Friday, 4 September 2009

The High Holy Festival of Beer

You may have heard that the English like a drink or two. Or three or four. You've heard correctly, my friends. Since I've known Chumley, he has occasionally mentioned with nostalgia a weeklong event here in Peterborough, the infamous Peterborough Beer Festival. Most often, his voice goes quiet, and in very reverential tones, he refers to it as "The Festival of Beer." He even looks a bit misty. Some among his set have been known to book the entire week off work to fully enjoy worship of the sacred beverage.

Last week was festival time again, and for cultural edification purposes, I decided to see what the fuss was about. I expected to be a bit of a wet blanket in that I detest beer, but so-called fruit beer is a different story. Belgian lambic can be completely un-beery, and the cherry beer is immensely quaffable. I picture a horde of Belgian monks scurrying around the cherry orchard, steadfastly pitting cherries in between penance. With more than 250 beers and ciders to choose from, those in the know assured me I wouldn't have a problem finding a refreshment to my liking.

I have experience with one American beer festival, which was typical of what happens when bored people drink en masse. You were handed a beer glass roughly the size of two shot glasses, and you could sample by purchasing a mini-mug full time and again. It was a remote venue, so most people drove. As the night wore on, it got louder, more mini mugs got dropped, and more people started bumping into you. When it was chucking out time, the local police waited in line outside the front stoop to nab all the DUI drivers, like shooting fish in a barrel.

The English beer festival experience was considerably different. For starters, you bought either a full pint glass or a half pint upon arrival. After that, sample whatever you liked and pay as you go. There were thousands of people, but no real drunk and disorderly moments. I didn't see one person get into their own car and drive away afterwards -- every cab in town was booked. I saw an organized minibus pick up customers. People were jolly, but not shabby. I was impressed that such a liquid affair had good security and no real problems.

I think the difference between English and American drinking culture is that Americans tend to use the fire-hose approach to drinking, whereas the Brits have the faucet on a steady stream. Both approaches have their downsides. Drunk driving is far more taboo here, mercifully. That said, the Brits are drinking more overall, which can be an expensive and liver-destroying habit. Tolerance levels appear much higher due to the steady stream effect. In fact, Chumley hangs his head and says he can't drink at all anymore since he lived in the tea-totaling States for years. I get the occasional odd look when we're out and I order a non-alcoholic beverage. Some hear my accent and ask if I drink at all! (I've also been asked whether I own a gun!)

I also became acquainted with a pub game called "Country Skittles." The first time I heard that term, I pictured people rolling enormous Skittles candies as big as bowling balls at some unknown, pastoral target. I think my brainwaves made the connection that country equaled Texas, so that a country Skittle was like a piece of Texas toast. Wrong again. It's bowling, alright, but with tiny little wooden pins and a ball that looks like it was shot out of a cannon sometime during the Napoleonic wars. No large fruit candy involved at all. One variant of Country Skittles uses a wooden replica of a small wheel of cheese to bowl at the pins. Why? I have not cracked the code on this phenomena as yet. Now that I think about it, I wish they did make country Skittles. They would be the excellent accompaniment to a Texas-sized cherry beer.

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