This beer-related story appeared in a paperback anthology of ghost stories that we picked up in a second hand bookshop. (But the book isn’t listed in any catalogues, and we couldn’t find the shop when we went back. Weird.)
* * *
Derek smelled the brewery on the wind blowing across the flat, foggy fields long before he saw any sign of it. The moment the aroma struck him, he pulled his Triumph Spitfire into the side of the country road and put his nose to the crack at the top of the window. Yes, he was certain – somewhere, perhaps near that church spire with mist around its tip, hops had just been added to boiling wort.
Frowning, he reached over to the passenger seat, rummaged in his army surplus satchel, and pulled out a copy of Beer List ’75, the pocket-sized book which he had just spent the preceding nine months editing. Without cracking the spine, he turned to the appendix which he had painstakingly ensured contained details of every brewery in the country. He pushed his smoked-glass spectacles up his nose and smoothed his moustache, puckering his mouth with displeasure. There was the Red Lion home-brew house at Sutton Verney, and Spalding & Co. back at Torbridge, but nothing was listed anywhere in between. ‘Some mistake, surely,’ he muttered, closing the book and stroking its cover as if to soothe its injured pride.
He looked at his watch: he had time to investigate without missing his flight to Munich, which was due to leave at 6 o’clock.
Pulling out from the verge, spraying mud from the rear wheels, he sped along the road, startling crows from the empty fields on either side. After a few hundred yards, a sign half-buried in the thorny hedgerow announced the turning for Hurford, which Derek took, barely slowing.
Before long, he saw a string of abandoned cottages and farm buildings and then, around another bend, a row of terraced houses leading into a small market square. He slipped into a parking space next to the war memorial and turned off his engine.
The only sound was the ticking of the engine as it cooled and the rasping of crows in the treetops round about. Because of the fog, he couldn’t see anything beyond the square, but he didn’t need to: there in front of him was a half-timbered inn of some antiquity bearing the name The Green Man. The roof was bowed and sunken with missing slates, but the chimney pot was smoking and, from somewhere beyond, a cloud of steam was rising. HOME BREWED ALES said a chalk board hanging by the door.
‘Splendid!’ he said, wishing he’d brought a camera. He rubbed his hands with glee: this was a scoop, he was certain, and he’d get an article or two out of it.
He snatched his bag from the seat, climbed out and strode towards the front door. As he approached, he found himself slowing and eventually stopping, without having chosen consciously to do so. He shuddered. ‘Better get inside, into the warm,’ he muttered, and yet his legs refused to obey the order.
Then a gust of frost-bearing wind blew through the square and the door swung open briefly, revealing a glimpse of a fire, and the orange glow of gaslights behind a long wooden bar. With a deep breath, he went inside.
He found a single room furnished with plain wooden benches and tables. Logs on the fire spat and snapped, but did not seem to be able to dispel a dampness in the air – perhaps the source of mildew smell which caused his nose to wrinkle. There was no-one to be seen, though there were cigarettes burning in an ashtray on the bar, and drinks lined up in curious grey earthenware vessels.
He made lip-smacking noises and sighed loudly, hoping to catch the attention of the landlord who he supposed was in the back room. ‘Ah, well, here we are!’ he said aloud, looking around in (somewhat feigned) admiration. ‘Splendid!’ he said for the second time, though his eye had at that moment lighted on a particularly disgusting stuffed owl with a burst belly, one eye and no beak.
There was a sudden bang and he emitted a yelp.
The landlord had appeared behind the bar and slammed down one of the pottery vessels in front of him.
‘Jug of Red,’ the landlord said.
He was a squat, red-faced man whose black eyebrows hung down to conceal his gaze, while a tangled black beard hid his mouth and neck. He looked as if he slept under a tree, especially as his overalls were smeared with black stains.
‘Why, thank ‘ee, stout yeoman,’ said Derek, attempting to brighten the atmosphere. ‘Do I see the house brew before me?’
Sensing that conversation was not to be forthcoming, Derek lifted the opaque jug and, out of force of habit, held it up to the light. Though he neither smiled nor laughed, Derek thought he detected amusement in a twinkling of the landlord’s small, dark eyes. ‘Ah, yes,’ said Derek. ‘Nothing to see here!’
He moved on to step two of his tasting ritual – a deep, rather theatrical sniff. His eyes began to water and he stifled a cough. ‘Strong, is it?’
The landlord’s eyes twinkled again. ‘Not so strong as Five X, but stronger than Best.’
Derek frowned and considered announcing his credentials, but decided against it. ‘This malicious dwarf won’t have heard of me or the Campaign,’ he thought.
