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Great men tells us about the greatest beer they ever had

Irvine Welsh, Idris Elba, Frank Turner, Ken Loach & more

Great men tells us about the greatest beer they ever had

From facilitating career-changing chats to healing hearts, life is punctuated by memorable brews.

We asked some great men to tell us about their most significant pints

The Thrill Seeker

“Holding that Guinness... I nearly cried” - Frank Solomon, 33, pro big-wave surfer from South Africa, on returning to the waters after breaking his back

I look back at my life choices and think, “How did I even do that?” The same goes for my first trip to Ireland. I’d seen a wave there I wanted to surf, so I just went. I arrived with no money and no idea where to go. 

Breaking your back feels like being kicked in the stomach really hard. That’s what happened when I fell.

It wasn’t a big wave, but it crashed in shallow water. I stood up, fell off and slammed into the ground in a sitting position. When I tried to get back on my board, I knew I was in trouble. 

This sounds f*cked up now, but my biggest worry was travel insurance. People were ready to call a helicopter to evacuate me as we were at the bottom of a cliff. I was freaked out that it was going to cost thousands, and walked instead. It took hours of hellish pain, but I got to the top.

I made the guy driving to the hospital stop to get a six-pack of beer. I thought it’d help with the agony. It worked – after every beer it felt better. The nurses were livid when I told them I’d had a few tinnies.

One nurse looked at the x-ray, and I asked if everything was OK. All she said was, “Don’t move.” I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Do not move. I’m not allowed to discuss this, I need to call the doctor.”

I’d fractured my L2 vertebrae. When I told them I’d climbed a cliff to get to the car, they thought I was talking sh*t.

Laying on your back for three days surrounded by dying people is a good time to reflect. There was a lot of ‘Why me?’, but when I learnt the fracture was millimetres away from paralysing me, I felt better.

The bleakest day of the ordeal was in London. I was driven to the UK in this rattling Winnebago, getting thrown about in the back. I spent two weeks in London at my friend’s house, and it p*ssed it down. I thought, “What the f*ck am I doing with my life?” 

I decided I had to recover in record time. That was my drive. I went psycho with my healing exercises, diet and fitness – I got into the best shape of my life.

I always knew I’d return to Ireland to surf again. The waves were pumping the day we got back a year later. I was so nervous. I thought, “If I hurt myself again the nurses will think I’m an idiot.” I needed to prove I could do it. A big wave came, and I went for it. It was one of the biggest barrels I’ve ever had.

That evening we headed to a tiny pub on the harbour. Holding that Guinness, it all caught up with me. Returning to Ireland had been at the back of my mind. It felt full-circle, and I nearly cried. I’m not emotional, but proving yourself to yourself can do that.

Frank’s new film, Let’s Be Frank, is out now

The great director

“A good pub treats everyone equally” - Director Ken Loach On drinking with screenwriter Jim Allen

Pubs are worth fighting for. When I was young, that was our venue; where you’d meet, play, talk, have ideas, build castles in your mind – and where you met girlfriends. They’re hugely valuable. The fact that big companies have standardised them means they lose individual character. It’s very sad.

It’s about creating a culture. That should reflect the people that go in, not some brand you’re expected to conform to.

A good pub can be a common denominator. It can treat everyone who crosses its threshold equally. Whoever goes through the door gets the same selection of drinks, gets treated equally, finds a seat and has a natter. Members’ clubs are about people giving themselves status. I find them uncomfortable.

I like a cup of coffee, too, not just a drink. I’m happy to see pubs serve coffee. But a bar, when you can get a glass or a cup of something, is a very human way of being with people.

The best beers I’ve had have been glasses of stout in Ireland, having done three films there, but the best moments in a pub have been with a writer called Jim Allen. Jim was 10 years older than me. He was an Irish ex-Catholic from Manchester. I would go up to see him. Travelling from Middleton to Manchester was a big deal for Jim. When we were doing a script together, we’d discuss it across his kitchen table. Then, after a couple of hours, Jim would feel thirsty, so we’d take a stroll to his local with the intention of having a hot dinner or a pie.

I wouldn’t have a drink in the middle of the day because my brain was frail enough. But Jim would take a glass and we’d carry on talking.

