They’ve got some distinctive facial hair at the Meantime Brewery in Greenwich. There’s brewer Rod Jones who sports a slightly Teutonic twirly tache and beard combo (I learnt later that he is half German which explains things). Then there’s tour guide Alexis Morgan and his sergeant major moustache with linked sideboards which wouldn’t have looked out of place on the set of Zulu. I was on an intensive one day course to learn about brewing. Beyond drinking a lot of beer and reading about its history, I know very little about the technical side. Whenever I’ve written about beer in this column, I’ve had comments, emails and letters in green ink pointing out mistakes that I’ve made. Some are rude and some are patient but most have been educational. When I first started writing about wine, I am sure I made dozens of elementary mistakes but I never had quite the same response.
It got me thinking about whether there was a difference between beer and wine enthusiasts. I have a theory about this: whereas in wine knowledge is handed down from above, there are Masters of Wine with gold spittoons round their necks and wine writers style themselves wine educators, beer aficionados in contrast tend to be autodidacts. Or it might be that beer drinkers’ argumentative style has been honed over hours in the pub. I’m looking forward to some robust responses to my theories.
In some ways beer is more complicated that wine. All that stuff you have to do to the barley to convert starch into sugar. It’s a wonder anyone ever made beer for the first time. In contrast wine practically makes itself (though not very well NB natural wine fundamentalists). The big porter breweries of 18th century London were at the cutting edge of technology. One of the first steam engines in Britain was installed in Whitbread’s Chiswell Street brewery near the Barbican in 1787 by James Watt. This brewery was one of the wonders of the industrial age with an unsupported roof bigger than that of Westminster Hall. Instruments such as the hydrometer to measure the potential alcohol in a liquid took the guesswork out of fermentation. Breweries even had early forms of refrigeration meaning that they could make beer in the summer months. To put this into perspective, refrigeration in winemaking didn’t become standard practise until long after the Second World War.
In its history, production methods and variety, there’s a lot of scope for making mistakes, at least that’s my excuse. After a day at the brewery, I felt that I could just be able to hold my own amongst a group of beer enthusiasts. I might, however, grow a beard just for extra credibility.
This article originally appeared in the Guardian.
Image courtesy of Meantime Brewing. Click for more information about The Knowledge.