Beer Matters

For now I’m a judge...

[OK, you can skip the chorus.]

The other day I went on a course run by the Beer Academy ( “How to judge beer”. Assuming you wish to be fair and consistent, judging beer can be a bit nerve-wracking, like judging a striking contest. There’s not the same time constraint of course; at least you can take another sip of beer, whereas once you’ve heard a change it’s gone and you’re listening to the next one. But tasting beer, like listening to ringing, can be a very subjective experience, so I went along to the White Horse in Parsons Green hoping to gain a little more objectivity in the matter.

My fellow students were a mixed bunch: two chaps with matching tee shirts in the process of setting up a new microbrewery, two young ladies from the marketing department of an established regional, an experienced publican and sommelier, the chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group, an organiser of local beer festivals and general enthusiast and a senior member of the CAMRA administration. Our tutor, a master brewer, aimed to teach us what to look for (or, primarily, smell and taste for) when analysing a beer. I was a little taken aback to see him pouring out cans of Carling at the start of the session but it transpired there was a good reason for that.

Wine buffs have sometimes tended to be dismissive of beer (although that is probably changing) but, while wine is capable of enormous subtlety, beer is inherently more complex and capable of a much broader palette of flavours. We were taken through the basic ingredients (malt, hops, yeast, water) and shown the numerous ways in which they can contribute to, or detract from, the taste, aroma and appearance of a beer. We chewed malt grains, tasted partially fermented wort and sampled a whole range of ales, lagers, wheat beers and lambics, including an uncompromisingly sour Gueze. The aforementioned glasses of Carling were all spiked with various contaminants to illustrate some of the negative effects.

An important aspect of judging beer is whether it is “true to type”. The classification of beer styles is a comparatively new phenomenon, owing much to the late Michael Jackson’s * research, and still contentious but most competitions or award schemes define their own categories. The Brewers Association, a body representing American craft brewers, recognises (at the last count) 139 distinct beer styles. Other authorities might consider that a little excessive - around 20 to 30 would probably suffice for most purposes.

With palates tiring and brains struggling to process the information imparted over the previous four hours, we split into three judging panels and conducted a blind tasting of four wheat beers. Gratifyingly, for us and our tutor, the results were remarkably consistent. And then, naturally, we headed for the bar.

Christmas through a glass darkly

The star in the yeast

I would normally recommend a dark beer for Yuletide consumption but this year I’m going to suggest Jaipur (to which I alluded briefly in my last article). Thornbridge (Bakewell, Derbys) is a relatively new brewery and has an interesting range of which Jaipur is definitely the pick of the bunch. Clearly intended as a true IPA (India Pale Ale), it is a light amber colour with an intense floral bouquet, plenty of body and a strong but not overpowering hoppy finish. Just the thing to revive a jaded palate. It should also go well with spicy food too, indeed I am trying to persuade my local Indian restaurant to put it on the menu alongside the Cobra and Kingfisher. Waitrose sells the bottled version and Wetherspoons have been known to stock it on draught.

And finally, a couple of dark beers worth looking out for this winter:
Fuller’s Black Cab - a good all round stout, not too sweet or bitter and eminently drinkable.
Sambrooke’s Powerhouse Porter - the beer I tasted in its embryonic stage when I visited the brewery last year - very porter-ish but the taste still bears the brewery’s ”family likeness” (due to the yeast apparently).


* I meant of course the “Beer Hunter”, not the other one.

Maximus Bibendus

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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