The most expensive beer in any bar in the world?

There might, I suppose, be a bar selling BrewDog Tactical Nuclear Penguin or Sink the Bismark for, what, three times the store-bought retail price, but even that wouldn’t beat it.

And admittedly this is a beer that has spent a year maturing in the caves of Champagne (that’s “cellars”, incidentally, and not, as one English beer book that came out last year claims, “caves”), in 75cl corked bottles, reaching 11.5 per cent alcohol by volume.

It’s also an excellent brew, sharp and subtle, creamy and invigorating, and deserving of the label that the same book put on it, “an ideal wedding beer”.

But I’ve bought bottles of this in an English off-licence for less than £15, and it’s been on sale in good restaurants in London for only (“only”) £35 or so.

However, if you were insane enough to order a bottle of Deus Brut des Flandres, brewed by the Bosteels brewery in Buggenhout, Belgium (best known, probably, for another excellent beer, Kwak) in the Belgian Cafe Bar at the InterContinental Hotel in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, what do you think you might be expected to stump up?

I’ll give you a few facts before revealing the answer: an “ordinary” bottle of Belgian speciality beer here will cost you 40 dirhams, just over £7, though this isn’t much different than you would pay, probably, in a smart hotel bar in London, where a small bottle of Meantime pale ale, £1.50 or so in Waitrose, is £8 in somewhere like the Met Bar in Park Lane.

This is, however, also the country where someone believes there’s a market for chocolates that cost $250 each – yes, £164 for one single two-inch chocolate truffle.

So: you’re having a night out in what is probably the best bar in Abu Dhabi (though this is, to be truthful, like being called “probably the best football team in the Faroes” – there aren’t very many and they’re mostly rubbish), you’ve decided to show off and you’ve asked the friendly Filipino bar staff to pop the cork off a big bottle of Deus. What figure is going to show up on your credit card statement?

Save some of the Deus to steady yourself with, because that one bottle will cost you 700 dirhams, £125 at today’s exchange rate, $190 US (€145 for you Europeans). You could buy the half-bottle, but even that will be 350 dirhams, £62.50. Or you could wait until you get back to Britain and buy 12 gallons of Stella Artois from Tesco for the same sum (they do also sell Stella in the Belgian Cafe Bar, but I’ve never been stupid enough to buy that there, either).

A short history of bottled beer

Bottled beer was invented in Hertfordshire some 440 years ago, the most popular story says, by a forgetful Church of England rector and fishing fanatic called Dr Alexander Nowell.

While Nowell was parish priest at Much Hadham in Hertfordshire, around 20 miles north of London, in the early years of Elizabeth I, it is said that he went on a fishing expedition to the nearby River Ash, taking with him for refreshment a bottle filled with home brewed ale. When Nowell went home he left the full bottle behind in the river-bank grass. According to Thomas Fuller’s History of the Worthies of Britain, published a hundred years later, when Nowell returned to the river-bank a few days later and came across the still-full bottle, “he found no bottle, but a gun, such was the sound at the opening thereof; and this is believed (causality is mother of more inventions than industry) the original of bottled ale in England.”

The ale, of course, had undergone a secondary fermentation in the bottle, building up carbon dioxide pressure so that it gave a loud pop when Nowell pulled the cork out. Such high-condition ale must have been a novelty to Elizabethan drinkers, who knew only the much flatter cask ales and beers. However, Fuller’s story is fun, but it seems unlikely Nowell really was the person who invented bottled beer: it seems more than probable that brewers were experimenting generally with storing beer in glass bottles in the latter half of the 16th century, though there is no apparent evidence of commercial bottling until the second half of the 17th century, only bottling by domestic brewers.

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Aged White Shield

The Long Ship, where I misspent much of my youth, was everything you would expect of a pub run by Watney’s on the ground floor of a 1960s office block. Its attractions for the students who made up most of the customers, however, were that it was central, large, mostly dark inside and, crucially, the bar staff never asked any questions about your age.

The beer, of course, was generally awful (Red Barrel! Star Light!), but the Ship did stock Worthington White Shield, originally called Worthington IPA, and named for the “white shield” trademark on the label .

Beer&Skittles beermat

The beermat produced to publicise "Beer and Skittles"

In 1976 my then girlfriend had bought me my first ever book on beer, Richard Boston’s Beer and Skittles. Boston wrote one of the pioneering columns on beer and pubs, in The Guardian, which started in 1973, and probably did as much as Camra to turn people on to a proper appreciation of the glories of British beer. Beer and Skittles devoted several pages to White Shield, then one of only five surviving naturally conditioned bottled beers in Britain, correctly describing it as one of the world’s greatest brews.

Because it contained a yeasty sediment in the bottle, Boston revealed to his wondering readership, White Shield altered as it aged. The beer came into prime condition about four weeks after bottling, Boston informed us, and would then stay in condition for up to another nine months. As this was the 1970s, “best before” dates were still in the future, and the only indication of when a bottle had been filled was through the numbers, one to 13, printed on the label, and the nicks, one, two, three or four, cut into the label’s edge. The nicks indicated which quarter of the year the bottle had been filled in, the numbers showed which week of the quarter.

