Getting paid to drink (but in an informative, educational manner)

In my other professional life, I help manage a small craft beer bar in South East London (The Beer Shop London – no, I’m not sure SEO was at the front of their minds when setting up, either). I’ve been there on and off for years – the owners are great, the regulars are great and the ethos of ever-rotating beers and well-thought-out non-beers is something I’m proud to serve. As a bonus, just keeping on top of our offer acts as excellent research into what’s happening in beer.

We like to do a big knees-up a few times a year and, especially given the battering the last eighteen months of covid has given everyone, our annual August Bank Holiday do loomed large in the imagination. So, if you’re going to go big, where better to build it around than Belgium? You’ve got the history, the variety, the eccentricity and the quality, all rolled up into one delightful national package. Lots of back-and-forth ensued about which beers should be included, revisions based on the fact that, no, Westvleteren weren’t willing to send us a keg of 12, not even if we wore cassocks and fasted on a Friday. Anyhow, the upshot was, amongst an amazing haul of beers, we got our hands on a small number of some older vintages of the Straffe Hendrik Wild and Lee and Lauren (those lovely owners I mentioned) asked if I’d be interested in talking a select group through a vertical tasting?

Now, I’m not a great fan of public speaking, but even feeling nervy at the prospect, I couldn’t turn this down. De Halve Maan in Brugge/Bruges is a delightful brewery, and their Wild is a gem of a beer. (A quick note, Straffe Hendrik is the labelling the brewery uses for their Tripel and Quad, alongside a Blonde and the Dubbel under Brugse Zot). The Straffe Hendrick Tripel, already good, is seeded with a small amount of Brettanomyces (often referred to as “Brett”), given three months to mature and then let out into the world. The obvious point of comparison is that marvellous chimera, Orval and, like it, each bottle will continue to develop slowly and in its own way.

Where standard brewing yeasts start fast, work fast, largely restrain themselves to eating what the brewer wants them to and have a narrow temperature window in which they’ll work; Brettanomyces starts slowly, works slowly, will consume anything going and has been known to return to activity even after the most apocalyptic cleaning regimen, let alone a change in temperature.

This is all very interesting, but what does it mean for the beer? Well, Brett doesn’t just eat up sugars that normal brewing yeasts can’t cope with, it also gives off a panoply of interesting and unique flavour compounds while doing so. Different varieties shift in emphasis, but if you’ve seen heard the tasting notes “barnyard” or “horse blanket”, you’re probably looking at the hand of Brett. In addition to those perhaps unappetising-sounding elements, there’s also a propensity for big tropical fruit aromas – ripe pineapple, dried banana and so forth.

Now, Brett works very slowly, which is why a vertical tasting comes to the fore. Each year represents a snapshot of where the beer is going, because Brett won’t finish its work on a strong beer in mere months. Maturing strong beers gives interesting results anyway, but when there’s a live and active culture still in the bottle, there’s so much more that could happen.

So, on the day, having discussed a bit about the brewery, its history and the beer, we got started* with their Tripel, to give an idea of what the beer tastes like unaltered. As you might expect, it’s delightfully aromatic, with orange, sweet spices, a touch of light caramel and honey, warm bready malt and a little herbal hop top note.

Shifting to a Wild 2018, you could immediately see the changes the Brett was wreaking. Spritzier, slighty drier, and with the fruity notes ramping up, even as a touch of funky complexity showed itself. Working back through the years 2017, 2016 and 2015 brought out two key points – one expected, and one less so. The expected part was that the Brett characteristics increased, so that by the 2015 vintage, there was virtually no perceivable sweetness, whilst the beer gained a riot of dried mango, ripe pineapple and funkier notes. The part that blindsided me somewhat, though it probably shouldn’t have, was that this didn’t happen linearly. The 2016 was less Brett-y that the 2017, and to be honest, I’d thought that all of them would be farther along the track than they were. Luckily I am a master of quick rationalisations, so was able to point to the fact that this was a perfect example of how Brettanomyces does things at its own pace.

Between what I suspect is a quite a light dosing of Brett in the Wild and the fact that a tripel gives it a lot to chew on, this is a great example for a vertical tasting, giving you a long trail of interesting changes without tipping over into ‘challenging’ flavour profiles that not everyone will be into.

It does remind me that I’ve a five year bloc of Orval that I need to pay attention to – it develops rather less patiently than the Wild did!

If you want to know more about aging beers, vertical tastings or anything else that came up in this blog, please feel free to send me a message. The standard book on the subject is Vintage Beer by Patrick Dawson (available here or here), which covers the topic and is well worth a look.

*Despite my best intentions, I wasn’t able to jot down any tasting notes – the multitasking required to that, talk to the group and drink all at one time was beyond me, so there’s a certain brevity at this point.

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