Thursday, 29 April 2010

Blind Beer Tasting

I spent most of last week helping judge wines for the International Wine Challenge and by the end felt just a tad wined out.  Tasting wine all day sounds like some people's dream pastime or job.  But the main part of a wine taster's remit is to separate the wheat from the chaff and necessarily involves tasting young, often unattractively undeveloped wine and assess their future development.  This means having to taste a lot of acidic whites and tannic reds and eventually even the most seasoned palate gives up and wants a break, or a beer... and food, which in the end, is the point of most wine.  
So, thoughts turned to beer and food which reminded me of this fun blind beer tasting I did with friends in France.  Fittingly, the host was my old boss from Quality Control days at a UK wine shipper and he too likes to take a break from wine and sink some beer.  And besides, being in rural France meant that we couldn't just pop into a local supermarket and expect to find any decent wine to drink anyway.  Tim's wife Andrea acted as barmaid, invigilator (no peeking at the labels!) and black pudding fryer and we got stuck in.
As in professional wine tastings we tasted the beers blind to avoid any potential bias.  One of the labels had claimed to be la bière la plus forte du monde and this might have made it a favourite, or least favourite, depending on one's predilection for alcohol.  And one bottle (the Faro) was so pretty it reminded me a bit of Perrier Jouët's expensive handpainted Belle Epoque vintage Champagne bottles.  The elaborate packaging of Faro ended up being very much style over substance.
After deliberating, cogitating and digesting we couldn't choose a winner though some beers were more appetising than others and some were more for sipping on their own and others were good with food.  Interestingly, when the boudin noir had been devoured we turned to panettone and chocolate cake which provided good matches for some of the stronger, sweeter styles.

No. 1 The first turned out to be Chimay Brune (red label, 7% alc) which had a frothy head and brown colour, a fine mousse, was savoury but lacking a little in acidity.  It gave off whiffs of sweetcorn. 

No. 2 Faro Lambic (4.2%) had no head, a pale brown colour, a sweet, cidery, almost vinegary character and lacked body after the Chimay.  This had the character of Gueuze from Brussels which is made "spontaneously" from wild yeasts.  An acquired taste.

No. 3 Pauwels Kwak (8.4%).  This had a more savoury, malty character and a distinct whiff of Fairy Liquid.   On returning to this beer it lacked complexity and ended up being too sweet.  However, with the chocolate cake it became much more interesting and was redolent of almond essence.

No. 4 Leffe (9%) had an attractive caramel, burnt toffee, plummy nose and palate with hints of fortified wine (Banyuls) and Christmas cake.  Indeed, this beer later on made a good accompaniment to Panettone.  The high alcohol gave the beer body without making it unbalanced.

No. 5 Bush (12%) had a similarly sweet character,  and hints of licorice.  In spite of its wine like alcoholic strength it tasted relatively balanced.

No. 6 Duvel (8.5%) had a frothy head and a pale yellow colour, a fine mousse and the least sweet, most savoury character of the whole line up.  I actually spotted this as Duvel which is a bit of a one-off style of beer.  It sometimes reminds me of saucisson à l'ail (garlic sausage, if that isn't too fanciful).

No. 7 Chimay Triple (8%, yellow label) had a very solid froth and a cloudy, orangey colour.  It had an orange zesty nose, dryish palate with a slight sweet and sour tang on the finish.  

No. 8 Leffe Blonde (6.6%) had little head, oxidised fruit on the nose and palate and was almost grapey.  It developed an overripe lychee character in the glass.  It proved a hit afterwards with some Thornton's chocolate cake. 

No. 9 Chimay (9%, blue label) had a solid head and brown colour.  It had very little scent or flavour and tasted alcoholic.  This beer was dull and clumsy.

No. 10 Belzebuth (13%) had no head and a golden brown colour.  It initially smelled maltily English ale-like but as it warmed up became peachily interesting.  The 13% alcohol was pretty evident though and underlined the beer's excessive sweetness.
With the body, sweetness and bite of some of these beers it would have been interesting to experiment with some cheeses to accompany them (indeed, the Trappist monks at Chimay make cheese by the same name).  But the success of the two cakes was a pleasant surprise.  The beers were all served at the same temperature (initially an overly cold 2'C) and became progressively more interesting as they warmed up a bit.  However, it would be sensible to heed the label's serving temperature recommendation for each beer as they all have their own character.  For example, for the heavy Chimay Brune it is suggested that 10-12'C is a good temperature (therefore that of an ideal cellar) whereas for the lighter, sour Faro Lambic, 5'C is suggested ('fridge temperature).  Most quality Belgian beers also have their dedicated glasses and these should bring out the best in the beers' sometimes complex aromas.
Finally, these beers are refermented in the bottle (just like Perrier Jouët Belle Epoque Champagne) and so have a very fine, natural bubble.  This makes them refreshing, even at high alcohol levels, but they are not overtly gassy like ordinary canned or bottled beers which have been carbonated.  The expression to look out for on a (francophone) label is haute fermentation meaning 'top fermented' (basse fermentation or, rather inelegantly, 'bottom fermented' suggests a lager type beer) and something along the lines of refermentée en bouteille.  Unlike in Champagnes however, the spent yeasts after this secondary, in-bottle fermentation are not removed from the beers which is why many of them possess a (harmless) sediment.  I usually keep these beers standing and use the sediment in cooking.


  1. Hmm, must pass this on to husband, he's a big beer drinker, loves some of the Belgian offerings.

  2. I absolutely love beer and there is nothing quite like a marathon wine tasting to make we want one.