Brown's beer: Step aside craft beer, it's time for our "session beers" to shine
Beer blogger Pete Brown turns his back on the bad news of beer duty and instead celebrates the kind of British beer that can keep you upright all night
With beer under sustained attack from the government and across the news media, my columns have been a little negative of late.
These things have to be said, however, and this week we’ve had yet another 5 per cent duty hike on beer (which the chancellor deliberately hid – the ‘Duty Escalator’ of inflation plus 2 per cent was introduced by Alastair Darling, so Osborne applies this tax by saying there will be ‘no change to beer duty policy’, each year fooling the media into thinking this means there’s no increase.)
Then we had the blanket coverage of the shocking rise in liver disease, a story which pretty much everyone chose to illustrate with a pint of beer, even though beer sales fell during the period of the rise in liver disease, while those of other, stronger drinks rose.
And now we have the introduction of minimum pricing, once again illustrated by examples of how it will affect beer.
I decided to have a moan about this on my blog and in The Guardian. Having moaned here quite a lot recently, I thought it would be nice to remind myself – and you – why beer is worth saving instead, to celebrate beer rather than get defensive on its behalf once again.
And so instead I come in praise of ‘session beer’.
Much of the excitement in the beer world today is around ‘craft beer’, and a great many craft beers push the envelope of what beer can be.
Every time you visit a craft beer pub, you’re amazed by strong beers that make a five per cent ABV India Pale Ale look like a palate cleanser; intense flavour bombs, beers brewed with exotic ingredients and aged in whisky barrels. Beers that are so intensely hoppy they’re the equivalent of a phal in Indian cuisine, and beers that look and taste like fine champagne.
I love these beers.
In fact I just helped brew one: Medina is launching this Wednesday, 28 March, at Craft Beer Co in Clerkenwell.
Brewed by the Ilkley Brewery in Yorkshire, it’s a Belgian saison-style beer that we decided – literally – to spice up a little, with the addition of orange peel, coriander, ginger and grains of paradise.
When I tasted it from the brewing vessel I realised it tasted more Moroccan than Belgian – hence the name.
That’s pretty typical of the sense of experimentation in beer now, and it’s a wonderful thing.
The only problem, if not with beers like this then with some of the people who drink them, is the tendency to think in binary black and white.
If extreme and experimental beers are exciting and flavourful, it follows – in some minds at least – that traditional, lower strength beers must be boring.
I’ve never believed this.
I’ve always disagreed with it in principle.
But I have found myself, whenever I’m given a choice, opting for the adventurous.
I have to; it’s what I do. But over the past few weeks this has changed.
It started with a visit to the Black Sheep brewery in North Yorkshire.
It’s run by the Theakston family, who originally made a great success of the iconic Theakston’s Old Peculier before boardroom wrangles led Paul Theakston to quit and set up a new brewery just a few yards down the road in the pretty market town of Masham.
I spent the evening in a pub with Paul and his family, including sons Rob and Jo who have just taken over the day-to-day running of the business from dad.
We were drinking their new seasonal beer All Creatures, a tribute to James Herriot and the world he described, a world in which Black Sheep still lives.
It’s a crisp, juicy blonde ale, and it’s just 3.5% ABV. It’s satisfying and quenching, and balanced, and it doesn’t get you wasted.
Over the course of an evening we must have had four, maybe five pints, and by the time me and the boys were back at the hotel, I felt somewhat more clear-headed than I normally do after a night like this. I’d enjoyed myself, and I didn’t want to drink any more. I was satisfied, and was not drunk.
I said all this to Jo Theakston, eulogising my rekindled love for the classic British session pint, the low alcohol drink you can’t really get too drunk on. And then I waved my arm a little too wildly and tipped what was going to be my final, full pint straight into his lap, rather undermining my case.
But the point still stands.
The British tradition for the low strength sessionable pint is unique in the world.
The craft beers we enjoy now are heavily influenced by North America where, lacking the British cask ale tradition, high alcohol levels are an important factor in delivering character to a beer. (And where, for the record, the size of a pint is 16 ounces, not 20 as it is in the UK.)
“Let’s hear it for the session pint – the pint you can drink at lunchtime without falling asleep at your desk. The pint you can sink quickly on a hot day without setting a trajectory towards oblivion, via the kebab shop”
And it took an American brewer eulogising over the uniqueness of the British session ale to make me realise how special it was.
Garret Oliver of New York’s Brooklyn Brewery is one of the most creative and celebrated brewers in the world, and he learned to brew in Yorkshire. At a recent tutored tasting in London, he claimed no brewers anywhere else in the world can get so much flavour into beers at such low strengths as British cask ale brewers can. And he should know.
So let’s hear it for the session pint – the pint you can drink at lunchtime without falling asleep at your desk in the afternoon.
The pint you can sink quickly on a hot day without setting a trajectory towards oblivion, via the kebab shop. The pint where the aromatic hops stroke your cheek rather than punch you in the face, and where flavours dance subtly rather than pogo on your tongue.
My love for strong, heady craft beer will never die. But sometimes you find yourself at a bar where every beer you want, you want it to be the last beer of the night. That’s when you yearn for the session pint – your trusty friend with whom drinking responsibly doesn’t have to mean not drinking enough.
Pete Brown is one of the UK’s leading beer writers, working across business and consumer press. He’s the author of several best-selling books and blogs at petebrown.blogspot.com. He was recently named joint-37th most influential person in the British pub industry – a claim he strenuously denies.