Thursday 28 February 2008

Maredsous 8° Brune

I went to L'Ultime Atome for lunch today, and along with my scampi salad -- and good conversation thanks to a bright young news agency journalist -- I tried a Maredsous 8 Brune for the first time. I was definitely impressed.

The restaurant, which is not too far from where I work and where I sampled Delirium tremens for the 40b40, is quickly becoming a favourite of mine. The food is tasty, and they have a good beer selection. I ask for little else, really. The service is fast and friendly, too.

Now, onto the beer... Maredsous 8 Brune, which comes with a very elegantly designed label, pours a maroonish brown. Although it was served too cold -- OK, the previously praised restaurant isn’t perfect -- when it warmed up, it revealed a good combination of flavours: fruity, dried cherries and raisins, oak shavings. It is certainly not as complex as one of the dark Trappist classics, like Rochefort or Westvleteren, but it still has enough to keep my interest. Maredsous 8 Brune has more dried fruit taste and is overall a bit richer than, say, Ciney brune or even Corsendonk dubbel (pater).

I was pleased to find a Maredsous I liked. I had heard good things about this brand, but I was a bit disappointed with my initial tasting, Maredsous 10 Tripel. Of course, that was a strong blond ale, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past couple months, it’s that I am no great fan of that style. Maredsous 8 Brune, on the other hand, has rekindled my faith in this abbey beer brand.

Tuesday 26 February 2008

The yellow pig coughs up

One remaining 40b40 loose end that needs tying up is the fate of the yellow pig, the boar of the party at several 40b40 evenings.

Under anesthetic, I opened up the bank and found 18.35 euro, which is about 14 British pounds. Thanks to Stefan, JC, Milo and others who fed the porker. I will now add that to the sum on the donations page, bringing it to 584 pounds (775 euro). It’s still not too late to donate to the cause if you’d like to help out Ovarian Cancer Action.

And plastic animal lovers fear not: I didn’t have to cut open the pig.

Monday 25 February 2008

Obama beer

Seb has flagged a phenomenon in Kenya: “Obama Beer”. This is now the popular name for Senator Keg Lager from East African Breweries.

Although it’s been brewed since 2004, sales seem to have received a boost from the White House bid of US Senator Barack Obama, whose father was originally from Kenya.

According to the brewery’s website:
Senator Keg was launched by Kenya Breweries Limited with the support of the Government, in November 2004. It is specifically targeted at the low-income consumer who has given positive indications of a need for a hygienic, affordable and bona-fide beer.
In short: subsidised, healthy beer for poor people. Perhaps the aspiring Illinois Senator could add a new plank to his platform?

Friday 22 February 2008

The quest to Westvleteren abbey

I was talking to someone about Westvleteren today, and it occurred to me that I never really described the entire abbey experience. Yes, I dashed down a few remarks in my tasting notes on Westvleteren 12 and Westvleteren 8, but I never fulfilled my promise to return to the subject of the visit itself.

The part of West Flanders where the Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren is located is a bit beyond the back of beyond. In some ways I was glad JC had bought a GPS for the occasion.

“It’s all pigs out here”, JC said as we sped along the B roads. “Pigs everywhere. But you won’t see any of them...”

With the sound of a lone banjo providing my mental background music, he explained how in West Flanders there were more pigs than people, but they were all kept in long factory-farm buildings. They would grow up quickly and be slaughtered en masse without ever really seeing the sun.

We drove past Ypres.

Farm after farm, we followed the bouncing pixels on our chirping navigator.

“Are you sure?”

“It must know where it’s going.”

“But are we going to make it on time?”

Time. You think monks would be fairly relaxed about it. After all, it’s not like they have to worry about catching trains or filing reports within deadlines. And if they’re late for prayers or whatever, they can always ask for forgiveness and probably get away with it.

But the monks of the Westvleteren abbey seem obsessed by time. In fact, they are much more strict about keeping appointments than you might expect from a bunch of guys in dresses. And the process of getting their beer is a complex quest because of it.

First of all, long before you even think about getting in a car, you call the “beer phone”. Yes, the monks have a beer phone.

Then, if you get through to them after hours or even days of busy signals, they tell you which of the abbey’s three beers they will let you buy, how much you will be allowed to buy, and when you should call back to make an appointment to pick it up.

You phone back at the allotted hour, and in exchange for your car’s registration number, they give you a pick-up time.

Finally, you drive out into invisible-pig-land and try to reach this isolated village at the precise moment they told you to be there.

Apart from the addition of physical torture, it would be impossible to make this model of customer service any worse. The seller controls the type of product, the amount of product, and the time of purchase. You can take it or leave it.

Perhaps surprisingly -- at least for those who have never tasted the beer -- many people take it, although nearly all of the people waiting in the queue of cars as we arrived were retired folks who have the time to go through all this rigmarole.

