Tag: Belgium

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Get dissolute this weekend!

Collaboration brews with beer writers, bloggers and other non-brewers are commonplace now and get a mixed reception. Some see these beers as exciting novelties, while others feel it’s nothing but ego-stroking or half-arsed marketing. I guess it depends on whether or not the resulting beer is any good, and whether that beer would have happened anyway without the collaboration. But I’m proud of all the beers I’ve helped co-create, and am a big fan of those by other writers too.

Whatever your views, Brains Brewery have taken the whole idea of collaboration/guest brewing to another level. Brains is Wales’ largest brewer by some distance, and has a sizeable tied pub estate. Most of their beers are mainstream and uncomplicated, because that’s what most drinkers in their pubs want. But last year they decided to open a twenty barrel plant in the heart of the main brewery to produce craft beers, often in association with various guests. 2012 was all about IPAs, and two resulting collaborative brews have gone into national supermarket distribution.

This year it’s all about European beer styles. I was one of the last people they approached who responded – obviously Saisons and other currently fashionable varieties were bagsied first by other people. So what could I brew?

I thought back to my first visit to Belgium, about ten years ago. I was on my own, knew very little about beer styles and was wide open and impressionable. (It’s great to be a ‘beer expert’ now, whatever that is, but I do miss the excitement of discovery of those early days.) I had my copy of Good Beer Guide to Belgium, in which I’d starred some interesting-sounding bars, and worked my way through them trying beers I’d never heard of before.

In the middle of the first afternoon I found myself with my first ever Westmalle Dubbel, a Trappist beer at 7%ABV. Like many people who meet such beers for the first time, I was intimidated by it. But a few days before that I’d done my first ever beer tasting course, courtesy of the Beer Academy, and I sniffed and swirled and thought and swallowed and savoured, and that was probably the moment when my interest in the society, culture and history of beer was joined by a genuine passion and enthusiasm for ingredients and style, the essence of the thing itself. It was rich and chocolatey with a slight hint of sherry and spoke to me of layers of depth still waiting to be revealed.

It took me an hour to drink it, and while I was doing so I looked out of the bar window and saw a coach load of Japanese nuns pull up outside, closely followed by two men in electric wheelchairs racing down the middle of the cobbled street, one with a dwarf hanging off the back, and then a man in a karate suit came up the street from the opposite direction, doing his moves, and I fell in love with Belgium and all its surreal weirdness both inside and outside the beer glass.

In the first few years after I came back from that first Belgian trip I kept beers like Westmalle Dubbel, Westmalle Tripel, Orval and Chimay Blue as permanent mainstays in my cellar. But as the whole craft beer revolution took off, such old guard mainstays seem to have become unfashionable. Saturated by novelty, it’s easy to lose sight of the classics.

What would I like to brew? A copy of Westmalle Dubbel please – sorry, I mean a “tribute” to Westmalle Dubbel.

We called it Dissolution (geddit?) and it’s brewed with Munich and Dark Crystal malts, Saaz and Styrian Golding hops and a traditional Trappist Ale yeast. It’s turned out dark, full bodied and complex,  full of rich and fruity plum flavours with a sweet raisin aroma and a spicy, warming finish.

It should now be on the bar in Brains pubs across Wales. But the brewery has also kindly sent a couple of kegs to a pub of my choice on my manor.

I chose the Cock Tavern in Hackney, because it’s my new favourite London pub, and it’s just a brisk walk down the road. On Bank Holiday Monday 6th May at 6pm, we’ll be doing a ‘meet the pretend-brewer’ event I guess, pouring the beer and chatting to anyone who’s interested in chatting about it. There may even be some beer being poured for free. And if you don’t like my beer, there’s a microbrewery in the basement where they make some damn fine brews of their own. As far as I know it’s the only time this beer is scheduled to appear in London, so get there in good time for a taste of pseudo-Belgian magic.

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Beer Cocktails. Only nice.

I’ve never been a fan of beer cocktails.

