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.

Retro Bottles from Harvey’s

A £37.50 mixed case from Harvey’s of Lewes brought us a selection of 24 gloriously old school beers in tiny 275ml bottles.

They look as if they’ve been pulled from a dusty shelf behind the bar at a pub that closed in 1983 — not ‘faux-vintage’ but evidence that, if you wait long enough, most graphic design starts to look cool again. Here, we’ve focused on four that belong to styles popular in the mid-20th century but which have long been abandoned by most other breweries.

Blue Label (3.6%) sends all the signals of ‘light ale’ — a type of beer that all but disappeared with the arrival of ‘premium bottled ales’ in the 1990s. Being based, however, on the almost universally adored Sussex Best — the brown bitter even the most desperate hop-hounds conceded isn’t boring — turns out to be rather good. The carbonation is arguably too low — getting a head on the beer was tough and it slipped away instantly — except that this seems to give it a hop-oily, tongue-coating richness. The core flavour is toffee, yes, but it’s heavily seasoned with drying, grassy hops that leave a final twist of medicinal bitterness on the tongue. In short, it’s good beer in its own right, and much better, or at least more interesting, than many over-cooked bottled bitters available in supermarkets.

India Pale Ale (3.2%) is similar — amber-gold, caramelised sugar, stewed tea hoppiness — but watery with it. We reckon it’s a pretty good example of what IPA meant to British pub drinkers 30 or 40 years ago but how many beer geeks trained on Goose Island and BrewDog Punk have been let down by it in the last five years? It wasn’t any effort to drink but we’ll have another Blue Label next time, thanks.

Continue reading “Retro Bottles from Harvey’s”

Proporval

This is the first in a new series of posts about our experiments in blending British ales with the cult Belgian favourite Orval.

We’ve been thinking for some time, mostly inspired by reading Ron Pattinson, that a lot of British beers would benefit from a touch of Brettanomyces, to add complexity and character. A bit of dirt, if you like.

Then, more recently, Michael Tonsmeire’s excellent book American Sour Beers got us thinking about blending different beers to taste. In notes accompanying his recipe for English Stock Ale (p318) he says:

Blend with dark mild or a porter to get a taste of what drinking in England was like before Pasteur and Hansen’s techniques cleaned the Brettanomyces out of the breweries there.

Good idea, Mr Tonsmeire! (Not that we need much encouraging to mix beers, mind.)

Continue reading “Proporval”

Round-up of Session #88: Beer Mixes

For the 88th edition of The Session, we asked beer bloggers to consider ‘traditional beer mixes’. Here’s a summary of contributions received so far.

The beer blogging Session logo.Getting in a couple of days early, Dan at Community Beer Works was the first to highlight a problem with the topic we’d chosen: mild, one the beer styles necessary to make the mixes listed by Richard Boston, is hard to find in outside the UK. (And in large parts of the UK, for that matter.) Nonetheless, he made some thoughtful substitutions and was subsequently highly impressed by a ‘boilermaker’ combining a Belgian-style amber beer with a brown-ale/stout hybrid: “This beer has broken down style guidelines and replaced them with anarchism. Delicious anarchism.”

Stan at Appellation Beer didn’t over-think it, simply mixing his two favourite ‘ballpark beers’, Urban Chestnut Schnickelfritz and Schlafly Pale Ale, in a plastic cup at the game: “I suppose there was a little more, or at least different, fruity character in the blend. More hops, for sure, than Schnickelfritz alone, earthier.”

For the blog of online beer retailer Beer Hawk, Maggie was the only contributor to this month’s session to attempt a ‘granny’, mixing lkley Black (mild) and Robinson’s Old Tom (old). It left her underwhelmed and unconvinced of the benefits of mixing beer.

Glen at Beer is Your Friend made three passes at a ‘black and tan’ (combining dark beer with light). After two duds, he hit the jackpot with a mix of Bridge Road Brewers Robust Porter and Beechworth Pale Ale: It was almost a black IPA.”

The Beer Nut made what we reckon qualifies as a ‘lightplater’, mixing an IPA and a golden ale from the same brewery. Though underwhelming on their own, together they created quite a decent, balanced complex English session bitter”.

Sean at Beer Search Party played around with the idea of a ‘boilermaker’ using Californian beers. He also went a step further in experimenting with proportions: “But despite upping the percentages, the… brown ale which seemingly was the weaker came out on top. That was a fascinating development.”

