Wednesday, 22 December 2010

St Bernardus Christmas

On just about the longest night of the year, we are celebrating with St Bernardus Christmas. Often recommended to me and long sought after, particularly as St Bernardus darks are firmly established on my list of top ten Belgian beers, St Bernardus Christmas continues a healthy run of Christmas beer tastings on this blog.

I’d bought two bottles for two separate occasions, but unfortunately, one fell through. Bob didn’t make it here to share the first with me yesterday as expected. You might consider him another victim of Europe’s air travel chaos, but his was a snow travel story with a happy ending, because, strangely, the confusion meant he somehow made it back to his family in the US a day earlier than expected. Still, bottle two was at the ready for another planned tasting with a friend this evening...

Immediately on popping the cork, I could already smell the classic St Bernardus aroma of rich, dark caramel and spices. The first sip was a bit of a disappointment, I have to admit, because it was so fumy, meaning the alcohol level was too strong. But that soon wore off, thankfully, as the booze wove its way into other flavours, notably a biscuity baseline supporting grilled dates and other dried fruits, as well as nutmeg.

“I like the initial bitter blast and then the slight sweetness at the end”, Jonathan said. He also rightly noted, “It was a bit too fizzy at first, but it calmed down after a few minutes.”

In all, an excellent beer, though I think I’ll let that second bottle sit in the cellar for another year and see how it matures. I bet it evolves from excellent to fantastic. We’ll see next Yuletide season.

St Bernardus Christmas is also a perfect beer with which to end this year. I’ll be back in the new year, dear readers, with a whole bunch of new posts to take the blog from this, beer tasting number 290, to number 300 and beyond. Until then, best wishes to all, and to all a good beer.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

De-ice your own beer at Brussels Airport

I had a number of friends with disrupted travel plans over the last few days, as Northern Europe’s airports tried to get to grips with the cold and snow, highly unusual in these parts in December and not the kind of weather anyone could ever expect, let alone prepare for. It's ruined a tasting event I had planned, so I looked into the matter more deeply.

Brussels Airport at one point announced that it had run out of de-icer, so planes were grounded. I found that somewhat odd and called the airport hotline to inquire what had happened. I was passed from one person to another, but to Brussels Airport’s credit, their staff did have some pretty solid justifications for the shortage, including:

“We were waiting to buy de-icer in the after-Christmas sales.”

“With all this talk of ‘global warming’, we figured it wasn’t going to be necessary this year.”

“I wrote down ‘buy de-icer’ on a yellow sticky note and put it on my computer screen, but it must have fallen off. Or maybe the cleaning staff removed it.”

“We were all sure there was another season between autumn and winter, so no one was rushing out to buy it.”

“I ordered de-icer in French, and the Flemish-speaking guy pretended not to hear me.”

“We haven’t had cold weather for so long -- like ten months or something -- so we just sort of forgot about it.”

“Too few budget airline passengers paid the ‘de-icer supplement’ when purchasing their tickets online.”

“We were waiting for the new Belgian government to formally approve the order for more de-icer.”

“Wait, I thought you bought de-icer.”

“We’d cleaned out the de-icer holding tanks to fill them with Leffe for the big staff barbeque in July.”

Sunday, 19 December 2010

La Mère Des Moeder’s

Now pouring at my favourite Brussels bar (top of my brand new and extremely official list of best places for beer in Brussels), La Mère Des Moeder’s is another winning brew from Brasserie de Jandrin Jandrenouille, makers of the amazing IV, V, and VI.

Like those others from Jandrin Jandrenouille, La Mère Des Moeder’s has that pink grapefruit note, but then about two dozen other tastes jump out and vie for your attention. It’s rich and fragrant with a fruity, bubblegum nose, evolving into, oddly enough, cuberdon.

There’s then something like the dust off a boiled sweetie, or the red fruits of a Jolly Rancher candy. Pear drops emerge, or even very ripe pear. Yes, that’s it: it’s like slicing into an over-ripe pear. Through all that, however, it’s not sweet. And at the same time, it’s got an undercurrent of a rough pizza dough keeping it grounded.

That probably sounds pretty strange all put together, but trust me, it works. Very yummy.

Top ten bars, pubs and cafés for beer in Brussels

This post comes to you by popular demand. I am constantly asked what are the best places to enjoy a beer in this city, so it’s about time I set it all down properly.

Of course, everyone looks for something different in a bar or pub, so my list may not match everyone’s tastes. My three criteria for evaluating places are at least straightforward.

Firstly and most obviously, it’s got to have a solid beer selection. By this I mean quality not quantity. I’d rather a few good beers than a two-hundred-bottle list. And craft beers have to be well-represented, preferably on tap, though I’m no anti-bottle snob -- plenty of tasty beers live in bottles.

The second criterion is attitude. I don’t just mean that staff are friendly and so on. That’s important, of course, and not always guaranteed in Brussels, to be frank. But under “attitude”, I am also referring to an establishment’s whole approach to their trade. I can think of some Brussels beer bars catering to the pack-em-in, “let’s get bladdered” tourist market. Yawn. I can also name a few dozen pubby looking places that are so up themselves about being “restaurants”, that even when they are empty, they won’t accept customers who want to come in just for a drink or two.*

My third criterion is pretty simple: I want a non-smoking place. It’s not that I’ll never go into a smoky place, but if you’re asking me about “the best” bars and pubs, I’m not going to include a place where breathing is considered of little advantage. Don’t expect Delirium in the list, then... [UPDATE, June 2012: Since writing this 18 months ago, new anti-smoking legislation has eliminated the problem in most places, though smoking does still seem to be allowed in some bars -- or at least it happens with a nod and a wink. Not sure what the rules actually state, but it's much better overall.]

