Monday, 2 September 2013

Beer Appreciation




This post was originally written some 15 years ago and describes my introduction to beer, and how I developed both a taste for and an appreciation of the best long drink in the world. It may seem a little dated now, but I have included it it here as my contribution to Boak & Bailey's "Long Post Project".

"The author, Graham Greene, wrote about his first taste of beer in his autobiography "A Sort of Life". He described how, after initially hating the taste, and having to force it down to prove his manhood, he later found the memory of the taste coming back to haunt his thirst during a long walk in the country. Greene went on to describe how he and his companion stopped for a drink plus some bread and cheese at a country inn, where he “drank bitter for the second time and enjoyed the taste with a pleasure that has never failed me since.”

The journalist and pioneering beer writer, Richard Boston in his highly informative and entertaining book "Beer and Skittles", describes a similar sort of experience.

I cannot claim that my first experience of drinking beer was as memorable, or indeed as special. It was at a "Country Fayre", held in the small town of Wye, a few miles from my home village of Brook. I was member of the local scout troop at the time, and our contribution to the Fayre was to run the coconut shy. The main highlight of the event though was to be a re-enactment of a civil-war "skirmish” by members of the “Sealed Knot Society”. 

Watching this colourfully dressed bunch of cavaliers and general bon-viveurs, wandering around the Fayre, prior to the enactment, with a string of pretty girls in tow and clutching their foaming tankards of ale, persuaded myself and a couple of my fellow scouts that a drink would be a good idea. So forgetting all about what Baden Powell might have said, we nipped into the beer tent where I was treated to a light ale by the two patrol leaders. They were both a couple of years older than me, and were no strangers to beer. Like Graham Greene, I wasn't over keen on the taste, but drank it down nevertheless.

The reason I chose light ale was that I believed that the description "light" would adequately describe its taste. However, a comment from one of my two companions, that brown ale was sweeter than light, prompted me to try one the next time.

The occasion was at the house of one of the aforementioned patrol leaders. A group of us would gather there to listen to records and play cards. Bill's father always had a supply of beer in stock and was not adverse to us lads having the odd bottle, or can. I found brown ale to be eminently drinkable and enjoyed it on quite a few occasions.

By the time I reached the VIth form at school, I was a regular visitor at several local pubs. I slowly graduated from bottled beer to draught. In Whitbread pubs I tended to drink brown and mild, whilst in Courage houses I drank Tavern Keg initially, before switching to PBA - a light mild which has long since been discontinued.

Later on my friends and I went through a phase of drinking mild and bitter. This was for the somewhat perverse reason that we liked asking for a pint of "AB" ("And Bitter") and seeing the effect this had on inexperienced bar staff, Experienced landlords who had been in the trade a long time knew of course what we were referring to; the abbreviation referring to the fact that at one time mild was the normal drink, and that the bitter mixed with it was, in effect, an addition (hence “AB”).

I ought to add a word or two here about lager. I first became aware of this drink when along with a couple of school friends I spent an evening in the seaside town of Folkestone. We were joined on this visit by a friend of one of my companions who was a couple of years older than the rest of us. This particular character thought he was the height of sophistication, smoking cigars and knocking back a drink called “lager and lime”. For some reason I thought that this was a soft drink; the confusion in my mind having arisen from a mixture sold in cans when I was a boy called “Limeade and Lager”! After trying a pint or two I soon realised my mistake, but although the straw colour of the drink looked attractive, the combination of lime with British-brewed Harp Lager was not to my taste.

As I became more mature I developed a liking for bitter itself. I have written elsewhere about how I first sampled cask-conditioned Trophy and of my love-hate relationship with Shepherd Neame. I have also described how a burgeoning awareness of the enormous variety of cask beer available, and the different breweries, still in operation during the early 1970's sparked off a life-long interest in beer and brewing.

As well as wanting to sample the bitter ales brewed by as many breweries as possible, I tried to sample the corresponding milds as well. Other styles, such as old ales and barley wines were particularly enjoyable on a cold winter's night, but it was not until the late 1970's that I began to take an interest in Irish Stout.

At the time, Guinness was the only brand of this style of stout available, and I enjoyed it mainly in bottled form. In those days Guinness was naturally conditioned in the bottle, and formed a welcome friend in many an otherwise “fizz only” pub. When I was eventually persuaded to try the "draught" version, I found it a lot less gassy than I had been anticipating, albeit a trifle on the cold side for my liking.

