Food and Drink: Beer by the Bottle

NEVER before have there been so many truly distinctive beers in the high street. Look out especially for bottle-conditioned brews, once rare classics, now becoming the flavour of '93.

The yeast in the bottle makes for an extra complexity of fruity flavours, but also means that the beer needs time to settle before you pour it (gently) with tomorrow's lunch.

Store these beers upright in a cool, dark place, preferably not in the fridge. But start chilling them at least an hour before you serve them if you want to add a cool edge.

I reported the first sightings of bottle-conditioned beers in Oddbins a few weeks ago - now there are many more, and Sainsbury is introducing its own range.

Oddbins' own-label bottle-conditioned India Pale Ale (pounds 1.49 for 50cl) is golden and very dry with a long finish; a good aperitif. The chain's own-label product, called simply Bottle-conditioned Ale (pounds 1.39 for 50cl), has an attractive amber-red colour, a lemon- grass aroma, and a soft palate with an appetisingly dry finish; try it with lamb.

Oddbins also has new, bottle-conditioned versions of the fruitier, sweeter, maltier Hardy's Country Bitter (a bargain at pounds 1.29 for 50cl) from Eldridge Pope of Dorchester, and the assertive, beautifully balanced King and Barnes' Festive Ale (pounds 1.39 for 55cl) from Sussex.

Among the imports, Oddbins has the bottle-conditioned Cooper's Extra Stout (pounds 1.19 for 37.5cl) from Adelaide; this is so creamy and coffee-ish that it could easily accompany a chocolate dessert.

Some similar bottle-conditioned beers are gradually coming into Sainsbury's own-label. For the moment its outstanding products are more exotic: at pounds 1.63 for a pint, the tart Belgian Gueuze (a wheat brew fermented with wild yeasts, which I discussed a few months ago - the beer world's answer to a fino sherry); and now, at pounds 1.51, from the same brewery, the least sweet, most authentic cherry Kriek to be readily found in Britain.

Coming soon, not bottle- conditioned but stunning in its smokiness, is the Franconian Schlenkerla Rauchbier, a dark lager made from malts kilned over beechwood.

The Belgians have long been the kings of bottle-conditioning. I have always wondered why the aromatic summer ale Sezoens (which is wonderfully refreshing despite its mighty 6.5 per cent alcohol) was not produced in this form. Now it is and can be found at the London chains of Bin Ends and Romulus at a mere 99p for 25cl.