JC positioned his car in line behind about ten others. And we waited. And waited some more, pulling forward a few metres every time another car had exchanged its three cases of empty bottles for full ones. Clearly, they had all done this before. Without any returns in our boot, we exposed ourselves as Westvleteren virgins.

Then it was our turn to pull up to the loading area of the single-story brick building. A man -- not in a dress -- checked our car’s license plate against the list on his clipboard and then pushed over a handcart laden with three wooden cases holding 24 bottles each of Westvleteren 8. The only product on offer, and the only amount we could buy. I got out to pay, which I could do with a Maestro card. At last, one nod to customer service.

And then it was all over. The calling, the appointments, the arranging a day off work... We had done it. We were about 120 euro down, but we had 72 bottles of Westvleteren 8 to divvy up between us. Unavailable in any shop. Prohibited from further sale. Gold dust.

We were so chuffed with our haul that we went to celebrate across the road at the modern café the abbey runs. There in the crowded company of a hundred or so other treasure seekers, we sat and enjoyed a bottle of Westvleteren 12 with a couple slabs of bread and a whopping great hunk abbey-made cheese.

Sadly, we couldn’t get the 12 to go, though they did allow us to purchase a six-pack of Westvleteren blond, their third variety. We felt honoured the abbey had bestowed its gifts upon up. Blessed even.
UPDATE 0100 CET: Just found out that Daniel Radcliffe, the Harry Potter star, is also on a quest to Westvleteren. Apparently he wants it to be the first alcoholic beverage he drinks legally...

Belgium's men in blue are back

I’ve already discussed the Smurfiness of one Belgian beer and the thinking behind pixie marketing. Well, Smurfmania is apparently about to hit us all in a new media blitz surrounding their 50th anniversary this year. The Smurfs are being relaunched at events all over Europe, and a new film is in the works. A 3D film no less.

America’s National Public Radio has been helping to spread the Smurfy joy across the pond with this story, which is now the third second most emailed link on NPR’s website.

Best line of the piece: “But there have been detractors over the years. Some Americans felt the Smurfs’ communal village depicted a ‘communist utopia.’” Ah, the Cold War, I miss it so.

OK, time for a beer, so here I am skipping out of the office...

La la la la la la, la la la la la.

La la la la la la, la la la la la.

UPDATE 2041 CET: Teri Schultz, the NPR reporter here in Brussels, tells me: "I had more fun stuff about the anti-communists who hated them but we had to cut it for time! They criticized the fact that there was no money and that everybody just did their pre-ordained job all day and that all smurfs shared equally in the profits of the mushroom village. They took this very seriously! There was actually a time when Peyo introduced money (with Finance Smurf) but he ended up just showing the evils of it and took it away again. People asked him all the time about being a communist and he just laughed it off, as he did with every label people tried to put on him and his little creatures."

Thursday 21 February 2008

Best internship in Brussels?

Brussels is a city filled with people doing internships everywhere, from the EU institutions to NGOs to lobby groups. I've just learned that the Brewers of Europe are seeking a Communications Intern, and they're offering a pretty good package, too. If I were only 15 years younger...

Quebec, Belgium, Côte d’Ivoire

With a fantastic triplet of modern Francophonia, Seb, who is from Wallonia, has a new blog entry about two Quebec beers he has been enjoying in his new home, Côte d’Ivoire. He's written it in English, though.

Tuesday 19 February 2008

40b40: the end of the beginning

Now that the official 40-day celebration is over, the question is what to do with this blog. Following long consultations among the senior 40b40 advisors and a legally mandated public consultation period, it has been agreed that the blog will continue to discuss and describe Belgian beers.

The pace will slow -- as you would expect from an aging author -- so don't count on daily posts. But as new beers are consumed, they will be reviewed here. Belgium has over seventy-four million different brands of beer, so there is plenty of material to blog about.

I will also leave the donations page open for a little bit longer, too, for those people who would still like to make a contribution. And thanks again to all those who already have! We raised 550 pounds together, which is about 730 euro or 1100 dollars. And we still need to open the yellow piggy bank, which will add a bit more. Still time to donate...

Monday 18 February 2008

Top ten Belgian beers

So, what are the best Belgian beers?

Well, after tasting more than 450 of the who knows how many Belgian beers out there, I think I have a pretty good grasp of what I like. But there is such a variety of styles, and different beers suit different occasions, so it is very difficult to create an ordered list. Thus, the following is simply my top ten Belgian beers in alphabetical order:

    ♦ Achel Brune Extra

    ♦ Black in Japan

    ♦ Cantillon gueuze

    ♦ Chimay Grande Réserve (aged)

    ♦ Deus

    ♦ Orval

    ♦ Rochefort

    ♦ St Bernardus Abt 12 Special Edition

    ♦ Taras Boulba

    ♦ Westmalle Extra

Being considered for the top ten...
 ♦ Brasserie de Bellevaux Black
 ♦ Scheldebrouwerij Oesterstout
 ♦ Boon Kriek Mariage Parfait 2008
 ♦ V Cense
 ♦ St Feuillien Grand Cru

    What? No Westvleteren??

