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Beers for all occasions

My latest book presents brews according to the mood and moment

Friends call at my house for a beer, asking eagerly: "Have you any new discoveries?" I offer them an authentic Vienna lager; a dazzling golden Triple, from Belgium; a Yorkshire bitter made with six varieties of American Pacific hop; a smoked beer from the ninja country of Japan.

They sample, dubiously. "It's nice," they say, unconvincingly, "but not very refreshing." Or even: "It's good, but I couldn't drink pints of it all night in the pub." Well, those are two uses of beer, but only a couple. Some beers are meant for other moments or moods. They have, if you like, other uses.

Even if you want nothing more than simple refreshment, you could do much better than the familiar Foster's, Corona, American Bud, Carling, Heineken, Grolsch, Beck's and similar international-style golden lagers from Ruritania, Xanadu or Bongoland. People imagine that these beers are enormously different from one another, but they are all lighter-bodied, blander-tasting, distant impersonations of just one style: the Pilsner lager of Bohemia. None of these imitators is truly individualistic.

Far more refreshment is offered by the yeasty, fruity, acidity of a German-style wheat beer (identified on the label by the words Weizen, Weisse or Weissbier), easy to find in a supermarket but rarer in the pub. Or a more readily available, citric-tasting, pale "white" Belgian wheat beer like Hoegaarden. Or, if you can find it, a tingly, sweet-and-sour, oak-aged Flemish ale such as Rodenbach.

The quenching of thirst is not the main business of the pub. We often claim to be thirsty when we feel like a drink after work, but our real need is for relaxation and sociability.

The quenching of thirst is not the main business of the pub. We often claim to be thirsty when we feel like a drink after work, but our real need is for relaxation and sociability. Something more soothing is required: not too acidly sharp or aggressively sparkly, lower in carbonation - higher in more-ish dryness (we plan to have several pints, if you recall).

A Bavarian would probably opt for a fresh local lager, drily malty and spicily hoppy, in the basic style known as Helles ("pale"). The burghers of Cologne, a city famous for taverns making their own beer, would not choose a lager. Their local Kšlschbier is a light-bodied, aromatic, golden ale. Fashionable Dźsseldorf also has a brewpub tradition, favouring a beautifully-balanced amber ale called Altbier. Across the Belgian border, Antwerp has its local De Koninck, served in a bowl-shaped glass embarrassingly called a bolleke. This beer is a yeastier, spicier, counterpart to an English pale ale or bitter. And for a sociable beer in these islands? In England, a pint of bitter; across the border, a Scottish ale; over the sea, a stout. These are incomparably the best brews for the job; to choose anything else is to sell yourself short and spurn the best of British.

Quenching beers and sociable ones ... what about the other uses of the brew? A young woman asked me the other day what I would prescribe as a "comfort beer", the alcoholic equivalent to nurseryish foods like tomato soup or egg-and-chips, I suppose. My suggestions for that mood: a mild ale, a sweet stout, a "black" lager like the rare Kšstritz Schwarzbier (which comforted Goethe) or a similar example being brewed experimentally by Freedom, in London? I have dubbed those "restoratives" in my latest book.

I wanted to call the book "Beer - A User's Guide" but my publisher, who holds the purse-strings, would not agree. In his view, drinkers would not be persuaded that they need a guide to the uses of beer. I think they do. The publisher opted, with great originality, for "Beer - by Michael Jackson," but each chapter does, indeed, present brews according to mood or moment.

Pubs may offer on draught just one style of extra-bland lager (under however many names), a bitter or three and a stout, but any sizable supermarket has a bewildering range of anything from 50 and 200 brews. Which to choose? It depends upon the uses you have in mind for your purchase. If all of the are judged purely as quenchers or sociable brews, some of the most interesting will die from neglect.

In Belgium, even the most viticultural haute cuisine is apt to be preceded by a Duvel, served in a Burgundy sampler.

The keenest of beer-lovers often favour intense brews, like the most bitter India Pale Ales, the Belgian Trappist brew Orval, its demonic opposite Duvel ("Devil"), or Americans such as Tuppers' Hop Pocket (newly available in Britain) or Anchor Liberty. In Belgium, even the most viticultural haute cuisine is apt to be preceded by a Duvel, served in a Burgundy sampler. The herbal dryness of these beers make them terrific aperitifs, arousing the gastric juices like a Campari.

With the meal? Perhaps a Belgian Gueuze would go with soup; a dry stout like Guinness with shellfish, in the Victorian tradition; a brown ale with a nutty salad; an old ale such as Greene King Strong Suffolk with pickled dishes; an extra-strong lager like a Doppelbock with paté; a dark lager with sausages; a true Pilsner (perhaps Bitburger) with fish; an Oktoberfest lager with chicken; an Irish ale with pork; a French bière de garde with lamb; a pale ale with beef; a port-ish abbey beer like Chimay Grande Réserve with cheese; a cherry beer with a fruit dessert; an oatmeal stout with something creamy; and an even stronger style as an after-dinner beer, possibly with a cigar.

The Imperial, or Baltic, style of stout is a natural warmer, as I confirmed at a kiosk outside the Winter Palace in St Petersburg one snowy day last year. In November and December, I might look to a barley wine as a nightcap, but there are whole ranges of beers for the four seasons: a spiced brew at Christmas, a Maibock in spring, a lemon-tinged summer brew.

"What about a beer when you sneak downstairs in the middle of the night?" a friend inquired. "Young's Chocolate Stout," I responded, smooth as a fridge door. "And when you want to get drunk?" Were I of that inclination, I might change tipples. You see, the average strength of beers is about half that of wines, and a tenth that of some spirits. As a means of inebriation, it is very inefficient. That is why Men Behaving Badly are such losers.

Published Online: SEPT 11, 1999
Published in Print: OCT 10, 1998
In: The Independent

Beer Review - Food/Pairings

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