15 Jun 2012

Beer for Punks: The BrewDog Phenomenon

I am lucky. The White Horse in Parsons Green is my local pub. For anyone with an interest in decent beer, it is an amazing place. Sometimes it can be overrun with pushy, entitled Sloaney types, which earned it the nickname the "Sloaney Pony" many years ago. But it has a nice garden out the front, does great barbeques in the summer, has a lovely quiet bar upstairs, a restaurant at the back, and an amazing selection of international craft beers. And most of the people are just fine.
The pub hosts a few events during the year. For the past five years they've held an American Beer Festival over the July 4th weekend, at the end of August they have a celebration of Belgian Beers, and then there's a British Ale event in late November. Occasionally they host one-off events, and so the hubby and I excitedly booked tickets for a BrewDog beer dinner.
We'd just visited the wonderful BrewDog pub in Camden, and had previously tried the rather extreme Tactical Nuclear Penguin, via a mail-order purchase.
I'm not an expert on beer, and I'm not giving a detailed review of the beers, but just a bit of a flavour of the evening. We were greeted with a small glass of Dead Pony Club, the first of many delicious and interesting beers, the antithesis of the tasteless stuff that had led the creators to start the company in the first place. It was full of flavour and depth. We sat down at communal tables and made new friends. It promised to be a very good evening.
James Watt, an ex-fisherman from Fraserburgh in north-east Scotland,  started off by telling us the story behind BrewDog.
He and a friend were fed up with rubbish beer that had nothing going for it other than the fact that it got you drunk and was relatively cheap. They longed for something with some real flavour and so decided to try to brew their own. To cut a long story short, their passion, determination, good taste, hard work - and a few early white lies to unsupportive bank managers - have brought them to where they are today: a world-renowned brewer of incredibly diverse, and incredibly delicious, craft beers. James' story was an incredibly inspiring one. Some of the beers are very drinkable, every-day IPAs and lagers. Some of them are so strong and distinct in both flavour and alcohol content that they can only be enjoyed in small doses! Their notoriety has been part of their success, and is the reason my husband found out about them in the first place - no publicity is bad publicity, after all. Tokyo*, at 18.2% had problems after its label was banned in Scotland as it was seen as encouraging excessive drinking. They followed this up with a statement beer called "Nanny State" at a mere 0.5%, before heading back on track to produce Tactical Nuclear Penguin at 32%; this had the accolade of being the world's strongest beer. Some Germans were determined to recapture this record, producing a beer of 40%, encouraging BrewDog to go one further: the final creation was Sink the Bismarck, at 41%. It is now out of stock; I'm not sure if there's any more on the horizon.
James talked us through each of the eight or nine beers, before we were allowed to try them. He told us that we had to get to know our beer, to commune with it, to say hello to it.
With the first few beers we were given delicious amuse-bouches, the taste of the beer complementing the taste of  mouthful, and vice versa. Over the first smaller few courses we were given samples of Punk IPA, Barrel Aged 7.7 Lager, before being supplied with blindfolds, for a blind tasting of AB:08, possibly my favourite of the evening. I took a few snaps around the table while wearing my own blindfold - amazing what you can achieve with good autofocus.
The beer tasted very dark-coloured to me, perhaps even black, but it was a rich amber-colour; we were all quite surprised when we removed the blindfolds. Next was the main course - a scrumptious pork belly, accompanied with a glass of "I Hardcore You" - a blend of BrewDog beer with a brew from Mikkeller, a Danish craft beer company with whom they have had a few collaborations.

Stilton was helped along with the intense, almost chocolate-like Tokyo*,  chocolate parfait was paired with the 15% Paradox Jura, a stunning stout aged in old oak whisky casks (you could taste the peaty Jura influence), and finally we got to taste the infamous Tactical Nuclear Penguin, accompanying a Scottish Coffee (the cream was infused with the Penguin for double impact). We toasted "To Evil" and said hello to our beer before hitting our mouths with each wonderful mouthful.

