And so we’ve reached the last ever Session. It’s the swansong and Stan Hieronymus asks us to nominate a final beer for the road. Out of all the beers I’ve sunk throughout my life, what’s the one I’d choose again at the end?
I’ve decided to go back to my beery beginnings – to my teenage years in mid 1990s Oxfordshire. The ale in question is Brakspear Bitter, and though it survives, it has in a sense died and been reincarnated.
From 1779, Brakspear ales were brewed in Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. In 2002, it was bought out by Wychwood from nearby Witney. Later, it was swallowed by Marston’s to became a diminutive player in that brewing giant’s massive portfolio.
Back then, because I was being weaned onto it, ale still held a challenging bitterness. The staples I recall around at the time included Morrells, Morlands, Wadworth and Flowers. Brakspear stood out because it had a sweeter edge which made it more palateable – a view shared by my father. I subconsciously connected Brakspear with honey – have a look at the branding and see if you can guess why.
These days I live in Hertfordshire where this ale isn’t seen so frequently so I’ve headed out to the small village of Redbourn to seek out the Holly Bush – one of the remaining Brakspear-managed pubs.
Redbourn isn’t dissimilar to a small Oxfordshire hamlet (being only two counties away), but the terraced houses have keystoned doors that open directly onto the lounge and the local parish church is crowned with a Hertfordshire spike. Rural architecture in England can be very parochial, and I can be overly heedful to it.
Dating from 1595, the Holly Bush is a gleaming pearl of a pub haunted by wee bearded men. Above, hoadrid oak beams glumper into the brickwork’s dark gloaks.
I order a pint of Brakspear Bitter – it’s served to me in a weighty dimple mug and I retire to a bare settle to take my first swig of the Brakspears in quite some time.
A metallic tang hits the roof of the mouth taking me back to my first experiences of ale. The bitter fluid transubstantiates into a liquid caramel. The sweetness (what I used to regard as honey) subsides to become more organic: the long dry stalks of meadow grass I’d snap from the pathway banks of childhood to champ on as I walked. The mulch becomes chewable malt like a sponge or yorkshire pudding. The carbonation on the palate tingles like the pin pricks of light in a clear night sky.
The lasting impression is of wood – the taste and the fastness – burnished and bold.
I’m very fond of this pint but this isn’t the beer I want for the road because it’s 2018 and I’m forty one. Instead, I want the Brakspear Bitter from when I was sixteen and cared nought for the ale’s backstory. I was there on best behaviour. The older generation of my family got the drinks in. When recollections of beer come from my teenage years, they acquire an added layer of acuity which is lent more to fantasy than objective tasting.
Beer is a combination of water, hops, malt and yeast. I don’t know whether these four simple ingredients honour how it was originally brewed in Henley-on-Thames, but beer is also a conduit to earlier chapters in life – a palatine shortcut to experiences that only grow brighter in the memory for a time when we were clean of slate, blank of canvas, unsullied.
The honey bee (apis mellifera) has been fixed in my mind but as the years go on, you question yourself. The insect depicted on the brand is too tubby, its stripes too binary; it more resembles a bumble bee (bombus) of which there are myriad species – none of which produce honey. The power of suggestion, therefore, has been compromised.
During a mythical summer in Oxfordshire in the early 1990s, an outdoor table was weathering under the sun. It stood in the beer garden of a pub casting a long shadow on the browning lawn. Dripping vessels of blazing gold and amber were plonked on the surface – they glowed like geodes of precious stone. Refracted through glass, white-tipped trapezoids distended out across the bleached struts.
If it weren’t for memories like these, our obsession for beer might never get kindled in the first place.
This evocation is the perfect final beer because its legend has been projected onto the clouds from my mind’s eye. If I could go back to that summer’s day in the Oxfordshire beer garden, I might find that the ale isn’t a patch on the halcyon I’ve moulded it into over the years, but it’s this irretrievable embellished savour I want with me on my final outing.