Front line, back line

In the last week I’ve drunk about twice as much beer in pubs as at home; it looks as if the period when my beer drinking consisted mostly, or entirely, of bottled beers at home may – touch wood – finally be coming to an end. Let’s hope so.

Still, I do want to talk a bit more about the bottles under the stairs (and in the garage); specifically, about the front line and the back line.

Over the last two years I’ve ordered a lot of “mixed cases” (mostly from Thirst Class, Marble, the Petersgate Tap and Rotsaert – not the Belgian beer merchant I was using a couple of years ago, but the one that was first off the blocks in resuming deliveries to Brexit Island). I’ve also done a lot of bulk ordering – either beers that I knew I’d get through or beers that were only available in multiples, or in a couple of cases both: Jaipur, Boltmaker, Batham’s, Harvey’s Elizabethan… Perhaps especially during lockdown, I found it very reassuring always to know that any time I fancied an X, there an X would be. (I only got the Batham’s once, though – they just went down too quickly.)

Over time I’ve refined the bulk ordering process, generally by a process of realising over a period of time that (e.g.) six Ram Tams was one too many. (It goes out as Landlord Dark these days, seeming to endorse the old rumour that it was just Landlord with added caramel – which is odd because a side-by-side tasting confirms that they’re totally different beers.) But there’s been addition as well as subtraction; in fact I’ve now got six beers that are my ‘go to’ example of a particular style & which I’ve bought in quantity. So my stash has a definite front line of multiple-purchase reliables, along with everything else that catches my eye (the back line).

What’s in my front line? There are six (or seven) beers involved, and in ascending total alcohol content order (doesn’t everyone order their stash by total alcohol content?), they are:

1. The bitter: Marble Pint and Bitter (3.9% and 4.1% @ 500ml = 3.4% and 3.6% pint equivalent)

For some reason I largely went off hoppy beers during lockdown; I drank quite a bit of Boltmaker and indeed Landlord, but the Jaipur took a long time to get through. More recently, though, I’ve reacquired the taste for Bitter, Marble‘s contemporary stripped-down refit of a best bitter. More recently still, I’ve started finding even that a bit on the malty side, and preferred to go pale’n’oppy with Pint. To cut a long story short, when I fancy “a bitter” at home what I reach for is a 500 ml can of Bitter… or sometimes Pint.

2. The… well, the Orval: Orval (6.2% @ 330ml = 3.6% equiv.)

It’s Orval. There isn’t anything else like it. You can get it in bulk from Belgium. (Mind you, by Belgian standards it’s on the expensive side for a Trappist beer, making the differential with sterling pricing less steep than it is for many beers; if you can find it in bulk at a British beer merchant it’s sometimes worth a punt.) It does tend to be ‘young’ when you buy it from Belgium; for the last year or so I’ve been attempting to buy enough Orval to allow some of it to age in the garage, but I’ve never got much beyond a year. Young Orval’s still pretty good, though.

3. The Czech lager: a supermarket Czech lager (almost invariably 5% @ 500ml = 4.4% equiv.)

There’s nothing quite like a světlý ležák, even in the inevitably less than stellar examples that British supermarkets stock. That said, both Marks and Spencer’s own-brand Czech lager and, bizarrely, Lidl’s (Staravice) are pretty good examples of the style, IMO – and Sainsbury’s own-brand isn’t bad. (All three are brewed in the Czech Republic, for what that’s worth.) And even the Marks’ is cheap enough to buy four at a time.

4. The stout: Shepherd Neame Double Stout (5.2% = 4.6% equiv.)

Like a lot of people, I sampled Shepherd Neame‘s ‘brown label’ revival recipe beers when they appeared, and like a lot of people I found most of them a bit underwhelming – not bad, and certainly a cut above Sheps’ standard supermarket fare, but not particularly memorable either. The exception, as far as I’m concerned, was the “Double Stout”. (It’s certainly not a historically accurate Victorian double stout: they would have been a lot stronger, as well as having a relatively thin body and more than a touch of Brett. But then, if I want one of them I know where I can find it.) What this is, is a strongish but still “pintable” stout, big in body and flavour but without the sharp roasty edge of a Guinness. When it appeared in Lidl I stocked up.

5. The tripel: Westmalle (8.5% = 5% equiv.)

Got to have a tripel in there somewhere… I’ve had several orders from Belgium over the last couple of years and tried quite a few tripels, but very few of them come close to Westmalle. It’s oddly hard to describe: it’s dry, but with no sharpness (which is where a lot of other tripels fall down); there’s some sweetness, but it’s not sweet; it’s got herbal notes to it but no flowery or tropical-fruit overtones; it doesn’t exactly drink its strength – it’s certainly not ‘hot’ – but it doesn’t hide its strength either. It’s a really fine beer. (Honourable mention: De Ranke Guldenberg, which is even drier but perhaps not quite as complex.)

6. The quadhigh-end abbey beer: Rochefort 10 (11.3% = 6.6% equiv.)

I don’t call Rochefort 10 a quadrupel, if only because it had been brewed for some time before anyone thought of extending the dubbel/tripel naming convention up another level. It’s just… Rochefort 10: a third of a litre of beer that’s stronger than a pint of Wobbly Bob and tastes like plums in brandy – although, again, without any alcohol heat to speak of, despite its considerable strength. I don’t fancy this kind of beer all the time, but when I do there isn’t a better option. (Unless it’s Abt?)

There’s room for refinement – not least because the Sheps’ stout won’t last forever. I haven’t yet identified “the mild” (not enough candidates) or “the IPA” (too many candidates); “the black IPA” might also be worth a punt (and at the moment would probably be Thirst Class Penny Black). “The old ale” and/or “the barleywine” would be good – but as with milds, the field is small. I might replace the stout with “the imperial stout” if I can identify a good candidate (I had twelve of Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout right at the start of lockdown, but that’s a bit too much its own thing). I have had “the porter” in the past (it was Thirst Class Any Porter In A Storm), not to mention “the old-school BB” (Boltmaker) and “the low-end abbey beer” (Rochefort 6); none of them made it past the first six, though.

Or I might just go back to drinking actual pints in pubs. Who knows, it could catch on.

 

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