Andrew Graham Dixon’s new BBC4 series The High Art Of The Low Countries started this week with an episode on Flemish art. You can’t understand the history of art in isolation from the social and economic factors that influence it, so the programme is also a fascinating and enjoyable general background for anyone considering a beery trip to Bruges, Ghent or Brussels.
Partly to introduce the importance of religion and monasteries to the development of the Low Countries, Andrew also visited the abbey at Orval and discussed beer with Brother Xavier. You can view that short section from about the 9 minute point on the BBC iPlayer at this link, which will be available for the next 18 days. However, I would encourage you to watch the whole programme.
Whilst we’re on the Low Countries, I missed North Bar’s Lowlands Beer Festival, but when I called in this week the fridges were still packed with great Belgian and Dutch bottles, both traditional and modern. We enjoyed an Emelisse TIPA and Viven Imperial IPA and finished off the keg of De Dolle Bos Keun, all of which took us back to our trip to Bruges, as recorded in these posts. Andy Mogg has also posted about his trip to Bruges here.
First image from The Arts Desk.
I was in a pub yesterday when one of us, who had been abstaining from alcohol for the duration of Lent, wanted to break her fast with a snakebite and black.
For the uninitiated, snakebite is a mixture of (usually) half and half cider and pilsner, often taken with a dash of blackcurrant cordial. It’s sweet and refreshing and is especially popular amongst students and younger drinkers. I sold thousands of them when I worked in bars in St Andrews, sometimes asked for as “diesel” or, ahem, “pinky pees”.
It was therefore slightly surprising when the barman informed us that he could not serve snakebite and black, as it was illegal. As a compromise, he sold us the component parts separately.
It is not illegal to serve snakebite, as far as I can determine. Weights and measures legislation in the UK requires that draught beer or cider can only be served in quantities of one third of a pint, two thirds of a pint, a half pint, or multiples of a half pint, “except when sold as a constituent of a mixture of two or more liquids”.* That doesn’t prohibit anyone from serving a pint of half & half snakebite. It also appears to me that a half-pint wouldn’t be a problem under the exception for mixed drinks, but I’m happy to be corrected in the comments.
It seems that a number of pubs, perhaps including Wetherspoons, refuse to serve snakebite on the grounds that it is drunk primarily by younger drinkers who tend to drink it too fast. This seems to be an odd distinction for places that have posters in the window advertising discounted jägerbombs. Nevertheless, the “illegal” excuse seems to be used by staff in these circumstances as one of those catch-all, blame-shifting excuses, like “health and safety” or “data protection”, when the law in question has nothing to do with it, which is then passed on to others as fact.
My favourite story about this is from the Harrogate Advertiser in June 2001. It’s not recorded whether this particular customer was thought to be a potential troublemaker or whether the member of staff just accepted the myth as fact:
At about 11.45am, seven serious looking security agents had banged on the door of the pub, flashed their warrant cards, and requested lunch for the former president of the USA. [...]
“But we let them in and after they’d searched the building in walked Mr Clinton himself. He came to the bar and introduced himself, and then there was the dilemma of what to drink.
“So I gave him and his aide a taste of a couple of real ales we have here, but he decided on a diet Coke.
“He did ask for a snakebite after one of his security men did, but we kindly refused him. It’s illegal to serve it here in the UK you see.”
Welcome to Yorkshire, Mr President.
BrewDog Leeds opened this week, seemingly against the odds. I’ve previously discussed the difficulties this bar had obtaining a licence, which raises its own issues as to whether all drinkers should be tarred with the same brush.
In the time since it was announced, I’ve had several doubts about BrewDog Leeds. It’s a terribly small site. It’s at an end of town that’s already loud, boisterous and overcrowded on weekend evenings. It’s just another bar in a chain.
All of those things are true. First, the size issue: I think it would be uncomfortable to have more than around 60 people over the two floors. But there are a couple of nice booths upstairs, comfortable stools, shelves to rest a beer dotted around and, overall, the space is used to its full potential. And cosy can be friendly: on the shareholder night, we chatted to our neighbours about the beers and got to know people we hope to see again, as the trains rolled by outside the windows.
