Keeping to the Strait and Narrow

by Steve Renshaw

At the beginning of last month, CAMRA announced the latest pub closure statistics. And the bad news was that pubs across the country are now closing at the rate of 18 per week, compared with 12 a week six months ago.

But, in the same week that these figures were released, we in Lincoln had a very unusual occurrence – a brand new pub opened. But the Strait and Narrow, in what used to be a catalogue shop at the bottom of Steep Hill, isn’t an ordinary pub. It describes itself as a continental-style beer bar. If you’ve been to the Pivni Bar in York, you’ll be familiar with the concept.

Yes, I know that CAMRA champions traditional British beer, but we’re very happy to celebrate the brewing traditions of other countries. That’s why we have an international bottled beer bar at the Lincoln Beer Festival.

“Wait a minute,” I hear someone saying, “most pubs have a selection of international beers. There’s draught beer from Belgium, Holland, Australia and Ireland, plus bottles from Mexico, Italy and the USA.”

Not so! Most of the familiar beer brands belong to the huge, multinational brewers. For example, AB InBev, the world’s largest brewer, owns Budweiser, Corona, Stella Artois and Becks, to name but a few. Even Draught Bass, a favourite of many real-ale drinkers, has been brewed under contract by Marston’s for AB InBev since 2005. And as for Guinness, there’s enough for a full column on that subject.

Most of the global-brand beer drunk here is produced in large, UK brew-factories. And, despite what the PR men try to tell you, they may not have remained true to their original recipes. Because of the British penchant for gulping beer from pint pots, rather than the more delicate glasses used in European bars, a number of popular draught lagers are lower in alcohol than the original versions.

So, on a rainy Monday evening, we went to the Strait and Narrow to try an authentic, continental beer. The well-designed interior is open plan, with drinking areas on different levels. There’s standing room near the bar and plenty of comfortable seating. The exposed brick walls and wooden floor give a minimalist feel which contrasts with the chandelier light fittings.

The choice of beers is extensive, with five real ales (including two from Lincolnshire microbreweries) and a selection of UK and continental keg beers. But it was the bottled beer menu, with its 100-plus entries, that I was interested in.

I was looking for something from Belgium, the beer centre of the universe. As the menu didn’t specify the countries of origin, I had to rely on my hazy memories of a long weekend in Brussels. The terms Trappist and gueuze were familiar, but then I picked out a brand you wouldn’t forget.

Kwak is produced by Bosteels Brewery in Buggenhout, Belgium. The brewery was founded in 1791 and is still owned and operated by the same family. In Belgium, it’s served in a round-bottomed glass which comes with a wooden stand. So many of these glasses are stolen that some bars ask you to leave one of your shoes as a deposit. Sensibly, the Strait and Narrow has not invested in these receptacles.

And what about the beer? Kwak is deep amber in colour and tastes of buttery caramel and malt, with almost no hoppiness. At 8.4% ABV, it’s a beer to be savoured at a very leisurely pace. Which is just what I did, while watching pedestrians trudge along the rain-lashed Strait.

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