Cheers for beers

    Craft beer: Five of the best

    3 August 2018

    ‘You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer’. So said Frank Zappa.

    Wise words from Frank there and also particularly pertinent ones given that it’s ‘International Beer Day’ today (August 3); a global celebration of the most popular alcoholic beverage on the planet, consumed in vast quantities by billions worldwide.

    Surely that many people can’t be wrong? Beer deserves celebrating. It’s the world’s oldest recipe, it sustained early civilisation, it helped build the Pyramids, it oiled the wheels of the industrial revolution, it stoked the fires of discontent that sparked the American one, it’s what Elizabeth I had for breakfast, it’s what Winston Churchill drank regardless of the time of day; it was the heartbeat of the British Empire, it’s started wars and it’s finished them; it is the drink of Plato and Homer (Simpson); and it is, as Jack Nicholson so succinctly pointed out, ‘the best damn drink in the world’.

    So, on International Beer Day, broaden your beer drinking horizons and try these beers, each excellent examples of their styles and each brewed in a different country.

    India Pale Ale, Lagunitas Brewing Company

    £1.85, 355ml, 6.2%

    The Americanisation of India Pale Ale is the most significant event to have shaped beer in the last 30 years. Not content with re-inventing English IPAs by cranking up the aroma and bitterness, America’s craft brewers have double it, tripled it, made it Imperial and even taken it into the black with dark versions. And more than 200 years after English brewers were exporting heavily hopped ales and porters to India, hundreds of British craft brewers are brewing American-style interpretations of IPA.

    But Lagunitas IPA is the archetypal American-style India Pale Ale, imported fully refrigerated so it’s fresh and full of flavour. Hailing from northern California, the cradle of the global craft brewing scene, it was first brewed by Tony Magee who was instrumental in lighting a fire under the rocking chair of boring, bland American beer back in the 1990s.

    Lagunitas has built its rightly-revered reputation on the humble hop and this excellent IPA, brewed using the classic Cascade hop, is a resinous drop full of pine needles and eucalyptus with a backbone of marmalade and maple sweetness. There’s a very good reason it’s the best-selling IPA in America.

    Saison L’ete, Burning Sky

    £2.69, 330ml, 4.2%

    A centuries-old style, saisons were first brewed by farmers in Wallonia in Belgium, a pastoral patchwork quilt of fields and farmsteads dotted with itinerant agricultural workers toiling over the soil.

    At the end of each day, the grasping, rasping thirst of these ‘saisonniers’ was quenched with saison, a beer that was, crucially, safer to drink than water. Boiled and spiced, it was brewed during the colder months and then stored to be drunk throughout the summer – their key requirement being refreshment, energy and relatively low alcohol.

    Saisons are solar-powered, ideal for the summer months. They’re made for days when the mercury is riding high, slaking thirsts is what there are deliberately designed to do and, with high carbonation and a spritzy character, they appeal to both lager and white wine drinkers alike.

    Very few British brewers can successfully make saisons like Mark Trantner at the Burning Sky brewery in East Sussex, recently named Best Drinks Producer at the prestigious BBC Food and Farming Awards.

    Mark brews a series of seasonal, lower strength saisons which, true to the Wallonian tradition, are brewed using wheat and spelt as well as local ingredients that have been foraged from the countryside.

    Saison L’Ete, one of four seasonal variations released each year, is brewed with fresh elderflowers, plucked from hedgerows that surround the brewery, aged on whole gooseberries and fermented using wild yeast strains. It’s dry but not thin, slightly tart and boasts astonishing quenching credentials. Excellent for summer sipping.

    Toasted Porter, Einstok

    £2.52, 33cl, 6%

    Back in the 18th century, London’s brewing scene, the envy of the world, was built on porter, the original blue-collar beer and the first beer style to be truly exported all over the globe.

    The new ‘porter’ beers were highly hopped, brewed with high-roasted malt and then aged in 108-gallon casks called butts. Just like Sir Mix-a-Lot, brewers liked big butts, as it allowed brewers to make the beer all year round and in huge quantities.

    The maturation in wood also softened the smoky flavour of the burned malted barley while also adding a slightly funky element to the dark ale – which came from wild yeast, critters and microflora that lived in their butts.

    Porter was absurdly popular among London’s porters – hence the name. These men weren’t the chaps who helped you with your bags outside hotels but rather the chaps who moved goods around the city’s streets like olden-day cycle couriers, they were the guys who shifted stuff on and off the ships on the River Thames.

    After a gruelling day moving stuff about, they would hit the pub and slake their thirst with a pint of porter accompanied by a few oysters – the 18th century equivalent of a packet of peanuts or crisps which would sit on the bar tops of London boozers.

