Last of the summer beer
Forget the national blands: try the firm, tasty seasonal ales
Inspired by the attention given by some wine-lovers to beaujolais nouveau, brewers are becoming ever keener to revive their own deeply rooted seasonal traditions.
In the not-so-distant days of farmer-brewers, light and refreshing beers were produced for workers at harvest time and stronger ones for cooler weather. Both beers could be produced from a single brew. They were separated at the point in the production process where warm water is run through barley malt, in a vessel similar to a coffee filter. The first time the vessel was filled, strong "keeping beer" was produced. The "second runnings" made "small beer" (the phrase is more than a metaphor). In Italy, a similar distinction is made between types of espresso coffee.
Both the new season's barley malt and the hops are ready for brewing in late September or October.
The barley harvest in July, and the picking of the hops in August and September, are a further seasonal element in brewing. If barley is left unharvested, the grains eventually fall from the stalk, then lie on the ground for a couple of months waiting for wetter weather in which they can sprout and reseed. Even barley that has been harvested continues to obey this law of nature. It needs a couple of months' "dormancy" before it can be turned into malt. Both the new season's barley malt and the hops are ready for brewing in late September or October.
All of these seasonal elements were highlighted the other day in a tasting organised by the Brewers' Society. The idea was to compare the last of the summer beer with the first of the autumn and winter brews.
On a sunny day, the name Indian Summer Beer seemed appropriate on an entry from the Eldridge Pope brewery of Dorchester. This golden beer, made with a proportion of wheat in addition to the normal barley, was fruity-tasting, spritzy and crisp, with an alcohol content of only 4.0 per cent.
Its summer rival, from Tolly Cobbold of Ipswich, was Sunshine Bitter, a golden ale of 4.2 per cent, made from barley malt and more heavily dosed with hops to provide a dry, cleansing, late finish. If you live in either brewery's trading area and see these beers, sample them before they vanish for another year.
Another evocative name was Harvest Moon from McMullen's, of Hertford. This was an orangey-coloured, softly textured ale of 4.3 with herbal, almost minty, notes. The colour, and some satisfyingly nutty flavours, came from a type of malt in which the natural sugars are crystallised by being stewed. Those herbal notes originated from the renowned variety of hops known as Fuggles (after the farmer who first isolated the strain).
There was also a Harvest Ale, at 4.5, from King and Barnes of Horsham, Sussex. The hops were Goldings, picked by the brewer himself and used the same day in their "green" state. Only one brew a year can be made in this way. Because they wilt within hours, hops are normally dried in a kiln to preserve them. The green hops have a resiny, retsina-like flavour that is immensely appetising.
The Shepherd Neame brewery in Faversham, Kent, is in the heart of Goldings country. It emphasised this variety in its Goldings Harvest Ale at 5.0 per cent. New season's Goldings were used during brewing, and again in maturation. (This extra addition is like adding herbs to a soup or stew just before it served). The distinctively earthy characteristics of the Goldings came through powerfully in the finish of this "varietal" ale.
Whatever they were, they provided a distinctive aroma and flavour of flowering currant, more reminiscent of some American hops.
There was an unusual secrecy about the hop varieties used in the entry from Tetley's of Leeds, Yorkshire. The brewery would say only that its Autumn Ale, at 4.2, was hopped with a blend of varieties from the Hereford and Worcester growing region. Whatever they were, they provided a distinctive aroma and flavour of flowering currant, more reminiscent of some American hops.
Styrian hops, from Slovenia, gave a big lemon-grass aroma to Royal Stag, an autumn ale of 4.5 from the Mansfield Brewery of Nottinghamshire. Another Midlander, Bass of Burton-on-Trent, gave a toasty, dark malt character to its Brewery Month Beer. That fine Burton brewery, Marston's, added a slightly sulphury and complex Regimental India Pale Ale, at a hefty 5.5 per cent for the cooler weather
There was a malt accent again, with raisiny, chocolatey notes and a chestnut colour in Wake Ale, at 5.0, from Gibbs Mew of Salisbury. While this Wiltshire brewery offered its wake to summer, another from the same county looked to winter: Arkell's of Swindon used oatmeal to create a silky, enwrapping porter at 4.8. In a similar style, Everard's of Leicester went a step further in this direction with a burnt-tasting stout offering a long, lingering finish.
This was just a sampler of the seasonal ales offered by breweries. By the time the winter fires are lit, there will be many that are stronger and the odd one that is spiced. We have come a long way from when the Brewers' Society was dominated by men who thought we should be satisfied at all times with national blands such as Watney's Red Barrel, Whitbread Tankard or Double Diamond.
Published Online: APR 7, 2000
Published in Print: OCT 1, 1994
In: The Independent
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