Twenty more beers before lunchtime

My normal reason for travelling to Parson’s Green in West London is to drink at the White Horse, still a fine place to find a wide selection of beers in a congenial setting (except if the upper middle classes bring you out in a rash, of course).

I was in Sloaneland yesterday, however, for the latest series of the Tesco Drinks Awards, when a very large number of bottled brews are subjected to blind tastings by teams of experienced judges, and me.

Like the similar Sainsbury’s awards, these are a big deal for the winning brewers, since they come with a guaranteed listing on the supermarkets’ shelves. For the retailers, the chance is there to find some great beers your rivals won’t have, and add to the differentiation between your supermarket and the one up the road – which is doubtless why Asda (owned by Wal-Mart, US readers) is now doing the same thing.

Unlike the Sainsbury’s awards, the beers in the Tesco judging are drunk “blind”, the bottles carefully wrapped in thick plastic to disguise their origin. However, the scoresheets, helpfully, now list the ingredients, down to the level of exactly what varieties of hops and types of malt went into each brew. This is fascinating in its own right, and it’s a shame and a scandal that all brewers don’t do this as a regular habit on their bottle labels.

I was on the lager table (the others being pale ales; stouts and porters; and fruit and speciality beers), which was an education, if one was needed, in how very different 20-plus almost entirely pale bottom-fermented beers can be. As in previous tastings, however, there were too many bottles obviously affected either by light, or over-pasteurisation. There were also very few really stand-out entries: I gave none higher than 71 per cent, and only a couple reached that.

The most interesting entry was one that completely split the judges on my table, a pale lager absolutely stuffed with hops to give an up-to-11 aroma of passionfruit and orange jellybabies. The beerbuyer from Tesco (female) loved it, and said she’d put a case in the boot of her car straight away: the rest of us (male) were very much less sure. Even the brewer of the beer, it seems, wasn’t that sure, since it had put in another entry with exactly the same ingredients, but with the volume on the hop side turned right down to around three or four. Less passionfruit, less passion: nobody liked this one much.

After we had completed our scoresheets I did what I shouldn’t have done, probably, and took a peek under the plastic covers to see who had brewed some of the beers we had tasted. It would be unfair to reveal the names, since the winners have still to be announced, but I was pleased to find I had given high marks to a genuine Czech pils, and also to a beer from one of my favourite new small brewers – and the brewer of the passionfruit killer turned out to be not much of a surprise, too.

My fellow judges included Ron Pattinson, dusty from an expedition into Fuller’s brewing archives upriver at the Griffin brewery in Chiswick. Ron will, I am sure, be blogging about his findings himself, so I won’t talk here about the things he revealed as we relaxed after tasting 20-plus beers with a couple more beers in the White Horse, except to say that Fuller’s records show it was still brewing porter early in the reign of Elizabeth II, more than a decade after British brewers are supposed by most historians (including me) to have given the beer up. There we are: speculation is worthless, the only true coin is hard written fact.

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