Quite a good pint

I drained the dregs of my American-style IPA and opined: “Well they’re OK really, but they all taste the bloody same – Citra, Citra and more sodding Citra. It gets to the point where they just start tasting like an alcoholic version of lemon barley water.”

Steve nodded over his half of porter. “What brewery’s it from again?”

“Um, Eynsham Brewing Co., I think. Yet another of these craft micros that are springing up like mushrooms after rain and pumping out black IPAs and hoppier-than-thou Yank-type pale ales. Still, the more pubs around here that serve something other than Greene Muthafuh King, the better, surely”, I replied, using my devastatingly witty personal nickname for Bury St. Edmund’s’ industry leader in mediocrity. We were each a good six or seven halves into the Saturday session of the White Hart’s annual mid-May beer festival; the westering sun was still just about peering over the crumbling stone wall to my right as I faced out into the spacious garden filled with couples, groups of friends, families with toddlers and the occasional owd regular standing and sitting in the balmy air upon the cusp of early summer. Behind me the Jacobean bulk of the pub itself reverberated with beer-fuelled laughter and conversation, and the air was filled with the tantalizing scent of grilled meat from the barbecue along with a slight sourish top-note from the rivulets of spilled beer and cider running across the paved stone floor beneath the outdoor bar. Butterflies of various species flitted among the lushly planted borders and periodic squabbles broke out between pigeons and jackdaws for supremacy of the tiled rooves of the old stables that formed the back edge of the garden – the only above-ground structure remaining from the site’s original purpose as a mediaeval hostelry associated with the ancient St. Andrew’s Church across the road, as the assistant manager had once told me.

“So what to get next?”, I asked, half-rhetorically. Steve finished his remaining quarter-pint with a practised gulp and took my glass and his over to the bar. “I’ll get these – let me choose something for you.” A pause as he scanned the pump clips attached to the barrels, half of them already removed to indicate the depletion of the beer. “Ah yeah, this is the one.” He signalled for attention from one of the women behind the bar and was shown with a wave of her hand that it was gone help-yourself o’clock. He squeezed between the laughing, swigging, beery bodies and returned with a pair of ‘halves’ that all but brimmed over our pint glasses. “I’ve got – erm – Wayland’s Best from New Smithy, and yours is Phantasmagoria from John Barleycorn”.

“Oh for fuck’s sake, really? These names just get worse and worse. It’s like the naffest names of the ’70s real-ale revival coming back to haunt us. So what’s their gimmick, then? I assume they have one, with a name like that.”

“Funny you should say that,” Steve replied, “I read on a bottle I bought the other day that when the new head brewer was refurbishing the 17th-century brewhouse that they reopened last year, he came across an old book contemporary with the building, and it turned out to be the brew book of the original brewer. It was in pretty bad shape and basically falling to pieces but he got some bod from the Bod – or the Ashmolean, I can’t remember – to help him transcribe it without doing any further damage. And the very moment he typed up the last word in the last recipe, the whole thing just completely disintegrated in an instant. I mean completely, it just fell into a pile of dust. But he saved the file and now uses those old recipes to brew his beers. Says they bring out ‘something of Olde England that’s been all but lost’, or some such twaddle. But it’s quite a good pint.”

“Hmm, well, we’ll see” I said, as I dubiously raised the glass to my face. The beer was of a golden hue, not quite clear but shot through with a fine haze of dusty motes that seemed to glitter in the dying rays of the evening sun. Perhaps it was the blatantly invented nonsense about the ancient brew book that put me in mind of it but I instinctively thought of the words ‘cornfields at dusk’, and then sniggered to myself at the phrase’s cheesiness. Or rather, corniness.

Any remaining smirk was quickly wiped away when I brought the beer closer to my nose and inhaled. Steve, the outside bar, the garden and everyone in it seemed to recede infinitely as my sensorium became a world of scent and of scent only. An ocean of lush hay, pungent summer flowers and cool, ancient stone and loamy soil enveloped me. I have no idea how long this olfactory trance lasted, but I can only assume it was a mere second or two, since Steve didn’t seem to have noticed as I finally drew the glass out of immediate smelling range. Then I saw that he clearly had noticed, and was regarding me with a subtle, quizzical smile.

