Thursday 18 August 2011

Beer Epiphanies

When I first started drinking real ale I don’t think I liked it very much. I struggled through it, though. It was better than lager and far less emasculating than Malibu and Coke. It was probably two months after I started drinking it (I was at university so I was drinking a lot of it) that I had a beer epiphany...

The ‘I love dark beer’ Epiphany

Medway Beer Festival 2004. Me, my mates Matt and Nick and my Dad. Step up Sarah Hughes Dark Mild and Nethergate Old Growler. Dark, full-bodied, sweet, chocolatey-rich beers. These were not lager. These weren’t bitter pale beers which I didn’t like. These were delicious and suddenly dark beer was my thing and my drinking changed into a search for more of it. A Theakston’s Old Peculiar drank in Reading a few weeks later joined Sarah Hughes and Old Growler as the beers I always looked out for.

The ‘I Bloody LOVE hops!’ Epiphany

New Years Eve 2008 (I think). A big bottle of Stone Ruination IPA at a family party. It smelled like the best smelling beer in the whole wide world and tasted amazing. I remember my tongue felt like it’d been ripped in half, I remember the lupulin head-rush, I remember giving some to my little cousin to try to see the look on his face (I don’t remember the look on his face). This beer had come a few weeks after discovering Punk IPA and Chaos Theory. From then on it was a desperate scramble to find as many hops as I possibly could, addicted to the sweet kiss of malt followed by a punch of bitterness.

The ‘Sour Beer is Good’ Epiphany

It’s the summer of 2009. Sour beer tasted like vinegar to me. Why would anyone drink it? My first experience was a bad one and that was followed by many more attempts to suffer down a glass of lambic. That was until a Boon Geuze drunk in the garden in the sun. Cleanly sharp, lemony, peppery, but – and this is the thing which grabbed me most – had a depth of woody complexity from the oak, something like cheesy wotsits but not so cheesy. It was refreshing, exciting, complex and storied. No drinking session was now complete without something sour. It still isn’t.

The ‘Pale and hoppy beers are the best!’ Epiphany

The Bull, Horton Kirby. Late 2009. A pint of Marble Pint. Wow. Before this British session beer bored me and I didn’t drink much of it; I didn’t want another pale beer hopped with Goldings or Fuggles. Then came the pale and hoppies made with US hops. Light, packed with tropical and citrus fruit, beautiful aromas, bold bitterness. British beer became exciting. It’s easy to make a 9% beer with shit-loads of hops in but to make a 3.9% beer taste this good... I wanted more. I still do.

The 'Lager is amazing!’ Epiphany

Czech Republic 2010. Before this lager was the enemy of my drinking. It was what the others drank. The ones who didn’t know better. Then it changed. A frothing glass of Pilsner Urquell at the brewery and a weekend drinking incredible lagers in the Czech Republic, lively with Saaz hops, floral and fruity and herbal, so smooth to drink, so handsome in the handled mugs. Lager became different, it became exciting, it became something I wanted more and more of. My drinking shifted: I wanted great lagers, subtle but packed with flavour, cool and refreshing but something I wanted to drink all night long. I crave a really good lager more than I crave any other beer.

Five moments – five beers – which have redirected my drinking. Have you had any similar epiphanies when suddenly beer changes?


  1. Cask Fuller's London Pride, drunk (illegally) at a wine bar, funnily enough, in Hertford where I grew up, in about 1978. I remember the fresh aroma and the wonderful fruitiness -- this was when I decided I liked real ale.

    Cask Greene King KK Mild, then brewed in Biggleswade, which was a regular drink at the White Horse in Hertford in my late teenage years and was when I discovered I loved dark mild. I still do. And I don't have a problem with Oscar Wilde being Champion Beer of Britain!

    Then I gave up drinking for a while, came back via wine, and then...Hoegaarden of all things. 1992 and my then partner, Jim, an industrial lager drinker who'd always dismissed British ales, was on a postgrade placement at KU Leuven and his colleagues were horrified that he just drank Stella. When I went to visit him, he'd undergone his own beer epiphany! "You've got to try these beers," he said, and dragged me round all the studenty pubs on the Grote Markt. Hoegaarden was the first I tried and the one that changed my perceptions. We bought a copy of MJ's Great Beers of Belgium, I started making lists, and the rest is history!

    I wish I could remember which precise beer changed my perceptions about hoppy pale ales but it certainly wasn't Pliny the Elder, which was the first US craft beer I ever sampled on US soil, on cask at Russian River in Santa Rosa in fact, and just perplexed me at the time. Avery Maharajah was the first one I remember really enjoying.

