I’ll admit it, the idea of a session beer was alien to me before moving to this country. I couldn’t hear the phrase without thinking of the mis-heard lyric “a rock and roll session is a second pirate session of a strange wax.” from the Nurse with Wound cover of the Jacque Berrocal ditty from 1976. And I would giggle.
I’ve never drank in volume so a session was a weird concept. It’s taken me near 6 years to acclimatize myself to drinking beer in pints. I still don’t like it– the volume is overwhelming, a bit like those Big Gulp portions of soda from 7-11 in the US. Do I really want that much liquid?
Here in the UK most pub offerings are limited to “session bitters”– varying in strength from 3-4.5%. Anything 5% and over is considered quite strong because people often drink in volume. Here one works towards a session and these beers are quaffing. They are quaffable. You quaff them.
For something to be quaffable it must be drunk with vigor in large gulps. So that rules out a lot of beers on mouthfeel alone– too dense and flavorful and you just couldn’t throw it back for hours, right? I wouldn’t know. Many session bitters I’ve tried seem thin an somewhat spineless. If there is other cask beer to drink besides a session bitter, I’ll usually go for that. The contradictory nature of that rare creature, the proper session bitter is often too elusive: it should be light yet substantial, characterful yet refreshingly simple.
In the past couple of days I’ve had two wonderful session bitters. I’ve never had an Adnams beer I didn’t like, and their Old Ale stands up as one of the best. Adnams describes it as a mild which uses a recipe that dates back to 1890. Roasty and deep with hints of fig, yet with a dry finish that made it quite drinkable. I found this at the George pub, across from the Royal Courts of Justice in Holborn.
Yesterday I met some friends at the Old Dairy in Stroud Green, which I have to say was not as pleasant as on past visits. The crowd has always been a bit vanilla-hipster but seemed even more-so yesterday. As usual, it was hard to get served, despite the plethora of staff in the place. The tables were mysteriously sticky. Like, flypaper sticky. Menus and promotional post cards stuck to the surfaces leaving scraps the barmaids struggled to clean. They were playing the same sad 70’s disco mix over and over. We suffered through the Bee Gees/Walter Egan/Hues Corporation in rotation three times while there. It being Halloween, this was especially unforgiveable. It’s the one day of the year you can play Monster Mash and Werewolves of London freely, without recriminations.
And this is the first time CAMRA’s “Take it to the Top” campaign actually made sense to me, as each pint I had was a shamefully short measure, at £3.40 to boot!
Anyway, I digress. The reason why one would return to this place is for the beer, which is always in top condition. They had on a Halloween ale called “Howling Ale” which was brewed by Cottage as part of their “Whippet Series”. As far as I can gather from the website marketing this is a selection of beers brewed in honor of their dog. This brewery also has a trainspotting range, making it almost archetypal in its Britishness– at least to this expat. The pump clip to this beer features were-whippet of sorts, surrounded (I think) by bats. The beer was in top condition with a dense head, a pretty ruby color and lovely roasted grain flavours and some cinnamon with an unassuming bitterness at the finish balancing it nicely. I could have sipped the stuff all night, that is, if I didn’t have to listen to Van MacKoy and the Soul City Symphony yet again. If only they would play some Nurse With Wound, we could call it a proper session; by the time you’re on the third pint everything is possible.