Published on December 16th, 2014 | by Alastair Gilmour


The wizard who’s Oz

Wine expert, world vineyard explorer, television presenter – and almost anything else you can think of – Oz Clarke takes a sip or two of Northumberland beers

There’s something deliciously appropriate about discussing savaloy dips in a sumptuously-appointed Northumberland gastropub. The setting might suggest expensive wines and high-end malt whiskies but it’s beer we’re swirling, sniffing and supping. Beer and savaloy dips – could it get more basic?

A group of Northumberland brewers had been invited by Peter Candler from St Mary’s Inn, Stannington, to talk beer with award-winning wine guru Oz Clarke. Good beer is a cornerstone of the pub, along with an outstanding menu, and although it’s fitted and furnished to incredibly high standards it manages the trick of being unassuming and informal. The local beers – represented by Allendale, Anarchy and Wylam breweries – made the television presenter and prolific writer sit up and smile.

He may have been the 2009 International Wine Challenge Personality of the Year, awarded mainly for the accuracy of his palate, but Wylam Sheer Chai tea beer appeared to take Oz by surprise.

“That’s very nice,” he says. “Very nice. What’s really good for me from the aroma is the tannin. The palate is bone dry, but you get that green tea tannin coming out, that gentle leafy tea tannin, not like a black tea.”

Tea beer then flows seamlessly to kippers, a subject Oz has a close affinity to. “My secretary comes from Seahouses,” he says, “and she’s always on to me about Swallow of Seahouses and Robsons from Craster – who’s is the best kippers.”

Then we get back to the day’s main subject. Neil Thomas from Allendale Brewery is rightly proud of his Export Stout, a richly complex, fruity number that improves with age like a great wine (the current batch was brewed in October 2012).

“There’s a real good movement in stouts and porters at the moment,” says Oz. “A few years ago porters were a bit like diluted Guinness, but I like the way this is an English stout style that’s not too sweet. You’ve got all the sweetness there for it to be a chocolate stout but with no ‘fat’ there at all. This is dangerously drinkable.

“One of the things that’s happening now is a culture of people drinking beer in a smaller glass and sipping and enjoying and bringing in the Belgian culture rather than the English culture of ‘I’d better get this down me’.”

Morpeth-based Anarchy first brewed in January 2012 and according to owner and brewer Simon Miles “it went off like a rocket”. One of the North East’s more experimental breweries, its mission appears to be pushing at as many boundaries as possible. Oz Clarke takes a liking to Smoke Bomb.

“There’s a nice volatile lift from the yeast,” he says. “This is a fascinating beer with loads of acidity and slight fatness on the palate. It’s got a beautiful flavour and it doesn’t make you feel like it’s been dunked in bacon for a week.

“There’s a lot of nice Belgian fruit going on there and the smoke isn’t saying ‘this is all I do’. I think it works very well.”

With that leather-bound, tannin-rich voice, Oz Clarke is a man who could hold an audience all day and he recalls the time in the 1970s when he was an actor at the Young Vic, heading north to play the Edinburgh Festival.

“I turned left at Morpeth,” he says. “Somewhere called Netherton – the Star Inn which was a Lorimer & Clark pub then and became Castle Eden. A lady walked in and said ‘I’ll get rid of the sheep and see you in a few minutes’. She walked over to the barrel and drew me pint of Lorimers & Clark off the wood. It was the most heavenly way to serve a pint of beer.”

Before he turned to wine (and beer) full-time, Oz’s acting career saw him as General Peron in Evita in the early 1980s, as well as the first person to be arrested by Superman in the 1978 movie. He also appeared in Zulu with Michael Caine.

Oz has written numerous award-winning books and has appeared on countless radio and television shows. More recently, he has made three successful BBC Two series with James May – Oz and James’s Big Wine Adventure in France and California, and Oz and James Drink to Britain – as well as two series with Hugh Dennis.

He continues to work with May whenever he says they can think of something sufficiently silly to witter on about. In fact, the day after the St Mary’s Inn event the pair were due to meet to discuss a new project.

At St Mary’s Inn though, we’re talking beer through savaloy dips, kippers and how underrated simple boiled potatoes are – which leads to a discussion on pairing beer with food.

“Beer and food matching is never going to prove anything,” says Oz. “What is does though is gets people to drink good beer with good food.

“So many pubs have to do half-decent food these days. Put some local beer in and some bread from the local baker and suddenly there’s a reason for this pub to survive. It’s your USP and people will come.

“We potentially have the best beer culture in Europe. The Belgians, like the Germans, are slightly hamstrung by tradition and we are being far more innovative in this country.”

And to demonstrate how impressed he had been by that innovation from Allendale, Anarchy and Wylam, he says: “The Australian shiraz drinker is panting to be allowed into your world of stouts and IPAs.

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Alastair Gilmour

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