I haven’t written a great deal – if at all – about beer. Like wine, I know good beer from bad beer, but that’s about as far as my expertise goes. And like wine I do enjoy a beer or two. But what’s the best way to drink it? I realise that this is an incredibly broad question. It all depends on what kind of beer you’re drinking, where you’re drinking it, what with (if anything), why you’re drinking it – to refresh yourself? To enjoy your food more? To get immeasurably hosed? These factors all matter.
But there are two elements in particular that interest me – the glass and the temperature. Because, like with wine, these two factors play a huge role in the drink’s potential. “I quite like the Belgian custom of a different glass for each beer,” says food and drink writer Fiona Beckett, “but you can hardly do that at home”. Herein lies the problem. It is all very well acknowledging that each beer has its own identity and therefore requires a different vessel, but this is impractical for home drinking. Even in most pubs the options are pretty limited (if there are any options at all). Beer expert Rupert Ponsonby has particular beef with the dimple-sided beer mugs. “Every time someone drinks from one I go and find a flinted stone wall and bang my head against it, ” he excoriates. This seems like unnecessary vitriol towards something so symbolic of the good old-fashioned boozer. But it really just comes down to making the most of the beer. He goes on to explain: “Your mouth to your nose – those two interlinked sensory orgasmos – is 1 inch, and yet the distance from one side to the other of a dimpled pint is 3.5 inches. So every time any beer supper sups their beer from that receptacle they are losing 70% of the aroma and flavour of the beer.”
It makes sense. Beer is fast becoming as specialised and as respected as wine. Charlie McVeigh, owner of The Draft House, writes on his blog “we aim to do for beer what our culture has done for wine and food in the past twenty years – namely to take its sourcing, cellaring, selection and serving seriously.” It is, then, understandably a travesty to swill the beer thoughtlessly out of any old receptacle. “What is the point,” asks Ponsonby, “of using top quality cleverly roasted or kilned barley and top quality hops kept sous vide to keep the flavours fresh, if some muppet goes and offers the poor drinker what is, in effect, a bucket?” The glass isn’t just a conduit – it should contribute to the overall enjoyment of the drink.
And what of temperature? For foreigners Britain is infamous for serving warm beer, and certain ‘connoisseurs’ will insist that ‘real beer’ (ideally said in a Yorkshire accent) ought to be served at some uric temperature. Not so. “The idea of ‘warm beer’ is a myth,” suggests Ponsonby. “Though older brewers do prefer their beer not too chilled, as chilling closes down the flavours”. This argument does hold some sway. You can test this with pretty much anything. Eat a cold tomato, then eat a room temperature tomato. See?
But isn’t a nice cold beer what you want? “Temperature should be cool cellar temperature,” says Beckett. “Room temperature is too warm and fridge temperature too cold for anything but lagers, pilsners and witbiers”. Ponsonby adds: “if you are drinking beer with food you need the beer to be a couple of degrees cooler so the beer cuts through the richness of the food.”
Plenty of ale for thought then. There’s a simple way of testing these theories. Go out and buy two bottles of the same beer (I chose Black Sheep ‘Golden Sheep’). Stick one in the fridge for an hour, and one in a cool place (not, like, a trendy nightclub – just somewhere with a draft). Take the cool one and pour it into a pint glass. Have a slurp, taking in what it smells and tastes like. Now pour it into a wine glass and do the same. Much better yes? The pint glass beer has no nose whatsoever, whereas with a wine glass you’ll find your head blown off with amazing, fruity, beery aromas.
Repeat the procedure with the chilled beer. You’ll find it refreshes you more and is crisper, edgier…but it don’t taste as good.
What do you reckon? A load of hokum? Would you dare ask for a different glass in a pub?
While we’re on the subject, this promises to be a cracking beer festival, with lots of local Yorkshire D-ales to sup on and enjoy the bank holiday. There’s your plug, Dad.