(page occasionally updated)

Seb flees to Côte d’Ivoire

Following his emotional and physical collapse from the strain of the 40b40, Seb, our very own Trappist and Regional Brewery Analyst, has moved to Côte d’Ivoire where he now has his very own blog. It is, appropriately enough, called "Seb @ Abidjan". Visit him.

Or perhaps it wasn't exhaustion that drove Seb to Côte d’Ivoire. Perhaps something bigger attracted him.

Sunday 17 February 2008

The past 40 beers of my life

Over the past 40 beers of my life, I’ve learned so many important lessons. Allow me to share them with you, gentle 40b40 reader.

First, I’ve learned that 40 is a very big number. 40 days last forever, let alone 40 years. Over the past 40 days, all sort of things have been happening. One friend of mine was beaten brutally and left for dead on the frozen steppe. Another friend had a baby. About a dozen people I know found new jobs, including Seb, who is hopefully in Côte d’Ivoire knocking back Flags right now. (Flag, of all things! What a fate for our very own Trappist and Regional Brewery Analyst...)

Second, variety takes serious planning. Trying to schedule a new beer every day was much harder than I ever imagined. The detailed shopping lists, the precision party planning...

Third, experimentation leads to experience. With a dopey Gumpian nod, I have to admit that, at first, life is indeed like a variety pack of Belgian beers: you never know what you’re going to get. The 40b40 introduced me to some great beers -- but also some not so great ones. I was also forced to re-evaluate some beers I knew: some went up in my view, and some went down.

Fourth, I've come to accept myself for what I am: a lover of dark sticky beers rather than the strong blond ales.

Fifth, an experienced guide can still lead you down a wrong path. Michael Jackson was a great promoter of Belgian beers, but he was not a critical connoisseur. Fact is, when I look through his famous book, I cannot find one criticism of any brand. He loved it all.

Sixth, I have more inner strength than I realised. When faced with a crisis of will -- at about beer number 23 or so -- I found untapped reserves and came through it remarkably well considering the tragedy that could have befallen me.

Finally, and most importantly, I’ve realised that no man is an island in life’s lake of beer. If it hadn’t been for the support of good friends, especially Fiona, I never would have made it. Thanks to all.

Saturday 16 February 2008

Top fifteen favourite blog visitors

With the last beer of the 40b40 now finished, it's time for a few days of debriefing on what we've learned, what it all means, and where we go from here. First up, a note about our readers...

When I started this 40b40 blog a few months ago, I installed visitor tracking so I could follow how much interest the site was getting. In the past few months, the blog has had thousands of visits -- though not everyone has been to the donations page yet.

The data allow me to tell, up to a point, who’s been visiting. The tracking program captures the user’s internet service provider (ISP) domains, which are not only numbers but identifiable network locations, with names provided by the networks themselves.

Now, it’s not surprising that my colleagues at work have been following this blog, and given my circle of friends and professional contacts, it’s only to be expected that readers are logging in from media outlets like the Guardian, Reuters and the BBC. But some of the following were a bit more unexpected.

The top 15, then, in reverse order...

15) Commission Europeenne (Clearly these people have very little to do all day but look at a beer blog...)

14) International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (We are now taking bets on whether it was more Red Cross or Red Crescent...)

13) High Commissioner on National Minorities (I know who you are and where you live. And I know you are a national minority in your own street...)

12) Philadelphia Museum of Art (The 40b40 blog has become part of a new multimedia installation there.)

11) Korea Telecom (I’m assuming that’s South Korea, though I have heard Kim Jung Il is a big fan of Piraat and has 25 cases of it imported for his personal use in Pyongyang every month.)

10) Detroit Lakes Manufacturing (Who the fuck manufactures lakes? Are sentient time-travelling glaciers visiting the 40b40, perhaps?)

9) The Boeing Company (Obviously they are preparing to fill a wide-body jet with Belgian beer and fly it to Côte d’Ivoire for Seb, the 40b40’s Trappist and Regional Brewery Analyst, who is moving there tomorrow.)

8) Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (Seems they’re all just tired of Molsen and Labatts over in Canada...)

7) Fidelity Investments (Is the 40b40 about to receive start-up money to fund its 400b400 expansion project?)

6) Westminster College of Salt Lake City (Mormons love Belgian beer, too.)

5) Human Rights Watch (Sure, but are they watching people who haven’t donated?)

4) InBev (The mega-drinks company and brewers of Leffe, Hoegaarden and others has been using the 40b40 beer reviews to improve their recipes...)

3) Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (They’re drinking Belgian beers like fish over there, no doubt.)

