Posts Tagged ‘Real Ale Bore’

The Importance of Good Head

1 October, 2009 1 comment

“I believe a person who has never worn a beer-foam mustache is missing something.” – Jim Dorsch

So what does the head on a glass of beer do? Is it, as many people feel, a barrier to the beer, at best a moustache decorator? Is it just for looks, or is there a deeper reason? Not everyone demands a good foamy glass, and there are local variations; in Norwich, where I began my drinking life, beer was served without head, but in the Midlands and North (of England) a good foamy head is expected.

Head is as much part of a good beer as good body, adding visual appeal and doing other surprising things. One of the things that a beer’s head does is traps molecules of the smelly stuff, releasing these  aromatics with each little bubble that bursts. So a head adds not just to the appearance but to the enjoyment of the brew.

A Little Science

Kevin, getting excited about froth

Kevin, getting excited about froth

So what makes for good head? (Stop sniggering at the back, please.) Hydrophobic polypeptides, according to wikipedia. In simple English, this means strings of amino acids that repel water. Doubtless some clever chemist¹ will seek to be more accurate, but that will work for me. These chemicals disagree with water to the extent that they get as far away from it as possible, rising to the surface where they form the bubbles that in turn make the foam. The amount of head produced depends on several factors, then – the chemical composition of the brew in question, and the carbonation (or nitrogenation, if nitrogen be the driving force).

There’s a big variation in differing beers. Adnams Bitter, the beloved beer of my late teens, produced a skinny cap of foam, whereas many of the Belgian styles produce such a head of foam that the breweries produce special glasses designed to handle the profuse frothiness. Most of the American bottled beers I’ve been sampling lately produce about a finger’s width of head when properly poured, but there is of course a good deal of variation there depending on the pouring style. Open the bottle and pour it straight into the bottom of the glass and you’ll get more, trickle it gently down the side for less.

Similarly, in draught beers, there’s variation depending on whether the beer is pumped by hand or CO2/nitrogen pressure – too much pressure or gas and the depth of head exceeds the depth of beer. This is a crime to the beer-drinker, who is paying for liquid, not froth. It’s damaging for the vendor too, as many pints of beer can be wasted by pouring off excess foam. For a long time in Britain, CAMRA campaigned for pubs to draw their beer so that the top of the liquid was at or above the pint line (which is marked on pint pots in the UK), and to this day, there’s a hue and cry raised if a pub consistently serves too much foam and too little beer.

A Little Beer Snobbery

“Head retention” is another thing you’ll hear about, which means what it says – how the head holds up over time. Smaller bubbles generally mean better retention, and so does the chemical makeup – if the surface tension of the bubble is great enough, the head lasts longer. Other elements come into play as well – the drier the glass the better the head, and a clean glass is essential for good formation and retention. Don’t believe me? Try a Belgian Duvel in a dry glass and a damp glass – in the dry glass you’ll get a pillowy head that stands up for ever, whereas the damp glass produces less. An experiment I have tried myself with the added advantage of allowing me to drink two glasses of the amber delight!

You’ll also hear about what happens to the head as you drink it – there’s even a term for the froth left on the sides of the glass as you consume. “Belgian lace” is the term I’ve most often heard, and of course there are those Real Ale Bores who can go on about this seemingly for ever. Oops, is that the time? Sorry.

Of course, brewers know their markets and their drinker’s preferences, and many add various things to beer to boost head and retention – sometimes as part of the genuine brewing adjuncts (wheat makes for a good head) but sometimes by artificial chemical means. The former is allowable, the latter is, to my mind, Just Plain Wrong, but then I am something of a beer purist, if not an actual snob.

¹ See also this site for more actual science

Categories: Beer Talk Tags: ,

History of a Real Ale Bore

25 September, 2009 9 comments

There probably comes a time in everyone’s beer-drinking life when they realise that there’s more to beer than simply plucking a beer out of the ‘fridge and swigging it from the bottle, or running to the nearest bar and grabbing the proffered glass of malt and hop. For me, this began with a British organisation known as CAMRA, the Campaign For Real Ale.

The appreciation of Riggwelter

Appreciating beer since 1974

I’d left home at age eighteen for the bright lights of the ancient county seat of Norwich to embark on a dual career of banking and beerdrinking. At the time, many of the small breweries that had once been dotted about the county had vanished into the drinkers’ collective memory. The “big boys” with their mass-produced keg beers had taken over more and more pubs, old-fashioned beers were harder to find. The huge advertising budgets from the megabreweries promoted the drinking of the thin and gassy ales that were the antithesis of the old-style brewer’s art. Perhaps these were the last days.

