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    Beer in Brugge

    The European Championship…of drink: from Belgian beer to Swedish vodka

    29 June 2020

    With the European Championships cancelled due to the pesky pandemic, the Thinking Drinkers, award-winning alcohol experts and comedians, have delved deep into the drinks cabinet of each participating nation and uncovered the tastiest tipples to enjoy instead.

    Group A

    Italian Prosecco

    Italy: Prosecco Superiore DOCG (11%, 75cl, £7.49)

    The Azzuri, finally freed from their maternal apron springs, top the table with this light, refreshing, floral and astonishingly good value bit of bubbles from the steep hillsides of Veneto. Bellissimo!

    Wales: Tiny Rebel Clwb Tropica, (5.5%, 33cl, £2.00)

    This cracking, tidy tropical India Pale Ale from Newport glides into the last 16 thanks to a backbone of mango, pineapple, passionfruit and peach – not to mention a reassuringly cliched contempt for vowels.

    Switzerland: 1936 Biere, (4.7%, 33cl, £2.03)

    Not content with pen-knives, cheese with holes in and chocolate that bruises the top of one’s mouth, the Swiss step-up with this lovely lager owned by a former superstar DJ and named after the postcode of Verbier. It’s brewed with organic hops, water from the Swiss mountains and golden barley in Appenzell, an acutely ‘rustic’ region where farmers hang teaspoons from their ears and women only got the regional vote in 1991. Still, the beer’s nice.

    Turkey: Yani Raki, (40%, 75cl, £28.95)

    There are some things that you think are make sense while on holiday yet turn out absurd as you’re back in Blighty; those ill-fitting pair of Thai fishing trousers, that ambitious millinery from Morocco and those beads and bangles bought in Goa. And Raki. This historic aniseed-flavoured spirit somehow tastes lovely while overlooking the Mediterranean yet loses its Mojo in your own living room. This poor away form proves its undoing.

    Group B

    Beer in Brugge

    Belgium: Liefmans Fruitesse (3.8%, 25cl, £1.75)

    The much-fancied Belgians are bringing a strong beer game to the tournament. The epicurean anarchists of ale-makingboast more indigenous beer styles than any other nation in the world.

    Their brewing scene, much like their ‘national’ football dressing room, can be split firmly into two camps: The richer Dutch-speaking Flanders region to the north is home to Flemish sour ales, Flemish reds and Lambic beers. While the more rustic French-speaking Wallonia, in the south, is renowned for saison, wheat beers and farmhouse ales. Wallonia also has a town called Silly and another one called Dave.

    This free-flowing Flemish funky fruit beer, packed with cherries, bilberries, elderberries, strawberries and raspberries, is best served over ice with some chocolate…or chips covered in mayonnaise.

    Denmark: Mikkeler Evergreen Session IPA (3.5%, 33cl, £2.50, Marks & Spencers)

    Mikkeler is a former schoolteacher from Copenhagen who became the world’s most successful cuckoo brewer – trotting the globe collaborating with the best of the brewing world. His beers are like catnip to craft beer connoisseurs and while his more extreme efforts attract attention among the geeks, this superb session IPA provides simply sublime summer drinking. Balanced and a little hoppy – just like Christian Eriksen after he’s been kicked on the shins.

    Finland: Tom of Finland Vodka (40%, 75cl, £29.95)

    From the land of Moomins and Baltic herring comes this awesome organic vodka named after the gay icon and homoerotic fetish artist Touko Laaksonen, aka Tom of Finland. Made with wheat, rye and arctic water, it delivers some pepper on the nose, a mellifluous mouthfeel – smoother than a leather tuxedo, and a lovely, long Finnish. A percentage of profit from each bottle is donated to a charity that promotes tolerant attitudes towards sexuality. Give it a go with a gherkin – it’s what Tom would have wanted, the dirty devil.

    Russia: Baltika No.6 Porter (7%, 500ml, £2.51)

    Catherine The Great was famous for a few things; the ruthless ruling Russia for 35 years; horses (allegedly) and dying on the toilet (that never happened; ladies didn’t go to the loo back then).

    She was also a big fan of British-style stouts and porters such as this strapping dark drop  exported from Russia. Considered the ports of the beer world back then, this kind of beer suited the Baltic’s brass-monkey climate and copious amounts were consumed by Catherine and the members of her royal court – often whilst poking their dancing bears.

