Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Bintang in Jakarta

I’m in Jakarta for business this week, and some colleagues and I had a super meal out this evening. Satay fish wrapped around long pegs of lemongrass... prawns cooked in banana leaves... salad with peanut sauce... and all with great chillies and chilli sauces.

To wash it down, I had a Bintang beer. It’s a standard pilsner, made by Heineken, which offers no surprises. At first, I did think it was a bit surprising that they even had beer, given Indonesia’s current alcohol shortage caused by a crackdown on the black market for alcoholic beverages as the government tries to funnel the trade into the legal zone, where a 400% tax applies.

But it turns out it’s a luxury tax, and beer is not considered a luxury good. (Too right -- more like a staple for those of us from Belgium.) And the shortage is really only hitting the imported stuff in any case. No fear of too few Bintangs, then.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Return of Belgian beer tasting


It has been about three months since my last entry. Shocking and unforgivable. What can I say? I've been busy.

Busy among other things planning and hosting a big Belgian beer tasting for over 40 people in the city of Bruges a couple weeks ago. Trying to get some more photos to share, but trust me, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. I think I've found a new career.

As for the beers I chose to introduce to the international attendees, there were six, and if you've already seen my list of "top ten Belgian beers", these six probably won't surprise you.

But some of the reactions of the participants were interesting. It was a group including a number of committed beerophobes, and yet, I think I found something for nearly everyone. Here are my notes from the evening, with some comments from the tasters in italics...

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Belgian beer tasting evening

For the most part, Belgium is unknown and unloved. When it comes to beer, however, this country has a most outstanding tradition. In both the wide range of brewing styles and in the sheer number of brands (estimated at over 700), Belgium is a brewing giant.

Even with twenty tasting sessions, you would barely scratch the surface of the rich variety of fermented loveliness Belgium has to offer. This short introduction will give you a chance to experience six of my personal favourites.

1 - Deus: Is it even a beer? Or is it the effervescent nectar of a thousand meadow flowers? Deus is in a class all its own. This beer actually goes through the same post-bottling processes as Champagne. Clear you palate, and prepare to reconsider everything you think you know about beer.

Deus turned out to be a great ice-breaker. All beer scepticism disappeared once the flutes were poured, and everyone had a sip. Nearly everyone loved it, and without exception, everyone found it a revelation.

2 - Cantillon gueuze: This beer is a taste of history. Beer has been brewed for at least four millennia, but before Louis Pasteur, no one understood the fermentation process -- that is, no one realised there were naturally occurring micro-organisms (yeast) that converted grain sugars into alcohol. Until the mid-1800s, when the Czechs developed Pilsner (lager), all beers were wildly fermented, which means the mixed up water and mashed grains simply sat in an open vat for a bit, while the yeast spores blowing through the brewery fell into the soup, triggering the fermentation process. That was risky, of course, because the brewer could never be sure the right yeasts would fall into the mix. Since Pasteur, most beer makers have sought to tightly control the process by adding the yeast to a covered vat. Cantillon, brewed in Brussels, has maintained the old tradition of wild fermentation, and the taste of its gueuze is what all beer would have tasted like before the 1850s or so: dry and tart.

The gueuze sparked a mixed reaction. Of the over 40 people in the room, four or five said this was their favourite beer of the evening. But it also provoked some strongly negative reactions in others, with several people not even being able to finish their sample glass. Love it or hate it, I guess.

3 - Hapkin: This is a strong blond ale, which is one of the more popular styles in Belgium. Usually they have manly names like Piraat, Brigand, or Lucifer. Hapkin is actually named in the same vein, as Boudewijn Hapkin was the 12th-century Count of Flanders known for being handy with an axe in battle. The best-known beer in this group is probably Duvel, but Hapkin is a bit smoother and mellower, with good floral essences and a hoppy dry finish.

This one had a good response, particularly from those who didn't like the previous beer.

4 - Orval: One of Belgium’s six Trappist beers. As a general rule, if a beer is made by guys wearing dresses, it is usually very good. This popular ale is a super-hop delight. Like most Belgian beers, the yeast in the bottle is live, which means that aging the beer produces significant changes in the taste. Cellaring beer is common in Belgium, in fact. You are tasting a relatively fresh Orval, so the crisp hop notes are dominant. If you let the bottle sit for 12 or 18 months, the taste of this beer would be smoother, richer and with a higher alcohol content.

Quite a few people found Orval too bitter. Surprising really, given how popular it is.

