the Six Bells, St Albans

the Six Bells, St Albans

Going into night shifts is a brutal process but a staple of my life. It starts with enforced narcolepsy as you bludgeon your circadian rhythm into submission. Only four shifts in a row means you don’t fully adapt before wrenching yourself back into day mode. It’s like having the bends, hypoxia, being on the edge of sleep and feeling vibrations from caffeine in your veins all at once – something I drink plenty of in the middle of the night to stay awake. I worry about the cumulative effect this is having on me. Coming off the last night shift always feels like ending a tour of duty.

Is going to the pub for a pint a good idea? I don’t know but the desire for a bit of bleary-eyed people-watching on a Sunday afternoon out of the four walls of my home is vital.

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Previous posts have been about social intercourse. This one’s more about another pub potential: a bit of solitude when you need it.

This afternoon is my zombie time and people who know me are starting to recognise it – it’s the worst possible time to expect witty repartee from me. You might as well expect somebody on a drip waking from surgery to get up and start boxing. Not going to happen.

The gods measure us humans by set square and plumb to determine that exactly two pints of session strength cask ale is the right amount for a weekend afternoon. I take my time with them during the lull after the Sunday roast crowds have trickled away. Any more than two pints risks summoning Morpheus and slumber – the compulsion I’m trying to resist.

On the surface, I’m brittle, unable and even unwilling to socialise. Underwater, I watch the surroundings around me with detachment like I’m drifting around a fish tank. But something to do with body and mind trying to re-align makes me privy to nebulous thoughts played out across time. It’s not something I try and do but something that lies in wait for me.

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The Six Bells is a good pub to have these reflections in. On this occasion, it turns out to be more busy than I’d anticipated. I stand for a while before a small table becomes free under a TV screen. I have ordered a pint of Timothy Taylor’s Knowle Spring – it’s refreshing like a blend of mineral water and honeysuckle. I land on the chair with gravity.

When I entered, there was a large group around one of the tables with about seven children. The kids soon zipped up and left. In their wake, they left behind reams of paper, felt tips, the smell of glue and two lovers whose faces were festooned with glitter and spangles. The couple look relieved to have weathered it and proceed to get into each other. It’s the man’s birthday. I spy the cards.

I take in the surroundings anew. I think of the lives gone before, the permanence of this bastion, springtime, ageing, renewal, death.

One of the four pines in the park was toppled by storm Doris a couple of weeks ago. The locals congregated around the recumbent bough. Kids crawled over it like bluebottles. There was a feeling that the exposed wound – the fatal breach – needed to be witnessed while fresh. Gathering around it constituted a wake of sorts. We needed to see the body for ourselves to actualise it; confirmation of the new reality without pine three. It’s the act of witnessing that makes it official. Only after that can you move on.

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The tree’s roots remained steadfast in the earth when its spine broke at the small of the back. This demonstrated that it had in fact been ailing.

Standing at the bar, I see someone I know and acknowledge them by lifting my index finger and raising my eyebrows. These signals also mean please move on.

This pub’s name references the parish church that stands two hundred feet away. It was renamed from the Bell (or even Le Bell) in 1739 to make it more modern when the church upscaled to incorporate six bells in its belfry. Another two were cast in 1953 to celebrate our own Liz’ coronation so this should actually be the Eight Bells now.

This village was once home to the working poor. So was Hampstead. If you can get a property here now you’ve done very well for yourself. There was a time before this pub was here. But there was also a time when the English channel was a stream. The flagstones of this floor might as well be bedrock.

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Timothy Taylor’s Knowle Spring

Before the road it’s on was ever tarmac’d it sold ale to the farming public. Before the nearby bridge that straddles the river Ver was built, it was drawing punters. Back before the grazing pastures became the landscaped Verulamium Park, it was already here. In fact, it’s been trading here since before the Reformation. The Six Bells predates the landscape of St Michaels around it but is still just a sprat to its wider Roman environs.

This pub is full of curios. Milk jugs and horse brass line the brickwork and window sills. Tokens from the agricultural and brewing past are lined up along beams and behind glass cases. Copper pans adorn the open hearth. Two guns are mounted above it. The ceiling undulates gently from age. The scattered lamps cast a light brighter than the sky outside.

But now I’m absolutely fascinated by a man standing over by the coat hooks staring at the television screen above my head. I can actually see the blank screen in stereo – a reflection in both lenses of his spectacles; two black rectangles. Pointlessly, I crane around to look behind my shoulder to confirm something I already know: the television is off. Yet he’s mesmerised by it. What a soul sees with his eyes might not compare to with what he’s witnessing in his mind. I wish I could see his thoughts played out in those frames.

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the drinks list in the Six Bells in the run-up to the Second World War

Lurking under the table of the spangled lovers (whose faces are reddening from booze and libido), is a french bulldog who emerges and starts masturbating using his paw – I’ve seen this behaviour before with the same breed. Because of their large heads and barrel bodies, they can’t bend to lick their genitals like most dogs. Their paws don’t have opposable digits either so they don’t get the best of either world. He takes on almost human form like a mini wanking Buddha on the floor. Round bloodshot eyes implore the room and its inhabitants as he tries to bring himself to climax. He looks like a little busker strumming an invisible banjo and the couple notice me snort my beer as, in my head, I overlay their pet’s labours with the voice of George Formby.

By current averages of longevity, I’m equidistant between the teat and the grave. I want a home from home where I can become a fixture. I fancy being an octogenarian or older and cranking my hearing aid up to listen to the increasingly alien and unknowable views of pub goers in their teens.

I’d like to be able to come to pubs like this for as long as I can. It’s something I want to have in my life for as long as I’m able to get myself (or for as long as someone can help me) into one.

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I try to take a shot of the self-pleasuring hound with my phone and this puts him off. He looks at me with disgust. Rude. I feel guilty now. What’s the world coming to when you can’t even have a quiet knee-trembler down your local without drinkers capturing it on their devices?

A few days after the fall, guys with hi-vis jackets and chainsaws came for the stricken corpse of the pine. They tore through it and stacked the giant’s vertebrae in the back of a trailer as neatly as cheese rounds in a dairy. I hope the pine is reincarnated through some skilled carpentry rather than burned.

On the walls, black and white prints from yesteryear of men staring back at the box brownie with stage fright have one connection to you: they once came here to unwind too. The closest I can get to knowing these people and their social mores is by tracing their outlines with my finger. They wouldn’t have recognised our morals, atheism or our liberal mindsets. Our converging gender roles wouldn’t have made sense in their world. If they could come back, they might even have trouble telling the men from the women.

