Once again, I’m delighted to participate in The Session, a concept where a single topic of discussion is opened up to beer bloggers from around the world. This installation is curated by Alec Latham, who has asked bloggers to describe beers that have taken them out of their comfort zone.
To address the theme of ‘discomfort beer’, I had to rack my brain. I innately began to wax nostalgic, thinking back to my first taste of particular styles, but this wasn’t particularly fruitful. My beer drinking trajectory doesn’t warrant much romanticising; I started on the local darling, Alexander Keith’s Brewery's IPA, dutifully when in university in Nova Scotia, Canada. In my third year of my undergraduate degree, I spent eight months abroad in Wellington, New Zealand, where I was faithful to Tui Brewery and their IPA. Sadly, my time in the antipodean city preceded the Yeastie Boys by several years. When I moved to Ireland in 2006, I remember trying Hoegaarden for the first time courtesy of my cousin’s well-stocked beer fridge. In retrospect, this is where my taste for wheat beer developed.
My early encounters were underwhelming – I was just as content drinking gin or wine in those days – because in addition to my ambivalence with the watery bitterness that I associated with those old generation IPAs (which wouldn’t stand as representations of the style these days), I felt physically uncomfortable drinking beer. I perceived it to be uncouth for women to be swigging pints, so I spent my early 20s befriending wine. Aside from the splurge bottle that accompanied a special meal, I didn’t actually enjoy drinking wine in the pub. But it became habitual.
Guinness has been a constant throughout my life and I always had an affinity for the black stuff, but its velvety rich nature made it too heavy for session drinking. I have memories of scuttling around the kitchen floor in my family’s first house in Canada in the nineties, when my father enthusiastically tried his hand at home brewing his own stouts. I remember diligently filling the emerald green flip-top bottles with a bottling wand, being sure to hit the sweet spot between under and overfilling. Still, only trips back to Ireland inspired me to drink Guinness. When I was a vegetarian, I remember my uncle, a cardiac surgeon, surreptitiously prescribing me the beer to keep my iron and B12 levels up. He was joking, but I was happy to take it literally and drink to my health. Of course, Guinness wasn't actually vegetarian then - they only ceased using isinglass, the swim bladders of fish, in their clarification process in 2015.
I uprooted myself from Ireland and moved to England in the mid-noughties, eventually installing myself in North West London. My first brush with UK craft beer was Camden Brewery, now owned by AB InBev, but back then it was pouring in the swanky Horseshoe pub in Hampstead, a minimal and chic space populated with monastic wooden chairs, each one ascribed with a child’s name on the back. It was dimly lit and buzzing with locals. We could barely afford to drink there, but the beer was new, punchy and interesting. Once Camden’s taproom opened in Kentish town, we were there for the launch and often revisited; we preferred the much more relaxed, stripped back environs of a plywood laden and makeshift space. Their Gentleman’s Wit was my pick, fostering my penchant for wheat beers.
Following this awakening, the chronology becomes blurred – my earliest gose/sour beer was Salty Kiss from Magic Rock Brewing, but I remember not approaching that with trepidation at all. Somewhere along the line, I had transitioned through black IPAs, milk stouts, hefeweizen, Kölsch and double IPAs. I don’t know exactly when each of these occasions took place, but my palate became accustomed to surprising, unfamiliar styles.
Glossing over my personal history with beer, I can’t pinpoint a precise epiphany moment where I was struck with a particular style; it appears that the past three years have been a continuous stream of little wonders. I spent a lot of time taking it in through osmosis thanks to the tuition of beer bloggers and beer aficionado friends.
That being said, there was a recent occurrence still freshly preserved in my memory where I pushed the boat out and did opt for an unfamiliar style. Sitting at Mason & Company in Hackney Wick a few days before Christmas, I scanned the menu to find a beer from Jopen brewery, based in the Netherlands, described as a kuitbier. It was designated as ‘a traditional Dutch style reimagined with saison yeast and bitter hops’. Google helped expound further: a kuitbier is an ale defined by low hop aromas and low to medium-low hop bitterness and composed of at least 45% oat malt, 20% wheat malt and the remainder pale malt.
The aromas jumped from the glass with predominately herbal and floral notes followed by a hint of bready maltiness. I immediately detected whiffs of coriander, but nothing from the hops. The flavours were equally as startling, with a conspicuous taste of lemon rind in addition to input from grass and spices. Initially, the scent of the beer turned me off because it was pungent and intensely floral. I was also uncertain about the balance of citrus and spice. I left it, and then came back to my glass, eventually warming to the beer and finding it more pleasing on my palate. I’ve had beers that have evolved in the glass before, and this certainly constituted as a grower.
While I wouldn’t say that I was now converted and a patron of the style, this was a beer that certainly challenged me and won’t appeal to everyone’s tastes. But it did make me recall the adrenaline rush of trying something new, which is a sensation that has eluded me for some time. This reminder is timely, as I have a short trip planned next week to visit Brussels with Cantillon Brewery and Chez Moeder on the itinerary. This will be my first extensive foray into lambic, so I expect to once again face challenge and discomfort.
And I couldn’t be more excited about the prospect.