    Group C

    Drinkers in Amsterdam

    Netherlands: Ketel One Botanicals Peach & Blossom & Soda (30%, 75cl, £22.50)

    Given that the Dutch dressing-room can sometimes be a rather acrimonious affair, we’ve chosen an excellent essence-infused vodka that is sure to stick a finger in the dyke of discord.  From the Nolet distillery in Schiedam, a historic hub of Dutch distilling excellence, this fresh and floral spirit is lower in alcohol than vodka and gin – and when served with soda, contains just 82 calories – compared to 140 calories in a medium glass of white wine.

    Iceland: Reyka Vodka (40%, 70cl, £22)

    From the nation that famously gave us the clap four years ago comes this tasty volcanic vodka distilled using pure water that is filtered through 4,000-year-old lava rocks. It used to have a picture of the volcano on the bottle but, after the ash-cloud events of 2010, they took it off. Still, this is a very good vodka from some top geysers. And at 22 quid, the price is not be Bjorked at.

    Austria: Stiegl Grapefruit Radler (2%, 50cl, £1.83)

    Austria qualify in third with this quality ‘quencher’. Not content with brewing a superb ‘Goldbrau’ lager that was drunk by Mozart, the family-owned Stiegl brewery in Salzburg also makes this naturally cloudy Radler (a ‘shandy’ meaning cyclist) made with real grapefruit juice. A beautiful ‘brunch’ beer, it’s balanced, gently bitter and at just 2%, you won’t lose your composer and become a massive pianist after three or four cans.

    Ukraine: Distil No.9 (40%, 70cl, £24.95)

    Ukraine enjoyed plenty of ‘shots’ on target with this smooth small-batch wheat vodka from craft distiller Staritsky & Levitsky. Unlucky to go out so early.

    Group D

    Beer and Cornish pasty

    England: St.Austell Proper Job IPA (5.5%, 500ml, £1.70)

    Back when England ruled the waves, all those centuries ago, its breweries were the envy of the world and exported their proven depressants, available in a wide range of flavours, to every continent on the planet.

    The most popular was IPA, a highly-hopped beer style on which the Empire was built and which was revived, in more recent years, by the American microbrewing movement. This Cornish interpretation of the American-style IPA is a fantastic beer brewed by Roger Ryman, a hugely respected brewer who sadly passed away recently. Luckily, his legacy lives on in this excellent IPA.

    Scotland: Eight Lands Organic Gin, (46%, 70cl, £31.95)

    The Scottish may not be that good at football, but their alcohol game has always been very strong. While whisky may seem the obvious go-to giggle juice for the group stages, they’ve hoodwinked their opponents with a superb organic gin from Speyside. Distilled using botanicals foraged from around the Glenrinnes distillery. Like Sean Connery’s brother’s small daughter, it’s a little ‘niche’… but it makes a marvellous martini.

    Czech Republic: Pilsner Urquell, (4.4%, 50cl. £2)

    The Czechs bounce through with a stone cold classic meaning the ‘original Pilsner’. First brewed in 1842 in the town of Pilsen by a notoriously grumpy Bavarian named Josef Groll, Pilsner Urquell was the world’s first truly golden lager whose emergence coincided with the emergence of glassware. People went crazy for it. It looked amazing and tasted even better – brewed using moist Moravian malt, Saaz hops and water softer than a bubble-bath full of kittens. If they’d patented the Pilsner trademark…the fools.

    Croatia: Garden Sour (3.5%. 33cl, £2.31)

    This cheek-contorting tart beer from Zagreb, brewed with Australian and Kiwi hops, boasts some funky Luka Modric-like flair and will definitely appeal to the sour beer supporters. But, for many, this is too tart and, quite frankly, we can’t forgive that World Cup semi-final defeat…sorry.

    Group E

    Absolut Vodka, produced near Ahus in Sweden

    Sweden: Absolut Vodka Elyx, (42.3%, 70cl, £35.75)

    Distilled in a vintage copper rectification still from 1929 in small batches, this super-premium Swedish vodka made from locally-sourced wheat doesn’t collapse under tournament pressure like some poorly put together flatpack-furniture. Drink it neat, chilled and with some dill-infused gravadlax. Or meatballs. IKEA does some nice hotdogs too.

    Republic of Ireland: Jameson’s Irish Whiskey (40%, 70cl, £22.50)

    The Irish ease through the group stages with Jameson Irish Whiskey – a triple distilled classic from Cork. This most literary of life-enhancing whiskies was a favourite of James Joyce who claimed he was always more creative in his Jameson-filled cups.

