Sunday, 26 September 2010

Westmalle Extra

I've been spending some time in the rarefied atmosphere of Beer Planet recently. It may not be extraterrestrial, but it does have one out-of-this-world offer (groan). When you buy a certain amount of beer, they give you a rare bottle on the house. Last time I was down, they handed me a Westmalle Extra.

This is one I'd barely even heard of before, and no wonder: apparently, you can only buy it at the Westmalle Abbey Café. But hey, I didn't buy it. I got it for free.

The taste is excellent, with a thinnish mouthfeel and dominant hop and herbal flavours. It also has a bit a spiciness, maybe cumin? Overall, it's light and refreshing. At 4.8%, it's not too demanding either.

I'm impressed. Neither Westmalle Dubbel nor Westmalle Tripel made it to my list of top ten Belgian beers. But Westmalle Extra might just challenge for a slot up there.

Oh, and how about that bottle cap? Is that the niftiest top ever, or what?

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Mikkeller Monk's Elixer

I'm not sure how one becomes a "gypsy brewer", travelling from one small brewery to another making specialty beers at every stop along the way. But Dane Mikkel Borg Bjergsø and his Mikkeller series seem to be quite a phenomenon in the world of beer aficionados. Monk's Elixer is his homage to Belgian Trappist darks.

"This is the most beer-snobbiest thing you've ever done", says Fiona, shaking her head.

OK, so it's a bit "niche of niche", but this is a special occasion: my 240th tasting. For a blog that initially set a goal of 40 beers a few years ago, things have evolved quite a bit.

The taste of this unique beer starts off with puffy bubbles of very fine carbonation, initially coming across like a St Bernardus Prior 8 in mouthfeel. A treacly smell turns into a range of flavours: dates, raisins, raw honey, blood, iron, biscuit... Then it finishes off with a bitter and burnt aftertaste that lasts and lasts.

But perhaps the most interesting note we picked up, and which Bob identified, was sesame cracker -- you know, the sticky, baked things made of pressed together sesame seeds. It runs through the overall set of tastes like a thread holding it all together. Yum.

This "gypsy brewer" sure can make beer. Though with a nickname like that, I guess he's not going to be brewing too much in France any time soon.

Tastings on the hoof

Had a stupendously long walk around Uccle and St Gilles yesterday, ending up at Bar du Matin at Albert and then at the old Moeder Lambic for a few samplings.

First was Zinnebir, which I've tasted here for this blog before. Last time, I noted orange, but it seems more grapefruit. Nice bitter hop in the finish. Very refreshing after our hike.

Maybe I didn't give it enough credit before: it's better than "very nice". It's excellent.

Moeder Lambic was offering Grottenbier on tap. The last time I had this beer was from a bottle in an igloo.

It's a lovely creamy, date and nut explosion -- puffy, with notes of black cherry cola. You don't need to build a snow house to enjoy it.

We tried a Guldenberg, also from tap, and this was a new one for me. From the De Ranke brewery, this strong blonde ale comes across with strong notes of plum: both fresh fruit and stewed prunes. Bob even noted a plum-skin bitterness and a suggestion of slivovitz. It also has a long yeasty aftertaste. Aromatic and very good.

Bob ordered a Taras Boulba, after the Zinnebir the second one from La Brasserie de la Senne (De Zenne Brouwerij).

He compared it to a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and that's not far off. Hopomatic and yummy.

Finally, we sampled a Stouterik, the third from the Senne brewery, which I'd tasted before, enjoying it both times.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Belgian flair and Brooklyn fortitude

Brooklyn Bob, formerly of The Hague and my TV co-star, knocked on the door last night, and because he had a suitcase full of tasty beer from the Dutch Brouwerij 't IJ, we let him in. We tried two new beers, one from his adopted home and one from mine.

The label on "Local 1" from the Brooklyn Brewery claims it has "Belgian flair and Brooklyn fortitude", and it's not much of an exaggeration. Right away on opening the bottle, Bob sniffed bubble gum, a characteristic of many Belgian strong blonde ales. Tasting it, we all thought it had a lot in common with Chimay White.

