Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Ode to beer

Many years ago, in the sort of semi-mythical, dewy-eyed past that might have appealed to the likes of John Betjeman or JRR Tolkien, the hop fields of Kent were a thriving affair.

In the age-old tradition of agricultural work, seasonal labour was essential, and working-class families from London would go down to Kent for their holidays to work in the fields – and get a welcome breath of fresh air.

But it’s a while since the county’s hops grew. And while I was aware of that fact, I hadn’t given it a great deal of thought – let alone realised what this actually considered what this means in practice.

Belgium is a country that takes its beer seriously. It could be argued that it takes beer more seriously than anywhere else in Europe.

Consider the scale: more than 1,000 different beers are brewed in this small nation. In Brugge, there is a bar where you are handed a menu a good inch thick, listing more that 400 different beers.

On our own visit to Bierbrasserie Cambrinus – named for the king of Beer – once we'd got to grips with the vast choice, we tried Petrus Oud Bruin and Bink Blonde.

The former was a 5.5 dark beer a that had been aged in oak. It had a really sharp, sweet first taste, which soiftened on the palate as the sourness came in to play. Very nice.

The latter was also 5.5 (the menu includes beers up to 11, so we were being very sensible). This was much fruitier, with a nice, bitter aftertaste.

Not that you knock such stuff back – but then, when it actually tastes so good, you feel less inclined to do so.

On our final afternoon, we did the tour of the city's famous brewery, De Halve Maan, which first opened its doors in 1856.

Our tour guide was a woman with a magnificently dry way. She told us, for instance, that since beer was approximately 80% water and people say we should all drink more water, we could do that by drinking more beer.

It was also educative. I learned, for instance, that hops are related to cannabis, and that they are used in beer as a preservative. They also add the distinctive bitterness to the taste.

The cogs clunked about a bit and a light came on. The hop fields of Kent have died because we're not using as many hops in our domestic brewing industry. Why not? Because the likes of Interbrew are just using chemical preservatives instead?

Some years ago, a colleague and I did a little experiment. We discovered that, even having just a couple of pints of our work local’s generic cooking lager at night (Carling, in this case) gave us both hangovers.

So we decided to try the bitter instead – Bass, if memory serves me right. It was from the keg and not the barrel, but we gave it a shot for a month. The difference was clear. No muzzy heads.

But bitter is not as popular in the UK as it once was – much of what is consumed is that sort of cooking lager.

Things are changing in the UK – as with food. Microbreweries are cropping up, brewing beer properly.

The only unfortunate thing is that good quality food – and drink – are presently viewed as expensive, middle-class fads that are beyond anyone else.

But back to Belgium.

Many beers in the country are Abbey beers – brewed originally in monastic institutions. And as if that religious connection isn’t enough, there is even a small shrine in De Halve Maan, to Arnoldus, the patron saint of brewers. This really is a very Catholic country.

Entirely understandably, the Belgians are very proud of their beers. There is a belief that, although the country benefits by not having anything like the Reinheitsgebot, the German law of 1516, which stipulates that beer can only be made from barley, hops, malt and water.

That, our guide explained, allows brewers to flavour their beers in different ways. The Hoegaarden Brewery’s eponymous wheat beer, for instance, is flavoured with coriander and orange peel.

It’s a tad deceptive to pretend that German beers don’t have a variety of flavours simply because brewers there stick to those four ingredients – they most certainly do, as even a passing acquaintance with German beer will tell you, but there’s certainly a very wide variety of superb tastes in Belgium.

We also tried Jupiler – which was an exception to the rule, being simply a pretty generic lager.

Our first beer in the city was ordered generically – and we found ourselves with a basic Czech brew, which was okay, but not really what we’d had in mind.

A Kriek cherry was very pleasant. And we had a very pleasant dark house beer at Uilenspiegel, the hotel/restaurant where we ate on the first and second night.

The only beer we had more than once was Brugse Zot – brewed at the De Halve Maan. Well, I say “brewed”: it’s ‘cooked’ there and then the rest of the process takes place at a different site.

Brugse Zot is lovely and fruity – and the dark version is nice too. They do also brew two stronger beers, but we passed on those.

So there you have it: a very brief look at Belgian beer. And the taste was even nicer.

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