Words - Matthew Curtis | Photos - Matthew Curtis & Tom Harrison
As I make my way up Highgate Hill I stop and consider a slightly dilapidated 'Take Courage' sign on the side of The Old Crown. I was nervous, I hadn't been the days previous to this one but now I was starting to worry that I might let myself down. Under my breath I was rehearsing lines, making sure I remembered my facts and trying to instil a confidence within myself that would be required for the next few hours.
Tonight I was hosting a sold out beer tasting at the wonderful Duke's Head in Highgate Village. About six months previously the owners had contacted me and arranged a casual meeting over a few beers. I pitched them my ideas which to my delight they went for. Weeks of planning followed by promotion then led to me walking up that hill muttering to myself about beer. The theme of the tasting was an 'Introduction to Craft Beer'.
Myself and the team at Duke's had selected six beers, each a different style and included kegged, canned, bottled and cask brews. We'd also arranged for Duke's current kitchen residents The Bell & Brisket to whip up some salt beef sliders, pickles and fries to make sure our guests didn't go hungry. I was confident that I had a lineup that would please both stalwart beer enthusiasts and newcomers alike, all it needed was me to remember these damn facts and deliver them.
I arrived and the pub was quiet as hoped, we'd picked a Thursday night for this reason. A few guests had beaten me here, some I recognised and some I didn't. I got myself a pint to steady the nerves and it almost worked. I poured over my tasting notes for each of the beers one last time, trying to remember key points that would trigger longer pieces of conversation. Conversation was my key word, I didn't want to spend two hours talking at our guests, I wanted to get people talking about beer. Eventually the remaining attendees started to arrive but so did a lot of other people, the pub was suddenly packed and loud. This didn't deter me, I would just have to speak louder I thought and I like to think that speaking with passion at volume is one of my few talents. I slowly walked up to the head of the crowd, glasses of Hammerton Steam Lager were put in the guests hands, I put my notebook down and began.
I sought advice from numerous experts who do this sort of thing regularly and I thank them dearly for their help. One piece that stuck in my mind was that I was simply talking about beer and this is something I do all of the time, for fun and I held this with me throughout. It wasn't quite that simple but it was an immense amount of fun. I began by talking about the history of steam beer in America. The snappy, bitter version from Hammerton was a perfect accompaniment to the story of Anchor Brewery and Fritz Maytag. We then moved on to Five Points Pale Ale, served on cask and I enthused about the first uses of Cascade hops and how that began to change peoples perceptions of what beer could taste like. It was safe to say I was in my element.
By the time I had placed the cans of our next beer, Fourpure Oatmeal Stout on the tables any shred of nerves had disappeared to be replaced with only pure adrenaline. It was interesting to see the reaction of a few guests at beer being served from a can but this was all part of my plan to hopefully dispel any bugbears they might have had about them. People cooed over this beer, many told me it was their favourite of night, a dry and drinkable stout with big flavours of roasted coffee and dark chocolate. This also triggered discussion about dispense methods, all friendly of course and all methods showed their benefits on the night.
At the start of the evening I had given everyone a menu of the beers we would be serving and encouraged people to make tasting notes as they went along. I made sure with each beer we took in its appearance and aroma as well as its flavour and mouth feel and it was great to see everyone scribbling away as they analysed their beers. After refuelling on bagels we ploughed onwards with a palate cleansing Partizan Lemon and Thyme Saison. This beer divided opinion, I described it as 'a beer you can baste a chicken with'. Some really enjoyed it and a couple screwed their faces at it but then that's the beauty of beer. I also genuinely think it would work as a fantastic marinade for poultry. I spoke fervently about Saison and its origins, the style that people were probably least familiar with but hopefully they were inspired to try a few more afterwards.
We finished the evening with a pair of absolute belters from The Kernel. I used Chinook Simcoe IPA as a platform to enthuse about my favourite style of beer and as I had been drinking each beer along with the attendees I was suddenly delivering my talk with a tad more gusto. We finished on an Export India Porter that had been ageing away in the Duke's Head cellar for a few months and we couldn't really have ended it any better than that. It was rich and fulfilling, it rounded off an excellent evening of beer. All that was needed at the end was a glass full of Bowmore to bring me down from the ceiling. It almost did the trick.
My first thought after finishing up was that I immediately wanted to do it again and the good news is, we are. On Wednesday the 26th of November we will be bringing you Darker Days, an evening of dark beers, great food and a few other surprises that shall be revealed soon. Keep 'em peeled.
Thanks again to the amazing team at The Duke's Head for inviting me to host this evening and being incredible hosts themselves on the night.