It has a bit of pepper in the back of the throat, and notes of maybe cinnamon and nutmeg further forward. I also thought perhaps orange peel and something nutty, like cashews. Fiona sensed honey as well.

In all, Local 1 is a delicious Belgian-style ale, and Bob ought to be pretty happy to be moving fairly close to the brewery.

One thing strange about Local 1, however, is that it is mungless. It has no yeasty sediment in the bottle. This is a bit odd, because the label does say it is "100% bottle refermented". What's going on? Do they referment it in one bottle, filter it and transfer it to the bottle they sell it in? That's one for Bob to investigate in Brooklyn...

Next was IV Saision from the brewery in Jandrain-Jandrenouille, makers of the phenomenal V Cense, which is now on my list of top ten Belgian beers, and the excellent VI.

I'm still a bit confused by the Jandrain-Jandrenouille offerings. Why did they start with IV? Is it like the Star Wars films or something?

Whatever the case, let's move to the tasting. IV Saision has a notable grapefruit pith element, but it doesn't have the pink grapefruit juice loveliness of its sisters. "Can something smell sweet?" asks Bob. The mouthfeel is a bit thinnish, and it has notes of white pepper, and maybe red currants. It's very refreshing, though V Cense is still my favourite of the three.

What the suitcase of a good house guest looks like

Friday, 17 September 2010

Two organic Belgian whites

Somehow, during a rather hectic week, I managed to chalk up two new Belgian beers during lunch meetings. And both were organic white beers oddly enough.

Yesterday, I had a Blanche du Hainaut Bio at Le Pain Quotidien. I was a bit disappointed, I have to say. It was somewhat thin and a bit flat, missing some fizz. The predominant taste was heavy yeast with nothing sharp or spicy to cut it. It's produced by Dupont, makers of the excellent Saison Dupont and the lovely Moinette Blonde, so I had expected a bit more, to be honest.

The second organic white arrived on today's lunch table at the restaurant of the Musical Instruments Museum: Ginette. I love the labelling. And the beer's good too. It starts off with a fairly foamy mouthfeel, and then moves to something I'd consider rather hoppy for a white. I don't get too many spices, but it is smooth and delicious.

Of these two organic Belgian whites, then, Ginette clearly had the edge for me.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Scheldebrouwerij Wildebok

After tasting a few luscious beers of the Scheldebrouwerij at the Belgian Beer Weekend earlier this month, I wanted to explore more of their offerings. So, while I was down at Beer Planet yesterday putting in a big order for an upcoming tasting event, I decided to pick up a few things for myself, including a small bottle of Scheldebrouwerij Wildebok.

Like the brewery's other products, this one is really exceptional. They make beers with strong and certain tastes there, we can say that for sure.

Scheldebrouwerij Wildebok is dark and dreamy. Its initial mouthfeel is thick and sticky, heavy on the roasted malts, coating the tongue until a bitter burn of alcohol (6.5%) eases it away gently. Notes include the dark dried fruits -- dates and raisins -- plus ripe black cherry, cola and liquorice. It's bold. It's full-on. It's superb.

No idea what the Scheldebrouwerij's secret is, but they are running five-for-five so far. And this Scheldebrouwerij Wildebok may be the best of the lot.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Two tipples in Tournai

The family was in day-trip mode today, taking the train out to Tournai and wandering around that city for a few hours. The UNESCO-listed cathedral and belfry are mighty impressive, and the weather was grand. The beer was pretty yummy as well.

I tried two new ones, both from nearby the city. First was St Martin Blonde, an abbey beer produced by the Brunehaut Brewery. I've tried their Brunehaut Amber before and was pretty impressed, as I was with this one.

St Martin Blonde is a very good example of the style, with some fine bubbles and hops the first noticeable tastes, moving to notes of orange peel and maybe even butterscotch, though it's not overly sweet. 7% alcohol. Overall, it's got a nicely balanced set of flavours.

Later in the day, we stopped at a café on the main square for a drink in the sun, and I ordered a Tournay Blonde. Like the outstanding Saison Cazeau I'd tried the other evening, this one is from the Brasserie de Cazeau.

Tournay Blonde is thick and creamy, with notes of lemon and some warming spice, like curry powder or cumin. It's not as distinctive and "wow" as the brewery's incredible Saison, but it's damn good.

