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.

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.

Tell Us About Your Local Beer Mixes

The cover BEER magazine #40

Our feature on traditional beer mixes — dog’s nose, lightplater, brown-split, and so on — is in the latest edition of CAMRA’s BEER magazine.

We know we didn’t capture every single regional speciality or all of the many local names for the mixes we did list, and we were prepared for the steady trickle of “But what about…?” messages that have been coming our way on Twitter.

The thing is, this is the kind of stuff that people often know but don’t often write down — a general problem with studying the history of beer and pubs — and we’d love to get more of these on record.

So, with that in mind, here’s your chance to tell the world about  the beer mixes you know, and/or the names by which they go in your neck of the woods. Just comment below, specifying:

  • What the mix is called.
  • How it’s made.
  • And the specific pub, neighbourhood, town or region to which it belongs.

No variant is too minor, and duplicates are fine — useful, even.

It would be interesting to know, for example, whether simply ‘mixed’, which has come up a few times, always refers to mild and bitter. We guess it’s synonymous with half-and-half, and changes depending on which two beers (one light, one dark) that are most commonly mixed in any given region.