Beer Tasting Blog
Ed's Ale Odyssey
“In the beginning there was ‘The Jug’.”
This diary records my journey to find out more about one of the loves of my life, beer. I first fell in love with beer in my local village pub, Ye Olde Jug. Colin Dexter, the creator of the beer loving Inspector Morse, describes the attraction of pubs and their relationship to beer as follows:
"The pub is a separate circle of existence. You have your job, your family, circles that intertwine and overlap, but the pub is somehow outside that. It’s another little world – like going to another country, but not very far away. It’s a different ambience, a sense of independence, and that sort of feeling is very valuable. Above all, for me, it is the magic combination of friendship, conversation and beer – that form together a sort of alchemy of a very enjoyable piece of existence."
I have worked in various guises of the hospitality industry from clubs to festivals and pubs to restaurants, and yet I still do not really understand how beer is made, despite serving countless pints to thirsty customers. How do those mystical brewers create that beautiful nectar that is the life blood of so much of English culture? It is this question which started me thinking about going on a beer tour. How better to spend my 2 week holiday than visiting breweries and pubs, learning more about beer and how it is made? What’s more, I would hopefully find some new and interesting beers to bring back to The Feathered Nest and take my love affair with beer to the next level. With my goals now clearly set, I started to plan the tour that would take me both back down memory lane and forwards into an unknown future with beer as my constant companion.
“A pint of lager please?”
Having started my search for ale by learning about whiskey, I decided I to investigate ales’ close cousin, lager. Handily enough the Cotswold Brewing Co. is based just down the road from The Feathered Nest. As well as brewing traditional Continental style lagers, they also brew a delicious dark lager full of rich chocolate malts. It was more akin to carbonated dark ales than any lager I had hitherto tried and I could picture myself sipping this alongside a gorgeous dish of game.
The differences between brewing ale and lager, the latter uses bottom fermenting yeasts whilst the former uses the top fermenting variation. These differences apparently are due to the styles developed historically in their native territories. It was also the first time I would come across ‘burtonisation’, which is the process brewers use to create the ideal type of water for brewing their particular beer.
It is known as ‘burtonisation’ as it was a technique developed by brewers to re-create the mineral rich water found in Burton-upon-Trent, which is ideal for creating clean tasting beers. The process involves filtering out all the impurities within the water used for brewing before adding back the necessary salts and minerals needed to re-create the specific style of water needed to brew a particular style of beer.
View Ales, Beers and Ciders Glossary for more information on the beers discussed in the blog.
“The problem with pigs and forgetful brewers”
Today had an inauspicious start with Tim, the hop farmer cancelling our little chat to go and deal with his pigs, as he had a member of his team call in sick. With the clouds closing in and the rain drizzling down, I decided to head straight to Cheddar to visit my first proper ale producer. When I arrived at the brewery, I met a busy and confused Jem, the owner, who had forgotten that I had arranged to come and meet him that afternoon. After a quick explanation of who I was and why I was there, Jem showed me the brewery itself with its new bottling plant before taking me to the tasting room where I got to sample my first ales of the tour. Sampling their beer was a pleasure, especially their Goats Leap IPA (IPA’s or Indian Pale Ales were originally developed in the 19th Century by the famous brewers from Burton Upon Trent for the colonial market in India and were brewed to be very strong and highly hopped so that they would last the long voyage to the sub-continent). As we tried the ales I took the opportunity to talk to Jem about the merits of hoppy beers, American IPA’s that have helped inspire a brewing revolution in the UK and discussed other brewers who might be of interest to me, such as Butts Brewery, who produce organic ales.
As I was leaving the brewery, the heavens reopened just in time for my mile long walk back to the B & B I was staying at in Cheddar.
“More bad news, the legend of Small Paul”
Leaving Cheddar behind me I was reminded why I love driving on small country roads that force you to think and act rather than just operate an automobile. It was as I contemplated such pleasures that I received a message that Pippa from the Isle of Purbeck Brewery, a brewpub I had arranged to visit later that day, was not going to be able to show me around their micro-brewery that day as yet again, the unexpected had reared its shiny little head. This time it was issues with a cooler near London, where they were helping to set up a beer festival that was the problem.
All I could do was head onwards to Small Paul’s and hope that he had remembered my arranged visit.
Paul is indeed small in stature, but for me he will always be a giant of a man. I learnt more from Paul in the 2 hours I spent with the mini microbrewer than I ever expected. Whilst we talked over a cup of tea it became immediately apparent that this was a man with a true passion for beer. He spoke of fellow brewers, malters, hop farmers and publicans with a gentle enthusiasm, which only those of the coldest heart could not find immediately endearing.
