In praise of the fruit of the barley

This is an enthusiastic and fluent guide to the world of beer, with an understanding that what makes it such a joy is to do with how it makes us feel


This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Many British men consider themselves beer experts. It doesn’t matter if their wisdom is derived entirely from what’s on offer at their local pub or in the drinks aisle at Tesco; they know a good pint when they taste it. Beer is among the pub bore’s favourite topics, rivalled only by football in the league table of misplaced British male confidence.

The Philosophy of Beer by Jane Peyton, (British Library Publishing, £10)

But just as watching Manchester United games on TV doesn’t make you a football expert, drinking gallons of lager doesn’t mean you’re an aficionado of malt and hops. This is where the publishing industry comes in. Over the years, they’ve settled on two templates for books about beer, both aiming to fill the gap between what British men think they know and what they actually know.

These books are either a glorified list (of great pubs and breweries), or an introduction to beer, entailing a section detailing how it’s made, a chunk on the main types (“styles”) and where they originate, some hoary old tales from ancient Sumer to Victorian London, and a sprinkling of sentimentality about ye olde inns of England, or Germany, or Belgium. Grist to the pub bore mill and a perfect Christmas present for Uncle Fred (“He likes beer, doesn’t he?”).

The Philosophy of Beer, despite its portentous title, fits in this latter camp. There’s history, from beer’s roots in the Middle East to the world-changing craft beer brewers of modern California. There’s an exploration of how beer is made, and an explanation of why beer “styles” — an obsession for many modern brewers — are important. There’s an engaging section about how to taste beer, an idea that Uncle Fred might find a bit pretentious, and there’s the obligatory pitch for beer’s value as an accompaniment to food.

If you’ve already got a book like this, there’s not much new here — but if you haven’t, this is an excellent place to start. Jane Peyton is an enthusiastic and fluent guide to the world of beer, with an understanding that what makes it such a joy has as much to do with how it makes us feel as how it tastes. Why is beer so popular? “One word: intoxication,” she writes in “The Special Relationship”, a chapter exploring the human relationship with beer. “Beer … encourages imagination, creativity, extroversion and the affirmative rather than the negative.”

Peyton is a crusader rather than a dispassionate journalist (she has composed a song, partly reproduced here, entitled Cheers to Beer, to be sung annually on 15 June, “Beer Day Britain”) and it’s when she gets onto her favourite topics that she is at her most engaging.

Peyton is part of a fresh generation of female beer lovers — from writers to brewers — that is transforming this most male-focused of drinks

There are some mouthwatering paragraphs on the combination of beer and cheese (much better than wine and cheese, in my experience), where she highlights a handful of appealing options: Stilton with Imperial Russian Stout, a dark, roasted, often rich and treacly ale; Brie with Saison, a dry, high-acidity, high-carbonation Belgian beer; “or the umami taste of Lincolnshire Poacher with the Dundee-fruit-cake character of an aged Barley Wine”.

She’s particularly engaging on the subject of Belgium, the beer world’s most beguiling oddity, which gets a chapter to itself. Of the four most historically important European brewing nations (the others are Britain, Germany and the Czech Republic) tiny Belgium is the quirkiest, with the greatest diversity of native flavours. I say native, but Belgium has proven itself adept at absorbing great ideas from elsewhere, notably Britain, and guarding them even when they die out in their original home.

That’s the story of Flanders Red Ale, a beer that spends up to two years ageing in foeders, huge wooden vessels, in the process acquiring a complex red-berry tartness. This technique was once used in London to make porter, the city’s great dark beer and a forerunner of stout. It went out of fashion at the end of the nineteenth century, but not in Flanders.

“These beers have a sherbet-mousse mouthfeel, and are laden with dried fruit, spice, orange and vinous flavours,” Peyton writes. “They are a beer bridge for wine and cider drinkers to cross over, and when served in a blind tasting, people are usually clueless as to what drink they are sampling. Really they deserve to be a category all of their own, one titled ‘Spectacular’”. (She is absolutely right; seek out Rodenbach Grand Cru, made in the Flemish town of Roeselare, for confirmation.)

One refreshing aspect of The Philosophy of Beer is the space devoted to exploring the important role women have played in beer’s story. “Women were the original brewers, because beer is food and food preparation was their domain,” Peyton explains. In turn, Peyton is part of a fresh generation of female beer lovers — from writers to brewers — that is transforming this most male-focused of drinks. They really know their stuff, as Peyton ably demonstrates.

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