First Contact

Adapted from ‘The George at Cley’ by Dun.can from Flickr under Creative Commons.

A glamorous, terrifying whirl of light, lushness and noise — that’s my earliest memory of The Pub.

I was about seven or eight and on a family holiday in Cley next the Sea, Norfolk. We usually stayed in slightly scary bed-and-breakfasts (out by ten and don’t come back until tea time) but that year, for some reason, we were in the George Hotel. My memories are of gorgeously deep red carpets and a baronial fireplace whose scale and richness are probably being exaggerated in the data recall process.

The moment I recall most vividly, the instance when my crush on The Pub was formed, is from after dark. I’d been put to bed and told to stay there with a warning: under no circumstances was I to come down to the public bar. But I needed something, in the way only small children can need something, and so I had to go down to where I could hear everyone laughing and having fun without me.

I was awed by the experience. Everything was sparkling and everyone was aglow, including my parents, surrounded by friends and gently, sociably tipsy, in the midst of a crowd of merry strangers.

The illusion was shattered when they spotted me and, in a half-panic, bundled me back upstairs with a telling off, but it was too late.

I’d seen where adults went to play, and I liked it, and thirty years on, I still do.

Magical Mystery Pour Bonus: Tempest Mexicake

Tempest Mexicake in the glass.

Tempest’s 11% ABV chilli-infused imperial stout, Mexicake, didn’t immediately appeal to me, because it sounds like the kind of beer people invent for their ‘Hur, hur, dumb hipsters’ jokes. But, wow, was it good.

This is a kind of Magical Mystery Pour deleted scene. Dina, you might recall, was our first selector more than a year ago, and very kindly sent us this and another beer as part of a Christmas gift box last December.

There are beers to which you respond intellectually, and those for which you just have a pash. This one made me go wobbly: ‘Blimey!’ was the only note I managed for the first few minutes. When I tried to expand on that, still reeling, I came out with I now know is called a malaphor: ‘That ticks a lot of my buttons.’

Then I said ‘Mmmmmmm’, three times before my brain engaged.

It was black with a dirty brown head, like something that might leak from the engine of one of those spiky cars in a Mad Max film. It felt dense, syrupy and velvety, and tasted like treacle. The chilli was subtle, almost possible to confuse with bitterness in the muddled wiring of the brain, and really worked. As it warmed up I began to think more of chocolate and vanilla but, really, there were lots of different flavours bouncing around. It might be easiest just to say, ‘It tastes of everything.’ (Except oddly, and thankfully, the advertised cinnamon.)

This was proof that big beers can also be perfectly balanced. Delightful. Bring me another!

The Flat, Warm Pints of London Town

Illustration: a flat pint.

I didn’t realise I’d missed London’s characteristically headless, lifeless, lukewarm pints of beer until I had one on Friday.

It was brown, weary-tasting, with barely a fleck of scum on the surface, and yet… I kind of loved it.

I’m not saying this kind of thing is good, or that I wouldn’t have preferred something with a bit of condition given the option, but confronted with it in that moment, it resonated with my homesickness like the stink of a hometown factory.*

For many Londoners, perhaps less so now than it used to be, I’m sure this is actually a preference: no space wasted by mere froth, maximum possible booze for your cash. I remember friends from my sixth-form college and Leyton Orient supporting days grumbling if they were served even slightly foamy pints: ‘What’s going on ‘ere — are we up Norf or summink?’

I didn’t say when I Tweeted about it but the pint in question was at the usually very reliable Royal Oak in Borough, our favourite London pub these days. I stayed drinking there with friends until we got booted out so it can’t have been so bad.

But that’ll do me for a while — back to cool, properly conditioned beers with proper heads now, I think.

* Not an abstract example — Bailey grew up under the foul cloud of British Cellophane and gets sentimental when he smells anything similarly disgusting.

Yarrow, Alecost and Nightmares

Old illustration of yarrow leaves.
Yarrow leaves. SOURCE: Köhler’s Medicinal Plants, 1887, via Biodeversity Library.

I’m all about Harvey’s at the moment. It’s all I wanted to drink in London the other week, and about all I’m interested in drinking now we’re back in Penzance.

Last night, I pulled something of theirs from the back of the stash that, somehow, I’ve never got round to tasting before even though we got several bottles as part of a mixed case last year: Priory Ale.

This beer isn’t on sale anymore but think of this as general commentary on beer with weird herbs rather than as a review and it might have some use.

It’s 6% — a bit indulgent for a school night but not madly so — but the kick is in the small print. It was released in 2014 to mark the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes and was ‘brewed using ingredients that were available to the Cluniac Order at the Priory of St. Pancras in 1264’. The mash included barley, oats and wheat and it was boiled with both hops and yarrow. It was then dry-herbed with alecost, rosemary and thyme during fermentation.

I can’t lie — on reading the blurb, my first thought was, ‘Uh-oh.’ Thyme and rosemary don’t really work in beer, or at least I haven’t yet acquired the taste, making everything a seem bit sickly and savoury.

On tasting it, my first thought was of medicinal shampoo, then of cough sweets, which I guess must mean some memory of menthol firing in my brain. Alecost is sometimes known by the name ‘Mary’s mint’ or variations thereon so perhaps that’s what I was picking up? The rosemary and thyme rose up as the beer went on, overriding everything by the end, like some kind of cotton bag you might hang in a wardrobe to give your bonnets a pleasant fragraunce. Or a leg of lamb.

Most disappointingly from my point of view, it lacked that distinctive Harvey’s character on which I am hooked.

It was not a relaxing beer. Being kind, I’d say it was stimulating, but maybe nerve-jangling is more honest. It put me on edge. ‘I think this is going to give me nightmares,’ I said on turning in.

And do you know, something certainly did.

QUICK ONE: Too Many Breweries: Bureaucracy Edition

We used to have a few breweries making lots of beer; now we have lots of breweries each making a small amount. That’s great news for consumers but a nightmare for the taxman.

I’ve long been fascinated by this because, in a past life, I had dealings with the section of HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs) that manages duty returns on alcohol. Back then, c.2003, it was quite possible for them to carry out a hands-on assessment of something like 98% of all beer production by visiting a handful of large brewing plants.

As the number of breweries has grown (we’re at about 1,500 now, from around 400 in 2002) I’ve often found myself wondering whether they bother inspecting at all, especially given that small brewers pay relatively less tax anyway thanks to progressive beer duty (PBD).

My assumption has been that microbreweries operate more-or-less on an honesty box system but I never got round to investigating with brewers, firing off FOI requests, and so on.

Now, as part of a wider point about fair play, this fascinating, tax-geek friendly blogpost from Dave Bailey of Hardknott Brewery has gone some way to answering my question:

Then, all of a sudden, the banking crisis and subsequent deficit hit hard. One day we decided to throw a whole tank full of beer away. I tried to contact the officer in HMRC and was told he had been moved out of the beer duty department and in fact HMRC wasn’t chasing the likes of us anyway. Funding to the officers was slashed and there was no one left to help us. We were almost told that we could do what we liked.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Dave was right and that some people had decided to take advantage of that situation. Fortunately for the Government this will probably be, to a certain extent, self-policing — that is to say, brewers will dob each other in.

Main image: HMRC by Steven Vacher from Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.