Sunday, 23 July 2006


I had intended this to be a cultural blog, full of literature; however at the moment I am drinking rather more than I am reading. And I wanted to make a defence of beer, by which I mean ale, bitter; what is sometimes dismissed by people as "warm beer". This makes me laugh. You don't drink red wine at 2C, so why drink a flavoursome, malty, hoppy, tangy, fruity beer at such a low temperature that you can barely taste anything and your tongue is numbed as it goes down?

Don't get me wrong. As much as I support CAMRA I am not a member and I do enjoy lager. Nothing better than that first pint of Stella on a warm, mild, or indeed cold day. But ale and bitter come in so many varieties with such widely varying flavours that it seems a shame just to dismiss them as being for old farts. Pete Brown in his excellent Man Walks into a Pub explains the decline of the traditional beers thus: 1) appalling and expensive mergers and campaigns by the old big brewers (Watney's Red, anyone?); 2) terrible methods of keeping the beers by pubs; 3 (most persuasively for me) ale and bitter were the drinks of our fathers and grandfathers so it was entirely natural that as iconoclasts my generation and those to come after us, refuse to drink anything old codgers drink. I would add to this that as (stronger) lager has become fashionable, (weaker) bitter has permanently lost out as simply less satisfying to the average drinker who wants to get tipsier quicker. I can still read The Spectator after four pints of Stella, The Economist after three; but if I were drinking, say, Worthingtons, it would be seven and six respectively (that is a guess by the way) - bitters just do not have the effect on people they used to have. My late grandad (gawd bless 'is soul) could down 5 pints of bitter quicker than me when he was 83 and I 22; but he never, ever, drank Stella. I think he would have found it much harder to go back to work after a lunchtime's "reassuringly expensive" drinking.

We may demand more alcohol for our tipsiness; and that is a process that can only go one way. But we are missing out on some beautiful tastes. Bitter can be chilled (not made cold) so you don't have to drink warm beer (terrible phrase); and many bottled beers are now 4.5 - 5% so there is no need to drink what you think is as weak as Christiano Ronaldo. For my part I love a strong winter ale or IPA like Marston's Empire (get right up Johann Hari's nose by drinking this in his company) with golden, rich, fruity flavours and textures.

There is only winner though for me. Over the last ten years or so so many small brewers have sprung up in response to the deaths of the big brewers and have really devoted the time and energy to their beer that the Germans have been doing since 1500. We have had to go right back into our past to recover our genius for beer, but one brewery has quietly been making quality beer, sipped cold or warm, that has a lovely hoppy flavour but not overwhelming all this time. It also has the clean and refreshing texture of lager, where it is kept well, and as I have just discovered, as well as being great at the pump it is also brilliant in bottles (though with a less complex flavour, slightly less - woody? nutty? As you can see I am rubbish at describing flavours). The beer?

Hook Norton. Brewed quietly in a gorgeous corner of Oxfordshire since about 1850 it has been gaining currency as a pump beer in this part of the world for a few years now. There are several varieties of it too, all of which are wonderful (Old Hooky - very nutty; Hooky Gold; strong and delicious; 303AD - not Hooky itself but the same brewery - lovely).

There are many others, including IPAs, but I just wanted to place on record my love of Hooky, although I am drinking a bottle of Young's (excellent) bitter at this very moment.

I must repeat: do not take my word for the flavours; I can barely remember the texture of drink or food and need to continually sample it to recall it, but that is just a sad fact of life and not gluttony at all; go out and buy a pint of good ale or bitter today. Your mates might think you are a nobhead but your tastebuds will love you for ever.

No comments: