Ah, beer. Stuff of life. One of the first foods. Made from pretty much the same simple ingredients as bread, and it’s been with us for just as long. Grains, yeast, flavourings and time. That’s all there is to it. There is an argument in ecumenical circles that if Jesus Christ truly was of the working-class, then he would never have touched wine, and the Blood of Christ at Holy Communion should be a nice drop of IPA instead.
My enthusiasm for the holy brew knows no boundaries. A decent beer is one of life’s finest ingredients. It speaks to me of community, of friendship, of good times. Too much will give you problems, but that is an argument that can be levelled at … well, anything. If I was forced to choose, I mean, really gun-to-the-head-of-a-loved-one choose, I believe I would rather drink beer than anything else. OK, it’s not going to replace the first cup of tea in the morning, or the flat white served with a smile from one of the AMT girls at Reading station, but on the whole… Well, let’s just say I look at historical records that tell us that everyone drank beer instead of water up until the mid-nineteenth century because it was safer, and wish vaguely that I was a time-traveller.
Before this turns into the confessions of an alcoholic, a little bit of focus. My love of the saintly sup has turned me into an activist. I am a member of CAMRA, and have signed petitions and written to my local MP regarding the perilous state of Britain’s pubs. The pub should be a cornerstone of British society, up there with the red phone box and the double-decker bus.
Of course, both of those are extinct, and the humble British boozer is going the same way. A pub a day is closing. These are terrible times for a vital part of English culture, and I try in my little way to support and encourage the public house and everything about it.
Which leads to my arrival at Clapham Junction yesterday, to meet some friends and enjoy the Battersea Beer Festival. This was our second attempt. Last year we were unable to gain admittance, faced with massive queues that refused to subside even in the face of a vicious snowstorm blasting down Lavender Hill. That night we ended up in The Falcon on St John’s Hill, just down the way from the station. This is a beautiful pub-in-the-round, with a lovely long bar, a couple of snugs, pretty decent food and a fabulous selection of beers. We had our own mini-festival that night, and The Falcon seemed the ideal place for our little group to form before heading up to the BAC, home of the festival.
This was a very wise move. There was a CAMRA stall, and kegs had been set up in the back room to entice punters into trying some slightly more esoteric brews. That, along with the food that Nicholson’s pubs like the Falcon specialise in (very good pies and sausages, ideal for soaking up booze) meant that we headed up Lavender Hill in high spirits, and in the mood for more.
We got into the venue without problems, issues or any kind of a wait. A token entry fee and £2 dropped for a commemorative beer glass, and we were in.
Now, a word on the beer glasses. You buy one at the door, and hang onto it through the session. You can buy half and pint glasses, and these are oversized and lined in third, half and pint measures. We always drink halves in beer festivals. It seems pointless to bloat out with a full pint of something you might not like. Plus with halves, you get to try more over the course of a session. One trick is to order halves in a pint glass. Inevitably, you will get more than the measure, especially as the day wears on and the worthies behind the bar, volunteers and enthusiasts all, become more and more tipsy and loose-wristed at the kegs. For the most part, we were getting tooths (two-thirds of a pint) for the price of a half. At £1.50ish a shot, this represents VERY GOOD VALUE FOR MONEY.
The venue is pretty impressive. The Great Hall at the BAC is a big old woody church hall, complete with high stained glass windows, and the booming echo of a decently crafted acoustic. That room, which must have been fifty feet long, is filled with a central, double-sided bar stacked high with kegs. By 6pm, that room will be stuffed to the gills with drinkers of all shapes, sizes and levels of beardiness. And that’s just the girls, kathudTISH.
I’m always surprised by how many females of the lady-type persuasion turn up to these gigs. Although the day is normally heavy on rotund hairy gentlemen of a certain age and the occasional dashing handsome interloper such as me and my crew, come hometime and whoops look out, it’s like a Boots advert in the Great Hall. Here come the girls, and they’re all after a half of insanely strong Belgian lambic, or a decent porter. They go for the strong dark stuff, ales with flavour, body and character. None of your cheap lager here. These are classy birds. Although they’d whop you one for telling them that. I am far too much of a gent/coward to try.
Eventually, we felt the urge for something different, and ventured downstairs to the cider and perry hall. This, we decide later, was a Big Mistake. The room is dingy and airless, and entirely populated by twats in stupid hats, urging each other on to ever more foolish feats of stunt alcoholism to the strains of (this is the godshonest truth) the refrain of Gary Glitter’s You Wanna Be In My Gang. We have a glass of something (Newton’s Hereford Perry, very nice) and do a runner before things turn nasty. C’mon, C’mon? No, f’anks.
After that, we took the advice of the marvellous Ciaran, who lives just round the corner from the BAC, and headed to another pub, The Eagle. This regularly wins awards, and no wonder. It’s a warm, cosy place, filled with locals, and the beer is clearly sourced, stored and served with care and pride. It’s a perfect place to finish the evening before the long drag home, and the pint of Loddon Hoppit that I sip is a clarion call back to the West. But I shall return.
So, recommendations. The Twitter stream I generated through the day is here. Yes, I tweeted the beer I drank. I’m 21st century, me. The hit of the fest for me was Black Hole Brewery’s RED DWARF, an unbelievably moreish toffee-flavoured treat. I was generally in the mood for milds, porters, stouts and other dark beers, so the list is by definition skewed that way. The Falcon is here. I’m not telling you where the Eagle is. I’d like to keep that one a little bit secret.