The appearance, in Britain, of Beamish proved to be something of a watershed. This genuine Irish Stout, brewed in Cork, had a chocolate-coffee like aroma that perfectly complemented its hoppy bitterness. For a keg beer it was superb. It was joined soon after by a stout from another Cork brewer - Murphy's. The latter though, was brewed under licence in the UK, and whilst it is a pleasant enough beer it has to my mind never quite matched the taste of its close neighbour.

As the years passed, I slowly learned how to appreciate a good pint and how to recognise a bad one. But it was to be nearly a decade later that I began to take an interest in beer styles from other countries.

My first taste of foreign beers had been during the summer of 1975, when I embarked on a month's travelling round Europe by train. However my travelling companion, Nick and I were on a very tight budget, so beer of any description, yet alone quality beer, was not the highest of our priorities. Lager of course, was the order of the day; we even managed to take in visits to the Heineken Brewery in Amsterdam and the Carlsberg Brewery in Copenhagen where the drinks in both instances were provided free of charge!

However, our arrival in Germany proved to be something of an eye opener. We had decided to split up for a few days, the idea being that Nick would spend some time with his then girlfriend, who was studying in Stuttgart, whilst I would stay with an old school friend who was working in Cologne.

We parted company at Hamburg railway station, having made arrangements to rendezvous in Stuttgart a few days later. I boarded the train for Cologne, and was met at the main station by my friend Mick. I was promptly dragged back to the office where my friend was working, to find a party in full swing. The actual reason for the celebration escapes me, but it was a Friday afternoon and someone was either retiring, getting married or had been promoted.  What I do remember was the brightly polished wooden cask standing upright on a table in the corner. There was a small brass tap inserted into the side of the cask, an inch or two above the base, allowing the beer to be dispensed by gravity.

Throughout the afternoon it was a case of “get Michael's friend from England a drink and make sure his glass doesn't get empty!” I've no idea what the beer was, but it tasted superb, especially to someone weaned on English ale that had been forced to put up with cold fizzy lager for the best part of a fortnight. I was drinking on what was virtually an empty stomach, and as the afternoon wore on I became more and more affected by the beer. When Mick's boss suggested stopping off on the way home for a drink, plus a bite to eat, I was all for it.

The following evening, Mick took me to one of Cologne's famous pubs where the local beer style of “Kolsch” was actually brewed on the premises. “Kolsch” is a pale, straw coloured beer which is top-fermented. It can therefore be classed as an ale, despite its lager like colour. I did remember to take notes this time; the tavern was called Paffgen, and although the beer was served in tall thin 33cl glasses, we managed to put a fair few of them away that night.

The beer drank on the rest of that holiday was unremarkable. Almost exclusively it was cold, gassy pilsner style lager. However, my experiences in Cologne had awakened an interest in German beer at least.

Intermittent visits to France, Italy and Germany, plus a holiday in Spain in the years that followed, afforded precious little opportunity to sample any decent beer. In France, Italy and Spain, wine was the order of the day, whilst a single business trip to Hamburg, gave very little time to sample anything other than bottled pilsner.

Then, in 1984, I spotted a trip to Czechoslovakia being organised by the now sadly defunct, CAMRA Travel. I persuaded a couple of friends to accompany me on the trip (they didn't need much persuading!) We duly paid our deposits and waited eagerly for the day of our departure to arrive. I have written a separate article about the trip, but suffice to say genuine, Czech-brewed pilsner was a real eye opener, and a superb and well-crafted drink to boot. The beer we sampled in the Pilsner Urquell Brewery ranks amongst the finest I have ever tasted, as was the beer in several of Prague's fine old taverns, including U Svatheo Tomase and U Fleku.

Over the last few years my interest in continental beers has widened with my sampling of some of Belgium's delightfully different beer styles. Again, I have written elsewhere about Belgian beer. At beer festivals I have always tried to include the sampling of at least one different foreign beer style. On the home-brew front too I have experimented with the brewing of a number of different beer styles, and have successfully brewed Marzen, Bock, Doppelbock and Rauchbier, as well as Pilsner style beers, using the authentic continental malts and hops which are now available from specialised suppliers.

Despite this burgeoning interest in European beers, I have not neglected indigenous ales, porters, stouts and barley wines. British beers remain first and foremost the main love of my life. This year, (1997) I attended seven different beer festivals. At these events I tasted, for the first time, nigh on 70 new ales; the vast majority of them were excellent, some were superb. Also, in the course of a year’s drinking, I drank 60 different ales in roughly 40 separate pubs; not bad for someone who is not much of a regular pub-goer these days.

As you can see, the quest I embarked on some 30 years ago, is still going on, and will hopefully continue for many years to come."
 

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