Pining for pubs

For the first time in as long as I can remember, I have not enjoyed a beverage of any kind in a pub, bar, taproom, cafe or restaurant for over a week. It’s a strange feeling.

I am, of course, supporting local breweries by buying take-out growlers and crowlers. I’ve made a particular effort to support those that don’t have any distribution to local bottle shops and grocery stores. In addition, I’ve tried my best to order the beers that needed drinking the soonest. That Czech-style lager I had my eye on will still be there in a couple of weeks in excellent form, but the delicious NEIPA I devoured at the weekend won’t weather the closures quite so well.

It has been fantastic to support local businesses; I count myself incredibly lucky to live close to so many wonderful breweries and to have the means to throw them a little custom during this trying time. That said, I miss grabbing a drink out and about. Going to brewery taprooms, pubs and bars is never just about the beer. It’s a bookend to a day, a chance to watch the world go by, and a way to share an experience with someone.

Right now, even turning up in-person to buy the beer to take away can’t emulate any of that. The taprooms are eerily quiet, and my order echoes around the room. The poor staff look as exhausted from it all as I look and feel too. I try my best to offer my sympathies, and ensure to tip generously. Knowing I’m giving my support to local business is a good feeling; just not nearly as good a feeling as if I was able to stick around.

I keep thinking about some of my favorite pubs back in the UK and trying to imagine them empty. For places like the Harp, which I’ve never seen any less than bustling, even on a Monday lunchtime, it’s near impossible to envisage.

Right now, the uncertainty is the scariest part. No one knows quite when all will be back to normal in our various corners of the globe. All I know is how much I’m going to enjoy sitting on a bar stool, chatting to friends and strangers alike, and listening to the warm, comforting hum of voices swirl around the room again.

Dodging the rain in a bottle shop

The air in Grand Rapids in late summer smells of cut grass and drenched daisies. The pewter-colored clouds overhead remind me of Cardiff, as do the suburban pavements, with weeds peeking out of each corner in almost impossibly vibrant shades of green.

As I stroll, the scent in the air changes a little. Rain is coming again, much sooner than I thought. I’m not entirely sure how I know this, and I don’t waste much time trying to figure it out. I’m walking faster now, the worn soles of my leather boots sliding against slippery curbs. I’m calculating how long it will take until I’m dry inside; ten, maybe fifteen minutes.

Then comes a clap of thunder, as if arguing with my plan. I scan the opposite side of the street for shops where I can take shelter, and spot one with a creamy orange glow seeping from the inside. I dart across the road like a nervous deer, and clumsily fall into the store just as the heavens open. The shopkeeper gives me a knowing smile. Revitalizing AC blows in my face as I wipe tiny beads of sweat from the back of my neck.

As I clean raindrops and condensation from my glasses, I’m delighted to find myself in a bottle shop. After replacing my glasses to my face, I realize that it is actually a beer, wine, liquor and gourmet food shop all under one roof. I slip into the walk-in fridge, reading each label for longer than necessary to savor the cold.

After twenty minutes of browsing, the rain begins to ease and I see my opportunity to dash back to my lodgings. I buy a selection of local beers and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon before leaving.

The kitchen of the place I’m staying is unfamiliar to me. I can’t appear to find any glasses; only jars. I decide I’m too thirsty to continue the hunt through the cupboards.

I crack open a can of Jaa Raspberry Black Ale from Dark Horse Brewing. It both smells and tastes like Black Forest gateaux in a glass. The aroma is a rich, indulgent bouquet of red and black fruit. Then with the first sip, burnt sugar and bitter chocolate. I finish it on the sofa, with my feet on the coffee table, eyes closed, listening to the pounding rain outside.

The Christmas Day pub trip

First comes the hard part; self-restraint. Bucks Fizz will be flowing freely all morning after all, and I will need to stop myself from overindulging on the bubbles in order to save myself for a pre-lunch pint.

