The Blue Nun has recognised that her past offerings failed to please today's wine drinker. But why are the Blue Nuns of the beer world still so much more evident than, say, the Trappist ales of Belgium?
The Blue Nuns of the beer world? "Premium Lager" is often the code on the labels. There is much more to be enjoyed than just the dubious refreshment of the bland, sweetish, international brand of lager, the behaving-badly of a headbanger or a cosily, anorakish bout of beer-boring. There is a world of arousing aroma and flavour out there. But those of us who enjoy it feel sometimes that we are members of an evangelical cult.
Even the Mesopotamians thought their beers were worth serving in golden straws to a high priestess. Monks and princes still make beer in Germany and Belgium, and both of those countries serve their brews with some reverence. There are certainly moments for the unpretentious pleasure of the plain pint, but there are also occasions, as in Belgium, for the Champagne flute of raspberry Iambic, the Trappist chalice, or the Burgundy sampler sparkling with a flavour-packed golden ale.
Whisper it not in Volvo-land, but wine is, in some respects, the less sophisticated of the two drinks. Crush fruit (usually grapes), run off the juice, ferment it and you have wine. A more elaborate transaction than the crush is required in the case of grain (usually barley). It is steeped in water, allowed to sprout for a week, then dried in a kiln. The grain has now become malt. Make an infusion or decoction of this malt in water; boil it with a flavouring of hops; ferment that; now you have beer.
Wine speaks of the soil, the weather, the grape and the skill of the vintner; beer's story is of the rock from which the water rises, the soil and weather available to the maltster and brewer, and the skills of both. So why is the simpler and less popular of the two drinks the more respected? Why cite wine at all in a discussion about beer? Simply because everyone knows something of wine and precious few understand beer beyond myths about the potency of particular brews.
We drink more wine than ever, partly because it enjoys the glamour of coming from somewhere else. We drink less beer than ever, partly because it comes from here. We take it for granted (that is why we trouble to know so little about it).
We don't even think about beer being grown. It is grown here, and we do not even notice it: the fields of barley in Dorset, East Anglia (especially), the Vale of York and the Scottish borders; the hop yards and gardens in Herefordshire, Worcester and Kent. The British Isles makes some of the world's great beers, along with Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic and several bordering countries.
Beer is the natural drink of cool countries that grow grain; wine of the warmer nations that cultivate grapes. The finest beers are often found where the two meet: where the Champagne region of France yields to Belgium; in the Rhineland and Bavaria; where Bohemian hops meet Moravian barley. In the New World, Northern California, Oregon and Washington state are the greatest beer regions.
As a trainee beer-lover, I tried to sample my way around Britain's breweries; in those days, there were about 135. Today, wait for it, there are about 470. Yes, despite well-publicised closures, the number of breweries has greatly increased. So has the stylistic variety of their products. We drink less beer, but we choose from far more brews.
Once, they were almost all from the British Isles. Inspired by a visit to Antwerp, I began more than 20 years ago to explore the breweries of Belgium, Germany and what was then Czechoslovakia. I discovered delights far beyond lager, and began to write about them. I felt like Elizabeth David trying to persuade the British that the Italian kitchen had more than spaghetti.
The British have taken up pasta beyond spaghetti and wine beyond Blue Nun. I suppose some people still always order simply a "dry white", on the questionable basis that it will be clean and refreshing, but this approach is much more common toward beer.
Somewhere on a shelf near you is a much more interesting range of beers. I do not see this selection in the pub. I am not even sure I want it in cask-conditioned bitter, which requires a fast turnover if it is to stay fresh. Three or four cask bitters may be enough in even a busy pub, but the odd, bottled, Baltic strong stout, Belgian saison or Bavarian Bock would not come amiss instead of a "selection" of half a dozen lagers that taste almost exactly alike.
One of my locals offers cuisine of a standard to merit at least a Belgian biere blanche or, afterwards, a snifter of barley wine, but restricts itself instead to a particularly bland brand of national bitter or a sugary lager in a greasy pint glass.
The situation in restaurants is scarcely better. An establishment that offers 30, 40 or 50 wines, definitely not including Blue Nun, Mateus Rose or Le Piat d'Or, has no qualms about restricting itself to one or two international lagers in that vein.
