Sunday, 30 May 2010

Making sense of V Cense

Seb, one of my eternal guides to Belgian beer no matter where he may be in the world, has done a bit of research on V Cense, the fantastic new discovery of a tasting about 10 days ago -- which I knew nothing about, not even how to pronounce it...

"V Cense" is indeed "5 Cense". It is presented by their brewers in this article in french as the little sister of the "4 Seasons". Cense comes after the brewery's location: la Cense de la Féculerie. Cense comes from latin "censa" and means farm. The word (a word I'd never heard) is used in parts of Belgium and France. Féculerie is the process of extracting starch from potatoes and other roots and tubers. From what you write, I think they found in brewing a better used of this potato farm.

Note the brewery is located in the village with the funniest sounding name heard in Wallonia: Jandrain-Jandrenouille.

Article says label is designed by one our best: cartoonist François Schuiten, author of "Brüsel" among other stuff.

Here's a translation of what the brewers have to say about this beer first released in 2009. Forgive the Sunday morning hangover English wording:

IV Saison was a blond beer. Its little sister is amber, with 7% of alcool. It is hoppy and very special thanks to spices from distant countries - these spices are our brewing secret. Even since it was launched (article written late March 2009), 33 000 IV Saison bottles have been made. We hope for the same success for the little sister. In the future, we will not release other beers, because quality is more important than quantity. (...)

Our [champagne] bottles aren't just a show off. The advantage is Champagne bottles are strong and can sustain without problems fermentation pressure issues. Another advantage is [champagne bottles] are common and inexpensive. Moreover, their green-brown color allow to block some UV frequencies that may produce a cardboard aftertaste.

We could go together when I'm around in July. What do you think?

I think that sounds rather like a plan...

Friday, 28 May 2010

The great tasting evening

Last week, we held probably the biggest beer tasting event we've ever had, with about 20 people or so coming over to sample six different Belgian beers. It was a mix of old favourites and some new discoveries. (The beers that is.)

First off was Deus, which is one I often like to start with when we have people round. Most of our guests -- who cannot be shown in photographs for reasons of security and pending litigation -- had little if any experience with Belgian beer and its incredible variety, and the Deus was, as usual, a pleasant surprise, with its florals, lavender and rosemary. In fact, one person who had come into the room saying, "I don't like beer at all", asked for a refill of Deus. Twice.

Second, came Cantillon Kriek, again one we've tried before. Everyone loved the bright sparkling red colour -- another bit of the unexpected for the uninitiated -- and most enjoyed the taste. The extreme tartness of a proper kriek or gueuze is always a shock first time around, but everyone gave it a fair chance. Some fell in love.

The third tasting of the evening was Saison Dupont. Somewhat amazingly, despite this one being well known and even named "Best Beer in the World" by the magazine Men's Journal in July 2005, I'd never tried this one before. The aroma is big on florals, and the taste is very strong on hop, like an Orval, but there are really interesting notes going on here: ginger and something berry -- blueberry? It's foamy stuff, too. I was impressed with Saison Dupont, and so were most others around the room.

Number four in the evening's line-up was a beer I'd never even heard of before and which I'm not even sure how to pronounce: V Cense. Is it "veh sonz" or "cinq sense"? No idea. [UPDATE] But the taste of this strong blonde ale, from a newish brewery in Jandrenouille, a village just east of Brussels, is awesome. A real find. One guest called it, "the best beer in the world". The taste is pink grapefruit juice -- not the bitter grapefruit pith you get with other strong blonde ales, which is also yummy, but a wonderful blend of tart and sweet. Tasters found notes of cranberry and jasmine tea. Altogether awesome, and possibly pushing for a position in my list of top ten Belgian beers. If you see it, buy it. If you don't see it, ask for it.

From the best and most popular beer of the evening, we moved to... well... the fifth beer, Liefmans Goudenband. Again, a new one for me, this was a bit of a disappointment. Some in the room hated it -- I didn't think it was that bad, but I wasn't hugely impressed. It's a yeast float, quite flat, with a taste like a bit like a red beer but more drinkable. It has flavours of, according to the guests: acetone, marmite, soy sauce, malt vinegar, sautéed onions and molasses. I think there are some good possible food pairings with this beer: capers, for example. (Thanks, Kim!) Still, I wanted more from this brown ale. Perhaps my expectations were just too high, as I'd heard so much about it.