After 10 months, Boston, said, White Shield went out of condition, and could develop a sulphury taste (not surprising, since it was made with the notoriously sulphury well-water of Burton). But if the drinker could hang on for “as long as fifteen months, one of two things may happen. If you are very unlucky, it will develop a really unpleasant flavour. Most bottles, however, should come back into condition with a flavour that is different from the original but which some connoisseurs consider to be even better.”

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Bracia: great beer, shame about the dodgy history

Ping! It’s an email from the chaps at Thornbridge with details of their Bracia chestnut honey beer, the one raved over by more than just me at the Guild of Beer Writers dinner last week. The press release details exactly what goes into the beer, and also reveals where they got the name from: Bracia is, they say, “the Celtic name for a beverage brewed in Iron Age Europe with reference found on a Roman inscription at Haddon Hall, Derbyshire … [made] with cereals and, most probably, honey”

Aargh, ooh, er, cripes, well, no, actually, very sorry, guys, you’re wrong. Bracia isn’t the name of a type of Celtic beer.

There is a word, bracis, which was known from Pliny’s Natural History, written around AD 77, and which he says is the Gallic name for a “ genus farris“, or type of grain.

Thornbridge's Bracia

Thornbridge's Bracia

The word was largely unknown apart from that one reference until the discovery of the Vindolanda tablets, wooden writing boards dating to the last years of the first century and early years of the second century AD found at a Roman fort a few miles south of the later Hadrian’s Wall, close to the modern English/Scottish border.

These tablets reveal, among many other fascinating facts about the lives of Roman soldiers in Britain around AD 100-120 (such as they wore socks with their sandals – very British), that they were supplied with locally brewed beer, which was made from bracis.

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Thomas Hardy’s 2008 versus Thomas Hardy’s 1988

The latest, 2008 edition of Thomas Hardy’s Ale, the strong bottle-conditioned beer from the West Country, has just hit the shelves, with a special label celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first brewing of THA back in 1968.

That first brew, made by Eldridge Pope of Dorchester in Devon, was itself commemorating the 40th anniversary of the death of the novelist Thomas Hardy in 1928. Hardy lived in Dorchester, set one of his best-known novels (The Mayor of Casterbridge) in the town, eulogised the town’s beer in another novel, The Trumpet Major, and was a friend of the Popes, owners of the brewery. When the brewery refurbished a local pub called The Trumpet Major in 1968, it celebrated with a special 12 per cent abv beer.

It was another six years before Thomas Hardy’s Ale was brewed again, but the beer was produced in both 1974 and 1975, and from 1977 onwards Eldridge Pope brewed and bottled the beer every year. The last brewing in Dorchester took place in 1999, and the brewery closed a few years later.

Fortunately the American beer wholesaler Phoenix Importers, which had been selling Thomas Hardy’s Ale in the United States since the first brewing in 1968, managed to commission a new small brewer in the West Country, O’Hanlon’s of Whimple, near Exeter, in Devon, to recreate the beer in 2003 and it has been making the beer every year since then.

Waitrose supermarkets are currently doing a five-for-four special on the 2008 THA, which at £3.49 full-price, is worth investing in, so since journeyman journalism currently takes me near a branch of middle-class England’s favourite food outlet I bought a stash. I don’t have any 1968 versions (the oldest I own are a couple of bottles of the 1975) but I did have a bottle of the 1988, and in honour of the 40th anniversary brew I thought it would be fun to see how it compared with the 20th anniversary version.

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Reasons to be a cheerful beer drinker, part 16645

Fullers Brewers Reserve

Fuller's Brewer's Reserve

There has never been a better time to be a beer drinker: and I’d like to submit as just one plank in the platform that supports this claim Fuller’s new Brewer’s Reserve, its 7.7 per cent abv whisky cask–aged ale.

Why is this the best time to be a beer drinker ever? Isn’t the dominance of mass- produced, lowest common denominator lagers and “extra cold” (that is, even less taste than normal) beers, the continuing decline in the number of old-established family brewers, ever-higher beer taxes, the ludicrous war on normal drinking under the pretext of attacking “bingers”, and the closure of a horrifying number of pubs every week enough to make this a deeply depressing time to be a beer drinker?

Well, that’s the bad news. But the real story, I believe, is the Everest of enthusiasm that exists among brewers in pursuing quality, exciting beer experiences, which is reflected in more innovation, more experimentation, more excitement in the brewing industry, even in comparatively conservative Britain, in the past five, ten, 20 years than in any comparative period, ever.

When the Campaign for Real Ale started 37 years ago, British beer consisted of bitter, mild, a few old ales and barley wines, a few brown ales and stouts, and the first, weak, imitation lagers. Since then we have seen the revival of porter, in increasingly authentic forms, the return of specialist stouts, the return of odd historic brews such as heather ale, and fruit ales, proper wheat beers, the broadening out of lager brewing in Britain to take in authentic Continental styles, the invention of an entirely new category in golden ales, and now the arrival of another previously unseen style, cask-aged beers.

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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.

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