Chris Bowen was there waiting for me as I popped through customs at Stansted. I'd started worrying on the plane after realising that, while I had a map of the area around Martyn Cornell's house, I hadn't written down his house number. Was it 127 or 197?
Once in Chris's rental car, we chatted away like crazy about beer history in general and Allsopp's in particular. Chatted away so much, Chris eventually realised we were headed the wrong way down the M25. Taking the next exit, we tried to find the right direction. I say tried, because we didn't quite get it right. We were headed to London, but on an A road. Wandering around Romford 's suburbs (good Allsopp connection there) we saw plenty of boarded-up pubs, but no signs for the M25. How hard could it be to find a dirty great motorway?
It's amazing how country it is around Romford. I expected wall-to-wall tarmac and concrete. Travelling down an ever narrowing road, so overhung with trees it became a tunnel, we finally spotted the motorway. As our tiny road passed over it, an exit nowhere in sight. A bit more asking and a little bit of luck brought us finally to a junction. I remembered the roundabout from before. We'd taken one exit too early.
The prospect of Arctic Ale rendered me immune to doubt or depression. We'd get there because we had to. And if we didn't, we had the Arctic Ale. If we ran out of petrol, we could drink it at the roadside.
We wandered a while around Teddington, but found Martyn's street. When I discovered Chris didn't have his house number either. "197?", he suggested. That was one of my guesses. Must be right. Mustn't it? The street ended at number 193. 179. "Was it 179?". While I went to check, Chris unpacked his precious bottles.
The door of 179 opened - and there was Martyn. Phew. I wouldn't have to knock randomly on doors, hoping a neighbour might know Mr. Cornell.
After pie, chips, a look at Martyn's library and some more beer history chat, we started the serious business. At least when John Keeling of Fullers had appeared. Appropriately enough (it being jubilee weekend), the first beer was 1935 Ind Coope and Allsopp Jubilee Ale.
It might well have been a version of the Arctic Ale. Very dark and very strong. "Flat, vinous, slightly acidic, liquorice." That's my tasting notes. Not great, I know, my descriptions. It was in pretty good nick for its age. I've had beers that were in a far worse state after 18 months.
It was, like the Jubilee Ale, for a few minutes the oldest beer I'd ever drunk.
Next, the star of the show. The beer Alfred Barnard drank when visiting Allsopp in 1889. I was going to drink a beer Barnard had. I can't tell you how excited that made me. Like an excited thing in an excitement shop. Squared. In Martyn's library, we'd been looking at battered volumes of Barnard. The beer had been over ten years old when Barnard drank it. Would it be in better condition than his book?
The cork took some work. Lots of work. Chris never did get it all out. It disintegrated and some fell back into the bottle. What the hell. I wasn't going to let a few bits of cork spoil my enjoyment. Finally, there it was. A glass of Arctic Ale. With my name on it.
Can a beer more than 130 years old still be drinkable? Er, . . . . yes. Though, as John Keeling said, you wouldn't want to drink two pints of it. Liquid christmas cake came to my mind. Intense dried fruit flavours, with an acidic edge to pickle, sorry tickle, the palate. "Sour, sour cherries, raisins, tobacco." Words can't do it justice. My powers of description wither in the glare of its intensity and complexity. Double wow.
Chris kindly brought along a version of Arctic Ale he had brewed two years ago. A mere infant. Yet there were flashes of the old beer's character. A bit green, but developing beautifully. I hope he's keeping some back to drink in ten years time. Or 100.
We didn't stop there. Martyn contributed a Whitbread Celebration Ale, brewed in 1992 for Whitbread's 250th anniversary. "Figs, leather, dates, black toffee". Another darkly brooding monster of a beer. "Undrinkable the first couple of years after bottling", Martyn said. Time had worked wonders.
For the Barclay Perkins obsessive, Martyn pulled out a brace of Russian Stouts: 1977 and 1992. We tried the later one first. It was much as I remembered it (I've a few dozen bottles, lurking in my beer cupboard to console me on particularly depressing birthdays). A pleasant mix of chocolate and brettanomyces horse blanket. If you can imagine such a combination being pleasant.
I'm not sure I've had a 1977 Russian Stout before. (1979, Bethnal Green Road - what vintage would that have been?) The crown cork still said Barclays on it*. I think it might even have still been matured at Park Street, though it was brewed at Horsleydown. Surprisingly, it was very well carbonated. But the biggest shock was the flavour: a very prominent brettanomyces character. Given it blind, I'd have guessed Harvey's Imperial Stout.
Once done, we headed down Martyn's local. Bizarrely, a Belgianish-themed pub. They did have cask beer. Perfect to wash our overloaded palates.
Didn't end badly, either. A day I'll never forget.
I can't thank Chris enough for a unique chance to try Arctic Ale. Nor Martyn's generous hospitality and wonderful old beers.
* Saddo note: I brought it home. "So you're the saddoes." Martyn's wife greeted us. Perceptive woman.