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  • Christina Pickard

Adventures in Beer-land

After a few emails and some badly disguised guilt-tripping, friend and beer aficionado Mark Bridges finally persuaded me to go to my first official beer tasting.  But not just any beer tasting.  None other than the Great British Beer Festival, with tastings of ‘more than 450 real ales, ciders, and foreign beers from around the world’ at my disposal.  Could he convert this woman of wine into a beer drinking belle? (Sorry, my love of alliteration just can’t be helped.)

Mark and the Bombardier Beer Bus

Let’s just say, this wine geek wasn’t in Kansas—or make that Napa–anymore.  This was a far cry from stuffy men in suits sipping and spitting around white linen tablecloths.   In fact, the first thing I asked Mark (who also happened to be the festival’s press office deputy manager) when I arrived was ‘where are the spittoons?’  To which I received a reply of hearty laughter and a comment somewhere along the lines of ‘beer drinkers don’t spit, this is a real tasting’ (I did question how anyone could have more than a few sips and still be able to really taste, but numbing the senses seemed to be the point…and beer drinkers do seem to have an inhuman tolerance for alcohol).  So it seemed I was going to be arriving at my engagement after the festival a little tipsy…whether I wanted to be or not.

It’s a good thing I happened to run into Mark so quickly because I suspect I was wandering around the cavernous Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre with a bewildered look on my face, wondering where to start and whether the etiquette was the same as it was at wine tastings, and that some of the men looked like they could eat me for breakfast. (By the way, everyone turned out to be extremely friendly and there wasn’t much etiquette at all—just taste as much as possible and enjoy yourself!)  So I was overjoyed when Mark offered to let me tag along on his tastings and took me on a special trip to the Belgium bar.

My joy was quickly squelched when he introduced me to my first Lambic beer, a type of beer brewed only in certain parts of Belgium and in which, instead of adding cultivated yeast, spontaneous fermentation is allowed to occur from the native wild yeasts and bacteria.  Great in theory, but unfortunately it tasted like fermented urine (if I were to imagine what urine tasted like of course).  My favourite of the Belgians thankfully was a far cry from any bodily fluids.  The Verhaeghe ‘Echte Kriekenbier’, a ‘Flemish brown beer in which whole cherries have been steeped giving a nice balance of sweet and tartness’, was apparently quite the traditional Belgian beauty (ok ok I’ll stop with the alliteration now).

American (and 2 Aussie) beers

Here’s a few of my other favourites of the day—but please understand this is coming from a wine drinker who was looking for whether the beer was well made, well balanced, and just plain drinkable:

From the USA (I’m not usually patriotic but I have to say I was very proud of what I thought was the country with the best consistently good beers—I did win the Market Kitchen Beer World Cup representing the USA after all…):  Deschutes ‘Twilight’, Left Hand’s ‘Black Jack Porter’, Paper City’s ‘Hop Daddy’, and Green Flash’s ‘Hop Head Red Ale’.  From England the winners were Sarah Hughes’ ‘Dark Ruby Mild’, Arundel’s ‘Summer Daze’, and Durham’s ‘Hopping Mad’, and Hecks’ ‘port wine of Glastonbury’ was my favourite in the cider category.

Of course I only got to taste a fraction of what was on offer so I’m sure there were plenty of other gems, but those were the ones that stood out for me.  And let’s face it, by taste number 15, I did not exactly have the most discerning palate.

Men with silly hats playing table football..would you see THAT at a wine tasting?!

Another observation I made instantly was the ratio of men to women.  Let’s just say there weren’t many of the female persuasion, although I was tricked quite a few times by men with longer hair than the women.  I am used to being a minority at wine events, but this was beyond minority—it was almost non-existent.  However Mark assured me that the ladies would start to flow in as the evening wore on, and sure enough there did seem to be slightly more than a handful when I was leaving.  Apparently 25% of the festival-goers are female, which I’m sure is much higher than it was 5 years ago, but still leaves 75% of the drinking to be done by men.  However, CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale), the group running the festival, are trying their hardest to change the face of beer.

New studies have shown that beer is actually less calories than wine, and is very healthy for you—if it’s drunk in moderation of course, which it very often isn’t.  The beer gut apparently comes more from drinking in excess and from lifestyle choices than from the booze itself.  Why beer and an unhealthy lifestyle seem so closely linked is beyond me but it was certainly apparent at the festival.  CAMRA is also encouraging people to ‘beat the bloat’—the main factor contributed to women steering clear of beer—by drinking small quantities at a time.  I must admit, I avoid beer for exactly that reason—because it takes me ages to finish a whole pint, and that much liquid makes me feel like I’ve have three full English breakfasts and requires countless trips to the loo.   But the Beer Education Trust says, ‘try drinking from smaller glasses. Many leading restaurants are now serving their beers in Champagne flutes, wines glasses, or even brandy balloons.’  I think many women, including myself, could be converted to beer should we not feel so pressured into buying a whole pint.  But next time you’re in the pub try asking your mate to get you a beer in a Champagne flute…if they don’t fall off their chair laughing the next one’s on me.

SO, after my day out at the Great British Beer Festival, was I a converted beer drinker?  I thought I needed some last minute coaxing, so here’s what I asked Mark:

Q:  In 140 characters or less (in keeping with the Twitter spirit!), tell me why I should convert to beer?

A:  Real Ale has less food miles, less calories and equal diversity, complexity and flavour as good wine! Try food pairing to be astounded.

Good answer Mark.  So will I be making the switch?  Heck no!  I’m a wine lover at heart, and in my humble opinion beer can never offer the haunting depth and complexity a fine wine can offer, but I will admit that there are some wonderful brews out there and especially on a hot summer’s day, and with the right food, a good ale can really hit the spot.

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