Categorical nonsense

The Procrustean nonsense of defining rigid categories that every beer must fit into is well illustrated by The Leveller, one of the brews with Civil War-themed names from the Springhead brewery, at Sutton-on-Trent, near Newark, in Nottinghamshire.

The Leveller is brewed, like almost all Springhead’s beers, with Maris Otter malt, plus, in this case, some roasted malt and some amber malt as well – enough to give a mid-oak colour, but not as dark as a brown ale and without the ruddy cornelian hues that are apparent in darker bitters and dark winter warmers.

While Northdown hops bring a fair degree of bitterness to the party, the roast grain is present in sufficient quantity to give a distinct toasty, almost coffee flavour, which kicks the beer out of the circle marked “bitter” (though Camra, apparently unable to find another home for it, awarded The Leveller a runner-up place at the Great British Beer Festival in the “best bitter” category.)

If The Leveller isn’t a bitter, though, it doesn’t have the sweetness, or the rotundity of mouthfeel, or any hint of chocolate, that might let it slip comfortably into the circles on the Venn diagram of beer styles marked “brown ales” or “milds”.

Springhead themselves say The Leveller is “brewed in the style of Belgian Trappist ales”, to which I can only say that it didn’t taste anything like a Trappist ale to me. It did taste like a very fine beer, though, even if it is one that fits no known existing style. Draw a new circle on the diagram, and call it “English dark ale”.

I was tasting The Leveller on a trip to the Springhead brewery with the Zythographers’ Union to meet the brewer, Shirley Reynolds, and try some of the brewery’s range of beers, on their own and with food combinations.

Springhead, which began 18 years ago as the smallest new brewery in Britain at the time, is now based on what seems to be the typical modern-small-brewery mini-industrial estate site. Four years ago it powered up to a 50-barrel brewing operation. (I had forgotten before I arrived in Sutton that I have seen their old kit in operation in its new home at Twickenham Fine Ales, just about a mile from where this blog is being written.) The new plant is German-made, and a cliché of Teutonic efficiency and shining steel.

It is clear, listening to Shirley Reynolds, and looking around the brewery, that she has all the essentials of a successful brewer, including utter dedication to cleanliness, rigorous adhesion to the highest standards of consistency in her products, and at the same time a willingness to tweak recipes until the beers are exactly how she feels they should be. Whatever the Latin is for “consistency and experimentation”, it should be the motto for brewers everywhere.

The brewery’s biggest seller, at 40 per cent of all cask sales, is Roaring Meg, named after a Civil War cannon, and all of 5.5 per cent alcohol by volume: there can, I suspect, be few breweries in Britain with a beer that strong as their best-seller. It’s also now available in bottle in supermarkets, which will undoubtedly help lift sales in pubs as drinkers spot a familiar name. Roaring Meg is a beautifully fruity, flavourful golden beer, made from Maris Otter malt; bitter, at 34 to 37 EBU, and with plenty happening on the palate. That, I guess, would be down to the beer being late-hopped 15 minutes before knock-out, but at a time when boiling has ended, giving the Northdown hops a chance to infuse beautifully. Roaring Meg does well in gastro-pubs, according to Steve Reynolds, Shirley’s husband, and the brewery’s marketing chief: diners are apparently choosing to have one decent pint in the bar before going on to drink wine with their meal, and the Meg fits the spec.

But shouldn’t they stick to the beer? That’s what we were at the brewery to discover, as Springhead lined up a variety of dishes to sample with their different brews. The Puritan Porter wasn’t available, alas, but eight or so other beers were, including one I was delighted to find: Goodrich Castle, flavoured with rosemary (grown by the brewery) alongside the hops. This is the brew for roast beef, and lamb, and pork, and a great many other meals besides. The quantity of rosemary in the brew was perfectly targeted, and the bottled version, in particular, as well as having the carbonation to cut through any fat in a meal, also had hints of ginger and lavender coming through.

Interestingly, it failed completely with the lamb dish Springhead supplied, which had been made with mint. Ales brewed with mint, like ales brewed with rosemary, were an old pre-hop tradition, but the two tastes together did not work. However, with a tomato-and-pasta combination the rosemary beer triumphed: whoever is putting together the menu for this year’s Beer Writers’ Guild Christmas dinner, please note …

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