Norwich pubs

At twenty one, I was young and cocky. I had been drinking beer for three years (UK law says you can drink at 18), and already considered myself a cut above the average boozer because I eschewed the mass-produced, insipid beers available in 95% of Norwich’s pubs, and tended to go for the remaining local brews of Adnams, Greene King and the now sadly departed Tolly Cobbold. Some of the old ways persisted, thanks to a small band of determined beer-lovers.

I was blessed in so many ways – there were a dozen or so pubs in and around the city that were “free houses”, that is, not tied into a brewery chain, and many of them specialised in the “real ales” coming out of the smaller, traditional, local breweries that today we call “microbreweries”. It was at one of these more liberated pubs that I came across CAMRA, and it was through these good folk that I first started to learn more about beer.

The rise of CAMRA raised the awareness of what beer used to be, and suddenly the tables were turned. Gradually, the massive Watney brewery and Norwich Brewery (now owned by Watney) pubs fell from favour as a new, better-educated beer drinker rode on the wings of the Real Ale storm that was sweeping the country.

I have very clear memories of many old pubs in the city – the Mischief Tavern, Micawbers, and the Golden Star. They were a strange mix; partly old-fashioned pubs with the ticking clock and the unwalked dog, partly venues for the newly-liberated real ale drinkers. There was a range of beers, both local and from the far-flung corners of the Isles, and a bewildering range it could be. I started to discover the range of old-fashioned beers, from the delightfully refreshing pale ales and bitters, through the darker and sweeter mild ales, then the browns, porters and stouts. Each pub an Aladdin’s cave filled not with jewels, but with liquid delights for every taste, time and season.

The one pub that stood out was the Golden Star. This was the only pub I knew of that brewed its own beer, and one of those brews was named “Wifebeater Ale”, which needless to say provoked some justifiably negative comments from local women. Following a protest at the pub, it was renamed “GBH” (meaning Grievous Bodily Harm, the name of a violent criminal offence). That didn’t go down well with the local police, so at some point it became simply Star Bitter¹.

Nottingham and beyond

In time, I moved the focus of my drinking to Nottingham, and discovered new pubs, drinking buddies and most especially beers. Shortly after I moved, the two big city breweries, Home Ales and the Shipstone’s brewery, closed down, not that I missed them too much, though both breweries made a lovely nutty Brown Ale that did leave something of a vacuum.

Nottingham is, of course, home to what claims to be the oldest pub in the world, Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem. Then there’s the Salutation Inn and the Bell Inn, each of which also has some claim to being the oldest pub, if not in the world, certainly in Nottingham.

Many of the old pubs went the way of <choose your extinct species>, including the excellent Flying Horse (the front of which now decorates a shopping arcade), the Black Boys Inn (demolished to make way for a dreadful supermarket) and the Old Corner Pin (taken over by the Disney Store, who filled its cellar with concrete).

But the beers are still there – the Nottingham Brewery turns out good ales and Castle Rock carries on a great brewing tradition. Real ales in abundance by this time, but sadly the city centre has been taken over by the chain pubs which (forgive me for oversimplifying) serve gassy and insipid lager to equally gassy and vulgar louts. Escape from the city and you’ll still find the old-fashioned pub with all that means – live music, good company, ancient decor and most importantly, good microbrewed ales.

I began to sample and appreciate other delights too – German, Belgian, Trappist ales all had a part to play in my continuing journey through the world of brewing.

Now I live in sunny California, and to my great surprise and delight I am discovering that the art of the American microbrew is not only alive, but kicking, and kicking hard. I’ve had so many great examples of good beer styles that it’s hard to forget that until quite recently, pretty much the only American beer was lager.

Now all we need to do is three things. Convince America to open actual pubs to replace the sports bar, teach them to brew a decent cup of tea, and desist from calling that sport “football”. Because unlike their beers, there’s practically bugger-all kicking there.

¹  Confirmation here.
Categories: Beers Tags:

Session Beer, or How To Drink All Evening

21 September, 2009 1 comment

So you like to drink beer? You like to drink a lot of beer? You like to drink a lot of beer over the course of a social evening, but not be falling-over drunk at the end of it? Then what you need is a session beer.

What’s a session beer? Typically, such a brew will have three qualities; an alcohol content of generally less than 5%, a balanced flavour and a light to moderate body. There are good reasons for specifying these things.

First of all, in a social setting, getting blotto is a no-no; the object of an evening in company is to be, well, companionable. You also want to be able to make it home in one piece and however you plan to do that, having a bellyfull of beer and a bloodstream full of booze in not conducive to a safe or comfortable journey. (On a side note, and for safety information, and because I worry about you all, I found a Blood Alcohol Count calculator tool that you may find to be of use. Respect beer and enjoy yourselves, but let’s be careful out there.)

