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Harry Sword, August 29, 2023

My Life in Beer

Filed under: Brewing Folk / My Life In Beer
My Life in Beer

When I was a toddler my mum turned around in her studio to find me swigging from a jam jar full of turps used to wash paintbrushes. The hospital - this was early 1980’s Cambridge - prescribed ‘lots of milk’. To this day I loathe milk. I was not discouraged from beer though. I’ve loved it since the age of three. My parents had to position pints away from me in beer gardens throughout early childhood, away from my insistent hands. I remember being drawn to the impossible vastness of the glass; to the murk of it.

At home, my dad was a devotee of Worthington White Shield, a bottle conditioned Burton IPA that was hard to find in the 1980’s/1990’s. I remember him pouring the bottle out, showing me the sediment at the bottom, giving me the odd sip and - later - a full glass. My parents divorced when I was young. In my teens my dad and I would sometimes go away for the weekends. I remember my first taste of Theakston Old Peculiar and Marston Black Sheep in the Yorkshire Dales, the spice and insistent boozy kick of both. Big, generous beers. Untethered, somehow - far removed from the Greene King that was ubiquitous in Cambridge pubs at the time. We’d go to Mitcham’s Corner pubs- The Portland Arms, The Jolly Waterman. I’d have a half of Abbott Ale: sweet and malty but uninspiring. My mums then partner was also a beer enthusiast. He introduced me to Wadworth 6X in Devon. I learnt that beer sometimes had to be dug for: like with music, you had to get involved on a deeper level; that the good stuff had to be actively sought out.

I went through strange faze of drinking Tetley’s Bitter. It had a cult following in my school. If you were into Levellers, PWEI, Neds Atomic Dustbin etc then you drank Tetley’s Bitter. Why? I don’t know. I still don’t know. This was before cream flow. The old school Tetley’s Bitter. In Withnail and I director Bruce Robertson’s brilliant novel The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman he describes a house as ‘smelling of meals’ - so it was with early 90’s Tetley’s, only with ‘pub’. It tasted of the room.

Amsterdam is my all time favourite city. Dutch beer isn’t particularly noteworthy but I still love draft Amstel there, specifically the idea of the ‘pincher’ - the small beer that doesn’t have a chance to get warm. And the plastic ‘scraper’ that the barman uses to scrape off the foam. It makes perfect sense. It’s deep Europe, somehow. Also experiencing the exoticism of Hoegarden for the first time, before it was widely imported and which - mid 90’s Amsterdam - was always served with a big slice of lemon and a plastic press to squidge it down.

It’s another Benelux country that means more to me beer-wise though. My wife is half Belgian/half Cornish and Belgium remains my absolute abiding love when it comes to beer. It’s one of the most eccentric countries in the world. It’s a very greedy place. They love food and drink and music. They have a voracious appetite. They’re often highly dedicated bacchanalians and entirely unrepentant, which I love. I don’t like it when people whine about hangovers etc. Just get on with it. Keith Floyd once said that in Ireland the hangover was ‘a mere pinprick of discomfort in exchange for a night of creamy stout, peaty whiskey and spirited conversation’. So it is in Belgium.

Belgium has the wildest beer culture on earth. Germany may have more breweries than anywhere else in Europe, but they can’t touch the Belgians when it comes to individuality. There’s a dogged romance in the best Belgian beers. A wild, untethered poetry. Lambic is as close to madness as a beer gets. It’s ludicrously sour and tastes of barns. Lambic brewers will sometimes be reticent to dust or even upset the cobwebs lest they disturb the delicate wild yeasts on which their insane beers depend.

I enjoy the dubbels there - strong wintery brews with loads of brown sugar and spice and malt. Chimay Red is an unimpeachable beer. But the triples are my favourites. Westmalle is the gold standard, the mothership. My favourite is Brugges Tripel, though. It’s hard to find outside of the city. An absurdly decadent beer. Lush with spice. It makes me think of fat Belgian market traders in the nineteenth century, smoking pipes in the fog and unloading wheels of cheese from horse drawn carts. One thing though: three is the magic number. You can’t approach strong Belgian beers in the same way that you would a session beer. Many are between 8-10%. The second is always the best. My late Danish grandmother was a fan of very strong beers, too. Carlsberg Special Brew was her favourite. She’d drink one ice cold bottle in a glass while she was watching Neighbours.

