beer reviews Belgium

Session #91: Our First Belgian

This is our contribution to the 91st beer blogging session hosted by Belgian Smaak.

Leffe Blonde

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.

Beer history Beer styles

Session #77: What’s the Big Deal With IPAs?

Detail from a vintage India Pale Ale beer label.

This month, Justin at Brew Review asks us to consider this question:

[What] makes the India Pale Ale (IPA) style of beer so popular… why all the hype? What is it about an IPA that makes craft beer enthusiasts (CBE) go wild?

Let’s get this straight: we believe fruity, flowery, perfumed IPAs with showboating hop aromas and flavours have an intrinsic popular appeal. Sure, some people find them ‘vulgar’, and there’s a whole chunk of the mainstream audience which finds hoppy beers ‘weird’, but, nonetheless, we’ve been with people who ‘don’t like beer’ when they taste, say, Goose Island IPA, for the first time, and observed their eyes lighting up.

In his introduction to Thornbridge Brewery’s book (disclosure), writer Pete Brown says this, referring to their beers in general but, we think, with Jaipur IPA in mind:

The first time you experience beers like this it’s like tasting in colour and realising that you’ve only had black and white until now.

In our view, then, IPAs are bold, bright and accessible, and even the rarest, most ‘exclusive’ ones are inclusive in terms of their easy-to-appreciate (though often very complex) flavours and aromas.

* * *

From a British perspective, it’s worth noting that IPA has an additional appeal because it symbolises a sort of rebirth of the glory days of British brewing. As CAMRA stalwart and beer writer Barrie Pepper told us: ‘In the seventies, it was mild and bitter, maybe an old at Christmas if you were lucky.’ IPA, with its romantic back story, seemed to offer an antidote to that, and a knotty puzzle to boot.

In his half of Homebrew Classics: India Pale Ale, Roger Protz gives an excellent first-hand account of the IPA ‘revivalist’ movement of the nineties — research, historic brewing and seminars focusing on the IPAs of the early nineteenth century — which led to a rule: IPAs, they decided, ought to be at least 5.5% ABV and have 40 international bittering units. This opened the door for beers such as St Austell Proper Job, which was presented as a return to ‘authentic IPA‘, while actually employing distinctive varieties of US hops which hadn’t existed in the nineteenth century, and techniques which emphasised their fresh, unusual aromas.

In Britain, IPA was progress disguised as nostalgia, just how we like it.

beer reviews The Session

Session #18 – anniversary beers

This month’s session is hosted by The Barley Blog, and we’ve been asked to knock back a limited edition anniversary beer and blog about it, perhaps explaining our choice.

Well, the reason for today’s choice is quite easy – the only candidate we had in was a Fullers’ Vintage Ale from 2005. Is it more common on the other side of the pond to have limited edition beers? I can’t think of many British breweries that do it.

The trouble with these limited edition, made-for-aging beers is deciding when to drink them. The longer you’ve had them in, the harder the decision gets. You need an occasion to justify it, and what better occasion than raising a glass to fellow beer-bloggers across the globe. Oh, that and the promotion one of us got this week.

The aroma of this 8.5% beastie was overwhelmingly of alcohol, specifically a sweet sherry or Pedro Ximénez. Like PX, it coats the tongue with sugar and fruits – we got hints of apricot and cherry. We didn’t notice a lot of bitterness at the end, and in fact the finish was a little on the sour side.

I’m not sure our tasting notes bear any resemblance to what Fullers say about this vintage, suggesting perhaps that it hasn’t aged that well — or that we, and the people we bought it from, haven’t aged it very well.

Still, it left a pleasant warming feeling in the belly.

The Session

The Session #17 – Anti-seasonal drinking

This month we’ve been asked by Rob D’Anunzio of Pfiff! fame to go against the grain and drink something not in season. Of course, the additional challenge for British bloggers is to determine what season we’re actually in at any given point in time…

Rather than go for a particular style, we raided our stash for Christmas beers.