    He claimed it inflamed Joyce’s imagination, blew away the cobwebs of literary convention and transformed language into musical notation, sound superficially superseding the senses, but in reality communicating (like music) profundities which conventional words cannot hope to express.

    It also made his books completely incomprehensible. Still, we like to lengthen this with some ginger ale over ice and a slice of lime before grabbing a copy of Andy McNabb’s latest oeuvre instead.

    Spain: Gin Mare (40%, 50cl, £25 Tesco.com)

    In Euro 2016, the Spanish had a complete ‘Mare and went out to Italy in the Last 16. And now they’re at it again with Gin Mare – a beautiful Barcelona-born gin bursting with botanicals including olives, thyme, rosemary and basil – that notorious nemesis of Spanish waiters. Smoother than an Iniesta through-ball, this handsome-looking Spanish gin is not too Xavi at all and

    Poland: Zubrowka Vodka (40%, 70cl, £20 )

    On paper, Poland could have won the group but, as Brian Clough famously said, football’s not played on paper – it’s played on grass; and a blade of bison grass is inserted into each bottle of this gorgeous rye grain vodka. Serve over ice with apple juice.

    Group F

    Armagnac, French grape brandy

    France: Armagnac XO Domaine Tariquet, (40%, 70cl, £28)

    Listen very carefully, because we will say this only once: Armagnac is amazing stuff and this is incredible value. It’s a phenomenal brandy from the South-West of France which has been aged for a minimum of 15 years. Incredible value. Sip slowly alongside some ponky blue cheese. Delicieux (Delicious).

    Germany: Erdinger Alkoholfrei (0.4%, 500ml, £1.30)

    An alcohol-free Bavarian wheat beer that Germans drink after running marathons and stuff. It is low in calories, with just 125 kcal per 500ml bottle and contains vitamins B12 and folic acid. It also has isotonic properties which, like John Barnes used to say, means it’s in tune with your body fluids. Or something like that. Drink it with some enormous German sausages. What’s the wurst that can happen?

    Portugal: Graham’s Blend No.5 (19%, 70cl, £21.25)

    As unexpected as Portugal winning the Euros in 2016, white Port and Tonic is a superb Summer combination. Low in alcohol, really refreshing with the kind of crisp finish that Cristiano Ronaldo would be proud of. But the Portuguese go out as, sticklers for tradition, they keep passing to the left. Terrible tactics.

    Northern Ireland: Boatyard Gin, (46%, 70cl, £33.95)

     The Northern Irish turn up to the tournament with this fabulous, family-owned ‘farm-to-bottle’ gin whose organic ingredients include “Sweet Gale”, foraged from the family bog in Fermanagh.

    Last 16

    Aperol Spritz on the Amalfi Coast

    Italy: Aperol (11%, 70cl, £15,) vs Iceland: Einstock Pale Ale (5.2%, 33cl, £2.19)  

    The ubiquitous unisex orange aperitivo edges out an Iceland’s excellent canned pale ale adorned with a cool picture of a Viking on it.

    Wales: Penderyn Madeira Finish Single Malt Whisky (46%, 70cl, £26) v Denmark: ‘To Øl Gose To Hollywood’ (3.8%, 33cl, £3.50 from M&S)

    Like the tail of a Danish pig about to be turned into bacon, it’s far twirly for the Danish to exit the tournament. This citrus-kissed sour beer targets the Welsh weakness with an outrageous use of vowels –two types of ‘O’? No-one predicted that Gary. The bourbon barrel-aged whisky from the Brecon Beacons bows out despite being a delightful drop.

    Belgium: Duvel (8.5%, 33cl, £2.00, tesco.com) vs Czech Republic: Budweiser Budvar (5%, 500ml, £1.80 tesco.com)

    Clash of the classics here. The original Budweiser from the Czech town of Ceske Budejovice is a proper lager beer with nothing but name in common with its insipid American counterpart. It’s matured for 90 days in cold conditions, brewed with whole cone Saaz hops and still owned by the Czech government. But the big-headed bottle-conditioned Blonde ale from Belgium, with its fruity yeast and Rubenesque glassware, is simply too strong and goes through on penalties.

