Nostalgia (it ain’t what it used to be)

Adrian Tierney-Jones, on how today’s brewers reach to the past for an emotional connection

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Like most people I know, I have never been able to plough my way through Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. It’s too dense, too self-indulgent and too microscopic in its attention to the mind-numbing details of his life. I agree it’s a classic of 20th century literature and the world would be a bleaker place by its non-existence, but I’ve realised that I’m never going to finish it before I die and that there will be other much shorter books that I can dowse myself in. However, the one thing I do know about the book is that when the narrator dunks a biscuit into a cup of tea it sets off a whole chain of childhood memories. In other words, nostalgia.

I would rather have a beer than a biscuit and often experience a similar sense of nostalgia with various beers. For instance, Schneider Weisse summons up a particular childhood sweet called a banana chew (foam banana seems to be the preferred option now), while Opal Fruits can be recalled with a juicy, hazy IPA from Verdant or Deya. There are other flavours of childhood, all of which pop up as constituent parts of various beer styles: liquorice, mint humbugs, chocolate drops, ice lollies, ice cream, bubble gum, Christmas cake and tinned mandarins. You could argue that we prepare for adult drinking by remembering our childish flavours — or is it more that this nostalgia gives us a language with which to articulate what we taste when we drink beer?

Here’s Neptune’s Black IPA and looking at my notes from when I recently enjoyed a can, I picked out chewy bonfire toffee (memories of raiding other kids’ bonfires) on the nose, while the palate had more toffee along with the suggestion of liquorice, blackjacks and even Everton mints. There were other flavours and aromas that didn’t belong in the sweetshop but the ones that did gave me a hook with which to understand and evaluate the beer. Another beer that recently took me back was Durham’s Bounty Hunter, which — you won’t be surprised given its name — is a chocolate and coconut porter very suggestive of a certain chocolate bar. 

My initial thoughts on the latter beer, as well as similarly sweetshop-flavoured dark beers from the likes of Salt and North, was that Durham had brewed this as a reaction to the strong market for pastry stouts. After all, every brewery is a business and there’s no point in producing beers that no one wants to buy. On the other hand, I also wondered if this trend for beers with the flavours of childhood is a sign that nostalgia remains a strong component of the current beer scene, despite many breweries assertively trumpeting their modernity. 

After all, beer and nostalgia have always seemed to have gone hand in hand. Think of the grumbling pub-goers muttering that this or that beer wasn’t what it used to be in their day or that they used to get a good pint at the Dog and Duck (sometimes with the phrase once upon a time added, which imbues the statement with the quality of a fairy tale). Then there are the retro beer labels that have appeared on bottles and cans from an assortment of family and global brewers with recipes from the past being presented to the contemporary drinker.

Is this such a bad thing though? There is also a strength in nostalgia when a glass of beer has the power to take you back in time, whether it’s to a magnificent pub, meeting a loved one, the excitement of a sporting moment or even just a simple moment of discovery (I can still recall when I tasted Goose Island IPA for the first time in 2004, its vivid hop character a delicious shock to the palate). This is beer’s strength and who would want to escape from this kind of nostalgia?

To get some clarity I speak with former Fuller’s head brewer John Keeling about nostalgia in beer, first of all starting off with the flavours of his childhood. Paradoxically, the main thing he remembers from his time in short trousers was the smell of pubs. 

“I remember walking past pubs and smelling the beer and I liked those aromas,” he says. “My grannie used to live near one and when we went to see her, we would pass it and there would be that smell. It was a Chester’s Brewery pub, and every time we went past my dad used to say, ‘Chester’s fighting mild’. One day I asked him what he meant and he said that every Sunday lunchtime there was always a fight outside the pub.”

When he was at Fuller’s, Keeling oversaw the production of a group of beers under the name of Past Masters, where he went back to the brewery’s copious archives and produced a beer from the past. He readily admits that there was an element of nostalgia about those beers but with a caveat.

“It was more of an emotional attachment. When we made the beer from August 1914 we thought that people would have drunk it before heading to France. When we brewed it we were brewing it in the same place as the then brewers made it and tasted it in the same tasting room. We were repeating what they were doing. There are good and bad versions of nostalgia. When it is used to inspire then it is good, but when it is sentimental it can be bad.”

