Collaboration brews with beer writers, bloggers and other non-brewers are commonplace now and get a mixed reception. Some see these beers as exciting novelties, while others feel it's nothing but ego-stroking or half-arsed marketing. I guess it depends on whether or not the resulting beer is any good, and whether that beer would have happened anyway without the collaboration. But I'm proud of all the beers I've helped co-create, and am a big fan of those by other writers too.
Whatever your views, Brains Brewery have taken the whole idea of collaboration/guest brewing to another level. Brains is Wales' largest brewer by some distance, and has a sizeable tied pub estate. Most of their beers are mainstream and uncomplicated, because that's what most drinkers in their pubs want. But last year they decided to open a twenty barrel plant in the heart of the main brewery to produce craft beers, often in association with various guests. 2012 was all about IPAs, and two resulting collaborative brews have gone into national supermarket distribution.
This year it's all about European beer styles. I was one of the last people they approached who responded - obviously Saisons and other currently fashionable varieties were bagsied first by other people. So what could I brew?
I thought back to my first visit to Belgium, about ten years ago. I was on my own, knew very little about beer styles and was wide open and impressionable. (It's great to be a 'beer expert' now, whatever that is, but I do miss the excitement of discovery of those early days.) I had my copy of Good Beer Guide to Belgium, in which I'd starred some interesting-sounding bars, and worked my way through them trying beers I'd never heard of before.
In the middle of the first afternoon I found myself with my first ever Westmalle Dubbel, a Trappist beer at 7%ABV. Like many people who meet such beers for the first time, I was intimidated by it. But a few days before that I'd done my first ever beer tasting course, courtesy of the Beer Academy, and I sniffed and swirled and thought and swallowed and savoured, and that was probably the moment when my interest in the society, culture and history of beer was joined by a genuine passion and enthusiasm for ingredients and style, the essence of the thing itself. It was rich and chocolatey with a slight hint of sherry and spoke to me of layers of depth still waiting to be revealed.
It took me an hour to drink it, and while I was doing so I looked out of the bar window and saw a coach load of Japanese nuns pull up outside, closely followed by two men in electric wheelchairs racing down the middle of the cobbled street, one with a dwarf hanging off the back, and then a man in a karate suit came up the street from the opposite direction, doing his moves, and I fell in love with Belgium and all its surreal weirdness both inside and outside the beer glass.
In the first few years after I came back from that first Belgian trip I kept beers like Westmalle Dubbel, Westmalle Tripel, Orval and Chimay Blue as permanent mainstays in my cellar. But as the whole craft beer revolution took off, such old guard mainstays seem to have become unfashionable. Saturated by novelty, it's easy to lose sight of the classics.
What would I like to brew? A copy of Westmalle Dubbel please - sorry, I mean a "tribute" to Westmalle Dubbel.
We called it Dissolution (geddit?) and it's brewed with Munich and Dark Crystal malts, Saaz and Styrian Golding hops and a traditional Trappist Ale yeast. It's turned out dark, full bodied and complex, full of rich and fruity plum flavours with a sweet raisin aroma and a spicy, warming finish.
It should now be on the bar in Brains pubs across Wales. But the brewery has also kindly sent a couple of kegs to a pub of my choice on my manor.
I chose the Cock Tavern in Hackney, because it's my new favourite London pub, and it's just a brisk walk down the road. On Bank Holiday Monday 6th May at 6pm, we'll be doing a 'meet the pretend-brewer' event I guess, pouring the beer and chatting to anyone who's interested in chatting about it. There may even be some beer being poured for free. And if you don't like my beer, there's a microbrewery in the basement where they make some damn fine brews of their own. As far as I know it's the only time this beer is scheduled to appear in London, so get there in good time for a taste of pseudo-Belgian magic.