Down a small lane called Friar’s Entry, Far From the Madding Crowd certainly lives up to its name and was the first of the varied pubs I visited during my trip to Oxford. Having bought myself an Iain Banks book to read, I pitched up just after opening time and immediately felt right at home. This is a pub as pubs should be in my book, no fancy décor, plain dark wooden furniture and an unobtrusive bar. The reason I wanted to visit this pub was because I had read that it was the only free house in the centre of Oxford. For those unaware of British parlance, a free house is one that is not tied to any particular brewer and thus free to sell what they want, and in emails to the landlord I had learnt that they rotate a range of ales from the smaller brewers, mostly local.
My first choice of pint was simplicity in itself, Hobgoblin on draught is not something that I have a chance to have very often, so having ordered my pint, taken it to a table, realized that the leather sofa was too soft to write clearly and moved to another table, I started on my mission to try all the beers available that day. According to the blackboard beside the bar, this was a 4.5% ABV, in bottles it is 5.2%, and poured the same dark russet into a tulip glass. I will come to the issue of head in a moment. The nose was unmistakably Hobgoblin, toffee sweetness just imploring you to drink, and like the bottled variant it was smooth, malty, full bodied and with a nice clean bitter aftertaste that makes relieves it the burden of being cloying.
At this point there was just myself, an older lady having a half pint reading her paper and a couple of barstaff. I have got used to table service in the Czech Republic but I still prefer going to the bar – I am also a fan of sitting at the bar of my regular haunts – and so up I went to get pint number 2, Brakspear Bitter. I loved the colour if the Brakspear, dark amber with an off-white head. On giving it a good sniff it was slighty bready and laced with bananas. The first mouthful was a delight, very smooth and creamy with a refreshing bitterness. But then strange things started to happen, it started to smell vaguely of rubber tyres, oak and even whisky. The problem was a lack of consistency within the pint, one minute there was a strange smell and then the next it was gone. I found that towards the end of the pint it had become stale, reminding me of digestive biscuits that go soft.
As the lunchtime crowd came in, and I reached chapter 3 of my book, I noticed that Far From the Madding Crowds attracts a wonderfully diverse clientele – but a very friendly one. Eventually I was to get chatting with a guy called Frank who was a regular, as well as a very educated guy with whom I shared a good three hour discussion that ranged across educational theory, religious history and textual criticism. My third pint was to be the first of several beers from brewers I had never heard of, in this case it was Shingle Bay from the Quercus Brewery in Dorset. This was paler than the previous couple of pints, being an almost lageresque sparkling golden colour, with a nose that was citrusy and kind of reminded me of sweet and sour sauce. Drinking it though left me about three quid poorer and not much more inspired, it is not a bad beer, but rather just nothing special, not something to turn your nose up, but note something to chase across hill and dale for.
Carrying on my mission, I indulged in the sweet honey tasting Wold Gold from the Wold Top Brewery as well as the somewhat bland and syrupy Elsie Mo from Castle Rock, which is shown above. As the afternoon wore on I found that I was developing a stuffy nose and thus smelling much of anything was becoming difficult. However, that clogged up feeling didn’t stop me from enjoying a lovely pint of No Angel from the Clark’s Brewery, which weighs in at 4% ABV. It is quickly becoming apparent to me that I am a fan of the darker ales, so I was delighted at the dark copper of the No Angel, even though once again there was a thin head – coming to that bit! I would love to tell you what it smelt like but by this point it could have smelt like a miner’s sweaty undies and I would have been none the wiser as my nose was thoroughly blocked. However the wonderful maltiness and gentle bitterness struck a fantastic balance that had me scribbling furiously that this was quite simply the “perfect bitter”, if you will excuse the awful pun, No Angel was certainly divine! (Apologies, but I am sure we have all done similar.)
Which brings me to my one constant gripe about drinking in England at the weekend, and perhaps people will bear with me as I am used to the Czech attitude to head on beer. I will just come straight out and say it, head for me is an important and integral part of having a beer. I am quite happy to lose a meagre half-inch of beer in order to have a better-looking pint – after all, how a beer looks is essential for its enjoyment. I have seen campaign posters for having pints taken "to the top", but this just seems to be backward thinking in my book. I worry about people who insist on getting their full extra half-inch of beer at the expense of a better looking pint – does it add to the enjoyment, do the extra few drops get you buzzed quicker, or are you just a moaning minny with nothing better to do that fill the drip trays of the UK? Getting a full pint of beer is all well and good, but instead of looking like a right tight arsed git and saying to some harassed barmaid, “could you top it up love”, how about campaigning for the use of bigger glasses so everyone is happy. Get a full pint and have a better-looking beer.