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the remains of pine three

How can the British pub be so permanently here? Generation after generation, why do we keep returning? It’s like it’s a point of reference through time. Dependable – a stout bannister flanking life’s upward climb. As folk, we change out of all recognition but the Six Bells endures.

This pub has been here for about half a millennium. The local history extends way beyond that but I think of this: the Six Bells has existed as a public house for longer than the Roman empire ruled England and Wales. This pub has outlasted that empire and even watched while the British one rose and sank too. Within that flowing timeline, I want nothing more than to be depicted in a tapestry panel with pint in hand, raising it at the viewer.

There’s a quote by George Orwell:

“What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.”

tradition and craft

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Over the weekend, I noticed that Chiltern Brewery had a stall in the Sunday market with a couple of beers I’ve been aware of but never tried: their Black IPA and White IPA. I’ve always been a fan of their cask beer but it’s rarely seen in St Albans despite the brewery being considered “local” in a broad sense.

En route to visiting my parents, Chiltern Brewery is somewhere I occasionally haunt. I go on a small detour off the M4 into the Buckinghamshire landscape to pick up some bottles or fresh beer.

The countryside motif replete with fox appeals to the British fetish for bucolic nostalgia but in Chiltern’s case, it’s simply a point of fact: it’s very rural, very traditional and it’s situated on an old working farm so it’s a badge it can wear without being contrived.

Chiltern Brewery was founded in 1980 making it a really old new trad brewery or a very young old one. Here though, a traditional brewery gets craft right. There are no skulls, no living dead mammals, no split personality, no psychosis. Just well crafted beer.

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The Black IPA (bottle conditioned 7.8) pours a dark tan with a fluffy beige head and lilts of earthy British hops. There’s less of the Opal Fruit fluorescent green coming through on the aroma compared to other Black IPAs. It’s more grassy and finishes dry.

I was most looking forward to the Black IPA as I love the style, but it’s actually the White IPA I enjoyed the most.

The White IPA (bottle conditioned 7.5) is so-called because Marris Otter and wheat have both been used in the grain bill. Despite the name, it actually pours darker than most IPAs. It’s racks up a big nougat head. Its bouquet is of candied oranges. There’s a musty ashen note too. Drinking it reminds me of red hedgerow berries and Braemar apples – just the fruity sweetness – there’s no tartness here. It’s an English fruit sponge take on a double-strength IPA.

The thing that these two ales share is that they completely conceal the alcohol; it doesn’t come through on the taste or nose. They’re both full-bodied but could pass as session beers. Both IPAs were matured for 18 months which helps smooth them out too.

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Some of the writing on the bottles explains the thinking behind Chiltern’s releases. This for the Black IPA: “dark ruby and full bodied this is a smooth roast black IPA – a new style of beer that is fast gaining popularity”. I like it. It’s straightforward, honest and unpatronising.

In the smaller bottle range, Chiltern also have their fulsome Lord Lieutenant’s Porter (6 abv) and their longstanding Bodgers Barley Wine (8.5 abv) – a beer I’ve had many times. It’s an unctuous sweet ale like liquid macadamia nuts – perfect for ageing. All these beers are in 330ml bottles which makes perfect sense for the more boozy sipping beers they all are. So they fit in neatly with other craft brands.

When it comes to diversifying into new beer styles from the craft cannon, traditional breweries can be a bit like a dad trying to dance at a party – Batemans or Marstons come to mind. They can also implode into a steam punk schizophrenia whereby they change their name and identity, get tats done and invest in piercings. You know the ones I mean. Maybe it’s a form of mid-life crisis.

Version 2Here is a photo of a pump clip I took a while back. This brewery is actually Northumberland’s Mordue Brewery but as you can see, it’s taken on an alter ego: The Panda Frog Project. I did have a pint of this but can’t remember much other than it was quite hoppy. I’ve got nothing against the lively artwork I’m just puzzled by it.

I can’t reconcile a pale beer with the nightmare scenario depicted. It didn’t make me hallucinate any more than a bitter or a stout would. So what exactly makes it insane? And that’s my point. I think breweries are feeling compelled to follow this vogue.

These two new beers by Chiltern haven’t required that the brewery go on an acid trip to release them. What comes across is simply a brewery confident in its own brewing ability releasing a couple of limited edition beers.

pride and prejudice

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In June of last year, I got back from a day at work and walked into a pub in St Albans. Standing at the bar was a friend of mine I’ll call Keith. As I approached, I heard doleful murmurs of consolation between him and the barman. Despite the glaring sun, he seemed to stand in shade. We greeted each other. I asked how he was doing. It went something like this:

“Weeell. Alright, I suppose, despite the obvious.”
“The referendum?”
He gestured with his hands, indicating the world in general, and then let them drop to his sides.
I told him I’d voted to leave the EU and he groaned like he’d just been winded.
“You as well?” he sighed. He turned away theatrically for a moment but then rose back up to his full height and we resumed. He told me he was worried about the border in Ireland. He had family ties there and talked of his memories of the troubles – something I have only vague and uninvolved recollections of. It’s a matter I hadn’t much considered.

And that was that. We accepted our differences. The referendum ended up just serving as a springboard for conversation. We improved each others’ evenings – me by letting him get his worries off his chest and him by the telling of first hand accounts to fifteen years of history (our rough age gap) I hadn’t been around in.

The crux of this post is this:

GOING TO THE PUB AND TALKING TO DIFFERENT PEOPLE IS GOOD FOR YOU.

Why did I capitalise those words? I think it was just to ensure that if you don’t read the whole post you at least get the point of it. Talking freely in a public place isn’t a given.

And don’t worry – I won’t try to persuade you to adopt any political position.

I’m not trying to make out that pubs are perfect vessels for debate. They’re only pubs. A book could be written about the history of pub violence (and if it were, I’d wager that for most of the UK, the catalyst would be football rather than politics).

The public obviously speak to each other in other locations like at the newsagent till (while I stand waiting to pay for a newspaper wondering whether to do the quiet cough). But the pub is where we stand or sit for a time without being in transit. The pub’s only equal in this respect might be the hairdresser where conversation is even more compulsory.

I’ve never been a university student so have no personal insight. This isn’t a kind of reverse snobbery boast but some context for my own impressions of students. I can be influenced by what I read about them. But the pub comes to my rescue in this matter too.

There is a young barman in one of my favourite pubs who challenges how I view a lot of people his age (nineteen) and younger, and their limited experience of the world. He is recently out of university. He got disillusioned by the same referendum. It was the first thing he ever had a vote in and he’s now of the opinion that it’s not worth voting. I really hope he changes his mind about that. At the bar – in fact – often running the pub when it’s crowded, he displays greater confidence and more advanced social skills and emotional intelligence than I did when I was his age. I was always chewing my lip and removing myself to the periphery of events. I still do a bit – but not as painfully so.

