Tuesday 22 April 2008
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.
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.
Sunday 20 April 2008
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?
Tuesday 15 April 2008
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.
Sunday 13 April 2008
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.
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
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...
Thursday 10 April 2008
Perhaps the other reason I haven’t yet blogged about Leffe Blond is that I’m not much of a fan of this abbey beer. It’s not a poisonous beverage or anything. It’s just too sweet for me. And too syrupy sweet at that. Thick and sugary is fine for honey, but not for beer.
“This has a taste that makes you thirsty”, says my colleague Milo. Maybe there is something in that, actually. Leffe Blond is so sweet that it never really quenches your thirst like something more sour or with a stronger hoppy-bitter aftertaste.
Leffe has another product called Leffe 9, which is getting promoted all over these days and which I find far superior to the Blond. I reviewed Leffe 9 back in January. In fact, it was the second beer to appear in this blog, so I don't want to hear any accusations I am ignoring Leffe.
Wednesday 9 April 2008
Though the tasting notes of Ardennes winter retreat beers officially ended with Monday’s write-up of Postel Dubbel and Tuesday marked a return home with the description of La Trappe Quadrupel, there are a number of holiday-related topics I simply must address. The first concerns the highest beer in the Low Countries.
We spent our snow-capped time off right around the corner from the geographic high point of the BeNeLux: Signal De Botrange. It's not so much a majestic soaring peak as a parking lot, restaurant and information centre at 694 metres above sea level. Switzerland and Nepal may scoff at such puny altitudes, but considering a good portion of one of the three BeNeLux countries, the Netherlands, is actually below sea level, this height -- what the hell, let’s round it to 700 metres -- is impressive around these parts.
The parking lot was packed when we were there, as it was the Easter Monday holiday, so we barely found a place to stop for a moment and walk around. I didn’t enjoy a beer in the restaurant because I had to drive home, but I thought readers would like to know what they serve at the highest point in the Low Countries. In fact, they push Duvel and Maredsous. So now you know which Belgian beers work best in a low-oxygen environment.
Tuesday 8 April 2008
The Koningshoeven Brewery, the only Trappist brewery in the Netherlands, has created a bit of a gimmick with this beer. With the concepts of “dubbel” and “tripel” fairly open, and confusing, as categories, they’ve gone ahead and produced a “quadrupel”, a label which doesn’t really mean anything at all as far as I can tell. To me this is simply Spinal Tap marketing hoping to attract those looking for that little bit extra.
The reality is that this is a slightly above average strong blond ale. Don’t expect greatness just because “this one goes to eleven”.
And it doesn’t quite go to eleven, if truth be told. It’s got 10% abv. This is all too obvious from the first sip, which is fumy, almost to the point of overkill. Not quite a fire-breathing Bush Amber but not far off either. Behind the alcohol, La Trappe Quadrupel is fairly sweet, though this is balanced by a slight citrus taste, like grapefruit pith, and roasted cashews, and these two flavours save this beer.
Overall then, the Quadrupel is a good beer, but mere “good” fails to meet the -- perhaps, “my” -- expecta-tions of a Trappist brew. To credit them, Koningshoeven also makes La Trappe Dubbel which I reviewed earlier and rated higher than this one.
Maybe the best feature of La Trappe Quadrupel, however, is its colour. Though a blond in style, it’s dark orange, like rust, with a thick, creamy head. “Wow, that’s a gorgeous colour”, says Fiona peering through the full glass towards the last rays of the setting sun.
Monday 7 April 2008
Postel Dubbel is very good. It starts with a very inviting pillowy head on top of a gorgeous nut brown liquid. The mouthfeel is fluffy, and the taste is all the regular brown ale tastes -- caramel and burnt molasses etc -- but with flavours of nutmeg and fruit. Blackberry or plum, I think. The aftertaste is hoppy. 7% alcohol.
This one is actually not to difficult to find either, so I think I’ll be having this one again soon.
Tongerlo Christmas Blond pours with a wonderful bronze colour and a nice puffy head. The taste is not hugely challenging or distinctive, but it’s got hints of candied peel and mint, with a hearty bitter aftertaste. It goes down nice and easy with a velvety mouthfeel. 6.5% alcohol.
Whatever the season, I’d have it again.
Sunday 6 April 2008
After a short walk into Robertville one day on our Ardennes winter retreat, we stopped in at a village pub, Le Gavroche. I ordered a Super des Fagnes Brune, which sadly was served far too cold.
I find this happens quite all too often, and I really don’t know why. These brown ales almost always have their ideal storage temperature printed on the label -- usually somewhere between 8C and 14C depending on the brand -- so there’s no reason for pubs to screw it up and put the bottles in the fridge, where it will be less than 4C.
This common mistake affects the taste, of course, because the aromatics in the beer will be sluggish at lower temperatures: that is, they need some heat to release their flavours. Chilling them in the fridge dulls the taste. It surely slows or even halts the essential secondary fermentation these beers experience in the bottle. And it wastes energy, of course.
