Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Albion: the last days of May


The swifts have been arcing across the blue vault with their shrill screams for a while now. A prelude to Summer is temporarily passing through St Albans. Thunder and lightning had been forecast for Saturday but never followed up on their threat. 

This bank holiday weekend saw a modest splurge of seasonal events - only some of which I managed to attend. This short post documents enough to give just a flavour of St Albans at the end of this May.


The Craft & Cleaver hosted a small tap takeover to commemorate its first anniversary. I’ve seen tap takeovers by specific breweries or ones that represent areas like Scotland or Wales. This one reflected not even London but a district within it, in fact just Druid Street and Enid Street in Bermondsey. At the same time though, it showcased a modern phenomenon - a slice of pop brewing culture as that’s what the infamous mile is. It didn’t take all the breweries along it but arguably picked the most innovative ones: Brew By Numbers, Kernel (even if they can’t spell it) and Anspach & Hobday. I therefore slake my thirst with Triple C - cool American-inspired hoppy beer by the latter. Bizarrely, the gleaming metal & artificial light seems more natural than the crimson dusk outside. 

Walking through the park with the dog the next day, it’s shimmering and charged. The atmosphere is devoured like a sorbet. The haze lends a violet lustre to the usual tan boughs of horse chestnut and a platinum edge to blades of grass. The colours are like oil on canvas and the sprays of wild buttercups and daisies pierce it like backlit pinholes in its fabric. Copper Beech canopies are unreal, alien - photoshopped incongruously against the blue sky. Their purple burns on the retina like the acid of mezzotint. The air itself is intoxicated. It’s the buzzing sheen of heat and long shadows like this that crystallise memories of Summer for perpetuity.


The visit to the Craft & Cleaver was the sole endeavour indoors. The other haunts will take place outdoors in the greatest thing Britain has given the civilised world: the beer garden.


The first is at the Lower Red Lion where the garden has been re-landscaped for Summer. I go alone for a soft drink. Alas, the homemade lemonade is no longer on so I settle for a corporate one with a clash of ice cubes and a lemon wedge. The bead of condensation trailing down the glass reflects the sweat on my temple. The Lower Red Lion has injected fresh blood into the Union Jack by offering tea & cake in the afternoon during the summer. It’s like being British squared.


The beer garden represents a tunnel dug through my life. It started being excavated back when all the action happened under the picnic tables rather than above them. Those were the days of lime cordial, dandelion & burdock and the Topper, the Dandy or Beano. It runs under where I took my first sips of woody bitter when it needed to be ordered by my dad or uncle. 

Our iconic 3-piece tables that come into their own in Summer see and hear everything. The wood absorbs more spirit than beer maturing in Glenlivet casks but it’s of a different kind: when folk get together around them, it’s like people getting into a rowing boat - the structure leans and rocks as bottoms plonk themselves in and the conversation and eye contact is intense. The planks ferry you through time - several hours can pass in the space of 15 minutes with the sustenance of ale. Before the conversation started going off in a multitude of tangents, the sun was baking you but now you’re shivering in the night pretending you’re not. You never bring a coat. 

Whatever happens in the world, as long as there are beer gardens, things will be okay.


I have rarely drunk cider but was drawn towards it this year as the Mermaid hosted over fifty with a cider festival. It’s not the fizzy Woodpecker or Strongbow that I remember (though some still are), but a drink whose bouquet and taste make it very difficult for this seasoned beer drinker to describe. The process isn’t familiar - it doesn’t reveal hops front of shop and malt after the swallow. It’s a different creature altogether. I need a new lexicon but the following is an attempt at my favourite. It’s pressed in Baldock, North Hertfordshire: 

Apple Cottage. Filthy Tramp Juice (6.7 ABV):

This nectar’s the colour of brandy crossed with pink lady apples. It’s crystal clear with a vague farmyard/hay aroma. There’s no carbonation but it glows like a lightbulb on the palate. It starts with that sharp tang you get when you bite into apple flesh. Only through stealth does the alcohol make itself known as your cheeks start to flush red. It’s so rosy and floral when it’s sloshed around the tongue. So smooth and gentle yet blood-warming and tingly.


One thing I recall about cider that hasn’t changed is how potentially dangerous it is - it slips down like fruit juice (which it obviously is with the addition of microfauna conducting an orgy). A perry I had before the Filthy Tramp Juice I almost downed in one forgetting it contained alcohol.

Finally, the White Hart Tap. It knows how to hold a beer festival and is an expert sourcer. The pub rotates its beers and pays attention when they are well received. It was the first to acknowledge the talent behind casks of Magic Rock and Cloudwater. The range of beer on stillage in the garden marquee (25 at a time) shows beers from all over the UK but also demonstrates how the British palate has changed with regards to its ale. Out of them, only five self-identify as bitters but even they’ve been elevated by new world hops. There was even a Belgian Dubbel brewed by one of the pub regulars in aid of a local Alzheimers charity. The pub brews its own ale represented with the rest here on gravity; they encompass a liquorice-infused strong dark ale, a strong IPA, a pale ale and a single varietal: Mosaic.


Mosaic is an enigma to me. I can’t reliably identify hops but this particular one seems especially adept at disguise. I’ve had it as a single varietal before and it’s reminded me of blackcurrant or red berries or Bramling Cross or even cork but it’s also come across a bit like this one - dry grapefruit. Very Citra-esque. How come it varies so much?

The evening gloamed as I ended up discussing beer with some of CAMRA’s 1970s veterans and we touched on the sensitive issues of the Revitalisation Project (4 people around the table, 4 different opinions) and the EU referendum thereby breaking at least one pub rule about politics. Fortunately, religion didn’t rear its head to break a second. Nobody got hurt. By a happier consensus, the beer of the festival was Mallinson’s Hop Slap from West Yorkshire - a beer that smells like a fruit salad and drinks with an easy abandon - the balmy night definitely helped influence that decision. I’d run the White Hart Tap’s strong dark ale a close runner-up.


There were other events and festivals I didn’t get round to visiting but this little quad represents a decent snapshot of Verulamium at the end of May. Bring on the main Summer!