The fact is, we don’t know for sure. We can’t remember.
It might have been Hoegaarden, and there’s an outside chance it was Belle-Vue Kriek. There might even have been bottles of something at a student party — De Koninck? Palm? There was definitely Stella Artois, but we’re not sure that counts.
The first really clear memory we have is of draught Leffe Blond at the William IV on the Leyton-Walthamstow border c.2002. Having arrived at the trendy Belgo restaurants from 1992 onward (see Chapter 11 of Brew Britannia) this ‘premium special occasion beverage’ took a decade to filter out to the suburbs.
Back then, after the closure of the Sweet William microbrewery but before the arrival of Brodie’s, the William was just another East London pub with a slightly tense atmosphere, lots of empty seats, and a line-up of mass-market lagers.
We only ever went there to see a friend who lived nearby. She was then a heavier smoker than Humphrey Bogart in his prime and, somehow, always felt more grown-up and sophisticated than everyone else in the room. In 2002, what counted as sophistication was ordering a chalice of Leffe in a cockney boozer.
So we copied her.
It was fun drinking out of silly glases, and it really did taste different to anything else we’d had before, though we weren’t in the habit of taking notes back then. We recall finding it weighty and luscious, perhaps because, at 6.6%, it was stronger than anything else widely available on draught at the time. Its strength also made it feel naughty: “I should warn you…” the barmaid would say every time.
* * *
More than a decade on, Leffe is really not cool, and, unless we’re missing something, has rather retreated from the on-trade. (See also: Hoegaarden.) We can’t think when we last saw a Leffe tap in a pub. In 2002, we didn’t know (or especially care) that it was a sub-brand of a big multi-national, but, these days, that doesn’t help its cause: it’s not the kind of thing ‘craft beer’ bars bother themselves with.
What is is, at least in bottled form, is cheap. We picked up 750ml, with cage, cork, foil and other trappings of poshness, at CO-OP in the centre of Penzance for £3.49, but it can often be found on sale for as little as £2.50. But is it good value?
There is a distinctive Belgian yeast character — a touch of banana, some bread, a sprinkle of peppery-spice — but very restrained. It no longer tastes all that exotic — not because it’s been ‘dumbed down’ but because a lot of beer has flowed over our palates since 2002. What once read as luscious now seems like the stickiness of barley sugar sweets, or as if a tot of orange squash has been added to the glass.
It feels, all in all, hurried, tacky, and plasticky.
Compare it to, say, Westmalle Tripel, or pay it too much attention, and it seems a dud. Think of it as a lager with a bit more going on, and it’s not bad, and certainly good enough company with dinner in front of the telly.