Good People Drink Good Beer
A Friday evening in a provincial English town. The town hall clock chimes seven, signalling the start of the weekend social round.
The big pub in the market square is not one I frequent, but tonight – ever daring – I decide to check out what passes for entertainment in this particular watering hole.
Trade is slow at this early hour.
There are a few couples picking over a rather drab looking bar meal and a cluster of noisy drinkers hogging the bar, their physical presence and foghorn voices providing an intimidating barrier to service.
Nevertheless, I press my way cautiously through the crowd and run my eye over the pump clips.
With a view to supping a few pints, I opt for a Brakspear Bitter. I like the depth of character this has for a beer of only 3.4% ABV.
The rich malt and tangy hop flavours lure you in and the slight saltiness and teasing hints of butterscotch draw you back for another sip. Sadly, the beer is not in the best of conditions, suggesting that not many other people have made the same wise choice so far tonight.
The noise escalates as I edge my way out of the throng and head for a hopefully quiet corner. It’s not quiet enough. I have direct eye-line to the bar but I could sit with my back to the counter and still know what’s going on.
Few Too Many
The ringleader of the crowd is a big, brawny man in his thirties. He’s had more than a few too many, his volume control has gone and – to borrow an old joke – he’s swaying like an MFI wardrobe. His equally drunk girlfriend totters at his side. I assume it’s his girlfriend from the way he keeps squeezing her left buttock.
With alcohol raging around his system, the man’s oafishness becomes greater by the second and is raised to a new level when a young woman enters rattling a collection tin.
It’s Red Nose Day and she’s doing her bit for the cause, no doubt thinking that, by volunteering for the early shift, she can avoid any aggro that might kick off among later revellers.
It’s a miscalculation. Approaching Oliver Reed, she is surely aware that she’s in for a tough time and he doesn’t disappoint.
Playing to the crowd, he begins a masterclass in boorishness, declaring his admiration for our unfortunate charity worker’s curvy figure. Whipping out his wallet in a display of fake largesse, he extracts a £10 note and teases the collection tin with it.
Just as he reaches the moment of penetration, he withdraws and, provocatively waving his financial potency in front of the girl’s face, decides to make an estimate of the size of her bosom. 44 DD, he reckons, but he just needs to have a quick feel to make sure. The affronted woman recoils, protectively pulling her coat tightly about her.
Realising from the sudden silence that he has overstepped the mark, the clown breaks into embarrassed laughter, which is sycophantically echoed by his glassy-eyed cronies. Then, staggering forward again, he crumples the banknote into the collection tin anyway.
He’s only joking: the money’s going in. That’s how generous I am. The bravado continues.
The girl hastens away, muttering hollow thank yous, while the crowd guffaws in unison and more drinks are consumed. I don’t know what exactly is in our friend’s glass, but the blue colour tells me it’s not beer.
My pint is nearly empty and I’m glad to leave behind this dispiriting experience.
I’ve seen numerous customers come and go, chased away by the drunken antics at the bar and witnessed glum staff stand indifferently by as the situation worsens. The pub has been rendered soulless, the atmosphere brittle and hostile.
That’s not what I’ve been looking for on my evening out.
I drain my glass and head back out into the night. My experiment with a different venue has failed and now I need to make up for lost time.
Quickening my step, I make a beeline for the best beer house in town, a regional brewery pub alongside the canal. The prices are higher here but I know that I’ll get an interesting beer served in excellent condition. I’ll also, hopefully, be able to relax in a more hospitable environment.
There are four cask ales on the bar, plus some decent continental beers on tap and a small selection of bottled beers. I opt for the guest beer, a local ale from a microbrewery ten miles up the road.
It’s fresh and hoppy, bursting with bitter citrus fruit and zinging with natural effervescence, a crisp, clean beer that you are happy to let wallow on your tongue.
I find a seat at the end of the room. I like a seat with a view. When you’re drinking on your own, bar watching becomes compulsive and I want to see just how different things are from the last place. It is immediately obvious that I am on another planet.
As in the previous pub, there are plenty of voices ringing through the air. But, far from being superficial, coarse and aggressive, this is the sound of happy chatter, of people having wholesome fun, catching up with old friends and chewing the fat with partners and colleagues.
The sparkle of the beer in my glass is mirrored in the mood of my fellow drinkers. There’s a spring in their step as they approach the bar and, after placing their orders, they fairly skip back to their tables with their drinks.
Where the way through becomes tight, a polite excuse me is reciprocated with a soft apology for having stood in the way in the first place.
Conversation is clear and easy to pick out. The language is bright rather than colourful; opinions are thoughtfully expressed not ignorantly slurred. Where there is laughter – and there is plenty of it – it is genuine, not the ugly braying I heard earlier.
Most significantly, people are smiling, appreciating each other’s company, all bathed in that lovely, gentle glow that only a great pint of beer can bring.
Not everyone, I admit, is drinking beer, but beer is definitely the leading currency. Quality ales, well kept and professionally served in clean, appropriate glassware are the hallmark of this pub and such qualities immediately instil a sense of well-being in the customer.
Here, you’re not parting with money: you’re buying into a genuinely pleasurable experience. You appreciate it in an instant and it lightens your mood.
It is a joy to witness so many people shrugging the worries of the week off their shoulders and to understand the part that beer plays in the process. It’s a role that only a few intoxicants can play.
Others brutalise and demean their users, but beer, with its modest strength, big, complex flavours and uniquely satisfying quantities stands apart.
The contrast between my two pub experiences that Friday evening could hardly have been clearer had Hogarth himself been there to sketch both scenes.
I saw sad, sour people that base alcohol had inflated into cartoon social pariahs and I rubbed shoulders with cheerful, vibrant people whose love of beer clearly brings them so much happiness that it spreads beyond their own souls and out into the wider world.
‘Good people drink good beer’ is a famous quote from controversial American author Hunter S Thompson. It’s a perceptive point but one that, for me, also works in an inverted way. I’d argue that good beer actually makes good people.
Images for this feature are ©beergenie.co.uk.