by Joel M. Vance

A T-junction in southwest Wales and a rock wall if you don't make the corner. A scatter of stones is mute testimony to those who didn't. The Griffin Inn is named for the symbol of Wales, the rampant Red Lion. You see the lions everywhere. The town is Llyswen in Welsh, White Palace in English.

Pubs come in bunches in many rural towns.


The Griffin is the town watering hole, an ancient building of ancient charm and, in common with most English pubs, it is to the average American beer joint what Michelle Pfeiffer is to a charwoman with detergent burn.

The distinctions between ale-house, pub, bar, tavern and inn are somewhat blurred and often used interchangeably, but for the technical minded, there now are no true ale-houses among the more than 70,000 drinking establishments in England--ale is beer without the hops and they all serve beer today.

And pubs or taverns are drinking establishments which don't have sleeping quarters, while inns offer both. Brew pubs are pubs that brew their own.

English beer is served slightly cool, below room temperature, but not redneck cold. Some years ago when the the Chicago Bears played the Dallas Cowboys in a London exhibition football game, they fueled a minor controversy when lineman William (The Refrigerator) Perry and quarterback Jim McMahon opined that if English beer was warm, they wouldn't drink it.

"Warm beer?" the Fridge rumbled. "I don't drink warm beer."

Which is his loss because English beer from the pub tap is as good as is brewed in the world. Its rich, mellow flavor far surpasses the bottled efforts of the best imports, and far surpasses the taste of any American beer.

English pubs traditionally serve either a pint or a half (pint). A half is about a standard American glass, while a pint is a sizable chunk of brew and a couple of them will set you free. Pubs either are "free houses," which means they aren't tied to any brewery and can pick and choose what they serve, or they are outlets for a specific label.

English inns/pubs are as old as the country. In Roman times, pub owners hung out a long pole to signify the presence of ale (no hops to make it beer), and if there also was wine, they hung an evergreen bush on the pole.

While wine stimulates the language of love, beer is a drink which titillates the philosophy glands and leads to final solutions for Middle Eastern politics and dandruff.

From 1916 until a few years ago, Britain had had a law closing pubs for 2 1/2 hours in the afternoon. It was passed to keep defense workers in World War I from getting drunk during working hours. The law was repealed, to the joy of defense workers everywhere.

The john (in England euphemistically called a "facility," or sometimes "gents," or "loo" or, unglamorously "toilet") is an integral part of a pub, an inevitability for the serious beer drinker. There is a universality about such places, including graffiti to provide reading material.

However, English graffiti is elevated above the gut level sentiments of the average American County Highway B roadhouse. It's even different than what is written in college-town facilities, which leans either to political commentary or sexual advertisement.

British pubs traditionally served only basic appetizers, figuring their customers were there to guzzle not eat. The introduction of food in most pubs is recent, but most pubs now have a basic menu and many have gourmet food to go along with gourmet beer. What you will NOT find and, God forbid, never will is the American frozen sandwiches that go into a microwave looking like cold cardboard and come out tasting like hot cardboard.

Good, bad, or indifferent, English pub food is home-cooked and most of the ingredients come from the region. The dining areas of pubs range from beer joint booths ranged around a pool table to inns like the Griffin where the dining area is elegant, with fresh flowers on each table and more eating implements than the average American sees in a week.

Belying their emphasis on the correct tool, hungry English persons shovel food as if someone were threatening to take it away. Even a genteel lady will pack away the traditional hefty English breakfast as if she were stoking up for a day of log hauling. The back of the fork is heavily-used (as opposed to the American scoop-shovel approach).

While waiting for your grilled calf's liver at the Griffin, you can look at a framed collection of salmon flies. They are a compendium of angling tradition: Black Doctor, Mickey Finn, Muddler Minnow, Mar Lodge, Jock Scott, Butcher, Dusty Miller, Orange Parson (a gaudy kaleidoscope out of a pizza-and-pickle nightmare), Sir Richard (perhaps an angling tribute to Welsh native son Richard Burton), Green Highlander, Thunder and Lightning, Silver Stoat's Tail, Blue Doctor, and anyone's favorite name, the Hairy Mary.

