Here’s some timely advice for those of you who love their beer.
British beer – things have changed a lot since half of England’s brewers headed for Burton-upon-Trent in Staffordshire in the late eighteenth century in search of the perfect brewing water, and although some of the more familiar brewers have disappeared – Whitbread and Bass, for example, both morphed into hotels and leisure – and crap pubs are closing by the thousand, craft brewing in the UK is in the rudest health with over 700 producers – three times as many by population as in the USA.
For all the dangerously swinging big-beer business dicks, the British beer drinker, like the wine drinker, has never had it so good.
British styles of beer, now widely replicated (and often revived) wherever microbrewers ply their trade include:
Regional differences still affect taste although the boundaries are blurring as adventurous and well-trained brewers experiment with every style and the roll-call of excellence is too long to list here for well-deserved praise but I’ll list a few of my favourites. Deep breath:
Adnam’s – for Broadside; Anglo Dutch – partly but not only for naming a beer Tabatha the Knackered; Archers – for making nearly 200 different beers in a year; Arkells for 2B – a 3.2% abv beer that tastes good; Arundel – for Sussex Mild; Badger – for Tanglefoot;Banks’s – for keeping mild alive; Bateman’s – for experiments like Combined Harvest multigrain ale; Belhaven – for Wee Heavy; Black Sheep – for Riggwelter; Brains – for keeping Welsh brewing alive; Brakspear – for staying alive and Special; Brewdog – for making a 41% abv beer called Sink the Bismarck; Cains – for brains; Caledonian – for Deuchar’s IPA (don’t pronounce the ‘ch’) and keeping the ‘shilling’ naming tradition; Camerons – for Strongarm; Crouch Vale – for Brewers Gold; Durham – for Evensong;Everard’s – for Original; Exmoor – for Wild Cat; Felinfoel – for Double Dragon; Freeminer – for Deep Shaft; Fuller, Smith & Turner– for the complex, dark amber stuff of dried orange peel, spices and caramel that is London Pride, named for the saxifrage that colonised many of the bombsites of the Blitz, and for continuing to brew HSB after they took over Gales even though it’s better than Pride; Greene King – for Old Speckled Hen, which flies the flag for good bitter, creeping in at number twenty of the bestselling beers, and proving that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs; Harvey’s – for weaning me off my mother’s milk; Harviestoun – for Ola Dubh; Hook Norton – for Old Hooky; Hop Back – for Summer Lightning, what else?; Hydes – for mild; Itchen Valley – for Fagins; Marston’s – for scintillating, super-dry, Seville orange marmalade Double Drop; Meantime Brewery – for everything;Moorhouse’s – for Black Cat; O’Hanlon’s – for Firefly; Porterhouse Brewery – for good bars; Ringwood – for Old Thumper;Robinson’s – for Old Tom; Roosters – for not compromising; St Austell – for austere, almost astringent dryness and for leaving some sweetness down in there too; St Peter’s – for purity; Samuel Smith’s – for its big, creamy northern head with a southern hoppiness, well-balanced with sweet malt (in some of the most characterful pub buildings in London); Shepherd Neame – England’s oldest brewer and another formative one for me, for Spitfire a soft, amber pillow of toasty maltiness with a curacao nightcap and Whitstable Bay’s peanut brittle hoppiness the bottle can barely contain; Thwaites – for Lancaster Bomber; Timothy Taylor – for celebrated Landlord, the best all-rounder: light but never ‘lite’, dry but never harsh, a harmonious thing of dried fruits like a fine sercial Madeira; Traquair House – for Jacobite; Wadworth – for quality in quantity; Williams Bros – for Froach Heather Ale; Wychwood – for Hobgoblin.
And praise to all of them for keeping the great tradition of cask conditioned draught beer – Britain’s dowry to the world of beer – not only alive and well but also in the rudest of health.
Published in N16 Magazine Summer 2005
I’m sure you’ve noticed some welcome new additions to our – already impressive – repertoire of inebriants here in Stokieskaya recently. Our new Baltic buddies are passionate about their beer and they seem to have brought a lot of it with them, certainly if my local offie – the UK Supermarket in Dunsmure Road – is anything to go by.
Of the recent Polish arrivals, Zywiec, which is pronounced something like ‘zuh-vee-etch’ is the daddy and is the only brand yet to have got into the mainstream, as it were – it’s on sale at the Rochester Castle as well as many of the local offies. At around £1.25 (5.6%: all prices are for 500ml) it’s about the cheapest and, although not the best, its restrained, light, dry flavours – think Beck’s for a familiar comparison – is a good introduction to the Polish style, in this case with a slightly chestnutty edge. The beer business is a truly global one these days and Zywiec is owned by Heineken. They also make crisp, clean-tasting Tatra (£1.29: 5.5%) in a pïlsner style which, like all the beers I tried, is seriously refreshing and more-ish when chilled to a point just north of freezing. Their Warka label (£1.49: 5.7%) is altogether a warmer, richer, maltier concoction with golden highlights and a hint of caramel and creaminess.
Lech (£1.29: 5.7%), is not named after the great trades unionist and begetter of glasnost, nor he after the beer, but rather both of them after the legendary founder of Poland. An elegant, pale gold and deceptively light in body, with a hint of sweetness and a really fine, tight mousse, it’s a born leader of men. At £1.39, both Zubra (which means ‘bison’), and Brok (which does not) are both excellent, the former slightly oaty with hints of lychees and the latter with rather refined notes of elderflowers. Tyskie (£1.25: 5.6%) is the biggest seller in Poland, according to their owners SAB Miller, and it’s well-balanced and rounded with a little residual sweetness to balance the hops.
Getting information from the back labels of these beers has not been straightforward, but I have managed to glean some useful nuggets to share with you. To whit: you shouldn’t drink Brok if you’re a pregnant American lady, and most of the breweries are quite old. If you want to know more, ask Pavel who tends bar at the Daniel Defoe. Another factor to bear in mind is that, by some extraordinary co-incidence, the more expensive brands are generally somewhat better than the cheaper ones.
The linguistic difficulties of Polish beer labels are, however, as nought compared to those of Lithuanian varieties, but I was helped along by the nice Ukrainian ladies at Kolos, on the corner of Northwold Road. Also, the brand names have an unfortunate tendency to sound like serious diseases but I can assure you that the only thing nasty about a case of Stipriausias is the alcohol content of 8% (£1.39). I wouldn’t have guessed that from the taste, which is well-rounded and almondish and has only a little of the sweetness of our domestic head-bangers, so I suspect a few bottles would do sterling service as a Mickey Finn.
Gintarnis (as in ‘Gintarnis elbow’) seems to come from the same stable – hopefully not literally – at the same price but is a (relatively) lightweight 4.7% alcohol. It’s not bad, but a little soapy, so given the choice I’d stick with its delinquent big brother. Slightly wheaty in style and a little yeasty to taste, Utenos (£1.39: 5.0%) is very pale and light and while it’s good beer there’s a lot of competition at this sort of price and its main market is going to be homesick Lithuanians.
Ukraine itself is represented by Obolon (£1.09: 5.2%) which is made in Kiev and is rather on the metallic side – not one of the world’s great beers, but as it’s come such a long way we must be nice to it and say it’s quite good value. It would have been good for me if I had remembered that another Polish brand, Redd’s (£1.39: 4.5%), make fruit flavoured beers, as my first big swig of their lemon variety came as a bit of a shock. Having recovered my equilibrium I came to quite like it – it tastes like the best shandy in the world, but without the unfortunate diminution of alcohol content that characterises that drink.