Our beer of the week

(by peter)

Last week I had the pleasure of rubbing shoulders with the likes of celebrity chef Mark Hix and Tony Hadley (he of Spandau Ballet pop fame – on the far right on the adjacent album cover).

Although the company might suggest it, and as intriguing as the concept is, this wasn’t some sort of fusion event in which haute cuisine and the best of 1980s pop came together.

In fact, it was a beer tasting.

Entitled ‘Britons Backing Beer’, the event billed itself as, ‘a non-campaign to highlight the cultural and gastronomic importance of our National Drink through the tasting of beers brewed by British icons’. The invitation went on to detail the accompanying canapés as: ‘Welsh rabbit [sic], pies, pork scratching, chips’.

In other words: a good excuse to taste beers made by famous people and eat chips.

The event, which took place in a packed underground space at Hix’s bar in Soho, featured brews by the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Rick Stein, Jody Scheckter, Neil Morrissey, HRH The Prince of Wales and the aforementioned Hix and Hadley.

It was a jovial occasion in which barley and hop growers rubbed shoulders with a pop icon, a top chef and lots of thirsty journalists. All in aid of promoting the premium credentials of beer – a cause I wholeheartedly espouse, especially when it comes to matching beers with food: a tragically under-rated gastronomic pairing.

So what of the beers? A mixed bag would be the fairest evaluation.

Tony Hadley’s efforts were, sadly, some of the weakest on show (sorry, Tony). For example, his ‘Hot Stuff Chilli Beer’, made at the Red Rat Craft Brewery in Suffolk, and apparently a champion beer at the East Anglian Beer Festival 2010, had slightly bizarre but intriguing aromas of capsicum and grass – followed up by a thin, watery yet overly spicy flavours.

‘Like weak vegetable broth with far too much Tabasco,’ was how one taster summed it up.


Hix’s brews fared better, his IPA pleasantly hoppy and drinkable, while his Oyster Ale was altogether darker, more brooding and almost a meal in itself, with its malty, cocoa and nutty flavours. These beers came from the Palmers Brewery in Dorset, with the latter available at Selfridges and Mark Hix restaurants.

Weighing in with some decent if slightly unexceptional quality were HRH the Prince of Wales with his Duchy Original Organic Old Ruby Ale (Waitrose, Booths, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and independent retailers from £1.99) and former Formula One driver Jody Scheckter with his Laverstoke Park Farm Organic Ale (Waitrose from £1.94).

Chalky’s Bark was notably worse than Chalky’s Bite, from the Rick Stein (Sharp’s Brewery) stable.  The former was somewhat bland; the latter packed more of a savoury flavour punch.

But coming out on top of the tree was the River Cottage brew: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Stinger Nettle Beer (4.5%, Hall & Woodhouse – £28.98 for a case of 16, available from www.badgerdirect.com).

This ‘handcrafted ale’ apparently uses organic nettles (which nettles aren’t organic?!) ‘hand-picked at River Cottage HQ in Dorset’. According to Hugh, it’s ‘equally good with summer barbecues and winter roasts – or while sitting on a hay bale watching the sun go down…’

Don’t be deceived by the name: the beer doesn’t taste like nettles. In fact, it’s a gently hoppy, elegantly drinkable beer with hints of caramel. Refreshing and balanced, with a very moreish nature.

Anyone interested in following this ‘non-campaign’ would do well to look out for future events around Britain which, the organisers say, ‘will seek to celebrate the diversity of beers from each region’.