Friday 30 April 2010

La Binchoise Blonde

The last of yesterday evening’s selection of six blonde ales, La Binchoise Blonde was the only one I’d actually ever heard of before. And having tried and enjoyed La Binchoise Brune earlier this month, my expectations were high.

Andrew G wrote:
I’d been expecting a bit more of this. The smell was neutral, and the taste kicked in quite late. For me, there wasn’t all that much going on, though there were some interesting herbal elements that I couldn’t quite distinguish.
Interesting that, because Fiona compared it to the great French beer, 3 Monts, which has lovely lavender notes.

Toby and I were elsewhere with La Binchoise Blonde, however. Rather than herbs, we were thinking citrus. Toby wrote, “tangerine”, and though I first jotted down, “orangey”, I then quickly noted, “grilled mandarin orange”. Now, I don’t normally go around grilling small fruit, but that’s what came to mind. Actually, knowing the Carnival tradition of the town of Binche, an orangey taste should not surprise anyone.

And then, I detected yet another layer of flavour: marzipan. La Binchoise Blonde is a definite keeper.

Adelardus Tripel

Another abbey beer in our evening of blonde ales, Adelardus Tripel pours a warm amber colour.

The first hit against the taste buds is sugary. It’s super boiled sweet, caramel (Toby in agreement there) and candy cane. Then, the one interesting element: peanut brittle. A hoppy aftertaste finishes it off.

Andrew G noted:
Probably had the most caramel-ly of the drinks we had. Some bitterness kicked in, but not of a lingering sort. Again, Andrew picked out boiled sweets, which is probably what I’ve really meant in my references to caramel (ie, there’s that burnt caramel quality that one gets in that solidified caramel that gets stuck on top of ice creams).
Overall, I wasn’t hugely impressed. Just passable.

Kempisch Vuur Tripel

The evening of blonde ales continued with our fourth never-before-tested beer: Kempisch Vuur Tripel. This was the biggest surprise of the tasting.

Toby (photo below) summed it up: “pear with a caramel edge”. Though the summary doesn’t do this beer justice.

At first, I thought, “baked pear”. Fiona said, “pear drop”. But then the buttery taste kicked in. And vanilla.

Finally, it hit me: Petit Beurre biscuits. Now, quite a number of Belgian ales have a biscuity background flavour, but what I’m talking about here with Kempisch Vuur Tripel is not that. This is butter and biscuit together: in short, Petit Beurre.

Fiona noticed on the label that corn was one of the grains used to make this beer, and she believes that’s the source of this unusual taste. Could be.

Andrew G’s notes said:
The most extraordinary beer of the night. To me, the smell was of syrupy blackcurrant, not something others got. A nice colour, with ‘cumulus mung’ [as opposed to the ‘asteroid storm’ of Abbaye des Rocs Blonde, ed.] For me, it was too much as if syrup/concentrate had been injected in, but it was very pleasant for one or two rounds. You and Toby got a clear sense of pear; I got that more faintly than you did, but the caramel-ly edge of a ‘baked pear’ came out clearly for me. I struggled to pick up the buttery quality, but it was certainly there.
Kempisch Vuur Tripel is one of those really unique beers that you have to try. I wouldn’t want it every day, mind you, but I will certainly be having it again.

Abbaye des Rocs Blonde

Mung and filth and pond life: yum. As soon as I popped open the 750ml bottle of Abbaye des Rocs Blonde, huge flakes of yeast started swirling in great currents within, some of them as large as a two-euro coin.

Now, many would be scared off by this, but not experienced drinkers of Belgian beer, who know that fermentation of quality brews continues in the bottle, and a bit of grimy goodness is all part of the joy.

The taste of Abbaye des Rocs Blonde, our third beer our evening of blonde ales is slightly sour coke bottle candies and hazelnut, with that last one finding agreement from Toby. It’s not bitter at all. Then, the aftertaste is a hint of varnish or wood stain -- and I mean that in a good way -- which is a bit thick on the tongue considering the initial mouthfeel is relatively thin.

Andrew G’s comments:
Extraordinary to look at. Yeast everywhere. Like space littered with asteroids. Uncomplicated taste; basically a clean taste, but with some softening/obscuring secondary elements. Andrew S and Toby noticed hazelnut, Andrew S varnish and some boiled sweet. Neither came quickly to my mind, I have to say. Left a coating at the top of my palette.
Toby thought it “not very complex”, and I have to agree: it’s not brilliant, but it’s passable. With the yeasty asteroid show taken into consideration, I’d certainly give it another try.

Park Blond

Second in the line up of our evening of blonde ales was Park Blond, an abbey beer from Leuven.

