May 9, 2008

photo by adrianclark on flickr

A year ago my good friends Edie and Bob were visiting and we decided to drive around Wiltshire seeing the sights, when we took a wrong turn and ended up in a small village called Seend. On one post was a magic marker sign, like some secret doorway to a malty dimension: BEER FESTIVAL. We followed the arrow, gleeful at our luck, and ended up at the community centre where a trad band was playing and over 30 kegs of local microbrews were mounting on scaffolding waiting for us.

I should explain here that Bob, brewer extraordinaire, is the person that taught me how to love beer. We’d been to many countries tasting different beers but the Seend beer fest was by far the most fun. We sat on hay bales and compared different half-pints from a cider called “Green Wonder” to a strong porter enticingly named “Chocolate Frog”, all while being serenaded by a decent trad folk band. It was heaven.

I decided to go back this year, even though I knew it would make me miss my American friends even more. I’d been to the Great British Beer Festival in Earl’s Court and found it really overwhelming. Clearly I needed something like the cozy limits of the village festival to really train up to something as massive and overwhelming as the GBBF.

I noticed that there were actually women drinking beer here, though only a handful. Most were drinking white wine, cocktails or abstaining while watching their children as the men drank. I did bond with another woman beer drinker in front of the gents as we guarded the door for each other. We compared notes scrawled on our line-up fliers provided at the door. She said, “I’m a Guinness drinker so I’m starting dark and working my way backward.” I loved her for that– breaking the rules! We both regretted that there was no Chocolate Frog– a velvety, seductive porter with a high alcohol content. She convinced me to try Fruit Bat which turned out to be my favourite of the day. I steered her away from Dark Star’s Espresso- a bitter stout which was a bit too ash-scented for me– something I love in a whisky but don’t want in a stout.

Ironically when I went outside to listen to the trad band again, the singer was warning people off the Espresso– “It should come with a warning label!” So I’m not alone. I was drinking the Wickwar Severn Bore– an oakmoss nose, bog-standard tea at the middle. It was malty but forgettable, my least favourite of the day. I was drinking it while someone was smoking a cigarette next to me when the band shouted out to Boris, the new conservative mayor of London– GO TORIES– which definitely killed my buzz. Later they dialed down the controversy and shouted, “WHO’S IN FAVOUR OF WIND FARMS?” before playing “Drunken Sailor” – a song my mother used to sing to me as a baby. Sea shanties as lullabies– no wonder I turned out the way I did.

While waiting for the next pint, a gent next to me with the wild grey curls indicative of rural English freakdom, notices the strongest ale, Highland Fling, is all gone. He says to me, “The greedy drinkers start backwards knowing us sensible lot start lighter. Don’t worry–” he winked conspiratorially, “We’ll last longer.” Beer flirting!

By this time it was quite a scene. People were getting happily drunk and silly, talking to strangers and dancing around. I started to note the tee shirts about– WHAT DO YOU THINK OF MY DRINKING? CALL xxxx; GLASTONBURY 2007; BENCH; WARNING: CONTAINS NUTS; CROUCHING FAIRY, HIDDEN HOMO and one, worn by an a spreadsheet wielding American: SAVE THE ALES. Her loud, punning husband paired a “MIND THE GAP” trucker cap with the conversation-starter– WHAT WOULD JESUS BREW? stamped across his shirt.

How is it I can come across an ocean, trekking far from the city to a community centre of a little village and I still find myself next to a loud, Christian, American nutter? He was spewing something about “YOUR PRIME MINISTER TONY BLAIR THINKS HE CAN SCAN MY LAPTOP, SO I BUILT MY OWN.” Someone next to me dealt with this man in the most sensible way, telling his teenage son, “Just don’t look directly at him.” Someone across from us asked him, “Well, what would Jesus brew?” and the guy started actually going off about mead in the Bible.

mod cover band

Meanwhile a Mod cover band called Carnaby Street warmed up, starting their set with the Monkee’s Stepping Stone, and everyone knew the words. Pretty soon the Americans had made tracks and I was left with everyone else, dancing on tables, pounding on chairbacks and singing along. While I was angsting out about my fellow countrymen a party had started. I got myself another pint as the band started up Small Faces’ Itchycoo Park which really brought the house down in this gentle, whacky way. It’s all too beautiful— a drunkards dream if there ever was one. I thought, yeah, believe it or not, I’m home.

And now on to what I drank there:

I started with Joseph Holt Mild, it being CAMRA’S month of milds. It was hoppier than expected. I prefer Harvey’s mild– I’m really after malty-toasty ease in a mild and the hops can go hang. Still, easy to drink as I meditated on the choices and made a numbered game plan.

After breaking for a dinner of packaged salad, I tried the Bath Ale Barnstormer. I’m a fan of Bath Ales– and this one did not disappoint. It was dark caramel in colour with a fruit nose and biscuity front. I was drunk at this point and was losing patience with my note taking. It did taste just right after the garlicky edamame salad.

Bearass from Beartown. Ask for it by name. The whole name. I had a blast of synesthesia tasting this– this was an American beer (though it wasn’t). It might be something cooked up by a friend in Portland or Los Angeles–a berry nose, a malt-hop one/two punch, with a clean, slightly bitter finish. It was zesty and daring and made me a bit homesick.

Buffy Bitter— again I tried it for the name being a big Buffy fan. I took to this beer big-time. Cut grass nose– Canalside grass in August when all the berry briars are ripe with fruit! That kind of nose. The malt was straightforward and sweet, with delicate floral hops on the finish. I could drink it all day.

Castle Rock Harvest was made with American hops. The soapy nose put me off but the front– dandelions and daisies– with a citrus-rind finish won me over.

I got the second to last half pint of Fruit Bat— it was my lucky day. It had a beautiful amber colour and a wild, blooming fruit nose, with berries and mango and melon up front, but without the sweetness. — the hops closed it off nicely. I was wishing I had some strong hard cheese with this one. Anyone who doesn’t think beer is as complex as wine should try this.

Mr. Chubbs Lunchtime Bitter from West Berkshire. I also tried this one for the name. Mr. Chubbs lives in a cottage with a fusty carpet you can smell it in the beer! This beer is lightly-hopped nostalgia– like drinking ale at grandpa’s place as he opens you a tin of beans. White pepper finish was the only flourish here. There’s definitely a “liquid bread” thing going on albeit a buttered, crustless white slice.

Old English Rose— Queen Estery! This was a startling beer in that it was redolent of red roses and tasted just barely of the same.

When I ordered the Palmer’s Tally Ho, which is named after a fox-hunting cry, the guy pouring had to note the colour. “It’s beautiful! Like a squash,” an English fruit punch. We both stared at the pretty red color, sharing a beer geek moment. My notes a were a drunken scrawl at this point– something about melon and wood and the lipstick on my glass being the same colour and keelhaul the man until he’s sober, early in the morning! but hey, this fox is still drinking!