Jesus was a beer drinker

Beer can feel like a club that doesn’t want me as a member and I’m no Groucho Marx.

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

Roll out the barrel: Dogfish Head Brewery is attempting to recreate a Neolithic-era Chinese beer. Image: Andrew Hetherington/Redux/Eyevine

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times