In praise of brown beer

If you have a “favourite beer”, you don’t really like beer. Similarly, you don’t really like beer if you have a “favourite beer style”, any more than you can really like music if all you listen to is folk, or rock, or only classical, or only jazz.

That said, I would cope for quite a time if all I could listen to was Bach (there’s a Polish internet radio station, Radio B.A.C.H., that plays nothing but the works of “Jana Sebastiana”) or the sort of “modern” jazz played in New York clubs between 1954 and 1964. And I would be very happy to spend – well, weeks, certainly, maybe months – drinking nothing but bitter, specifically the loose-headed amber-cornelian cask bitters of Southern England, cool, low in CO2, lightly aromatic, just bitter enough to stimulate without overwhelming, hints of toffee, marmalade and apricot, maybe a touch of fruitcake or blackcurrant, and with a strength – not much more than four per cent abv at the most – that means you can swallow pints at a leisurely rate while chatting, relaxing, chilling, eating, watching the world or listening to, say, Miles Davis play Walkin’.

Do I love that style of beer because it was the one I drank growing up? I’m sure sitting at rustic tables in rural pub gardens in Hertfordshire on long, warm, sunny summer evenings, talking with friends, clouds of cow parsley nodding over the car park wall and martins high above swooping through the flying ants like little fighter planes, while dimpled glasses of Rayment’s BBA or Wethered’s (RIP the pair of them) were slowly emptied, fixed in my mind the idea that English bitter equals quiet, unpaced enjoyment. But I never grew up in Elizabethan England and I still adore Thomas Tallis. Nor did I live in St Petersburg in the reign of Catherine the Great, but I rate Imperial Russian Stout as highly as the Empress apparently did.

No, I love English bitter because, while beer can be many things – that’s one of the drink’s strengths – from terrific taste experience to brilliant enhancer of food, and while there’s plenty of room in my beeriverse for everything from souped-up extremobrews to simple refreshers, the subtle joys to be found in a pint of well-looked-after cask “ordinary” are what I would miss the most if I was told: “You can never drink beer again.”

So: surely that makes Southern English bitter my “favourite” beer style? Well, no, it’s the beer I love to drink when I’m socialising, and if I couldn’t drink beer when I’m socialising, then I’d really be suffering. But it’s not the beer I like drinking at the very end of an evening, or the beer I’d generally choose for accompanying food, and it’s not the beer I’d automatically lunge for when eyeing up the choices in a strange bar: I like to try something new, too, when there’s a chance. Then in the winter I love a good Burton, or a porter, in the summer a brisk Czech or North German lager or a golden ale, or a Bavarian wheat beer. Sometimes I listen to Irish traditional music, sometimes to Mozart operas. I don’t like smoked beers much, or artichokes, or Bob Dylan’s singing (some of his songs are good, though). I love a good brown bitter, Thelonious Monk, Richard Thompson, Dr Strangelove, Donatello’s David, blackberries with clotted cream, and roast duck. But I don’t have favourites.