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We review £12 pint of Literally Wondering beer at The Cellars Alehouse in Maidstone

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‘Dawn of the £8 pints!’ screamed MailOnline. As inflation bites, average prices at one London bar have surged by 70% since the 2008 financial crash.

But at one pub closer to home you can find a pint worth far more than that, as Ed McConnell finds out.

The £12 pint and cheaper glass of Malbec at The Cellars Alehouse in Maidstone
The £12 pint and cheaper glass of Malbec at The Cellars Alehouse in Maidstone

In a gloomy cellar a steady stream of liquid gold is being carefully pumped into a glass.

It’s 7pm on a sunny Wednesday and I’ve just spent £12 on a pint.

Perhaps this is how things are done in Scandinavia, where a colleague tells me he once forked out double that, or on London's too-popular Bermondsey Beer Mile, but that's not where I am.

At Ghent's Dulle Griet bar, in a bid to scupper light-fingered tourists' schemes, drinkers must surrender a shoe and watch as it's winched to the ceiling in a little basket if they want to order a beer that comes in a particularly expensive glass.

But that's not where I am either. Where I am the beer comes in a straight pint glass and I keep my shoes on.

Helsinki, where a colleague once paid £23 for a pint Picture: Virpi Aittokoski
Helsinki, where a colleague once paid £23 for a pint Picture: Virpi Aittokoski

I'm stood at a serving hatch underneath a tiny business park in Maidstone, gazing at the barman's hand.

The tension is real. I imagine this is what it's like to order the Gut Buster Burger at a place called the Heart Attack Grill or get to the jackpot question on a pub quiz machine.

It feels like the gaggle of fleece-clad men assembled at the bar have stopped bantering, as if hushed exclamations are being exchanged. "He's ordered the £12 pint!"

In reality, I doubt they care but for me it's quite the occasion.

My bubble is burst when one of them jokes that the barman is writing 'Malbec' on a bottle which he's unsurely groped from a dark corner and set about with a biro.

The Cellars Alehouse in Maidstone
The Cellars Alehouse in Maidstone

I laugh. But it feels like I'm somehow part of the joke.

A medium measure of the Malbec is joined by a packet of Smokey BBQ Mini Cheddars before finally, gracefully, my very expensive beer is plonked down; a cloudy shade of yellow which under the lights could easily be orange juice.

It is testament to The Cellars Alehouse that the round comes to £17.25, meaning the snack and wine are very reasonable.

For clarity the rest of the beer is, too. When I visit there’s an “Award winning!” Railway Porter from Hackney’s Five Points brewery (£4.40) Wokingham-based Elusive Brewing’s Oregon Trail-Bitter (£4.60) and a £4.20 pint of Ernest from Birling’s Kent Brewery, plus 20(!) different ciders for £4.50.

But I don't care about any of them because the last time I was here, hidden away further along the blackboard at the bottom of a list titled 'Taps' and scrawled in chalk I spied '8. Verdant/Floc - Literally Wondering' and instinctively exclaimed “£12?!”.

A regular propped against the bar stirred and did a sterling job of defending the beer.

It was that much for all sorts of reasons, he patiently explained. It might contain many different hops, could be imported and at 8.5% it was a high percentage.

When I return a month later I'm worried it will have gone.

But it's still there, still at number 8, on a list which also includes the £9.90 One Winged Angel, a 9% imperial raspberry brown stout made by Boutilliers microbrewery in Faversham.

Literally Wondering is a double IPA and the product of a union between Cornwall’s Verdant Brewing Company and Floc in Canterbury.

At beer review site Untappd 1,599 ale lovers have awarded it 4.26 stars.

The butt of the men at the bar's joke with his £12 pint
The butt of the men at the bar's joke with his £12 pint

I thought I’d be joining a more exclusive club and was mildly disappointed by how many people had sampled and reviewed it but for comparison BrewDog’s golden child, Punk IPA, has been reviewed 465,000, averaging 3.73.

For what it’s worth Literally Wondering is far superior to Punk IPA, but it’s not for the faint-hearted.

If ever a beer could be called full-bodied this is it. It’s like a highly alcoholic fruit compote or a beer-flavoured cocktail.