“Bloody hell, it smells…um…good”, was all I was eventually able to offer, pathetically. Steve’s smile broadened and he said simply, “Have a taste, then.”

I don’t think I’d ever felt such trepidation about tasting a pint of beer before, and now on top of that a vague sense of the ridiculousness of the situation. Anyone would have thought I was about to drop acid for the first time.

And then I raised the glass to my lips and took a long draught of the cool, froth-capped liquid.

The effect was nearly instantaneous. Material reality around me fell away in the manner it had when I first smelled the beer, although the phenomenon this time was far more profound. I felt like a mote of consciousness afloat in an amniotic sea of rich, sweetish barley malt – a hint of aromatic wheat there, too, redolent of the chalk of Wessex downs – and astringent, flowery hops, with the musky tang of the yeast underpinning it all. Images wheeled around and around in my head; men and women in antique garb forking bundles of hay into a haycart – hedgerows limning rutted roads that had never known rubber tyres, only feet, hooves and iron-rimmed wooden wheels – lazily winding chalk streams where boys with rods that were branches stripped of twigs fished for trout and grayling. These images faded and there was the face of a man, created from an Arcimboldoan mosaic of vegetation: here was John Barleycorn himself, who was Beow, and the Green Man, who was after all only the other face of Pan, the face that we see when we reach for the berry rather than flee from the wolf. The man turned away and I beheld his consort, the Mother of many names, most of them forgotten long before the first word was written down. The myriad faces swirled and dissolved and recrystallized into the cornflower-blue eyes, tawny-russet hair and apple-bright smile of a gorgeous adolescent May Queen from a dim century that perhaps never existed outside Thomas Hardy’s head. Her smile promised all the pleasures of Venus and all the fruitful plenty of Ceres to come after, and yet there was a twist to the corner of it. Frejya melted into Sheela-na-gig who morphed into Kali; with a wrench of poignancy that twisted smile filled me with a sense of the cruelty inherent in the idyll, of the omnipresence of death by which life begets life – the low evening sun flashes on a kite’s talons as she extinguishes a hare’s existence that her young might continue theirs for another day – the hare becomes a lamb, its dumb, uncomprehending eyes suddenly widening with a final understanding, with pain and panic terror, as the slaughterman’s blade frees the red-black blood from its neck to pool amidst the shit and filth on the cracked stone floor. The frenzied bleating merges into the screaming of horses, men’s shouts, the booming of muskets and the crash of axe on shield as Roundhead fought Cavalier and Dane strove with Mercian.

Just as I felt my mind begin to buckle under the strain of millennia of horror, there was stillness – the stillness there was before men came here and that will reign again when there are no more men. Not silence, because the air is filled with birdsong, the snuffling of beasts, the soughing of wind through treetops, the chaotic music of rain and streams and, beneath all else, the wordless mutterings of the land as it stirs in its Jurassic dreaming.

As suddenly as it had begun, the vision, trip or whatever it was began to recede. My head and eyes cleared and I saw that I was still standing in the beer garden, pint in hand, having somehow managed not to spill a single drop throughout the entire experience, as far as I could tell. Steve was still regarding me with the knowing half-smile of the initiate, and I supposed the whole thing must have taken no more than a couple of seconds of real time. Nobody else appeared to be paying us the slightest bit of attention.

I looked down again at the glass in my hand and decided to brave another swig, knowing somehow that the spell had spent itself on me. The taste was as familiar as if I’d been drinking the stuff my whole life, and an indefinable tingle passed through me from crown to feet; a faint echo of the overwhelming cavalcade of sensations I’d felt a few moments before, infinitely attenuated yet still undeniably present.

“So what do you think?”, Steve asked, eventually.

“Um, yes, well…”, I weakly offered: “Quite a good pint.”

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One Response to “Quite a good pint”

  1. Louise Harris Says:

    Lovely! Can I have a pint please?

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