What Makes a Beer an [X]-ian Beer?

“If a beer has German malt, US hops and Belgian yeast, can it really be called a Belgian style beer?” That’s a good, if puzzling, question.

Michael Lally from Bushcraft Beer asked it on Twitter while putting together an episode of his podcast and we gave a 140-character answer: yes, because Belgian beer often uses foreign malt and hops, but the yeast is the source of its essential character.

Roman, a Belgian-born Londoner who brews ‘modern beers abstracted from classic Belgian styles’ at Solvay Society seems to broadly agree, as per this blog post:

The fruity and spicy notes that we have come to identify as ‘Belgian’ are the result of by-products generated by yeast during fermentation. Many Belgian beers — such as the tripel, wit and saison — have characteristic clove and white pepper aromas… Fruitiness in beer can be derived from hops, but it is also the result of esters… It’s quite clear therefore that we associate certain flavours and aromas with Belgian beers, many of which have been derived from the choice of yeast and fermentation profile.

But what about this: a Belgian brewer operating in Belgium uses US hops, British malt, and lager yeast shipped from a lab in Germany, to make a 4.5% ABV beer with no spicy or fruity notes; at the same time, a British brewer ships in Belgian malt, Belgian hops and a bucket of Westmalle yeast to make a 9% Trappist-style tripel in Barnsley. Which is more Belgian?

The other week when we considered a similar question — is Belgian a flavour? — someone (we can’t remember who — maybe Roman again?) suggested that Belgianness was as much about approach as ingredients. In other words, a Belgian will somehow make a beer taste Belgian under any circumstances.

This article from Joe Stange, co-author of the Good Beer Guide Belgium, on how Belgian brewers approach the global trend for in-your-face hoppy beer, provides evidence for and against:

[With] a few exceptions they are not cynical imitations of foreign craft beer. Instead, they adopt ideas about bolder hopping and fold it into the Belgian scheme: intricate mash regimes, high attenuation, relatively expressive yeast, and refermentation in the bottle… [But at the] Modeste [festival] in Antwerp… [the] winning beer was called Hip-Hop, and it claimed 100-plus IBUs using Columbus, Simcoe and Citra. It tasted more like 50 IBUs, with enough malt to carry it off… Come to think of it, it didn’t taste very Belgian. Maybe we should be afraid after all.

From Specific to General

This isn’t just about Belgian beer — you could ask the same kind of question about American, Czech, English or German beer. Or Yorkshire bitter.

At this point we started to think about a philosophical puzzle we only dimly understand — the Sorites paradox:

1,000,000 grains is a heap. If 1,000,000 grains is a heap then 999,999 grains is a heap. So 999,999 grains is a heap. If 999,999 grains is a heap then 999,998 grains is a heap. So 999,998 grains is a heap. If …… So 1 grain is a heap.

With apologies to any real philosophers who might be reading, we take the point of this thought exercise to be that you either (a) accept 1 grain of sand is a heap or (b) acknowledge that some things in life, like how many individual hairs you can have and still be considered bald, cannot be made precise, but that doesn’t mean they’re meaningless or non-existent. (See also: ‘craft beer’.)

There are many, many variables that contribute to a beer’s national or regional identity; if you flip each switch, one at a time, at which point does that identity cease to be?

Actually, hmm, this is worryingly close to being more generally, real-world political. That yeast answer we came up with first was much simpler.

Is ‘Belgian’ a Flavour?

Macro shot of text and diagram: 'Yeast'.

We find ourselves using ‘Belgian’ as a shortcut flavour descriptor sometimes and have been thinking about what this means, for various reasons.

First, because we just finished writing an article about Liverpool’s Passageway Brewery. If you’ve read Brew Britannia you’ll have the gist of the story: it emerged in the mid-1990s, run in their spare time by two friends who worked together, and knocked people’s socks off by fermenting British-style cask ales with a then highly exotic Belgian yeast strain.

Secondly, because we’ve also been writing an article about British beer geeks obsessed with Belgian beer, which means we’ve been hanging out with a few of the same. One gently admonished us on this point, suggesting that ‘Belgian’ as used to describe flavour by non-Belgians usually just means ‘spicy yeast’, when of course Belgian beers might be tart, sherry-like, fruity (from actual fruit), literally spicy (as opposed to yeast spicy), hoppy (in various offbeat ways), and so on.

A bicycle outside a bar in Bruges, 2010.