    England: Lost & Grounded Keller Pils (4.8%, 440ml, £2.50)  vs Germany: Hofmeister Helles Lager (5%, 330ml, £23.99 for 12)

    Pork-pie hats (and yellow bomber jackets) off to the iconic Hofmeister Helles which, having reached fame in the 80s, is now brewed properly in Bavaria. It’s a helluva Helles but the English beat the Bavarians at their own game with this unfiltered Bristol-born Keller Pils that uses German pilsner malt and achieves a balanced bitterness with three different hop varieties.

    Holland: HandLanger  (8.2%, 33cl, £3.39) vs Spain: Barcelona Beer Factory: La Bella Lola (4%, 33cl, £2)

    Afraid there are no more Dutch caps to be won here as this award-winning Double IPA brewed in The Hague by one of the coolest craft brewers on the continent is controversially beaten by this balanced Barcelona brew.

    Scotland: Haig Clubman Whisky (40%, 70cl, £25 ) vs Guinness West Indies Porter  (6%, 500ml, £1.83)

    The Scots blend it like Beckham with an easy-drinking whisky that pips this powerful Porter on penalties.

    Sweden: Herno Gin (40.5%, 50cl, £31.95vs Austria: Weissenkerchen Gruner Veltliner (12.5%, 75cl, £9.99)

    Despite its undoubted elegance and aromatic allure, this very good Veltliner is vanquished by an award-winning, juniper-forward gin from the world’s northernmost distillery. Makes a marvellous Bramble.

    Quarter-Finals

    Tio Pepe Sherry

    Spain: Tio Pepe Sherry (15%, 75cl, £4.25) vs Denmark: Carlsberg Special Brew (7.5%, 33cl, £7.50 for 4)

    Brewed in honour of Winston Churchill, Special Brew stumbles out in the face of the deliciously dry, tiki-taka, tapas-tastic tactics of Tio Pepe.

    Italy: Grati Chianti (12.5%, 70cl, £8.99) vs Belgium: Boon Oude Gueuze (7%, 37.5cl,£3.25)

    In a move that will be questioned by pundits, Belgium opt for a classic yet quirky beer for the quarter-finals. Terrifically tart and craved by connoisseurs, the gamble doesn’t pay off and it’s overcome by an Italian drop that Hannibal Lecter famously favoured with fava beans. We preferred peanuts. Or twiglets.

    England: Beavertown Neck Oil  (4.3% 33cl, £2) vs Sweden: Mackmyra Whisky (41.4%, 70cl, £45)

    From a brewer that has a small microbrewery within Tottenham’s new stadium comes this aromatic, easy-drinking IPA containing seven different hop varieties. It edges out his elegant superbly smooth, slightly smoky Swedish whisky on penalties.

     

    France: Definition White Burgundy (13%, 75cl, £10.99) vs Scotland: Johnny Walker Black Whisky (40%, 70cl, £20.50)

    A dram-atic clash. The silky, smooth Scottish iconic whisky is stunned by a well-balanced Burgundy that had elegance on one flank, amazing aromatics on the other and some lovely lychee pulling the strings in the middle of the park

    Semi-Finals

    Chapel Down English Rose

    England: “Chapel Down Rose” (12%, 70cl, £12.99) vs Spain: The Guvnor (14%, 70cl, £6.99)

    The sheer fruity elegance of the Pinot Noir-infused pink overcomes an oaky red AKA the ‘Pedro Ince’ of Spanish wine.

    France: “Taittinger Champagne” (12.5%, 75cl, £35 vs Italy: “Prosecco Superiore DOCG (11%, 75cl, £7.49)

    Les Blues pip a fabulously-priced Prosecco in the battle of the bubbles with James Bond’s favourite Champagne.

    Final

    An English winner

    England: Plymouth Gin (41.2%, 70cl, £20) vs France: Pernod Absinthe (68%, 70cl, £44.25)

    Just as they did with flick knives, devil bangers, CS Gas and conjugating the verb “aller” into all the compound tenses, the French try to frighten the English with absinthe – the wild green fairy liquid that dropped 19th Century France to its knees.

    But England are having none of it and clinch the cup with a classic G&T made with Plymouth Gin, a ‘proper’ gin from the nation’s oldest working distillery. In the face of a host of new-fangled gins and long periods of French pressure, Plymouth remains steadfastly loyal to its seven-strong botanical formation and secures victory. Can you believe it? Football’s come home (albeit a little worse for wear.)

    The Thinking Drinkers are drinks experts and comedians. Listen to their “Around The World in 80 Drinks” podcast at www.thinkingdrinkers.com