Monday, 31 March 2008
The colour is an inviting dark reddish brown. The taste is date, cola and then -- pow -- black cherry. Really strong black cherry. Not too sweet, but slightly over-fizzy. In all, I’d say it’s a bit like Moinette Brune, though not quite as complex. Did I mention the black cherry?
With 8.5% alcohol, Bobeline Brune, La Bière de Spa, is not going to be mistaken for restorative mineral water by any patient strolling through a health resort. But it still might be good for what ails you.
Sunday, 30 March 2008
The result is quite tasty, particularly when consumed inside an igloo.
We had so much snow in Robertville that we built a couple of igloos for the kids to play in. I’d never really built an igloo before, and none of us had any idea it would take two or three hours to complete one.
The larger igloo was big enough to hold all four adults, so the day after the official tasting of Grottenbier Brune, we decided to try it in our very own, freshly constructed, snow grotto. It seemed to sharpen the tasting experience, perhaps even the taste itself.
“It’s Christmas in your mouth”, declared Bob. And yes, it did have those gingerbready flavours like a slab of Aachener Printen. The mix is nutmeg and allspice, though this beer is less heavy than that might make it sound. Oddly, the flavours dissipate rather quickly. The aftertaste you are left with is simply hoppy bitterness. 6.5% alcohol doesn’t intrude too much on the flavour balance, but when you’re in an igloo, perhaps you need a little higher octane.
Saturday, 29 March 2008
After a while, we left Ijzerkotmolen, and today’s hike around and along the Zwalm River continued. We soon reached the Alps, or at least Klein Zwitserland, a lovely pub, where we stopped to get the girls a sweet snack. And me a beer.
I chose the pub’s beer of the month, Slaghmuylder’s Paasbier, an Easter brew that really impressed me. Again, this was a local beer, being made just around the corner in the town of Ninove by the Slaghmuylder Brewery, who also make Witkap•Pater.
Slaghmuylder’s Paasbier pours a delightful golden colour, and the taste is a wonderfully surprising burst of herbals: lavender and grass, with a light hop aftertaste. It’s such an amazingly fresh combination, and it’s perfect for this season -- like springtime in a bottle. The alcohol level is 5.2%, so not debilitating at all.
Oh, and the label for Slaghmuylder’s Paasbier has a bell on it. In case you’re wondering, that’s because a bell brings the eggs at Easter in Belgium. No less insane than a rodent with a basket.
And with that thought, I leave you with more photos of Zwalm River mills...
At the risk of confusing the reader with multiple outings in Belgium, I am going to pause descriptions of winter retreat beer tastings in the Ardennes -- of which there is so far only one anyway -- and move directly to the present to discuss today’s hike out in the wilds of East Flanders.
We took a morning train from Brussels out to the village of Munkzwalm, from which we walked along the Zwalm River for a few hours. It’s a lovely hike, perfect for the girls: short, no hills, with lots of things to see and enough places to stop for a break along the way. The day was ideal -- sunny and about 14C, which is about as good as you can expect here this time of year -- and the path along river wasn’t nearly as muddy as I feared.
There are a few picturesque mills along the route, some of which now house pubs, a couple of which were even open. The first we walked into was Ijzerkotmolen, a fairly dusty and nearly empty old place, and we took a table by the window over the spot where the water once turned the wheel. I ordered an Ename Dubbel, clearly a local favourite, as it’s made by the Roman Brewery in Oudenaarde just down the road.
I’ve tried Ename Tripel before, and I thought it was a pretty fine strong blond ale, so I had great hopes for the dubbel. I wasn’t disappointed.
It pours thick and looks dark and rich, with a sticky beige head like a Westvleteren 8 or a Achel Brune Extra. It’s not as heavy and complicated as either of those two brands from my list of top ten Belgian beers, however.
But no matter. Ename Dubbel does have a great toasted malt aroma, a lovely raisin bread taste and a fantastic overall balance in the mouth. Its mild alcohol content of 6.5% also left me with a clear head for getting back on the trail...