And, finally, there have just been some beers that got us excited — beers that aren’t Belgian, or even fundamentally Belgian in style, but which use Belgian-derived yeast to add a twist. Stone Cali-Belgique, which we found confusing and underwhelming when we paid a fortune for it at The Rake in London years ago, is fast becoming a go-to in its canned Berlin-brewed bargain-price incarnation. Elusive Brewing’s Plan-B — a 3.7% pale ale brewed with UK malt, New World hops and Belgian yeast, was a contender for our Golden Pints bottled beer of 2016. And that Lervig/Magic Rock Farmhouse IPA from a few years back still haunts our palates. In general these days, we’ll pick up any kind of pale ale or IPA made this way — it just floats our boat.

So, yes, when we say something tastes ‘Belgian’, we do mostly mean that it has that faintly funky, abandoned-fruit-bowl, distantly gingery quality. The same character that, in our home-brewing, we’ve managed to get from various supposedly highly divergent Belgian-style yeasts, from dried stuff intended for producing Witbier, to saison and Trappist strains cloned from famous breweries and dispatched in vials.

But maybe sometimes we’re referring to something even broader — a very vague sense of faintly rustic, barely tamed oddness.

If this was flipped and a bunch of Belgian beer geeks were telling us about a beer produced in, say, Ghent that tasted ‘really British’, we think we’d know what they were trying to get across. And noting that a beer tastes ‘quite German’ certainly conveys something, too.

Shortcuts, like ‘proper pub’ or ‘malty’, are fine when used with caution, and don’t always need pinning down at every corner, especially if it stalls the conversation.

Fameusement British — Watney’s in Belgium, 1969

The October 1969 edition of Watney’s in-house magazine, The Red Barrel, contains a substantial feature on the British mega-brewery’s operations in Belgium. Here are some highlights.

The author was John Nixon, editor of The Red Barrel, and what took him to Brussels in the summer of 1969 was the presentation of an award for the quality of Belgian-brewed Red Barrel keg bitter. (We think we’ve got that right — the text is a bit vague.) At that ceremony M. Orban of L’Institut Mondial pour la Protection de le Haute Qualite Alimentaire spoke of ‘the progress of an ideal to which men, calling themselves European, have dedicated their best efforts for so many years’. Highly topical in 2017… Can we even say poignant without having someone tick us off?

The feature proper is entitled ‘Continental Journey’ (as above) and is a charming period travelogue with a focus on beer. Mr Nixon observes, first, that Brussels isn’t far away once airport rigmarole is out of the way: ‘[Only] about the same distance from London as is Manchester — what an incredible difference that strip of water makes!’. Then, after a few observations about the terrible driving, the high price of food and drink, and the low cost of renting flats, he gets down to business:

I finished the [first] evening at The Red Lion, one of the first English pubs in Brussels. The house is going incredibly well and as I walked through the door I was greeted by Mine Host Major John Reynolds, his charming wife Pat and a vast chorus of slightly obscene singing from a circle of British Leyland apprentices — exactly what they were doing in the city I didn’t find out as the Reynolds rushed me upstairs to another bar where we could swap news in comfort and my delicate ears would not be affronted by the lyrics of British Rugby songs.

Ah, the British abroad! (See also.) Mr and Mrs Reynolds benefited in business terms but suffered personally as a result of the absence of British-style regulated licensing in Brussels:

They open at 9.00 am and are then continuously engaged until 5 o’clock in the morning. Of course, they have a bevy of carefully selected British and Belgian barmaids to assist, who ‘live in’ above the pub, but Mr and Mrs Reynolds have to work in shifts, sometimes seeing each other only for an hour or so each day or passing on the stairs in the small hours of the morning as one gets up and the other goes to bed!

Le Real, Brussels, 1969.

The next day Mr Nixon was escorted around the city by M. Joary, Watney’s PR man in Belgium, and (supposedly) a former boxing champion, Jean Charles, who was then in charge of sales to cafes in Brussels:

Our first stop was the Cafe Real, situated at the edge of a park and frequented by professional men — lawyers, doctors and business men who work in the area. The establishment is designed to represent a cafe in the Black Forest, Germany. It is panelled throughout in red pinewood, well decorated with chandeliers, flowers, advertisements, Red Barrels and the illuminated fluorescent advertisements which are a feature of nearly all Belgian cafes… You can buy most kinds of food at the Cafe Real… Drinks range from wine through to beer, with simple but unusual items like freshly-squeezed orange juice, which you could not obtain in most British cafes or pubs.