David at Beer Tinted Spectacles took the opportunity to reminisce about his days behind the bar in a pub in the English Midlands as a management trainee with Bass: It was a whole new lexicon: ‘Half & Half’, ‘Black and Tan’, ‘Bass and Gowd’ and ‘Mickey Mouse’.” There are some fascinating observations on the function of Gold Label barley wine, too, which bring into question the idea that English drinkers are dedicated to moderation and ‘sessionability’. His attempt at a ‘Mickey Mouse’ using Goose Island IPA and Heineken Export was not a great success, however.

Darren at Beer Today is, as far as we can tell, the only person who carried out his mixing in a pub, enjoying a ‘brown split’ at the Star Inn under the suspicious eye of a regular who drinks nothing else: “[In] the absence of a mild… it more than adequately filled the gap… robust, sweet and nutty with a lovely chocolatey smoothness…”

Breandán and Elisa at Belgian Smaak took on the ‘blacksmith’, giving it a Belgian-Irish twist by using Guinness Special Export as the stout and Vision Dionysique in lieu of barley wine. These two big beers did not seem to get on: “Generally speaking, the combination of stout sweetness and barleywine bitterness in this particular mix may have been more confusing for us than balanced.”

Jon at The Brew Site combined a Kentucky Kölsch with the powerful Cooper’s Extra Stout from Australia in a ‘black and tan’, producing something that reminded him of a German Schwarzbier, “light, roasty and super drinkable”.

Unable to get hold of any mild, and not a fan of mixes in general, Ding instead decided to provide some personal recollections of beer mixing in the UK, and to reflect upon its purpose: “[Bar staff] often overestimated and as a result, the drinker got quite a bit more than a pint for his money. In fact, this became quite a common tactic where people would order these mixes just to get ‘more’ beer.”

Ed used a can of ‘European lager’ to rescue a pint of two-day-old cask ale, creating a ‘mickey mouse‘: “It tasted like a light ale and went down surprisingly well.”

Oliver at Literature & Libation got stuck on our use of the word ‘traditional’, and eventually decided to explore what he presents as something of a tradition in the making — cutting a HUGE IPA with a little ‘un to create something which is just right: “The result is a lot like Stone’s regular IPA, but by mixing, you get two good beers instead of one great one and one lame one.”

Derrick at Ramblings of a Beer Runner took the idea of the ‘lightplater’ and (heh) ran with it, bringing together Anchor Saison (standing in for ‘light’) and Lagunitas IPA (as the bitter component). It seems to have worked pretty well, and, in his conclusion, he asks a question which is actually an answer to “Why mix beers?”: “Is it possible to create this beer with these flavors from a single mash, boil and fermentation? My guess is no.”

Will at vonSchlapper’s Adventures With Beer attempted to create a ‘boilermaker’ using Mornington Brown and an Australian oddity we were fascinated to learn of: “Coopers Mild Cloudy yellow. White head; large bubbles. Almost a saison nose. Dry. Prickles on tongue. Little flavour – but what’s there is slightly lemony. Reminds me of my first homebrew.” His conclusion, however, is that mixing doesn’t make sense in a world where beer is already so diverse, and where good beer is so readily available.

Alan at A Good Beer Blog recycled an old but relevant blog post in which he suggests using the revered Belgian beer Orval “as sort of a Brett concentrate” for pepping up other brews. An interesting idea, but what do you call the mix? We propose ‘barnstormer’ (Orval and pale ale) and ‘black horse’ (Orval and stout) for starters.

And, finally, our own contribution, in which we messed around with Mackeson stout, Gold Label barley wine, Guinness, McEwan’s Champion and some beers from our stash. The winner for us? A half-and-half of Guinness and Williams Bros 80/-.

UPDATE 10/06/2014

Phil at Oh Good Ale found this round-up interesting enough to prompt him to try a ‘mother-in-law’ (old ale and bitter) made with Robinson’s Old Tom and Timothy Taylor Landlord: All in all, the experiment confirms my initial view of beer-mixing: that it’s something you do with two beers whose taste you don’t much like, to mask those flavours and leave you with something that’s drinkable but doesn’t taste of much.”

The next edition of the Session, on the subject of beer in history, will be hosted by Bill at Pittsburgh Beer Snob on 4 July 2014.

Session #88: This Crazy Mixed Up World

For this month’s edition of the Session, we’ve asked people to take ‘traditional beer mixes’ as the jumping off point.

