In the midst of all the events taking place during the summer, I visited the Lower Red Lion in St Albans (the comparative prefix comes from the fact there used to be another Red Lion up the hill). On cask was an ale with an extra element that divided the customers: watercress. On the palate, there were sparks of green and blue in there amidst the chorus of orange and pink – that’s the synesthesia of my drinking recollection. This was a beer you rolled around the tongue.
Watercress Ale is brewed by Paradigm Brewery in Sarratt. At first glance, Sarratt (pronounced to rhyme with carrot) looks like a place name from Brittany or even Catalonia but it lies to the south west of Hertfordshire near the Buckinghamshire border. Watercress will undoubtedly have been added to ale before – especially in the pre-hop days of hedgerow gruit, but I don’t recognise it as a thing and there are few breweries currently doing it.
Brewing with botanicals has become a new norm. I hate the term botanical when it’s used in brewing because of its shampoo advert sterility. It should also be noted that the hops and the malt are botanical too but the moniker never applies to them! In any case, what’s rare in Britain is to find a brewer that exploits the local flora for these ingredients. There are examples – some of the mead makers in London use Hackney honey and some Kent brewers use native molluscs in their oyster stouts. Williams Brothers in Clackmannanshire have also made ales with local kelp and heather.
But nowadays it’s more typical to brew with imported ingredients whether that be tea, cocoa nibs, coffee, molasses, chilli, blood oranges, mangoes, vanilla, coconuts or the most imported ingredient of them all – the new world hops.
In the context of cooking up the local greenery, Paradigm brewery makes me think of another rural producer: Jester King in Texas. Just hear me out here: Jester King’s website is basically Edenic rural porn. Each image is of glowing refraction through stemmed glasses, weathered casks, sunlight dappled across verdure, high fertile canopies and mountains of nature’s harvest: oranges, peaches, melons, squashes, lemons, loquats (look it up), apricots, grapes – all ripe and glorifying in the Texan sun. Well stick with me here – this is our toned-down home counties equivalent. Our version however, is a land of trickling, of wetness clinging to brambles, low mists and slate skies. A watercress bed is such a perfect emblem of the local geography of the Thames Valley. It bears the same gentle characteristics.
I visited Sarratt on Tuesday. I could see the first signs of winter – the grass in the churchyard bore a frosted tinge like the bleached highlights in hair. Breathing in was fresh and life-affirming but coupled with an urge to cover up the throat. The chill was tempered by the aroma from cattle which was strangely comforting. Tramping across the fields was like entering into a cloud and I loved it. The atmosphere hangs ancient and still as you descend into the cleavage of the Chess valley. Cool moisture, serene and refreshing. With the sun hidden, there were no shadows and the edges of everything disappear into the shroud. These are also fitting conditions to acquaint myself with true watercress; the aquatic plant packed with iron.
The chalk streams of Herts, Beds and Bucks are ideal for farming watercress. In the 19th century it was a business that thrived and the yield would get sold in London in places like Covent Garden. The adjacent land to the chalk rivers was also conditioned for the growing of wheat. The heads and chaff were used in the brewing and milling trades, the stalks were used in the straw plaiting process. Places like Luton, St Albans, Watford and Hemel Hempstead had literally thousands of people working as plaiters and hundreds of hat makers (hence why Luton FC fans are known as the hatters).
E Tyler & Sons Watercress bed straddles the river Chess. It has a well-weathered fridge in the front garden from which the public can help themselves to bags of fresh watercress and leave the money in an honesty box.
My teeth rent into the leaves and stalks. Initially they tasted a bit like tonic water, then came the grassy chlorophyll followed by the radish-like dry heat. But then it reverberated like an iron sheet struck by a hammer – that metallic note just resonating like a tuning fork. You end up blowing clouds of vapour to try and reduce the temperature. I could still taste it when I got back home a couple of hours later. This is potent stuff. If the beer tasted like this it would be undrinkable. The tiny shamrock-sized leaves you get sprouting from a sponge square in small plastic containers from supermarkets are a world away from the lolloping triffids that thrive in the chalk streams of the Chess.
5 kilograms of watercress go into a 550 litre volume of beer. This is enough to cause the drinker to take notice but not enough to overwhelm. At 3.6 ABV it’s a gentle beer as restrained as the landscape it’s cultivated and brewed in. At the time of writing the liquid was fermenting in “Pinky” (the vessel in the background is Perky) ready to be bottled for the first time.
I like this ale for two reasons: firstly, I simply liked drinking it in The Lower Red. I had a trial half followed by a confirmatory pint. Secondly, it stands for a place, a trade, local flora and a heritage that all get captured in a fermentor and end up presented in a glass. It deserves Protected Designation of Origin status.
I’d love it if in a few years’ time in Colorado, a bearded customer in a baseball cap and shades scanned the chalk board to see the beers on offer and asked the host:
“What I was really looking for was a HSA. Do you have one?”
“Hertfordshire Stream Ale? Sure. We got this one. It’s come all the way from Sarratt” (except now it rhymes with cravat).