2) Astrophysikalisches Institut Potsdam (And you thought beer drinking wasn’t rocket science...)

1) Network of the Ministery of Foreign Affairs of Belgium (sic. Someone really needs to tell them to get their spelling right.)


Here it is: the conclusion of the 40b40, which like all good things, ends in a cheap German hotel room with three girls and some dodgy photographs. The selection is Orval, the Belgian beer that was my favourite before this 40-day experience began.

Let me describe the taste. Orval is hop, hop and more hop. I love it. From the first bitter flowery aroma to the long-lingering hop aftertaste. Amazing stuff.

However, it’s hard for me now, after the last 40 days, to say this is my favourite beer. It’s excellent, and certainly in my top five. But number one?

Everyone is asking me to make a top ten based on the 40b40, so I think I’ll have to sit for a bit in the sauna tomorrow and sort them all out. The sauna? Yes, as of tomorrow, I start 40 days of detox...

Friday 15 February 2008


The penultimate beer of the 40b40 looms before me: the “Flemish red-brown” Rodenbach. It’s a beer I’ve had once before. I remember it tasting metallic then. Let’s open it up and see if the experience of the 40b40 has changed my mind...

The aroma is red wine vinegar. The taste is... more like a lambic or gueuze than I expected. Sour. Crisp. Not at all metallic like I remember. Better. Surprisingly refreshing.

It’s not the right beer for a cold night like this, perhaps, but I can imagine drinking a couple of these on a warm summer’s evening on the terrace.

Thursday 14 February 2008

Delirium tremens

It’s beer number 38 of the 40b40, and I’m confronting a mixture of the marathoner’s total exhaustion and the lab rat’s goal-gradient verve. I can taste the end. But first, I have to taste this beer.

Today’s offering is Delirium tremens, a strong blond ale with a goofy label filled with pink elephants and proud alligators. It comes in one of those concrete-coloured bottles, like Gulden Draak. What’s that all about, anyway? Can't see the point.

The first tasting of this beer occurred at lunch with my colleague Nick. We went to a lovely restaurant near Place Boniface with good food and an excellent selection of Belgian beers. He chose the beef curry, and I went for red pesto linguine and prawns. And, according to plan and right on schedule, we both ordered Delirium tremens.

“Candy nose”, said Nick right away.

“Please, I asked you not to call me that in public”, I said.

But this beer does have a sweet aroma. Nick thought it possessed, “an initial feel on the tongue that’s fruity, with a yeast aftertaste that belies the beer’s non-serious name”. Spot on again. The aftertaste is very yeasty indeed.

It was a highly enjoyable lunch. Delicious food. We actually didn’t get nearly as deliriously tremulous as these blurry mobile phone images would suggest, nor does this beer have as much alcohol as you might think given the name. Only 8.5% actually. That’s not super high by Belgian standards.

In the evening, I had a second bottle, starting via Skype video with the Hague investigators, and continuing live with Seb, 40b40’s Trappist and Regional Brewery Analyst.

Chief Prosecutor Bob first tasted “bubblegum and cotton candy”, backing up Nick’s and my initial findings. Superchief Prosecutor Nona thought the alcohol taste was too strong. Fiona agreed, noting especially the overly alcoholic aftertaste.

Seb was at first fairly positive about this one. “A good, lager-ish taste, with a yeast aftertaste. It’s simple and balanced.” He disagreed with the womenfolk about the alcohol overpowering it: “Tastes 3% to me.” But Seb's a real man. He rides a motorbike, and no one would ever dare call him “Candy Nose”.

Later however, Seb had a change of heart. “Maybe it just tasted good when I had first come in from the cold”, he says, “or maybe it’s changed after sitting here for a bit.” But for him the flavour had deteriorated, and the alcohol taste became more noticeable. “You have to drink it down in one, or don’t drink it at all”, was his final word.

My conclusion: probably the latter of those two options for me, thanks. It’s another strong blond ale without much to distinguish it from the others apart from the pink elephants on the label.

Wednesday 13 February 2008

Kasteel Bruin

Right, let’s get to it. I admit, I am rushing here, because Torchwood is coming on in an hour and I’m very late in the door following a long meeting with an old friend (over a couple Leffe 9s), so I need to be quick with this 40b40 entry.

Lovely dark colour. Appealing aroma -- though after yesterday’s fare, I can hardly fail to be impressed. Taste... hmmm... yes...

This is a very worthy dark beer. Rich malty caramels, offset by bitter hops and a high, but balanced, alcohol content of 11%. There’s nothing really distinctive here, like dried fruits or gingerbreads of some other dark beers (see Rochefort, St Bernardus or Westvleteren), but it’s also not as thin as, say, a Corsendonk pater, or a Ciney Brune.

Not bad at all.

