Cornershop beers: supposedly hoppy lager and blackcurrant stout

We used to drink a lot of cornershop beers. Sometimes it was the ticking instinct – how could we resist a dark lager from Latvia or an IPA from Poland? On other occasions, it was about convenience: we wanted a few beers to drink in front of the TV with a film or sporting event.

But these days, post 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub and with mid­dle age upon us, we’ve more or less resolved to drink in the pub or not at all.

Every now and then, though, we pop into the shop near­est our house and mar­vel at the ever-chang­ing selec­tion of obscure beers from East­ern Europe. It’s fun to see unfa­mil­iar names on unfa­mil­iar labels – a kind of alter­nate real­i­ty, a world where Car­ling and Foster’s don’t exist.

Last week, we were star­tled to see three very nice­ly pack­aged beers in unusu­al styles from Vilk­merges of Lithua­nia – a stout, a dark lager and a wit­bier. Vilk­merges is a sub-brand of Kalnapilis, which is in turn owned by Roy­al Uni­brew of Den­mark.

They sat along­side prod­ucts from a craft beer sub-brand of Russ­ian brew­ery Balti­ka, ‘The Brewer’s Col­lec­tion’, one of which, with a strik­ing orange label, all in Eng­lish, is billed as RUSSIAN HOPPY LAGER.

The lat­ter looked gor­geous in the glass – that very pale yel­low that seems almost green and some­how sig­nals refine­ment, per­haps hint­ing at Cham­pagne. It tast­ed dri­er and paler than stan­dard Balti­ka with maybe a touch of flow­er­i­ness but didn’t quite live up to the billing. Per­haps the lor­ry ride across Europe did for the hops? At any rate, it’s at the bet­ter end of bog stan­dard and a fas­ci­nat­ing thing – the begin­ning of the Cam­deni­sa­tion of Russ­ian lager?

The Vilk­merges wit­bier is called Kvei­ti­nis. It was more orange than white with a fast-fad­ing head and not quite enough body. It remind­ed us of a wit­bier we home­brewed with ale malt, not enough wheat, and too much orange peel. It was a bit sick­ly but not awful. Purists, look away now: it would prob­a­bly be nicer with a slice of lemon float­ing on top.

Their stout, Juodųjų Ser­ben­tų, is dosed with BLACKCURRANT JUICE. It smells – brace your­self – like black­cur­rants. It was rud­dy rather than black with an off-white head that didn’t stick around. It tastes sweet – like Ribena said Ray, reach­ing for the obvi­ous; like the med­i­cine they gave me when I got worms as a kid, says Jess, more orig­i­nal­ly. It’s 5.5% but tast­ed basi­cal­ly non-alco­holic. We poured this one.

Tam­su­sis is a dark lager and smelled and looked like a clas­sic Bavar­i­an Dunkel. And, in fact, is con­sid­er­ably bet­ter than most bot­tled Dunkels we’ve come across. Sweet, round, with just a touch of roast… Almost hint­ing at the lus­cious­ness of dou­ble stout, in fact, so per­haps not ‘true to style’. This was the great find in the set and we can imag­ine get­ting a few of these in next time we cook pork knuck­les.

One odd thing, though: beers from East­ern Europe often come in larg­er than usu­al pack­ages, full-pint cans and so on, but these Vilk­merges prod­ucts were in 410 mil­li­l­itre bot­tles and the Balti­ka came in at 440ml. At around £1.80 a pop, they were hard­ly bank-break­ing but, still, it felt like a bit of a con.

BWOASA: Our first taste of yer actual Watney’s beer

This really was a big moment. We’ve tasted clones, read plenty, and written a lot, but we’ve never actually tasted Watney’s beer.

We’ve been cor­re­spond­ing on and off with Tom Unwin for years. He grew up near Jess and we inter­viewed his Dad, Trevor, for Brew Bri­tan­nia. When Tom came into pos­ses­sion of sev­er­al bot­tles of a strong ale pro­duced by Wat­ney’s in 1987 to cel­e­brate the sup­posed 500th anniver­sary of the found­ing of the Mort­lake brew­ery.

(You can read the inevitable Mar­tyn Cor­nell take­down of that sto­ry here.)

We set aside a lit­tle time to enjoy the expe­ri­ence of drink­ing this beer, 137ml each, even though we sus­pect­ed it was going to be rank. After all, Wat­ney’s beer was­n’t well regard­ed even when fresh, and this had been stored for 30+ years in a sub­ur­ban side­board.

The label told us that the beer had an orig­i­nal grav­i­ty of between 1096 and 1104 – quite a range, giv­ing us a hint that it was prob­a­bly around 10–11% ABV.

Pop­ping the foil cov­ered cap, we were treat­ed to the barest hiss, and found the inside of the lid cov­ered in rusty sludge. It had a slight, bub­bly head that drift­ed away in sec­onds.

There was a whiff of roast­ed malt, we thought, or per­haps even smoke, and then a big punch of sher­ry.

It tastes like Pedro Ximénez – raisins, prunes, a bit of bal­sam­ic vine­gar. There was also an almond nut­tin­ness and a lay­er of dark choco­late.

Run­ning through all of this, stop­ping it from quite being out-and-out pleas­ant to drink, was a beefy, Mar­mite line.

If you’ve read any oth­er tast­ing notes on old beers, none of the above will be sur­pris­ing. We prob­a­bly could have writ­ten them before we even opened the bot­tle.

Still, it was spe­cial, and an expe­ri­ence we can now tick off our wish list.

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.

Leffe – the new Gold Label?

Half pint beer glasses and a bottle of Leffe.

We’ve had another beer mixing breakthrough: Leffe Blonde mixed with cask bitter does wonderful things.

