Thursday, July 17, 2008

Royal Institution Arms of Great Britain

Yesterday evening I visited the Royal Institution of Great Britain, where a lecture was being conducted entitled “The Science of Beer”, given by O’ Hanlons Brewery’s head brewer Alex Bell.

I met up first with Adrian and Brendan in the Red Lion pub nearby.

Supposedly having the second oldest licence in the West End, being over 400 years old, this pub is described as London’s last village pub, and certainly the pint of Cornish St. Austell’s Tribute was well served.

Apparently on the last Saturday every January, Cavaliers in full costume crowd into the Red Lion to lament the death of their hero Charles I, who was executed in Whitehall on 30th January,1649.

Spilling out into Crown Passage

The palette sufficiently warmed up, we headed up St. James’s then Albermarle Street to the Royal Institution.

The Royal Institution of Great Britain

The RI was founded in 1799, and is a charity foundation supporting science and technology, both through education, lectures (mostly famously the annual Christmas Lectures) and actual research. They have apparently been home to 14 Nobel prize winners, and witnessed the discovery of 10 chemical elements. Names such as Faraday and Rutherford are bandied about as if laymen in these hallowed corridors.

That said, the advanced bar-coded ticket was not examined with the thoroughness I was expecting! Never mind, we are given a pink sticker to wear, indicating that we are tasting in a particular room after the lecture, we then head up into the lecture theatre, initially picking seats in the lower level, but moving up to escape leg-room that would send Ryanair aficionados running – anyway I don’t suppose the chap in front would have appreciated my knees in his back for the whole talk. In the upper gallery one is really looking down on the action, but there is a good inch or two more giving your legs a vague hope of keeping blood circulating. I suppose people were shorter in the 1700s..

The introduction was conducted by the beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones, whose waffle seemed to be a big-up for the position of head brewer – “God” supposedly, with his Angelic brewhands.

Finally Alex Bell was on. Impressively only in his early 30s, Alex described how he studied Chemical Engineering at UCL before going into brewing.

Alex Bell

Starting with the history of beer,

possibly dating back to the 6th millennium BC, and records in Sumerian writings, he covered the accidental fermentation of bread with yeast in the air, how originally beer was brewed by women at home until the Industrial Revolution, and how many historical texts contain substantive references to the stuff.

We then moved on to the basic ingredients of beer – water, malt, hops and yeast, and examined each in detail.

Water – different levels of softness suit different kinds of beer. Pilsen in the Czech Republic apparently has soft water, good for light pilseners.

Malt – barley provides the sugars – in order to get to them they accelerate germination of the husks by soaking them. Roasting provides darker flavours, as found in malty or stout beers.

Hops –

a relatively new addition on the block (only in use for a few hundred years), hops have a hugely beneficial effect on beer – providing antiseptic, anti-oxidant effects, meaning beer lasts longer, as well as oils providing aroma. The hop itself, in the same family as marijuana, is a complex plant, with over 500 chemicals, as opposed to a typical plant having around 100.

Yeast – the workers of fermentation –

Yeast process the sugars in the malt and yield alcohol and CO2. Interestingly, this process is quite inefficient – it would be much easier for the yeast to respire aerobically, but for some reason they choose not to, and thank goodness!

Different enzymes based on temperature and hence desired beer characteristics. Mash tuns and other archaic terms came up, but were deftly explained by Alex.

New vocabulary

Alex threw in a couple of slides with the full chemical equation of the main fermentation reaction, and was amused that many of the audience were trying to follow.

He then moved on to describing and appreciating the beer, and put up a spider diagram which will prove useful for our trip to the beer fest in August.


A Q&A was held at the end of the lecture - and an American piped up asking why American beers were so bad compared with European equivalents. Clearly not a Craft Beer Radio listener - the American beer scene has never been so healthy since Prohibition!

The talk over, we retired to our allocated room for the tastings – in our case the Library. In a light room lined with incredible volumes on all walls from floor to ceiling – names floating back from our Imperial undergraduate days – Maxwell, Boyle and others – most books seemed to date from the 19th century and were here for browsing.

We were to try three beers, and were given a half pint of each, keeping the glass between tastings. Brendan slipped up, ending up with a half glass, which the server chap still half filled!

Brendan and Adrian tasting


First up, Yellowhammer, which was a light hoppy ale which was surprisingly sweet (or balanced, as Alex put it). As Alex pointed out some of the flavours we may detect he dropped in a new one for me - Weetabix! Never noticed that before! Swirling brought out fantastic smells, tropical fruits and banana. Strangely I hadn’t spotted these at first sniff. Someone asked about the name, but Alex confessed that it was the work of the marketing lot.

Your author contemplates

Some questions were raised about the hops (American Cascade in this case), which Alex referred to a trade person in the room who appeared to be a hop sales rep!

Royal Oak
Next up a bitter, malty, copper-coloured ale.

A nice session ale, but perhaps not so memorable.

Whilst waiting for the next beer we collared Alex and asked him firstly whether O’Hanlon’s beers were available at any pubs in London. After reminding us that they used to brew in Vauxhall, he suggested that the Rake Pub in Borough Market was our best bet, though Wetherspoons also take shipments of their barrels occasionally.

We also asked whether they’d be at the beer festival – yes they would, with Yellowhammer and Dry Stout.

Dry Stout
I’m not so keen on stouts myself. Unless they're free! This particular specimen was described as a “crossover stout”, though I’m not sure what that means!

Adrian deep in thought

When the top-ups slowed, we made our way out, stopping at the small but friendly Goat Tavern round the corner in Stafford Street for a couple of pints of Shepherd Neame’s Spitfire for the road. See you at the Great British Beer Festival, 5th to 9th August!

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