Beer: Against the grain

Beer from oats, wheat and rye; Treacly malts suit winter; wheaty sharpness quenches summer thirsts; rye has an autumnal russet colour Illustration by Marie-Helene Jeeves
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The Independent Culture
Just as wine can be made with fruits other than grapes, so beer can also be produced from grains other than barley. For years British brewers did not seem to understand this; now they are biting on new grains as enthusiastically as children in a sweet shop.

Wheat beers are no longer a novelty, but what about oat and rye beers, for example? All these grains impart different flavours and textures. Barley has a biscuity sweetness, wheat a quenching tartness, oatmeal a smooth creaminess, rye an almost minty spiciness.

A few years ago, my own writing encouraged the reintroduction of oatmeal into some stouts, but I can claim no credit for its use in a new, seasonal ale. This product, called Spring Fever, will be available until the end of April. It is produced by Usher's brewery, of Trowbridge, Wiltshire, and is being sold not only in their 500-odd pubs throughout the West Country but also in a similar number owned by other companies elsewhere in Britain, such as Whitbread's "Hogshead" houses. Rival brewers have already deemed Spring Fever a winner; it garnered a medal at the Brewing Industry International Awards in Burton last month. These awards are judged by brewers.

Spring Fever has a modest to medium strength of 4 per cent alcohol, a sunny, yellow colour, a remarkably smooth body, a deliciously malty-creamy flavour, and a balance of orangey dryness, imparted by Styrian hops from Slovenia. There is perhaps a firmness, too, from the hard water of Salisbury Plain.

While the oats used in stouts are usually raw, those employed here are malted (sprouted and kilned) to give a richer, toastier flavour. The proportion of oats to barley in stouts is usually less than 10 per cent; Spring Fever has a much richer blend, though the brewers are uncharacteristically coy about precise figures.

The oats are grown in Scotland and malted in Berwick; the barley is grown and malted in Wiltshire and Oxfordshire. With this blend the beer is by no means thick and wintry, but it is sustaining enough for a cool spring. It will be followed by a sharper, wheat beer, called Summer Madness; then by a toffee-ish, minty, rye brew, Autumn Frenzy; and, for winter, a dark ale utilising crystallised barley malts to impart treacly, nutty flavours. In more sober, wintry mood, the brewers have called the last one Particular - innocently denying any attempt to create a Southern rival to Yorkshire's Old Peculier.

Treacly malts suit winter; wheaty sharpness quenches summer thirsts; rye has an autumnal russet colour; but why oats for spring? I suspected it was chosen by a process of elimination: even an adventurous enterprise like Usher's could find few other grains that are really suitable for brewing beer. Marketing man Dick Stafford offered the thought that, in spring, a young man's fancy turns to love. I was not sufficiently laddish to realise this was a reference to getting one's oats. Oh, dear...

A small brewery like Usher's does have to try hard if it is to thrive, and the survival of such small enterprises is essential if Britain is to retain its variety and quality of beer. Usher's is a remarkable survivor.

The front office dates from at least the 1700s. (Did the Flemish weavers who settled Trowbridge perhaps also bring brewing?) Thomas and Hannah Usher started their business in 1824, as a tiny brewery and pub. The present brewery facade is variously inscribed 1888 and 1912. By the later date, Usher's beer was so successful that it was also being brewed in London.

Then, in 1960, disaster struck: Usher's was acquired as a branch brewery by the London company Watney, dead set on persuading every corner of Britain to drink the same bland, lifeless Red Barrel beer. Watney was later acquired by Grand Metropolitan.

The Campaign for Real Ale drove Watney's to self-destruction, and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission freed Usher's for sale. The last Managing Director of Grand Metropolitan Brewing, Roger North, organised a management buy-in of Usher's.

In beer lovers' demonology, a man with North's background in accountancy is suspect, but he has an almost boyish passion for the brewery. His proudest boast is its yeast propagation system, perhaps an esoteric asset, but one which adds new subtleties to the beers made at Usher's. Different yeast strains make a marked difference to background flavour.

Usher's own yeast imparts a restrained fruitiness to its own year-round beers, such as the beautifully balanced Founder's Ale, a stunningly dry, hoppy India Pale Ale, and a chocolaty Porter, but four or five strains are employed for other purposes. The brewery uses a different yeast, for example, to produce the much fruitier Bulldog pale ale, under contract for Courage. Yet another yeast ferments the rather neutral Lal Toofan ("Red Storm") lager, brewed under licence from an Indian company for sale to curry houses in Britain. A further strain is used for the grassier Steinlager, a New Zealand lager for the British market.

Such eclecticism requires considerable discipline and care in a brewery that resembles Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory (there is even a pipe bridge carrying beer across a main road to the packaging hall). Thank heavens for it. I just wish that my local tandoori restaurateur would augment his kegs of Lal Toofan with a few cases of that wonderful India Pale Ale. Or a cask of Spring Fever.

Another brewer with an adventurous line in grains is King and Barnes, of Horsham, Sussex. Their Oatmeal Stout will shortly be replaced by a Wheat Beer, with a Rye Beer following that