The XXX factor

The name of the Hilton London Tower Bridge is a triumph of marketing over geographical accuracy, since it’s actually far, far closer to London Bridge, in the More London development, about a minute from London Bridge station and easily 12 to 15 minutes or more by foot from the more iconic Gothic bascule job down-river that narrowly missed flattening Courage’s Anchor brewery when it was built in the last years of the 19th century. I hope nobody at the British Guild of Beer Writers’ annual dinner on Friday believed the back of their ticket, which claimed the hotel was “a short walk” from Tower Bridge Tube station: that would have added another three or four minutes to the walk from the bridge itself.

They’d have had some appetite-sharpening exercise, though, and it’s an increasingly spectacular night-time view across the river, with the lit-up new buildings, such as the Gherkin, and the thumb-like City Hall: I’m a middle-class Londoner who, perhaps unusually, welcomes new tall buildings to the cityscape, if they’re well-designed and not boring slabs.

Similarly Tooley Street, where the “Tower Bridge” Hilton is, makes a better scene, much less gloomy, now it’s lost many of the warehouses that once dominated the thoroughfare. The hotel is an oddly shaped structure, and the interior looked blandly corporate. But the grub’s good, on the evidence of the food served at the Guild’s dinner: respect to Brian Turner, who was in charge of the kitchens for the previous two BGBW bashes, but this was, taking all the dishes into the scoring, perhaps the best meal I’ve had at the annual BGBW awards in the dozen or so years I’ve been attending.

The first course featured a beer I don’t think works that well, BrewDogs’s Storm IPA, made by ageing the IPA in Islay whisky casks. Unlike some it’s not the Islay casks per se I put my palm up to: the Paradox stouts from BrewDog are terrific. But for me, the IPA, indeed pale beer in general, doesn’t have anything added to it by whisky flavours. However, paired, as it was by the Hilton’s head chef, Christian Honor, with smoked trout and an excellent whisky sour cream in a shot glass, I was almost persuaded that Storm might be a success.

Monsieur Honor (unfortunate name – Google him and you get loads of religious sites) confessed to the diners before the meal that he’d uttered an oath when offered the commission to produce a beer dinner, as most chefs trained in the French tradition, who have only cooked with wine, probably would. But like all open-minded chefs, once he had been given the chance to see what flavours beer can come with, he quickly became an enthusiast. With Hopback’s Taiphoon, a bottle-conditioned beer that has lemongrass and coriander among the ingredients, he paired up a lime leaf “espuma” (foam to thee and me) with strips of chicken dressed with coconut and lemongrass oil, a very happy meeting of oriental flavours.

Unfortunately I’d predicted when I saw it on the menu that the next pairing wouldn’t work and I was right: unfortunately because the beer was Badger Long Days, made with raspberries by Hall & Woodhouse, and I was sitting at the dinner next to Mark Woodhouse of that ilk. Our Chris had made what I think is the novice beer chef’s commonest error (after, that is, trying to reduce beer the way cooks reduce wine in sauces), which is to match a fruit beer with a dish containing the same fruit. I won’t say it never works, but it very rarely works: the beer and the food almost inevitably rub each other out.

Christian Honor had made a very lovely raspberry jelly with basil oil, the aniseedy/liquorishy flavour of the basil sitting very well with the fruit. It was a complete flop, however, with the raspberry beer: jelly and drink were pale and lifeless when tried together. Mark Woodhouse (a very nice man, but I’ve never met a brewer I didn’t like – what a groupie I am) was gracious enough to agree that his beer wasn’t working, and we agreed that something chocolaty would have been much better.

Hurrah, the main course, slow-braised ox cheek with Hook Norton Haymaker, was a vastly better combination. Ox cheeks are to the early 21st century what lamb shanks were to the 1990s: no pub would dare prefix itself with the word “gastro” without ox cheek on the menu. But properly cooked, these gelatinous slices of cow face are delicious, beautifully unctuous and mouth-filling. They also fit very well with a good, bitter pale ale (cuts through the fat) that has some caramel flavours in the mix (matches the Maillard reaction flavours in the slow-braised meat). Haymaker steps right up to the mark: lots of Fuggles, Goldings and Challenger hops, and Cara malt alongside the Maris Otter.

The gustation finished with what was agreed, by everyone I spoke to and all those who have commented later, to be the beer of the evening: Thornbridge’s Bracia, a stout made with Italian chestnut honey. I’m very fond of chestnut honey: it has a marvellous bitter, dark flavour, and it works brilliantly in Bracia, giving another source of bitterness to the beer alongside the hops. It was paired by Christian Honor with what he called “deconstructed tiramisu”, a selection of what looked to me to be simple variations on the classic Italian mascarpone-spongecakes-and-coffee dessert, but I wasn’t paying proper attention – I was enjoying the beer too much. If I can’t get hold of some of this for Christmas I shall be severely upset.

Of course the real purpose of the evening (apart from talking to people) was the guild awards: the XXX Factor. I didn’t take notes, so you’ll have to wait for the full list to go up on the guild’s website for a complete line-up of winners, but congratulations to Zak Avery, a complete newcomer to the rankings, for winning the Beer Writer of the Year gold tankard, and the inaugural New Media award, for his video blog at The Beer Boy, well done to Ben McFarland for picking up tankards in two sections, a category winner and the Budvar travel bursary, the first (and only other) time that’s been done since Roger Protz in 1996, I believe, cheers to Adam Withrington and Adrian Tierney-Jones for both making it three awards appearances on the trot, and a hardly needed backslap from me to Alistair Hook for his completely deserved victory in the “Brewer of the Year” category: I would imagine that was about the easiest decision the judges had to make.

Complaints? Well, as usual, not enough time to talk to all the people I wanted to, and it was a pity that, for the first time I can remember, there was no chance for some draught beer at the pre-dinner reception. In addition, this seems a petty item to winge about, but as the meal itself was very good, I didn’t think the pre-dinner canapés were too great: they lacked the imagination we’ve seen in previous years. Frankly, several looked as if they had come from a Marks and Spencer party selection pack. Vegetarian spring rolls? Please…

But if all you can complain about is the canapés, overall I’d say the organising committee did very well. If they can get some decent draught beer on, I’d say the Hilton London Tower Bridge as worth a revisit. Don’t try to walk there from Tower Bridge Tube without allowing around half an hour, though, whatever your ticket says ….

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