Sunday, 22 April 2007

Beer talking

Me having a beer and causing chaos all round...

One of my favourite articles ever about beer, which like a drunk trying to open his zip in the Gents, has taken me a while to get around to. One or two comments by me and a couple of bits are highlighted.

Who's ever been beaten up by a member of the Campaign for Real Ale?
Andrew Martin, New Statesman,14 March 2005

I have probably committed more indiscretions as a result of drinking wine than beer. It's a pretty close-run thing, obviously, but I remember in particular a drinks party just before Christmas, when I set out the argument that all conceptual art is vacuous rubbish in front of a woman who turned out to be not only keen on conceptual art, but also a friend of Tracey Emin. "The equivalent would be me talking about jazz," the woman marvelled, when I'd finished my monologue, "in that I know absolutely nothing about jazz."

Anyway, that was wine. Wine is the main loosener among the middle classes, and I suspect that, just as a high proportion of accidents are alcohol-related, so are many interesting news stories and otherwise innocuous bits of wayward behaviour. If somebody in the public eye says something unexpected, check the time. Did it happen during lunchtime or after, say, 5.30pm? If so, case closed.

Yet in spite of this, there is an assumption that wine is more civilised than our own national drink: beer. The situation annoys Roger Protz, editor of last year's CAMRA Good Beer Guide, whose book The Complete Guide to World Beer (Carlton, £19.99) is just out. "The assumption is that, if you're going out for a beer, you're going out for a punch-up," he says. "Any story about the dangers of alcohol shows pub scenes and people drinking beer. In fact, I recently complained to ITN about when it illustrated one of these items with pictures of hand pumps on a bar."

You can see how that would have irritated him. Hand pumps imply cask-conditioned real ale, and the people who drink that are exceptionally mild-mannered. This, according to Protz, is "because the hop is a close cousin of the cannabis plant". India Pale Ale, for example, is a very hoppy beer originally manufactured to be sent out to the British in India, where it met many complaints that it was too soporific. Lager, says Protz, is often a different matter. It is frequently stronger than ale - extra amounts of malt sugar having been added - and there may be chemicals and stabilisers involved that can affect behaviour. One famous brand of lager is known as "the wife-beater" (ie Stella Artois- which the Belgians see as the lowest of the low when it comes to beer).

Who, by contrast, has ever been beaten up by a member of the Campaign for Real Ale? It would be about as likely as being murdered by a geography teacher. Yet still, it would be a socially confident person who went along to a middle-class dinner party with bottles of beer instead of wine. Protz has done it. "Beer is just as good an accompaniment to - or ingredient of - food as wine," he says, and his book includes recipes such as one for "beer, bubble and squeak", which could be summarised as: 1) Make bubble and squeak. 2) Pour beer on top. But it does work. I know because I've tried it.

The brewers Greene King have started producing a beer in receptacles resembling wine bottles, and marketed as "a beer to dine for" (which I had once with a meal- terrible!). I can imagine the enlightened and progressive tone of the gatherings at which this is served. Anyone turning up who had dropped into a pub on the way would not be afraid to say so, whereas one never likes to admit that when going to a wine-oriented dinner party. It's like saying: "Sorry I'm late. I've just been having sex with a prostitute." There'd be no snobbish references to people's beer guts. Instead, the talk would be of "wine-guts"; any loutish men mentioned would be castigated not as "beer monsters", but "wine monsters".

A whole alternative middle-class world opens up, one freed of the deference and insecurity brought on by even a bottle of Jacob's Creek; one in which people attend cheese-and-beer parties, go on beer-tasting holidays, join beer clubs, speak happily
of "days of beer and roses". It would be a better place, I think.

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