Magical Mystery Pour #1: Spontanbasil

Still life: Mikkeller/Lindemans Spontanbasil with onion, garlic and tomatoes.

Magical Mystery Pour logo.Throughout this year we’re going to make an effort to drink some more unusual beers alongside our usual diet of standards from St Austell, Penzance Brewing Co, Anchor, Westmalle, and so on.

Dina, AKA @msswiggy, always seems to be having great fun exploring the weird outer reaches of the world of beer, like this:

So she was the first person we approached to give us a drinking list, stipulating that:

  • It should contain five or six beers.
  • All of which should be available from the same supplier.
  • At a cost of around £40 maximum for the lot.

First up, she recommended Spontanbasil, a collaboration between Lindemans (Belgium) and Mikkeller (Denmark), a lambic beer made with fresh basil leaves. It cost (brace yourselves) £13.50 for a 750ml bottle and its ABV is 6%.

We came to this beer with certain expectations and prejudices. The Beer Nut made it his beer of the year for 2015 and Matt Curtis recently made this apparently somewhat controversial statement:

In the notes she supplied for us Dina herself says:

When I first encountered this beer in Copenhagen last May I knew I had to have it. Do you like basil? If you don’t, you probably won’t like this beer.  I think this is done so well though, like a fresh, fizzy pasta sauce (no tomato notes, though). From the first sniff, you know what you’re in for, and the tart aspect to it just, well – it won my heart.  I must have drunk at least six bottles of this beer last year.

Now, we as it goes, we do like basil, but, at the same time, we’ve yet to be terribly convinced by herbs in beer. When we tasted a load of saisons last year, for example, we generally turned our noses up at the ones laced with thyme, rosemary or other green, twiggy plants usually found in a pot outside the kitchen door.

And, on top of that, we are also Mikkeller sceptics and actually gave up on ordering the Danish not-really-a-brewery’s beers after a run of particularly disappointing (and expensive…) bottles in 2014-15.

So, with all that out of the way…

Spontanbasil in the glass.

The cork popped like a backfiring motorbike but there was no surging or gushing. On pouring, it snapped, crackled and popped, creating a huge surging head which quickly sank away to a soapy foam. It was amber-orange and perfectly clear. (That’s condensation in the photo above.)

Though the idea seems outlandish, and though the aroma of basil was big, it was also, somehow, subtle — sharp and bright rather than the aniseedy, garden-weed stink that comes off the elephantine basil our local grocer sells in big bags. Before we even tasted the beer, we found ourselves thinking of lemon zest, too, perhaps because the basil suggested summery salads?

Sometimes beers with herbs in, through the power of association, end up tasting oddly savoury but, thankfully, there was none of that here. Instead, it was like a bright, cheery, refreshing fruit cup (see also Brew By Numbers Cucumber and Juniper Saison) the sourness well balanced with sweetness. You might expect a beer in this style, at this strength, to be hard going but, no, we found quite the opposite: it had was more like a tart, fizzing, easy-to-down soft drink (homemade lemonade, San Pellegrino) than a so-called Extreme Beer.

And there, maybe, is the problem for us: we struggled to find anything very beer-like to latch on to at all. The basil runs rampant over any hops that might be present and, insofar as we were able to detect malt flavour it was as a faint chewy flouriness. It’s pop, but pop that gives you a hangover, and that also hurts your wallet. (If it was £5 a bottle we might be more enamoured…)

Negatives aside, it is a cheeky, clever, sort of amusing (ahem) beer and we certainly drank it very happily. It’s good, too, to have tried a beer with basil because that is definitely something that, rather to our surprise, really works. Consider our horizons expanded.

We’re very grateful to Dina for taking the time to put together suggestions and notes and are already looking forward trying beer no. 2 from her list, Wild Beer Co/Beavertown Blubus Maximus, which we’ll be writing up in the next week or two.

13 thoughts on “Magical Mystery Pour #1: Spontanbasil”

  1. Given there is little one can do with a herb before opening the bottle that can’t be done better after opening the bottle, I wonder if there is an opportunity to cross a number of basil strains with a selection of base beers like Saison Dupont or a few tripels to maximize one’s herbal explorations for a fair bit less of, umm… the Danish surcharge.

