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.

The Search for Grown-Up Soft Drinks: Cocktail Bitters

Not being cocktail drinkers, and neither of us having grown up in cocktail drinking households, we had never tasted Angostura bitters until a couple of months ago.

We’d heard the name, and seen the rumpled paper packaging on the back shelf in pubs and bars, but didn’t really understand what bitters are.

Then, as we experimented with ‘mocktails’, we came across a few recipes online that suggested using bitters to add complexity to alcohol-free drinks.

Angostura bitters label.

We were a little sceptical — how much difference can a few drops of this stuff possibly make? — but, no, these cocktail types know what they’re talking about.

Five drops in just a glass of water gives it a mysterious, spicy, medicinal depth, and it magically ‘grownupifies’ any soft drink. They’re sometimes described as the salt and pepper of cocktails which is a good analogy.

Of course that started us thinking…. What if we added bitters to beer?

We’re not the first to have this idea, obviously, and John Verive’s 2016 notes at Paste Magazine are interesting:

I thought the grapefruit bitters-spiked IPA would satisfy a grapefruit IPA drinker dismayed at only having ‘regular’ IPAs to choose from… but it was in the American light lager that the bitters showed true promise… Adding pungent bitters to the fizzy, insipid light lagers completely changes the drinking experience. The scent of citrus oils overpowers the lager’s faint aroma of apple skins, and the additional bitterness balances out the brew’s finish. Subtle botanical flavors add complexity to the one-dimensional beer, and the grapefruit bitters specifically give the impression of classic American hop varieties.

We had a spare can of Camden Hells and so decided to try spiking it with Angostura.

A quick shake — four or five drops — revealed one immediate problem: the bitters sat in the foam, turning it orange-pink, but didn’t make it through to the body of the beer. A quick stir with a spoon (not ideal with beer) solved this problem.

The aroma was intense, more so than in other drinks, adding a fruity, cinnamon note.

It tasted… Weird. Plasticky, fake, chemical. As things went on, though, it became moreish, emphasising the beer’s bitterness and giving it a Christmas character. We reckon it would have worked better with a darker, richer beer rather than standard lager; we’d also rein in it a bit — one or two drops, barely detectable, would probably be about right.

Grapefruit and Hops bitters.

It was certainly interesting enough to make us think that we ought to get some grapefruit and/or hop bitters. We’ll let you know how that goes.

Tripel-off, Semi-Final Game 1: Westmalle vs. De Dolle

We’re now into the semi-finals of our Tripel-off. First up: De Dolle Dulle Teve vs. Westmalle Tripel, the reining world champ.

You might recall that this wasn’t the original match-up but Ray had a cunning plan to keep the tasting just a tiny little bit on the blind side for Jess.

  • He changed the line-ups without telling her.
  • He put Dulle Teve in a Westmalle branded glass, and Westmalle in a more generic Belgian vessel.

Two beer bottles side by side.

Both had huge, gorgeous, billowing white heads of foam. Both looked about the same colour, with Dulle Teve perhaps just a touch darker, more orange than yellow.

Our first sips were of Dulle Teve.

Jess: Oh, wow.

Ray: Same.

Jess: That’s just a lovely beer, but… Hmm… Have you put something other than in the Westmalle glass? Are you playing mindgames?

Ray: Yes, busted. That didn’t take you long to work out. It is great, though. It’s lovely. I would describe my reaction as swooning.

Jess: [Westmalle] has a much better aroma, though. Fresh and flowery. This one [Dulle Teve] smells fruity but much more restrained.

Ray: [Westmalle] is more elegant and lighter bodied. A classier beer. But.. Is there a sort of savouriness at the end?

Jess: I’m detecting a burn. Too much of a burn. It seems very boozy.

Ray: [Dulle Teve] seems almost tropically fruity. Again, great. Such wow factor.

Jess: Funny thing is, the more I drink, the better the first one [Westmalle] tastes. It reminds me of Duvel. Boozy, but also very drinkable. I think… I think I prefer it, on balance, but only just.

Drinking these two beers together was really interesting as each did strange things to our perception of the other (compare with our first-round tasting notes here and here) and both seemed to morph further into different beers in the time it took to drink them. If beer-and-beer pairing was a thing, this is a combo we’d recommend.

Deciding a winner really was difficult. In the end, though, we both agreed that by the narrowest of margins Westmalle had the edge.

That means, much as we expected from the start, it will be in the final, facing off against either Lost & Grounded or Karmeliet.

We’d like to thank Patreon supporters like Darryl Chamberlain and Bryan Robson whose support paid for the beer and access to the nice font in the header image.

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