Sipping is fine, but some beers just don’t seem to come through when tasted that way, so now we take a proper gulp when we’re tasting.
Our beer tasting ritual has evolved.
It used to be a fairly simple affair, as laid out by Michael Jackson in his 500 beers:
put on lucky underpants
turn twice around an oak tree in the midday sun
rub chin in contemplation.
Now we’ve added “take a proper big gulp” to the itinerary.
Sipping is fine, but some beers just don’t seem to come through when tasted that way. It’s like there’s a hole in the flavour. But take a really big gulp and suddenly, you’ve got nectar.
Unfortunately, it’s not always weak session bitters which benefit from this approach. Strong so-called sipping beers are often no such thing. Seven per cent Westmalle Dubbel tastes better when swigged, for example.
It seems that Paul’s Wines – an ancient and tatty off-license on Orford Road in Walthamstow, East London – has upped its game on the beer front. It’s been decent for a while (lots of bottled ale, the occasional sighting of Brooklyn Lager) but now it’s probably one of the best specialist beer shops in London. The manager says it’s a permanent arrangement as long as they can keep hold of the supplier.
Don’t get over-excited: there isn’t that much competition when it comes to beer shops in London, and it’s no Utobeer. But it’s better than the Army and Navy beer section these days, and really, really convenient for us!
In stock now, on top of the usual suspects from Young’s, Shepherd Neame, Badger and Fuller’s (partial list):
Goose Island Honkers Ale
Flying Dog Hefe Weizen
Brooklyn Brown Ale; East India Ale; and Lager
some ales from breweries I didn’t recognise
some weird looking beers from Russia, Mongolia, Corsica…
And the full range of Sam Smith’s.
I got a 10 per cent discount for buying (ahem) a few bottles.
There’s no more illuminating way to taste beers than to try three or four supposedly similar specimens together. When we found ourselves in possession of two notoriously blasphemous Belgian beers (Satan Gold and Judas) we thought it would be fun to drink them along with their evident inspiration, Duvel. The experience gave us a new appreciation for this old favourite.
Satan and Judas look, too all intents and purposes, identical in the glass. They have the same rich golden colour; the same loose, bubbly head.
Satan first. What a let down after the fun and tacky packaging. It smells of pear-drops, nail polish and alcohol. There are some tart apple flavours which might work if they were balanced with bitterness. Sadly, this beer is hardly bitter at all. The stingy hand with the hops is countered by an overgenerous helping of sugar. All in all, a bit like drinking syrup.
Judas is somewhat better, though similar. Sugary: check. Fruitily acidic: check. It tastes, in fact, like stewed rhubarb, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. All in all, not a beer we’ll be hunting down, but definitely drinkable. Unlike Satan, this one didn’t end up down the sink.
And then onto Duvel, which suddenly looks and tastes like what it is – a very sophisticated, well-engineered beer. It’s lighter coloured and lighter bodied than either of its two imitators. The bitterness is refreshing and pronounced. Veritable hops indeed. Whereas Satan and Judas lost their heads almost immediately, Duvel has iceberg-like clots of foam all the way down to the last mouthful.
We have our winner. Just because it’s ubiquitous doesn’t mean Duvel isn’t brilliant.
The Red Tile at Cossington, for example, is a perfect cosy country pub. On Boxing Day, it was busy with diners (there’s an unpretentious pub menu) but I managed to find a corner in which to enjoy a pint of Butcombe Brunel IPA. I’m a fan of Butcombe’s beers but I’m happy to admit that regional chauvinism makes it hard for me to be objective. Butcombe ‘ordinary’ is brown, very bitter and slightly sulphurous. The IPA is quite different – less bitter, if anything, but with a warmer orange colour and pronounced flowery hop aroma. A good example of the English session IPA.
Also worth a look is the Burtle Inn. This pub is even cosier: dark, but not gloomy, with light from wonky 18th century windows and several fierce wood fires. Although the staff looked exhausted and the pub’s supplies were depleted (“We’ve only got parsnip crisps left”) the real ales were in good nick and were also available hot and spiced! In London these days, we take it for granted that a pub will have Czech lager, wheat beer and Leffe on tap, but it’s less common in the depths of the West Country.
Finally, there was Crown at Catcott, which my Dad called “old Fred Vernon’s place” after a landlord he remembered from his youth. It’s up a winding track on a particularly windy spot on the Somerset levels, so its burning fires and low ceilings were very welcome. There was a selection of West Country ales on offer from larger brewers like Sharp’s and Butcombe. The Butcombe ordinary was, well, extraordinary – perfectly fresh and in such good condition that the head didn’t move even in the stiff breeze whistling under the old wooden door.
In short, if you’re in Somerset, ditch the towns, get yourself a designated driver and go on a crawl across the levels. It’s likely to be a lot more fun than Bridgwater, Taunton or Yeovil.