Monday, May 7, 2018

The Session 135: Sepia Tones

As the host of this month's Session, I feel a tad embarrassed that having stepped in at the last minute it has taken me a few days to get my own post written and posted. Life with twins.

As I said in the initial announcement, I wanted us all to engage in a little beery nostalgia for those lost pubs and beers that were part of our formative years as beer drinkers. Melancholy and its attendant nostalgia comes easily to those of us with Highland roots, booze often just brings it into a sharper focus.

Let me tell you a story. When I was 19 I left the safety of life on the Isle of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides for the bright lights of Birmingham. It was the first weekend in October if memory serves, and I started college, studying  for a degree in theology at the Birmingham Bible Institute with a view to becoming a minister of religion. Moving from an island with a population comfortably south of 1500 to the second largest city in the UK cramming about a million people into little more than 100 square miles was, erm, interesting to say the least.

On that first Sunday in Brum all the single students went for a walk around the Edgbaston area to get our bearings, wandering from Pakenham Road, where we lived, to Calthorpe Park and back. Making our way toward the Bristol Road we passed a McDonalds, next to which stood a  fairly nondescript box of a building on which hung a sign that said 'The Trees'. I took a mental note to return when I had a moment and see what delights lay within.

A couple of afternoons later I snuck off for a pint. My memory of The Trees is that it was a run of the mill residential area boozer, and that they had Caffrey's on tap, and I loved Caffrey's at the time. A couple of afternoon pints at The Trees became my routine, I guess I should have known even then that the fact I just wanted to have a couple of jars away from people at college was a pointer that I would never really realise the aim of being a minister. Maybe then I could have gone elsewhere for my degree, and studied something that deep down I wanted to, history or German for example. In a weird twist of fate I later learnt that my older brother's then girlfriend had once been a barmaid at The Trees.

The Trees is gone know, demolished, the land awaiting redevelopment, though the McDonalds remains. A sign of the times perhaps.

Let me tell you another story. When I was 23 I again left Benbecula for a major city. This time I went to Prague, reasonably freshly minted BA (hons) in Theology in hand, recently broken up with my then fiancee, and with my parents encouragement not to get stuck in the relatively empty north west of Scotland. I was off to train as a Teacher of English as a Foreign Language, with a plan to spend a year in Prague and then go off to different countries every year, before heading home to become a minister, I still clung to the vaguest notion of faith then. However, now I didn't worry about heading to the pub for a bevvy, the long moralistic arm of the Free Church minister's disapproving righteous scowl couldn't make it to central Europe (I wasn't Free Church but the church I went to, while independent, had lots of connections in the Free Church on North Uist).


That first Sunday afternoon in Prague, having arrived that morning on the 24 hour bus from London (I hate flying), I sat in a pub/pizzeria in Černý Most with a 4 cheese pizza on my plate and a half litre of Velkopopovický Kozel in my glass. Kozel was still independent back then, before merging with Pilsner Urquell in 2002, and the beer was like nothing I had drunk before. A lager that was packed with hop flavour, finishing with a clean bite, and so moreish it would have been remiss not to have at least one more, no wonder the first phrases I mastered in Czech were 'pivo prosím' and 'ještě jedno'. While most of my friends stuck to the ubiquitous Gambrinus, I hunted out Kozel wherever I could, and happily one of the main expat brunch hangouts, Jama, had it on tap.

Kozel was the genesis of our theme for this Session, as this week they announced they are getting rid of the Kozel Premium, the 12° lager in their range, and sepia toned memories of those first years in the Mother of Cities came flooding back. Much like the beer, it was bittersweet.

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