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.

Everything We Wrote in February 2017

A bar counter with hand pumps: The Month That Was February 2017

We missed a few days in February because of the pressures of real life — family, flu, work — but still managed to knock out a few decent posts from beer reviews to Belgian bars.

We warmed up for the month by reviewing a bottled beer from Vibrant Forest, the stars of last year’s Great British Beer Festival for us: ‘Once we’d accepted that there was to be no grapefruit festival as advertised, we enjoyed it for what it was…


Macro image: 'Hops' with illustration of hop cones, 1970s.

More for the record than anything we rounded up responses to a Guardian article suggesting that Brexit might already be stamping on the toes of UK craft brewers and added a few thoughts of our own:

At the root of the Buy British school of thought it seems to us there are a couple of wrongheaded thoughts. First, we think some people believe the popularity of pale, hoppy American-influenced beers threatens the very existence of traditional English bitter — that they are the thin end of a wedge which will inevitably lead to total domination… but who can seriously say they struggle to get a pint of something brown and old-school in Britain in 2017?


Bullseye Brown -- autumnal vintage beer label. (Detail.)

For the 120th edition of The Session (which takes it to ten years, by the way) we let Joe Tindall’s wide-open choice of topic, brown beer, inspire a bit of whimsy:

Some people will tell you brown isn’t a flavour, but it is. It’s why you sear meat, and about 50 per cent of the meaning of toast.  (N.B. black is also a flavour.)

Joe’s round up of all the contributions is here.

Continue reading “Everything We Wrote in February 2017”

In Which We Fall into a Brown Study

This month’s Session hosted by Joe Tindall at The Fatal Glass of Beer is wonderfully opened ended: write about brown beer.

Some people will tell you brown isn’t a flavour, but it is. It’s why you sear meat, and about 50 per cent of the meaning of toast.  (N.B. black is also a flavour.)

Brown beer isn’t necessarily boring but a hell of a lot of boring beers seem to be brown. Adrian Tierney-Jones has, on more than one occasion, referred to beers as being the same brown as an old sideboard and it’s true: brown is the colour of corduroy trousers, garden fences, Austin Ambassadors, sensible shoes and your grandma’s coffee table. It’s a kind of camouflage.

You know what else is often brown? Pubs. We like brown pubs, too, but in a brown town drinking brown beer in a brown pub with a brown dog on the brown lino, browned off, until you drop down brown bread from a total eclipse of the heart. You can see why some people might be down on brown.

Back in the 1990s Sean Franklin of Rooster’s ditched brown in favour of pale because he wanted a blank canvas on which hops could shine. If pale is blank, is brown noise? Or texture? Texture can be good. Noise too. There’s a reason people put dirty old Polaroid filters on their iPhone photos.

Let’s do some word association. Is there someone else in the room with you right now? Ask them to tell you, without over-thinking, what colour beer is. We knew it — you owe us 50p!

We’ll be surprised if there isn’t at least one Session post this time round with the title Fifty Shades of Brown. St Austell HSD is a sort of burnt umber, in the language of Crayola crayons. The same brewery’s Cornish Best is what Crayola would call ‘beaver’. (Stop sniggering.) And their Tribute, which we have heard described as a ‘boring brown bitter’ by people who have clearly been spoiled, is a similar shade of amber to Timothy Taylor’s Landlord. And that’s just one brewery. Stare into the brown abyss long enough and you’ll begin to see stars.

Lager used to be brown, and some of it still is. Do you reckon Britain would have gone crazy for it like it has in the last 40 years if it wasn’t sunny, bubbly yellow? Gold is a much easier sell: ‘I hold here, in my mortal hand, a nugget of purest brown!’

Black + gold = brown. Last week at BrewDog Bristol, where brown is frowned upon, we ended up with a free half of Born to Die (a big IPA) which, on its own, was too harsh and boozy. So, we mixed it, 3 parts to 1, with BrewDog’s Guinness-challenging stout. The end result was like a stronger, shoutier cousin of Fuller’s ESB. You need never be without a brown beer if you’ve got a half of stout at hand. (Sadly for all you brownophobes there is no similar trick for turning ESB into double IPA.)

We probably won’t want to say or type the word brown for a week or two after this. But we don’t half want a pint of bitter.

Everything We Wrote in January 2017

From Golden Pints to Victorian faux-lager, here’s a summary of our blog posts from the last month with updates and links out to other people’s follow-ups where we spotted them.

We kicked off 2017 by reviewing every Golden Pints post we could get our hands on and using them to put together a To Do list of breweries whose beers we wanted to look out for in the coming months. We’ve added a few new items and links since originally posting.


'Beer Cooperage' -- vintage illustration of beer casks.

When Cloudwater announced its intention to cease producing cask ale it got us talking between ourselves and we wrote that up as a breakfast debate: is it the end of the world, or nothing to worry about? Peter McKerry rounded up every post and article on this much-discussed topic.


Something moved us to write a couple of hundred words about the pleasure of tending the fire in a pub:

We didn’t mind when it cracked like a whip and spat sparks our way — that was all part of the pleasure. Fires and the sea are two things we can stare at for hours, and if an open fire in a pub on a cold day is a joy, one you’ve had a hand in lighting is ten times better again.

Rather to our surprise, people seemed to like it so we will try to be less shy about indulging such observational whimsy in future.

Continue reading “Everything We Wrote in January 2017”

Michael Jackson’s Writing for CAMRA 1977-1988

Like 80 per cent of those who write about beer in anything like a professional capacity, we’ve been commissioned to write a substantial piece about Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson as the tenth anniversary of his death approaches.

As part of that, we’ve been exchanging emails with Alan ‘A Good Beer Blog’ McLeod who is a noted Jackson sceptic. He habitually questions whether Mr Jackson’s influence was as great as the consensus would have it, and whether other influential writers (Richard Boston, Dave Line) aren’t being short-changed by Jackson’s elevation.

One specific question he put to us was this: what exactly was Jackson writing between the World Guide to Beer in 1977 and the next item on his Wikipedia bibliography, a 1986 pocket guide to beer? How could he be so influential with one book every ten years?

One answer is that that really is only a selected bibliography — we have a copy, for example, of the 1982 Pocket Guide to Beer, which is the one veteran brewers we have spoken to carried with them as they explored Europe and the US in the 1980s, and there were paperback reprints/revisions of the World Guide too.

But, as is often the case, Alan’s niggling has highlighted a real issue: the lack of a comprehensive list of Michael Jackson’s writing for magazines and newspapers which, of course, is ephemeral by nature.

For the sake of the collective brain, and also because it’s useful for our article, we agreed to make a start on a list of material published in the UK. We’ve started with the monthly column he wrote for CAMRA, a filleting of which is reproduced below with notes on the content of each article.

If you see anything there that might help with your research drop us an email (contact@boakandbailey.com) and we’ll be happy to provide more information.

The harder job, now, is tracking down the material he wrote for the national press in the same period. We have searched The Times and Guardian archives but if you have clippings, or perhaps have access to the Sunday Times archive online through your local library service, we’d welcome any tips.

Continue reading “Michael Jackson’s Writing for CAMRA 1977-1988”