What Survives
December 23, 2009

Near Finsbury Park Station there’s a boarded up old pub, a matte lapis facade festooned with a remnant of London’s disappeared beers: Meux’s Original London Stout.  In every corner of London a mysterious detail hides a story; to note them is to chase ghosts.  Ghosts of the drowned; of the sudden, absurd death.  Even death by beer.

Meux’s was “famous for its black beer” and the great porter vat it was brewed in: 22 feet high and containing enough beer to supply more than a million persons with a pint of beer each.  According to Zythophile the brewery “…once brought a beautiful aroma of malt and hops to delight passengers on the tops of buses at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street.”  But British Historian Thomas Pennant describes it as exhibiting a magnificence unspeakable.

One day, this vat burst. The London beer flood was immortalized in Peter Pindar’s poem, “The Lamentations of the Porter-vat”

Here—as ’tis said—in days of yore,
(Such days, alas! will come no more),
Resided Sir John Barleycorn,
An ancient Briton, nobly born,
With Mrs. Hop—a well-met pair,
For he was rich, and she was fair.

And yet the pair quarrels, love-locked, waltzing disaster like petty gods.  Are these the genius loci of this Seven Sisters corner, driven from their original perch by the tourists flocking to see We Will Rock You musical playing at the Dominion Theatre which now stands in place of the brewery?  I imagine Meantime’s London Porter to be a fitting ode to these bitter, roasted ghosts.

1814.  It’s that hour when everyone’s at home. You run from a flood of porter, through the crowded tenements surrounding the brewery. The basements of the rookery fill.  Up on the first floor: a mother and daughter at tea and then not, the mother dead on the spot.  The daughter tries to swim and is dashed to pieces.  Running, a tidal wave of the stuff after you. Timber and neighbors, feral cats swept up in it. Drunk on the fumes. The drunk are dying.

There are rumors: in the nearby hospital the doctors minister to the injured who stink so of beer the other patients there demand beer too, almost causing a riot.

And following it all, punters with pots, gleaning from the porter river: knee deep or face first.

You would cup your hands–let nothing go to waste.

Bronze Age Microbreweries
May 19, 2008

Bronze Age Brewery

(In borrowed gear at the excavated burnt mound near the Tomb of the Eagles, Orkney)

While in the Orkneys last year, I noticed the plethora of “burnt mounds” on the OS map, and I wondered what they might have been for. While in the visitors centre of the Tomb of the Eagles, one of the archaeologists there was hot with excitement about something she’d just read. She asked me to guess what the mounds might have been and I offered something about cooking and food storage, and she said– “Almost! How about a brewery? Think about it!” and I did.

I was prompted to post this shortly after reading the story of St. Brigid, the patron saint of brewers, turning bathwater to beer for some lepers. This bathwater might have been a vat of soaking barley, part of the malting process, as The Zythophile points out. Recent research conjectures these bronze age burnt mounds might just be ancient versions of this kind of processing. Apparently these researchers brewed an ancient ale using similar facilities, and the drink was “sweet,” being unhopped– I would have liked to try that!

St. Brigid is the Christianized version of a much older Goddess, Bride, whose name appears in places all over this island. If these researchers are correct, this brew, a joy older than bread, has left its ancient mark on the landscape. Sumeria has written records of brewsters and even recipies, but these sites will remain a prehistoric mystery, not unlike the process of fermentation itself. Michael Jackson describes wild yeast, “descend[ing] from Heaven even more gently than rain.” He imagines it must have seemed magical to ancient people. And I would venture– a gift of a benevolent and fecund goddess.

Raise a pint to Alice Lisle
April 27, 2008

This pint came with a crash course in West Country History. RCH Pitchfork Rebellious Bitter, named after the Pitchfork Rebellion, or Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, was the best of a tasty group of locally brewed beers we tried with my friend Camilla while visiting her in Somerset. While we shared it Camilla told us of the uprising of local farmers, non-conformists and Protestants who wanted to overthrow the “papist” king, James II. Many of the supporters were executed most brutally in the “Bloody Assizes” of Judge Jeffreys. The first to go, burned at the stake, was Alice Lisle.

Despite this particularly dark history, this beer was bright and sunny. I pictured myself drinking this somewhere off the oldest engineered roadway, the Sweet Track in the Somerset Levels– an area that was once an inland sea surrounding the mythic isle of Avalon. It would be a new Spring day where the grass had, in in more recent history, worked the bloodshed, the bodies piled high, into itself. Beer is never very far from death, being itself a fermented thing, but I digress.

Pitchfork was bottle conditioned; the cloudy sediment in my glass settling at the bottom gave the beer a refreshing and whole presence. It had a citrus-weiss front, a floral hop middle with a dry closure and some pleasantly lingering bitterness. Camilla said it reminded her of Indian beer, and it shared a resemblance to excellent IPAs I’ve tried.

To say that each glass of beer is full of history, or that England’s story is older than the national identity of the U.S. would be cliche. I wouldn’t say I drink beer looking for a past. Many American tourists do come to the UK looking for ancestral roots and this is just the solipsistic version of looking for a history. But while drinking a pint, sometimes history finds you.

Eats: Chana Batura (extra spicy)

While listening to: Melvins, At the Stake.

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