There was a time in my life when my taste in beers wasn’t limited to Tennent’s Lager and whichever box of branded bottles was least expensive in the supermarket. For a while I liked nothing better than sipping on an IPA on a Saturday afternoon and thinking how superior my palette was to everybody else’s, then I bought a flat and became a single occupant and enjoyed nothing more than getting shitfaced on as much beer as I could for as little a cost.
My relationship with craft beers began in September 2014, when I travelled to Manchester with a cold to see Ryan Adams perform for the fourteenth time. Most people liked to take long journeys with a companion, but I went along with a viral infection. Ryan was playing in the Albert Hall, an old Methodist chapel which was built in 1908, and having known that the train from Glasgow stopped at Manchester Oxford Road station – less than ten minutes from the venue – I booked a room at the Premier Inn hotel, which was right in the middle of the two. Planning a trip was often something which I enjoyed more than the actual act of embarking on it, and I took great delight in researching the area around St. Peter’s Square for ways of wiling away a few hours before the gig began. Since there only appeared to be one bar between my hotel and the church-turned-concert venue, I knew that I was going to have to familiarise myself with BrewDog, the independent Scottish brewery that was rapidly opening bars all across the UK at the time.
When I got off the train at Manchester Oxford Road, nothing seemed familiar. It wasn’t like when I had surveyed the area on Google Maps all those times in the weeks before the gig. The deeper I ventured into the street, the less certain I was feeling about things, like every romantic relationship I had ever had. It was when I noticed a poster in the window of one bar extolling the virtues of Wednesday night being leather night, and then further along the pavement stepping around a sandwich board advertising live drag shows that I realised I was in Manchester Gay Village. It was a brief dalliance before I turned back and found my hotel but mere footsteps away from where I had disembarked the train. Though the Labour Party was holding its Autumn conference in the convention complex across the street from the hotel, and it occurred that there were worse wrong turns I could have taken.
I didn’t remember much about the Manchester branch of BrewDog, but then I was young and it seemed that a good bar shouldn’t be all that memorable after a few hours spent drinking there. Despite feeling incredibly self-conscious when I tried to eat a twelve-inch bratwurst smothered in yellow mustard and ketchup while a group of young women sat at the table opposite me – as though they were somehow going to have nothing better to do than watch me attempting to eat a sausage while smearing as little sauce as possible on my stubble – I was immediately drawn to the names of some of the beers on offer, such as Punk, 5AM Saint, and Dead Pony Club, which tasted a lot better than its name suggested. I marvelled at the idea of there being a menu of beers to choose from and that people would ask the bar staff for recommendations, like being in a fancy restaurant and enquiring about the specials. They would even offer a little taster schooner to help you decide if you wanted to buy a full beer, though in future years I would never have the heart to tell a bar person that I didn’t like their suggested beer and I always ended up buying a pint of it anyway.
I liked the BrewDog bar so much that I returned there after the gig with a group of guys who I had met during the performance and who turned out to be the first people from Carlisle that I had ever talked to. We were all standing at the back of the balcony in the Albert Hall, presumably because it was easier to reach the bars in the venue to top up our drinks from there, rather than it being a particularly good spot to watch the concert. I never knew whether it was the way I was standing – drunkenly and likely at an angle, resembling a street sign which has been bent by an out of control car – the fact that I was on my own, or the way I was dressed – in jeans and a checked shirt, like everybody else at a Ryan Adams gig – but the man standing to my right offered me one of the plastic tumblers of Coca-Cola he had come back from the bar with. “I have Bacardi in here,” he said holding out a Sprite bottle, the way someone might a strobe light at a more raucous gig.
It was a scene that would seem unthinkable in 2020, but in 2014 I had no qualms about accepting a drink from a stranger, especially when he had taken the ingenious measure of disguising the spirit in the bottle of a soft drink which was the same colour. The libatious gentleman handed me one of his spare cokes and proceeded to unscrew the lid of the Sprite bottle. His hand was large and beefy and somehow still red, even in the darkness. For the first time, I began to feel nervous that I had never drunk Bacardi before. It was a drink that was always in our parent’s alcohol cupboard, but I had never seen anyone drink it, let alone taste it myself. His pouring was generous, like running the hot water tap on the bath a little longer than necessary because it’s been a long, hard day. I thanked him, since that seemed the right thing to do when being handed a free drink, but when I finally brought the Bacardi to my mouth it put me in mind of the way I imagined a glass of paint thinner might taste. I could scarcely understand how it hadn’t burned through the Sprite bottle it had been carried in, and it was with reluctance that I accepted the offer of a refill.
