I drink a lot of beer. Or rather I ‘taste’ a lot of beer – or that’s what I like to say when I’m trying to portray a professional image. But really it amounts to the same thing. Unlike wine sampling, beer tasting does not involve swilling the liquid around the mouth and then spitting it out before you get a chance to fully benefit from it. No – with beer tasting you get the full experience, from the sweetness on the lips, right through to the bitter backwash on your tongue, and the warming alcohol glow as it slips down your throat. Or just a fruity hop-fuelled punch in the face, of course, depending on what you’re quaffing.
However, like many contemporary beer drinkers, I spend a lot of my time drinking new beers. The quest for the novel, the experimental, the undiscovered, is ever present, and the fear of missing out on that new collaboration, that new small-batch, barrel-aged, wild yeast fermented concoction is as overwhelming for me as for all the other beer-chasers, marking our cards, rating our beers, and Instagramming our discoveries.
But beer is about so much more than that. The world’s most popular alcoholic drink, brewed in almost every part of the world for thousands of years, comes in many more guises than an artist-inspired can. There are many more beers than there are wines in the world. Some are ubiquitous, like the cold, pale, golden fizz that appears in some form in almost every continent of the globe. Some are less well-known, at this point in geography and time like Zoigl (a beer brewed in just one small area of north eastern Bavaria), or even almost extinct, like the Kentucky Common (a dark beer that used to be very popular around the town of Louisville). But in a world of craft beer, in which the new brewers stand squarely on the shoulders of those giants who brewed before them, these kinds of brews inform the present, and write the recipe we’ll all be drinking tomorrow.
Which is why I’m going back. Over the next few weeks I intend to sample around 150 distinct types of beer in a series of tasting sessions that will showcase some of the finest examples of each style. I’m not naïve enough to think that it’s all going to be plain sailing. Some sessions will be simply wonderful, of course – I can’t wait to taste a full-house of stouts – but others I know will challenge my palate in a variety of ways . Stepping briefly outside of the ‘craft’ bubble could expose me to the kinds of terrors I thought I’d put behind me – but I know I’ll come out the other end with a renewed understanding of what makes this drink so versatile, so vital, and so loved.
Organising such a vast tasting project is quite overwhelming. Obtaining some sort of an inventory of all the available beer styles is essential, as is grouping them together with beers alongside which they make sense. After all, there’s only so much beer a person can drink and sensibly taste in one sitting, and tasting a light lager alongside a Baltic porter may not provide me with the subtlety of education my palate demands. But, as in so many other regards nowadays, there is a mine of information and resources out there if you just know where to look.
Firstly, the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) – the body that certifies and ranks judges for homebrew competitions – produces its own style guidelines, the most recent version of which was published in 2015. Although this is primarily intended as a guide to aid the judging of homebrew, it can provide a useful framework on which to begin planning which beers to taste, and identifying good examples of these. Although beer styles change over time, and not every beer fits into these guidelines, the suggested categories, and list of commercial examples under each heading are invaluable when planning a project such as this. And it’s even available as free app for iTunes or Android for constant handy reference.
Secondly, there are some excellent books around that fully dissect the process of beer tasting, and provide thoroughly readable and accessible guides to the beers of the world. The classic text often mentioned in this regard is Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer – An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink, published in 2009, which explains how to deconstruct a beer in terms of the flavour wheel, and how to record tasting notes in a useful manner.
Another book that covers some of the same ground in an equally appealing way is Joshua Bernstein’s The Complete Beer Course – Boot Camp for Beer Geeks, which consists of twelve ‘lessons’ that promise to turn the reader ‘from novice to expert’. I particularly like the ‘two to try’ feature included throughout this book which suggests two beers of the same style – often one classic and one contemporary – to sample side-by-side.
Unfortunately, the BJCP guidelines and both of these books are written from a North American perspective, at times to the neglect of the British beer scene. It is rare to find a suggested example from a UK brewery, although Harvey’s, Thornbridge and Kernel are all mentioned in the BJCP guidelines.
Of course, a lot of the beer styles originate from mainland Europe or the USA so some dedicated sourcing of brews is in order. A number of beers can be found in local supermarkets – after all, at some point I’ll need to revisit the likes of Miller Lite and Shepherd Neame’s Spitfire. The range of international beers on offer in Marks & Spencer seems to be growing all the time so there are rich pickings to be had there. There are also some excellent websites that can assist in this regard including Beers of Europe and Beer Hawk (as long as you’re happy to put aside any qualms you may have with the latter’s association with AB InBev in the name of research).
And, of course, if like me you’re lucky enough to live in Brighton, we are rather spoiled in terms of access to good, unusual and challenging beer, particularly with shops like Bison Beer on East Street, and the Aladdin’s cave of Trafalgar Wines half-way up Trafalgar Street.
So, if you want to join me on my mission to rediscover the multitude of beers this planet has to offer, you have no excuse. The rough order I will be tasting in is this:
- Pale Lagers
- Amber Lagers
- Dark Lagers
- Pale Ales
- Amber Ales
- Brown Ales
- Strong Ales
- Wheat Beers
- Sour Ales
- Speciality Beers & Everything Else
I’ll be certain to see you on the other side with more of an understanding of the range of magic that a handful of rather special ingredients can conjure up. I’ll provide regular updates on my progress – and I’ll be not tasting, but drinking.