Finally, the sixth beer of the evening was Leute Bokbier, yet another new one for me and tasting number 196 here on this blog. This is a dark beer that someone recommended, comparing it to some of the Trappist darks like Westvleteren or Achel Bruin Extra. It is slightly lower in alcohol than those, however, at 7.5% compared to 10 to 12% with those. Perhaps it's a bit like St Bernardus Prior 8, though that's a stretch. Leute Bokbier is thinner, but it has some interesting notes, with peppermint and aniseed.

Overall, it was a great evening, but it didn't quite end there. Just as some guests were leaving, a new guest arrived, a journalist from a major international newspaper who has a business card with the word "beer" on it. I instantly had a new career goal... He started back with Deus and found notes of vanilla and chicken soup, and in the V Cense he sensed chocolate orange. I wasn't sure. But then, he does have a business card with the word "beer" on it, so who am I to second guess?

Eventually, then, the tasting did end for real. With V Cense the clear favourite of the evening but a lot of other lessons learned along the way.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Crooked Architect Beers

I was trying to take the day off, today, but I ended up on my laptop most of the morning, so after lunch, we all went for a walk. We ended up at the well-known pub, De Skieven Architek in the Marolles area of town.

The name apparently means, "the crooked architect", and refers to Joseph Poelaert, who designed the gargantuan Palace of Justice up the hill. Apparently Poelaert and the police were not too kind to the local inhabitants who were moved to make room for his project, the biggest building constructed anywhere in the 19th century. It seems things were so bad that the word "architect" was used as a serious insult in Brussels for years.

Anyway, the pub has many of its own beers, brewed from their own recipes at the Van Steenberge Brewery, which also makes Augustijn, Piraat and Gulden Draak. Without time to try all of De Skieven Architek's offerings, we opted for two from the tap: the blonde Capucin and the dark Poelaert.

Capucin was quite pleasant: creamy with strong honey notes. At 6%, it wasn't too distracting a blonde.

Poelaert, at 10.8%, was a different matter. Again, I sensed some honey going on in this one, but added to that was nutmeg and maybe even cinnamon. Unfortunately, I found it too syrupy and sweet. I wonder if the bottled version they sell, if left to age in the bottle a bit, might be better.

We'll have to try a bottle the next time we go to the crooked architect. That may be after beer tasting 200, which is now just eight glasses away...

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Liefmans Fruit Beer

The question I have as I approach every fruity beer in Belgium is simple: is it going to be a traditional lambic like Cantillon Kriek or will it instead be a raging sweet storm like Belle-Vue Kriek or, worse, Mystic.

The label of Liefmans Fruit Beer says it has been, “matured on cherries, flavoured with 20% fruits (cherry, raspberry, bilberry, elderberry, strawberry)”. Sounds yummy...

But then one sip confirms: sugar water. I would say it’s slightly less of a kid beer than Belle-Vue Kriek, but still, it’s not something I can enjoy. If I want a Fanta, I’ll order a Fanta.

Liefmans Fruit Beer is even more disappointing than that, however. I’ve read about Liefmans Goudenband, and I’ve been looking forward to trying it. It’s supposedly a really different taste, and I’ve been searching everywhere for it. Now, sadly, I’m a bit worried that all my searching for Goudenband will turn out not to have been worth it. If it tastes anything like this, I’ll have wasted a lot of time hunting it down.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Three Courses, Three Beers

We had a couple of friends over for dinner this evening and subjected them to a beery experiment -- really a series of experiments -- with food pairing. We served three courses, with each course accompanied by a different Belgian beer. Oh, and it was all vegetarian, of course.

First up was a starter of crostini with herb and lemon olive tapenade and roasted cherry tomatoes. The beer was the magical Deus, which surprised our guests somewhat. “This is beer? It tastes like the aniseed sweets you get after an Indian meal.”
The pairing worked. The beer’s floral notes picked up the herbals of the tapenade very nicely, with the lemon cutting in at the end to reinforce the freshness of Deus. With the roasted tomatoes, the combination also worked to some extent, the Deus florals highlighting the rich sweetness of the fruit. But the tapenade was more effective.

For the main, we made vegetable tagine with butternut squash, red peppers and prunes atop couscous with chick peas. Harissa paste on the side. The Belgian beer we chose was St Bernardus Prior 8, and again we found a good mix. I have to admit we’d experimented with this recipe before, pairing it with Chimay Blue, but St Bernardus Prior 8 works the same.

St Bernardus is a rich brew, and its caramel and date notes grabbed the cooked prunes in the tagine perfectly. Soft butternut squash merged its warm sweetness with that of the beer. Adding a bit of harissa was OK, but too much overwhelmed the beer, which seemed unable to deal with the fire.

