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Why beer is best

Ale is probably the world's most misunderstood drink

It would soon be time for dinner and I proposed a glass of the very hoppy Shepherd Neame Spitfire as an aperitif. My friends MsTimidityThinlady and her laddish boyfriend, Jack Behaving-Badly were horrified at such a suggestion. They had all sorts of reasons why a classic British ale was inappropriate. After that, I spent a long winter evening mulling over the extraordinary resilience of the great beer myths. Here are a dozen that drive me to drink (I'll calm my nerves with an Old Peculier if you don't mind).

Beer is too filling: You don't have to drink it by the pint. Before dinner serve yourself an appetisingly hoppy beer in a decent-sized burgundy glass or goblet. Perhaps an Orval, from a famous Belgian Trappist monastery; the aforesaid Spitfire, from Kent; or Anchor Liberty from San Francisco.

Beer doesn't go with food: Tell that to the Belgians, who have restaurants devoted to cuisine a la biere. If that sounds too elaborate, treat yourself to a porter with oysters; a Pilsner Urquell with fish; a Westmalle Trappist Triple or a Duvel with asparagus: a Samuel Smith's Nutbrown Ale with a crunchy salad; a reddish ale with red meat; a Trappist Chimay Grande Reserve with cheese; an Imperial Stout with a chocolate dessert.

I don't drink beer - I drink lager: You drink beer every time you raise a glass of lager. Beer is a drink made from grain, usually malted barley, and spiced with hops. The most widely available type of beer both in Britain and worldwide is lager. Yes, it's beer - what did you think it was?

Lager is better because it's lighter: In colour? Body? Taste? None of the above. Not necessarily. The first lagers were mahogany in colour (look out for Staropramen Dark from the Czech Republic - try it with noodle dishes). Some are very full-bodied and malty (Paulaner Salvator from Germany), or hoppy (St Christofrel Blond - another great aperitif - from The Netherlands). The term "lager" just means that the brew was fermented and matured at cool temperatures. This makes for cleaner rounder flavours, but arguably less complexity than is found in ales.

Beer is bitter: Yes and no. All beer has some bitterness. That is one reason for the hops: their herbal, resiny dryness balances the sweetness of the barley malt. Many beer-lovers enjoy the appetising bitterness of very hoppy brews: the bitterness arouses the gastric juices. Some would argue for balance, as exemplified by English classics such as Fuller's London Pride or Marston's Pedigree. Others like sweeter malt-accented brews such as the classic Scottish ales from Caledonian, Belhaven or Maclay's. Both the malt and the hops should be detectable: what's the point of beer that tastes of nothing?

Women don't drink beer: Disappointing news for Sister Doris, the Bavarian nun who makes Mallersdorf lager or for Lady Catherine Maxwell Stuart, whose Traquair House brewery, in the Scottish Borders, produces a fine strong ale. Fortunately, it is not true. The most feminine women I have met in a lifetime's appreciation all drink beer. So does the Queen Mother (that should clinch the argument). Our national matriarch has been photographed with pints of both Young's and Fuller's bitters.

The rest of the world prefers lager: So what if it did? But that is not true. Foreign beers are not necessarily lagers: not the wheat beers of Bavaria, Berlin and Belgium; Trappist brews; the Altbier of Dusseldorf the Kolschbier of Cologne or Antwerp's superb De Koninck ale; most of America's fashionable micro brews. Get out and about, and broaden your palate.

All ales are dark: You weren't paying attention when you drank the golden Kolschbier. Try that innocent-looking Duvel if you are scared of the dark.

Dark beer is stronger: There is no connection whatever between colour and strength. That golden Duval has 8.5 per cent alcohol volume; the famously black Guinness stout has 4.2 per cen.t The colour in beer comes from the toasting of the malts, and that does not contribute alcohol.

Dark beer is fuller bodied: Colour has nothing to do with body, either. Guinness is measurably less full-bodied than some golden lagers. The fullness of body or otherwise, depends upon the density of grain with which the brewer started, and the degree of fermentation. The more the beer is fermented, the more the body diminishes. The body-building sugars are converted to alcohol. Unfortunately, alcohol is very calorific (see below).

Dark beer is fattening: No more than pale beer. Colour does not contribute calories. A modest glass or two of beer with dinner is less fattening than a shared bottle of wine. Everyday beers have fewer than half the calories of most wines, because the latter are two or three times as strong. The extra calories lurk in the alcohol. By the way red wine is usually less fattening than white. This is because most reds are lower in alcohol than most whites. So why do the figure-conscious so often drink white? Go figure.

If it is a good beer, it must be strong: There is no connection between quality and strength. One of the world's great brews is the Berlin style of wheat beer crisply refreshing at a mere 2.5 to 3.0 per cent The famously sociable, drink-it-by-the-pint, everyday British bitter typically has only 3.5-4.0. On the other hand, if you want a beer with a book at bedtime, settle down with a classic such as Thomas Hardy's Ale, at around 12.5. Serve this one in a snifter.

Published Online: MAR 21, 2000
Published in Print: FEB 22, 1997
In: The Independent

Beer Styles - Editorial

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