My first memory is very clear. I was on holiday in south Devon, Kingsbridge in fact, where there used to be a miniature railway on the quay. It was a Heath-Robinson affair, probably 8” gauge, with track laid by enthusiastic amateurs so had that pleasing rocking and yawing sensation as you rode on it. The owner built it all himself and for a period was so successful that he had two trains running. One, the workhorse, he called ‘Heidi’ but there was no alpine, goat-milk drinking charm about her, just a serious, functional, work-all-day temperament. The other was a Gordon the Big Engine affair, 8 wheels, a turbo-Electric in GWR glossy green where driver and passengers could sit atop, and built more for inter-city work (to scale obviously. I mean, Derby to Nottingham would be like the Trans-Siberian here). Like Gordon, if he could talk, if he could express his emotion (and unlike Heidi, this was definitely a ‘he’) he would be haughty, arrogant, aloof, superior. He would sniff at his lot and look with disdain on the rails he was forced to run upon. As it turned out, he was crap at his job. The tight turn as the railway swung around the top of the quay to avoid the landing stage, was for him too tight and the bogies would constantly derail. Out of this trauma was born my first memory. Holding my Dad’s hand as I was forced to clamber off the train and watch as the driver and some passengers strained to lever the engine back on to the rails. Tears featured and a career at Network Fail stymied forever.
But the memory lives deep. If Kingsbridge is mentioned, the memory comes back, and with it a slew of associations – colours, feelings, temperatures, a clear image of the scene and others that followed. It’s a neural pathway that is deep set, powerful and emotive. Yet, it’s not just our first memories that are powerful, in fact, our first experiences of everything that is new, surprising, challenging, frightening, pleasurable leaves us with a network of anchors that are the reference points for the rest of our days. My first car: a red polo (dodgy driver side windscreen wiper, gearbox like stirring stew, exhaust that broke on the top of Exmoor (best Spitfire I ever flew after that); my first meal I cooked myself: chile con carne (hold the kidneys a touch next time); my first kiss…. you get the drift.
And the first beer I drank the first time I went to the US was Sam Adams Boston Lager.
Sam Adams. Even drinking it as a Brit felt a little treacherous. At the time, mid 1990s, US beer was still reviled; those who drank it generally bought into the attendant brand values rather than the beer (and pre frogs, and ‘Wassssup?’ Bud had some great, iconic ‘Genuine Article’ advertising). For the few however, word was out. Something was going on Stateside, on the West Coast in San Francisco, in the East Coast from Boston to Delaware. In this case, I drank my beer in Quincy Market, like Covent Garden and Canary Wharf placed adjacently, with a hellishly tasty sub, and where I was asked for proof of age for the first time in my life. And the beer was great. Not just good, but really great. One of those occasions where you have to stop yourself, put the glass down and look at it, head slightly askance to make sure you’re not dreaming. Beautifully structured maltiness, a slight tobacco-stained white head colour and a floral yet spicy hoppiness both in aroma and taste. Today perhaps, not great shakes, but back then, and particularly given that this was an American lager, it was two hoofing great milkshakes, potentially verging on a Knickerbocker Glory. So there it was: my future wife, a terrific only-in-America sub, a beer to die for in an entrancing setting. Quite literally, the stuff memories are made of.
So what do you do then when memories are shattered? How do you reconcile yourself to the rollercoaster of emotions, the feeling that you have been living a lie, tricked, kidded on? To this day, in my other passion, cycling, I have to face this with disturbing regularity. One by one, your heroes are dethroned – Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton… it’s painful and needs a period of adjustment. And this is where I am today as I write, over such a silly little thing really. But Sam Adams Boston Lager in the UK is now brewed under license by Shepard Neame. Previously they were the agents, importing and distributing it. Now the line has been crossed – the line of irrationality. Because everyone knows, when they stop and think about it, that shipping large quantities of liquid around the globe makes neither economic nor environmental sense. Rational minded individuals know that brewers today are so skilled, that within the bounds of what humans can detect, it is possible to ‘match’ beers. And whether we deny it or not, we accept that it goes on. If you have ever drunk a pint of say what? 7 or 8 pints out of 10 in the UK, then you know that this practise goes on. And high gravity brewing; and adjuncts, and tricks with bottle size.
But it’s OK. The rules are in place. The context is transparent – the big brewers make war on their own terms, and make decisions to keep them competitive and alive. It’s mass-manufacture behaviour. I understand it commercially and choose to accept it because I can vote with my wallet and drink elsewhere if I have a problem. But somehow Sam Adams (Boston Beer Co) have crossed that line now. Somehow their principles as a craft brewer have been shown to be suspect and they need to ‘fess up and play by the new rules. For me, and I suspect for many though, it’s too late – my memory has been sullied and the damage done.
Faversham Lager, brewed near the original site of the Faversham Tea Party. (The new logo shape is the giveaway)
©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013