Sunday, 27 January 2013

I am now qualified in beer!

It's now about 630pm on Sunday, and my head is just about clear enough now to tell you how I spent yesterday - getting educated in beer. Obviously any beer based education will involve a certain amount of tasting, and beer tasting has one significant difference from wine tasting. You swallow.

Let's rewind to about May last year, when I was trying to think of a birthday present for my friend Chris. He's as difficult to buy for as I am so we've fallen into getting things to do, rather than things to have. Gig tickets, driving courses and even butchery. Part of the deal with presents like this is that you have to go yourself too. More fun that way.

Chris likes beer, and he's very proficient at drinking it. He does tend to lean towards standard premium lagers, and occasionally he leans towards the floor - mainly after the lagers. I've developed a more varied taste so I thought a little bit of education would do us both good.

Off to the internet to find The Beer Academyhttp://www.beeracademy.org/. The one day foundation course looked about right - you even got a qualification at the end. A voucher was bought. Fast-forward eight months and we finally do the course. Not that there was a long waiting list, more that we were both pretty rubbish at arranging a date.

The course notes
The one day foundation course covers

  • The history of beer
  • Ingredients
  • The brewing process
  • How to taste beer
  • Practicing tasting beer
  • Lunch, with a little more practice
  • Different styles of beer
  • More tasting practice
  • Matching beer with food
  • Food and beer tasting practice
  • Some other things, I forget
  • Was there an exam? I have a vague recollection there may have been an exam.
  • Extending the course into the evening for some more practicing.

There were twelve or so of us there, all attending for fun. They quite often get publicans or trainee publicans on these courses but as this was a Saturday the amateur enthusiasts were out in force. Ages ranged from about 30 to 60, there were a couple of home brewers and quite a few people there who'd been bought the course as a gift.

Skipping over the history, the first "hands-on" activity was getting to know the key ingredients. We tasted a couple of different waters, barley in various forms - dried, steeped, germinating (with the shoots still on) and kilned, at which point it became malt. The kilned grains went from a light, slow drying all the way up to the coffee and burnt caramel taste of chocolate malt. Smelling and tasting these was our first chance to test our beer tasting skills as we were trying individual flavour components.

We soon learnt that there was a massive variation in our ability to pick out certain flavours. Around me people were calling out "melon", "parsnip", "sweetcorn", "cocoa" and "caramel" and all I could pick up off the malt was "grainy", "wet grainy", "slightly malty" and in a moment of inspiration "coffee". Although, the coffee was probably picked up from my leftover Americano that was still on the table.

Then onto the hops. I was better at this. We had a good rub and a sniff at Goldings, Saaz (more grassy, from the Czech Republic) and Cascade (Very citrusy, grapefruit... hang on, this is the American IPA one!).

As we were doing this we were also being taking through the brewing process, the different ways of using the ingredients and the effect they had on the beer. Did you know, that officially an ale doesn't have hops? And that hops have a significant preservative effect? This was all new to me and would clearly make my drinking far more enjoyable from now on.

By this time we were all dying for a pint. Or at least, several quarter pints.

The tasting process involved looking at the beer's colour (brown, generally) and head, doing lots of swirling and smelling (smells... like beer) and finally tasting. I was told off for going straight to the tasting and necking the first sample in one.

I've lost track of how many different beers we tasted. There was a mass production lager (Carling) which surprised us all as we actually tried to analyse the taste without knowing what it was. There was Fraoch, an old Scottish ale that uses heather and bogmyrtle but no hops. Greene King IPA (which isn't an IPA), ESB, bottled Guinness... and that was before lunch.

Lunch was unexciting, apart from we got to drink more beer - this time brewed on site at the venue, The Bull in Highgate.

Then the afternoon was spent in a similar manner to the second half of the morning. More tasting, sometimes with food to explore matching, sometimes without. A US lager with tortilla chips? A German sausage with a German lager? Kriek, a Belgian cherry beer, with dark chocolate. A couple of wheat beers. A Czech lager. A couple more English beers - Worthington White Shield, Marstons Owd Rodger. Duvel. Another lager. Another Belgian.

It's all a bit of a blur.

So, the verdict?

The course was well taught, interactive, fun and had a good bunch of people on it. I got to taste lots of different styles and more importantly learnt why they tasted as they did. I appreciate the art and science that goes into the whole range of beer - from mass produced lagers to limited run crazy microbrews. I can now talk of the sweetcorny notes of a Carling, due to the light malt that they use. I can say things like "I'm really getting the citrus overtones of the Cascade hops). But most of all, I learnt one thing.

Beer is ace.
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