10 December 2014

Craft beer tasting with Oz Clarke and Celebrity Cruises

Think of cruises and it's likely you'll think of champagne and cocktails. Think of Oz Clarke and you'll probably think of wine. Think of craft beer and you may be stumped. It's time to think again.

When Celebrity Cruises invited us to an evening of craft beer tasting and food pairing with Oz Clarke, I was more than a little intrigued. My knowledge of all three is limited at best but like many others, would never have combined them into one innovative little package. You see, luxury liners Celebrity Cruises are launching their second floating GastroBar and unlike other cruisers, this one only sells boutique brewed beers.

Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you'll have seen that craft beer is taking pubs and bars by storm at the moment. Colourful bottles, barrels and crates are cropping up in between the J20 and the Carling but what makes it so special? Well, it's all in the making. Craft beers are brewed by small, independent breweries using methods and ingredients that date back centuries to produce high quality beer that puts the big brewers to shame. It's also these processes that make each beer so distinctive - rather than the fizzy, watery and bland offerings you'll probably find down the local, craft beer is renowned for its flavour.

Take Duvel, for example. Brewed in Belgium (which produces more kinds of beer than anywhere else in the world), in the Dutch speaking part of the country (location is very important, says Oz), this Strong Golden Ale is spicy and fizzy and packs a bit of a punch at 8.5%. Combining yeast from Scotland, sugar syrup and 40 years of pale malts, this is a real belter of a beer hence why it's named the 'Devil' beer. We drank it with warm truffled grilled cheese raclette with braised leeks on sourdough ciabatta, letting the spice and fizz of the beer cut through the rich, smoothness of the cheese.

Other beers and breweries are known for their balls. Brewdog, for example, is the most successful brewery in Scotland (there are currently 1,200 craft breweries in the UK alone) and has spent the last couple of years trying to brew the strongest beer in the world. They've reached 41% volume and called it Sink The Bismarck as a stick to a rival German attempt; apparently it's so potent they only let you sample it in shot glasses. We tried their Hardcore IPA (9.2%) which is hoppy, bitter and gloriously aromatic with samples of Seville orange marmalade. India Pale Ale originated during the trades as a cure for leprosy, tuberculosis and dysentery - ancient Romans had discovered that hops had medicinal (and aphrodisiacal) qualities and when more modern enthusiasts saw that hops also stop oxidisation and keep beer fresh on long journeys, it was the perfect ointment for merchants and colonials suffering far from home. We drank ours with steamed pork buns - the flavour of the malts bringing the fiery, sweet, sour and salty elements of the food to life.

Something else that font of all knowledge Oz taught us is that beer isn't always savoury. Lindeman's Framboise (2.5%) is a Belgian beer that looks and tastes like a cocktail. It's fizzy, deep pink, sweet...and sour. A result of a process called spontaneous fermentation where malt is left to be attacked by yeast to produce alcohol, then mixed with the fresh juice, it's fermented a further two times and perfect for cutting through rich chocolate brownies.

And a final favourite of the night for me was Rogue's Chocolate Stout, brewed in Oregon, and a deep chocolate in colour and taste. Based on a classic London porter stout (unsurprisingly so-called thanks to porters calling for it to quench their thirst), it's a heady and rich beer that ages well and increases in volume as it does so. You may know Guinness as a much more famous stout, it's brewed differently so is lower in alcohol than Rogue's more faithful concoction - although I'm sure the boys over in Ireland will be quick to disagree!

As someone who's only really ventured into beer drinking in the last couple of years and would never think to order an ale, I'm now a total convert. Oz explained that the varieties of processes and methods, flavours and ingredients in craft beer-making are much greater than in wine-making it a much better drink to have with a meal so I'm already on the hunt for a restaurant that puts as much effort into its beer as it does its food and wine.

But that brings me neatly back to Celebrity Cruises - they've already put the legwork in to offer a rotating list of craft beers from around the world alongside classic comfort food. You can even join onboard tasting trips and vineyard visits with Oz on some of their Mediterranean routes. Whilst I'm not sure that I'll be jumping on board soon, I'll definitely be hunting down the best beers I can find. Cheers.

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