Breaking news, dear members of the English countryside: I’m a woman and I drink ale! I do also indulge in many other forms of beverage, but as I’ve already blogged about local English wine, it’s time to blog about local English ale during British Food Fortnight.
I never used to drink beer when I was younger and that was a fairly unsociable thing to do in engineering school, though considering the watery, tasteless lager served in plastic cups, who could blame me? The time I moved to Vancouver was when I first fell in love with ale – I lived just a short water-taxi ride away from Granville Island Brewery, my first local microbrew. When I moved to England, I was surprised to learn that there was a very specific demographic of people who drank ale: older and male, specifically. Being younger and female, I often garnered strange looks and raised eyebrows from bartenders when I made my request, as if to say ‘You sure about that?’ or ‘Just half a pint, then?’. Nonetheless, I persist, my favourite pub meal being a ploughman’s and a pint of ale.
The good news is that I don’t need to go far: we stock Rebellion Brewery’s beers in the shop and were recently invited to a tour and tasting evening at their brewery at Bencombe Farm in Marlow.
I turned up with some of my co-workers (we were two females and two males) and joined approximately 300 other (male) ale fans for some real, local brew. After pouring ourselves a couple of pints of their hoppy new 24 Karat ale from the self-serve casks dotted around the site, we made our way to the main barn for the tour. Part chemistry lesson, part history refresher and part folklore, the 30-minute talk by our guide and head brewer, Mark, took us right from the tradition of brewing through to the workings of the modern microbrew industry.
Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, brewing was historically done in Europe by women, known as ‘alewives’, as it fell under the general ‘food and drink’ category of their household duties. Though they could not own property at the time, there were allowed to sell surplus brew, and it became one of the first ‘respectable’ professions for women!
Gender history aside, it was also interesting to learn the extent to which local water can influence the taste of ale. What makes local food and drink exciting for me is the way the local environment imparts distinctive tastes and flavours – a major factor in food with personality. It’s all the more reason to try out different micro breweries when travelling, rather than sticking to familiar big-brand beers. In the chalky Chiltern hills where Rebellion is based, the high mineral and salt content of the local water makes for a distinctively traditional ale flavour.
The brewing process involves only four main ingredients: malted barley, water, hops and yeast. Furthermore, Rebellion’s ales are unfiltered and unpasteurised, resulting in a more natural, fuller-flavoured and, in fact, ‘living’ beer. True to the ‘real ale’ tradition, they are cask-conditioned, meaning that the beer undergoes a second fermentation process in the container (e.g. cask) in which it is delivered to its pub or place of consumption.
Hopefully more women will join me and drink to that!