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Now I know why they call it the 'high' table

At last, Michael Jackson got a place at Oxford. He learned how to tell one end of a dog from the other, drank a lot of beer, and then left.

Profiles of the great and the good frequently allude to the rituals of Oxbridge as though we are all familiar with them having spent our formative years by the Isis or the Cam. Those of us who didn't are left to puzzle over the magic that produces authors, High Court judges and Cabinet ministers. With our noses to the muilioned window, we seek the significance of the manner in which the dreamingly cellared claret is decanted, the direction in which the crusted port is passed at High Table.

The other day I was invited to dinner at an Oxford college. It was a chance to study the social behaviour of those with their fingertips on the glittering prizes.

I was greeted with a dog's nose - there has been much debate as to the proper composition of a dog's nose, ever since Dickens raised the question in The Pickwick Papers. "A glass of ale with a dash of gin, a popular sailors' drink in the British Navy," suggests Cocktails and How to Mix them (price 216d), an undated work whose author is identified only as "Robert," late of the Embassy Club, London, and the Casino Municipal, 'two parts porter to one part gin - not recommended," warns the 1948 work The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, by David Embraury, an American. "A measure of gin, topped up with a filtered Bavarian wheat beer," pronounced Martin Wilka, outgoing president of the Oxford University Beer Appreciation Society, handing me a champagne flute containing the drink.

The blend of juniper and wheat was appetizingly dry, like a tart alcoholic ginger ale. Before sitting down to the keenly awaited dinner, I was asked if I would like another drink. Perhaps a Belgian beer, a Rodenbach Alexander, matured in oak and flavoured with cherry essence? I settled for the Watou "White Beer," spiced with orange peel and coriander, and named after the village near Ypres where it is made. This beer was served with, and used in the preparation of, the first course, a juicy-tasting leek mousse.

This was the annual dinner of the society. The main course was described as Oxford John Steak, which turned out to be cut from leg of lamb. It was presented in a caper sauce, and served with a glass of the fruity-tasting Varsity Ale, made by Oxford's local brewery, Morrell's.

Then came excellent Cheddar and Stilton cheeses, superbly accompanied by the smokey, almost whisky-ish, Black Wych Stout from a tiny brewery in nearby Witney.

Dessert was sticky toffee pudding both prepared and served with the very strong (8.5 per cent) Douglas Scotch Ale, brewed in Edinburgh but sold only in France. This was almost as toffeeish as the pudding.

Our dignuif was another strong brew, the warming College Ale, again from Morrell's. This was presented with a bowl of walnuts.

The after-dinner repartee touched lightly upon matters of such consequence as barn-dancing and high-powered motorcycles, but the real excitement concerned a proposed visit by the society to some breweries in Belgium.

There were two dons at my table. "I still quite like Old Peculier," one observed to me. "Unfortunately, I am a South African," said the other, "so I prefer lager." The after-dinner repartee touched lightly upon matters of such consequence as barn-dancing and high-powered motorcycles, but the real excitement concerned a proposed visit by the society to some breweries in Belgium.

"I have visited three breweries in two terms," announced a contented Andrew Clyde, a philosophy student. He meant to add a shaft of Cartesian wit, but I restrained him, despite the menace of his kilt pin, which was decorating a waistcoat in the McCallum tartan.

Lucy Masterton, who is studying biochemistry, was worried that an admirer might spill his Orval Trappist Ale on her nifty black twopiece. Ms. Masterton wanted to tell me about her holiday in the United States. She built her itinerary around a visit to the Catamount Brewery, in White River Junction, Vermont. As her mind filled with the recollection of Catamount's golden ale, she shuddered to think that she had once enjoyed "cider and sweet drinks."

Jack Hemens, a student of philosophy, politics and economics, sported a pony-tail and a cigar and told me that he had bought his first beer at the age of 14. "I cycled to a cricket match in the country, had a pint of bitter, and thought 'This is the way to be.' There is something about bitter ... by the sixth-form, I was comparing flavours in different brews." Dan Smithers, with hair of more than shoulder length and a red cummerbund, a graduate in engineering and computing science, was introduced to me as a star home-brewer who produces the best wheat beer in Oxford. A comparative tasting of wheat beers is a future event on the society's agenda. Another is an attempt to restore the tradition of every college having its own ale.

Oxford's origins lie in a convent, and later in monasteries, followed by colleges; all, in the manner of the times, brewed beer for their own dining tables. Monks are believed to have made beer in at least the 1400s on Swan Nest island, the site of a commercial brewery from 1590, and of the Morrell family's business since 1743. The last college breweries fizzled out after the Second World War.

The memory lingers on in the name Brasenose College. According to the 1870 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, by the aptly-named Reverend S C Brewer, this derives from the Old Flemish brasenhuis, meaning brewhouse. The nose-shaped door-knocker at the college is a visual pun.

In a similar flourish, gilded lions holding sprigs of clover, part of the family's heraldry, guard the wrought-iron arch that is the gateway to Morrell's brewery. The oldest parts of the brewery's structure date from 1645, although there is an Elizabethan look to the 1880s buildings that predominate.

A stream now tumbles idly over Morrell's weir and past its water-wheel, and a pair of ducks go for meals of spilled barley-malt in the yard. "Beware of the ducks," a large sign warns draymen.

Inside, two tabbies, Mum and Fatcat, hunt any mice that may further deplete the grain supply. Malt from nearby Wallingford and hops from Worcester meet hard water from the Cotswolds and Chilterns in two copper brew-kettles, one dating from 1898, the other having begun life as a whisky still in Scotland in 1935.

Two tiny copper fermenting vessels, a tenth of the usual size, are kept aside for the small brews of College Ale. My own favourite beer from Morrell's is an intensely malty one called Graduate. Like a truly old-fashioned local brewery, Morrell's sells the lion's share of its beer in its own pubs: there are 140 of them, all within 20 to 30 miles of Oxford.

It is the smaller, newer, local rival, the brewery in Witney, that has to be entrepreneurial and expansionist. This brewery is called Wychwood, after a nearby medieval forest. It was founded in 1983, and is soon to move to new premises on the site of a long-extinct old brewery.

Wychwood has 17 pubs, with such names as Hobgoblin, Doctor Thirsty's and Howling Wolf, stretched across southern England between Brighton and Bristol. Its most distinctive beer, full of happy freshness, is unappetisingly described as the Dog's Bollocks. This is apparently a colloquial term of approval.

Having never been partial in the Boat Race, but now discovering an affinity with the dark blue, I shall try to find a pint as I cheer for Oxford. Whether or not I shall have the balls to ask for it by name is another question. It doesn't seem the kind of expression one uses at High Table.

Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: MAR 19, 1994
In: The Independent

Editorial - Food/Pairings

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