Union: representing British ale

It's a classic British lager, carefully brewed in south London - so why doesn't it qualify as a Great British Beer, wonders Michael Jackson
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Today, on the last day of the Great British Beer Festival, I shall be there to toast its aims. Nothing else celebrates to the same extent what British brewers do best: make cask-conditioned ale. But increasingly its foreign beer bar recognises other nation's traditions: the bottle-conditioned ales of Belgium; the wheat beers of Brabant and Bavaria; the lagers of Bamberg and Bohemia.

Today, on the last day of the Great British Beer Festival, I shall be there to toast its aims. Nothing else celebrates to the same extent what British brewers do best: make cask-conditioned ale. But increasingly its foreign beer bar recognises other nation's traditions: the bottle-conditioned ales of Belgium; the wheat beers of Brabant and Bavaria; the lagers of Bamberg and Bohemia.

Can those be "real ales"? Some are. But though lagers hardly qualify, some are allowed because they are traditional brews in their home countries. It still leaves one British brewer and his unofficial Campaign for Real Lager in limbo. Alastair Hook studied brewing in Germany and was then the first person to man the kettles at Mash in Manchester. In London, he did the same at Freedom, in Fulham, and Mash, in the West End. Now, he has headed east and established in a former tramshed a bigger brewery called Meantime.

But you won't find Hook's Greenwich brews at Britain's world famous beer festival. The British parts of the festival carry only beers matured in the cask or bottle; Hook's lagers do not qualify, despite being among the best in Britain. Nor can they be offered under the rubric "foreign beers". The reasons are perfectly logical in theory, but they don't make sense to anyone who would like to try the beer.

We ale-lovers worry that our favourite breweries will be lost to the tide of lager. We should be just as concerned about the blandification of both styles. To experience fully the pleasures of beer, you have to taste good ale, but some drinkers may arrive at them via good lager.

Small breweries need all the help they can get. If Hook were able to enter the festival, and perhaps pick up an award, more retailers might be persuaded to stock his beers, and his excellent products would be easier to find. Wider availability would help. But there are other problems, too: 1) Most British lager drinkers are too timid to try anything that is not heavily advertised. 2) More than a century after lager was introduced to these shores, British drinkers still want it to be "foreign". Even though most "foreign" lager consumed in Britain is actually produced in places like Mortlake and Manchester, a brew that openly admits to being British is usually punished for its patriotism. 3) Most British drinkers think lager has to be golden colour. The type named after the city of Pilsen is, but the Vienna style is bronze or copper, and the true Munich lager dark brown. The word "lager" derives from the type of yeast used, and its behaviour during maturation. It has nothing to do with colour. 4) While lager yeasts do impart a "clean" character, most British drinkers seem to want less than that. They favour beers that are almost devoid of taste. Can they be persuaded to drink one with flavour?

In a classic lager, the cleanness unmasks the soft malt flavours and the herbal hop. The colours derive from the kilning of the barley, which can impart lightly toasty, caramelised, or roasty, flavours. Vienna lager seems to me a style that could fill a gap. The beer's bronze hue derives from grains kilned to a similar colour. That style of malt imparts a nutty spiciness. I always suggest a Vienna lager when people ask which beer would best accompany spicy foods, especially curries. The problem has always been to find a Vienna lager.

Several examples have been produced by Hook at various British breweries. He elected Vienna lager when he was asked to name a favourite style by artist Ray Richardson. "Allow me to paint a label on a beer you love, and I will invest in the brewery," said his life-long friend. The Vienna lager they created is called Union. "Union of Friends," explains Alastair. "There is a tortured soul in all of us. That is where inspiration originates. Our beers are a fusion of dreams."

Union has an attractive, amber-red, colour; a flowery, nutty, honeyish, malt aroma; a smooth palate, with a depth of maltiness; and a firm, long, dry, finish. Its alchohol content is 4.9 per cent by volume. The barley is grown in Franconia and malted there in the baroque town of Bamberg. The hops are from the Hallertau region of Bavaria and from Washington State, the latter imparting a lively citrus note in the finish.

It is available in some of London's most fashionable watering holes – Alphabet, the Atlantic, the Isola, the Match bars, for example – and at some specialist beer shops in other parts of the country. At a recent competition among London brewers, Union was very popular with the judges, but as the category included both lagers and ales, it lost out to the greater complexity of the latter.

At that competition London's winning lager, a perfumy and crisp Pilsener, came from a neighbour of Meantime, a little-known brewpub called ZeroDegrees, in Blackheath. There was another surprise: ZeroDegrees Pale Ale –intensely hoppy, with a big, long, cleansing bitterness – won its category, and the overall championship.

A few days later, I visited the Blackheath pub, a post-modernist conversion of a florists' shop and yard. The bar is set around a brewhouse that looks like a 1950s space rocket. There are no national or global brands

ZeroDegrees Micro-Brewery Bar and Restaurant, 29-31 Montpelier Vale, Blackheath, London SE3 (020-8852-5619)

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