Flavour and body can be issues, too. Some beers can be quite challenging on flavour after a while – for some, a lot of highly-hopped or bitter beers can be hard to handle, for others, sweeter brews. Heavy beers too, have their problems; I can think of half a dozen beers I’d not want to drink one after another.

So in short, a session beer sits in the middle of the ABV, taste and body range, enabling the enjoyment of many pints over an afternoon or evening, without damaging conversation, comfort or safety.

A Little History Session

I’ve heard many a tale regarding the origin of the term, but the one that seems right to me concerns the old UK pub licensing laws. At one time, pub opening times were strictly limited; 11am til 3pm and 7pm until closing time at 11pm. These four-hour sessions were presumably set so that no-one could sit in the pub all day and get plastered. Workers leaving work therefore had four hours of drinking time until they were thrown out of the boozer, and hence if they wanted a reasonable and sociable time, and to enjoy a few pints, they’d limit themselves to those beers that they could drink throughout the opening session.

At the time, most pub beers were around the 3.5% – 5% alcohol mark, with a few other beers like barley wines and “old ales” that were stronger. It was vital, then to know the difference between the stronger brews and those that one could drink all night.

Over the years, the law changed, and permitted pubs to open longer hours (although to this day most pubs still have to stop serving at 11pm). The “session beer” is still a valuable thing, however – provided you’re a social drinker.

Pacing yourself

Back in the day, when I was a young and cocky boozer, it was not uncommon for me to head to the pub on a Friday night and expect to sink six or eight pints (Imperial pints, mind you – 20 fluid ounces) over the course of an evening. Allowing for travel and food, I’d be drinking for about four or five hours. No way was I going to be pounding down strong Scotch ales, perilously hoppy IPAs or heady Imperial stouts for that time.

Food can be important too – having something to eat isn’t going to stop the alcohol from taking effect, but it does tend to buffer the beer, and can slow down the rate of absorption a little, which is why the British drinker frequently munches on crisps (that’s chips to you American folk) or peanuts, presumably on the basis that every little helps.

The beer of choice was generally Bitter, occasionally Dark Mild or Brown, but always around the 3.8 – 4.5% mark. That way I could hold my own at the bar, the conversation and the trip home. These days, of course, I’m the responsible married man, out for one or two and home before nine (with one exception, of course). It turns out that every man is entitled to one mistake; every woman, apparently, is allowed one rolling pin.

Categories: Beer Talk Tags: ,

Serving Beer – The Question of Temperature

16 September, 2009 6 comments

“I’m looking for the type of mugs [of beer] that are so cold that your hand gets numb…so cold that it doesn’t matter how cheap the beer is…so cold that bits of ice float in your beer”Forum comment

In my thirty-odd years of drinking, one of the things I’ve discovered is that there’s more to brewing beer than science – there’s art too and even (dare I say this?) magic. Not just to the production, but to the enjoyment. It was on a tour of one of the pubs in Norwich that I learned about how beer is cellared, and that different brews are frequently best enjoyed at different tempartures.

It’s a thorny topic, this business of serving temperature – nowadays the seeming majority of beer drinkers are conditioned by the media to expect their beer to be ice-cold. The quotation above demonstrates something of this, but it’s been driven by the advertising of just one type of beer – a fairly recent addition to the beer pantheon, lager.

So strong has the lager influence been, especially on the American psyche, that natives of that land visiting Great Britain would return complaining of the warm, flat beer served in those isles. But there is a reason, and it lies in the deeps of the ancient pub cellar, and its temperature.

So what is “cellar temperature”, and why should I care?

This is another of those really odd questions, like “what is room temperature?”, to which there are some who might answer “the temperature of a room”. I have met many Americans who sincerely believe that English pubs serve their beer at room temperature. They are wrong, and I usually take great delight in pointing out just how wrong. In fact, cellar temperature is much lower than room temperature (typically held to be 70°F/20°C ). Whilst in the past British pub cellars used to vary quite considerably, they tended to be around 45-55°F (7-13°C). These days, cellars can be climate-controlled, and on occasion, individual barrels can be kept at an ideal temperature for that particular beer. CAMRA’s web site states that real, live casked ales are generally best served between 54-57°F (12-14°C), considerably below the “room temperature” that many Americans believe.

Old Man Ale - to be served at 58F

Old Man Ale - to be served at 58°F

But what is the “ideal” serving temperature, and why should we care? Well, there are components in all beers that are volatile; they evaporate, being freed from the liquid. These are the components that we enjoy most – they add considerably to the enjoyment of the beer, both in the nose and the flavour. After all, the tastes detected by the tongue are few – salt, sweet, bitter, sour. The olfactory senses in the nasal cavity can detect minute quantities of thousands of different chemicals, and it is the combination that results in the overall flavour.

