HAIL TO THE ALE!

Tell me, do you have a friend who stares at you judgementally whenever you order your lager of choice at the bar? They don’t often say anything, merely raise a disappointed eyebrow as if they expected better of you, before perusing the old-timey hand pumps and picking something random with a weird name. I don’t. That’s because I’m the one judging you. I can remember when I drank regular lager and I seem to recall it served the purpose at the time but, much like a game of Minesweeper or Tetris, it’s not really an experience that has stuck with me. I can, however, vividly remember when I stopped.

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It was a week or so into my first term of university. Me and a beer drinking friend had absconded to a particularly pokey and dingy pub crammed into what I can only really describe as a glorified corridor. Despite the awkwardness of moving around in the damn place, it engendered a warm, cosy feeling and remains my pub of choice any time I’m feeling clandestine. I get the first round in, a pint of Oxford Prospect for my friend and a pint of Kronenbourg if memory serves, back when I could still detect a difference between the horde of similarly thin, sickly brews I now taste lagers as. We sat, we talked and we drank. My friend took a last sip of his pint, wiped the foam from his immaculate moustache and stood up, head cocked and bowed under the low ceiling of the corner alcove we were sequestered in. He looked at me, not needing to ask the obvious question. I mused for a moment and then uttered the words that would change my life forever.

“I’ll have what you’re having.”

He nodded approvingly and shuffles through the crowded bar (of less than ten people, mind you) to get the drinks. Inconsequential thoughts frolicked through my cortex until he got back, much like the mental equivalent of an ad break. My friend returned, finagled himself into his seat and set down two unbranded pint glasses. What he had returned with was Doombar. He looked at me expectantly as I reached out, grasped the glass, raised it and poured a gulp down my anticipating throat. Doombar, not Foster’s, is the true owner of the title “Amber Nectar” as far as I’m concerned. Now, I’m not the guy who can take a sip of beer and then accurately and swiftly determine the flavour makeup of it, but I knew that what I was drinking was a complex and rich beverage, a drink to experience rather than just get down you. A drink to actually drink.

Doombar remains, to this day, a personal favourite and a bitter well regarded throughout beerdom. It’s popular enough that I can almost certainly find a bottle of it in my local supermarket should I fancy. It’s also one of those things I always proffer in hope to friends lugging crates of Beck’s about the booze isles any time we detour there before going out. It’s not that I’m disappointed they’re making a bad choice, well it is a bit, it’s that this beer excites me and I want to share it. I want to talk about it with others who appreciate it.

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Now this is the point where I could pontificate (read: lecture you like the stuck up, self-important git I am) about the nuances of beer or perhaps even recommend a few like I did with anime. I don’t think that would be all that helpful though, and really half the fun is ordering a drink completely at random and taking it as it comes. Perhaps I could bully something into serving as an analogy. Okay, let’s try this on for size: beer is kind of like dogs. Pretty much everyone recognises a dog and that it goes woof, many can point out a Labrador or a Bulldog, but beyond that, it becomes a hazy and complicated world of subtlety and seeming absurdity all the way up to Crufts-going obsessives. At least, it seems that way from the outside. Once you pass through that hazy curtain, you’ll find that its not a sudden and massive jump to life defining obsession, but just a continuing smooth progression from dabbler to enthusiast to hobbyist and perhaps beyond. A bit tortured maybe but you get the idea, right? Beer isn’t just a drink for bearded darts players lamenting the smoking ban in a shack up North somewhere, it’s for everyone who fancies something nice to drink. In fact, beer is one of the least exclusive alcohols out there simply because the finest pints cost about the same as all the others. That and the beardies are rather friendly.

So, now that you’ve decided to abandon your heathen ways and join me in my beer swilling paradise, where do you start? If you’re feeling tentative buy something from the ale section in your local supermarket, if you’re feeling adventurous go pot luck down the pub. As a rough guide, porters are rich and smooth, bitters are warming and gentle, ales are lighter and more refreshing and then IPAs are a straight up hoppy punch to the taste buds. Not a particularly comprehensive or useful guide I’m aware, but really you shouldn’t be asking me. Ask that judgemental friend I mentioned at the start, it’ll really make his day.

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Here’s a more in-depth guide

So as we come to the end of this little love letter I should probably reach a point, after all “drink beer” isn’t much of a think piece now is it? One last bit of prevarication, though, if you’ll indulge me: lager. Throughout this article I’ve basically described lager as a wimpy, watery waste, polluting the glass its served in and a beverage only for the unenlightened masses. This is perhaps a little harsh – lager does have its place (I’m talking premium lager here: if you look hard enough, you can find lagers in the beer canon). Lager goes down quick and it goes down easy. For a night out it’s probably exactly what you want, when you want to have drunk rather than drink, if you get my meaning. Here it serves its purpose. I, however, am a hundred and fifty nine- years-old (as far as you know) and am, therefore, too old to party like that anymore. And so I find myself gravitating towards what beer can offer instead. Hearken back many paragraphs and you’ll note the words “a drink to actually drink”.

And so, charging in like Gandalf the White to Helm’s Deep on the morning of the third day, comes my point. Find out what you like to drink. No, not vodka and coke, what you like to drink because you like the taste and the experience of it, not because it’s the best ratio of pounds spent to brain cells massacred. For me, its beer, for many others it’s wine or whiskey or whatever else you may discover. That’s fine, good even – variety is the spice and all that. I think it’s a tragedy that we drink booze simply to get drunk. It’s fine as an end goal but why not enjoy the journey rather than grimace after every sip? If you don’t know, experiment. If you do know, drink that rather than chugging back another tasteless whatever just because it’s there and it’s what everyone else happens to be drinking. There’s a lot of booze out there and someone’s going to enjoy it, might as well be you, no?

WORDS: JAMES ARNOLD

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