OK, then, enough introduction and explanation. On with the list of my top ten

1) Chez Moeder Lambic Fontainas (Place Fontainas 8): With 40 or 50 craft beers on tap and gorgeous artisanal cheeses to match, this slickly designed new palace of taste exploration is without equal in Brussels. The only thing that comes close is...

2) Chez Moeder Lambic St Gilles (Rue de Savoie 68): The original, cozy corner pub dedicated to Belgian beer. Amazing selection and, like its younger, sleeker sister, run by friendly folks who will talk you through the possibilities with care.

3) L’Ultime Atome (Saint Boniface 14): With a fairly extensive beer list and changing guest beers, L’Ultime Atome is easily one of my favourites. The food specials draw me in for lunch frequently (no, really, it’s the food), but they’re perfectly welcoming if you show up for just a drink.

4) Café Belga (Place Flagey): The great bar at the water-line of the ship that sails along Place Flagey, Café Belga is an institution. We love coming here on Sunday afternoons, but in winter, you’re lucky to find a seat. Despite the large size of this place, it gets packed quickly with the similarly minded.

5) Le Châtelain (Place Châtelain): Not a bad beer list and friendly service, this place is a steady, hassle-free local. Solid.

6) Café Sisisi (Place Janson): Of all the names on the list, this is, I’m willing to bet, the one most readers will have never heard of. But by the three criteria, Sisisi well deserves mention. It was closed for ages and recently reopened with a fair handful of bottled craft beers on offer. This is one to watch out for. I think it will do pretty well, as it’s literally just around the corner from one of Brussels big tourist attractions, the Horta Museum on Rue Américaine. Sisisi would be a good place to grab, say, a Zinnebir after a visit to this famous Art Nouveau monument. [UPDATE, June 2012: Hmmm... not so sure now. I went there the other day, and the beer selection was a bit pants.]

7) Au Soleil (Rue du Marché au Charbon 86): Sit back, have a Chimay White on tap and watch the world go by. Reviewing an old blog post, I realise it was a Chimay White at Au Soleil that started changing my thinking on strong blonde ales.

8) Supra Bailly (Rue du Bailli 77): This favourite comes with a huge proviso. Supra Bailly is only tolerable when the weather’s good and you and sit outside. If you ever go inside the impossibly hazy bar, you’ll be smoked like a kipper in about 20 seconds. But at a pavement-side table on a warm evening after work, it’s a fine place to enjoy a St Feuillien.

9) Brasserie de l’Union (Parvis de Saint-Gilles 55): A good beer list and an unpretentious place. I wrote about a Moinette Blonde I had there not too long ago.

10) Bar du Matin (Chaussée d'Alsemberg 172): If the sun’s out -- or if it’s not pouring down rain, at least -- sitting outside the Bar du Matin is a lovely way to spend an hour or two. And if you’re inside, the style of the place will make you forget about any bad weather.

That’s it. That’s the list. But like my list of top ten Belgian beers, I suspect this one will also evolve over time.


* A good example of this counter-productive attitude to serving customers and making money generally is Les Brassins (Rue Keyenveld 36). It’s got a decent beer list, and it was until recently a favourite of mine. Unfortunately, they’ve now taken to not letting you even sit down unless you’re ordering a meal. We tried going in there the other day, and it was well after 10, so past the time they could expect dinner-eating clients, yet despite having empty tables, they refused to serve us just a beer. Now, I understand if it’s 8 or 9 o’clock -- so a normal time for an evening meal -- as a proprietor, you want your tables going to people worth 20 or 40 euros rather than people worth 5 or 10. But insisting on your “restaurant” status when no one’s going to eat is just self-defeating snobbery. Basically, it’s a pub that thinks far too much of itself. Wrong attitude.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Little Delirium Café grand opening

I was initially quite excited about yesterday’s grand opening of the Little Delirium Café on Rue Marche au Fromages. Promising 30 brews on tap, the new location looked like it might become a solid addition to the city’s quality beer scene. Sadly, the night didn’t work out as I'd hoped.

I showed up a fashionable-yet-still-eager 15 minutes late for the grand opening party, but the place was a construction site, with at least a dozen people moving furniture, playing with power tools and making busy with a shop-vac. OK, I thought, things are running a bit late. That happens. So I went to Grand Place to enjoy the light show for a while.

When I came back, things still weren’t quite ready, but the workers were taking a break with a glass of rosé. There was still no beer flowing, which for a beer place, seemed to be missing an important part of the equation. I left a second time, now thirsty for a beer, and went elsewhere.

A few hours later, we returned again, and the place was hopping with a beer-drinking crowd. But when we opened the door, and stepped in, my trachea went into revolt. The bar was thick with smoke, making it nasty and unwelcoming for breathing types like us. For the third time in the evening, we left.

I don’t want to be completely dismissive. I’ll probably give the Little Delirium Café another chance at some point. But heavy smoke is the reason I don’t much like the old Delirium bar at Impasse de la Fidélité. No use having over 2000 beers if you're choking while trying to taste them.

It could also be that the whole Delirium phenomenon is just not really my thing. As the pink elephants slowly surround Grand Place, it seems more and more like a chain of tourist traps. It may forever be a draw for drunken visitors, but it’s not really for me (unlike Delirium Christmas beer, which definitely is for me).

Back to Taras Boulba

As I approach my 300th beer tasting on this blog, it seems a good time to review my list of top ten Belgian beers. I’ve made a few changes to it here and there over the years, of course, but there still seems to be something unbalanced about it.