Despite his disillusionment, he hosts customers of all views – some have politicky nicknames (let’s say Brexit Bob, Tory Tom, Green Greg. You get the idea). But these monikers in the pub are used endearingly as he spends time in deep banter with them and gets on really well. When you converse with people in the flesh, respect comes as standard.

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In the context of university debating societies “no platforming” speakers as they might espouse opinions anathema to the student body, you wonder about the word debate and what happened to it.

I like social media such as Twitter and it goes with me to the pub. The smart phone can be a replacement for a lot of things but it’s actually a new limb.

I don’t think smart phones have killed the art of conversation. You can converse with others, and in the lulls, go back to the scroll. You can be unsocial if you want (sometimes you just want to be by yourself), but you can equally cut out the world with a newspaper.

If pub life followed the rules of social media, punters would come in to the Red Lion and interject into other groups’ conversations with aggression. They wouldn’t last long. Customers that slammed down others’ opinions as a matter of course would be at best ignored, at worst barred.

Imagine one little huddle’s member listening closely to another table’s conversation. He jumps up and shouts “Oh my god! These twats are against abortion!” His group responds by shouting in unison “Oh my god! What a bunch of twats!” right in front of said table. Has anyone experienced this in a public house? No. This is how it works on Twitter and Facebook, though.

The people you encounter in real life haven’t just pinged up on a mobile phone screen with a singular belief as their identity. They have a past and will have a future. Their complexity, physics, contradictions and essential humanity are there – you get irradiated by them when you meet them. People aren’t just three-dimensional in a physical sense.

There’s also the submerged understanding each of us has that our opinions, over time, change and we can rotate 180 degrees and 180 degrees again and still get no closer to fully knowing.

On social media, we tend to present ourselves as more knowledgeable than we actually are as our frantic fingers rip a hole into Google by looking things up we supposedly know in real time. We get away with it because we can’t be seen doing it. Words, terms, abbreviations, techniques, history, authors, activists that we “know” we might only have looked up three seconds ago.

How do I know this? Well I do and I don’t. I’ve done this myself online – claimed to know about a subject who’s Wikipedia page is still burning my retina. I also know some people online that I knew in real life first. My family, for example. And I know for a fact that unlike their online alias, they’re at least as much of an ignoramus as I am.

In pub life, this caper doesn’t work. Instead, we present as we actually are in all our dog-eared, imperfect beauty. Above each of our heads is a quota of empty space our potential should be filling. We’re like partially empty lava lamps.

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We can’t start to speak, then delete the words, quickly look something up online, search for the meaning of a word, then re-speak, backspace again to re-edit and finally give an answer when we’re in the Victoria. We are stripped to our nucleus as unrefined and unready beings with too poor and too unorganised a memory to give a column-space verdict.

That man or woman you know from the White Swan whose beliefs would incline you to wear garlic around your neck? Well, when you meet them in the Mucky Duck, you’ll be asking after their mother.

In the Boot, I’ve watched two men with completely opposite views initially go to overwhelm the other with an assertion and realise it won’t work – the opposite party will not convert and what becomes a bottom line to agree on is re-set in order for the conversation – socialisation at close quarters with a fellow ape – to survive. They make noises a bit like ships’ horns before collapsing back into social mode in the Hygge of the Gemütlichkeit. In the pub, to be right is relegated below the warmth of connection.

Knowing how to talk together across the bar is a skill we learn. To speak to people with different views is not a burden but a privilege. To converse with folk who have had a contrasting experience to yours is enlightening – each person is like a separate piece of a jigsaw to a landscape you’re trying to put together. Also, meeting individuals and having a chinwag often deflates the stereotype you harboured of them.

As children, we develop this learning in the yard. As adults, we continue the voyage down the pub – the public space where you’re on the same level as everyone else. The students “no platforming” just want the rest of their lives to be a safe space. They would learn about their fellow humans, challenge their beliefs and expand their knowledge far more in the pub than in the closed conformity of the university commons room.

pub primatology

pub primatology

I am a voyeur. Not in the 1970s Robin Askwith “confessions of..” sense, but in a more holistic one. Wherever I am, I’ll be keeping a narrowed eye on those around me. I like to people-watch. This is just as true whether I’m drinking a pint, an americano coffee or sitting in traffic.

I love the body language of converse. At a table, men sit and lean back to talk to one another and raise their voices to be heard. Men seem to hold their abdomen proud so the chest and stomach are exposed to each other – often with arms folded back over the chair. Women are more inclined to lean in towards each other. In conversation, they often look like they’re playing poker – each holding her cards close. They sometimes keep a hand over their mouth – only removing it to talk. When the plot thickens, their eyes widen and necks extend to close the gap between them.

Women have also developed a way of removing their handbag from the shoulder and setting it aside that tells me they’re having or are about to have a row with their partner. It’s actually the over-care and the slowness with which the bag is put down that instills fear.

But with regard to pubs – they’re the best place to be a voyeur. The kind of behaviour I watch might also be dependent on the kind of pub I’m in. I’m going to call type A the singleton pub and type B the group pub. In a singleton pub, you enter alone then “become” part of a group around a bar (if you want to). In a group pub, you enter or congregate as a pre-organised group and stay insular from the others in the pub.

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Also, I’m not talking about tap rooms or breweries which I think have a more varied demographic to pubs.

Type A and type B represent the extremes with most pubs occupying the vast space in the middle. But how did these types even come about? Let uncle Alec try and tease a few threads apart.

The singleton pub, in my opinion, is a public house of long standing to which the interior has changed little. The culture of mainly just men going to the pub has endured enough to still be noticeable. By this, I mean that most “singletons” are men whether they’re in a relationship or not. Music is either absent or background only. Also, there’s a small television in the corner – usually with sport – that can be as equally followed or ignored.

I find that group pubs are often ex-restaurants. A restaurant has a higher stock than the pub and this perceived classiness still clings. They are venues that tend to be candle and soft light heavy. Flowers are another ingredient. Group pubs have more seating around the bar. Fewer people can stand – hence fewer singletons frequenting them. They’re also likely to play music so shouting is necessary. Again, this would deter the singletons. There are no televisions in group pubs, either.

Some of these pubs can make you feel like you’ve come to a swingers’ party alone. There’s nothing to do but to get a facial tan from the scroll of your smart phone while fondling the pump clips on your tod.

The more these demographics occur, the more they establish as the singletons and the groups seek out the places that reflect them. But then again, it’s just my theory.

