0, 1, 2

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, I wrote here back in April (new Covid cases in England: 20,000/day and falling). Two and a half months later (new Covid cases 20,000/day and rising) I caught the damn thing myself, which was no fun at all for about a week and left me wondering if I was “back to normal” yet for the next… well, I’ll tell you when it stops. (Was I always this unfit? Was my capacity always this low? Did I always get that weird weak panicky feeling at odd moments? And so on. That said, I have been sitting in front of this computer too nervous to go out for two years, which may also have had the odd knock-on effect.)

Anyway, I didn’t get a bad dose (people I know have been knocked flat both by Covid and by the after-effects) – and Omicron infection is supposed to give your immunity a boost – and besides, new cases in England are currently 4,000/day and falling – so I’ll cautiously venture back out on that limb and say that, now, 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.

Still got this stash, though. 50 beers at last count. Run out of Westmalle Tripels, too – ought to do something about that…

Bulk buying is a habit that’s going to die hard, and for some beers I can’t see myself giving it up at all: I don’t know if there will ever be a time when I don’t want to have a De Ranke XX-bitter to hand. Or a Westmalle Tripel; or an M&S Czech lager; or an Orval.

As it happens I’ve been bulk-buying Orval – and reordering before my stock runs out – since the first lockdown. As a result I’ve ended up with, oh, more than one or two bottles of it, including… this:



What do they taste like, though? Specifically, what do they taste like in comparison?

Let’s find out.

Bottle 1: 9/6/2022; just under three months old

Reminds me oddly of an old-school English bitter, but deconstructed. The flavour seems to have the same overall ‘shape’, beginning with a bit of citric freshness in the front of the mouth, developing into something denser and heavier in the bitter/sweet region and finishing with tannic bitterness in mid-mouth, but without any bittering-hop aftertaste. There’s no big hit of malt, though, just a bitterness that gradually develops, accompanied oddly by a vague milk-chocolate sweetness.

But the big flavour element – the one that really drives through and carries the other flavour elements, in the way that bittering hops drive through a pale bitter (or De Ranke XX-bitter) – is the Brett. After drinking this I spent an hour looking at secondhand books on the Internet, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Think old books, think dry leaves, think socks left unwashed, think last night’s tobacco smoke; you can even think horse blankets, if (but only if) you know what one of those smells like. Whatever you call it, there’s a lot of it in this beer: it’s there in the aroma, it’s there almost immediately after the start, and from there on it builds to the finish. The other elements – initial sharpness, hint of milk chocolate, dense bitterness – make this quite a complex flavour, but there’s never any doubt which element is in charge; balanced, this is not.

But then, it’s only young.

Bottle 2: 2/8/2021; a year and a month old.

Again, the flavour has that old-school English bitter profile, but in a much smoother, more integrated form. Grapefruit bitterness and a bit of citric fruit in the foretaste, but not in overpowering amounts; then there’s something sweetish – maybe even malty – with a bit of weight and body; then the whole thing is rounded off with mid-mouth bitterness, charcoal and dark chocolate. Again, it’s not a hoppy flavour – no flowery aromas and no back-of-the-throat bitterness.

As for the Brett, it’s there, but it’s behaving itself; it binds to the main flavour elements and hangs over them like a wisp of smoke (or sweat), only really making its presence felt in the aftertaste. At this age it only tastes of Brett in the same sense that chips taste of salt – which is to say, it doesn’t, except that you’d miss the Brett if it wasn’t there. The overall flavour profile is much better put together than in the fresh beer – you could even call it balanced.

Bottle 3: 6/6/2020; two years and three months old

This time the citric opening hit is in charge, slightly to my surprise, with a sharp note dominating almost all the way through. (I remember ‘old’ bottles I’ve had before being a lot mellower, and wouldn’t entirely discount the possibility of this one having a fault. But you can only review the one you’re drinking.)

If the fresh version was “an old-school English bitter, but deconstructed”, two years later the flavour profile’s well and truly put itself together again; there’s very few fireworks or surprises between the sharp opening and the mid-mouth bitter finish. The wispy, smoky, old-books-y Brett element is definitely there, but it’s back in its box, mainly serving to make the mid-mouth flavour a bit more complex and bulk up the finish.

It’s a fascinating beer; my only slight regret is that I haven’t organised my stash better and rotated a few more older bottles to the back. If any of my current stash makes it to three years old, I’ll let you know how they turn out.


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