Category Archives: Regions

Wood-Aged Belgian Brown White, 1861

Brown Beer, White Beer.

This is from a rather vague article first published in the National Magazine in 1861 entitled ‘German Beer’:

The beers of Belgium and Germany, in general, may be divided into two classes — the brown, and the white, or yellow… The brown differs from the other in taste… The colour may be said to be chiefly owing to a more advanced carbonization of the extractive substances. It must be prepared from the best strong hops, in the proportion of 550 to 642 grammes to the hectolitre of beer. This will do for that manufactured from winter barley. Summer barley requires but 420 grammes… The white beer is prepared from pale malt.

In the rest of the piece, the anonymous author rambles through a list of beer types he or she has come across on their travels, not always specifying clearly whether they are brown or white/yellow.

On the subject of adulteration and fraud, the author has a Belgian brewer called ‘Berhardt’ describing a ‘harmless trick’:

I employ… in the manufacture of my brown beer the following substances, which give it the colour and taste of the ordinary brown beer. I evaporate in a well-tinned cauldron a part of the liquid even to the consistence of a syrup. I keep it in motion on the fire continually until the syrup becomes a burnt and deep-coloured sugar; with that addition alone I am already in a condition to make my brown beer equal to the best of the sort. But as all brown beers have a slightly astringent taste, I give it to the ordinary brown beer by the addition of the bark of oak or mahogany.

In other words, he’s brewing a white/yellow beer but making it look brown with the addition of caramel. That’s still frowned upon today — not very ‘craft’ — but the wood trick is quite the done thing, and we think Berhardt’s beer sounds pretty tasty.

If you fancy a break from brewing black IPA, why not give ‘Belgian brown white’ a go?

Session #91: Our First Belgian

This is our contribution to the 91st beer blogging session hosted by Belgian Smaak.

Leffe Blonde

The fact is, we don’t know for sure. We can’t remember.

It might have been Hoegaarden, and there’s an outside chance it was Belle-Vue Kriek. There might even have been bottles of something at a student party — De Koninck? Palm? There was definitely Stella Artois, but we’re not sure that counts.

The first really clear memory we have is of draught Leffe Blond at the William IV on the Leyton-Walthamstow border c.2002. Having arrived at the trendy Belgo restaurants from 1992 onward (see Chapter 11 of Brew Britannia) this ‘premium special occasion beverage’ took a decade to filter out to the suburbs.

Back then, after the closure of the Sweet William microbrewery but before the arrival of Brodie’s, the William was just another East London pub with a slightly tense atmosphere, lots of empty seats, and a line-up of mass-market lagers.

We only ever went there to see a friend who lived nearby. She was then a heavier smoker than Humphrey Bogart in his prime and, somehow, always felt more grown-up and sophisticated than everyone else in the room. In 2002, what counted as sophistication was ordering a chalice of Leffe in a cockney boozer.

So we copied her.

It was fun drinking out of silly glases, and it really did taste different to anything else we’d had before, though we weren’t in the habit of taking notes back then. We recall finding it weighty and luscious, perhaps because, at 6.6%, it was stronger than anything else widely available on draught at the time. Its strength also made it feel naughty: “I should warn you…” the barmaid would say every time.

* * *

More than a decade on, Leffe is really not cool, and, unless we’re missing something, has rather retreated from the on-trade. (See also: Hoegaarden.) We can’t think when we last saw a Leffe tap in a pub. In 2002, we didn’t know (or especially care) that it was a sub-brand of a big multi-national, but, these days, that doesn’t help its cause:  it’s not the kind of thing ‘craft beer’ bars bother themselves with.

What is is, at least in bottled form, is cheap. We picked up 750ml, with cage, cork, foil and other trappings of poshness, at CO-OP in the centre of Penzance for £3.49, but it can often be found on sale for as little as £2.50. But is it good value?

There is a distinctive Belgian yeast character — a touch of banana, some bread, a sprinkle of peppery-spice — but very restrained. It no longer tastes all that exotic — not because it’s been ‘dumbed down’ but because a lot of beer has flowed over our palates since 2002. What once read as luscious now seems like the stickiness of barley sugar sweets, or as if a tot of orange squash has been added to the glass.

It feels, all in all, hurried, tacky, and plasticky.

Compare it to, say, Westmalle Tripel, or pay it too much attention, and it seems a dud. Think of it as a lager with a bit more going on, and it’s not bad, and certainly good enough company with dinner in front of the telly.

Cover detail from a Guide Through Central Europe, 1896.

GALLERY: European Beer, 1890s

We have culled these advertisements from two editions of the Hamburg American Line (aka Hapag Lloyd) guide to Europe from 1896 and 1900. The former is available through Archive.org while the latter (stinky and falling apart) is in our own collection.

(When did you last see a hotel using its beer offer as selling point?)

QUOTE: Dear and Doubtful, 1902

“But as English Bass is never quite the real article on the Continent, so Münchener is never quite the real thing in England. Whether beers have to be fortified or not for a voyage outside their own country they have a tendency to be both doubtful and dear. Bass is too ‘gassy’ on the Continent; Munich too biting in England… In its native beer-gardens Münchener is the prince of beers — brown and bland and soft, with a cream of froth like a beaten egg, a delicate flavour, cold, yet not icy, refreshing to the body, and comforting to the stomach…”

W.R. Holt, ‘Germans and their Drinks’, Daily Express, 04/09/1902

(Brown and bland — count us in!)