by Ben Kritikos
Beer is the oldest prepared drink in the world. The ancient Egyptians drank it, and even made lovely pictures of themselves enjoying it. Some of the oldest existing laws in Germany are laws governing the production of beer. It’s likely that Europeans take laws governing the production of alcoholic beverages more seriously than the laws regulating investment banks. I know I trust a brewer over a banker any day.
Beer dates back to the 6th millenium BCE. The earliest Sumerian writings contain references to beer. A prayer to Ninkasi, the goddess of brewing, also served as a recipe to help them remember how to make the beloved bubbly bevvie. It’s something you wouldn’t want to forget, naturally.
Pretty amazing when you think about it, but the invention of beer predates the invention of sewage systems; one can only imagine the effect this must have had on Sumerian high streets of a Saturday night.
Beer in what is now the Middle East is a far cry from the frothy stuff of pints down the pub. Most commonly, “beer” is understood to be pale lager; it is the most popular beer in the world. There’s no accounting for taste.
If you’re anything like me (a dubious state of affairs, admittedly) you find lager almost entirely dispensable, except with a curry. While a good lager is a thing of joy, I prefer more robust beers, generally speaking.
Don’t get me wrong, though — if you’re buying, I’m drinking.Yuengling Lager (Pennsylvania, USA)
This “amber” lager is produced by America’s oldest brewery. There are surprisingly many good American beers — not that you’d know from what’s available in Europe. While you probably associate the words “American beer” with fat, wife beating, wife-beater-wearing, netted baseball capped, rotund trailer dwellers who look as though they’d drink amniotic fluid if it were sold in cans and had the word “lite” and a pair of tits in the advert, Yuengling is what I would consider a proper American beer.
Of course, you can’t buy Yuengling in Europe. No! but you can drink Bud, Miller, Coors, and other brews that taste like the urine of some one who drank a beer in the early 80s.
Yuengling does to my face what a lager should: twists it into embarrassing sex-like convulsions. This dark lager delivers a crisp, clean flavour — not at all flat or sweet. It’s round, robust and delicious. The colour is sort of woody, an inviting amber; though not as red as your average pale ale.
Yuengling is special because it tastes like it wasn’t mass-produced. Nice family get-togethers usually have Yuengling in good supply, which always makes me feel welcomed into somebody else’s home. One danger, though: it’s so refreshing that you may drink six without realising, and end up in the doggie bed, the family wondering why they invited you because you always do this.
Orval Trappist Ale (Gaume, Belgium)
Let’s be honest: Belgium makes the best beer in the world, hands down. They may not be able to decide on a language, or get along long enough to form a functioning government; but when it comes to brewing beverages, they will own you.
I have many Belgian friends, I’m glad to say. Unfortunately, I may be scandalising some of them by declaring Orval my favourite Belgian brew. Be that as it may, we’re all entitled to our opinions, and my ignorance could have led me down worse paths than Orval: I could have said Stella Artois (cringe).
Orval is a trappist beer, which means that it was made by monkeys. Did I say monkeys? I meant monks. I’ve never been able to tell the difference. They both have funny hair.
While the Abbey D’Orval was making ale for centuries, this deep amber beauty was only introduced to the market in 1931. Orval is beautiful. It tastes like no beer I’ve had before or since. There is a slight bitterness, but its overtones are fruity and spicy. The aroma is something altogether unique, which can be attributed — like all ales — to its choice of hops. Orval uses local wild hops, which give it its distinctive flavour.
Orval is cloudy, with a thick head that I can never get to last too long. It’s bottle conditioned, so it’s possible to age it like wine. When I was first told this, I thought, “Baloney”. But I was given a few bottles as a gift from visiting friends, and we let them sit for six months. Sure enough, the result was a rounder ale, broader on the palette. It kept all its distinguishing characteristics, but took off any edge, so it was like a perfectly buttery champagne — in beer form!
Guinness Stout (Dublin, Ireland)
There is truly nothing like a pint of Guinness in Grogan’s pub on a shitty day, accompanied by a cheese and onion toastie.
Guinness, I’m sure, is not what it used to be. It’s almost certainly been analysed and picked apart by the evil scientists at Diageo, and made uniform all over the world. The old “you must have a pint of Guinness in Dublin, it’s so much better” is utter bollocks.
The fact is, if it’s served regularly and it’s poured properly, Guinness is good wherever you get it. I’ve had excellent pints of Guinness at the Cobden Arms on Camden High Street; and I’ve had one of the worst pints of my life at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.
In reality, Guinness is only every slightly better in Dublin because it’s part and parcel of the atmosphere. For those of you who, like me, drink locally, Guinness is the taste of Dublin. It’s also the smell of Dublin: the aroma of slightly roasted barley hangs in the air from Stoneybatter to Clanbrassil Street.
It’s black, it’s smooth and smokey, it’s got a creamy head produced magically (with nitrogen) and it’s oddly just as popular in the West Indies as it is in Ireland.
Samuel Smith Organic Ale (North Yorkshire, UK)
Like Nick Clegg, I’m not a man of faith. But if there is a heaven, I’ll only ask one thing if I get there: is there a Sammy Smith’s pub?
Samuel Smith’s pubs are like lagoons in the desert of central London. Sure, there are thousands of pubs, but they mostly suck, are full of televisions which either nobody watches, or everybody watches and screams at. Samuel Smith pubs don’t have televisions, and they serve amazing beer (and food) for significantly cheaper than your average boozer.
While their Organically Produced Ale isn’t one of their cheaper options, it’s worth every penny. It’s the kind of ale you see really immobile-looking chaps with big grayish-yellow beards drinking, with red braces on and a look of glassy-eyed contentment — a look that says, “I’m going nowhere”. It’s because the ale’s that good, why move?
I love the fact that Sammy Smith’s don’t advertise, but focus entirely on quality instead. Everything they brew is good, even they’re dirt cheap lager. And where else will you go for a pint anywhere near Trafalgar Square, if not the Chandos?
Old Speckled Hen (Oxfordshire, UK)
This may sound controversial, but even though I love real ale, there are so many of them that are all so unique and good that I have a hard time distinguishing them in my memory. There are people who will berate me when they read this, and I accept that. It’s a crime against ale, but this not-quite-real ale, Old Speckled Hen, is my stand-out brown ale.
There’s something almost meaty about Old Speckled Hen; and though it’s a bit sweeter than I normally like my ale, the crispness of the flavour balances out the initial tang.
I like the fact that Morland named this beer after a car (an MG, if you’re interested). I like the fact that it’s the same age as me (concocted in 1979 — you do the math). I also like the fact that at one point Old Speckled Hen became available only in Morland pubs, and no longer in bottles, because Morland thought they’d make more money promoting their lager. In the end, Old Speckled Hen is their breadwinner.
It’s easy to see why. It’s dark brown and full-bodied. There’s an earthiness to good brown ale that fools me into thinking it’s healthy somehow. Even though I know I’ll end up face down, possibly pivoting on an ale-induced paunch if I drink as much as my mouth tells me to, it still seems like a tonic.
Brown happy juice! Fuck this, I’m off to the pub.