I had more than a few men volunteering for this particular Caterer tasting panel. Come taste Euro 2004 qualifier beers, I said. We'll find some unusual ones, not just the well-known brands - and while they should be quaffing beers, easily downed in quick succession for the duration of the match, they must show a bit of character.
But I didn't want an all-male panel. Women and beer is such a hot issue right now, so I turned to Georgina Young (George to her mates), head brewer at the Fuller, Smith & Turner Brewery in west London; and I signed up Kamini Dickie, in charge of new development at Brewing Research International and a member of the BRI technical flavour panel; and as I had enlisted the help of the Pitfield Brewery's Martin Kemp (see below), he offered himself up for the job; along with our host, Vitor Andrade, manager of London's best footie bar (in my view), Caf‚ Kick in Clerkenwell's Exmouth Market. And, yes, we did have a go on the table football.
Caf‚ Kick has three football tables, and a beer here is usually accompanied by loud roars from the players. Then, three years after it opened, came Bar Kick in neighbouring Shoreditch, with seven table-football tables. "You can buy the tables, too," Andrade tells me. Prices start at £600 and go up to £1,400 for the de luxe model.
And while Caf‚ Kick doesn't do beer on draught, it sells 10 different bottled beers. Biggest sellers are the Portuguese Sagres and Super Bock, with the Brazilian Brahma also popular. But then a fair few customers and a couple of the staff are Portuguese-speaking Brazilians, so that figures.
Finding a brand from each qualifying country proved to be a little more difficult. I wasn't familiar with Latvian beer, nor Bulgarian or even Croatian. So I enlisted the help of the Beer Shop (020 7739 3701) in London's Pitfield Street. Owner Martin Kemp also runs the adjoining Pitfield Brewery, which was set up in 1982, two years after the shop. You can find his beers on draught at the Wenlock Arms, N1, among other pubs. There are 13 in the range, seven of which are organic.
And you can buy the bottled version of his brews at the shop - along with 600 other beers from around the world. "I've had quite a few requests for Euro 2004 qualifier beers," says Kemp, a tad wearily. But he agreed to source the bulk of them for us anyway; and what he didn't manage to unearth, we got from beer importers Pierhead World Wide Beer Imports (020 8320 4467), which declares it can source any of the beers from our line-up with national distribution - even the Latvian and Bulgarian beers (from the Kalnapalis and Asteka breweries respectively), if you give them a bit more time - which we didn't, sadly, so we had to do without.
We organised the 15 beers by alcohol, lightest (at 4.2%) through to strongest (at 8%). And yes, I did say 15. I know there are 16 countries in the qualifying round, and we haven't got an entry from Latvia or Bulgaria, but England needs all the help it can get, so we included two in the line-up: Kemp's own Organic East Kent Goldings Light Ale, and Fuller's London Pride, brewed by Young herself.
Pitfield's East Kent Goldings was the first up, praised by the panel for its "refreshing tartness" and "grapefruity pithiness". "It's the most popular of all the Pitfield beers," revealed Kemp, who advises half-an-hour in the fridge before you drink it.
Next came London Pride, with its "big malty notes" and "upfront fruitiness". "The crystal malt we use gives the beer its amber colour and toffee, raisiny flavours," explained Young, who brews 12 beers in all for Fuller's. Apparently, the yeast used has been knocking about since the brewery opened 350 years ago. "We use Target for bittering, for the zestiness, and North Down and Challenger to give spiciness," she said. "It was always my favourite beer before I opened the brewery," admitted Kemp, generously.
The Russian contender - Baltika No 3 - didn't quite push the same buttons. "It has an initial smoothness," ventured Dickie, "but then it gets rather sticky. I'm not sure I could drink much of it." "I find this too heavy," agreed Andrade, while Young highlighted a rather overdone bubblegum note.
Greece's offering was a beer called Mythos. "It's a bit oxidised and rather sulphurous," reported Young. "A bit fizzy, too," added Dickie. "And sweet. I think it was left with rather too much residual sugar during fermentation." Andrade thought it was "shandy-ish". "You've got to remember that if you're drinking this in Greece it would be super-cold, and a lot of these flavours you are picking out now would be knocked out by the temperature," suggested Kemp, in defence.
Poor old Croatia. Its entrant, Bohemia, was not showing well at all. "It's light-struck," announced Young, using the official industry term for what's known colloquially as "skunky". (Actually, I had noted "fox wee" in my tasting note - but skunk is good.) "It's what happens when the beer has been exposed to light, and it doesn't help when they use clear bottles. When the delivery arrives, get it out of the sun as soon as possible," she advised.
Things were looking up again with the German number - Erdinger Weissbier. The panel found the wheat beer warming, pleasantly spicy and well balanced. "It's got this coriander thing going on, but not as pronounced as a Belgian wheat beer," said Dickie.
Caf‚ Kick's best seller, Sagres, fared well, too. Portugal's finest was praised for its "refreshing hoppiness" and "grapefruity tang". "The bitterness is balanced - it's the most gluggable of all the lagers we've tasted so far," declared Kemp.
Spanish favourite, Cruz Campo, was let down by its "tinned sweet corn nose" (a bad thing in brewing, apparently) and for being "too astringent", said Dickie. Kemp, though, accepted its easy-going, one-dimensional flavour. "Just give me a beach in Spain," he said, wistfully.
The panel were intrigued by the Swedish entry, Spendrups Old Gold. The squat brown bottle and rustic label suggested something altogether more ale-like, but what we got was, well, Euro-fizz. "They certainly didn't skimp on the CO2," said Kemp. A lingering bitterness on the finish finally turned off the panel.
