In this third Tripel taste-off match we’re looking at The New Wave with takes on the style produced by quirky breweries founded in the past 40 years.
De le Senne Jambe-de-Bois, Beer Merchants, £2.95, 330ml, 8% ABV
De Dolle Dulle Teve, Beer Merchants, £3.35, 330ml, 10% ABV
It’s getting harder to make any pretence of blind tasting as this process goes on but Ray poured so that Jess wouldn’t know which beer was in which glass.
Jambe-de-Bois had the more assertive carbonation of the two, with a really fierce hiss and threatening to gush. The head was absolutely rock solid and very tight. From the fridge it was quite hazy, and glowed yellow, but a later bottle, at room temperature, was clearer.
Jess said: It’s almost tart. Grapefruity. Tastes distinctly Belgian — you’d never mistake it for, say, an American beer — but also somehow modern.
Ray: I find it quite thin and a bit… Rough. It seems very dry for a tripel. But as I go, I like it more and more.
Dulle Teve had a light haze and was a deeper gold colour. It didn’t produce a particularly appetising head, just something like bubble bath. It smelled of hot booze.
Jess: Ooh, wow. This tastes like a proper tripel. A little bit of green apple but it works. Like a spicy toffee apple. The aftertaste is immense.
Ray: It’s definitely got the classic tripel yeast character. A bit of banana, some spice… It makes me think of German Christmas biscuits.
We concluded in that both beers were a little raucous and rough-edged but that Dulle Teve benefited from the extra alcohol and more substantial body. There seemed to be a lot going on, with more layers and interacting flavours.
There was no doubt here, we had a winner: De Dolle Dulle Teve is through to the next round, and De le Senne is out.
Jess: But I liked them both. I’d happily drink either of them again, and the De le Senne beer is really good value.
Ray: The winner is great but I just can’t imagine it beating Westmalle in the next round.
Jess: Well, I dunno… I really love it. Right now, I think it could go all the way.
So, to recap, Westmalle, Karmeliet and Dulle Teve are through to the next round, with one slot left to fill. Next time: the Brits!
It is possible to be fascinated by the past while at the same time welcoming change.
You might get the impression from some of what we write, and the images that we share here and on Twitter, that we are hopeless nostalgists, but it’s not quite that.
There is sometimes a yearning there — a desire to step into that photograph from 1938, or to know what a particular beer from 1912 might have tasted like — and because we’ve ended up specialising to a degree in recent beer history we do dwell in the past.
We’d love to taste Boddington’s as it was in 1970 — it sounds delicious — and we’d be pleased to see more decent mild around in pubs. Historic recipes intrigue us, and can be revelatory.
At the same time, we wouldn’t expect anyone to start a brewery in 2018 with mild and bitter as the core of its business if all the indicators are that the money is in hoppy pale ales and lager. Tastes change, and so beer changes, and styles, brands and individual beers come and go. That’s as it should be. It’s healthy.
The same goes for pubs. One of the arguments of 20th Century Pub is that pubs have changed a lot more over the course of the last couple of hundred years than is sometimes acknowledged: they are not a fixed point around which the world moves, but part of the world, reflecting its trends and tendencies. (“Pubs aren’t what they used to be” was probably first uttered about ten years after the first pub came into existence.)
We are not appalled by gastropubs, craft beer bars, micropubs, industrial-style taprooms or any of the other new mutations. Adaptability and reinvention is evidence that the pub lives, and has a will to keep living.
It’s exciting to find a well-preserved pub, and we would certainly rather people didn’t mindlessly trash historic interiors, or knock down pubs without permission.
That doesn’t mean we believe there’s any point in scrambling to fix pub culture as it was in 1882, or 1958, or 1983, or at whichever arbitrary point someone might decide is when perfection was achieved.
Running a pub has always been a matter of margins which can encourage dodgy behaviour, from watering the beer to serving up slops.
Tom Berkley’s 1955 comic memoir We Keep a Pub is either a goldmine or completely useless depending on your view of the semi-fictional James Herriot school of writing.
