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.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 12 November 2016: Mexico, Manchester & Mad Science

Detail from the cover of Gambrinus Waltz.

Before we get into the links a quick heads-up: Gambrinus Waltz, our short e-book about how lager came to London in the 19th Century, is free this weekend for Amazon Kindle (UK | US | Germany | Canada). At this stage, we just really want people to read it. We’ll be removing it from sale very shortly, too, because we have some other plans for it, so grab it and get stuck in if you haven’t already!


Right. Back to business as usual, or as near as we can get in a week when the whole world seems a bit angry and/or confused, on which subject, just to warm up, here’s news of how fear of Donald Trump’s Mexico-US border wall has already hit the beer industry from John Kell at Fortune:

Rob Sands, CEO of alcoholic beverage giant Constellation Brands, came to New York City on Wednesday to talk about Corona beer and Robert Mondavi wine. And before he even took the stage, the company’s stock took an 8% nosedive… That’s because investors are worried about what Donald Trump’s victory could mean for… [the] owner of a Mexican brewer that targets an American customer base that could potentially face deportation.

(Via @agoodbeerblog who also has some additional historical commentary here.)


Manchester montage.

For Good Beer Hunting Matt Curtis provides an outsider’s eye view of the Manchester beer scene aimed primarily at a US audience but probably useful for anyone who doesn’t know the city:

You wouldn’t think that a small piece of plastic could completely divide opinion between a nation’s beer lovers. You’d be wrong. A sparkler is a small plastic nozzle that attaches to the end of the swan-neck spout on the hand-operated pump that pulls beer from a cask. It nebulizes the naturally occurring CO2 in the beer, aerating the liquid as it’s squeezed through the holes in the nozzle. This produces smaller bubbles and, when poured correctly with the swan neck in the very bottom of the glass as the beer is pulled, will produce a frothy head of tight, creamy foam.

(Matt has received a fair bit of often mean-spirited criticism over the last couple of years but here’s why we like this piece: he heard complaints that UK beer writing is London-centric and got on a train; he has made an effort to explore both trad and trendy; he has included a range of voices and perspectives; and, in a killer last paragraph, has addressed the question of price/value. Not bloody bad for a little over 2,000 words.)


Many beers piled up on a table.
SOURCE.

Bryan Roth has a profile of Ken Weaver who ploughs through two or three different beers every day writing reviews for All About Beer. (Disclosure: we sell the odd article to ABB too.) The description of his working practices, though they sound quite reasonable to us, might have some gnashing their teeth, or at least turning green with envy:

At most, Weaver writes 500 words reviewing a single beer for Rare Beer Club, but most often will write about 50, giving five to 10 minutes for each of the two or three different beers he’ll try each day of work. The catch? He drinks three or four ounces of most bottles or cans that come his way, a blasphemous treason to beer nerds who might decry the lost remnants of Russian River, Funky Buddha, Omnipollo or Other Half beers.

“Our sink is the biggest drinker in the household,” Weaver joked.


Illustration: mad science.
SOURCE: Pam Wishbow/Eater.

For Eater Kyle Frischkorn writes about efforts at the University of Leuven in Belgium to reverse engineer Belgian beer yeasts with a view to creating better ones:

Armed with his findings about the inner workings of beer yeast, [Dr Kevin] Verstrepen wondered if he could push the envelope a bit further. For example, Trappist brewers trying to make the traditional, malty toffee taste of a dubbel beer are saddled with the yeast they’ve been using for centuries: Because yeast helps impart flavors that beer drinkers expect, brewers have no choice but to keep using the same strains. They can’t swap in a faster, more efficiently fermenting yeast without sacrificing characteristic, beloved flavors. Verstrepen thinks he might be able to swap the genes instead, and achieve the desired compromise. Enter Frankenbrew.


Summer Bright Lager with Mango (marketing image).

This is a nice format for reviewing and pondering upon a beer from Beer Is Your Friend: ‘Five Things About… Summer Bright Lager With Mango’. This line in particular rings out like a bell:

I call myself a ‘beer geek’ not a ‘craft beer geek’, which means I have an interest in all beer, not just the ones with a hop profile.


Finally, there’s this, which is just the kind of thing we love having Tweeted at us:

Microscope as Brewer’s Life Blood, 1924

1899 illustration of brewing yeast.

“As far as the practical brewer is concerned, complete knowledge of the correct use of the microscope is as necessary as his life blood, for it will save him a host of troubles. Indeed, it passes my comprehension how some prefer to take their chance when you hear them say: ‘I never look at my yeast under the microscope. If it is of a certain solidity and smells all right, and is of a good colour, I never worry further about it!’ This kind of thing may not have led to disaster in former days, when the alcoholic content of beers was such that it was an efficient protection, but to trust to such rough and ready methods in these days must surely court disaster.”

‘The Training of an Operative Brewer’, B.G.C. Wetherall, Journal of the Operative Brewers’ Guild, October 1924

Brewdog: Unleash the Yeast

Module 1: Yeast
Look around you. Look AROUND you. Just look around you.

This pack of beer is aimed squarely at beer geeks: the same base beer (amber coloured, 6.3% ABV) fermented with four different yeasts.

Yeast, the Scottish Wunderkinder argue, is an unsung hero in the brewing process, often overlooked because hops hog the limelight — a thought with which we heartily agree.

We also found something extremely appealing about the idea of an off-the-shelf educational tasting session. Like a chemistry set for grown-ups, it encourages the setting aside of a couple of hours, the clearing of a tabletop, and the taking of notes. This is not drinking, but thinking. With drink.

