I’m only here for the beer

Reporter Jonathan Schofield takes part in a beer tasting masterclass at Greene King brewery - it’s a tough job....

“I have a weekend job for you,” says my editor. “I need you to go to the Greene King brewery and drink lots of their beer on behalf of this newspaper.” It’s a tough assignment but I agree that it’s a sacrifice I should make.

So on Sunday morning, I found myself in the bowels of the Greene King brewery taking part in a Beer Tasting Masterclass. Everything is as it should be, the four people taking part with me all have beards, except for the one woman, and there is that sweet smell in the room, the one that so often drifts across Bury St Edmunds from the alcoholic Willy Wonka style brewery, with its shiny external pipes and puffing chimneys.

Before I tell you about this experience, and a very enlightening one it was too, I need to take you back, way back, to my first encounter with one of Greene King’s finest brews – Abbot Ale. I can’t remember too much about it to be honest, but I can recall being a young Essex boy, 17 to be precise, who had ventured into a Suffolk village for a night out with some new friends who seemed frankly ridiculous as they didn’t drink lager but drank what I thought only train spotters, bird watchers, ramblers and domino players drank – something called real ale – in this case Abbot Ale. Well it wasn’t fizzy, came out of a pump and was warm. Nine pints of this stuff, a short walk along the road to new friend’s house and up in the morning for a 9am A-level history lecture – no problem.

I know I didn’t make that history lecture. I know I wasn’t popular with the parents of new friend. And I can still hear the words of his father at about 2am as I leant over the toilet of his downstairs bathroom. “Wesley, I’m blaming you for this mess. He’s a lightweight who can’t handle his beer. You should have stopped letting him drink the stuff.”

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I didn’t drink real ale of any sort for a long time after that. I returned to lager and I’m not sure about anyone else but from then on beer drinking followed a certain pattern.

It went like this:

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Drank lots and lots of lager and woke up in unusual places

Suddenly found lager too gassy

Started drinking bitter

Go to real ale festivals

Try to grow a beard

Tut, when I watch Channel Five documentaries showing young people getting drunk in market town centres on a Saturday night.

Bordering teetotal these days, my only tipple is the occasional pint of Suffolk brewed bitter. When I do go into a pub, for some reason I always want to ask for half-a-mild, but I’m not sure why, or if I’m honest what exactly mild is.

Maybe Susan Chisolm, Greene King’s chief beer taster can enlighten me on all matters ale related. And she does. For a start I knew nothing about the 100ft well directly beneath the brewery where Greene King draws all the water for its brewing process. Or that beers have more than 1,000 flavour compounds – half of these from fermentation and half from the raw materials used. I confess, despite all those ales supped knowingly at beer festivals, I didn’t even know the main ingredients consist of water, hops, malt and yeast. Shameful.

As our knowledge of the brown stuff increased more and more glasses of Greene King brews are plonked in front of us. This is nothing like wine tasting. These are generous servings of beer, and no suggestion it should be spat out. On our desks, in the immaculate brewery classroom, sit small pots filled with various grains of malted barley, from light to dark, which we sniff and munch our way through to understand the different beers this will produce. We inhale pots filled with stuff called Diacetyl and Acetic. We find out that there are 42 receptors in the nose that detect aromas and that the nose is in fact the main sense used for tasting beer. We’re told that Belgian beers are deliberately brewed sour to make the drinker salivate and that people drinking Greene King’s classic Old Speckled Hen should experience a range of tastes from banana, pear drop, toffee and caramel. And every morning at 9am, when most workers are making their first coffee of the day, a team of Greene King employees from a pool of 65 trained tasters across the company get to sample the latest batches of beer to check for quality.

At this point, my fellow beer taster, Bob Manning, a farmer from Cornard Tye near Sudbury, asks: “Why is it that you can drink a pint of IPA in one pub and it tastes delicious and you go to another and it’s awful. Isn’t that down to your tasters?”

It creates a slightly tense moment, but a clear response from our master taster when she says: “All beer that leaves here is of the same exact and high standard.”

And we are told what we must do if a pint of bitter is not up to standard. We should return to the bar, with pint, and inform the landlord or landlady that they need to clean their pipes. Apparently dirty pipes create acetic qualities i.e. a vinegary taste to beer which ruins the flavour. Personally I’ll gauge that decision on the size and temperament of the person behind the bar if it ever comes up.

Just before we reach beer fact overload we get whisked off to test our taste buds in little cubicles lit with infra-red lights.

Could we all detect from the three blackened plastic cups in front of us, using nothing but our noses and tongues, which was not a pure brew of IPA? Thankfully we all passed and received our certificate of beer tasting proficiency.

The only words of warning I would give to anyone taking part in a beer tasting session at Greene King is to take the bus or get a friend to pick you up afterwards.

As for a pint of mild, generally it is a darker beer which was developed about 150 years ago as a cheaper and weaker alternative to the dark ales of the day. By the mid 20th century it was the most popular draught beer in Britain.

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