At the end of the tasting some people left, but living a stone's throw away we could linger a little and not worry about catching the last tube home. We hung around, met some more fascinating people, drank a bit more beer and went home thoroughly satisfied.
If you want to try some amazing beer, please head along to the BrewDog pub in Camden, or any other of their bars near you - they're popping up everywhere. I highly recommend the 5am Saint - a lovely rich "iconoclastic amber ale." Beware, though, it may become addictive...

14 Jun 2012

London Festival of Photography Flash Mob

I've never been involved in, or seen, a flash mob event before. A post on Facebook changed that, and on Tuesday afternoon I headed off to a "secret location" (London's Russell Square) to join in the festivities, part of the London Festival of Photography.

I took a copy of the evening standard, hid my camera away in a handbag and sat on a bench, waiting for the other "togs" to appear. By 6.30pm there were about 30 or 40 obvious photographers congregating. I took out my camera and placed the strap around my neck. A man walking past asked me what was going on, a bemused look on his face (this was part of the point, I guess). I shrugged and said that I didn't know, before laughing and adding "it's a secret!" He hung around long enough to find out what it was all about and joined in with some of the snapping. At 6.40pm a whistle was blown and the assembled togs pressed play on their iPods, on which we'd all uploaded audio instructions.

The next 25 minutes involved a series of exercises, each lasting 4 minutes, with instructions spoken to start, and soft music (Morcheeba, perhaps) playing in the background while we carried out the exercises. The first task was to take a Facebook-style self-portrait. There were probably about 60 or 70 of us by now, and we all started turning our cameras on ourselves, trying to take a corny selfie. I think the result is pretty corny, especially with my extreme black and white, over-contrasty, vignetted post-processing treatment.

People took photos of other people taking photos of themselves. Unfortunately the screenshot of this Nikon guy taking his own photo disappeared a split-second before I took this shot - grrrr.

Everyone was smiling and snapping away. The atmosphere was really good - a bunch of strangers quietly going about their task. I should have taken off my headphones for a bit to see what it sounded like. Next time.

After the first task we all headed back to the circle in the centre of the park and awaited the next mission. The second task was to take photos of wildlife. There wasn't much animal life to see - I could only see feral pigeons. We snapped away at flowers, grass, leaves, and then a couple of guys dressed in crocodile (or perhaps dinosaur) suits appeared, drinking cans of beer, one of them clapping away at cymbals. All quite surreal.

Third up was to take a cheesy close-up shot. People headed off and photographed pretty pink pansies, leaves, other people, bits of detail from the bins and anything else of interest that they could find. I found a discarded, damaged tennis ball lying in a flower bed.

For the next exercise we were told to turn around so that we were facing out towards the park, then walk forward for as far as we could until something blocked our way, then stop and photograph anything we saw from there. Unfortunately I'd picked a spot where my route was blocked by a flower bed, so my walk consisted of about two metres. There were a couple of pretty topiaryed shrubs, and a guy squatting down to take photos nearby.

The fifth task was to photograph another photographer taking photos of another photographer. This was the best bit. Everyone was smiling, having such fun from something as simple as taking photos of other people taking photos of other people.

There was a fair amount of direct photographing; I shot a guy shooting me on an iPhone. He was squatting right down below me. He had a lavender stem in his ear.

The last task was the silliest. We had to put our left hands on the shoulder of the person in front and do the congo, moving around the circle.

The croc/dinos joined in, as did a woman dressed in a leopard outfit. There wasn't a great deal of moving around the circle, other than a small break-away group including the leopard and friends.

Once that was complete we were told to put our cameras away, turn off our iPods and head off home (or to the pub) as if nothing had happened. Which is exactly what I did. I looked at the photos on the tube on the way home, laughing at the simplicity of the event, how much fun it had been, how funny the look on onlookers' faces had been and how much I couldn't wait to get involved in another event like this. Well worth joining one if you get the chance.

One interesting observation I made was that some of the other togs really didn't feel comfortable having the camera turned on them. Some loved it (like Matt Taylor below), but with others you could tell that they were really uneasy and shied away from the glassy end of the lens. I guess some people just feel more secure hiding behind their little black machines.

