I've just returned from one of my regular pilgrimages to Ireland. I like to try to visit at least once a year, primariy, it must be said, for the Guinness (note the definite article). The legends are true: the black and white stuff really is that much better in its homeland (even though they serve it cold).
One of the very best places to sample the Guinness is legendary O'Donoghue's pub in Merrion Row, just off St Stephen's Green in Dublin. I enjoyed my first ever pint of Irish Guinness there, at 11 o'clock one Saturday morning in November 1989 (five minutes after my friend Mike had dumped his awful girlfriend over the phone). We went to O'Donoghue's to celebrate, and had to climb over a traditional folk music band to get into the place: it's that kind of pub.
O'Donoghue's hasn't changed at all in the intervening 12 years: the back room, where I ordered my first Guinness is still dark and dingy and wonderful, its walls covered in framed photographs of anonymous old folk musicians.
The best photograph of all - one of the most remarkable photographs I have ever seen, in fact (and I speak as a person with more than a passing interest in photography) - depicts four middle-aged men standing outside a doorway. If the other photographs in O'Donoghue's back room are anything to go by, these four men must have been folk musicians, but they certainly don't look like musicians to me. Furthermore, the way they're all looking at the camera makes me wonder whether they've ever had their photograph taken before.
A sticky label stuck on the bottom of the photograph presumably once gave some details of who the distinguished gentlemen were, but it has faded over the years and is now completely illegible. If anyone reading this knows anything about this photograph, please email me.
Why do I like the photograph so much? Because it shows that simple snap shots are capable of capturing the decisive moment every bit as well as photographs taken by professionals. Just look at the facial expressions and body-language: the restrained uneasyness of the two men on the right, and the sheer excitement of the two younger men on the left. If I could take a photograph like that, I'd call myself a photographer.
Postscript: The identity of one of the men in the photograph has now been resolved.
The British might no longer have an empire, a half-decent soccer team, or even a sense of national identity, but one thing can be relied on (if racial stereotypes are anything to go by): their beer, unlike their climate, remains resolutely warm.
And long may it stay that way.
A Matter of Taste Let's make one thing quite clear: when I say that beer should be warm, I'm not talking extremely warm, luke warm, or even tepid; I'm talking relatively warm. Warm, that is, compared to the brews favoured by people living in warmer climes (and, regrettably, an increasing number of misguided Brits). A good pint of beer should be refreshingly cool when quaffed, but the one thing it most certainly shouldn't be is chilly.
As with any other part of the anatomy, when the mouth becomes cold, it starts to lose sensation, growing increasingly numb. This numbness is manifested in a diminished sense of taste. That's why most food stored in refrigerators tastes better if allowed to warm slightly before being eaten (try it with some cheese, or even ice cream, some time). Foodstuffs aren't refrigerated to improve their taste; they're refrigerated to prolong their shelf life. And prolonged shelf life is the sole reason for cold beer.
Trouble in Store It's all about storage. Traditional British beer (or real ale, as aficionados call it) keeps for only a few precious days, requiring careful storage at exactly the right temperature by expert cellarmen. Like a good wine or whisky, it continues to improve in the barrel, and must be consumed at just the right time. Because of this, no two barrels taste exactly the same.
Real Ale: beer which continues to ferment and mature in the cask after brewing
Lager: a light beer kept for up to six months before use. [German: Lager, a storehouse]
Continental-style beer, on the other hand, is designed primarily with convenient storage in mind—even its generic name, lager, is derived from the German word for a storehouse. Storing it requires little or no skill, so that the beer served up in one pub tastes (if tastes is the right word) exactly the same as the same brand served up in any other pub. You never hear a lager drinker remark on how good a particular pint tastes: they all taste exactly the same—that's the whole point.
(Not that there's anything wrong with consistency, you understand; but in a world where everything tastes the same, there's no opportunity for excellence.)
The powers that be in the brewing industry have spent millions of pounds conning the British public into believing that continental-style beers are in some way superior to their own traditional ales. And the Brits have actually fallen for it (even though their home-grown lagers are but pale imitations of their slightly less vapid continental counterparts). The big breweries would prefer us all to drink lager, because it is easier to store for long periods, so there is less wastage. Lager is also much easier to manufacture on a grand scale, becoming an exercise in bulk chemistry, rather than a skilled art.