After our initial chatter he took me through to his garage, otherwise known as Small Paul’s Brewery. He talked me through the process of brewing English ales. The process starts with hot water, known in the trade as ‘liquor’, which is poured through the malted barley in the mash tun (a tun refers to the containers that the brewing process takes place in) to extract the sugars that would be needed to create the alcohol in the beer. The malted liquor then runs into the copper tun where it is boiled whilst the hops are added to create the aroma and bitterness of the beer. Finally the soon-to-be beer is cooled and stored in a fermenting tank where the yeast is put in to create the much-desired alcoholic beverage I enjoy so much.
He went on to describe almost every other aspect of brewing that I could care to imagine, from the ‘burtonisation’ process to the calculations that are used to ascertain the ABV of the beer, to the paperwork that is required by the Inland Revenue. If I were to even attempt to write down all that, this new hero of mine told me this diary would probably be twice as long, so I will move on.
I left Paul’s and headed on towards my overnight stop in Bournemouth.
“The first porter of the year and The End of the World”
In the morning I headed off to Ringwood with a spring in my step. The night before, I sampled several different ales in the Goat and Tricycle, a renowned real ale pub in Bournemouth, before meeting up with some of my friends in my old local, the Porter House, for a few pints of Ringwood beer. Before leaving, I spoke to John the landlord about visiting the Ringwood brewery the next day. “Their porter comes out next week, it’s a shame you won’t be here to try it. Maybe you can persuade them to let you sample some whilst your there.” I lived in hope.
When I arrived at Ringwood Brewery, a part of the Marston’s group, their head of Sales, Ben, met me. As he showed me around the brewery it became immediately apparent that this was brewing on an industrial level with a single brew of their Best Bitter producing up to 5,000 gallons of beer. The generator they use could power Bournemouth overnight and since the takeover by Marston’s, they had heavily invested in a new plant to improve the consistency of their beer with new malt bins, an impressive looking mill for cracking the malt and covered fermenting tanks that bubbled magically with fermenting yeast. This was a huge contrast to the cottage industry I had experienced the previous day at Paul’s.
Once I had seen the brewery in its entirety, Ben took me into their beer cellar where they store a 4.5-gallon cask, known as a pin, from each brew to ensure that it meets up to their high expectations. Ben explained how each pin was put onto one of their drays and driven around to mimic the journey that the beer would take before arriving at the pubs. It was then that one of the brewers, Jim, came into the cellar to check how his latest brew was getting on. He poured himself a generous glass of dark chocolate coloured ale and declared that it was coming along quite nicely. This was the porter John had spoken of only the night before and to my delight Ben suggested that we should have a glass of the beer too.
With our glasses charged we sat ourselves down to sample the beer and talk of fluffy bottoms (a term used to describe beers that settle poorly), breweries, the selling off of brands of ale and the marketing of ale.
Having thoroughly enjoyed my time at Ringwood, I set off to Pewsey to visit the End of the World Brewery based in the Crown. I was unsure what to expect when I decided make an overnight stop in Pewsey and was surprised to find that this sleepy village was home to 3 breweries and 6 pubs, including one, which acted as a nightclub. It soon became apparent that I had stumbled into a place that truly revered beer.
When I walked into the pub, I decided it was best to see the microbrewery before sampling their beers. Vaughn, the landlord and brewer, gave me a quick tour of his brewery and I was soon settled down happily with a glass in hand.
I started to quietly taste the beers, writing a little about each one the back of my diary as I had for each of the other beers I had sampled so far on my tour. As the regulars started to roll into the pub, I attracted their intrigue, ‘who was this stranger apparently judging their beer?’ Soon I was inundated with questions about what I was doing which led immediately to discussions about the ales brewed in the area as I was welcomed into this friendly community of beer lovers.
As the night went on and the regulars came and went, I fell in love with this place. I had arrived as a stranger and was welcomed into the fold as one of their own. Locals, Nicholas and Sarah, newlyweds who took a particular interest in my quest, joined me at my table and the banter was soon flowing back and forth. Iago, Vaughn’s right hand man and resident warlock, who kindly showed us how they make the finings used to ‘drop’ yeast to the bottom of the cask, then joined us. It was then that I learned that beer is not a drink suited to vegetarians as these finings are made, much to my surprise, with fish bladders.
My night in Pewsey would prove to be one of the best nights of the tour. In this small community I had found all the things that had made me fall in love with beer in the first place, including a delicious pint of Wadworth’s 6x. Surely I could have been born and bred there as easily as I had done in my own small village of Hardwick. Filled with these happy thought I made my way back to the B&B and slept the deep sleep of the truly content.
