Lager that's not for curries

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If I were inclined to make pea-brained prognostications, then I would announce that beer will be the most fashionable drink of the pre- millennium years. The cognoscenti have done wine. They've done single malts. They even know their single-estate Assam from their PG Tips. Now they're doing beer, with a vengeance. And I don't blame them: there's more of it around than ever, and in a breathtaking range of styles.

Broadly speaking, the taste of beer comes from two ingredients: the malted grain (usually barley) used for fermentation, and hops. Again, speaking in broad terms, the grain bring sweetness while the hops add bitterness and bouquet. But the type of grain used, the way it is malted, and the general conditions of fermentation give brewers unlimited scope for fine-tuning. So do the hops, whether there are several varieties or the increasingly modish single ("varietal") hop method.

In recognition of that richness, and of the money to be made from it, the supermarkets are getting serious about beer just as they did about wine five years ago. Sainsbury's stocks some 200. Tesco sells even more - a whopping 800 lines - with increasing emphasis on specialists' regionals. Asda has a range of own-label brews - with names like Rusty Rivet and Gentleman Jack - made for them by Shepherd Neame. Safeway reports that premium beer sales are increasing at an annual rate of 45 per cent, and that drinkers are showing the same kind of discrimination that they have already brought to wine.

As so often happens in the drinks trade, they're all rushing in where Oddbins did not fear to tread. Britain's best drinks chain introduced its "Guest Beer" system four years ago, seeking out small parcels of unusual beers. Often they had to persuade breweries to bottle beers that were previously available only on tap.

As the scheme grew, it generated its own success. Now, according to spokeswoman Karen Wise, "the more we have, the more interest there is. People come in and ask 'What's on next?'" Oddbins sells 10 times the volume of premium beer that it sold eighteen months ago. Its roster for April features Belgian Trappist beers, including the refreshingly dry Chimay White (pounds 1.75/330ml).

The price-quality ratio in beer distinguishes it sharply from wine. To trade up from the lowest level in wine to the peaks, you would need to raise your spend from pounds 3 to pounds 30. The same trade-up in beer needs just a few more pennies per bottle. At Sainsbury's, for instance, a four-pack of Carling Black Label costs pounds 3.29, while the delicious Budweiser Budvar costs just pounds 3.89.

A recent tasting of Tesco's expand-ed beer range showed 50 beers in bottle, and I ploughed through 'em all. Only two - both from the American mega- brewer Anheuser Busch - were unsuitable for serious drinking. Of the other 48, some are regional and others available nationwide. And some are exclusive to Tesco (which sells, you may be interested to know, two million pints a week).

Of the regional beers, one that particularly impressed me was Otter Bright (pounds 1.49/500ml), a lager-type brew made by a seven-year-old brewery in Devon; soft, sweetish, it has tons more complexity than most lagers. So does Tesco's own-label Vratislav Czech Lager (pounds 1.15/500ml).

Of the stars among Tesco's exclusives, two are Californian "micro-brews". One is Golden Gate Original Ale from the Golden Pacific Brewing Company near San Francisco, a deeply aromatic dark ale with bracing sourness. The other, Red Sky Ale, comes from St Stan's brewery in Modesto. It's light in colour but big on flavour. Both are available from late April.

But the superstar of the show was the much-feted Exmoor Gold, a single-malt brew made by Exmoor Ales in Somerset. This beauty has a vivid golden colour and a round, lemony taste with a lingering finish. Tesco is selling Exmoor nationwide at pounds 1.49/500ml. Anyone who tosses it down with a curry should have their taste buds returned to the manufacturer for urgent repairs...