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Themes of #EBBC12: Bad beer, free beer and bad free beer

One of the points that emerged from the panel and group discussions, and indeed Stuart Howe’s very funny keynote speech at the European Beer Bloggers Conference was that opinion is split as to whether blogs should ever be truly negative about a beer or a pub.  Some believe blogging can give pubs and brewers useful feedback about possible improvements, or just a much-needed kick up the arse. Others believe constructive criticism should be fed back privately.

Some people can’t be bothered to write about bad beer and mediocre experiences. Sometimes, it can be fun to read (or write) a really scathing review; certainly restaurant critics and their readers seem to relish it. Similarly, reviews of bad music and awful films (see for example Kim Newman’s Video Dungeon in Empire) can be more entertaining than those of good ones. Furthermore, being warned off a bad experience can be as useful to the reader as being tipped off about a good one.

This discussion has some relationship with another major theme of the weekend: free beer.  Does receiving free samples from a brewer undermine a blogger’s objectivity?  Most people seemed to agree that accepting and (honestly) reviewing free beer is acceptable, although many also considered that it was poor etiquette to ask for it, or at least that the thought of doing so made most people uncomfortable.   Having said that, one of the reps from a multinational brewer said they had lots of free beer to give away and were happy to give out samples when asked, so if you want to dismount your high horse, there’s a gravy train to catch.

My own view on this is that if there’s free beer being handed out, far be it from me to turn it down.  I’ve been sent free beer from St Stephanus (SAB Miller) and more recently Hawkshead, which I intend to review shortly.  Along with all the other attendees of various moral standpoints, I also had an awful lot of good-to-excellent free beer at the conference, from producers as large as Molson Coors to as small as Roosters.   However I would never ask a brewer for free beer if they weren’t already in the process of doing so.

As regards free beer that turns out to be bad, I probably wouldn’t write about the beer if it was going to result in an outright scathing review (rather than, say, a middling one).  But I tend not to do that in any event as, particularly in the case of small and independent brewers and pubs, I appreciate that their jobs are difficult and many of them have invested a huge proportion of their time, sweat and imagination to actually create something real in the hope that others will enjoy it.  In that context it seems cheap and easy to point out a few things I might regard as failings or contrary to my personal taste, just to get some moderately entertaining writing out of it.

I’m also aware that my criticisms might derive from teething problems or a blip. Using hypothetical examples, if I feel aggrieved enough criticise the quality of Orwell’s Wallop or the service at the newly opened Damp Satellite Artisanal Beer Emporium, I’m reporting an actual experience, but one that will hang around on the internet and search engines for some time.  My half-litre of Wallop might have been from a bad batch or a new manageress of the Damp Satellite might lick it into shape, but there’s still an indelible stain on a server in San Francisco.

I’ve only ever been truly negative about a pub once on here, and that reflected some appalling service that both gave me a real sense of grievance and the view that people would benefit from knowing about it. Even then, when I see that particular post still getting hits many months later, I wonder if people still need to be “warned”. Perhaps more to the point, I also wonder if I’m still as annoyed as I was at the time.

Abbey International: St Stefanus Blonde, Augustijn Grand Cru

January 19, 2012 13 comments

You may never have heard of Brouwerij Van Steenberge, but they quietly brew an awful lot of beers.  If you look on ratebeer, you’ll see that they make quite a few non-Trappist beers, to which you may have not paid that much attention: Augustijn, Gulden Draak, Piraat.  It’s worth noting that they also brew the house beer for De Garre in Bruges, Tripel De Garre, and I’ve already explained how much I enjoyed drinking that particular beer in that particular cafe.

As Neil explains on Eating Isn’t Cheating, SAB Miller have entered into a distribution deal with the brewery for (at least) Augustijn Blonde, which they’ve rebranded, renamed and have put a marketing budget behind.  This included taking some beer writers to Ghent for a brewery visit.  Whilst I didn’t get a free trip to Belgium, I was sent two bottles of the beer to try.

St Stefanus Blonde (7%ABV) Pours very slightly cloudy with a large head, because I chucked the yeast in as I like to do that with Belgian beers.  The aroma has a banana bread sweetness, a little like a wheat beer.

There’s a nice section on the label that tells you how the beer should evolve in the months after bottling, from 3 to 18 months.  This is around the three month mark, as the seemingly handwritten (but perhaps not) date tells me it was bottled in October 2011, so it should be on the “fresh and fruity” end of the spectrum, rather than “complex and aromatic”.

It has a mild, bready, slightly banana taste, as the aroma advertised.  Kate’s glass, without the yeast in, has a cleaner, less banana taste, but is sweet and slightly bitter with a floral hop taste.  A slightly oily, moderately full mouthfeel works well, and coats your mouth well to appreciate the sweet bitterness on the swallow.  In all, an easy-drinking and pleasant Belgian blonde.

Out of curiosity I also opened a bottle of Augustin Grand Cru (9% ABV), which does not yet seem to have been rebranded and which I bought myself with real money.  This has a similar best before date to the St Stefanus Blonde, so I assume a similar age.  It differs in a richer, more tart taste and a more noticeable grassy hop flavour.

The Grand Cru is just that little bit more interesting, but really it seems like the same beer, just a little louder.  Neither matches either my rosy memories of Tripel De Garre or bests Orval, which is – to be fair – one of the best beers in the world.  However it’s a nice brand which actually makes a feature of the bottle aging. If SAB Miller get  few bottles of St Stefanus into the fridges of bars which would normally stock no Belgian beer (or perhaps only Leffe), I’ll probably find myself buying it in the future.

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