I'll leave other to argue whether a beer community exists or not. I do know that beer has made me many friends. It seems that everywhere I travel there's someone I know. How useful those local contacts can be.
My Birmingham area mates are Mark and Sarah. We've met plenty of times over here, but never on their home turf. After dropping several very heavy hints about the Swan in Chaddesley Corbett, they offered to drive me and Dolores out into the wilds of the Black Country and beyond. Helping me cross off a couple of pubs I've been longing to visit. For literally decades.
My foreign readers may not have heard of the Black Country. "Why's it called that, dad?" "Because immigrants from the Caribbean settled there." The kids are getting to know me better: "What's the real reason, dad?" It's grimmer than my joke explanation. Because the soot and smoke of industry turned everything black.
The Black Country is an industrial area to the west of Birmingham, encompassing such exotic places as Wolverhampton, Dudley, Brierley Hill, Cradley Heath and Netherton. Not sure how industrial it is any more. Factories don't fit in with Britain's post-industrial economy.
The more clued-up amongst you might recognise some of those names. Because the Black Country is an area with a long history of small-scale brewing. An area where many pubs still brewed well into the 20th century. And where home-brewing never died out*.
In my early drinking days back in the 1970's, Netherton was a name to stir the heart. It was home to the Old Swan, one of the last four homebrew pubs. I've always wanted to visit but had never quite made it. Until last Tuesday. It wasn't a disappointment.
I love pubs. Especially pubs that look, feel, smell and taste like pubs. Coal fires, etched glass windows, handpumps proudly parading on the bar, pork scratchings lurking behind them. And straightforward beer, without pretensions or pomp in any circumstances.
The Swan used to only brew one beer. An ordinary Bitter that now seems as fashionable as clogs and watch chains. Back in the 1970's, no-one thought much about how fashionable a beer was. Geeks and hypes and viral marketing were decades away. The Swan's range has been expanded. But not with anything dull and trendy like a Triple IPA or Imperial Doubt. No. They've gone the other way, adding a Pale and Dark Mild and another Bitter.
My subtle hint of passion fruit days are behind me. You'll have to make do with suicidally drinkable as a description of the Old Swan's beers. Beers that let you talk quietly with friends rather than irritatingly tapping you on the shoulder or punching you in the ribs. Beers that oil conversation instead of becoming the subject of it. A reassuring background hum of booze, that, unless you listen for it, slips from notice.
That I couldn't stay longer was my only regret. But the Old Swan was but one of four pubs we'd pencilled in. The next was another I couldn't miss. Another Black Country beery landmark. About which I'll tell you next time.
* It's a myth that home brewing wasn't legal in Britain until the 1960's. It was legal, as long as you bought a licence. Right up until the requirement was abolished licences to brew at home were issued. We went around the Birmingham Back to Back museum while we were over. I wasn't that surprised to hear the communal washhouses called "brewhouses".
The Old Swan Inn
89 Halesowen Road,
West Midlands DY2 9PY
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