Tripel-Off Final: Westmalle vs. Karmeliet

We finally have a winner – we now know which is the best Tripel, no arguesy-backs.

The final, between the defending champion Westmalle and plucky AB-InBev-owned underdog Karmeliet was a tense game that went right down to the wire. You could have cut the atmosphere with a brick, Brian, and so on.

Both beers were essentially flawless, as you’d expect considering the competition they saw off. There’s no doubt: these are both great, delicious, delightful Tripels.

Karmeliet was sweeter with a distinct pear drop character we hadn’t detected in earlier rounds. It seemed less complex than its opposition, which is not to say there wasn’t plenty going on – just eight tracks of overdubs rather than sixteen.

Westmalle had all the same stuff but with a firmer bitterness, and more layers – stewed fruit, cloves, banana, kazoo, string quartet, bloody booze! It seemed more solid, too, almost custard-like on the tongue.

But maybe all that weight and depth is too much? Karmeliet is just such fun, so light and exciting.

So, which will triumph? Spritz, or solidity? Pop, or baroque?

It was genuinely tough to call, and almost went to a tie-breaking Patreon supporter vote.

But before we get to the final result, here’s a bit of half-time entertainment: what did Twitter reckon?

A decisive win for Westmalle, then, and absolutely nobody will be surprised to hear that it’s also our winner.

Yes, that’s right – seven blog posts dragged out over several months to conclude that the beer we’ve previously called the best in the world is, indeed, the best Tripel.

Still, drinking a load of beers in this wonderful style was no hardship, and we’ve gained a renewed appreciation for several classics we had been tending to overlook.

We’d say that if you’ve not had Karmeliet recently and were put off by the quality dip a few years ago, do give it another try, and Dulle Teve is very much a new obsession for us.

So, same again in four years time?

Notable Pubs: The Rhubarb Tavern, Barton Hill, Bristol

The Rhubarb Tavern

The Rhubarb is a rare survivor – an old backstreet pub that hasn’t gentrified or closed down, where locals still drink.

It’s one we’ve had on our #EveryPubInBristol tick-list for a while having noticed the unusual name on the Pub Stops of Bristol poster that hangs above our usual spot in our local.

A quick Google told us what to expect: a pub catering to its locals, down-to-earth, but not unfriendly to strangers.

We walked there in darkness through eerily quiet industrial estates, past wasteland and roadside caravan shanties, and finally into a residential area with the smell of weed on the air as squat, muscular dogs were taken for their evening walks.

The pub, by a railway line and opposite a hulking, boarded-up Victorian school building, dazzled from afar: there’s a painted sign advertising Georges & Co Ltd, either fake, or a recreation of a lost original, but convincing; decorative brickwork with swags and other pseudo-classical details; and fairy lights. The building is oddly truncated – there surely ought to be an extra floor or two – which only adds to the sense that this is a pub just hanging on in hostile territory.

The history is a bit vague. Its apparently old, though we can’t dig up a definitive founding date, but came into something like it’s present form in the late Victorian period, finding renewal with the growth of the Great Western Railway.

On Saturday evening we found it busy, if not perhaps quite busy enough for its size.

A large family group with children was enjoying a table-obscuring, wonderfully aromatic feast of Caribbean food, centred around a tray of rice the size of Captain America’s shield.

There were multiple TV screens showing football along with several furiously illuminated fruit machines. Some strange lighting scheme meant that one entire corner was cycling through the Joel Schumacher Batman Forever colour scheme of lurid greens and purples. Several people were staring towards this electrical storm, either watching match highlights, or perhaps just hypnotised.

Brew XI beer pump.

The sight of Mitchells & Butlers Brew XI on cask was momentarily startling but the barman assured us that, no, the pump-clip wasn’t just a nostalgic decoration and, yes, they do actually serve it. We had to order a pint, of course, having a weakness for orphaned brands. (Brewed by Brains these days, the internet tells us.)

He then did something we’d like to see in more pubs: not liking the look of the first pint, he sniffed it. “Hold on,” he said, before consulting a colleague who said: “Pull a couple of pints through and try again.” Our man pulled through four pints in all before giving up and suggested GWB’s Hambrook Pale Ale instead. What he didn’t do – what happens too often – was give us the dodgy pint and hope we wouldn’t know better. And the Hambrook, after all that, was pretty good.

