Beer Matters

Humulus ad virginem

Do you remember your first taste of beer? I do. I was 14 and the occasion was a barbecue in the New Forest organised by the local amateur dramatic society, of which my mother was a member. I was given a bottle of Whitbread Light Ale and I can still recall the electrifying effect of the unfamiliar flavour of hops on my unsullied palate. No doubt if I could go back in a time machine and drink a bottle of Whitbread Light Ale from the 1960s it would now taste extremely dull and insipid, but to my young self it packed all the intensely hoppy punch that I would now expect of a big American IPA.

Thy tooth is not so keen because thou art not seen

Don’t you just hate it when bar staff resolutely avoid making eye contact? The other day I was waiting nearly 10 minutes and neither of the staff acknowledged me. To be fair, when I was eventually served they did (both of them) apologise for the wait. But it wasn’t the waiting that bothered me – there were obvious reasons for that: customers in the other bar, a cask to be changed, requests from the kitchen to put food on tables – it was the fact that I might as well have been invisible. All it would have taken to keep me happy was a glance in my direction and a few words, “be with you in a moment” or something similar. Experienced barmaids and barmen do this as a matter of course when someone approaches the bar (even in a crowded pub, which this one wasn’t) and they know who to serve next.

And while I’m on the shortcomings of bar staff, I know young people aren’t taught mental arithmetic at school any more but, when they are serving beer all day every day, do they really need to go to the till before they can tell you the price of two pints?

In dulci jubilo

But enough of the grumpy old man mode. Tis the season to be jolly – at least it probably will be by the time you get round to reading this. Last month I made Christmas puddings for the first time in three years. The past two Christmases we have eaten one that I made in 2011 and, since my recent activity produced another three large ones, I shouldn’t need to make another batch until 2017. The recipe I use is basically my grandmother’s. When I acquired a hand-written copy via my Auntie May about 40 years ago, it contained the instruction to mix the ingredients with stout or milk. As you may well imagine, the latter option was swiftly expunged from the version I have been using ever since.

Quelle est cette odour agréable?

So it occurred to me that in all the years I’ve been writing these columns I’ve never previously mentioned the culinary use of beer. [At this point I imagine some of you might be thinking “Quite right too; beer is for drinking”, but bear with me.] As well as enriching a Christmas pudding (I can’t imagine the milky version still being edible two and a bit years on), a pint of stout or porter can do wonders for a beef casserole. Mrs B and I are especially fond of ox tail these cold winter nights. A whole tail, chopped into segments, should make a good meal for two but if there’s not enough meat on it you can add a bit of shin or beef kidney. Simply roll the chunks in seasoned flour, fry briefly to seal in the flavour, pour in a bottle of stout, transfer to a casserole dish with a couple of bay leaves, an onion and a stick of celery (both chopped) and leave in a moderate oven for 4-5 hours. You could even go and ring a peal while it’s cooking. Put a brace of jacket potatoes on the other shelf and supper is ready when you get back from the pub – and a wondrous aroma will greet you as you open the door!

Same difference

Still on the subject of dark beers, the question “What is the difference between a stout and a porter?” was raised in the pub after a recent SRCY practice and later referred to me by one of those present. My initial response was “Not a lot” but after a little confirmatory research I can substantiate that with a more definitive answer. Porter came first, around the end of the 18th century (and was so named because it was allegedly the preferred tipple of London market porters). More robust versions of this ale were called “stout porter”, later shortened to stout. By the early 20th century the term porter had fallen into disuse and stout had come a long way from its origins as a strong bitter brew (remember Ena Sharples supping milk stout in the snug of the Rovers Return, or Mackeson - “Looks good, tastes good and by golly…”?). Porter was revived by some of the more enterprising among the new wave of brewers towards the end of the century and decent stouts followed, although they are not necessarily stronger or fuller of body than the porters. So the original answer still stands.

Unless of course we’re talking Imperial Russian Stout at 10-11%. Sambrooks have just released one and I’m looking forward to trying it. But whatever you’re drinking this Christmas I trust you enjoy it and wish you a fruitful New Year.

Maximus Bibendus

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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