When we have people round for parties I often make a cocktail for the start of the evening and have a few recipe books. I like the idea of beer cocktails, but when I check the books that have sections on these they tend to be creations that I wouldn’t describe as cocktails necessarily, but as the horrible mixtures we used to drink as students when we wanted to get throwing-up pissed as quickly as possible. Whereas rum, vodka and gin-based cocktails reek of sophistication (until you stray too far into paper umbrella territory), depth charges, boilermakers and other shooter combos smell only of stale vomit, and a black and tan doesn’t really count as a cocktail at all.
So I had to go to Belgium overnight last week (Joe S – I would have called, but I was with clients and we had about one hour spare to devote to bars) and we were staying in the Sofitel in Brussels, a posh business hotel that manages to be just about as classy as it thinks it is – a rare thing indeed on the kinds of business trips I take these days.
And on the menu they had a section of beer cocktails, and they looked… interesting at least.
‘Mojikriek’ was – yep, you guessed it – a Mojito made with kriek, as well as rum, lime, mint and sugar.
‘Coro Island’ was tequila, lime, blue Curacao and Corona.
‘Captain Leffe’ was old rum, caramel syrup, strawberry syrup, and Leffe.
Each was served in a tumbler, shaken and poured over ice. I was on the detox, but then again, I was in Belgium. So between us, we decided to give each a try.
The Captain Leffe was not to my personal taste, but was probably the most successful as a cocktail revolving around beer as a main ingredient. You got a gorgeous, deep, caramel hit first, followed by a touch of citric sourness and then a lingering, drying, toffee-infused bitter finish. In other words, it was the sum of its parts – very tasty, but a little sweet for my palate.
I preferred the Mojikriek as a drink, although there was little beery character to it – just a faint, gentle dryness at the end of a cavalcade of candy sweetness and citrus acidity, taking it down to a lingering dry, candy fruit that reminded me of fruit pastilles.
And the Corona one was fucking horrible – I swear I could taste the lightstruck skunking even through the syrupy layers of the other ingredients.
Overall though, quite inspiring, albeit with no outright divine revelation. I get the sense that there is an amazing beer cocktail out there somewhere, that has a beery character to it and yet looks, tastes and feels like a ‘proper’ cocktail (ie something flavourful to be served in hotel bars in small glasses over ice, and sipped slowly between handfuls of those posh nuts that seem to have been coated in varnish that no one ever, ever asks for but gets given anyway and eats without quite knowing why). If anyone knows any other good beer cocktails along these sorts of lines, I’d love to hear them.

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You’ve lost that Leuven feeling

Just got back from my first trip to Belgium for about three or four years, and my first time at the Brussels beer festival. Trying to sell a piece to the papers about the event itself so I may have to keep my powder dry on that for now, but one or two other observations cropped up on the side.

The first is my former love, Stella Artois. For new readers to this blog, Stella was my intro to the beer world – I worked on it in a marketing capacity ten years ago, when it was a hoppy, characterful pilsner lager with great advertising, a premium brand image, and only a small number of people referring to it as ‘wifebeater’. It’s responsible for my entire beer career. But times have changed, and about a year ago I was really laying into Stella about the compromises it’s made.
Back in the day, people used to insist that “proper Belgian Stella” was far superior to the UK version, brewed under licence by what was then Whitbread. UK Stella is still brewed in the UK, but both it and Belgian Stella are both owned by what is now AB-Inbev, the world’s largest brewing conglomerate. It breaks my heart that UK Stella has deteriorated so much, it’s joined the very short list of beers that I can’t actually drink. I’d have wine if it was the only beer available in a bar. So what about Belgian Stella?
Here’s what I wrote about it in Three Sheets to the Wind, on my first ever trip to Belgium in 2004, tasted in a cafe in Leuven, where it’s brewed:
I feel a little nervous, like meeting up with a former lover I haven’t seen for some time. The beer arrives in a curvaceous, tulip-shaped goblet. It has the most beautiful golden colour, served with a full inch of foamy head. It looks perfect. There’s a light aroma suggestive of summer fields, and the taste is perfectly balanced – satisfyingly malty and wonderfully bitter.
In 2009, Stella looks pale and watery, with very little head, which disappears instantly. There’s no discernible aroma whatsoever. It tastes thin. It tastes of corn syrup, with a nasty metallic alcohol tint. There is no discernible hop bitterness or character. It tastes like a beer that has been lagered for a mere day, rather than the four weeks it once was, or even the week that’s now standard among mass-market, industrially produced lagers. Most distressingly – for what used to be a premium brand – it tastes cheap. In other words, it’s no different now from UK Stella.
I don’t think it ever was different from UK Stella. In both countries, it used to be good, and has now been stripped, hollowed out.
What I find baffling about this is that AB-Inbev also brew Jupiler. I tried a glass of that and it had a thick, foamy head, a nice hop grassiness and a lovely smooth, creamy mouthfeel. In the UK, where you see Stella on the bar you’re likely to also see Becks Vier, because Ab-Inbev brew that too. There aren’t many occasions when I’d choose Becks Vier over other beers, but if you drink it side by side with Stella, this 4% lager has more beer character than Stella at 5%. Like all global brewers, AB-Inbev knows perfectly well how to brew great-tasting lagers. It simply chooses not to where Stella is concerned.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a wholesale degradation of a perfectly nice beer.