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primatology observations from type A:

Wherever there’s a bar with men in, an odd posture is adopted: first, you lean onto your elbows and let them take the stress of about forty per cent of your body weight. Then, you try and put a hinge in the small of your back where there isn’t one by extreme arching. The effect of this would be quite provocative in other circumstances – you’re actually pushing your bottom out to form a shelf (I’m afraid I’ll return to the issue of male bottoms in pubs later. Please bear with me). Then you stand on one leg – usually the left – while your right one bends around it so only the toes at the end of it make contact with the floor. Straining on just one elbow, you could also hook a thumb through a belt loop of your jeans if you wished. Texans accessorise this look best (probably) with a belt, a couple of holsters and a tilted Stetson. Here in Britain, a rain-spotted copy of the Guardian and a brolly isn’t quite as manly.

The bizarre thing is that this position – public statement of male relaxation – gets really uncomfortable. After all that heightened relaxation you need to sit down somewhere to recuperate from it.

This is a learnt male behaviour you can see across the globe. This posture also advertises that the stander is open for business and proficient in a very special discipline: the fantastical and ancient art of bollocks – a language rooted in beer.

There is something magical about beer and bollocks. A few years ago I was in the Blackies’ (Blacksmiths Arms, St Albans) standing at the bar adopting the requisite position. At some point, I got talking to an Irish man who was also assuming the stance. Between us, over the course of a couple of hours, we put Britain’s farming problems to rights. I’m not a farmer and neither is he. I did once work on a farm near Loch Gruinart in the Inner Hebrides when I was sixteen (this actually sounds like bollocks but it’s true!) and that served as the basis for my authority. I eked this out to about thirty years’ experience man and boy with the environment minister having my number on speed dial. I was a consultant. He’d probably once owned a pair of wellies, so he was an expert too.

I’ve seen him about and we acknowledge each other whilst not being in the zone. We’re normal punters going about our business, but at a given signal, if both of us cross a certain threshold whilst being in the same pub, we can take on new identities again. I fancy the one where I almost qualified as a winger for the England Rugby team. If I can have that, he can have almost being a scrum half for the Irish one. That’s the beauty of bollocks.

Like Dorothy, all we need do is click our heels together. And raise the wrist….

primatology observations from type B:

I once witnessed a car crash of a first date – and, as I’m sure, dear reader, you’ll agree – last date.

There were some small tables and stools in that pub and this “couple” was sat at one. It gave the impression I was looking down from an elevated floor.

I could tell by their body language they didn’t know each other. She’d dressed up. He’s dressed down. I watched him laugh at something on his phone while she was trying to talk. I got the impression the venue was his choice. It was hard to tell whether she wasn’t into beer or just not into him or both. He was certainly into beer. He drank fast – having to go to the bar to get himself another pint as her stalked half pint glass stood virtually untouched.

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What had originally drawn my attention to them was actually two sides of pink mutton – his bare haunches squashed above the driveway to his builder’s bum. It was all on display and because it was summer, it had a dewy glisten-on too. His jeans and belt were too tight and his T-shirt too small. The effect it made was his rear seemed like a fat child’s face smiling at me. I smiled back but that wasn’t the worst thing – this was: every time he wasn’t using his right hand to hold his glass, he was tucking it snugly into the hind cleft like it was a docking station.

One grace might have been that his date was spared this knowledge as she didn’t have my view of the house.

When they got up to leave, he swiped her glass off the table and drained it in one go – waste not, want not. The look she gave was pure rennet. And then, dear reader. He attempted. To plant. A kiss on her. I’m not talking about tonsil-devoration but an affectionate lip-purse to the cheek. Instead, he puckered the dry air in the space her head had just taken evasive action from. He then proffered a hand (that one!) which was left hanging.

Meanwhile, her entire body channelled an arrow being fired at the exit and then she was but a memory of footsteps. He looked confused and hurt and I snapped my gaze to the ground as I thought we were about to make eye contact.

We were the same species. I was feeling humiliation, shame, impotence all on his behalf. I felt like a beetroot roasting in its skin because I knew that there was more that connected me and him than separates us (though not the hand down the trousers!). His inability to read other people is something that goes to my core – I have personally been human illiterate too many times. And yet there I’d been “reading” his companion perfectly from a safe distance as he fulfilled his own dire prophecy.

If you want to know yourselves, then scrutinise the people around you. I find that the pub is the best place to people-watch as it exposes our quirks and vulnerabilities through the gentle unwrapping of alcohol.

Traveller’s Joy

Traveller’s Joy

I was a Londoner when I first kindled an interest in beer. At the time, there was only one shop for it: Utobeer in Borough Market. More shops began to proliferate around the time I moved away and I assumed that to “browse” beers on the shelf – other than macro supermarket staples – would always mean a trip to London.

However….

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Every Wednesday and Saturday is market day in St Albans

Of all the home counties, something spectacular is happening in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Over the last several years, beer shops have opened up in St Albans, Berkhamsted, Letchworth Garden City and Hitchin (Herts), and Chesham, Amersham and High Wycombe (Bucks). If this catchment could be approximated geographically, it very roughly describes the Chiltern Valley.

I’ve done some searching online for these shops’ equivalents in surrounding counties. I find, for example, one in Billericay for Essex and one in Reading for Berkshire (where I once lived), but they’re singular enterprises. Within Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, beer shops have happened in spates.

Although there are eight stores all within a short drive of each other (more if you include new breweries selling other breweries’ ale in their tap rooms), they are owned by just three concerns.

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Back in 2013, the Red Squirrel Brewing Co had just relocated from Hertford to Potten End near Hemel Hempstead. This was an example of East coast to West coast before it became synonymous with American IPAs (though long after rap music, which never really got down with real ale). It opened a bottle shop in August of that year in Chesham – the first beer shop. Red Squirrel soon followed up with shops in Berkhamsted and Amersham, and has just opened its newest venture in High Wycombe – the Emporium – which also serves small batch coffee and pizzas.

Over the Herts border, John and Ben (the latter working for Tring Brewery – I name them both as I know them and regularly frequent their shop in St Albans) trialled market stalls in St Albans, Harpenden and north London selling bottles from British breweries as well as from Europe, America and beyond. The success enabled them to set up a permanent shop in St Albans in October 2013. Last year, John and Ben also opened a second larger store in Hitchin to the north of St Albans.

In June 2016, a new brewery and tap room opened up in Letchworth Garden City: Garden City Brewery. Hot on its heels, and just a block away, Crafty’s Beer Shop opened to the public in what used to be a jewellers’ shop where the display windows lend themselves perfectly to the presentation of gleaming bottles.

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For Hertfordshire alone, I could see similar shops and tap rooms opening in towns like Watford, Welling Garden City, Royston (where sadly its brewery Buntingford has ceased trading), Baldock, Harpenden, Tring, and of course, Hertford.