    This marvellously silky and smooth-edged mouth-filler, made in Iceland about 40 miles south of the Arctic circle using chocolate malt and water that has percolated through lava fields, is an authentic porter with all the unbalanced, acrid 18th-century bits taken out.

    Don’t be hoodwinked by its portentous hue because this dark beer, brewed using coffee from a neighbouring roaster, is deceptively drinkable and excellent with chargrilled meat off the BBQ and, of course, oysters – shuck it and see.

    Oude Gueze, Boon Brewery

    £3.10, 6.5%, 375ml

    If you want to be taken seriously as a craft beer connoisseur while also gaining the upper hand on your mates who proudly drink India Pale Ale and Imperial Stout, then you need to start drinking ‘sours’ – or at the very least saying you drink them.

    Because, to the uninitiated, sours are daunting drops that are bound to dumbfound conventional beer drinkers. Ranging from Berliner Weisse and Gose (brewed with salt) to Flemish Reds and ‘wild’ brews, sours is a term referring to tart, acidic beers fermented using wild yeast or bacteria such as Brettanomyces, lactobacillius or pediococcus.

    The most iconic sour beers come from Belgium and are known as Lambic beers, brewed in and around Brussels. What distinguishes lambic from your usual conventional contemporary beers is that it’s spontaneously fermented with naturally-occurring, local, airborne yeast.

    Closer in character to cider or fino sherry, lambic is brewing at its most raw, it’s what brewing used to be centuries before Louis Pasteur had his light bulb moment and is the oldest beer style in the western world.

    It’s hailed by some as the most quixotic and cultured expression of the brewing art and dismissed by others who simply can’t understand the attraction of something so tart and that tastes a bit like a goat smells.

    You have to learn to love lambic but with perseverance, and once you get over the initial obstacles to seduction, it reveals it true greatness like a truly epic album or a classic novel. As the contemporary craft beer scene matures, adoration for lambics has stretched beyond dedicated beer geeks who zip their anoraks right up to the top into the more mainstream drinker looking for something drier, and a little less sweet.

    From one of the most traditional and esteemed lambic producers comes this blend of young and old lambic beer, known as gueze. It’s a wonderful introduction to this classic style. Funky, tart and complex, there’s loads going on in here – pear drops, lemon zest, oak and horse blanket with a dry, Champagne-like finish. It’s a bit weird but you should definitely try it.

    Tannenzäpfle, Rothaus

    £2.79, 33cl, 5.1%

    The Germans are the go-to guys for lovely lagers. Alongside the Czechs, they are the best in the world at brewing bottom-fermented beers yet, for some reason, Germany’s rich lager brewing tradition doesn’t command the same reverence as the beer scenes in, say, Belgium or America.

    Perhaps it’s a hangover from the days when Holsten Pils and other ersatz interpretations of German lager left drinkers underwhelmed in the 1980s. Or, perhaps in this climate of craft beer, with funky packaging and in-your-face flavours that bludgeon your taste-buds, classic clean-lined crisp drinking German lagers, whose labels are unashamedly old-school, don’t quite tap into the zeitgeist – even though it’s a German word n’that.

    Yet, as any brewer will tell you, brewing a great lager that deftly dovetail refinement and refreshment is a notoriously tricky thing to do. Unlike stouts, porters and double IPAs, there’s nowhere for the off-flavours to hide in a lager – imperfections are laid bare. One esteemed lager brewer compared it to running along the beach with no clothes on.

    Among myriad options in Germany, we’ve chosen Rothaus Tannenzäpfle, a cult classic with a brilliantly retro label. It’s brewed in the Black Forest at the Baden State Brewery, dating back more than 225 years and is the highest brewery in Germany.

    In terms of ingredients, it ticks all the boxes with Teutonic efficiency. It gets its water from its own gushing springs, the summer barley is grown nearby in Baden-Württemberg, its special yeast strains are cultivated at Weihenstephan, home to the biggest bank of yeast in the world, while the Tettnang and Hallertau regions provide the classic, acutely aromatic hops.

    Phenomenally fresh with a lovely floral tang, it’s lagered for four weeks (substantially longer than supermarket cooking lagers) and, what’s more, it’s suitable for vegans. That said, it’s great with enormous sausages – just like the Germans have it.

    Tom Sandham and Ben McFarland are the Thinking Drinkers and are performing their new show, The Thinking Drinkers’ Pub Crawl, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival throughout August before embarking on a nationwide tour. The show celebrates the history of bar and pub and serves up five free drinks during the performance. For show dates and ticket details head to