We did not have much joy finding mixes in pubs, despite visiting four in Falmouth on Saturday. Generally the beer on offer lacked variety (no mild, no stout, no barley wine). When we did find a pub with mild, there was no standard bitter to mix it with, and it really didn’t get along with the perfumed intensity of Burning Sky Plateau. In some ways, it seems, even ‘exhibition’ pubs offer drinkers less choice than fifty years ago.

But we had a back up plan, and one which happened to fit neatly into our side project to rediscover Michael Jackson’s Great Beer Guide — we went to Tesco and bought cans of Mackeson and Gold Label, along with bottle of that rare surviving Burton, McEwan’s Champion, and the rather reviled Guinness Original.

Supermarket beers for mixing.

We had no joy with bottled or canned mild, brown ale, or ‘light ale’, limiting us, with the contents of our ‘cellar’, to the following options:

  • Mother-in-law — old and bitter.
  • Blacksmith –stout and barley wine.
  • Half-and-half – bitter and stout, or bitter and mild.
  • B&B — Burton and bitter.

The Mixes

We started with a ‘blacksmith’, mixing Gold Label and Mackeson. Despite having 2.8% ABV to GL’s 7.5%, Mackeson won the battle, creating something that resembled a decent but unexciting cask-conditioned stout with a dense, chewy body. It reminded us of Bourbon biscuits (vanilla, chocolate) and we’d do this again.

Next, we mixed Guinness with Williams Bros’ 80/- (disclosure: they sent us that one as a sample) in a straightforward half-and-half. On its own, Guinness tasted watery, metallic and sweet, more like a keg mild than a stout, while WB80 was like a baby version of Thornbridge’s Colorado Red — fruity, with cherries and berries, and (this got us excited) the faintest hint of Kriek-like sourness. Something remarkable happened when they came together — it created one of the most delicious porters we’ve tasted in some time, with the 80/- added a sharp, fruity note to the stout, and putting life back into it. Try this combination if you can.

We finished, last night, by experimenting with ‘B.B.’ or ‘B&B’ — Burton and bitter, as recommended by T.E.B. Clarke in his 1938 book What’s Yours?

Should you have discovered that you like Burton, or “old”, except for its slightly metallic flavour — another verdict common among beginners — make “B.B.” your next order.

Tasting McEwan’s Champion on its own, we found it figgy, rich and, yes, rather coppery, but also lacking in life. We then combined it with two different sort-of bitters. First, Top Out Staple Pale Ale, a  grassy, bright and citrusy beer with unfortunately rough edges (disclosure: sent to us as part of a sample box by Beer52.com). Before we tasted it, we knew this would work. The Burton added density, polish and depth, and made the pale ale less harsh; the pale ale gave the Burton some ‘zing’ and fresh hop character. The result reminded us of Fuller’s ESB, and was deliciously easy to drink. (Was the development of ESB inspired by this kind of mix? Something to look into.)

Finally, we tried Champion with Williams Bros’ Cock O’ The Walk ‘red ale’ (disclosure: sample bottle), the latter being a crystal malt bomb which tasted like some of early attempts at home brew. Again, the mix improved both beers, producing a deep red ‘winter warmer’, though it’s not a combination we’d especially recommend.

Conclusions

We think mixing is more likely to work if at least one of the beers, and preferably both, are relatively straightforward in character — all roastiness, pure richness, and so on. A mediocre or even bad beer can be rescued by mixing, but an already great beer is unlikely to benefit.

Mixing beers has long been a way for the drinker to assert their independence from the will of the brewery. (Or to ‘insult’ the brewer’s artistry, depending on your point of view.) This is from a book called Beer in Britain published by the Times in 1960:

Also there is the intriguing snobbery of pub drinking — the desire to be different or… to be the same as someone you admire. And so the brewer has to contend with astonishing permutations and combinations of his own beers. How often he hears a licensee say, “Oh, yes, they call for that mixed with half a pint of bitter.” “That” is probably one of the bottled beers the brewer has brewed with extreme trouble to be drunk on its own.

If you don’t have easy access to a great variety of top notch beer, why not use readily available supermarket standards like Champion and Mackeson as building blocks or ingredients for creating the beer you want?

Session #88 Announcement

Illustration by Robert Wykes, 1938.
Illustration by Robert Wykes from What’s Yours? (1938). They’re laughing because ordering ‘bitter and mild’ is a faux pas — it should always be ‘mild and bitter’.

