In all beers, the sweetness of the basic raw material, barley malt, is balanced by the dryness of the hop. That is why hops are added. In an ale described as a bitter, the dryness should be especially pronounced, though some live up to the designation better than others.
Nor does the tradition of hearty bitterness apply only to ales. The world's first golden lager, made in Pilsen, Bohemia, in 1842, was also notable for its hoppy attack. Any brew describing itself as a Pilsener-style lager should be hoppier and more bitter than the local interpretations of Vienna, Munich or Dortmund.
The hunger born of bitter beer is special. It can be assuaged only by the greatest of our national dishes: a curry. Nothing else will do - everyone knows that. So, when I arrive at the Star or Bengal, the Taj Mahal (or, in my neighbourhood, the blessed Light of Nepal), why do I drink water or yogurty lassi with my meal? Because it is hard in Britain to find a beer that will accompany the food of the sub-continent.
The popular wisdom, fostered (I choose the word carefully) by wine writers, is that one drinks lager with spicy foods. The sub-text is that wine is too sophisticated and delicate, and that no drink has enough flavour to stand up to a curry. Lager is offered as though it were a commodity, a light-bodied, tasteless alcoholic liquid (which, to be fair, in Britain it often is). No one asks: which lager?
The Mr Big who once determined that all curry houses had flock wallpaper and gilded aluminium chairs appears to have also insisted they all sell a dryish lager from one of the Dortmund breweries, though, in more recent years, they seem to have switched to a bland, British-made Carlsberg. This untempting choice is sometimes accompanied by an Indian-sounding lager.
India has a sizeable brewing industry but, like its counterparts in most other parts of the world, it produces European styles of beer. Indian lagers tend to be sweetish but undistinguished. If the example in the local curry house really had been shipped halfway round the world, it would probably be stale. In fact, it is usually brewed under licence in Britain and does not taste markedly different from a hundred similar brews.
The amber-red Vienna style of lager, with its distinctly malty nuttiness, stands up well to spicy foods, but is rarely found in Britain (Dos Equis, from Mexico, is an example, albeit rather thin). There might be a case for India Pale Ale, originally made by British brewers for export to the Raj. In the heyday of the Empire, IPA was very heavily hopped, because the magic cone protected the beer on the long sea journey. Today, few examples are robust enough to accompany a Madras or vindaloo.
What is needed is a brew modest in alcohol, light-to-medium in body, but big in all of its flavours: something that stands up to the food rather than lying down. It could be a lager, but the type of yeasts used in ales confer more fruitiness.
This question recently engaged the National Hop Association of England. The varieties of hops grown in this country are generally more suited to ales than lagers. Why not give post-pub curry-eaters the chance to have a British ale with their meal?
The association organised a competition among brewers to create a British ale to accompany curry. I was one of the judges, along with other writers on beer, and non-competing brewers. Among the 20 beers entered, some were too light in flavour, others too intensely dry, but three seemed to have just the fruitiness and spiciness for the job.
It would have been unfair to sample one beer, have a mouthful of curry, then move on to the next, but we did deem it necessary afterwards to test the three winners against a selection of Indian dishes. I am happy to say they performed well.
Our third-place award went to an India Pale Ale brewed by Shepherd Neame in the hoppy heartland of Kent. This beer was made with two varieties of hop: Goldings (which can have a lemony flavour, perhaps thanks to an essential oil called limonene) and Target (slightly geranium-like). The beer, tasted blindfold, seemed to me perfumy and citric, with a fruit- gum character. Another panellist found vanilla-like flavours. Of the three winners, I enjoyed this most with the food.
A beer called Masterpiece, from the brewery at the Bass Museum in Burton upon Trent, came second. It was hopped with Goldings and Fuggles. In the latter variety, I have often found an aniseed taste, but I was interested the other day to hear mango suggested. This notion came from flavour specialists at Oregon State University, in the heart of American hop country. In the blindfold tasting, the beer imparted to me vanilla and apricot notes.
Our winner was the splendidly named Ultimate Curry Beer, from the Wolverhampton and Dudley Brewery. This robust, complex brew was hopped with no fewer than four varieties: Goldings, Fuggles, Progress (which can taste juniper- like) and First Gold (tangerine-ish). The beer was distinctly spicy-tasting, with gingery sherbet notes.
This brew is about to be given a try-out in a couple of dozen pubs, most of them in the Wolverhampton and Dudley area. I very much hope it is well received, and progresses to national distribution. A beer to go with curry is surely a wonderful commercial opportunity, especially for a regional brewery in the balti belt. I cannot wait to take my seat in the Light of Nepal and make my order: "A lamb pasanda; aloo sag; Peshawari nan ... oh, and a pint of Ultimate Curry Beer, please"