ALE May-June 2007 No. 328 : Next section

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More To Life Than Leffe

Those of us who study the bar counters of Cambridgeshire can't help but have noticed a recent burgeoning of tall fonts selling premium continental beers (at premium prices). Invariably two of these beers are Belgian: Hoegaarden is a pleasant wheat beer though it has only been brewed since 1966; much closer to the real tradition of Belgian brewing is Leffe Blonde, a sweetish, slightly spiced golden ale packing a significant 6.6% ABV. Both beers are products of the global giant, InBev (formerly Interbrew) which also owns the Bass and Boddington brand names (though gets others to brew them).

Now Leffe is a perfectly decent second division Belgian beer and certainly in a different league from bland stablemates like Stella and Jupiler. However if sampling Leffe has given you a taste for the Belgian then please be assured that our friends across the North Sea brew many much better beers and this article tells you where to find them locally.

On the pub front what better place to start than our 2006 Pub of the Year, The Live and Let Live in Cambridge. A fine selection of bottled Belgian beers has been available here for years but since January licensee Pete Wiffen has added a draught Belgian beer. On my last visit this was the glorious Guldenberg from the De Ranke brewery. Compared with Leffe, this is stronger (8.5%), hoppier and altogether more complex, as is the case with all the best Belgian beers. The offering at The Live changes about every month and Pete has a mouthwatering list to choose from. Bottles include a couple of Trappist ales (Orval and Chimay) the ever-reliable Duvel and some unusual stuff like St Bernardus and Hercule Stout. There are also fruit beers and, to keep the Lambic Monster happy, Rose de Gambrinus, an extraordinary raspberry lambic ale from Cantillon.

The Carlton Arms in Cambridge has an increasingly interesting selection of Belgian bottled beers. They include two of my absolute favourites; Saison Dupont is a golden, herby ale with masses of floral hops ("saison" is a pale ale style traditionally brewed near the French border); De Ranke XX Bitter proudly claims to be "the most bitter beer in Belgium" and you'd better believe it! One you'll either love or hate. Also at The Carlton you'll find the likes of Quintine Blonde, Orval and Duvel plus some fruit beers and a geuze or two.

Our other Belgian specialist is The Red Lion in Histon where you can find an impressive list of twenty or so beers in bottles and on draught. Four of the six Trappist breweries are represented along with some more of my fave raves. These include two beers, La Chouffe and Mc Chouffe, from the Achouffe brewery though be aware that they only come in big bottles (not really a hardship). Piraat Amber is a barley wine coming in at a huge 10.5 % while Brugge Tripel is an under-rated ale in the classic Belgian style. There are also Lambics and fruits plus a real rarity, Liefmans Goudenband, one of the few remaining "Oud Bruin" sour brown ales.

For the greatest local choice though you need to visit the Bacchanalia off-licence on Mill Road Cambridge. Proprietor Ed is a major Belgian beer enthusiast and at any time will have over 50 different bottles plus a changing beer on draught. Every style is represented - Trappists, tripels, blonds, bruins, dark beers, wheats, geuzes, and fruit. All my forementioned favourites are here and you can always find something unusual. Ed also specializes in Dutch beer which is generally brewed very much in the Belgian style. I'd defy any beer lover to leave this place empty-handed (especially when you take into account the hundreds of other beers from all over the world).

Bacchanalia has a smaller branch on Victoria Road which still manages a very interesting selection of Belgian beers (and beers from Holland), including the likes of De Ranke XX and a couple of Bink beers.

Elsewhere in Cambridge, the three branches of Cambridge Wine Merchants are worth a try. The Mill Road shop has the best range, the usual suspects being complemented with some rarer stuff like Floreffe Blond and Augustijn Grand Cru. The branch on Sidney Street has been building its stock and has around a dozen to choose from including the superb Westmalle beers. The best selection used to be found at the Kings Parade shop but on a recent visit there was nothing much of interest.

Finally, back to Leffe and a burning question - how do you pronounce it? My research suggests that as it's brewed in Wallonia, the French pronunciation - Leff - is the most correct. Flemish speakers call it Leffer so that might also be acceptable. What definitely isn't right is what most people in this country say - Leffy.