Friday, 28 March 2008
The first of many beers during this past week’s winter retreat was a little
...and where I took the photo of the lorry here. Not sure where the lorry-load of Malmedy Brewery’s beer ends up. I’ve never seen it anywhere else but in this corner of the Ardennes. (see correction: there is only one brewery in Malmedy)
Too bad, actually, because the brune is quite good. It has a crackery aroma and a nutty taste, with a burnt or smoky caramel throughout. The 6.3% alcohol fits in nicely without overpowering the balance. Fiona and Nona said it had a flavour of grape bubble gum, but I couldn’t taste that at all. The overall rating was summed up by Bob (no connection to the aforementioned village): “Surprisingly good for a
Thursday, 27 March 2008
The inactivity on this blog over the past few days should not be interpreted as the author's retreat from Belgian beer.
In fact, I have been on a retreat in the Belgian Ardennes, where numerous new beers were tasted in the fine company of an expert testing team in a secluded mountain get-away.
And where it snowed every day for a week, enough to build two igloos -- one of which was big enough for a small group of people to share a couple beers in.
More information, and lots of new tasting notes, soon...
Thursday, 20 March 2008
The label design on these three beers needs a bit of work, I’d say. And the peel-away plastic cap covering cheapens the image. But it’s what’s inside that’s important, so, time to crack one open...
Tonight, I’m trying Gottschalk, Želiv’s black label product. The colour of the beer is a pleasing dark amber. The initial whiff is a bit pongy though. I’m wary.
The first taste is sweet. Actually, I’m immediately hit by a flashback to 1970s Christmas parties with the extended family. There used to be these boiled candies on the table at my aunt’s house -- pillow-shaped, hard and shiny white, with little red and green stripes on them. The taste is lightly minty and sweet. Just like this beer.
This is actually not a good thing from my point of view. I never did like those candies.
Part of the problem may be that I’m just expecting too rich a taste. This is not a bottle-fermented brew, and comparing it to a Belgian abbey beer or a Trappist beer really isn’t fair.
But still, there are two more offerings from the Želiv Monastery Brewery here to try, the yellow and the red labels, and Juliette says the yellow one is good. I’ll save that for another day.
Wednesday, 19 March 2008
I haven’t always been impressed with abbey beers. These are not like the Trappist brands, which are always made at the monastery under supervision of the monks. The abbey beers are made by commercial enterprises that have a connection to a monastic community, brewing beer under their name in exchange for some donation to the group. So, it can be a bit hit-or-miss.
Some abbey beers, like Corsendonk pater, Floreffe Dubbel and Maredsous 8° Brune, are very high quality, but others, like the Grimbergen range, have not impressed me at all.
Tongerlo Dubbel Bruin 6° easily falls into the former group. It pours very dark and inviting, with a creamy head like an Achel Brune, though the liquid itself is not quite as viscous. The taste is rich but not too sweet, with a pillowy mouth-feel. Roasted malt, nutty, chocolate... very nice mix, including the 6% alcohol. Nothing jumps out so much here to throw the flavours off balance.
This is a beer I will come back to. It is actually quite common in pubs in Brussels, and I think it even comes on tap.
Tuesday, 18 March 2008
I bought a four pack of Orval on the way home from work today. Nothing unusual in that you might think, particularly if you’ve ever walked home with me. But this time it was different.
When I got home, I didn’t crack one open. No. I took all four bottles down to our cellar and left them there. To age.
Yes, like many Belgian beers that undergo fermentation in the bottle, Orval will change its taste as it ages. Vintage Orval anyone?
The idea to start laying down some beers, specifically Orval, came to me after following some discussions on various beer blogs. Lew Bryson, for example, recently praised the new Orval he had on a visit to Belgium -- which I now understand is the only type I’ve ever had -- suggesting fresh is best. Tom Cizauskas doesn’t have a problem with people aging Orval, but doesn’t like to see people comparing it to wine when they do. Beer can stand on its own, aged or not.