One thing that needs correcting is that some beers I enjoy quite regularly -- what some call “session beers” -- have taken a back seat to some rarely quaffed brews. But should something great be overlooked in a “best of” list just because it is relatively easy to find? Has familiarity numbed my sense of quality?

Perhaps the best example of this is Taras Boulba. I suppose I could have chosen another of the excellent beers for the Brasserie de la Senne, like Zinnebier or Stouterik, but Taras Boulba is the one that reaches out to me. I drink it quite often -- maybe so often that I’ve taken it for granted. But ever since I attended a tasting at which Yvan de Baets, the inspirational master brewer at De la Senne, introduced this beer, I’ve realised I really need to give it the credit it’s due.

Taras Boulba has got massive hop, with a bit of grassiness and a faint note of grapefruit pith. There’s a dryness in there that makes you want to take another sip. And as Taras Boulba has a fairly low alcohol level for a Belgian ale, 4.5%, you don’t have to think twice before doing so. I particularly like it on tap.

So, Taras Boulba has now joined my official top ten Belgian beers, and I think there may be a few other shake-ups to that list in the coming months.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

An Alpine Adventure

I was invited to speak at a conference in Switzerland on Monday, and in the brief 22 hours I spent in that country, I managed to try two Swiss beers, both as I waited for my plane at Geneva airport on my way home.

Regular readers of this blog may note some similarity between this situation and an incident at London’s St Pancras last week... My attitude is I shouldn’t miss an opportunity to try a new beer.

When I saw the bottle of Calanda at the airport self-serve restaurant, I figured it was going to be a plain mass-market lager, but I gave it a shot anyway, because I thought it might go well with the stir fry I was having. Turns out, it was worse than that: heavy and syrupy, below average even for a dull lager. The label promised, “bière normale”. If only. (The stir fry wasn’t so great either, in case you’re wondering.)

Luckily, my second beer offered something different: flavour. Ittinger Amber pours copper coloured and has a taste bordering on an alt, with a light mouthfeel, mild caramel and a gentle nuttiness, all with a dash of bitterness to round it off. I’d get this one again.

I leave you, then, with three short videos. No, there’s no beer in them; only trains. Switzerland has railways across some of the craziest, and most beautiful, terrain anywhere. As my conference was up in the mountain-side village of Caux (above Montreux), I got to take not only the express along the lake, but also one of the cog railway services that ascends at an absurd angle. If you’re a train freak as well as a beer geek -- or even if you just want to see some amazing scenery -- have a look at these clips: two on the mountain and one along the water.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Delirium Christmas

Amid all the holiday fever, what beer could be more appropriate than Delirium Christmas?

It pours a wonderful chestnut colour and draws you in with its warming spice aroma. The taste is brandy and brown sugar, with fine bubbles and a whiff of nutmeg.

We paired it with a traditional Christmas pudding, which was a perfect match, the burnt sweetness and dried fruits blending beautifully with the beer. It’s got ten per cent alcohol in case you’re counting, but given the calories in the pud, it seems best I don’t dwell too much about the numbers.

Delirium Christmas is, overall, an excellent drink, and I rate it a good deal higher than regular ol’ Delirium tremens. Hopefully I’ll be able to taste it again at this Friday’s grand opening of the new “Little Delirium Café” downtown. The invitation says they’re going to offer 30 beers on tap, so chances have to be pretty good.


Stille Nacht

We popped into L'Ultime Atome after a bit of nosing around the shops in the Matonge district. This bar's got a respectable beer menu, but we immediately chose one of those offered on the specials blackboard: Stille Nacht from Brouwerij De Dolle Brouwers, makers of the pretty well-known oerbier.

But right from the first sip, we felt disappointment. It was unbalanced by heavy sweetness. Some acidity and fruitiness were fighting for attention, but the sugars punched them back flat. Too bad.

It was the first beer in our new “Beerly Coherent” podcast series that we actually didn’t much like. Bit of a shame, perhaps, but we’ve got to call them as we find them. (Interestingly, I also found oerbier a bit too sweet in an tasting quite a while back.)

To listen to the tasting of Stille Nacht, click on the link in the player below...


Tuesday, 14 December 2010


With a rare second posting of the day, I suppose I’m not really disguising the fact that I’m many write-ups behind, with tasting notes and photos scattered about and in need of getting into the blog. Still, this beer was a memorable treat.

From Brasserie Caracole, producers of the peppery sweet Caracole, Nostradamus bruin is a sugar and burnt caramel number with a bittery biscuit base line and notes of roasted chestnut and honey. It’s quite fizzy, and the alcohol, at nine per cent, doesn’t exactly hide itself. As it warms up, a fascinating fennel aroma develops.

In short, there’s a lot going on here, but the flavours seem in harmony when taken together.

We enjoyed it with dark bread, Herve cheese and sirop de Liège, which suited this beer very nicely.

La Rulles Cuvée Meilleurs Voeux

This was a very pleasant beer tasting for two reasons. First, it was yumminess in a glass. Second, it helped me overcome my fear of La Rulles.

I occasionally happens that you get a bad bottle of something, and it darkens your outlook on a whole brewery’s output. Let’s not forget the Cookie Beer incident... In a similar way, I had tried La Rulles Brune almost three years ago and was very unimpressed.

However, I kept reading high praise for the beers of this brewery, and so I decided to give it another chance with La Rulles Cuvée Meilleurs Voeux, on tap at Chez Moeder Lambic St Gilles the other day.

This Christmas beer is full of rich dark caramels, with notes of burnt gingerbread and nutmeg. It’s got a welcome bitterness too. In all, it’s a really well put-together brew. Actually, it’s one of the better Christmas beers I’ve had this season. And that’s saying something.

