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16 January 2019

I still remember staring into my first pint of London Pride as if I had found the Land of Oz

Could such nectar be? I had asked myself. Until then my life in beer had been the wasteland of fizzy, bland keg stuff.

By Nicholas Lezard

The second part of the eldest child’s birthday present is the Fuller’s Brewery Tour. This involves going to the Fuller’s Brewery in Chiswick, and being given a tour around it. But you probably worked that out. 

Life often revolves around dyadic rivalries, and the choice one has to make. Canon vs Nikon; Arsenal vs Spurs (or Chelsea); League vs Union; and, in London, if you like beer, Fullers vs Youngs. Circumstances conspired to make me a Fullers drinker, which is fortunate, because Youngs is only OK, although their porter, when they condescend to brew it, is pretty amazing, I’ll grant them that; but Fullers…

I can still remember my first pint of London Pride, and staring into it as if I had discovered the Land of Oz, or Avalon. Here was something that was three-dimensional, alive. Could such nectar be? I asked myself. Until then my life in beer had been the wasteland of fizzy, bland keg stuff; in those days Real Ale, as it was called, had a samizdat, subterranean existence, and you had to either go miles out of your way or be lucky to experience it. Especially if you were under-age and looked it.

But beer underwent a revolution, thanks to the guerrilla tactics of Camra, and now you can’t move for artisanal brews, and I for one am not complaining. But the king of beers, the one I will always go back to, is a pint of Pride. And what is great is that my children, and especially my daughter, whose treat this is, seem to have skipped the alcopop phase and gone straight to discerning drinker phase. The sons went to school not far from the brewery, and my eldest son once said that one of his favourite smells was the heady, yeasty odour that drifted over Chiswick on brewing days and which, when the wind was right, could even be smelled in Shepherds Bush, a mile or two to the north.

We are ten in our group, seven of us being me, my three children, their mother, her partner and my daughter’s boyfriend, of whom I am most fond, along with three other hapless individuals who spend much of the time wondering what the hell is going on. “Hang on. That man’s holding that woman’s hand. So why isn’t that other man, who is clearly the father of at least two of those children, and that woman clearly the mother, thumping him?” Because we are awfully sophisticated and it is still the season of goodwill. And the days of my holding that woman’s hand ended abruptly in 2007.

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Our guide is a tall middle-aged man whom I will call John. He is like a 1950s educational film made flesh, and all the better for it. We are asked to don fluorescent tabards with the brewery logo stamped on the back. We can choose between two colours, and I decide not to go for the gilet jaune. The eldest son appraises his carefully.

“This could come in useful, I suppose,” he says. “But how?” For the next hour, I can see the wheels turning in his brain as he ponders this.

We are shown round enormous mash tuns and things like that. I will spare you much of the technical detail. Every group, I imagine, has one person who asks irritating questions designed to show himself off. In this case, I am that person.

“So when you say the barley is converted to starch and sugar, what you’re basically saying is it’s sprouting?”

“Yes.”

“When was London Pride first called that? Because it’s a flower, isn’t it, a perennial saxifragaceous one which grew on bomb sites and became symbolic of London’s survival.”

“In 1959.”

“Did you ever have a brewery cat, in order to keep the mice down?”

“Shut up or I’ll throw you in the bloody river.”

Actually, he doesn’t say that at all. What he does say is that yes, there used to be at least one brewery cat, and, what was more, it was obliged to have a union card.

“But we don’t know how it voted in leadership elections.”

The tour progresses. I have actually done it before, and know that when it is over, you hand back your tabards and they let you taste as much beer as you want, within reason. My daughter is almost frantic with desire to have some. Well, it is her birthday.

Finally, we are brought back to what is called the Hock Cellar, and we are given many half-pints of various ales. I tell my children about the dark days of the 1970s and early 1980s, when the only beer you could find was piss brewed by Watneys. The tune for the Double Diamond advert floats into my head and refuses to budge. 

And that’s that. The party is over. I must return to Scotland in the morning, for London and I are over, London having spat me out. That’s what I’m feeling. London Shame. 

This article appears in the 16 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit trapped Britain