5 - Floreffe Dubbel: An abbey beer, which means an abbey has licensed its name to a brewery for the production of a traditional beer. So, not made by guys in dresses, but still worthwhile. A high-quality dark beer, with initial burnt or toasty notes evolving in the mouth into bittersweet dark chocolate.

The taste that came through most was licorice, which I hadn't really noted in earlier tastings of this beer. A few people really loved the licorice flavour, but I think I need to do another sampling. It didn't seem to be the beer I remembered.

6 - Achel Brune Extra: This is one of the six Trappist beers, like Orval, but the style is completely different: it’s a dark, creamy and rich brew. It is made by Trappist monks at an abbey in the north east of Flanders. With vanilla, malt loaf, gingerbread and Crunchy bar all wrapped up in a puffy cloud.

Nearly everyone loved this one. Quite right, too.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Canal party in Gent


SUN! HEAT! Saturday was like no other day in Belgium this summer. It was actually a summer day. And we joined a few friends who’d rented a canal boat in Gent, enjoying a great cruise through the city and out into the lush and leafy suburbs, loaded with houses of the loaded -- the most amazing canal-side mansions...

And, of course, there was beer.

We started with Hoegaarden, the standaard summer refresher. Moving on, we had Cantillon Rosé de Gambrinus, another perfect hot-weather drink. We finished off with Deus, celebrating our friend's birthday and the glorious weather with that most exceptional of beers.

Once we were dockside again, we walked into town for dinner at the restaurant in the old opera house. Lovely place and wonderful food: I will remember those scallops for a while.

I also sampled a new beer: Gentse tripel. It’s brewed by Van Steenberge, who also make the smooth Augustijn, the silly Piraat, the excellent Gulden Draak and the somewhat disappointing Bornem Dubbel

Gentse tripel seemed closest to Chimay tripel, though it’s not as grapefruit pithy. That’s quite a compliment for Gentse tripel, so another one on the plus side of the Van Steenberge tally sheet.

Between the beers and the scallops, well, obviously the diet took a holiday on Saturday. Just had to celebrate the weather though...

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Friday, 29 August 2008

Bière Darbyste

At the risk of offending some generous soul here, I have to say I can’t honestly remember who gave me this bottle of Bière Darbyste that’s been sitting on the beer shelf for who knows how long. And since I didn’t know much about it, I consulted Jackson, who told me something amazing...

First, it seems this beer is named after a temperance-preaching minister, John Darby, who inspired a low-alcohol beer for Belgian miners. Second, fig juice is added to the beer to provide additional fermentable sugars.

Bière Darbyste is also a “saison” beer, and I don’t think I’ve had one of those before -- nor do I know much about the style, apart from it’s a kind of seasonal beer, thought not what I’ve called “seasonal beer” in this blog before. I’ve used the term “seasonal beer” to denote Christmas and Easter beers. The “saison” beer is a special summer beer. Good thing I’m drinking this now, then -- not much summer left to enjoy it.

Enough with the mystery and introduction. How does it taste?

Tangy and yeasty, are my first impressions. Crisp. Seems to me something between a blond ale and a gueuze, and more the latter than the former. 5.8% alcohol. No hint of those figs.

Overall, this beer from the Brasserie de Blaugies gets a strong pass. I could imagine it going well with seafood dishes, or for just lazing about on a warm evening.

Sadly, we didn’t get many warm evenings in Belgium this summer. Actually, the weather for the past few weeks has been crap. Well, at least you can’t complain about the beer in this country...

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Saving the world one beer at a time


As someone who studiously separates his world-saving activities from his beer-tasting efforts, I was amazed to find Chris O'Brien's Beer Activist blog. It's got entries on organic hops, organic beer, climate change and beer, and beer packaging. By day, Chris works on similarly green issues at the Responsible Purchasing Network.

Surely, this is a man who has found a more harmonious work/beer balance. I'm going to have to get Chris's book, "Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World" and figure out career-change options...

Friday, 22 August 2008

Witkap-Pater Stimulo


It’s been a long time since I reviewed a beer here -- more than a month. But a combination of overwork, holidays and dieting have kept me away from Belgian beer for a bit. Now, after a ridiculously full week back at work, I’m ready to break the dry spell with a bottle of Witkap-Pater Stimulo.

It comes from the Slaghmuylder Brewery, which also produces a delightful Paasbier

This live brew seems a bit thinner than a standard Belgian ale, with more bubbles and less of that over-the-top yeastiness that, to be honest, can get a bit oppressive sometimes. It has a hint of pine, which somehow transforms into bubblegum in the aftertaste. It’s good. Better than good, in fact. 6%, which is exactly what I need right now.

