The week before last, I was alerted by Andy Gosling on Twitter to a stunning limited offer at Lidl – a pack of six strong Belgian ales in 33 cl bottles for a mere £7.99. Needless to say, I cleaned up, although I should point out that one of the three packs is earmarked for a birthday present.
These weren’t maybe the front rank of Belgian beers, such as Orval, Chimay and Duvel, and a quick read of bottle labels established that they all came from the Brouwerij Van Steenberge. However, they’re familiar names – Piraat, Gulden Draak and Bornem – and the strengths varied from 7.2% to 10.5%, so a lot of High Strength Beer Duty had been paid. You would be looking at paying well over £2 a bottle in a regular off-licence, so £1.33 each is a stonking bargain.
Having worked myself through the first batch (the second will be saved for the cold winter nights) I have to say I was pretty impressed. Far from being all just Duvel clones, they also varied considerably in terms of colour and flavour.
All were bottle-conditioned, but it was possible to check that the yeast had settled to the bottom of the bottle, and to pour them carefully without significantly disturbing it. All poured clear, with a dense, uneven, rocky head and visible spires of carbonation rising from the bottom of the glass, just as a good bottle-conditioned beer should be. Yes, in a sense they are “fizzy”, but it’s a different kind of fizziness from a filtered bottled beer injected with additional CO2.
But that inevitably raises the question as to why so few British bottle-conditioned beers can achieve that. All too often, you end up with a glass of flat, slightly hazy beer with a bit of gunge left in the bottom of the bottle. To get one that really shows signs of having “worked” in the bottle is a rarity.
CAMRA must shoulder a substantial part of the blame, for claiming that bottle-conditioned beers are “real ale in a bottle”. Yes, they are, in terms of undergoing a secondary fermentation, but the end result, if done properly, is completely different. A good BCA is a fine drink in its own right, but certainly not “closer to cask”, and nothing like a bottled equivalent of draught real ale.
Most British so-called “bottle-conditioned” beers are, to be honest, notable for the complete absence of actual conditioning in the bottle, and best avoided. If you want to see how bottle-conditioning should be done, look to Belgium.