Tuesday 19 October 2010

Get a beer style and riff on it

Ahead of me, brewing Valhalla: the gleam of light, rosy red, cold spotlights of white at the centre of the glow. Copper highlights, triple decked (a trinity of brewing kettle, fermentation and maturation vessels); the soft bready note on the nose of the Helles in my hand. Soon to come, Oktoberfest, a gorgeously elegant interplay of malt and hops, Arsenal stroking the ball around on the field delivered into the glass. The British Guild of Beerwriters’ annual seminar has just been held at Meantime’s fabulous Old Brewhouse in Greenwich. Beer styles, the nature of, whom, what and why, are being debated, discussed and dissected; commerciality, the customer, light and dark, mild and bitter? Over 100 beer styles now, we are told, chime and charm at the Great American Beer Festival; if this goes on there will soon be a style for every day of the year. Then the three speakers start. Meantime’s founder and brewmaster Alastair Hook charts his journey through the beerlands of Europe and the wider world; the Beer Academy’s George Philliskirk ponders on the relevance of beer styles to the drinker, while Steve Williams scratches his head over the pointlessness of three categories of low alcohol beer. Others make pointed points, but there’s no definite answer, though scepticism seems rife on the GABF ‘more is less’ mentality. Though for me there’s one word that rings through the night: evolution. This makes perfect sense — a beer style evolves and should evolve over time, what’s the point in standing still? Mild with black pepper, lager with Maris Otter, bring it on. To my mind you have a beer style and then it’s up to brewers to riff on it — Black IPA, why not? We’ve got Black Lager and wasn’t there something called Pale Stout once upon a time? And besides, as others have written elsewhere, dwelling too much on beer styles can make you go mad (or at least take up Rate Beer), maybe it’s the equivalent of the medieval debate on the amount of angels you can get on the head of a pin. At the bar afterwards, one of de Gaulle’s numerous quotes parades its words on the wall of my brain: ‘How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?’ Cheese has a multitude of varieties but nobody (as far I can see) gets aggravated about this in the way the classification of beer styles seem to get some normally sensible folks’ blood boiling (unless I suppose someone plonks those cut-price commodity lagers of the cheese world Canadian Cheddar or Baby Bell on your plate). I think I’ll have a drink: now where’s that triple-hopped, wheat wine/bitter hybrid lager beer?

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