It tells the story of Bill and Irene Day, apparently stand-ins for Berkley and his own wife, who return to Britain from colonial work in Malaya and decide to run a pub. The brewery they approach sends them out on a series of placements to learn the trade and the book is an account of the characters they meet and customs they observe in a string of London pubs.
For example, in one pub, Bill and Irene become fascinated by the snack counter which offers two items: veal-and-ham loaf and Melton Mowbray pie. What is the difference between the two? They look identical. Irene decides to find out by ordering a slice of each, and Bill observes that “the snack girl gave her a nasty look”. It is only when they see a customer order Melton Mowbray (premium) but receive veal-and-ham (cheap) that this gentle fiddle becomes clear.
The behaviour in the cellar of the landlord of this pub, a Mr Lawson, also goes some way to explaining the decline of mild in the 1950s. He explains to Bill that mild ale, being unfined, is easier to adulterate: “You can’t put nothing back into the bitter.”
[He told me] that if waste beer were put into fined beer it turned it cloudy, but that a reasonable amount did not harm to bright beer…. [All] beer collected in drip cans was invariably poured into the mild ale, and not, as I had naively imagined, thrown away, or even returned to the brewery as ullage as so many people think. And at the Gorget Hotel the same was done with the filtered dregs from barrels of fined beers, and the lees of bottled beer and used glasses. It did not matter to Mr Lawson what kind of beer it was: bitter beer, light ale, brown ale, Burton: according to him it was all fit to go into the ale.
Bill wonders if anyone ever notices this jiggery-pokery:
“Mild-ale drinkers never notice nothing — not if you don’t overdo it; and that reminds me: when you was pulling up mild-and-bitters last night I see you giving ’em half-and-half. That’s no good. All you want is a drop o’ bitter at the bottom o’ the glass and fill up with mild. Mild’s cheaper than bitter. See? You got to watch the stocks.”
As well as the unofficial methods of recirculating waste beer there is also the brewery’s own preferred approach, the utilizer, “a sort of china bucket that hung from a hook in the ceiling”:
[Waste] beer from the various bars drained into the utilizer, whence it was sucked into the public bar by a little auxiliary pump on the beer engine at a rate of about a spoonful per glass…
The next pub, the Block & Anchor in the East End, is a similarly grotty, penny-pinching place. The staff pay for their own drinks by short-changing customers. When Rosie the barmaid’s cigarette ash drops into a customer’s beer she apologises, tips it into a drip can, replaces the pint, and then serves someone else the beer from the drip can later in the shift. The manager, Mr Grainger, tips three buckets of slops into a half-empty cask of mild. Perce the Potman is supposed to clean the lines every Saturday but evidently never does.
I noticed that the bottles had been put on the shelves straight from the boxes without being polished; that the shelves were dirty; that the pewter was tarnished a dull dark-grey colour. There were puddles of beer on the counter; glasses were cloudy and smeared with finger marks. The electric-light bulbs were spattered with fly spots.
Pouring slops into the mild is bad; is letting down beer with water better, or worse? We suppose it depends on whether you prioritise hygiene or intoxication. One of the best passages in the book concerns Mr Grainger’s furtiveness over this illicit activity:
“I’d better do the cellar today,” he muttered, with a sidelong glance at the clock. “You ain’t got time to go down there today. See?”
Of course Bill forgets and does go into the cellar where he discovers a funnel jammed into the top of a cask of mild, half full of water, with two more buckets of water at its side. Fearing he has been rumbled, Grainger becomes tense and knocks back several gins.
Eventually, he confronts Bill.
“You know, a man can’t be honest in this line,” he blurted out, giggling foolishly to cover his embarrassment.
I decided to help him.
“No, I suppose he can’t,” I mumbled commiseratingly, “not with his staff guzzling all the profits.”
“No,” he said sadly… After a silence lasting several seconds he he glanced up at me, and I saw tears in his eyes.
He cleared his throat.
“A man’s got to try and make it up somehow, or else get the sack,” he mumbled.
Later, discussing the business with Irene, Bill makes two further observations:
It is useful to know that customers won’t notice six gallons of water in thirty gallons of ale, and “thirty bob a bucket for water is not so bad”.
Grainger chose his watering hours carefully: after all, which excise officer ever worked after midday on Saturday?
