(ed. note: Pete Brown, that lovable rapscallion and author of such books as Hops and Glory and the upcoming Shakespeare’s Local is hosting this month’s edition of Session. Apparently Stan Hieronymous started this five years ago. Bloggers are given a subject to write on once a month. I figure I may as well throw my hat in the ring, being as how I should be packing for San Diego and my natural inclination is to procrastinate. Probably I will find myself tomorrow night realizing that I don’t know where my passport is. So it goes.)
I feel as though I’ve told this story before. Do I repeat myself? Very well, I repeat myself. I am vast and contain Xeroxes.
For me the beer moment is usually not something that comes about in a group of people. Most of the people that I hang out with while drinking beer are beer people. While I know them to talk to them, I don’t really know a lot about them. I couldn’t tell you about the families of brewers that I know. The conversation is typically not more profound than the provenance of the glass of beer in front of us. What variety of hops. This yeast. That barrel. Fermentation time. An unspoken understanding of the fact that time and effort has gone into this thing. It can be informative or interesting or tiresome. It depends on the day. Most of the camaraderie is based on the fact that we have previously been in the same place while drinking beer.
For me, the beer moment is also the answer to a question I get asked a great deal: “What is your favorite beer?”
The people who ask this are typically good enough to ask it with good humoured sheepishness. They know that I must get this question a lot.
The answer is Hook Norton Old Hooky.
I have heard people say that if you claim to have a favorite beer, you are probably not a beer lover. I think that’s nonsense. I can see the assertion might be valid if you have chosen a favorite beer based on advertising.
I always tell people that it’s my favorite beer because of the situation in which I had it.
I had been in England for about a week, and had split my time between walking along the South Bank and visiting various museums. You can work up a pretty decent thirst navigating the Tate Modern and the Victoria and Albert and Apsley House. Typically, I would go out and walk around London and absorb the culture and then go and drink a couple of pints of beer. The museums and galleries seem attached to nearby pubs in my memory; The Tate Modern and the Royal Oak. The National Gallery and The Chandos.
I had Old Hooky for the first time in a pub in Dulwich (well, Peckham) called The Gowlett. It has won some CAMRA awards. I knew a little bit about cask beer. This was before I was writing about beer, and long before I had considered brewing anything. I liked it, but it had been a long day and I wasn’t really focusing on it.
The second week I was in England, I was in Cambridge. I was staying at St. Catharine’s College because a friend of mine was taking a degree there, and was good enough to explain my presence to the porter.
I walked in and looked at the taps and thought, “Oh. This is a Greene King pub,” and I practically walked out, but they had Old Hooky on cask and I thought I’d have that. I sat outside in the late February sun with my book: Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy.
It was lovely. I mean, I assume it was lovely. It was in good condition. That much I remember. Five years ago, I wasn’t taking notes. I decided that since I really had nothing else to do that afternoon that I might as well settle in. I walked inside to get another pint and saw the plaque that declared this to be the place where Watson and Crick announced the discovery of DNA.
I turned the wrong way going through the pub and walked into the RAF bar. The ceiling is covered with graffiti from World War II airmen. They must have climbed on tables and burnt their initials into the cork ceiling. Squadron numbers as well.
The pub, as it turns out, has been there since 1667. There’s a lot to be said for historical verisimilitude.
Eventually I located the bar and got a pint of Old Hooky and went back to my table in the little courtyard and continued reading. It was about halfway through that pint that everything clicked. People had been drinking ale in this pub for 340 years. I was actually reading about the kind of people that burned their initials into the ceiling thirty feet away. This pub had been a constant through centuries of Cambridge students, distinguished and not.
It was the first time I thought of beer as more than a beverage. It’s part of a long cultural tradition of community and hospitality.
As a beer writer, I have these little epiphanies from time to time. That was a perfect beer moment, though. Everything suddenly fell into place. It even gave me a better understanding of the English.
Consider this: you’ve just made the most important scientific discovery of the century. What’s your first move? Off down the pub for a pint.