Pub Life: The Weegie and the Marbles

Illustration: "Old Boy With Pint".

An old pub in a quiet part of a busy city, and an elderly regular, watery-eyed and pale as paper, is sunk in his usual seat waiting for something to happen.

He looks at the TV, then at his newspaper, then at his watch. He stares into space, and perhaps into the past. He lines up the spare beer mats, then shuffles them out of line again.

Then, at least, some real excitement: a mixed group of twentysomethings enters, laughing and chattering. They are all tall, stylish, and distinctly Mediterranean.

The Regular’s glittering eyes track them across the pub carpet. Two per cent of a smile appears on his thin lips.

The Visitors are quietly excited to be in a Real English Pub, staring at the ceiling, the ornate bar, the prints and mirrors.

They all thrust bank notes at one woman, apparently the best English speaker, and shove her towards the bar as they take over the table next to the Regular.

The Regular, his neck long gone, slowly turns his entire torso so he can watch them. The smile increases by another degree.

“Where you from?” he gargles in their direction.

The Visitors freeze and mutter attempted translations at each other. The second best English speaker, bearded and quiffed, acts as spokesman.

“We come from Greece.”

The Regular nods – of course, he thought as much.

“Well, me – I’m a Weegie.”

Silence. Baffled blinking.

“A Glaswegian.”

Further muttering.

“I’m from Glasgow.”

Bulbs light up.

“Ah! Glasgow! Yes, we know it! Alex Ferguson! Celtic football club!”

A lucky guess, apparently, as the Regular is not offended, but after this breakthrough, conversation stalls.

Lagers and gins are sipped as the Greeks look anxiously at each other – when is it acceptable to start talking among themselves again?

After an uncomfortable while, the Regular shifts some phlegm about, and leans closer.

“So,” he says, “here’s what I’m wondering…”

“Yes?”

“When are the English going to give you back those Elgin Marbles?”

And with that, the conversation really catches light.

A Tale of Three Pours

Mural at the Poechenellekelder, Brussels.

There’s a certain ceremony to the way beer is poured in Belgium, except when there isn’t, and no two waiters have quite the same technique.

At the legendary Poechenellekelder in central Brussels, opposite the statue of the wee boy, we watched a clownishly expressive waiter turn the pouring of a beer into performative professionalism.

He popped the cap with a flourish, almost seeming to pause for applause, angled the glass, and began to pour slowly.

Assessing the development of the head, he frowned and gave the bottle a sudden jerk 30 centimetres into the air, for just the briefest moment, causing the foam to surge, but not much.

When he put the beer down on the table, smooth white sat half a centimetre above the rim of the glass, as solid as a macaron, and there wasn’t a speck of yeast in the body of the beer.

The Worrier

Sitting outside a cafe that seems to be called Primus Haacht with portions of blistered, gilded frites from Maison Antoine, we saw a Belgian waiter get it wrong. He poured Westmalle Tripel too vigorously and sighed with dismay as it flowed over his hand like milk, splattering on to the paving stones.

“It’s fine, we don’t mind.”

“No, no, it’s not acceptable… I’m gonna change it. I have to change it. Please, I’m sorry, wait here.”

The second attempt was over-cautious and, sure, we ended up with more beer in the glass, but it didn’t look anywhere near as good.

The Casual

At Beers Banks, our local on Rue Général Leman, we marvelled at burly, efficient barmen who treated Trappist beers and alcohol free pilsner with about the same level of respect.

They upended bottles and flung the contents out as if they were emptying tins of tomatoes into cooking pots, glancing over their shoulders and talking, slamming glasses down on the bar to save seconds here and there.

But do you know what? Somehow every pour was PR photoshoot perfect.

Session #142: Funeral Beer

Guinness.

This is our contribution to the final edition of the Session hosted by Stan Hieronymus: “Pick a beer for the end of a life, an end of a meal, an end of a day, an end of a relationship. So happy or sad, or something between. Write about the beer. Write about the aroma, the flavor, and write about what you feel when it is gone.”

Funeral beer is whatever beer they have on at the pub near the crematorium, or the social club in town.

That usually means big brand lager or smoothflow bitter. Auntie Joan on the sherry, let’s raise a whisky in memory, it’s what they would have wanted.

Or Guinness.

And, let’s face it, Guinness fits a funeral best of all, permanently dressed in that old black suit.

It feels as if Ireland owns funeral drinking in some sense born of stereotypes and heavy literature, so even if you aren’t even slightly Irish on your mother’s side, Guinness fits.

It is dark, slow, bitter.

And these days, a little sad, too.

A monochrome beer for a monochrome mood, sitting on your stomach like a raincloud.

Citra as Brand, Like Bacon as Brand, Like Chocolate as Brand

Detail from a 1943 advert for Lifesavers depicting fruit on a tree.