A restaurant specialising in "New British" dishes may not be able to handle cask ales but surely should offer a bottle-conditioned classic like King and Barnes' Festive, Fuller's 1845, a Worthington White Shield or Caledonian's Tempus Fugit.
At the top end, restaurateurs might be reluctant to dilute profits on fine wines, but what about servicing the consumer? The argument is sometimes that the customer does not ask for a French biere de garde, Flemish cherry lambic or Franconian smoked lager. Did restaurants wait for the customer to ask before offering us sun-dried tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, ceps, or inkfish?
In Britain, the full diversity of beer is largely the preserve of the high street stores and the supermarkets. Oddbins' current range, for example, stretches from Aventinus (a wheat double Bock from Bavaria) by way of a Scottish heather ale to Young's Chocolate Stout. These are more than curiosities; store managements do not idly allot shelf-space. Somebody is buying these beers, and consuming them in the privacy of his or her own home. It may well be hers: more women than men buy beer in supermarkets. Even in pubs, about 35 per cent of women drink beer, as against 22 per cent less than two decades ago.
If pubs and restaurants lose business to supermarkets, they have only themselves to blame. Supermarkets would do even better if their display material told the customer more about the tastes and textures of the beers: which is best served as a refresher, a sociable pint, an aperitif, a brew at bedtime? Which is best with fish, meat, cheese, dessert?
Perhaps it is the dinner table that elevates wine over beer. The countries that grow grapes cultivate colourful, sensuously squashy, meal-time companions like tomatoes, aubergines and peppers. The grain-growing countries' benison is hard and under the ground: potatoes, parsnips, carrots.
Some people argue that wine was the drink of the Imperial ruling classes: the Romans, Burgundians, Normans and Napoleonic French. Although Tacitus was rude about beer, my feeling is that the snobbish distinction between the two drinks came much later.
The grape, with its dusting of local wild yeast, has traditionally been vinified immediately after the harvest, in the place where it grew. Europe's grapes were nearly wiped out by the aphid phylloxera in the 1870s and 1880s. At precisely that time, hardy barley was being shipped to the new breweries of the industrial age, where semi-wild yeasts were being replaced by the first pure cultures.
The grape was delicate and prized; the grain became commonplace. Wine, still an everyday drink in the south of Europe, was the luxury of the boss class in the industrialised north. The ever-present, less expensive, more quenching beer was the balm of the working man, sweating from the coalmine, furnace or dock.
It seems to me no accident that the worldwide spread of light-tasting lagers hit its stride in the 1870s (the decade when Budweiser was launched in the United States) and first faltered in the 1970s, the decade when the economist EF Schumacher published Small is Beautiful. That was also the decade in which the Campaign for Real Ale started here and the first micro-breweries were launched in the United States.
Those milestones bracket the heights of the industrial era and mass-production. We are now in the post-industrial age. Workers who labour at computer screens are not dehydrated at the end of their stint, but they still fancy the reward of a drink: perhaps one that is less quenching but more satisfying in flavours. For reasons also of health or simply the need to drive, people are drinking less but tasting more.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the United States, which today has the world's widest range of beers, both locally made and imported and many very characterful indeed. Chicago has just had its second festival of cask-conditioned ales, with almost 100 entrants, most of them American brews. It is easier in America to find a strong Swiss Christmas lager, the original malty style of German Oktoberfest beer or some British barley wines than it is in their native countries. British ales from breweries such as Samuel Smith's, Marston's and Brakspear's are prized in San Francisco Minneapolis and Baltimore.
Meanwhile in Britain, imported Brooklyn Lager is far more muscular than most of its competitors here, and San Francisco's Anchor Liberty hoppier than anything we make. If you want a really hoppy British ale, look for something from the Rooster's brewery of Harrogate, Yorkshire. Owner Sean Franklin is British but spent some time brewing in Oregon.
US influence becomes ever more global, with American-style brew-pubs opening from Manchester to Manila. Perhaps the Americans will eventually introduce us to the best of British and European beers
Independent readers can buy Michael Jackson's `Beer Companion' at the special price of pounds 15 (P&P free), normal price, pounds 19.99, by calling the credit card hotline on 01933 443863. Or send payment to Mitchell Beazley Direct, 27 Sanders Road, Wellingborough, Northants NN8 4NL. Quote reference number W204 in each instance.Reuse content