What shall I write about? It has been a familiar refrain of mine during most of this unsettling, frustrating and bilious year. It has been a question that has sometimes been answered with memories of what now seems like those strange times when hopping on a train or a plane was as easy as drinking a well-made Czech pale lager in one go. These are memories that place me in Berlin/Prague/Antwerp/Bamberg (delete where applicable, other cities are also available), drinking great beer, watching people, strolling through narrow streets and crossing windswept boulevards and watching how other people in other countries live their lives.
Then there are the times where I have written as if setting out on a journey, a flâneur perhaps, or maybe a wanderer without maps, unsure of where the settling of words on the virtual sheet will take me, but happy in the knowledge that I will end up somewhere. That is the joy of writing, it can take you anywhere. So here I am, setting off, totally unsure of where I will end up.
So I recall the eve of Christmas Eve quite a few years ago. In the city of Aachen, where I was spending Christmas, initially planning to be alone, but then joined by my brother’s family. The noise of the celebrations outside the cathedral, the glugwein disappearing as fast as a greyhound out of the traps and then, later, when the rest of the family had gone back to our flat (loaned to me by a friend), a solo, much anticipated trip to a bar I knew. Here I had planned to make my reacquaintance with Weissbier.
You have to recall that in the early 1990s, Bavarian Weissbier was a rare beast of a beer, or perhaps a seldom seen bird of passage, written about by Michael Jackson in his Independent beer column, but only sold in specialist beer shops. Here though in this long forgotten bar, I could drink it to my heart’s content, while marvelling in the bar-person’s dexterity as he upturned a bottle and filled the glass without spilling so much as an atom. I stayed late into the night, talking and drinking and clinking the odd glass, entranced by the flavour, the richness, the briskness of carbonation and the ease with which the beer vanished.
So this journey now leads me onto thinking about Christmas and beer. I think of mahogany-brown barley wines, a glass of which reflects the gleam of a blazing log fire, the fruitiness and dryness and bitterness all existing in a harmonic universe that is far from far away. A large chunk of molten Stilton will light the divine spark inside.
I think of the large bottles of Malheur 12 that I often opened late on Christmas Day afternoon, when the family were fast asleep. The gentle pop of the cork as I eased it out of the bottle and this sensuous, vigorous, bittersweet, spirituous beer was free to work a spell on me that Merlin would have been proud of. Then my memory takes me back to the late 1990s, when I had embarked on what seemed like a fruitless journey of beer-writing. The beer that springs to mind, perhaps with the aplomb of a circus trapeze artist effortlessly going through a routine high above the crowd, is King & Barnes’ Christmas Ale.
This beer was released every year until the brewery was taken over by Hall & Woodhouse in 2000. It was 8% and a dark chestnut brown in colour. I look back on my tasting notes from 1996’s version, which I think I aged for some time (the beer not the notes), and see I was channelling the well-known beer-writers of the time in describing it as ‘liquid Christmas pudding’. I also picked up a marmalade-like fruitiness, soothing vanilla and caramel notes and a bitterness in the palate that stayed around with the assurance of an old friend.
Beer and memories are a constant companion come Christmas. Another one: leaving a glass of Chimay Bleu by the fireplace, alongside a glass of sherry, on Christmas Eve; the how-do-you-do and compliments-of-the-season vibe during a lunchtime Christmas Day beer in my local pub when I lived on Exmoor. It think it was Proper Job, just one pint, amongst the ceaseless cheery chatter on a day when we all talk to everyone.
And then, I remember, the one tradition of beer that has remained with me for 20 years ever since I returned from Brussels and my first of many visits to Cantillon: a bottle of gueuze, the starting beer of Christmas Day, its sprightly, brightly sparkling nature bringing to life my palate and preparing it for the day ahead. Even though I haven’t made my regular autumn trip to Belgium this year, some traditions deserve to be kept and come Christmas morning, the first beer of the day will be Boon’s geuze, with each sip reminding me of how lucky I am to be able to take this writing journey.