I know, I know, it’s been so long since I’ve had a Belgian beer that I’d go for anything, but seriously -- no, honestly, you really must believe me -- this is tasty stuff. Stimulo is stimulating.

And it’s disappearing too fast. After the liquid drains from this glass, I’m back on the diet. Groan.

I notice Chipper Dave of the “Fermentedly Challenged” blog has started a “Great American Beer Diet Challenge”, in which he and other beer bloggers race to lose the greatest percentage of body weight in eight weeks while still drinking one beer per day. I thought about joining them, but when it comes down to it, I just find it too difficult to go through the whole “one beer a day” thing again, as I did with the original 40b40 challenge.

Plus, I just cannot diet and drink Belgian beer at the same time. It’s not only the relatively high alcohol content of beers here (and alcohol means calories), but beer quite simply reduces my resistance to snackophilia. I’ll try one a week for a while instead...

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Holiday beer & St Feuillien Blond

Returned last weekend from a holiday delighting in the wonders of Jutland and Schleswig- Holstein. From the beer perspective, it was a bit mixed.

Beer in Denmark is insanely expensive -- the equivalent about five euro for 0.4 litres of basic pilsner in a pub. We ran to the shop in the town of Ribe for a couple of bottles of Tuborg. Nothing to write a long blog entry about.

Pickings were better in the supermarket in the city of Vejle, where as you can see here, they had a healthy selection of Belgian beers.

We opted for a 750ml bottle of St Feuillien Blond and a picnic lunch of bread and cheese. It was the day after our big day at Legoland, so the parents were due a serious break.

It's a fairly typical Belgian strong blond ale: bold and yeasty, good body, the right amount of fizz and froth, and quite hoppily bitter. I'm not sure it distinguishes itself from the pack very much, but it's no slouch, especially after a full day of fun park terror.

Later, we found ourselves in Germany, in and around Husum, the town Theodor Storm put on the literary map. I read his book The Dykemaster (Der Schimmelreiter) while there, and it proved the perfect way to spend the evenings after long days of driving around the dykes and walking over the beaches and mudflats. It's a terrific tale, both apt for its place (North Frisia) and time (written in 1888), but also with observations about human behaviour that go far beyond.

The book went well with Flensburger Pilsener on tap, as here. I do think it tastes better in its ceramic top bottle -- we had that on a boat going out seal-watching on the sand banks, where the massive tidal flats meet the North Sea.

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Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Beers from Congo

My former colleague Fred now works in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and he has sent me a few photos of the beers he's drinking there. Ngok is from the Republic of Congo; Mutzig and Primus are from DRC.






Fred's got more great photos of Congo on his Flikr page, and not just of beer. Highly recommended.

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Sunday, 29 June 2008

oerbier

Once again, I must describe my distaste for the use of cartoon characters on beer labels, but since the girls bought me this one as a welcome home present, I’ll give it a fair shot. And it does seem a rather refined brew: it sports a bow tie and claims to come “with taste evolution”.

It’s a lovely dark beer with a thick head. The first taste is sweet, with a bit of that black cherry cola, like Bobeline Brune. I’m reminded of Moinette Brune, too. It also has a strong burnt malt note that turns sour in the aftertaste. It’s missing the extra flavours of the Moinette, however -- no cinnamon here -- and overall, it’s not as complex. 9% alcohol.

I think, it’s a bit too sweet for me. The little cartoon character on the label may be cute, and it may be a well-dressed bottle, but still, it hasn’t wowed me much.

I guess the “with taste evolution” claim on the label refers to the fact this beer has a secondary fermentation in the bottle. I’d like to see how it ages, actually. Once those sugars are converted over time, I imagine it would lose its sweetness and become something quite rich and multi-layered. I think I’ll put some down in the cellar and try it. I'll give it about year and see what we get...

In the meantime, I'll just be happy I've got a dark beer to enjoy after those dull lagers of Colombia. A quiet moment in the sun-trap...

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Sunday, 22 June 2008

Pilsen (Colombia)

Sure it’s not a Belgian beer, but then, “Pilsen” is not from the Bohemian town that gave us the great style of beer. Produced by the Bavaria brewery, this Colombian beer has something of an identity problem.

I’ve just been sampling it here in Medellín, and I can report it is indeed a beer in the pilsner style. Not too bad, but in no way exceptional. The name just begs an appellation discussion, though. Weren’t the Czechs trying to get legal protection for the name “pilsner” or something?

