Beer Matters

Bibo ergo cogito

“Why do some beers make you philosophical?” said Mrs Bibendus as I sat pondering – over a pint naturally – what to write about next. Well, the short answer to the question is “I don’t know” but it set me thinking, as things do.

One beer which has always made me philosophical, ever since I first discovered it as a long-haired, loon-wearing young man over forty years ago, is Fuller’s ESB. A couple of pints of that rich, mellow brew can induce a relaxed, contemplative frame of mind in which the world can be gently put to rights*. Indeed, when it’s on top form, as it always used to be in the Duke of Hamilton in Hampstead, it can convince one that all is well with Creation. I’m sure I’ve quoted Benjamin Franklin before but his words are worth repeating: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” AE Housman had the same idea “And malt does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man”, even if subsequent lines suggest his tongue was a little cheekwards.

Talking of the Duke of Hamilton, I haven’t been there for a while and suspect the expert cellarman has long since retired. I hesitate to return. Not long ago I revisited Rose’s in Woolwich, where I used to drink when I worked in the vicinity. It was also a favourite watering hole of the late Richard Bing and after his funeral a number of us gathered there to raise a glass to our departed friend. Since then it has changed hands and been threatened with closure. It still looked vaguely familiar and there were several ales on offer but the tender loving care with which Dave used to nurture the casks in his cellar was absent and Jackie’s corned beef hash was but a fond memory.

As I grow older I increasingly feel that revisiting old haunts is a recipe for disappointment and that there is more satisfaction to be had in seeking the best in the new or unfamiliar. To that end I’ve started keeping a list of pubs which I’ve visited recently and found agreeable. It should be on my website by the time you read this.

MB with brewer Ed

Regular readers may have noticed that I’m rather keen on the idea of local beers – and they don’t come much more local than this. The George and Devonshire in Chiswick is a stone’s throw from St Nicholas’ Church and Fuller’s Brewery. On the evening of 9th December parishioners and clergy met for the unveiling of a new pump clip and St Nicholas Ale went on sale at £4 a pint with all the proceeds going to charity.

Brewer Ed Fryer had created a unique beer by taking what would have become Bengal Lancer and dry-hopping it with fresh hops from Sir Alan Munro’s garden in Chiswick Mall. The result was a well-balanced golden-brown ale at 5% ABV with fruity, spicy overtones and a satisfying bitter finish. Sadly, within half an hour of the ringers arriving it had run out (and yes, that’s probably more cause and effect than coincidence).

If you read my last article, you’re almost certainly waiting to know what the world’s strongest beer is like. My bottle of Brewmeister Snake Venom duly arrived unscathed and complete with a bright yellow label around the neck warning that it should not be drunk in quantities of more than 35ml – which seems a little over-cautious for, if my calculations are correct, 35ml at 67.5% represents slightly less alcohol than a pint at 5%, but I suppose it’s either there to satisfy the “Drink Aware” lobby or to heighten the dramatic effect.

Snake Venom

When I opened the bottle as a prelude to a family dinner, everyone’s first reaction was one of disbelief. Could this liquid really have the alcoholic content of a cask-strength whisky? The sinus-permeating vapours, the tingling mouth-feel, the warming glow as it slips down the oesophagus - there was none of that. Instead the texture was not unlike that of port.

On reflection I think there are probably sound scientific reasons for this. The end product of distillation (i.e. boiling off and then condensing the alcohol) is a light, volatile liquid which carries only the subtle flavours of the original ingredients. By contrast, freezing out the water at the end of fermentation (which is how these ultra-strong beers are made) leaves behind the heavier elements in the brew – the hop oils, the residue of malt sugars and traces of yeast – along with the alcohol, resulting in a totally different feel in the mouth and on the nose.

So what did it taste like? Many epithets were forthcoming as first impressions gave way to the lingering finish, including Worcester sauce, maple syrup, marmalade… Surprisingly my daughter-in-law, who is not a beer drinker, said she rather liked it. All in all it was an interesting experience but - at £50 for a tiny bottle - not one to be repeated or recommended as good value. (Oh, the sacrifices I make to keep my readers happy.)

Returning to the realm of more sensible and accessible beers, I notice my local Tesco Extra has a whole shelf of stouts, porters and old ales which it recommends for winter drinking. Well done, Tesco.

And to all my readers, may you find something to warm those mysterious coronary molluscs this Christmas.

Maximus Bibendus

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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