27 May 2011

Balance – is it as important in beer as it is in wine?

I've had a few beers lately that I've really enjoyed and that, when I thought about it, shared a common characteristic: balance. Or drinkability, for want of a better word. Tasty, refreshing and with sufficient interest, but not hitting you over the head like a lunatic and saying how manly they are.

With beer, you could draw a straight line and write the word 'challenging' at one end and 'drinkable' at the other. Now I might be totally wrong, but I suspect there's a fashion at the moment in the craft beer world for stuff that errs more towards the challenging or extreme. Some of these beers can be really interesting to drink - but personally I sometimes find the first sip is the one I enjoy the most. And that's not ideal. After three or four gulps of a more extreme beer my palate can feel like someone's been at it with a steam-powered wallpaper remover. Interesting flavours, challenging, but not something I'd necessarily want to drink regularly. Perhaps this kind of beer is playing to a macho I-can-eat-a-hotter-vindaloo-than-you mentality. You can't imagine many women being daft enough to bother with some of these drinks beyond the first sip.

Of course it depends on the occasion; there's a time and place for a more extreme beer. And it's worth noting the caveat that more extreme beers can still be in balance; choc-full of flavour but with all notes singing in harmony.

But the beers I tend to enjoy most are the ones where everything is nicely in balance and that I don't tire of after a few gulps. And by that I don't mean boring; it's easy to confuse the idea of balance with lack of flavour. It's not that at all - sometimes it might even be the addition of more flavours, sometimes it might be fewer, to strike the balance. A food analogy would be using a pinch or two less of chilli powder to tone down the spice, or perhaps adding a squeeze or two of lemon to freshen it up.

Like anything sensual, it's of course subjective to some extent - one drinker's idea of balance won't be the same as another drinker's. Some of us prefer more bitter flavours, for example. It's all about personal taste, as well as mood, context, what you're eating (if anything) - the time of year, even. Which are some of the things that make food and drink so interesting.

So what were the finely balanced beers I've had recently that slipped down so easily? The first was the acclaimed El Bulli chef Ferran Adria's beer, Inedit, brewed by Estrella Damm – nothing exceptional you might think on trying it, but an intriguingly light mouthfeel, and just so damn tasty and refreshing. Perhaps a touch sweeter than I'd regularly go for and it may not be earth shattering but, as was intended with this brew, it's very food-friendly.

Another very nice beer I had recently was Stormstay Premium Ale, from O'Hanlon's Brewery in Devon, which is also a beer that I suspect might not satisfy the label drinkers looking to tick off the latest new world hop bomb. It struck that fine balance between hops and malt, with a subtle caramel depth underpinning the fresh green hop flavours. I really enjoyed this beer. If it was a stranger at a party it wouldn't skip quickly from person to person and talk about itself as certain other craft beers might; instead it'd be an understated but likeable presence with a touch of class. I thought it had a nice balance and a slight zip of acidity reminiscent of a good sparkling wine.

Going back to the fashion for extreme beers: it does seem to be specific to beer. Wine writers seem to be more preoccupied with elegance and structure. The reason for this difference, I'm not sure. It could quite simply be that when we drink a glass of beer or a glass of wine, we're looking for different things, and the difference in the tone of coverage reflects that. Perhaps an extreme IPA is only meant to be enjoyed for a few sips - that's the whole point, it's not designed for session drinking.

Or another theory could be that the craft beer revolution - for want of a less tabloidy term - is at an earlier phase than that of wine drinking (if that's the case it's ironic, given the long history of beer brewing and drinking in Britain). Perhaps the over-the-top late-hopped IPAs or quadruple imperial black quadruple chocolated stouts (I exaggerate) are the beer equivalent of the over-oaked chardonnays or the harsh one-dimensional sauvignon blancs wine lovers tired of to some extent in the 1990s and early-2000s, and beer fashions will evolve in much the same way over time. If this is the case, some classy but currently underrated more traditional British and Belgian ales, for instance, might enjoy a resurgence as beer drinkers become weary of yet another new wave British or American brew. When I drank a couple of Rochefort ales recently I was thinking what classy brews they were.

It's all about time and place. Sometimes the grapefruity hit of a New Zealand sauvignon blanc or an American IPA just hits the spot, just as a gin and tonic or a really very hoppy pale ale does, but at other times the moment calls for a deep, mellow porter by the fireside, or a savoury, herby syrah from the Northern Rhone. More often you're going to want the over-the-top hoppy pale ale as an aperitif as you would the G&T; the less extreme ales will more likely do you for a meal or a session.

But if beer wants to catch up with wine as a respected match for food, I think there might just need to be a slight shift in emphasis towards balance. Good Italian wine is often so very food-friendly thanks to its pure fruit flavours and fresh acidity (not to mention its sense of place), and it doesn't need to shout about itself. Over-oaked fruit bomb wines, on the other hand, are less likely to complement food quite so easily. I'm certainly not saying it's impossible to match foods with drinks that have extreme flavours, but it is more tricky.

The key point is that there's a time and a place for any well-made drink. But if beer wants to gain more respect at the dining table, and among drinkers generally, I'd say balance is an important thing to bear in mind in the long run. The craft beer movement will struggle to win over set-in-their-ways Stella drinkers on the one hand or set-in-their-ways Bordeaux drinkers on the other if it tries too hard and veers too far towards the extreme.

*The picture at the top is a pint of Timothy Taylor's Landlord on cask and some mini fish'n'chips. Lovely.
*Anyone in Leeds reading this can buy a 75cl bottle of Inedit from Latitude Wine for just under a fiver, or from Harvey Nichols for just over a fiver.

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