Sunday, 11 July 2010

Lansley's good for a laugh

I'm amused -- bemused might be a better expression -- by new Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's plans to make us all healthier and less flabby. He wants drastically to reduce the previous government's programme of advice on healthy eating and is calling on the food and drinks industries to regulate themselves. Can we expect TV ads featuring Gary Lineker telling us that crisps make us fat? I hear an over-weight porker flying overhead...
Where drinks are concerned, will the manufacturers of carbonated soft drinks cut back on the high levels of sugar they use along with near-toxic amounts of carbon dioxide? More pertinently, will giant brewers cut back on rice grits, corn starch,chemical enzymes, foam stabilisers, anti-oxidants, giberellic acid and taurocholic acid and even formaldehyde to reduce costs, speed up fermentation and give their beers an artifically long shelf life? Don't hold your breath.
One chemical once widely used in mass-volume brewing is silicone anti-foam, which contains an active polymer called polydimethyl siloxane. Brewers were keen to use it to prevent a thick, yeasty head forming during fermentation. Cut down on the head, they argued, and you can get more liquid in the fermenting vessels. The problem was that traces of anti-foam were found in the beer following filtration. As a result most brewers stopped using it, but others didn't, as its use was not illegal.
In the 1970s in the United States, a number of brewers started to use cobalt sulphate in their beers to give them a lively head of foam. Unfortunately, more than 40 people died of heart attacks as a result of drinking beer with cobalt sulphate in it and the practice was outlawed.
Such additives in beer may not make us fat but they are bad for our health. The ingredients used in brewing are such a closely-guarded secret that it's impossible to say what additives are used today. But there's clearly something wrong with the way in which mass-volume beers are made. I'm neither a scientist nor a chemist, but I'm convinced that the after-effects caused by drinking some beers are due to modern manufacturing techniques.
Most global lager brands are not lager at all, in the traditional sense. Lager means "storage place" in German and implies that such beers should be stored at a low temperature for several months to allow a slow secondary fermentation to take place. Some years ago I remember a rivetting piece on the Radio 4 Food Programme in which Michael Jackson and Andrew Jefford discussed the production of Carling lager --Britain's biggest-selling beer brand -- at Burton-on-Trent. They were astonished to find that it takes seven days to ferment Carling, the same period as for traditional ale. Jackson, with his long experience of brewers throughout the world, rightly made the point that Carling was not a lager by any true understanding of the word.
Why has Stella Artois acquired the unpleasant nickname of "wife beater"? When I first drank Stella in Leuven in Belgium some 20 years ago I thought it was a good Pilsner-style beer. Now I wouldn't cross the road to drink it. More recently, when I visited the Zywiec Brewery in Poland owned by Heineken I found that the complete production cycle was 21 days, from mashing, through boiling, primary fermentation and storaqe [sic]. Precisely the same system is used by Carlsberg at its Baltika breweries in Russia. This rapid method means that beers are immature when they leave the breweries and retain unwanted rough alcohols that would normally be purged by a long, natural period of lagering. And it's the rough alcohols that give the headaches, the hang-overs and, apparently, the propensity for some male drinkers to behave like brutes.
One thing is certain: the global brewers aren't going to clean up their act,stop using cheap additives and fast fermentation because Andrew Lansley asks them to. Drinkers deserve full information about the ingredients used in brewing and the brewing methods themselves. But this information won't be delivered by a government that can only chunter about "beating back the nanny state". But I suppose that's preferable to beating up the nanny after eight pints of global chemicals.


Blogger Johnny Norfolk said...

Good for Lansley. Just remove governments from telling us what to do all the time. Total ingredients is what is needed.
Thats whay I only drink local produced beer most of the tome. I can visit my local brewary
( Beeston Norfolk) and can see how it is made

22 July 2010 at 08:39  
Anonymous Gary Gillman said...

Agree on the essential points - I too recall when Stella Artois was a full-flavoured, aromatic beer - it seems completely different 20 years later. It is interesting to compare alone MJ's taste notes from his Great Beers of Belgium (1992) to the beer as it is today.

However, I don't agree that modern quick-production beers are not lagers. Technically perhaps, yes, but bottom-fermentation beers always had a non-aged counterpart, the schenk or winter beers. In effect most lager today is schenk. I have read that immature flavours can be avoided by more careful selection of malting barleys but at the same time, a lot of modern lager does seem "green" in taste, often with a sulphur-like note (like much Burton beer in fact, but perhaps for different reasons). I'm not a big fan of it.


29 August 2013 at 12:44  

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