I’ve been to the bottle shops in London. One difference between them and their more rural counterparts is that those in market towns are often right in the heart of them rather than out in the ‘burbs or under railway arches.

There is something special about a market town. Market towns are magical places where bunting suddenly appears. There is always the well-tended war memorial and it’s always afforded pride of place. Then of course there’s market itself – the white canvas village encamped along the main drag. I love the smell of meat being fried and the call of the stall holders who adopt an accent that verges on caricature…

“Cammin’ ‘ave a look! Two bawls f’ra pahnd, nar!”

When you join in the cattle-like drove of the customers, you almost start braying. The irony is that when it’s someone else’s market town, you join the herd wide-eyed. When it’s your own market town, you cut an arc around this human infestation in order to reach Tesco’s.

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The war memorial – an elemental part of the market town.

There’s something special about a bottle shop too. It seems to have come about through cosmic ordering and is rooted in both specialism and localism.

I remember visiting a proto beer shop a few years ago in Whitstable. It was an off licence and I say “proto” because there was a specific section set aside for Kentish beer which I was immediately drawn to. The same was true of one in Swanage for Dorset ales. At the time, they could only exist within the structure of a larger off licence.

But now the beer has broken free. Racks of wine from Gallo and stacks of Heineken cans are no longer necessary. There’s a more continental feel to beer shops – they often have seating on the cobbles in front. They have come to fruition and are evolving.

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Here the continental outside seating comes face to face with the British weather – the first bottle shop in otherwise gorgeous Chesham

Beer shops blur the edges between brewery tap rooms, shops and bars. This is in the context of supermarkets like Waitrose serving coffee and chain restaurants like Carluccios and Jamie Oliver’s flogging their own products – books, ingredients, cooking gear – within the eatery itself.

There is however, no confusion between the experience of drinking in a beer shop and drinking in a pub. This isn’t about the differing licences, either. With a beer shop, there is no illusion that you’re entering somebody’s lounge as there might be when visiting the Red Lion. The foundation here is basically the shop floor. The rest is added benefits. This is a much specialised form of the deli rather than the public house.

But maybe you could argue it’s in the eye of the beholder.

You also wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) session beer here as you might in a pub as that would defeat the object. It would be like filling cartons with a single sweet at the Pic n’ Mix. Yes, a beer shop is a confectioner’s boutique.

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I now feel that a market town isn’t complete without one – it fits in with the ethos perfectly. You inspect the wares on the shelves; try before you buy on the taps. What’s good? What’s local? But equally – what’s foreign, exotic and exciting in a sharing bottle?

Though I don’t want any more to be lost, the beer shop might one day gain as equal footing in communities as the pub.

Let me finish on this as proof of evolution. This is the beer shop in Hitchin. To me, it represents possibilities and the future. This isn’t a pub but a cross between a celebration and an analysis of beer. It’s been thoroughly thought out – the tasting tables separated from the bottle shelves as neatly as pub snugs used to be separated from the public lounge. The thing this establishment reminds me of most is a library – the archiving section and the reading section. This is the kind of set-up you get when you have an increasingly discerning clientele – the browsing and the study.

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Despite the onslaught of morris dancers, the beer shops in England’s market towns are leading the way. Beer has become a focus and a quest rather than a staple. The beer shop is something new in Britain. There is, of course, precedent in Belgium but the ones flowering in our market towns are raising the… what’s the word?

Bar.

vertical whimsy

vertical whimsy

Like many bloggers, vloggers, geeks and enthusiasts I have an affinity with Cloudwater Brew Co’s series of Double IPAs.

In the height of the summer in 2016, I visited the same pub several days in a row to purchase two thirds of version seven. It cost five pounds but because it requires time and rumination to consume it, the price seemed about right. Craft beer – which for this paragraph I’ll choose to mean beer from new breweries dispensed from keg – has a much lower profile in St Albans than in London. Proof of this is that the visits I made were all watered from the same single keg. I seemed to be the only one drinking it.

Lone sipping suited the experience because each time I’d contemplate what beer actually is, what it used to be and what it’s becoming. I’d watch the debate unfold in the surface of the liquid. Colourful images and recollections had their cameos and form the basis of this post. For reasons I’m still not certain about, instead of doing a vertical tasting between three DIPAs, I want to do it with two of the things version seven reminded me of.

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I’m doing a vertical tasting of Cloudwater Brew Co’s DIPA eleven, the syrup from a tin of Del Monte’s fruit cocktail and Libby’s Um Bongo.

This is a completely unscientific experiment. It’s based entirely on whimsy and if you’d rather more serious and informed reviews, then stop reading here. This is not a parody either. I’m a genuine fan of the beer. I want to get inside it, dismantle, label each component and put it back together again. I just want to go at it from different angles.

DIPA version 11 (ingredients on label in image):

I open the bottle and hold it under my nose. The fragrance I get is of tinned peaches. This sours up a bit when poured into the glass to become more like gin and lime or even the cleaved grapefruit some narcissists eat for breakfast.

On the eye, it’s a grimy butterscotch yellow but I can still see trills of bubbles soaring upwards. When you sip it, it’s well carbonated – different to most other high ABV beers. It really helps to slosh itself all over the palate.

I get a hit of fresh celery with a citrus background which could be unripe satsumas, lemons or limes. Through some sense you’re aware of the alcohol too but it’s not on the taste per se. It broods under the surface just out of reach from the olfactory bulb. I think of Sauron not yet able to take physical form.

The last thing to say is that the feel of the beer is “graty” – harsh like a desiccated raspberry blown in the desert. I feel it on the back of the throat.

Del Monte fruit salad syrup:

All I know about Del Monte is that there’s a man in a panama hat that visits farmsteads in tropical locations. He has the air of a Mafia don. Downtrodden peasants give him a sample of their wares, he bites into it, pauses and if it appeals, gives a nod to which the farmer shrieks “the man from Del Monte – he say yes!” Cursory research (meaning Wikipedia) reveals that Del Monte was actually the name of a hotel the fledgeling company originally blended coffee for. That’s the best I can do for something interesting.

In a glass this actually looks attractive. There’s a gleam to the liquid – almost a sparkle – a bit like pearls. Some tiny suspended fruit particles also put me in mind of things trapped in amber.

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On the nose it’s horrible. It’s like a Care Bear’s fart or one of those odd “fruit” scented rubbers we used to have at primary school (by rubber I mean eraser – the school wasn’t THAT bad). I go back to inhale from the DIPA and by comparison, the beer now has a mustard aroma.

The texture of the syrup is a pure satin gloss. It doesn’t actually taste of fruit either. It’s just sugar throughout. Returning to the glass of Cloudwater, I get more new experiences. Version eleven now tastes grassy or like straw with hints of mustard seed – cracked black pepper, even.

