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Beer tasting is a bitter sweet experience
“I’VE been invited to a beer tasting but I can’t go,” said a colleague, “So do you want to do it instead?”
As I’m kindly sort of person who always tries to help a person in their hour of need, I agreed.
The tasting – in the ‘bitter’ category – was at Steam, the venue for what turned out to be the most successful Swindon Beer Festival yet, with 116 beers and 28 ciders and perries.
The festival is organised by the Swindon and North Wiltshire branch of Camra, the Campaign for Real Ale.
My guides were branch chairman Hans Hoffbauer, a retired IT specialist from Swindon, and Keith Jenkins, a civil servant and member of the Cardiff branch who also happens to be a highly respected ale judge.
To be honest, I thought I’d honed my beer tasting skills many years previously. My technique was simple but effective: 1. Open mouth (very important to get this right before moving on to subsequent stages) 2. Pour beer into mouth 3. Swallow beer 4. Repeat until urge is felt to tell complete strangers they’re your best mate, or to become maudlin about girlfriend of 25 years ago, who you last heard of when she married a vicar from Hemel Hempstead in 1994 5. Go home. Refrain from Googling clergy of Hemel Hempstead However, I was to learn that when it comes to taste there is every bit as much complexity to be found in beer as there is in wine, whisky or Cognac.
“The thing is,” said Hans, “that keg beers are filtered and sterilised to kill off any live substance, and one of the important features of real ale it that it’s a live product – it’s still got proteins in it and remnants of yeast.
“The difference between real ale and keg beer is the difference between handmade cheese and processed cheese slices.”
My fellow tasters included publicans with decades of experience, Arkell’s head brewer Alex Arkell, his predecessor Don Bracher and Archers founder and Weighbridge chief brewer Mark Wallington.
In such company, the novice taster feels a bit like a busker invited to jam with a bunch of platinum-selling recording artists.
It was a friendly affair, though. We were asked to score the six shortlisted ales for appearance, aroma, taste and aftertaste.
The clear winner was Uley Bitter from Gloucestershire, although there were one or two close contenders. My tasting notes said: “Robust, uncompromising, doesn’t quit.” There were also one or two that were nowhere near being contenders, although it wouldn’t be fair to name them as every beer has its fans. My other tasting notes included “promises much, delivers little”, “promises little, delivers much” and “NO!”.
Keith, the expert taster from Cardiff, told me: “Pick up the aroma when you pick up the pint, when there are lots of fresh aromas coming off.
“Think about flavours and look for something that really interests your tastebuds, something that’s pleasant and titillates the tastebuds.
“Real ale is something that you really start to enjoy.”
I’ll leave the last word to Alex Arkell, who won’t see his 30th birthday until the second half of the decade and has noticed growing real ale fandom among younger people and women.
“I’m extremely positive about it,” he said. “It’s having a resurgence. I think it’s all to do with everyone in the country having a huge amount of interest in provenence. Whether they’re eating food or drinking ale, it’s all about the taste and where it comes from. More people are starting to realise that real ale is full of flavour and provenance.”
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