I was joking online with bccmee, who runs a website, fan video site, YouTube channel, and more about the actor Richard Armitage, who’s playing Thorin Oakenshield in the upcoming The Hobbit movies. After two years of mostly living and working (very hard) in New Zealand, I thought we ought to welcome him home with a beer designed just for him. This has led all sorts of places. The homebrewing community has offered some interesting insights into designing a beer for someone specific. Several of the Richard Armitage fans (they call him RA) have confessed they don’t care for beer but would buy anything with his face on it (I rather suspect we can’t afford the licensing fees these days, folks). Others have offered what they know of the kinds of beer mentioned in The Hobbit. Let me see if I can sort out some of these threads and see what brewing delights might be available to us therefrom…
Building a designer beer
Beer is deceptively simple to make. Water, malt, hops, beer yeast. Only there are many kinds of malt, often used in combinations; an endless number of finely-tuned lab-crafted yeasts, and at least 80 varieties of hops used commercially, plus all the hops in development and trials. Brewers usually begin with a beer style (like pale ale, Scottish ale, etc) and then determine the appropriate types (and quantities) of malts, hops, water treatments, saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast, etc, etc. Customization comes in the exact proportions of different kinds of malt, specialized yeast. or different applications of hops. To give a basic example of the possibilities, hops can be added at specific times to add to the aroma, the flavor, or the degree of bitterness in a beer. Sometimes three different varieties are used for three different effects – maybe a citrusy aroma, mild bitterness, and a hint of grapefruit in the flavor. (Next time you’re drinking a homemade beer, see if you can’t identify a bit of grapefruit or pineapple.) There is enormous finesse possible. It’s easier if you can at least start with a specific style of beer.
There are a number of online sources for beer recipes in particular styles, in case you want to consider this. A few I recommend (brew buddy Bill Ridgely reminded me): Beersmith, Brewmonkey, and Beerrecipes.org.
I am in the process of designing a beer for a friend of mine. When he first came to my house, he wanted an “ale”. To a homebrewer, “ale” means almost anything – well, not a lager, probably, though you never know. Through the process of elimination and many parties later, it’s clear he likes malty, not-too-bitter, high-alcohol brews, a little sweet but not very. I’m in the experimental stages now of making a big beer for him (I suspect the current version is a little too hoppy). It’s very dark and rather rich – some would call it a dessert beer. I don’t have it quite right yet, but he’s flattered enough to have a beer named after him that he’s being very patient with me while I tweak five gallon batches.
Not apropos of anything, my pop psychology theory is that hops are why most women don’t like beer – women don’t tend to like bitter tastes as much as men do (try braggots, ladies, they’re sweeter and much less bitter/hoppy). This gets a little confusing in the UK, where a bitter is not necessarily bitter.
Designing a beer for Mr. Armitage
First of all, there is the question of what Mr. Armitage actually likes to drink. I seem to recall a reference to his buying a house in southwest London, though I could be completely wrong about that. Since I don’t live there, I contacted CAMRA of southwest London to ask what a bloke in a pub in SW London would/could/might have. For those of you not familiar, CAMRA is the Campaign for Real Ale in southwest London exists to promote the cause of real ale in the SW postal districts south of the Thames plus Mitcham & Morden, to quote their Chairman’s statement. CAMRA SWL sent me a list of the breweries in the area: Des de Moor’s blog on London’s best beer, bars and pubs, to be precise. Oy, what a list. The grass is always greener, and foreign shores beckon enticingly…aaaand my mind is back here sorting out how to make designer beer. I’m not even thinking about Fuller’s double stout or Brewer’s Reserve (aged in whisky barrels). There is a microbrewery in the neighborhood called Sambrook’s – oh wait, that’s the wrong book entirely, wrong volume of the collected LOTR books.
