at Bridge Inn
So there I was in 1997 having won a vintage bottle of Courage’s Russian Imperial Stout at a local CAMRA raffle. Everyone around was in awe of the beer and told me so. I wasn’t and turned to the guy who had given several of us a lift to the event and asked him if he wanted it as I didn’t like dark beers. It was gone (into his hold-all) in 60 seconds.
I didn’t like dark beers then. Let’s reframe that. I didn’t like porters or stouts, or even imperial stouts. I had drunk Guinness in Dublin, but that was it. Maybe it was the memories of the Guinness and Mackeson Milk Stout that my paternal grandmother used to drink during the visits my brother and I would pay her for Sunday lunch. I had tasted both and felt as if it was a drink best served at the stake of Joan of Arc. I just did not like dark beers. Until…
We had moved out of London in 1994 to a small village in Somerset, where our neighbour made gut rotting cider and what was then called a micro-brewery brewed fantastic beer a couple of villages away. I started discovering other breweries in the county, including a couple in Wiveliscombe, a small town that was (and is) overlooked by the former brewhouse and chimney of Arnold & Hancock. This was a brewery that had been founded a year after the Battle of Trafalgar and closed in 1959 during the great age of brewing destruction.
I was at a beer festival in the town not long after the giveaway of the Courage beer and someone asked me if I had tried Exmoor Beast, a dark beer from the same brewery that had brought the first modern golden ale into being (Exmoor Gold).
I must have looked doubtful as my friend asked for a pint of Gold for me, but before it could be poured I made a decision — ‘I’ll have an Exmoor Beast.’
A few minutes later, I was introduced to the guy who then ran Exmoor Brewery, and sadly died not long after, and he told me that he had tried to get the alcohol content of Beast put as 6.66% on the pump clip, but wasn’t allowed. By the time the evening had finished I had drunk several pints of this rich and dark beer. (The next day was rubbish). I now officially liked dark beer and Exmoor Beast had led me into this dark place. Apparently it was a bit of a cult beer, and the brewery once told me that they shipped it all over the UK and in a pub in Brighton this was all one regular drunk.
By then I was living high up in the wilds of Exmoor and only saw Beast during the winter when one pub would put it on. Because of its strength and my driving, I would only have a half before putting three pints in a takeaway jug.
What did I like about it? These are my notes from 1997:
Colour: very dark with dark brown highlights. Nose: espresso, dried fruit (currants, raisins), rum or brandy even. Palate: fruit cake, rum- or brandy-soaked cake, mild coffee beans, alcohol, hoppiness, cough mixture. Finish: thick, full finish, not cloying. Strong but not thick enough to be a full aperitif. Goes very good with fruit cake, Christmas pudding, cheese especially Stilton.
I drank Beast off and on, whenever I saw it, usually at beer festivals, and I also cooked with it (a West Country version of beef carbonnade). Beast was the beer that changed my mindset on dark beer as I began to drink deeply of porters and stouts – London Porter, Old Slug, Alaskan Smoked Porter, Anchor Porter, you get the picture – and in so doing lost touch with Beast.
I recently re-engaged with the beer, seeing it on draught at one of my favourite pubs, The Bridge Inn in Topsham, just outside Exeter. This is a glorious establishment, a cosy, snug and soothing time machine that has been in the same family for over 100 years and has always been a fine hideaway in which to drink cask beer. I had a glass of Beast in the parlour-like room across the way from the serving hatch and the years rolled away with the ease of a child’s smile. It was rich and luscious, dark and roasty, bittersweet, complex and comfortable in the way it pleased my palate, and I remembered how it enchanted and beguiled me when I first tasted it. I made a pledge there and then — I wasn’t going to lose sight of it this time.
Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.