The Session #91: My First Belgian

Chimay Grande Reserve“My First Belgian”? It would have been about 14 years ago, probably at the age of about 21, but the answer is: I’m not sure. As I was living in Sydney at the time the list of possibilities is narrowed down to: whatever the Belgian Beer Café stocked. It was possibly a Chimay – but which one I don’t recall, I do recall that Chimay Blue became my “go to” Belgian and to this day I have a soft spot for it in my beer drinking heart.

What I can definitely remember is my first *pow* blow-me-away Belgian beer experience, it was Chimay Grande Reserve – really just Chimay Blue in different packaging, which I didn’t know at the time. Beer with a cork in it. A combination of rich fruity dark beer and fantastic presentation that burnt itself into my memory. If I recall correctly I bought a bottle of this to share with a friend in celebration of that period of upheaval in life when one goes from “poor student” to “rich employee” (all is relative, in contrast to being  a student struggling to pay the rent, let alone eat, being employed is like financial nirvana).

It would have been Chimay that made me decide: one day I have to go to Belgium and explore the beer. A thing that I still haven’t really done, despite having lived in the UK for 8 years. I’ve been to Belgium once, for non-beer reasons, and did enjoy some great beer there. What struck me most was just how cheap Chimay Grande Reserve is. I think I paid about 4 euro one of these 750ml bottles of lusciousness in a supermarket at a train station. I don’t recall what that Grande Reserve cost me back in Sydney, but I’ve found a blog post that suggests it was AU$29 in 2006… but worth every dollar of that as far as I was concerned at the time.

One day I will go to Belgium just for the beer – and Scourmont Abbey, the home of Chimay, is still right at the top of my go-to destinations.

Session #83 – REALLY Against The Grain

The SessionOK, sorry, the session thing… here’s a “real” one. ;) And I’ll keep it short even – and no Greene King bashing.

US IPAs & especially DIPAs… I am not convinced. Sure, most of what hits the UK from the US is past its best by the time it reaches my mouth. So I’ve stopped putting it in my mouth. However I have had some pretty fresh stuff too – including Pliny the Ever Loved And Adored By All. I mean, Pliny the Elder – and it was a pretty good beer & I’m incredibly grateful to Kirk for sharing it with us… it ticked a box for me. That box being: hm, so I guess all these “wonderful” US IPAs really do taste like they have a caramel lolly in them. A flavour that is usually pinned down to the use of crystal malt. In the case of the Pliny it was lightly but distinctly present & the super-fresh hoppiness almost… almost… compensated for it. But for me… not quite, and I probably wouldn’t put it in a personal top-10-IPA-tastebud-experiences sort of list as a result.

Now – turn to UK renditions of this new-wave-IPA style and many are what I call “clean”… in my mind this is a defining difference between US IPA & modern UK IPA as styles. Most Kernel named-after-a-list-of-hops beers fit this, Hardknott Azimuth too I think… everything hoppy by Oakham, in fact Oakham probably defines the style for me. Green Devil… mmm. Other folk I know, often folk from the US, are sometimes heard to call my “cleaner” UK IPAs “unbalanced” – they seem to want more caramel lolly in their beer. I don’t get it. I’ve been perplexed enough about this huge gap between my tastes and what seem to be the tastes of the wider “craft beer” world to wonder if there is some hop flavour involved that detect as caramel… I don’t think so. Perhaps I’m just over-sensitive to some caramel-type flavours for some reason, perhaps a “bug” in my brain means I don’t like the flavour.

It remains a puzzle. But that’s how it is – I remain unconvinced by US IPAs… however there are a hell of a lot of of US IPAs I’ve never tried. So one of these days I hope to visit the US and do a proper survey of the style as tasted fresh-as-a-daisy on its home turf. Perhaps I just haven’t found the ones that suit my tastes yet.

Session #83 – Against The Grain

The SessionWell this session was irresistible… but there are so many different ways to go with it. I’m unconvinced by US IPAs… I’m grumbly about faddish new brewery fanboism… but I kind of understand these things. What I do not understand is the UK’s top beers. Ignore RateBeer, Untappd, and the loud-yammering yet minuscule craft beer community. I’m talking the likes of Carling, Sharp’s Doombar, Greene King IPA…

Carling and its ilk… for the most part inoffensive. Most beer drinkers just want to get something alcoholic in them I guess and value consistency & simplicity. It’s part of the UK’s derisively-dubbed “chemical fizz” world of pseudo-lager… much maligned in beer circles from the old-school CAMRA to the new-wave craft, yet by far the lion’s share of the beer market. Let us move on from this… it’s not “craft” by anyone’s measure anyway… how about a look at the UK’s unique craft beer world of cask conditioned ale, aka “real ale“.

Sharp’s Doombar is the current holder of the “UK’s most popular cask ale” title… it is sweet, brown, and inoffensive in good condition. Yet near-universally served in a bloody awful state – offensively flat, cardboardy, vinegary. But it sells. Despite pints and pints of substandard beer being sold & consumed it is a huge success. I’d love to know why. Is it really just down to marketing success? Is it price? I don’t have a clue – forced to choose between a pint of Doombar or Carling, it’d be Carling for me every time.