Thank God for Kozel. The Czech pilsner-style lager was liked by all for its "subtle fruitiness" and "pleasing aromatics", complementing its restaurant-friendly 500ml bottle size. It was Caf‚ Kick's favourite, too - both manager Andrade and assistant manager Yuri Goncalves gave it the thumbs-up.
"Our friend skunk is back again," remarked Young of the Swiss entrant, Hopfenperle, conceding that if it hadn't been light-struck and it was served super-cool, it would go down without touching the sides.
Calling a beer Royal Red Erik is bound to get you noticed, but would it deliver? The oddly rust-coloured Danish contender confused with its fruity undertone. "I think it's got some cherry in it," concluded Dickie.
French brew Jenlain is a classic biŠre de garde, and I've enjoyed it enormously in the past with smelly washed-rind cheeses such as Livarot. But in this line-up, its sweet and sour character failed to excite. "Ugh," shuddered both the Caf‚ Kick boys.
Palates were relieved and revived by Italian number Peroni Gran Riserva. "Now why can't you get this at my local Pizza Express?" wondered Dickie. At 6.6% it's a powerful glug, "but it's well-balanced," said Young, "and it has great finish," added Kemp.
We finished, rather fittingly, with a Trappist beer from the Netherlands called La Trappe Tripel, which elicited an almost indecent response. "It reminds me of banoffee pie," mumbled Andrade, lost in his glass. "This would be great with chocolate," muttered Dickie. "It's worth going to Holland for," announced Kemp.
Yes, but could you knock it back through a match? Nah, said all. "Light and cold, that's what people are looking for - and the colder the better, especially when it's hot," concluded Andrade. Ho hum.
What is beer? How long have you got? You all know, or I hope you know, that wine is made from grapes, but how many of you are aware that beer is produced from barley, and sometimes wheat, or other cereals?
And just as the winemaker chooses which grape varieties he will work with, so the brewer must decide which grain to use. Barley, for example, produces soft, sweetish, clean flavours; wheat produces beer that is more acidic; oats give an oily, silky smoothness; and rye adds a hint of spiciness.
What about hops? All manner of aromatic ingredients are used in beer to add flavour and aroma, from ginger and coriander, to orange peel and even quinine bark, but the brewer's favourite is the hop blossom, related to the nettle family (and cousin of cannabis).
When were hops first used in beer? No one's really sure, though a German abbess made reference to the practice back in the 12th century. Use of hops in beer didn't reach the UK until the 15th century.
There's a dazzling range of beer styles, from ales and wheat beers, lagers and lambics, to stouts and porters, the list goes on. But, put simply - and we like simple - there are two key beer styles. Meet lager and ale.
Lager is the world's most popular beer style (the word lager, by the way, means to store at a cold temperature). These beers are traditionally fermented at cooler temperatures than other beers, at 5-9¡C, and then matured or stored at about 0¡C. Why? Because it meant that warmer parts of Europe, where brewing would have been tricky or impossible, could enjoy beer all year round - until the fridge came along, of course.
Ale has a warmer fermentation than lager, and uses a yeast that rises to the top of the brewing vessel. And ale is mostly associated with the British Isles, where many regions have their own distinctive style of ale, from mild, bitter and pale ale to IPA, brown ale and barley wine. This lot are typically fermented at 15-25¡C.
As we said, the beer family is huge, but here are some of its better-known offspring that you're likely to bump into while putting together your new beer list:
Bière de garde A top-fermenting beer from northern France that was originally made in farmhouses. This baby ages - and often comes in bottles sealed with Champagne-style corks.
Aka real ale. This predominantly British phenomenon is an unpasteurised ale mostly found on draught in pubs.
Spontaneous fermentation is the name of the game here and Belgium is where it's at. Lambic is usually blended to form Gueuze, and other variations are Faro (sweetened), Kriek (cherry), and Framboise (raspberry).
Originally hailing from the town of Pilsen in the Czech Republic, Pilsner is a light, golden-coloured lager and now Europe's most popular beer style.
Stouts and porters
Classic ale styles brewed with dark, roasted malts to give them their distinctive hue.
You wonder how the mostly Belgian monks that make these beers can remain silent with all that alcohol floating about their system. This is strong stuff, top-fermenting and bottle-conditioned.
Does what is says on the tin, as they say. These are made predominantly with wheat, and are huge in southern Germany, where they are known as Weizenbier, Weisse or white beer. In the north they just call it Weisse, though these tend to have a lower alcohol content and sharper acidity. The Belgians tend to say white or biŠre blanche, using unmalted wheat and a sprinkling of fruits, herbs and spices (coriander is a favourite).
Know your hops
Again, where to start? Some varieties of hop are used for their aroma, others to impart dryness and bitterness, and several are used for both. The lightest on its feet is the Saaz, named after a Bohemian region and classically used in Pilsner-style lagers. Germany also has a famously delicate hop called the Hallertau Mittelfrh, grown in the Hallertau area of Bavaria and Hersbruck further north. Not forgetting Spalt, Tetnang, Hller and Perle, grown from Nuremberg to Baden-Wrttemberg. While Belgium favours a British bittering variety called Brewer's Gold and a hybrid called Record, among others. The UK, meanwhile, adores Goldings and Fuggles (named after the farmers who propagated them). The USA prefers a more pungent hop character in its beers - typically pine, floral, fruity and citric - so Cluster is used for bittering and Cascade for aroma.