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:
O LOOK IT'S LATE BUT IT'S THE GOLDEN SWIGS OF 2015 pic.twitter.com/Q2HBQN4ze6
— Ms Swiggy (@msswiggy) January 5, 2016
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:
Spontanbasil > Fou'Foune
— Matthew Curtis (@totalcurtis) December 19, 2015
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…
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.