We’ll open some presents and snack on bacon-wrapped sausages (crispy and a little burnt around the edges, just the way they should be), before bundling up in woolen jumpers and long coats to head outdoors. It’s around a half hour walk to the pub. It’s not the closest one to my childhood home, but it is the best. The sort of place with old tankards hanging from the walls, barrels repurposed as perching tables in corners, and a hardy wooden bar top streaked with scrapes from the decade, layered over scratches from the decade before that.

But first, the journey, which in itself is a ritual. We’ll say ‘merry Christmas’ to each person we pass, because for some reason talking to strangers in the street is appealing to even the most withdrawn of Brits at this time of year. Chalk it up to the fact that everyone has had a tipple with breakfast, and inhibitions have floated away with the morning mist.

My favourite part of winter walks when I was younger was to stomp across the frosted grass tips in the park, turning the tiny white crystals to water with a satisfying ‘crunch’ sound. To be honest, it still is. The only difference is that my mother doesn’t tell me not to get my shoes messy anymore.

Somehow, the reduced opening hours of pubs on Christmas Day mean that there is all the more to savour. I can already anticipate the warmth that will greet me as the door swings open, spilling the heat from the fire onto the chilly street as I step inside. My glasses will mist up, obscuring my view of the smiling faces and colourful festive jumpers.

It will be noisy and crowded, but undeniably cheerful. Locals will be sat on bar stools as their dogs sit at their feet, lapping at large bowls of water. The barman will be wearing a brightly coloured waistcoat and a matching tie, the same as always.

We’ll seek out a spot to sip at our perfectly pulled pints, standing shoulder to shoulder, undoubtedly bumping into some people that one of us knows.

The cold air won’t feel as harsh the second time around. A cool breeze against my now flushed face will enliven me just as the post-pint stupor looms, and I’ll turn my mind to preparing lunch. And although there will be many other pub trips to come during the holidays, there won’t be one that is quite the same for another 365 days.

My Oktober

Among my beer-related ambitions is to go to Munich for Oktoberfest. Luckily, one doesn’t have to get on a plane to get a taste of Bavaria during the autumn; Oktoberfest-style beers are typically easy to find this time of year. They’re smooth and comforting like the slightly warmer jacket the season calls for.

Oktoberfest beers are indicative of the changing season. The leaves are falling and the weather is changing. Warmer clothes are brought from the back of the wardrobe to the front. It’s darker upon waking up to make breakfast – and then dark again by the time dinner is served.

As someone who suffers from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), I’m grateful to be spending this October somewhere with plenty of sunlight, but the change in temperature and reduced daylight hours can still be jarring. Creating new routines and indulging myself has helped, be that changing into pajamas early on a Sunday evening to finish that piece of writing on the sofa drinking Märzen from the bottle, or seeking out a patio heater for a midweek pint under the stars.

Family bonding over flights

Sometimes, visiting a brewery is all about the beer. The chance to finally try beers I’ve read about or had recommended to me for months at a time can be tantalizing.

Other times, what makes the day enjoyable isn’t really the specific beers at all. It’s the downtime, the conversation, the relaxation.

On a scorching Sunday afternoon, my mum and I arrived at Brooklyn Brewery just as it was opening. We found some stools to perch on and ordered one of the signature flights.

The lager and the IPA I’d had many times before, but the brown ale was a pleasant surprise. Rich and deep, with a hint of malted biscuit and berries.

But the real surprise was the sour, or rather, how much my mum liked it. It was refreshingly tart and dry, with undertones of passion fruit.

I’d forgotten how much fun sharing a flight could be, especially with someone with different tastes. My mum has accompanied me to many a craft beer bar or real ale pub over the years, and I’ve learnt a lot about her preferences. She likes pilsners and lagers. Pales and bitters sometimes, but nothing with too much dry-hopping. Darker styles are more hit and miss, with the odd exception of Titanic Plum Porter.

But since I haven’t traditionally been a huge sour ale fan, I’ve never had the opportunity to gauge her appetite for that category of beers. So now, it turns out that we have a new drink to enjoy together. And since it’s a style that I’m a beginner in sampling too, we can learn about the different beers on offer at the same time.

All in all, not bad for a discovery made on a Sunny afternoon in Williamsburg.

