Thursday, 27 March 2014

Heverlee needs to haver less

A while ago – months ago, in fact – I was invited with some other bloggers to come and taste a few Belgian beers with Joris Brams, who is billed as “a Belgian brewer” and the creator of the new Heverlee lager which has been quietly appearing on the bars of Glasgow for the last few months.

The invitation, oddly, forgot to mention that Joris is not just any old brewer, but sits on the board of C&C, the parent company of Tennent’s and Magners, who are rolling out Heverlee in the on-trade in Scotland.

Joris talked us through a selection of Belgian beers. We enjoyed Duvel, McChouffe, DeKoninck, Bourgogne des Flandres, and most interesting for me, Mort Subite – not the usual sweetened gueuze that brand is known for, but the traditional Oude Gueuze which was really rather nice.

Then it’s on to the Heverlee.

I had a slight cold so can make only very general comments on the flavour. It was, surprisingly, satisfyingly bitter with a creamy mouthfeel. Sweetness is a nice contrast to the bitterness, but it’s a corny sweetness rather than a malty one (the grist is 20% maize), so you have to drink it fast – come back to it when it’s warmed up and it’s less pleasant.

According to C&C, Heverlee is a heritage beer “based on” historical recipes once used by the monks at the Park Abbey, in Heverlee, Belgium.

It’s quite amazing then that the result is precisely what you would get if you set out to come up with a product to compete against Stella Artois.

The beer is brewed for C&C by Martens Brewery in Bocholt from 80% pils malt and 20% maize. It is bittered with Hallertau to 21 units of bitterness, and Saaz hops for aroma. It’s fermented at 15C and lagered for two weeks.

To give the Heverlee beer a fair chance, I tried it again a week or so later – in a straight fight against Stella Artois,  I found Heverlee softer and chewier, with a tad more bitterness, but the difference is not large. (If you would like to repeat this challenge, it’s handy to know that Alfredo’s bar in West Nile St sells Stella, while the Iron Horse on the other side of the road sells Heverlee.)

There is a school of thought that maintains Stella Artois was once much better than it is now. I myself am not convinced it was ever great, but if you do believe that it was, creating a new product, with the character and quality that its rival once had, seems to me a perfectly respectable strategy, and, in my view, laudable. It is a positive thing for breweries to put more flavour into their beer, rather than taking it out.

Why the PR people have then decided to dress the story up with extraneous and more than dubious historical decoration is beyond me. We learn that the monks of Heverlee developed light lager in the sixteenth century, and it was so popular in nearby Leuven that the brewers’ guild forced them to close down their brewery.

This is a spectacular historical discovery, meaning that Belgian monasteries were on a level with the Bavarians in developing lager beer and several centuries in advance of Josef Groll at Pilsner Urquell with a pale one. Sadly, I think we will be waiting for documentation of these claims for quite some time yet.

The dodgy claims in the press release then turn into the ridiculous headline in The Scotsman, “Medieval Belgian beer on sale in Scotland”, which shows the dangers of spreading misleading stories to clueless journalists.

In reality Heverlee cannot be anything more than – at the most – “inspired” by the beer which was once brewed at the abbey, given that it is a modern beer, made with a pure yeast culture and filtered to be bar bright, then dispensed from a keg.

It was very nice of Joris to take time to meet a handful of bloggers and bring us some beers to taste. I never imagined I’d find myself listening to someone from C&C explaining the production process of traditional gueuze, and the thought that people on the board of that company are familiar with Orval and Rodenbach is very positive.

But I can’t help feeling that if C&C are serious about the authenticity in beer that Joris talks about, they need to let him tell the story and stop the marketing people padding it out with ahistorical nonsense.

6 comments:

  1. I've seen this in a few Dublin pubs and was wondering what it was. Thanks for the information.

    Ironically, C&C also distributes Stella here so they're pretty much always side-by-side, in keeping with the company's Some Beer, Any Beer policy.

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  2. I remember drinking Stella in Belgium in the 1970s (only dimly, as I wasn't of drinking age & wasn't allowed very much); I'm pretty sure it was better then. But if you made a Stella-when-it-was-good clone it wouldn't be of any interest to the current Stella market, or not until you'd done the same marketing job Stella did back then and from a standing start. It's the same problem Lees face with MPA, which is a Boddies-when-it-was-good clone & consequently tastes nothing at all like what goes for Boddington's now.

    Anyway, it sounds as if they're actually going for a Stella-now-that-it's-awful clone, which is a shame but probably makes better sense if they want to shift units!

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  3. Phil, I seem to remember that there was once also a school of thought that said Whitbread-brewed British Stella was superior to the Belgian product. Or perhaps that’s just brewers’ pride. I do remember being told that the people at Tennent’s, when they were part of InBev, were very proud of the Stella they brewed as it was supposedly the best in the UK.

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  4. I tried the Stella Black Label and it took me back to drinking Stella in Belgium. I do think the 'real' stuff tasted better than the 4.8% UK clone. There's a jaggy,over fizzy feel to it now that wasn't there on the continent.

    Couldn't agree more re all the Heverlee guff.

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  5. hey has anyone had problems when ordering a pint of heverlee. three bars i have went into and ordered hevelee and it either pours with to much gas or it just cuts out halfway through.

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  6. Great posting on the Heverlee, thank you so much! I was born and raised at Heverlee and first saw the lager in a pub in Edinburgh, a few months back. Very surprised I was, for I had never seen it in Belgium, let alone in Heverlee itself. (And certainly not dating back to the 12th centurty, as the glass and keg claim). I put it down to quirky Scottish marketing. Until yesterday, when my wife and I were having lunch at Park Abbey and were served the Heverlee as Beer of the month. Good to see Martens are brewing it. I agree on the taste: just bitter enough, bit more of a punch than Stella etc. (I would say its true competitor may be a beer like Vedett). Geert.

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