But with my four pack in the cellar, I now find myself asking the question Stan Hieronymus put forward the other day: “When is Orval best?” Specifically, how long should I keep these bottles in my cellar before drinking their contents? With a bit of Googling, I see some people say six months, others two years, and others still five or more years.
The production date on the bottles I bought this evening is 17 January 2008. So, I’ve already got two months in the bank, I guess. How long they’ll last though is hard to say. Actually, I think I’d better shift things around and put the bottles in some sort of protected box or crate. Wouldn’t want to smash them when taking out my daughter’s bike. Or knock them over when reaching for the Westvleteren 8 that is also down there. (That was not a deliberate attempt to age beer so much as simple over stock after our trip to the monastery, where we bought as much as the monks would allow us to.)
In the end, I’m not really sure how much aging these Orval bottles is going to matter. Orval is already in my list of top ten Belgian beers. How much better can it get?
Sunday, 16 March 2008
We went to a friend’s place for lunch today, and knowing of my interest in Belgian beer, Marie-Claire served us an ale produced in the part of the country where she is from. The beers of the Abbaye d'Aulne (ADA) are made by the Brasserie du Val de Sambre in the village of Gozée near the town of Thuin, south of Charleroi.
I’ve asked around for these abbey beers here in Brussels at a couple of places with no luck. So I was very glad Marie-Claire’s mother brought some from Wallonia last time she visited her daughter, who coincidentally enough lives in Rue d’Aulne in Brussels.
The Abbaye d'Aulne Triple brune 8° is a dark beer, about the colour of maple syrup. the aroma is light malt with charcoal and ash. The taste is a combination of coffee, chocolate and liquorice -- slightly sweet at first, but then the bitter hops kick in and balance it out nicely. It is not one of the super-thick darks, but it is richer than, say, Ciney brune. To me, it’s most like a Moinette Brune, so a superior dark beer in other words.
Once again, then, I’ve found a very good Belgian beer that is relatively unknown even within this country, let alone abroad. Having said that, however, I notice now that in the book 52 brasseries coups de cœur en Belgique, it says that ten per cent of Brasserie du Val de Sambre’s production is exported.
After lunch, we went to an Easter egg hunt in a local park. It was a more of a riot, as about a thousand kids scrambled in the mud for chocolate eggs. A large chick was seen in the area...
UPDATE: 11 January 2009
Just received word from Premium Beverage Imports Ltd, who inform me that they have decided bring this beer to American audiences. They are now the exclusive importer of ADA and will be marketing and promoting it throughout the US.
Friday, 14 March 2008
Plus, I was lucky enough to have a friend driving by Rochefort the other day, so he stopped off and picked up some of the 6 for me. Good thing, too. Rochefort 6 seems relatively hard -- or expensive -- to get here in Brussels. Easy to find the Rochefort 8 and Rochefort 10 at reasonable prices in the supermarkets and pubs of our neighbourhood, but the 6 is rarer. So far, I’ve only ever seen the 6 in the specialty beer shops, which are too expensive, really. Anyway, he brought me 14 bottles of 6 and a glass from Rochefort direct. Cheers, Nadim!
Before I open the bottle, can I just put in a word for the cap? All the Rochefort beers have cool caps, but the red 6 is particularly ace. Can a person have a favourite bottle cap?
OK, enough philosophy. On to the tasting.
It’s slightly fizzier than I remember, but all the flavours are there: raspberry and chocolate in a combination reminiscent of the red coeurs from Belgian chocolatier Wittamer. The alcohol, 7.5%, sits perfectly with the other flavours. I’m still on the look-out for Michael Jackson’s “Darjeeling tea”, but I just can’t taste it. Maybe I’ll find it in the second bottle.
Thursday, 13 March 2008
It pours with a strong head. The taste is dried cherries and caramel, though far less sweet than that sounds. Bitter hops. It also has some spice or heavy herb, which I can’t quite identify, but is very warming and pleasant. Almost rosemary?
