My father’s family is from the Lake District, that most famous of verdant English counties, the beauty of which inspired Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey to write swathes upon swathes of poems. In my childhood I visited my dad’s hometown of Maryport every year. It isn’t the world’s best town - in fact it’s very grim in places - but it was where my family lived, so I have fond memories of it. We went to mass every Sunday in a dusty old redbrick church, and I had many happy childhood holidays playing with my cousins.
I suppose this is an odd way to start a beer review, but hear me out. I bought Napier Brewery’s Old Charlie Stout from eBooze.co.za yesterday (my review’s here), and it’s affected me utterly. I still haven’t finished drinking it, and yet I feel I need to write about it.
I was surprised when I cracked open the 550ml bottle. It smelt of pipe tobacco and hops. More of an
English bitter rauchbier than the sort of stout most South Africans are accustomed to. I poured it. It poured black - impenetrable black, the kind of abyss into which all life recedes. Dark mahogany gilded the edges of the glass, and a slight toffee-coloured head formed. A review of the Old Charlie draught on ratebeer.com had made me expect an “almost clear brownish orange.” This didn’t seem like the same beer.
I sipped. There was such a deep roast on the malt that I had to stop to take it in. Again, pipe tobacco and hops abounded. It was bitter, and went down smoothly, albeit a bit thinly.
And it was then I was taken back to my childhood holidays, to Maryport and the winter rain and dirt and fields and floral carpets, to cigarette-infused curtains and faux-wood fireplaces, to the electric transformers down the road from my gran’s house. To hot pots and pale gammon roasts. To black-painted chipped waist-high garden gates that squeak with each opening and closing. Grey skies, grey seas; uncomfortable pebble beaches. It gave me one straight shiver down my spine. I felt like I had had my fourth pipe of the day. It made me utterly, profoundly sad.
This may sound like a terrible thing, but it was nothing terrible at all. It was astonishing. I don’t expect anyone else to like this beer, and I don’t even think I will buy it that often because of the way it makes me feel, but it has left such an impression on me. I feel drunk and I’ve only had half a glass.
I don’t know if anyone else will feel this way about Old Charlie, his hound’s-tooth hat and decades-old argyle jumper, but if bringing up emotions through bouquet and palate and hops and roast isn’t what craft beer is ultimately about, then I think I’m missing the whole point.
How Napier managed this is brilliant. I don’t expect it to bring them awards, but it gave me something, something I’m not too sure I’ll forget too soon.
Old Charlie Napier Stout; 550ml bottle; 4.5% abv.
Pros: Dense veins of tobacco on palate and nose; smooth and somehow light; an excellent take on English bitter.
Cons: Probably not to everyone’s taste; ugly label.