Life in the pub was full of incident, as people would bring things to sell into the pub. Occasionally you’d feel people had liberated what they were selling, so it was quite nefarious. Jim used to buy some of his clothes from the pub. There’d be all the exchanges going on, anecdotes and jokes. Plus Jim, towards the end of his life, had an eye for one of the barmaids, so it was interesting to see how that was progressing.

Jim was a great man. He was born in 1926. He’d been in the Army just after the war, he’d been a miner, a dockworker, a builder. He used to organise people into a trade union. Kind of an itinerant organiser in his youth.

He was self-taught. I’d been to university and he’d read more than I had. He was a Marxist. He’d been through political theory and lived it. His understanding of the class war was on the frontline, dealing with exploitation, dangerous conditions at work, being chased out of the workplace. 

He wrote as he spoke. It was the dialogue of the people in the pub. He was quick and unselfconscious, he didn’t have to strain after it. It’s a language full of images, metaphors and muscular comedy.

Jim passed away at the turn of the century. I look back on those meetings with great warmth. He was an extraordinary man, and very funny. Not always intentionally.

I miss his political analysis. One of his great themes was the betrayal of the working class by right-wingers. He would’ve been encouraged by Jeremy Corbyn’s rise. Jim was no social democrat, but I think he’d recognise that Corbyn is a serious challenger to the needs of capital, so I think he would’ve supported him.

If I could say one more thing to Jim, I’d say: “Would you like another glass?”

I, Daniel Blake is in cinemas 21 October

The Metal Head

Corey Taylor from Slipknot

“The greatest beer I ever had... well, that's going back to when I actually drank. I was never a beer man, myself – I always preferred whiskey. But when I think of beer, I think of Guinness, and when I think of Guinness, I think of Slipknot’s old bassist Paul Gray [who died in 2010]. Any time we would go to bars and pubs, that’s what we would end up drinking. The stuff is like a malty chocolate shake. It’s so thick you could stand a spoon up in it. But we would knock a few back and talk about the future, our plans for everything we ever wanted in life. Those were great times. Those were the greatest beers I ever had. They’ll never be that good again.”


“I sat with my beer... it was fantastic” - Olaf Swantee, 50, creator of the 4G network and leader of the EE merger, on a life-changing call

If our mobile network went down, I got the blame from 26 million people. That keeps you awake at night.

In 2012, the UK was lagging behind the likes of Kazakhstan and Korea, who had advanced digital infrastructure. My case for creating EE was simple: it was good for the country.

I was confident. I told the government we were going to get our 15,000 employees working in secret on a new brand, and invest a huge amount of money, before we’d had approval.

There was no Plan B. Employees would ask, “We’ve built thousands of antennae – what happens to these if we don’t get approval?” I had to deal with the anxiety of the entire organisation. The government could deny us approval at any moment.

The biggest risk for me was to fail in the eyes of the employees. To tell 15,000 people, who’d done everything I’d asked, that I couldn’t get it done. That was a sickening anxiety.

One evening I was standing on my balcony when the phone rang. It was a guy who dealt with the regulatory bodies. He said, “Olaf, we have the feedback from Ofcom.” I didn’t say anything. “Olaf, we have the approval.” Even recounting that moment, I can still feel the relief.

After the call, I got a Peroni, sat on the balcony with my beer and let the moment wash over me. It was a fantastic feeling.

People make the difference. Get people excited about creating something, and you get the best of them.

Olaf’s book, The 4G Mobile Revolution, is out now

The Raver

Tim Westwood

“Where I grew up, there was a real ale pub. That beer is friggin’ strong. My mum didn’t wanna let me in the house when I used to come back toe up. I don’t blame her, man. I was 15 or 16, with a painted-on moustache. It was much easier in those days; ID wasn’t an issue. I loved it. It made me the person I am today.”

The Chef

“He asked ‘do you want one?’ I said yes” - Theo Randall, 49, Michelin-starred chef, on his career-starting encounter

Those 40 minutes were some of the most important in my career. It was the chat that took me into one of the greatest restaurants in London.

I still have the note my chef hero Alastair Little gave to me that day. It’s a list of restaurants I had to hit, written on a waiter’s docket. It’s in the most beautiful handwriting.

Alastair’s picture was in every food magazine. The guides adored him. His book Keep It Simple is one of the best cookbooks ever written. There was a rebellious element to what he did.

His restaurant didn’t even have tablecloths! It was kinda punk, really.

