Come back through time with me, to Vienna in 1529.
We’ll take a table at the Zimmerman Inn and wait for Brian Duffy to turn up, sword in hand, looking for a wizard with a burning snake in his mouth and the promise of the best beer in the Western world.
But first, we’ll stop off just a few years back.
My partner loaned me his copy of The Drawing Of The Dark by Tim Powers. I’d finished The Anubis Gates and we were waiting for The Stress Of Her Regard to come out in paperback in the UK, but I had to have more.
Enter Brian Duffy, the lead character of the novel, being mugged in a side street somewhere in Venice.
Middle-aged, bruised, already on the wrong end of the story, he takes a job protecting the Herzwesten beer until the time comes to tap the barrel.
Lovely touches amongst the story add to the warmth I always feel when I pick up the book. It’s one of my favourite Tim Powers novels, and I re-read it every couple of years.
It starts in Venice.
“All night the hot wind had swept up the Adriatic, and from the crowded docks down by the arsenale to the… western mouth of the Grand Canal, the old city creaked on its pilings like a vast, weary ship” – Chapter One, The Drawing Of The Dark by Tim Powers
Only a few years before I read the book I’d visited Venice with my fellow archaeologists on our day off from a dig in the foothills of the Alps. We stuck to the back streets and watched tourists jostle along the crowded bridges one street over, following the route on the map from the tourist office at the railway station, cheap souvenirs poking out of their backpacks.
When Brian Duffy wobbles along the darkened alleys, I can picture the houses above him, mellow plaster in sandy tones and green water lapping at the walls. Since there’s little vehicular traffic amongst the canals, you can hear voices from high windows, arguments in staccato or snatches of song, people bustling on foot amongst the cloisters and over the little bridges.
Then comes the brewery.
The head brewer, Gambrinus, shares his name with one of the most popular beers in the Czech Republic. (It would be another few years before I’d get round to visiting Prague, but the pilsner travels well.)
The story quickly blossoms into a ripping yarn peopled with Vikings and swordplay, strange beasts in the Alpine sunlight, magic, wizards, imposters and lost loves, thundering along with nary a halt for a refreshing snifter.
And what a snifter that might be.
The Beaker People brewed it.
A Bronze Age culture of Western Europe, which I’d studied at the same university that took me to Venice:
“they spread the art of brewing with a missionary zeal – you can find their decorated beakers in graves from Sicily to the northern tip of Scotland” (Tim Powers, ibid.)
We have their pots and their grain and once on a summer’s day by the shores of a Swiss lake I tasted a modern replication of the beer they might have brewed, yeasty and spicy and just what you need as you rest your tired limbs by the waterside.
Pots survive because they’re durable. Very few wooden items survive, even beer vats, unless they’re waterlogged (or kept in continuous use).
In the cellar of the Zimmerman Inn is a vat half as high again as Brian Duffy, green with moss, with three spigots. The source of the Herzwesten Dark. Bronze Age beer, and then some.
And recently I came across another story which suggested the Zimmerman Inn wasn’t the only old brewery around in 1529 (and I don’t mean the Weihenstephan).
In the Spring 2015 issue of BEER, the quarterly magazine of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), is an article on Britain’s oldest (official) brewery:
Shepherd Neame, based in Kent.
The traditional starting age of Shep’s is celebrated as 1698. Almost two centuries after the fictional brew is supped by Brian Duffy in Vienna.
But the article in BEER (by Mark Dredge of pencilandspoon) goes on to explore the brewery’s early history, investigated by its very own historian, which reveals a brewer on the site in Faversham back in 1596.
We’re now only a few decades after the siege of Vienna which forms the backdrop to the story of The Drawing of The Dark.
Further back in time, then, the story goes.
Shepherd Neame’s historian can prove there was a brewery on the site in 1573. There’s a link to the abbey of Faversham, the abbot’s brother importing beer in 1525 and his son running the abbey brewhouse by 1550.
Beer and monasteries.
Just like the Zimmerman Inn, previously known as the St Joseph Monastery before Aurelianus took over and hired Brian Duffy to guard it.
So with a
small huge stretch of the imagination you can see how the road to the Herzwesten Brewery leads not to Vienna, after all, but to the garden of England. And, not surprisingly, Shepherd Neame brew a dark beer.
The Drawing of The Dark isn’t a complicated story. It’s a good old-fashioned romp of an adventure with some typical Tim Powers touches – the effortless references to real places and events, the evocative depth in his descriptions of the weather and the surroundings, and his lively characters.
And it’s flawed.
I particularly like the story because it’s flawed – there’s a point where I always expect the plot to sway on a particular hinge (a missing spell book) and… it veers off on an entirely different direction, breathtaking in its simplicity.
Once you’ve read a number of Tim Powers novels you can see how this links into the others with the underlying Arthurian theme, especially Last Call, and the system of magic/iron/blood he explores in greater detail in The Stress Of Her Regard.
But sometimes all I want to read is a ripping yarn. Especially one so steeped in beer.