Tuesday 12 February 2008

La Rulles Brune

This one came recommended from someone or other. It has a lovely colour on the pour. But then a urine smell hits you like you’re walking through Gare du Midi on a Saturday night. Not encouraging.

Needing to find an inner strength to bring this one to my lips, I remind myself that sometimes the stinkiest sport-sock of a cheese tastes absolutely lovely once it gets past the nose and on to the tongue. Sadly, this is not the case with this beer. Which is to say, it tastes like piss too.

The 40b40 challenge has experienced many a fine beer and many a lacklustre one, but this is the only beer that will go right down the sink.

Michael Jackson wrote that La Rulles Brune is “full in texture and flavour; well balanced, with a coffeeish note”. Did I get a bad bottle? Was he drinking a different beer? Did he confuse an espresso maker and a urinal?

UPDATE, December 2010: It was surely a bad bottle. Recently tried La Rulles Cuvée Meilleurs Voeux, and it was excellent.

Monday 11 February 2008

Barbar the Honey Beer

Deep in Frosty Forest, past Bendy Brook and over High Hill, lives Barbar the Honey Beer. He’s a happy little beer who spends the warm summer days playing in the clearing with his friend Hoppy Hare and who sleeps away the long winters tucked up in his snug little den at Rough Rock. And his favourite food is, of course, honey, which this little beer can never seem to get quite enough of.

Honestly, with a name like “Barbar the Honey Beer”, you’d expect a back story of something along these lines. However, Barbar comes not from Frosty Forest, but from the Lefèbvre Brewery in Quenast, Brabant, which also produces the not-so-fairytale -- though more enjoyable -- Floreffe.

Barbar actually means barbarian and not anything cuddly at all. Though I suppose in days gone by, barbarian mothers found their barbarian babies cuddly. Isn’t “cuddly” a universal quality that spans all cultures, languages and eras? I submit to the team that it is.

Sorry, where was I again?

Yes, Barbar the Honey Beer. It’s another strong ale but with the gimmick of 2.5% honey added, which I guess provides part of the sugars for the secondary fermentation. Not a huge honey flavour in the actual beer, though. Some in the aftertaste, but it’s easy to miss. Oh, Barbar the Honey Beer, where is thy bee sting? That would be the 8% alcohol.

The 40b40 clearly expected a bit more from Barbar. It’s been sitting on the shelf since day one staring at me, and I’d wanted it to be unique. Sadly, it wasn’t. It’s an above average strong ale. Not much more. One nifty feature, though: the label is in Braille. No other 40b40 beer had that. Westvleteren didn’t even have a label at all.

Sunday 10 February 2008

Gouden Carolus Classic

“Yummy”, says Fiona at first sip. “Sweet and smooth.”

This dark beer, Gouden Carolus Classic, is indeed pretty tasty. Caramel, to be sure. And smoky. Something vegetable in there, too -- tomato soup? A very slight hint of aniseed in the aftertaste, we both agree. Nicely balanced flavours. Absolutely lovely. Very glad we’re working from a 75cl bottle tonight.

This beer is produced by Het Anker brewery in the city of Mechelen, the former capital, which lies between Brussels and Antwerp and is supposed to be well worth a visit. We still haven’t been there, despite living here for four and a half years. Pathetic, really. So, we’re now making plans to go... to visit the brewery/restaurant where this beer is produced if nothing else.

The 40b40is in the homestretch. We now only have a few days left to run, and donations to the cause are just over a third of the goal. Not too bad, as I’ve still to call in a number of promises people have made to me over the past month or so. If you are one of those waiting until the final days of this thing before contributing, your time is now.

Saturday 9 February 2008

Hoegaarden Speciale

This was the third and final beer of the three beers I brought to London to carry on the 40b40 across the Channel. I’m a big fan of Hoegaarden, and I like Hoegaarden Grand Cru and De Verboden Vrucht, which are all products of the Hoegaarden brewery. Regular Hoegaarden is a great summer cooler, while the other two are warming and suit a cool autumn day. Hoegaarden Speciale was new to me, but sadly it didn’t live up to expectations.

The problem with Hoegaarden Speciale is I don’t see anything particularly Speciale about it. It pretty much tastes like Hoegaarden regular. Sure, it’s got a bit more alcohol in it, 5.7% vs 4.9%, and it is slightly maltier than the regular, making it a bit sweeter. (And I wrote that tasting note before I read Michael Jackson’s notes on the beer, which say the same thing.) But really, not worth a designation of “Speciale” -- apart from the fact that my eldest daughter bought this bottle for me for my birthday, hence the smiley face drawn on the label.

Hoegaarden Grand Cru and De Verboden Vrucht, however, are different beers altogether and are worth a glass if you get a chance.

Friday 8 February 2008

Moinette Brune

This was a good find for the 40b40. I’d never heard of Moinette before, but one sip convinced me this beer was worth knowing about.

