St Albans beer expert enjoys his first post-lockdown pint
PUBLISHED: 18:00 16 July 2020
Former editor of The Good Beer Guide and occasional Herts Ad columnist Roger Protz visits one of his favourite locals to find out how it’s adapted to a post-lockdown world
“The pubs are open!” the media roared with one voice. Like a man crawling across the Gobi desert, my first pint of draught beer since lockdown hovered tantalisingly like a shimmering oasis.
Getting that pint proved difficult, though. Several of my favourite pubs in St Albans – the Boot and the Olde Fighting Cocks among them – didn’t immediately unlock their doors.
But after a quick Google search I found the Mermaid on Hatfield Road was back in business.
It’s a fine pub, a regular in the Good Beer Guide with an exceptional range of ale and fascinating old brewery memorabilia decorating the walls. But it’s no longer a case of turning up, walking to the bar and ordering a pint.
I had to phone to book a time. Four o’clock would be suitable, I was told, as the pub wasn’t too busy. I arrived and scrubbed my hands with the aid of the dispenser on the outside wall then hovered in the entrance until, like a fledgling apprentice barrister, I was called to the bar.
As I surveyed the beer pumps I was told the new rules of the house by a smiling but firm young woman: no leaning on the bar and keep your distance from other customers. I recognised some of the regulars but we could do no more than say hello as I was pointed to a table at the far end of the pub away from human habitation.
First I had to buy a beer – my first draught for four months.
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There were several beers on offer from the Nethergate Brewery near Long Melford in Suffolk, a brewery I know well. I chose a pint of their Stour Valley Gold and retreated to my cubicle where the table bore a sticker saying “Richard 9pm” – he had sensibly booked for the busy evening session.
The beer was in fine form – cool, bursting with citrus hops and biscuit malt flavours and aromas. The Mermaid also offers Nethergate’s Augustinian Amber Ale: the brewery produces several beers in co-operation with an Augustinian Priory in the town of Clare, where Nethergate was first based.
The Mermaid’s best-selling cask beer is Oakham Citra but for my second and final pint I chose a radically different beer from the brewery based in Peterborough. Black Hole is a porter and it delivered delicious and complex flavours of dark fruits, roasted grain and bitter, spicy hops.
Porter was the great beer style of the 18th century, the junior partner of stout, which was first called stout porter, later reduced simply to stout. The name porter stemmed from the beer’s popularity with the small army of porters in London who worked in the docks and markets and worked up
prodigious thirsts as a result of their hard labour. So much London-brewed porter and stout was exported to Ireland that brewers there started to brew the beers, notably a young brewer in Dublin called Arthur Guinness, who did rather well for himself.
I supped my Black Hole Porter close to an old brewery sign on the wall advertising “Original Porter and Imperial Stout”.
Behind me, a large smiling man watched over me from a poster promoting the beers of a long gone London brewery called Barclay Perkins that had produced vast amounts of porter and stout in the 19th century, including strong export versions for Russia and the Baltic States.
Beer and history combined to make a memorable first visit to the pub for many months. Is this the “new normal”? I hope not. I missed what the Irish call the craic – the buzz of conversation among drinkers as they nuzzle a pint or two.
In due course, real pub life will return. For the moment, my thanks to the charming staff at the Mermaid for their warm welcome...and I’m sorry I leant on the bar.
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