Beer Matters

“Oh taste and see haw gracious the (land)lord is”

You’ve got to hand it to the Lord; when He designed the Universe, He came up with some pretty ingenious ideas. There’s Relativity and Chaos Theory for example, but one of His masterstrokes was to endow the humble yeast with the amazingly useful ability to turn malt into alcohol.

Unfortunately, getting the finished product from the fermenting vat to the glass requires a fair amount of human intervention and this is where things can go horribly wrong – not so much in the brewery, where every step in the process tends to be strictly controlled, but in the cellar. Real beer is a living, breathing organism. Nurtured by a skilled cellarman, it has the potential to mature into absolute nectar. Neglected and abused, it becomes a stale, lifeless liquid which quickly degenerates to vinegar. Then there is the perennial problem that, if the beer is poor, fewer people drink it, turnover falls, the beer deteriorates faster, even fewer people drink it, and so on.

So what can be done? Given the price of beer these days, and most of it tax at that, no-one should be obliged to put up with a product that is sour or less than satisfactory. Bad beer isn’t really an issue. No self-respecting drinker should have the slightest hesitation in sending back a pint with a strong whiff of vinegar about it. It’s the indifferent pint that concerns me: there’s nothing specifically wrong with it, it’s just insipid or dull and jaded and you know from the first mouthful that you are not going to enjoy it.

As consumers we should be more demanding. While British stoicism is generally a positive trait, it has its downside in the acceptance of inferior food and drink. Ask to taste the beer. It may not always go down well with the establishment (I remember many years ago incurring the wrath of a licensee when the entire band ordered one half of Young’s Winter Warmer – a fine ale when on form but notoriously variable – and passed it round for sampling) but any enlightened landlord ought to welcome a critical appraisal of his wares. After all, happy drinkers will drink more and come back again, while disgruntled customers may never darken his doors again.

Attitudes to quality are slowly changing (just think how ghastly pub food was 30 years ago) and many pubs nowadays are not averse to tasting. Wetherspoons, to their credit, have a well-publicised “try before you buy” policy. Hogshead offer a set of four sample glasses at a price, but that is not quite the same thing.

But in the end, however much good, bad or indifferent ale we might endure, now and again comes an outstanding pint that makes all others pale into insignificance (I think, for example, of ESB at the Duke of Hamilton in Hampstead). You can tell before you even taste it. There is a light, frothy head that quickly subsides, not a tight, fizzy head or a flat, scummy one. You raise the glass to your nose and inhale the fresh, heady aroma of hops. Finally you take a mouthful and the taste buds are overwhelmed with its rich malty flavour and lingering bitterness. And for a moment all is well with the world and you smile and in your heart thank the Lord for His bounty.

Maximus Bibendus

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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