Sucking Stones

A notebook of small obsessions,
mainly fermentational

The Session: Unprecedented Normal

01 May 2020

I’m not sure which beer-lover tweeted the link which brought my attention to Alistair Reece’s announcement of the Quarantine Edition of The Session. But I raise an eyebrow of thanks over my plague-mask towards the router and in their cyber direction.

For the theme - drinking in these most unusual of times - struck a chord. As a beer fan and frequent home brewer, my strategy for managing these hobbies - these obsessions if you like - has been consciously evolving from the day I abandoned my office in town to work from home back in early March.

Those early days were marked by stress. The unknown, the uncertainty, and the fears they create, played heavily on my mind and body as the surprisingly serene zombie movie played out in the slowest of slow motions. And without any zombies. I’ve lived through a few periods of extreme stress already, so I’m familiar with how it affects me. I was ready for the lack of apetite, the small meals, and the abrupt, early wakings. And, as usual under such cicumstances, my urge to drink was low. For this trait I’m thankful.

The urge to brew, though, was strong. And with more free time, I quickly started to plan out the next few batches.

At first I thought I could brew 2 or 3 times a week. But the reality of having to consume most of this output myself under lockdown soon put check to that idea. Combined with reduced exercise, it seemed like a particularly bad idea. I also had work to get on with (and a lot of lost financial ground to try to make up, thanks to the implosion of business). And so, I settled on maintaining a schedule and a few rules. No beers in the day (except for gravity samples, as necessary, at lunch time), and keeping main brewing activity to weekends - partly to preserve weekends as something different.

I’ve kept to my schedule, and even started to enjoy the pace of life as the stress has dissipated. And since then, I’ve brewed, in order, an IPA, an almost Kölsch, a dark and woody ESB, a Saison, another IPA alltogether.beer - and, most recently, two Ordinary Bitters.

It’s those two Ordinary Bitters which have given me the most pleasure, though, and for a couple of reasons. Firstly, as a teen in the North of England and then a student in London, I grew up with British ales. They have a great nostalgic pull for me - even if the specifics of those pints in the late 80s and early 90s are beyond taste recall now.

Secondly, my first solo brews were bitters - an Ordinary, followed by a Best. And they were, to be kind, lack-lustre. They certainly didn’t match up to the early-90s glory pints of my imagination. I visited London again last summer (I now live in Southeast Asia) and studied the modern British bitter in some depth (seriously! I mean really thinkng about it, taking notes, etc. It’s hard, and thirsty, work). I feel that, at last, I’m starting to have enough understanding and brewing skill to produce a bitter I’m pleased with (if not yet totally proud of). It’s taken quite a few years - but to have this beer within reach feels like an achievement.

But finally - and this is perhaps most pertinent to the given the theme - the low abv, the subtle hopping, the welcoming and moreish drinkabilty of the style is, I’m finding, precisely what I want in these times. I enjoyed (and, of course, continue to enjoy) the stronger and more robust IPAs and Saisons down in the basement. But in a world of work from home, with a slower pace, no time spent commuting, and less division between the bustle of the day and the few hours of evening respite, I find less craving for that big wallop of hops and booze. And more comfort in the milder aesthetic of a quiet but flavoursome pint (or three or four) of bitter.

So for now, at least, Ordinary has become my new normal. I don’t know how long it will last - but I feel like there’s plenty of space to play in this field. Oh - there’s a table Saison in the fermenter, right now, too, continuing the small beer theme. Maybe in times of chaos and cataclysm, there’s some solace and comfort to be found in a more modest brew.

Stay safe and drink well.

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