The problem is that the colder the liquid, the harder it is for these chemicals to come out of solution into the air, where they are detected by the sensory cells in the nose. Too cold, they stay in solution, and are swallowed before they evaporate. It follows that the warmer the beer, the more flavour it will release, the colder it is, the less flavour. So cold beer=less taste.

The more complex beers brewed and served in the UK and Europe demand to be stored and served at temperatures above freezing, by design. The new breeds of non-lager American beers also demand the same. By all means serve your lagers and cheap beers at close to freezing, and enjoy the light refreshment that they offer. Beware though, that you observe and respect a beer’s nature before you hoist it out of the fridge and serve it.

Now of course, I’m obliged to come up with some actual figures, and inevitably, there’s going to be some dispute about ’em, but many brewers and writers tend to agree that the darker and stronger the brew, the more they will benefit from slightly higher serving temps. There’s obviously some latitude, and personal preference may alter these figures, and I stress that this is just one suggestion, pulled from Feel free to disagree on the exact numbers:

Wheat beers and pale lagers at fridge temperature, 45-50°F (7-10°C)
Pale ales, English bitter, amber ales or dark lagers at 50-55°F (10-13°C)
Belgian ales, barley wines and similar strong beers at around 55°F (13°C)
Porters, stouts and other dark ales at 55-60° F (13-15°C)
Some of the stronger Belgian beers should be served close to room temperature

Now given that the average refrigerator temperature is around 45°F (7°C), you see that there’s quite a difference, especially for the stronger beers. The answer is to take some of these brews out of the fridge a while before you serve them, and for goodness’ sake, don’t pour them into a chilled glass!

Obviously no-one except the truly fanatical is going to measure the bottle temperature before opening it, but allowing the bottle to warm up for fifteen or twenty minutes won’t kill you. In fact, the anticipation will doubtless make it taste even better. After all, they do say that hunger makes the best sauce.

Mea culpa, I have sinned. But not as much as some.

8 August, 2009 Leave a comment

Mea culpa maxima indeed. Forgive me, it has been many weeks since my last blog posting. I regret that I have not managed to sit down and write about the delights (and disappointments) of the last few weeks of barley nectar. In part this is because I was on holiday in Northern Ontario, and away from electricity, telephones, internet and noise. I did get a chance to allow some beer to pass my lips, and I promise that I will tell you about that soon, by way of penance. There’s not a huge selection in the Beer Store in Blind River, and the two-hour round trip by boat and car meant that shopping trips were few and far between. Alexander Keith’s Amber was the best reasonable selection that was likely to enjoyed by myself and the masses, but as I said, more later.

The other reason for slackness is that I have lately had the attention span of a goldfish, and sitting to write has been well-nigh impossible because I kept being distracted by shiny things. Damn those shiny things.

But now, this morning, I am inspired. Not by a beer, this time, but by  something I found in the internets. I stumbled across a flash animation during my morning electronic peregrination, once that highlighted perfectly the reason why drinking beer is considered to be less sophisticated than drinking wine. This brief animation (should you choose to watch it) is to be seen here, and it made me shudder for various reasons, and I’m not just talking about the spelling, either.

Beer Song animation

Beer Song animation

I can give you the jist of the animation in three words. Chug, manly and spew. It has to be said that for many people, this is indeed their experience of beer; that it’s a conveniently packaged means of getting drunk fairly quickly without challenging the tastebuds or intellect. When I lived in England I certainly saw this type of binge drinking behaviour – all I’d have to do would be to go to the Nottingham city centre and I’d see hundreds of people who were clearly intent on consuming as much as they could before staggering around to either try to get laid, eat appalling foods (frequently a curry or kebab) and all too frequently, to pee or spew in some shop doorway.

Nowadays I work (part-time) in the beer department of the Davis Food Co-op, and am blessed to be working with people (but staff and customers) who love beer for the sensual pleasure of drinking it, rather than the effects of the alcohol. It’s a great delight to talk about beer brewing, its history and favourite beers. Yes, there are beer snobs, and there are probably as many people who talk interminable shite about beer as there are wine bores. Pardon my language there, I’m sensitive to this at the moment.

Maybe the many good, small breweries of the world should unite in a glorious advertising campaign to wean people away from the tasteless wee that they’ve been programmed to enjoy, and drink real beer, like real men (and women). Of course, that will never happen. I’ve come across so many people who’ve asked my advice on what to drink, then walked away with the cheapest 12-pack because they get “more alcohol per penny”. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not entirely opposed to those who drink relativelt low-taste, even “Lite” beers. On a really hot day they may be a valuable asset to cool and refresh, but many of these folk are having friends over, but are trying to impress with quantity rather than quality, and there’s the rub.

So I may have sinned, but by Jove, not as much as I might have.

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