Daleside Beer Tasting Bodington Hall, Weetwood "I'M no medievalist – but what do you think of the chocolate stout?" As opening conversational gambits go, I'd have to say this one would be unique – but then again it's not every day you attend a beer tasting with a congregation of eminent medieval scholars.
The tasting was part of the International Medieval Congress, an annual event which draws 1,500 academics to the city to discuss new historical studies, visit ancient sites around the region – and have some fun, too.
The tasting, held at Leeds University's Bodington Hall, was definitely a part of the latter, though it had a serious side too, as delegates from across the world learned something about the history of brewing which dates right back to the era covered by their own studies.
All the beers came from Harrogate's thriving independent brewer Daleside – among them a couple with some serious historical connections.
We started with the light and refreshing Daleside Blonde, pale of colour and the brewery's biggest seller. American hops give this its quite sharp bitterness, though there are some nice, crisp, citrussy overtones in there as well – before a long dry aftertaste takes over in a beer which is surprisingly complex for its moderate 4.3 per cent ABV.
Daleside Blonde is top fermented at a warm temperature – the traditional process for ale – but then brewed in the kind of conical fermenter designed for pilsners, and cold stored for a time equivalent to the highest quality lagers.
The sheet of tasting notes said this was "the only ale in the world which was lagered", but a female historian from the University of Birmingham took issue with this, saying that her local Worcester brewery produces a beer exactly the same way. They're a feisty bunch, these academics, even with just half a pint inside them.
Mind you, they had already made acquaintance with the next beer, Congress, brewed specially for the event, and a firm favourite on the Bodington bar. This was very much a traditional British beer and a great introduction to the style for the visiting scholars from around the globe. Congress, brewed to 4.1 per cent ABV, is much darker than the Daleside Blonde, with the balance of hop and malt which is the mark of a fine English bitter.
Daleside brewery founder Bill Witty, who sadly died last year, was a big fan of TV police soap Heartbeat – and named a beer after the programme's roguish central character, Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Actor Bill Maynard grins out from the label.
Daleside aren't particularly known for the bitterness of their beers, and Greengrass is probably the most bitter they do. A scholar from the University of Sydney told me she loved this one, with its flowery aroma, substantial taste, and suggestions of toffee. What I like about Greengrass is that at 4.5 per cent ABV, it's not too strong to be a session beer, and would be equally at home in front of a roaring fire in November as it would beside a roaring barbecue in July.
My Australian friend turned her nose up at the Chocolate Stout. She may have just presented a paper on "The Chivalric World", but it was clear she'd spent at least some of her research time in the pub: "An Aussie bloke would never drink a beer at room temperature, and he'd never expect it to taste of chocolate either. No way."
Though they have yet to catch on down under, chocolate beers are becoming more common in the UK. Head brewer Craig Witty, who took over at Daleside from his father, explained some of the process used to create it. "It's really down to the malt. They roast the barley virtually to the point where it catches fire – and it's that which imparts the burnt and toasty flavours to the beer."
Nestle chocolate from York completes the recipe.
The effect is actually quite subtle, and though the chocolate – and a bizarre whiff of beef tea – dominates the aroma, the taste is more complex with suggestions of coffee and caramel in a dark mysterious Bonfire Night taste. There's certainly a lot in there, for a beer brewed to just 4 per cent ABV.
Chocolate Stout is black as the ace of spades, though thinner on the palate than Guinness – and while an interesting experience, this wasn't one I could drink a great deal of.
Craig told an interesting tale about Monkey Wrench – dark, strong, malty and probably my favourite from the Daleside range.
"We originally brewed this for a beer festival in Hartlepool," he said, perhaps expecting a reaction.
The northerners and football fans among us – a significant minority – understood the reference, but the rest needed more. So he told the tale about how a monkey was washed ashore from a shipwreck in the Napoleonic Wars, and how the good people of Hartlepool, believing it to be a French spy, put it on trial and hanged it.
A couple of the scholars scoffed at the story, as though this could only be believed once detailed documentary evidence was produced. Napoleonic is way too recent for them to do the legwork themselves, of course.
Name apart, there was sufficient evidence to graduate this beer with first class honours. Monkey Wrench is smooth and malty with some big fruitcakey tastes in there as well. You sense the step up in strength from the first beers, as this one's brewed to a formidable 5.3 per cent ABV. 's a historic story behind Crack Shot Ale too. It's named in honour of Jane Ingilby who is reputed to have fought at Marston Moor, disguised as a man. Following the Royalists' defeat, she fled home to Ripley Castle, where she spent a night holding Cromwell at gunpoint to prevent him finding her brother who was hiding in a priest hole nearby.
The beer – amber of colour and nutty of taste – is based on a 17th-century recipe found in the Ripley library, and is deceptively strong at 5.5 per cent.
We were on the home straight now and I fell into conversation with a Swede who turned out to be an expert on Thomas Malory, with a keen interest in brewing too.
We quaffed the wonderful Ripon Jewel Ale which looks benign with its citric aroma and golden amber colour, but packs a real potent punch at 5.8 per cent, making it the strongest ale on the menu for tonight.
She liked the idea that the beer had actually been commissioned by Ripon Cathedral, and it takes its name from the gold and gemstone Ripon Jewel, believed to date from the seventh century when Saint Wilfrid built a basilica on the site of the present-day cathedral.
And we finished with the most unusual and intriguing beer from the Daleside range. Morocco Ale is brewed to a secret 300-year-old recipe from Levens Hall near Kendal. It's strong (5.5 per cent), rich and oily on the palate, packed with flavours and has a real burst of autumn fruits across the palate. It would be a lovely after-dinner beer.
But it is the strident spiciness which gives Morocco Ale its hint of mystery. The question of how an ale with so curious a name, and such a disconcerting melange of flavours, should come to be brewed in 18th-century Westmoreland is one which our assembly of career historians should really try to discover.