Every now and then we’ll reach a point in a conversation where the person opposite wants to know, “What’s a good beer I should be looking out for, then?”

This used to be fairly easy to answer, but with more breweries, and more beers, and what feels like a tendency away from the concept of the core range or flagship beer, it’s become tricky.

There are beers we like but don’t get to drink regularly enough to say we know, and others that we love but don’t see from one year to the next.

Last time someone asked, though, it just so happened that we’d reached a conclusion: “Well, not a specific beer, but you can’t go wrong with anything with Citra in the name.”

We were thinking of Oakham Citra, of course – the beer that effectively owns this unique American hop variety in the UK, and has done since 2009.

In his excellent book For the Love of Hops Stan Hieronymus provides a potted history of the development of Citra:

[Gene] Probasco made the cross in 1990 that resulted in the Citra seedling. At the time brewers didn’t talk about what would later be called ‘special’ aroma, but “that’s where all the interest seems to be these days,” he said. In 1990 he cross-pollinated two plants, a sister and brother that resulted from a 1987 cross between a Hallertau Mittelfrüh mother and a male from an earlier cross… [In 2001 hop chemist Pat Ting] shipped a two-pound sample to Miller… Troy Rysewyk brewed a batch called Wild Ting IPA, dry hopping it with only Citra… “It smelled lke grapefruit, lychee, mango,” Ting said. “But fermented, it tasted like Sauvignon Blanc.”

Citra was very much the hot thing in UK brewing about six or seven years ago. It was a sort of wonder hop that seemed to combine the powers of every C-hop that had come before. It was easy to appreciate – no hints or notes here, just an almost over-vivid horn blast of flavour –and, in our experience, easy to brew with, too.

We’re bad at brewing; Amarillo often defeated us, and Nelson Sauvin always did; but somehow, even we made decent beers with Citra.

Now, with the trendsetters having moved on, Citra continues to be a sort of anchor point for us. If there’s a beer on offer with Citra in the name, even from a brewery we’ve never heard of, or even from a brewery whose beers we don’t generally like, we’ll always give it a try.

Hop Back Citra, for example, is a great beer. It lacks the oomph of Oakham’s flagship and bears a distinct family resemblance to many of the Salisbury brewery’s other beers (“They brew one beer with fifteen different names,” a critic said to us in the pub a while ago) but Citra lifts it out of the sepia. It adds a pure, high note; it electrifies.

Since concluding that You Can’t Go Wrong With Citra, we’ve been testing the thesis. Of course we’ve had the odd dud – beers that taste like they got the sweepings from the Citra factory floor, or were wheeled past a single cone on the way to the warehouse – but generally, it seems to be a sound rule.

We were recently in the pub with our next door neighbour, a keen ale drinker but not a beer geek, and a Citra fan. When Hop Back Citra ran out before he could get another pint his face fell, until he saw that another beer with Citra in the name had gone up on the board: “Oh, there you go – as long as it’s a Citra, I don’t mind.”

All consumers want is a clue, a shortcut, a bit of help. That’s what they get from IPA, or ‘craft’. And apparently also from the name of this one unsubtle, good-time hop variety.

Cold Beer in the Australian Outback, 1961

We’re increasingly convinced that if you pick up most popular novels published between about 1945 and 1970 and start flipping the pages you’ll soon stumble upon an extended passage about beer and/or pubs.

Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel Wake in Fright gets straight down to business: within the first 10 pages the protagonist, Grant, hits the hotel bar in the desolate outback settlement where he teaches.

“Schooner, Charlie,” he said to the hotel-keeper, who emerged from his dark back room wearing, for some reason, a waistcoat over his drenched shirt.

Charlie pulled the beer.

In the remote towns of the west there are few of the amenities of civilization; there is no sewerage, there are no hospitals, rarely a doctor; the food is dreary and flavourless from long carrying, the water is bad; electricity is for the few who can afford their own plant, roads are mostly non-existent; there are no theatres, no picture shows and few dance halls; and the people are saved from stark insanity by the one strong principle of progress that is ingrained for a thousand miles, east, north, south and west of the Dead Heart – the beer is always cold.

The teacher let his fingers curl around the beaded glass, quelling the little spurt of bitterness that rose when he saw the size of the head of froth on the beer, because, after all, it didn’t matter, and this poor devil of a hotel-keeper had to stay here and he was going east.

He drank quickly at first, swamping the dryness in his throat in a flood of beer; and then, when the glass was half empty, he drank slowly, letting the cold alcohol relax his body.

Wake in Fright has been adapted for the screen twice, mostly recently in 2017, and the most recent edition from Text Classics is a TV tie-in. Our edition is a Penguin paperback from 1967 and cost £2.50.