The new-found popularity of lager in Britain was one of the greatest marketing coups of the Twentieth Century—promoting a product that nobody wanted from a zero-percent share of the market to market leader, all in the space of a couple of glitzy advertising campaigns (…Probably™).
…a quart of ale is a dish for a king
—William Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale
Having decimated the market for real ale, the big breweries are now moving in for the kill. The recent introduction of so-called smooth flow ales could well be the final nail in the coffin: cold, fizzy counterfeits of traditional British ales, designed with simple storage in mind, and aimed primarily at the youth market. And they're selling like hot cakes. The next thing you know, they'll be adding lime to the stuff, just to add that little bit of oomph!
Even the Irish are at it: Guinness Extra Cold, I ask you. They should be ashamed of themselves.
Enjoy It While You Can Time is running out. There may be few more opportunities left to sample traditional British real ale at its best: warm.
So, here are some top tips on how best to savour the experience:
How to Experience British Ale
Take along a friend or two Good ale cannot be fully enjoyed on one's own—it should be a shared experience. The Irish call this the craic (pronouced crack) and think they invented it. The term derives, in fact, from Elizabethan England. (No correspondence from irate Irishfolk please—and, while I'm at it, Shores of Erin was originally called Shoals of Herring, and was written by a Scot (Ewan MacColl), who also wrote Dirty Old Town about Salford, not Dublin.)
Choose your pub carefully Avoid like the plague any pub described as family friendly: these are nothing more than licensed crèches—you'll have bawling brats running amok, treating the place like a bloody playground. Also avoid pubs with satellite TV, juke boxes, background music, karaoke machines, and (if possible) fruit machines. Good ale can only be appreciated in peaceful surroundings (accompanied by the gentle background hubbub of other civilised drinkers). Live music is all right, provided it involves fiddles, mandolins, acoustic guitars, etc—no amplifiers.
Check that the beer is hand-pulled (as opposed to gas-pumped) If the beer is dispensed by pulling several times on a long handle, rather than flipping on a small switch, you're probably safe, but BEWARE—sometimes devious breweries disguise gas-pumped taps as the real McCoy (yes, Burtonwood Brewery, I'm talking about you)—if they don't pump it by hand, it's not real ale.
Avoid any ale described on the pump as smooth, cold, or Greenall's Conversely, leap at the chance to sample any ale described as Timothy Taylor (Madonna's favourite), Burton, Theakston's, or free.
Beware of any pub which has more than a handful of real ales Real ale does not keep. Pubs with dozens of real ales rarely sell enough of any one type to ensure a fresh supply. Their ales tend to be stale (but still preferable to lager).
On the whole, ensure that the ale is at least 4.3 ABV (alcohol by volume) Anything less is likely to be gnats' piss. (There are a couple of exceptions to this rule—most notably, Timothy Taylor Golden Best, which has an ABV in the low 3's, but has a kick on it like a mule.) Anything more than 5.0 ABV is likely to be loopy juice (and, therefore, definitely worth a try).
Remember that the term Best Bitter does not necessarily mean that it is the brewery's best bitter Quite often, the opposite is true: breweries often use the term best bitter to describe their standard beer. Check if there are any other brews available from the same brewery and, if they have a higher ABV, try them.
Order a whole pint in a thin-lipped glass Half-measures are no good—you need enough to gulp (see below). Thick-lipped glasses (e.g. the dimpled barrel glasses with handles) create too much of a barrier between your own lips and the ale. People who insist on drinking from barrel glasses are invariably tossers.
Ensure that your pint doesn't have too big a head Under English law, pubs are entitled to leave a reasonable head (whatever that may be) on a pint of ale, but ask for a top-up if the head is any thicker than half an inch (1cm). Also, allow time for the ale to settle (or rise) before paying: what may look like a reasonable head can become a lot thicker if the ale is too lively. Good ale is seldom lively, but lively ale can sometimes be improved by stirring briskly with a clean index finger—preferably one's own.