The Texas Rose Muddler may be the legacy of a visiting Texan and, chances are, he griped because Welsh Bitter doesn't taste like Lone Star or Pearl.

The River Wye flows just beyond the T-junction. It's a big, shallow river, with strands of aquatic vegetation undulating in the current. If you stand on the bridge and look into the water in the evening, you'll see trout begin to dimple the surface below you. Small mayflies, No. 14 Light Cahills in the fly box, flit above the river and the surface begins to pock more and more until the rises look like rain dimples.

Permission, plus considerable money is a requisite on prime beats--a day of fishing in blue ribbon water can set you back nearly $200 with no guarantees. You can latch onto a 50-pound Atlantic salmon or you can come in at day's end for a couple of pints of bitter to ease the sting of expensive fishlessness.

Two things seem certain, if you start to talk to the publican at a brew pub - a pub that brews its traditional ales and bitters in the basement - you'll learn more than you might expect about beer making. And, if the discussion moves to samples, you may need fairly frequent trips to check the graffiti out back.

Beer making is a fairly complicated chemical process. Barley is wet down until it sprouts. Then it's dried and roasted, ground in a mill and mixed with hot water. The runoff from this is "wort" which is boiled with hops to give the beer its characteristic slightly bitter flavor.

This mixture, cooled, has yeast added, and the result is pretty much what the English pub drinker gets. Some beer makers inject carbonation to give rednecks the ability to emit thunderous belches and thus prove their virility.

Today, many countries brew excellent beer. Mexican beer is excellent, but when the Mexicans still were trying to figure out why their pulque killed that little worm, and the Danes were wearing dead furbearers and whopping each other with knobby sticks, the English were hoisting a pint at the King's Inn and griping about the Argentinian soccer team. Only the Germans are as influential in beer history as the English.

One English suds historian claims Englishmen were brewing ale in Neolithic times and chances are they tried to sell a pint to thirsty centaurians when the Romans occupied the British Isles two thousand years ago. Emperor Julian apparently sampled some of the Celtic bubbly and was unimpressed. He claimed it reeked of goats. More likely it was the publican, not the product.

One theory of the invention of ale is that barley, a common cereal crop, accidentally got wet and the juice became primitive ale. It had to taste better than raw barley which, when used as food, kept body and soul together, but was as palatable as library paste.

Given a bit of natural fermentation, Neolithic man doubtless discovered he could get commode-hugging drunk and satisfy some of his nutritional needs at the same time--a dietary discovery of epic proportions.

Somewhere in beer history, someone figured out how to "malt" barley, which means the soaked barley is dried. The ground malt, mixed with water, produces a more sophisticated ale, but when a great mind (even if slightly addled by booze) decided to pitch in a bit of active yeast, the mixture gained fermentation and carbonation.

Since beer mostly is water, brewers look for just the right water. In America, Olympia Beer used to brag of its "tumwater," whatever that is, while Leinenkuegel's, a Wisconsin beer, hoots that it is brewed from the water of the Big Eddy Spring.

Inns are the pubs with rooms. And it's far better for the dedicated pub visitor to turn his treacherous feet up the stairs toward the Rose Room (in the Griffin Inn) than it is to drive home on England's narrow roads (terrifying to a Yank even sober in the daytime). If you quit the inn before closing, you can nestle between clean, cool sheets and listen to the distant sounds of an English pub. There is a commonality among them.

You'll hear voices, people talking, no music. No growl of Waylon Jennings, nor whine of Willie Nelson. No one is being proud to be an Okie from Muskogee or is griping, at least not in song, about faithless women or cheatin' men.

Samuel Johnson didn't make his reputation bellowing beer soaked opinions in the Mitre Tavern about which wide receiver should have gone long. The Mitre was Johnson's pub and were it not for the Mitre and its literary lubricants, Johnson probably would have been another boring blowhard, lost in history. Boswell was able to jot down the musings of the great pundit because he could hear them, unconfused by a jukebox or bar band. So, England still is filled with pubs where people do what they've been doing for two thousand years -- sharing good beer and articulating opinions. Well, that's the way it seems after a couple of pints anyway....