The Beer Lover’s Guide to the Seasons

I’ve recently finished reading A Year in Beer” by Jonny Garrett, a book which takes the reader on an exploration off how our tastes change with the passing seasons, and how Britain’s rich brewing heritage still influences the types of beer we drink as each year progresses. Jonny’s book was aChristmas present that I’d planned to read on our recent cruise, but as things turned out, Tolstoy’s "Anna Karenina" took longer to finish than I thought it would.

No matter, "A Year in Beer" was well worth the wait, and having now read it from cover to cover, it’s worth taking a look back at a concept that is a lot more instinctive than might be first thought. As might be guessed from the subtitle, “The Beer Lover’s Guide to the Seasons,” this pioneering book helps the discerning beer connoisseur navigate the seasonal changes, as they occur each year, and the logical way to so this is by using the calendar as a guide.

Consequently, A Year in Beer kicks off on 1stJanuary, a day when many beer lovers might well be suffering from over-indulgence. The start of a new year, and all that implies, acts as the launchpad for what, in effect, is a detailed tour through Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter with ideas regarding What to Drink, What to Eat and Where to Go, all neatly tied in with the styles and types of beer likely to be encountered at that particular time of year.

Author, Jonny Garrett, begins with the assertion, that since the industrial revolution, and certainly since the advent of artificial refrigeration, the seasons have become increasingly irrelevant, especially when this is applied to beer. Refrigeration has allowed brewing to continue throughout the year, including the notoriously hot summer months, when beers were prone to spoilage, due to the high ambient temperatures.

So more than anything else, artificial cooling has broken the seasonality previously associated with brewing. It is thus no longer necessary to brew sufficient quantities of strong beers during March, to last through the hot summer months, before brewing activities recommence duringOctober. Such beers were known as keeping, or “Stock” ales, and whilst they are seldom seen today, there is a growing interest in this type of beers, as there has with several other long-forgotten styles.

With this in mind the main purpose of Jonny’s book is to encourage people to once more embrace the seasonality associated with the different styles of beer and make a point of enjoying them during the appropriate season, even if they are now available throughout the year. The author digs deeper than this, by giving reasons as to why certain beers taste better at certain times of the year, by moving was beyond the generally held belief that lagers are best enjoyed when it’s hot, and stouts when the weather is cold.

You might find some of the assumptions puzzling, or even counter-intuitive, but Jonny invariably comes up with sound reasons as to why this might be the case. Sometimes the connection might be down to the harvest itself, and when in the year this important event takes place, and it is here that factors such as freshness, play an important role. For this very reason, the recent concept of IPA Day during August, is called into question. Think about it this way, the hop harvest takes place during September, so the hops used to brew beers the month before, will be as stale as they can possibly be.

IPA is probably not the best example, as the style has become so diversified and added to; some might say “bastardised,” that this probably IS one type of beer that can be brewed, and enjoyed, all year round. It has also, never been a beer that has ever been associated with any specific season.despite the historic origins of the original India Pale Ales. This is logical, especially when considering that these beers were originally designed to mature during the long sea voyage to India.

We’re moving a little away from the book, and what it has to say about the seasonality of drinking, and whilst there are no hard and fast rules Jonny manages to gently guide the drinker through the myriad of different types of beer, even though several of the world’s great beer styles are not native to these shores. Beers such as the all-embracing Pilsner, Helles and other golden coloured and bottom fermented lagers, spring to mind, but so do Wheat Beers, Abbey Ales, Saison’s, and sour beers, such as Lambic.

Despite the foreign origins of many of these beer styles, Jonny always seems to track down and recommend, home-grown examples, so by following his guidelines, drinkers can enjoy British-brewed Pilsners, Helles, Saison’s, Quadrupels and a whole host of other different, and non-indigenous beer styles. The best places to drink and enjoy these beers are also listed, again tied in wherever possible with the changing seasons. 

The UK’s best beer festivals are also listed under the appropriate season, and the list is not restricted to just CAMRA events either. Instead, you will find both brewery inspired festivals, as well as a selection of the many craft beer events that have sprung up across the country, in recent years, and if you can’t make one of the major overseas events, such as Munich’s Oktoberfest, then the book will direct you to home-grown events, where both beer and food are German inspired. You might be spared having Robbie Williams “Angels” blaring at you out of the sound system – according to Jonny, the track is a perennial favourite at the main event in Bavaria, but at least as you tuck into the food, and quaff the tasty, locally brewed Fest Bier, you can close your eyes and imagine you are packed into a tent in the Bavarian capital, having the time of your life in the company of like-minded people.

On the subject of food, the author not only includes a number of beer-inspired recipes, that he has created and test-driven, but also includes numerous hints and suggestions for beer and food pairings. Nowhere more is this most evident, than in the section on Christmas, towards the end of the book. Here you will find recommendations for big, bold, dark, and strong Old Ales, Imperial Stouts, Quadrupels and other high-octane beers, all designed as the perfect foil to accompany mature cheeses, rich Christmas puddings, and even chocolate - that hardest of all treats to match with a suitable beer!

"A Year in Beer" ends on an optimistic note – how could it not given there are now around 2,500 breweriesin the UK? But it does also sound a note of caution, by urging beer drinkers, not to stick with just one or two styles of beer, but to explore and experiment with what’s out there. With such variety available to today’s discerning beer drinker, and to those new to the world’s greatest long drink, as well, there really is no excuse not to embrace the amazing choice that is out there, just waiting to be drunk. Jonny ends by urging readers to do exactly that, as by doing so they will be helping to remake the connections that industrialisation, globalisation, and commodification have broken down.

To sum up, "A Year in Beer" is an excellent read for all those who enjoy, not just good beer, good cheer, and the good experiences that combine these with other finer things of life. If I had to make one criticism of the book, it would be the poor quality of many of the photos. They are all the work of the author but having put so much of his heart and soul into the book, I cannot believe he is a poor photographer.

I wonder instead, whether the under-exposed, and very dark-looking, mainly colour photos have been deliberately reproduced in this fashion – possibly in the name of "art." I say this because with so much enhancement software available, even the poorest and dingiest looking photos can be restored to a state of normality at the click of a computer mouse. I’ve always believed the adage that a picture tells a thousand words, and a well-composed and well reproduced photo does the same. Food for thought, although please don’t let this one criticism detract you from going out and purchasing this interesting, informative and above all delightful book.

Footnote: in common with virtually all my posts, the photos that serve to illustrate the points made in this article, are my own. Like the photos in “A Year in Beer,” the ones I have chosen reflect the changing seasons, so it is no coincidence that some resemble those taken by the book’s author, Jonny Garrett.

For example, there are photos taken at Harvey’s Brewery, Margate seafront, Whitstable – with fish & chips, the Great British Beer Festival, the Bermondsey Beer Mile, Hop Gardens, Bonfire Night, and Christmas Day. What’s more, after raising the issue of over-exposure and dark images, I can assure readers that all images that appear here, are crisp, correctly exposed and with just the right degree of colour balance. There’s modesty for you!


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