Monday, 13 December 2010

The saintly, the pants and the crass at St Pancras

By my own personal mathematics, one delayed Eurostar from London equals two serendipitous beer tastings. Happily, St Pancras International houses a little spot called the Sourced Market shop, which has a fair selection of bottled British craft beers.

At least, it seems a fair selection to me. I’m British, but I only really started taking a proper interest in beer when I moved to Belgium, and I have everything to learn about UK brands. So, while I wasn’t going anywhere anyway, I thought, time to get educated...

Now, somewhere in the back of my mind, I’d heard of Meantime, so, when I saw Meantime London Stout on the shelf, I went for it. Good choice as it turns out.

It was rich and smooth, with deep burnt flavours throughout, along with bittersweet coffee surrounded by little if any carbonation. There was something of a Christmas pudding about it, as well. Or maybe I simply had that on the brain because I had just bought one to take back to Brussels. (More on that in a future post...)

The selection at Sourced
The Sourced Market shop, by the way, also has a few Belgian beers, including Rochefort 6, surprisingly. This most elusive of the Rochefort labels, and my favourite of the three, makes a welcome change from the thumping ubiquity of Leffe Blond, Hoegaarden and Stella, which seem to be the only things most of London would ever know of Belgian beer -- and don’t get me started on the others you find everywhere: American Bud, Fosters, San Miguel, Corona, and Peroni.

OK, you got me started: what’s up with that particular selection of boring brands, unchanging from bar to bar? I know that mass market beer is all about shifting units via marketing rather than taste, but why have five or six soulless drinks when really one would do?

Anyway, train delays being what they are, I decided to try another British beer off the richly stocked Sourced Market shelves: Dark Star Espresso (Rich Coffee Beer). The mouthfeel was immediately thinner than the last one, but the overall impression was no worse off for it. The first flavour was of very dark roasted malt, but then the coffee taste kicked in. And how. No mistaking this beer’s been rightly named.

Something like straw moves to the fore soon after, dusty, fragrant and inviting. Leave it for a few minutes, and black cherry appears, along with woody or barky notes and over-ripe apple (in a nice way). That complexity I found a bit unusual for a beer that’s not so creamy as other darks I know. Still, I wasn’t complaining: both beers, new to me, were a great way to pass the time in Eurostar limbo.

But, dear reader, be warned: don’t expect anything interesting once you check in. The Eurostar waiting area itself is a desert of dullness. The single pub on the far side of the security and passport controls, the “undercroftbar”, is dire. I’d call it the “underpantsbar” to emphasise just how pants it is, but that would sound very immature and not very helpful for my credibility just I am about to make a very important point. Oops.

Seriously, how is it possible that a major international travel terminal has only one bar after check-in? The only international departure areas that allow a monopoly bar these days are those in nasty authoritarian regimes (and even some of those have a better beer selection). But this is the UK, and they just dumped about seventy-two squizillion pounds on the beautiful new St Pancras and its new Eurostar station. How can it be that there is not more choice? Any choice?

So, remember, if you want a decent beer before you get on the train to Brussels or Paris, be sure to have one before you check in to the Eurostar area. And if you one day in your travels find this handy tip saves your taste buds from ruin, please feel free to offer your thanks by buying me a beer. But not in the underpantsbar, of course.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Mikkeller Santa’s Little Helper 2009

Tis the season and all that, so we’ve been doing our part to maintain the yuletide spirit by sampling a good number of Christmas beers in recent weeks. This time, it’s a Danish one rather than a Belgian.

Mikkeller is all the rage in the world of beer snobbery, and having tried two divine Mikkeller brews already -- Monk’s Elixer and Beer Geek Breakfast -- I can very easily understand why. This third Mikkeller beer, Santa’s Little Helper 2009, was every bit as wonderful as the first two.

It pours absurdly dark and rich, and the taste is burnt cedar and heavy spice: cinnamon, coriander and star anise. Chocolate notes swirl around with hints of orange peel. Just fantastic. Everything I love in a dark beer. More please...

We also made a podcast for this one as part of our “Beerly Coherent” series. Have a listen...


Monday, 6 December 2010

Hoppy, hoppy, ho ho ho

Another weekend of woeful weather brought another bout of tap beer tasting at Chez Moeder Lambic. Bob and I managed to try a number of new ones, including more Christmas beers, just in time to boost that holiday spirit.

First on the menu was Hop Harvest 2010 from De Ranke brewery, which also makes the plummy Guldenberg, the hop-happy XX Bitter, and the pitch black Noir de Dottignies. Hop Harvest 2010 is indeed what you'd expect: um, hoppy. It's bordering on piney even. But it was a little disappointing, to be honest, because undermining the bitter, dry crispiness was something a bit sweet and syrupy. I was thinking it would be a bit more refreshing than it turned out to be.

Père Noël, also from De Ranke, set off my hop-detectors much more than Hop Harvest. It's sharp and dry rather than sweet, which is not what I generally think are the qualities of a Belgian Christmas beer, but I've yet to ever really nail down any notion of a proper style in the whole Xmas beer malarkey. What do Affligem Christmas, Tongerlo Christmas Amber, and the other Christmas beers I've had lately have in common? Still, Père Noël does have something that evokes the season in it: some warming spices like nutmeg and, more obviously, a bit of candied orange peel. Very yummy.