Hard seltzer and hard to break routines

A couple of weeks ago, I met a friend at a local taproom. When I arrived, a glass of something transparent and fizzy was sat in front of her. Hard seltzer.

“I don’t like beer” she had explained previously.

Before you write me off as a somewhat selfish date, let me clarify that I’d chosen the taproom because I know that they typically have a couple of ciders available. Instead, she’d opted to give the seltzer a whirl.

Hard seltzer has been gaining popularity in taprooms across the country, or so I hear. I have nothing against hard seltzer as a drink, but there’s not much I like about it either. It’s bland, and the fizzy-ness without any depth of mouthfeel just rubs me the wrong way. That said, I can certainly see how having something a little lighter and healthier might appeal to some drinkers from time to time.

What I am concerned by is the culture of seltzer as a beer substitute. If it becomes a taproom staple, it makes it easier for people to perpetuate the claim that they just don’t like beer. Call me belligerent, but I’m just not ready to take all of those people at their word, 100% of the time.

In a recent Twitter conversation, a brewer told me: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a husband and wife walk into the taproom and then leave because there wasn’t something the wife wanted.”

More than just the gender stereotypes (true as they be in the case) make me dismayed at this statement. I wonder how long it will be until taproom managers just ‘give up’ on asking pertinent questions to match the reluctant guest of a beer lover to something that might actually wind up knocking their socks off. Seltzer could be a substitute for that conversation. But should it be? Does anyone actually legitimately ‘love’ hard seltzer, or is it usually ordered as a last ditch choice, by the poor wife in the brewer’s anecdote, or by my friend whom I dragged to a microbrewery with me?

Shortly after my friend and I ordered our second round – another pint of fizzy alcoholic water for her, a beer for me – I slid my glass across the table to her. She sniffed at the dark mauve liquid inquisitively. I encouraged her to take a sip.

“It’s a fruited wheat beer”, I told her, explaining how the wheat produced a creamy mouthfeel. It was a beautiful pint too; fruity, tart, and perhaps importantly in this case, with no detectable hop flavor.

“That’s really nice” she exclaimed, seemingly surprised, turning back to her sparkling pint of transparence with a somewhat lackluster gaze.

I have a feeling she’ll be trying something different next time.

Finding cask ale in the desert

Every time I need a taste of home, I head to Sidetrack. It’s a tiny railway-side brewpub in Downtown Albuquerque. It’s a pretty far cry from my previous rail-station-adjacent haunt The Euston Tap (the toilets are in good nick for a start) but it can be equally tricky to get a table on a Friday evening. The real draw of the place for me is that they serve beer on cask; two from their small selection, all the time. That’s rare around here.

The first time I ever sampled one of their cask offerings, I have to admit I was a little disappointed; it was a stout that drank more like a nitro. But over the weeks and months, I tried a few more and I became more convinced. The brown ale was beautifully velvety, and the cask pumps added a smooth, easy-drinking quality to their bitterest IPA.

In the USA, cask tends to be served at cooler temperatures than back home. Right now, in the heat of the New Mexican early summer, I’m not actually sure that I’d truly want it any other way, but in the winter I’d love them to serve it a little warmer.

Cask is mostly a gimmick here. It will likely always stay that way, especially since the spirit of the experiment is often pushed needlessly too far. There’s an ethos to cask that perhaps isn’t fully understood stateside, at least not west of New England.

For example, I recently heard that another favorite taproom of mine would be starting to serve cask on Fridays. Excitedly heading to the bar, I asked the bartender which of the beers was being served on cask.

‘The mango sour’, she replied.

The thought of it made me feel physically sick. I’ll admit that my palate does struggle with (some) sour and farmhouse styles, so this wouldn’t have been my first pick in any world. But even so, this sounded like a pint destined to taste of stale fruit that had been left out in the sun.

Despite a few questionable executions, I’m still glad that the parts of the USA which share little in common with the birthplaces of cask ale are giving it a try. It means there’s innovation, improvement, and that ongoing possibility of one day wandering into a neighborhood brewpub, seeing a handpull upon the counter, and finding a diamond in the rough. Maybe even at the right temperature, though I shall try not to dream too hard.