Tap dancing on the taste buds: boutique beers

The Beer Bible, by Willie Simpson

By Kerry Scambler
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The Beer Bible by Willie Simpson

The Beer Bible by Willie Simpson [©Fairfax Books]

Life, according to beer afficiando Willie Simpson, is too short to drink light beer and many would surely tend to agree, despite the need to demonstrate responsibility and imbibe the lighter lager.  His book, The Beer Bible, could certainly inspire you to travel to your favourite bottleshop and beyond to discover some local and international beers.

While this book was published in 2007 and some information on the Australian beer market is now out of date simply due to the rapid increase in brewers and usual changes in ownership, it still provides anyone even slightly interested in learning about the amber world a great background.  It also reminds those of us who’ve been around beer before of some of the basics and finer points of this world of hops, barley, yeast and water.  

But, where does this all start? Well, possibly around 10,000 years ago some anthropologists believe but in Australia it began with the arrival of several hogsheads of porter with the First Fleet and most would agree that despite many setbacks in the very early days of brewing (aptly demonstrated by an 1850's Tasmania operation called the Hit & Miss Brewery), we’ve never looked back.

After discussing the trend over recent years for Australians to drink less but drink better beer, The Beer Bible goes on to give a brief description of Australian beer styles then lists our breweries and best beers. This includes the big brewers – Lion Nathan and Fosters – but what stands out is that they get no more coverage than the smaller boutique brewers like the Feral Brewing Company, Moo Brew, Two Metre Tall Company, Red Hill Brewery and many more. There are also the author's recommendations on the best brews from many of these breweries.

From Australia we head overseas and in the style of Phileas Fogg, we travel around the world in 80 beers.  This is not just a compilation of Willie Simpson’s favourite beers but includes the big brand names that have become as familiar in our country as their own – like Corona, Budwieser, Heineken and Bintang and as you can see by some of his star ratings, they’re far from Willie’s favourites.  

Delve into these pages and you’ll discover that a Theakston Old Peculier doesn’t really mean it’s just an odd-tasting beer, it’s actually old terminology for a church official (although how this relates to beer, I’m still investigating). Another interesting beer name is the Scotch Silly, so-called for its isle of origin rather than a reflection of the contents or it’s brewers.  Names aside, this section contains some strong hints on what to try first as each beer comes with a star ranking to help guide purchases. You’ll also find the odd tip on what food might highlight the beer’s flavours – who would normally have thought of trying apple pie with Newcastle Brown Ale?

When a friend brought some Chimay Grande Reserve for us recently, we decided to taste it first then consult The Beer Bible for confirmation or otherwise of our beer tasting abilities.  Fortunately for our beer reputations, our thoughts did coincide with Willie Simpson's, although perhaps not as technically described.  It’s a wonderfully presented bottle, complete with champagne cork stopper, and the contents don’t disappoint with full yet quite soft flavours and an intensity reminiscent of port and we were indeed heading back for more until we read the alcohol content of 9% so enjoyed but treated with respect this Trappist-style beer.

After travelling the world, Willie brings us home with a section on beer tourism and specialty bars (including a few tips on boutique pub crawls), anorther on to brewing our own (but with so many great small brewers around, would we bother?) and then to the Beer Sommelier’s Handbook.  Reading through this last chapter, I did wonder if this wouldn’t have been better at the front of the book as one section talks about developing a beer palate and how tasting beer is an “organoleptic” experience.  For those of you wondering as I did, this simply means that when we taste beer we are using our all sensory organs to experience the beer. It will certainly add further dimensions to your tasting if you’re more fully aware of how these senses talk to you about a beer.  For example, do you realise you also drink a beer with your eyes?  And how important your nose can be to enhancing the taste?  And that even our ears can play a part in the beer tasting experience?  

But the highlight of my encounter with The Beer Bible was a reunion with a beer that I first enjoyed when Boag’s began importing it many years ago. It was a full bodied, full flavoured beer but was much maligned and mocked at that time by Aussies for its country of origin. The marketing tagline at the time however proved strangely true "Finally, an American beer good enough for Australians" and it was indeed a beer that rated highly in my own range of favourites.  When preparing for this review, I skimmed through to pick a range of beers to put to the test of matching reality and description and this beer was one of them.  For me it was a very pleasant reunion with Samuel Adams Boston Lager so thank you Willie for reminding me not to judge all US beers by the mainstream – your promise that “..robust, resinous flavours will all positively tap-dance on your tastebuds” wasn’t an empty one.


The Beer Bible is published by Fairfax, 2007, RRP A$29.95.

VisitVineyards.com subscribers and Members can purchase The Beer Bible  at 12.5% off RRP through our book partners SeekBooks (postage extra).


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April 27th, 2009
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