Continue reading “Fameusement British — Watney’s in Belgium, 1969”

Session #121: Bock! (Absence Of.)

Illustration adapted from a vintage bock beer poster.

For this edition of the monthly beer blogging jamboree Jon Abernathy has asked us to think about Bock, which left us in a pickle.

You see, in multiple UK cities over the course of several weeks, we haven’t seen a single Bock for sale. Perhaps surprisingly there was a Cornish Bock from St Austell (very decent, too) but if it still exists, it’s in deep hiding.

So we were going to swerve this Session altogether until, researching an article on Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson last week, we got thinking about Dortmunder.

Dortmunder, like Bock, is one of the 25 or so varieties of beer listed in the style guide in Jackson’s original World Guide to Beer back in 1977, and of which multiple examples were listed in our Bible, his 1998 throwaway, picture-heavy Great Beer Guide. But we can’t remember the last time we encountered anything calling itself a Dortmunder. (Although there are a few Exports around.)

Absent from his 1977 style guide, however, is Gose, examples of which are fairly easy to come by these days. That’s odd, isn’t it? That sour beer with salt and coriander should be more readily available than what you’d think might be a more accessible strong lager.

Well, maybe not. To many drinkers — even those with quaite refained palates — lager is lager is lager, and not terribly interesting. And a strong lager with a narrower focus on unsexy malt over hops is an even harder sell in 2017, especially to British drinkers who really do expect fireworks to justify an ABV of more than 5%.

UPDATE 11:20: Oh, except that we did have a Dortmunder at BrewDog Bristol in February. No Bock, though.

The Strawberry Thief: Belgium in Bristol

A lot of talking and thinking about Belgium and Belgian beer gave us the taste and so, passing through Bristol, we researched the best place to find it, which led us to The Strawberry Thief.

There are few examples — no examples? — of pastiche better than the original, but it is always educational. New Sherlock Holmes stories illuminate what Conan Doyle got right by what they get wrong; Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an excellent commentary on Star Wars; The Rutles bring home how unique The Beatles really were. And so on.

The Strawberry Thief pitches itself as ‘an elegant bar’ and adopts a number of Belgian quirks. A big one — the thing that tells you this is Not a Pub and that you are not in England — is waiter service. They’re good waiters, too — just on the right side of attentive without mithering, although (pastiche giveaway #1) they don’t have quite the rumpled, resigned authority that you get with the real deal in France, Belgium or Germany.

An odd detail that boosts the Belgian atmosphere is the furniture. We don’t know much about interior design but this stuff — brown, rounded, more delicate than bomb-proof British boozer kit — evoked Brussels or Bruges in some subconscious way. (Did Proust ever have a profound moment of recall through the seat of his pants?)

The beer, and its presentation, was The Big Sell. A substantial menu of around 50 Belgian beers covered all the bases, albeit with few surprises. The prices might be off-putting to some: most of the standard-sized bottles (330-375ml) were going for more than £6. All of those we ordered came in appropriately fancy glassware, properly branded in all but one case when an unbranded chalice was provided. We reckon we spent about £10 an hour on drinks between us — we happened to choose one of the cheaper beers, De La Senne Taras Boulba at £4.50 — which didn’t feel outrageous, if you think of it as rent on the seat, and bear in mind the high strength of most of what’s on offer.

The walls and ceiling at The Strawberry Thief.

What yanked us out of our Eurostar fantasy was the background music (contemporary dance pop where we wanted Grappelli), the light-blue walls (brown is still not cool in Britain) and the secondary theme: the designs of William Morris. The latter makes complete sense given the view from the window of the ornate facade of the arts-and-crafts Everard Printing Works opposite and, indeed, is the source of the bar’s name (‘Strawberry Thief’ is a Morris wallpaper design), but it’s got nothing to do with Belgium. Another thing that didn’t quite sit with the Belgian theme was the prevalence of pints of lager – by our reckoning draught Lost & Grounded Keller Pils (a normalish beer at a normalish price-per-pint from a local brewery) was the overall bestseller.

But as night fell, candles went out, lights came down, and a crowd filled every corner, all those quibbles washed away. If you’re willing play along, it’s close enough. We wouldn’t want, and couldn’t afford, to spend five hours here every night, but as a stop on a crawl, or as mid-week, post-work treat, it’s a nice garnish on a city beer scene otherwise dominated by old school real ale pubs or pallet-wood-n-Edison-bulbs craft beer bars.