For more photos, please have a look at my Facebook Page.

11 Jun 2012

City Wildlife - The London Wetland Centre in Barnes

A couple of weeks ago I came across a live webcam showing a peregrine falcon pair, Tom and Charlie, and their three chicks. A small shelter was built for the birds on a ledge at the top of one of Charing Cross Hosptital's buildings in Hammersmith. Inside the shelter is a camera, and a couple of other cameras have also been installed above the ledge. I've watched as the chicks have grown enormously from little white balls of fluff (one of which I was sure wouldn't make it) to proper birds of prey. They are now 49 days old and have started to fly short distances and spend a lot of time watching the world from the parapet. It's only a matter of time before they're off out catching their own pigeons for breakfast.

This got me thinking about how much wildlife there is in London. Apart from the foxes sneaking around and the parakeets squawking loudly as they flit around, there are some beautiful parks and wildlife havens, one of which is the London Wetland Centre in Barnes.
 I've been a member since my first visit about three years ago (I didn't really know about it before, in spite of having lived in the area for over 15 years. I only manage to get there about once a year, which is a bit pathetic, considering it's only a 45 minute walk. To be fair, it only opened in 2000, but it still took me a long time to get around to my first visit).

I've only visited in the late winter, spring and early summer so far, but hope to change that this year (and make the most of the free entry I get from supporting the WWT). I visited in winter last year, when I'd just got a new camera (Canon 60D) - it is a great spot for photography, especially if you like birds (and they also run a photography competition). The variety of ducks and geese (and indeed other birdlife) is very impressive, and I always come away struggling to identify the birds that I've seen. Here's a small selection of the birds I saw last winter: a shoveller, a pochard, a pair of male mallards and a sleeping female hooded merganser.

As well as stunning birdlife, the centre is also just a lovely place to wander around, especially once you get away from the main areas, which can be teeming with noisy school-parties. On the north side of the centre is a quiet zone called the "Wildside", where there are various hides, as well as peaceful waterways lined with reeds.

In spite of the peace, there's always a little bit of action somewhere. On a visit in early spring last year I witnessed a strange fight occurring between a heron and a jay. The heron was trying to stand its ground while it came under attack from the shrieking jay. Eventually the jay gave up and I moved on.

On a recent visit a couple of weeks ago the sun was shining and there were only a few hazy clouds in the sky. The birds weren't very active as it was so warm, and some have been moved for cleaning (the pens, I assume, not the birds). There was still a huge array of wildlife to see. This is a common frog - I loved his golden eyes! Occasionally he'd let out a massive croak and a bubble would come out of his side.
Damselflies were mating everywhere, although I didn't have the right lens to get any decent shots of them - they are very strange looking when they're locked together and flying around skittishly. I did manage to capture a few of the birds there, though, and some of my favourite were a pair of male Egyptian (blue-winged) geese, locked in a strange battle of bravado (a worker told me that they were both male, otherwise I would have assumed that it was a mating ritual). They strutted around, bending their necks back and forth, fluffing up their feathers, copying each other and screeching all the while.

I could have watched them for hours; very entertaining birds. But I moved on and headed for the Wildside, where the only noise was from the endless stream of aeroplanes making their descent into Heathrow 6 miles to the west (note to self: next time I must go on a day when the planes are taking off over London, not descending). Fluffy seeds had blown across some of the small lakes and looked stunning in the afternoon light.
Lily pads lay gracefully on the surface of the still waters and even the weeds looked beautiful.

I finished off my journey with a walk on the south side to the Peacock Tower hide, where I watched some lapwings frantically pecking around, occasionally flying and swooping down erratically, letting off their distinctive "peewit" calls, before settling back to finding grubs and termites again. As I wandered back to the exit the banks of the walkways were lined with cow parsley, the last of the bluebells and dandelion seed heads.
It's a truly lovely place for a day out (on a nice day!), especially if you're a bird-watcher or a photographer.

Please have a look at my website for more photos of the London Wetland Centre.