Monday, November 28

London Landmark Reopens

Often billed as the UK's original gastro-pub The Engineer in Primrose Hill, North London, has re-opened after an extensive make-over. The once knock-about corner pub, popular with the local film and TV fraternity and named after the Victorian maestro Brunel, has emerged with plenty of glossy interiors, but minus the grit and personality which made it so popular throughout the 80s and 90s. As a resident of Gloucester Avenue, The Engineer was much more than a local -- it was a meeting place for the full panoply of life in NW1, from high to low. The legendary Sunday lunches were a particular highlight. Things turned sour in 2011 when the landlords, Mitchells & Butlers, chose not to renew the lease of long-term managers Tamsin Olivier and and Abigail Osborne. A rally to save the pub was attended by a Who's Who of the British entertainment world, including the actor Robert Powell. Despite M & B's assurances that The Engineer would not be absorbed into one of its pub chains, that's exactly what seems to have happened. A glowing press release describes the new-look interiors ("muted blue tones and pretty flowered walls"), extensive list of craft beers, "curated" wine list and classic cocktails.The food offering has also been dumbed down to include burgers, fish and chips and "tapas-style plates". But with so many pubs closing in the UK at the moment, perhaps we should be grateful that The Engineer has survived into the 21st Century. According to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) 1,444 pubs closed in the UK in 2015 – 500 in London alone. Anyone who is prepared to save a pub, even with  mint arancini balls and overpriced pinot grigio, should be applauded. So I will reserve judgement on the new-look Engineer until I see it for myself. Give me Robert Powell and a couple of pints of London Pride and I'll be happy.

The Engineer, 65 Gloucester Avenue, London, NW1 8JH. Phone: 020 7483 1890;

Friday, November 18

Chasing Blondes, Mad Abbots and Mother Goose in Port Macquarie

Port Macquarie, on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, is Australia's third oldest penal settlement. Does this perhaps explain why it has such a thirst for strong ale? As a guest of the recent Tastings on Hastings food festival I was able to explore the region's burgeoning craft beer scene, which is spearheaded by Black Duck Brewing and the Little Brewing Company – two operations which embrace quite different, almost contradictory, brewing philosophies. Best known for its Wicked Elf range, Little Brewing makes a range American, Czech, Belgian, German and British style beers. Despite the wacky labels, the beers here are authentic, delicate and beautifully structured. The flavours may be bold, but head brewer Warwick Little, who once studied winemaking, never strays too far from the original recipe. "We brew beers without compromise, yet fervently true to style,” he says. Look out for Wicked Elf Kolsch which is triumph of restraint and yet at 4.9%ABV still packs a meaty punch. Fans of Belgian-style beers will enjoy the Mad Abbot Tripel (9.5%ABV), a smooth, fruity and complex ale which will augment any Christmas Day table. The spic and span brewery, which opened in 2007, will soon open a dedicated tasting deck. Mad Abbot and Wicked Elf beers are available at Dan Murphy’s and BWS stores.

Across town the Black Duck Brewery, which opened its doors four years ago, makes beers which are more tailored to local tastes and Port Macquarie’s summery climate. “People want a cold fizzy beer that doesn’t beat them up too much,” says co-founder and head brewer Al Owen. “The paler beers, like Beach House Blonde and Golden Goose, are always easier to sell. Our Aussie lager walks out the door.” Unlike the Little Brewing Company, Black Duck Brewing relies entirely on local distribution – and the occasional guest tap at one of the city’s pubs. “It’s grown really strongly over the last couple of years,” he says. “We try to work as closely as we can with the local businesses – most of the pubs will give us a spare tap if they can. The local [brewery] reps are really good to us.” The brewery also serves pizza and ploughman’s platters. The tasting paddles ($5) are excellent value. Owen, a former civil engineer, discovered the world of craft beer during a trip to the UK in 2005. Luckily, he found a complete brewing kit lying in storage in nearby Wauchope. ”It was purely opportunistic,” he says. Plans are already underway to substantially expand the brewery’ modest 50,000 litre a year capacity and also hopes to develop its boutique gin-making operation. “People keep buying it, so I keep making it,” says Owen.

So anyone heading north over the long NSW summer holidays should allocate some time to explore Port Macquarie’s small, but energetic craft beer scene. And keep your eyes peeled for self-styled gypsy brewer MooreBeer, which is hoping to establish a permanent base in the city soon.

Mark Chipperfield travelled to Port Macquarie as a guest of Port Macquarie-Hastings Council ( and Destination NSW (

Thursday, November 10

Oaks Launches Beer Den

Instead of rushing into the bottle shop at The Oaks Hotel in Neutral Bay for a bottle of sav blanc or six-pack of commercial lager patrons will now be able to explore the fabulous world of craft beer.

At 10pm tonight the hotel’s compact bottle shop on Military Road will transform itself into a Craft Beer Den – complete with mood lighting, a groovy soundtrack, gourmet sandwiches and a range of exotic brews from around the planet. Guests pay a small corkage fee (from $2 to $4) plus the cost of their chosen tipple. Discounts available on selected beers.

“It’s about utilizing the space in a different way,” says hotel licensee Alex Cooper. “We have 116 different craft beers in stock – so how cool is it to choose something you’ve never tasted before?”

The Oaks Hotel, 118 Military Road, Neutral Bay 2089. Phone: 02 9953 5515; The new-look beer den operates midweek 10pm to 12am and Thursday to Saturday 10pm to 1.30am.