The pores of your skin dilate from the lurid heat. The way the light in the evening sends people’s shadows spilling across the ground, you’d expect to see a mushroom cloud on the horizon. God it’s hot.
The lounges and snugs of St Alban’s public houses gape empty and still. The illuminated beer founts glow alone in the darkness. This void hasn’t come about due to the death of business but very much because of its health: everybody’s outside in the oven glow of August.
When summer gives over to autumn in this country, it’s the sun’s last stand. Over the past few weeks we’ve witnessed its nuclear core in its final charge. It’s going over the top.
The customers sunbathe at picnic tables in the beer gardens. Pale-skinned people have finally darkened and the elasticity patterns and strap lines of June have been absorbed by these brown-hided herds.
People move at a slower pace and pints of ale carried aloft navigating their way through the tables glow like nodes of clearest honey. Glasses of red wine become rubies, white wine refracts like diamond.
In the garden of the Mermaid, a beer festival/contest is taking place: Oakham Ale’s pale beers versus Titanic Brewery’s dark beers. The weather would suggest a bias towards the former but the victor hasn’t yet been called. A rack of twelve casks tilt respectfully towards the drinker. These precious pupae require reverse parental care whereby their nappies need to be kept moist. This keeps the contents of the casks’ bellies cool. Each time the diapers dry out, the pressurised hose comes out again.
My own leaning is in favour of Oakham Ales but the two halves I had from Titanic did give the Staffordshire brewer a little leap up in my book. The Cappuccino Porter tasted more like its eponym than the sweet caffeine froth itself and defeated the Peterborough brewer’s gingery Oblivion. But then Velvet Claws by Oakham saw off Last Porter Call – bold grapefruit, pine and lemon zest trumped dry roast coffee and malt.
The parks have also caught the sun and the sward is exhausted like the edges of burned parchment. Concrete pathways appear to have quartz marbling from the diffusion of sunlight through the canopies. Several weeks ago twitching clusters of ragwort heads glowed an impossible yellow – each petal imprinted like a mercury blade onto the retina when you shut your eyes. Now they’re reduced to faded crepe paper.
The townscape is seen as if through smoked glass, the buildings look like aged photographs of themselves.
For the second year running, the Sopwell area of St Albans is running a Sopfest over the August bank holiday. Six pubs are taking part. The beer range has improved this year and become as varied as it’s possible for cask ale to get. It covers fruit beer, Saison, spirit aged, milk stout, black IPA, barley wine, porter, Belgian pale, wheat beer and honey ale. It even has the odd archaic bitter.
People are having halves in pint glasses because we’ve all turned from swillers to nosers. This used to be done furtively by appreciators of fine ale for fear of social ridicule. It’s now done proudly and publicly. With a beer aged in rum casks you’d have to be dead for your eyes not to swivel back with post-coital bliss into the back of your skull from inhaling the aroma.
I hear my name called by a shape. You can’t recognise people right in front of you as they’re a pastel silhouette – you need to raise your arm in a hook over your brow to see them.
Before the bank holiday weekend comes to a close, there’s live music on in the White Lion garden. I’m drawn in to an acoustic version of Cockney Rebel’s “come up and see me” by a bearded man in his sixties wearing a straw hat. To shudders of glee from the audience he then tightens the pitch his voice and actually nails “kiss!” by Prince. I witnessed this within reach of the beer stillage. A pint of pale ale seeded with Belgian Saison yeast complimented the experience.
Young mothers dance barefoot with their toddlers on the grass and fat couples snog each other as the vault above us turns from white to golden to crimson. Darkness is finally creeping in though it’s still balmy. This is where I have my last beer of Sopfest – Bona Nox by the brewery I started this post with: Oakham Ales. The title is latin for good night and served as my august nightcap.