It is at an overcrowded end of town. However there are good places to eat nearby and some pretty decent bars on Call Lane, although five year-old memories of others do still make me shudder.
It’s also not a million miles away from North Bar and you could easily do Leeds’ new holy trinity of small craft beer bars (North, Friends of Ham, BrewDog Leeds) in an evening and still make it back to the last train.
And yes, it’s a part of a chain. This one looks exactly like the others: reclaimed gym floorboards on the walls, brick bar, stripped-back grey industrial chic. But that works well and right now the BrewDog bars remain a great chain with an ethos that credits its customers with an interest in and enthusiasm about good beer.
I’ve not been to a BrewDog bar that I didn’t like, where I didn’t get excellent service, or where I wasn’t a little excited by the selection of beers, particularly the imported ones. On the opening night, I enjoyed beer from Ballast Point, Mikkeller and De Molen, and even managed to squeeze a couple of BrewDogs in around the edges.
So if you live in Leeds, be sure to add BrewDog Leeds to your list of regular haunts. If you happen to be visiting Leeds city centre for a few beers, that holy trinity of North, Friends of Ham and BrewDog Leeds is worth the pilgrimage.
Next month I’m going to Sweden and should be there for the opening week of BrewDog Stockholm, provided the ship full of gym floorboards and trendy beards makes it through the Øresund strait. It’ll be another bar in a chain, but I still can’t wait.
BrewDog Leeds, White Cloth Hall, Crown Street, Leeds, LS1 7RB @BrewDogBarLeeds
As well as Brauhaus Lemke, we were lucky to have Weihanstephaner near to our hotel in Mitte and we returned to it a couple of times during our trip. Weihenstephan, north of Munich,claims to be the oldest operating commercial brewery in the world, with the abbey there having obtained brewing rights in 1040. For over two centuries now the brewery has been owned by the state of Bavaria; it seemed appropriate to be drinking nationalised beer in East Berlin, albeit a Western one.
I’d heard of Weihenstephan before visiting its outpost in the German capital, but wasn’t particularly familiar with the beers. I was pleased to find that, although the pub only served beers from a single brewery, it at least provided a range of styles. In our week in Berlin, we didn’t stumble upon the type of beer bar you might gravitate to in London, Copenhagen or even Leeds, with a wide range of styles from different breweries. In that context, finding 12 or so beer styles, or at least sub-styles, from one brewery was very welcome.
All of the beers we tried were very enjoyable, and (as far as I could tell from my limited experience) good examples of each style, from the Hefe and Dunkel Weissbeirs to the Pilsner. The two most interesting beers we tried were the strongest: the Korbinian Doppelbock and Vitus Weizen Bock were both north of 7% and packed with flavour: respectively rich, spicy and malty; and packed with banana and tropical fruit flavours.
On our second visit we also had dinner at Weihenstephaner. I had a posh version of Currywurst, which came as a delicious veal sausage smothered in spicy, brown curry sauce (fruity and more like chip shop curry sauce than a British Indian restaurant curry) and some roasted new potatoes. Kate had a dish translated as a potato hotpot, which was a slightly thin broth which thankfully came with some tasty, thin, spicy Wurst.
The bar is also a nice setting to enjoy your beer. A kind of upmarket Bavarian beer hall, upstairs is white, neat and ordered like a minimal restaurant. Downstairs there are very many more seats in a maze of cellars under brickwork arches, which seems more like a beerhall as I imagined it, but at the same time was civilised, chatty and not too loud, with families, groups of work colleagues and celebratory but restrained birthday parties all able to enjoy the same space.
Happily full of good beer and tasty German food, we experimented with a couple of different schnapps and wondered why our local attempt at a German beerhall wasn’t more like this, with a genuine appreciation of Bavarian beer and food, rather than catering primarily for the worst British stag-and-hen doings.
Conversely, although I enjoyed our week in Berlin a lot, it did make me pine for the best of Leeds and the variety of beers offered by English craft beer bars. North Bar, for example, provides the best of all worlds: the hygge of a Danish cellar bar or Belgian brown cafe, along with the conviviality of the best British pubs and a range of beers from across Europe, America and beyond. Not that I want to go to Berlin to drink anything other than German beer, but there’s an equivalent in Berlin in terms of range, I’d be grateful to know for next time.
