PICK YOUR POISON: Interview with Frank Allain (Fen)

A while ago we attended a night filled with some of the best atmospheric black metal bands out there at the Kavka venue in Antwerp (review). In between bands we wanted to drop by the renown Kulminator beer bar just around the corner. In the past, this cafe has been elected as best beer bar in the world by RateBeer.com. You have to ring the doorbell to be allowed to enter and delve into its selection of hundreds of beers. The kind owner Leen gave us a spot somewhere in the back and we enjoyed a warming “Winterdawn quadrupel” by the White Pony brewery. This Italian-Belgian microbrewery generously gives advice on their website on which music pairs best with their beers. And this is usually no chamber music. You can expect reviews of their “Zumbi” (recommended with Soulfly) or “Crow” (recommended with In Flames) on our column one day! When we were on our way out of the bar we stumbled upon Frank Allain (aka The Watcher), vocalist and guitarist of Fen, who came for a beer after their intense show. Wearing a T-shirt of Brasserie Cantillon and the way he was going through the beer menu enthusiastically like a kid released in a toy store, we figured we were dealing with a real beer geek here! Luckily, Frank was so kind to grant us the time for an interview about his love for beer afterwards.

What did you think of your show last night and the amazing line-up? Are you guys happy with your performance?
It was an excellent gig all round I think, really. I felt we put on a decent show myself and we seemed to get a good response – it is always hard to tell from the stage how things sound out front but I certainly felt quite comfortable. I love playing in Belgium – our third ever gig as a band was at the Biebob in Vosselaar and we have played Belgium a fair few times now so it almost feels like a second home to us! I really sensed that ‘warmth’ when we were playing and certainly drew some energy from that so yes, I was happy with how we performed. The Great Old Ones absolutely KILLED it however – I’ve been wanting to see those guys live for a long time and they totally delivered. Very impressive indeed.

The whole line up was of a high standard I think  – the organiser (Filip, 5 Shades of Black) did an amazing job in putting together an excellent bill and creating a special atmosphere. He really looked after everyone, it was all very friendly and all the bands playing seemed to rise to the occasion. All in all, it was a superb night!

How did you know about the Kulminator cafe close to the venue?
Nothing particularly magical about this discovery I’m afraid! I did my usual pre-‘gig in new city’ research on Ratebeer and Kulminator leaped to the top of the list of places to visit – the fact that it was a 2-3 minute walk from the venue was the icing on the cake. And what a splendid place it was – exactly the kind of place in which I could hide away hours while supping back dusty bottles of fine beer.

Back in the older days, I used to like just wandering about and seeing what I could find – there is something quite wondrous after all about stumbling down a random back street and discovering a spectacular hidden gem! – but for a lot of these ‘gig days’, time is precious. Therefore, the Fen pre-show Ratebeer research has become something of an important part of the live preparation these days!

Inside the Kulminator (photo credit of Movimento Birrario Italiano)

Do you always go beer hunting before and after shows then?
Yes, always. It can be difficult sometimes to find the time – and obviously one does not want to compromise the arrangements/schedules of the show itself – but it is a high priority for us, particularly when visiting a new town or city. It can be a close call sometimes – we played a show in Marseilles a few years ago and trooped over to the other side of the city to find the best beer bar. We cut that very fine and literally had to run back to the venue across the centre of town, beer sloshing in bellies whilst desperately trying to hail taxis! A bit of a lesson there perhaps.

For me however, it’s an important part of the cultural fabric of any locality. Some bands will visit old monuments, museums, galleries, graveyards e.t.c. as a way of immersing themselves in the culture of a country or area. For us, we like to try and explore the beer culture as this is what ultimately interests us. As Don from Khorada (ex-Agalloch) once succinctly said whilst raising a pint of beer in an English pub – ‘THIS is culture!’. I couldn’t agree more.

Please tell us what you drank before and after the show and what did you think of those beers?
Probably a little more than we should have, truth be told! Filip arranged for us to have some nice beer backstage (on top of the standard fridge full of Jupiler) so before the show, I was drinking the Chimay Triple, some Grimbergen and a few others I can’t quite remember… I did actually have a couple of cans of Jupiler just to take a bit of a break from the sweet richness  – after all, Belgian ales can be quite heavy-going if consumed in large quantities. We actually visited Kulminator twice – before the show, we had a Kasteel Cru, Rodenbach Vintage, Buffalo Grand Cru, a Mikkeller barrel-aged barley wine and a 2012 bottle of Orval.