The dinner I ate there for my 21st birthday was the first time I’d seen white truffles on a menu. It had white truffle risotto for £11, which was expensive back then. He did seared loin of venison with a Japanese-inspired sauce, and wild salmon and John Dory with a sorrel sauce that was simple, but exquisite. I connected with his style.

The game-changer was the sweetbreads. I’m salivating even now. They were roasted, wrapped in prosciutto. It was one of the most exquisite offal dishes I’ve ever eaten.

I had to write him a letter. I had to ask for an interview. I tried to ring the restaurant, but it was virtually impossible to get hold of him. So I wrote the letter. I got a reply saying ‘Meet me on Monday at 4pm.’

He was really scruffy. I’d seen him through the window, and he was in jeans and a butcher’s apron – not even a chef’s jacket. He was just a bloody good cook that wanted to cook bloody good food.

The smells were amazing. You can tell a good restaurant from its smell.

He ordered a Guinness. “Do you want one?” he asked. I said yes, and two very cold bottles of Guinness came out. Without glasses. And bitter as hell.

I wouldn’t say it was advice he gave me. It was more an explanation of his philosophy on food. How it should be about adapting to the produce. 

That’s where he wrote out a list. It was a list of people that would go on to kickstart my career.

I left Alastair with a huge drive to get things done. I went to River Café – a place on the list – that night and got an interview.

“So you think you’re a good cook, do you?” Those were owner Rose’s words to me. She scared the life out of me.

They asked me back for a trial. The next week, I started my first shift. My career was underway.

The folk firebrand

“Some people want me to feel ashamed of this... but I’m a Bud Light guy” - Frank Turner, 34, arena-playing rock-folk artist, on finding the producer he’d been told he’d never locate…

Butch Walker is the best-smelling man I have ever met. I even describe it. He smells really good.

Prior to meeting – and smelling – Butch in Chicago in October 2014, I’d made the album Tape Deck Heart. It’s a concept record about a break-up. I’d been through a nasty one. It was a conflicting thing to make art out of an unpleasant time, and to have it be the most successful thing I’ve done was weird. I was keen not to be typecast by it. My response was writing an album called Positive Songs For Negative People.

I had this pure vision of how I wanted to make it. I wanted it to have a ‘dirt under its fingernails’ feel. But I was failing to convince the record label or producers. It was the first time I’d felt pressure to creatively change what I was doing at other people’s behest.

Bluntly, I was getting p*ssed off. I went through a phase of getting quite wasted because I felt like I’d hit a brick wall. There was an element of, “Well, f*ck it, let’s go and get drunk.”

I knew Butch Walker as a successful singer songwriter. He has a record called The Spade, one of my all-time favourite-sounding records. I discovered it was produced by Butch himself, so I suggested his name to the label. I had no idea he’d produced music for Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. The label’s response was along the lines of, “Frank, what are you talking about?”

At one point, someone said there was no way I could afford him. Oh, that really f*cked me off. So I went searching for him. I asked Facebook if anyone knew him. Turns out, they did. I got his email address and dropped him a message. I outlined the situation – ‘I have an album, can’t find anyone to help me make it the way it has to be, am fighting, need an ally’ – and sent it just before I went on stage. When I got back to the dressing room, he’d written back to say, “Let’s meet up and talk about this.”

I don’t think he saw the Google Image search picture of him I had on my phone when we bumped into each other outside his hotel. We were both having a cigarette and clocked one another.

Some people want me to feel ashamed of this, but I couldn’t give a f*ck: I’m a Bud Light guy. I had a Bud Light that evening, and I enjoyed the f*ck out of it.

At some point during my explanation of how I wanted my album to sound. I mentioned that one of my major sonic inspirations has been Weezer’s second album, Pinkerton. Butch let me finish my piece, and then said: “Everything I think about when it comes to songwriting and production is contained in the first two Weezer records.” That is a statement with which I agree very strongly. And the minute he said it my response was, “Well, I think that we’re done with talk about making records. Now we can just get p*ssed.” So we did.

I’d met somebody I wished I’d met a long time ago. Our level of mutual understanding was, and is, very high. It was a simple, ‘F*ck yeah, this is the guy I want to make a record with’ vibe.

Butch is 10 years further down the line than me in the industry and gave me an older brother stance on things. He said that at the end of the day the most important thing is to stick to your guns, because when the dust has settled in 10 years’ time, you won’t pat yourself on the back for making a good business decision, you’ll pat yourself on the back for making a good record.

