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”