Tripel Off, Round 1, Game 1: Westmalle vs. Chimay

We’ve come up with a list of eight Belgian and Belgian-style tripels that we’re setting against each other in a series of taste-offs to determine the ultimate winner.

We wanted to give Westmalle, the best beer in the world, a tough opponent and so decided to pit it against another classic: Chimay Blanche.

Blanche used to be too much for us, bowling us over with its sheer booziness, but in the last couple of years we really fell in love with it and figured that if anything might slay The Big W, it was this.

On this occasion Ray poured while Jess tasted sort of blind, with no idea which two beers were being tasted.

Glasses of beer.
Chimay, left, and Westmalle.

Both looked pretty in their glasses, all fluffy white foam and clear gold, though the Chimay (glass A) was noticeably darker. Westmalle (B) seemed to have  a much bigger aroma with spice and fruit spilling out on opening where Chimay offered only a little whiff of sugar.

Jess: Well, they both taste like tripels, but I much prefer B. There’s just more in the after-taste. A is fine — I’d be very happy to drink it any day of the week — but B is less harsh, and has more spice. The flavours seem more… blended. I sometimes think about the transition from fore- to after-taste and how great beers have a kind of smooth segue, which B definitely does. It’s somehow softer, but also has bigger flavours.

Ray: Interesting… Both seem quite harsh to me today. If I take bigger gulps, though, the beer in glass B [Westmalle] is obviously better, sort of mousse-like in the mouth, so satisfying. Leafy and peppery. Glass A [Chimay] just seems rough, all bananas and booze. It feels two-dimensional, somehow, whereas Westmalle has a lot of complexity and subtlety. It’s got banana notes, too, but not just that. Do you want to guess what they might be?

Jess: Umm… Well, neither of them is Westmalle, obviously.

Ray: Ha!

Jess: Oh.

So, of course, based on flavour, we both chose Westmalle. Even though it’s more expensive than Chimay we reckon it’s worth the extra, too, so on value too it wins. That means it’s through to the next round, and Chimay is out of the contest.

We asked our Patreon subscribers to vote in a simple poll — should we disagree between ourselves their vote will decide the winner — and they overwhelmingly voted for Westmalle, too.

So, can anything threaten the reigning champion?

Well, given that Jess didn’t recognise it, and that Ray found it a bit less exciting than usual, it’s all to play for, Brian, and so on.

We bought both beers via mail order from Beer Merchants; Westmalle was £3.25 per 330ml bottle and Chimay was £2.85.

St Austell Cornish Saison for M&S

Marks & Spencer, the slightly upmarket English supermarket-stroke-department-store, has been doing interesting things with its beer range for a few years now but the idea of a Cornish-brewed Saison really grabbed our interest.

It’s produced for them by St Austell, a brewery very much on our trusted list, and has evolved from an original small-batch brew designed in collaboration with beer writer Melissa Cole. It has 5.9% ABV, comes in a cute purple 330ml can, and costs £2. (Or less as part of the current four-for-the-price-of-three promotion.)

But is it a bargain, or do we have a Hatherwood situation on our hands?

Saison in the glass with can nearby.

It is perfectly, almost astonishingly clear in the glass, with a decent head of foam that stops short of Belgian voluminousness. (Perhaps it’s harder to achieve the necessary pressure in cans.)

On tasting, the model is clear: it is an homage to Saison Dupont, which is fine by us. There’s the same familiar spiciness from the yeast and the same golden colour. It isn’t a slavish clone, though: this beer is cleaner, more bitter, and seemed to have a lot more orange peel and coriander character.

In fact by the end of the glass we were wondering if it might not almost be described as a kind of Kristall Wit — that is, an application of the filtering technique used to clarify certain wheat beers in Germany to the spicier, more citrusy Belgian equivalent.

It’s a fascinating, very enjoyable beer that could easily pass for something genuinely Belgian. (We know St Austell’s head brewer, Roger Ryman, is a Belgian beer fanatic.) So, yes, that means it’s good value, and we’ll certainly be buying some more next time we pass a branch of M&S.

