ALEX Barlow is a master brewer, beer writer and international beer judge. As one of the august judges from 27 countries at
next week's World Beer Championships in Chicago, he will reward the very best of 3,500 entries from 60 countries in 90 different categories.
Yes, you read that correctly – 90 categories, covering everything from pale ales to continental pilsners, wheat beers to Lambics, American lights and Belgian browns. The best palates, noses and brains in the business will train their talent and experience on liquor character, flavour impact and aroma.
They'll also discuss colour, carbonation, clarity and cling, and prizes will go not only to outstanding new beers in the marketplace but no doubt also to more traditional names for their consistently high quality against all opposition. And, happily for beer experts, the tastebuds that primarily respond to beer's bitterness are right at the back of the tongue, so swallowing the samples is obligatory.
Despite the overall decline in beer sales and upheaval among the big UK names in recent times, according to the Society
of Independent Brewers 2009 saw local brewers' volume sales increase by 3.75 per cent, with their bottled beer sales increasing by 16 per cent. Today the UK has around 700 micro brewers, compared to 87 in 1975. We're drinking less beer, but more of what we do drink is produced by smaller names like Acorn in Barnsley and Ossett Brewery near Wakefield.
"It seems that although volume is going down overall, what we call craft beer is on the up,"
says Barlow, who's 44, and first became interested in a career in beer when working at his local pub near Chester as a teenager.
After a degree in medical sciences, he chose a path into brewing over the obvious choice of the pharmaceutical industry. He studied to become a master brewer, went on to manage bars for Bass in Huddersfield and Sheffield (where he now lives) and took charge of quality control for the north before becoming a multi-tasking beer evangelist.
"There's a case for saying people in this country are now more prepared to try something new, especially cask beers. I find that when I talk at food and drink events, women are especially open to having a go and receptive to the idea that
there are wonderful combinations of food and beer.
"Of course, some women do worry about the calories and the prospect of the 'beer gut' but actually a half pint of four per cent lager has 99 calories – less than a decent-sized glass of wine. It's about quantity as well, and general lifestyle like exercise – and maybe not tucking into the peanuts and pork scratchings with your drink.
"Interest in a greater diversity of beers is obvious from the success of specialist beer bars like North Bar in Leeds and the Sheffield Taps, where they stock 200 different British and continental bottled beers and have 20
As any beer lover and decent landlord or bar manager will know, brewing a good beer is one thing – but keeping draught and cask ales well is as important as any of the ingredients. "It's all down to really sound habits and routines. A great beer, like a
food product, can be ruined by committing cardinal sins such
as not cleaning beer lines or controlling cellar temperature, which means cask and keg beer will spoil."
Barlow has poured his passion for the art and alchemy of beer into The All Beer Guide – The Ultimate Guide to the Top 25 Ale, Lager, and Lambic Beer Styles and Flavours – a colourful and engaging romp through styles of beer and beer culture, how beer is made and how the body and mind respond to the many characteristics of a good brew.
He doesn't believe the same snobbery permeates beer as can be seen among some wine lovers. "While there is undoubtedly an element of wine snobbery and a few people look down on beer, a lot of serious foodies love the grain every bit as much as the grape. Beer is a great social leveller, loved by young and old. rich and poor, men and women."
Testing out Barlow's mission to guide our appreciation of the subtleties of beer and
encourage us all to see it as an accompaniment to a wide array of foods, I see a suggestion to go with a spicy king prawn and ginger dish. He recommends Badger Blandfords Fly, "a full and spicy pale ale with ginger" or Grolsch Weizen, a "fruity and refreshing wheat beer with a savoury, spicy edge". Avoid a bitter beer with chicken or fish, he says, opting instead for an "extra white" like Vedette, or
the Belgian wheat beer Hoegaarden. He also recommends trying a good porter or stout with dark chocolate and a milder but dark pale ale with milk chocolate. Imagine that. Fancy that.
With more types of beer in the world than any other style of drink – and many of them now available in this country – it's a brave new planet for the adventurous drinker to explore, albeit from the comfort of home.
n The All Beer Guide by Alex Barlow is published by red apple-pmc ltd, 15.95. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232
or go to www.yorkshirepost
bookshop.co.uk Postage costs 2.95