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Pete Brown unravels the mysteries of beer

Added: Monday, June 19th 2017

Miracle Brew

Miracle Brew, Pete Brown (Unbound, £16.99)

I hesitate to use the word staggering where a book about beer is concerned but Pete Brown’s new work has bowled me over. It’s a remarkable piece of research into the history and development of the ingredients that go into making what American writers John Palmer and Colin Kaminski call “the most complex beverage known to man.”

This is a book about the science and chemistry of brewing but it is Pete’s skill as a writer and raconteur that he turns what might have been a dry as dust tome into a page turner. It’s highly readable, easy to understand and shot through with humour. If you doubt there can be laugh out loud moments when discussing malt and hops, read on.

Miracle Brew is aimed not just at those coming new to beer. Seasoned beer lovers and writers will learn a lot from its pages, even those of us who have been delving into the history of the subject for a decade or two.

The book covers malt, hops, yeast and water. The manner in which these materials are nurtured and brought together emphasises the complexity of a drink that makes wine making look like a walk in the park.

The book should serve to both open eyes and dispel myths, for as Pete says, few people know much about how the world’s favourite alcoholic drink is made. If pressed, most will say hops, proving that not much has changed since I wrote my first book, Pulling A Fast One, back in 1978. The publisher phoned me to say he liked my text but added: “I never knew beer was made from barley – I thought it was hops.”

Hops of course have more than just a walk-on part in brewing. But it’s grain, mainly in the form of barley, that is the backbone of beer, the palette which brewers use to paint their taste pictures, brimming with flavour and character. 

It’s been known for some time that beer was first made in the Old World of Babylon, Egypt and Mesopotamia, but Pete’s research suggests that brewing is older than the widely used date of 3000 BC and could date as far back as 6000 BC. Growing barley and another type of grain called emmer encouraged wandering nomads to create settled communities with the aim of making bread and beer. Which came first – the loaf or the pint? The jury is still out on that.

Pete challenges several received assumptions about malt. Pale malt has been around for much longer than the late 18th and 19th centuries and the arrival of pale ale. And the brown malts that preceded it were almost certainly paler than previously thought: if they had been roasted or kilned at too high a temperature, they would have lacked sufficient levels of the enzymes that convert starch into fermentable sugar.

He covers in detail the development of modern strains of barley, the result of dedicated research at Warminster Maltings in Warminster. This work created such strains as Chevallier, Spratt Archer and Plumage Archer and then the much-loved and sought after Maris Otter. While more recent “high  yielding” barleys, such as Tipple, have replaced Maris Otter in big breweries, craft brewers both at home and abroad are prepared to pay a premium for a strain that produces the richest honey and biscuit notes in beer.

Pete’s drive down narrow lanes in Norfolk to find the “mother field” where Maris Otter was first grown and is now the seed bank for the strain is a gripping piece of writing. It’s followed by his hilarious attempt to conduct a video interview with a barley farmer and a grain merchant who prove that Norfolk people are a trifle taciturn and don’t say more than “Arr” when faced with a camera. Unfortunately, they’re both called Roger...

Pete has unearthed evidence that suggests early beers were not boiled during the brewing process. Boiling only became necessary when hops started to be used. Until then the sweetness of the malt was balanced by the use of all manner of plants and herbs, known collectively as gruit. But it was vital to boil the sugar-rich wort when hops were added in order to extract the oils, resins and tannins from this amazing plant that keeps bugs at bay and adds a superb range of aromas and flavours to beer.

With the generous support of brewers, Pete went on a world-wide voyage of discovery to find varieties of hops, old and new. The clamour for intense hop character in beer today, especially modern interpretations of IPA, has led to new varieties such as Amarillo and Citra being grown that deliver massive citrus notes. Australia and New Zealand have followed the United States in developing such modern hops as Galaxy and Nelson Sauvin with their rich fruity character.

But traditional hop-growing regions have risen to the challenge. In England, those tried and tested old timers, Fuggles and Goldings, have been joined by new varieties and the American Cascade is now being grown on trial here. On a trip to the Czech Republic, Pete found that hop growers there remain committed to their delightful Zatec or Saaz varieties, which is equally true of hop farmers in Slovenia.

This is not surprising when you learn that farmers there had great difficulty establishing a hop industry as a result of the unforgiving nature of the soil. German “noble” hop varieties took one look at Slovenian fields and wilted on the spot. Fortunately the hardy English Fuggle was able to put down roots there and flourished ever since, with its name changed to Styrian Golding.

Pete’s trip to Slovenia, with Greene King’s head brewer John Bexon produces a screamingly funny episode. A reviewer of one of Pete’s earlier books described him as “the beer drinker’s Bill Bryson” and it’s a fitting accolade. I once had to get off a London Underground train when I was reading Bryson’s book about Australia and came to his spoof of a radio commentary on cricket: “And now he’s got a square leg and a short leg”. I disembarked from the District Line train as it’s not advisable to have hysterics while travelling on the Underground.

I had a similar reaction to Pete’s description of how he and John Bexon had to please one hop farmer by eating shed-loads of home-made salami before they were allowed to visit the hop fields. The image of the two spherical Brits, oozing grease from every pore as they roly-polyed among the hop bines, is truly hilarious.

But this is first and foremost a serious work on beer and its ingredients. The section on yeast reminds us that for centuries brewers had no scientific understanding of how the foam dubbed “god is good” in England turned malt sugars into alcohol. It took the comparatively recent worked of Lavoisier and Pasteur to unlock the secrets of yeast. But Pete is firmly of the view that while the first pure strain of bottom-fermenting lager yeast was produced by Emil Hansen in the Carlsberg laboratories in Copenhagen, he was in truth cleaning up yeast cultures that had been around for centuries.

The section on yeast also has an in-depth analysis of the workings of ale yeasts and the part played for centuries by such wild strains as Brettanomyces in creating the funky and acidic character of porter, stout and the early pale ales when aged in wood, where “Brett” loves to lurk.

Water is not ignored, though even the most ardent beer lovers tend to give it only a walk-on part in the drama of brewing. Peter shows that even the strongest beer is made up mainly of water and it provides just as much vital flavour and character as the malts, hops and yeast it works with. He shows how the mineral-rich waters of the Trent Valley in the English Midlands were vital to the development of pale brewing in the 19th century and how “Burtonising brewing liquor” with gypsum and magnesium is common place throughout the world as pale ale and IPA enjoy a resurgence of interest.

This is a magisterial book that will remain a key contributor to our knowledge of and pleasure in beer and brewing for years to come. It has been produced by a type of crowd funding, with beer enthusiasts contributing to the costs of production. They will not be disappointed with the finished work.