Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Heverlee pops up and pops out the new beers

You know, I’m starting to think that C&C, owners of Tennent’s and Magner’s, actually know what they’re doing in the beer market.

They’ve quietly (and not so quietly) been diversifying their product range for the last couple of years. There’s Tennent’s for the lads of course. Drygate for the experimenters and beer geeks, Heverlee to compete with Stella Artois, and most recently Menabrea to compete with Peroni and Moretti. All these appear as separate brands to the consumer, but enable C&C to serve diverse market segments without cross-contamination.

This is quite important, as a large part of the appeal of the premium brands is that consumers believe (in their own minds at least) that they are trading up to a superior product. The big red T has a peculiarly polarising effect on consumers. For selling standard lager it’s a big plus; but I’ve pondered before why it seems to be toxic for anything else.

It can also be amusing: I saw one drinker on Twitter telling Tennent’s in no uncertain terms to go to hell, as he now liked Heverlee better. I was slightly tempted to tell him that Tennent’s and Heverlee were the same company, but why be so cruel?

The latest episode in the promotion of Heverlee – and definitely one of the less quiet ones, where the PR machine has been revved up substantially – is the establishment of a “pop-up” bar in Glasgow’s Tontine Lane. This lane was sealed off to the public without explanation three years ago, and has now been opened for the bar – not “opened for the first time” as parroted by ignorant bloggers and journalists. We are promised Witte and two “secret” new Heverlee beers too.

The new beers turned out to be what might have been predicted – got the lager, got the wit, what else can we have? Yes, they are the classic double act of a blonde and a brune, as found on the menu of just about every Belgian cafe.

There is no information given about where the three new beers are brewed, so I’m going to assume that they, like the lager, are made at Brouwerij Martens in Bocholt. The bar promises to offer a line-up of other Belgian specialities, but there was no sign of these. It would be interesting to try Martens’ own Pils and Wit to see how different they are.

While Heverlee Witte has been popping up around Glasgow all summer, I hadn’t run into it yet, so it was nice to have a chance to try it (I’ll try any beer once). It’s noticeable that in the UK at least, witbier has become a style of beer that corporate breweries rather than small ones push. I guess it’s easy-drinking and therefore mass-market-friendly. There’s Hoegaarden, Blue Moon, Vedett and the rather odd but nice Flying Dutchman cask wit that Caledonian brewed with Henk Oexman as a nod to the Heineken mothership. Now Heverlee Witte joins them. It’s light-bodied, very heavily spiced with coriander and quite drinkable, certainly less bland than Hoegaarden.

Filament lightbulbs and incongruous bicycles
The lager is still a slightly better take on Belgian pils: decent hop character and surprisingly high bitterness for what it is. The pouring of it seems a quite crucial factor though: a subsequent glass just tastes of nasty metallic CO2. The bar staff faithfully skim the foam off the top of the glass with a wet knife, Low Countries-style. They do it for the blonde and brune as well as the lager. I’m not sure I like the effect this has on them, giving the head a smooth, plasticky sheen reminiscent of old-fashioned keg heavy.

The blonde (6.1%) is full-bodied but bland, with just a few yeasty notes to add interest and a crisp, candy edge which is pleasant enough.

Heverlee Bruin is my favourite of the four: Treacle toffee, a little umami, slight note of soy sauce, rich smooth caramel. At 7.1% a nice warming beer for these cold, rainy July evenings in Glasgow.

The bar itself is the a former workshop or loading bay of one of these old industrial buildings that stand around in Glasgow, unused and neglected even in the high-rent Merchant City district. The back court is an impressive edifice of white glazed brickwork, and houses Douglas Gordon’s artwork Empire – along with a genuine relic, the neon sign which once hung outside the Mitre Bar a few streets away.

It’s enlightening too to observe how easily the pop-up aesthetic has gone mainstream and been commodified. All the cliches are in place: glazed tiles; beer list written on the same tiles with a marker pen; painted pallets with flowers; cutlery in baked bean tins; and of course those bloody Edison light bulbs – the most inefficient bulbs in existence.

A nice touch is having the signs for the toilets in Flemish and French.

My portion of mussels and chips costs £12 – well, mussels are pricey and it is a generous portion. They are cooked in a tasty, slightly under-seasoned broth with onion and parsley and, allegedly, white wine. An achievement in itself, considering the temporary kitchen here is built of chipboard. There are several other mussel dishes on the menu, and I’m surely not the only one disappointed that in a beer-centric place like this, having the mussels cooked in gueuze is not among them.

I like the space and will be back. It’s a creditable offering and the beers are decent and workmanlike – certainly somewhat tastier than the brands they’re competing with in the UK market. Due to the location, if you feel like extending your Belgian fantasy, you can just nip along the street to Blackfriars afterwards and have some of their bottled lambic.

“Heverlee at Tontine” is open until 2 August.