The Mikkeller barley wine was unbelievable – seriously strong but with so much character. The aged Orval was a surprise – I love Orval and the 5 years of ageing had changed the character somewhat. It was a lot less sour/dusty, the maltiness and richness of it had really come to the fore. I’m not sure if I preferred it to a ‘standard’/’fresh’ Orval but it definitely a different Orval experience. The Rodenbach was great also, Grungyn (bass/vocals) has become obsessed with it…

When we went back after we played, we shared a 75cl Chimay Rood Prestige – very nice indeed, a pleasant way of relaxing a bit after the show.

I mean, I still really like Belgian beer – I know the craft scene has moved on at a frightening pace and for the last 5-6 years, it’s all been about chucking in as many new world hops as possible – but I still harbour an enormous amount of respect and affection for the classic Belgian styles. There’s something timeless and evocative about the sweeter, richer, fruitier approach taken by a lot of Belgian brewers and it is heartening that the scene has not been hugely swept up in the ‘IPA or nothing!!’ obsession we are seeing in the UK and the US.

Do you have a preference for traditional beers or do you also follow all the craft beer trends?
Both – after all, why limit yourself? The last ten years or so have unveiled a to me a revelation in the levels of enthusiasm, dedication and skill demonstrated by the new wave of ‘craft’ brewers. Here in London, we seem to have a new brewery being launched every month and the quality (by and large) is exceptional. The breadth of styles attempted too is breath-taking and the UK brewing scene now is in staggering health – brewers like Siren, Buxton, Cloudwater, Magic Rock, Weird Beard, Hammerton … it’s been an incredible thing to witness and I don’t feel I exaggerate when I claim that these breweries are amongst the best in the world.

And speaking of which, internationally, the craft scene is incredibly healthy – the US obviously continues to innovate and in many ways show the world how to do it but there is also Denmark (with Mikkeller and Evil Twin leading the charge), Norway (Haand, Nogne), Japan, New Zealand and plenty of other outposts of craft beer making their presence felt. I was even in Malaysia’s one and only Craft Beer bar the other month and they had some Vietnamese craft beers on tap which were very good!

So of course I am fully on board with the new surge in craft beer – however, not at the expense of more traditional beers such as good old English cask ales. A disturbing number of the ‘new breed’ of craft enthusiast dismisses classic/old-school beer styles out of hand and I won’t tolerate this. The sight of someone sipping back the latest kegged hop-bomb whilst sneering at a pint of Harvey’s best bitter makes me rather angry… fine, some pubs have been guilty of keeping cask beer badly and giving the style a bad reputation. It is a difficult thing to handle/keep after all. However, a pint of well-kept cask beer is a thing of sheer beauty.

On the flip-side, a number of older drinkers are equally negative about the ‘craft’ movement, dismissing it out of hand as ‘faddy’, ‘trendy’ and over-priced. It’s sad to see and painfully hypocritical – these inflexible, sneering characters were once the ‘craft beer hipsters’ of their day and it’s a shame their self-awareness does not extend to understanding this. Not all change or progress is to be feared after all.

Me, I like and support good beer – it is as simple as that.

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What is your general preference in beer (styles)?
Anything that is made with care and dedication – I can appreciate all forms of beer as long as they are well-executed. OK, maybe I struggle a little with Wheat beers/Weissbiers and I’m not a HUGE fan of Saisons either I’m afraid – but generally speaking, I am willing to try anything and can appreciate all styles in the right circumstances.

If pushed however, I would say that barrel-aged Imperial Stouts, (good) IPAs, red ales and traditional geuzes/lambics are my beer styles of choice. A nice Belgian quad normally goes down very well also!

I saw you were wearing a shirt of Brasserie Cantillon and their famous lambic and geuze beers. Is there a story behind this shirt?
Well, I actually have two Cantillon shirts – the first is a brown long sleeve that I bought when I visited the brewery with some friends back in 2010. The black one you saw me wearing was a Christmas present that I received a couple of years ago from a friend. I love Cantillon – I’ve been there a few times now and find the whole place incredibly charming and inspirational. It is exactly what one would expect from a traditional set-up that adheres to ancient principles of brewing and production. I’m definitely a fan of lambics and guezes – it took me a little while to fully appreciate them, however the penny finally dropped about 10 years ago and I have really learned to enjoy them since.

