Beer we go again to get a perfect pint

Beer expert Alex Barlow, left, and Pete Dakin, of the Sheffield Tap pub
Beer expert Alex Barlow, left, and Pete Dakin, of the Sheffield Tap pub
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ALEX’S tasting sessions at the Sheffield Tap have gone down well with the punters – and manager Pete Dakin.

Ordering at the bar used to be simple - lager or bitter. But now the choice is bewildering, with some pubs offering literally hundreds of different varieties of beers. Richard Marsden meets a man who can help.

beerram 'beer expert Alex Barlow

beerram 'beer expert Alex Barlow

Porter, pale ale, bitter, stout, continental lager, even fruit beer... Here to help you through the minefield is Sheffield-based expert and Alex Barlow.

Alex, originally from Chester, has lived in the city since 2002 and is based in Broomhill, from where he runs his own business, All Beer.

“It stands for Ale, Lager and Lambic – the three types of beer,” said the master brewer, who has spent 24 years in the trade, having started on a graduate traineeship with Bass, after graduating from Liverpool University with a degree in pharmacology.

“It may seem strange but breweries like recruits to have studied scientific subjects because it’s really important when you are brewing – you are working with yeast, which is a microbe,” he said.

Beer expert Alex Barlow

Beer expert Alex Barlow

Alex’s brewery experience includes a previous spell in Sheffield, at the old Stones brewery in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

He has also worked abroad, including at the home of famous Czech beer, Staropramen, in Prague. Now back in Sheffield, he has started holding regular tasting sessions at the Sheffield Tap pub, in the railway station.

The boozer is one of the city’s newest – and most popular.

One tasting session was held earlier this month and another is planned for June.

Beer expert Alex Barlow

Beer expert Alex Barlow

Alex said: “Tasting beer is something I’d learned to do while with Bass as part of being trained in how to manage the quality of beer.”

He has set up a website and written a ‘very practical’ book explaining what to look for in a good beer and how to identify each of the varieties.

There are all sorts of tell-tale signs for the different types, for example a head that forms rings around to the glass indicates a higher hop content, because hops are sticky so make the froth sticky.

A darker colour indicates higher malt content, Alex adds.

Many other variables exist, such as the types of hops and malt and even the type of water used.

To help bring out the best in a pint, Alex recommends especially-designed ‘flavourmax’ glasses, which can hold half a pint and have a straight lip, so the beer lands evenly on your tongue.

“Slosh it in and have a go,” he says, encouraging me to pour some of my pint of pale ale into the glass. What was a fairly flat drink in the pint glass is suddenly enlivened with bubbles. And, swirling the beer around like wine, the aroma on the nose is much stronger. It tastes richer, too.

Alex said: “The glass maximises your ability to appreciate the flavour of the beer.

“It has a pattern on the base that causes the bubbles to rise. Also, because the glass has a straight edge, when you drink the beer, it hits all parts of the tongue.

“The tongue has different types of tastebuds, with those at the front detecting sweet flavours and those at the rear the sharper ones.”

Alex travels all over the UK to hold tasting events but has even journeyed as far as Montreal, Canada.

He has been asked to present a show on beers in South Africa later this year. Of the local varieties, he rates those from Acorn Brewery, in Barnsley, and Thornbridge the best.

Alex said the Sheffield Tap, which has a range of more than 250 beers, is a handy local venue for his tasting sessions, because ‘they have so many people can come here regularly and still never have the same beer twice’.

“There’s a broad spectrum,” he said. Alex got involved with the pub when he bumped into the Tap’s owners two to three years ago at the British Beer festival – before they had opened the pub.

“They are distributors for Bernard, a Czech brewer, so we had a link and got chatting. When the Tap came about, my hosting sessions here was always on the cards,” he said.

He reckons the huge increase in popularity of cask beers in recent years is partly down to the Campaign for Real Ale.

Meanwhile, the Society of Independent Brewers has pushed for tax relief for small brewers, making the industry more lucrative so encouraging more to become established. Sheffield has quite a clutch of them.

“People’s desire to buy local has also been a big benefit,” Alex said.

For information about the All Beer experience and tasting sessions, which Alex has run for the last two years, log onto

Meanwhile, will help you select the right ale. Alex also has a tasting pack, which includes a copy of his book, plus a flavourmax glass.

tasting sessions

ALEX’S tasting sessions at the Sheffield Tap have gone down well with the punters – and manager Pete Dakin.

He said: “What Alex does ties in with what we are all about, trying to get people to appreciate the style of beer they are drinking a little more.

“There is more to beer than a pint of extra cold lager. You can liken it to wine and we want people to understand why it tastes a certain way, also why some types are more expensive than others. We get quite a diverse range of people here now – ales are no longer the preserve of fusty old men.”

Alex added: “When we held our first tasting session at the Tap, what was really good was that it was a young crowd, with many people aged less than 30.”

He said the tasting sessions vary depending on the type of people who attend, from beginners to experienced connoisseurs.

The next tasting session takes place at the Sheffield Tap on the evening of Wednesday, June 22. Tickets cost £20, which includes a flavourmax glass to take home, and are available behind the bar.

Drinking bible highlights the finest beverages

ALL Beer Guide, Alex’s bible of beers, is dubbed ‘the ultimate guide to the top 25 ale, lager and lambic beer styles and flavours’.

The mini-encyclopedia explains the backgrounds to the different types of beer – showing what different colours denote, and how flavours are built through water type, barley, hop flowers and yeast.

There is a description of the brewing process then, for each beer, a description of how it is made, what to see, smell, taste and feel when having a drink.

The book also mentions ideal serving temperatures.

It also warns of what to avoid so your pint isn’t spoilt, such as the main head killers – poor glass washing, consumption of peanuts and fatty snacks, and lipstick.

As well as the serious stuff, there’s a whole host of tips and anecdotes about beer.

For example, did you know that worldwide beer outsells wine everywhere except France, Italy and Bulgaria.

Or read about how ‘Chicha’ is an ancient beer style, still brewed by South American tribes, using natural enzymes, yeasts and bacteria from the mouths of women, who chew grains, fruits or roots to soften them, then spit them into a pot to ferment.