Sometimes a beer is worth writing home about. Sometimes the moment you inhale from the glass and take that first sip just demands to be shared with the world. Often, however, conventional beer reviews (mine included) suffer from the malaise of simply listing a beer's strength, ingredients and flavour profile, and fail to explore the actual 'experience' drinking a beer creates, and the sensations it arouses.
That's why I am today launching a new series on Beeson On Beer, entitled 'An Ode To...' These short pieces will try to capture the emotional and personal significance of a particular beer, as well as drawing on some of its history to enable you to understand the process by which it came to smell, look and taste exactly the way that it does.
The first beer I am going to feature is XX Bitter, by Brouwerij De Ranke. This is a beer I have never fully been able to get along with, but one that my fellow peers continually rave about as an example of how the Belgians have perfected the art of balance.
The first time I drank XX Bitter would probably have been on a trip to Bruges in 2014. At the time, I was still very early on my beer journey, and I distinctly remember finding it deeply unpleasant in comparison with some of the other excellent saisons, dubbels and tripels I consumed on the trip. To my unaccustomed palate, it tasted sharp, bitter and harsh, and hence for a long time I continued to avoid it in favour of other hop-forward Belgian beers such as Valeir Extra and L'arrogante.
On a return visit to Belgian this weekend just passed, I decided to give XX Bitter another chance, partially swayed by its newly updated bottle labels, a very swish and long overdue for a brand that had begun to look somewhat tired. Cracking the bottle on my return to the UK, I finally understand why XX Bitter is revered as a Belgian classic.
De Ranke's unusually high levels of bitterness (65 IBUs was almost unheard of in Belgium at the time of the beers' inception in the 1990s), was partly a kick-back against the sweet, mass-produced beers dominating the local market at the time. Style-wise, it falls somewhere between a golden ale and an IPA, although head brewer Nino Bacelle describes it as a "bitter pale ale". The use of locally produced whole flower hops - Brewers Gold and Hallertau Mittelfreuh - is supposed to prevent any oxidisation and reduce the harshness of any bitterness left in the beer. At 6% ABV, it is pretty sessionable by Belgian standards.
Straw blond in colour, and with a whispy, thin and off-white head, the beer extolls many of the classic Belgian aromas on the nose; banana, and clove are present in abundance, offset by a tinge of freshly-mown grass. I take a generous slug, preparing myself for an onslaught of bitterness, but it never arrives. Instead, I get a moderate level of astringency, providing a nice bite, followed by a cascade of mango and papaya, leading into a deliciously smooth finish. It is still bitter by Belgian standards, but with a rich and satisfying underbelly and a silky smooth mouthfeel.
At the risk of sounding like many of the very same peers who have previously sung its praises, XX Bitter is an exceptionally well-balanced and hop forward beer. I was wrong to judge it so prematurely, and can now say with some confidence that if you lay claim to loving Belgian beer, you need to have experienced it.
If you want to find out more about Brouwerij De Ranke and XX Bitter, I can heartily recommend this excellent article by Breandán Kearney, of Belgian Smaak podcast fame.