I think if I close my eyes and concentrate, I can taste some of the same spices I find in the regular Hoegaarden or Hoegaarden Speciale, but it’s a bit of a stretch, I admit. 8.5% alcohol fits in well with the overall flavour. Overall, I’d say it’s a decent dark beer, a fair step above the other thin-ish dark beers because it’s less sweet than the average.
The Rubens painting of Adam and Eve on the label is meant to evoke the whole “forbidden fruit” theme. It is not -- as has been suggested by some including the comically named Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in the US -- indecent, or a just a cheap way to get a naked woman on the label. Brewers who want to go down that road have other, coarser options open to them, as Evan Rail explained yesterday, when he reviewed a Slovak beer with a label featuring a woman in bra and knickers that one can scratch off like an instant lottery ticket.
Wednesday, 12 March 2008
Thanks to a quick email exchange with Evan Rail, author of Good Beer Guide: Prague and the Czech Republic and the Beer Culture blog, I have just learned about a monk-made abbey beer in the Czech Republic. Želiv is apparently the only monastery brewery in Central and Eastern Europe. And for me at least, what’s even more interesting is that we lived just around the corner from this place for years and never knew it existed.
Of course, back in the days when we lived (and actually met) in the small Bohemian town of Chotěboř, maybe 30 km up the road from the abbey, Fiona and I were more occupied with Czech lagers, like Gambrinus, Radegast and the locally brewed Rebel. Despite the small number of styles sampled, much research was carried out.
Well, we go back to Chotěboř to visit friends more or less every year, so next time we’re over there, we’ll have to take a short side trip to Želiv, visit the monastery and sample their beers.
Just one last note, which is neither here nor there really: on the Želiv Brewery website, there’s a nice graphic: a family tree of beer styles. It’s partly in Czech, but I think even non-Czech speakers can get the basic idea. It’s first divided into two major groups -- top-fermenting and bottom-fermenting beers -- then you get into the sub-groups and individual types.
Tuesday, 11 March 2008
I’ve been roaming around the beer blogs lately, researching and getting ideas, and today I came across something I wish I’d found a couple months ago. Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer posted a list of very useful words for describing the flavours in beer. He found it on the Merchant du Vin site, so I think I’m safe reposting it here in turn:
1. Words to describe malt flavors: Malty, biscuity, breadlike, grainy, rich, deep, roasty, cereal, cookie-like, coffeeish, caramelly, toffee-like, molasses-like, malt complexity, smoky, sweet, autumnal, burnt cream, scalded milk, oatmeal, rustic, layered.
2. Words to describe hop flavor and bitterness: Piney, citrusy, grapefruity, earthy, musty, spicy, sharp, bright, fresh, herbal, zippy, lemony, newly-mown lawn, aromatic, floral, springlike, brilliant, sprucelike, juniper-like, minty, pungent, elegant, grassy.
3. Words to describe fermentation flavors deriving from yeast: Fresh-baked bread, clovelike, bubblegum, yeasty, Belgiany, aromatic, tropical, subtle, fruity, clean, banana-like (and for some sour or extreme beers) horseblankety, earthy, musty.
4. Words to describe conditioning (carbonation): Soft, effervescent, spritzy, sparkling, zippy, pinpoint, bubbly, gentle, low carbonation, highly carbonated.
5. Words to describe body & mouthfeel: Rich, full, light, slick, creamy, oily, heavy, velvety, sweet, dry, thick, thin.
6. Words to describe warm ethanol (alcohol) flavors from strong beer: Warm finish, heat, vodka, esters, pungent, strength.
Now, if I’d had that list when I started this blog a few months ago, it would have really helped my tasting notes. For some of the early tastings, I felt I was flailing around a bit for words to describe the flavours and aromas. This would have offered a bit of a guide at least.
Interestingly, I think my fellow tasters and I managed to find a lot of the flavours mentioned here, and we’ve been noting them on this blog -- even some of the weirder ones. We found clove, bubblegum and grapefruit in Chimay Tripel for example, and we discovered florals, herbs and mint in Deus.