Tournay Noël arrives at our table dark, with a beautifully heavy foam. It's produced by Brasserie de Cazeau, makers of the very good Tourney Blonde and the outstanding Saison Cazeau. The taste of Tournay Noël is lightly smoky -- or maybe that should be, mildly burnt -- and somewhat sweet, with some rich biscuity flavours, cinnamon, nutmeg and licorice. The aftertaste almost edges toward that of a vinegar-like Belgian brown ale, but don't let that put you off. All its flavours blend very nicely, creating a taste that is complex and multi-layered, yet still unified -- both very rich and very mild at the same time. It's just incredibly smooth.

Bons Vœux comes from the Dupont brewery, and though Chez Moeder Lambic was offering both the 2010 and the 2009, we only got a chance to sample the latter. Again, the layers jumped out at us. It's got a strong herbal nose, which nears medicinal strength on the tongue, where the heavy floral notes are also amplified. Then, all of a sudden, your tongue and lips are sealed in wax, such is the aftertaste that hits you. It's a bit alarming at first, but then as you grow used to it, something else emerges: mango. Loads and loads of mango, like dried mango or, given the thick richness in mouthfeel of the liquid generally, even a mango lassi. Yum.

While those draft beers were enjoyed in Chez Moeder Lambic Fontainas, the final one -- Oud Zottegems Bier from the Crombé brewery -- we sampled in Chez Moeder Lambic St Gilles, after climbing the hill in the cold and wet. It's served in a tall glass, pouring a light amber colour. The taste is refreshing and slightly herbal, not a thousand miles from the Bons Vœux, in fact. But it's not that complex, doesn't demand as much, and ends up being somewhat easier to just enjoy rather than analyse. Simply moreish.



Thursday, 2 December 2010

Ultra délice, Ultra blonde & Ultra ambrée

My tour through the beers of Brasserie d’Ecaussinnes continued with three "Ultra" offerings: Ultra délice, Ultra blonde and Ultra ambrée. After the debacle of Cookie Beer, I was wary to even open the bottles...

Well, the good news is, removing the cap of Ultra délice did not result in a foamy wee fountain in my kitchen. It poured -- didn’t spray -- a lovely chestnut brown, in fact, with a gentle cappuccino-crema head.

The taste, however, wasn’t something I was thrilled about. It’s got a pleasant, thick mouthfeel, but it’s quite sour and marmitey. It seems like there are some spices trying to push their way out through the vinegar, but sadly, unsuccessfully.

Ultra blonde pours a butterscotch hue, and also suffers from a bit of sourness. It’s missing those flavours I associate with Belgian strong blond ales -- none of those bitter grapefruity pithy notes, for example. There’s something fruity, like over-ripe apple, that almost moves in to save the taste.

But not quite. It falls well short of being something I'd order again.

Third up, then, was Ultra ambrée. It’s got a pleasing copper colour with a healthy, lasting head. In taste, the first thing that hits you is candied orange peel, and then it mellows into a kind of fresh-baked lemon cake, smooth, with no sharp edges. Overall, it’s a bit too sweet for me, but Ultra ambrée is at least interesting and complex. It’s easily the best of the four beers from Brasserie d'Ecaussinnes that I’ve now tried.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Cookie Beer

I've got a colleague who hails from the small village of Ecaussinnes south of Brussels, and when, about a month ago, we happened to find ourselves in, of all places, a beer shop, he insisted I pick up some of his local brewery's offerings. We bought one of every beer that Brasserie d'Ecaussinnes makes, as it turns out.

So, now that I am finally getting around to tasting them, I've decided to start with "Cookie Beer". Amazing but true, it really is called: "Cookie Beer". It's just not right somehow, is it? For one thing, we've got that whole marketing-to-kids issue, reminiscent of the Belgian penchant for using elves, gnomes and pixies to sell beer.

For another thing, what's the point of cookies -- presumably spéculoos -- in beer? I am assuming they indeed put the cookies in rather than just use them for the label because there's some serious mungusness in this thing, much more than the yeasty goodness of your normal bottle-fermented Belgian ale.

To add to my initial poor impressions, when I opened the bottle, foam burst out everywhere in my kitchen. And before you say, "oh, I bet you shook the bottle", or something else in an effort to defend this brew, let me say, no I did not. It's been sitting undisturbed for a month at least. So there.

And the stench was appalling. "Urine" is the only word for it. In my glass, on my counter-top, on the floor, on the cupboards... Don't get me started on the taste. It's worse.

"Go with tradition", said Fiona. "Stick with cookies and milk."

Indeed, I rather love spéculoos biscuits, which remind me of the gingerbread men my mother used to bake around Christmas time. I can eat them by the cart load, and I certainly wouldn't be doing that if they reeked of urine.

Please, Brasserie d'Ecaussinnes, tell me I got a bad bottle of this beer. This cannot be the taste you were aiming for. This cannot be the reason you have drowned well-loved baked goods.

And please, my dear colleague, tell me the other nine bottles of beer you convinced me to buy from this brewery are not going to leave me similarly thirsty with lots of cleaning to do.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Belgian Beer Bread (part 2)

There are times in life when you just have to admit failure. You can give it your all, try your best, and push as hard as you can... but then, things just don’t work out.

So it was with my attempt at making Belgian beer bread via a sourdough method.

I still maintain the theory is correct. The bottle-fermented beer, added to flour and a bit of sugar, contained live yeast, and in fact, the micro-organisms in my experiment were producing some new alcohol in the goo every day, so I know it was still alive. But it really never took off to produce healthy bubbling dough starter as it should have.

I think the mixture may not have been warm enough to get the yeast really going properly. I tried heating it gently a few times, but it wasn’t the constant warmth that the little beasties probably need.

