Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Beer-Drinker's Cocktail

" 'Do you ever drink wine?' people ask me, as though beer was a prison rather than a playground. A day may pass when I do not drink wine, but never a week. Whatever is argued about other pleasures, it is not necessary to be monogamous in the choice of drink" - Michael Jackson's 'Beer Companion' (2nd edition), p. 7.

I was hosting a world cup-themed beer tasting last week, and someone asked me "Do you ever just go to the pub and have a pint of Carling?". The perhaps surprising answer is yes, I do - about twice a year, I have a pint of Carling, or Carlsberg, or Becks, just to keep my eye in. Most of the time, it's perfectly OK - not particularly exciting, but certainly not the hideous experience that many make it out to be. Ditto cask Tetley's, John Smith's and so on (although I can't remember the last time I had a pint of Guinness).

The truth is, I'm something of an omnivore (omnibev?) when it comes to drinks. I have maybe a hundred or so bottles of good wine (some of it very good) in the cellar, alongside a fair amount of beer - some of it sent to me for review, but some of it I actually paid for. I love beer, but I also think that to be a good beer writer, you need to experience lots of different flavours, sensations and textures in your drinks. So whenever I get a chance to try something new, I go for it, whether food or drink. My last food adventure was in the Czech Republic, trying some cheese that had been aged in a jar for three months with onions and (I think) chilli peppers. The first mouthful was hideous - choking and almost overpowering - but, mindful that it was a new flavour sensation, I went back for another mouthful. That was also hideous, and I called it a day after two mouthfuls.

I first had a negroni at Harry's Bar in Venice about five years ago. I was there with half a dozen friends, and everyone else had ordered a bellini (Harry's Bar is famously where the bellini was invented). Being a contrary sort, and knowing that Italy was famous for its bitter aperitifs, I went for something different. The intense, herbal, peppery bitterness of the negroni nearly knocked me off my feet, but immediately I could see parallels with some of the bigger, more bitter beers (and we're talking fresh Sierra Nevada Bigfoot here).

Making a negroni is pretty easy, although chances are that you will have to go out and buy at least one of the three ingredients. Mix equal parts Campari, sweet vermouth (the red one) and gin, and serve over ice with a strip of orange zest. Easy peasy, but a study in complexity - earthy herbal bitterness combines with pithy orange zest character, with a sweetness mid-palate that moves into a peppery dryness. A classic essay in grown-up bitterness, sure to test the maturity of one's palate, but also sure to lure you back for another. The perfect beer-drinker's cocktail.


  1. You mean Carling and Carlsberg don't taste like horse piss? Certain sections of CAMRA would have you lynched!

  2. I dont drink table wine, I often find the aromas fantastic but once in the mouth I find the wine overpoweringly acid, alcoholic and tannic. Fortified wines are something else altogether and I find the more I delve into the world of port and sherry the more I learn about judging and appreciating aged strong styles of beer. I think my beer and fermentation knowledge helps me appreciate port and sherry to.

  3. Curmudgeon - I think the fairest thing I can say is that it is an experience free from obvious faults.

    Kieran - that's interesting - the more I drink older beers, the more I realise that (with a few notable exceptions, or beers designed specifically for the long haul) I actually prefer young beer. But then it's the same for table wine (again, with a few notable exceptions). I love sherry though, which is as close to a deliberately ruined glass of wine as you can get.

  4. I love old beer. Naturally I mean beer that was designed for some aging. 30 year old Thomas Hardys would rank as one of my all time beer magic moments.

  5. I salute you Sir Zak!. All beer is great. Just as you on occasion enjoy the lout, sometimes us normals enjoy a pint of pong. Well done Sir.

  6. Fond though I am of an occasional Negroni, I'd never thought of the beer parallel.

  7. Kieran - for me THA hits its stride at about a decade old. Which means the case of 2003 I have is coming up to drinking...

    Cookie - as MJ said, it's a playground, not a prison - even if that does mean the occasional Big Mac along the way.

    Will - it's not really meant to be a substitute, but the bittersweet character of a negroni reminds me of an American IPA taken to its illogical conclusion.


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