Let me tell you the names of two men who can teach you almost everything you need to know about beer and keep you laughing the whole time: Oz Clarke and James May. Who are they? Well, Oz is an internationally known wine critic and James is one of the three car nuts on BBC America’s “Top Gear.”
They joined forces in a TV series called “Oz and James Drink to Britain” — available on DVD — to seek out “the drink that speaks for modern Britain.” As you might expect, beer features prominently.
“Oz and James Drink to Britain” follows on the heels of two other Oz and James adventures — one where they tour France learning about wine, and another where they tour California doing the same thing. Oz is the wine expert and James is pretty much along for the ride, as it were. He chooses the cars they drive from vineyard to vineyard — some amazing classics — and snaps Oz back to reality when the “wine speak” gets a bit dense.
In “Drink to Britain,” James is more in his element — being a beer bloke — so there’s more fuel for conversation and controversy between him and Oz, and you really will learn lots beer facts. You’ll also see whether or not two men can survive an entire summer driving around Britain in a Rolls Royce, pulling a trailer (a “caravan” in Brit-speak) and sleeping in the latter.
As for what you’ll learn about beer, the list is long. First, there’s the brewing process and all the weird words accompanying it. Do you really know what malt is? Well, it’s barley kernels that have been sprinkled with water so they’ll germinate. Why can’t brewers just call it “germinated barley”?
Or how about “sparging hot liquor over the malt to make wort”? In plain English, this would be called spraying hot water over germinated barley to make — well, barley juice, I suppose. Maybe “barley juice” doesn’t sound very sophisticated, so “wort” might be better, but why did anyone ever decide to call water “liquor”? As Oz says, “Brewers don’t ever use a simple word when an incomprehensible one will do.” After watching the series you’ll even know what “trub” is, assuming you want to.
You’ll see the ingredients and equipment used in brewing, too, starting with a proper “malting floor” and actual hop flowers — so you can appreciate that malt shouldn’t be poured from a can and hops shouldn’t look like rabbit food. You’ll learn how brewers combine malt with hops during fermentation to produce various flavor profiles. You’ll see mash tuns and “coppers,” and the difference between a garage-based brewing operation and an industrial giant churning out millions of pints per year. Is there really a difference? You decide.
You’ll also visit more pubs than you can count — and which you might use to plan your own crawl through Britain. Hand-pumped pints are served, drunk and debated, as is a 139-year-old bottle. The lush green countryside rolls past the Rolls, as Oz and James meander from Dover to Scotland and Northumberland to Ireland (although it’s not part of Britain). As a bonus, you’ll see how other British beverages — like gin, Scotch and wine — are made. (Wine has a 2,000-year British history, did you know?)
Basically, “Oz and James Drink to Britain” has something for everybody, including a surprise ending when they finally choose the one drink that best represents Britain. Beer wins, of course. Or does it? Either way, it does get credit for sparking the development of civilization in Britain — which is pretty impressive. You’ll have to watch the series to see how a mere barley-based beverage did it.
Ready for Cupid’s Arrow?
Valentine’s Day is closer than you think, in case you’ve overlooked all those heart-shaped boxes of chocolates at the grocery store. Have you bought a gift?
My husband refuses to celebrate Valentine’s Day, claiming it’s a fake holiday contrived by the greeting-card, floral and confectionary Axis of Evil. He says it has no basis in history and was invented to make people spend money during an otherwise slow retail season. He further claims that he shows me his love every day of the year, so shouldn’t have to do anything special on any prescribed date. Seriously.
For those of you who are smarter than my husband, let me recommend a nice bottle of bubbly to grease the skids with the one you love. If you didn’t get enough Champagne at New Year’s — and the concept of “enough Champagne” is an oxymoron, if you ask me — then now’s the time to indulge again.
My choice is the non-vintage Brut from Henri Abelé, a true Champagne made in Reims since 1757. It has everything you’d want in a fine glass of fizz. First, it’s smooth with harmonious flavors — not shouting one thing or another. Fruit and toast and honey are perfectly melded. Second, it has loads of tiny bubbles and a rich body — so you can drink it on its own or with appetizers or seafood (such as caviar, which happens to fit in both categories). And third, there is no headache.
James May (see above) once complained that Champagne always gave him a headache; then he learned he’d been drinking the wrong Champagne. This is the right Champagne (12 percent ABV; $45-$49, depending; available at local wine shops).
Can you give beer to your Valentine? The answer may depend on the beer. Try Bell’s Two Hearted Ale for the occasion. Beer Advocate scored this brew 95 points and it costs around $12 for a 6-pack, so at least you’re not gifting a sixer of, well, you know. This IPA has a firm malt foundation supporting hoppy spikes — they hold a friendly competition in your mouth — with a peppery final note. The color’s a gorgeous medium gold and the sensation moderately dry. If you gave me some, I’d like you. (7 percent ABV; Bell’s Brewery, Inc., Comstock, MI; available at grocery and package stores.)