I have been travelling once more in search of beer and pubs and it seems as if I have thrown on a cloak of strangeness. Used to my own pubs, which I have visited regularly since April, on coming to somewhere new there is hesitation at the door, a where-do-I-sit and do-I-need-a-mask and is-it-table-or-bar-service kind of sensibility.
Adding to this almost forensic examination of how to behave, there was the weirdness of travelling across country to Norwich one frenetic Sunday in August. This was my first time in London since February 2020 and it didn’t disappoint with its strangeness as the senses were assailed by a tube-way tub-thumping preacher going on about Jesus and sin and god knows what else.
However, there was also an excitement, a heart-levelling excitement, because Norwich is a great city for beer and pubs and it doesn’t take long to fit into a routine, even if for the moment spontaneity remains like an astronaut in the deep blue ocean of rules and regulations.
So here we are in the Plasterer’s Arms, a favourite backstreet corner pub with its L-shaped bar, a fortress to which no one must approach, not even with a mask. We will come to the table I am told as I enter a pub that I have been visiting off and on now for 10 years, a place that I have always felt comfortable in, a place where beer can be studied and contemplated and eased into a place of relaxation and restoration and resolution.
Meanwhile, amid the flurry of words that pass along the tripwires of my thought, the beer that I order with cavalier ease is Must Kuld Kenya from Estonia’s Põujala, whose strong, dark beers are becoming common in the bars and pubs that I visit. The coffee-flavoured porter is 8% and £8 for a pint, two instances of its identity that the barkeep points out to me as if he was a lighthouse keeper directing a beam towards a ship about to drift onto rocks that bear the resemblance of a dragon’s teeth.
I am the captain of my own destiny though and easily able to avoid these rocks, so I order the beer. The beer is certainly dark, a wrap of night in the glass and there is the essence of coffee triumphant in the aroma, alongside the creaminess of a modern porter and the slim sense that chocolate might have made a visit at some stage during its existence. The paleness of milky coffee silks onto the palate, alongside a light sliver of roastiness, a cross-current of chocolate and a deft creaminess before a satisfyingly dry and bittersweet finish. This is a beer that summons up the spirits of a variety of flavours that is suggestive of breakfast and late morning and late night and lives for a long time in the memory.
There is also a quiz going on in the pub, and a man with a microphone goes through the questions with the style of an itinerant game-show host, rolling his rrrs and letting his words stilt-walk all over the bar. Let me have 10 celebrities with colour in their name; in which book did Napoleon and the old major appear; what famous painting hangs in this famous gallery in Milan. I almost expect him to add the phrase no conferring, as if conferring is a sin that will find you out, you old sinner (uncomfortable thoughts of the preacher on the underground reappear as if to taunt but then recede with the wrack of the tide).
This was both familiar and unfamiliar, a sense and a feeling that had been absent since March 23 last year, the joy of travel, yes with a few anxieties, but they soon drift away and what is left is a sense of exploration that beer and pubs, in whatever country, has engendered in me. I lift my glass, a silent toast to its return, while the quizmaster announces the winner and enjoins those in front of him to come back the same time, the same day, next week.