Here we go out of the sleep of mild people

Four years ago, I drove up to Portland, Oregon to make a new life and I fell entirely in love with every detail of the city. I loved exploring Portland and I found something new each time I looked.

I have a sense that the puritans never made it as far as Portland. In San Jose, the mayor is proud that they haven’t handed out a new liquor license in years. They just recycle the old ones. They make-believe it’s a virtue. In Portland, the mayor is named after a beer. In San Jose, bars are either dingy and shallow or new, shiny and shallow and when they die, they are replaced by another just the same. In Portland, bars spring up on every corner and reach for the sky as a tree in the rainforest reaches for the canopy and the sunlight beyond.  Undaunted by the diversity of what came before, new bars are excited and eager to become part of the diverse ecosystem where everyone feeds off everyone else’s success.

I loved the little details of the city. I loved finding the kind of place that has 27 beers on a blackboard, ranked by IBU and scribbled out as new beers are put on tap and old ones run dry. I loved that Portland has more strip clubs per resident than anywhere in the United States and I loved finding myself in the middle of a World Naked Bike Ride and seeing co-workers cycle by with a delighted wave. I loved going to the movies and being brought my dinner on a tray. I loved seeing the realtime display above the bar announcing who had just checked in on FourSquare and I loved that every new bar had three new beers that I had never previously tried.

My favourite bit of Portland was the New Old Lompoc on 23rd. It was the kind of crappy, divey, dingy bar that is always filled with real people and even when it wasn’t made you feel real. The Lompoc brewed their own beer and I began with the Condor because I had been warned that the hoppier IPAs would shrivel my labia. Condor gave me cramps in my calfs just like Courage Sparkling Bitter did all those years ago and like no other beer since. By the time I was done with Portland, I always looked for the hoppiest beer or the strongest beer on the blackboard, genitalia be damned. In Portland, I found barley wines and even, for the first time in 25 years, a prize old ale at Steve’s wonderful Cheese Shop that took me back to that tiny pub in Horndean.

On my first visit to the Lompoc, four long years ago, the waitress brought me my Portland Dip and a pint of Condor and smiled the brightest, widest smile I have ever seen outside of a Hollywood movie. Last Monday, the same waitress smiled the same bright smile as she delivered my labia-shrivelling Kick Axe at my last farewell to Portland before I departed for my new life back in San Jose. The Lompoc is closing down next week to make way for some nice new condominiums. They tell me that it will reopen in a couple of years, but it won’t be the same. It feels oddly fitting that the Lompoc will close down just as my love affair with Portland ends and my new life begins.

This week, I started a new job with a brand new startup. The kind of startup where everyone looks at each other and decides whether we should use Python or Ruby or, perhaps, Perl because no one has really thought about trivial details like which technology to use yet. The kind of startup where the furniture is scavenged from a previous tenant and where, if you want to talk to the CEO, you swing your chair around and talk to him. WebMD wasn’t an especially big company but, in many ways, it felt like the biggest company I had ever worked for and by the end it felt very safe and comfortable. It’s time for something a little more dangerous and exciting.

The title quote, by the way, is stolen from the book I am reading.

Here we go out of the sleep of mild people, into the wild rippling water.

I have seen the movie, Deliverance, three or four times already but no one ever told me I should read the book too until now. The writing sears my senses.

In many ways it reminds me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  There too, I had seen the movie so many times that I could almost recite the lines but the quality of the writing in the book just took my breath away. I was totally unprepared for how it would move me. I remember reading a paragraph of Cuckoo’s Nest and putting the book down gasping for breath at the audacity of the words and then rereading the paragraph to check that it was as good a second time. It almost didn’t matter whether the plot was good. He could’ve been writing about turnip farming and I’d still read it with joy for every root vegetable and planting.

Deliverance has that same quality. The movie catches a little of the delight of creating a scene where nothing happens but the nothingness is burned into your consciousness as when the albino kid joins Drew in Duelling Banjos. Who has ever seen the movie and forgotten that scene? It has nothing to do with the plot. The plot almost does not matter and those scenes keep coming and coming.