I’m not giving up, mind you. I will give it another shot at some point -- probably summer, when the kitchen is warmer. But for now, this experiment is officially over.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Taking the pils

When it comes to your standard mass-produced pilswater, I've always been of the opinion that one is pretty much the same as the next. They are lowest-common-denominator products, pumped out at a rate of seventy-four bezillion litres a minute and dominating the largest share of most beer markets everywhere.

But is that fair? Are they all the same?

The matter calls for a blind taste test. So, I asked my new, straight-haired wife, who happens to have the same name and voice as my former, curly-haired wife, whom I traded in earlier today. She poured them into glasses without me seeing, and off I went.

The beers in the test include some of Belgium's biggest sellers and a few others in that "premium pils" category: Jupiler, Maes, Primus, Vedett, Stella Artois, and Cara Pils. All of those are probably familiar enough brand names for readers apart from the last one.

Cara Pils is, to my knowledge, the cheapest beer on the Belgian market, and the preferred tipple of all men of leisure who attend invitation-only al fresco social functions in front of the late-night packaged beverage establishments. I was frightened even to walk into such a place to buy one. Well, maybe not frightened exactly, but I felt dirty. This beer's reputation was confirmed when I returned home and showed it to Fiona, who said, "don't you have to drink that outside?"

Anyway, just for comparison purposes, we added Rothaus Tannenzäpfle to the blind tasting selection. If I can't tell Tannenzäpfle from Cara Pils, I thought, I'll seriously consider hanging up my beer-tasting hat. Or start saving a bit of money.

So, off we went... Fiona set it up, and I sat there with seven small samples before me.

With a measure of relief, I spotted some differences right away. Three stood out as duds on first taste. One was flat, syrupy and pongy: that turned out to be Cara Pils.

But while that was not a surprise, two other flops may be: Jupiler came across as unpleasantly biscuity and grassy, and Stella Artois was disturbingly creamy and sweet. Those are two big names in the Belgian beer world -- perhaps the two biggest -- but in our blind-tasting, both were close to undrinkable.

A fourth beer seemed decent at first, but on second sip, after it had been sitting for a few minutes, turned dull and heavy. That was revealed to be Maes.

That left three, and honestly, it was more difficult to tell differences between then than I would have expected with Tannenzäpfle in the mix. Of those, I actually guessed Vedett Extra Blond, remembering its crispiness. Primus, then, was easily the biggest surprise of the evening. Rather impressive.

What does it all prove? Well, first, the test shows that there are differences in mass-produced pils, even if sometimes those differences are quite small. It also tells me that some beers very much deserve their reputations.

But most of all, the test demonstrates that the new wife is turning out to be every bit as understanding and lovely as the old one.


Affligem Christmas

Shopping. I can't stand it. Buying stuff I can just about tolerate out of necessity. But the process of shopping, even with a book and in one of those comfy chairs strategically placed for bored husbands and fathers, drives me a bit mad.

But, I'd been a good boy and (mostly) behaved myself today, so my new wife -- that is, the straight-haired one that the salon gave me as replacement for my old curly-haired one this morning -- took me for an apero at Banco. It's a local pub that has a welcome happy hour on week days but a generally uninspiring selection of beers.

However, they were advertising Affligem Christmas on tap, and since we've been on a bit of a holiday season beer kick of late, with Tongerlo Christmas Amber and three other Christmas beers already under our belts this month, we decided to go for it.

I haven't had an Affligem in years. Very early on in this blog, I tried an Affligem Tripel and rather liked it. A few months later, an Affligem Dubbel didn't impress me as much. Still, I was hopeful.

Affligem Christmas looks lovely in the glass: a rich, dark brown with a healthy frothy head. The first taste that hits you is sweet. Too sweet really. It's got notes of baked apple and black cherry, but I repeatedly slurped in vain for the hint of spice -- cinnamon, nutmeg, clove -- that this beer desperately needs. I'm reaching. I want it to be something it simply is not. In the end, the sweetness just overpowers everything.

Friday, 26 November 2010

A Belgian amber, an Italian ale, & a secret cellar

After a long week, it was good to settle in at Chez Moeder Lambic St Gilles for a couple hours this evening. Even better, for company, I was joined by the "journalist from a major international newspaper who has a business card with the word 'beer' on it". And then, after a glass or two, we had a surprise tour of the cellars.

But before we go downstairs, let's review the new on-tap tastings. First up was Bink Bloesem, an amber beer from the Kerkom Brewery. It immediately seemed to me richer and deeper than the average Belgian amber. It poured with a big head, and its taste was honey sweet, with some of those gingerbread tastes I love so much in dark Belgian beers: nutmeg, cinnamon, even stewed plums. It was, I'd say, one of the best ambers I've had in Belgium.

The second new beer was Re-Hop, which hails from south of here a bit. No, I don't mean Wallonia. Actually, it's made by the Toccalmatto Brewery in Fidenza, near Parma, Italy.

Um, yes. Italy.

OK, I have to admit my prejudices here. I was not expecting much from an Italian beer. My experiences with the brews of that country, which is otherwise perfect in every other culinary way, are limited to dull pilsner wannabes. But if Chez Moeder Lambic is offering it, I figured, it can't be bad.

Indeed, that logic proved correct. Re-Hop is a lovely top-fermented ale, with a firm hop and lemon flavour, undisturbed by its relatively low carbonation. The brewery's website says it's: "Excellent as an aperitif or in combination with pizzas and focaccia with grilled meats, etc." That is very easy to imagine, and, well, mouth-watering.