The pub that features in the third act, the White Lark, is a respectable place with decent managers, the Handens. Mr Handen is proud of his beer and holds the view that it is better to sell two casks of good clean beer than one of the dirty stuff:
I’m proud o’ my bitter; that’s what makes your name — and you don’t want to muck around with your mild too much, either. All mild-ale drinkers ain’t dumb, though there’s many as thinks they are.
But even they are winkingly dishonest in various small ways. For example, Mrs Handen always accepts a drink when offered by customers; if they’re poor, she takes a Guinness, and drinks it; but if they’re well off, she accepts a neat gin, takes a sip, and hides what remains beneath the bar to be sold to a customer later, thus being paid twice for the same drink.
The dirty tricks aren’t all on the publicans’ side, though, and Mr Handen clues Bill in on one of the brewery’s bits of slyness: they send in spies (Slimy Grimes, one is nicknamed; the other Mephistopheles) to check that staff aren’t drinking to excess, that things are being run properly, and that opening times are being observed. You’d call these mystery shoppers now, we suppose.
And then, worse, there is Mr Green, the brewery’s inspector, who turns up with shaking hands, accepts a run of free and discounted drinks, asks for the loan of some money (a bribe) and leaves having decided that there’s no need to actually go down into the cellar, up to the kitchen, or look at the books.
Of course all of the above has to be taken with a pinch of salt. As with other of these We Ran a Pub memoirs there’s a streak of class disdain running through the whole thing. The authors are generally of the officer class, regard working class people as filthy brutes, and the publicans as worse again because they have the nerve to believe themselves respectable.
Being fictionalised, there’s no way to know what really happened, whether it happened to Berkley himself, or whether this amounts to a collection of trade mythology.
But, anyway, it’s worth a read.
Now, when is the first We Ran a Craft Beer Bar memoir due?
Rather than relying on interpretations of tasting notes and faulty memories, wouldn’t it be good to know for sure if and how British beer has changed in the past 20 years? Well, there is a way.
In the November/December issue of UK brewing industry magazine The Grist Keith Thomas provided a technical breakdown of the typical strength, colour and bitterness of British beer styles. It is full of fascinating jewels of information but the most interesting parts are this graph…
… and this table which shows the measured colour (EBC) and bitterness (EBU) of a hundred beers with the numbers prescribed by CAMRA’s style guidelines beneath in brackets:
These offer a fairly precise snapshot of the reality of the situation in 1995-96 and that is somewhat interesting in its own right, but it becomes a lot more so when you discover that Dr Thomas and his colleagues at BrewLab in Sunderland have been checking in on these stats ever since.
They published a detailed report in 2006, sadly locked away behind paywalls (British Food Journal, Vol. 108, in case anyone has access) and have an update in the works. In the meantime, though, they have released a sort of trailer in the form of a press release, which states (our emphasis)…
[The] features of many styles remained similar to the parameters summarized in 2006. However, when considered overall some differences are evident. Average alcohol levels are down by 3% on average. This did vary by style and was mainly due to old ales being weaker. More extensive differences are evident in beer colour and bitterness. While bitterness overall has increased by 5% colour has decreased by 18%. This is particularly evident in the darker beers – milds, porters and stouts. In general, it appears that beers are becoming lighter but more bitter…. It was particularly interesting to see that standard beers are retaining their character but also that darker beers appear to be evolving. The introduction of blond and golden beers has had an impact on the market and possibly influenced changes in other styles.
For Original GravityEmma Inch has written about the feeling of being on edge in pubs, even if nothing concrete happens, because of a sense that people are just a little too aware of “what makes you different”:
Throughout my drinking life I’ve been asked to leave a pub on the grounds that it’s a ‘family friendly venue’; I’ve witnessed a friend being ejected for giving his male partner a dry peck on the cheek; I’ve had a fellow customer shout homophobic abuse in my ear whilst the bartender calmly continued to ask me to pay for my pint… Once, I had to shield my face from flying glass as the pub windows were kicked in by bigots outside, and I still remember the sharp, breathless fear in the days following the Admiral Duncan pub bombing, not knowing if it was all over, or who and where would be targeted next.