Like a lot of dark beers, Moinette Brune has an inviting caramel flavour. It’s a bit sweetish though not too much. This beer goes well beyond that, however, with tastes of chocolate and cinnamon -- almost that gingerbready richness you get from a Rochefort, St Bernardus or Westvleteren.


It is thinner than those beers, though, and it has more fizz. Still, I wish I’d brought more than one with me to London.

Thursday 7 February 2008

La Gauloise Ambree

This is the first of three 40b40 beers I enjoyed during a long weekend in London. La Gauloise Ambree did not exactly jump up to be noticed, though.

From the Brasserie du Bocq, La Gauloise Ambree is smooth and hoppy. It also has a yeasty element, which turns to a kind of clay taste at point. The alcohol level, 5.5%, is just enough to warm you up, but it doesn’t overpower the overall taste.

Unfortunately, however, I didn’t find anything particularly distinctive about La Gauloise Ambree. The label is the most memorable thing about it.

Wednesday 6 February 2008

Bush Amber

Yesterday, in comparing the Westvleteren 8 to the previous day’s Westvleteren 12, I wondered how I could talk about an excellent beer after experiencing a life-changing one. Today for the 40b40, I have no such dilemma, because the beer was Bush Amber, which plays about two leagues below any Trappist offering.

Or maybe three. Honestly, the Bush Amber did not impress me. And it’s not just because it carries the name of the current US president, whom I feel is the worst in the country’s history. No, even in a blind tasting, I would not have liked this one. Alcohol fumes overpower all other flavours in this 12% brew.

Michael Jackson found this beer, “chewy and nutty” and “beautifully well balanced”. Either he was drinking a different beer, or my taste buds were knocked unconscious at the first sip.

The Dubuisson brewery markets it proudly as “Belgium’s strongest beer”. And that presumably convinces some people to buy it. Not “refreshing”, “complex” or “full of character”. The pitch is just “big booze”. Silly really.

I did enjoy the surroundings where I drank this beer, however. Le Châtelain, on the square of the same name, is probably the best pub in my neighbourhood. To be fair, I don’t ask for much: it’s non-smoking and has a good beer list, and that’s enough for me.

Dubuisson have another beer called “Prestige”, which is oak aged, and I’d like to try that one. Off to Beer Mania then...

Westvleteren 8

The 40b40 dared to confront potential anti-climax, moving from yesterday’s Westvleteren 12 to today’s Westvleteren 8. How do you go from a beer that is life-changing to a beer that is merely excellent? A dilemma indeed.

The 8 is not the 12, no question about it. It is not as smooth and well balanced. It’s “fruitier and sharper”, said JC, with some melon. Seb found “black bread and granny smith apple”. I found molasses and hop, not as rounded and mouth coating at the 12. Both Fiona and Seb noted a bit of metallic aftertaste, though I didn’t find that at all. I did think it was slightly fizzier and thinner than the 12.

All of us agreed that the 8 had a lot of great tastes in it, but compared to the 12, it is not as balanced. The 12 is fusion cooking, with a mix of 30 mind-stunning flavours that somehow work great together. The 8, by contrast, is classic cooking, a five-flavour stew in which each taste is noticeable and identifiable. Interestingly, the alcohol seemed more noticeable in this 8 with 8% than with the 12 with 10.2%.

This analysis is slightly unfair to the 8, however, which really ought to be judged in its own right. The truth is, against nearly every other beer I’ve tried in the 40b40, the Westvleteren 8 is fantastic -- in the top five or six easy. As long as you approach this beer with no expectations of the 12, there is no way you can be disappointed.

Monday 4 February 2008

Westvleteren 12

Oh, my. What a beer. Creamy gingerbread -- similar to, but not as dried fruity as the Rochefort 10. Rich. Perfectly balanced flavours. Meets all expectations, and almost certainly the best beer of the 40b40.

The location of the drinking was a pleasant modern cafe across the street from the drive-thru abbey. It's got a kind of national park visitors' centre feel to it. Polar opposite of the utilitarian beer pick-up point.

We were only able to buy Westvleteren 8 by the case. The 12 was only available at the cafe. So, after today's Westvleteren 12 day, tomorrow will be Westvleteren 8 day for the 40b40, and I hope that is OK with the judges. If it's not, I'll bribe them with some 8 until they agree.

More on Westvleteren later. In the meantime, some photos below. It was too busy a day, too overwhelming a taste. Your competing athlete is exhausted.

Drive-thru abbey

Lots of cars in a long queue here at the abbey. Yes, it's a drive-thru!

"Hello, and welcome to Abbey-Beerland, how may I help you?"

"I'll have a happy monk meal and fries, please. Oh, and three cases of Westvleteren 8, too, thanks."

"Here you go. Thanks so much for coming to Abbey-Beerland. Have a nice day."

