Tim Hampson's Beer Blog

The quest for the perfect beer

An interview with Oz Clarke – a true beer lover

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Oz Clarke: A man with an extraordinary capacity to communicate about the good things of life

Some people kill words, mashing and crunching them until the vowels scream, others attack the consonants and maim them with brutal force.

But for Ox Clarke words are his tools, the paint which he carefully places upon the canvas – and with a sometimes effusive but often a delicate turn of phrase he has had a fabulous, glittering media career deftly turning vin-ordinaires in to the extraordinary.

So how come is one of the world’s master craftsmen of wine writing, someone who has won all the major wine writing awards both in the UK and USA is sitting in the White Horse in Parson Green, in south west London sipping a pint of Thornbridge’s Lord Marples bitter?

“Well is it because beer is my first love,” he confides, “especially ones with a bitter hop aroma. Hops he emphasises after another sip that is what gives beers real taste.

His father nurtured his love of beer. He had been a student at Cambridge where the Ipswich brewer Tolly Cobbold’s ale became his beer of choice, and even though Oz was bought up in Kent, his father would have cases regularly delivered to the family home.

“My Dad would only drink wine occasionally perhaps a glass of Liebfraumilch or a Bull’s Blood, but his idea of a drink was the beer he had at university. We always used to have it delivered to our house in wooden crates.

“Just occasionally when I was about 16, he would let me have a half pint with Sunday lunch. The beer had a small dumpy bottle and I’m sure it had a naked lady on the bottle.” And with an impish glint in his eye while reminiscing on his adolescence says “perfect for a boy of my age”.

“I lost my taste for it when they put it in a brown the bottle and changed the label,” he said.

His father took him took his first pub, the George & Dragon in Fordwich and taught him a respect for beer. “My Dad took me down to meet the landlord Frank Pardoe. It is a lovely pub that backs onto the river and he said to Frank, ‘this is my son and I want you to teach him to drink. If there is any sign of him drinking badly you don’t serve him’. I was then allowed a half pint of Fremlins to celebrate my coming to a pub.”

The belief in the importance of the pub as a place to drink responsibly still runs strong.

“Binge drinking is not a pub issue,” says Oz. “The whole point about decent pubs is that there is an element of mutual self control because of the people on this side of the bar and the decent landlord or landlady doesn’t want drunken people in their pub. He wants them to get a bit lit up. He wants happy people but he doesn’t want people going outside and being sick and fighting the police.”

Warming to his task he said: “The local pub is vital – if people want to live in the wonderful variety of communities that we have in this nation, then we have to work at it – it is like a marriage – we cannot just sit here and let communities die.

“The pub is utterly and fundamentally important. It allows a curious and wonderful world. A good pub with a decent landlord or landlady is able to create a meeting place for all kinds of people – it is somewhere where people can go into it and make it their place –it is a place away from home, where fundamentally, friendship and conviviality are the norm.”

Academically bright, good at sport and musically gifted saw Oz interviewed by Magdalen, Oriel and Pembroke colleges in Oxford all on the same day. Emboldened by an offer of a place at Oriel in the morning he popped into the Bear in Alfred Street, famous for its collection of ties, for a beer. It clearly did him no harm as his Irish eloquence talked him into a place a Pembroke, which was renowned for the stringency of its interview process.

Taking a sip of his second beer, a Beartown Kodiak, he said: “I like beers like this they are edgy”, as he reminisces on the Oxford pub scene. The Old Tom in Aldgate was a favourite, even though it was “a grumpy old boozer, it has place in my heart”. He enjoyed the hard to find Turf Tavern in Turl Street because there he could enjoy a pint of Hook Norton. And his sporting skills often took him to the Victoria Arms in Marston.

“I didn’t have much money, my father gave me the same allowance as he had when he was at Cambridge. But Pembroke had more punts than any other college in Oxford and they were free to use.” So each afternoon in the summer of his first year, he taught himself to punt.

“My tutor would have been furious. I decided I’d become the best punter in the Oxford. I became the grand master of the pole. I punted like a steam train” he said. On one trip up to the Vicky he came across the Beatles filming and his love affair with the camera began as they filmed him together with a girl holding a bottle of champagne punting on the Cherwell. Heady days.

But wine was beginning to tempt him. He tried to join a wine circle but membership but was not elected as he came “from the wrong school”. But by the second year he decided to take wine seriously, though his motives were not exclusively altruistic. “I though that if I leant about wine I’d be sophisticated and attract the birds,” he said.

The maniciple at Pembroke, called Arthur Cox, set him on the way with a case containing many treasures including a 20-year-old tawny port, a 12-year-old Burgundy, a 10-year-old Bordeaux. All bought for the princely sum of £4.00.

“Good old Mr Cox he was delighted that someone was interested in wine. I would open a bottle and have no idea what I would be having.” His hard work and endeavour paid off and he eventually joined the university’s wine tasting team. “I wanted to be a blue in wine tasting.”

So why did he think wine has been raised to a cerebral level?

“Wine attracted some of the best minds of the generation. People like Jancis Robinson and Charles Metcalfe were at he same university even though we didn’t meet. We were lucky to be coming out into a world where the country might have been on its uppers but we were optimistic, we had an enormous sense that life was going to be great.

“Nobody was writing about wine, there were no radio no TV shows. There was a gap for the most gorgeous job you could think of. People said lets join the Times, the Telegraph the Guardian, the Observer. Let all write about wine. A whole bunch of lucid, erudite, literary people all of a younger generation and all young turks all ripped wine out of its old fogies place. We turned it into being the sexiest trendiest drink it could be – and that lasted right through the nineties and the noughties. It is only recently wine has become so commoditised. We have done too good a job.”

But could the same be done for beer?

“Big Brewers do not want to elevate beer. There are some that try,” he said. But he believes too many brewers are fearful of taste.

He yearns for the time when he worked for 10 years as an actor and singer travelling the length and breadth of the country and he would seek out different regional beers full of taste.

“I would use the early copies of the Good Beer Guide and once drove 50 miles for a pint of Ruddles County. It was dark and fantastically bitter”. Wistfully he says “no one makes beers now, like I remember”.

“I utterly enjoy cask ale. But a lot of breweries do not trust landlords. They will not supply beer with enough conditioning. If there is no conditioning there is a flat pint of beer. Good conditioning is the

How do you end the perfect interview?

But how should we finish our conversation – with a flourish Oz produces a bottle from his battered bag. It is a King and Barnes Christmas Ale at eight per cent ABV, cask conditioned and bottled in 1994.

Oz says “There is an old wine trade saying there are no great wines only great bottles. Wines change all the time and so it is with cask beer.”

And with a flourish he opened the time capsule – the 16-year-old beer exploded into life and filled our glasses with effervescence.

“Brilliant oxidation, old stewed peaches, old quinces,” Oz gets into his stride. “That aroma is from a different era. That amount of freshness and condition is a paradoxical brilliance. It has kept its age and zest –it takes me back in time – god bless the British brewer.”

Written by timhampson

August 12, 2011 at 5:26 pm

2 Responses

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  1. A great article.

    Simon Goldrick

    August 12, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    • Thank you for your comment. Oz is such a good person to have a conversation with.


      August 13, 2011 at 3:36 pm

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