Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
There I was in Crouch End'sThe Harringay Arms with my friend Peter drinking lukewarm bottles of Harviestoun Schiehallion out of dirty glass tumblers. While the rest of the world lumbered forward in time The Harringay Arms has stayed noticeably static, that's part of its charm though. It's not terribly busy on this sunny Saturday afternoon but in the evening it'll be pumping because it's got vibe.
Disappointed by the choice of beers at our current location Peter and I decide to mosey onwards. The nearest pub happens to be The Devonshire House, a Wetherspoons that when I first moved to the area was an All Bar One. I used to quite like it when it was an All Bar One, it was pretty sterile and always empty but they sold bottles of Sierra Nevada pale ale which I used to enjoy immensely even before I'd put the words 'craft' and 'beer' together. Inevitably it closed down and in went bright lights, soft carpets and cheap wallpaper. Every ounce of soul was sucked out of this buildings interior, it became the pub equivalent of Voldemort.
Still, we venture inside knowing that if there's nothing decent on draught then we can at least turn to reliable cans of Sixpoint Bengali Tiger. I get as far as the first hand pump when I see it, the familiar 'American Craft Brewers Showcase' attachment that indicates the beer on tap is a collaboration between an English and an American brewer. Occasionally the folks behind J. D. Wetherspoon bring a load of well regarded brewers over from the rest of the world who brew 'versions' of their beers with some of Britains larger brewers such as Adnams or Thwaites. Occasionally a gem appears and people make the extra effort to seek it out. Me? I'd rather the brewers in question were bringing their actual beers over, rather than the often poor imitations that end up on the pumps at Wetherspoons.
I look at the pump clip and my eyes immediately land on the name John Kimmich. I imagine 99.9% of Wetherspoons customers have never heard the name John Kimmich before but I had, and I imagine many of you have. For those that don't know Kimmich owns a brewery in the US state of Vermont called The Alchemist. They've brewed a few different beers since their inception in 2003 but in 2011 Kimmich, after their brewpub was demolished by Hurricane Irene, opened a 15 barrel brewery and canning line for the production of a single beer, Heady Topper.
Heady Topper is a double IPA, in fact it's a really, really good double IPA that I've had the fortune to try in the past. If it was readily available it's probably the sort of thing I'd have in my fridge all the time. I don't think it's actually any better than something like Kernel Citra or Magic Rock Cannonball but it has a mystique about it that drives people crazy. In November 2013 The Alchemist had to close their brewery to the public because the queues leading to the tap room and shop were causing huge traffic problems. The sleepy town of Waterbury simply didn't have the infrastructure to sustain the chaos. The Alchemist brew 12 batches of Heady Topper a week and are currently expanding so that they can make more. When cans hit stores they sell out in days if not hours. This is in a country that has an immeasurably more advanced craft beer scene than our own with a gargantuan amount of great beer being readily available. Yet despite this hardcore geeks still lose their shit over this one beer.
Hop perverts in the UK would more than likely happily part with £10 for a can (It sells for about $12 a four-pack over in Vermont.) Hell they'd probably beg, borrow or steal just to taste a thimble-full. So with this in mind why has Kimmich come to the UK and brewed a beer with Adnams to an almost minimal fuss. Well it's not Heady Topper, that's why. That and the lumbering Wetherspoons beast have a mailing list populated with people looking for cheap meal deals and low priced pints. They couldn't give a flying fuck who John Kimmich or The Alchemist is. Can they buy four pints for less than a tenner is a more important fact (you can.)
So Peter and I settle in with our pints of Enraptured, a 5.5% American brown ale that cost £2.35 each. The aroma is a bit like walking through a coniferous forest on a late summers evening when suddenly a masked rogue runs at you and smashes a grapefruit into your face before disappearing, laughing into the distance. It feels chewy and resinous. Globs of sweet malt are covered with chunks of mango, lychee and more grapefruit. It's huge, bitter, slightly astringent and I imagine for your average beer drinker this might be a little bit challenging. It's a crime to see a beer such as this on cask, even though it's in very good condition there's not enough carbon dioxide present to stop it from being a little cloying and it's not cold enough to be refreshing. However it is completely delicious and incredibly accomplished yet here it is languishing in a family orientated hell-hole of a bar where know one really gives two shits about craft beer.
John Kimmich probably thought it would be great to build a relationship with a British brewer, a really good one at that. Coincidentally one that is also masterfully handling the Lagunitas import operation (despite a minor setback due to the changing of keg sizes) but I'm missing the point here. Why is it worth bringing over one of the most revered brewers in the world to brew a 5.5% brown ale, albeit a very good one and then sell it into a massive pub chain thats modus operandi is to bonk out as much cheap food and beer as possible whilst simultaneously conveying a completed skewed pricing structure that's designed to bury local pubs that simply cannot compete. It makes me sick. Meanwhile, Kimmich is probably over the moon that his beer is being showcased in 'British Pubs'. It's not the beer that we want though John, it's not the beer that we want.
I thought about going back the next day to see if it was still on, it really was that good but one glance into the window of that soulless pit was enough to put me off. Judging by how it tasted, it can't have been on for more than a few hours when we drank it. In my imagination it dwindled on the pumps for days while every beautiful molecule of hop oil was slowly being annihilated by oxygen one mote at a time before finally the last sickly-sweet dregs were drained and at only two thirty-five a pint.