Sunday, 29 August 2010

Three New Belgians

We spent a lovely Friday evening at Moeder Lambic in St Gilles with Seb and others, trying three new Belgian beers. Much enjoyment all around...

The first two were on tap. Valeir Blond, from the Contreras Brewery near Gent, is a bit sweetish but not unpleasantly so. It's more of a mild butterscotch note, but it also has a kind of grilled lemon slice running through it. 6.5% alcohol. Overall: tasty.

Arend Tripel, from the Brasserie de Ryck, a bit west of Brussels, was a step further on the sweetness scale, and it was, like Grimbergen, too thin in body. Too bad.

The third came in a bottle: XX Bitter, from De Ranke. This blonde ale wins points for truth in advertising. It is bitter indeed. A raging hoposaurus. There's citrus in there somewhere and maybe even some fresh ginger. But, mostly, it's bitter. I like it. Fiona loves it.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Kölsch in context

Kölsch kitsch
When I told a friend I'd be in Cologne this weekend, sampling that city's favourite tipple, Kölsch, he recoiled in horror, declaring it, "probably the most disgusting beer in Europe". I feel I have to stand up in defence of the beverage.

Critics can say that Kölsch is not very complex in taste. It's like a very mild lager -- though it is, unusually for such a beer, top-fermented -- and it doesn't even have much bitterness at all to challenge your palate. In terms of pure culinary interest, it's not going to leave a lasting impression.

However, the beauty of Kölsch is not in the flavour so much as the culture of its presentation and consumption in a traditional brew-pub in Cologne, like Brauhaus Früh am Dom, where we were. It is served in tall 0.2 litre glasses, pulled from a hanging wreath (Kranz) of such test tubes by a hustling waiter, who leaves only a pencil mark on your beer mat as evidence of your replenishment. Each 0.2 l goes down quickly, and the replacements come automatically, guaranteeing you never have warm beer in your glass.

If you buy a bottle of Kölsch, you miss this whole culture, of course, and you only get the decontextualised liquid. Then I guess it would be rather bland and uninspiring. But this is a beer of location and context; it cannot be drunk outside its natural habitat. I don't know if I'll convince my friend with any of this, but I still say, on tap, in a lively atmosphere, Kölsch is cool, refreshing and enjoyable. Absolutely nothing unpleasant about it.

The beer is also not very filling or overpowering, leaving you plenty of energy to climb up the 500+ steps of the Kölner Dom (Cologne cathedral).

From the top of what was once the tallest building in the world

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Bon Secours Brune

This one comes from the Caulier Brewery whose website announces (warns?): "from a time long ago fallen into oblivion". It also shows a couple of differently branded beers. I'm wondering from that if I've got an old label of the beer. I cannot find "Bon Secours" on the brewery site at all. Is "Caulier Brune" the relabelled beer?

In any case, the one I've got pours very dark indeed, which is a good sign. The first aroma is a bit turpentine, though not completely unpleasant. The taste is very sharp, acidic wood stain initially and in the aftertaste, but in between the two there are some other flavours: burnt malt, roasted almonds and coffee. It's much like a cold ristretto with alcohol (8%).

It's interesting, it's certainly complex, and it does mellow out a bit over time. Still, that acid aftertaste doesn't seem to evolve. I'm not sure I'd go too far out of my way to this one again.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Back to Black: Brasserie de Bellevaux Black

Lately, I have been moaning and moaning about how difficult it is to get most of the Belgian craft beers here in Brussels. Well, the good people at Brasserie de Bellevaux in Malmedy have helped out by posting me a couple bottles of their lovely Black beer.

This is the second time I’ve tried it, and I’m glad to say my first impressions were upheld: Brasserie de Bellevaux Black is excellent. It’s super dark, burnt malty and sharply bitter yet somehow smooth at the same time. It has notes of clove, liquorice and mace. The alcohol is not overpowering at 6.3%, but it gives the beer just enough lightness for the delicate tastes to take flight over your tongue.

I’ve been doing a little experiment here, and I’ve discovered that Brasserie de Bellevaux Black goes extremely well with very dark chocolate. I’ve just tried it with a couple squares from my current favourite Brussels chocolate shop, Zaabär, which is located, as luck would have it, just a few streets away from my home. Their spiced dark chocolate bars are magical treats, particularly their Zanzibar clove and Grenadian mace varieties, which both -- surprise surprise -- match nicely with Brasserie de Bellevaux Black.

The Brasserie de Bellevaux also has a very good Brune, by the way.

With this tasting of Brasserie de Bellevaux Black, we have a perfect example of what I’ve been talking about: it’s an excellent beer, and the brewery is only an hour or so away from Brussels, but it’s almost impossible to find this beer in any local shop. Brussels retailers tend to stick to a few mass production brands and a familiar handful of other well-known labels. Is this entire city doomed to Jupilerification? Starvation in the capital amidst a country of plenty? I feel a letter-writing campaign coming on... I’m going to start with my local small supermarket and see if I can get them to expand their selection a bit. Stay tuned...

Monday, 16 August 2010

Westmalle Tripel

Your author, via video beer-phone
The video beer-phone rang last night with an urgent request from Connecticut, origin of a rather small percentage of the world's emergency calls but a frequent enough location for those making a guest appearance in this blog. Though not a monk, the brother at the other end suggested a monk's brew, Westmalle Tripel.

His proposal was surely divinely inspired because this Trappist beer was about the only bottle of any type I had left in the house. Apart from those bottles I've been aging. And a few other bottles awaiting a formal tasting. OK, there are a rather a lot, really, but not nearly as many as usual because I've not been shopping properly since returning from holiday last week. (Remember the Middle East beers?)

