Keeping it real … Real Ale
Slowly but surely beer is starting to feature more regularly on the menus of British restaurants, we are getting there slowly. Wine and food has such a long popular history that I find it hard to even entertain the idea of drinking beer alongside dinner with someone who likes wine with their food, let alone convince them that beer is more versatile. Dedicated beer focused restaurants are a rare find, unlike in America and in Europe where I read of how advanced they are compared to us when it comes to an open attitude to pairing beer with food. Maybe that is why it seems fitting that it is Goose Island that has opened a new venue here in London, giving a larger audience an opportunity to explore how beer can sit side by side with wine to pair with food.
It would have been easy and lazy to just throw the venue into Hackney or Dalston, just for the sake of putting it somewhere “hip”, but choosing Balham to set up shop is a brave decision, but a decision I feel will work out well for them. Balham is packed full of artisan delis, restaurants and bottle shops, all very stylish, slick and original. This was important in when deciding where to open the bar, Goose Island wanted to be somewhere where they can be part of a community and alongside other passionate venues. Although it may seem a little far out for London beer drinkers north of the river I was surprised at how quick it took to return to the city.
Just as you turn into the corner of Ramsden Road, just off the high street and before you arrive at the well highly rate Balham Bowls Club, you will find Goose Island’s Vintage Ale House. As you walk up to the large front window of the bar you are given a full view of the dimly lit bar, enticing you in to investigate. You would be forgiven to assume that Goose Islands first UK venture would be packed full of Goose Island branding but the Vintage Ale House is far from that. Fitting in with its surrounding neighbours it is fashionable and sophisticated but also feeling very homely thanks to the bright white kitchen style tiles, white wooden walls and open planned chef’s worktop next to the bar. There are a few tables outside, groups of tables as you first walk in and again at the end of the long narrow room once you pass the bar. It is snug and cosy yet elegant enough to impress. A large beautiful hand crafted Goose Island sign sits proudly on the wall, brought over to England from Chicago and matching the one that hangs in the taproom at the brewery. The draught beer is obviously dominated by Goose Island beers, their IPA, 312 Urban Wheat Ale as well as some new beers such as 4 Star Pils and Green Line Pale Ale. Your eyes will most likely first be attracted to the fridges however, as this is where the magic is at. The Goose Island bottled selection is rather special, with large bottles of Juliet, Halia, Sofie, among many more barrel aged and sour beers.
What impressed me the most, even more than the outstanding vintage ales, was the magnificent staff. It was refreshing to hear passionate staff talk about brettanomyces and barrel aging, especially how the flavour profile complemented the food. They were friendly, knowledgeable and you could feel their passion for working there.
The food was excellent, starting with some of finest sliced meat I have eaten, which had been sourced by Cannon and Cannon from Borough Market. On the same sharing platter was their in-house pickled beetroot and handmade crackers, which complimented the meat perfectly. This was followed up by a smoked short rib and blue cheese croquette with black aioli. This was my highlight of the evening food wise, it was truly stunning and was paired with Goose Island Winter Ale perfectly. Fish and Saisons are a great match so there was no disappointment with Sofia being paired with cod fregola, a roasted cod with Sicilian fregola (think risotto but slightly bigger), cockles and langoustine. When beef is cooked overnight you know you will be on for a winner and the beef cheeks was gorgeously soft. The satisfyingly large beef cheek sat sitting pretty in the middle of smoked cannellini beans, rainbow chard and pickled shallot, challenging the croquette for my favourite dish of the evening. Being British I am still not 100% convinced on maple syrup and bacon, however, the buttermilk pancakes with bacon and maple syrup paired with Goose Island IPA is as close as I have ever come to giving it the two thumbs up. The saltiness of the cured bacon worked really well against the sweetness of the syrup. I’m not usually a fan of panna cotta, but I found it interesting as when ate alongside the suggested beer pairing I did like it, a perfect example of what good food and beer pairing can do. The manuka honey and goats milk panna cotta was paired with was Halia, an incredible farmhouse ale which is aged in wine barrels with whole peaches. Halia, meaning “remembrance of a loved one” in Hawaiian, is named after a friend of one of the head brewers at Goose Island who loves peaches. The beer is delicate with sweet peaches flavour upfront and a tart crisp finish, this type of beer wouldn’t usually be top of my favourites list but Halia was without doubt my favourite beer of the evening, it is a great example of what Goose Island are capable of beyond their IPA. To finish the evening off we were treated to Goose Island 2014 Bourbon County Coffee Stout paired with chocolate and coffee truffles, you can just imagine how good that was!
You know that Goose Island are on to a good thing when the only slight criticism is that the chocolate truffles may have been slightly too big to conquer in one mouthful and that I would have liked to see Honker Ale on draught. It would be interesting to see how often the taps change, or if they dip into a guest beer. However, it is clear the main centrepiece and attraction here is the exclusive bottle range and the impressive food being cooked. With a focus on beer and food pairing I am interested to see The Vintage Ale House grow, although there are no plans to open another UK vetnure beyond the Balham address, I personally don’t see why they couldn’t branch out and open more venues in the same style as Balham’s Vintage Ale House.
The Vintage Alehouse Balham
Address – 3 Ramsden Road, Balham, London, SW12 8QY
Opening hours – 10am – 11pm Mon – Thurs, Fri/Sat to midnight. Sunday 10pm. Food served until 10pm. Roast dinner on Sunday.
Disclaimer – My friend and I were invited to the launch beer dinner free of charge by Goose Island and Shine Pr. I did not pay for any of the above, I also walked away with a goodie bag, however I feel this has not changed my opinions on the venue, food or beer. Apologies for lack of photos I was too busy eating and chatting!