On the approach to monks

I am writing this from the landing craft as we approach the long-sought Westvleteren. Mission control has given us the all cear, though the weather is dark and overcast. JC's gps, which he bought for this trip, says we have 32 minutes before we reach it. There is a tension and excitement in the car, as we make the approach...

40b40 Alert

Monk traffic control have given us permission for landing. Keep an eye on your radar screens...

Sunday 3 February 2008

Bourgogne des Flandres

The 40b40 machine was on the road today, with a trip to Blankenberge, a Belgian seaside resort. On a freezing February morning, it would not have been my first choice, but events were well beyond my control all day. Hate to sound all Eeyore. At least it didn't snow.

Our schlep to the coast was requested by our visitors, who, normally residing in landlocked Bohemia, didn’t want to miss a chance to go down to the sea again. If they weren’t such old friends, I would have told them they were crazy and refused to go. But, since they are such old friends, I told them they were crazy, and got on the tram to Gare du Midi, where we jammed ourselves into a packed train with other lunatics headed for the North Sea.

We were spat out into a winter gale in Blankenberge, and we headed for the beach, body temperature dropping precipitously with every step. A strange surprise awaited us up on promenade.

On the otherwise hideously ugly casino building, three enormous baby statues were installed as if climbing the edifice. That is, statues of babies, not just small statues. Oh, and the babies look as if someone stuffed th spine of a book into their faces. Not sure what that's all about, really. But one piece of the metal baby puzzle was put together for me. And again, we shall learn why it is good to travel with Bohemians.

Petra instantly recognised these statues as the work of David Černý, the famous Czech artist of pink tank fame. Indeed, he’s got ten of these tikes hanging off the Prague television tower. Weird to find them here in Blankenberge, which is known less for its cultural connections than for its go-kart track on the beach. The babies don't really make the casino any less ugly, though they do make it more amusing.

After a short walk on the sands, we guessed we’d probably burnt off all our body fat just in keeping alive over the past hour or so, and it was time to reblubberise ourselves. We ducked into a chippie for a greasy yet comforting stack of artery-cloggers. With mayonnaise. But they only had Jupiler there, so I had to delay my tasting until after the chips -- and the fish at the Sea Life Centre.

Blankenberge is much redeemed by the presence of its Sea Life Centre, full of rescued seals, as well as otters, penguins, crabs, and fish of all ages and styles. Lots of great stuff to see, and the kids love it.

My marine biologist days all come rushing back to me in these places. Though it started to get crowded after a couple of hours, so we moved on...

While we were waiting for the train back to Brussels, I ordered a Bourgogne des Flandres in the station restaurant. It’s from the John-Martin Brewery, which makes Timmermans and others.

The pour got me excited. In its dark colour and low fizz, Bourgogne des Flandres looked rather similar to a Rochefort. But one sip dispelled that illusion. It has a thinnish cola taste at first, then the sour hits you, and it develops a slightly metallic aftertaste.

According to Michael Jackson, it is made from a blend of dark ale and Timmermans lambic, which would explain the sour, I guess. Interesting, but I probably wouldn’t order it again.

Saturday 2 February 2008


This was a surprise entry into the 40b40. After hiking about through town for a few hours, we were all hungry and stopped at a restaurant on Grand Place. We’ve been there before and find it quite reasonable for its location -- with pleasant and even child-friendly staff, too. They always seem to give us the same table, which not only seats six or eight, but also has a nice view of the square. And they have a good selection of beers...

Looking through the list, I realised many of my first 25 were already there, apart from some lambics and wheat beers, which given the cold weather, I just didn’t feel like. Then I spotted Hapkin on the menu and decided to try one of those.

My initial fear when I saw this strong blond ale in its Duvel-like glass was that it would be yet another Duvel-like strong blond ale. I’ve tried too many of those already.

But the alcohol level is lower than most of those -- 8.5% -- and that really mellows it out a lot. Not overpowered by the fumes like some others. It also has good floral essences and a hoppy dry finish. It’s smooth and well balanced. Of all the “strong blond ales” I’ve had so far, I like Hapkin the best. It went down very well with my moules frites.

Fiona also pointed out the great socialist-realist artwork on label. Gotta love socrealismus, eh?

Friday 1 February 2008

Vieux Temps

No, I am not reminiscing about the early days of 40b40 tonight. It’s the name of the beer: Vieux Temps. And indeed, we are sharing it with old friends -- from that other beer-making giant of Europe, Bohemia, as it happens. Though, to think about it, we met her when she was eight or nine (crikey, I'm old), and that's too young to drink beer, unless you're going for La Chouffe, the pixie beer.

But back to the tasting... The colour of Vieux Temps is a refined darkish amber, which gives you the expectation you are about to encounter something with a bit of character. But no. Vieux Temps is pretty thin and watery. The only flavour I got out of it was cut grass and perhaps a slightly metallic finish. Weak hop at the end, too, and nothing serious on the alcohol front to challenge the palate (4.5%).

