The nine beers every 16-year-old needs to try

This post has its roots in something my 14-year-old daughter said to me this morning, about how she would never drink tea or coffee. “You will,” I told her, thinking that, as with so many pleasures, the joys of the Chinese camellia and the Arabian coffee bush were hard to understand when you are only young. It would certainly be pointless brewing up a cup of roasty Sumatra for her now, and insisting: “Try this, you’ll like it!” How old was I when I began appreciating tea and coffee? Seventeen, at the earliest, I’m sure, maybe 18, and even then I still needed plenty of sugar in each cup. And yet, I was only 14 when I was handed my first pint of beer, by my father – a pint of Fremlin’s bitter, in the garden of the Rose in Bloom, Whitstable – and took to it immediately, instantly seduced by its uncompromising hoppiness.

Fremlin's showcard

I remember the elephant …

So how old should people be when we thrust a glass of beer at them, declaring: “You must try this!” I’m pretty sure that for most, 14 would be too early. Alcohol – you’ve perhaps forgotten this – actually tastes horrible when you first try it. Most beers will be very bitter, to almost anyone not used to the drink. But at 16, when it’s legal, in the UK, to drink beer and wine in a pub or restaurant, provided it’s an accompaniment to food, I believe it’s essential to start introducing teenagers to good beer, to show them what the drink is capable of and, most importantly, to show them that what their mates might secretly be drinking – most probably mainstream lager – is definitely not the acme of the beery arts.

Right: what beers should you give a 16-year-old to show them beer’s range, without overwhelming them and making them run away? Here’s my pick of an educational nine, all (in the UK, at least) relatively easy to get hold of, all of which point up a particular lesson about beer. They should be presented in the order I’ve deliberately listed them, and no more than a couple a day: another very important lesson teenagers should have drilled into them is that alcohol is for enjoying, and getting drunk is not actually the prime purpose. Indeed, while the buzz, enjoyed safely, is an aspect of the appeal of drinking, being drunk shouldn’t, properly, be any part of the purpose at all.

Woodforde’s Wherry – English bitter Let’s start where I started, with an English bitter. I’ve spoken before about how I fell immediately in love with this beer the first time I tasted it, at a beer festival in Cambridge in the early 1980s. Other bitters are available, but Wherry manages to be both complex and easy to drink at the same time, a very tough trick. If you can, drink this with your 16-year-old in a pub (over a meal, to be legal). Ask them what they notice in the beer. Don’t lead them, unless they get completely stuck. Talk about the ingredients, mention that much of the flavour comes from the single hop, Goldings. Point out that at 3.8 per cent alcohol, this is a beer for easy sipping over a session chatting with friends, and yet, if you want to, you can notice all sorts of interesting stuff going on in the depths of the glass.

Sierra Nevada pale ale On next to a beer that looks not too dissimilar to the Wherry – somewhat paler – but provides a complete contrast in taste, aroma and intent. “OK, kid,” you can say, “you’ve had a gentle, friendly introduction: this is what happens when you let the hops loose.” Point out that, theoretically, both this and the beer before are part of the great superfamily “pale ale”. Ask your 16-year-old what differences, and similarities, they find between the two beers. Ask them what flavours they are finding, what those flavours remind them of. Tell them that, once again, there’s only one type of hop in there, this time Cascade. Talk about American hops versus European ones. Ask if this is a sipping and chatting beer, or something else. They will, I hope, be interested to know that SN pale ale is one of the most influential beers in the world, having inspired hundreds – thousands? – of brewers to make something similar.

Fuller’s London Porter For the second session with your 16-year-old, present them with something completely different, in appearance and flavour. Fuller’s porter is not my favourite porter, but for a teenager, it’s a good training wheels beer, slightly sweet, which will counteract the bitterness. Explain that the colour, and much of the flavour come from roasted grain. Ask what tastes and aromas they are getting, what the mouthfeel is like, and how that mouthfeel might differ from the two beers they had before. You might talk briefly about how this was THE beer of London’s working classes for more than a century, just to give them an idea of beer’s historical aspects. Ask them what foods they think this beer might go with.

Harvey’s Imperial Russian Stout Finish off the session with something you’ll have to warn your 16-year-old they might well find horrible. Explain how this is the big daddy of the beer they’ve just had, with everything ramped up to 11. If they can take much more than a sip, ask them, again, to describe the flavours, and to say what similarities and differences they find compared to the porter. Tell them how this beer is stored for 12 months before being bottled, to let it mature. Slip in a bit of history again – how this was Catherine the Great’s favourite type of beer. Ask them how they would use this beer: as an aperitif, or an end-of-the day winder-down?