Back in BrewDog, we pored over the setlist while pints of craft beer were being poured for us. It was a rare thing for me to have the opportunity to talk about Ryan Adams, and this was the first time I had been able to analyse the details of the setlist after a gig with another person since 2011 in Brighton, where I had seen him with a red-haired Welsh lass who was a real-life stranger but an internet friend at the time. The man from Carlisle was unhappy that Ryan hadn’t played anything from his album Gold, and he couldn’t understand why he would have ignored his most successful record, but I was too giddy to care since he performed Anybody Wanna Take Me Home for the first time in seven years. When he played two songs from the album the following night in Glasgow I thought about the man from Carlisle. I felt guilty that I was hearing the songs he wanted to have heard in Manchester, but I was thankful to be paying £5 for a Jack Daniels and coke.
After discovering that I had a taste for craft beers I drank them at every opportunity I could. There was never a great variety in Oban, so I was forced to get my fix whenever I went out of town, usually to another gig someplace. The first thing I did when I knew I was going somewhere was to scope out the craft beer bars. Dublin, Newcastle and Brighton turned out to have some of my favourites, but it was in Glasgow that my heart was truly taken by hoppy beers. Although Burger Meats Bun on West Regent Street was primarily a place where people went to eat burgers, I kept going back because I really enjoyed their selection of beers, and because I developed a huge crush on one of their waitresses, whose hair was the colour of a double IPA and had twice the kick. They usually had something from the nearby West Brewery on tap, while they also carried cans from Cromarty Brewing Company and Camden Town Brewery, amongst others. I would spend hours in their little diner, drinking beers long after I had finished eating my burger. If I was fortunate enough to be seated close to the bar I would pass the time by talking to Johnny, the barman, while he was waiting for drinks orders to come in from the tables. He was fantastically friendly, and it was always fascinating to watch him mix the cocktails he was curating for the place. There was a time in 2015, a couple of months after I had been made redundant, that Johnny was being very helpful in my thought process with regards to the possibility of moving to Glasgow. He assured me that he knew people and it wouldn’t be a problem for him to find me a job, and we discussed where in the city I might live. I liked the idea of relocating to the city, but then fate dealt its hand and I stumbled into a job I enjoyed in Oban, though I sometimes wondered how different my life would have been if I had taken the chance and moved to Glasgow. The people I might have met, and the ones I wouldn’t have.
I would order pint after pint just for the chance to talk to the waitress again. I had a way of making her laugh, though there was no way of telling how much of that was heard through the haze of a high ABV IPA. When I eventually left the place to make my way to whichever venue the gig I was attending on that night was being held, I was so drunk that I would either end up arriving after the main act had started their set or I would be incapable of remembering very much of the night by the next morning. That was the case when I saw, or was at least present to see, Tweedy – the father/son act formed of Jeff Tweedy from Wilco and his offspring – play at the Royal Concert Hall, perhaps the grandest of Glasgow’s music venues. I had witnessed Wilco perform there some four years earlier and it was a brilliant night, but on this occasion the starry spotlights in the lobby were a blur as I was vomiting on the stairway, unable to make it to the men’s room in time. Twice. I had always put it down to some disagreeable ingredient in the burger I had consumed earlier in the night, but the truth was probably closer to the bottom of a pint glass. The next morning, the Glasgow Herald review of the Tweedy gig gave it three stars.
By the time the lockdown of 2020 arrived, I had fallen out of the habit of drinking craft beers. I was a single occupant with a mortgage to pay and I wasn’t travelling to places like Manchester to see bands as much. Burger Meats Bun had closed years earlier, and it just seemed easier to drink Tennent’s Lager in Aulay’s on a Friday night. When some of us decided to hold a weekly Zoom meeting as a means of recreating the experience of being in the pub, I was still drinking cans of Tennent’s, because that’s what I would have been doing if I was standing at the bar. We were synching a collaborative Spotify playlist so that we were all listening to the same music, like standing at the jukebox but without a fistful of twenty pence pieces. I was still turning up wearing the shirt and tie I’d been dressed in for work earlier in the day, and we were still having trouble finding women who were wanting to talk to us.
