Only here for the beer - and its many aromas

1st July 2005 at 01:00
Roving reporter Stephen Jones spends a sobering day on the ale at the Beer Academy

It is 9.30am, which you might think is a bit early for starting on the ale.

But here we all are - 19 men, four women - sitting up straight at our desks in a room at the back of a West London pub. And make no mistake about it.

We are here for the beer.

That said, a Beer Academy foundation course is a very sober occasion - and lubricated, for the moment at least, purely by coffee and tea. Beer is on the agenda for later of course, but even then strictly in the spirit of "moderate consumption".

Moderation, it seems, is to be the mantra for the day. And moderation was certainly one of the pillars on which the Academy was formed back in 2003, when it set out to do for the barley brew what the Wine and Spirit Education Trust had been doing for some time for the alcoholic emanations of the grape.

Beer, our course leader and co-founder of the Academy Tim O'Rourke explains, currently has an image problem. Indeed it is embodied in our very language, with phrases like "beer belly" and "lager lout" the common currency of the media. Young people think of it as an old man's drink, and the average woman drinks only a glass or so of it per month.

But beer, says Tim, is a wonderful concoction. It is good for you and it tastes great. "What we must do," he tells us with passion, "is to put beer back in its proper place."

Having spent his working life creating and promoting the product, Tim declares himself to be "a missionary for beer". His fear is that, unless beer lovers fight back, it will go the same way as smoking. He holds aloft a cigarette packet, the Government health warning splashed across half the box. "How long before they do the same for beer?"

Tim hands over to Colin West, a brewer and maltster with more than 30 years' experience in the trade. The Beer Academy is the trading name for the Beer Education Trust, and now our education is truly to begin.

But Colin is no beer bore. What he tells us is interesting. We take copious notes, mindful that at the end of the day we are to be tested to see if we are fit to receive a Beer Academy certificate - our BA in beer.

Colin informs us that the beer process begins with a con trick, the maltster "tricking" the barley seed into germination by persuading it that it really is sitting in a field ready to grow. This seems to tie in nicely with the con trick at the other end of the line: the brewer who persuades you that pound;3 really is a fair price to pay for a pint of bog-standard lager.

By the time Colin has taken us through the whole thing - the steeping, the kilning, the milling, the mashing, the boiling and the cooling (not to mention the filtering, the clarifying and the maturing) - we are all gagging for a taste of the thing itself.

Cue Tim, who jumps up again to take us through the tasting bit. Notes are put on one side. Desks are cleared, palates too.

The class members are a mixed bunch. Several reveal that the course was a birthday present from a husband or friend. Interestingly, in all cases the giver of the gift has invited himself along too. There are a handful of people from the trade (the Academy has an impressive list of brewing industry patrons) and a contingent from the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).

I cannot help wondering what the collective noun for CAMRA members would be, a gargle perhaps, or a swill?

Tim instructs us on the correct procedure for apprehending the amber nectar. Taste, it seems, is not the half of it. First we look. Brightness in the glass is important. Then we smell, though Tim insists that beer does not actually smell at all. It has "aroma". When it finally comes to the tongue, we are told that around 1,000 flavour compounds have been found in beer, albeit that some might require a little imagination to unearth.

At last the bevvies themselves make an appearance. We are given only a small glass of each but no one complains. We are moderate consumers, here to get educated, not bladdered.

The first one up presents a challenge. It is bittered, Tim tells us, not with hops but heather, Scottish heather. And it certainly has a taste redolent of misty highland glens. "Fraoch," declares one of the topers, and instantly moves to the top of the class.

As well as "name that brew" we are also invited to "guess that taste". This really tests our powers of invention. Toffee, caramel, vanilla, apples, cherries, pears and bananas are just some of the suggestions. "Old wet dog" makes an appearance too - but this is declared not to be a taste at all but a smell - sorry Tim, an aroma.

When someone calls out "sweetcorn" for a lager which turns out to be the best-selling Budweiser, Tim barks: "The brewers would hate you for that."

He puts the perceived blandness of the brew - the CAMRA contingent, tricked into sleeping with the enemy, look as if they are about to throw up - down to the US's loss of brewing tradition during prohibition.

Colin reappears for a quick romp through the social history of beer.

Apparently our forefathers drank it all the time, ale being a better bet than the often-polluted water supply. And while the middle ages were cold, wet and miserable, the peasants could always console themselves with those two inseparables, beer and sex.

There is another round of tasting. As we savour a fine old ale, Tim confides that in some traditional breweries birds fly over the open vessels to add their own inimitable contribution to the taste. "But don't worry," he adds as we splutter, "they filter it out."

Finally we are ready to be assessed. The glasses are removed and replaced by a 20-questions multiple-choice test. At this point you begin to realise just how much you have learned. The course costs pound;100. You go home sober. But you can bore for England on beer.

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