Last Saturday saw the inaugural Farnham Beer and Sausage Festival. The plan was simple: quality sausages and quality beer, two of my favourite things. Not the Godknowswhat’sinthem variety of snorker, nor the pissinacan that most people take for beer, but quality stuff.
Sausages came from Newlyn’s Farm Shop, a local butcher in Alton and a Polish delicatessen in the playground of the beautiful that is Basingstoke. Newlyn’s Toulouse and the Polskis were the joint winners, though don’t try to pronounce the Polski ones in front of your Mum, because it sounds like, well… have a schoolboy guess and you’ll get it. Zwyczajna.
The beers. Two local breweries: the Crondall Brewery in Dora’s Green Lane and the Surrey Hills Brewery in Shere provided quantity. Surrey Hills Ranmore Ale being just about the perfect pint in my opinion, and you can buy it at the brewery back door for fifteen quid a gallon. Brilliant.
Until about five years ago, I never really got beer, was never really into the proper stuff. The two chaps most important in my conversion, and now passion, for ale are both very hardcore wine guys. One is MW trained, the other one of the most important figures in the UK wine trade. This is not coincidence. If you love wine, you love taste. If you love taste, you will love ale – though the variety is such, and the prevalence of piss-poor offerings so, well, prevalent, that it can take a while. Put simply: I love beer as much as I love wine and it’s a blessing that a pint of God’s own brew will only set you back about three quid. You’ve just got to find it…
The most interesting beer at the Farnham Beer & Sausage Festival (ok – five blokes in my garden) was Innis & Gunn, which is rather the point of this drabble. Innis & Gunn (and you can buy this in Waitrose and, maybe ironically, in Corney & Barrow wine bars) is oak-aged beer. Aged in Bourbon casks, to be precise.
Oak ageing is something I immediately associate with wine, and with Bordeaux in particular. The juice isn’t in the barrels just because they’re handy (stainless steel is cheaper, and easier), it’s there because oak and fermented grape juice are sometimes just made for each other. Not quite like bacon and eggs – it’s more like the secret ingredient you might have for a particular dish. A pinch of sugar in your ragu, or a dash of lime juice with coriander. Cack-handedly, or with the wrong ingredients, it doesn’t work, but get it right and it can be something else. New oak enhances, or affects, the wine within in it more than old oak (or rather old barrels), hence the technical term: “100% new oak” or “50% new oak”. 100% new oak means exactly what you think it does, 50% new oak means that half the barrels are brand new, and half aren’t – they’re probably a year old, maybe two or three, and most likely a combination.
A half-decent taster can taste oak on a wine – vanilla, caramel, spices on the nose are a giveaway, and its use on New World Chardonnay was once so prevalent and heavy-handed that many still confuse the taste of Chardonnay to that of a heavily-oaked white. It’s maybe less easy to spot on a red (but still by no means tricky) and a good taster can often tell what sort of oak it is – French or American being the basics. In Piedmont many producers use Slovenian oak, which doesn’t have as much impact on the aromatics – harder to spot, which is the idea.
If you’re a wine snob (like me) and/or you have to take the contrarian view (like me), you’ll often criticise the use of oak in winemaking. A chap in Chablis once told me (and I still agree with him) that his neighbours who used oak barrels were hiding the faults in their wine rather than enhancing the virtues. Oak-free Chablis (as it should be, in my opinion) is naked, nude: the most beautiful don’t need any clothes. And I’ve frequently sneered as I watch fellow tasters rave at the quality of cask samples when it’s been clear to me that they’ve simply been seduced by some well-executed new oak on a particular wine, when I reckon I’ve been looking further. New oak can be a bit like a makeover – take it away and what’s underneath is often unremarkable.
Back to the beer – the Innis & Gunn. With the oak all over it. The first taste was remarkable, and it seemed that the makers of this brew had hit the jackpot in making the Holy Grail (ok, maybe an overstatement) of a perfect cross between a top lager (they do exist) and a proper ale. The crispness and refreshment of the former; the character and depth of the latter. It was edgy, linear, layered, creamy; just delicious. But as the bottle went on things went slightly downhill, for me at least. For a start there was a great deal of alcohol: 6.6%. And the nature of it was just rather aggressive. Good beer, like good wine, doesn’t seem to get you pissed –or at least you don’t feel like it is. And as we went on, the flavours that initially had winked and flirted and danced together, slowly fell apart – lost their balance, if you like. It was as if the makeup was coming off.
Innis & Gunn has won a few awards, and I’m not surprised, but the crossover with wine comes back, in that I think that it’s a good tasting beer in the same way that there are plenty of brilliant “tasting” wines. Which is to say that if you’re just tasting – sniffing, sipping, sometimes spitting; if your relationship with the beer or wine is a short one, it’s impressive. But if you’ve got to drink a bottle it’s a different story. Some of the more modern styles of St Emilion are hugely impressive if you’ve a sample in front of you and that’s it . . . but could you drink a bottle? Often not.
And so, somewhat sausaged out and, admittedly a bit pissed, the beer that won out was the Surrey Hills. Not just because it’s lovely at first sight, but because it’s still lovely when you can’t remember how much you’ve had. Rather like posh claret, or serious Burgundy. Beautiful women are at their most beautiful in the morning – not slapped up on their way out to the club…