Sit down, for Pete's sake! What is it with all this standing up it pubs nowadays? Good ale cannot be fully appreciated from a perpendicular position. Don't ask me why; it just can't. Besides, sitting down gives you a shorter distance to fall.
Test the temperature of the ale by holding the back of your hand against the glass If it feels in any way chilly, leave it until the chill has gone. A good temperature to aim for is 54°F (12°C), but, whatever you do, don't check the temperature with a thermometer—they'll think you're a sad nutter from the Campaign for Real Ale.
Drink in gulps This doesn't mean that you should down your pint in one, but, when you do drink, take in reasonably large mouthfuls, hold each one in the mouth for a few seconds, then swallow it in a single gulp. The taste receptors most sensitive to the bitter taste of the majority of real ales are concentrated at the back of the throat; gulping, therefore, enhances the taste. Holding the beer in your mouth before swallowing allows you to appreciate the subtle nuances of the brew and, more importantly, warms it up slightly before it hits the back of your throat. Genteel sipping should be left to the lager drinkers and G&T Brigade.
Avoid going to the toilet for as long as possible Once you do spend a penny, the sluice gates will open, and you'll be going all evening.
He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man.
—William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing
As a genuine, 100%, red-blooded male, I naturally sport a magnificent beard. In my hero Charles Darwin's day, beards were very much the in thing. Sadly, beards seem to be in something of a decline these days, with ever-increasing numbers of men going through the daily self-mutilation ritual that is shaving.
To make matters worse, us beardies suffer persecution which would be unacceptable if it were applied to any other minority group.
The most prevalent example of such institutionalised pogonophobia is in the workplace: Maggie Thatcher and Hitler wouldn't allow beardies in their cabinets, and Disney, McDonald's and Bill Gates won't employ us either.
What is it with these people? Do they think us beardies are untrustworthy, or unhygienic, or something? A quick glance at the following table should be enough to convince anyone that beardies should be running society; not persecuted by it:
The Great Unshaven
Dame Margaret Hilda Thatcher
Yes, I know what you're going to say: What about Rasputin; the Yorkshire Ripper; Osama bin Laden? Believe me, my friends, beneath every one of those apparently magnificent beards was a stark naked chin screaming to get out.
About 85% of job applicants seem to be unable to spell the word liaise. I know this for a fact: I've counted. Nearly everyone seems to miss out the second i. It's uncanny.
Actually, it's not uncanny at all. Do you know why so many people miss out the second i? Because they write their CVs using Microsoft Word™, which tells them that it should be spelt liase.
True, in a sensible world, the word liaisewouldn't have that second i, but the world isn't sensible, so the second i is there (doing nothing of any value). If all words were spelt phonetically (or should that be fon-e-ti-klee?) we wouldn't need spell-checkers, but, given that we do need spell-checkers, shouldn't we be able to rely on them?
Once again, Microsoft churns out unreliable software, and we buy it. It would appear that the spelling of the word liaise isn't the only thing that's stupid in this world.
Has the world gone completely mad? A woman has successfully sued a stage hypnotist for re-awakening memories of childhood sexual abuse.
Don't get me wrong: such awakened memories, be they real or imagined, must be extremely traumatic for the individual concerned, but blaming the person who awakens them sets a dangerous (and stupid) precedent.
Where do you draw the line? I once knew a trainee teacher whose memories of childhood sexual abuse were re-awakened when they were being taught how to recognise the signs of sexual abuse in their pupils. Should they be entitled to sue the teacher training college? If a war veteran is distressed after watching a war documentary on television (or reading a novel like Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong), should they be entitled to compensation?
I believe the case in point was won because hypnotism has an air of mysticism about it: it has the ability to delve into our innermost being. Does it bollocks! Hypnotism is not some mysterious state of mind; it is simply going along with what you're being told to do (usually to avoid conflict or embarrassment). It is no more a state of mind than mowing the lawn, watching TV, or reading a novel.
Some people under hypnosis claim to have regressed to former lives. An uncanny number of them turn out to have been ancient Egyptian slaves. Presumably, if they remember being mistreated by evil masters in their former lives, they will now be entitled to some sort of compensation from their hypnotists.