On a summer’s day, the front door of the Black Stag in St Albans is hooked open to allow some of the light and oxygen in, though this freshness never reaches the innermost recesses. In the pub’s darker crannies, the stale homely comfort is retained.
From the bottom of Keyes Close, you can gaze up the slope from two hundred feet and look straight up the front steps into the bar, and at the customers who obscure it. The public lounge completes the hill’s brow.
Pete’s dumpy frame has a lightness to it as though a deity’s fingers have plonked him in front of the bar like a bauble. From his nape, silver hair is a four seasons flourish by Vivaldi. His gut faces the beer engines, left hand resting on the bar as if to halt it from rocking as he scans the selection. Each badge seems to be fluorescent green with skull motifs.
He’s completely blunt about hating New World hoppy beers. End of.
“Dear me” he says under his breath, “there was less shit on Noah’s Ark…..” He emits a bark as a chaser to his Noel Coward wit. Dave, the young barman serving, tries to reflect the humour to be polite – the emotion doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “Everything’s trying to be American. Whatever happened to good old British?”
Dave reads the back of the clip from the beer engine at the end. He rests his palm on the pull. The image is of Lincoln castle surmounted by a crown. It’s gold emblazoned.
“There’s this from Stout Castle Brewery in Lincolnshire. The Golden Best – it’s made with Maris Otter barley from Suffolk.” Dave offers, “Would you like a taster?”
Pete gives the nod. The beer engine is heaved twice and a pale spritz with froth is discharged, roiling into the bottom of a half pint glass. Pete takes it, plunges his pug nose in and inhales deeply. Theatrics ensue.
“Aaah!” enthuses Pete. “Lovely and biscuity!” He takes a sip and smacks his lips loudly. He loses himself in the moment – mouth pucking open and shut like a goldfish. Some of the folk around the bar pause in their conversations to look towards the source. “That’s more like it – some good old-fashioned balanced British ale!” He beams with both rows of teeth. “Pint of, please, bosun.” he winks.
Dave’s eyes scrutinise the back of the pump clip again, seeing that it reads: “hopped with Amarillo, Chinook and Columbus”. He draws breath to speak, prompting Pete to raise his eyebrows in anticipation of dalliance anew. He has his full attention. If Pete had an epée, it would be held forwards at waist height.
“Only -” Dave stumbles, envisioning the tripping hazards he’s placing onto the course before removing them again. “Yeah it’s just good old-fashioned British”. He shoots a fugitive glance at Pete to make sure his evasive action passed under the radar. It did.
A golden pint is drawn.