Greene King IPA is the former holder of Doombar’s top-of-the-cask-pile title… it’s probably what the word “twiggy” was coined to describe. Even in great condition this beer has a unique backnote of dead rat. Seemingly some odd estery product of their yeast that I’m perhaps over-sensitive to.  I find it offensive… but to many the word for this beer – in good condition – is probably “inoffensive”. Again… I’ll take the pint of Carling, thanks. To be fairer on Doombar it does rate 73-for-style in RateBeer, whilst GKIPA is 3-for-style. Yes… “3”… I’m not sure how long it was “top of the pile” for, but I suspect Greene King’s insistence on it being stocked by all of the pubs they own is possibly the reason.

Both these beers have become a bit of a pub screening-test for me. If I peer in the door and of an otherwise unknown pub and see one of them on… I leg it. For the most part these beers are a reliably indicator for a pub that doesn’t give a rat’s ass about beer. Usually tied houses with management who just don’t care.

I seem to go against the grain of the UK’s larger cask ale drinking society. If I want to put something inoffensive in my mouth I’ll stick with water thanks. But why is there such a huge demand for these beers? Greene King – perhaps it’s the tied estate, Doombar – perhaps the sheer uncomplicated dullness? In these times of the gastronomic silliness of dusts, foams, & smears – and punchy wine lists where even the subtle old-world is trying to mimic the brash new-world. Why do most beer drinkers settle for… bland?

Perhaps it is that my view of “these times” is blinkered within a world of foodies, aspirational connoisseurs, craft beer wankers, and whathaveyou – and really the UK is for the most part and at core still a land of les rosbifs… sliced white bread and pseudo-lager.

Note: as for “craft beer” – up until recently Sharp’s & Greene King would certainly be “craft breweries” by the US definition – until Sharp’s was bought by Molson Coors… a similar situation to Goose Island. Do you call it craft? Are either of these craft in a UK context? You’ll get different answers depending on who you ask of course.

[Edit: yes, I do realise that my views here are probably very much with the grain of much of the UK’s craft beer community ;) I’ll swear I formed a negative opinion of both these beers before I [d]evolved into beer nerdery… but if you go against the grain of the crafties and drink & enjoy these beers, then good for you… I’d like to know how/if you battle the haters like myself?]

Session 81: Women & The UK Beer World

I missed that this “Scary Beer Feminists” (aka “Women In Craft Beer”) “Session” thing was happening. A detailed roundup.

I do have my own typically grumpy point of personal experience to add… it is, as it must be, UK-centric…

GBBF Bar Staff

GBBF Bar Staff

My other half and I are just the “young” side of mid-30s. Kat is as keen on drinking beer as I am. We go to the pub together, we share beers together at home, we go to beer events together, we’ve both volunteered at beer festivals small, big, and independent. We’ve even both “done time” on a CAMRA branch committee. Kat was the one who got her own work group going to the pub regularly on Thursdays for lunch. We don’t really think of any of this this as being odd – perhaps because we’re from Australia? Though we do recognise that it isn’t exactly usual…

Kat with Table

Kat with Table

But that does not excuse the typical crap we experience from (almost always “older”) blokes in pubs and beer festivals in the UK. Fucking hell it is getting pretty damn tiresome. It likely doesn’t help that Kat’s small, of south-east Asian background, and is quite happy drinking a pint of 5+% stout or porter… but again, no fucking excuse. “I’m just curious.” “Where are you really from?” “Where does she put it all!” “Hur hur hur…” *leer*

Sadly I don’t expect this dire situation to change in a hurry. It’ll probably change only as fast as these relics of an outmoded worldview pass away with time. What this situation does is cement a developing beer-culture divide – if there’s a younger, hipper, more “craft” venue available then we’re likely to prefer it just to avoid the asshats. So-styled “craft beer bars” may have a “full of young hipsters” feel to them – but that’s a hell of a lot better than a  “full of leering, sexist, racist, old fools” feel[1]. The same can be said for events. CAMRA[2] festivals tend to have more of the “problem” customers while events like the Independent Manchester Beer Convention and the Birmingham Beer Bash are far more comfortable (and diverse in both people and beer).

Real Ale Twats - A Stereotype

Real Ale Twats – A Stereotype

I do not, of course, accuse all traditional pub goers – not even a majority of them. I haven’t done a comprehensive census.[3] But even if the problem types are a minority – the majority accept them, don’t bat an eyelid, a handful may apologise for them – thanks – but nobody tackles the issue. We understand, been there done that, it is difficult, it is exhausting to have these arguments – and the usual response is a brick wall of offended consternation. So we, ourselves, rarely say anything – we just uncomfortably put up with it and choose our drinking venues and events accordingly. Normally none of these folk are bad per se, many could be thought of as “good old chaps” – but they exude an unwelcoming subtext, an accusation of being different, out of place, incongruent, an amusement.

