Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Green Man 2014: The Welsh Beer

The Green Man Festival does not invite commercial sponsorship. From this decision, much that is good follows. There is little in-your-face commercial branding, for instance, and the bars are not obliged to sell just sponsor’s beers  – as happens at festivals sometimes (wrongly) considered to be equivalent to Green Man. Instead, Green Man organises a Beer and Cider Festival, in The Courtyard Bar, with 99 real ales, ciders and perries from independent Welsh producers (and a few from just across the border).

Here you will find beers from a dozen innovative breweries, with distinctive brews like Artisan Brewing Co’s Baltic Porter Espresso and Smoked Lager, Great Orme Brewery’s Welsh Black and Heavy Industry’s Pigeon Toed Orange Peel, alongside traditional ales of all types.

The house beer at Green Man is Growler, available in nearly all the bars for several years now; brewed by the Wye Valley Brewery, whose Butty Bach is also popular in these parts.

The Babbling Tongues programme got underway on Friday lunchtime with Pete Brown, who has been voted Beer Writer of the Year on more than one occasion by the British Guild of Beer Writers. In his talk, he light-heartedly matched some of the 99 beers and ciders with bands playing at the festival, while introducing some scientific thinking about how music might alter our perception of flavour. He did a version of this talk at last year’s festival, but on Sunday afternoon when most of the beers he wanted to mention had run out. This early slot ensured most of the audience got to sample the six drinks, while listening to selected tracks from festival bands.

Pete started by noting the long relationship between beer and music, with pubs from the 1840s incorporating stages. Some of these venues became so popular that the stages were expanded and music hall was born. Through to the present day, countless singer-songwriters and bands have started out playing pubs.

Artisan Brewery Co’s Bavarian Wheat beer was matched with (Fisherman’s Blues era) The Waterboys (folky); Great Orme Brewery’s Celtica was teamed with First Aid Kit (summery); Williams Brother’s Splanky cider was tasted while we listed to some early Mercury Rev (acidic sharpness); and Waen Brewery’s Chilli Plum Porter (“dark fruit, rich toasty flavours with green chilli tingle”) was matched with Anna Calvi.

A key point was the difference between taste and flavour. Taste is fairly basic, with the interplay of sweet, salty, bitter and sour, to which umami can be added. However, flavour is far more complex and subjective, with aroma playing a major part. In fact, the smell before ingesting and retronasal olfaction (odour molecules using a back entrance from the mouth to the nose) are crucial for the perception of flavour. It is flavour that can be influenced by environmental factors, including music.

Cognitive priming is a non-conscious form of human memory concerned with perception. Particular sounds, for example, can prime us to perceive flavour slightly differently. Pete Brown quoted research that demonstrated people giving a higher rating to wine if classical music was playing. The differences in perception can be surprisingly large in these experiments. Furthermore, the same vocabulary can be used to describe flavour and music (e.g. sharp, rough, smooth, jazzy etc). The type of music we are listening to therefore may alter our perception of the beer we are drinking.

Other scientific findings may also have a bearing on our perception of beer in different environments. Cross-modal perception involves interactions between two or more different sensory modalities. The shape and colour we see matter, for instance; people find food sweeter on round plates and fizzy soft drinks sweeter if more red colouring is added. In terms of beer, this has relevance to the straight glass vs tankard debate, for example, and to beers with distinctive hues.

Ambitiously, Pete tried to "blind test" us with two beers and two styles of music. Two tracks by Toy, one angular electronica and the other much more melodious, were tasted with what we later learned were Heavy Industry’s Nos Smoked Porter and a contrasting brew from Great Orme Brewery. The test was inconclusive, but thought-provoking.

Pete Brown even suggested the prospect of ‘beer and music terroire’, comparing the brews (e.g. Old Tom) and music (e.g. Joy Division) of Barnsley, for example, as indicative of the character of the town at a particular time.

How do you attempt to sample 99 real ales and cider over a weekend? My approach is to focus on one brewery at a time. This year, apart from the Growler, it was Brecon Brewing offerings, with Jazzy Beacons (“unofficial beer of the Brecon Jazz Festival”), Welsh Beacons (golden-hued Welsh Pale Ale), Three Beacons (CAMRA’s Champion Bitter of Wales 2014), Red Beacons  (red-hued IPA) and, in particular, Orange Beacons (a wheat-style beer brewed with fresh oranges that was awarded People’s Choice at Green Man 2013). Next year, another brewery!

Pete Brown’s lively beer and cider blog (from where you can also purchase his books):

My review of the music at Green Man 2014 for newsoundswales:

Green Man 2014: The Food

See also:
Green Man 2013

Green Man 2012

Green Man 2011


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