Rachel Bennett

Winter Ale Whiteout

In Food on February 6, 2011 at 23:17

It all began with research. My friend Catherine is writing her dissertation on beer and, as a diligent anthropology student, she feels strongly about the value of participant observation, both in production and consumption. So she has begun this field work, as it might be called, hanging out with brewers and exercising her arm muscles with pint weights of quality British brews.

This weekend Catherine wanted help with research. Would I be interested in attending a beer festival in Dover? Anxious to assist the cause of academic excellence, I found myself at St. Pancreas blinking blearily into the unforgiving glare of a Saturday morning, a coffee grasped in one hand, a ticket to Dover in the other.

After an hour’s journey through increasingly misty terrain we arrived at the port town, tumbled out of the train, and wandered off in search of the festival. We didn’t know what to expect: street overflowing with beer stalls or half a dozen old timers in the corner of a pub. So the seven of us headed vaguely for the city center and after a few false turns found our selves inside an ancient church of a building, all heavy stone, stained glass, and dark wood. Against one side of the long room were row upon row of metal barrels, each labeled with the brewery and beer. It was barely midday, yet the room was comfortably full, the true connoisseurs—with serious, determined expressions—already well deep into their pints.

The plan was to explore the famed white cliffs, have lunch, and then return to the festival. But as we were there, why not have a quick beer for the road, a little moral support before facing the wet, blustery skies. We each bought pint glasses and a stack of tokens to last the day, then turned to the wall of ales and the delicious predicament of deciding what to drink first. I went for a local Kent porter; it was lunchtime after all, and I craved its sweet, round-bodied bulk.

Chatting about beer, arguing about the merits of keeping chickens, and sampling everyone drinks, it wasn’t long before I’d finished my second heady half pint and was swaying delicately but persistently in my boots. It was only 1 pm. If I were to survive an afternoon lunch was urgently needed.

So we ducked into a pub down the street, ate a lack luster meal, and then walked down to the sea. My stomach full of food and my head still swimming in ale, the cliffs suddenly looked remote and uninteresting, and I was glad when we decided unanimously to abandon the trek. It was enough to walk along the pier, the wind whipping my hair and the spray hissing below. I was in heaven: away from the grit and scuffle of London, the sea air sweeping through my body leaving me tingling and slightly giddy, the way a strong wind always does.

I was walking very close to the railing along the pier’s edge, glancing now and then down at the heaving sea, when suddenly a particularly enthusiastic wave slammed into the wall flinging a fountain of spray skyward. The white froth soared above the railing, curled over, and slapped me full in the face. I shrieked, the deluge of saltwater cold and hard against my head, drenching my hair and trickling down my neck.  For a moment it felt good, that sharp sobering shower, but then the wind picked up, my head went numb, and I felt I’d seen enough of Dover’s seafront. Another beer was necessary, if only to ward off a cold.

Back in the church we turned in earnest to the task of tasting beer. There were stouts black as a moonless midnight, chocolate brown porters, ruby ales like liquid caramel, and pale ales the colour of sun-browned skin. Being completely clueless about these brews, I chose based on the names. Many of these hinted at excitement or danger with labels like Skull Splitter, Cyclops, Wobbly Bob, Angry Ox, and Monkmans Slaughter.

The afternoon wore on, becoming more enjoyable and fuzzy by the minute. Eventually the beers began to disappear, one after another of the barrels tapped and hauled from their perches. As this happened our drinking became more determined; no one wanted to be left sipping the dregs of the worst barrel. So we drained our glasses hurriedly, refilled and carried on swigging. The room began to empty, the connoisseurs now ruddy faced and slightly rounder, tottering towards the door. In our group, things began to degenerate and by 5 pm Tom was sporting a napkin hat and we were all leaning against tables, walls and each other in an effort to remain standing.

For my part, the world was wonderful, all warm and liquid. I loved my new friends, and Dover, and real British ales. I even felt tolerant towards real British rain. We piled into the train, giggling and slumping deliriously into the seats. Life was good. Then the train began to move and I sunk into the depths.

When I resurfaced the world was different and the story less pretty. I was very aware of the moving train, jolting and fast. My stomach was writhing, my head full of putty, and my eyes unhinged. I tried deep breathing and chatting to Fredrick, but it was difficult to sustain a thought and I ended the evening at the station, mumbling a faint farewell to my friends and shuffling through the underground towards home. It was admittedly an ignominious end to a truly delicious day.


  1. There are weirder names for beer. You should try Waggledance, or maybe a pint of Arrogant Bastard.

    • Nice! I’ll have to keep an eye out for some Waggledance. . . . Just wondering what sort of riotous evenings in the brewer’s basement led to these sort of names. . . .

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