We spent very little time in what used to be West Berlin during our holiday, but did take the S-Bahn to Zoo station to see the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, an iconic church mostly destroyed by air raids but whose surviving broken spire and entrance hall, containing some incredible mosaics, stands beside a modern functionalist church built between 1959 and 1963. After a brief walk down the shopping street Kurfürstendamm, we turned up to Savignyplatz to find a beer.
Around Berlin In 80 Beers guided us towards Dicke Wirtin (the “Thick Landlady”, Google translate tells me, which seems to refer to a revered, Corrie-esque former landlady immortalised in photos and unflattering charicatures), a traditional wood panelled pub with lots of kitsch character. The front room was full of mirrors and high tables and a bar with large glass flasks of homemade fruit brandy above it.
The back room appeared to be a dining room, with a mannequin dressed as a Soviet officer guarding a corridor back to the kitchen and toilets. Off the front room was a smoking room, which still made the bar smell a bit of smoke, which is difficult to ignore following the blanket implementation of the smoking ban in the UK.
Kate ordered a König Pilsener, as suggested by the book, which was a pleasant pilsner if not as bitter as it had apparently once been renowned for. I decided that I couldn’t leave Berlin without trying a Berliner Kindl Weisse with grün, a woodruff syrup. I was informed that Kindl Weisse on its own tastes a bit like a watered down lambic and that almost everyone has it with either green or red (raspberry) syrup.
It didn’t bode well that the green beer came with a straw. It tasted very sweet, like a jelly sweet, with a fairly artificial taste. If the original beer had much of an underlying taste, it couldn’t be identified. I managed to drink it quickly before moving on to a small glass of pilsner.
I should note that Dicke Wirtin had soft rock ballads playing in the background including, inevitably, Wind Of Change by the Scorpions. I don’t think I’ve ever visited a city in continental Europe – Prague, Rome, Madrid, Florence, Bruges - without hearing the bloody thing, usually from a busker. However, at least it seems apposite in Berlin, if no less clichéd and cloying. The perfect song for a Berliner Weisse with a woodruff shot, in fact.
The pub is opposite a nineteenth century statue of St George and the Dragon, which has stood in two locations before the restoration of Nikolaiviertel in the 1980s. The inside is large in itself, but in summer would also give you the chance to sit in a beer garden next to the Spree.
For a brewpub, Georgbraeu only seems to have two beers: their pilsner and dunkel. I found both of them inoffensive but uninteresting. The pilsner didn’t taste of much and the dunkel was the same with a bit of toffee. Nonetheless the portions of Schweinshaxe did look huge and maybe, on a warm summer’s day by the river with friends, you might focus less on the beer.
Nikolaiviertel is a small area of Mitte, near Alexanderplatz and Museum Island, which appears older than it actually is. Like much of Berlin, it was flattened towards the end of the war, but in 1980s was rebuilt by the East German authorities for the city’s 750th anniversary, with Berlin’s “oldest” church, the twin-spired Nikolaikirche at its centre.
Opposite Nikolaikirche, now a museum rather than a working church, is a small pub-restaurant called Zum Nussbaum (Walnut Tree), which was built in 1985-7 based on the plans of a destroyed pub that once stood in another part of Berlin.
It’s a small three-room pub with around forty seats. We were lucky to get a seat on a Tuesday afternoon, in the dark wood-panelled back room with small prints from the cartoonist and artist Heinrich Zille, who is commemorated with a statue and museum nearby.
The range of beers was limited to those from Berliner Kindl, but we both went for the recommendation in Around Berlin In 80 Beers: Postdamer Rex Pils, a satisfying bitter pilsner. We had a tasty late lunch of Boulette (a kind of meatball/burger) and Bockwurst with potato salad.
Zum Nussbaum is a pleasant, cosy pub in a nice area. However it was difficult to forget that this quarter was destroyed in the most tragic period in Berlin’s history and that this seemingly aged pub is seven years younger than me.