Despite the bar being decked with bunting advertising Carling there was a plastic moneybag over the keg handle signifying that the bestselling lager was off: “I’ll have to have Grolsch, then, won’t I?”

Local twenty-somethings played pool in the back bar and a tentative group of what seemed to be foodies arrived for dinner, placing a complex order punctuated by the barman’s gentle murmur: “Yes, sir… Yes… Yes, sir… Thank you, madam…”

A bloke perched on a stool and drank a pint while he waited for takeaway which emerged from the kitchen in four bulging carrier bags. On his way to the door he stopped to banter with what seemed to be his neighbours at the feasting table, telling an appalling dad joke that made the six-year-old giggle with delight. He left waving, and being waved to.

Our favourite detail? On the dark red patterned carpet, a freestanding yellow sign with a handwritten note sellotaped to it: ‘Carpet wet, please go round’.

A strangely normal pub. Uniquely typical. A different arrangement of the same old pieces to create something that is all itself.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 20 October 2018: Bermondsey, Breakfast, Birthday Beers

Here’s everything on beer and pubs that seized our attention in the past week, from greasy spoons to tap rooms.

For Imbibe Will Hawkes has been investigating what’s going on with London’s beer scene as outsiders infiltrate and success leads to exodus:

Enid Street is not London’s most picturesque road, despite the huge, verdant plane trees on the Neckinger Estate along its southern side in Bermondsey. It’s a place of light industry rather than elegant architecture, distinguished by its railway-arch businesses and the rumble of trains on the tracks above. For beer-lovers, though, Enid Street is special, and it is about to become even more so…. The recent past and immediate future of London beer and brewing is being played out here. Regulars on the ‘Bermondsey Beer Mile’…. may know about Moor Beer, the Bristol brewery that occupies number 71. And if they don’t yet, they’ll surely soon know all about number 73, which Cloudwater is turning into a London tap for its Manchester-brewed products.

London isn’t an island and all that.


Beer pump for Young's Ordinary bitter.

The weeks-old post Cask Report discussion continues, and continues to be interesting.

First, Pete Brown reveals some of the background research behind the Cask Report, which he didn’t edit this year, but did contribute to. Of particular note is the word-cloud showing what people who don’t drink cask ale think of it: “old man”, “unpleasant”, “strong”, “dark”, “warm”, “thick”, “hipster”, “piss”, and so on.

Meanwhile, at the narrative end of the lane, Jessica Mason has been conducting a thought experiment: what if cask ale was a person, and what if you were trying to convince a mate to go on a blind date with it?

You were so busy trying to describe them by comparing them to others and by trying to impress people with details on their past or intellect; you forgot all of the really great things about them.

You forgot the fact that they are honest. Humble. And really really nice.

You forgot to say how, when you met them, that moment was life-affirming. And how, for lots of your shared time, they have always been a pleasure and a comfort.


Greasy spoon cafe, Bethnal Green.

This article about greasy spoon cafes by Edwina Attlee for Architectural Review isn’t about pubs but also kind of is, in a week when there has been much discussion of boozeless boozers, and in the general context of thinking about ‘the third place’:

In one sense it was the immateriality of the food in these places that meant they were problematic for planners and puritans alike. It didn’t matter what time of day it was, you could always get breakfast. It didn’t matter how long you stayed as long as you ordered a cup of tea. If you were going there for one reason (company or comfort), you could pretend it was for another (eggs and bacon). If the planners hoped that civilians would start and end their day at the family home, these strayed homes made that less likely. They needed to be planned out.

(Via @gargarin.)


Trillium's Garden on the Greenway
SOURCE: Trillium Brewing.

Here’s another shout-out for new blogger Peter Allen who at Pete Drinks a Beer reflected this week on the supposed gulf between the world of beer geeks and that of ‘normals’:

Aside from the brewery based at trendy Fort Point, Trillium also run a beer garden (Garden on the Greenway) in a more offices-and-Irish Pubs part of the city that I visited twice. Perhaps the most notable thing about this was that, although there were a handful of the maligned “people sitting there with five small glasses in front of them, filled with different beers, taking notes”, the place was mostly filled with people who clearly had no idea that a) Trillium are a world-renowned brewery or b) that many Craft Beer Nerds would likely consider exchanging a limb for a night spent at the Garden on the Greenway. Most of them were drinking the lowest ABV beer on offer (the superb Launch Beer) and paying it basically no mind whatsoever.


