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Go with the grain

The aroma-rich world of beer remains unexplained by many. Tap into it, says Michael Jackson.

The Jilly Goolden extremes of winespeak may get up our nose, but we readily accept the grapes of Sussex and Sonoma, the Cote de Rhone and Cloudy Bay as being seriously enjoyable. So why do many decent, upstanding people have difficulty in fully appreciating the diverse pleasures of the beers available to us: whether a properly flavoursome Bohemian lager, Bavarian wheat beer, British bitter, Irish dry stout or Californian ale?

The Blue Nun has recognised that her past offerings failed to please today's wine drinker. But why are the Blue Nuns of the beer world still so much more evident than, say, the Trappist ales of Belgium?

The Blue Nuns of the beer world? "Premium Lager' is often the code on the labels. There is much more to be enjoyed than just the dubious refreshment of the bland, sweetish, international brand of lager, the behaving-badly of a headbanger or a cosily. anorakish bout of beer-boring.

There is a world of arousing aroma and flavour out there. But those of us who enjoy it feel sometimes that we are members of an evangelical cult.

Even the Mesopotamians thought their beers were worth serving in golden straws to a high priestess. Monks and princes still make beer in Germany and Belgium. and both of those countries serve their brews with some reverence. There are certainly moments for the unpretentious pleasure of the plain pint, hut there are also occasions. as in Belgium, for the Champagne flute of raspberry Iambic, the trappist chalice, or the Burgundy sampler sparkling with a flavour-packed golden ale.

Whisper it not in Volvo-land, but wine is, in some respects, the less sophisticated of the two drinks.

Whisper it not in Volvo-land, but wine is, in some respects, the less sophisticated of the two drinks. Crush fruit (usually grapes), run off the juice, ferment it and you have wine. A more elaborate transaction than the crush is required in the case of grain (usually barley). It is steeped in water, allowed to sprout for a week, then dried in a kiln. The grain has now become malt. Make an infusion or decoction of this malt in water; boil it with a flavouring of hops; ferment that; now you have beer.

Wine speaks of the soil, the weather, the grape and the skill of the vintner; beer's story is of the rock from which the water rises, the soil and weather available to the maltster and brewer, and the skills of both. So why is the simpler and less popular of the two drinks the more respected? Why cite wine at all in a discussion about beer? Simply because everyone knows something of wine and precious few understand beer beyond myths about the potency of particular brews.

We drink more wine than ever, partly because it enjoys the glamour of coming from somewhere else. We drink less beer than ever, partly because it comes from here. We take it for granted (that is why we trouble to know so little about it).

We don't even think about beer being grown. It is grown here, and we do not even notice it: the fields of barley in Dorset, East Anglia (especially), the Vale of York and the Scottish borders; the hop yards and gardens in Herefordshire, Worcester and Kent. The British Isles makes some of the world's great beers, along with Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic and several bordering countries.

Beer is the natural drink of cool countries that grow grain; wine of the warmer nations that cultivate grapes.

Beer is the natural drink of cool countries that grow grain; wine of the warmer nations that cultivate grapes. The finest beers are often found where the two meet: where the Champagne region of France yields to Belgium: in the Rhineland and Bavaria; where Bohemian hops meet Moravian barley. In the New World, Northern California, Oregon and Washington state are the greatest beer regions.

As a trainee beer-lover, I tried to sample my way around Britain's breweries; in those days, there were about 135. Today, wait for it, there are about 470. Yes, despite well publicised closures, the number of breweries has greatly increased. So has the stylistic variety of their products. We drink less beer, but we choose from far more brews.

Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: NOV 29, 1997
In: The Independent


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