Beer styles Belgium The Session

Discomfort Beer — Saison, Tripel, Brett and Kriek

‘Access01’ by David Bleasdale from Flickr under Creative Commons.

These are our instructions from Alec Latham, the host of this edition of the monthly beer blogging jamboree:

‘For Session 119 I’d like you to write about which/what kind of beers took you out of your comfort zones. Beers you weren’t sure whether you didn’t like, or whether you just needed to adjust to. Also, this can’t include beers that were compromised, defective, flat, off etc because this is about deliberate styles. It would be interesting to see if these experiences are similar in different countries.’

The example Alec gives in his own post is Thornbridge Wild Raven, the first black IPA he’d ever tried, and in the broadest terms, there’s the answer: any new style will probably wrong-foot you the first time you come across it. You might even say the same of entire national brewing traditions.

‘Discomfort’ is an interesting word for Alec to choose because the feeling we think he’s describing is as much social anxiety as it is purely about the beer: other people like this, but I don’t — am I being stupid? Am I missing something?

Partizan Lemongrass Saison.

We grappled with saison for years, for example. Michael Jackson wrote about it so eloquently and enthusiastically, as did Tim Webb and Joris Pattyn, and many others, but we didn’t get it. How could we match up those tantalising tasting notes with the fizzy Lucozade beers we kept finding in Belgian bars in London? Maybe the experts were just wrong — a worrying thought. We could have simply given up but we kept trying until something clicked. Now we not only understand saison (with, say, 65 per cent confidence) but also know which particular ones we do and don’t like.

Over the years we’ve been similarly disgusted or nonplussed by Belgian tripels, specifically Chimay White which just tasted to us like pure alcohol back in 2003; and also by Brettanomyces-influenced beers — Harvey’s Imperial, now one of our favourites, appalled us the first few times we tried it, and Orval left us cold until quite recently. (We are now fanpersons.)

In each case, the discomfort was worth it, like practising a musical instrument until your fingers hurt, because it opened up options and left us with a wider field of vision.

The flipside to Alec’s proposition, of course, is that some beers are immediately appealing but perhaps become tarnished with experience. The first time we were ever dragged to an obscure pub by an excited friend it was to drink Timmerman’s fruit beers from Belgium which we now find almost too sweet to bear. Comfort turns to discomfort, delight to queasiness.

The sense of taste is an unstable, agile, mischievous thing that you can never quite tame.

19 replies on “Discomfort Beer — Saison, Tripel, Brett and Kriek”

How odd – I was into Belgian beers for years before I started taking an interest in the English variety, and it was Chimay White that started it for me; I tried it on a whim, never having drunk an abbey beer and not being much of a beer drinker, & loved it (although I’m pretty sure I tipped the yeast in).

For me lambic is still terra incognita. To quote my Bruges post from a few years back:

The barman saw the face I made after my first swallow and apologised – “It’s not very sour, is it? That’s the only lambic we can get in a keg – the good ones are only available in bottle.” Let’s just say that the problem I’d had with it wasn’t a lack of sourness.

I have to say that I find the majority of smoke in beer a bit off-putting, and in particular, I just cannot tolerate Rauchbier – that scent of smokey bacon crisps I just can’t quite get to grips with.

The flavours that cultures deliberately impart and naturally prefer are varied, and seem to be subject to if not geographical, then cultural boundaries . If beer has naturally grown up around people’s eating traditions as much as their drinking ones, and have done so in partnership with one another, it makes sense that local beers have sprung up that deliberately either mimic those flavours that cultures prefer, or are in some ways designed to complement them. If we as British people find those flavours uncomfortable, it’s quite easy to see why: we simply don’t have the culturally imparted taste for them (just like a lot of people don’t like the taste of mild, for example).

As for the Belgians – well, they seem to have a very sweet tooth indeed, both in beer and otherwise.

I’d never had a smoked beer that I liked until Christmas just gone, when my son gave me a bottle of Schlenkerla smoked weizen. Combining two such different flavour profiles could have been a mess, but it really worked – I found I could appreciate the smoke when there was something else going on.

As for the Belgians, don’t forget they also gave us lambic and gueuze. Truly, Belgium is a land of contrasts.

There is nothing to be ashamed about in simply not liking certain beer styles. I don’t really like sour beers and no amount of practice is going to change that; but it doesn’t mean that people who do are wrong; despite what certain arrogant dinosaurs may believe, taste in beer, and notions of “quality” are entirely subjective. The only thing that matters is that people are provided with sufficient choice to be able to find their own preferred style.

Saisons and Lambics leave me feeling slightly violated. Titanic Plum Porter is also a big nope from me. I recently bought a mixed case of Belgian beers and found Rochefort 8 to be almost unbearable on first sip, and 10 to be ridiculously strong, but they grew on me. Orval is also quite hard work, but the branded chalice is to die for…

Anything with even a trace of acetic pong. The classic Duchesse De Bourgogne can go take a ride… the whole “Flanders Red” style with it.

