Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Some thoughts on beer

Not the kind of Belgian beer I favour.

The weekend before last I had the great pleasure to attend my first-ever beer festival. There are no breweries in my town, and hence no beer festivals, but the next town north has one (sadly, it took place while I was in Reykjavík), and the next town south, which is the one I went to. I hadn't thought to look up when it was happening, but fortuitously, it was on the very day I was planning on going down there to mooch around the shops (there's an excellent greengrocer where I bought quinces a few weeks ago, and an independent kitchenware shop that sells the flip-top bottles I use for homemade liqueurs). When I mentioned it to my friends, they told me about the beer festival - so we made a date (we're all partial to beer, but they tend to shop for value, so their house is filled with mass market swill).

I've never been to either a food festival or a beer festival before - indeed, my town lacks even a farmers' market, it's so divorced from local producers. So I had no idea what to expect. I downloaded the list of beers, and organised them in order of the distance between my house and the brewery - since there were dozens, I had to decide which to try, to get my priorities straight in advance. I was told they would sell beer in 1/3 pints, as well as halves and whole pints - since I wanted to try the most possible, and not get drunk, that was ideal. Even so, I was unlikely to get through even the ones from the five counties of Northwest England (Lancashire, Cumbria, Cheshire, Greater Manchester, and Merseyside). In fact, the extremely useful website Quaffale informed me there are 108 operating breweries in the region - each producing several beers, sometimes dozens. Although the beer festival didn't have anything like all of them, it had enough to stretch a determined taster for its three days' duration. We were only going for one session, so I needed to be picky.

A large hall was filled with tables and chairs in the middle, a long bar down each side, and a smaller one in a corner. After paying entry (£3), you could buy cards of £10 or £5 value, divided into 5p, 10p, 20p, and 50p (I think); the bar staff would then cross off the amount you spent on each drink - a clever way to avoid their needing tills. You hired a glass - either a pint or a half (with a marking for 1/3) for a £2 deposit. Then you could pick whichever beer you wanted. There were around 70 domestic ales (mostly local), over 40 international bottles beers (half of them Belgian), and maybe 20 draught "farmhouse" ciders and perries.

I began with the brewery in the town holding the festival. Then one just a couple of miles from my house. My friends chose more or less at random, but we soon started splitting international beers between us - so we could try the most possible, and because they were more expensive on average. So I never got much further than 20 miles away, but I managed to try 23 beers and a single cider (I hadn't intended to, but it was a good palate cleanser, and I was intrigued that they made cider in my county - I'd never heard of such a thing).

The impression I got was consistent and rather disappointing: I much prefer Belgian beer to anything produced in the UK. That is not to say every UK ale disappoints - some are superb, and I would like to source some from the nearest brewery for future festivities (such as my birthday) - nor that Belgian beers are always good. Of course, it's a matter of taste - but mine seems to favour the Trappist styles, especially lambics, which are invariably more complex, fruity, with larger, more persistent heads, and usually higher alcohol levels. The difference, I suspect, is in the yeast - British brewers tend to employ standard brewing yeast (mostly Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or for lagers S. pastorianus), whereas many Belgian beers are brewed with wild yeasts (such as Brettanomyces spp.), native to the region, which produce more more varied aromatic compounds.

In fact, some homebrew shops now sell "lambic yeasts", which will probably match fairly closely those strains found in the old Belgian breweries, but I am not aware of any such beers made in this country (I am very happy to be proven wrong on that matter, however). I intend at some point, perhaps over the winter, when the garden is not a priority, to start making beer at home, so I will give it a try myself. However, I am left with the slightly annoying conclusion: I prefer Belgian beer. This means two things: most pubs do not serve the kind of beer I like (though having any real ale on tap is preferable to the standard international conglomerates' industrial products), and to drink what I like will cost more than the average pint. Ah well, one must suffer for quality sometimes...

I should point out, one style of beer I adore is not Belgian, namely IPA (especially so-called "American-style" IPAs, whether made in the US or over here). And I've had many enjoyable craft beers from the United States in other styles, and from other places too.

Addendum: I joined CAMRA at the festival. I'd considered it in the past, but £20 seemed a bit much for tenuous benefits. Well, this time it made sense. They refunded the £3 entry, gave you a £5 drinks voucher card, and promised £20' Wetherspoon vouchers. I appreciate the image this organisation has (for those who don't know, it's the CAMpaign for Real Ale, which seeks to support traditional brewing and pubs), but I support its aims, and share its dismay at the direction beer, brewing, and pubs had taken in recent decades (before the micro-brewing renaissance of the last few years).

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