"So you like beer then."
"What's your favourite?"
"I don't really have one."
"Have you tried Bathams?"
"Ah. Well then."
Some beers go beyond rationale analysis and objective evaluation, and attain mythic status. The affection people have for them is not based simply on a hoppy aroma and firm malty base; it doesn't have much to do with ingredients or flavour. It transcends the liquid itself -or perhaps, that liquid becomes something divine and attracts all the clothing of religious devotion.
Westverleteren has it, though it's carefully stage-managed by the Belgian monks who take pains to control its scarcity. Timothy Taylor Landlord has it - a beer which excites old ale drinkers and new crafty beer drinkers alike, which elicits simple sighs from beer writers who have used up all the words they have in trying to describe its perfection.
These beers are revered. I knew of them within about five minutes of entering the beer world.
But I happily published two books, made my mark with this blog, and gained at least one column in the pub trade press before I'd ever heard of Bathams.
I was doing some freelance advertising work with a bloke from Birmingham when I first had the conversation above. I've since the same conversation about six times, each time with a native of Birmingham or the West Midlands. Each time, my 'no' got a little less "No?" in that tone that goes up at the end as if to say, "Should I have?", and a bit more "Nooooooo..." swooping down like a Messerschmitt in flames, defensive and frustrated and increasingly certain I was missing something special, fearing I was a lesser man, never mind a lesser beer writer, for not only having never drunk this beer, but for not having even seen any evidence of its existence apart from the word of an increasing number of Brummies who didn't know each other, and therefore could not have been winding me up.
But I never see Bathams at festivals. I never see anyone writing about it. I don't see it in shops.
Its acolytes try to describe its power to me. It's a session beer, they say. But that doesn't do it justice. It's more than that, it's... oh, you just have to taste it, they say, and then, every time, they say, "Of course, there are only about five pubs in the world that sell it. And they're all in Birmingham and the West Midlands."
The last person I had this conversation with was Charles Campion, food and drink writing legend and one of the most decent men on the planet. And because Charles really is one of the most decent men on the planet, he resolved to put me out of my misery. So a few weeks ago, nursing a brewers' conference sized hangover, I found myself in the back of a car while Charles directed the Beer Widow to the Vine (or, if you're in the know, the Bull and Bladder), the Batham's brewery tap in the West Midlands.
It's a cracking pub, one of those places that has withstood every single trend, technological development and interior design fad of the last thirty years. It has carpets. And separate rooms. Aged banquettes that create a barrier between groups but still allow those groups to eye each other up. A hierarchy so clear that as you walk in for the first time, you immediately know which rooms are open to you as a stranger, and which are not. And a random collection of brilliant and nonsensical stuff on the walls that could keep you gawking for hours.
I was quite nervous when I got my first pint of Batham's. It's made with Fuggles and Goldings hops, and contains invert sugar for a bit of extra sweetness. It tastes quite sweet. And very nice.
I've noticed in some great session beers that the balance between malt and hops is not just about sensible balance, neither one being too extreme. It's about the combination, the mix of malt sweetness and hop fruitiness that combine to create a kind of glowing, floral perfume that hovers just above your palate. This may sound horrible, cloying, sickly and effeminate, but is actually the opposite of all those things. And Bathams does this very well.
But detailed analysis of the flavour is beside the point - that's not what this beer is about. It's a beer that can be drunk easily and yet is satisfying, and it's a beer that brings a smile to your face. It doesn't overwhelm you - you don't have the first sip and go, "My God, that's awesome!" But the more you like it, the more you drink. And the more you drink, the more you like it.
It also comes in bottles:
and I got to bring a few home with me.
This is not to be taken for granted. Because over the weekend that followed this Friday night session, the stories began to come out.
You can't find many places that sell these bottles, they say. We visited one pub that does, but allegedly you have to take your empties back if you want some more, meaning it's very difficult to get onto the Bathams ladder in the first place.
On cask, demand always outstrips supply, they say. There are only certain pubs that get it, and these are known to serious drinkers. Stocking Bathams wins a landlord instant admiration. Some of these pubs have been known to order an extra cask, and then sell it on at a profit, on the thriving Bathams black market that exists in the West Midlands.
Weeks later, when I opened my final bottle at home, I wrote, 'When you drink Bathams, it just make you feel NICE.'
That might sound like the most facile thing a beer writer has ever written. But I believe there is truth and beauty in its simplicity.
I'm hanging on to the empties.