It pours a lovely amber, but the initial smell is a bit old and musty. It seems flat, says Toby, with “no layers”. It does have a quick fizz on the tongue, but it soon dulls. It has almost no aftertaste.

I find it a bit like Palm, but not quite as good. The problem is, it just has no depth, no complexity. There’s nothing at all bad about Park Blond; it’s perfectly drinkable. But it’s not outstanding.

Andrew G (photo below) wrote:
It reminded me of De Koninck, though fuller in texture. A pleasant drink, but not very much going on, and I found it only had an effect at the front of the palette.
I can't believe I've never written up tasting notes for De Koninck. "There are some strange omissions on your blog, you know", says Andrew G...

Urthel Saisonnière

The first beer in yesterday’s tasting evening of blonde ales was, like the other five, unknown to me before. Urthel Saisonnière was a good find.

It’s very hoppy and bitter, with a slight boiled sweet background. The hop lingers. For quite a long time... Toby wrote down the same, “nice!”, but Fiona thought it was, “a bit thick and syrupy”. I also found a bit of woodiness in it, like sucking on young birch twigs. It has almost a tannic tone, it’s so bitter, but Urthel Saisonnière is, taken altogether, a very tasty beer.

Andrew G, who typed up his own notes, wrote:
A nice, clean, fresh quality to this. Quite light and lingers mid-palette. There’s a bitterness from the outset that gets stronger towards the end, when the freshness, the lightness has passed. Andrew S got a wood/birch/leaf note to it, and, yes, that’s probably right; I’d say it’s less about wood than sucking the type of leaf (forgotten the name) that might be laid on an English roast. A very nice summer beer, one to return to quite often. But not spectacular.

Toby, on the other hand, drew a self-portrait.

So, ratings varied from good to quite good, but all-in-all, a worthwhile beer we’d all try again.

Thursday 29 April 2010

Three Men, Six Blondes & a Redhead

Well, that was quite a success: we had a couple friends over, and we tried six blonde Belgian ales none of us had ever tried before -- bottles I’ve collected on various shopping trips around town this week -- and all of them were at least good. Some of them were very good.

Each beer deserves a separate blog post, so I’ll be rolling these out over the next few days. For now, enjoy the photo here, and know that this was probably the last sunny evening on the sun-trap beer-tasting terrace for a while. After three weeks of fantastic weather, a new front is moving in, and this evening’s festivities may actually mark the end of the Belgian summer.

UPDATE: here are the links to all six tastings...

Urthel Saisonnière

Park Blond

Abbaye des Rocs Blonde

Kempisch Vuur Tripel

Adelardus Tripel

La Binchoise Blonde

Tuesday 27 April 2010

St Feuillien Blond

St Feuillien Blond is on the rise. Everywhere you look in Brussels these days, you see people drinking St Feuillien Blond. It seems to be taking over from Orval as the beer of today’s Ixelles-area pub and café set.

We’ve tried St Feuillien Blond before, as well as St Feuillien Bruin and St Feuillien Cuvée de Noël -- always one step ahead of the hipsters, that’s us. But there’s no sense being against something just because it’s suddenly become popular... So, now in the third straight week of beautiful un-Belgian weather, we were off for apero at a sunny sidewalk table of a local called -- no joke -- "Le Bar".

St Feuillien Blond is a lovely beer, and it’s clearly popular not just because of some marketing campaign. The taste of this strong ale is smooth, creamy, and with a hint of lemon zest. It’s a bit yeasty, but carbonation balances it out very well. Fiona thinks the alcohol is too high and out-of-balance, but I don’t agree. I find it somewhere between 3 Monts, Duvel and Chimay Tripel, only slightly denser than the first, not as fumy as the second, and not as heavy as the third.

If St Feuillien Blond is going to be this season’s beer -- and if this weather keeps on like this -- it’s going to be a great summer.

Sunday 25 April 2010

Krug-Bräu Lager

Here’s a tip: when the instructions on your new high-pressure power-washer say, “warning: may flay skin”, take that advice seriously. Really, these things can probably cut through bone, let alone skin. More importantly, they can scrape off several centimetres of slime and moss from your deck. And now, the sun-terrace sun trap has a white floor, trapping 43% more sun than ever.

Just the right conditions for a Krug-Bräu Lager...

This is another beer, like Füchschen Alt, that Mike brought over for me a week or two ago. And like that one, this one is excellent. (I will repay you, Mike, promise.)

It’s from Franconia, and I actually tried it last summer when we had our holiday there, but I didn’t manage to take proper notes, so I’m glad to have another shot at it.