I am just at the point in the book where they put their canoes in the river, a little afraid of what’s around the next bend. For now, they know nothing of squealing like a pig or of what they will have to do to survive as their adventure turns dangerous but they have a sense that something important is going to happen.

I like to think that even if they knew all the things that might happen downstream, they’d still get in those canoes and paddle down that river and enjoy the thrill of the whitewater along with the calm certainty of future success. Anyone who has ever joined a startup knows the feeling of pregnant possibility and the quickening as the ideas swell and kick the new company into life.

It feels great to dip my paddle in new waters and to bend my bow knowing that the shot I fire will change the world. The rednecks hardly scare me at all.

Photo Credit: Naked Bike Ride by Stefan

Welcome home, my long lost friend

Fuller's ESBFor more than 25 years now, I have been convinced that the second best beer in the world is Fuller’s Extra Special Bitter despite all evidence to the contrary.

ESB took the title from its little brother – London Pride – when I ordered it by mistake. At that time,pride Pride was hard to find even in London and, recognising the pump handle from the doorway, I ordered a pint without reading the small print. The deliciously rich rounded taste that I loved so well was strangely more complete and more intense than I remembered and my love for ESB was born.

When I moved to New York in ’94, the state of the beer market was pretty dismal and I had my only sustained period of drinking crap beer since my career began in 1978 (I drank only wine and milk for two months in Australia in ’89 for fear of permanently damaging my taste buds with their insipid swill). I shudder at some of the piss that passed my lips in those dark days.

After the cold winter of New York, California’s microbrews were a soul-warming blast of sunshine and they renewed my respect for the progeny of John Barleycorn.


In my home country, American beer was always thought of as something of a joke Рan oxymoron almost. But the incredible array of tasty beverages in every bar buried that long-standing truth deep underground. Even the now-mass-produced Sierra Nevada is worth returning to. anchor_bottleAnchor Steam Рwhich, with Sierra, helped rescued American Beer from the Laughing Stocks Рdeserves a special shout-out. I especially recommend it with mushroom, jalape̱o, kalamata olive, anchovy and extra cheese pizza.

The Bay Area even had Fuller’s ESB which I ordered out of nostalgia. I still called it The Second Best Beer in the World even though I was disappointed every time I tried it and I tried it many times. The pubs just seemed to not give it the care it required and from a bottle it just tasted… well… wrong. ESB was like a childhood friend who had grown up to be a dick. I wanted to keep in touch to rekindle the flame of my memories but I had no desire to spend a lot of time with it. I stuck with the California microbrews.


But the best California microbrew was actually from Oregon and an almost-emigration to the Land of the Hop Monster changed my beer drinking habits for ever. Full Sail AmberPortlanders don’t like too much beer diluting the taste of their hops and when you first arrive, you wonder how anyone can even drink the stuff. As my friend says, it’ll shrivel your labia if you are not man enough. After a while though, you wonder how anyone can ever drink anything else.

I have tried drinking Portland-style beers in California but they just don’t work. The first time, I thought it was the weather – I accidentally drank an IPA once after a couple of hours of football in the hot sun and almost had to call an ambulance – but no, controlled experiments have shown me that it is not possible to enjoy strongly-hopped beers in the Golden State.

I still look forward to my visits to the rainy north for the welcome assault on my gustatory system (and the pleasant company!) but when I come back south the beer tastes as dreary as the Portland weather. We have already established that I can’t drink Portland beer down here, so what is a fellow to do? Go back to wine and milk?

I discovered the answer a couple of weeks ago.

We had a family crisis and, as with most crises, we decided that it was best resolved by going to the Britannia Arms. Well, the pint of Fuller’s Extra Strong Bitter that they served me that day transported me instantly to my misspent post-adolescence and to the banks of the River Thames at Chiswick. As if the surprisingly hot wood-nymph from Disney’s version of The Firebird were lovingly caressing my taste buds back from the ravages of devastation, I wanted to soar on wings of delight.

