Two thousand pounds is about eight times the current going rate for a 1,500-word article on beer in most of the journals I ever get commissioned by, and twice as much as the top prize in the BGBW Beer Writer of the Year competition. So the news that two grand had been slapped down as the carrot in the first ever Bombardier Beer prize for writing on “the joys and jolliness of beer”, a piece of up to 1,500 words on the subject of beer’s role in society, and as a social lubricant, saw a field full of many of the country’s best writers about beer leap to their keyboards. I know this because, now the winner has been announced, several well-known beer bloggers have bravely put their own losing entries up on their blogs.
You can read the man who ran off with the £2,000 cheque, Milton Crawford, here, Adrian Tierney-Jones’s entry is here, for Zak Avery’s take on the subject click here and Mark Dredge’s entry can be read here. After that it’s instructive to read Pete Brown, one of the competition’s judges, on the experience of reading more than 40 essays all singing Ale-elluia – click here. And my own losing entry is right here.
What’s the price of a ticket to conviviality, comradeship and conversation? One penny. If you had a penny, the “latch lifter”, you could open the door of any pub, walk up to the bar, and pay for a half-pint of ale. Take a sip, turn round, wipe the froth from your lip, put that half pint down and join the community of fellow drinkers. What’s the crack? Doesn’t matter, join in, laugh at a joke, tell one yourself. Feel the warmth. Go with the glow: the sun through the pub window, ruddy as a pint of best bitter, is nearing the horizon, the working strife is done, for now, and it’s time to put one elbow on the bar, one foot on the rail, let the tension drain out, take another swallow of that beer, half noticing as it goes down how good it is, cool and floral.
A half pint for a penny was last possible, alas, more than a hundred years ago, when beer, in the public bar, was served to the workers in the salmon-pink china mugs with the white strap handles that George Orwell praised as the best possible receptacle for good ale (bit of an inverted snob, Mr Blair) . If you go to the Falkland Arms in Great Tew, fabulous pub, made from Cotswold stone the same glowing gold as a pint of summer ale or Bohemian pilsner, you will see dozens of those pink mugs hanging from the beams in the bar. Should you find one such mug in a country town antique shop, with the official “ER” stamp in the glaze, it will cost you today more than the Edwardian agricultural labourer who drank out of it earned in half a year. The pennies, too, that were slid across the bar in exchange for a foam-topped china mug of beer, were very different, big and clattery, with the old Queen’s head on, or the head of her son, Edward VII. But the welcome, as warm as the fire in the hearth, is as gladly given down the pub today as it was when big, bearded Edward was the man behind the bar at the Windsor Tavern, and the beer, when well-brewed and properly cosseted, is just as capable of floating the ship of friendship.
“Coming down the pub?” is surely one of the happiest questions in the English language. Together with “What’s yours?” And mine, thanks, will be the drink that will keep you riding the wave of bonhomie all night, the pride of British brewing. Any fool can make a strong beer. Just pile in the malt, and ease up on the water. But it needs skill, and much experience, and even some luck, to design the beer that is packed with subtle depths of flavour, and at the same time doesn’t trip the tongue, corrode the crack and devastate the darts-playing. The best of beers will let you fly all night, and not leave you snoring behind the settle after just two pints.
Beer can be a contemplative drink: you may study your pint of draught ale, the colour of bright Baltic amber, and note, in a dimpled glass, how as the afternoon fades into evening the refracted light makes glinting jewels in the liquid. But as the bar becomes more crowded, it must be time to join the talk. Few evenings can be more happily spent than with friends while drinking beer – and if they weren’t friends when you began the evening, as the beer washes away any social awkwardness, ignites the chat, lubricates tables of talkers and cements togetherness, they will be by the time the towel is placed over the handpumps.
Once, in a tiny place in furthest, blackest North Norfolk, beer literally enlivened the bar in a moment. The pub, down a road going from nowhere to nowhere else, could be found only with luck and a large-scale Ordnance Survey map: it had been recommended as one of the most unspoilt alehouses in the country. There was nothing, apart from the innsign rising by the verge, to distinguish it from any of the other dozen scattered Victorian cottages in a tiny hamlet surrounded by huge, flat, crowblown fields, where the pheasants and the foxes probably outnumbered the humans. Inside, you might have been drinking in someone’s living room: there were four or five middle-aged farmworkers sat on wooden chairs, and a couple more standing by the bar, in silence. I ordered a pint. The landlady, a small white-haired woman whose daughter, judging by the pictures and trophies around the room, was an Olympic-level pistolier, had problems getting the beer out of the tap: she was filling the glass with froth and little else. She and one of the burlier locals disappeared into the room behind the bar that served as the cellar. There was a bang, and a cry, and the landlady came back into the bar, laughing, her hair and her floral-pattern dress drenched in much beer: the spear had shot out of the keg, and with it the pressurised contents.
The result, around the bar, was galvanitic: everybody began talking to each other. The sudden fountain of beer had swept away the social ice, and there was instant lively conversation: the man next to me and I went from strangers to friends in under 30 seconds, and within minutes he was offering me a new pint and I was insisting that no, I was getting them in, really, let me, please. The bar was now a room of warmth and chatter, sharing a beer and a laugh at how the landlady had almost killed herself. When closing time came, I walked out into the Norfolk night knowing that, although I had started as a stranger in a strange lounge, beer had lifted the latch and let me in to join the community.
But beer doesn’t bring people together only down the pub. Wherever two, or three, or four, or more are gathered together for fun, let there be beer. Barbecues and street parties, celebrations and ceremonies, picnics on the beach and concerts in the park, dinners for a dozen, or someone dropping by on their way home, beer is always most welcome. You can stay with a glass of something uncomplicated, a background to the camaraderie, a light and unobtrusive liquid to lubricate the happy revelry: or you can sometimes let the beer take the spotlight, show off, reveal what it can do. A stunning stout, a hyper-hopped pale ale, will make the point that beer is not merely beer, that it can take a proud place, when asked, as one of the most powerful pleasures in the world. But beer is in highest favour for its social skills: and it is beer’s ability to enhance an evening, to turn any occasion into a event, that makes it, properly, the finest long drink in the world. Cheers.