Belgian beers from Guinness

The Beer Nut offers tasting notes on an interesting set of beers: a stout/Lambic blend from Guinness and Timmerman’s, with support from a bunch of Belgian-inspired beers brewed at the experimental Open Gate brewery in Dublin. Some hits, some misses, but overall an intriguing path for Guinness to be on, even tentatively.


Thomas Hardy in profile on the neck of our 1986 beer bottle.

We’ve never quite got into the Thomas Hardy game but we note with interest via our pal Darren Norbury at Beer Today that the 50th anniversary edition of the beer, brewed at Meantime, is now on sale.


Now, an advertisement for someone else: if you value what Ron Pattinson does (“Pedantically correct people on Twitter?” No, the painstaking research and writing and stuff) then you really ought to bung him some money once in a while. Now, there’s a fun new way to do that: for €25 he’ll dig into his vast collection of historic beer recipes and find one for a date of your choice — your birthday, or your kid’s, or your wedding anniversary, or whenever.


Finally, here’s an interesting bit of news for people who like to monitor CAMRA after the manner of Cold War Kremlinologists:


Want more? Alan does something like this every Thursday, too.

A Designer Reflects on Pubs, 1968

“The typical English pub, sought after by the foreign tourist, is an established part of the British way of life. But like everything else it is changing. What was it, what is it and what will it be?”

That’s the question John Merilion asks at the opening of a substantial article published in the arts supplement of the Birmingham Post for Saturday 30 November 1968.

Merilion was a design consultant working in the Midlands and a lecturer at the Birmingham College of Art and Design, and was apparently still around as recently as 2014. He was professionally involved in pub design as in the case of the Red Admiral on the Sutton Hill estate at the new town of Madeley in Shropshire.

The Red Admiral, Madeley.
John Merilion’s butterfly for The Red Admiral, Madeley. SOURCE: Madeley Matters.

His article for the Post offers a summary of the development of the design of the English pub with a strong line of argument: Victorian town pubs were beautiful, offering a bold, glittering contrast to the slum houses around them; but when breweries began to own large estates of their own pubs and then, after World War I, to set up their own architects’ departments, it all went wrong. They became too clean, lacking atmosphere and distinction, as homes came up in quality to meet them.

What’s really interesting to us about this piece, though, is that Merilion offers a considered, balanced, occasionally surprising view of where pubs were at in 1968, at the height of the theme pub craze:

Ask most people and they seem to want atmosphere – the only universal plea – with comfort running a close second. There are of course a few chaps who say that all they want is well-kept beer!

(Note there more evidence of the CAMRA tendency well before CAMRA.)

Nobody actually says they desperately want to drink in a hunting lodge in Harborne, or beer cellar in Bearwood, or a galleon on the Ringway. However, most people do not actively dislike these surroundings, and no doubt a strong case can be made out for their existence. They are surely preferable to the pseudo-traditional Georgian or Tudor chintz tea-room versions.

Despite seeming to stick up for theme pubs to a degree, Merilion goes on to stick the knife in:

This extension of the name of the pub setting the theme for the entire interior decor is a comparatively recent innovation and is being employed extensively where new urban pubs are concerned. Any why should the brewers neglect such a sure-fire idea which is obviously popular with the customers? After all, the opportunities are fantastic – why not a Dr Who space-fiction set, or the labyrinth from Barbarella… Only that all these things are sheer gimmickry, equally suitable for coffee bars, restaurants, night clubs and boutiques. They represent lost opportunities for the daring and exciting use of contemporary methods and materials to maintain the specifically public house atmosphere.

Too many theme pubs were excessively literal, working the theme throughout the whole pub, literally “turning the building into a fake castle, paddock or barn”. This pressure, according to architects and designers he spoke to, came from the breweries, and the over-the-top, over-literal theme elements were sometimes applied to the pub after the fact, rather against the designer’s intent.

