Hoover, Google, Orval?

Orval label.

For a long time, Orval was the only Orval, not quite belonging to any particular style. Now, it has company.

In their 100 Belgian Beers to Try Before You Die Tim Webb and Joris Pattyn classified it as a pale ale; Stan Hieronymus, in Brew Like a Monk, mentions that it shares flavour characteristics with “the saison-style beers of the surrounding region”; Beer historian Ron Pattinson has often referred to it as an India Pale Ale; while Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson effectively dodged the question altogether by classifying it simply as an Abbey/Trappist beer, observing that “Orval is one of the world’s most distinctive beers”. The American Beer Judging Certification Program (BJCP) also concedes defeat, citing Orval as an example of Belgian Speciality Ale, “a catch-all category for any Belgian-style beer not fitting any other Belgian style category”.

While it’s possible to make all sorts of clever, heavily footnoted arguments for Orval belonging to one category or another (“Die Hard is a Christmas movie!”) none of them are quite convincing. The fact is that if someone who knew nothing about bought it expecting a pale ale, any kind of IPA, Saison Dupont, or Westmalle Brune, they would be confused and possibly disappointed. Sure, the base beer might bear some resemblance to others, but that Brettanomyces that stamps over everything, marking its territory with layers of dust and leather. (But not sourness.)

In the last decade or so there have been more beers made with Brettanomyces, often with the word ‘Bretted’ on the packaging or point-of-sale display, but few of those we encountered resembled Orval. IT seemed to us that they tended to be modern-style IPAs with lots of New World hop perfume and flavour, or big stouts. Perhaps there was a sense that Orval was off limits for commercial homage? Sacred, somehow. Or perhaps it was simply unapproachable — unless your Orval clone is as good as the real thing, or better than, why bother?

Bruxellensis label.

Then we encountered Brasserie de la Senne’s Bruxellensis. It was first released, we think, in June 2016, and when we came across it last year we didn’t need to do any reading to get the idea: it’s Orval, but not quite. The same funkiness, the same balance of dryness and fruitiness, but brasher, brassier and brighter. Like a punk cover version.

It turns out there are others, though — beers that we missed because we weren’t paying attention, didn’t have access (most are American), or maybe simply because we hadn’t got to know Orval well enough to recognise them as clones. Heather Vandenengel rounded up a few for All About Beer back in 2015, including Goose Island Matilda. This is one we did try, as long ago as 2010, when it struck as nothing more than a bog standard Belgian-style blonde. On Twitter Andrew Drinkwater mentioned Hill Farmstead Dorothy as another example.

What made us think about all this now is a Tweet from Chris Hall announcing the arrival of British brewery Burning Sky’s take:

We’re going to have to get hold of this one, ideally in a bottle, ideally to be tasted alongside the real thing, Bruxellensis, and any others available in the UK that you lot might be able to tell us about.

But we can’t keep calling these beers Orval clones forever, can we? We like Pete Brissenden’s suggestion of dry-hopped Bretted ale, or DHBA. It looks ugly but it does rather roll off the tongue, and is purely, precisely descriptive. It’ll do for now.

How Come Nobody Criticises That Rosé de Gambrinus Label?

We admit it: the rhetorical “Where’s the outrage?” winds us up.

What it so often means is, because you forgot to mention This, you must now shut up about That, AKA ‘whataboutery’ — a means of shutting down rather than adding to an ongoing discussion.

In relation to beer we’ve seen this argument rolled out a few times lately as part of the renewed discussion around sexist beer labels. Here’s the latest nod in that direction (a very mild one, it must be said, and hardly malicious) which directly prompted us to post today:

At this point, we chipped in: people do talk about this label. We’ve seen them do it. We were involved in a Twitter discussion about it ourselves just before Christmas  prompted, of course, by someone asking “Why is nobody complaining about Cantillon’s classic Rosé de Gambrinus woman getting touched up on a bench?”

It also featured in this widely shared 2015 list of sexist beer labels from Thrillist; was mentioned in passing by Natalya Watson in a well-read blog post in January 2017;  has been picked up by Mike from Chorlton Brewing on a couple of occasions, e.g. here; and it has frequently come up in discussion at Beer Advocate and RateBeer. People have noticed it and aren’t 100 per cent comfortable; it has not sailed beneath the radar.

But, yes, it’s true it isn’t one of the top beers on the hit list, and we can’t find any really impassioned posts by any of our fellow beer bloggers calling for that particular label to change or be removed from shelves.

In fact if you go back far enough you’ll find various people sticking up for it and, indeed, citing criticism of the label as evidence of humourless puritanism. Here’s Jay Brooks of Brookston Beer Bulletin, for example, writing in 2006 about US censorship of the RDG label: “I cringe every time I think what prudes we are as a nation and how ridiculous we must seem to the rest of the civilized world.” Here’s the one that will probably most surprise people, though: Melissa Cole saying something quite similar a decade ago. It’s so at odds with Melissa’s current stance that we felt compelled to ask her about it via Twitter DM:

I was wrong. I also didn’t realise it was a pattern of wider misogyny in the naming of the beers at Cantillon, I only found out what Fou’ Foune meant relatively recently and given that they are happy to change their mind for commercial reasons in the US, how about they change their minds for the sake of coming into the 21st century too?

