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Britain's Beer And Barley Heritage

Added: Thursday, December 1st 2011

A recent report that several major regional brewers have set up a think tank to promote interest in cask beer came at the same time as I read a provocative interview with a barley farmer in Norfolk who thinks we undersell our national drink.

I offer to the think tank the idea, gleaned from the interview with farmer Teddy Maufe, that we need to raise the profile of cask beer not only through quality at the bar but also by presenting it as a drink that rivals wine in the way it is produced and the ingredients that are used.

Maufe, interviewed in Beers of the World magazine, grows barley in Norfolk and has set aside a large area of his fields to produce the finest of all malting barleys, Maris Otter. He also runs the Real Ale Shop on his farm that offers beers from around 50 brewers, many of whom use his Maris Otter.

He feels passionately that drinkers need more information about how their beer is made and where the barley and hops come from. He was inspired by a visit to the Nappa Valley in California, the vast wine making region of the US. He says wine is promoted by roadside signs that welcome visitors and draw them to the houses set among vines where they can enjoy a tasting.

The same goes for France. Anyone who has driven the length of the country will have seen the "degustation" or tasting stalls by the roadside in the wine areas where visitors can stop to sample the local products.

If you drive around Norfolk, on the other hand, you would never know that the county is the bread basket of Britain. The rich, dark soil grows grain not only for bread but also for brewing. But the average visitor is told nothing and could draw the conclusion that sugar beet is the most important crop in the county.

"We have lost the connection between barley and beer," Maufe says. "Other countries are proud of their wines and beers, but we just bumble along. For goodness sake, it's Shakespeare's drink, the ale of England."

He adds that modern consumers are concerned about "traceability" - the origins of the ingredients in food and drink. If people want to know where their carrots and peas are grown, he says, they will also be keen to learn that the barley malt in their beer is grown in Norfolk.

Splendid work has been done in recent years by the hop farmers to give more information to drinkers about the varieties used in brewing. As a result, many drinkers are now better acquainted with the particular characteristics of the Fuggle and the Golding due to information on pump clips and bottle labels.

Teddy Maufe is not alone. In Hampshire, Robin Appel runs the specialist Warminster Maltings and he supplies more than 200 brewers with grain, including Maris Otter. He backs his produce with a Warranty of Origin that tells brewers and drinkers where the barley malt has been grown. This is so detailed that it can pinpoint not only the farm but also the particular field where the grain originates.

One keen supporter of the scheme is Ringwood Brewery in Hampshire, a thriving regional that will only use locally grown Maris Otter in its beers. Some sceptics may argue that most drinkers couldn't give a toss how their beer is made or where the ingredients are grown. But the point about cask ale is that it doesn't appeal to "most drinkers". It is a niche market, albeit a substantial one, and the drinkers in the niche are people who are concerned about such matters as barley malt, hops, yeast and water.

The English are notoriously bad at proclaiming the things we do well. Beer remains our national drink. We should be proud of it and start to shout about it. Farms and hop fields tend to be hidden from view and we need to adopt the methods of the Americans and French in drawing people's attention to the vital raw ingredients grown at the end of winding lanes.

Cask beer may be Shakespeare's drink but it's not Much Ado About Nothing.