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Ivorian Chimay


While I've been working on getting myself checked out of a plastic surgery clinic in Bogotá, Seb sent along these photos of himself and his friends celebrating their own Chimay fathers' day in Côte d'Ivoire.

Strangely, this happened totally by chance at the same time as our Four Fathers Chimay celebration. Spooky.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Our Four Fathers' Chimay


Fathers' Day was celebrated yesterday by four of us with various types of Chimay. Over in New Jersey, Brian and our father had Chimay Grande Réserve, but apparently, this bottle they bought in the States did not have the year very prominently displayed on it, so I've no idea if it was the 2008 or something aged and older. Anyone know why the date isn't on the bottles you buy in America? Is it not fermented in the bottle there?

Here in Brussels, I was with my father-in-law, Ronnie, and we had the Chimay Blue. This beer has gone up in my estimation in recent weeks. It's still not going on my list of top ten Belgian beers, but it's getting closer. It seems richer than when I first tasted it for the 40b40, more date and raisin notes.

Fiona -- not a father, but we let her drink anyway -- opted for the Chimay White, a grapefruity tripel. Laura chose no Chimay at all, because was driving the team back to Connecticut.

It was all captured on Skype video phone -- well, not the drive to Connecticut -- so I'll leave you with the snapshots here...









Saturday, 14 June 2008

Poperings hommelbier

Another beer from the Van Eecke brewery in Watou, this one stresses the hop element: “hommel” is the Flemish for “hop”. Apparently, it also means “bumblebee”. No idea what the connection is there, if any. Picture of hop plants on the label. No sign of any bees.

The beer itself is a blonde ale, and, yes, heavy on the hop: bitter, super-dry finish. It’s quite cloudy, with a lot of the bottle yeast in suspension. Does this mean I poured it too fast? It has a kind of steamed celery or steamed onion taste to it, which is actually quite nice. 7.5% alcohol, balanced nicely. Not much sting to this bumblebee.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Chimay Grande Réserve 1999

“Pig farm” and “slurry” were Fiona’s first tasting notes on this one. And while it’s true this nine-year-old bottle of Chimay Grande Réserve had strong agricultural notes, I found it outstanding just the same.

Interestingly, the 1999 was quite different from the Chimay Grande Réserve 2001. Rather than creamy and smoky, this one was a bit thinner and more pungent. “Rotten leaves and mushrooms”, said Marcus. I thought hemp and wet linen, with a few sweet notes, and though it had no fresh fruit taste, I detected a kind of black cherry liquor flavour.

Marcus compared it to a non-alcoholic German Malzbier, but the alcohol level in this was high. Not that you could taste it -- the great mix of flavours hid the fumes very well -- but you could feel it. “With every sip, I feel more and more drunk”, Galima noted. She was quite right, and in that regard, the 750ml split between the four of us was plenty. When bottled, it was 9%, and I’m guessing the extra years of bottle fermentation probably put it up to 12 or 13%. That’s just a guess, though.

The taste was so complex and rich, so full of organic, mucky malt... We suddenly remembered a hunk of Chimay cheese we had in the fridge, and passing it around, we realised the rind of the cheese had exactly that farmy richness. Logical, of course.

“Stinky”, concluded Fiona.

But to me it’s oh so good, and again, it’s obvious that aged Chimay Grande Réserve will remain in my list of top ten Belgian beers.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Bornem Dubbel


Here’s an abbey beer from the Van Steenberge group for damp Thursday.

It’s wonderfully dark, and it has an absurdly thick head -- you could build a wall out of it. The taste is burnt oak and “sour molasses”. The 8% alcohol doesn’t overwhelm.

Overall, however, I’d say it’s not complex enough. A beer this dark with a head this thick promises more flavour than this brew delivers. I was hoping for something deeper and richer.

It’s drinkable, of course, but I probably wouldn’t buy this one again. Maybe no beer can brighten up a damp Thursday.

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Saturday, 31 May 2008

Updated top ten

Having tasted over 100 Belgian beers now -- well beyond the original expectation of the 40b40 -- I have had to make a few changes to my list of top ten Belgian beers, adding Chimay Grande Réserve (aged) and Floreffe Prima Melior. I made some space on the old list by combining Rochefort 6 and Rochefort 10 into one entry and lumping Floreffe Prima Melior with the Floreffe Dubbel that was already on the list.

If you think this combining is cheating, I can only say I refuse to have a rerun of the great Corsendonk Crisis. Feel free to sue me. I am 100% confident the law is on my side in this.