Um Bongo:

I have fond memories of Um Bongo. At some point in my childhood we suddenly started doing a lot of driving between Wales and England and I acquired a big red lever arch file, which to my memory, had nothing in it but it went with me everywhere. It was my fetish item. On the front was a round sticker that had probably come free with a comic. It had an elephant with eyes like whirlpools. The slogan underneath read: “Um Bongo makes you wongo”. It made me daydream about the jungle in the Congo but it was actually born and bred in Cumbria! Here are some of the finest lyrics ever penned:

“Way down deep in the middle of the Congo,
a hippo took an apricot, a guava and a mango.
He stuck it with the others and he danced a dainty tango.
The rhino said, “I know… we’ll call it Um Bongo!”
Um Bongo, Um Bongo, they drink it in the Congo!
The python picked the passion-fruit, the marmoset the mandarine,
the parrot painted packets that the whole caboodle landed in.
So when it comes to sun and fun and goodness in the jungle,
they all prefer the sunny, funny one they call Um Bongo!”

It actually smells of something root-like crossed with sweet orange squash. There’s a note of warm plastic too.

It’s disappointing to behold in the glass. It’s roughly the colour of lemon peel but with no depth or glow. Just a uniform colour agent I presume. It’s a bit like the water you rinse paint brushes in.

When you sip it, it’s absorbed osmotically and you feel the insides of your mouth light up. Through the sweetness, there’s a note of pineapple.

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This makes me realise the roles carbonation plays in beer. Not only does it lift the aroma towards you and make the liquid react in front of you, it helps transport the taste, feel and aftertaste. It makes beer a layered experience in comparison. I sipped the DIPA again after the notes jotted for Um Bongo and counted that the full experience lasts about seven seconds – the more complex the beer the longer this might take.

It also revealed a taste I’ve read others attribute to beer but I’ve never had: I tasted raw white onions.

Conclusion:

Drinking the beer alongside the other test subjects made me appreciate just how many depths there are to a beer – and I’ve only really covered the initial ones.

It’s strange. When I sipped the DIPA in the Craft and Cleaver last summer, Um Bongo and Fruit salad syrup were the two main tastes that played on my mind. That version of DIPA was of course different to this one. It drank more lusciously fruity. However, I don’t think that would have made a huge difference here because when you get notes of something in a complex beer and then go to that culprit itself, it doesn’t align to your memory.

Put another way, the Um Bongo refused to taste like my recollection of Um Bongo and the fruit salad syrup didn’t spark synapses into recognition either. Whatever data I keep in my head about a particular ingredient doesn’t match it in real life. Memory, or mine at least, is very fickle.

Session 120: Brown Beer

Session 120: Brown Beer

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This month, Brighton-based Joe Tindall hosts the 120th Friday Session and has chosen a topic that comes with some emotional baggage: brown beer.

He explains:

“The colour brown has certain connotations, some of which I won’t dwell on. But used in reference to beer, it can signify a kind of depressing old fashioned-ness – to refer to a traditional bitter as ‘brown’ seems to suggest it belongs to a bygone corduroy-trousered era. As breweries who pride themselves on their modernity focus on beers that are either decidedly pale or unmistakably black, the unglamorous brown middle ground is consistently neglected.

So for Session 120, let’s buck the trend and contemplate brown beer. This might be brown ale, or the aforementioned English bitter; it could be a malty Belgian brune, a dubbel or a tart oud bruin; even a German dunkel might qualify.”

Joe is absolutely right. It’s time to ditch this lazy prejudice. I have ripped off my corduroy trousers and thrown them from the upstairs window.

This also gives me an opportunity to add a local slant – I want to talk about a gem little known outside its native borders: Death or Glory by Tring Brewery.

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There are only a handful of long-running cask strong ales across Britain and this is Hertfordshire’s. Heavy abv beers have become legion over the past few years but this ale is an old-timer by comparison. Tring Brewery was founded in 1992 and Death or Glory was first brewed in 1994, so celebrates its twenty third birthday this year. It’s a 7.2 abv beer traditionally brewed on 25th October to commemorate the charge of the Light Brigade but is now produced numerous times a year.

It’s billed as a strong ale though if you wanted to shoehorn it, you could call it a barley wine. It features Styrian and Challenger hops and Maris Otter, Crystal and Chocolate malt.

It’s a beer that would mellow over a few days but doesn’t often get the chance; when it does the rounds across the beer engines of Hertfordshire, the cask can be completely emptied by the pub-goers on the day of tapping. You usually have to be quick on your feet down to the local to score some.

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What was noteworthy when it was first made is that it was aged – a process given to few beers at the time in Britain. It’s always matured for a month before release.

It’s in the midst of modern beers going into the citrussy hop jungles that this beer stands out even more. It’s of a different time and disposition. There is fruit but it’s not the modern pale oozing tropical juices – it’s more typically British. It reflects the climate; the conserves and the pickling. This has the taste of jams and chutneys, nods to brown sauce and Worcester sauce.

When it’s dispensed from a bottle, there’s an appropriate whoosh of carbonation when you crack it open but there are no runnels charging up the inside of the glass because the beer is too rich.

On the eye it’s like dark treacle. The aroma is of tar, stewed dark fruit, polished wood and bitumen. The palate reflects notes of black cherries, dandelion and burdock, iodine, molasses or brown sugar and that funfair staple – candied apples encased in a caramel amber. It’s viscous and sticky like the thrush-strewn berries along autumn gutters.

It laminates the tongue and inner maw like a glaze. It’s everything in all directions with the fruity hops in there somewhere clinging to flotsam in the maelstrom. It goes sweet, sickly sweet then bitter and retraces this circuit.

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I wanted to give an idea of this beer on cask so I rang the brewery. I was told if it would be anywhere it would be in the Lamb in Stoke Goldington in north Buckinghamshire. I contacted this pub and found out it’s on as a permanent! At my earliest opportunity, I embarked on a quest into this exotic county that borders mine – a proper Ernest Shackleton, me.

There’s a more rounded feel to the beer when it’s dispensed from beer engine. When you swallow it, it’s vaulted from the condition in the cask – it gives it more life and at the same time spreads it out more. It feels less adhesive and carries itself more lightly.

What really completes this ale is to understand the context it’s from. Currently, we’re in the middle of winter and the tarmac and cobbles have a zinc sparkle from the frost. It’s that time of year when we have to get up earlier to defrost the car and drive slower. It’s that time when walking, you lower your centre of gravity rounding a corner to get to the village inn and this is where Death or Glory comes into its own. It’s sitting here in a rural pub with an open fire that completes it.

