A Tale of Three Pours

Mural at the Poechenellekelder, Brussels.

There’s a certain ceremony to the way beer is poured in Belgium, except when there isn’t, and no two waiters have quite the same technique.

At the legendary Poechenellekelder in central Brussels, opposite the statue of the wee boy, we watched a clownishly expressive waiter turn the pouring of a beer into performative professionalism.

He popped the cap with a flourish, almost seeming to pause for applause, angled the glass, and began to pour slowly.

Assessing the development of the head, he frowned and gave the bottle a sudden jerk 30 centimetres into the air, for just the briefest moment, causing the foam to surge, but not much.

When he put the beer down on the table, smooth white sat half a centimetre above the rim of the glass, as solid as a macaron, and there wasn’t a speck of yeast in the body of the beer.

The Worrier

Sitting outside a cafe that seems to be called Primus Haacht with portions of blistered, gilded frites from Maison Antoine, we saw a Belgian waiter get it wrong. He poured Westmalle Tripel too vigorously and sighed with dismay as it flowed over his hand like milk, splattering on to the paving stones.

“It’s fine, we don’t mind.”

“No, no, it’s not acceptable… I’m gonna change it. I have to change it. Please, I’m sorry, wait here.”

The second attempt was over-cautious and, sure, we ended up with more beer in the glass, but it didn’t look anywhere near as good.

The Casual

At Beers Banks, our local on Rue Général Leman, we marvelled at burly, efficient barmen who treated Trappist beers and alcohol free pilsner with about the same level of respect.

They upended bottles and flung the contents out as if they were emptying tins of tomatoes into cooking pots, glancing over their shoulders and talking, slamming glasses down on the bar to save seconds here and there.

But do you know what? Somehow every pour was PR photoshoot perfect.

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?

News, Nuggets & Longreads 22 September 2018: Brussels, Muscles, Beer Tie Tussles

After a two-week break, here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the world of beer and pubs, from Autovac mild to pilot plants.

First, an interesting nugget from Birmingham: the long-derelict Fox & Grapes on Freeman Street in the city centre has finally been pulled down as part of high-speed rail construction. Why does this matter? Because it was the last remaining bit of Old Birmingham.


The window of Mort Subite in Brussels.

Canadian beer writer Jordan St. John recently visited Brussels and has written a long, entertaining, insightful piece recording his impressions of the city, and reflecting on the place of Belgian beer in the global craft beer scene:

I can’t help but notice how same-y the selection is everywhere; As though there had once been a list of approved Belgian beers that no one has updated since the mid 2000’s. Michael Jackson’s Great Beers of Belgium is that list, and looking at the selection in the dusty shop windows it feels like no one has come along with the gravitas to approve new additions to the canon; it is stuck in amber… Cafe Bebo helps to ease me into the contemporary. It even has beers from breweries founded this century. I order De La Senne Zinnebir and some cheese from the Orval Trappist monastery to snack on.


Detail from the poster for National Lampoon's European Vacation.

Still in Belgium we find Alec Latham dissecting the label of De la Senne’s Taras Boulba to the nth degree:

The artwork is a send-up of the two composite nations – Flanders and Wallonia – and their antagonism of eachother. It employs satire, humour and caricature to make an important point: please dump the baggage of the past and let’s move on… Unlike the easy-goingness of the beer, the label artwork is utterly loaded.

We can imagine this making for an interesting series, reverse engineering the branding process to work out what breweries want us to understand from the small choices they make in their graphic design.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 22 September 2018: Brussels, Muscles, Beer Tie Tussles”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 18 August 2018: Bartram’s, Belgium, the Barley Mow

Here’s everything published on beer and pubs in the past week that grabbed our attention, from teetotal tendencies to the extraordinary nature of ordinary pubs.

First, some trademark thoughtful reflection from Jeff Alworth at Beervana who asks ‘What If We Just Stopped Drinking?

[What] if we just keep drinking less and less until we’re consuming it like our old auntie, who only pulls out the sherry for special occasions? This won’t happen immediately, but the trend lines are pretty clear… A dirty little secret of the alcohol industrial complex: it relies on very heavy drinkers, many of them alcoholics, for the bulk of sales. Among drinkers, the median consumption is just a couple drinks a week. That’s the median–some “drinkers” basically don’t drink at all. That means, of course, that someone’s doing a lot of drinking…


A Belgian Brown Cafe.

There’s a new links round-up in town: Breandán Kearney at Belgian Smaak has put together a rather wonderful rattle through all the Belgian beer and bar news from the last few months. How can you resist a 15 item list including such headers as CHINESE HOEGAARDEN and BEAVERTOWN GOES BELGIAN?