First up was one that’s intrigued us for a while – Chapeau Christmas gueuze from Brouwerij de Troch. Now I always think of gueuzes as being a pretty summery drink, particularly when they’re lovely and fresh on tap. So the very existence of this beer seems anti-seasonal and in the spirit of the session. Reviews on Ratebeer and BeerAdvocate range from “weird” to “rank”, so we really didn’t know what to expect. It’s not actually bad – it smells and tastes like a fairly uncomplicated cherry beer, one of the sweet ones. If you’ve had, and liked, Timmerman’s or Boon Kriek, you won’t be disappointed. We’re not sure what’s wintry about it – maybe you’re supposed to mull it?

So onto Glad Tidings, a “spiced milk stout” from the Chiltern Brewery. I’ve heard many great things about this brewery but have never tried their stuff on tap or in bottles – strange considering they’re not that far out of London. This Christmas stout is 4.6% and has a gorgeous head. This is a very interesting beer – we can’t quite decide if it’s genius or amateur. They’ve rather gone to town on the Christmas spices, which dominate the nose and the aftertaste. There’s also a strong fruit flavour – probably from using oranges? Or maybe plums? It tastes a bit peachy, almost sour. It’s got a great body too, and a head that lasts – we have condition envy! Worth trying again, and definitely worth getting our arses out to deepest darkest Bucks to see what else these guys are up to.

Remaining in the UK, we have Hepworth‘s Vintage Christmas Ale. They claim this 7.5% beastie will keep for years, and we wonder if we’re being premature drinking it two years before its best before date. It pours a glorious clear red, with a nice creamy head. The taste is difficult to describe, but it’s extremely fruity and warming. I was reminded of something like Bigfoot Barley Wine, except without the C-hops, if that makes sense. It has a gooey body, with a really good solid malt flavour. It’s a little nutty with hints of vinous fruits and oranges, and a beautifully balanced hop flavour cuts through but doesn’t overwhelm. Lovely stuff.

We were going to have a Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale to top the evening off, but I can’t see how it would beat that. So we’ll leave it there, with the long chewy aftertaste of Hepworth Christmas ale lingering on.


beer festivals The Session

Session #16: our ideal beer festival

Session number 16 is hosted by Thomas at Geistbear Brewing Blog, and the topic is beer festivals.

We’ve posted about various festivals we’ve been to in the past, from the enormous Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) to a cosy little event in a pub round the corner. Here, in no particular order, are our thoughts on what makes our ideal beer festival;

Size of venue

Small and cosy. Aircraft hangars are great for putting in as many beers as possible, but they make it difficult to generate an atmosphere.

Mind you, large beer tents seem to work in Germany. In fact, outdoor festivals are a great idea, although not so much in Britain with the rubbish weather and the diva-like nature of cask ale.

Range of beer

The range of beer will obviously be related to the size of the venue. We’re quite content to have a smallish range – anything more than about six beers counts as a festival to us! It’s more important that it’s in good condition, so that when you give it to your non-ale-loving mates, there’s a chance they might actually like the stuff and come back for more.


Mixed. It seems to make for a better atmosphere when you have non-beer-geeks there as well. This is why we like small festivals in local pubs.

Reason for being

It should not be a cynical marketing trick, like Heineken’s Identikit Oktoberfests in Spain. Ideally, it should promote real ale to new punters, although foreign beer festivals like the recent cracker at Zeitgeist are also OK by us!


Essential for mopping up all the beer, but also quite a handy tool for drawing in non-beer geeks. I’ve had lots of great food at festivals recently, with events such as the Pig’s Ear being a showcase for local(ish) small producers.


Difficult, this one. Without wanting to descend into predictable folkie-bashing, I’ve seen some dreadful live acts at beer festivals. Live bands can work really well, as Bailey found out in deepest darkest Somerset, but when they’re bad, they’re horrid. If festival organisers are going to bother with live music, they need to make sure they book real crowd-pleasers.

I quite like oompah bands, but I think you can only get away with them in Germany, where everyone knows the words. In Muenchen steht ein hofbrauhaus, eins, zwei, g’suffa!

To summarise: we’d like beer festivals to emphasise the “festival” a bit more – it should be something that’s fun and brings people together.