For Exale Brewery’s founder and brewer Mark Hislop, there has certainly been a positive nostalgic factor in the reactions drinkers have had to Krankie, its Iron Brew (sic) sour. 

“I know a lot of people in their 30s and 40s who love it,” he tells me. “We were at a festival recently when people of all ages were losing it over the beer. One of my favourite things in the world is watching someone getting their first taster and just the aroma alone is enough to make people burst out laughing, I guess that is linked to some nostalgia or maybe it’s just the anticipation and having that first sniff that is really like Irn Bru.

“I think after the initial brew the idea of trying to recreate the flavour of an Irn Bru Bar lead the development. I don’t think they have been available for years so god knows if my recollection is close but I do think it fits my memory of the balance of sweet caramel and searing sourness. I'm not really aware of trying to create childhood nostalgia but I guess a lot of the stuff I liked was sweet and sour so that has probably led me on a certain path flavour wise.”

The word ‘nostalgia’ was coined in the 17th century and was apparently related to the melancholic feelings for home noted amongst Swiss mercenaries fighting across Europe. Nowadays, it is a state of mind that can be seen as both positive and negative according to academic studies, with some citing that it helps to create a sense of belonging, which in turn can create a positive mood (an especially important thing given the uncertain times we live in). There is also the downside of living in the past though, where someone might be unwilling to move on and the past is used as a crutch. The branding of beer has often gone this way, if labels and posters of huntsmen, farmers, horse-drawn carts and vaguely Victorian branding are any indication.

Modern beer’s nostalgia is of a different style, if we consider pastry stouts, sweetshop sours and fruited pale ales. It would be easy to say that because many of them have flavours reminiscent of childhood, that there is something infantile about this, an indication that beer refuses to grow up. On the other hand, these are beers that might change the minds of those who often say they don’t like beer. Wild Card’s head brewer Jaega Wise once told me about how the brewery had bought a slushy machine to serve a passionfruit gose at a trade show. “It was a gimmick,” she admits, “but then when we used it at the taproom it appealed to people who normally say they don’t like beer”.  

Edinburgh-based Vault City is one of the most practised makers of sour beers, most of which utilise various fruits as well as the odd marshmallow. There’s a playful nature about the brewery’s flavour profiles, something which is light but yet also serious in the way beers leap over what can be often self-imposed barriers to beer’s flavour profile. For co-founder Steven Smith-Hay, there is definitely an element of nostalgia.

“Funnily enough I was quite a fan of sour sweets,” he says, “I distinctly remember going to the shops and seeking out the most sour sweets they had available – Toxic Waste for one springs to mind, but I couldn’t touch the stuff now without a bandolier of Rennies. 

“It’s funny how nostalgia can creep into our beers. I distinctly remember my mum trying Strawberry Skies for the first time. Her eyes lit up and she said, ‘Cremola Foam!’. I had no idea what this was but having now tracked it down it seems we have recreated the flavour of Cremola Foam in a beer. Funnily enough we were going more for a Campino type profile for that specific beer, a sweet my grandparents always had around.”

One of the brewery’s most recent beers was Veeky Chimto, which might suggest inspiration courtesy of Vimto, but it was the alcoholic cocktail of port and WKD that provided the idea. However, childhood is not forgotten as just like Exale, Irn Bru is an inspiration for one of their beers. 

“One recipe we’re trying to improve on year by year is our Iron Brew Sour,” he says, “growing up in Scotland and enjoying a glass bottle of Irn Bru with a fish supper — east coast fish supper, salt and brown sauce watered down with vinegar, thank you — was a must most weekends.”

The current beer scene fizzes like a newly poured soft drink with inspiration and ideas when it comes to flavour, and just as John Keeling hunted through Fuller’s archives for Past Masters, younger brewers and drinkers seem to be plundering their childhood memories of flavour to stretch the boundaries of what we see as beer. Yet, everything turns full circle, as what I see as the latest nostalgia in beer circles has been that for crystal-clear West Coast IPAs with a malt spine and bitter finish and rapturous Best Bitters, pints of which usually do the whole Proust dipping a biscuit in his cuppa for me. 

But then, I would always rather have a beer than a biscuit.

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