You would only need one, fortunately.

A similar point is made by one of its creators when I email him later.

"Nobody should be drinking pints of 8% beer!" says Adam Robertson from Verdant brewery.

It's a fair point and one I'm keen to stress. No one needs to drink a pint of this stuff.

By the end of mine it felt like I'd eaten too many sweets and as I wobbled up the cellar steps and emerged blinking into the sunlight I might as well have had three pints. Maybe Literally Wondering is a good deal after all?

Inside The Cellars Alehouse in Maidstone
Inside The Cellars Alehouse in Maidstone

The percentage is undoubtedly high but it's a relatively local brew so I can't help but Literally Wonder why it costs so much.

Scientists say the average gulp is 21ml, so with about 27 of those in a pint each mouthful costs 45p.

If I had crossed the River Medway, marched into Spoons and ordered a Ruddles I’d have been paying just 7p a mouthful.

A fairer comparison would be the pint of Goachers I got for £3.20 in a proper pub a few weeks ago.

Literally Wondering costs 600% more than the Ruddles and almost four times as much as the Goachers. Why?

Verdant's head brewer and co-founder James Heffron patiently explains.

"It’s very simple really," he says, "as the percentage of a beer increases we have to use more malt to achieve this.

"We also like to use many many hops from the far reaches of the earth, in the case of this beer we used more than we usually do… and they aren’t cheap.

"Combine these two factors with the 9% inflation we’re experiencing across the board in the UK and the relative GP margin we like to achieve as a profitable company and, hey presto... you have a beer costing £12!

"We have never scrimped on ingredients, we are only interested in producing beers that are full to the brim with flavour."

Literally Wondering contains three dried hops and according to one website features exotic-sounding varieties like Amarillo and Galaxy from the US, New Zealand and Australia.

James' colleague Adam adds: "£12 a pint isn't expensive, it's a very average price for the style."

The Taps list at The Cellars Alehouse
The Taps list at The Cellars Alehouse

Ross Shields from Canterbury's Floc also jumps to the beer's defence.

"I’d imagine if you were to pay say £6 for a 4% craft beer which is pretty standard nowadays it wouldn’t raise any eyebrows but when a beer is over double the strength with at least double the ingredients and the increase in duty payable to HMRC as is standard with anything over 7.5%, it seems strange that it would spark curiosity into the price point," he writes.

"DIPA’s such as this for us are our lowest margin product, usually they’re brewed as a special and no brewery is reliant on them to keep the lights on, it just wouldn’t be viable."

He points me to a piece which ran on industry news site The Morning Advertiser in 2019 in which the boss of Manchester's Cloudwater (once named the fifth best brewery in the world) hit out at national coverage of a London pub selling his 9% Imperial IPA for £13.40.

He explained units wise three £5 thirds of his beer was equal to four £4 pints of bitter.

Small UK breweries were sometimes paying up to five times more tax than their US counterparts and that was a far more important issue, he added.

The Cellars Alehouse in Maidstone is decorated with enamel brewery signs and pump clips
The Cellars Alehouse in Maidstone is decorated with enamel brewery signs and pump clips

While this is not a pub review, The Cellars, with its cosy wing-backed chairs and chipped enamel brewery signs is a lovely place to stop for a drink of any value.

It's not some poncey east London beer café – it’s a pub for hop heads which happens to do a line of pretty whacky ales.

A laminated sheet of A4 tells me we've just missed the quiz and there's another coming up on Tuesday, June 14. But this seems like the kind of place where professional quizzers are made.

The chat at the bar is more intellectual than at pretty much any pub I can remember and I half expect one of the Egg Heads to topple out of a broom cupboard when I nip to the loo.

Once your eyes have adjusted to the lighting you can take in hops hanging from the rafters and pump clips covering almost every spare inch of wall.

As mentioned the £12 pint (also available, and advisable, in halves and two thirds) is just one of many, many beers.

Ross, James and Adam are too polite to say so but reading between the lines it's clear what they're saying: "If you don't want to pay £12 for a pint, don't buy it!"

And who am I to argue with that.

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