I was probably also a bit worried about taking aim at one of the ‘untouchables’ as well. At that time I had taken about six months of quite serious stick and was being denied information and quotes by a cabal of brewers who were closing ranks and trying to keep me quiet by making it very difficult to do my job – fortunately most of them have now retired or folded.

I’ve never claimed to be a perfect person or a perfect feminist (if either of those things actually exist!) and I’m happy to say I got that one wrong and I’ve been quite happy to be vocal that it needs changing recently partly because I don’t worry about being bullied any more and partly because, even if people do come at me, I feel I’ve got a far better way to communicate my points these days – a decade of challenging issues of inequality in the industry, even imperfectly, will do that for you!

The bar has clearly moved and the boundaries are continuing to change. Things that seemed fine a decade ago, or even a couple of years back, have acquired an unpleasant stink. The Rosé de Gambrinus label isn’t violent or sweaty; it’s so soft it seems almost abstract; and the beer doesn’t have a baldly suggestive name to go with the picture. In 2018, though, none of that quite washes, and we suspect there will be more direct criticism of Cantillon in the next year or two. And, yes, we suspect Cantillon probably were given a bit of a pass because they are cool, interesting and mysterious in a way microbreweries in middle England rarely are.

But it does seem to us that we’re reaching a point where there are (per Melissa’s very honest admission) no longer any untouchables, and rightly so, at least in part because of people asking “Where’s the outrage?”

In the meantime remember, if you think this label or that is particularly nasty, there’s nothing stopping you from writing about it. You don’t have to wait for Melissa or Matt Curtis to do it.

* * *

Having said all that, there are plenty of good reasons why British commentators might choose to concentrate on British beers. First, this is our turf and we feel entitled to a say in what goes on here, whereas it feels somehow presumptuous to put pressure on brewers operating in different countries or cultures.

Secondly, as consumers and commentators in this ecosystem, we stand a faint chance of influencing the decisions of brewers and retailers, so it feels worth the bother. Or, to put that another way, the folk at Castle Rock might just care what we and others think, whereas we doubt the aloof enigmas of Cantillon, who can’t brew enough beer to meet global demand, give a flying one. If someone did want to pressure them, how would they do it? When Cloudwater drops a clanger its Twitter feed blows up; Cantillon isn’t on Twitter, and is barely on Facebook.

Finally, there’s the fact that Rosé de Gambrinus might as well not exist in our world. We don’t remember the last time we had it or saw it for sale, and if we did we probably wouldn’t want to pay the asking price. For us, and probably for many other, it simply doesn’t come to mind. Teignworthy Bristol’s Ale or Castle Rock Elsie Mo, on the other hand, are beers we have actually encountered in a pub in the last month.

* * *

There’s also, of course, an argument for not mentioning particular breweries at all. There’s not much here that can’t be discussed in terms of general principles, is there?

British Beer Exports in Pictures

Ron Pattinson at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins has recently been mining data to tell the story of British beer exports in the 20th century. We thought we’d compliment that with some pictures from our collection of in-house magazines.

The pictures come from editions of The Red BarrelThe House of Whitbread and Guinness Time, mostly from the 1960s and 70s. (Yes, Guinness is Irish, but had it’s corporate HQ and a huge brewery in London from 1932.) It’s pretty well content free but we have plans to write something more substantial about all this at some point in the future.

Belgium
A Belgian pub.
Whitbread’s Taverne Nord, Boulevard Adolphe Max, Brussels, c.1933.
A portrait of a man in an office.
C. De Keyser, Whitbread’s Belgian sales manager from 1937.

Continue reading “British Beer Exports in Pictures”

Pub Life: Brussels Edition

All the usual trappings: mirrors, coat-hooks, brown wood, low-light, stern overseer, aloof bar staff, glinting glassware of every variety, and two English tourists experiencing mind-expansion.

They have two beers on the go already but are too excited to stop there.

“Bruv, bruv — you’ve got a lot of beers, man. Like… a lot. What would you personally recommend?”

The barman (dunking glasses in soapy water, running a hand around the rim, dunking again, rinsing in cold water) pauses to think. “Personally? I like this.” He presents a bottle of Orval like a waiter with a vintage wine.

“Yeah, open it up, bruv — open it up. Let’s do this.”

“You want two glasses?”

“I got money, bruv — my pockets ain’t shallow. We can have a bottle each.”

“Of course but you have two beers already and it is quite strong.”

“OK, we’ll have one of these, too.”

The tourist points at the lager tap from which the other barman is in the process of pouring eight 25cl glasses, slicing at the foam with a knife so that it surges up smoother behind the cut.

“That? Uh… that’s just a normal pils. Let me give you this with two glasses and if you want something else, no sweat — order it when you’re ready.”

