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Scottish island's summer brew beats British 'Belgians' and 'Germans'

A new brewery on a Scottish island has won the annual competition for the best wheat beer in Britain. The brewery is on Arran, an island popular with hill-walkers and bird-watchers. The island, one of Scotland's most accessible, is not far from Glasgow.

Partner Richard Roberts, in the brewhouse. It was peviously at the Tipsy Toad brewery, in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands between Britain and France. (Michael Jackson photo)
The attractions of Arran seem addictive. An enthusiast for the island built a whisky distillery there five or six years ago. That, in turn, inspired the establishment of a brewery 18 months ago by another Arran addict, Elisabeth Roberts, previously a social worker in Glasgow. Her partner in the brewery is husband Richard, from High Wycombe, England. He was formerly a sculptors' technician. Their brewery and tasting room is a shop-like premises at the hamlet adjoining the tourist attraction Brodick Castle, not far from the ferry. Their wheat beer, Arran Blonde, is their third product.

The beer is made with a conventional ale yeast, like many wheat brews in the English-speaking world. This makes for a less robust flavor than the Belgian and German wheat beer yeasts create. Arran is light-bodied but, in its own delicate style, was judged to have more individuality than the best "Belgian" and "German" wheat beers entered by British brewers.

Tasting room
Elisabeth Roberts, in the tasting room. Also on tap are Isle of Arran Ale (bronze, with a good late bitterness) and a Dark Premium (malty but well balanced).
In the Arran beer, the tartness imparted by wheat is beautifully combined with yeasty fruitiness (reminiscent in this instance of peaches) and flowery hop character (just a touch of the citric-tasting variety Cascade, grown in Washington State): a beer that is easily drinkable, yet refreshing in its flavors. It would be perfect after a climb among the crags of Arran, or perhaps some slightly less strenuous exercise.

Wheat beers are summer quenchers, and that is why the competition is run at this time of year. It is organised by the Society of Independent Brewers, and Arran's prize is to be stocked by Safeway supermarkets in Britain. I was one of ten judges, variously beer-writers and brewers, at the competition, at the White Horse pub, Parson's Green, London. We tasted blindfold, and there were about two dozen entries.

I was also very impressed by the Pilgrim Brewery, of Reigate, Surrey, with its Springbock, a Bavarian-style wheat beer. I particularly liked the banana-like fruitiness that is typical of the style. No bananas are harmed in its production: the character derives from a classic Bavarian wheat beer yeast. Springbock was a runner-up.

It shared this honour with a second brewery from the counties adjoining London: Rebellion, of Marlow, Buckinghamshire. Its entry was Rebellion White, a wheat beer in the Belgian style. This type of wheat beer is typically spiced with lemon peels and coriander. Rebellion's example had a "lemon curd" flavor, and seemed a little drier and spicier (a hint of cardamom?) than the classic Hoegaarden. (The use of spices and fruits pre-dates the widespread adoption of the hop to aromatise beer).

If wheat makes the more refreshing brew, why are most beers made from barley? One reason is that not all beer is intended as a summer quencher. Another is that wheat tends to block the brewing vessels, while barley's fuller husk acts as a natural filter bed. Wheat beers were typically more hazy ("white") than barley brews in the days before filtration techniques were invented. The most popular examples in Continental Europe are still served in this way. Some also retain the yeast sediment in order to create a secondary fermentation in the bottle. This heightens the complexity of the fruitiness and spiciness.

The re-fermentation takes place at around 25°C (77°F), below which the yeast cannot work. Before being served, the beer is chilled, but traditionally, no lower than 9°C (48°F), beyond which the cold begins to mask the flavor. In Britain, Hoegaarden, made east of Brussels, has a serving temperature of 4°C (39.2°F) recommended on the label, and 3°C (37.4°F) or even 2°c (35.6F) in its promotional material. Next year, they will be serving it on sticks.

Pour with care

The questions of bright beer versus hazy, and cellar temperature versus ice-cold are theological issues among devotees of wheat beer. I was amused to see a new British wheat beer called "Pour With Care". Could it be clearer than that? A name that is a clarion call to decant. Pour with care and you will not be troubled by cloudiness.

This determinedly clear brew is produced by Bateman's of Wainfleet, Lincolnshire, in the East of England. Text on the label asks that the bottle not be chilled, so that the living yeast inside can continue to work. It also requests that the beer be poured gently, so that the beer remains bright.

Pour With Care
Not a cask but a bottle ... jokey label for a serious beer, brewed by Bateman's and labelled here for the supermarket Booth's.

Neither a German nor a Belgian process is followed in its production, though both are an influence. "Pour With Care" is made with British ingredients. I half expected it to taste like a British compromise, and was surprised by its robust aromas and flavors and full, tawny, colour. A colleague found banana in the aroma, and I thought blackcurrant. This beer also has the appropriate spiciness -- it reminded me of sarsaparilla -- against a satisfyingly malty, hoppy, background.

No flavorings are used. Bateman's house yeast has perhaps a hint of banana, but this was greatly enhanced by the re-fermentation in bottle, which took place in a store-room above the boilerhouse. "Everywhere else here was bloody freezing," explains brewer Martin Cullimore.

Bass wins, too

Fruit beers can be enjoyably summery, even when they are flavored with essences. When I tasted it blindfold at another judging for a British supermarket chain -- Tesco -- I found Golden Glory a crisp, appetising, pale ale, with a lemony aroma. The producer thinks the bouquet is more melony, though the essence used is made from peach blossoms. Golden Glory is from the Badger Brewery, of Blandford, Dorset, in the west of England. It was one of the winners in the Tesco competition.

The tiny brewery at the Bass Museum was also a winner in that contest, with a beer that I found fruity and sweet, but which turned out to contain fresh ginger root. This is called Wulfric, after the 10th-century nobleman who established Burton Abbey and thus began the town's brewing tradition.

Published: JUNE 1, 2001
In: Beer Hunter Online

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