Anyway, after warming it up in my hands for a bit, Super des Fagnes Brune revealed itself. It’s dark with a good foamy head. The taste is malt and charcoal, and it’s very smooth. The 7.5% alcohol fits in well with the overall flavour. Nice bitter aftertaste. In short, it’s a great winter warmer after a crisp walk in the snow. Just remember to keep it warmer than the snow.
Starting from the very top, the blue foil wrapper over the bottle cap of Villers Brune is not attractive. But then, the maker of this beer is the Huyghe Brewery in Melle, near Ghent, and producer of Delirium Tremens, which also has blue foil on it.
What matters however, for this, our ninth Ardennes winter retreat beer, is what’s inside the bottle. And the answer to that is more complex than a little foil covering can conceal.
“It smells thick”, said Bob, and as weird as that sounds, he was right about the aroma of this intensely dark, heavy-headed beer.
“Smells like burnt popadums”, Fiona said, also correct.
This abbey beer has got a strange taste. It coats the teeth and tongue in a sticky way unlike any other beer I’ve tried so far. It’s sweet to begin with, switching to a very bitter aftertaste.
“Sour molasses”, said Nona. “I would buy this beer. It’s very good.”
I wasn’t convinced at first. The mix of super sweet and strongly bitter was too overwhelming, but the taste grew on me over the course of one glass. Yes, I’d get this again, too -- if only just to give myself another crack at unraveling its complexity.
The next beer of our Ardennes winter retreat -- and this is number eight for those who want to keep track -- was Pater Lieven Brune. We had the 750 ml bottle after a long hard day of playing in the snow.
It pours with a lovely thick head and is very dark. The first sip revealed less body than that initial expectation, however. It was thin and a bit too fizzy at the start.
“It’s a good drink for moments like this”, said Nona. “A quenching relaxer at the end of the day.”
There’s a hint of citrus here, which seems fairly odd for a dark beer. But then I see from Michael Jackson that Curacao is added (as well as coriander) to all the beers made by the Van Den Bossche Brewery, so that would explain it. It’s brewed in Sint-Lievens-Esse, East Flanders -- a long way from the Caribbean island.
After a few minutes, the burnt malt flavours emerged more strongly, giving this abbey beer a heartier mouthfeel. It’s got a bit of a cold coffee taste, too, and it goes extremely well with biscoti alle mandorle.
Friday 4 April 2008
It’s strange, really, as I’ve seen many people ordering this abbey beer in pubs, and while that certainly doesn’t guarantee a beer is a winner, it usually means it’s at least drinkable. Ramée Ambrée (Tripel) is not.
The predominant tastes are all medicinal: Listerine, bitters, Becherovka (the Bohemian herbal liquor) -- or “post-Becherovka barf bitterness”, as Bob concluded. There’s something like juniper in it.
Michael Jackson, the man who never met a Belgian beer he didn’t like, praised Ramée Ambrée (Tripel), saying it had, “a very good malt aroma, a toffee-ish, fruity palate, and a dry finish”.
We didn’t find those tastes at all. For me, the lasting impression was a blue Strepsil cough drop, the kind with lidocaine. There haven’t been too many beers in this 40b40 experience that I actually had to pour away, but this was one. Could we have perhaps bought a bad batch? Why would anyone buy this stuff twice? Unless you have a sore throat, maybe...
The revelation that I had been fooled by a beer calling itself Bière de Malmedy that was in fact not from the commune of Malmedy at all, got me thinking about the whole issue of appellation, that geographic identifier some products receive, like Champagne or Prosciutto di Parma. These legal protections are absolutely essential for traditional smaller-scale producers to maintain their high quality, not to mention their existence, in the face of competition from mass-produced products that seem almost inevitably to go down the cheaper/duller/lower-quality route.
In the business-sense, these are life-and-death issues for niche producers, who are more often than not the ones who lift food and drink from a bare necessity to a pleasure. Rightly and with pride, they fight to define, obtain and guard those place-name distinctions. But some European countries are better at protecting their small-scale and traditional producers than others.
This was brought to my attention by an email exchange I had with Carla Schuwer Berghuis of Brasserie de Bellevaux, who corrected an earlier post in which I stated there were two breweries in Malmedy when in fact there is only one. She wrote:
On the web I found your comment on the Bellevaux Black, a dark and (yes indeed) a bitter beer brewed in Malmedy which you tasted a few days ago. You found it rather remarkable that there were two breweries in Malmedy. The truth is that there is only one brewery that brews in the “commune de Malmedy” with real water from the Ardennes. That brewery is ours: we started a year ago and developed four beers: the black, blonde, blanche and brune -- called “the four B’s from B(rasserie) de B(ellevaux)”.
Malmedy Blond and Brune are made at Brasserie Lefebvre in Quenast, a brewery that sells their beers under several labels. It’s merely a marketing technique. Malmedy Blonde and Brune are so-called “etikettenbieren”.
Feel welcome to visit us at our brewery, smell the hops and the malt, see the water spring from its source by doing the “Bellevaux Brune” trail. By the way: we pour our Black in a special glass: the glass you showed on the picture was meant for our brune and blonde.
