Mixed feelings

BEER: Is beer better on its own or laced with fruits and spirit?
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Before we get to more serious matters, we had better consider the meaning of the word "vodka". It is a Slavic diminutive for "water of life," and was originally a generic term for any local spirit drink (much as Schnapps is in Germany). The notion that all vodka is both colourless and flavourless is a Western fancy.

Western vodkas, whether from grains, root vegetables or molasses, are distilled as close as possible to tastelessness. However elaborate the bottle and brand-name, what it contains is effectively neutral alcohol.

So what are we to make of Arkangel Vodka Beer? It is described on the label as "premium quality lager, combined with vodka for a pure, refreshing taste". It looks and tastes like a typical mass-market lager. I found it slightly mustier and oilier in aroma and palate, with a pleasantly dry, hoppy, finish.

There is nothing in neutral alcohol that would improve the aroma and palate of beer. So why add it? To boost the alcohol content of the beer, perhaps? Yet Arkangel has only 5.3 per cent, an unexceptional strength in beers with no fortification.

Arkangel is labelled as being made by Pioneer Brewing, of Chiswell Street, London. The address is the corporate headquarters of Whitbread. Perhaps the rubric of "Pioneer Brewing", and similar new-product divisions within other large drinks companies, should be: "Taste nothing, but feel high."

I was ready to take more seriously another product from the same house, Kentucky Black Bourbon Beer. This is described as "premium beer combined with a rich, oak-flavoured, Bourbon for a full taste".

Like beer, Bourbon whiskey begins with malted barley, though its more important ingredient is corn. Beer sometimes spends time in oak, and Bourbon must, by definition, do so. Some Bourbons even contain tiny quantities of hops. Perhaps these two products would achieve an interesting harmony?

Kentucky Black Bourbon Beer turned out to have a full amber colour, a smooth body; and a toffeeish, caramel, smokiness in the finish. All are Bourbon-like characteristics, but they emerged with a flatness that was unconvincing. Some American beers, including one made by the distiller Jack Daniel's, have been matured in whiskey barrels to far greater effect.

Such combinations of products or processes blur the lines between fermented drinks like beer and distilled ones such as whiskey or vodka but, unless it is intended to mislead, I am not sure that is a sin in itself. The same could be said of fortified wines or sherry-aged Scotches.

In the days before drinks-makers knew how to make a clean-tasting beer, wine or spirit, all three were given flavourings of honey, fruits, berries, spices, herbs and wood-barks. The tradition survives in gin, vermouth, patent aperitifs and liqueurs, and in the hundreds of cocktails made from these drinks.

The gins and suchlike are infusions, macerations and mixtures made before being bottled; the cocktails are mixtures created afterwards. In the days when all drinks were produced and served at the monastery, the Schloss, the chateau or tavern, it would have been hard to distinguish between those two categories.

The Bavarians made that distinction with their Beer Purity Law of 1516. That regulation insists that beer be only made from malted grains and water, with hops as the sole flavouring. The law now applies to the whole of Germany, and, consequently, the country has no beers made with fruits or spices. The argument is that the consumers buying beer must know what they are getting. What the server or drinker add later is their own affair - bartenders in Berlin add essence of woodruff or raspberry syrup to the acidic wheat beer, and in Leipzig the other day, I had a similar beer laced with Kummel. In Westphalia, some taverns steep fruits to make an Altbier Bowle, a sort of Northern sangria.

The Belgians never stopped making beers with cherries, orange peels and coriander. Chaucer referred to nutmeg in ale, and Shakespeare to the addition of crab-apples. Some British brewers used various herbs and spices, notably liquorice in stouts, up to the 1950s or 60s. These practices have come back in recent years.

The German Beer Purity Law has the attraction of being absolute. It is harder to maintain a position, as we do elsewhere in the world, that beer is a drink made primarily, but not exclusively, from malted grains, water and hops.

The latter is my view. There is an extraordinary balance between hop and spice in some Belgian beers. The same country's finest cherry beers are a dry, complex, tribute to the brewer's art. If others taste like soda-pop we do not have to buy them. I certainly would not want ingredients legislation to deny us recently revived specialities such as heather ale, juniper beer or oyster stout.

As for mixed drinks with beer, some work and others do not. I have mixed feelings, so to speak, about the habit in Alsace of lacing lager with the patent aperitif Amer Picon. The Calgary Red-Eye, which blends lager with tomato juice, is strictly for cowboys.

Did the stout-and-ale Black-and-Tan simply fall out of fashion? Or, since the recurrence of The Troubles in the late 1960s, has the name too painfully reminded us of the irregular force in the Irish conflict of the 1920s?

In America, where Irish sensitivities are no fewer, the brewer of Budweiser has just relaunched a bottled Black and Tan, first made much earlier in 1899. The drink, a rare Anglo-Irish compromise, is pleasant enough but it cannot match the Black Velvet: made from equal parts of dry stout (ideally Guinness) and sparkling wine (I would hold out for real Champagne). That was allegedly created at the death of Queen Victoria. The Champagne Charlies of the day wished to display the black of mourning without being denied their celebratory tipple.

Dear, duplicitous, drink.