Michael Jackson, whose funeral was yesterday, used to complain that people kept asking him what his favourite beer was. It annoyed him, I think, because it showed what a limited view the questioners had of great pleasures and deep enthusiasms, as if you could only like football by supporting one favourite team.
I have a favourite wine – Sauvignon Blanc for whites, Shiraz or Zinfandel for reds – and I have a favourite whisky (Lagavulin, thanks, though I wouldn’t spurn The Macallan). But what that shows to me is that I’m not a huge enthusiast for wine or whisky, and certainly not a real wine or whisky lover. Jancis Robinson or Robert Parker won’t have a favourite grape variety, and if I went into my local cigar specialist down the hill, I am sure the proprietor would tell me he doesn’t have a favourite cigar. Like Michael, I believe anyone who has a favourite beer doesn’t like beer that much (and Mr Jackson wouldn’t have had a favourite whisky; he showed as much enthousiasmos for, and knowledge of barley spirit as the undistilled version.)
I don’t even have a favourite beer style. I get my kicks from anything made with love and care, and I will try anything beery once, which is certainly not true at all of wine, where I have tried some extremely artisinal products and wished I hadn’t wasted my cash. Jancis Robinson admits to not liking Sauvignon Blanc as much as she does other white grape varieties, but she raves about a small producer of Pouilly Fumé called Didier Dageneau, so I bought a bottle of his wine at £23. What I should have guessed was that if Jancis, who doesn’t normally go for the elderflower-and-cat aromas of Sauvignon Blanc, waved the flag wildly for this one, I, as a fan of the grape (and elderflowers, but not cats) wouldn’t like it, pas de tout. If you’ve seen Dageneau in the TV series Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course, you’ll know he’s a tremendously eccentric, passionate, artisinal wine maker. But he doesn’t make wines I like, because I’m not a wine enthusiast.
The revelation that I was a beer lover above all else came to me in 1994, after I returned from what was the first ever “non-professionals” wine tour of Australia. A group of us went right across the south-east corner of the continent from the Barossa to the Hunter Valley, via the Adelaide Hills, the Yarra Valley and Milawa; 21 wineries in 11 days. The welcome from all the winemakers was fantastic, the wines generally top-rate, the food we were served at the wineries and at the restaurants we visited was a revelation: eating fresh grilled yabbies, crayfish and green-lipped mussels in the bright lunchtime sunshine at St Halletts in the Barossa, and barbecued kangaroo tail and plum sauce under the Southern hemisphere stars at Wirra Wirra in the McLaren Vale, were two of the great gastronomic experiences of my life. Then I came home, and about a fortnight later I went to the conference on India Pale Ale and its origins at the former Whitbread brewery in London organised by the Guild of Beerwriters.
Speakers included Dr. Richard Wilson, co-author of The British Brewing Industry 1830-1908, on the sociological and business climate in which IPAs grew and prospered in 19th century Britain; Dr John Harrison, probably the world’s leading “beer recreator”, who talked about the hops used in the first India Pale Ales, made at the Bow Brewery on the eastern edge of London; Paul Bayley, the head brewer from Marston’s, who talked about the importance of the well waters of Burton upon Trent to Burton’s IPAs; Michael Jackson, talking about the spread of IPAs around the world; and Garrett Oliver, then still head brewer at Manhattan Brewing Company. Dr Harrison had brought along two IPAs brewed to historical recipes, one from London and the other from Edinburgh, while Mark Dorber of the White Horse at Parson’s Green had organised a Bass IPA made in Burton according to a recipe from the 1850s. Oliver had flown from New York with casks of IPA from Manhattan Brewing, and there were two other American IPAs for the audience of 50 beer writers and brewers to try as well, Renegade Red from Montana and Bombay Bomber from the Steelhead Brewery in Oregon.
As I drank the different IPAs, and made notes about bitterness levels and aromas, and listened to the erudition of the different speakers covering everything from the aspirations of the middle classes in Victorian England to the importance of parti-gyling in 1930s beer production, I thought about the many hugely enthusiastic, highly skilled people I had met on the Australian wine tour, from the great Peter Lehman to an extremely attractive female winemaker at Moët & Chandon’s Green Point winery, who spoke with passion and dedication about her job, and I remembered what I could of the couple of hundred different wines I had sampled, of which many had been world-class. But I was enjoying myself more drinking the beers at the old Chiswell Street brewery, and listening to experts deliver their knowledge about hops, well-water and malt varieties, than I had sipping-and-spitting any of the Australian wines while hearing about malo-lactic fermentation and the rest.
And what was my favourite of the six IPAs? Now you’re being silly …