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
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Guru Careers: International Project Coordinator / Account Coordinator

    Circa £26,500 DOE: Guru Careers: An International Project Coordinator / Accoun...

    Guru Careers: Plumber / Maintenance Operator

    £25k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Plumber / Mainten...

    Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

    £14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

    Recruitment Genius: Network Executive - Adrenalin Sports - OTE £21,000

    £19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for an exciting...

    Day In a Page

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen