Saturday, 18 June 2016

Perfect condition

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.

11 comments:

  1. To be fair, an increasing significant number of so-called 'cask conditioned' beers are also notable for the complete absence of actual conditioning in the cask, although I wouldn't avoid some of them. The problem with both cask and bottle conditioned is that they're dumbed down, without going as far as filtration and pasteurisation, for ease of use for poorly trained staff in pubs in the case of draught, and for the average end user of bottles who in most cases would end up with a glass of murk.

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  2. Professor Pie-Tin19 June 2016 at 09:43

    I too availed of the same offer at Lidl although over here in Ireland it wasn't quite as splendid.
    €14.99 to be precise.
    Tried the first one last night but can't really give a fully rounded review as I was mullahed when I arrived home.
    But it was in a white bottle,very dark and was perfectly suited to that moment when you just want one more beer to help you fall asleep in your dinner.
    Marvellous.

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  3. I know you have had a terrible time with BCAs but I must take issue when you say:

    'Most British so-called “bottle-conditioned” beers are, to be honest, notable for the complete absence of actual conditioning in the bottle'

    Over the past couple of years I've been reviewing bottled beers for the local papers and must have tried about 150 British BCAs in that time and the number of those with no condition you could count on the finger of one hand. We've also sold British BCAs on my bar at Stockport Beer Festival for the past few years and again it's not an issue we have encountered (apart from one this year).

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    1. No, you misinterpret my statement. I'm not saying most British BCAs are totally devoid of condition, but that very few display the distinctive signs of actually having undergone a secondary fermentation in the bottle, as described above - "dense, uneven, rocky head and visible spires of carbonation rising from the bottom of the glass."

      Even the well-regarded Fullers ones tend to have just a similar, or slightly lower, level of carbonation to normal non-BCA bottles, plus a bit of gunge that adheres to the bottom of the bottle. This is not to say they're bad beers, but there's no evidence of secondary fermentation.

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  4. I would agree that the description Real Ale In A Bottle is deceptive in that bottled conditioned beers don't resemble the cask beers they are supposed to represent. With the possible exception of Worthington White Shield years ago (I've no idea what it's like now), I find bottled beers are usually disappointing.

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  5. There are a number of interesting points here relating to the many myths which have built up surrounding BCA’s over the past few decades. For a start, I would certainly not equate BCA’s as “real ale in a bottle”, and I feel it is rather disingenuous for CAMRA to be marketing them as such.

    It would be interesting to know how far back it was, in the early days that CAMRA latched onto BCA’s and designated them as “real”. Bottle-conditioning was definitely on the way out, back in the early 70’s, with only Guinness and White Shield available nationally brands, alongside a handful of local specialities such as Gales Prize Old Ale and Eldridge Pope Thomas Hardy Ale. If anyone back then, could seriously tell the difference between a BCA such as White Shield, and one of the better “brewery conditioned” bottled examples, I’d be very much surprised.

    I’m talking here about beers such as Bulldog, imported by Courage from John Marten in Belgium and, moving closer to home, bottled John Courage. The latter was a very good bottled beer, even if it wasn’t bottle-conditioned. Other stronger pale ales, such as Shep’s Bishop’s Finger, or Marstons Pedigree were equally good in bottled form, back in the day and yet, because there was no sediment sitting at the bottom of the bottle, they were not regarded as the “real thing” by CAMRA.

    ElectricPics hits the nail on the head by pointing out that many “cask-conditioned” ales are cask-conditioned in name only, with most of the conditioning taking place at the brewery, prior to racking. These days, many “real ales” will drop bright within a matter of hours; whereas it used to be the case that several days were required for this to occur. During this time some additional conditioning undoubtedly took place in the cask, but this is no longer the case.

    Many of today’s well known BCA’s are re-seeded with a different strain of yeast, prior to bottling, after the yeast which carried out the initial fermentation has been removed; either by filtration or by centrifuging. The secondary yeast is one which sticks to the bottom of the bottle like the proverbial s**t to a blanket, and again I wonder how much additional fermentation takes place, given the amount of yeast added.

    To return to the original subject of Mudge’s post; yes the Belgians do get it right when it comes to bottle-conditioning, but having said that there is little of the same fanatical obsession in Belgium which we have over here about getting an absolutely crystal clear glass of beer. The fact that many beers in Belgium are served heavily chilled means that many will develop a chill haze anyway; especially if they have been kept refrigerated for any length of time.

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    1. I can't say I'm a huge drinker of Belgian beers, but I certainly didn't have any problems with pouring all of the Lidl selection clear. Nor do I with Duvel which is probably the one I drink most often.

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  6. I agree that the Belgians do seem to have mastered bottled beer far better. I find most UK bottled beers to be simply too fizzy. There are some exceptions, but very few taste anything like the cask equivalent, which is why I almost never drink them.

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    1. But the whole point of a bottle-conditioned beer is that it *is* fizzy - like champagne - because it has undergone a secondary fermentation in the bottle. It isn't *meant* to be anything like cask - that's where CAMRA has gone wrong.

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    2. I appreciate that, but in my opinion the vast majority of breweries overdo it and you end up with a drink that is far too fizzy for its own good.

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    3. I appreciate that, but in my opinion the vast majority of breweries overdo it and you end up with a drink that is far too fizzy for its own good.

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