To Mare Street in Hackney on Thursday, for the 25th Pigs Ear Beer Festival. I finally succumbed to the inevitable earlier in the year and invested in a CAMRA membership, and this was the first fest I’d been to since the big one at Earls Court in August. It was, as these things tend to be, fascinating in many different ways.
There are, of course, all the beers. At Pig’s Ear, a hundred different brews were available, ranging from simple British session beers (a particular favourite was Forest Bitter from Epping, a place deep in the heart of my youthful wanderings) to insanely strong Belgian Trappist brews – the sort of ale that could make you susceptible to religious visions, especially if that’s all you’re given to eat or drink all day. One big surprise was the range and inventiveness of the American microbrews on offer, giving a huge toot of the snoot to the idea that Yank brews are watery processed mouthwash. For example, Flying Dog’s Snakehead IPA was hoppy and complex, refreshing and deeply flavoursome all at the same time. There’s a real sense of play and invention here, reflected in the names of the ales. Appalling puns seem to be the order of the day – the prize has to go to Pitfield’s Night on Mare Street 3, at 13.8% ABV one to treat with respect if not an edge of fear and awe.
One of the joys of these festivals is the people-watching, of course. The usual bunch of hobgoblins, orcs and Creme Brulee rejects are there, of course, a bit wobbly on their feet after one too many lambics. But as the day draws on the demographic widens, and suits and girls begin to appear, all eager for a taste of something a bit different and more interesting than cheap lager and wine. The girls, in particular, seem to go for the darker, sweeter ales – Ossett’s Treacle Stout seemed to be a particular hit, although a lot of the Belgian fruit beers were going down very well too.
The beer encouraged long, looping skeins of conversation, mellow companionship and terrible jokes. There was good, solid food on offer to soak up some of the excess and tamp the roomspin down to an acceptable level. The experience was warm, relaxed and quietly joyful. In short, friends and neighbours, it was everything you’d expect from a decent night in a decent pub.
Which is a simple pleasure that’s under increasing risk. Pubs are closing at a horribly accelerated rate, and people are staying at home, encouraged to do so by the cheap slabs available at the supermarkets, the above-rate tax hikes on beer and wine that seem to be a part of every Budget and the perception that town centres at the weekend are hell holes of alcoholic debauchery and violence. Which they are, but that’s not the point. Town centre bars are not the places I’d frequent anyway (although I’ll make an exception for the fantastic Hobgoblin in Broad Street, Reading). There are plenty of great pubs that are worth a five-minute hike away from your usual routes and haunts.
It’s interesting to note then, in this air of gloom over the state of one of the pillars of British culture that a quote from a Frenchman of all people, Hilaire Belloc has begun to make the rounds of the op-ed columns. It’s disturbingly apposite.
“When you have lost your inns, you may drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the heart of England.”
With that in mind, then, a little propaganda. CAMRA have just launched a campaign to axe the tax, and I encourage all true-blooded, iron-livered Englishmen and Englishwomen to sign up to support it. I would hate to see my choice of boozer restricted to a generic beer barn, or chain pub. We’re better than that.
Sign yourselves up here, Readership.
Remember, your local might depend on it.