Monday 13 November 2017

The Psychogeography of Fenland Mild

Our weekly session at the climbing wall in Cambridge is almost always followed by a visit to the Free Press.

The Free Press is a classic homely backstreet local, a Greene King house that makes you forget that you don't like Greene King. The beer is always well kept, and there's a leisurely rotation of occasionally-interesting guest ales that tend to the pale and moderately hoppy. As the weather gets colder, though, I'm increasingly turning back to one of their regular beers, Greene King's XX Mild, as a standard order.

The strange persistence of mild in the Fens and East Anglia has been commented on before, and although it's a style of beer more commonly associated with the industrial towns of Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Black Country, this will make sense to anyone who's spent a few winters in the area. If you've cycled across the Fens on a bright, frost-bitten morning or walked on the beach at Dunwich in a cold Easterly wind, you'll know that this landscape in winter can be bleak or beautiful but without romance or drama. The sky is clear blue from horizontal horizon to horizontal horizon, the rich, black mud sticks to your boots, and the cold gets in your bones and makes your jaw ache. This landscape and this climate demand a beer that's soft, sweet and warming - a spritzy floral pale would feel entirely out of place. Incidentally, Ely was said to have one of the highest rates of laudanum use in Victorian Britain - this seems like a plausible consequence of the same conditions.

Terroir is a recurring hot topic in craft beer circles, and to me, the sort of terroir that's interesting isn't about locally foraged herbs, homegrown hops or wild yeast, it's about this sort of psychogeographical groundedness. My advice to a brewer wanting to make beer with a "sense of place" is that they should stop worrying about where their ingredients come from and look at where their end product goes to. They should sell locally, and drink locally themselves. They should see what people respond to - what makes sense for their local drinkers, in their surroundings, with their climate - and adapt and evolve to the place where they're based.

Wild yeast, foraged herbs and locally grown barley are all interesting things to experiment with in their own right and great beers can be made using them, but fundamentally they only reflect their origins on the level of microbiology and biochemistry. The pint of mild in the Free Press reflects its origins on the level of landscape, climate and culture, and to me, that's really where the interest lies.