The last time we tried Fantôme Saison was at Cask in Pimlico in 2010. Back then, we didn’t really get saison (here’s the moment where it began to click) and, anyway, as various people told us, Fantôme’s is notoriously variable. At any rate, as far as we can tell*, though we made it our beer of the week, we didn’t write about it at length, and don’t remember much about it.
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?
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.
The Expo in Brussels in 1958 was an opportunity for Britain to present its culture to the world so, of course, we sent a pub.
At a press conference in 1957, it was announced that 500 British ‘concerns’ were to take stands at the Expo, and that a highlight would be the Britannia Inn, to be built and run by Whitbread. They were, in the late 1950s, the single biggest exporter of British beer to Belgium, and were willing to stump up the £40,000 the project was expected to cost.
(They weren’t alone: John Smith’s and the Hope & Anchor brewery of Sheffield announced plans to run a more modest ‘patio bar’ elsewhere on site.)
The Britannia was intended to demonstrate the ‘warmth and friendly atmosphere’ of the traditional pub, but also that the public house, and Britain more generally, was moving with the times.
To modern eyes, it seems to be an example of that poor, unfashionable relic — ‘the estate pub’. Flat-roofed and square-edged, it was built from pale modern brick with white wood slats, and avoided cod-Victorian brownness. Its terrace was covered with white tables and parasols, while the interior was designed to evoke the feel of the royal yacht with which it shared a name.
Whitbread also brewed a special beer for the pub, Britannia Bitter. It was considered remarkably strong by British standards (we don’t have any stats, though) and was presumably intended to appeal to the Continental palate.
Not everyone like the Britannia and C.F. Huebner of Kent wrote to the Times (17/05/58) to complain.
The serious criticism I would make of the British exhibit is that the so-called Britannia pub does not truly represent an English pub and I am amazed that the brewing firm who sponsored it, who in other respects are an excellent organisation, should not have made sure the representation was more real.
Quibbles aside, the Britannia worked well for Whitbread and almost every press report about the British stand at Expo 58 mentioned the pub as a highlight. In his 1959 review of trading (Observer, 26/07) Colonel T.H. Whitbread said of the Britannia that it had been “a much greater success both financially and from a publicity point of view than I ever thought possible”.
In the years that followed, attempts were made to capitalise on fond memories of the Expo.
Britannia Bitter remained in production as a ‘premium’ product, sold exclusively, at first, at the Samuel Whitbread, a state-of-the-art pub on Leicester Square, from 1958.
Though the pub building was moved elsewhere in Belgium and became a private house (FT 24/10/58; does anyone know where it is?) its name, sign and ‘exhibits’ (models and paintings of ships called Britannia) were moved to Dover in the UK, where it commenced trading in 1962. It was also supplied with the supposedly upmarket Britannia Bitter, which became a national brand from 1967 onwards (Times 23/01/67).
The Britannia’s true legacy, however, is probably the idea of the pre-packaged English pub abroad. In a 1967 report for the Financial Times Christopher Meakin (29/06) made clear that the Britannia wasn’t the first pub to be shipped overseas but argued that its success gave the trend impetus. At first, they were mostly a national publicity tool accompanying British trade exhibitions, but, as Meakin reveals, brewers and entrepreneurs weren’t blind to the commercial potential:
One man at least already specialises in providing instant traditional British atmosphere for pubs abroad, and is currently negotiating a string of 200 Olde Englishe Innes to stretch coast-to-coast across America.
“We provide them with everything — false oak beams, false fireplaces, hunting prints and horns, pewter tankards, stuffed fish, warming pans and horse brasses,” Mr Leslie Kostick, managing director of K.B. Contracts told me.
Mr Kostick produces three varieties of pub for overseas use — Tudor, Victorian and Regency. So far K.B. Contracts has completed a ‘Britannia’ in Holland, ‘The Bulldog’ in Canada and the ‘John Bull’ in Portugal.
Though there are such English pubs to be found around the world today, they are far outnumbered (it seems to us — we haven’t counted) by Irish pubs, set up using the same business model.
Is it too much to say that the Britannia in Brussels begat the Blarney in Berlin?
PS. We haven’t read it yet, but Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58 is a period comic thriller set in and around the Britannia.
Over-thinking beer, pubs and the meaning of craft since 2007