I do notice this list doesn’t include my current favourite beer flavours, gingerbread and malt-loaf, which we found in Westvleteren 8, Westvleteren 12, and Achel Brune Extra. Worth adding those descriptors to the first point on this list, I think.
Continuing my research, I noticed someone had a comment on Appellation Beer mentioning the “beer flavour wheel”, so I looked that up and found a great example of the wheel at BeerandPoetry.com, which explains its origins:
“The Beer Flavor Wheel was developed by Dr Morten Meilgaard. It was subsequently jointly adopted as the flavor analysis standard by the European Brewery Convention, the American Society of Brewing Chemists, and the Master Brewers Association of the Americas.”
A homebrewer's website takes this further, with expanded descriptions of the flavour wheel points. Almost scientific, that. Again, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I’d known about all this sooner. But then, maybe my taste discoveries wouldn’t have been quite so much fun.
Monday, 10 March 2008
The most fantastic thing I've learned from the site so far is that there used to be a Trappist brewery in Banja Luka, Bosnia. I never would have guessed that.
Sunday, 9 March 2008
This is because La Trappe Trappist beers are not made in Belgium but the Netherlands. The Koningshoeven Brewery is in fact the only Trappist brewery of the seven monk-made brands not located in Belgium. Still, for me it’s important -- if for no other reason than to collect the whole set.
La Trappe Dubbel is a dark beer with a burnt caramel taste. Lots of charcoal, I thought, and liquorice. It’s a bit thinner than some of the other dark Trappist beers such as Westvleteren 8 or Achel Brune, with not the same creamy complexity. At 7%, La Trappe Dubbel is also not as strong as those others either.
I think the overall taste is good: the burnt flavours are challenging in a way some of the smoother darks are not. But I do find it a bit too fizzy, unfortunately.
The “extra” is more than the 9.5% alcohol, above the 8% of regular Achel Brune. It really is an incredible improvement of an already almost ideal beer. We passed around the bottle, and everyone agreed: this is one of the best beers any one of us has ever tried.
It’s creamy, malt loaf, with the cinnamon and vanilla of regular Achel Brune, but add to that Toblerone, Crunchy bar, toffee, coffee -- all wrapped up in a light non-fizzy foam.
Fiona called it, “a soft puffy cloud”.
Bob said it was, “the smoothest beer I’ve ever tasted”.
The alcohol, though relatively high, is so mixed in with the complexity, that it hardly makes a noticeable appearance.
Bob said, “this is 9.5%, but you don’t taste it at all”.
I believe, and I know this will be controversial, that Achel Brune Extra is at least as good as Westvleteren 8. Maybe even Westvleteren 12.
Could this be the new king of dark Trappist beers? I will have to do a side-by-side taste test when I get some Westvleteren 12, which could be soon since we seem to have a new lead on the beer phone.
So, certainly Achel Brune and Achel Brune Extra deserve to be in my list of top ten Belgian beers, and I will have to demote at least one of the beers currently there. After much consideration, I think the Westmalle Dubbel will be bumped down. Sorry, but Achel Brune Extra beats it by quite a bit.
Off to adjust the top ten page now...
At our visit to the Cantillon Brewery yesterday, we picked up a bottle of Cantillon Vigneronne, a gueuze with Muscat grapes added. It wasn’t much of a surprise, having tried the Cantillon gueuzes with raspberry and cherry, but it was very enjoyable.
Vigneronne still has wow-sour of the other Cantillon products, but the grape flavour makes a strong appearance. It has no sweetness, of course. Just the fruity aromas without the sugar. Wonderful.
Fiona’s really starting to get into the gueuzes and lambics, and we’re going to have to try their apricot-flavoured one at some point. She loves apricots. Unfortunately, Cantillon was sold out of that variety yesterday.
Now, frequent readers of this blog will know, I am not the biggest fan of the strong blond ales and tripels, so the expectation will be that this is not going to get a rave review here. But I will at least give this beer a chance...
The taste is complex: bubble gum, clove, grapefruit rind, grape juice, and, at least according to Bob (photo), hints of a spiced wheat beer. The body is quite thick and heavy. And the aftertaste really brings that grapefruit pith to the fore.
