Some of you may know that I used to work for Guinness, and the most commonly asked question I got asked was “Why does Guinness taste so much better in Dublin than it does in a pub here?”
Well, there were some technical reasons: throughputs and volumes of the Black Stuff are far higher in bars in Dublin than in, say, Stockport, so the beer is fresher. The beer also doesn’t have as far to travel. But I believe that by far the biggest reason was psychological. Supping a pint of Guinness in Ireland is usually coupled with being on a mini break/holiday/stag weekend (delete as appropriate) and drinkers are chilled out, relaxed, and surrounded by the craic of the Irish. So there is a cerebral association between good times, happy times and that beer in front of you. Think of it this way: when you have that gorgeous glass of wine on the balcony of your hotel on your summer jollies in Spain, the same wine never tastes quite as good on a wet weekend on Wakefield.
Which brings me onto this week’s beer. Walking out of Cardiff railway station, the first thing you spot is a huge chimney emblazoned with the unusual word ‘Brains’. Whichever route you take into the city centre, you’ll be surrounded by a myriad of pubs proudly displaying the Brains logo. Visiting rugby fans will see the name emblazoned on the red shirts of the national team. It’s almost written in law that when you visit Cardiff you have to have a pint of Brains S.A.
If a brewery in England tried to claim any of its brands were the ‘National Beer of England’, there would be an outcry. How can any beer lay stake to this claim? And yet, by sheer good fortune, tenacity and national pride, many Welshmen (and women) will unashamedly state that Brains is the national beer of Wales. The success and longevity of this family owned brewery owes much to its founder, Samuel Arthur Brain, whose legacy lives on in that pint of Brains S.A. (Although he might turn in his grave if he knew the beer is affectionately nicknamed Skull Attack).
A canny series of events saw Brains signing a major sponsorship deal in 2004 with the national rugby team: the following year Wales won the Six Nations Grand Slam for the first time in 27 years, and Brains was the name on everyone’s lips. Clever marketing slogans followed, celebrating Welsh pride in the beer:
“It wouldn’t be Wales without SA”.
And yet this beer very nearly didn’t make it to our tables today.
One of the extraordinary legacies left by prohibition in the United States during the 1920’s and 30’s was that Americans ‘lost’ their taste for full flavoured beer. (Although they’re sure making up for it now). It’s why certain brands of lager enjoyed massive success following prohibition, because they were easy to drink, and more about refreshment than flavour.
Britain nearly suffered the same fate as America during the early part of the 20th century. We came perilously close to a ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages due to the pressure of ‘dry crusaders’, government acts and religious zealots. One of the breweries which felt this threat the most was Brains. But they fought a hard battle, they stood their ground, they sang in male voice choirs (hey, don’t knock me, my Pa sang in a male voice choir and they were a force to be reckoned with on a Friday night) and they won.
Next time you see Brains S.A. on draught, give it a go. In the glass, it shines light copper, and delivers a lovely rich nuttiness from a perfect blend of pale and crystal malts. It’s a solid brawny 4.2% with Challenger, Goldings and Fuggles hops bearing earthy, woody and herbal aromas and bitterness. Pair it with a simple chicken roast, or an earthy mushroom risotto. It’s the taste of the Valleys.