Drink: Make mine a chocolate stout

Thirst-quenchers, comforters, a midnight tipple ... the perfect beers for every mood, and any occasion. Illustration by Madeleine Floyd

Friends call at my home for a beer, asking eagerly: "Have you any new discoveries?" I offer them an authentic Vienna lager; a dazzling golden Triple, from Belgium; a Yorkshire bitter made with six varieties of American Pacific hop; a smoked beer from Japan.

They sample, dubiously. "It's nice," they say, unconvincingly, "but not very refreshing." Or even: "It's good, but I couldn't drink pints of it all night in the pub." Well, those are two uses of beer, but some beers are meant for other moments or moods. They have, if you like, other uses.

Even if you want nothing more than simple refreshment, you could do better than the familiar Foster's, Bud, Carling, Heineken and similar international-style golden lagers. Far more refreshing is the yeasty, fruity, acidity of a German-style wheat beer (identified on the label by the words Weizen, Weisse or Weissbier), easy to find in a supermarket but rarer in the pub. Or a more readily available, citric-tasting, pale "white" Belgian wheat beer such as Hoegaarden. Or, if you can find it, a tingly, sweet-and-sour, oak-aged Flemish ale such as Rodenbach.

A Bavarian would probably opt for a fresh local lager, drily malty and spicily hoppy, in the basic style known as Helles ("pale"). The burghers of Cologne, a city famous for taverns making their own beer, would not choose a lager. Their local Kolschbier is a light-bodied, aromatic golden ale. Fashionable Dusseldorf also has a brewpub tradition, favouring beautifully balanced amber ale called Altbier. Across the Belgian border, Antwerp has its local De Koninck, served in a bowl-shaped glass embarrassingly called a bolleke. This beer is a yeastier, spicier, counterpart to an English pale ale or bitter. And for a sociable beer in these islands? In England, a pint of bitter; across the border, a Scottish ale; over the sea, a stout. These are incomparably the best brews for the job; to choose anything else is to sell yourself short and spurn the best of British.

Quenching beers and sociable ones ... what about the other uses of the brew? A young woman asked me the other day what I would prescribe as a "comfort beer", the alcoholic equivalent to nurseryish foods such as tomato soup or egg and chips, I suppose. My suggestions for that mood: a mild ale, a sweet stout, a "black" lager such as the rare Kostritz Schwarzebier (which comforted Goethe) or a similar example being brewed by Freedom, in London. I have dubbed these "restoratives" in my latest book.

I wanted to call it Beer - a User's Guide, but my publisher, Dorling Kindersley, would not be persuaded there was a need for a guide to the uses of beer. It opted, with great originality, for Beer, but each chapter does, indeed, present brews according to mood or moment.

Pubs may offer on draught just one style of extra-bland lager (under however many names), a bitter or three and a stout, but any sizeable supermarket has a bewildering range of anything from 50 to 200 brews. Which to choose? It depends on the uses you have in mind for your purchase. If all of them are judged purely as quenchers or sociable brews, some of the most interesting will die from neglect.

The keenest of beer-lovers often favour intense brews, such as the most bitter India Pale Ales, the Belgian Trappists brew Oral, its demonic opposite Duvel ("Devil"), or Americans such as Tippers' Hop Pocket (newly available in Britain). In Belgium, even haute cuisine is apt to be preceded by a Duvel, served in a Burgundy sampler. The herbal dryness of these beers make them terrific aperitifs, arousing the gastric juices like a Campari.

With the meal? Perhaps a Belgian Gueuze would go with soup; a dry stout like Guinness with shellfish, in the Victorian tradition; a brown ale with a nutty salad; an old ale such as Greene King Strong Suffolk with pickled dishes; an extra strong lager like a Doppelbock with pate; a dark lager with sausages; a true Pilsner (perhaps Bitburger) with fish; an Oktoberfest lager with chicken; an Irish ale with pork; a French biere de garde with lamb; a pale ale with beef; a Port-ish abbey beer such as Chimay Grande Reserve with cheese; a cherry beer with a fruit desert; and oatmeal stout with something creamy; and an even stronger style as an after-dinner beer, possibly with a cigar.

The Imperial, or Baltic, style of stout is a natural warmer, as I confirmed at a kiosk outside the Winter Palace in St Petersburg one snowy day last year. In November and December, I might look to a barley wine as a nightcap, but there are whole ranges of beers for the different seasons: a spiced brew at Christmas, a Maibock in spring, a lemon-tinged summer brew.

"What about a beer when you sneak downstairs in the middle of the night?" a friend enquired. "Young's Chocolate Stout," I responded, smooth as a fridge door. "And when you get drunk?" Were I of that inclination, I might change tipples. The average strength of beers is about half that of wines, and a tenth of spirits. As a means of inebriation, it is very inefficient. That is why men behaving badly are such losers

`Independent' offer: to order a copy of Michael Jackson's `Beer' at the special discount price of pounds 15.99, P&P free (RRP pounds 19.99), call 01442 881880/891 quoting account number 180771 (Independent Beer offer), together with your credit card and delivery details.

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