I remember being in what was then Virgin’s flagship store in Marble Arch when Anarchy in the UK was being played — it has just been released and sounded disturbing but also exhilarating; at last I had my own Beatles, Who and Rolling Stones I thought. Then there was Max Bell’s review of Unknown Pleasures in the NME, a mention of the Doors sent me scurrying to Andy’s Records and I got the last copy in the shop. It’s still on my iPod.
In beer there have been epiphanies, which in retrospect I could have got from books or fellow writers, but it that isn’t as much fun.
There I was on the French-Belgo border in the autumn of 2005, visiting bière de garde breweries for a feature and as I shared a glass of Cuvee de Jonquilles with Roger Bailleux, owner of Brasserie au Baron, I realised that my whole notion of bière de garde was wrong.
As I wrote at the time: Yet, trying to pin down the meaning of bière de garde is like having to sculpt Rodin’s Thinker with blancmange. The definition is wobbly. The beers of Northern France, because of their proximity to Belgium, have their fair share of spicy blancs (known as witbiers over the border), citrusy tripel look-alikes and even fruit beers (La Choulette’s Framboise is a splendid example). There are also big and beefy ambrées with spicy, earthy hoppy notes, as well as pale ales. All also romp home between 6-8.5%, so they’re not for the faint-hearted, and are ideal partners for the local robust cuisine.
I thought of the next epiphany last week when I was drinking a glass of tank Pilsner Urquell at the White Horse after a weary day judging at the International Beer Challenge. I remembered my visit to Pivovar Dobrany in a town a few kilometres outside Pilsen and the time when I realised that many 12˚ svetly lezak were of the Pilsner style, but because PU got there first and was still regarded with some affection no Czech brewer used the word (as opposed to brewers throughout the world).
Here is what I wrote in my piece in All About Beer. Dobranska Hvezda is the 12˚ svetly lezak (light lager), a superlative beer with sweet toasted grain, slight pepperiness and delicate Saaz-derived floral notes all vying for attention on the nose. The palate has a hint of fruit pastilles, a slight sweetness and a long lasting dry and bitter finish. A light bulb flashes on in my head. I ask Petruzalek if what we are drinking is really a Pilsner style, bearing in mind the closeness of the historical brewery (I didn’t know then that he had worked there until 2003). The answer, translated, comes back. ‘All these beers would be adjudged to be a Pilsner style, because of the way they are made.’
A couple of paras down, I then wrote: Eager to discover more I communicated with Josef Tolar, formerly brew master at Budweiser Budvar (Czechvar). I asked him how he would define a Pilsner, was it the same as svetly lezak? His reply was short and succinct: ‘the Pilsner style is really svetly lezak in the Czech Republic.’ Budvar’s bottle labels in their home country bear the legend svetly lezak, make of that what you will.
Ok, straightforward simple stuff (and you can argue that Budvar and a Pilsner are different to each other), which no doubt most people know but what I enjoyed was finding out for myself, this is why beer and travel are mutual allies; you have to get out there. Beer is not an armchair sport. There have been other epiphanies: back in February realising how good Italian brewers had got when I judged a flight of DIPAs at the Birra del Anno in snowy Rimini; the connection between Bavarian and Bohemian beer after a glass of tank fresh Spezial at Pivovar Chodovar, something that I am still researching and obsessed with.
The continuation of epiphanies long into the future fills me with glee for when they cease I may be dead.