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Struck by lightning

The wheat is grown in Wiltshire and malted in Warminster, a town otherwise noted for claimed sightings of UFOs

"Dionysus wasn't just the god of wine. He blessed beer too. You can read about it in Robert Graves's The Greek Myths. And he was forged by lightning." Brewer John Gilbert is speaking under a relief of Dionysus, or perhaps, his Roman derivation Bacchus, in the doorway of a pub in Salisbury.

It was under the smile of Dionysus/Bacchus that lightning struck for John Gilbert, After a career of making beer for other breweries, he fired his own four-barrel kettle here a decade ago. He still has the pub. The Wyndham Arms, and four or five more, but has since expanded his brew-house: first to 20 barrels, and now to 70, at an industrial estate down the road.

He recently introduced a very pale, almost greeny-gold beer called Thunderstorm, made from 50 per cent wheat in addition to the usual barley malt. Wheat adds a quenching tartness to beer. In this instance, the wheat is grown in Wiltshire and malted in Warminster a town otherwise noted for claimed sightings of UFOs.

The beer is made with the hard water that rises from Wiltshire chalk, and spiced entirely with a variety of hop called Progress. I have found in this hop, lemony and juniper aromas and flavours worthy of a martini.

I noted them all when, tasting blindfold, I sampled a prototype of Thunderstorm at last year's "Beauty of Hops" competition, organised by the national Hop Association. The organisers must have been pleased that Thunderstorm won its class, given that John Gilbert's brewery is called Hop Back (the name of the vessel in which the hop cones are strained from the finished beer).

When I recently tasted the beer at the brewery it had a huge, rocky white head; a sustained bead of small bubbles; long, very dry lemon-zest flavours; and a crisp finish. It is bottle-conditioned, but with a yeast that precipitates well, so it does not throw the heavy haze favoured by some German wheat beers. Nor is it as spicy and fruity as some of those, though the brewery's house yeast does have a touch of banana.

In the German and Belgian tradition, I like a few beers with my first feast of the new season's asparagus. (Serve it with ham, scrambled eggs, and pints.) Perhaps I will unleash a crisp, dry, Thunderstorm. Or should I stick with Summer Lightning, the first big success from Hop Back? Both beers are available from Oddbins.

As always, the face of Dionysus/Bacchus features in the labelling of Summer Lightning. ("Our graphics people tried to design him out, but we wouldn't let them.") The beer has a certain currency Gilbert was tickled to spot a bottle of the brew next to the claret, in a press photograph of Nicola Horlick in her kitchen.

The product's name was inspired not only by Graves's story but also by the title of a Wodehouse novel. Summer Lightning, too, is golden in colour until recently an unusual feature in a British ale. The colour also makes the beer acceptable to those people who hitherto felt they must switch from ale to lager in summer.

Very pale malt does create a fresh, clean, summery character which leaves the palate open for aromatic, flowery hoppy dryness in the finish. Scarcely any of the lagers available in Britain have these characteristics.

Whenever I as much as mentioned a malt or hop flavour to John Gilbert, his brewer Rick Lyall, would cut open a sack, reach in and fetch out a handful for my appraisal. Even the person who grinds the grain is expected to sample the grist.

Such compulsive smelling and tasting might be expected at all breweries, but it is by no means the norm. In some lager breweries, every vessel is enclosed to the point where the aromas of malt and hops are not evident. Some brewers, well educated in the science, appear never to have touched the grain or the blossom. Hop Back is not so much "hands on" as "hands in".

The brewery's award-garlanded summer ale has more all-round flavour than any readily obtainable golden lagerThe barley is the classic variety Mans Otter noted for its biscurty flavours, and these are enhanced by the traditional technique of floor-malting.

Again, Summer Lightning is hop-varietal. This is something of a vogue. Traditionally brewers have blended varieties, Now, more attention is being given to the aromas and flavours conferred by each.

In this instance, the hops are all East Kent Goldings, noted for their fragrantly earthy oily aromas. Again, the ale yeast adds a fruitiness, with the distinctive banana touch. The first impression is again of crisp dryness, but a roundness of more complex, subtle flavours gradually emerges.

Many brewers are now making summer beers in this style: pale malt, assertive hop and ale yeast. John Gilbert is not sure whether he was the first, but he has certainly done much to popularise the notion.

He does have something of an obsession with pale malts. He even insists on a relatively pale kilning for his darker grains, the types known to maltsters as "crystal" and "chocolate". These produce a softness in his new special bitter a cask-conditioned draught called Crop Circle, celebrating another of Wiltshire's (extra-terrestrial?) phenomena. He also likes his beers to be well-hopped.

This amber brew has a sweeter English hop, Pioneer and a spicy (cinnamon?), floral, American variety the Willamette. It is a well-balanced beer starting with malty dryness, quickly developing a sweetness, then a leafy bitterness, and finishing with a faintly cocoa-ish bitterness.

More summery ales

Cocker Hoop Golden Bitter from Jennings of Cumbria. Lively with a confident hit of hop bitterness, Also from Oddbins.

The Golden Hill brewery of Wiveliscombe, Somerset, was a pioneer of this style. Its creamy nutty Exmoor Gold is available from Tesco, In a beautiful green bottle suggesting gin, or even cosmetics, St Peter's Golden Ale is soft, smooth and flowery but rather bland. From the brewery of the same name, near Bungay Suffolk. Also at Tesco.

Published Online: FEB 26, 2000
Published in Print: MAY 17, 1997
In: The Independent

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