The powerful bonds linking Belgium and Britain, forged in the mud, blood and horror of the First World War, are highlighted by special beers that highlight the love of pale ale expressed by both countries.
As a visit to the fields in Flanders shows, the Belgians remain deeply grateful to the support given to them by the UK during the war. That gratitude was underscored by many Belgian brewers who adopted the English style of beer known as pale ale that was first exported to Belgium early in the 20th century.
John Martin, a businessman from Newmarket in Suffolk, set up a drinks-import agency in Antwerp early in the 20th century. Bass Ale from Burton-on-Trent arrived in the Belgian city in giant wooden hogsheads and the beer was decanted into bottles for local consumption. As a result of the popularity of Bass, several Belgian brewers responded with their interpretations of the style and today De Koninck, Dubuisson and Palm still brew strong pale ales, while John Martin’s remain a major business, run by Antony Martin, a descendant of the founder.
This spring, I suggested to Tom Jenkinson, head brewer at Buckinghamshire’s Chiltern Brewery, that we should brew a Flanders Ale emphasising the link with Belgian brewing practice. My idea, taken up with alacrity by Tom, was to fashion a beer true to its English origins, but with a Belgian twist.
Brewers in that country concentrate on beers high in alcohol and which re-ferment in the bottle. Live yeast encourages a continuing fermentation and the beers can be laid down to improve for a year or more.
I let Tom have some recipes for English pale ales from Victorian times and he did his own thorough research that led to a beer brewed with pale malt and a slightly darker variety, known as Vienna malt.
The hops are Challenger, an English variety that is also grown in the fields around the Belgian town of Poperinge. In spite of being called Vienna, the special malt came from Bamberg in Germany. Tom and I felt strongly that our Flanders Ale had to cross national borders if it is to truly commemorate the beers brewed at that time and those who gave their lives in that horrific conflict.
Flanders Ale was brewed in mid-May and it takes some time for a beer of that strength to condition and mature. It launched on 29 July, on the eve of the anniversary of the official start of the war.
This 6.2% ABV glowing bronze beer is wonderfully rich and complex, with a creamy, buttery malt aroma that is balanced by peppery hops and a hint of toffee. Toasted malt, bitter hops, orange fruit and toffee fill the mouth and linger into the long finish.
I had the good fortune to taste a beer that also commemorates both pale ale and the bravery and dry humour of British troops in Belgium. Two weeks prior to the launch of the Chiltern Brewery beer, I visited the city of Ieper in Flanders, known to the French as Ypres and nicknamed Wipers by British Tommies.
The city was destroyed during the war: there were three battles of Ypres and the third, known as Passchendaele, accounted for 400,000 lives. The old city ramparts, built in the 1680s for Louis XIV, were left standing and in April a new brewery called De Kazematten — the Casement — opened with a beer called Wipers Times 14.
It was in this same vaulted brick cave that Captain Fred Roberts of the Sherwood Foresters discovered an old printing press that he and other soldiers — including a sergeant who was a printer by trade — produced an irreverent newspaper called the Wipers Times.
The paper must have annoyed the army brass no end. It queried their tactics and had a cartoon character of a hapless, chinless general. The masthead of the paper incorporated a thistle, indicating that its views were prickly, and the brewer at De Kazematten, Koen Hugelier, uses some thistle seeds in his beer to emphasise the point.
By happy coincidence, the beer is also 6.2% ABV and is highly complex. It’s brewed with pale, Pilsner and caramalts, with oats and wheat, and a touch of coriander along with the thistle seeds. In common with Chiltern’s Flanders Ale, it uses hops from Poperinge, just a few kilometres from Ypres.
Wipers Times 14 has a hazy blond colour and a spicy and peppery aroma. Bitter hops build on the palate with crunchy malt and orange and lemon fruit. The finish is long, starting bittersweet but bitter hops begin to dominate along with tart fruit, buttery and creamy malt and further peppery and spicy notes.
You can sample the beer at the brewery’s own bar and restaurant, Brasserie de Kazematten, also built into a vault in the ramparts at 1 Bollingstraat, Ieper/Ypres. From there, it’s just a short walk to the world-famous Menin Gate, where the names of 54,896 British soldiers who were killed in the conflict are etched in the stone.
It’s a sobering experience.