Finally, for dessert, we served Eton mess, with Belle-Vue Kriek. Now, I don’t usually go for the new-era soda-pop krieks like this one. I prefer the traditional style tart cherry beers, like Cantillon Kriek.

But this is where the food pairing comes in. Eton mess is so insanely sweet that the Belle-Vue Kriek actually worked. What is normally a beer I find simply too sweet to drink has been transformed into an able accompaniment to the dessert. With the meringue sticking to your teeth, a sugar wash is, somewhat madly, just what you need. And the cherry fruitiness of the beer blended well with the fresh strawberries.

Belle-Vue Kriek is well loved by one of our guests, though this is the first time I’ve written it up here.

He says, “It’s refreshing -- highly recommended for any Gujarati sweet tooth.”

“Interesting colour”, says our other guest. “Nice pink foam, but it tastes like a boiled sweet.”

Fiona agrees: “It’s like a cough sweet, like cherry Tunes. I’m not going to drink anymore, because I don’t want to ruin my Eton mess.”

Yet, the taste all depends on what you have with it. And sweet goes with sweet. There is a moment for every Belgian beer...

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Two Kentish Ales

Fiona went on a sun-and-sand holiday to the Maldives last week. OK, it was actually a school trip to Kent. Less fun for her, but better for me, as she brought back two local beers.

Both are from the Shepherd Neame brewery, tagged on their website as “Kent’s largest brewer (and Britain’s oldest)”. The bottles are hefty beasts, but the glass is clear, which is a bit weird. I thought clear glass was bad for beer, no?

The first of our two Kentish tastings is Shepherd Neame Master Brew Kentish Ale. It’s got a lovely copper colour. The taste is strong initial hoppiness, with some peanut notes -- not anything like the nutty French beer, La Choulette Blonde -- but still noticeable. 4% alcohol means it’s not too threatening.

Unfortunately, another flavour you get is cardboard. The lasting bitter aftertaste almost saves it. But not quite.

The second Kentish offering is Shepherd Neame Early Bird Spring Hop Ale. This one is immediately more impressive. The colour is not very different from the first ale, but the taste is far more enjoyable. Very hoppy, sure, but there are strong citrus elements here. Lemon zest. Something of blackberries, too. Fiona says it’s like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Perhaps, yes. 4.5% for those who are still counting.

So, one somewhat disappointing and one quite good. Still, I’m guessing these Kentish ales are probably better than what they brew in the Maldives.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Brunehaut Amber

I can honestly say this is the first beer I’ve tasted because of Twitter.

I’ve been following the Twitter feed of the Brunehaut Brewery (@Brunehaut_Beer) for a while, so when I finally saw the beer in a shop here in Brussels, I was eager to try it. The power of advertising...

The brewery’s website notes that this beer is organic, though I don’t see the designation on my label. Perhaps I’ve got an older bottle?

Anyway, bio or not, Brunehaut Amber pours cola brown. It’s got a slightly thinner mouthfeel than you expect from the dark colour. Just looking at it, I was thinking it would be creamier. The flavour is burnt honey and malt, with biscuit. It’s got solid notes of liquorice, nutmeg, vanilla and, in line with the colour, cola nut. Overall, not bad. After the glass sits for a few minutes, I also get a welcome hint of cinnamon.

I’ve been following the UK elections results and the fallout now for almost 24 hours straight, so I’m exhausted and woozy. The alcohol level of Brunehaut Amber is a moderate and manageable 6.5%, which I think is more or less the swing to the Conservatives. This is tasting number 186, but I cannot form a majority with that.


After I sampled the lovely Noir de Dottignies in Chez Moeder Lambic, the waitress recommended I try a bottle of Stouterik. It’s from Brasserie de la Senne here in Brussels, makers of Zinne Bir.

Stouterik is, as you’d guess, dark. The initial mouthfeel is slightly thinner than I expected, though after a Noir de Dottignies, almost anything would be. The taste of Stouterik is bitter and quite raw, with notes of sawdust, burnt caramel, stewed apple... no, stewed sour cherries. Then, in the aftertaste, I get Raspberry leaf tea.

Not bad at all.

Noir de Dottignies

Went out for a quick tasting with a friend at Chez Moeder Lambic, which is now wonderfully non-smoking. I recall the first time I went there, and I could barely see one side of the place from the other through the haze.

Again, though, I let the staff recommend a couple dark beers, and this Noir de Dottignies from the De Ranke brewery in West Flanders was an excellent offering.

It pours dark, dark, dark. Pitch. The taste is immediately very bitter, then notes of biscuit, cooked peel, tobacco, burnt garlic and perhaps liquorice. Yes, there’s a lot going on in there. Yum.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Abbaye de Bonne-Espérance

Of course, one starts out hopeful with every new tasting, but it was perhaps more so with this abbey beer.

