Tag Archives: Leffe

Session #91: Our First Belgian

This is our contribution to the 91st beer blogging session hosted by Belgian Smaak.

Leffe Blonde

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.

Would they be flattered?

Train journeys have certainly improved since the arrival of the Sheffield Tap and other takeaway beer places at some of Britain’s train stations.

A recent trip was enlivened by bottles of Sierra Nevada Torpedo, a delicious American IPA which is a favourite of Rake manager Glyn’s, and Goose Island Matilda.

The latter is the Chicago brewery’s attempt at a Belgian-style ale. They’d apparently like us to drink it from a “wide mouthed goblet” but, on a train, you have to make do with a little plastic glass.

On this showing, we’d say that it tastes really, really similar to Leffe Blonde, if perhaps a touch more bitter. Would Goose Island be flattered by that comparison? Probably not, though we don’t mean it as a criticism. (We’re quite partial to the odd glass of Leffe, despite its ubiquity and Big Industrial Brewing pedigree.)

We're back (with a short beer review)

Wendelinus Abbey Beer from French brewery Meteor

We got back from our hols yesterday and have a few beer-related bits and pieces to report. For starters, though, we’ll mention the very first halfway decent beer of the break — Wendelinus Biere d’Abbaye, from the French brewery Meteor. They’re based in the not-very-French sounding Alsation town of Hochfelden. It’s done up to look like a cheap knock-off of Leffe.

Our bottles came from the train’s buffet car, and were served in plastic tumblers. It actually tasted pretty pleasant — some honey flavours and spiciness — but that might be partly because we were bored stiff stuck on a train in the south of France waiting for a smashed up lorry to be removed from a level crossing up ahead. We thought it as good as the blond beers from Leffe or Grimbergen, at any rate.

First encounters with Belgian beer and the Dove revisited

Boon beer at the Dove pub, hackneyRon’s been posting a fair few reminiscences recently, including a couple of posts on first encountering Belgian beer – here, and here.

My first encounters were not so cool. Around about the turn of the century, when Leffe and Hoegaarden were beginning to appear in trendy London pubs, a mate suggested going to the Dove, Hackney for her birthday.

Having got a bus to the really rough bit of Hackney, and walked underneath some dodgy railway arches to get there, I was already in a bad mood that she hadn’t suggested somewhere closer to home. I got even grumpier when I saw what was on offer – weird foreign stuff at MORE THAN £4 A PINT!!! The barstaff did try to explain some rubbish about how in Belgium you drank it from nice small glasses, but I wasn’t having any of it. And it tasted weird.

I can’t remember exactly what I drank – I think I had a fruit beer (don’t people always when they’re faced with a Belgian beer menu for the first time?) and a Delirium Tremens, because the elephants were cool. We moaned to my friend for having brought us there for quite some time afterwards.

I’m always sceptical about people who claim they’ve always been into cool stuff. I’m happy to admit to being a philistine. And I think my experience is illustrative of the difficulties that Belgian beer faces in gaining acceptance in the UK, particularly the insistence on the pint as the only measure that makes sense.

Anyway, I went back to the Dove a year or so later, when I was a bit more open to it (i.e. had a job and could afford it). I picked beers with odd names (Slag Pils! Mort Subite!) and funny beer glasses (Kwak pipes aplenty), and enjoyed the food. It became a bit of a treat. Then it became the victim of its own success, and the last time I went there before today I remember the service being dreadful, the food so-so, the beer a bit off and the whole place full of smoke and screeching media types.

Then, having watched “In Bruges” earlier this week (we liked it) we got a bit of craving for Belgian beers in “gay glasses” (to paraphrase the film) and decided it was time for a return.

We’ve learnt from past experience that places in London can go from being great to lousy to great again — the power of the internet, perhaps, as bar managers respond to comments on review websites and blogs? At any rate, the Dove was in top form today – superb food, and a great selection of Belgian beers on tap and in bottles. They also had six or so British ales on, included Oregon Best from Crouch Vale, a delicious homage to American pale ales.

The staff look like they’re all in trendy bands, but manage to hold it together long enough to carefully serve your beer in the right glasses.

It’s a very cosy spot, full of nooks and crannies and reminiscent of a pub in Ghent we went to. With the smoking ban in place, it’s an extremely pleasant place to spend a gloomy afternoon and gently souse one’s liver. Highly recommended.

We may blog more about some of the bonkers Belgian brews we had, including one that tasted like Heinz spaghetti…

Boak

Here’s a map to the Dove.