In general, we do like how M&S packages its own-brand beers these days. Quite apart from the cool and colourful graphic design they’re (a) clearly identified as own-brand but (b) with clear information about who brews them. That means we can make an informed choice about which to take a chance on (Oakham, Adnams, St Austell) and which to avoid (sorry, Hogs Back).

QUICK ONE: Bath Ales Sulis Lager

Sulis Lager
SOURCE: Bath Ales website

One of our locals, The Wellington, is a Bath Ales (St Austell) house and sells both St Austell Korev and Bath Ales new Sulis lager, so we popped into compare the two.

After a shaky start we’ve come to really like Korev which is both straightforward (i.e. not a twist on or reinvention of) and characterful. We hoped that Sulis would be similarly accomplished, with its own identity, but feared that it would simply be Korev under a different name.

We’re happy to report that not only is Sulis distinctly different to Korev but also rather a delight in its own right.

It’s paler than Korev, almost Champagne-like, and less dry. It has a distinct floral, herbal, mint-leaf character that Korev lacks, laid over a backdrop of white grape and peach. If Korev nods to Munich, this reminded us of Würzburg, where the beer and the fruity local wines share a family resemblance.

We suspect there’ll be a few more pints of this for us over the summer to come.

More generally, we continue to be pleased at the resurrection of Bath Ales, whose beers have shot up in our estimation in the past six months.

Patreon’s Choice: The Irish Set

These days, Irish beer isn’t all about Guinness, as demonstrated by this interesting bunch which ranges from rye ale to ‘ice cream IPA’.

Of course we used that awful, cliched opening line purely to troll the Beer Nut whose suggestion it was via Patreon to try some of the Irish beers in stock at Honest Brew.

  • Yellowbelly Castaway Passionfruit Sour, £2.79, 330ml can
  • Boyne Brewhouse Vienna Lager, £2.39, 330ml can
  • Kinnegar Rustbucket Hopped Rye Ale, £2.49, 330ml bottle
  • Whiplash Scaldy Split Ice Cream IPA, £4.59, 500ml can
  • Galway Bay Solemn Black DBIPA, £3.69, 330ml bottle

We drank them over the course of a couple of nights while we were tied to the house for one reason or another, tackling them in ascending order of ABV, except that we got Rustbucket and the Vienna Lager the wrong way round because we weren’t paying attention.

A glass of flat, orange beer.

Yellowbelly’s passion fruit sour, at 4.2% ABV, fizzed like e a bonfire night sparkler then went completely flat in about four seconds. It had a great passion fruit aroma, billowing and beguiling, and, crikey, did it taste sour. Ray found it less heavy going than Jessica because he drinks soft drinks and she doesn’t (tea, please!) and what it resembled more than anything was some new variant grown-up version of Fanta. In fact, we picked up two types of sour — the citric acid of fruit and the kind of sweaty funk we associate with Gose. On balance, though we found plenty to enjoy, we both wanted it to taste more like beer, and would probably rather have a can of Rubicon at a fifth of the price.

Kinnegar Rustbucket glowing in its glass.

Kinnegar Rustbucket, at 5.1%, was more our kind of thing. It smelled wonderful, taking us back to those days of a decade ago when Goose Island IPA was considered Way Out There, all orange and pine. Red-brown in colour, it tasted like a well executed, tongue-coating, jammy IPA of the old school, and gave the impression of being a much bigger beer. It was perfectly clean, nicely bitter, and just a touch peppery by way of a twist. What a breath of fresh air, and good value, too. We’d drink more of this.

Boyne Brewhouse Vienna, at 5%, had the sexiest graphic design of the lot with its black and purple can, and looked great in the glass, too, being a gorgeous gold with a cap of thick white foam. But unfortunately it tasted weird — bad weird — in a way we’ve never encountered. Some banana, maybe? Apple? Gritty, grainy, unfinished. As if it was a little unwell, and threatened to send us the same way. We couldn’t finish it. Sorry!