We haven’t hosted the monthly beer blogging Session since 2008 and, noticing that there was still a vacancy for 6 June with only weeks to go, decided it was time for another go.

The beer blogging Session logo.The topic we’ve chosen is traditional beer mixes.

In his 1976 book Beer and Skittles early beer writer Richard Boston lists several:

  • Lightplater – bitter and light ale.
  • Mother-in-law — old and bitter.
  • Granny — old and mild.
  • Boilermaker — brown and mild.
  • Blacksmith –stout and barley wine.
  • Half-and-half – bitter and stout, or bitter and mild.

We’d like you to drink one or more from that list and write about it on Friday 6 June… and that’s it.

We’re deliberately aiming for something broad and accessible, but there is one rule — no ‘beer cocktails’! It’s been done, for starters. So, mix two beers, not four; and steer clear of syrups, spirits, flavourings and crushed ice.

If you need further inspiration…

  • Try ordering them in a pub — do bar staff still know the ropes?
  • Use your own sources to find a traditional mix not on Boston’s list, e.g. Ram’n’Spesh in Young’s London pubs.
  • Make the same mix with several different beers — are there rules for the optimal Granny?
  • Experiment — Blacksmith IPA with black IPA, anyone?

And here’s more food for thought, from T.E.B. Clarke’s What’s Yours? (1938):

If, as usually occurs, you have found bitter too bitter and mild too sweet (as well as too uneconomic), you might well resort to “mild and bitter”…. Should you have discovered that you like Burton, or “old”, except for its slightly metallic flavour — another verdict common among beginners — make “B.B.” your next order.

Let us know when your post is up either by commenting here, emailing us at boakandbailey@gmail.com, or Tweeting at us.

UPDATE 12/05/2014

More inspiration from Twitter, some people have suggested beer mixes that have worked for them in the past:

  • Matthew Curtis — “Mikkeller beer geek breakfast with Odell IPA has been my greatest success.”
  • Ghost Drinker — “mix a Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout with a Mort Subite Kriek…”.
  • Martyn Griffin — “Oakham Citra and Sarah Hughes Ruby (or a clone I HB’d) is an absolute winner.”
  • Al ‘Hopsinjoor’ — “The aforementioned Hardcore and Paradox… [Brewdog] Hardcore and Riptide (a RipCore if you will- thanks to ) [Magic Rock] Unhuman & [Buxton] Tsar Bomba, [Magic Rock Cannonball & Bearded Lady… [Summer Wine] Diablo & (again) Bearded Lady, all good mixes. [Buxton] Axe Edge & any good stout!”
  • Alan McLeod had some success with a 50/50 mix of Orval “as sort of a brett concentrate” with a ‘farmhouse cream ale’.
  • Rowan Molyneux — “Best mix I’ve found: 1/2 Hardcore IPA with 1/3 Paradox Heaven Hill (both BrewDog). Not tried with low ABVs yet…”

A Lightplater while waiting for a train

Young's Light Ale

With our train due in an hour,we wandered out of the station in a small inland Cornish town in search of a pub. The first we came across was busy and smart enough; on entering, a cheery-looking landlady greeted us and engaged in a little light banter. She then served us two pints and a half of the warmest, dullest bitter we’ve had in a while.

This seemed a perfect time for a little experiment. “Is that Young’s Light Ale in the fridge?” we asked, spotting the label from several metres away. It was, so we bought some, and used it to (a) reduce the temperature of our pints from lukewarm to cool; (b) put some fizz in them; and (c) lift the bitterness. They weren’t great pints thereafter, but were at least pleasant enough to finish.

All of this reminded us of (sorry) yet another passage from Richard Boston’s Beer and Skittles (1976) in which he lists various ‘traditional’ beer mixes:

  • Lightplater — bitter and light ale.
  • Mother-in-law — old and bitter. (Oh dear. Bernard Manning much?)
  • Granny — old and mild.
  • Boilermaker — brown and mild.
  • Blacksmith –stout and barley wine.
  • Half-and-half — bitter and stout, or bitter and mild.

If you’re compelled to mix beers in an emergency as we were, or just fancy a change, these all sound like they might create something drinkable.

Bailey’s dad, of course, never complains about bad beer. If it can’t be rendered passable with the addition of a bottle of Mann’s Brown Ale, then it’s time to move on.