It wasn’t until the local newspaper, The Oban Times, ran a story towards the end of April about a lady who had opened a new shop dedicated to selling craft beer the day before the pandemic forced everything to close that it occurred to me that there were other things I could be drinking during our weekly video discussions. For a few months before the world changed, I had been noticing from across the street the striking yellow sign on the side of the old flower shop on Stafford Street that appeared to have the word ‘beer’ emboldened across it, but I never thought to cross the road and take a closer look, fearing that it was most likely a mirage in the desert. It turned out that one of my wildest dreams had come true.
If reopening the bike shop six weeks into the lockdown, after everybody seemed to have already taken up cycling, was like opening a lemonade stand the day after a long heatwave had broken, then opening a craft beer shop the day before a pandemic would force a nationwide lockdown seemed to be like waiting all your life to get into heaven, and when the time finally comes that you reach the fabled pearly gates, Saint Peter scans his list – which is presumably stored on a tablet, or perhaps a Kindle – and welcomes you inside, before telling you that there is a strict no beer policy.
The Oban Beer Seller was still able to operate her business on a delivery basis, though, and our group took motivation from the arrival of proper craft beers in town to start mixing up our usual Friday nights. It wasn’t the vaccine everyone else was looking for, but it was the cure for our ills. We started by sampling some of the different IPA’s available from the local supermarkets, and myself, my brother, the plant doctor, one of Oban’s finest barmen, and Alan – who I didn’t know very much about, other than he had a lot of hair – attempted to discuss the beers in a serious manner. Although we were five men who didn’t really know what we were talking about when it came to beers, we began to consider that if we drank enough of them we could compile our notes together into a book for people who didn’t like craft beer. Sort of like a CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) guide for idiots and losers. When the best that we could come up with for some of the cans we had bought from Aldi and Lidl were that it “smells like a sock that has been stuck in the drum of the washing machine for two months” and one “tasted like if a unicorn had pissed in my mouth” we started to re-think our plans for publishing.
In the end, we decided that since we had been inspired by The Oban Beer Seller’s new venture, it would only be right if we bought some of our drinks locally from her, so we all agreed on one beer that we would buy for our Friday night group chat, while we each also purchased a ‘taster box’, which was made up of seven different beers selected by Karen herself to give an idea of the range that the shop offered. The box cost £20, and while craft beers in general are more expensive than buying a case of Tennent’s or Budweiser, or even the IPA’s brewed specially for supermarkets like Lidl, the quality is noticeably so much better. More than that, though, exchanging emails with Karen to place my order was like talking to a man from Carlisle in a craft beer bar in Manchester about the setlist at that nights Ryan Adams gig, such was her enthusiasm for her project, which had been a work in progress for more than a year.
My taster box had lasted longer than the others in our group, since I had gone quite heavy on the 6% Wolf beer from Windswept Brewing, which had kept me up until four o’clock in the morning with the plant doctor the previous weekend, when the various tastes and flavours from the beers we had been drinking felt like a technicolour yawn. More recently, a weekend of warm weather had given way to atmospheric clouds and the sort of breeze that tickled around the hems of a man’s trousers. The sea was tossing salt like a superstition, and I could taste it on my tongue. Friday was a night for staying in, not that there was an option with the restrictions still in place. I worked my way through the bottles and cans from the taster box, each one a reminder of why I loved craft beer to begin with, every mouthful a memory – until eventually I drank so much of the stuff that I couldn’t remember, just like always. I do know, though, that not one of them tasted like Bacardi.
Links & things:
The Oban Beer Seller reopens to the public on Thursday 11 June, selling happiness in a can. The shop’s Facebook page can be found via this link.
The setlist from the Ryan Adams gig at the Albert Hall in Manchester on 24 September 2014 can be viewed on setlist.com.
This week I have mostly been listening to…