The evening would have ended there, but for the arrival of one of the owners, Jean, who came over and offered to give us a quick tour of the cellar, which I'd never seen before. It's part private function room and part storage area for thousands of bottles of high quality beers, Belgian and otherwise. Looking around, I was very quickly thinking up various excuses to arrange parties for 10 or 15 people. Or, maybe just for me for, say, two weeks...

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Tongerlo Christmas Amber 7

Snow is falling, there's pumpkin pie cooling in the kitchen, and Fiona's come home with a new beery find: a bottle of Tongerlo Christmas Amber 7. Ah, the joys of a late November evening in Brussels... It may not be Thanksgiving here, but it'll do just nicely.

Now, I don't really claim to understand Belgian Christmas beers. Every time I try one, I seem to get something different in my glass.

At one point, I thought they would all be dark and rich, like the outstanding Goulden Carolus Christmas, warming stuff for winter celebrations. But somewhere along the line, I realised they span across the spectrum of colours and styles, like the three Christmas beers I tried a week or so ago.

So, when Fiona handed me the bottle this evening, I had no idea what to expect. I've tried Tongerlo Christmas Blond and liked it, and Tongerlo Dubbel Bruin is also good stuff. Living up to expectations, this one also turned out positive.

Tongerlo Christmas Amber 7 pours a lovely copper colour. It's got a creamy smooth mouthfeel, with a mild sweetness common to Belgian ambers. With notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and baked lemon zest, it goes very well with pumpkin pie.

To bring in a proper American element of Thanksgiving to this Christmas moment, however, I had a quick video beer with my brother over on the left-hand side of the Atlantic. Unable to find a Tongerlo in Connecticut at very short notice, he instead enjoyed a Winter Ale from the Blue Point, Long Island Brewery, which he found, "nicely spiced, nicely hopped, with a bit of sweetness in the end".

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Houses built on beer

Hôtel Wielemans
Brussels sometimes seems an oyster of a city, revealing its pearls slowly. There are amazing bits of beauty on almost every street, but many you only discover with time.

And as my years here have passed by, I've come to realise that, once you actually know what you're looking at, you can hardly flick a beer mat in any direction in this town without hitting some piece of brewing history.

My latest discovery was the Hôtel Wielemans, a beautiful house with an eclectic mix of Art Deco and Andalucian influences located literally next door to my office tower. OK, "discovery" is not really the right word. I've known about the building, now used for events, for a while now, and I've attended a function or two there. "Next door" is a bit misleading as well. The place is, in fact, attached to mine via a secret passage.

Anyway, while the outside may not impress you at first, once you've taken the virtual tour of the inside, you'll see what I mean about its exceptional design.

The "Blomme"
But while I knew about the existence of Hôtel Wielemans before (and about the really-not-so-secret passage), I didn't know about its connection to beer. The house (1932) was originally built for Léon Wielemans, head of the Wielemans-Ceuppens brewery in Brussels, as a gift for his wife, Yvonne. For the job of creating something truly unique, he hired architect Adrien Blomme, who also designed the amazing 1930 industrial modernist building at the brewery itself, at the bottom of Avenue Wielemans-Ceuppens. Known as the "Blomme", it held what was apparently the largest brewing hall in Europe at the time.

These days, however, you won't find any Wielemans-Ceuppens beers in this town or any other. The brewery rose to prominence on the wave of changing public preference in favour of bottom-fermented Pilsners and "Munich-style" beers seen in Belgium and elsewhere in the late 19th century and then enjoyed several periods of expansion in the 20th before running into troubles. It was taken over by Artois in 1980 and stopped brewing in 1988. The "Blomme" building itself has been converted into the art centre, "Wiels".

Rue Américaine 205
And just to reveal one more of those Brussels pearls of discovery: Adrien Blomme also designed the beautiful house at Rue Américaine 205, which is not too many streets from where we live.

Connections to beer are everywhere in this town if you keep your eyes open...

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Three from upstate New York

As usual, Bob did not arrive in Brussels empty handed. He came bearing gifts, Three Kings style, continuing in the current Christmas spirit that has defined this weekend.

We first opened a bottle of Brooklyn East India Pale Ale, which was a gorgeous hop sensation, though we noticed that it’s not actually made in Brooklyn but in Utica, in upstate New York. Remembering our last winter holiday tipple, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Fiona commented that Brooklyn East India Pale Ale, “tastes like Florida”. New York, Nevada, Florida, East India, whatever. It’s a lovely beer.

Next up was Ommegang Abbey Ale, another upstate New York beer, though the brewery is now owned by the Belgian firm Moortgat, of Duvel fame. Ommegang Abbey Ale, which aims to be a Belgian dubbel, pours a beautiful rich dark colour, and it has the taste to match. It’s highly aromatic, warm and wintery, with notes of liquorice, nutmeg and dried fruits -- apricots and prunes. Ommegang Abbey Ale has got a very strong fizz at first, becoming more pillowy as it settles. 8.5% alcohol. It’s a bit like a Rochefort 8, in fact. Very nice.

Hennepin Farmhouse Saison, another from Ommegang, did not instantly strike me as a saison, oddly. My first thought upon tasting it was that it seemed more like a tripel with notes of a honey-cured ham with cloves stuck into it. Bob and Fiona looked at me strangely when I said ham, though they agreed with the clove and honey notes. Ginger as well. There’s some bitterness coming through in the end, but overall, it’s a bit too sweet.

“Not how I remember it”, said Bob. It wasn’t bad, mind you, but I wouldn’t have called it a saison. We’ll have to give it another try.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Rainy afternoon at CML(F)

Since it's been raining non-stop in Brussels for about, oh, seven years, Bob and I decided to quench our post-ark-building thirst down at Chez Moeder Lambic (Fontainas), where we tried three new Christmas beers.