I have tried. I really have. I’ve drunk loads of this sort of stuff. I can grin and bear it, but I can’t “learn to love it”.

I also think malt vinegar on chips is disgusting.

So I can see how some folk can love the Flanders Red whilst I don’t… it just isn’t for me.

I guessed Lambic, Brett and sours would be popular contenders.
Thanks for giving Session 119 the rumination it needed and you’ve hit on a future Session topic: which beers lost the pea in their whistle? For me that could be any number of longstanding bitters (but not all) that just honk of sweat and pastry now but once seemed sharply bitter.

Wouldn’t bitter and mild also be discomfort beers for some, especially for drinkers who go straight onto fruit IPAs (which seem to be taking up the introductory role to beer for newcomers as did cider and lager top for me)? I also wonder if challenging would be better than discomfort, a word which (personally) has connotations of constipation, pulled muscles and embarrassing situations? Just a thought. BTW I used to put a sugar cube in my Cantillon Gueuze in the 1990s until I got it, but Michael Jackson sold saison to me immediately in his Indie columns.

PS and by personally I meant what I think of, rather than what I have experienced…written 2000 words this morning so a bit hazy.

The problem with the word challenging is it’s so overused in food, business, economics, management etc to the point it doesn’t really mean anything. Nope. Discomfort stops you in your tracks. So I’m sticking to my pistols on this (looking forward to reading Beer In So Many Words that my sister got me for Xmas btw).

Yvan’s point about people’s palates differing is interesting. I’ve never got to the bottom of this, but there’s a certain hop which Marble used to use – round about 2009-10 in particular – that made all the pale beers smell (not to put too fine a point on it) of vomit. I know it was the hop, not a brewing fault or anything, because I was at a tasting in 2010 where James and Dom (ee, them were’t days eh?) brought along some little containers of hops for people to sniff at. I sniffed and compared, and there it was: mmm, dry grass… tobacco smoke… vomit. The smart thing to do would have been to ask them what it was, of course, but I was a shy and retiring type back then. Anyway, I find it very hard to believe that everyone was picking up the same signals – those pale beers seemed to go rather well – so presumably it’s just some kind of clash between my olfactory palate and that particular hop. Whatever it was – the next year they stopped using it.

But – to complete the thought – that hop certainly made those beers uncomfortable for me; in some cases I was practically holding my nose while I drank them. (Kids: don’t try holding your nose while you drink beer.)

That oniony scent of the last year has been going down a storm, but makes me want to put it down – I think the Cloudwater v. 5 was the worst for it that I’ve had recently, but many seemed to either just not notice it, tolerate it, or forgive it.

Sensory differences are interesting… I think there are going to be elements of nurture in it as much as nature. Culturally the US seems to have enough of a liking for root beer for it to be a common thing there, whilst trying to sell root beer in the UK is a chore. People here think it tastes like medicine – I’m assuming there is/was a common medicine of traumatic childhood memory involved.

I don’t know why I am not a fan of malt vinegar though, or why I hate it on chips. It totally pre-dates any real interest in beer too.

My other half hates licorice… and that’s not uncommon and seems to be potentially a genetic predisposition. I love the stuff, and like a hint of added licorice in a big dark beer… Kat would be less enthused. (I must ask her opinion on Flanders Reds, I’m not actually sure what it is.)

Sensory education is another step. I’m pretty certain I find beers undrinkable now that I would have drank (maybe not enjoyed much) 10 years ago. I’ve dived too deep into beer – I’ve done taint tests, drank with expert brewers, etc… and learnt too much about off flavours. I don’t recommend it because it makes enjoying beer more difficult. [But it makes your appreciation for a truly stunning beer all the stronger.]

I have “discomfort beers” now that were perhaps not “discomfort beers” 10 years ago… I seem to have developed a sensitivity to acetylaldehyde I didn’t have before, and it is the one flavour that makes a lot of average cask bitter a “discomfort beer” to me now days. On the other hand I’m still not very sensitive to diacetyl, a little of it doesn’t bother me much in most beers.

That could’ve featured as one of the posts in the roundup by itself Yvan. Yes – what are Discomfort Beers now weren’t a decade ago. The sweatiness of some British cask ales was something that used to go unnoticed. The metallic nature of some staple Lagers would be tolerated less now too.
And what were discomforting beers back then we acclimatise to.
I’ve yet to experience the oniony taste (except in onions). Really curious about it.

The subject is a very interesting one.

Onions as some describe it I don’t get so much either… I think it is another some are more sensitive to than others. I’ve had the odd pale hoppy thing that has a hint of the allium about it… but perhaps more garlic than onion to me.

Alas don’t really get into the old blogging much any more. Sort of busy. (But still make the time to write oversized blog comments;)

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