Sunday 26 May 2013

Natural light and darkness

We’ve spent a good deal of time this weekend trying to keep a nest of baby black birds safe from marauding magpies. The parents are doing the best they can, and we come out to help when we hear their alarm call. Still, it’s been pretty brutal: two chicks gone already, one cowering in the honeysuckle. Nature can be pretty ugly.

I am thus not instantly impressed by products that proclaim their “all natural” or “organic” ingredients. Magpies are completely natural. So is cyanide. Doesn’t make it right.

When Brasserie de la Lesse announces their beers are mostly organic, therefore, I remain to be convinced. We put two of their offerings -- a blonde and a brune -- to the taste test.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Excuse me, there’s chicory in my beer

I understand that people get bored. It happens to us all from time to time. And I get it that brewers will occasionally want to try something different just to spice things up.

But putting chicory in beer? I think there may be a line drawn there. Or a good ways before you get to there in fact.

Recalling previous tastings of some historical experimental brews, I think the problem starts whenever you get away from using hops. Beers like Gageleer or Dupont’s Cervesia, which rely on bog myrtle instead of hops, may be interesting, but they’re not anything I’d buy again. The same is true for other pre-hop era remakes like Dogfish Head Theobroma or Dogfish Head Midas Touch: after the novelty wears off, you just have to ask yourself if this is really anything that people want to drink.

Still, I tried to keep an open mind as I approached Hof ten Dormaal Wit Goud, a beer made by replacing some hops with chicory.

Sunday 19 May 2013

Four new Belgian blondes

As spring continues to evade Belgium, and the family has run off to Scotland in search of warmer weather -- yes, that’s how bad it’s been here -- I carved out some time to catch up on a bit of important paperwork. But since tax forms are infinitely dull and these ones aren’t due for some time yet, I figure it would be far more interesting to write up some tasting notes that I’ve also been neglecting for a while.

Let’s start with a few blonde Belgian ales. I’ve run into a few new ones in recent months, all worth mentioning. Well, actually, they’re more worth drinking than mentioning, but you know what I mean.

Sunday 5 May 2013

Five British darks

For sweet dark beers, Belgium is king. The rich velvety gingerbread of Achel Brune Extra, the deep porty notes of an aged Chimay, the bubbly berries of Rochefort... They all have a special place in our hearts. But for the bitter darks -- with the exception of the apparently one-off Black in Japan or the sadly hard-to-find Scheldebrouwerij Oesterstout -- we usually need to look further afield.

Britain is a good place to start, and over the past few months, we’ve been able to sample five super stouts and black IPAs from the UK, all very much worth trying if you can get your hands on them.

Sunday 28 April 2013

Hof ten Dormaal Blond

My father-in-law is a keen gardener, but for years he’s been unable to get his wisteria to bloom. I’ve long shared the same frustration: the viney thing in our yard climbs the railings at a furious pace, but it churns out only leaves spring after spring, with not a purple petal in sight.

Until this year...

My wisteria is currently covered in buds, and it looks set to be a fantastic horticultural explosion. Even better, my father-in-law is coming for a visit.

To prepare for the coming gardener’s gloat-fest, I opened a Hof ten Dormaal Blond. I had a feeling it would be good, because its sister beer, Hof ten Dormaal Donker, is excellent.

The blond initially does what you’d expect from a strong Belgian ale, though it is perhaps slightly thinner and less creamy than others. Pine and honey notes then emerge, which create a very moreish character.

It’s very good: ideal for a lazy weekend watching the flowers bloom.

Sunday 21 April 2013

Brooklyn Black Ops

Wandering around southwest Florida a few months ago, I came across a bottle of Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Ops 2012 and put it in my shopping cart without giving it much thought. I’d never heard of it before, but I just knew it was going to be good, so why waste time deliberating?

Little did I understand, however, just how lucky I was to find it. Apparently, they only make about a thousand bottles of Black Ops a year, and even friends in Brooklyn couldn’t get their hands on one. How it landed in Fort Myers is beyond me -- some top secret logistics, no doubt. But whatever, I’m not complaining.

We brought it back home to Brussels and let it sit for a few weeks before sharing it with some guests one evening. Everyone was hugely impressed.

Black Ops is a stout that’s aged in bourbon barrels, and the taste is precisely that, and much more. Beurre noisette fades into caramel and cuberdons, a raspberry-flavoured Belgian candy that’s rarely found outside this country, with hints of liquorice. It’s thick and bitter and just painfully good.

Painful, because I now know I’ll probably never find another bottle of it...

Sunday 14 April 2013

Spring arrives with 3 Fonteinen

Spring. It finally showed up today. Or we at least finally got our first decent day in Brussels this year.

