THE ADVENT CALENDAR OF ALCOHOL – 10th December (9%-10%): Chimay Grande Reserve (aka Chimay Bleu)

Despite the advent calender entering into wine territory, we are sticking with beer for now. Belgian beer of course. Whilst I could wax lyrical about turning up at the first ever proper ILx meet-up supping from the most Specialist of Brews, the world of super-strength lagers is not one I dip my toes into regularly. Instead this will be a paean to a great lost off-licence and the occasional wonderful discoveries made therein. The Grog Blossom in West Hampstead, which gave me my first taste of Chimay.

The Grog Blossom was the kind of off-licence that you could browse in for hours. the wines were all carefully labelled, though not in a dry nor wacky way. The beer section out the back vacillated nicely between comprehensiveness, novelty and boxes of slightly out of date, dirt cheap Asahi. An offie where you could wander in and ask the bloke behind the counter what was the best wine under five pounds to eat with fish and he would ask what kind of fish. No pressure, their bin-ends were great and it was a joy to go in every time I visited friends.

This time I went in and asked for something different. A clarion call for the nutters everywhere I daresay, it is possible I was after the brand new alcopop. It was 1995 after all. Indicating to the back of the store the friendly shopkeep told me he had some bottles of Chimay Grande Reserve in, 750ml bottles. Which pinged my novelty counter like nothing else. Beer in wine bottles. Champagne-like cork. And of course the 9% alcohol. I bought two bottles and went round my friends for a few drinks.

An hour later we were back. We diversified into Chimays both white and red. Some smaller bottles, and another of the Grande Reserve. I think we may have bought a crate of Nastro Azzurro for eight quid too, which remained untouched until I woke up the next morning on the sofa. I believe this was the night that I got so drunk I rang up to complain to the BBC about Bob Monkhouse, nothing in particular, just general. I think we also broke a glass with the high pressured cork. It was one of those grand drinking experiences which for obvious reasons leave little in the memory except the sensation of a good time.

The Grog Blossom is no longer there, pushed out by the difficulties of being an independent on an overpriced high street. But for that celebratory cork pop you can keep your champagnes and your cava’s: it is a big bottle of Chimay Bleu for me.