Food & Drink: Dry, crisp and fruity. Not bad for a beer: Take the wine-maker's skills, let them loose in a brewery and the result is a blend called Ryman's Reserve, writes Michael Jackson

What would happen if a wine-maker were asked to create a beer? Would anyone with a reputation in the winery risk it in the brewery? The ubiquitous Hugh Ryman would.

A Briton who has worked in almost every grapey country, Ryman has turned his attention to the grist mill at the behest of the national brewer, Whitbread; the resultant beer, Ryman's Reserve, has just been distributed to a couple of hundred pubs nationwide.

Behind Whitbread's offbeat initiative is the notion of bringing to beer some of the glamour associated with wine. But why was Ryman tempted?

Perhaps because he thought it might help him to sell wine to Whitbread's pubs and off-licences. I suspect, however, that he has now caught the beer bug.

'I used to think an international lager was a good beer,' he says. 'I had forgotten how varied and complex beer can be.

'For the wine-maker, the grape is everything. All you have to do is utilise its potential. For the brewer, there is not only the choice of grains but also the malting technique, the infusion, the hops - what an unforgettable flavour] - the yeast, a multitude of elements. How on earth can you be sure what you will get out of all these permutations? If I had been left to my own devices, I would probably have produced something undrinkable.'

Ryman was first invited to chew over a selection of malted grains, nose some of the classic hop varieties and sample fermentations from different beer yeasts. Then he tasted a selection of well regarded styles of brew, ranging from lagers and wheat beers to ales, stouts and barley wines.

He decided to work with wheat as well as the more usual barley, seasoned with the famously delicate Saaz hop (from Bohemia) or the more assertively aromatic Styrians hop (from Slovenia). He wanted the lightness and refreshment of a wheat beer but the complexity of flavours in a bitter or pale ale.

So Ryman decided to use more than one yeast, a procedure less common in Britain than in Belgium. He also proposed maturing the beer on protein and yeast sediment, which occurs naturally to a degree in cask-conditioning; he was looking for a 'real ale', though he used the wine term 'on lees'. He also suggested that the beer might have more length if it were matured on oak chips; one or two beers still have this oaky character, though they are hard to find.

About 15 experimental versions of Ryman beer were made at Whitbread's pilot brewery in Luton, before two or three were deemed worth pursuing. Ryman made two visits to Castle Eden, a village 10 miles from Durham, where the smallest of the company's five breweries was to make the beer on a commercial scale.

Whitbread, established in 1742, is something of a Jekyll and Hyde outfit. One moment it seems determined to close its traditional breweries and make under licence an undistinguished version of Heineken lager; the next it is painstakingly recording its history, rediscovering its heritage and creating splendid beers at Castle Eden.

This brewery, which began as a coaching inn in the mid-18th century, retains a facade that reminded the art historian, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, of a stable block. It is very much the village brewery: the grandly moustached manager, Jim Kerr, employs his wife Michelle as his secretary; head brewer Tony Rowsell is helped by his daughter Lucy at the reception bar in an adjoining house called Beechwood (which, mysteriously, has its own Hammond organ). Kerr's sport is rugby, but the day I called the staff were preoccupied with supplying beer for a cricket match.

These beer-makers have doggedly co-operated with Whitbread's every whim in order to ensure the survival of a brewery in the middle of nowhere. All the staff took an interest when they were chosen to make a 'London' porter, and it left them with a thirst for speciality products.

But the news that a guest brewer was coming initially left them horror-struck, says Kerr. 'When I heard that Hugh Ryman was really a wine-maker, I asked a friend in that business about him. The friend fell to his knees. After that, I realised Hugh Ryman must be pretty good. Obviously, he knows a lot about the production of drinks in general, and his wine background brought a fresh perspective to beer.'

When it became clear that Ryman's role was to design the beer, not turn the valves, Kerr was even happier (one of a brewer's many nightmares is that an infusion becomes too thick and clogs the vessels). Ryman brought his samples from the pilot brewery. Kerr liked the 'different' character of the beers, but thought them a little light in flavour. He was impressed with Ryman's ability to 'play with ideas'.

The final version involved the brewing and blending of two beers. Three-quarters of the blend comprises a wheat beer, made with a lager yeast; the remainder is a pale ale. Both are specially brewed, though the pale ale does have some resemblance to a Whitbread beer sold in America.

The two beers are seasoned only with Bohemian Saaz hops, which are added on three occasions to increase the aroma. The hop is depicted on the label and on pump-handles in pubs.

Whitbread recently introduced a beer hopped only with the east Kent variety Goldings, and is planning another one, based on the typical Hereford and Worcester Fuggle hop. All these new beers, which have been dubbed the 'New Classics' and will be available for one month only, are aimed at what Whitbread describes as 'beer thinkers' (as opposed to beer drinkers?).

Ryman's Reserve, the beer for July, is bone-dry, crisp and lightly fruity, with just a suggestion of tangerines. No fruit is added, but that flavour could derive either from the wheat or the yeast.

There is, perhaps, a slight fruity-woody aroma like that from a box of dates at Christmas, but no obvious oak-smoke character (though a small proportion of essence of smoked oak was used). The only challenging element is its slight haze, which is typical of the most traditional of Belgian and German wheat beers.

'It's not cloudy,' says Kerr, 'it's opalescent.' A beautiful beer for a summer evening.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones
tvSeries 5, Episode 3 review
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence