So I really quite like beer. I never drank beer at all until I went to university and there, rather than being exposed to a binge-drinking culture, I found myself among people with a broad taste and an appreciation for all types of alcoholic drinks in moderation. Before our matriculation dinner (joining the college) we were served a champagne – my first taste – and afterwards, dessert wine, which made something of an impression on me.
But beer was drunk in the college bar. And I’ll admit that I drank relatively little beer in college. But there were times and places when it was clearly the best thing to drink – or so my reading told me. After a long summer’s walk up the Cam to Grantchester, a pint of beer was appropriate, and so I found that I began to enjoy a pint or two in the context of visits to country pubs, outdoor exercise and good company. Our student expeditions to the Norfolk Coast – simply to get out of the Cambridge Bubble – would each be completed with a drink in the pub too. Adnams brewery became my benchmark: if Adnams brewed it, I was almost guaranteed to enjoy it, and I used to particularly enjoy any excuse to the Castle, near Magdalene Bridge, when back in Cambridge, because they served Adnams beers too.
On moving to Marlow I was spoilt for excellent beer and excellent pubs. Of course that’s where much of Steam Highwayman: Smog and Ambuscade was dreamt up. I also gave brewing my own beers a go, using canned kits from Wilkos in High Wycombe, and had some satisfying results. The Marlow Waitrose had an excellent selection of bottled beers and I found another Suffolk brewery I could rely on: St Peter’s in Bungay.
Now I could write at real length about my beer experiences and preferences – of course, there are magazines of people doing just that all over the world. But essentially I’m reflecting on the fact that just like my exploration of Steam Highwayman country is based on my real experience of the hills and woods around Marlow, so my inclusion of the pubs and the beers is based in fact. A few of the drinking experiences are modelled on specific beers I’ve drunk, some of which remain clearly in my memory and the flavour of which I can recall to my mind’s nose at will. Others are inventions or based on beers I’d like to exist, but don’t yet.
There’s plenty more space for beer in books 3-6 and I’ll unfortunately have to do some research in the coming months to do justice to them. Sitting on my dresser at the moment, still undrunk, is an intriguing bottle of St Peter’s Plum Porter. I have found fruit-flavoured beers over-sweet for my palate in the past, but I’ve got high hopes for this one. Maybe it’s the Suffolk water they have underneath St Peter’s hall that keeps me coming back to try these amusingly old-fashioned bottles of treasure. Well, look out for a Plum Porter featured in The Reeking Metropolis and you’ll know whether I liked it or not.