Krug-Bräu Lager pours exactly the same colour as the bottle, so quite dark for a lager. The taste is leaning toward alt, but just a bit thicker -- and nutty. The notes are hazelnut and walnut. A super beer. And it is probably good for flayed skin injuries...

Mystic Witbier met krieken

We order most of our regular shopping thorough online delivery from one of the major supermarkets here, and they often throw in one or two free samples of new products. Last time, they gave us a free bottle of Mystic Witbier met krieken, from Haacht Brewery.

It was worth every penny we paid for it.

Yuck. Ick. Blech. Absurdly sweet. Makes soda pop seem grown up by comparison. A million miles from a properly tart cherry beer, like Cantillon kriek.

I simply cannot understand why this is called a beer, and why anyone would buy it. No wonder they’re giving it away.

Saturday 24 April 2010

Tongerlo Dubbel Blond 6

My life on Saturday afternoons is now dominated by travelling all over Brussels to deliver children to various birthday parties. Today, it was a gig the eldest was attending at the waterpark in the Bruparck complex near the Atomium.

So, I took the younger one to Mini-Europe which is a fun set of models of famous monuments from all across the 27 member states of the European Union, combined with a bit of healthy propaganda to inspire a Homo europaunionus like myself. There were games to test your Euro-awareness; information panels to enrich your knowledge of those who have dreamed of a free, peaceful and united continent; and, of course, non-stop joyful oding...

Then, we had a long walk through the surrounding sunny parks and went to a café for a Tongerlo Dubbel Blond 6 on tap. It’s a very smooth, ever so slightly sweet ale. Gentle and soft. Better in its class than Tongerlo Prior is among the stronger ales.

I’m now thinking of setting up my own café next to Mini-Europe offering beers from all 27 EU member states. Actually, putting it on Place Lux or near Schuman (the EU areas of Brussels) might be smarter. People get thirsty repeatedly singing throughout the day, “Est Europa nunc unita...”

Wednesday 21 April 2010

La Binchoise Brune

Well, we officially launched a new website at work today, so that’s a good reason to celebrate with an official beer tasting. This one comes from the Belgian town of Binche, famous for its annual Carnival madness, when bands of clowns rampage through the streets throwing oranges to and at the crowd.

OK, “rampage” may be a bit strong, but I’ve heard it’s pretty wild. Need to try to get there one year...

The bottle of this beer is adorned with the ritual rioters, but inside the mood is more calm, if not exactly sober. No taste of oranges as far as I can tell. It is one of those browns that starts off burnt, malty and a bit thin, but then evolves into something richer if you let it sit in the glass for 10 or 15 minutes.

It reminds me of Moinette Brune, with some possible milk chocolate notes -- and possibly even clove -- emerging in the after taste. Not bad really. Not bad at all. These clowns know their stuff.

Sunday 18 April 2010

Füchschen Alt

One of the stranger weekends... I’m supposed to be on a plane right now, but along with 44 kabillion other people in Europe, I’m not going anywhere. Pain in the ash, many would say.

Yet, with the friends of a neighbour/friend stranded here, and all of us playing in the park all the sun-shining day, it was the somehow more than making the best of a bad situation. K and a temporarily displaced girl the same age made fast friends.

After rollerblading and badminton, I sampled a beer offered by another friend from Germany who brought me the bottle on Friday. Everything’s just sorting itself out lately, thanks to friends, as you can see.

Füchschen Alt is an Altbier in that wonderful Düsseldorf tradition. Like Schumacher Alt, it’s like a very slightly smoky, gently malty ale. Not super strong -- 4.8% -- it is refreshing like a lager, but deeper and more complex. Perfect for a hot, summer-like day -- one that’s fairly complex itself.

Thanks, Mike!

Saturday 17 April 2010

Hopus Day

"What a horrid glass", says Fiona. "It's like a tulip vase."

Well, it's true. It probably is the silliest glass after Kwak.

The taste, however, is not silly at all. It's quite a lovely strong blond ale, actually. A bit like a puffier Duvel, but, of course, as the name implies, it's a whole lot hoppier. Nice floral notes. I'd get it again.

"It's too flowery", says Fiona. But then, it does come in a tulip vase...

Monday 12 April 2010

Home delivery of Belgian beer in Belgium?

I was chatting with a friend here in Belgium today -- at first about work, but then, soon enough, about beer -- and he asked me exactly the same question Fiona and I have been grappling with lately: can you buy the less common Belgian beers online and have them delivered to your home?

There seems to be a gap in the market here in Belgium. Yes, we have online shopping from the bigger supermarkets, but they tend to have a very limited selection of beer. They stock about 20 or 30 varieties only, so if you want a mass-produced pils like Jupiler, Stella or Maes, or even if you want one of the more common Trappist beers like Chimay Blue, Westmalle Triple or Orval, you can order online and have it delivered in bulk. But wander just a little outside the comfort zone of the major mega-marts, and you'll find they can't quench your thirst.

