Beer Matters

Hope and Temperance

Don’t be alarmed, despite my doctor’s admonishments I haven’t yet joined the Band of Hope and Temperance (although I must admit to harbouring a perverse desire to visit the country’s last surviving temperance bar in Rawtenstall - it was closed for refurbishment last time I went there).

No, the title relates to a recent experience. I had been ringing for Evensong at Fulham, after which we adjourned to the Temperance (the name comes from the building’s original function as the temperance billiard hall) for a quick pint. Later that evening, walking down to my local, the Hope, I found the notion of drinking in the Hope and Temperance mildly amusing.

But then - taking a long first swig of my customary Young’s “Ordinary”, something jolted my senses. There, as the beer slid down my throat, was an unaccustomed streak of caramel/ burnt toffee maltiness. And, no, they hadn’t changed the recipe.

In the Temperance I had drunk a pint of BrewDog’s Trashy Blonde, one of those lightish ales with a pronounced “in your face” bitterness, probably due to a good dose of Cascade hops. I certainly don’t dislike such beers, although given the choice I might opt for the more refined bitterness of traditional East Kent Goldings - it’s a bit like the difference between a new world Shiraz and good Claret (and yes, I know some of you, particularly those who ring long lengths on handbells, prefer the former).

Anyway, the effect of the Trashy Blonde on my palate, over an hour later, was to make the Ordinary, which normally errs on the hoppy side of well-balanced, taste malty. Which just goes to show what a wonderfully complex and subtle thing beer is, and that our perception of flavour, like many things in life, is not anchored to any absolute standard but shaped by what has gone before.

This of course has consequences. If you go to a beer festival and have ten different pints, the experience, enjoyable as it may be at the time, is unlikely to constitute a serious evaluation of the brews in question, assuming you even remember much about it the following day. Even if, like Old PH, you make meticulous notes on each pint as you drink it, the fine tuning of your palate has been skewed since the first one.

And the same must apply to more serious tasting sessions. For a couple of years I was on the beer tasting panel for the Tesco Drinks Awards. In teams of four or five we had to rate up to twenty beers in about an hour and a half. Admittedly it was all nosing and sipping rather than quaffing beer festival style; there were spittoons and water and biscuits to cleanse the palate, but I do wonder how much the running order affected the final outcome. (I suppose they could have called us in on twenty consecutive days to sample one beer at a time but that would scarcely amount to a valid comparison either.)

I had better not go too far down this track, lest I am berated by some unfortunate brewer whose bottles failed to make it onto the supermarket shelves. But you see what a fascinating and capricious business it is. And to me that’s all part of the appeal. No doubt scientists can explain these things in terms of enzymes and phenols and suchlike, but I’m with Benjamin Franklin on this one: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”.

Maximus Bibendus

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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