I wouldn’t say Chimay Tripel has changed my overall view of strong blond ales, but it’s certainly better than average for this style. The flavour is complex enough to keep me interested for one glass, though probably not two.
I think everyone was fairly impressed. What really hits you is simply the human scale of the operation. A quick tour of the premises shows you the basic steps in beer-making, and it’s so straightforward and so reasonably sized that it’s easy to get your head around it.
The tasting of the gueuze, raspberry gueuze and (cherry) kriek at the end of the self-guided tour was yummy, if not exactly suited to the chilly weather outside.
I didn't have the kriek last time. I think I liked it more than the raspberry-flavoured Cantillon Rosé de Gambrinus lambic as it had a bit less fizz, and the fruit taste was a bit more prominent.
We also picked up a bottle of the Vigneronne to take home, but more on that later...
Saturday, 8 March 2008
I guess I opened this bottle because I wanted to see how this apparently higher-brow brew compared to Chimay Blue. The only problem is, I had the Chimay Blue so long ago -- it was the first official beer of the 40b40 all those years ago -- and I’m not sure I can make a proper comparison. Actually, that’s been a problem a number of times. I need to do some side-by-side tastings of similar styles and brands.
And the Chimay Blue tasting was a bit spoiled by the beer being served too cold, almost frozen, in fact. It almost turned me off Chimay Blue and Red. I’ll get back to them someday.
Anyway, on to the Grande Réserve... it’s a dark beer, and the taste is initially raisins and dates. Grilled dates, if that makes any sense. Maybe golden syrup as well. Then at the end, it has a port wine flavour. It’s thinner than some of the richer dark beers, such as Wesvleteren 8, but I find Chimay Grande Réserve a bit too fizzy. I felt I had to swirl the glass a bit to lower the bubble level.
I wonder how it would have tasted if I’d waited a few years. I’ll have to buy another bottle of the 2007 Chimay Grande Réserve and see if I can be more patient next time.
It pours a lovely golden colour, and the first taste is creamy.It’s far less alcoholic than other blond ales, 5.8%, and that reveals itself in the taste, which isn’t at all marred by fumes like many blonds.
I do sense something of the Westvleteren in there, too -- a combination of spices. “Spiciness”, says Bob, and yes, that’s it: the warming spices of the other Westvleteren beers are there, if hidden in the background.
But it also has a strong bitterness in the aftertaste that’s a bit overpowering for me. Too bad, that.
Overall, I’d say it’s good, but not in the “great” category. I certainly won’t be adjusting my list of top ten Belgian beers on its account.
At least this experience has helped to dispel the accusation by some (read: Fiona), that the legend surrounding the Westvleteren name, and the extreme hassle in obtaining it, somehow psychologically predisposes everyone to praise the products unquestioningly.
POST SCRIPT: Bob tried the Westvleteren 8 last night and exclaimed: "Shit, this is a chocolate bar!"
Thursday, 6 March 2008
I picked up a bottle of Trappist Achel Brune a week or two ago at Beermania, and I’ve been looking forward to opening it ever since. I tried the Achel Blond during the original 40b40 challenge, and I liked it, so I figured -- being a dark beer kind of guy -- the brune would impress me.
I was not disappointed at all. In fact, it’s even better than I expected.
I was slightly worried when I poured it, though. It looked a bit thinner and had a lighter colour than some of the other dark Trappist beers I’ve tried. But don’t be fooled: this is a wonderfully smooth and complex beer. The head gives it away: big, steady and long-lasting. Just look at that photo...
The taste is cinnamon, vanilla, rich and creamy, malt-loaf-ish. Yum. Alcohol may be 8%, but you’d never know it in this mouth mix. I think it’s actually very close in overall flavour to a Westvleteren 8.
And that presents a problem. Achel Brune almost certainly belongs in my list of top ten Belgian beers. But I don’t know which of the other beers in the group I would demote. What to do, what to do...