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You grin daftly from the warmth and morph into a happy Christmas bauble. As you sit by the crackling hearth, you wonder whether mankind built stone dwellings and harnessed fire simply to complement a beer like this rather than the other way around.

This is where the beer was conceived and grew up. It isn’t refreshing but nourishing. It makes sense here in the biting jaws of January to help relax, thaw out and loosen sinews. It would make no sense in Sydney or in Palm Beach. It might have been fate that it was originally brewed at the end of October – just as we say goodbye to the sun and beer gardens.

Boring brown beer? Nope. Try endearing, satisfying, warming, luxuriant, complex, heartening, life-affirming, soothing brown beer. But like a lot of local staples the world over, you just might need to be in its land of origin at the right time to appreciate it fully.

Harvest Pale – the gateway beer

About a week ago I scanned the beer engines in a local and decided to have a pint of Harvest Pale from Castle Rock Brewery. This beer was awarded the Champion Beer of Britain by CAMRA in 2010 – roughly the time I started nurturing a serious interest in beer.

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It’s been a long time since I’ve had a pint of Harvest Pale. Like Landlord, Doom Bar and Tribute, it’s on permanently in pubs far from its home town – in HP’s case Nottingham. In my hunt for the new, I often neglect it simply to endlessly chart the rotating guests on offer.

It’s completely clear, golden and glowing with a glossy white head. There’s a grassy aroma as we’ve now come to expect from ales of this hue. Citrussy notes tantalise the lips before it’s even been transported across the gullet. These observations could be describing any number of modern pales.

It’s only after this initial introduction that an old school sweat returns; the humulone spritz segues into the warm greasy pastry from beers I moulded my palate on in the 1990s. This malty depth used to be hidden in plain sip as it haunted every pint of amber or golden cask ale.

The malt bringing up the rear – as dominant as the hops at the front – only registers now. It’s a character in itself and yet it’s been displaced during a time frame of little over six years. Taste and smell are hardwired to memory which otherwise fades. This is what makes this beer so special – it’s a sudden flashback to how things always were – suffixed onto the bouquet and palate of how things have become.

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There are other culprits that have had similar associations footnoted to them like Summer Lightening and Exmoor Gold, but this one is for the beer connoisseurs of my vintage. I don’t go back far enough for those beers to be game changers to me.

History gets faster and faster meaning the rate of change keeps accelerating. Culture turns. Social media pushes things forward. We strike out at the constantly new. Everything is in flux and few people are keeping tabs.

It seems that more has happened to beer in Britain in the six years since Harvest Pale won Champion Beer of Britain in 2010 than in the decades before it. For example, I don’t bat an eyelid when I see a DIPA on cask now. They’re being made by rural breweries who up until recently were trading on kitsch farming nostalgia on their pump clips. However, this time last year I’d never even had a DIPA via any dispense!

In 2010, CAMRA couldn’t have realised quite what a chimera this beer was. We talk of gateway beers but this made me think more of a bridge linking new beer with the old. For that reason, I now believe Harvest Pale is one of the most significant cask ales ever produced. I just never appreciated it up until now.

 

Session 119 Roundup: Discomfort Beer

Session 119 Roundup: Discomfort Beer

 

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Here is my roundup for Session 119 – Discomfort Beer:

Considering the squeezed time frame during the Christmas period with us bloggers hammering out Golden Pint Awards, Twelve Beers of Christmas and other festive gambols, I’m especially grateful to all who contributed.

Gary Gillman @beeretseq contributed a post within record time – almost before I’d sent out the request. He’s a true online grafter.

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He recalls an increase in ABV in beers from his native Quebec which caused sensory discomfort as well as the sharper hop profiles that started gaining a footing – particularly Cascade.

The Session: Exploring the Beer Discomfort Zone

Meanwhile from Boston USA, Mike Lynch @burgersbrews describes growing up disgracefully during his college days. His recollections also round on the Cascade hop as popularised by Sierra Nevada – a benchmark brewery for many.

Session 119: Discomfort Beer

The shock from pronounced hoppiness is echoed from this side of the pond too by Suzy from Lincoln in the UK @lincolnpubgeek. She recalls the trauma of hoppy beer colliding with a predilection for sweeter, darker ales – in this case the discomfort came from Brewdog’s Punk IPA. On realising how vast a magisterium beer is, she states:

“it was like getting on a ferry from Bangor and only then discovering that Ireland exists”
(just for the record – I was raised very close to the Bangor she alludes to in north Wales – not the one in Ireland. The latter would’ve added surreality to the quote).

Discomfort Beer – What is “hoppy”?

Jay Brooks is a Californian and makes clear his Discomfort Beer – it’s one I can agree with here in the U.K! I don’t believe I’ve ever had a chilli beer I can get down with and neither has he. Beer with chilli-infused food YES. Beer with chilli IN (often stouts – at least in Britain) – NO!

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http://brookstonbeerbulletin.com/session-119-the-discomfort-of-burning-mouth-beer/

Jack Perdue @deepbeer hails from Grasonville in Maryland and is working on crossing from one side of the beery planet – the rich quads and imperial stouts – to its antipode where sours, lambics and barnyard ales roam free. These more astringent numbers represent Discomfort Beer to him and he’s as determined to acquire their taste as he is to explore.

http://www.deepbeer.com/journal/2017/1/5/discomfort-beer

Back in Ontario, Alan @agoodbeerblog (abetterbeerblog427.com) talks about many beers but finally rounds on the hop-obsessed and often catch-all style of IPA – but not before going through some seriously unique tasting notes on Cantillon’s Bruocsella:

“quite plainly watery at the outset then acid and more acid…then one note of poo. Not refreshing to slightly sub-Cromwellian stridency”

Session 119: My Discomfort Beer

A nostalgic recollection takes us away from the hops and towards a critique of the body and what’s often seen as the cheaper stand-in for malts (though they can both be used to good effect by good breweries) – maize and corn. Leslie Patiño @lpatinoauthor lives in Texas and dwells on  some of the US beers of yesteryear that her father drank.

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Discomfort Beer

Mark Lindner @bythebbl is from Bend in Oregon. He is equally blessed and cursed insofar as he judges many beer contests but with a very discerning palate. He dislikes a lot of IPAs – something you seldom hear – and finds that his taste represents a thin sliver of a broad wedge. Pilsners, barley wines and imperial stouts are his favourites but getting an underwhelming one could be worse than sipping a bog-standard take on a more noxious style. His post is as analytical as it is complex.

Discomfort Beer (Session #119)

Also from Bend in Oregon and this time focussing on the malt (or in this case – as much what’s standing in for it), is @brewsite Jon Abernathy’s post about a beer he’s struggling to get acquainted with – white stout and the dubious lengths brewers go to to actually produce one.