Orval Session three is a very brief introduction to Belgium. You don’t want to scare your 16-year-old too much. Still, the bitterness, and the funk, of Orval should, again, show them that “beer” covers a vast world of impressions and experiences. Ask them to sniff the beer and describe the aroma. Explain about the Brettanomyces yeast, how it imparts something some describe as “cheesy”, or “barnyardy” to the beer, and how the Brett means the beer tastes different as it ages in bottle.

Liefmans Kriekbier Then cheer them up with a beer that ought to appeal to any 16-year-old. Once again, this is designed to be an eye-opener as to the enormous range of flavours that can be found under the headword “beer”. Try to open the bottle out of sight, and don’t tell your teenager what’s gone into it: if they’ve never heard of cherry beer, this is likely to be a complete surprise to them. Ask them if they’d recommend it to friends. Tell them about cherry beer ice-cream (mmm – cherry beer ice-cream …)

Weihenstephaner Hefe-Weisse For session four, we can present our 16-year-old with something rather less challenging, though still likely to be outside the range of beers they might have been secretly drinking at parties while they thought your attention was elsewhere. Here’s where you can talk about yeast: explain to the teenager that the cloudiness of the beer is no fault, but a result of using wheat, and having yeast left unfiltered in the bottle. Tell them much of the flavour in the beer comes from the particular yeast used, and ask them, once more, what flavours and aromas they find. Ask them to say when and where this might be a good beer to drink, and if it would go with any particular sorts of food.

Budweiser Budvar Ease them down with something a lot closer to the type of beer a 16-year-old is likely to have encountered. Explain how this beer undergoes 90 days of lagering, and tell them what lagering is and what that maturation does to a beer. Ask them what they are finding as they taste the beer, and if they are getting an after-taste as they swallow. Ask them how this beer compares, in their memory, to other lagers they might have drunk. Talk a bit, if you like, about the difference between this and American Budweiser.

Stella Artois Finally, for the last lesson, take them down to the pub for a meal and order them a pint of Stella, or similar mass-produced lager. What? Yes – then ask them to describe anything they are getting off the beer, and tell them to compare it to the beers you have introduced to them. Hopefully, a lesson will have been learned that will last them the rest of their drinking life. Then ask them if they would like to replace the Stella with something else. If they say “no”, and it’s your 16-year-old, disown them immediately.

Sunny Seventeen light beer

Well she was just seventeen, you know what I mean …

Courage IRS: a 40-year vertical tasting

Very few beer brands survive today that have modern examples to put into a worthwhile four-decade vertical tasting. That’s simply because forty years ago there were hardly any beers being brewed that had the longevity to be still drinkable when even the most junior brewer involved in their production is now at or approaching retirement age.

It wasn’t looking good for Courage Imperial Russian Stout, which was one of less than a handful of strong beers capable of great age being brewed in the 1970s and which stopped being made in the early 1990s despite a history going back more than two centuries.

But Courage IRS, doubtless in considerable part because Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer in 1977 featured it across two pages, has inspired a huge number of imitators in the US and created an extremely popular beer style in the process.

When the Bedford brewer Wells & Youngs acquired the rights to the Courage beer brands from Scottish & Newcastle in 2007, the first two beers from the old Courage stable Wells produced were the Best Bitter and Directors Bitter. But I am sure it quickly occurred to the company’s marketers that here was a chance to bring back a truly iconic beer, which would surely have an instant appeal in the US as the ur-IRS, the Imperial Russian Stout in honour of which all others are named.

Thus in May last year the Bedford brewery produced the first new brew of Courage Imperial Russian Stout for 18 years, two bottles of which they’ve been kind enough to send to me, to my great delight, as I love a good IRS. And because I’m the sort of sad nerd who stuffs bottles of beers away for decades, I was able to pull out examples of Courage IRS from 1975, 1985 and 1992 to compare against the latest version. Continue reading

Imperial Stout – Russian or Irish?

A very early Russian Stout ad from 1922

It was terrific to see a positive story on the BBC about beer, with the coverage of the Great Baltic Adventure, the project to take Imperial Russian Stout back to Russia by boat, just the way it was done 200 and more years ago. But what’s this claim here, at 1:05 by BBC reporter Steve Rosenberg, talking about the first exports of stout from England to the Baltic:

“The problem was that by the time it had got to Russia it had frozen, so the brewers back home bumped up the alcohol content to make sure it didn’t turn into ice-lollies.”

Nooooooooooooo! Please, there are enough myths about beer history already, without new ones being started. Let’s make it clear, right now: the stout exported to Russia was NOT brewed strong to stop it freezing. If it had been cold enough to freeze the beer, the ocean itself would have frozen over, and the ships wouldn’t have been able to get through. It was brewed strong because that’s the way the customers liked it.

