Magical Mystery Pour #1: Spontanbasil

Still life: Mikkeller/Lindemans Spontanbasil with onion, garlic and tomatoes.

Magical Mystery Pour logo.Throughout this year we’re going to make an effort to drink some more unusual beers alongside our usual diet of standards from St Austell, Penzance Brewing Co, Anchor, Westmalle, and so on.

Dina, AKA @msswiggy, always seems to be hav­ing great fun explor­ing the weird out­er reach­es of the world of beer, like this:

So she was the first per­son we approached to give us a drink­ing list, stip­u­lat­ing that:

  • It should con­tain five or six beers.
  • All of which should be avail­able from the same sup­pli­er.
  • At a cost of around £40 max­i­mum for the lot.

First up, she rec­om­mend­ed Spon­tan­basil, a col­lab­o­ra­tion between Lin­de­mans (Bel­gium) and Mikkeller (Den­mark), a lam­bic beer made with fresh basil leaves. It cost (brace your­selves) £13.50 for a 750ml bot­tle and its ABV is 6%.

We came to this beer with cer­tain expec­ta­tions and prej­u­dices. The Beer Nut made it his beer of the year for 2015 and Matt Cur­tis recent­ly made this appar­ent­ly some­what con­tro­ver­sial state­ment:

In the notes she sup­plied for us Dina her­self says:

When I first encoun­tered this beer in Copen­hagen last May I knew I had to have it. Do you like basil? If you don’t, you prob­a­bly won’t like this beer.  I think this is done so well though, like a fresh, fizzy pas­ta sauce (no toma­to notes, though). From the first sniff, you know what you’re in for, and the tart aspect to it just, well – it won my heart.  I must have drunk at least six bot­tles of this beer last year.

Now, we as it goes, we do like basil, but, at the same time, we’ve yet to be ter­ri­bly con­vinced by herbs in beer. When we tast­ed a load of saisons last year, for exam­ple, we gen­er­al­ly turned our noses up at the ones laced with thyme, rose­mary or oth­er green, twig­gy plants usu­al­ly found in a pot out­side the kitchen door.

And, on top of that, we are also Mikkeller scep­tics and actu­al­ly gave up on order­ing the Dan­ish not-real­ly-a-brew­ery’s beers after a run of par­tic­u­lar­ly dis­ap­point­ing (and expen­sive…) bot­tles in 2014–15.

So, with all that out of the way…

Spontanbasil in the glass.

The cork popped like a back­fir­ing motor­bike but there was no surg­ing or gush­ing. On pour­ing, it snapped, crack­led and popped, cre­at­ing a huge surg­ing head which quick­ly sank away to a soapy foam. It was amber-orange and per­fect­ly clear. (That’s con­den­sa­tion in the pho­to above.)

Though the idea seems out­landish, and though the aro­ma of basil was big, it was also, some­how, sub­tle – sharp and bright rather than the aniseedy, gar­den-weed stink that comes off the ele­phan­tine basil our local gro­cer sells in big bags. Before we even tast­ed the beer, we found our­selves think­ing of lemon zest, too, per­haps because the basil sug­gest­ed sum­mery sal­ads?

Some­times beers with herbs in, through the pow­er of asso­ci­a­tion, end up tast­ing odd­ly savoury but, thank­ful­ly, there was none of that here. Instead, it was like a bright, cheery, refresh­ing fruit cup (see also Brew By Num­bers Cucum­ber and Juniper Sai­son) the sour­ness well bal­anced with sweet­ness. You might expect a beer in this style, at this strength, to be hard going but, no, we found quite the oppo­site: it had was more like a tart, fizzing, easy-to-down soft drink (home­made lemon­ade, San Pel­le­gri­no) than a so-called Extreme Beer.

And there, maybe, is the prob­lem for us: we strug­gled to find any­thing very beer-like to latch on to at all. The basil runs ram­pant over any hops that might be present and, inso­far as we were able to detect malt flavour it was as a faint chewy flouri­ness. It’s pop, but pop that gives you a hang­over, and that also hurts your wal­let. (If it was £5 a bot­tle we might be more enam­oured…)

Neg­a­tives aside, it is a cheeky, clever, sort of amus­ing (ahem) beer and we cer­tain­ly drank it very hap­pi­ly. It’s good, too, to have tried a beer with basil because that is def­i­nite­ly some­thing that, rather to our sur­prise, real­ly works. Con­sid­er our hori­zons expand­ed.

We’re very grate­ful to Dina for tak­ing the time to put togeth­er sug­ges­tions and notes and are already look­ing for­ward try­ing beer no. 2 from her list, Wild Beer Co/Beavertown Blubus Max­imus, which we’ll be writ­ing up in the next week or two.

13 thoughts on “Magical Mystery Pour #1: Spontanbasil”

  1. Giv­en there is lit­tle one can do with a herb before open­ing the bot­tle that can’t be done bet­ter after open­ing the bot­tle, I won­der if there is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to cross a num­ber of basil strains with a selec­tion of base beers like Sai­son Dupont or a few tripels to max­i­mize one’s herbal explo­rations for a fair bit less of, umm… the Dan­ish sur­charge.