Everyone here has been moaning about the weather for weeks, and with good reason. It’s been crap on a stick without even the benefit of a stick. It really should not take until the middle of April to get a day where you can spend the afternoon outside.

But enough whinging. It’s time for celebration: at last, we can start opening some of these warm-weather beers we’ve been waiting an age to try.

The first is 3 Fonteinen Oude Gueuze “Golden Blend”, which is an awesomely tart sensation, with a lingering raspiness on the sides of the tongue like thin ribbons of wet sandpaper. Honey, but not at all sweet. Tree bark, but palatable. If this doesn’t quench your thirst on a hot day, then quite simply, you’re not thirsty.

The second, 3 Fonteinen Oude Kriek, pours a rich ruby red, and there’s a hint of musty leaf on the nose. The taste is a bit different from other traditional krieks I’ve had. There’s almost a suggestion of cherry cough syrup here, not in sweetness, of course, as this is as tart as the gueuze. But there’s a striking seam of something that lands like dried black cherries on the aftertaste -- and generally heartier, with a greater depth of flavour than other krieks.

Both are strongly recommended. Let’s hope the warm weather holds so you have an excuse to drink them.

Saturday 6 April 2013

Last beer of a long winter: Black in Japan

A few months ago, in anticipation of sunnier days, I bought a cellar-load of lambics and other warm-weather beers. By doing so, I somehow jinxed the seasonal shift, and spring has been a long-time coming to Brussels.

There was very little sign of it in March, as we’d hoped, and April hasn’t started well, with snow falling two days out of the first five.

This has all been pretty annoying for a seasonal beer enthusiast like myself, who tends towards the rich dark beers in the colder months and favours the tart thirst-quenchers when it heats up.

To have cases of traditional gueuzes and krieks and whatnot just aching to be opened with the daffodils and tulips, but seeing only a few frightened and frost-bitten buds in the garden... well, it’s heart-breaking.

And knowing it’s all my fault makes it even worse. Yes, I did this. I caused the long winter by buying summer beer too early.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Again with the Westvleteren legend...

Well, it's the big 12.12.12 sell-off of Westvleteren in the U.S. today. There is no end to the legend, it seems...

NPR did a story on it for Morning Edition. I drove out to the abbey at the weekend with my friend who's the correspondent here, and she came up with this lovely piece:

A Sign From Above? Needing New Roof, Monks Sell Rare Beer In U.S.

Definitely worth a read and a listen, particularly for the excellent quotes from a certain "beer connoisseur".

And when you're finished, have a look at why I've not included Westvleteren in my list of top ten Belgian beers...

Sunday 18 November 2012

A bit of beer

"Abends Bit, Morgens fit" ran one slogan for Bitburger Primium Pils back in the 1950s -- or “Have Bit in the evenings, and you’ll feel fine in the morning". It sounds snappy in German, but snappier still is the advertising line everyone associates with this beer: "Bitte ein Bit". It's simple and easy to remember, and even comprehensible to non-German speakers, unlike, say, Audi’s "Vorsprung durch Technik", which, though famous, is a bit of a murky mouthful.

Not quite as murky as our arrival in Bitburg, however. The Eifel Hills fog was so thick as we pulled in that we couldn't even see the town until we'd arrived in the middle of it. But we had reached our goal: the Bitburger Brewery for a grand tour.

Sunday 30 September 2012

Schieven IPA

Sometimes, I see a bottle of beer in a shop that I’ve never encountered before, and I think, “oh, maybe I’ll try one of those”. It’s a natural enough reaction for a beer blogger, after all. If it turns out to be delicious, then I’ve found an unexpected joy, and if the new beer ends up tasting like pickled aardvark droppings, well, I figure I’ve only wasted a few coins, so no great loss.

But when I saw Schieven IPA at my local provider’s, I bought a whole case without giving it a second thought.

Though a decision made in haste and relative ignorance, it was nevertheless logical. From the label I saw it was an IPA produced by the fantastic Brasserie de la Senne in Brussels in collaboration with Americans Jeff Bagby, of Bagby Beer and Mike Rodriguez of Lost Abbey. I just knew it was going to be great.

And, hey, no surprise: it is.

Sunday 16 September 2012

British Ales in Belgium

For those living in Brussels, finding high-quality British ales isn’t easy. Short of jumping on the Eurostar, in fact, it’s nearly impossible. Nearly.

The assumption is, perhaps, that Belgium has such great beers already, who needs to look elsewhere? Well, those of us who enjoy a bit more variety, for one, and in particular, those of us who crave super-hoppy IPAs, which are only just starting to catch on here.

