Some journeys never end, which is why the other day I was like a wide-eyed child of the recent past transfixed in an old school sweetshop, surrounded by all manner of tooth-rotting, blood sugar-spiking delights: gobstoppers, sherbet dabs, liquorice all-sorts, and chocolate buttons.
However, I wasn’t in a sweetshop, but instead was in one of the Burton Union System rooms at Marston’s Brewery watching the slow, stately drip of yeast from taps stationed above a long stainless steel trough, beneath which sat 24 oak barrels filled with beer, all linked to make one set.
Truly, this is one of the most magnificent sights within the brewing world and despite having witnessed it once before it was still able to move me. As I stood there I remembered the time I used to drink Marston’s Pedigree in London during the late 1980s, recalling the distinctive note on the nose, which I thought reminiscent of Andrews Liver Salts, a can of which I always kept in my kitchen in the misguided belief it would help with hangovers.
Even though I didn’t know it then, this aroma was what is called the ‘Burton Snatch’, a by-product of the hard, calcium rich waters that reside beneath the town. Thirty years later this journey would take me to Burton and what Michael Jackson called the cathedral of brewing.
Last month I wrote about the early journeys I took in beer, but these journeys in beer, as my visit to Marston’s demonstrate, never really end. In 1996 I was in Brussels with a couple of friends for a weekend. Belgian beer had been discovered by then, but my mate Keith who actually lived in Brussels suggested visiting Cantillon Brewery.
I had read about it but never tried any of their lambic or gueuze beers. The brewery was dark and dusty, musty even, and my mate didn’t actually endear himself to Jean-Pierre Van Roy (whose son Jean now runs the business) by asking if they got their water from the canal that ran outside the building — cue a momentary change in Jean-Pierre’s up-till-then genial features. That trip started off a fascination with gueuze that continues to this day, even though for a couple of years I would put a cube of sugar into my glass every time I owned a bottle.
My frequent visits to Belgium and France (whose supermarkets teemed with beers from its neighbour) was a good education, even if sometimes visits to the likes of the Beer Circus would see us starting our evening’s drinking on 7% beers, drunk with gusto as if we were downing pints in a pub back in the UK.
The other beer that springs to mind from then was Delirium Tremens, a beer I never drink these days, finding it insufferably sweet, but then it had a certain gravitas, the colourful branded bottles and the suggestion that it was a good accompaniment to certain dishes.
Another stopping point on my journey in the 1990s was my first visit to the USA in 1996, flying into Boston and staying in New England with my brother-in-law Chris. Back in the UK, even though I had drunk Sam Adams, Pete’s Wicked Ales and St Stan’s, I had resigned myself to drinking wine and putting up with Budweiser, but Chris (who was more of a wine-drinker) had done his research and he introduced me to the healthy local micro-brewing sector. I drank well on that holiday.
The highlight was lunch at the Cambridge Brewing Company, where I wrote in my journal, ‘three tastings in 5oz glasses then a pint of the pale ale, a style of beer which seems to be popular amongst the micro-brewing fraternity. Or else they are making chilli and pepper ales’. As I look at a can of a chilli and ginger gose I have under the stairs now, back then little did I know what was to come.