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Sunday, 8 February 2009

Report: Beer Academy

How does the choice of ingredients and brewing process affect flavour and style? Why does beer get such a bad press while its supposedly more sophisticated cousin wine is seen as the natural choice to partner with food and growing steadily in popularity? How can beer find new audiences beyond lads and lasses swigging Stella on a big night out or beardy real ale drinkers?

These were some of the question that last week's Beer Academy course sought to answer. Aimed at people in the booze trade as well as beer enthusiasts looking for more of an educational experience than a typical brewery tour. I wasn't the only girl either!

The course was run by George Philliskirk, a beer expert who lives in what is apparently one of the epicentres of the beer universe: Burton on Trent (why - it's the high mineral content in the water there that gives the beers a refreshing edge apparently). George is a very charming, relaxed tutor with whom we'd had the privilege of dining with the night before in the company of Suffolk and Norfolk barley growers Teddy Maufe and Roger Middleditch of The Real Ale Shop. He knows his stuff from years in the industry and was about to head off to Australia to do a spot of beer judging. Nice work if you can get it.

The day covered the whole beer story in enough depth to come away with a much richer understanding of the topic:
  • Beer ingredients (water, malted barley, hops, yeast are all you need for classic English real ale but you will find other grains like wheat and rice used for some styles and also herbs, spices and fruit added)
  • Brewing process
  • How to taste beer (just like tasting wine except you're not supposed to spit it out!)
  • Beer and food matching
  • History of beer and beer styles (what's the different between a stout and a porter?)
  • Industry info: beer and health, the UK beer market
Some highlights for me included tasting some different types of malted barley: pale malt (just like Ovaltine or Grape Nuts), crystal malt (darker and more intense) and chocolate malt (the darkest of the three with a roasted coffee/chocolate aroma and flavour).

Beer and food matching was really interesting: try teaming chocolate with a Belgian Kriek (cherry) fruit beer - it's delicious. However this part of the course was a bit rushed and would merit a longer session. There are three key aspects to consider when teaming beer with food are:
1. Complement (a strong bitter with cheese)
2. Contrast (e.g. Kriek with chocolate)
3. Cut (think of a cold beer with a spicy curry)

Of the beers we tasted, those from the Meantime Brewery in Greenwich stood out as did Bluebird Bitter from the Coniston Brewery.

Now my months in Suffolk have confirmed a few things: that we are blessed with wonderful local producers, that there are plenty of good places to eat, and that I love a pint of Suffolk Ale be it Adnams or our local Earl Soham Victoria or Hektor's Pure which went down extremely well as the house bitter at the Latitude Festival last summer. It's probably fair to say that I was getting a bit complacent about beer. But Beer Academy revealed a whole world of different beer styles and ranged far and wide around the globe in search of good beers. We came away feeling much better informed about this amazing drink and with our tastebuds zinging.

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