I also slightly downgraded Achel Brune in my top ten. It's still there under the entry for Achel Brune Extra -- a phenomenal beer -- but I've been having worrying thoughts about the regular old brune. I tried it again during the Ardennes winter retreat in a blind taste test, and I have to say I wasn't very impressed. In fact, it tasted like a completely different beer, not my beloved malt-loafy brew. I am going to have to do more research to resolve this question.

In any case, please have a look at the list of top ten Belgian beers, and let me know if you think I've got it right.

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Floreffe Prima Melior

Trying to catch a few rays of sun on the terrace here in the early evening, but the air is still cool. Time to open a new beer.

I’ve had Floreffe Dubbel before, and it was so good, it actually joined my list of top ten Belgian beers. So, this Prima Melior has a lot to live up to...

This abbey beer pours dark chocolaty brown, with a lovely firm head. I’m expecting something quite thick. The initial taste is... wow. Rich. Charcoal, burnt malt, bitter, hints of nutmeg. Pillowy body. It’s very close to Westvleteren 8, actually. Slightly thinner, perhaps, and not quite as sweet and gingerbready, but it is excellent. 8%, in case you’re asking.

I think I am going to have to review my top ten again. I’ve got several problems actually, but perhaps I should save that discussion for a separate post. Right now, I just want to enjoy the rest of this Floreffe Prima Melior.

And, by the way, I am fairly sure this is a UN beer, given the sky-blue cap it wears.

Friday, 30 May 2008

In a land where Belgian beer is illegal

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No, I'm not going to talk about Saudi Arabia. Actually: Alabama. Apparently, any beer over 6% ABV is illegal in that US state.

A campaign called Free the Hops has been pushing for a change in the law. Labeling themselves "Alabamians For Specialty Beer", they certainly have my support.

A new bill is being discussed, it seems. Lew Bryson had a clip of the debate on the issue in the lower house of the Alabama state legislature, which really is worth watching. If you are like me and often marvel at the depth of ignorance displayed by elected officials at the national level in that country, you really should see what state-level politics offers. You'll need something over 6% ABV after watching that.

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Thursday, 22 May 2008

Chimay Grande Réserve 2001

I was wondering what beer I would have for my 100th tasting in the 40b40, when my colleague Alain invited me out to Beermania for a drink. We looked around the shop for something special, something I hadn’t tried before, and we settled on a dusty bottle of Chimay Grande Réserve 2001.

I had tasted the Chimay Grande Réserve 2007 before, but I really wanted to see what aging process would do.

In short, the 2001 is a completely different beer from the 2007. It’s darker, thicker and one hundred times smokier. It has none of the raisin/date taste to it. And, it’s gorgeous. Just a wonderful beer in every respect. Aged Chimay Grande Réserve needs to go on to my list of top ten Belgian beers, but I’ll have to think about what to get rid of from that elite group. And I’ll need to experiment some more with older and younger bottles of this one.

Cheers, Alain! Hopefully we will get the photos out of your phone at some point...

Sunday, 18 May 2008

La Trappe Witte

Its label proclaims La Trappe Witte to be, “the only Trappist white beer in the world”, so I was a bit surprised when I poured it out and saw it has the colour and clarity of a pilsner. Ah, but then I poured the rest of the bottle into the glass, and this variety’s typical cloudiness emerged.

No mistake in the taste, however. This is a wheat beer -- and with a similar set of aromatics as Hoegaarden. Smooth and refreshing. Maybe slightly less sweet and bit more grassy than Hoegaarden, otherwise indistinguishable from it.

Following on my tastings of La Trappe Blond, La Trappe Dubbel and La Trappe Quadrupel, this one is again nothing super. Once more, I’m just left with that feeling of disappointment: a Trappist beer should be something special.

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p.s: This is the 99th beer I’ve reviewed on this blog. Looking forward to number 100...

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La Cuvée des Trolls


I have already poured scorn on the idea of using fairy-tale creatures on beer labels, but since we’d just emerged from the cinema where we watched a very good new fantasy film, Chasseur de Dragons, I decided to give La Cuvée des Trolls a try.

We sat down in the nearly empty Armour Fou on Ixelles high street, and after waiting about 30 minutes to be served, I had in front of me a frosted glass with a little gremlin painted on it. I felt very adult.

This is not an unusual or exceptional blond beer. It’s smooth and yeasty, slightly lemony. Drinkable enough, but nothing worth killing a lot of time writing about.

Would rather kill that fucking little troll.

