WHEN this place first opened as an up-market beerhouse and charcuterie, it seemed like a bold experiment in a corner of town which had some places to recommend it – the Scarbrough, the Brewery Tap – but little to suggest it might become a new centre for drinking culture.
But whether Claire and Anthony Kitching knew something that the rest of us had somehow overlooked, or whether their brave venture was simply a step into the unknown, it has certainly succeeded, proving a catalyst for the arrival of the likes of Bundobust, the Griffin and Head of Steam. This little circuit is now one of the best in town, and in terms of footsteps, one of the easiest to accomplish.
The expansion into a payday loan shop next door couple of years ago provided Friends of Ham with a much-needed extension, relieving pressure around its imposing central bar, where all manner of beers provide customers with an ever-changing choice.
But on this occasion I head downstairs for a special event laid on by Brooklyn Brewery, one of the giants of America’s astonishing craft beer scene. The company’s success is built around the phenomenal success of a single product, Brooklyn Lager, a malty, full-bodied, amber-golden Viennese-style lager which is the antithesis of everything which American lager used to stand for. It has a flavour, for a start. It also has genuine hoppy aroma, you don’t have to drink it ice cold, and it rather makes you wonder why anyone looking for an American lager would still buy Budweiser. But they do of course.
Nearly 30 years on from the brewery’s foundation, this big-hearted 5.2% lager still accounts for almost three quarters of the company’s revenue, but this soaraway success also bankrolls them to do other things, and draw on the well of customer confidence invested in that eye-catching stylised “B” on the bar.
And such is their reputation that when the Oxford University Press was looking for someone to edit their brick-sized Oxford Companion to Beer, rather than turn to a literary giant of English academe, steeped in the drinking culture of that city’s wonderful and historic pubs, they chose instead Brooklyn’s suave, urbane, hat-wearing, guitar-picking brewmaster Garrett Oliver.
The dark and Belgian-styled Local 2 is the first of his beers that I try on this occasion, and it’s soon followed by the firm and full-blooded assault of the hoppy and citric East IPA, which packs some interesting soft summer fruit – peaches maybe – that belies the initial foray of bitter grapefruit.
But these are all leading up to the main event, the dangerously drinkable 10.5% Cloaking Device, with its notable, grassy, mossy aroma, and in whose treacly blackness is cloaked the surprise of vanilla and red berries. No doubt this sweetness is derived from an ageing process in red wine casks, and this renders mundane the sourness of the natural yeast brettanomyces.
And suddenly Brooklyn’s decision to launch this beer at Friends of Ham makes perfect sense. A plate of their signature salamis, gherkins, cheese and crusty bread are the ideal savoury foil for Cloaking Device’s mysterious onslaught.
And if ever there were a cheese to die for, the beautiful rich blue Fourme D’ambert is surely the one.
Type: Charcuterie and beerhouse
Hosts: Claire and Anthony Kitching
Opening times: 11am-11pm Mon-Wed, 11am-midnight Thurs-Sat, 11am-10pm Sun
Beers: Wonderful changing cosmopolitan choice of draught and bottled beers
Wine: Good choice
Food: High-class deli-quality meat and cheese platters
Children: Not especially suitable
Disabled: Slightly tricky access to ground floor, second drinking area is down a flight of stairs
Entertainment: Sunday afternoon jazz plus shuffleboard downstairs, books and boardgames
Beer Garden: None
Parking: Pay and display and multi-storey areas nearby
Telephone: 0113 242 0275