  2. Noth­ing there tempt­ing me to shell out that sort of mon­ey. ( have paid that much for beer to drink at home and far more in a pub, I’m not against pay­ing good mon­ey for great beer just not con­vinced in this case)

  3. I’m gen­er­al­ly scep­ti­cal of herbs in beer, too[1] but our Promis­ing Local Craft Brew­ery, Three Blind Mice, do a gold­en ale with basil which is real­ly rather good. Unfor­tu­nate­ly I don’t think they bot­tle stuff, and you’re prob­a­bly more like­ly to find Lord Lucan rid­ing Sher­gar than to come across it on cask in Corn­wall…

    [1] insert spec­u­la­tive digres­sion on how hard it is to do beers with ingre­di­ents that add total­ly for­eign flavours to beer as opposed to ingre­di­ents that just go to town on the sort of flavours that you’d sort of expect to find there any­way.

    1. Cryp­tic do (or did) a dark mild flavoured with Earl Grey – a flavour about as far from dark mild as you can imag­ine. I don’t know what pos­sessed them to do it, but it actu­al­ly works real­ly well.

      1. Lit­er­al­ly every­body is doing some­thing with some form of tea at the moment: we’ve had berlin­er weiss­es, bel­gian blondes, IPAs, black IPAs, pales with camomile tea, bit­ters, dark milds. I sup­pose it’s a bit symp­to­matic of some of the issues with the hop har­vest, but I am sick to death of it.

  4. I think the true joy in this beer is in fact the unsweet­ened Lin­de­mans gueuze that makes for the bulk of its pro­duc­tion. The basil just works as sea­son­ing for me, adding a savoury bite to an already incred­i­ble beer. I’m glad I have a few more bot­tles stashed away.

    1. A few years ago I asked Joe Stange about whether there was home lam­bic blend­ing and gueuze bot­tling giv­en how cheap bulk Girardin was at the brew­ery. He’d nev­er heard of it but agreed it was an oppor­tu­ni­ty. This seems like exact­ly the sort of beer that might inspire it giv­en the base ingre­di­ents are so com­mon but the price so inflat­ed. And if the beer has oblit­er­at­ed the under­ly­ing gueuze char­ac­ter, anoth­er rea­son to exper­i­ment. Too bad gueuze is hard to find in Cana­da.

  5. yes, you com­plete­ly neglect­ed to touch on the fact that the base beer is a gueuze…hence no hop flavour real­ly expect­ed. I was impressed with how well the basil flavour came across and see it is a great aper­tif or food accom­pa­ni­ment beer, though as you say on the pricey side per­haps (but is it real­ly in com­par­i­son to wine; which is what its fill­ing the func­tion of? One might argue that spon­ta­neous­ly fer­ment­ed beers have long been under-priced giv­en the time & process required to pro­duce them & now the demand is there, price is clos­er to where it should be)

    1. When it’s 6% and drink­able by the mug­ful, it’s fill­ing the func­tion of (strongish) beer, not wine.

      As for price, I don’t see the price of mass(!)-market lam­bics being dri­ven up just yet, and long may they not be. Brew­ers like Mikkeller set their prices at the top lev­el of the range the mar­ket will stand, irre­spec­tive of style, and they rarely have to move down.

  6. Giv­en the fact that the base beer is Lin­de­mans lam­bic you would real­ly expect there to be any real hop pres­ence to start with; dit­to any pro­nounced malt char­ac­ter.

  7. I am one of a hand­ful of peo­ple in the West­ern hemi­sphere who (whis­per it) strong­ly dis­likes this beer. “Oh, you don’t like basil, then?” No, actu­al­ly basil is one of my all-time favourite aro­mas and flavours. I think that might be at least part­ly why I dis­like it – it does­n’t give me the hit I want; it feels insipid and halfway.

    I’ve been accused of dis­lik­ing it it because it’s some­how ‘cool’ to rag on a beer wide­ly laud­ed by con­nois­seurs. Thing is, the first time I tast­ed Spon­tan­basil, I tast­ed it blind. Lin­de­mans entered it into the World Beer Awards last year in the Gueuze cat­e­go­ry (http://www.worldbeerawards.com/best/gueuze.html) and we rat­ed it the low­est of the ones entered. As only a hand­ful were entered, it medalled any­way, but against entries from Beersel and Tim­mer­mans (who have recent­ly realised they are sat on a gold­mine of qual­i­ty blend­ed lam­bics) it felt thin, flat, and the basil char­ac­ter mud­dled by being over­ly sweet.

    On sub­se­quent non-blind(?) tast­ings, it still does­n’t do it for me, but I like it bet­ter than I did. I think the con­text of high-qual­i­ty gueuze is what made it so dis­ap­point­ing. Had they entered it in a dif­fer­ent cat­e­go­ry (there’s Flavoured and Experiemen­tal cat­e­gories it would have bet­ter fit­ted into), it might have done bet­ter.

    Also, I don’t nor­mal­ly buy into the whole ‘Emper­or’s New Clothes’-ish “Well, they would say they liked it after they forked out £££ for it” way of think­ing, but hav­ing been so dis­ap­point­ed by the blind taste test, won­der much of the beer’s rep­u­ta­tion is based on its per­ceived val­ue.

    On sub­ject of basil, it’s been a flavour I’ve want­ed to see imple­ment­ed well in a beer for a while (there was also a Siren one last year which was a bit of a mud­dled affair). At BBNo we recent­ly tried infus­ing our base Gose with some dif­fer­ent herbal/spice/fruit com­bos and fresh basil trans­lat­ed real­ly well. Poten­tial­ly pro­hib­i­tive­ly expen­sive to do right, but it real­ly suit­ed the salin­i­ty of Gose in a way that might be bet­ter for it than Gueuze.

    Erm, Buzz Killing­ton out.

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