Beer geeks look away now. One thing we do well in this country is pubs. Low beams, warm fires, foaming pints of nut brown ale, a slothful hound, the bedraggled excess of the cricket team, the wannabe bachelor, the joke that went too far. I love all these things, and more, about our pubs - this blog stands as testament to my affection for the pub in all its guises.
Yet there are times when even beer stalkers would like, for at least a moment, to pass themselves off as urban sophisticates, cosmopolitan aesthetes. And there are occasions when only a cocktail will do - the subtle blends of spirits and bitters, fruit oils and mixers, peel and purée. Aficionados of the TV serial Mad Men will, like me, have found this urge unbearable during its latest run. But try getting a decent cocktail in all but the biggest cities and you're more often than not on a hiding to nothing.
Cambridge for a while boasted the best cocktail maker I've ever come across, an unfathomably young chap called Mark who worked at the restaurant Alimentum (reviewed in the Sunday Times this week by monkey killing arse Adrian Gill). He steeped raisins in rum, developed wonderful Bellinis from seasonal fruits and assembled the finest Old Fashioned possible (of which more later). He disappeared from the restaurant a while back and seems to have vanished from the banks of the Cam for good, one hopes setting sail for bigger and better things.
Like many provincial cities, Cambridge boasts its All Bar Ones and Revolutions and Slug & Lettuces. The main night clubs provide little incentive to enter, let alone experiment with the (usually anodyne) selection of beverages.
The saving grace is River Bar & Kitchen (*sigh* how I hated typing the modish and inescapable '& Kitchen' - they do food, geddit?), where - as is often the case - an Old Fashioned may not be on the menu but can be knocked up on request - and that with spirit from my favourite bourbon distillery, Blanton's. Painstakingly served with bitters, orange twist, sugar...sharp, oaky, sweet. I'd have stuck a cherry in, but cocktail making is an art, not a science, and I'm usually happy to try out the bartender's take so long as it's honest and avoids howling errors. My wife had a terrific Bellini - we both agreed the best we'd tasted outside the peerless effort to be found at Venice's iconic (and secretive...) Harry's Bar. River Bar's Conran-eqsque interior (appropriate really, given it was apparently designed by the great man's son, presumably Sebastian), boasting a spiral staircase up to a swanky interior balcony, is well conceived - cool, but not cold. All steel and red backlights.
The food looked good, too, with steaks and burgers pleasing the assembled diners perched by the window, who would glance occasionally to take in the view across the Cam to the grounds of Magdalene College. Modernity meets old time class in Cambridge at the best of times.
The one (or two...) cocktails we had certainly made Saturday's aperitif hour the best of times.
Ok, something for the beer geeks - River Bar rather depressingly falls into the trap, so often the case in joints like this, of having an enviable spirits selection sullied somewhat by its lacklustre choice of brews. Bottled Budvar is ok, of course (though I personally dislike it) but Peroni? Eek...I think BrewDog Punk IPA should be absolutely dominating venues like this, but I would guess distribution is the issue right now.
For those in need of the skills to make an Old Fashioned, here's a master at work - enjoy!
You never seem to read much about Achel, the relative newbies of Belgian trappist brewing. Open for business since 1998, they nevertheless come in under the radar, never starring in debates about how long to store them, like Orval. Never disappointing old hands, like Chimay. Never being boring, like Westmalle. Never winning the hyped-up (albeit deserved) plaudits of Rochefort and Westvleteren. Never being Dutch, like La Trappe.
It was in an effort to throw off the constant search for the shock of the new, that I made for Achel Blonde (8%), a beer I'd had a few times but thought nothing of.
What a surprise it was.
There is something unmistakably Belgian about its rich, floral, sweet character. The smell of it is just sensational, deliciously perfumed and fresh all in one. The body is thick but peppered with lovely darts of bubbles. Behind it all is a welcome, and somewhat surprising, bitterness that just fades without a trace as soon as it's registered. Pouring in the yeast midway revives the head gloriously, adding the theatre you'd expect from such an act, and only seeming to enrichen the body at no expense to the flavours but a little to the beer's crispness - as ever, horses for courses here.
These flavours and this style (I suppose it's a tripel, in that it's blonde, strong and relatively sweet) are what I first thought of as uniquely Belgian in beer. Achel's contribution is a stunning example and stands as a welcome reminder that beers - even pale ones - need not be hopped by a psychopath to stand out. Go out and buy some!