Whiplash Scaldy Split had about it the air of the main event: it came in the biggest can, cost the most, and is billed, rather excitingly, as an ice cream IPA. The ingredient list included multiple malts, vanilla and lactose (milk sugar), as well as reliable old Citra hops. The beer was a sort of queasy, homemade custard yellow, cloudy but not soupy, with an attractive, stable head. The problem is — and this does happen from time to time — we each perceived it quite differntly. Jessica found it a mess, from the petrol aroma to a flavour so excessively dank it seemed to have gone through hoppy and come out the other side at student bedsit carpet. Ray, on the other hand, used words like smooth, subtle, tasteful, and fun… Again, we wonder if his relatively sweet tooth might make him feel warmer towards this kind of beer. Or maybe that long list of ingredients combined to create particular unusual flavours and aromas to which we might be respectively more or less sensitive. Anyway, if you like thick, hazy, hoppy beers, you’ll probably enjoy this one; if you don’t, you probably won’t.

A glass of black beer with a huge head.

Finally, there was Galway Bay’s Solemn Black double black IPA at 9%.  Phew, what a mouthful, and that goes for the description and the beer. From the first sip, we just straight up liked this one a lot. (Both of us, thank goodness — much simpler that way.) Thankfully its supposed status as a black IPA didn’t mean lots of clashing, clattering hops tripping over dark malt flavours, as is too often the case, and it struck us as an imperial stout to all intents and purposes. We found it a silky beer that was all melted milk chocolate upfront, and turned to port wine the longer it sat on the tongue. And it sat on the tongue for a good long time, reverberating almost forever. When we left it long enough, and it’s not a beer to rush through, some grassy hop character eventually suggested itself, along with a burnt-toast black malt note. A happy place on which to conclude this whirl through the world of Irish beer.

Patreon’s Choice: Beers from Orbit

We asked our Patreon supporters which beers we should order from Honest Brew earlier this year and Paul B suggested we try bottled beers from Orbit.

We bought one of each available from Honest Brew at £2.59 per 330ml bottle and sat down to try them, paired with some trashy TV, on Sunday night.

We had no particular preconceptions about Orbit and couldn’t recall if we’d ever tried any before. We definitely hadn’t heard any of the trusted London beer commentators raving about them which made us suspect they might not be in the top rank but the packaging was smart and the choice of styles interesting so we went in feeling mildly optimistic.

Now, a confession: once again time slipped away from us and Ivo, the pale ale at 4.5% ABV, had slipped past it’s best before date. It was bottled in October and had a tight six month BBE so it doesn’t seem fair to offer any notes, except to say that it neither delighted nor appalled us, and we aren’t averse to the idea of trying a fresher bottle or draught half some time, especially as the new head brewer at Orbit has tweaked the recipe.

Altbier in a glass on a knitted beer mat.

Neu, a take on Düsseldorf Altbier at 4.7%, intrigued us. Alt is a somewhat elusive style about 80 per cent of the appeal of which is the culture and history surrounding it. Take that away and you have a fairly low ABV, straightforward brown beer that sits, in terms of character, somewhere between British best bitter and German dark lager. This example was brown but with flashing highlights of gold and orange, pleasingly clear and bright under fluffy white foam. In our one surviving souvenir Altbier glass it looked, at least, utterly convincing. The flavour, too, was impressively clean, with a crisp bitterness. There was a suggestion of roastiness in the flavour but no sticky toffee which made us think the colour was from black malt rather than the caramel-crystal family. Overall, we liked it, even if — true to type — it was a fundamentally simple, unthrilling beer. If you’re learning about Continental beer styles and want a solid example of Alt, this would certainly do the job, and tastes better, we reckon, than most of the readily available big name imports.

A chalice of golden beer.
Peel is a Belgian-influenced blonde ale at 4.3% — an emerging sub-style in UK brewing which we tend to like, with Belgian yeast adding welcome extra layers to otherwise simple, low ABV beers. This one was a clear, bright gold, and gave off a powerful Witbier aroma of citrus and the spice cupboard. The dominant flavour was a big squeeze of strangely artificial-tasting lemon, beyond which was something like an English golden ale with the bite of honey. It felt thin and watery rather than light and dry; harsh and jarring where we wanted soft and funky; and cacophonous rather than complex. In other words, we couldn’t tell you exactly why it didn’t work for us, but it didn’t, and we can’t imagine buying it over many actual Belgian beers.

So, two beers in, one solid, the other not to our taste, Orbit go on to the Benefit of Doubt list rather than Avoid.