Carla Schuwer Berghuis
Brasserie de Bellevaux
She was actually worried that she might have offended me and added a quick note to make sure I knew she was only trying to inform. But of course, who could be offended when someone writes simply to clarify a spot of confusion and explain their high-quality hand-work with pride?
We then got into a small discussion about the appellation issue, with Carla writing:
I even wonder whether it is legally permitted to use a geographical indication for a product that is made completely elsewhere. Compare it to the labels “Camembert” and “Champagne”, and you notice that the French better protect their “produits du terroir”.
And she again offered a tour of the Brasserie de Bellevaux and a tasting, which I will have to take her up on some day.
This exchange really did open up the whole appellation question for me. I don’t know if “Malmedy” is a legally protected appellation for beer or not -- I suspect not specifically -- but t does seem hugely unfair for someone to use a place name on a product when it is not made in that location. Using the name Malmedy does imply an Ardennes connection, to mountain water at least.
The French and Italians seem to put great energy into protecting their food appellations across the world, but where does Belgian beer stand? Outside the Trappist group of beers, which do guard their distinction jealously, the field seems a bit of a mess.
Many “abbey beers” have only a very loose connection to an abbey, if any. I notice some carry the official “abbey beer” logo while others do not, so I wonder if that really denotes any difference at all.
I remember the brewmasters at Cantillon telling me with a mixture of frustration and disdain towards their newer competitors that just about every beer imaginable was trying to call itself a “gueuze” or a “lambic” these days, with their ever-sweeter flavours increasingly wide of the traditional -- and excellent -- mark of perfect dryness attained by Cantillon’s old-fashioned methods. Again, it’s that small-producer’s pride that shines through, both in speech and in taste.
Carla from Brasserie de Bellevaux told me how tricky the beer business really is. Apparently one beer reviewer, when visiting a brewery for the first time, actually opens the lids and smells what’s inside. It happens that he finds the whole installation is merely for show -- just fake pipes and shining copper, where no beer has ever been made. A Potemkin brewery to gain a place name or a mom-and-pop reputation.
My romantic Belgian beer innocence is being removed layer by painful layer...
This dark beer was at once declared “warm and spicy” by Bob, whose company we all find equally so. Could he be 6.8% as well?
The beer is a bit sweet, slightly smoky with a raisin flavour, but -- somewhat reminding me of Bobeline Brune, which I reviewed a few days ago -- this beer has a notable black cherry cola taste. Altogether, some in the room were calling it a “Haribo cola-flavoured gummy candy” taste.
Fiona found flavours of liquorice, coltsfoot rock and spangles -- though she later complained it made her burp a lot, I didn't find it particularly fizzy. Nona claimed this was merely the beer, “cleansing from within”.
Overall, we had four votes out of four in favour of this beer, but I think everyone liked Brasserie de Bellevaux Black somewhat better because it seemed more unique. More out of the ordinary. It could be I’ve just been tasting too many brown beers lately.
I reviewed their Black beer and found it “yummy”, which is a statement that needs no correction. I also have notes here to write about their Brune, so stay tuned for that blog entry.
Where I got confused was when I reviewed Bière de Malmedy Brune, which I’d thought was also made in the Malmedy commune, but is actually brewed by Brasserie Lefebvre in Quenast, a town a bit south of Brussels, makers of Floreffe among others.
This does explain one thing, however. When I wrote about the faux Malmedy beer, I included a photo of a truck clearly belonging to the makers of that beer, and I said. “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.”
The lorry was not the means for exporting Bière de Malmedy to the world but rather, I now suppose, the means for importing Bière de Malmedy INTO Malmedy.
Thursday 3 April 2008
Or, maybe it’s not so interesting, given that it’s not really that big a country, and everything is not too far from everything else.
Egmont has a frothy head, and it’s colour is somewhat cloudy. We all found it good -- Nona said “amazing” -- though we felt it was not particularly distinctive one way or the other. Bob found a bit of bubble gum, but I didn’t catch that. The 7% alcohol is nicely balanced.
Maybe Egmont is just so well-balanced, in fact, so well-rounded, that it stands on its own as a pleasant beer. It makes no demands on your taste buds, but it does bring them pleasure.
Tuesday 1 April 2008
OK, it’s technically just outside the village of Bellevaux, which is slightly south of Malmedy, but you get my point.
Brasserie de Bellevaux Black is dark. Really, really dark. So, um, well named, then. It’s got a nice thick head, too. The taste is very complex: rosemary, smoky wood and clove. It’s very bitter.
Bob says it’s, “smoky like a Bamberg smoked beer”. I’ve never had a Bamberg smoked beer, so I’ll take his word for it there. But they must be yummy if they taste like this.
On further reflection, I find a strong honey aroma and flavour here. Nona agrees but is more specific: “it reminds me of a chestnut honey”. Again, I’ve never had chestnut honey, so I take her word for it.
But maybe I’m too gullible. Maybe Bob and Nona are just making up these flavours to trick me into opening another bottle. The rascals! Perhaps I should be more careful about the people I get into an igloo with...