He sniffed again, but more cautiously. Beyond the stinging, medicinal burn of the alcoholic fumes, was that… something metallic? He took a notebook and ballpoint pen from his bag and began to jot down impressions: ‘Nutty, hoppy, malty aroma.’
‘Ain’t you thirsty, then?’ said the landlord.
Derek smiled thinly. ‘All in good time!’ he said and then raised the jug to his lips. It was a curious thing to drink from, its thick rim clattering against his teeth as he struggled to pull the beer over the vase-like curve. Then it rushed at once and the sip he had hoped to take became a deluge, filling his mouth and throat, running down his neck, and soaking his shirt and jacket. Coughing and gasping, he tried to clear his airways.
‘Nutty,’ he managed to splutter at last. Then he opened and closed his mouth, rolling his tongue around as he assessed the flavour. He tutted. ‘I am afraid to tell you, good sir, that your ale is past its best.’
The landlord glowered – or, rather, his glower intensified. ‘Tis, is it?’
Derek returned fire, peering over his glasses with an earnest expression. ‘I do have some expertise in this area, and I am afraid to say I detect a distinctly savoury character which I ascribe to yeast autolysis.’
‘S’posed to taste that way,’ the landlord grunted.
‘Really?’ said Derek, astonished. ‘A sort of… local speciality, do you mean?’
Derek took another sip. ‘Oh, yes, well I suppose it does bear some resemblance to the rustic farmhouse ales of the Maardam,’ he said, nodding. He looked at his watch. He was cutting it fine for his flight, but he couldn’t go – not quite yet. He craned to see into the back room. ‘Do you think I could…?’ He gestured with the mug.
The landlord’s eyes gleamed and he emitted a particularly deep, growling: ‘Oh, yaap.’
The brewery was along a stone-walled corridor, across a courtyard, inside what appeared once to have been a chapel. The landlord stood in the doorway and ushered Derek inside. ‘Go in if you’m goin’ in!’ he said.
Once he had grown used to the gloom, Derek was startled to see a vast pit, clad in stone, in which a dark liquid shimmered and steamed, at just below boiling point, its surface covered in a thick bed of green hops. ‘How unusual,’ he said.
Derek didn’t notice that the landlord was stepping away from the door, which he closed gently. This caused the room to darken yet further, which prompted Derek to turn just in time to hear the bolt being thrown.
‘Hey!’ he shouted, dropping his bag and rushing back to the entrance. He hammered on the door but the thick wood barely moved. When, after a minute or so, he decided to see if there was another way out, he span on his heel and at once gave a high-pitched shriek: his bag was no longer where he had left it.
The liquid in the pit bubbled suddenly and his notebook bobbed to the surface in a round void in the scum of hops, floating open, paper-side up. Edging across the stone floor towards the edge of the pit, Derek slowly lowered himself to his knees and reached out, inching his fingertips towards the pad.
Then, he frowned. Was there something beneath down there? Something moving?
Derek’s glasses steamed over just as the thing in the pool emerged. He knew that if he moved, he would lose his balance, and so remained as still as possible.
Then, causing the hair on his head to lift, it sniffed him. Something rough moved across his face. A tongue. Was it… tasting him?
Then, quite suddenly, in a rush of bubbling and thrashing, Derek was gone.
It’s in central London — let’s say Bloomsbury — and based in a renovated Victorian pub. It’s not very big and the fact that it’s entirely panelled in dark wood only makes it look smaller.
Over the door is a slogan: “They only taste the same to uneducated palates”. On the walls, further bits of propaganda: “If you want to drink tangerine-flavoured hop-juice, you’re in the wrong bar”; “Extreme beer? Bloody rude beer, more like”; and “If a pint of bitter was good enough for your granddad, it’s good enough for you.”
On the bar are twenty handpumps serving different cask bitters from around the country. They are all in impeccable condition, cool but not cold, served with our without sparkler depending on the customer’s preference, in straight pint glasses. The vast wall of fridges behind the bar are stocked with more than 200 bottled bitters, some bottle-conditioned, others not. The one thing these beers have in common: they are brown.
There are several hefty leatherbound volumes filled with detailed tasting notes by an eminent British beer writer, aimed at helping customers detect the subtle differences between the vast range of ostensibly similar beers.
There is also a very small import section featuring American and European interpretations of bitter. For the handful of lager drinkers, there are a few bottled German dunkels on offer.
Does that sound like a nightmare, a dream or something in between? Is there fun to be had in exploring nuances and learning to appreciate subtlety? Or is variety the only path to enlightenment?