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Saturday, 17 May 2008

Joseph the spelt beer

Our local bakery sells a great loaf called “14 cereal bread”, and every time we buy it, which is pretty often, we challenge each other to name 14 different grains. We get to about nine or ten if we’re lucky.

Spelt is a cereal variety I’ve at least heard of, barely. But it’s not one I’d recognise like, say, barley. A 50-kilo sack of spelt could fall on me, and I wouldn’t have any idea what hit me.

And a spelt beer? Dubious. And “bio”, ie organic? Sounds too pure, perhaps. Indeed, I bought this bottle in my favourite eatery in our neighbourhood, La Tsampa: a faux-Tibetan vegetarian restaurant and healthfood shop run by a friendly group of mostly Portuguese Buddhists. Just goes to show, there is a Belgian beer for everyone.

Joseph the spelt beer is cloudy grey-yellow and has a slightly astringent smell. The initial taste suggests a hint of detergent. But nothing in that is immediately off-putting. The body is thick and syrupy, but not at all sweet. It coats the tongue. Very strong yeastiness. (it is bottle fermented) Lightly bitter aftertaste. Low alcohol, 5%.

I’d like to suggest that maybe someone’s washed a sock in this liquid at some point, but that sounds a bit harsh. I don’t mean a dirty sock, if that helps. There’s just something of a woolly residue about the whole thing.

It’s not great, but it’s not horrible either. Perhaps spelt just isn’t the right grain for beer. Perhaps stewed sock is a bit of an acquired taste.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Malheur 6


Belgium’s May heatwave continues into this three-day weekend, and after a good few hours in the garden, I’m settling back with a Malheur 6 on the now steaming terrace.

I’ve had Malheur 10 before, and I wasn’t raving about it. Of course, that was during a low-point in the 40b40, in which I was sampling one strong blond ale after another, and growing quite sick of them.

Malhuer 6, however, is something different. Very smooth. At 6%, it’s not as strong as the 10, and I think the easiest way to describe it is that it’s like Leffe Blond without the sticky sweetness. That means, it’s very good, because it’s that syrupiness that ruins the other beer.

Malheur 6 has mild carbonation, notes of stewed sour apples, and a lovely hoppy finish. Strongly recommended drinking for a steamy afternoon when everything in your garden is thriving so much that you can almost see the shoots growing.

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Monday, 5 May 2008

La Divine

Another beer from the Silly Brewery, makers of the unloved Double Enghien Brune. This one is called “La Divine”. No expectations raised there really, eh?

It has a lovely dark amber colour. And the taste is excellent. Smooth and low fizz body. Malty without being sticky. Perfectly balanced bitter and sweet, with neither lasting too long in the aftertaste. It’s strong, but the alcohol doesn’t overpower the other tastes. Hints of clover.

Overall, I’m quite impressed. I’m not sure what’s so “Divine” about it, but then, I’m an atheist so even if they claim the 9.5% alcohol content brings the drinker closer to god, I wouldn’t buy it. This beer, however, I would buy again.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

La Trappe Blond (and Alt)

After a long weekend in Münster and Düsseldorf, Germany, where Hefeweizen and Altbier were enjoyed in some significant quantities, we arrived home with a couple hours left on the sun-trap terrace. Just enough time to open a bottle of La Trappe Blond.

In previous tastings, I wasn’t overly impressed with La Trappe Dubbel or La Trappe Quadrupel, and in general, I have to say this brand, La Trappe from the Koningshoeven Brewery, is my least favourite Trappist label. And I’m not just saying that because it’s from the Netherlands while this is a blog about Belgian beer.

The Blond again failed to meet expectations. It pours a lovely clear amber, but I could hardly find anything in the taste to distinguish it. Not that it’s bad by any means -- it does have a creamy sweetness that’s identifiable if not exactly noteworthy. But really, if that’s the best I can say about it, it must be pretty disappointing. 6.5% alcohol, in case you were wondering.

I was much more impressed this weekend by the Altbier, or “Alt”, in Düsseldorf, in particular the brand Schumacher. It’s a very drinkable pale ale, and I highly recommend it to anyone who’s passing through North Rhine-Westphalia (Nordrhein-Westfalen), which seems to be about the only place you can find it. See, so I do like some non-Belgian beers...

Special thanks to Marcus for introducing me to Alt on Saturday!

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Thursday, 1 May 2008

Zinne Bir

Downpour. Bright sun. Downpour. Bright sun. That’s Brussels these days.