The mad collection at the Prince of Greenwich.
SOURCE: Deserter

For Deserter the pseudonymous Dirty South gives an account of a day spent trying to entertain a sullen teenager in the cultural pubs of South London:

The Prince is run by Pietro La Rosa, a Sicilian who has not only brought Italian hospitality and splendid Italian food to SE10, but opened a pub full of curios that he and his wife Paola have collected from their travels around the world. An enormous whale’s jaw bone hangs over various objets d’arts, a rhinoceros’ head protrudes above an antique barber’s chair, surrounded by artwork from afar.

‘It’s mad,’ concluded Theo.


The Bridge Inn, Clayton.
SOURCE: John Clarke.

Here’s something we’d like to see more of: veteran CAMRA magazine editor  John Clarke dusted down a pub crawl from 30 years ago and retraced his steps to see how time had treated the boozers of Clayton, Greater Manchester:

The Folkestone was closed, burnt out and demolished. New housing now occupies the site. The Greens Arms struggled on and then had a brief existence as the Star Showbar… The Grove also continues to thrive as a Holts house and the war memorial remains on the vault wall. No such luck with the Church.


The Barley Mow, London.
SOURCE: Pub Culture Vulture.

Ben McCormick has been writing about pubs on and off at his Pub Culture Vulture blog for a few years now and a recent flurry of posts has culminated with what we think is a profound observation:

[The Barley Mow] must be the best Baker Street boozer by a billion miles… I was on the point of writing there is nothing special about the place, but stopped abruptly on the grounds that’s complete horseshit. There ought to be many, many more examples of pubs like this dotted around central London and further afield. But there aren’t.

Any pub, however, ordinary, becomes extraordinary if it resists change — that makes sense to us.


A bit of news: Bartram’s, a brewery in Suffolk, seems to have given up brewing (the story is slightly confusing) which has given the local newspaper an opportunity to reflect on the health of the market:

Now Mr Bartram is currently no longer looking to export overseas, and is not producing any beer. “There are about 42 breweries in Suffolk – when I started 18 years ago, there were just five,” he said. “There is a lot more competition. The market is saturated, it’s ridiculous.”

Another Suffolk brewer, who declined to be named, claims overcrowding in the marketplace is true of the cask ale industry that Mr Bartram is part of, but not the key keg ale market.

Also unclear: the key market for keg ale, or the keykeg ale market? Anyway, interesting.


If you want more good reading check out Stan Hieronymus’s Monday round-up and Alan McLeod’s regular Thursday linkfest.

Tripel Off Round 1, Match 4: Lost & Grounded vs. Solvay Society

Lost & Grounded vs. Solvay Society.

This is the last of the group matches and sees two UK breweries up against each other: Lost & Grounded from here in Bristol and Solvay Society from London.

The former is a brewery with a particular focus on Continental beer styles and is perhaps best known for its Keller Pils — very much a buzz beer of the summer of 2018, despite its refreshing straightforwardness. The latter is an intriguing operation run by a Belgian and dedicated to brewing “modern beers abstracted from classic Belgian styles”.

We bought both beers from Beer Merchants via mail order:

  • Lost & Grounded Apophenia, 330ml, £3.45 per bottle, 8.8% ABV
  • Solvay Society Tritium, 330ml, £4.05, 7.5% ABV

There was no hope of anything approaching true blind tasting at this stage but, as in previous rounds, Ray poured and presented the beers to Jess without saying which was which. She’d never had either before, as far as she could recall, and certainly doesn’t know either well enough to identify them from taste.

Two glasses of golden beer.

On pouring, both had similar levels of carbonation but Solvay Society’s beer looked slightly darker in colour.

Jess: Right, well, these both smell and taste like proper tripels. I’d be surprised if both weren’t using the same yeast, and if that yeast isn’t the Westmalle strain. To be honest, they’re incredibly similar. If I have a complaint it’s that they’re both a bit on the sweet side. They’re lacking the crisp finish I love in Westmalle. They don’t have that balance of richness and bitterness that I get from the tripels I really like, although maybe that’s just how my palate is reading things today…

Ray: Fortunately, all you’ve got to do is decide which of the two you prefer.

Jess: True. Well, I have a mild preference for this one. [Lost & Grounded.] Only because it’s not quite as sweet tasting. It’s a very close thing.

Ray: I agree, they’re pretty well indistinguishable, if you ignore the difference in colour. And a bit… Well, sickly is too strong, but heavy, somehow. This one [Solvay Society] is a bit spicier, maybe, but perhaps I’m getting that impression because I know it’s advertised as a pink peppercorn and rye tripel. It’s also maybe a touch heavier, despite having a lower ABV. They’re both good beers, though — clean, bang on style.

Jess: I wouldn’t be disappointed if I’d ordered either of these in a Belgian bar.

Ray: So, my vote is for… Just, very narrowly… Lost and Grounded! Which means it’s the winner.


Next round:
  • Westmalle vs. De Dolle
  • Lost & Grounded vs. Karmeliet