Follow the Elephant

The first time I visited Amsterdam, in 2011, I know nothing of Huyghe’s Delirium Tremens. It rained constantly on that trip, and there’s little that I find more frustrating than getting to know a new city in the pouring rain. The first night, upon leaving one bar to move onto another, I noticed a sign jutting out from the side of the building. A pink elephant, glowing brightly against a sky blue background, and some elegant lettering above the image, which I couldn’t read, since fat raindrops on my glasses obscured my vision.

“That’s how we’ll get back to this point” I said. “We’ll just remember to look out for this elephant sign. Follow the elephant.” Landmarks are precious in unfamiliar cities. Recognizable sights are the difference between a short drunken stumble and a long, bumbling one, with too many wrong turns. Of course, it’s important to make sure that the chosen object is indeed novel, and not something that may pop up on every corner.

Too late into the evening, I realized that the elephant was not the symbol of one bar, but in fact the symbol of a beer, made by a brewery more than a hundred miles away, in Melle, Belgium. Upon discovering my mistake, tasting it for myself seemed like the only sensible response. I’d had several beers already by this point, and still didn’t know the name of what I wanted to order. In the next bar, I pointed at the handle bearing the same whimsical design. The bartender produced a tulip glass scattered with tiny pink elephants, and poured me a glass of blond beer. It had all the fruity and spicy esters that I’d expect from a Belgian beer, and I liked it immediately, so much so that I learned the name so that I may ask for another. However, I hadn’t noted the 8.5% abv, and by the time I’d emptied my glass, I had forgotten again.

A couple of years later, when visiting Belgium for the first time, I sought out more Delirium, this time sampling the Delirium Nocturnum. Reddish brown with an off-white foamy head. Aromas of caramel, licorice and coriander. Roasted malt and a crisp bitter finish. Once again, far too easy to drink for its 8.5% abv. And once again, I eventually made it back to my hotel in an unfamiliar city, even without following the elephant, though the details of how meandering that journey became are lost to the night.

I enjoyed a glass of Delirium Nocturnum again recently, for the first time in a long while. At least this time, my stumble to bed was mercifully short.

Lockdown booze, but festive – Part 2

Well, here we are. It doesn’t really feel like the most wonderful time of the year this time around, does it? Many of us aren’t quite having the Christmas that we had in mind this year. Right now, I’m missing bustling pubs with bad carpets and wooden bar counters stained with beer from the mugs of drinkers from days gone by. Wherever you are, I hope that you have a fireplace to hunker down next to and something nice to drink. Perhaps a cute cat or dog to pet as you do so, if that’s your thing.

This week, I’ve been in the mood for rich, dark, boozy beers, and Belgian styles certainly fit the bill. Here’s what I’ve been drinking.

St Bernardus Christmas Ale
I’d heard so many great things about this one, I had to try it myself, and it didn’t disappoint. An aroma of dark chocolate, winter spice and burnt coffee greeted me as a swirled it, and the foam laced beautifully. Herb and clove flavours leave a gentle tingle in the centre of the tongue. It’s rich and warming, with a full mouthfeel and a long finish that you’d expect from an Abbey Ale. Worryingly, this is far more drinkable than the 10% abv should allow.

St Bernardus Christmas Ale

Unibroue Trois-Pistoles

This is a great take on a dark Belgian ale from this Canadian brewery. It has all the fruity esters you’d expect from a Belgian yeast strain, and a smooth mouthfeel with powerful notes of plums and winter spice. It’s medium bodied with reasonably high carbonation and the finish is dry.

What’s on my non-beer Christmas booze menu?

I’ll be drinking Buck’s Fizz on Christmas morning, Tempranillo with my Christmas lunch paella (a few years old tradition in my household), and egg nog with homemade mince pies.

