Mad dogs and Englishman go out in the noon day sun. And this was definitely true for Tony, as he drank a glass of sparkling Mahou in the prickly shade of an Aleppo pine, beads of condensation slowly ran, connecting, growing and picking up momentum as they made their journey from lip to stem of his beer, slowly pooling on the coaster at its base. Let me tell you about Tony. A gnarly 53, from Oldham; bricky and sometime joiner, he turns his hand to most things and comes on holiday to Spain most years, except those which it’s a bit lean. He’s proud of his roots, Tony. Sure, Oldham has had some bad press of late, race riots and all that, but it’s picking up. Soon the Metro would connect it to central Manchester, and anyway, he was in a ‘good’ part, in fact you can see the gentle rise of the Pennines from the back bedroom. He’d got a detached house, a nice bit of land and not too much debt. Plenty of reasons to be cheerful in fact – and let’s face it, it could be worse. Many people were struggling to buy fuel for their vans, yet alone afford a decent holiday, and here he was, enjoying the endless days, warm evenings and beach-side bars. His wife, Linda loved it here. For two weeks, she was free from the arduous work of being a ‘stay at home Mum’, to kids who, frankly, should need less input than they received. So, no washing, ironing, cooking multiple meals at irregular times through the day…. two weeks…properly ‘off’. Linda was enjoying her lunchtime beer as well – she’d earned the beer and earned the time off. And she had earned the tapas too, a mixed plate, with different cheeses and Iberico ham, rough textured Spanish bread in pungent olive oil with fresh anchovies: simple food, simply done, perfectly set off by the crisp lager.
Fast forward two weeks. The holiday now an ever-distant memory. The suitcases are back up in the loft, the washing done and the metronomic routines of the weekly run back, as if a natural order has reasserted itself. For Tony, the routine stretches into the weekend. He’s never been much of a football man, but he enjoyed a catch up with a few of his mates before they set off for the game. The drink of choice in this case Beck’s Vier, some in the right glass, but a motley collection if truth be told. A few bags of crisps lie ripped open for group consumption, disembowelled on the table in front of them. And….acceptance. Just as Tony was happy to sip a beer from a stemmed glass on a promenade bar in the Ballearics; so too he stick-shifts without thinking into pints of refreshing but unchallenging lager at home.
The names have been changed to protect the guilty but this sketch is otherwise true. UK policy makers seem beguiled by the cure-all of ‘continental style drinking’, as if we can simply transplant the whole bar context over here, architecture, weather the lot. I admit, I am beguiled myself to a degree. As I’ve written before, I’m not a big drinker… by that I mean I like to enjoy a few, typically small glasses of different beers. I like to reach, what the Spanish call, la chispa, and then hold that state rather than head for oblivion and everything that entails. When I worked on Grolsch a few years ago, the team specifically tried to lift the Dutch Grand Cafe vibe – as experienced in the town squares bars like ‘de Jaren’ in Amsterdam or ‘de Katte’ in downtown Enschede and bring it to life in British urban settings. It’s a fairly easy formula at the end of the day: glassware, staff wearing a bit of your branded uniform, table service and perhaps a branded parasol or two. In St Katherine’s Dock, by the waterfront in Bristol or in some of the Montpellier bars in Edinburgh it worked a treat, but less well in Spalding or Okehampton.
But the point is that we have a unique opportunity. To blend the best of the world’s drinking culture, and assimilate it in a way that feels natural and right for us, here. For British ale, this is pints…wrapping your hand around the glass, slowly drinking it, letting it join the conversation with you, being part of the scene. For other beers, to each its own. A tumbler for an American IPA perhaps; a stemmed glass for a Leffe, a flute for a wheat beer. A one-size-fits-all approach, be it ‘continental style’ or ‘British style’ is surely robbing us of some of the richness of beer.
© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012