We had a couple hours catching up on gardening this morning while it was dry. Then, a full two hours of Monopoly inside while our new plants got soaked. Now, I’m trying to squeeze in a quick beer-tasting on the terrace in the few minutes it remains a sun-trap before that dark cloud comes overhead.

I picked up this bottle of Zinne Bir ages ago, and I have to admit I bought it for its label. It’s brilliant, and actually, it matches this day perfectly. And it's just one of several great beer labels from La Brasserie de la Senne (De Zenne Brouwerij).

This one sat on my shelf looking pretty for months -- no harm, as that’s just given it a bit more time to ferment in the bottle -- and now comes the moment when we will tell whether what’s in the bottle is as good as what’s on it.

It’s a blond beer with an amber colour and thick head. The taste is strongly bitter with a deep current of candied orange peel running through it. The alcohol level of 6% blends in nicely. Very nice overall balance.

OK, that’s all for now. It’s started raining again, and I’ve got to get in before the laptop gets too wet.

No, wait. Now the sun is coming out again. Maybe I've got time for another tasting.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Affligem Dubbel

Racing to get a review in here between packing and preparing for a weekend of work away from home...

Affligem Dubbel pours a bottle-brown colour and has a fairly thin body. It’s malty and sweet but fizzy. More fumy than you’d expect for 6.8%. Not bad, but not hugely above average either. It’s a bit of a disappointment, really, because I quite liked Affligem Tripel.

Wait. Now I am sipping the beer a few minutes after writing the above, and I’m getting more out of this glass. The fizz is greatly reduced, and I sense a biscuit taste and a surprising hint of lavender.

Maybe I was just in a rush before and not concentrating. I’m off to Oslo for work tomorrow, and I’ve got one hundred things to do before my morning flight.

But OK, time to slow down and enjoy the rest of this abbey beer.

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Hoegaarden


Once again, I come to a Belgian beer that I should have reviewed ages ago: Hoegaarden. Apart from Stella Artois, there can hardly be a better known brew from this country.

For the record, I have written up other beers from this brand family including, Hoegaarden De Verboden Vrucht, Hoegaarden Grand Cru and Hoegaarden Speciale, but it is the regular old wheat beer, Hoegaarden, that everyone knows best. So, after waiting 90 beers to get to this point, let’s get on with it...

No, wait. First a confession: I love Hoegaarden. I think it’s the first Belgian beer I ever tasted. The cloudy straw colour is so inviting, and I’ve always found it enormously easy to drink, with its citrus-and-spice aspect just brilliant on a warm summer’s day. Always give the bottle dregs a swirl before you finish pouring it into your glass to get all the flavours... yum.

That said, I’m not sure it would be on my list of top ten Belgian beers. I wonder if what I love about Hoegaarden is not this brand per se but the whole idea of the Belgian-style wheat beer or witbier -- which is not to be confused with the numerous varieties of German Weißbier, which are also excellent, though generally significantly heartier (or at least the Hefeweizen that first comes to my mind).

Anyway, the point is I really haven’t tried enough other Belgian wheat beers to tell if Hoegaarden is a great example of this genre or just standard fare. Luckily, I have a full summer ahead of me in which to do a bit of research and side-by-side comparisons.

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Sunday, 20 April 2008

Cuvée de Francorchamps


I suspect this is going to be a dodgy beer, but since it has a little race car on the label and I just spent all day driving, it seems appropriate for an evening on the sun-trap terrace. OK, I was in a Volkswagen Passat in the Netherlands not in a formula one, but as I was taking the in-laws around to look at tulips, porcelain and cheese, I thought I might find these items closer to a Dutch motorway than any speedway. But we’re back now, and, well, enough about me...

Cuvée de Francorchamps is a beer we picked up at a shop in Malmedy on our Ardennes winter retreat, but although it boasts an address in that town, I now know enough to realise that this means very little. When is comes to location of production, there are a lot of cheating Belgian beers.

It’s a tripel with 8% alcohol and a coppery colour. Strong head. The taste is a bit better than I expected, actually. Slightly creamy, good bitterness of grapefruit pith. Not as sharp and yummy as, say, Chimay tripel, but not too bad considering -- did I mention this already -- it has a picture of a formula one racing car on its label.

There’s something about having a picture of a car on a bottle of alcohol, no? I know this brand is trying to play on the F1 race at Spa, Belgium, but really, should we be encouraging strong ale drinking and fast driving? And everyone knows F1 drivers prefer champagne -- at least when it comes to spraying booze over people if not actually consuming it. Do they ever even drink it?

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Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Double Enghien Brune


Time to get Silly. Time to drink a beer from the Silly Brewery in Silly, Belgium, that is.

