Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The art of compromise - bank holiday beer special

Sometimes, I think the key to happiness is mastering the art of compromise (although, at others, I'm pretty sure it's all about eating cold pizza in my dressing gown). For instance, the Ewing loves reclaimed furniture - or anything made out of an old pallet - I love pizza and both of us have a healthy interest in beer. Which made the Crate Brewery, which prominently features all three of the above, a particularly appealing choice for the Bank Holiday, while also giving us an extra day to get over the hangover.

It also happens to be in Hackney Wick and the overground rail closures, coupled with the bank holiday bus replacement service, meant we pretty much needed the extra twenty four hours to get back home again.

Situated in the White Building on the River Lea Navigation  - a canalised river running from rural Hertfordshire to the River Thames at Bow Creek - the bar is the perfect spot for a few beers in the sunshine. The waterfront location also means visits from The Record Deck, a working barge that also sells vinyl, that the Ewing was very pleased to see moored up and already spinning tunes as we arrived.

The bar at Crate is a masterclass in recycling. Old railway sleepers, cleverly cobbled together from local artists' cast-offs, make up the bar; ladders and ratchet straps make indoor seats, rusty bed springs have been fashioned into eccentric light fittings and the canal-side benches and tables are made from scaffold planks - even the spare off-cuts of wood have been used to make planters for a herb garden. Across the yard they have a brew-shed, where they make the beers. In other words, the Ewing's paradise.

To start I tried the Crate Pale ale, both in bottle and on keg; the latter was cleaner and crisper, but also less aromatic and not as interesting. A very nice beer, either way, and at 4.5 percent, perfect for a session in the sun. The Ewing also went for something steady to start with in the Sour, a fantastically vibrant beer infused with a touch of passionfruit and hibiscus while retaining the power to make you grimace slightly on sipping that a good sour should.

They specialise in wood-fired pizza - more specifically crisp, Roman style pizza, rather than softer Neapolitan style. While it’s significantly easier to eat, lacking the somewhat soupy centre of a southern Italian pie, a roman base does bring to mind a giant Carr’s water cracker. As a biscuit to eat with a lump of cheese, that’s probably a good thing - they were always my dad’s favourite when I was growing up -  but as a vehicle for melted cheese, I prefer something a little less friable.

That said, my favourite ever pizza was eaten in Rome - a Bianca pie, topped with courgette flowers, anchovy and mozzarella - cooked by a tiny guy who resembled John Paul II, and thereafter nicknamed ‘Pizza Pope’for the rest of our trip.

The toppings here are pretty outré. You can stick to cheese or meat if you like, although the prosciutto and salami were off on our visit, but they also offer walnut and sweet potato, banana and dahl (even the Ewing wasn't sure), and, our choice, Middle Eastern lamb with pine nuts, spinach and mint.

The crisp base and the ovine topping made it a close cousin to the lamachun - although canalside it will set you back twelve quid, as opposed to the three quid of Green Lanes. Commendably, certainly at that price, they hadn’t skimped on the toppings and a more robust crust meant that they held up well. It also went very well with two halves of their keg stout and the cask porter.

Billed as the UK's first dedicated tank bar, that's the fermenting vessel rather than a military vehicle, our next stop, Howling Hops, was just around the corner. Of course their too hip for signage, so look for the crowds drinking from dimpled schooners outside if the weather's nice, or the scribbled note on the side door if it isn't.

Crate Brewery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Originally, they started brewing in the basement of the Cock Tavern, on nearby Mare Street, and selling their beers in the bar above. But soon thirsty East Londoners meant demand had outstripped their capacity and a bigger site was sought. This one mixes bar and brewery, allowing you to drink the freshest beer straight from the source, while giving them the capacity to bottle some of their beers for distribution, too.

I started with their Running Beer brown ale, before moving on to the Pale XX Superior No.1 and the IPA 2 West Coast Special. All good, the brown ale and IPA particularly. The Ewing stuck with the blonde beers; an Amber Dexter amber ale and the  East End Hefeweizen, brewed in collaboration with Pressure Drop. The latter reconfirming my dislike of wheat beers while being my wife's favourite of the trip.

The food is provided by Billy Smokes, with a range of smoked, fried and fermented goods, including the Big Fuck Off Tray of Meat (an array of protein including glazed ham hock, sausages, beef and lamb belly) available. Our visit saw a more restrained selection, with a small selection of wraps and buns and a handful of sides on offer.

My sausage bun, a chunky disc of homemade smoked sausage made with the Running beer, was served on a shiny brioche bun and came topped with a smattering of citrus slaw and house bbq sauce. All the classic components done well, this made a handsome (second) lunch.

The beer can chicken roll was more divisive. The Ewing loved it (it was sublime, believe me - TE), and she is a connoisseur in chicken sandwiches, but I found it hard to see it as much more than a sarnie. Yes, it was a commendably good sarnie piled with juicy chicken, which at seven quid it should have been, but was lacking much in the way of promised BBQ flavour and made me think wistfully about crispy smoked thighs and smoky, charred wings.

One thing we did agree on was the pickles, a snappy little selection of cucumbers, carrot, peppers and green beans (a very underestimated pickling vegetable) that made me want to go home and crack open the Sarsons and make some of my own. (There’s a solid preserving pedigree in my lineage, with our family being the lucky recipients of several jars of legendary Nanny Pickle each year until my Nan recently hung up her apron).

Predictably, just as were leaving Howling Hops, the Bank Holiday heavens opened - which threatened to make the ride on the number 30, all the way from Hackney Wick to Marble Arch, feel like a very long one; especially after the last round of beers. 

But nabbing a spot 'driving the bus' and gaining Prince for company - we picked up his eponymous 1979 vinyl album from the record barge moored by Crate (a compromise that meant the Ewing letting me wail along to 'I Wanna Be Your Lover' at ear-splitting levels if she could get a new record player) meant the promise of some slow jams could make even the slow crawl home enjoyable.

Howling Hops Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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