The British might no longer have an empire, a half-decent soccer team, or even a sense of national identity, but one thing can be relied on (if racial stereotypes are anything to go by): their beer, unlike their climate, remains resolutely warm.
And long may it stay that way.
A Matter of Taste
Let's make one thing quite clear: when I say that beer should be warm, I'm not talking extremely warm, luke warm, or even tepid; I'm talking relatively warm. Warm, that is, compared to the brews favoured by people living in warmer climes (and, regrettably, an increasing number of misguided Brits). A good pint of beer should be refreshingly cool when quaffed, but the one thing it most certainly shouldn't be is chilly.
As with any other part of the anatomy, when the mouth becomes cold, it starts to lose sensation, growing increasingly numb. This numbness is manifested in a diminished sense of taste. That's why most food stored in refrigerators tastes better if allowed to warm slightly before being eaten (try it with some cheese, or even ice cream, some time). Foodstuffs aren't refrigerated to improve their taste; they're refrigerated to prolong their shelf life. And prolonged shelf life is the sole reason for cold beer.
Trouble in Store
It's all about storage. Traditional British beer (or real ale, as aficionados call it) keeps for only a few precious days, requiring careful storage at exactly the right temperature by expert cellarmen. Like a good wine or whisky, it continues to improve in the barrel, and must be consumed at just the right time. Because of this, no two barrels taste exactly the same.
Real Ale: beer which continues to ferment and mature in the cask after brewing
Lager: a light beer kept for up to six months before use. [German: Lager, a storehouse]
Continental-style beer, on the other hand, is designed primarily with convenient storage in mind—even its generic name, lager, is derived from the German word for a storehouse. Storing it requires little or no skill, so that the beer served up in one pub tastes (if tastes is the right word) exactly the same as the same brand served up in any other pub. You never hear a lager drinker remark on how good a particular pint tastes: they all taste exactly the same—that's the whole point.
(Not that there's anything wrong with consistency, you understand; but in a world where everything tastes the same, there's no opportunity for excellence.)
The powers that be in the brewing industry have spent millions of pounds conning the British public into believing that continental-style beers are in some way superior to their own traditional ales. And the Brits have actually fallen for it (even though their home-grown lagers are but pale imitations of their slightly less vapid continental counterparts). The big breweries would prefer us all to drink lager, because it is easier to store for long periods, so there is less wastage. Lager is also much easier to manufacture on a grand scale, becoming an exercise in bulk chemistry, rather than a skilled art.
The new-found popularity of lager in Britain was one of the greatest marketing coups of the Twentieth Century—promoting a product that nobody wanted from a zero-percent share of the market to market leader, all in the space of a couple of glitzy advertising campaigns (…Probably™).
The Winter's Tale
Having decimated the market for real ale, the big breweries are now moving in for the kill. The recent introduction of so-called smooth flow ales could well be the final nail in the coffin: cold, fizzy counterfeits of traditional British ales, designed with simple storage in mind, and aimed primarily at the youth market. And they're selling like hot cakes. The next thing you know, they'll be adding lime to the stuff, just to add that little bit of oomph!
Even the Irish are at it: Guinness Extra Cold, I ask you. They should be ashamed of themselves.
Enjoy It While You Can
Time is running out. There may be few more opportunities left to sample traditional British real ale at its best: warm.
So, here are some top tips on how best to savour the experience:
How to Experience British Ale
- Take along a friend or two
Good ale cannot be fully enjoyed on one's own—it should be a shared experience. The Irish call this the craic (pronouced crack) and think they invented it. The term derives, in fact, from Elizabethan England. (No correspondence from irate Irishfolk please—and, while I'm at it, Shores of Erin was originally called Shoals of Herring, and was written by a Scot (Ewan MacColl), who also wrote Dirty Old Town about Salford, not Dublin.)
- Choose your pub carefully
Avoid like the plague any pub described as family friendly: these are nothing more than licensed crèches—you'll have bawling brats running amok, treating the place like a bloody playground. Also avoid pubs with satellite TV, juke boxes, background music, karaoke machines, and (if possible) fruit machines. Good ale can only be appreciated in peaceful surroundings (accompanied by the gentle background hubbub of other civilised drinkers). Live music is all right, provided it involves fiddles, mandolins, acoustic guitars, etc—no amplifiers.
- Check that the beer is hand-pulled (as opposed to gas-pumped)
If the beer is dispensed by pulling several times on a long handle, rather than flipping on a small switch, you're probably safe, but BEWARE—sometimes devious breweries disguise gas-pumped taps as the real McCoy (yes, Burtonwood Brewery, I'm talking about you)—if they don't pump it by hand, it's not real ale.
- Avoid any ale described on the pump as smooth, cold, or Greenall's
Conversely, leap at the chance to sample any ale described as Timothy Taylor (Madonna's favourite), Burton, Theakston's, or free.
- Beware of any pub which has more than a handful of real ales
Real ale does not keep. Pubs with dozens of real ales rarely sell enough of any one type to ensure a fresh supply. Their ales tend to be stale (but still preferable to lager).
- On the whole, ensure that the ale is at least 4.3 ABV (alcohol by volume)
Anything less is likely to be gnats' piss. (There are a couple of exceptions to this rule—most notably, Timothy Taylor Golden Best, which has an ABV in the low 3's, but has a kick on it like a mule.) Anything more than 5.0 ABV is likely to be loopy juice (and, therefore, definitely worth a try).
- Remember that the term Best Bitter does not necessarily mean that it is the brewery's best bitter
Quite often, the opposite is true: breweries often use the term best bitter to describe their standard beer. Check if there are any other brews available from the same brewery and, if they have a higher ABV, try them.
- Order a whole pint in a thin-lipped glass
Half-measures are no good—you need enough to gulp (see below). Thick-lipped glasses (e.g. the dimpled barrel glasses with handles) create too much of a barrier between your own lips and the ale. People who insist on drinking from barrel glasses are invariably tossers.
- Ensure that your pint doesn't have too big a head
Under English law, pubs are entitled to leave a reasonable head (whatever that may be) on a pint of ale, but ask for a top-up if the head is any thicker than half an inch (1cm). Also, allow time for the ale to settle (or rise) before paying: what may look like a reasonable head can become a lot thicker if the ale is too lively. Good ale is seldom lively, but lively ale can sometimes be improved by stirring briskly with a clean index finger—preferably one's own.
- Sit down, for Pete's sake!
What is it with all this standing up it pubs nowadays? Good ale cannot be fully appreciated from a perpendicular position. Don't ask me why; it just can't. Besides, sitting down gives you a shorter distance to fall.
- Test the temperature of the ale by holding the back of your hand against the glass
If it feels in any way chilly, leave it until the chill has gone. A good temperature to aim for is 54°F (12°C), but, whatever you do, don't check the temperature with a thermometer—they'll think you're a sad nutter from the Campaign for Real Ale.
- Drink in gulps
This doesn't mean that you should down your pint in one, but, when you do drink, take in reasonably large mouthfuls, hold each one in the mouth for a few seconds, then swallow it in a single gulp. The taste receptors most sensitive to the bitter taste of the majority of real ales are concentrated at the back of the throat; gulping, therefore, enhances the taste. Holding the beer in your mouth before swallowing allows you to appreciate the subtle nuances of the brew and, more importantly, warms it up slightly before it hits the back of your throat. Genteel sipping should be left to the lager drinkers and G&T Brigade.
- Avoid going to the toilet for as long as possible
Once you do spend a penny, the sluice gates will open, and you'll be going all evening.
- Repeat steps 8 to 12 as many times as possible