The album went as smoothly as it could have done. I’m hoping to make another record with Butch soon. He’s one of my favourite people in the world.

There was still a lot to get through before we got to make the record. But I felt reinvigorated. I felt like I’d found an ally. I felt like I was going to win the fight.

Frank is one of the curators of Off The Record (Manchester, 4 Nov);

The Novelist

Irvine Welsh

“As a kid I got weaned on to shandy at new year, aged seven. They got stronger each year. Old drinkers took me under their wing to teach me to drink. When we were 15, a bunch of us went on holiday to [the Isle Of] Arran. We went to the pub and I asked for a pint of beer. My first. The barman said, “Do you want lager or heavy or export?” Not knowing what to ask for, I pointed at one of the taps. He knew we were underage, but gave us it. It was great, but tasted horrible.” 

The rockstar

Jason Williamson, Sleaford Mods

“I remember it clearly. It was at a bottle party [house party] near my school. I got f*cking arseholed, and proudly displayed my recently bought bowling shoes to my mate, who wasn't impressed ’cos they were second-hand and from Burton – they did work, though. I remember feeling ‘light’ as I wobbled around my mate’s house. I was carefree.”

The feds

“We had a great bar near the police base... I loved that beer” - Steve Murphy and Javier Pena, former DEA partners, on taking down Pablo Escobar in Colombia and the tainted celebrations that followed

Steve Murphy

Of everything I saw in Colombia, the 15th Street car bomb in Bogota summed up Escobar’s cruelness. Mothers were taking children to get ready for school. This shopping centre exploded. I’ll never forget watching firemen carrying infant bodies. It made me think, “I’m going to do whatever it takes to get this guy.”

I don’t remember losing sleep during the case. I’d been in hairy situations before, like my partner getting shot while I was working in Miami. You get hardened to things.

We felt as if we were fighting the fight, but not making any progress. But that’s when your professionalism kicks in: this is your job, so get your happy ass back to work.

“We’ve just engaged in a fire fight with Pablo Escobar. Everyone’s OK. Viva Colombia. Pablo is dead.” I felt elation, followed by scepticism. Mistakes had been made before.

The pictures of Escobar dead? They’re mine. I was the only one with a camera.

I’ve had a lot of comments about the photos of me smiling holding up Pablo’s corpse. At that time Medellin was the murder capital of the world. Some weekends there were 300 bodies on the streets. Everyone is smiling because from that moment every citizen in the city had become safer.

Javier Pena

We had a great bar near the police base. They did a good burger and Aguila beers. I loved that beer. Still do. Steve and I would take our cops there. There was one particular situation, though – shots were fired, and it descended into chaos. Everyone was in plain clothes, nobody could tell anyone apart, so people just started shooting. Three people left that bar in body bags.

Everything ran on revenge. The cops were very upfront; they were there to kill Escobar. Why? Because of the thousands of fellow officers and friends he’d killed.

There was a famous saying in Colombia: “Plata o plomo”, which means “The bullet or the gold”. Escobar would send his hitmen to judges or police officers, and show them photos of their family, with two choices: money to make their case go away, or death.

We had a big party at the Embassy after Escobar’s killing. There were lots of Aguilas that night. But everyone was also thinking about the 20,000 officers and civilians who’d been killed at Escobar’s hand.

Respect? For Escobar? No. It was his Sicario organisation that got to me. He had hundreds of young killers working for him, and we never realised it.

Narcos: Season 2 is exclusively on Netflix now

The A-lister

Idris Elba - The actor, 44, on the London booze session that marked his post-Luther reunion

“The most memorable beer I’ve ever had? Well, there’s a pub called – no pun intended – The Famous Cock Tavern, which is next to Highbury & Islington station. Before I moved back to the US after doing Luther, I’d always drink in there. And then when I came back from America, I went to The Famous Cock with my boys and that was my favourite pint ever. It was funny, ‘Shall I meet you at the Famous?’ [points to himself and grins]. If I had to pick my favourite drink, it wouldn’t actually be a beer – it’d be a stout. Dragon Stout is a Jamaican drink, and it’s really thick and syrupy [mimes gulping it down] – it’s mind-blowing.”

(Images: Rex/Getty/Contour)