Michael Jackson samples the pick of the spring beers, flavoured with elderflower
Until recently, most British brewers were not interested in producing anything out of the ordinary. After all, there was no call for it - ask the typical publican. Now, while pubs whinge about losing business, the supermarkets are setting the pace.

Tesco recently asked British brewers to produce something special for spring and summer: a light, refreshing beer that was neither bland nor tasteless. Almost 70 submitted brews for consideration. I was invited, along with a team of fellow critics, to judge the entries.

Faced with a table-full of anonymous bottles, we were asked to score the beers for aroma, flavour, finish and satisfaction. There was to be no conferring. The three beers to win the highest ratings go on sale in Tesco next month.

They were announced to us in reverse order, as though it were a beauty competition. Number Three was Pale Rider, a golden-coloured brew, with a lightly biscuity maltiness, from the tiny Kelham Island brewery, of cinematic Sheffield, South Yorkshire. Number Two was Dragonfly, from Young's, of London. Tasting this blind, I had it down as a definite contender: a head like ice-cream, a sherbety aroma, sweet lemons in the palate, and a suggestion of coriander in the finish. Number One, the winner, was a beer as yet unnamed, from the Badger Brewery of Messrs Hall and Woodhouse, in rural Blandford, Dorset. This beer, too, had been on my list. It had a tangerine aroma, a touch of vanilla, and a floweriness in its dry finish. Even a single sip set me thinking of fresh, sunny spring days and a glass of beer with lunch in the garden.

Had the beer been flavoured with fruit or flowers? Or were these the aromas and flavours that are found among the essential oils of the hop, itself a flower-like cone? "That is exactly the question we hoped you would ask," smiled brewer Barry Mailes when I visited Hall and Woodhouse a few days later. "We could have found these characteristics in the hop - perhaps an American Northwestern variety like Mount Hood - but they would have come with resiny, earthy notes that we did not really want."

The answer to my question was that a quite hefty lacing of elderflower essence had been used, along with a very light dose of hops. This use of elderflowers in beer is not as odd as it seems. They were being employed in Britain, along with ingredients like marjoram and wild thyme, in the 17th century, when hops were still fighting for acceptance.

In the Hall and Woodhouse elderflower brew, to be known as Badger Champion Golden Ale, the aromas and flavours are uncluttered, because the beer is, so to speak, a single malt. It is made entirely from a clean, biscuity, pale-ale malt. This balancing act in the creation of a beer is far less simple than it sounds. The hops and malt are boiled in the brewing process, bonding in unpredictable ways, their flavours intensifying with evaporation. The sweetness can also be concentrated by caramelisation in the kettle. Later, much more complex aromas and flavours can be added by the yeast during fermentation and maturation. Hall and Woodhouse's yeast is very fruity, in this instance seeming citrusy or melony.

I pick up a more pineapple-like fruitiness from the yeast, intertwining with a scenty, lemon-peel, quinine bitterness from the hop variety Challenger in the brewery's nationally-known ale Tanglefoot. This beer does, indeed, have a resiny hop aroma - and a great deal of flavour for its weight.

"We have continually to delight our customers," says managing director David Woodhouse, a trifle quaintly. "We are committed to making characterful beer, and running individualistic pubs."

The future of such beers and such pubs depend upon people like Woodhouse retaining their energies and not treating a family heritage as a cash cow. His family is linked through marriage to that of Charles Hall, who first brewed for his farm-workers, then founded the company in 1777. Hall made a lot of money providing beer for the troops stationed in Dorset to repel an expected cross-Channel invasion at Weymouth from Napoleon.

The present brewery was built in 1899-1900, its clock-towered lodge designed like a miniature town hall. The five-storey brewery itself is a Victorian classic, looking from the parish of Blandford St Mary over the floody river Stour and water meadows to the Georgian town-centre of Blandford Forum (which takes its odd name from its wide market-place).

"Why Badger," I asked Woodhouse. "Because it is a prominent local animal." Apparently, badgers like digging their setts in the chalk of the Dorset downland. The same chalky hills provide water for the bore-holes at the brewery, and the local barley was once malted at the brewery. Today, the malting is done in Oxfordshire. The hops are grown in Worcestershire and Herefordshire.

Once, the local farmworkers were sufficiently numerous to drink the brewery's output. Today, the 200 Hall and Woodhouse pubs stretch all the way to the World's End in Chelsea, London, and you can find its beers in 10 times that many under other companies' ownership.

The elderflower beer, though, is strictly for Tesco

Spring and summer specials

St Peter's Elderberry Beer The fruit itself gives a more perfumy, almond- like note to this aperitif brew from Bungay, Suffolk. Coming soon to a Waitrose near you.

Frolicking Farmer A sweetish golden ale, with a crisp finish and no flavourings, from Hardy and Hanson's Kimberley Brewery, Nottingham, exclusively for ASDA.

Waggledance A lightly creamy honey ale, from Vaux, of Sunderland, at Sainsbury's. White wine of the week

1997 Signal Hill, Barrel- Fermented Chenin Blanc, pounds 4.69, Thresher Wine Shops, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. South Africa's newly privatised KWV has gone post-modern with an American- style, flange bottle-neck and label. The wine, a Western Cape white by Sterik de Wet and Kosie Moller (some names don't change much), is pretty fancy, too, with plenty of in-your-face toasty, coconutty oak and ripe, full-flavoured fruitiness on the palate. Red of the week

1992 Orobio Rioja Reserva, Artadi, pounds 6.99, Sainsbury's. This Spanish six-year-old from the go-ahead growers' union based at Laguardia has spent a minimum of two years in small oak barrels, allowing the fruit to round out nicely, and imbuing the wine with a sweet, liquoricey bouquet and a mellow, spiced quality on the palate. Pretty good value