Beer Matters

Doing Porridge

It’s not every day you get invited to a beer and porridge tasting, so I turned up at the Spice of Life in Soho not knowing quite what to expect.

As you all know, malt is a principal ingredient of beer and malt is (usually) made from barley. Robin Appel Ltd, the owners of Warminster Maltings, commissioned a project from the Brewing Research Institute. They wanted to know whether different varieties of barley had a significant effect on the finished product and, in particular, whether the reputation of Maris Otter, a malting barley which has been popular since its introduction in 1960, could be justified technically. BRI drew up taste profiles of various barley varieties (this is where the porridge comes in). Interestingly, the most common type of profile is bell shaped. They also malted the barleys and brewed a beer from each, the other ingredients being identical. Having done the initial testing under laboratory conditions, it was decided to repeat the tasting with a panel of brewers and beer writers.

The event began (well, after a quick pint) with a slightly worrying talk on world cereal markets. Barley has a lower yield per acre than wheat but generally commands a better price per ton. Farmers naturally tend to grow what is profitable and the malting industry has always had to compete with flour milling and animal feed to maintain barley prices at a viable level. For reasons which were not entirely clear, world cereal prices have fluctuated wildly in the last year or so but two strong future trends are emerging: the increasing use of grain to make ethanol for motor fuel, and the growth of China’s economy creating demand for a western-style high-protein diet (hence millions more animals to be fed). What this ultimately means for the beer drinker is undoubtedly higher prices although, to put things in proportion, the cost of the malt in a pint is only a few pence.

Then it was down to the real business of the day. We each had a paper plate with eight numbered dollops of grey goo, a plastic spoon and a tasting sheet on which to rate each porridge’s flavour in such terms as bitter, sweet, biscuit, toffee, fruit, chocolate, burnt, nutty, green or sulphur. Why, I wondered, was chicken feed not an option? The answer soon became apparent: they all tasted like chicken feed, albeit with variations, i.e. chicken feed with biscuit, chicken feed with toffee etc.

As the little piles of goo slowly diminished (I think only one brave soul ate the lot), the staff began pouring samples of beer into our numbered plastic beakers and, yes, there were pronounced differences, not just in taste but in mouth-feel and head retention. Some of the characteristics apparent in the porridge were carried through into the beer, although I struggled to find any correlation in some cases. Perhaps my palate was getting jaded. Mercifully only beer no. 4 tasted of chicken feed.

And the result? From the comments made, no clear favourite emerged but Maris Otter, revealed as no. 2, managed to keep its reputation intact. Tipple (no. 4) and Westminster were given a decisive thumbs down. For the record, the other varieties were Pearl (not, I assume, to be confused with the stuff you put in Irish stew, presumably called pearl barley because it’s polished), Optic, Cocktail, Cellar and Flagon (do I detect a theme here?). One head brewer, whose ales I much admire, declared himself a Maris Otter man but another admitted to using the cheaper Optic (no. 1, which did quite well in our test) although he does tend to brew speciality bottled beers rather than no-nonsense cask ales. Most agreed it had been an interesting experience.

Then we all trooped up to the bar for a little something* to take away the taste of the porridge.

Maximus Bibendus

* McMullen’s Cask Ale, 3.8%, refreshing and hoppy - rather good.

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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