As a drinker, you have to approach lambics differently – they don’t provide a warming, malty or bitter experience like people traditionally expect from beer. Instead, it’s a refreshing, effervescent ‘natural yoghurt’ sort of flavour profile which can take people off guard who are not expecting it. I find it very energising and invigorating but it does take a bit of getting used to. Certainly Cantillon are fantastic, however I also really like Boon (‘Marriage Parfait’ is amazing), Oud Beersel, Drie Fonteinen, Tilquin and Girdardin. Some of the more commercialized lambics are not to my tastes as they have been sweetened and simplified (is it Lindemans or Timmermans? I always get these confused) but these are easily ignored.

Sours in general are massively ‘on trend’ in the craft scene right now and I have mixed feelings on this. Yes, it’s great to see unusual flavour profiles receiving focus and praise, however a lot of the ‘craft’ sours I have encountered have been rather average. Certainly not to the standards of the Belgian masters at any rate!

I understood you have some experience with aging Belgian (trappist) beers. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
Ha, not that much experience really I have to be honest! I have about 6 bottles of West-Vleteren at home that have been ageing for about 8 or 9 years. I’ll probably crack one (or two) open when I turn 40 in a couple of years… seems like an appropriate celebration!

What we DID actually do once though was a comparison – you often read about the difference that a bit of ageing makes to a beer so we decided to put that to the test. Before we went on tour with Agalloch in 2013, we decided to treat ourselves to a West-Vleteren comparison. We lined up three bottles – a ‘fresh’ one, one which had been ageing for three years and one which had been ageing for five. I wasn’t expecting much difference but… wow. Particularly the 3-year aged compared with the ‘fresh’ one, it was incredible. Every aspect of it was enhanced and heightened – richer, fruitier, deeper, more complex. It was a real surprise to us all and I was genuinely taken aback. With this in mind, I can’t wait to see what 10 years of ageing has done to this fine, fine beverage.

I saw you were drinking a Grimbergen blond on stage during the show and a La Chouffe afterwards at the merch stand. What did you think of those beers?
Both of those are classics of the traditional Belgian style. Grimbergen is perhaps a little TOO sweet for me personally, though it did help me get through the gig. It isn’t the best the Belgian scene has to offer truth be told but it isn’t too bad. La Chouffe again is a classic Belgian golden ale – nothing earth-shattering but ticks all of the right boxes for a Belgian beer-drinking experience that isn’t enormously challenging.

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I noticed on your Facebook page that under ‘interests’ of the band are listed: Belgian beer, American IPAs, English Stouts, Scotch Single-Malt Whisky, Danish Nomad Brewers, Geuze. Quite funny to read that on the official page of a black metal band.
Well, it’s a big part of our lives and our interests so why not? I guess it is slightly silly in some respects to have that mentioned on a band website but hey, I’d hope it’s more interesting to read than the usual list of influences or attempts to come across as mystical/ritualistic/deep/dark/scary that most bands plaster across social media…

What is your opinion on the trend of many metal bands releasing their own branded beer (be it as a limited high quality brew or a commercial move)? Have you tried any ‘metal brews’?
Ah man, it’s slightly annoying as we’re considering doing this a long, long time ago. We’ve kind of missed the boat a little I feel as a lot of bands have got on board with this now. I haven’t tried too many of them myself – had the Mikkeller Nuclear Assault beer and ‘Trooper’ (obviously). The Iron Maiden beer is of course utterly inoffensive but at least people are drinking this at metal festivals now as opposed to Tuborg or some other corporate piss [Check out Pick Your Poison’s review here]. The Motörhead ale as well – that was quite drab also [Check out Pick Your Poison’s review here]

I’m not sure I’ve had many others – I THINK I have sipped the Opeth beer from Northern Monk but I may be wrong. I’d assume that one is decent as Northern Monk are great [Check out Pick Your Poison’s review here]. I think the whole ‘metal beer’ thing is a cool trend myself and another outlet for merchandising for bands – it is very much a ‘trend’ though I fear and I just hope standards are being maintained. It could undermine it on every level if a load of bands start churning crap out to jump on the bandwagon and make a few bucks. Can you imagine it? ‘Machine Head ‘Davidian Lager’, brought to you by Carlsberg… ugh. Please no.

Could we see a Fen beer one day?
I very much hope so – indeed, deep discussions are well underway on this and it would be a bit of a disappointment if this didn’t see the light of day at some point in 2018…

Definitely something we will be looking forward to. Be sure to give us a shout then! Thank you so much for this interview, Frank.