This idea came to us as we strug­gled through two mis­er­ably but­tery halves of Bath Ales Gem at one of the stops on our #Every­Pu­bIn­Bris­tol mis­sion.

On the table next to us two French speak­ers were hav­ing ani­mat­ed busi­ness dis­cus­sion over a lap­top while swig­ging bot­tles of Leffe, one of a hand­ful of a big brand beers on offer in the fridges behind the bar.

We fired thoughts back and forth in quick suc­ces­sion:

Maybe we should ditch these and split a bot­tle of Leffe.”

Huh. It’s fun­ny how you can’t get a bot­tle of Gold Label bar­ley wine in the pub these days but you can get Leffe.”

Hmm. They’re quite sim­i­lar beers, real­ly – strong, gold­en, fruity…”

Are you think­ing…?”

It can’t hurt to try.”

The bot­tle cost about £4.50 and we end­ed up with about a 50–50 mix each. It imme­di­ate­ly looked appeal­ing – fluffy head, amber hue – and gave off the famil­iar Leffe banana aro­ma.

One sip was enough, we knew it had worked.

Leffe is too sweet and syrupy for us these days, but like this, the cask ale light­ened the body and added bit­ter­ness.

The ale, which had seemed life­less and dom­i­nat­ed by one off-flavour, was revived.

Did it remind us of some­thing like Palm Spe­ciale? Maybe.

Leffe isn’t a per­fect sub­sti­tute for Gold Label because, though Bel­gian beer afi­ciona­dos might not rate it, it does have a dis­tinct Bel­gian yeast char­ac­ter. But based on our expe­ri­ence, it is in fact bet­ter than Gold Label, which can, even when blend­ed with draught beer, seems mere­ly boozy and sug­ary.

We’ll be try­ing this again when we find our­selves in pubs with off-the-peg bot­tle ranges and mediocre cask beer.

We can also imag­ine some inter­est­ing super­mar­ket mix­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties – Banks’s Bit­ter + Leffe Blonde might make for an inter­est­ing and cost-effec­tive com­bo, for exam­ple.

Tripel-off, Semi-Final: Karmeliet vs. Lost & Grounded

It’s been on for weeks now, the gaps between games are getting longer, and your favourite was knocked out early so who cares? Yes, it’s another Tripel-Off semi-final.

The end is draw­ing near, though, and we’re cer­tain­ly con­tin­u­ing to enjoy the expe­ri­ence.

In the past when we’ve entered into big mul­ti-part tast­ing projects there have been moments when it’s felt like a chore – “We real­ly ought to drink those three saisons we sus­pect are going to be rub­bish, ugh…” – but not this time.

It’s tripel! We love tripel! And none of those we’ve tast­ed this time have been any­thing less than enjoy­able.

We have to admit that we went into this par­tic­u­lar match with the frank expec­ta­tion that plucky Lost & Ground­ed would get ham­mered by the expe­ri­enced vet­er­an on home turf.

In the group match­es Karmeli­et knocked our socks off and we’ve drunk a cou­ple more in the mean­time, so impressed were we by its char­ac­ter. Seri­ous­ly, how can a British-brewed upstart hope to chal­lenge a Bel­gian orig­i­nal? Well…

This time, both Jess and Ray knew which beers were in play, but Ray poured and pre­sent­ed them with­out the bot­tles just in case there was any chance of keep­ing Jess guess­ing.

The con­trast in appear­ance was pro­nounced: Karmeli­et is lager-yel­low with an absurd­ly vig­or­ous foam, while L&G tends to a faint­ly hazy orange with a decent but less sta­ble head. We would­n’t nor­mal­ly use an out of focus pic­ture but it’s good enough to give the idea:

Two tripels side by side.

(And hap­pens to mim­ic the effect of drink­ing mul­ti­ple tripels in a ses­sion.)

On tast­ing, though, it became appar­ent that Karmeli­et was not going to walk this.

Jess: Well, to my sur­prise, I imme­di­ate­ly pre­fer the Lost & Ground­ed. It’s rougher but just more enjoy­able. It ben­e­fits from being real­ly cold and I sus­pect will get rougher again as it warms up but, for now, yes, that’s my favourite. Karmeli­et seems quite… insipid? It’s smoother but more bland. It’s not doing it for me.

Ray: That’s a good point about tem­per­a­ture. These are cold­er than some of the beers we’ve tast­ed in ear­li­er rounds. I agree that it’s clos­er than I expect­ed, but I do pre­fer Karmeli­et. The L&G seems a bit home­brew-tripel-by-num­bers, though I’d strug­gle to pin down any faults, as such. Maybe a bit of burnt sug­ar that should­n’t be there? And, yes, Karmeli­et does seem quite lager-like at this tem­per­a­ture, but I like that it’s less heavy going than L&G.

[A few rounds of knit­ting and sev­er­al pages of Mai­gret lat­er.]

Jess: OK, as these warm up, they’ve switched places. The L&G has def­i­nite­ly become a bit less fun, while the com­plex­i­ty we noticed in Karmeli­et is re-emerg­ing.

Ray: Agreed. So the win­ner is…?

Jess: Karmeli­et, but Lost & Ground­ed stood up to it bloody well. It’s a very cred­i­ble tripel. Tell you what, though – I reck­on De Dolle would stamp all over both of these.

Ray: Oh, don’t say that! That means the last round was effec­tive­ly the final.

Jess: I’m lob­by­ing for a third-place play-off.

Ray: Hmm. Maybe.

So, that’s that: the final prop­er is Karmeli­et vs. West­malle, which we’ll try to sched­ule for the next week or so. In the mean­time, if you’ve had chance to try any of these beers side by side, we’d be inter­est­ed to hear your views.