We’re off to Brussels for a long weekend in a couple of days. We’ve been a couple of times before but this time we’ll be armed with laptop and camera for instant blogging.
We’re putting together some plans for what we’re going to try but wondered whether any of you had suggestions for how to navigate the enormous universe of Belgian beers. Are there any beers you think we should definitely “try before we die”? How about some themes for beer crawls (perhaps a geuze night, or a night on beers less than 5%…) Or are there some amazing beers you’ve never tried that you want us to attempt to track down and review? We like a challenge…
We’ve found that Belgian Beers is a useful place to start – as well as reviews of Belgian beers, one by one, Andreea lists breweries and bars. Nice photos too.
We’ll be based in Brussels but plan to do some day trips. We have three complete days, and possibly an extra night depending on how late we get in on Thursday.
When we set up this blog, one of our unwritten rules was that we would not be overly negative about beers. If we didn’t like something, we would move on and blog about something we did like.
I’m going to break this rule now to warn to fellow beer lovers, particularly you experimental types. Do not try Mongozo coconut beer. It is possibly the nastiest thing I have ever tasted (yes, that means worse than the polio vaccine). I’m not the only one to be disgusted – see reviews on RateBeer.
One of my locals has been stocking this stuff for years, with increasingly desperate signs (“Have a refreshing, unique coconut beer!”). I should have heeded the warning, but I was in an experimental mood. Oh dear. Having had a couple of sips and visibly reeled from the shock, I tried my usual tactic in these circumstances of pretending it wasn’t beer. That didn’t work either.
The sad thing is that I like the idea in principle. The Mongozo beers are brewed by Brouwerij Huyghe and use fairtrade coconuts. I’ve nothing against coconuts in beer, and think they could work quite well. Lew Bryson (“Seen through a glass“) has a review of a Coconut Porter here which sounds right up my street.
The problem with this one is the sugar. It is just so sweet, you can feel your teeth rotting as you drink it. I can forgive many flavours in a beer, but excess sweetness is not one of them.
Sorry Mongozo. I wanted to like you, I really did. If it makes you feel better, The Beer Nut has had some other Mongozo products and is cautiously polite about them.
Weird and worrying news, which we picked up through Akelas Biggins — Steve Harrison, the Vice President of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, has gone missing. It seems he had been depressed. Let’s hope he’s OK.
Wrocław, Poland, is a fascinating place. It’s been part of Bohemia, Poland, Germany, and probably a few other countries I’ve forgotten. It also has a decent brew pub, Spiż, in the town square – probably on the same site as a German bierkeller from its days as the German city of Breslau.
What I didn’t realise until today is that it was also the home of something called “The beer war of 1380”. The city’s website says:
The duality of municipal governance – ecclesiastical and secular – gave rise to the famous ‘beer war’ of 1380. The City Council defended the city’s monopoly on the sale of beer against the Cathedral canons, who lived in Ostrów Tumski (Cathedral Island). As a result, an interdict (a church disciplinary measure) was imposed on the city’s churches, which were subsequently pillaged. It took a papal bull to end the conflict.
Now, having a war about beer really is taking it too seriously.
I read about the beer war in Norman Davies’ Microcosm, a history of the city of Wrocław/Breslau. In the same book, he also talks intriguingly about the two dominant beers in Wrocław in the middle ages. One was called “Schöps” — Davies says it was a brand name and was first mentioned in 1392. It came to be the most popular brand in the area in the late 15th century, superceding something called “Schweidnitzer”. I’m adding both to the list of weird historical beers, along with Pimlico Ale.
Also see a much older post, “Why isn’t Polish beer good?”
A quick post on the highlights of GBBF for us. More posts to come on some of the beers we had there in the next couple of days…
Things we liked about GBBF
- The diversity of the punters. You get a lot of people here who would not normally come to beer festivals. The ratio of women to men is considerably higher here than at other festivals, and it’s not uncommon to see groups of women enjoying the beers. OK, so there’s still a queue for the gents but none at all for the ladies… but each time we come back to GBBF (we were last here a couple of years ago) it becomes more representative of the UK population as a whole.
- Obviously, the huge numbers of beers, from some quite obscure breweries. Nice to see so many milds, porters and stouts – even real ale pubs don’t tend to stock these as much as “plain” bitters styles. Our favourites from the UK were “Old Freddie Walker” from the Moor Beer Company in Somerset – a dark strong ale (7.3%) with a lovely rich, raisiny flavour, and Glencoe Wild Oat Stout, made by the Bridge of Allan Brewery in Scotland. This latter packed in a huge amount of flavour for its 4.1% – and it’s organic too.
- We liked the layout by region, and the “new” stalls, such as the vegetarian / organic beer, and the “Bar Nouveau” – handy for helping you organise your session!
- The Bieres Sans Frontieres stalls. The beer-tasting highlight of the evening was probably a couple of American beers – Pennichuk Halligan RyePA (5.1%) and the Portsmouth Brewery’s “BottleRocket” IPA (6.something I think). Both full of aroma and flavouring hops, but beautifully balanced.
- The third-of-a-pint measure. Really nice little glasses, fabulous for tasting as much as possible – and economical too. And you didn’t feel bad about tipping 60-pence worth of beer down the sink.
- The programme was extremely helpful to beer-geeks and non-beer-geeks alike, and helpfully priced at Â£1. The tasting notes, basic information about beer, and interesting articles about beer and food, and the “local” nature of cask beer, will surely help raise interest in good beer amongst the casual punters.
- The fact that we found some Baltic porters! We bought these for takeaway (and later blog posts). Seriously impressed that GBBF can deliver what even specialist beers shops and Russian delis cannot…
- The food selection – we thought this was pretty decent, with a range of meat products, Thai & Indian food, and of course “snacks to beer” (pork scratchings and pies). Not too over-priced either, considering this was a “premier venue” in the middle of London.
It seems churlish to point to weaknesses when we had such a good time, but as my line manager would say, there’s always something you could do better.
- The condition of the beers. This is probably our biggest gripe – let’s face it, a beer festival is not the best place to store cask ale, and a lot of the beers we tried (particularly low ABV British styles) were slightly off – had to tip a few down the sink. To return to the point of yesterday’s post, it seems a shame to get so many potential new punters in one spot and then serve them stuff that smells like farts and tastes like cider. No, I wasn’t at the cider and perry bar at the time!
- More seating – or at least make sure the floor’s a bit cleaner. If I was being really lah-di-dah, I’d suggest more umbrellas for the tables – this would help the venue feel more like a large beer garden and less like an aircraft hangar.
- It would be great to have some water points. You need something to (a) cleanse your palate (b) cleanse your glass (c) help stave off the hangover.
All in all, we had a great time, and well done to CAMRA for excellent organisation. Special mention of the pre-festival publicity on the Tube and in the London papers for raising awareness outside the beer-geek world.
Don’t just take our word for it!
Other bloggers have some good perspectives on GBBF. Stonch gives us a fabulous description of the atmosphere, together with a roll-call of the great and the good in UK brewing. We loved Pete “the second-best beer drinker in Britain ” Brown’s view on GBBF, which challenges the insistence on cask ale but still recommends you go. Melissa Cole (“Girls Guide to beer“) seems to have had a good time as well.
The GBBF is on until Saturday at Earls Court, London. We’ve found that a lot of the beer runs out by Friday, so go as soon as you can! Link to GBBF page on CAMRA website.