But when Otley invites you to brew, it’s more than that — it asks you to write a new album with them, if that’s not stretching the analogy to breaking point.
Sometimes, being a ‘guest brewer’ means you put the hops in the copper and pose at the mash tun with a shovel for the local newspaper’s photographer. In Pontypridd, you turn up and they say: “Right then, what are we going to brew?”
Last year, Roger Protz did a Burton ale, called O Roger!, Melissa Cole’s Thai-Bo is now a semi-regular in Otley’s line-up, and Adrian Tierney-Jones’s Saison Obscura is very fine indeed. How do you follow that lot? Stakes have to be raised.
So last April I brewed a 7.4% ABV Imperial Stout with ginger and chocolate. Since then, it’s been ageing in Bourbon and mead casks.
And after I finish writing this column, I’m going to meet brewer Nick Otley to launch the beer — Odessa — in various London pubs.
I don’t think I’ll be doing much writing afterwards.
I don’t tell you this simply to plug my beer. We’re launching this very strong beer in a week when the Government is demanding that the average strength of beer and wine be lowered, and the papers are full of articles about binge drinking and how this might be a solution to it.
Everyone is blissfully ignoring the basic truth that the worst binge drinkers will happily tell you — if you actually take the trouble to go and speak to them — that they avoid beer or wine and head straight for spirits, which get them drunk quickest.
But beer will always bear the brunt of sober approbation. Beers over 7.5% ABV now have a higher tax on them, in the deeply misguided belief that this will have the slightest effect on binge drinking.
A move that equates, say, the delightful Duvel with a tin of Carlsberg Special Brew is ample proof that policymakers simply
don’t understand the market they’re regulating.
Strong beer is seen as dangerous even by people who love beer. Last week I was a judge at the Society of Independent Brewers’ ‘craft keg’ competition, which was followed by a beer festival of the donated beers.
It took place in one of the best beer pubs in the country — but even this pub decided not to place on sale the stronger beers that had been sub-mitted to the competition.
It’s a frustrating state of affairs, but there’s no getting away from it. One of my favourite beers is a Belgian brew called Scaldis. It’s 12% ABV. Whenever I drink one, people look on in horror and tell me quietly that I must have a drink problem.
I then point out that my beer comes in a 250ml bottle, and ask them what is the ABV of their 250ml glass of wine.
This is the solution to the spectre of high-strength beers: we simply need to change the frame of reference.
Last year I visited cider makers in New England creating wonderful craft ciders between 7% ABV and 8% ABV.
Over here we’d say: “Cor, a couple of pints of that and you’d be on the floor!” Over there, they package it in 750ml bottles and pitch it as a low-alcohol alternative to wine in New York’s finest restaurants. Rather than being ‘loopy juice’, the same liquid is suddenly a sensible, temperate choice.
I see the same thing when I run beer and food-matching dinners with friends.
They’re very nervous when I break out the Belgian Tripels and English barley wines and think they’re being insane for drinking something at 8% ABV or more.
And then, when the taxis arrive at midnight and they stand up, they realise they’re not nearly as drunk as they would be if they’d been drinking wine all evening.
I’m not saying we abandon the great British pint and I’m not attacking low-strength beers. All I’m saying is that beer is incredibly diverse, and that should be celebrated. And even a strong beer — if you treat it with the respect it deserves — is part of the solution, not the problem.