It feels odd even writing it, but it's true: on my last visit to England, a two-day trip in mid-June, I didn't visit a single pub. My friends Sarah and David were getting married in a remote corner of east Cornwall and the most straightforward way of getting there was flying into Bristol and driving down. We opted to stay in a precariously positioned clifftop cottage near the venue, which meant nipping out to a nearby licensed hostelry wouldn't really have been an option, had we had the time to do it. But none of that matters: the wedding was wonderful and there was decent beer aplenty.
In fact, beer was the theme of the wedding, each table named after a hop variety and decorated with tasting glasses and a beer which demonstrated the specific hop in action. I don't know who I pissed off to get seated at Fuggles, but there you have it. Mercifully the showcase beer was a last-minute substitution and instead of Bombardier it was a local(ish) Devon brew called Otter Bright. I'm happy to report it's a largely malt-driven beer, a golden ale of 4.3% ABV. The nose is a little off-putting, being slightly musty and oxidised, but the beer underneath is sound. There's lots of golden syrup and pale sugary biscuits. The hops are mostly present in a final bitterness that balances it nicely. Even at room temperature, this was a success.
While I didn't get to go to a pub, I did drop into a brewery briefly. There was a concern that the beer supplies laid in might not have been enough, so on the morning of the wedding I was dispatched on a 120-mile mission along most of the length of the county to Redruth and the Keltek Brewery, sited in an unglamourous industrial estate outside the town. I wasn't even tempted to swing off the A38 at the signs for St Austell and fill the car with Tribute and Proper Job instead of what was ordered.
What was ordered was two 10L polypins of Keltek beer: Golden Lance is another slightly musty golden ale, though dry and very drinkable. Magik is a smooth brown bitter with lots of puddingy caramel, great for dessert. It was my first experience with beer-in-a-bag-in-a-box and I felt the carbonation could have done with being upped a bit more, though I don't know if this is a gripe with the dispense method or the brewery.
And so it was back on the road again on the day after the ceremony. Obviously, I called in at Buckfast Abbey on the way back to Bristol: as an Armaghman one simply does not pass up the opportunity to see such an important part of one's heritage. At Bristol airport, with the car (a ghastly Vauxhall Meriva: don't ever buy one) back in the lot I checked in and was able to, for the first and only time all trip, walk up to a bar and order a pint of beer. Butcombe Bitter was on the one and only handpump. There'd be times when I'd dismiss this as a boring brown bitter, but at the end of a long trip it was a delicious cool copper pint of pure refreshment. On the whole it's quite dry and rather tannic in a marvellously thirst-quenching way. There's a touch of eggs in the aroma and a hint of soap on the flavour: stereotypical faults of English beer, but they compromised my enjoyment not a jot. If my flight hadn't been called madly early, I'd have launched into another no problem.
I returned home eager for more travelling in England. O to have time for those interesting excursions off the motorway, to stop in those villages and drink in those pubs. And to fill the car with cases of cider from those farms. Some day.
Westmalle Dubbel - *Origin: Belgium | Date: 2008 | ABV: 7% | On The Beer Nut: October 2007* It's a longtime favourite today. Westmalle Dubbel goes back to the very beginnings...
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