For cocktail hour, I’ve recently been enjoying gin martinis – made with equal measures of Bombay Sapphire gin and Noilly Prat vermouth for a slightly less boozy gin martini – garnished with a (not too dirty) green olive. I’ve also just purchased some pastis for the first time in years, mostly because I’ve just finished watching the Queen’s Gambit (brilliant, opulent drama, highly recommended) and it reminded me of how elegant I feel when sipping pastis and iced water from my most ornate glass.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

The paralysis of choice

Earlier this month, I returned to my university city, Nottingham, for an afternoon and evening of wandering between the local watering holes and reminiscing the good ol’ student days.

Anyone who has been to Nottingham will know that what the city lacks in sprawl, it makes up for in sheer pub density. It’s hard to walk for five minutes without happening upon several different places which would be lovely spots to spend an afternoon with a pint and a newspaper. For this reason, planning my Nottingham pub crawl required forward thinking and commitment to a plan. I narrowed the shortlist of my favourite pubs down to just eight. Drinking half pints would become necessary closer to the end of the evening.

We began the afternoon at Canal House, a pub operated by the Castle Rock brewery, set in a charming grade II industrial building next to the canal, complete with two resident narrowboats. As I stepped inside, many happy memories from my student days immediately flooded back. I headed to the bar, and my eyes were drawn immediately to the hand pull ale choices. I scoured the pumps for my old favourite, Castle Rock’s Screech Owl. I couldn’t find it, but I settled on a different pale ale from the same brewery instead.

As the bartender poured our drinks, I took a closer look at the various options on offer. The once small-but-perfectly-formed keg choice of stylish European lagers had exploded into a choice of more than 10 craft beers. Behind these, a tall fridge was well stocked with Belgian beers. Beside this, another fridge was filled to the brim with cans. I started to feel relieved that I’d made a snap decision on what to order, or else I might have been reading the menu for most of the afternoon.

“Is it like you remember?” my husband asked me.
My brow furrowed. I struggled to articulate how it felt to me like something had been lost from the place, even though all that had really happened was that more options had been added. I’d loved the pub for precisely its niche; the reliability of excellently kept Castle Rock ales, the chance to try the brewery’s seasonal ranges, and guest ales from other small local breweries, such as the fantastic Springhead. But now there was a smorgasbord of choice that was almost dizzying. I quickly realised the problem; were it not for the recognisable brick walls and beams lovingly decorated with pump labels, I could be anywhere. The pub had retained its charm, but the bar choice had lost its accent.

Afterwards, we walked to Canning Circus (via an obligatory photo opportunity with the Robin Hood statue) to the Hand and Heart. It’s easily the best cave pub in the city; wonderful ambiance and music, plus far less touristy than Ye Olde Trip. Here, there was a much smaller selection than back at Canal House, and I felt more relaxed for it. Although we’d already eaten, I glanced at the menu out of curiosity. It was short and perfectly formed, just like the cask and keg range.

As we sipped our beers, we talked about how we felt that choice paralysis can be detrimental to a great pub. The places I like best are curators as well as distributors. Changing taps and rotating bottles are great, but I really don’t need a year’s worth of drinking possibilities thrown at me all in one pub visit.

Next, we decided to visit a couple of the places that had sprung up since I last lived in the city – lest I allow my yearning for the past to get the better of me. We stopped for a fantastic oatmeal stout at The Overdraught, a taproom for Totally Brewed. Wittily named too, since the bar occupies a former bank. We also loved The Barrel Drop, a Magpie Brewery micropub nestled in an alleyway. We were lucky enough to catch the opening session of an open mic night, and the atmosphere was warm and welcoming.

We ended the night at the Lincolnshire Poacher, another Castle Rock pub a short stumble away up Mansfield Road, to the north of the city centre. Despite the pouring rain, it was bustling. In the corner, musicians were setting up for a session. The cask range offered a fantastic choice from both long-standing and new local breweries. Lining the walls behind the bar, the whisk(e)y selection was as great as ever. We sat in the back room, where the wooden tables and leather armchairs looked as battered and as loved and as lived in as I recalled.

“This place is just how I remember it” I told my husband, beaming with fuzzy, nostalgic joy. Finally, I felt like I was home.