A journey into the four ingredients of beer
Beer is the most popular alcoholic drink on the planet, but very few people have any idea what it is made of. We all know that wine is made by fermenting pressed juice from grapes, and cider comes from pressing apples. But what about beer?
Beer is traditionally made from four natural ingredients: malted barley, hops, yeast and water, and each of these has an incredible story to tell.
From the Lambic breweries of Belgium, where beer is fermented with wild yeasts drawn down from the air around the brewery, to the aquifers below Burton on Trent, where the brewing water is rumoured to contain life-giving qualities, this book will tell the full story behind the amazing role that each of these fantastic four has to play. It will travel from the surreal madness of drink-sodden hop-blessings in the Czech Republic to Bamberg in the heart of Bavaria, where malt smoked over an open flame creates beer that tastes like liquid bacon. It will explore the origins of fermentation, the lost age of hallucinogenic gruit beers, and the evolution of modern hop varieties that now challenge wine grapes in the extent to which they are discussed and revered.
Along the way, we’ll meet and drink with a cast of characters who reveal the magic of beer, and celebrate the joy of drinking it. And, almost without noticing, we’ll learn the naked truth about the world’s greatest beverage.
In any walk of life, whatever your career, there are certain places you hope your job might take you. When I worked in advertising I always dreamed that a global ad agency might decide I was the only person who could help out on a special three-month project in New York, and fly me over there and put me up in an apartment until I’d delivered… I’m not sure what, the fantasy gets vague at that point. If you’re a lower league footballer, I’m sure you dream of playing at Wembley or even Old Trafford one day, and it’s a dishonest restaurant critic who claims they’ve never hoped to be sent to Noma or El Bulli to offer their unique perspective.
As a beer writer, I’m waiting patiently for my invitation for an all-expenses-paid trip to the hop farms of the Yakima Valley in Washington State. It hasn’t happened yet. But it will. This is where the hops are grown that changed everything. These hops began the American craft beer revolution, bringing with them a new palate of flavours that, over three decades later, remain the secret weapon in the fight to change the preconceptions of people who think they don’t like beer. These hops make people say things like, “Oh. Oh, I didn’t know beer could taste like that. Oh, that’s different. That’s not what I expected at all. I still don’t like beer, but I love this.”
Hops grow in temperate climates around the world. Like people, when they travel they change some aspects of themselves to fit in. American hops are widescreen and loud, occasionally brash and overbearing, but always exciting. The aroma and flavour they give to beer points to the horizon and encourages brewers and drinkers to go bigger, to reach for more. By contrast, European hops are more reserved. English hops are earthy and rustic, redolent of rainy autumn rather than stunning fall, the smell of loam and damp country lanes overhung by dripping trees. Their continental counterparts are balanced and refined. They might not seem that interesting to you, but if they don’t that’s because you don’t have the right breeding and class. The classic varieties are even referred to as ‘noble hops’. They don’t have to explain themselves to the uncultured.
It’s summer 2012, and an email arrives inviting me on a visit to some hop farms. There’s no transatlantic travel involved, but it will still involve getting on a plane. Greene King is brewing a new beer using hops grown in Slovenia. The head brewer is going out to inspect the farms he’s buying from, and the brewery thought some trade journalists might be interested in going along for the ride.
At this point, I’m not sure what to expect from Slovenia, being entirely and shamefully ignorant of anything to do with it. I always used to get it mixed up with Slovakia, which is unforgivable really, even though both are high in the rankings of nations that consume a lot of beer per capita. Both outstrip the UK, and Slovenia is ahead of the US, narrowly missing out on the top ten. It’s no Germany or Czech Republic, but Slovenia is a country with beer in its soul.
As we come in to land, the first thing that surprises me about Slovenia is its beauty. Again, I’m revealing my ignorance here, but for people who grew up in the 1980s, any former Soviet Bloc country remains grim and grey in the imagination. Such preconceptions have been instantly blown away for anyone who has holidayed in places like Montenegro or Croatia and found a relatively unspoilt Mediterranean paradise, but I never have.
Slovenia has only the tiniest strip of coastline, thanks to the Italian border creeping along and stealing it, a narrow sliver that seems to tell a story of blatant and shameless land-grabbing when you look at it on the map. But it doesn’t need the sea: Slovenia sits just south of the Alps, and much of it is mountainous and forested, dotted with lakes, fairy-tale castles and breath-taking views that rival any other Alpine tourism hotspot. The whole country seems tinged with an ozone-rich azure freshness. These mountain ranges are dense with rivers running through broad, pretty valleys that are perfect for either agriculture or sitting back and gazing at with a cold beer in your hand.
If you’re going to do that – and I recommend you do – there are two main brands to choose from: Union and Laško. Bitter rivals for over a century, they squeezed almost everyone else out of the market. Each produces a perfectly decent pilsner and a dark lager as well as soft drinks and radlers (shandy). With few product differences between the two, loyalty to one brand or the other became as much a badge of allegiance as your choice of team in a city with two rival football clubs.
In the early noughties, global giant Interbrew (now A-B Inbev) came sniffing around Union on its path to buying its way to global beer domination. Desperate to keep these twin national treasures in Slovenian hands, the Slovenian government gifted Union to Laško, creating a monopoly with a market share of over 80 per cent. Invariably, drinkers of either brand claim the beers are not as good as they used to be. But for an Englishman, the accent softening the ‘s’ in Laško creates an inevitable preference, if only for lame jokes about ‘going out on the Lashko.’
The Final Countdown
Thursday, 9 March 2017
The end bit of writing a book - the part between pressing 'send' on the completed first draft and finally picking up the finished article in a bookshop - is a weird combination of monotony, anticipation and delicious pleasure.
The monotony comes from the Groundhog Day-like experience of reading the book from cover to cover, again and again, each time pushing it forward to completion.
Finished! (Well, nearly)
Monday, 17 October 2016
At 5am on Monday, 12th September, I got up early to go to the airport to go on a much-needed fortnight's holiday. Four hours before, I pressed 'send' on the final sections of my first draft of this book!
It was a hell of a ride getting it finished in time. It's the hardest book I've ever written. I have no scientirifc background, and I absolutely wanted to make sure the book wasn't too technical…
I've got a brand new combine harvester
Friday, 7 August 2015
Well, it's not mine and it's about twenty years old, but you get the idea.
Two days ago I was in Norfolk for the harvest of Maris Otter barley.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Maris Otter being in commercial production. For many of those years, maltsters and brewers didn't pay much attention to the variety of barley. Barley was barley; it was the process of malting that gave it…
Thinking mostly about yeast
Wednesday, 8 July 2015
When I started this book, the original idea came from hops. For about thirty seconds, I was going to write an in-depth analysis of and love letter to hops, based on the various visits I'd made to hop farms and festivals, and the impact that hoppy pale ales had had on me (not to mention thousands of others) on the journey of discovery around good beer. After the half-minute-long rush of memories…
Update on What Are You Drinking?
Friday, 5 June 2015
Sorry it's been a while. Lots of planning for exciting things in the pipeline, lots of visits lined up, lots of research going on.
This week we had our first big pledge from a brewer who has taken advantage of the offer of a day of my consultancy time on their brand, plus a bunch of books at a discounted rate for sale in the brewery shop. If you work for a brewery and you'd like to take advantage…
These people are helping to fund Miracle Brew.