“Festivals and Birthdays”
I drove on to Wantage, where a local beer festival was being held. I had arranged to meet another microbrewer there, the award winning Shawn Cunningham, who was going to be in attendance along with one of his ales. Shawn was another cottage brewer, but unlike Paul, he had developed a portable brewery, one that he could back up into the back of his car. The idea intrigued me and after chatting with him for a while he invited me to join him one day when I was free to come and brew beer in his own unique way. Surrounded by fellow lovers of ale, I started to sip half a dozen different beers that were on offer that day, making notes in the back of my diary about each one. I was soon getting disapproving looks from the bar staff as I asked them to pour the majority of each beer into the slops bucket. I would have loved to drink deeply from each draft but unfortunately I had to drive on to Bristol later that day .I was delighted to find that they had a beer made by Small Paul - Challenger II, which had a clear copper complexion, a smoky, coffee tinted aroma and tasted of the chocolate malts used in its formulation. However my favourite beer on offer that day was made by the Cotswold Spring Brewery and bore the name Vixen. This was a dark brown beer, not something I normally go for as I generally prefer pale, hoppy ales but this was a delicately developed beer that sat easily on the palate and forced me to reconsider my previous preferences as I contemplated pairing this ale with a delicious dish of roast beef. Fearing that to drink anymore ale would render me over the limit, I decided to buy several containers of beer and went on my way down the M4 to my old home city of Bristol.
“Brewing in dairies and in factories”
I started the day full of hope and enthusiasm as I had two visits to breweries in and around Bristol arranged. The first, The Severn Vale Brewery run by Steve, was based just north of the city in an old milking shed near Dursley. Steve is a self confessed one man band, or almost a one man band. He has a little help with the telesales and vat cleaning, the two jobs he happily admits he dislikes, but otherwise he does all the work in this charmingly rustic brewery. After a quick tour of his beloved dairy based brewery we tasted a smidgen of his Dursley Steam Bitter, a refreshing and floral ale that I could happily have drunk several jars of but alas, I had another brewery to visit and so thanked Steve for his time and made my way back to Bristol.
The second brewery visit of the day was to the Bristol Beer Factory. I was very excited about this as several of the brewers I had spoken to had sung the praises of this brewery and its award winning beers. Upon my arrival Simon, the MD, who showed me his prized brewery and explained his brewing philosophy, greeted me. He and his brewers have been inspired by a wide range of beers and have used their combined experience and understanding of the brewing process to create ales that blend traditional styles with contemporary innovations. It is an approach, which seems to be paying dividends, with their range of beers winning awards both locally and nationally. I was already a fan of their heavily hopped IPA Southville Hop, a beer they describe as ‘awash with topical fruits and a long moreish resinous bitter finish’, and could not wait to sample more of the beers produced by this fine brewery.
In the tasting room we were joined by Simon’s American brewer Brett, whose American brewing style had been instrumental in the development of several of the Factory’s beers. Both men enthused about their products and Brett talked excitedly of his newly developed Independence beer, which had a small amount of hops added continuously to give it a big aroma and taste but without the bitterness that is usually associated with highly hopped ales. However, do not be fooled into thinking that these brewers are only interested in hops, their stouts are also multi-award winning and their festive 12 stouts of Christmas means that there is no lack of choice for those who love their beers black and velvety. Surely this was what brewing beer was all about.
It was to get even better as they believe that beer is the perfect companion to food, an idea I too subscribe to. The prospect of bringing these enthusiastic brewers to The Feathered Nest for a beer and food matching evening was an exciting prospect and one that I eagerly anticipated proposing to my colleagues upon my return.
“Beer... now it gets serious”
I had booked myself onto a foundation course on beer run by the Beer Academy, and so I made my way to the venue at the George just outside of Bristol. The course was being run by Tim O’Rourke, a well known beer writer, who had recently returned from Russia after recreating the journey of British stouts to Imperial Russia, where in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the aristocracy had developed a taste for our beers. The other students on the course were mainly from the industry, including two would be brewers from Sussex, a Cheltenham based bottle beer specialist retailer, and several marketers from various breweries. As a result it became a very commercially led session as we analysed beer from an industry standpoint.
We discussed various aspects of the crafting of beer such as the use of adjuncts, ingredients that were not a part of the four staple ingredients in beer – water, barley, hops and yeast. These were added to beers for three main reasons; they are a source of protein, which helps create the naturally occurring foam in beer, they are fermentable and, most importantly, they are cheap. These adjuncts include maize, used in Stella; rice, used in Budweiser; and wheat, used in Hogardden. Tim explained that the ‘burtonisation’ process I had heard so much about was done to ensure that the acidity of the liquor was just right to break down the starches in the malt to levels appropriate for fermentation.
