It seems that hardly a day goes by when I don’t either visit or hear about a bar, pub, bottle shop or even a cafe that has a beer selection that I would have travelled the length of the country to visit five years ago. The reality is that today we are inundated with quality venues for drinking beer that would have been a dream a handful of years back.
A recent visit to Balham proved the point as this South London area now has a We Brought Beer store and bar with a terrific selection that can be taken away or drunk on the modestly-sized premises. But what really highlights how far we’ve travelled with beer is the recently opened Vintage Ale House that has been brought to the UK by US-based Goose Island Beer Company.
This is a sizeable advance forward. So much so in fact that its move might be a little too much at this stage in the UK’s burgeoning love affair with beer. At its heart – as the name suggests – is the selection of seven vintage ales that really make this place stand out from other beer-focused establishments.
The prized ales are all housed in 750ml bottles. They range in price from £18 to £23. They are high in alcohol – moving upwards from 6.5% to 9.5%. And they are all ‘wild ales’ – i.e. fermented with wild yeasts – and aged in various wooden barrels.
This certainly describes a very different proposition to that of most bars in the UK. The idea behind the concept is that people will share the beers and consume them alongside the bar’s American influenced cuisine.
Let’s be clear here, all these beers are terrifically complex and have many different layers and textures. On the menu is Halia – a 7.5% farmhouse ale aged in wine barrels with whole peaches that has a balanced peach sweetness that comes through the Brett. Meanwhile, Gillian has been partially aged in wine barrels to create a 9.5% ale that has strawberry notes wafting through in the finish. And Madame Rose is the Rodenbach-style beer of the grouping with its character derived from ageing on sour Michigan cherries in wine barrels for two years.
To the true beer lover the complex characteristics of these ales absolutely justify the chunky price tags attached to them. But for those people yet to be fully convinced of the full virtues of beer there will definitely need to be some education and guidance given by the team serving in the bar. There are of course other beers on offer but the very modest selection – with only four draught brews and eight in bottles or cans – clearly identifies the vintage ales as the key focus.
It is also arguable that only having Goose Island beers on tap is limiting the options a little too much for many drinkers. But this is to some extent likely to be an objective of the bar: the idea being that this UK outpost for the US brewer is aiming to give British drinkers a flavour of Goose Island in an environment that the brewery has total control over. It’s certainly a beautiful room for sure, with the high level of service that you’d expect from the Americans.
It is still very early days for this interesting venture, which will undoubtedly go through a number of iterations before it settles down, and finds its place and Balham. It must also be remembered that the metrics of success will undoubtedly be different to other new bars because Goose Island is owned by the rather well-resourced AB-InBev.
Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider