If you want flavour, try a real ale

by Steve Renshaw

I’m sure the Batemans’ Biscuit Barrel Beers (featured in the Echo on 20th March) will divide opinions among drinkers. But whether they like them or not, pubgoers will certainly have a view. And that’s the great thing about real ale these days – there’s so much to talk about.

There are more breweries in the UK than at any time in the last 70 years and they are producing thousands of different ales. The many microbrewers have rejuvenated the industry through innovation and experimentation. It’s common for pubs to have a choice of different and ever-changing ales on offer, meeting the demand from drinkers for exciting flavours.

So how do brewers manage to produce all these different flavours? Amazingly, it’s just with two basic ingredients, malt and hops. There are some speciality beers with added ingredients, but let’s just stick to the basics.

Malt is cereal grain, usually barley, that has been soaked in water and allowed to germinate. During germination, the starch in the seeds is converted into sugar, which the yeast feeds on to produce alcohol during the brewing process. The germination is halted by heating in a kiln. Depending on the length of time in the kiln, the malt can range from pale to almost black.

Pale malt imparts a sweet, biscuity flavour to beer, amber malt gives a toffee taste, and dark malt is responsible for hints of coffee and chocolate.

Hops provide the bitterness to balance the malty sweetness and also enhance the aroma. Today’s brewers can choose from a vast range of hops from across the world. These impart flavours including fruit (citrus, tropical, apple, berry fruits), floral, spices, nuts, honey and vanilla.

In order to try out a variety of flavours, I went along to the Forum during Wetherspoon’s recent real ale festival. Reading through the tasting notes for the fifty beers that were available during the two-week period, I counted fifty-two different hop varieties. And the descriptions included phrases such as “apricot and grapefruit aromas”, “zesty, citrus undertones”, “light biscuit body”, and “hints of peppery spice”.

These sound more like descriptions of wines, rather than beers. I selected a tasting tray of three different thirds to see if I could recognise any of the aromas and flavours.

And what about the beers?

Batemans Oatmeal Biscuit (3.6% ABV) is a light-coloured beer brewed with malted barley and oats, raw cane sugar and two hop varieties. It should have a “distinctive biscuit flavour” and “crisp sweetness”. I detected a strong almond aroma that made it difficult to pick out any other flavours. A bit too sweet for my taste.

Daleside Sea Fever (4.5% ABV) is a golden ale brewed with two new-world hop varieties. I was on the look-out for “aromas of pine, tropical and berry fruits” and “a richness of flavour which culminates in a refreshing, soft bitter finish”. I certainly noted a sweet, fruity aroma. The flavour was beautifully balanced between the hops and malt and, yes, the aftertaste was of lingering bitterness. Very moreish!

Titanic Iron Curtain (6.0% ABV) is brewed in the style of a traditional imperial Russian stout. The description mentioned “a deep, rich, burnt flavour which complements the biscuit malt character, balanced by large quantities of hops”. The burnt coffee aromas and flavours of dark malts are easy to detect. I could taste a plummy fruit flavour in there too. Mmm!

If you want to explore the different flavours in real ale, come along to the Lincoln Beer Festival. It’s in the Drill Hall from 22nd to 24th May.