Talking Sense

My mother’s step quickened whenever she passed a pub. At the same time, she clutched my hand a little more firmly. I was four years old. My legs could scarcely keep up the pace. I felt as though my feet would leave the ground. Had I been in a cartoon, they would have done. I would have been dragged horizontally. I doubt my mother noticed. She just wanted to give a wide berth to pubs—and there was one on every corner.

These were not the thatched pubs of village England or even the Georgian coaching inns of shire towns. There were no jolly huntsmen outside, pink of cheek and jacket. These pubs would decorate no table-mats or calendars. We lived in a rough neighbourhood of a small industrial city. Our profusion of local pubs provided balm for the bruises and calluses of casual workers, many of them immigrants from Ireland. Severed from the rhythms and rituals of home and family, they sought refuge among their countrymen in a public house

I did not know any of that as a child. Perhaps my mother had an inkling, but felt uncomfortably close to their uprootedness. Sometimes, as we bustled past a pub, the door would open and a customer who had over-indulged would be expelled, scattering curses over his shoulder. Occasionally, the uprooted would be entangled, two or three of them, in formless fight that was neither wrestling nor boxing.

When I learned to read, I noted the consequences of such fights in the curious language of the small-town Establishment: the law and the Press. ‘A fracas outside The Boy and Barrel public house on Saturday afternoon led to the appearance of Patrick O’Connor, an unemployed labourer, of no fixed abode, before the Stipendiary Magistrate… ‘

So that was what my mother was trying to avoid while making her way to the bakers, the butchers, the fruit market. She was concerned that there might be ‘a fracas’. Or ‘an affray’, another of the archaic words favoured by the magistrates and court reporters of the day.

It was bad enough if a pub door simply opened to admit an as yet under-indulged soul to whatever process led to expulsions, oaths and fisticuffs. The briefest opening of the door afforded me a glimpse through a screen of blue tobacco smoke. The same smoke had tanned the walls and ceilings with nicotine, so that the electric light reflected a flame colour. Somewhere in were men—and occasionally women. I could hear conversations murmured from the side of the mouth, louder bouts of badinage, and occasional shouts of glee or anger. Once, from invisibly deep inside a pub, I heard whoops of mock surprise, followed by triumphant chants of “She’s blushing!” Then a woman’s voice giggled denials. “What do they do in pubs?” I asked my mother. “I’m sure I don’t know,” she sighed.

Whatever was going on in there my mother seemed to deem worthy of Dante. If it was that bad, it must be good, I concluded. She pulled me away, but it was too late. Every time a pub door opened, I had noticed a distinct aroma. I had smelled the whiff of wickedness.

I had inhaled it, and I was infected—by a wild yeast. I could feel it in my brain, where it itched like curiosity. In my stomach, it gnawed like an amaro —arousing an appetite for the forbidden experiences, however slight in their sin, blushingly enjoyed by adults. I knew that, when I was a grown-up, my feet would march to their own dram.

I was now of school age. Each weekday morning I waited at the bus stop. Opposite was a pub. The lintel above the front door was discreetly lettered with the legend ‘Licensed to retail tobacco, ale and porter’. Thus I learned what they did in pubs. They retailed tobacco, ale and porter.

I knew what tobacco was, and vaguely understood ale, but what was porter? I asked my parents, but they did not know. They knew little about alcoholic drinks. I asked my teacher. He didn’t know, either. I pursued the question with my father’s workmate Fred, a single man who spent his vacation in the pub, gaining what he called a ‘taproom tan’. He had never heard of porter.

At 14 or 15, speaking from underneath a downy attempt at a moustache, I affected to be old enough to buy a beer in a pub. At 16, I became a newspaper reporter, and learned to use the pub as an annexe to the office. After couple of decades’ first-hand research, I wrote my first book, The English Pub. This was quickly followed by The World Guide to Beer.

I can now tell you that beers were once as regional in style as cheeses or wines. The first country to have a national style of beer was the United Kingdom. Porter was that style. It was a product of the first industrial revolution.

Because steamships came before railways, porter was exported even before it was nationally distributed in Britain and Ireland. At the time, pre-Pasteur, brewers’ understanding of yeast was empirical. When a taxonomy of yeasts was developed, a semi-wild strain that typically occurred in porter was given a name suggesting that it was British: Brettanomyces.
Porter was the precursor of stout, a style of beer famously typified by Guinness. I believe that Brettanomyces still plays a part in the production of Guinness.

Smelling Brett
Today, it is part of my job to taste beer professionally. A colleague will sometimes ask: “Do you get Brett in this one?” From a scientific viewpoint that conclusion might be sufficient. Brettanomyces is classically described as having the aroma of horse-blankets. This is not a smell familiar to a city-dweller such as me, nor to many others born in the age of the internal combustion engine.

The first time I knowingly smelled Brettanomyces, my mind reeled back to childhood, to an aroma that I was suddenly able to deconstruct: a blend of Guinness, an inexpensive brand of cigarettes called Woodbines, and a powerful disinfectant called Izal, which publicans favoured when over-indulgence spilled on the floor. It was the ‘Whiff of Wickedness’.

I have not yet managed to summarise in a tasting note the images that are triggered when I smell ‘Brett’: neither the big picture, the rise and fall of British industrial might, nor the cameo, the alienation experienced by my mother, seen now at a distance as a young and pretty woman driven by circumstance from the certainties of bourgeois family life to its less congenial underside, the male habitat of the worker for hire.

If I could distil her story and mine, they would not be experiences shared and understood by every reader. We each have our own repertoire of memories and emotions triggered by smells and flavours. The most personal I can hint at, but little more. The more general I hope stimulate the senses.

The other day, tasting a Scotch whisky distilled and matured by the sea, I found myself writing: ‘It’s dawn. Don the rubber boots. Rain-moistened earth underfoot. Dew on the grass. Mushrooms to pick. Fresh wood smoke from a pot-bellied stove. An appetite for breakfast. Meaty, oily, salty. Bacon, cockles and seaweed’.

Not very scientific, I concede. A trifle poetic, I agree, but drinking is a sensuous experience. I could have described the whisky in terms of esters, acids and phenols. Which style of description would the reader find more useful in helping him decide whether to buy a bottle?

Michael Jackson, who died in 2007, was a British journalist and writer specialized in whisky and beer. He was a regular contributor to Slow Food publications

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