Mr. Armitage is famously modest, even self-effacing. Fans, has he ever said in public what kind of beer he prefers? I seem to recall a reference to downing a glass of red wine to calm his nerves on the way to his audition for MI-5, the very popular TV show known better as “Spooks” where he went on to play Lucas North for three years. I noticed several of the actors involved in the recent BBC Robin Hood TV series mentioned the beer in conjunction with their time filming in Hungary. Hungary is more famous for its wines. It is always possible that, English manhood aside, Mr. Armitage is actually a wine drinker by preference. That would be a whole different conversation.
So, RA Fans everywhere, comb through his press releases – has anyone ever mentioned drinking a beer with him, and (kindly for me) mentioned what kind of beer? Has he?
The second question is, when is Mr. Armitage completing his filming and returning to the UK? When does a welcoming brew need to be ready? I bet the RA networks or RA Online can answer that as soon as there’s an answer to be had.
We could have it made locally. We have CAMRA SW London, with its many homebrewers. At The Botanist, Mark Wainright will make a bespoke beer for you. He is now regularly brewing a hoppy pale ale, a bitter, and specialities including a Kölsch-style beer, organic wheat and fruit beers and a porter, so there’s some room here for design. See “Beer for the non-beer-drinking welcomers”, below.
Designing a beer to welcome all the Dwarves and the Hobbit himself home
We could make a beer specifically to Mr. Armitage’s preferences, or we could make a beer that welcomes all the UK-based actors involve d in The Hobbit – and there are many – back home from their labors. Notice I am ignoring for the moment that successful actors are perennially peripatetic – any of them could be headed for other parts of the world on their next project. I am sure there will be quorums at various places around the world as these movies are unveiled, and what better place to give them a nice restful locally-made drink than right at home in the UK? My beer-brewing chums online have lots of ideas about what a Hobbit Ale should be like. Mind, we don’t have a name decided upon, and there are thirteen dwarves to one hobbit. I’m open to suggestions.
One friend emailed me to say “In the original text for LOTR, there’s mention of a ‘Butter Beer’ that has no doubt been attempted. “ When I hear “butter beer”, I think of Harry Potter, not The Hobbit. Mugglenet has a recipe for it (there’s even a butterbeer latte, if you can manage it). For a comparative discussion of butterbeer in LOTR vs. Tolkien, try this. Most of the Harry Potter versions have butterscotch syrup, and many are ice cream based. If anyone has tried to make the LOTR butterbeer, I haven’t found the recipe yet. Please post it here!
I pinged my friends in the local homebrewing scene about a beer for The Hobbit, or for Mr. Armitage, either one. In making suggestions for a Hobbit beer – most were not clear on whether it was beer for the Hobbit himself, Bilbo Baggins, played by Martin Freeman and Sir Ian Holm, or for the movie celebrations – my informants leaned heavily on English styles, of course. The consensus was hobbits probably drank brown ales (Southern English brown ale for preference) or possibly mild ales, and dwarves liked darker beers. Yeast suggestions included classic English varieties like Ringwood or West Yorkshire. There was general discussion on hops – most of my contributors thought that hobbits would not drink very hoppy beer. In fact, possibly their beer was not hopped at all, medieval-style – Jason Konopinksi suggested oat malt, wheat, barley in pretty even amounts. That could give you a nice full mouthfeel, lovely creamy head, slightly cloudy – not something I’d mind in this context – kind of a rich feel.
Someone even thought he remembered the name of the pub Tolkein himself frequented, and thought they probably served Morrell’s Mild or Bitter at the time. So that was probably the beer that helped fuel The Hobbit.
A drink for the non-beer-drinking welcomers
Let’s face it, most of Mr. Armitage’s fans are women. That will probably be more evenly divided for the two Hobbit movies (which are coming out on my birthday, btw). If we are to design a brew for the welcome-home celebrations for the fans, I think it should be an ale for most of the gents and something less beer-y for the rest. For some reason I’m thinking something fruity but sparkling, like Lindeman’s raspberry lambic. Of course it would be much better if we could have their faces on the label – collect the whole set! We’d sell twice as much, since many would buy one set just to keep as memorabilia.
I think I need to hear further from fans and beer brewers alike. We haven’t even begun on what the dwarves drink!