I say "properly" because I am becoming progressively less inspired when I go to the local shops and supermarkets here in Brussels. As I mentioned back in April, it's hard to find anything out of the ordinary in Belgian beer even here in the heart of Belgium.

Of course, the bars are a bit different, especially places like Moeder Lambic. But the shops around town are generally too limited. Perhaps it's just that I've reached level two of Mario Brothers Beer Snob, but I find it disappointing: why can't Belgian shops and supermarkets offer a greater variety of this country's own famous product?

Warning: Drinking this beer is subversive
Still, one fairly common tipple in the shops here that I've not grown tired of is Westmalle Tripel. I formally reviewed this beer during the early days of the 40b40, but it's been a regular, if always temporary, resident of my bottle stash in recent months. Rereading my original tasting notes from two and a half years ago, I'm surprised I didn't like it much first time around, but then, I was going through my anti-strong-blond-ale phase. Man, I'm a moody moo.

Now, an odd thing about the bottle of Westmalle Tripel purchased on the left-hand coast of the pond compared to that acquired on the right is a government warning on the former, which is absent from the latter. Does this mean the American variety of the beverage is more injurious to health? Or is it that the US is more of a nanny state than Belgium?

Brother monk, where's your robe?
Anyway, enough of politics; on to the tasting... Westmalle Tripel is classic in the strong blond ale style: grapefruit pith and notably strong alcohol, with high fizz, turning rich and creamy in the mouth. It also has notes of black pepper. Not bad, really... for an easy-to-find beer.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Three Belgian beers to celebrate our return

As much as I enjoyed our holiday in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, I have to admit I am happy to be back home in Brussels. Middle East beers may be OK in a pinch, but Belgian beer is the taste I've been missing.

To celebrate our homecoming, we had a small tasting session this afternoon. We finally got to the new Moeder Lambic downtown. We've been to the one in St Gilles several times -- it's just around the corner from our place, really -- but we'd not tried their new location. Wow, what we were missing... The place is fantastic, with no less than 46 beers on tap, all from small Belgian breweries. I tried three from their "beers of the month" menu.

First of the three was VI from Brasserie de Jandrain-Jandrenouille, makers of the outstanding V Cense, which I discovered a few months ago. VI is an excellent wheat beer with a strong pink grapefruit juice tone, just like V Cense. The taste is brilliant. As with V Cense, I am amazed by this take on a traditional form. Highly recommended.

The second beer of the afternoon was Kerkomse Tripel. This one hails from the Kerkom brewery, makers of the dark and delightful Winterkoninkske, which I tried at the original Moeder Lambic ages ago. The tripel is wonderful: creamy, with notes of vanilla, butter, tarragon, and then, no joke, cantaloupe and ripe mango. Just gorgeous.

Third of three was Métisse, a saison-style beer. It's produced by the Lion à Plume brewery, though it actually seems to be brewed at the Sainte-Hélène brewery. Not sure what that's all about. In any case, it's from Virton, apparently the most southerly town in Belgium, which is in the Belgian province of Luxembourg. (That's right, not the country of Luxembourg but the neighbouring region in Belgium of the same name. Don't ask...)

Back to the beer. The taste of Métisse is strong on citrus and yeast, with some notes of rosemary or lavender about it. It has a fresh woodiness, and there's something else besides: a refreshing taste on the central tongue that I can't quite identify. Maybe a kind of grassiness? But it's very nice. Clean aftertaste. Overall, it's just lovely.

Three out of three then. A perfect way to return to the home of great beer.

Oh, and the flower carpet was on Grand Place...

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Seven beers of the Middle East

After a three-week family holiday in the Middle East, I can now report on a number of beers from that part of the world. Despite being most probably the original home of beer, the region is not exactly what you'd call a brewing powerhouse these days. Still, there are a few drinkable things in the general "hot-climate lager" category.

I have previously discussed a few Lebanese beers, but this time, I'm looking at Jordan and Syria, in addition to Lebanon.

First up was the Amman-brewed Amstel, which was, I have to say, not enormously impressive. Poured from a tin can, it was a bit too syrupy sweet. These things need to be crisp to be refreshing, particularly when it's hot out.
The second Jordanian brew was Petra Beer. It's not exactly your typical "hot-climate lager", because it boasts a whopping 8% alcohol. The taste is not bad, being more bitter than the local Amstel and with that 8% a pleasantly noticeable part of the balanced taste. It was a good way to end a long day of hiking in the sun around the fantastic ruins of Petra.

The expeditionary team then moved on to Syria, where a few days in old town Damascus brought us into contact with two local beers.

Initially, we had Assilla on tap, which was a thoroughly enjoyable lager. We sampled it in a pub on Straight Street that had a sign out front saying, "Beer, it's what's for dinner", and indeed, after a day of 44C (111.2F) heat, it pretty much was all we wanted to see on the menu. Crisp, clean, cold. Good.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the second Damascene offering, Barada. It poured a bit flat from the bottle and had a watery taste. Not enough flavour of anything much, really. Weak.

On to Lebanon we went, then, with two old friends Almaza Pure Malt and Almaza Pilsner to comfort us. (Though I have to admit having an Almaza Pilsner in Damascus, too.)

In Byblos, however, we tried an in-house beer at the Locanda a la Granda restaurant. Unfortunately, the waiter looked at me rather curiously when I asked to try the dark beer the New York Times mentioned in a travel article a while back, but he was able to bring me a few lagers in what looked suspiciously like Kölsch test-tube glasses in a Kölsch-style serving tray. The taste was not too bad, but it wasn't the dark I'd looked forward to, nor the Kölsch it appeared to be. Hot-climate lager pure and simple.

Finally, in a non-tasting note, I should point out an interesting bit of old mosaic we found in the museum at the mountain retreat of Beiteddine in Lebanon. It shows something strangely like a glass of Hoegaarden...