Last week, I visited my family in Salisbury. I was looking forward to it - of course, too see the family, and for our son to see his grandparents, but also because Salisbury is the home of the Wyndham Arms, the brewery tap for the Hop Back Brewery.
Last year, I wrote effusively (but briefly) about the Wyndham Arms (or "The Windy", as it's known locally) for an article in the Guardian about great Christmas pubs. My take on it is that the Windy is a great pub, and that it doesn't let anything get in the way of what a good pub should be. It's a classic pub in the truest sense - a public house, it feels like someone's living room (albeit with a bar and a shedload of awards on the walls).
Another reason I love the Windy is that the people who go there are the sort of people you want to find in a pub. They aren't there for drinks promotions, or karaoke, they are there for the no-nonsense pub, the beer, and the other pubgoers. But mostly the beer.
When Summer Lightning (5%abv) hit the scene in the late 1980s, it was a revelation - an unusually pale ale, stuffed full of dry citrus and spice flavour. It's still a bloody great beer, with a signature flourish of spice in the finish, and repeated samplings justify the scores of its awards that decorate the walls of the Windy. It's a benchmark beer, even after all this time.
But it is, to some degree, an old style of beer. These days. it's unusual for a pale golden beer to be so restrained. How hop character is expressed in beers, and pale beers in particular, has developed radically in the last ten years. Beers of this style are today as likely to taste of guava, passion fruit, grapefruit and lemon sherbet as they are to taste of pale malt and subtly spicy European hops.
This beer isn't a hop bomb, and it isn't absurdly strong, although it does have a bit of a kick to it. It's a beer that has incredible balance and poise, that is woven together from delicate flavours that don't rely on heavy hopping, or on a fancy malt bill. Like a good meal, it relies solely on the quality of the ingredients and the skill of the person who is putting it together. It's a beer that, to me, illustrates how the English brewing scene has changed over the last twenty years, and how drinkers' tastes have changed. Summer Lightning is a great beer, and although it is from a different age (I wonder how long a generation is in brewing terms?), it's still a classic.