“It’s nothing much to write home about”, says Fiona.

Other comments were written in Czech. Petra wrote:
-- mnoho pĕny - jako z mixéru
-- speciální příchuť piva
-- chutná trochu jinak než český gambrinus

which translates as:
-- lots of head - like out of a mixer
-- a special taste of beer
-- it tastes a bit different than Czech Gambrinus

Honza wrote:
výborné řezané pivo sladké chuti a bohaté peny

which translates as:
excellent (like a) blend of dark and light beer (with a) sweet taste and a rich head

So, one taker at least.

“But is this what all Belgian beer tastes like?” he asked.

“Oh, no. Not at all. Let me explain...”

STOP PRESS: Rumours are circulating the 40b40 central bunker that the magic monks of Westvleteren have approved a visitation and the bestowing of the blessed brew. We could be only days away...

Attack of the Chouffe pixies

Today’s 40b40 beer is La Chouffe, and before I talk about the lovely time we had with a few neighbours over this evening, I need to deal with a very serious issue. It has been bothering me since the start of the 40b40, and I’ve brought it up before in private consultations with my senior 40b40 advisors. Now, it’s time to air this in public.

The issue is Smurfs. Or maybe elves or gnomes or pixies or whatever the hell the Chouffe people put on the label of their beers. What is up with this Smurf thing? Are they marketing these beers to the under fives, or what? You can just imagine the conversation...

BS-ing outside consultant: “We see a gap in the beer-drinking market. Three- and four-year-olds just aren’t catered for. This new product could fill that gap.”

Gullible exec: “Really?”

BS-ing outside consultant: “Really. Think about it. The competitor has already grabbed the seven-to-nine crowd with their ‘Sparky the Dino-Hedgehog Alco-pop’, and we really don’t want a repeat of that experience, do we?”

Gullible exec: “Absolutely not.”

BS-ing outside consultant: “This is it. Our big chance. It’s an open market. We never see three- and four-year-olds drinking beer, do we?”

Gullible exec: “No.”

BS-ing outside consultant: “Well, there you are then.”

Gullible exec: “So, beer for three- and four-year-olds?”

BS-ing outside consultant: “That’s it. You’ve got the idea. Genius.”
Gullible exec: “Thank you.”

BS-ing outside consultant: “Now, how are we going to sell to this new market?”

Gullible exec: “Hmmm...”

BS-ing outside consultant: “What we should do is put some cute cartoon characters on the labels. That will bring the kiddies in...”

Gullible exec: “Like a mouse with big round ears?”

BS-ing outside consultant: “Legal would go nuts.”

Gullible exec: “What then?”

BS-ing outside consultant: “Elves.”

Gullible exec: “Gnomes.”

BS-ing outside consultant: “Pixies.”

Gullible exec: “Smurfs. This is Belgium!”

BS-ing outside consultant: “That’s it! You’re brilliant.”

Gullible exec: “That’s why I get paid the big money.”

BS-ing outside consultant: “Indeed. Look, we’ll get some elves or gnomes or whatever drawn on some labels and present some sketches for you next week, OK?”

Gullible exec: “Great.”

BS-ing outside consultant: “And we’ll have all the gnomes drawn bent over.”

Gullible exec: “Why would we do that?”

BS-ing outside consultant: “Just so.”

Gullible exec: “What, just so people ask why they’re all drawn bent over?”

BS-ing outside consultant: “That’s exactly it. Brilliant. Kids will love it.”

= = = = =

And as all that was rushing though my head, our guests arrived. We cracked open the dark McChouffe. 8%, hoppy. “Sweet”, said David. “Quite nice for a beer”, said Susan, “and I don’t like beer.” “Foamy”, said Julio.

Too right. Every glass I filled -- no matter how slowly I poured and how much I tilted the glass -- was all head and no visible liquid.

“Slightly bitter”, Julio continued, “with a sweet aftertaste -- honey?”

“Tingly on the tongue for a long time”, said Fiona.

Then, we moved to the blond. Julio noted fruity flavour with some liquorice. “Really good balance.” I found the hop dominant again, though there was something that I felt might be pickled red pepper. OK, I could be reaching there.

“I think this beer would taste better if the gnomes were in a different pose”, said Susan. Hard to argue with that.

The final beer tasting of the evening was Chouffe N’ICE -- that’s the Xmas one. Julio and I first noticed the sweetness. I also thought chocolate, specifically cocoa powder. Yes, chocolaty chocolate with chocolate trimmings. Wow. All choco, all the time.

Strange thing is, Chouffe had been recommended to me by several people who otherwise lead very serious lives. They are in their 40s and very focused on their areas of study -- highly respected experts in their field. You’d never suspect they were gnome fanciers. I guess they are just three- and four-year-olds at heart.