    The Boon 3-year-old unblended lambic I sampled at the brewery earlier this year, one of the best and most complex beers I've ever had, was when I realise I genuinely liked, nay loved, lambic, and wasn't just persisting with it because of its interesting history and techniques.

    And I'll echo your experience at the Plzeňský Prazdroj kvasnicový unfiltered Urquell, which I tried at the Beer Bloggers Conference earlier this year. So that is what pils is really all about.

  2. Mine is lager beer. I've spent many many hours in CZ drinking terrific Czech beer and back in the UK it seems to have the status real ale did about 15 years ago, I.e. as rare as rocking horse shit. Thankfully dedicated importers like Pivovar are trying to change that, but I am still a one mile walk into town then an eight mile train ride from great Czech lager beer.

  3. Move the 'sour beer is good' right to the very end and this is pretty much the same as my own preference calendar!

    Still havent tried enough sour beers to get a handle on them but the rest are in the same order as me mate. I think getting into dark beers first is a pretty common route as its the antithesis to bland yellow lager.

    A well written article though and I doubt I could put such specific dates on my personal experiences. Although I do remember the moment I had Jaipur for the first time, and thinking it was the best beer i'd ever tasted. "It tastes of grapefruit!" Then punk soon after, and the rest, as they say, is history.

  4. Very great story!

    Once upon a time I was loving belgian trappistes most of all, and that was for a very long time. My first epiphany happened when I lived in Ireland, drinking only stouts, irish red ales and pale ales. Then I turned to IPAs studying for a tasting course. One month ago I felt in love with pils and lager for my czech week end in Prague.
    What's gonna be the future? Lambics is my mission impossible!

  5. My first beer epiphany was Bishop's Finger on cask in a pub in Kent - discovered something other than smoothflow John Smiths or nitro Guinness (at uni I was never a lager drinker).

    Then came the "mass produced Czech lager is awesome" epiphany, on moving to Prague in 1999 and falling in love with Velkopopvicky Kozel back when it was independent and not just another SABMiller brew.

    After that came the "Czech microbrewed lager is even better than Kozel/Pilsner Urquell" - seriously given a choice between PU or Svijany, Kout na Sumave or Pivo Dum's Stepan, there is no competition, though I still long for kvasnicove PU in Plzen.

    Then came the "Americans can make beer?" epiphany, thanks to Sam Adams Boston Lager, to this day one of the best American beers available.

    Finally came the "there are some Americans that can make Pilsner style lager and make it well" epiphany. Thank any chosen deity for Jason at Devils Backbone, a man who loves lager and makes it damned well.

    I tend to think though that an "epiphany" is in reality just the overturning of a prejudice.

  6. It was Franconia. We went from having a passing interest to being really fascinated on a holiday in Nuremberg and Bamberg.

  7. Take out the "sour beer is good" and you almost have the drinking preferences of Britain for the last few centuries. Dark ales first then came the lighter pale ales and now everyone drinks lager.

    OK not exactly the same but I find it interesting that good lager is where you have settled as your drink of choice.

    I too am looking for good lagers as a good lager is something to be cherished but I think I personally would rather an APA or good quality stout. I have no real go to drink when I go out, I take whatever tickles my fancy at the time. Tonight I will be heading out and apart from a lot of homebrew (monthly meetup), I will be buying pints at the Bull and Castle in Dublin so whatever interesting beer I notice first will be purchased.

  8. Des - I can probably add an amazing pint of London Pride into my list, somewhere between the dark beers and the pale and hoppy beers. It was incredibly good (and mine was legal). Some fascinating background there, too. Avery Maharajah is a stunning beer.

    Redpola - I'm jealous of how close you are to so much good beer!

    Neil - Jaipur was another big one for me. Luckily I can track these things thanks to the blog! Thornbridge for me was soon after I started blogging and there was a meet the brewer at The Rake. From there I went up to visit the brewery and had Jaipur in the Coach and Horse. Brilliant.

    Angelo - I never thought I'd like lambic but then suddenly one day it just made sense! Prague seems a popular place for a lager epiphany!

    Al - The microbrewed lager is fantastic but for pure consistency and brilliance it's hard to beat an unpasteurised PU, but then I haven't fully explored Czech beers - I must do that! I've had a few Kout 12s but never thought it was brilliant - I think I've just been unlucky. As for an epiphany overtaking a prejudice... perhaps for the cynic!