  2. Nothing there tempting me to shell out that sort of money. ( have paid that much for beer to drink at home and far more in a pub, I’m not against paying good money for great beer just not convinced in this case)

  3. I’m generally sceptical of herbs in beer, too[1] but our Promising Local Craft Brewery, Three Blind Mice, do a golden ale with basil which is really rather good. Unfortunately I don’t think they bottle stuff, and you’re probably more likely to find Lord Lucan riding Shergar than to come across it on cask in Cornwall…

    [1] insert speculative digression on how hard it is to do beers with ingredients that add totally foreign flavours to beer as opposed to ingredients that just go to town on the sort of flavours that you’d sort of expect to find there anyway.

    1. Cryptic do (or did) a dark mild flavoured with Earl Grey – a flavour about as far from dark mild as you can imagine. I don’t know what possessed them to do it, but it actually works really well.

      1. Literally everybody is doing something with some form of tea at the moment: we’ve had berliner weisses, belgian blondes, IPAs, black IPAs, pales with camomile tea, bitters, dark milds. I suppose it’s a bit symptomatic of some of the issues with the hop harvest, but I am sick to death of it.

  4. I think the true joy in this beer is in fact the unsweetened Lindemans gueuze that makes for the bulk of its production. The basil just works as seasoning for me, adding a savoury bite to an already incredible beer. I’m glad I have a few more bottles stashed away.

    1. A few years ago I asked Joe Stange about whether there was home lambic blending and gueuze bottling given how cheap bulk Girardin was at the brewery. He’d never heard of it but agreed it was an opportunity. This seems like exactly the sort of beer that might inspire it given the base ingredients are so common but the price so inflated. And if the beer has obliterated the underlying gueuze character, another reason to experiment. Too bad gueuze is hard to find in Canada.

  5. yes, you completely neglected to touch on the fact that the base beer is a gueuze…hence no hop flavour really expected. I was impressed with how well the basil flavour came across and see it is a great apertif or food accompaniment beer, though as you say on the pricey side perhaps (but is it really in comparison to wine; which is what its filling the function of? One might argue that spontaneously fermented beers have long been under-priced given the time & process required to produce them & now the demand is there, price is closer to where it should be)

    1. When it’s 6% and drinkable by the mugful, it’s filling the function of (strongish) beer, not wine.

      As for price, I don’t see the price of mass(!)-market lambics being driven up just yet, and long may they not be. Brewers like Mikkeller set their prices at the top level of the range the market will stand, irrespective of style, and they rarely have to move down.

  6. Given the fact that the base beer is Lindemans lambic you would really expect there to be any real hop presence to start with; ditto any pronounced malt character.

  7. I am one of a handful of people in the Western hemisphere who (whisper it) strongly dislikes this beer. “Oh, you don’t like basil, then?” No, actually basil is one of my all-time favourite aromas and flavours. I think that might be at least partly why I dislike it – it doesn’t give me the hit I want; it feels insipid and halfway.

    I’ve been accused of disliking it it because it’s somehow ‘cool’ to rag on a beer widely lauded by connoisseurs. Thing is, the first time I tasted Spontanbasil, I tasted it blind. Lindemans entered it into the World Beer Awards last year in the Gueuze category (http://www.worldbeerawards.com/best/gueuze.html) and we rated it the lowest of the ones entered. As only a handful were entered, it medalled anyway, but against entries from Beersel and Timmermans (who have recently realised they are sat on a goldmine of quality blended lambics) it felt thin, flat, and the basil character muddled by being overly sweet.

    On subsequent non-blind(?) tastings, it still doesn’t do it for me, but I like it better than I did. I think the context of high-quality gueuze is what made it so disappointing. Had they entered it in a different category (there’s Flavoured and Experiemental categories it would have better fitted into), it might have done better.

    Also, I don’t normally buy into the whole ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’-ish “Well, they would say they liked it after they forked out £££ for it” way of thinking, but having been so disappointed by the blind taste test, wonder much of the beer’s reputation is based on its perceived value.

    On subject of basil, it’s been a flavour I’ve wanted to see implemented well in a beer for a while (there was also a Siren one last year which was a bit of a muddled affair). At BBNo we recently tried infusing our base Gose with some different herbal/spice/fruit combos and fresh basil translated really well. Potentially prohibitively expensive to do right, but it really suited the salinity of Gose in a way that might be better for it than Gueuze.

    Erm, Buzz Killington out.

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