It’s supposed to be a dark beer, but it’s not particularly dark. Hoegaarden Grand Cru, a blond ale, is darker. That’s a bit silly.

Sadly, when it comes to taste, it only gets sillier. This beer doesn’t have much to recommend it. Dishwashing liquid, wet cardboard, and an out-of-balance alcoholic fume-a-thon dominating the whole thing. (though it’s only 8%) Then, there’s a stale hop aftertaste that lingers about fifteen minutes longer than necessary.

“You drinking Douwe Egberts beer or something?” said Fiona, referring to the label and its similarity to the brand of coffee. Silly wife.

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Sunday, 13 April 2008

Lindemans Kriek Lambic -- live from Connecticut

It’s been a while since this blog has had a video-linked beer tasting from Connecticut. Not since the sillier days of January, with Gulden Draak and Piraat have I sat down for a beer with my brother.

We chose Lindemans Kriek Lambic mostly because he can find it easily enough near his hometown, though I have to admit that after my experiences at the Cantillon Brewery here in Brussels (not once but twice), I was more than a little worried this would be one of those lambics I was warned about: the super-sweet new-style that has little if anything to do with the traditional sour variety.

But before we got to the tasting, which I enjoyed on the terrace sun-trap, we had a matter of opening the bottles, which was confused by the methodology. While I only had to pop a crown cap, Brian had both cap and cork. We hadn’t been surprised that the same product in the US and Belgium had a different label, but this cork-non-cork business flummoxed us greatly. Why the different seals?

The taste now... it’s about 95% what I’d expected. Sickly sweet like cherry cough drops or cough mixture. Fiona specifies, saying, “Cherry Tunes”, the well-know throat sweets.

Laura says, “it’s not like a beer”.

Indeed, it’s more like a soda... and heavy on the syrup.

Fiona comes over and tells me, “you stink of cherry, and it’s really nasty”.

Looking for a nice word to say, Brian points out that it’s got, “a nice bit of sediment on the bottom”.

Of course, for traditional brewers like Cantillon -- and those like myself who agree with their ethos -- this sticky sweet stuff will just never cut it. I know public tastes have been growing sweeter in recent decades, and producers will naturally chase the fickle market, but Lindemans Kriek Lambic is to proper beer what Twinkies are to our local patisserie.

About the only thing that saves this drink from getting poured down the sink is a desperately needed bitterness just at the very end of the aftertaste. Sadly, it’s only the faintest hint, and Lindemans is probably working on a way to eliminate that, too.

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Hoegaarden Grand Cru

I still haven’t written up plain old garden-variety Hoegaarden yet, because I am waiting for a super hot summer day. But while I’ve got a warmish evening here again in the terrace sun-trap, I may as well review the beer currently to hand, Hoegaarden Grand Cru.

This is a lovely beer. It pours cloudy orange with a thick, almost unreal Duvel-like head. The taste is an excellent mixture of sweet and bitter, with some spicy aromatics -- perhaps allspice or nutmeg? It has clear citrus notes, as well. The 8.5% alcohol is barely noticeable. And it’s thicker and heartier than other strong blond ales.

In mega-brewer InBev’s stable of beers, Hoegaarden Grand Cru is closer to Hoegaarden De Verboden Vrucht than Hoegaarden Speciale or the light and white Hoegaarden regular. I’m not really sure what all these beers have to do with each other apart from the marketing ploy of brand extension.

Still, let’s not be churlish. It’s a very good beer. Perfect for a -- now cooling -- evening on the terrace.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Cristal


Following on the tasting notes for Leffe Blond, here’s another write-up of an all too obvious beer, and the first pilsner-style beer ever reviewed in this blog: Cristal, from the Alken-Maes Brewery.

We’re enjoying this one on the terrace -- a fantastic late-day sun-trap -- after a hard day of gardening. Spring feels like it’s here to stay now.

The beer at first doesn’t seem much different from any other pilsner-style beer. It’s crisp and clear and low alcohol (4.8%). Not challenging the palette, though refreshing enough.

Then the aftertaste kicks in and pow: your mouth is full of blood. Not literally the red stuff, mind you, but an overwhelmingly strong flavour of iron. Fiona noticed it when she had a Cristal at the bowling alley last week. I imagine it’s the water they use rather than anything the brewery does during production. It’s not exactly unpleasant. For us, in fact, it evokes memories of visits to Bohemian spas, where the curing waters are always iron-rich.

With that, I’ll leave you with a few snaps from our garden...