I also learned that hops were the third fastest growing plant on the planet and that the taste of green apples in a beer is the result of the presence of alkaline in the ale is due to the incomplete fermentation of the beer. Another new nugget of knowledge was that historically beers made with hops, brought to England in the 1600’s by Flemish weavers, were known as ‘beer’, whilst those made in the traditional manner, without hops, were known as ales. Today of course the terms are almost interchangeable, although beer can also refer to lagers, wheat and fruit beers.
Although this was all very interesting the best was yet to come, the tasting lesson. Tim taught us to look at the beer’s appearance including its colour, clarity, carbonation and head size and longevity. Once we had taken this in we needed to smell the beer’s aroma and note any unusual qualities, sweetness, bitterness, fruitiness and any other aromas that might be contained within. In order to unlock these, you need to swill the beer around in the glass before breathing in its aromatic content.
Then comes the time to actually taste the beer and as you swill it around your mouth you must search for the various tastes that can be present in beers, such as toffee, coffee, chocolate, fruits, liquorish, yeast and nuts, to name a few. Another important aspect to consider as you try your beer is the way the liquid feels in your mouth, this combines its viscosity, texture and carbonation, known as mouthfeel. In this way, beer tasting is similar to wine tasting, however there is one important difference; to properly taste beer you must swallow it. This is because the taste buds for bitterness, that is inherit in beers due to the use of hops, are at the back of the mouth and so to truly grasp the flavours of a beer you must actually drink it. Finally, you must evaluate the beer, bringing together the separate elements into a whole, allowing you to view the drink in a holistic manner.
We finished the day by talking about matching beer to food, a subject I was delighted to discuss. Some of the suggestions that were made may seem obvious, such as drinking IPA’s with a ploughman’s and brown ales with steak pies, but soon we were contemplating wheat beers with smoked fish, blue cheese and barley wine and even stout accompanied by oysters. These were exciting ideas that were inspiring me to conduct experiment of my own in the future.
“Heading home and brewing trouble”
I left Bristol early in the morning to return to my home county of Buckinghamshire for a visit to the Chiltern Brewery, where they brew a range of traditional English ales. Their craft beers are well known in Bucks and they have recently celebrated their 25th anniversary. Upon my arrival I was met by Barbra and Viv who were only too happy to discuss the variety of beers they produced there. The most intriguing of these, was the Bodgers Barley Wine, with its creamy texture, nutty palate and vinous aroma. It is an ale that is popular amongst local restaurants and one that I was sure would be an ideal match to our rich chocolaty puddings.
Next, I called by the Rebellion Brewery based just outside Marlow. I had not intended to visit, but recommended by my fellow students the day before, seemed rude to pass by without sampling the ales made there. I introduced myself to Trasna, the shop manager, who happily allowed me to sample some of their produce. My favourite was their Blonde beer, made using only pale and lager malts. Served chilled, it would make the perfect alternative to lager on hot summers’ day.
“Family brewers and tasters”
The final day of my tour had arrived and I drove down to Swindon to visit the final brewery on my itinerary. Arkells is a family owned business that dates back 160 years, making it the oldest brewery I would visit. It still used much of the original plant from the Victorian period and it amazed me that this machinery was still as reliable and efficient as it had been when it was first installed. The plant was not the only consistency at the brewery; many of its employees had worked there for generations and were delighted to be continuing their family traditions.
Barry, the free trade executive for Arkells, showed me around, introducing me to all we met. He explained how they were all proud of their heritage and brewing traditions, whilst seeking to use modern technology where it could, to help improve the business and the beer. When we reached their bottling plant I asked him about Ringwood’s Best Bitter. ‘Ringwood aren’t the only brewers we bottle for, we are more than happy to help out any fellow brewer.’
This all seemed to confirm my growing belief that brewing was an industry like no other, with a loyalty to its kinsmen and a community that supported each other. Obviously this would not always be the case and there are undoubtedly examples that would disprove my idealised vision of brewing, but it seems to be that this was certainly a theory that was embodied by those I had met on my journey.
And so I come to the end of this particular journey with beer. It was an eventful one, full of surprises, delights and emptied glasses. I have learned a lot about beer and brewing, found new beers to introduce to The Feathered Nest and hopefully through reading this, you too have been able to share in some of my adventure. With this odyssey behind me I must return to the pub I love to work at so much, and start planning my next adventure with beer; perhaps learning to brew myself … now that would be fun!
View Ales, Beers and Ciders Glossary for more information on the beers discussed in the blog.