australian heritage.
Whether it was due to some inherent sense of discernment (very unlikely), the fact I grew up in an ale-loving family (perhaps) or some sad teenage need to rebel (ummm, probably), I never took to fizzy yellow lager. I was instead drawn to dramatic black and white glasses of Guinness or carefully pumped pints of traditional cask ales.
And I bounced around fairly easily between the two: Guinness was my dependable staple, and the local ale (“Cask ales don’t travel well,” was a common refrain) was a strong alternative. My local ale was Fuller’s London Pride, so we have plenty of history.
Last week I was in Dublin, doing some work for Guinness. (The young Guinness fan ended up working for his dream employer.) I was done on Friday and decided to shimmy across the Irish Sea to see my family in Epsom before heading home to New York. A few friends still live in or near my home town, so I hastily arranged a drink in The Barley Mow, a very decent Fuller’s pub down the road from my family home.
The Barley Mow is a great little boozer: not what I would call quaint, but completely authentic and, to this day, a cornerstone of the local community, as a pub should be.
It’s what’s known as a tied house, which means it’s owned by Fuller’s (the brewery) and leased to a landlord who gets to run it as he or she pleases so long as the only beers on tap are either made by or approved by Fuller’s. This is precisely the scenario the post-prohibition three tier system in America is designed to prevent, but in this instance it has a shimmering silver lining. Deliciously fresh London Pride on tap.
I’m spoilt for choice of beer in America: a legion of my countrymen would clamor for the chance to drink Vermont IPAs, barrel-aged Imperial Stouts and experimental American saisons as easily as I can. But boy do I miss London Pride. It’s a beer designed to be drunk, and my word does it do a good job fulfilling its purpose.
It’s a classic cask ale, which is to say it’s brewed, fermented, and then dropped in a cask for secondary fermentation with a little more yeast. At The Barley Mow, it’s served at cellar temperature (about 55F, the stereotypical “warm beer” Americans like to mock) by way of a beer engine, a manually operated pump invented in 1691 by a Dutch chap called John Lofting who later used the same technology to invent primitive fire extinguishers. The beer is naturally effervescent thanks to its cask fermentation, but by no means fizzy. It’s a beer that has barely changed in almost a century.
Fuller’s is famous for a trio of beers: as well as London Pride there is the gentler, less alcoholic Chiswick Bitter and the stronger, more flavorful Extra Special Bitter, or ESB. Despite growing up with Fuller’s as my local brewery, it wasn’t till I listened to the first ever Beervana Podcast last year that I discovered these three are essentially the same beer.
The Fuller’s brewery is one of very few that still employ the arcane method called parti gyle brewing. Before the discovery/invention of a process called sparging, in which mash (a runny porridge made from heating malted barley in plenty of water) is showered with hot water to remove residual sugars, brewers used to go through the laborious process of heating then draining one batch of water and malt, then refilling the tank with the same malt and more hot water for a second full mash, which would be considerably less potent than the first. These would be called the first running and the second running. Both batches of wort (the sugary, barley-flavored liquid that comes from draining mashed barley malt) would be boiled with hops then blended to create beers of differing strengths.
Amazingly, Fuller’s still does this to produce its three flagship ales. Chiswick Bitter, London Pride and ESB are made with the same malt bill and the same hops. They are just blended together prior to fermentation to achieve the differing alcoholic strengths and character of the three finished beers.
In the Barley Mow I ordered a pint of Pride and watched with gleeful anticipation as the barmaid wrestled with the handpump to fill an imperial pint glass in three long draws. The beer poured out a crystal-clear dark gold, with a light frothy head on top.
Classic cask ales are never knock-out beers. Unlike a fresh American IPA, you don’t get a clear whiff of the beer as soon as it’s poured. Pride has a light, fragrant, malty aroma that tenderly leads you to your first sip, where the mild hoppy bitterness and gentle carbonic bite mingle playfully with a rich, biscuity flavor. When fresh – as my pint undoubtedly was – this beer is clean, crisp and satisfying. It is as balanced as a ballerina, with as much poise and elegance to boot. At no point during the pint does it over- or underwhelm.
Man alive I miss this beer!
Because it’s 4.1% ABV (the bottled version you can buy in the States is packaged at 4.7% ABV) it’s no challenge to see off more than one pint of Pride. So my friends and I were able to have a good old fashioned chin-wag, of the kind that only happens when you live 5,000 miles apart. We enjoyed another English pub peculiarity, the dry-roasted peanut, the ideal pairing for the Pride, and sipped and gulped our way through an afternoon of gold-plated banter about our school days and the origins of the band Winger.
(Even when you’re approaching 40 as I am, you still feel like a teenager compared to the crowd in a traditional pub on a Saturday afternoon, believe you me.)
As the wheels lifted up at Gatwick the following afternoon, my remorse at spending so little time in England was countered by taking a good bit of London pride back across the Atlantic with me. I don’t know when it will next be, but I can’t wait for another casual session in The Barley Mow with a few pints of Fuller’s fine ale.