In early 2017, three years before the coronavirus crisis, Oliver Pickup found out how to become a beer expert in a couple of hours – though some of the details may have been forgotten through alcohol-induced amnesia
There are now over 1,700 breweries in the UK – the most since before World War II – and never has the market been so awash with varieties of beer. For British-based lager and ale lovers, these are heady times (geddit?) indeed.
Despite pubs calling last orders for the final time with alarming regularity, brewers’ fortunes are far from drooping, thanks to an increasingly discerning and expanding customer base. Last year, for instance, there was more land set aside for hops in Britain than before the 1960s, and over in America they can’t keep up with demand, according to Christine Cryne, an expert on the subject.
But how, with such a vast choice, does one go about navigating this wild world of beer? I met up with Christine – a master trainer and former director of The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) – at The Harp in London’s Covent Garden to gain pointers on how to blag being an authority on the subject. It’s surprisingly easy, thankfully. So if you want to impress your mates with some beer knowledge, as I did, here are some handy hints. But beware: no one likes an immodest beer bore, so use these responsibly, and in moderation.
- Back to beer basics
“By and large 95 per cent of all beer is water,” says Christine, raising up a half pint of Hophead (3.8 per cent alcohol) produced by Dark Star Brewing Co., from West Sussex. “Most beer in the UK is simple, in terms of ingredients. It consists of hops, water, yeast, and malt, which is roasted barley.
“The malt provides the sugar, the yeast eats the sugar, and then you are left with the alcohol. The process involves stewing water and malt, and then you boil and add the hops for flavour.”
2. Making the malt of it
“This Hophead is a pale beer,” continues Christine, “and if you hold it to the light you will see it is clear, and light in colour. That indicates that a pale malt was used to make it. A majority of British beers use a pale malt as a base – this is barley roasted quite lightly.”
There are plenty of other types of malt used in the UK, with Vienna malt a more expensive option than the pale, and roasted malt, used for heavier beers, can give a chocolate flavouring, for example. Crystal malt creates darker-coloured ales, and caramelised amber malt similarly colours the drink. And in a bid to go do their bit for sustainability, once the sugar is extracted from the malts, the brewer will often sell it to farmers as wild-cattle feed.
3. Hoppy and you know it
Christine pulls a bag of what looks like an ounce of skunk from her handbag, and plonks it down on the bar, next to her half-drunk Hophead. Alarmed, and fearful of being chucked out of The Harp (CAMRA pub of the year in 2010) or worse getting arrested, I ask what on earth she has presented. “These are Goldings hops – a popular hop in traditional-style British beers – and they are in fact a relative of the cannabis family,” she says. “And interestingly they are also soporific. So when you fall asleep after too much beer, perhaps it’s not always down to the amount of alcohol you have drunk.
“Rub some of the leaves on your hands – but don’t eat it – and smell. This is used by Fullers in their London Pride and ESB, for example, and very popular. The fruity character in this Hophead and the bitter finish comes from the hops. In these lighter beers, the hops will provide the bitterness. And, if you want a bitter taste, add the hops at the start of the boiling process. For a more aromatic flavour, put them in at the end.”
4. Be nosey
“To determine flavour, the nose is more sensitive than the palette,” Christine continues, as we begin our second half pints, this time opting for Harvey’s Sussex Best (4.0 per cent). “But sniffing a beer which is up to the brim of the glass is no good. You have to have a few gulps so that the flavour is on the glass. In fact, the ideal vessel to smell and taste beer in is a sherry glass.”
Christine, organiser of the London Drinker Beer & Cider Festival – which takes place from March 8-10, 2017, at Camden Centre – says she has four criteria to consider when judging beer: appearance, aroma, taste, and aftertaste. “Ultimately, I want to see whether it is an easy-drinking beer,” she continues. “It has to be a balanced beer, and one which has a distinctive, memorable taste. The question is: ‘Would you recommend it to a mate, and have a second pint of it?’”
5. Savour the flavour
The main reason many fields had the hops removed after World War II was because fashion dictated a lighter-charactered beer with a subtle taste. “Now there are more varieties than ever before, and it’s really exciting,” enthuses Christine. “While American brewers like to go “big and bold” with their flavours of hops, in Britain we are catching up, becoming more innovative in our hops and we now enjoy a range of beers using hops from all around the world.
“The wheat beers we have are made with wheat, rather than malt, and naturally have a lemony taste,” Christine says, finishing her second half pint: a Harvey’s Sussex Best (4 per cent). “And lagers use bottom-fermenting yeast which can have many different flavours, including bubblegum. And it’s funny how fashions change, and trends differ geographically; for instance, if traditional UK tastes of cloves it means it is off, whereas in Germany it is desirable.”
6. Turning beer in to wine
As we begin to sup our third half pint, a Harvey’s Old Ale (4.8 per cent), Christine points out the beautiful ruby colouration. This is created by fusing pale malt with some dark malts, and it smells like used coffee granules. Given the unusual hue, I joke that it looks a little like red wine.
Christine says that it has become trendy for brewers to age beer in the UK, and after a certain amount of time the flavour does in fact eventually become wine-like. To some it’s too bizarre to even consider drinking such a beer, but Christine love is. The oldest beer she has ever tried? A 1910 Bass Bitter, which was “lovely”, she adds with a grin.
7. Pairing pints with food
As a general rule, we prefer to sip lighter beers in the summer, whereas the more complex, darker ales are the go-to drinks for the long, cold winter months. It’s all a matter of taste, of course, but on that subject Christine has some food tips, as we finish up our session in The Harp.
“Golden ales are brilliant with fish,” she starts, “and stronger golden ales work well with soft, rich, creamy cheeses like camembert and brie. They really cut through the fatty character. Best bitters [with an alcohol content between 4 and 4.6 per cent] are superb with lamb, burgers, and a big slab of cheddar cheese. I like a dark beer to accompany dessert, too. It works well with a steamed chocolate pudding.”
As a final piece of – vital – advice, Christine adds: “You are less likely to have a bad hangover if you firstly start with beers that have lower alcohol percentages and work your way up in order, and secondly if you drink half a pint of water with every pint of ale. And remember to enjoy your drink – don’t neck it. You wouldn’t do that with wine, so why would you down a beer?”
Wise words, indeed.
This article was first published in The Telegraph in January 2017