I love “blue-sky” invitations, unexpected requests for my company, so though it’s only a “virtual” event I was flattered and delighted to be nominated by Alan McLeod of A Good Beer Blog as one of his four guests for a fantasy beer dinner.
The “fantasy beer dinner” question was thought up by the American beer writer and beer blogger Stan Hieronymous, and the idea, Stan says, is
If you could invite four people dead or alive to a beer dinner who would they be? What four beers would you serve?”
The 10 “beer dinner fantasists” Stan has put up on his site so far have chosen a range of guests for which “eclectic” seems utterly inadequate as a description. They include Bernardo O’Higgins, the 19th century South American revolutionary; Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys; Robert Noonan, author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists; William Shakespeare (nominated by two people); Martin Luther; Michael “The Beer Hunter” Jackson (also nominated by two people); David Bowie; Socrates; Winston Churchill; Ernest Hemingway; and John McEnroe. And me.
Since I’ve been chosen myself, I have naturally thouight about who I’d like to invite to my own fantasy beer dinner. I’m a little unhappy at the number restriction Stan has put on the game, as five – one host and four guests – doesn’t work that well in social situations. Sociologists say the ideal numbers of people for good conversation are three or four. Any more than that, and people get squeezed out, as the “natural” group number asserts itself. Take a look around at your next social gathering, and see how people naturally congregate in threes or fours – never fives. So it may be better to have host and three guests, or otherwise host and seven guests, which would the conversational group to split easily into two equal parts.
Sticking to Stan’s rules, however, my first choice is easy: Samuel Johnson, the 18th century writer, journalist, raconteur, lexicographer and coiner of more great one-liners than anyone in English litertature. Johnson was a great friend of Henry Thrale, owner of the Anchor brewery in Southwark, and his wife Hester, and when Thrale died, Johnson helped organise the sale of the brewery to messers Barclay and Perkins. His biographer, James Boswell wrote that
… when the sale of Thrale’s brewery was going forward, Johnson appeared bustling about, with an ink-horn and pen in his button-hole, like an excise-man; and on being asked what he really considered to be the value of the property which was to be disposed of, answered, ‘We are not here to sell a parcel of boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich, beyond the dreams of avarice.'”
Boswell also records that on one occasion, chatting with Johnson,
We finished a couple of bottles of port, and sat till between one and two in the morning.”
So that settles the beer for Sam – O’Hanlon’s Original Port Stout from Devon, brewed with a couple of bottles of best Ferreira in every barrel of stout.
If I’m having Johnson, I really ought to have Ron Pattinson, author of Shut up about Barclay Perkins, whose irreplaceable blog brings to an under-appreciative world the solid, properly researched evidence about beer styles that almost nobody else provides, and who admits to being a trifle fixated about the Anchor brewery. He would love, I know, to meet someone who once lived at the brewery site, and knew John Perkins, the brewery manager, who teamed up with his fellow Quakers the Barclays to buy it after Thrale’s death. But Ron’s been picked by someone else so even though I’ve got a great beer choice form him stashed away – a 1977 Courage Imperial Russian Stout brewed to the Barclay Perkins recipe – it’ll have to be someone else around the virtual table.
I thought about including a musician – JS Bach, for example, or Django Reinhardt, who, being Belgian, would provide a good excuse for some fine beers from the land of his birth: Rodenbach Grand Cru, for example. But I’d want the musicians to play, and their playing would distract from the conversation, so – no musicians.
Instead I’ve gone for another poet. Dylan Thomas. Despite the legends, Thomas was more often a beer drinker than a whisky man, and he certainly loved pubs: he was surely great crack around the pub table. For Dylan (and incidentally, it’s properly pronounced “Dullan”, Y in Welsh having an “uh” sound, so that the Welsh for Wales, “Cymru”, is pronouncd “Cumree”) it should be something from his home town, Swansea, such as Brewery Bitter from Tomos Watkins.
This is meant to be an evening of anecdote and crack, and I’ve mentioned in a previous blog George Izzard, the one-time landlord of the Dove at Hammersmith, who had a book-full of great stories, such as the time he and the author and professional troublemaker AP Herbert tried to take the House of Commons to court for serving drink in its bars without a licence. For George, it would have to be a beer from Fuller, Smith and Turner, the brewery that owns the Dove – the 2005 Vintage Ale is at a peak now, so several of those would suit.
Finally, we need someone who is female, and who is, in Dr Johnson’s expression, “clubbable – which I would define as “great fun to sit drinking with”. The finest woman I know of to take that pleasure with is, luckily for me, the one I’m married to, Emer O’Neill. It was nights sitting in pubs such as the Scarsdale Arms in West London with the lady, just talking and enjoying, that helped me fall in love with her. She’d bring her own unbeatable sparkle to the table, and she’d certainly hold up the Irish end against Englishman Johnson and Welshman Thomas. Emer’s not a huge beer drinker, Sauvignon Blanc is her drop, but she does like wheat beers or top-class pilsners, so Weihenstephan for her, I think. And for the venue – the little raised drinking area at the Jerusalem Tavern, near Farringdon Road, London, I think: secluded enough for a good talk, just large enough for five to get round the table, and close to the bar …