Magical Mystery Pour #1: Spontanbasil

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%.

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If You Can’t Get X Try Y

For various reasons (time, money, fear of flying) we’ve never been to the US and don’t plan to go any time soon which means our experience of American beer is either vicarious or through imports which we suspect, and are repeatedly told, lack the ‘zing’ of the same beers drunk on home turf.

Increasingly, that leaves us feeling slightly lost when beers such as Russian River Pliny the Elder or Alchemist Heady Topper are discussed as benchmarks of a sub-style or flavour profile.

That prompted us to ask the following question on Twitter:

Can someone better travelled than us compile a conversion chart showing which easy-to-find UK beers are most like hard-to-find US ones?

Thornbridge beer bottle caps.We’re not necessarily talking about clones and realise that there aren’t going to be many beers that are identical, but there must be a few out there that would give people trouble in a blind taste test. For example, we were once told by a hop-obsessed brewer that Thornbridge Halcyon at its freshest gets pretty close to Pliny — a thought echoed by Matt Curtis here. (Which is handy as there’s a new batch of bottled Halcyon going on sale on their website sometime around now.)

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BrewDog Dü Altbier

We were pleased to hear BrewDog had attempted an Altbier given recent evidence of their knack for brewing textbook examples of classic styles. Is it a beer worth shouting about?

When we were in the very earliest days of learning about beer, using Michael Jackson’s Great Beer Guide as our manual, we were desperate to try Altbier, the speciality of the north-western German city of Düsseldorf.

Then, in 2008, when we’d been blogging less than a year, we finally made the pilgrimage, and did little but drink Alt for several days. We had a great time — the city is fascinating, the pubs are great, and there’s an irresistible charm to almost any regional speciality with its own persistent culture.

The beer itself, however, seemed to us rather like heavily chilled, bog-standard British bitter, saved only from blandness by super-freshness and context.

Candy Kaiser (we paid £2.75 for 330ml from Beer Ritz; it’s available for £1.80 direct from BrewDog) was first brewed in 2014 under the name ‘Amber Alt’. In this latest iteration it tastes (if our seven-year-old memories can be trusted) almost as good as, and pretty similar to, the real thing.

Which is to say, despite a characteristically overblown BrewDog blurb (‘a full throttle attack on your taste buds’) it is accurately unexciting.

It is suitably conker-brown, has an appropriate hard-toffee, brown sugar sweetness, a touch of dark roastiness, and — its saving grace — plenty of serious, unsmiling, business-like bitterness. Other than that, there was little else to latch on to, which is true to style — Alt is for drinking in volume with your pals, not chatting about — but makes it hard to recommend as a beer in its own right.

It doesn’t capture the magic of drinking Alt at source but it does come closer than most bottled versions, so if you’re curious about can’t make it to Düsseldorf, it’s probably the best substitute on the UK market this side of a cold bottle of St Austell HSD.

La Brasserie Artisanale de Nice

That’s actually the name of the brewery, not a description — a clear benefit of being one of the first ‘craft’ breweries in your region.

We were tipped off to the existence of Nice’s answer to The Kernel by Ratebeer. We tried to find the beers on sale in a bar or restaurant but didn’t have any luck and so visited the brewery to buy takeaway bottles during the brief daily window between 17:00-19:00.

It operates out of a retail unit on literally the wrong side of the tracks, beyond the main station, away from the sea and the historic tourist district, and is the kind of place that you think mustn’t actually exist until you go just one block further and, yes, there it is across the road from a seedy cafe near a boarded-up supermarket.

The owner seemed delighted to see us and wanted to know how we’d found out about the brewery; he’d never heard of Ratebeer but wrote down the URL. When we said, ‘This isn’t really beer territory, is it?’ he gave a long, bitter laugh and rolled his eyes. ‘You can say that again!’

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Good Beer in Marseille Pt 2: Big Menu Bars

There are two bars in Marseille with large beer ranges, both out of the centre of the city: La Cane Bière near the Parc Longchamp, and Bar Fietje, in the shadow of the cathedral of Notre-Dame Du Mont.

Fietje (143 rue Sainte) is a relatively new venture that opened (we think) in June this year as a spin-off from a well established bottle shop in La Plaine. It is on a fairly quiet, mostly residential back street and would look more like a shop or showroom than a bar if it was not for the crowd of smokers sipping beer from Teku glasses around the front door. Inside, the decor is ‘craft industrial’ — bare brick, wooden beer crates re-purposed as shelves, stripped boards, wipe clean tiles and steel and, yes, the obligatory Edison lightbulbs.

The beers — around 80 in total — were listed on Perspex boards on the walls, with those on draught also being displayed, with prices per 250ml, above the row of taps on the wall behind the bar.

Fietje taps.

There wasn’t much to excite the hardened ticker other than a couple of local beers that, when pressed, the barman told us he could not wholeheartedly recommend, but we didn’t go short of good stuff to drink, from BrewDog IPAs to Belgian classics. The only beers that were expensive were the British imports — everything else was priced on a par with standard lagers available elsewhere in the city, at €3 to €4 per serving.

The atmosphere was a touch quiet and scholarly — you have to be a real geek to be into beer in Provence, it seems — but certainly friendly enough, and we felt quite comfortable spending a couple of hours revisiting old favourites. We especially enjoyed some of the (relatively speaking) bargain-priced bottles: it’s been a while since we bought Rochefort 10 for anything like €5 (about £3.70), on- or off-premises.

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La Cane Bière’s (32 Boulevard Philippon) name is a bit confusing: La Canebière, some distance away from this bar, is also the name of Marseille’s answer to Oxford Street, famous in the 19th century for its many swanky bars and cafes, and something of a symbol of the city. Though we had intended to visit we actually stumbled across it by mistake, our eyes drawn by the sight of people swigging Saison de Dottignies from the bottle around a table on the pavement outside, and swerved in.

Inside, we found a wall of bottles on shelves, a selection of bottles chilling in a freezer, and a single unlabelled beer on tap that we think was the increasingly ubiquitous La Chouffe. Though we could have enjoyed beers from BrewDog, Thornbridge or Fuller’s, we went for 375ml bottles of Saison Dupont 2015 Dry Hop (6.5%) — a limited edition beer we’ve struggled to get hold of in the UK and which tasted all the better at a mere €3.90 ( £2.90) a pop.

If Fietje was a touch uptight, La Cane Bière was a party waiting to happen: the entirely local crowd on the pavement, especially a tipsy bloke with dreadlocks, made space for us on one of the tiny tables and was generally welcoming. No-one was taking tasting notes or sniffing their pints and most weren’t even bothering with glasses for their Guinness Foreign Extra or saison. At one point, a dog sat on the pavement with its arse in front of a passing tram and there was a collective holding of breath; when the tram passed by within inches of the hapless hound, which barely blinked, we all cheered together. It sounds  a bit silly but it was one of those moments that reminds us of why its nice to get merry with strangers.

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Both bars were quite different even though their ranges overlapped. There is probably room for a few more such bars in a city as big and as cool as Marseille, though it might be nice to see a bit more beer from the area, or at least from France, on offer. But if it’s crap, it’s crap — there’s no point stocking it for the sake of it.

It’s interesting, we think, that both bars were self-service, contributing to a feeling of informality, signalling their difference — the distinctly un-French ‘global’ vibe — and presumably also helps to keep the price of the beer down.