None of the new pubs in Birmingham were any good, in his opinion,  failing to achieve a state of “friendly but not freaky”, though he does have a couple of kind words to say about The Outrigger in the city centre where “a good atmosphere exists in the pseudo-galleon (complete with sea-sounds)”.

The Outrigger.
The Outrigger, Birmingham, posted online by ‘Zak’. SOURCE: Birmingham Forum.

Merilion’s argument hereafter is a smart one: putting aside specific Victorian style and method, why shouldn’t a modern pub designer seek to achieve the same essential effects of light, reflection and “glitter” using up-to-date materials? Suburban pubs in the 1960s, he says, have bad lighting — “an all-embracing orange gloom” which fails to provide highs and lows — why not take advantage of modern technology to vary the colour and intensity throughout a pub?

It’s at this point that he comes out with something we could have used a couple of years ago when we were writing 20th Century Pub: a defence of the Chelsea Drugstore.

The Drugstore, as you might know, was Bass Charrington’s trendiest, most self-consciously modern pub, which opened in West London in 1968, and famously appears in A Clockwork Orange as the futuristic hall-of-mirrors shopping boutique where Alex the Droog hangs out.

The Chelsea Drugstore, 1968
The Chelsea Drugstore. SOURCE: RIBA.

Merilion says:

One could dismiss its decor as trendy and fashionable… but nevertheless is has much of the traditional atmosphere, with its glittering air of excitement, vibrant clientele and robust self-expression.

Returning to Birmingham, then under heavy redevelopment, he makes a final plea:

Let us hope that the breweries give the right architects and designers a freer hand to produce exciting and appropriate solutions. Please, not Ye Olde Meate Shoppe, The Town Gaol, and The Sinking Barge.

If you wan to read the entire article it’s available via the British Newspaper Archive here.

In general, the BNA is a service we highly recommend to anyone with an interest in history, nostalgia or British culture; it’s about £80 a year, or alternatively, you can probably access it at your local library or archive.

The Questions We Ask Ourselves

A question mark leads a man by the hand.

Is this beer consistently tasty? Are the brewers good people? Is the project laudable? Is the beer, brewery or style in need of our support?

It’s entirely possible to answer yes to one question but not the others.

A dreadful idiot who behaves appallingly can brew a great beer, and a wonderful local brewery owned by the loveliest people on earth can produce complete rubbish.

That’s obvious.

For some people, ethics, localness or independence are the only important factors, and they can probably live with a mediocre or even flawed product on that basis. (Perhaps their brains even trick them into genuinely enjoying the beer more – a feature, not a bug.)

But others will say, no, beer quality is the only thing that matters. (We try to be objective like this, but we’re only human.)

Still others might make their decisions based on price, out of necessity, or through a principled belief that the market is the ultimate arbiter.

Where there might be a problem is when people fail to express the distinction between those different ideas of “good”, or perhaps even to understand it.

BrewDog, to quote a notable example, brews (on the whole) beer we enjoy drinking. But believing that and saying it doesn’t mean we endorse their values, or uncritically support everything they do.

On the other hand, we felt a little churlish the other day when we couldn’t give Tynt Meadow, the new British Trappist beer, a wholehearted recommendation.

It is interesting.

We’re glad it exists, and expect it to improve.

If we lived in Leicestershire we might even feel somewhat proud of it.

But we’re not going to say it’s GREAT! because we like the concept, just as we’re not going to say Punk IPA tastes bad (it doesn’t) to take a cheap pop at BrewDog.

Whether local equates to good when it comes to beer has been debated endlessly over the years. Increasingly, we’re coming to the view that while it’s never as simple as that, there are certain beers that get as close to good as they ever will when they’re consumed near the brewery, where people know how they’re supposed to taste, and the quirks of keeping them; and where there’s a chance the brewer might pop in for a pint every now and then.

We certainly hope people can read these codes when we use them:

  • ‘fond of’ or ‘soft spot for’ is personal and emotional;
  • ‘interesting’ is about narrative, culture and significance in the industry;
  • a mediocre beer that’s very cheap can be ‘good value’;
  • ‘worth a try’ means we didn’t like it, but can imagine others might;
  • and you might not want more than one glass of a beer that is ‘complex’.

In practice, of course, the question we’re most likely to ask is: “Which of this limited selection of beers is going to taste the best?” (Or perhaps, depressingly, “least bad”.)