The Session #119: Discomfort Beer

Kate Bernot @kbernot from New Jersey chose to talk about a beery cousin – mead. She recalls her first sickly sweet experience with a beverage that she ended up falling for and it proves that even when restricted to one element (honey), there is still a world of variety.

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this sumptuous image was taken by Jill McNamara – photo editor for Draft Magazine

http://draftmag.com/the-session-discomfort-beer-mead/

Back in Cornwall UK, Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey @BoakandBailey dissected the topic in their typically cerebral style. They point out that taste and discomfort are rarely fixed – over time, they’re as fluid as our tastes in anything else. The post image they use is also spot-on:

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http://boakandbailey.com/2017/01/discomfort-beer-saison-tripel-brett-and-kriek/#comment-71788

Andreas Krennmair @der_ak is from Linz in Austria but currently resident in Berlin. He brought his experience of home brewing to talk about his initial taste of Orval and goes into the associated history of “keeping beer” or stock pale ales. The link between Orval and these styles was an education to me.

My Discomfort Beer

Gareth @Coluleeds originally from Leeds UK (but now an Essex lad), recalls innocently ordering a glass of Oude Gueuze at a beer festival in Belgium. To be accustomed to a sweet warming Blonde or Brune and then get choked by the aggressive sour hands of a Gueuze must be a real shock. He also glimpsed a revered demigod meditating in a tent…..

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Session 119 – Discomfort Beer

Rebecca Pate @rpate has roots in Canada but dwells in and chronicles the frenzy that is brewing in east London. Here she reflects on the osmotic way she takes to new beer styles; her palate adapts to most and evolves accordingly. But she was given pause recently after trying a floral kuitbier. Definitely a new one on me – read on!

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http://www.brewingeast.com/home/2017/1/4/the-session-119-discomfort-beer

Joe Tindall @FatalGlass picks a beer style he initially disliked – and I can join him in reviling it – smoked beer or Rauchbier. He refers to how the palate adjusts to ever more bitter flavours – with hops it’s the lupulin threshold shift (I cannot wait to bring up this term in a loud voice next time I’m in the pub. Thank you Joe!). In Rauchbier’s case, the aggressor’s the smoked malt. He took on this demon and won.

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Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

http://thefatalglassofbeer.blogspot.co.uk/2017/01/wholly-smoke.html

Stan Hieronymus @StanHieronymus (the father of The Session) lives in St Louis in Missouri. He delves back to some of the earliest memories of drinking and the dislike it can kindle as a young spectator; viz his father drinking with friends and the stench of tobacco. Isn’t most people’s first experience of beer negative? I believe so. It’s the original acquired taste.

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The Session #119: Feeling comfortable

Finally, and perhaps fittingly for someone into endurance sport, Derrick Peterman @ramblings_oa_br from Campbell, California adds a new depth to this discussion: he talks about discomfort somatically and the way you push yourself psychologically to absorb the pain of running or to adapt to new beer styles. One style that just can’t grow on him though, is American Barley Wine.

http://beer-runner.blogspot.co.uk/2017/01/the-session-119-dealing-with-discomfort.html

 

2017

2017

2017: a year that doesn’t roll off the tongue

Well 2017’s here. Whether it will be as full of upheaval and death as its predecessor, I doubt. But if it is, then current affairs will replace benzedrine this coming year.

I’m sharing with you not so much two new year’s resolutions as two statements of intent. They almost contradict each other:

1 – drink more German beer on tap (which will necessitate going to London).

2 – explore the shire in which I now live instead of constantly visiting London.

Statement number one reflects that the best beer I had in 2016 waited until late December. It was a glass of Lagerbier Hell from Augustiner-Bräu – Munich’s oldest brewery. It was dispensed from keg at the Beer Shop in St Albans. At the time, the town was in a fifteen tog duvet of freezing fog so imagine how much more appealing this beer would be in the swelter of summer. Speaking of which, I also had a brief fling with Kölsch at the end of May (this time just in bottle) so that’s twice I got seduced by Deutsches Bier in 2016.

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German bottled beer is delicious – but I’ve had a taste from tap now

Lager is like the tide sweeping in over a salt flat. When it’s good it’s the most ravishing beer. It’s gorgeous and it’s always been there for me to ignore. Why?

My ignorance of German beer might also be linked to the fact that the bottled version often pales against its tap version. Apart from a few examples like Franziskaner Weissbier, I rarely see variety of German beer on draught – even in London. That’s why the Lager from the beer shop was such an eye-opener.

It’s also in stark contrast to IPA which has in one popular guise put itself on a path of convergent evolution with Um Bongo. IPA is rapidly becoming the syrup at the bottom of tinned fruit both in taste and consistency. It’s lovely but it’s beginning to miss an elemental part of beer: the refreshment.

The problem is I have been fixated on the British and the American with small cameos from Belgium for years now. In part, I think it’s because I’ve subconsciously convinced myself to ignore beer from large established breweries (unless, hypocritically, it happens to be Fullers). It’s time to put that right in 2017.

The second statement isn’t a swipe against the capital. I love it. It’s in me and always will be. I’ve worked for the same borough council now for over ten years so come into it each week. On my adventures around Westminster, I often pass pubs I don’t know and peer through the windows to try and discern the outfit that runs it and the beer it serves based on the pump clip silhouettes. I always used to put down markers for when I was off duty. We moved out in 2011 but the compulsion to go to London during down time carried on.

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the main drag through Sarrat

But this means I have neglected Hertfordshire where I now live. It’s to my great shame that it wasn’t until 2016 I finally visited places like Sarrat and Watford on beery days out. The older pub-goers I know in St Albans that are or were plumbers, milkmen and builders all know the surrounding areas. The people that moved up from London tend to be completely ignorant of them. In St Albans’ case, this isn’t actually a new phenomenon as it’s always been a commuter town and owes its wealth to the big smoke. On the street I live on, most people still work in London so the north/south commute is the norm. The east/west axis doesn’t exist.

The villages and towns in Hertfordshire are connected by wiggly arterial bus routes that take time and often require you change at least once. Since moving to St Albans, I haven’t been on a single bus. I actually had to ask a local codger whether bus drivers take payment (my recent experience only being London) as I genuinely didn’t know. I was also given a piece of advice: never wait to get the last bus – it might never come.

But out there in Hertfordshire’s multiple ayots, garden cities and steads, there are breweries of mystery and brew pubs of legend. They are mine to discover along with the shaggy creatures that run and frequent them. I have big feet for my short body so I’d make an excellent hobbit. It’s finally time to cut across country in 2017.

Happy new year!