In contrast… I feel that “new wave” venues and events are providing a more comfortable experience for the non-“old white male” drinker. Somewhere where people of all backgrounds and genders can feel comfortable having a drink… OK, that’s stretching things… we’re not yet at such a Utopia. I speak as one of the privileged – I’m a white male – it takes effort and experience for me to understand and sometimes even see these problems (and I don’t claim to understand them completely, it’s complex). But within my understanding the “craft beer” community in the UK is an improvement on traditional beer culture in the UK – for that I am thankful – but there’s still plenty of room for further improvement. As certainly documented in the session roundup. This “Session” is also an example of how the modern beer scene benefits from having these discussions and is lucky enough to have a whole raft of people keeping things in check. We must be ever vigilant and also self-critical: as the saying goes “Check Your Privilege”[4]. But more simply & specifically to our case in the beer world: all humans should have the opportunity to to enjoy a beer in happiness and comfort. If you’re doing anything to work against this ideal: CHANGE.

1. I tried to find a good image of the “craft beer hipster” stereotype, but failed. I was hoping for a “craft beer” equivalent of the Real Ale Twats. Somebody should do this. :)

2. CAMRA customers are less diverse than “craft beer event” customers. As observed by me, I don’t have stats of course. But there is a huge variance. Cambridge festival is pretty good but our own Hitchin festival isn’t so good – although both have a distinct problem element that is far less noticeable at the new wave of indy fests. Interestingly enough diversity amongst festival volunteers seems higher. Sadly, female festival volunteers have a hard time of it thanks to the certain sort of customers my vitriol is directed at here. A win/lose situation for CAMRA.

3. The bulk of our UK pubgoing experience is in the London/Hitchin/Cambridge corridor, an area I’d have thought would be more on the progressive side.

4. I really don’t like this phrase, it makes me feel uncomfortable… perhaps that’s why.

[This post reviewed and approved by Kat.]


Session #77: IPA: What’s the Big Deal?




The Session LogoWhat’s the big deal? “IPA” has become a statement beer. If you brew one, if you drink one, you’re saying “fuck you” to the world of conformity – to steal a word from BrewDog. You’re turning aside the bland and mediocre in favour of flavour excitement. Here in the UK BrewDog led their “craft beer revolution” with IPA – flagship beers Punk IPA and Hardcore IPA are evangelism in liquid form, winning many new devotees to the beer drinking cause.* Since then we’ve seen an IPA explosion in the UK, Punk was merely the froth at the tip of a wave of beery goodness that then washed over us all. Beers still young to the world have already gained a reverence – Summer Wine Diablo, Magic Rock Cannonball, Oakham Green Devil, … and earlier IPAs such as Thornbridge Jaipur attract a deep religious devotion.

English Experiment

The English Experiment

IPA is to beer what the punchy new-world Shirazes, et al, are to wine. Often considered inelegant by “connoisseurs” – they’re brash, big, and unapologetically in your face. Hey – I grew up in Australia, I love these wines and I’ve been fed many an “old world” wine that is considered to be pretty amazing and just thought: well, yeah, it’s OK – a bit insipid, but not bad. IPA is the “new world” for beer, often literally in the use of hops from the US and New Zealand, even a few from Australia are making themselves known. UK hop growers are developing varieties that try to bring some of the punchiness and effervescence of flavour to British soils – and doing a good job of developing some very interesting flavours. Investment and change driven by IPA? (I believe French wine producers are similarly developing more punchy wines to compete with their new world rivals.) Dry Hopping, while not at all new, is becoming far more common. Beer festivals are finding that hop filters are more necessary than ever! It’s all about the hops.

Racer 5

Racer 5

What do I mean when I say “IPA”? To me… Pale: certainly no more than about 10 EBC/SRM. Big in ABV: at least 6%. High bitterness: certainly above the 40 IBU I once heard Roger Protz pronounce as being about the maximum for drinkable beer. Hoppy: not just bitterness, an IPA isn’t an IPA without the aroma dimension for me – I’ve gotta get a noseful of some hops. Opinions will, of course, differ on this. These are the qualities of what I consider to be a “good” IPA. Body can vary – I appreciate the US style with its bold caramel notes, but it isn’t for me – Given the choice I’d take a good pint of a Oakham Green Devil over an imported bottle of Bear Republic Racer 5 any day. Call me a heathen if you wish… this is the wonderful thing about beer of all types: variation, choice, difference, debate, argument. Is there any style of beer more debated than IPA? IPA with its fascinating history, myths, revivals, recreations, and regionalities. This is all part of the appeal. IPA is exciting to both the palate and the mind.

I don’t care in which directions your IPA beliefs lean – I celebrate the diversity of the style. I see it as the banner of that which we’re calling the craft beer movement, it is what we put forward to say to people: this, this is what it is all about.

Drink IPA and live.

Green Devil

Green Devil

* BrewDog: Love ‘em or hate ‘em (I opt for both) they’ve played a role in bringing IPA to the fore in the UK. Punk may not have been revolutionary, ask any Jaipur drinker, but their image and marketing machine put it out there. I was wandering through Cambridge the other day and there were a bunch of well dressed young chaps (looked like a wedding group) standing around drinking cans of Punk.