Zinnebier Xmas is a lovely brew: dark, with burnt caramel, strong hop, and fine carbonation. Bittersweet and yummy. Another one from Brasserie de la Senne Brewery, Yvan de Baets has another winner here.

Goliath Christmas comes from the Brasserie des Geants, offering low -- maybe, no -- carbonation and strong notes of pine resin. Unusual. Tasty.

Val-Dieu Noël is lighter in colour than you might expect from a Christmas Belgian ale, and it overwhelms you with a whomping aroma of rye bread. The taste follows in the same suit.

"It's like drinking pumpernickel", said Bob. It's got a slight candycane note, too. Also unusual. Also tasty.

So, in all, I think we're set for the holiday season. Let it rain, let it rain. let it rain.

"Isn't it a bit early for Christmas?", Fiona asked when we got back.

"Um, no."

Achel Blond Extra

On a quick trip to the monastery of Achelse Kluis a few weeks ago, I spotted 750ml bottles of something I'd never seen before: Achel Blond Extra. Now, Achel Brune Extra is one of my all-time favourites, with a well-deserved place in my list of top ten Belgian beers, so I picked up two bottles of the Blond Extra, expecting great things.

Well, it was something of a disappointment. The first taste is sweet. Too sweet. If you stretch your imagination a bit, you might detect notes of celery, ginger and cinnamon. Bob thought it reminded him of Celestial Seasonings Bengal Spice Herbal Tea. But really, all that's a bit of a push: hazy visions through a thick fog of sweetness.

So, Achel Blond Extra won't make the top ten list any time soon, but maybe I should give it some time. I'll cellar the second bottle for a couple years and see if we can get some of those sugars eaten up to evolve the tastes a bit.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Best Belgian beer tasting event yet

Last month, I had to arrange a big Belgian beer tasting event for a group of VIPs visiting Brussels, so I got in touch with the good people at Chez Moeder Lambic and asked them what they could do for me. They pulled in the Cantillon Brewery and the Brewery de la Senne, and together this town's three craft-beer powerhouses put on an amazing show for us.

Yvan de Baets, the master brewer at De la Senne and co-author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers, first took us on an enthusiastic tour of Cantillon, radiating deep love and respect for his former place of employment specifically and for traditionally produced beers generally. If a few minutes in Yvan's presence don't inspire you to try Belgium's finest products, nothing will. The man is as much a prophet as a brewer, conveying in equal measure both his passion for and his knowledge of quality beer.

The tasting itself took place in a large function room at Cantillon, where all beers were expertly paired with artisanal cheeses and charcuterie. Some I've had before; others not.

First up was the lovely IV Saision from the brewery in Jandrain-Jandrenouille. Then we enjoyed two familiar blonde ales: De la Senne's hoposaurus Taras Boulba and De Ranke's Guldenberg.

Then came a strong blonde ale that was new to me: Cervesia. Produced by Dupont, makers of the wonderful Saison Dupont and Moinette Blonde, Cervesia has some interesting spiciness. Maybe cloves? Nutmeg? It's a bit syrupy to me, and it seems low in hop.

Next we returned to the offerings of De la Senne to try a dark delight, Equinox. I'd describe this winter beer as "stoutish", but that'd be too easy. It's a soft pillow, with caramel, coffee and burnt notes blending joyously. As Yvan is mostly anti-spices, this beer has none added, but somehow, dark spice notes emerge. Like everything from De la Senne, Equinox is gorgeous.

Finally, we ended with two from Cantillon itself, the old friends, Cantillon Lambic and Cantillon Kriek, the latter fresh from the barrel and surprisingly well-suited to the dark chocolate served with it.

In all, I have to send a huge thanks to those who put on this wonderful tour and tasting evening. Some in our group had never been to a craft beer tasting before, and I was a little nervous about how they would respond to it. But in the home-style location of Cantillon and under the inspired guidance of Yvan de Baets, the Moeder Lambic team not only organised the best tasting event I've ever been to but also made beer novices feel welcome and inspired. I think we had quite a few converts to craft beer that evening.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Belgian Beer Bread (part one)

After a few hours of experimentation today, I think I'm getting closer to inventing a Belgian beer bread. But I'm not there just yet.

I first made a standard whole wheat loaf with dried yeast just to get into the swing of things (and remind myself how bread works). That was pretty tasty, so then I kept the same recipe but replaced the packet yeast with the dregs of some St Bernardus Prior 8, which of course is bottle-fermented so has loads of the necessary slimy mung at the bottom of it.

Not enough, however, as it turns out. The results of this one were not spectacular, to say the least. It just didn't rise very much at all. Given the quantity of dried yeast I put in the first loaf, I'm pretty sure the problem is that there simply is not enough yeast in the average bottle of live Belgian ale to get things going properly.

I then made a third experiment, using both beer yeast and dried yeast, and that one looks the best yet. (Cutting the whole wheat flour with a bit more white flour and kneading for a longer time also probably helped.) We'll taste it at dinner with friends in an hour or so. (UPDATE: it was great)

But I've also not given up on the idea of making bread using only the yeast from Belgian beer. Since I'm pretty sure the problem is the amount of yeast, I simply need to cultivate more of the stuff over a longer period of time. Say hello to my sourdough starter then: a tepid bottle of Bernardus added to some white flour and a bit of sugar, now sitting in a warmish cupboard.

I'll keep it there for a few days, and then, once I see some serious frothing action, I'll take some of the glop for a new loaf and see how that goes, with results (and hopefully a final recipe) to be posted here. That is, assuming Fiona doesn't bin the goo first.

Update: See results here.