Actually, and with respect to Tim O’Rourke, whose idea the Great Baltic Adventure was, and who roped in 11 British brewers from Black Sheep to Meantime to supply Imperial Russian Stouts to take to St Petersburg by sea, the Russians also liked another strong English brew in the 18th century, Burton Ale, the thick, sweet, brown ale brewed in Burton upon Trent and shipped out of Hull. But on March 31 1822 the Russian government introduced a new tariff that banned almost every article of British manufacture, from cotton goods to plate glass, knives and forks to cheese, umbrellas to snuff boxes – and “Shrub, Liquors, Ale and Cyder”. Porter, however – and this included what we would now call stout – was left untouched. The Burton ale trade to the Baltic was wrecked, but British porter brewers could send as much of the black stuff to St Petersburg as they wanted. Continue reading

Extreme beers in the 19th century

Burton, legendarily associated with strong drink

Once more serendipitous synchronicity works its magic, as hacking through glades of old newspapers for something else entirely turns up fascinating info about one of the 19th century’s most famous “extreme beers”, Allsopp’s Arctic Ale, linking it firmly to the Baltic beer trade.

Arctic Ale, brewed by Samuel Allsopp and Co of Burton upon Trent, seems to have been first made under that name to supply the fleet of five ships of 1852 led by Sir Edward Belcher that tried to discover the fate of the expedition of 1845 led by Sir John Franklin. Franklin and his men famously disappeared while attempting to sail the Northwest Passage around the top of North America. The beer Belcher took with him was massively strong, with an original gravity of around 1130 and an alcohol by volume level north of 11 per cent.

I had always assumed that Arctic Ale was based on the brews Allsopp and the other Burton brewers exported to the Baltic in the 18th and early 19th century, before they began brewing paler, dryer, hoppier beers for the India market, the beers that became known as India Pale Ale, or IPA. That original Burton Ale for the Russian trade was brewed at 42 to 48 pounds of extract to the barrel, against Arctic Ale’s 47 pounds. Now here’s the evidence: it appears Belcher did not taken all the Arctic Ale with him. An advertisement fromThe Standard, a London newspaper, from Friday December 23 1853 declares:

Allsopp’s Ales for Christmas: Parker and Twining, 5 1/2 Pall-Mall, have a small stock, and can send out, as a curiosity for Christmas Consumption, the STRONG CHRISTMAS ALE as originally brewed by the same firm for the Czar Peter and the Empress Catherine of Russia, many barrels of which, by special order of the Lords of the Admiralty, accompanied the expedition in search of Sir John Franklin in the frozen regions of the Arctic Circle.

Continue reading

Sussex Steak with Port and Porter

When I started this blog I promised to give recipes with beer as one of the ingredients. There’s not been enough of that, so here’s a great dish for winter evenings – Sussex Steak.

K&B PorterPort and porter are an old combination, known in Ireland as a “corpse reviver”. In 2000 John O’Hanlon, born in Kerry, South West Ireland but now brewing on a farm in Devon, used this idea to produce a new style of bottled beer, containing two bottles of port to every 36 gallons of a “stout” that is really the strength of an old-time porter, to make O’Hanlon’s Original Port Stout. The beer won a top prize in the Campaign for Real Ale’s Champion Winter Beer awards for 2002. This dish is also an old one, and why it is called Sussex Steak no one seems to know. However, the long, slow cooking makes for beautifully tender beef, and delicious gravy. To make it a bit more “Sussex” you could use Harvey’s Imperial Russian Stout, from Lewes, the county town, as the “porter” bit, but any strong porter or stout will do.

This would never make it into a Delia Smith cookbook, because it’s too easy to get wrong: if the steam level inside the dish drops while cooking, you’ll end up with steak like boot leather, so as the instructions say, no peeking: trust your oven.

INGREDIENTS:
1kg (2lb) lean rump or chuck steak, sliced 2.5cm (1in) thick
Flour and seasoning
1 large onion, sliced
30ml (1fl oz) mushroom ketchup
100ml (3 fl oz) port
100ml (3 fl oz) porter
(or substitute 75ml port and 125ml O’Hanlon’s Original Port Stout)

METHOD:
Season the flour, rub into the sliced steak. Lay the steak flat in an oven-proof dish.
Layer sliced onion on top, mix and pour in the ketchup, port and stout.
Cover as tightly as you can, using layers of and cooking foil tied round the dish with string.
Cook in oven at 135C (275F) for three hours. Do not be tempted to peek while the dish is cooking: it relies on the tight seal to keep in the steam from the port and porter, which tenderise the steak to perfection.

Serve with mashed potato, steamed green vegetables of your choice and field mushrooms baked for an hour with butter in a sealed dish.