Welcome home, my long lost friend.


I have done several controlled tests since that glorious day. I have had ESB several times and it has been marvellous each time. I have been careful not to overdo it – as with a promising relationship with a new girlfriend, you don’t want to spend too much time with her for fear of ruining something delicate – but our relationship is holding up rather well.

I even tried it at home. From the bottle, it’s awful but pour it into a proper pint glass and Fuller’s ESB reclaims its rightful place as the Second Best Beer in the World.

Hooray, beer! Hooray Fuller’s!

John Barleycorn Must Die

I find it simply amazing that, one thousand years ago, people were drinking excellent beer and singing this fantastic song and that even now, one thousand years later, beer is still excellent and the song is still fantastic.


There were three men came out of the west
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die.


They’ve ploughed, they’ve sown, they’ve harrowed him in
Threw clods upon his head,
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn was dead.

John Barleycorn is the personification of beer and/or barley and the three men from the west killed him and buried him in the ground.


They let him lie for a very long time
Till the rains from Heaven did fall,
And little Sir John sprung up his head
And so amazed them all.


They’ve let him stand till Midsummer’s day,
Till he looked both pale and wan.
And little Sir John’s grown a long, long beard
And so become a man.

But John Barleycorn springs back to life and grows strong again… until the men cut him down and make sure that he is really dead this time.

They’ve hired men with the scythes so sharp,
To cut him off at the knee,
They’ve rolled him and tied him by the waist,
Serving him most barbarously.


They’ve hired men with the sharp pitchforks,
Who pricked him through the heart
And the loader, he has served him worse than that,
For he’s bound him to the cart.


They’ve wheeled him around and around a field,
Till they came unto a barn,
And there they made a solemn oath
On poor John Barleycorn

They grind up him up to make beer giving John Barleycorn the chance to get his revenge on those three men from the west.


They’ve hired men with the crab-tree sticks,
To cut him skin from bone,
And the miller, he has served him worse than that,
For he’s ground him between two stones.


And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl
And his brandy in the glass
And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl
Proved the strongest man at last


The huntsman, he can’t hunt the fox
Nor so loudly to blow his horn,
And the tinker, he can’t mend kettle nor pots
without a little barley corn

The earliest surviving written record is from the sixteenth century but there is evidence that the song and the story is much older – like this twelfth century pub in Hampshire.


I spent a very pleasant day listening to every version I could find – from Martin Carthy to Paul Weller via Billy Bragg and Jethro Tull and The Fairport Convention and many, many more. The best version by far is by Traffic but they each have their own charms.

Turn up the volume and raise a glass to that ancient hero.

John Barleycorn Must Die. Album by Traffic

Long live John Barleycorn!

Beer: The Best Beverage in the World

I have been going to the weekly presentations at Xerox Parc on and off for several years. This one – next Thursday – looks like the best one yet.

Brewing is the original biotechnology. For 6-8,000 years it has been a delight in the diet, resulting from a tremendously consistent process founded on intricate understanding of the underpinning science. It is an industry that informed all modern day fermentation processes. Beer looks good, it tastes good – and it does you good. This talk will explain all this and much more besides.

Charlie Bamforth, Ph.D., D.Sc. Professor of Malting & Brewing Sciences at the University of California

How come my Careers Advisor never told me that I could have been a Professor of Beer?

It’s really quite black, sir!

I had Spanish for lunch today with Jeff and we went with the paella negre. I was expecting something with a certain tinge of blackness but it turned out to be very black indeed. All afternoon I have had a variation of The Cheese Shop going around and around in my head.

Wensleydale : It’s a bit black, sir.
Mousebender: Oh, I like it black.
Wensleydale : Well as a matter of fact it’s very black, sir.

Fortunately, it was quite delicious and there were no bouzoukis playing. But, honestly, food should not be that colour.

The red beer with fruit floating in it was most excellent. Just the right amount of redness and fruit floating in it.