The tourists are now sharing three beers between them, swigging and laughing, getting louder as time passes. Both barmen avoid their gaze, slide past the spokesman’s upraised hand, and ignore his ever more insistent calls: “Bruv! Sir! Mate! Hello! HELLO?” Eventually the boss barks and the other barman reluctantly attends.

“What would you recommend? Something mad. Something different.”

“Okay, how about…” He presents a bottle of gueuze.

“Yeah, two of them.”

“Uh… It’s a little bit… This one is a special beer, quite sour. Why don’t you share? I’ll give you two wine glasses.”

The tourist presents his wallet, waving a wad of cash.

“I can pay, bruv! Just give me two. Oh, no — tell you what, give me a big bottle! You got that in a big bottle?”

“Yeah but, I mean… It’s like, fifteen euro. Seriously, have this small one and if you don’t like it, you haven’t–”

“But if we do like it, can we part exchange for a big bottle?”

The barman considers, and shrugs.

“OK, sure.”

They do not like it.

But by this point, it doesn’t matter, because they are giggling, their stools involuntarily rotating beneath them, feet slipping from the rests. They are slapping their thighs, crying, weeping with laughter. Draining glasses, draining bottles, slurping down yeasty dregs. Having fun… for now.

Neither the elderly woman with her newspaper and espresso, nor the middle-aged couple holding hands as they consult a tool catalogue alongside two perfect chalices of blonde beer, seem to notice or care.

When we leave, the spokesman has his hand in the air again: “Bruv, bruv — what you got with fruit in it?”

The barmen pretend they can’t hear as they urgently restock the fridges, urgently clean some glasses, urgently disappear into the darkest corners they can find.

What Makes a Beer an [X]-ian Beer?

“If a beer has German malt, US hops and Belgian yeast, can it really be called a Belgian style beer?” That’s a good, if puzzling, question.

Michael Lally from Bushcraft Beer asked it on Twitter while putting together an episode of his podcast and we gave a 140-character answer: yes, because Belgian beer often uses foreign malt and hops, but the yeast is the source of its essential character.

Roman, a Belgian-born Londoner who brews ‘modern beers abstracted from classic Belgian styles’ at Solvay Society seems to broadly agree, as per this blog post:

The fruity and spicy notes that we have come to identify as ‘Belgian’ are the result of by-products generated by yeast during fermentation. Many Belgian beers — such as the tripel, wit and saison — have characteristic clove and white pepper aromas… Fruitiness in beer can be derived from hops, but it is also the result of esters… It’s quite clear therefore that we associate certain flavours and aromas with Belgian beers, many of which have been derived from the choice of yeast and fermentation profile.

But what about this: a Belgian brewer operating in Belgium uses US hops, British malt, and lager yeast shipped from a lab in Germany, to make a 4.5% ABV beer with no spicy or fruity notes; at the same time, a British brewer ships in Belgian malt, Belgian hops and a bucket of Westmalle yeast to make a 9% Trappist-style tripel in Barnsley. Which is more Belgian?

The other week when we considered a similar question — is Belgian a flavour? — someone (we can’t remember who — maybe Roman again?) suggested that Belgianness was as much about approach as ingredients. In other words, a Belgian will somehow make a beer taste Belgian under any circumstances.

This article from Joe Stange, co-author of the Good Beer Guide Belgium, on how Belgian brewers approach the global trend for in-your-face hoppy beer, provides evidence for and against:

[With] a few exceptions they are not cynical imitations of foreign craft beer. Instead, they adopt ideas about bolder hopping and fold it into the Belgian scheme: intricate mash regimes, high attenuation, relatively expressive yeast, and refermentation in the bottle… [But at the] Modeste [festival] in Antwerp… [the] winning beer was called Hip-Hop, and it claimed 100-plus IBUs using Columbus, Simcoe and Citra. It tasted more like 50 IBUs, with enough malt to carry it off… Come to think of it, it didn’t taste very Belgian. Maybe we should be afraid after all.

From Specific to General

This isn’t just about Belgian beer — you could ask the same kind of question about American, Czech, English or German beer. Or Yorkshire bitter.

At this point we started to think about a philosophical puzzle we only dimly understand — the Sorites paradox:

1,000,000 grains is a heap. If 1,000,000 grains is a heap then 999,999 grains is a heap. So 999,999 grains is a heap. If 999,999 grains is a heap then 999,998 grains is a heap. So 999,998 grains is a heap. If …… So 1 grain is a heap.

With apologies to any real philosophers who might be reading, we take the point of this thought exercise to be that you either (a) accept 1 grain of sand is a heap or (b) acknowledge that some things in life, like how many individual hairs you can have and still be considered bald, cannot be made precise, but that doesn’t mean they’re meaningless or non-existent. (See also: ‘craft beer’.)

There are many, many variables that contribute to a beer’s national or regional identity; if you flip each switch, one at a time, at which point does that identity cease to be?

Actually, hmm, this is worryingly close to being more generally, real-world political. That yeast answer we came up with first was much simpler.