Beer Tribes
May 5, 2010

Hastings May Day Revelers in the ruined castle

Sometimes I’ll be at a pub and see people drinking one thing or another and wonder how they came to that decision– these burly footie fans drinking Guinness– did their father’s drink it?  And the lager drinkers, did their mates give them the first sip, ages ago?  To change their beer is to change teams.  There’s something tribal about it, even the real ale drinkers– or perhaps especially.  Is Timothy Taylor Landlord the tribal beer of the ale nerd? I’ve never had a decent pint of the stuff, though I’ll admit to ordering it when I think someone’s watching and there’s nothing else.  I always regret it.

But what if it’s the May Day bank holiday weekend and you find yourself in Hastings (with the inimitable Pete Brown no less) amongst a sea of people painted green, festooned with leaves, dancing in the street and singing.  What do you drink?

Most of the pubs are Shepherd Neame, and the brewery has made a beer just for the Jack in the Green Festival. It had a lovely malt character, laced through with ripe green hops, very fitting of the day.  But I didn’t drink a lot of that.  I’ll admit I’m put off Shepherd Neame beers because of their ad campaigns– the “Bishops Finger” still manages to make me queasy whenever I even see the name, and the “…and a bowl of water for me bitches” campaign just compounded my dislike, making it difficult for me to enjoy their beers.

But what beer is most loved among the greenery?  It’s Harveys Best Bitter.  Two years ago I happened upon some neo-pagan shenanigans in the City.  These folklorists of the street had  fashioned a giant tree in the Market Porter pub, and it was worn by someone and paraded through the streets of the financial district with the help of green leafy bogies, while everyone followed, playing music on tin whistles and accordion, getting more blotto with every pub and bank we passed.  It was the best pub crawl, ever.  And we drank Harveys.

The similar festival in Hastings, Jack-in-the-Green,  is much bigger and even more life affirming. Harvey’s was on offer at the Dolphin, a sea-side pub right by the imposing black net huts and the motley fleet and fishing equipment strewn about this working beach. I could have stayed there drinking that all day.

It was interesting to note that one of the Shepherd Neame pubs in the old town, the Stag, was filled with song on Saturday afternoon– everyone in the room seemed to know the folk songs and the tiny room reverberated with their voices which welcomed spring with a melancholy certainty that these songs might be forgotten, and soon.  One gentleman had written his own clever lyrics to old tunes and he mentioned a wayward lover who’d sneaked away with the green folk to sing and dance and drink Harvey’s Best. That’s exactly what I would have been drinking, had the pub served it, because two years ago a kind man with a green beard put a pint of it in my hand and at that moment, which is this moment, it was the loveliest beer.

Pubcrawling with Jack-in-the-Green
May 2, 2008

May 1st isn’t celebrated widely in London, but the handful of people who do honor this day of class struggle and pagan roots do it in fantastical style. Yesterday I went boozing with Jack-in-the-green, a leafy giant and his attending bogies, men dressed in green rags and ivy crowns. Following them were a motley group of musicians. We wound our way through the streets from one pub to the next, startling the suits and rushing commuters.

We started with Adnam’s May Day golden ale while waiting at the Charles Dickens for the revelers to show. In our pessimism– they were over 40 minutes late– we turned to Sharpes Cornish Coaster. But once they arrived– rather mysterious and triumphant– we were treated to a pint of bitter by a kind, green-faced gentleman from Hastings named Jim.

Later we switched to milds– Harveys Sussex and Knots of May to be exact. While the pub lit up with fiddling, tin whistles and squeeze boxes, I decided the malty, easy drinking mild would become a favourite of mine. It’s a shame the style is so rare. (CAMRA devotes every May to celebrating this style– otherwise I might not have even tried it, or perhaps the pub we were in might not have had it!)

I ended the night raising a pint of Harvey’s Best Bitter with green-bearded brethren. (I now understand why 1,200 Best Bitter drinkers signed a petition to have the drink restored to a local pub in East Sussex after it was removed from pub-owning giant Greene King. People here care about beer, they really do.)

I took no notes. I was too busy dancing.