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A Life In The Pub Part 2: Pounding Shilling For Pence

December 14, 2010 Leave a comment

One of the things I intended to do with this blog was to explain how I’d got here from there in terms of beer.  Specifically, how I gradually started to like interesting beers and real ales from a low base, coming from a drinking culture dominated by kegs of Tennents, Harp, Guinness, Bass and maybe the odd Smithwicks, and with no pubs that I knew of that offered cask beer.

I’ll get back to the Northern Irish beer culture of my youth later, as I want to address the next stage.  In 1998, when Kate and Will was still doing their respective GCSEs, I went to St Andrews University to study Modern History, International Relations and Individual Alcohol Tolerances.

As I never really liked lager, I was drinking a lot of Guinness at this stage, but also a lot of nitro kegged/smoothflow beers such as Caffreys.  However it must have been in that first year at St Andrews that  I started drinking my first real ales.

I started on 70 shilling beer, which I found largely similar to the smoothflow Caffreys. In fact Tennents Velvet seemed to be a smoothflow version of 70/- (someone may correct me here), and filled the same place in the market as the nitrokegged John Smith or Tetleys.  It was creamy, easy to drink and unchallenging to my admittedly unsophisticated tastes.

However, over time, Caledonian 80/- became my drink of choice during the four years I spent in the Kingdom of Fife before they reluctantly admitted I was a Master of the Arts (second class).  It was available everywhere (see the Beer Monkey’s view on Caley’s ubiquity in the capital here) and just tasted that bit more interesting than the 70/-.  I remember deciding that McEwans 80/- tasted horrible in comparison.

Moreover, those of my Scottish friends who liked beer (mainly as something to drink early in the night whilst you discussed whisky) seemed to consider that Caley 80/- was a respectable thing for a man to drink.  Whilst I liked 80/-, I think I liked the pubs I drank it in more: Aikman’s; the Whey Pat; the Central.  I’ll hopefully deal with them in a future post.

I haven’t had Caley 80/- in what must be about five years, and I don’t recall the parting being unbearable.  But in the interest of historical analysis, I’m currently drinking a bottle, which for student authenticity I picked up for a quid.  It’s not a fair test because (1) It’s a pasteurised bottle, not a pint from cask and (2) it was cheap because it’s slightly out of date and (3) it wasn’t bought with a quaint Scottish pound note.

Nevertheless, I can report that it’s a pleasant but unexciting drink.  It smells and tastes malty and sweetly sour, like raspberries.  It might just be the age of this bottle, but as I get towards the bottom (without the benefit of a deep-fried pizza/crunchie/haggis/Englishman to match the taste) it’s beginning to get into the thinner, milder end of fruit beer territory.

I can see why I liked it.  I think I preferred it over the 70/- mainly for the maltiness – it took me a while to really like pale ales.  It’s not bad at all and a hell of an improvement on Caffreys, but it’s not exciting enough to want to drink it for another four year stretch.  My tastes have definitely moved on.

A Life In The Pub Part 1: Not Yet In The Pub

October 29, 2010 5 comments

Ballyclare, Northern Ireland in the 1990s was not the best place in the world to fall in love with good beer. Not that there weren’t any pubs. There were, and more than there are now. Around the Square alone there were six. However, for me there were a number of problems with the ones we had.

Firstly, it was very, very difficult for me to get served. I was young for my year at school and so I was under 18 until a month before I left and went to university. This was due to a diabolical masterplan my mother had concocted to give her the option of holding me back a year to resit the 11-plus if I failed it first time round. Fortunately I passed and went to the nice state grammar school with the nice teachers and the annual Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, so the real world was held at bay for another seven years.

As a result, I was the youngest of my friends, but this problem was compounded as I also looked young for my age. Clive Anderson once said something like, “I looked 14 until my mid-20s, at which point I started to look 40.” I had a very similar experience, so the big hairy full-time carpenter/part-time bouncer on the door of The Grange Bar wasn’t in any way convinced.

Secondly, most of the pubs were a bit rough. I was young, fat, sheltered, middle class and, to be completely honest, simply too scared to try my luck at getting served in most of them. Largely this terror was instilled without ever having been in them, such was their reputation. They had a symbiotic relationship with folk selling duty-free cigarettes, the bookies, the flute bands and occasionally the local paramilitaries (the last two groups not necessarily being entirely mutually exclusive).

But, peeking through the glass of the six around the Square (metaphorically, as largely this wasn’t possible or would have at best been frowned upon) this was how it seemed:

  • The Comrades Club definitely looked like a rough pub from the outside. It was and remains one of those one-storey flat-roofed bunkers of a place, tied to the local Irish League football club and with grills over the windows.
  • The Farmer’s Inn (latterly Henry’s) was reportedly run by, erm, not sure how to put this… people who were neither farmers nor landscape gardeners but might well have an alternative use for fertiliser. That was the rumour in any event. It closed ages ago and may since have re-opened without a licence as a café.
  • I don’t think that The Red Hand Bar was ever actually run by the paramilitaries, but… let’s just say that it was not a name that encouraged multiculturalism and integrated drinking from all sections of society. It was bought up by a former boss of mine who owns the Grange, who knocked it down and rebuilt it in the 21st century as a genuinely good off-licence that now even sells a small selection of bottled ale.
  • The Square Bar was clearly for farmers: just beside the entrance to the livestock market, on summer weekdays it always seemed to have tractors and wrinkled, soil-encrusted men sitting smoking in flat caps and wellies outside. I can only assume it smelled of dried manure inside. The last time I was in Ballyclare it had been bought up by a local tee-total Christian businessman and closed down. The market’s gone now too, so maybe it was inevitable that the pub would die as well.
  • The Grange, as mentioned above, I couldn’t get through the door of. In retrospect, this was probably indicative of a responsible pub.
  • The Ballyboe, however, not only tolerated a bit of underage drinking, but was also a pretty good pub. It burned down in suspicious circumstances in 2008 (pictured). I did some of my underage drinking in there and it was fine, and relatively safe, and the selection of beer was terrible.

And this is the real issue: when I got into the bloody places, there was bugger all worth drinking. In the 1980s and 1990s there was, to my knowledge, absolutely no real ale culture in Northern Ireland. To be more specific, there was no real ale and less culture (with the obvious exception of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta).

I’ll pick this up again soon.

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