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Food + Drink

London’s Ale Taster

One Brave, Thirsty Man

London Ale Taster Great Britain’s pubs are closing at a disconcerting rate – 39 a week according to figures published earlier this year – as duty increases and the smoking ban have driven customers to drink at home instead. And yet, in the nation’s capital, a newly appointed Ale Taster is on a year-long pub crawl; according to Steve Williams, the glass is half-full.

“London’s pubs are booming,” says the part-time accountant who, in an update of a centuries-old role, is assigned to assess the city’s public houses and report his findings on a blog. While supping a pint of Gales’ Seafarers Ale in the Jugged Hare, a converted bank near Victoria Station, Williams muses on the renewal of interest in traditional pub culture, and on the unexpected benefits of a struggling economy.

“Although many pubs have been sold for redevelopment value, lately that’s disappeared. Because of real estate values, it’s been hard for people to set up as brewers in London, but recently we’ve got a few more.” These microbreweries are offering a tastier alternative to mass-produced lager with their real ale (Britain’s trademark unpasteurized, cask-conditioned beer), and part of Williams’s job is to discern whether it’s being served and kept correctly.

His knowledge of beer, in part, won him his position: this June, in a competition at Old Spitalfields Market, just outside London’s financial district, he was asked to identify beers by taste alone (a task that becomes harder as one goes along, as spitting is frowned upon in beer-tasting). He also had to demonstrate his passion in a speech. “I gave it the big ‘Cockney Geezer’ brash, bloke-ish beer-drinking spiel,” he recalls. “I said that I’ve been in training for the job for 35 years.”

Williams has been visiting his city’s watering holes since his teens, but the stocky 49-year-old isn’t your stereotypical rotund pub denizen – he’s fighting fit, apparently from supplementing his crawling with a regime of walking. His only regret in winning the position? “I’m disappointed they haven’t given me leather breeches and a frilly shirt,” he says, “because it would make me more recognizable.”

Going back to the Renaissance, or so legend has it, London’s ale tasters, or “conners,” would determine whether beer was “strong” or “weak” by sitting in a pool of ale; if it stuck to their leather trousers, this meant there was still sugar left to be converted to alcohol. Alas, the leather trousers appear to have been a fabrication by later writers, although conners did indeed exist, and had a role as tax assessors for pubs.

Williams’s position is more ceremonial – he doesn’t have the right to shut down a pub if its beer isn’t up to snuff. Nonetheless, as Pete Brown, one of the London Ale Taster Competition’s judges, notes, the position is “linked to the trades and the markets and the guilds and the whole historic side of London.” Today’s Ale Taster has an ambassadorial role, promoting a tradition. “I think it’s a crying shame that we’re not more proud of our beer,” he says. “The only people who stand up and speak proudly of what Britain is good at are Europe-hating, scared-of-foreigners bigots, and you don’t want to sound like that, so we have this culture that’s very dismissive of our achievements as a nation. People from around the world say, ‘British cask ale – no other brewers in other countries can equal that as a style.’”

Brown himself is an evangelist for British beer; he once transported a cask of India Pale Ale by boat from Burton, around Africa, to Calcutta, in order to replicate the ale’s pre-Suez canal voyage in the 19th century. And while he decries “laziness” and “complacency” in some British pubs, he finds a positive trend in a number of establishments that are “getting back to traditional pub culture – quite often pubs that have failed will reopen with soft furniture, no TV screens, good food, good drink, and just let people come in and enjoy. That creates the atmosphere: brilliant.”

As if to prove Brown’s point, Williams leads the way out of the august Victorian surroundings of the Jugged Hare, around the corner to a pub in an unprepossessing block of flats. Once known as the Pimlico Tram, a loud, down-at-heel boozer, it’s now the Cask Pub and Kitchen, a beer-drinker’s oasis with myriad casks, draught taps, obscure bottles from around the world, and nary a TV screen. Clearly it appeals to more than just beer trainspotters: the hearty clientele filling the pub includes students, yuppies, and aging punks.

It’s the kind of place where you can do a one-pub beer crawl, and Williams starts cycling through half-pints of different microbrews. Most are delicious, but one award-winning chocolate orange stout strikes an unpleasantly sour note. Williams suspects there may be a yeast infection afoot: “There’s something going on that I don’t like, but it’s not completely undrinkable.”

Undeterred, he finishes his glass. Indeed, on his blog, his sporadic critiques of substandard pubs tend to be rather tame: “cheap but not very cheerful,” he remarks of one establishment, and of another, he quotes the old saw, “if you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.” At one pub, he laments, “I waited ten minutes to be served – being the London Ale Taster brings no privilege here.”

And yet, Williams feels that his mission itself is a privilege. He hopes to be able to defend his title next year, or at least to be a judge for the next Ale Taster. Until then, he’s out to celebrate the panoply of London’s pubs, and to convince malcontents not to grumble.

“They’ve promised to increase duty on alcoholic drinks by more than the rate of inflation for the foreseeable future,” he notes, “because the government needs money. It’s time for Britain’s drinkers to help bail out the country.

“Real ale in London’s pubs is the value offering. People do complain – now it’s creeping up to £3.50 a pint [approx $5.67 [TK]]. Our message is, ‘Get over it and carry on drinking.’”

Steve Williams’s blog can be found at www.londonaletaster.co.uk. Pete Brown’s book Hops and Glory: One man’s Search for the Beer that Built the British Empire is published by Pan Macmillan.

— Originally published in The National Post

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