Beer #1: fermented with Pilsen lager yeast

This is a yeast we know reasonably well from our own home brewing experiments but we struggled, at first, to discern its influence in this case. That might be because we have been conditioned to expect that yeast character in weaker, paler beers, and needed to overcome our programming.

Eventually, we did begin to pick out the familiar sulphurous note; something lemony; and then a faint reminder of Parma Violets.

Though they didn’t deliver a huge aroma, we did find that the use of decent amounts of American hops clashed with the yeast, knocking it out of focus.

What we learned: Pilsner Yeast does not seem, as they say, to allow citrusy hops ‘to sing’.

Beer #2: Bavarian weizen yeast

On the odd occasion we have run tasting sessions, German wheat beer has been our go-to to demonstrate the impact of yeast. Its famous banana-clove-bubblegum character is easy to spot and striking. And that is what we expected here.

In fact, we found a grainy, slightly smoky character, with a whack of harsh hoochy alcohol. It wasn’t very pleasant, frankly, and probably wouldn’t help a would-be beer geek to spot this yeast in action in another beer.

What we learned: wheat beer yeast is not much at home in a strong pale ale; and it needs handling properly to make with the bananas.

Beer #3: American ale yeast

This is where we expected Brewdog to shine, and for a brief break from the educational misery. It smelled fantastic, a big leafy fug of Stoned Love rising above the glass.

It tasted, unfortunately, less exciting — plasticky and gritty, like their big Hardcore IPA let down with water.

Three beers in, we were starting to notice a common off-flavour, and wondered if there was a fundamental problem with the base beer.

What we learned: were there actually more hops in this beer than in the others? If not, then it’s easy to see why yeasts like this one are popular with hophead brewers seeking to maximise their impact.

Beer #4: Belgian Trappist yeast

Cor! Though the common dodgy flavour is still just about evident, this was by far the best beer as beer. The yeast is so strident that it stamps all over the hops, pumping out spicy esters and turning the base beer into baked-apples-with-raisins delight.

Well, delight might be a bit strong: it’s not the best Belgian-style beer we’ve had by a long chalk, but really was both a demonstration of what Belgian yeasts do as well as being tasty.

What we learned: ‘Belgian’ is definitely a flavour.

Final thoughts

We hope Brewdog do this again but, next time, the base beer needs to be better and, more importantly, plainer. Legendary British brewer Sean ‘Rooster’s’ Franklin has often spoken of pale’n’hoppy beers brewed without dark malts as providing a ‘blank canvas’ for other ingredients, and that’s what was probably needed here.

We also think there’s something jarring about the application of the Brewdog branding to this product. The beers are not exciting or awesome, even though one is very nice, and the Rock Horns rhetoric is misplaced. We’d suggest that, next year, they call the pack Understanding Yeast: practical exercises for the classroom (J. Watt & M. Dickie) and package it in textbook white.

We bought our four-pack as part of an online order from Brewdog’s own store. It cost £9.50 + delivery (around £2.35 per bottle).

Living Beer and the Rhetoric of Whole Food

Wholefood store scanned from a 1970s cookery book.

We haven’t drawn any firm conclusions on this subject yet, but see what you make of these quotations. (Our emphasis throughout.)

“For this reason ‘whole’ corn meal, which contains the germ, will have a greater life-containing, life-giving quality than the ‘degermed’ cornmeal found in supermarkets. Whole cornmeal is a “live” food — it spoils when the oil in the germ becomes rancid. Degermed cornmeal is a ‘dead’ food, as it lacks the germ (of life). Hence, it can be kept on grocery shelves for months without spoiling, though like all milled grains it does become stale.” Edward Espe Brown, Tassajara Bread Book, 1970.

“…’natural foods’ now threaten to replace ‘gourmet cooking’ as the main topic of food conversations… More than just a revival of old familiar food fads, this is part of the general concern now felt about the deterioration of our environment. Boredom with too much smooth, bland, overprocessed and sweet food has helped to attract not only the expected faddists, hypochondriacs and axe-grinders, but at least a proportion of scientists, especially nutritionists and conservationists.” ‘From Cranks to Nuts’, The Times, 7 August 1971.

“We opted at first for a high strength bitter brewed just from malt, hops, yeast and water. As well as being more wholesome this would also be simpler to produce.” Martin Sykes recalling the founding of the Selby Brewery in 1972, Called to the Bar, 1991.

“…the adulterated sludge that is glorified under the name of keg.” Michael Hardman, CAMRA’s What’s Brewing?, June 1972.

“The first distinction that must be made by the discerning drinker of draught beer is between keg, top-pressure, and traditional (the Real Thing)… traditional beer is alive while keg ber, like most bottled beer, is dead.” Richard Boston, ‘The Quick and the Dead’, The Guardian, 25 August 1973.

“British brewers are practically free to tamper with their beer as much as they want, unlike their colleagues in West Germany, who are forbidden by law to use any ingredient other than malt, hops and water… Fortunately, many brewers in Britain have kept faithful to nature, and beer brewed and served naturally can be found in nearly every corner of the country.” Michael Hardman, Beer Naturally, 1978.

“‘Real ale’ is the popular name for traditional beer brewed for centuries in Britain from malted barley and hops, with hundreds of regional variations in recipe and taste… Many brewers, big and small, use adjuncts in the brewing process. Flaked maize, potato starch, pasta flour, rice grits, malt and hop extracts will probably do you no harm but they are detrimental to the flavour of the beer.” CAMRA Good Beer Guide, 1978.

Poor, faithful old sugar, written out of history