Developing a taste for Real Ale

By Janet Eldred

Living in the States for 39 years, my knowledge of beer was virtually confined to the big American brands and bottled imports. The discovery of real ale here in the UK has struck me as a revelation, and developing my taste buds to appreciate the varieties of and subtle differences between ales reminds me of learning to enjoy wines more than 20 years ago. Though I've never been a serious student of wine, I know which characteristics I appreciate and I can judge quality when it comes my way. I hope I'll be able to say the same of real ale as my education of it continues.

I've found four ways to approach this learning process. All of them are obvious, and you may do all of these yourself already. But if you haven't tried one of them, I suggest you give it a go. And, you can suggest these methods to people who, like me, want to know how to get started.

1. Sample what's on offer at each pub you go to. This doesn't mean every time you go in your local, or when you simply crave your favourite brew. When you're out of town, however, or when your local has a guest beer, or if you simply haven't experimented in a long time, try a pint of something different. Make a mental note of your reactions, positive and negative. Compare the beer to your favourite. Chances are, you'll discover some new favourites.

2. Talk to people about what they're drinking and ask why they like it. (You may even be offered a taste from their pint -- I've found pub patrons to be very generous about this!) Does what they say have any resonance with you? Even if you strongly disagree with them about what makes a beer "good", you have increased your store of information and had an interesting conversation.

3. Attend beer tastings, like CAMRA York's April event at the Phalanx & Firkin, and beer festivals. These occasions are devoted to trying beers and seeing how they stack up. If you don't feel like experimenting at your localófor whatever reasonóhere's an opportunity where it's the done thing.

4. Finally, read the tasting notes in the Breweries section of the 1997 Good Beer Guide. If you are already a seasoned real ale drinker with a discriminating palate, you can use these notes to "preselect" your next choices. If you are a novice like me, they give you an idea of terminology and common flavours and aromas to help you in your own learning process. It can also whet your appetite!

Following this approach, it's quite possible that you'll end up buying some pints you dislike. But, it's equally certain that you'll make some pleasant discoveries that you'll enjoy drinking in future. And, you'll be able to speak out like an expert the next time someone in a pub asks you for your opinion on a beer. Cheers!

© Janet B. Eldred, 1997