    Bailey - I want to go to those places!

    ToA - Not so much settled as where I'm currently at. All the others are still there too, so it's like a build up of epiphanies rather than one replacing another.

  9. On the Kout front, I think the 10 is actually better than the 12 - and both are sublime as kvasnicove. However, the best of their range is the 18 Dark Special, so many sessions finished off with a half of that dark wonder. Tankove PU is excellent, tankove Budvar is also delightful - next time you are in Prague make sure you go to U Medviku, not just for their own superb lagers, but their tankove Bud is delicious.

  10. Try not to sound too wanky here - but I started on bitter and mild before I really had lager or spirits.

    I played cricket and bowls at 14. I'd regularly go on away days to Brighton and Eastbourne, and as I was far too young to drink on my own, I was always getting half a pint here or there from the bowlers who were happy to oblige.

    One lad started me on Mild - his view being that if I went in to a pub at 16 and asked for lager and lime, i'd get knocked straight back. But ask for an "old blokes" drink, and I stood a chance - he was right.

    My first regular drink was Light and Bitter. Half a pint of generic bitter and more often than not, a bottle of Whitbread Pale Ale mixed together in a pint glass.

    My old man was a London Tankard drinker in those days.

    I'd had Becks when watching the 1990 World cup, but it wasn't until a couple of years later - a few dodgy night clubs and football grounds later - that I started mixing with the lager set. Until then it was always hand pulls or average keg bitter.

  11. Beer Epiphanies? After trying to brew my own in late 80's using boots beer kits and then getting back into it again a couple of years ago I think....

    #1 Wow! you actually can make decent beer from a kit.

    and the #2 Homebrewers make good All Grain beer shocker!

    More recently I think it's the revalation (to me atleast) that you can get some nice beers on the continent. After a stay in Munich I've got the taste for Weissbier and Bavarian Pilsner.

  12. Just noticed I hit post having though I finished that comment...err... too many meetings.

    Beer Epiphany? Modelo Especial on an empty beach in Tulum mexico. Nothing else would have quite captured the mood - and proved that beer is far too often governed by that mood emotion, and your surrounding environment. I've had a load of beers in the last couple of years that people have fallen over themselves to tell me about - but when drunk, at 11pm as the only beer of the night, having just put a baby to bed - they've never quite hit the spot.

    Where as the next gassy lager I have in the company of really good mates, will taste like the finest thing ever produced.

  13. Yep! Mine was the first, the only. Drinking a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and realising 1) what I'd been missing and 2) how do I get more - what else is out there! Nice post, I may have a little think beyond this and do my own!

  14. Chris - Start as you mean to go on, and all that. interesting take on the epiphany idea. And I absolutely agree - the beer is largely irrelevant, it's about the moment.

    Russ - I had a similar experience when I've tasted homebrew - it was like realising that you can actually make great beer at home!

    Leigh - I wish I could remember my first SNPA... I also wish I could remember the first US beer which I had and realised there was more out there than Bud... It was probably Flying Dog or Great Divide.

  15. Great article Mark - my first step into the non-gassy world was Boddington's at the Sherwood in Preston. Tastes very different these days, but it was a world away from Carling. Then McEwans 70/- at Uni in Scotland - darker, malty beer that had sweetness was pretty new. After that, it was pretty much anything goes until my first Sierra Nevada - American beer then was far rarer than now. But the hops, wow. Ruination for me, too - the fourth epiphany, that of big big flavour beer. No way back now, eh?

  16. First cask was a pint of Guinness at the snooker club now run by Ali Carter, my first legal pint, 18th March 2000.

    I am sure I have had Chimay before this.

    Trips to the continent for Kronenbourg when it was good around this time too.

    Discovering Orkney in 2004. Dark Island I still love.

    Discovering Rochefort sometime 2005 but most likely considerably earlier. Still my favourite.

    Raunchbier in 2007 and several other beers like Cantillon due to my trips to Utobeer. Stone in 2007 thanks to Mike at the Rake.

    De Molen, 2008 at Chelmsford beer festival. Then Struise Pannepot and Alvinne and all these amazing craft beers in 2009.

    Somewhere in 2008-2009 I discovered 3 Fonteinen which I still love now.

    Best ever Narke in 2010 at Borefts' Beer Festival. WOW. Floored. All world class beers. Oh and Westvleteren blonde with a pate in 2008 at the Cafe Verde.

  17. I tried a Mansfield after the realisation that bottled lager smelled like horse poo.