Of things old and new

It’s March 23rd and, as we land at the London Luton airport, I am overwhelmed with an oddly liberating feeling: I’m finally home. Make no mistake, I’m not a British citizen, nor do I aspire to be one. If ever I was to pick dual citizenship, the UK wouldn’t even make it unto my bucket list. But as we get off at London Bridge station and work our way towards The Old King’s Head to enjoy our first pint of real ale in nearly 4 years, there’s a sense of excitement that no amount of luggage lugging and lack of sleep could put a damper on. I’m back in the UK. The land that, ever since I was 10 years old, I’ve considered home.

Our first drink on British soil is a pint of St Austell’s Tribute. Fitting in a way that could only be justified by nostalgia, it goes down in seconds, to be closely followed by a pint of Harvey’s Best. The first pint after a plane journey always packs a romantic, getaway feel to it. You’ve earned it simply because you put up with the tedious affairs of crying babies, luggage claims, and needlessly complicated border control (thanks Brexit). The fact that the landlord keeps a tidy cellar helps, of course — you wouldn’t want to come back to a cask that was spiked five days ago and already turning sour. The second pint, though, is for settling in and reminiscing. I’m fifty shades of cream-crackered and wont to showcase my beery knowledge. I comment upon the subtle properties of Fuggles and how nobody takes it seriously because it can only truly shine in a low carbonation beer such as real ale. My partner concurs. We have fish and chips tarted up with all the sauces you can get in those quaint little sachets and down one more pint before boarding the train that would take us home – as in home home. It is a gorgeous spring day and I’m once more reminded that, were it not for the Gulf Stream, the UK wouldn’t have its majestic oaks and rhododendrons and magnolias that bloom in March. And then there’s the oast houses, and the Tudor beams, and those incongruous details such as llamas and yuccas that make sense because this is the UK, and if you’ve ever lived here, you’ll understand that they’re part of the local scenery, same as Costa and Greggs and urban foxes.

There’s a certain energy in the UK that’s difficult to put down in words. Maybe it is to do with the Gulf Stream and the lush, verdant vegetation the likes of which I’ve never seen in any other European country. Maybe it’s to do with the fact that the pub is a national institution that no amount of adversity (from WW2 to Covid) would ever put it out of business. Or maybe it’s to do with the fact that it’s a mature craft beer market — which, to be honest, I’ve been completely and utterly starved for.

After my return, my first forrays into British beers are tame. I start off with Newkie Brown, an all-time favourite, then move on to Kernel’s Table Beer and cask Marble. I eye up the craft beer fridges in my (new) local town and they fail to stir me. Jester King, Vault City, Verdant — they’re all hype breweries I heard of back home and learned to associate with beer geeks and compulsive Untappd tickers. And, frankly, I don’t want to go back to that. As I enjoy a wee halfer in a local beer cafe, I pick up a random number of the Ferment magazine. Off the bat, I’m greeted by familiar names that were unapproachable heavyweights back in Romania, but here they seem incredibly within arm’s reach. The Ferment HQ is in Edinburgh. I have family there. I could jump on a train, relocate to Scotland, and start writing for them. Heck, I don’t even need to move there – remote work is a thing now (thanks Covid). I read about Brave Noise and predictions on the return of West Coast IPAs and about Siren‘s incursion into nitro beers and it feels refreshingly commonplace. Beer magazines are a thing here. Beer writers are a thing. They have awards for writing about beer — not that I want one, but fuck me, it would be nice to talk to industry peers or, literally, just about anyone whose feedback on my writing goes beyond “Your articles are always so long, I just read them on the toilet” or (worst of all) “It’s amazing how your articles never have any spelling or grammar mistakes”.

I have been back in the UK for three weeks and already my attitude towards beer has changed. I find myself — in a disconcerting way that kind of reeks of PTSD — pleased with every single pint I’ve had so far. Even the local village haunts, once renowned for serving stale or sour pints of Young’s, are now pouring a more than decent pint of Neck Oil. And it’s fantastic. I no longer have to tiptoe around craft beers that are oxidized, bruisingly bitter, diabetes-inducing, or laden with a dubious host of adjuncts. In a way, it feels like leaving a toxic relationship and finding solace in a new partner. In a way, it saddens me. But as I try to leave the PTSD caused by my native craft brewing scene behind me, I can’t help but feel grateful.

Of course, the UK and I weren’t always on the best of terms, but it’s perhaps the turbulent nature of our relationship that’s inspiring. Back in 2016, when I left the UK behind and traded several live-in pub management jobs for a call center job that would help me secure a mortgage, I only did so because Brexit was successful in riling me up. And in a way it was for the best — the enthusiasm and ideas I took with me helped me set up this website and embark on a series of projects that would help propel craft beer forward. The downside was that I — well, we — were trying to do was push things too far, too soon. The market was too young, too inexperienced. Sure, you had your beer nerds and Captain Ahabs chasing their white wales according to what the beer rating scriptures dictated, but they were a niche within a niche — a handful of people at best. Yet to this day, that still holds true. And to this day, a lot of people (brewers included) fail to understand what it is that I and other like-minded content creators (you boys know who you are) were trying to do.

It’s a glorious spring afternoon and I am drinking what literally feels like the best beers ever brewed by mankind. I am humbled, and grateful. Glad that I can pick up flavours and tasting notes that my younger, more blasé self, would have dismissed as commonplace. How is it that I’ve had so many pints of Spitfire and never picked up on the distinctive nutty aroma of the grain bill? How could I have had so many pints of Landlord and never — not ever — pick up on one of my favourite smells: the ever so subtle, yet so oddly fitting fragrance of orange roses? I look around me at random contractors who just got off work, London commuters, occasional tourists, and the odd old boy who still finds his bar seat available in what used to be his local, now swept up in a current of high-street gentrification. It’s a scene buzzing with excitement — with promise. For me, anyway. It has the ripe scent and flavor of a mature market that no longer pussyfoots around Rom-English, long reads, pandering to brewers, retailers and readers alike. A market of movers and shakers. It’s vibrant, tingling with excitement, sizzling on the tip of my tongue. As a storyteller, I want to — I’ve been aching to — sink my teeth into it. I have a sip of Larkins’ Traditional and, perhaps not so surprisingly, I’m reminded what craft beer is all about. I feel inspired, bold, brave — brazen, even. I remember that, as long as I don’t monetize this, and as long as what I say is true, I can write whatever I goddamn please, however I goddamn please.

For the first time in over two years, I am at peace. I’m having a fag and, past the smell of cigarette smoke, I can feel the scent of tar, burnt bacon, sheep, and spilled ale. It’s a melange that, to me, smells of catharsis. And I think — no, I know — that I’ll be at peace way for a while.

Cheers!

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