Now, there are web-based shops for the rarer Belgian beers catering to the export market with rather ridiculously inflated prices. Sorry, I can't afford six or seven US dollars per bottle plus shipping and handling for a St Bernardus Prior 8 that costs about one euro around the corner.

However, I can't get every bottle around the corner. I've got a handful of favourite small shops and non-chain supermarkets within striking distance of my home that are good for one beer or another. Plus, I'm always on the lookout when I'm in a different Belgian town for whatever reason.

Yet, the core problem remains: there are literally hundreds of Belgian beers I can't buy in shops here in the centre of Brussels, let alone get delivered to my home. What good is Belgium's beer diversity if I can't access it easily here in its native land?

Some will say the fun is in the chase. That's partially true: I do love finding a new beer in an unexpected place. And somehow I have tried some 150 or so beers already, and every one over, say, 50 or 60 is not exactly common, so it is possible.

But what about those times when I want to have a beer tasting with a few friends, and we want to go off the beaten path a bit? What can be done? Is there some service I don't know about? Answers to this question warmly welcome...

Monday 5 April 2010

Löwenbräu Triumphator

We arrived in Heidelberg by train, and seeking refreshment, we stopped off at one of the pubs on the main street -- which has to be the longest high street of any German city.

As usual, I scanned the beer list and went for something I’ve not tried before. This time: Löwenbräu Triumphator

Dark, super caramel toffee, and a sort of cinnamon note. It’s a bit too sweet.

Sunday 4 April 2010

Floreffe Blond

Ah, nothing like a bank holiday weekend -- raging hailstorms, a bit of DIY with mind-altering wood sealants, and then the inevitable car alarm goes off, and you just know it won’t stop till Tuesday...

Yesterday’s trip to our local, Le Chatelain, was a welcome reprieve, and I took the opportunity to sample a new beer, Floreffe Blond. Hard to believe I haven’t had everything on offer there yet, but that’s Belgian pubs for you: even a run-of-the-mill one will have 30 or so types. Le Châtelain probably has closer to 60.

Floreffe’s dark beers, Floreffe Dubbel and Floreffe Prima Melior, are included in my list of top ten Belgian beers, so I was expecting great things with Floreffe Blond. I wasn’t disappointed.

Floreffe Blond is lighter than normal strong blond ales. It’s lemony, summery. Fiona says it’s smooth and has a bubble gum taste -- “that powdery, old-style bubble gum” -- but I’m sticking with citrus. It has very little bitterness, but it’s not sweet. At 6.3% alcohol, it’s not too brain-bending either. Which is just as well, because the wood treatment is doing my head in plenty enough.

Saturday 3 April 2010

Westvleteren 12

Thursday evening was a unique moment in my exploration of this country’s brewing tradition. It wasn’t just the beer -- I’ve had the incredible Westvleteren 12 before, and it is, of course, already on my list of top ten Belgian beers -- but this was something different altogether.

After all, it’s one thing to schlep out to the middle of nowhere abbey and sample the beer in their café. But it’s something else entirely when someone offers a case and a half of his private stash of legendary Westvleteren 12, brings it to my home, and shares it not only with me but with my work colleagues as well... I felt for a moment that I had reached the Belgian beer blogger big-time.

Then, as ever, I am humbled by the beer. So much has been written about Westvleteren 12 that it’s hard to believe it can live up to the legend. Yet, somehow, it does. Dark, rich, puffy, dates, cream and figs. And port -- more port than I recall from my first tasting two years ago. I had always compared it in my mind to St Bernardus Abt 12 or St Bernardus Prior 8, but this came out a bit more like a less fizzy Chimay Grande Réserve. A bit surprising, but lovely just the same.

Comments on the beer around the room were positive. Most hadn’t tried Westvleteren 12 before, and they were impressed, if at times confused: “This is beer?” One guest was inspired to write the following next to his sketch of a monk: “The pleasant aftertaste is the chief reason that I am on my third bottle. Also appears to have significantly affected my ability to draw.”

We all owe everything to Herman, whose tremendous generosity made Thursday evening possible. And not only did he bring the beer, he also raided his cellars for some amazing wine, Sassicaia Tenuta San Guido-Bolgheri 1997. So, even the few wine-drinkers in attendance -- I had to let a few in just for balance -- could enjoy something stunning. Thanks again, Herman!

Japanese kid's beer adverts

Bob thought kriek was a "kid beer". Check out these adverts from Japan...