Fear. There’s nothing else to call it. Just plain, untrammelled, fear. Some beer rites of passage were keenly anticipated – at University, ‘drinking the Blackie dry’ was a team effort in which everyone in the pub would pull together in an oftentimes successful effort to drink the Black Horse clean out of its stocks of beer. Plus there were the ‘miles’ – the apochryphal pub lined streets with, oh, I dunno, 100 pubs in 100 metres or whatever.
Others though simply brought on cold sweats. And they generally featured a beer of legendry strength. And generally, they featured drinking physiologically challenging quantities of said beers. And perhaps getting a certificate at the end of the night, not that you’d remember receiving at the time.
The cold sweats returned this weekend when a friend bought me a bottle of one of the legendary beers as a child minding present. Not that appropriate a gift you might suppose, but word is out that I like beer a bit. There were three ‘legendary beers’ round our way: all ‘old’. One was Old Tom, a beer from our local brewer Robinson’s, and a light, aperitif of a tipple at 8.5%ABV. Every Robbo’s pub stocked it in bottle though, so it’s relative commonness made it more a beer for dedicated inebriation rather than any mythical beer challenge. No, two beers held that status. The first was ‘Owd Roger’, a Marston’s barley wine which held a fearsome rep. I recall it being over 8% but time seems to have wearied it and today it stands at a still punchy 7.6% ABV. other was the daddy though:
Old Peculier. Like Hannibal, to get to us in the flatlands of the north west, this beer had its own rite of passage – to clamber the foothills and cross the bitter and vast windswept nothingness of the north Pennines. And like India Pale Ale rounding the Cape, or Madeira crossing the Equator, some mysterious, alchemical transformation took place. Alcohol content was pepped up; taste was set to challenge; body was roughened up to prevent you from drinking it quickly. Old Peculier was like the Manchester United of the beer world: you felt defeated before you took the first sip. Plus, it was draught not bottled, so you had volume to contend with too.
Here’s the thing though. It’s not what I remembered at all. First off, there’s the strength. I don’t know whether its alcohol level has changed, but in bottle it’s 5.6% – a typical strength for many of the beers I’m drinking these days. Second, I enjoyed it. Back in the day, the assault of volume, reputation and a lost mental battle meant that I never really contemplated the beer, rather just strategies for survival. But today, with just the one to enjoy it was different: a tight liquorice-white head; an aroma of treacle toffee and distant smoke; a mellow alcohol in the taste off set by some dark cherry pulp.
In fact, the peculiar thing about this beer is that it is neither a challenge, nor Peculier.
©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013