I wish I liked beer more. It has a fine sense of humour; names such as Electric Nurse and Anarchy would look ridiculous on a winery. But I’ve always considered it wine’s poor relation, so Ben McFarland, the author of Boutique Beer, is out to convert me.
We meet at the Craft Beer Co, where the fridge glows with brown glass and the gleaming taps could blind you. I’m the only woman here. I’m surprised my arrival doesn’t trigger a mass exodus. This is one of my gripes: beer can feel like a club that doesn’t want me as a member and I’m no Groucho Marx.
While Ben goes off to drool – I mean, order – I open his book and read about Bernard Leboucq of the Brasserie de la Senne, who named his brewery after a buried river in Brussels and thinks the Bruxellois are deluded to claim they have great beer. They used to, he reckons, but nowadays . . .
Maybe that’s the difference between beer and wine, apart from details such as contents, history and method of manufacture. Beer looks back to a glorious past. It was probably the first drinking alcohol and at one point it was considered a healthier substitute for water.
Yet it has taken longer than wine to consider the future. The standard picture of a beer-lover is a whiskered pot belly, peering into his oversized glass for a glimpse of the good old days.
Beer is catching up. In 2006, London had only a handful of breweries, one of which produced Budweiser. Today, there are 30 microbreweries in the capital and many more beyond, all making boutique beers with just hops, grain, water, yeast and inspiration, some of it rather odd, such as the Australian who brews using boiling-hot boulders from Fiji.
Ben returns with our pints. I dislike pints: simply too much drink in one place. Ben, oblivious, starts telling me about Thornbridge, which comes from Derbyshire but is made like a Kölsch – a light style of beer brewed in Cologne. The city forbids other places to use the name.
My ears prick up. Convoluted, terroir-based rules are, so to speak, my territory. And there’s more concern with place in beer than you would think, because hops taste of where they’re from, although they’re so light – you dry them – that you can pitch your brewery wherever you like and import them. (Unless you want to call the resulting brew Kölsch.)
There are national tastes in beer, apparently. Americans are bigger and brasher, while Britain historically prefers a gentle, lower-alcohol beer – one reason it can be served in pints. Kölsch, Ben tells me, usually comes in a tiny glass. I regard my transparent tower of beer and think predictable 21st-century thoughts about the German gift for economy.
The beer is soft and toasty and rather moreish, unlike Ben’s Dark Star, made with American hops, which has a bitter citrus kick that I find interesting to try but easy to leave.
We sample Kernel Export Stout, an 1890s recipe produced in Bermondsey by an Irishman. It’s malty – chocolate on the nose and tar on the tongue, like boozy Marmite. Ben’s Evil Twin seems rather too well named. He’s now muttering darkly about how Jesus actually turned water into beer, because he was poor and only rich Romans drank wine. He clinches the (one-sided) argument by pointing out that Jesus had a beard and wore sandals, so was obviously a beer drinker.
Jesus the hipster. Nobody ever concocted a theory like that while downing fermented grapes. But beer’s greatest mystery remains –why can I consume champagne until I overflow, yet a couple of beers fill me up? Is the flaw in me or the beer? I can see Ben biting his tongue (not easy with a mouth full of beer), so I consign the Holy Trinity to his care and depart, sober: Kernel’s 7.2 per cent ABV may be hardcore for beer but it’s nothing compared to your average grape-based beverage. They get Jesus, we get drunk. Not much of a contest, in my jaundiced view.
Next week: John Burnside on nature