When Asda opened down the road, one of the first things I noticed was that they had a range of food aimed at the West Indian market – patties, jerk seasoning, Dragon Stout. The patties were good, but the Dragon Stout was extraordinary. Or so I remember thinking, several years ago. The other day I felt like trying it again.
The thing is, memory is terribly untrustworthy when it comes to beer. I don’t think I’ll ever have anything like the Chimay White I had in a hotel bar in Dunkeld, the Franziskaner Weissbier I had in a German sausage shop in Barcelona or the Buckley’s bitter I had in Pembrokeshire when I was fifteen. I realise that the memory is very largely of the situation rather than the beer – if I could somehow be transported back to those scenes now I’d probably find the beer rather unremarkable. But those remembered tastes still live on in my memory, and still set the standard for what I expect from a beer. So I could say without any embarrassment that Spingo Middle was even better than Buckley’s, bearing in mind that when I talk about Buckley’s I’m talking about my memory of the best half of bitter I’d ever tasted, rather than what Buckley’s bitter was actually like – or, for that matter, that Marble Decadence was even better than Dragon Stout.
Crucial Brew is interesting in this respect, because once again I’ve got a very clear and specific tasting memory. On the 4th of July 1987 (OK, I’ve googled this bit), Manchester City Council put on a free concert in the newly-pedestrianised Albert Square, to celebrate the fact that it had been pedestrianised. My partner and I wandered by and ended up staying all afternoon and well into the evening. I don’t remember who was on apart from the headliners, who were Wet Wet Wet. A bit MOR for our tastes, but they played a good set – and to be fair, this was a couple of years before “Love is all around”, a song I’ve always detested. (My older sister used to have the original single, by the Troggs, and played it to death. I think my dislike of fake American accents in pop music may go back to that record – it was years before I realised that it was supposed to be written on the wind, not “on the way in”. But I digress.) Since this was also some years before alcohol exclusion zones, I went down to Safeway and got some beer. It was a hot day and a pleasantly warm evening, and we got through several cans of something by McEwan’s which I’ve now forgotten – and two Crucial Brews. The strength of Special Brew with the mellowness of Red Stripe – I’d never drunk anything quite like it, and still haven’t.
Information I’ve seen elsewhere suggests that Crucial Brew had a redesign some time after 1987, switching from the sensible-drinking 330 ml can I remember to a 440 or (yikes!) 484 ml. According to this page, Crucial Brew was still being brewed in the UK (presumably by Charles Wells) and shipped to Jamaica in 1994; according to this one the trademark was last registered in the US in 1998 and has now expired. So I think it’s an ex-beer – and, being realistic, it probably wasn’t really that much nicer than Special Brew, even back in 1987. It still holds the Very Strong But Surprisingly Mellow crown, at least in my head.
Which brings me back to Dragon Stout (brewed in Jamaica, incidentally). I remembered this one as combining a velvety smoothness, an extraordinary richness and depth of flavour and a kind of depth-charge of alcohol, hitting you on the swallow. All in all, I was quite looking forward to trying it again. First impressions were bad: the aroma was malty, but with an odd sort of sour, metallic maltiness. Having checked the date on the bottle, I poured it and pressed on. Well, it was OK. Very sweet – no grain flavours to speak of, and the malt has to fight it out with caramel. Surprisingly light-tasting – not at all cloying, and didn’t leave me feeling I’d had a full meal as stouts sometimes do. No alcohol depth-charge, either (maybe I was thinking of the Crucial Brew) – if anything, Dragon doesn’t really drink its strength.
Verdict: it was OK, but I don’t think I’ll be seeking it out again. But if you know of anything resembling Crucial Brew, or anything that can plausibly be compared with Crucial Brew, do let me know.