The abbey itself is near Binche -- home of the solid Binchoise Blonde and Binchoise Brune -- but it has licensed the name to the Lefebvre Brewery in Quenast, further north and closer to Brussels. Lefebvre makes some quality products, including Floreffe Dubbel, which is on my list of top ten Belgian beers.

So, my hope was justified by more than the name.

Abbaye de Bonne-Espérance pours a rusty golden-brown, and the fizz is initially very high. The taste starts with a smooth mouthfeel, somewhat sweet, then moving to a significant hop-bitter aftertaste. It’s quite complex: caramel mixing with notes of vanilla, pear, faint licorice, and maybe clove. The alcohol pushes in for attention against all of that, though at only 7.8% -- hardly high by Belgian standards -- it seems to punch above its weight.

This is a solid strong blonde ale, but perhaps it’s just a little sweeter than I’d like. Next time I buy a bottle of this, I’ll try cellaring it for a year and see how it evolves with some extended secondary fermentation. I think if some of those sugars get eaten up, it would be a deeper, more rewarding brew.

(tasting 183)

Monday, 3 May 2010

Kasteel Blond

I was in Ghent this afternoon, and after my presentation at the university, I had a short wait for my train back to Brussels, so, guess what I did...

I took advantage of the nearby pub to try a new beer, Kasteel Blond (tasting number 182 here on the blog). On tap, no less.

Again, this it one of those beers I should have tried long ago, as it's pretty easy to find. Strange there are still quite a few of these to go.

It comes from the Castle Brewery Van Honsebrouck in the small town of Ingelmunster in West Flanders, not too far from Ghent.

The taste is immediately honey. It’s smooth and low on bitterness. There’s a surprisingly weak aftertaste -- it disappears too quickly. I also sense a very slight note of pine needles. But mostly, honey. Far more than Barbar the Honey Beer, actually.

Overall, it’s OK, but perhaps too one-dimensional. I think I liked Kasteel Bruin better.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Moinette Blonde

Brussels is a fantastic place because it springs surprises on you at every turn. The in-laws are over this week, and we were trying to get in a long walk with them today. We were caught in a rain storm around Parvis de Saint-Gilles and so ducked into the nearest bar to get out of the deluge. Turns out it was the quintessentially Brussels pub, La Brasserie de l'Union, which has a great range of beers and, as we walked in, live music provided by a talented duo offering well-improvised classic jazz covers.

Fiona ordered an Orval, my mother-in-law went for Cantillon Kriek, my father-in-law chose his favourite, Ciney Brune, and I took a Moinette Blonde. A new beer and great music: a perfect way to wait out a storm.

As one of my fellow blonde evening tasters noted the other day, there are some strange omissions in my tasting notes list. I may now be on number 181, but it’s interesting that some fairly common names are still missing a formal write-up.

Moinette Blonde may not exactly be the lowest hanging fruit -- it’s not incredibly common -- but it is easy enough to find, and I did, after all, try Moinette Brune over two years ago. But I should have added the blonde to this blog by now.

Dupont Brewery’s Moinette Blonde (8.5% ABV) is deliciously yeasty and lemony, with a citrusy pith finish. It is strong in hop, and I also sensed notes of woody rosemary. Strange that I should happen upon this strong blonde ale by chance, but I’m very glad I finally got around to it.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Quintine Blonde

After an evening of six blondes on Thursday, you may think it’s time for a change of style. Possibly, but I’m on a roll, so next up is Quintine Blonde.

This comes in a ceramic-top bottle I’ve seen fairly often in the shops around Brussels, but I’ve never actually tried it.

It’s very good: a creamy strong blonde ale with perfect bitterness. Quintine Blonde has that classic tripel-style grapefruit pith element, especially in the aftertaste. It is an excellent example of the genre. I think it challenges Chimay White, in fact, and I’d like to test them blind side-by-side. Impressive stuff.

Quintine Blonde, for those who might be wondering, is beer tasting number 180 on this blog. We're edging toward 200, and I’m thinking about how to mark that occasion...

Cantillon Gueuze Sorbet

The title of this blog post says it all...

Just a few blocks from our house, there’s an ice cream shop that specialises in unique flavours. Perusing the menu, I knew very quickly what kind of cone I wanted: Cantillon Gueuze.

It’s, um... weird. You smell the gueuze right away, and the taste is undoubtedly authentic. But, really, the novelty wears off before you even reach the sugar cone. I prefer my Cantillon Gueuze in a glass.