I’m very happy in Belgium. It’s a strange place. I’d like to live there one day. I have to watch it though: I get far too into the food and beer and come back looking like Falstaff. I’m an imbiber by nature. I’ll always drink beer. The chef Fergus Henderson had brilliant advice re: drinking, though, which was ‘listen to your kidneys’. I refuse on principal to go in for ‘dry January’ or any of those mass horsehair shirt/mad monk/Name of the Rose type abstinence events but I do listen keenly to my kidneys and liver - I drink a lot of ginger tea. It has magical regenerative properties.

I love the local European utility lagers too. Some are absolutely superb. Super Bock is a staggeringly brilliant beer. I always get excited when I see it. Same with Coral from Madiera. One rule though: never get a big one. It tastes different. Completely wrong - as if you’ve broken some kind of covenant. Pilsner in larger quantities works brilliantly in Germany and the Czech Republic but not in Southern Europe. It must be the weather. You can have a large glass of lager in Germany or the Czech Republic and it’ll stay cold. But I love the lack of choice in Southern Europe, the pride taken in the local brand. In Malta they have a pils called Cisk. It’s a beautiful crisp beer. It comes in brilliant yellow cans. It’s inescapable. Lee Tiernan - the chef at Black Axe Mangal in London (where they sell more Jamesons whisky than anywhere in England) loves it. They do cans of it as their house beer.

Spain is a long standing obsession too. I love the whole culture. I feel at home in Spain and have travelled fairly extensively over the years. The beer though? It’s back to the utility vibe. Is Cruzcampo, say, a ‘good’ lager? Not particularly, but it’s perfect in situ. Those frosted glasses! And the way that beer is just a part of the full day. Not to excess but ever present.

I went to university in Hull. We’d buy out of date Oranjeboom lager from the newsagent round the corner. He had it stacked on pallets at the back. I studied in Louisiana for a year. Baton Rouge. For the first time American beer made a lot of sense. At a BBQ in 100% humidity it just works. I got into 40 oz bottles of malt liquor out of a brown paper bag from gas stations. It has to be done. I know those beers (Olde English; Miller High Life) don’t taste of a great deal but when they’re cold - and I mean absurdly cold; almost frozen into slush - they just work. There was a fantastic brewery in Louisiana called Abita - the amber beer they did was perfect. Louisiana has a fantastic drinking culture, one of the greatest in the world. America can be very puritan when it comes to drinking. Not so Louisiana. New Orleans is relentless. It’s one of those places you either get or not. You’ll want to be there forever or leave immediately. For some it’s too hot and insane. I loved it to the extent that I hardly travelled for the whole year. I wanted to spend all my time in New Orleans. It’s like the Island of the Lotus Eaters, in that regard.

I spend a lot of time in Cornwall, too, as my wife’s family are down there. I always feel an immediate sense of freedom driving the A303. It’s a magic road, the greatest road in England. You should always take the 303, even if it takes longer. Never take the M4. Cornwall has a certain freedom. It reflects in the beer too, I think. There are some superb beers down there. I drink a lot of the Verdant IPA’s and pale ales - strong and hoppy (but not absurdly so) and some of the best beers in the world with fish and chips. They cut straight through the richness. And then the salt makes you want another pint so it’s a perfect circle. I also enjoy the Skinners beers when I’m in Cornwall- Cornish Knocker in particular. My absolute number one pub in Cornwall is The Blue Anchor in Helston. It’s completely unique and incredibly atmospheric, full of nooks and cranny’s and alleys and random rooms. They have a skittles alley. It’s one of the most atmospheric pubs in the world. It’s been there for 600 years. They have a brewery there and make a beer called Spingo. They call it ‘getting Spingoed’. One man named his dog after it. The ‘special’ has near hallucinogenic properties. I think that all good beer does, but you have to know how to listen to it.


Harry writes about music and subculture for The Quietus, The Guardian and Record Collector. 2021 saw the publication of his first book – Monolithic Undertow – on White Rabbit, the first ever history of the drone.

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