Paul Walsh is the editor and publisher of a new magazine, Belgian Beer & Food, and kindly sent us an electronic copy of the first issue, out now.
Every now and then, someone asks, ‘Why isn’t there a decent beer magazine?’ Though BB&F has a very specific remit, could it be the publication everyone has been hoping for?
First impressions: it looks like one of those Borsetshire Life type society magazines aimed at people with ‘lifestyles’ — the kind you find in hotel rooms and in first class lounges. The typography and layout is tasteful, while the photography is downright gorgeous, but there is little immediate evidence of the cobwebs and character we associate with Belgian beer. It’s not very brown, in short.
The articles, however, are more imaginatively conceived than the rather glossy look of the magazine led us to expect, and we took the inclusion of Joe ‘Thirsty Pilgrim’ Stange’s name on the credits page as a sign of good things to come. His contribution is a solid, very readable guide to drinking in Brussels — one to cut out and keep.
There are also good pieces by writers we don’t know. We particularly enjoyed Emma Beddington’s consideration of women in the world of Belgian beer. She is not a beer drinker — her boyfriend smuggles gin into beer festivals on her behalf — which gives her tasting notes a certain refreshing originality.
Another highlight is the opening piece by Alan Hope, ‘Beer Without Borders’, which is an illuminating investigation of what beer culture means in Belgium, and the significance of beer as a kind of glue which binds an otherwise fragmented, fragile nation.
Less exciting, though readable enough after the manner of in-flight magazine copy, are uncritical pieces on various breweries and bars. We asked Mr Walsh if any of the articles were sponsored and he confirmed that three pieces (on Mort Subite, Bosteels and a restaurant called Bed Van Napoleon) were written as part of a package with paid advertising in the magazine. In future editions, arrangements like this really ought to be flagged.
Individual issues cost €6 while a year’s subscription (four issues) costs €14 (including UK delivery). We have decided to subscribe — there’s enough meat here to justify £3 a copy, and the glorious photography offers a cheaper alternative to a trip on Eurostar — but this is not the One Beer Magazine to Rule Them All.
The only thing the two beers reviewed below have in common is that they are from countries where experiments with new world hops are a relatively recent development.
Should we pleased when Belgian and German breweries are inspired by American ‘craft beer’? We don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, as long as it’s about adding variety, rather than part of introducing an invasive species. Based on this experience, Belgium has more to worry about on that front than Germany.
All mouth, no trousers
We picked up our bottle of Braufactum Palor pale ale (5.2% ABV, 750ml) for £2.50 from the bargain bin at the National Brewery Centre in Burton-upon-Trent gift shop, so it’s likely to be another cast-off from the International Brewing Awards.
The packaging was gorgeous: nicely textured paper for the smart-looking label, an unusually heavy bottle with a slinky shape… a bit too much, actually, as if it is intended as an executive gift rather than a drink.
The beer itself (an afterthought?) smelled distinctly soapy: we’d like to say coriander leaves or Earl Grey tea, but, nope: soap. It had a copper-coin flavour we associate with Perle hops, though it doesn’t contain that particular variety (it has Cascade and Polaris). A slight hard-toffee quality also made us think more of a big, malty Festbier than, say, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
Overall, we have to conclude that this is the worst of both worlds: the restraint of German beer with the rough-edges of something brewed in a bathtub.
Duvel’s Brasher, Cooler Younger Brother
We bought Duvel Tripel Hop 2013 (9.5% ABV, 330ml) from Noble Green Wines online at £3.59.
It is fundamentally the Duvel we know and love (very pale, high carbonation, dangerously drinkable) but even stronger, and dry-hopped with Sorachi Ace (2012 used Citra) turning up the dazzlement a notch.
We don’t know Sorachi Ace well, but assume they were responsible for the weediness (as in drugs), the passing hint of chives, and the freshly-picked gooseberry quality, none of which are usually present in Duvel. Some people don’t like them, but we have absolutely no complaints.
Bright and raw-tasting, but surprisingly well-balanced, we concluded that Tripel Hop was damn near perfect.
On March 31 1964, the front-page headline of the Daily Mirror was about mods and rockers rioting in Clacton. They were fuelled by ‘pep pills’ but, on the same page, was a story about a bit of bovver overseas, caused by an intoxicant closer to our heart.
“It was the Belgian beer that was mainly responsible,” according to a 17 year-old who witnessed an entire Easter weekend of rioting by English youths on a football tour in Ostend.
The epicentre of the trouble was what sounds like an English pub, the White Horse Inn, where, according to young Ken Calder “a Liverpool beat group were playing”. (A Belgian police spokesman described most of the rioters as looking rather like the Beatles, too.)
Anyone who’s ever been to Belgium will nod in recognition when they hear what kicked the violence off: “English people had been swearing and shouting at the waiters and staff, because the service of drinks was slow.” Even today, Belgian waiters have a knack for avoiding eye contact until they think you’re ready for another beer.
We don’t know what the English rioters were drinking, but could this be considered an early example of ‘lager lout’ behaviour by Brits abroad?
Importing beer is expensive and inconvenient, and, from the perspective of British breweries, every bottle of Belgian, German or American beer represents a lost opportunity.
Recently, we’ve seen Shepherd Neame launch a licensed, UK-brewed version of Sam Adams Boston Lager; Fuller’s launch a US-style IPA, Wild River, complete with Americana branding; and smaller (for now) breweries are launching saisons, dubbels, tripels, pilsners, weizens, wits and imperial double black bacon IPAs left, right and centre.
Generally speaking, we’d really rather drink a fresher, British-brewed imitation of a foreign beer than a stale, authentic, imported one.
However… the first report we’ve read, from Rabid Bar Fly, suggests that, the Shepherd Neame brewed Sam Adams Lager is fine, but an entirely different beer than the original. We haven’t seen the ‘point-of-sale’ material but our concern remains that most punters will think they’re drinking an imported beer and pay more for the privilege. If it doesn’t have BREWED IN THE UK in big letters, it’s a swizz.
Fuller’s approach is interesting. We’re taking Wild River’s branding as an attempt to convey a sense of the inspiration behind the beer and to give the consumer an idea of what to expect in their glass, rather than an attempt to con anyone: the branding merely evokes America and bears a prominent Fuller’s logo.
The smaller breweries are generally proud of where they’re based and there is little room for confusion in the packaging, as far as we can see. The problem here is that, sometimes, regrettably, the beer is half as good and yet twice as expensive as the real thing.
These wrinkles will iron out. A couple of years back, Meantime’s own lagers were put to shame by the imported beers from Schoenram on sale alongside them at the Greenwich Union; but, on our last visit, Meantime’s beers had improved immeasurably and, yes, were better and cheaper than their imported cousins.