This was the thinking my friend Bob had when he selected his beers for Deliciously Different, his online shop and roaming market stall offering great British ales, as well as cheeses, chutneys, spices and other things rare on this side of the Channel.

He invited me over for a tasting a couple weeks back, and I have to say, he’s got some great beers on offer. Here are just a few:

Thursday 23 August 2012

Beers in the Midi

Our holiday travels shifted gears rather abruptly in late July, as we left Scotland for the south of France. Scottish beers in comfortable pubs gave way to glasses of rosé on a boat tied up along the Canal du Midi. Still, we managed to find a few beers even amongst the vineyards.

Arriving in Aix-en-Provence after a day of busses, planes and trains from Edinburgh, we needed something to wash off the dust of a long journey. Pelforth Brune, a northern transplant rather like us that day, did the job.
It’s got minimal head, and it’s a bit too sweet, but it was a welcome sight -- and taste -- nonetheless. Much like Pelforth Blonde, it is nothing spectacular, but it has a part to play.

We also had two southern French beers. The first was La Cagole, a lager from Marseille, which offers some nuttiness and a black cherry note on top of a malty background. We found it surprisingly more nourishing than refreshing for a 4.7% warm-climate lager. Not bad, but not great. The label is pretty nifty though.

La Belle en Goguette is a reasonable enough bottle-fermented blonde ale from Brasserie des Garrigues in Sommières between Montpellier and Nîmes. Again, nothing outstanding, but not terrible either.

Overall, I’d have to say we’ve tasted far better French beers, both north and south. Most nights along the canal we just stuck with the rosé.

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Scottish Wildcat

After leaving the isolation of Knoydart and its remote beers, we journeyed first by train from Mallaig to Fort William and then north by coach to Inverness. It’s a spectacular bus ride snaking along the serpentine banks of the famous Loch Ness, home of, well, you know...

No, we didn’t see a giant reptile rise from the murky waters, but we did see rather a lot of vomit emerging from one of our little monsters.

Our youngest gets terribly carsick -- or coach sick, really, because it only seems to happen on long-distance busses. We had thought she might be outgrowing it, so we went ahead and ordered the tickets. Sadly, not.

I’m afraid it was a rather terrible trip, and we weren’t able to enjoy the fantastic scenery as we’d all hoped. As for spotting Old Nessie, well the beast could have been jumping clear out of the loch and doing triple back-flips for an hour, and we would have missed it.

Now, with a segue as rough as a dry heave, I can point out that I am allergic to cats in a way my youngest is allergic to long bus journeys. And that brings us to today’s beer, Wildcat from Cairngorm Brewery in Aviemore near Inverness.

It pours dark amber, and there’s something almost almost candy-ish -- maybe butterscotch? -- on the nose, which continues into the taste: malty sweet with something else as well... A hint of ginger, perhaps?

In any case, it was a pleasant way to unwind in Inverness after a most unpleasant trip.

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Deuchars IPA

“When you get up to Edinburgh, you’ve got to try Deuchars IPA.”

Thus spake the journalist with the sweetest gig ever as we sat sipping Tilquin Lambic Blend at Chez Moeder Lambic a couple months ago. And just a few weeks later, his advice was heeded, and the prophecy was fulfilled at The Standing Order on George Street.

It is a pretty amazing pub. Being a Wetherspoon place might put some people off, I know -- another big chain bar dominating the market and squeezing out the little guys etc. But this location is special: a converted bank, it is really quite a grand space for enjoying a pint. Wetherspoon’s Counting House in Glasgow, also a former bank, is similarly impressive.

Apparently the most popular cask ale in Scotland, Deuchars IPA from Caledonian Brewing is an odd sort of beast. Hop heads looking for modern mouth explosions of passion fruit, grapefruit and pine will be disappointed, as will fans of bubbles.

“This has no taste whatsoever”, says Fiona. “Where are the hops? And where’s the fizz? Everything’s so flat here.”

Honestly, when it comes to beer, you wouldn’t know she was brought up in the UK. I also suspect the salt and vinegar crisps were throwing off her senses, because Deuchars IPA is nothing to complain about.

The hoppiness is there, I think, but it’s a very hempy sort of hop flavour, not the sledgehammer tropical kind you find in, say, a BrewDog or an American IPA. Interestingly, Deuchars IPA is only 3.8% ABV, which makes it light, refreshing and sessionable. I might not rave about it like my journalist friend, but I find nothing to fault it either. In fact, with the greatest of respect to my better half, I quite like it.

Though yes, it’s flat, so if you need bubbles in your brew, this -- and countless other British ales -- won’t be your thing.