In all, not a bad day out.

Yes, that left-hand tower needs a bit of work...
View from the belfry
Bird market

Friday, 10 September 2010

Interview for TV Brussels

Well, as promised, my interview for TV Brussels is now online, embedded below and also with some additional commentary at Evan Lamos's blog.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Saison Cazeau

After a back-to-school meeting with the youngest's teacher this evening, we took advantage of having a babysitter and popped into Chez Moeder Lambic in St Gilles on the way home. I ordered one of the beers currently on tap there, Saison Cazeau.

It's brewed at the Brasserie de Cazeau, located in a small village just outside of Tournai and about one kilometre from the French border. Once again, I find a Belgian beer I've never heard of, from a brewery I've never heard of... and it's excellent.

"It smells lovely", says Fiona, and she's right. (That happens rather a lot.) The perfumy florals almost overwhelm you. The brewery's website says Saison Cazeau is, "laced with elderflowers". Maybe so. Whatever it is, it's gorgeous. There's something wonderful in the aftertaste: sweet wafer biscuit and vanilla. It's wonderfully hoppy too.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Paceña Centenario

After a full weekend of Belgian beer, it seemed the right moment to try something truly different. Something from left field, say, Bolivia.

So, I reached into the back of the fridge where a can of Paceña Centenario has been lingering for a few months. Originally a gift from a friend, its day has finally come.

This is the second Latin American beer I've tasted for this blog -- the first being the appellation-confused "Pilsen" from Colombia. Like that beer, Bolivia's Paceña Centenario (5.2%) is a fairly straightforward pilsner, nothing wildly outstanding or distinctive but solid enough.

It's a typical "warm-climate lager", although I realise there are parts of Bolivia that are anything but warm at times. It has a bit of yeastiness in the aftertaste, like Almaza. A beer like Paceña Centenario makes you dream of hot sunny days, of which we're sadly getting fewer and fewer in Brussels as autumn approaches.

Thanks, Gabriela!

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Belgian Beer Weekend 2010

Somehow, I managed to survive the Belgian Beer Weekend in Brussels and even enjoy it. That's a lot more difficult than it might sound. It's not the drinking of the beer that's so traumatic, but getting to that point in the first place.

You might think that, at a major beer festival, you could pretty much put your hands on a glass of the stuff with little trouble at all. But, oh, how wrong you would be. This event is so poorly organised, it's a wonder anyone gets to taste anything at all. Let me see if I can explain the system to you...

First, you show up at Grand Place and join the end of one of several queues, each with about hundred or so people in it, so you can buy the assorted tokens you need to then exchange for beer. The assistants behind the serving windows of the cash desks seem to be amiable enough, but they work at a pace slower than the evaporation rate of the liquid you are seeking to consume, taking up to ten minutes with each thirsty customer to count out the tokens, receive the money and exchange pleasantries. There are only six such cash desks as well, to maximise waiting times.

Witkap dubbel
Still, live and learn. Last year, I made the mistake of showing up on time for the start of the festival, only to end up seeing the cash desk windows close while I was still 20th or so in the customer queue. I never got drink a drop. This year, knowing better, I came an hour ahead of time, so I only had to wait about 75 minutes to get my tokens.

Tokens, tokens... yes... There are two types of them at the Belgian Beer Weekend, and I strongly recommend you attend the three-month course of evening classes so you can understand how they work. Or at least try to get your head around it before you start drinking -- if you hope to get that far.

One type of token is just bottle caps. OK, they're not just bottle caps, because ordinary bottle caps don't cost one euro each, but still, that's what they are. These are what you use to purchase the actual liquid from the beer stands of the various brewers clustered in the centre of the square. But that's getting ahead of ourselves...

There is a second type of token you must also buy. It is a yellow piece of plastic with a beer mug on it, and it costs two euros. These are used to put a deposit on the glasses from which you drink the beer. On the chart explaining their use (see photo), the yellow "deposit chips" are shown as black, but don't let that distract you. The chart makes crystal clear that A does not equal B, and really, that is what you really need to know.

In case you are a relatively normal person, and this chart leaves you scratching your head -- and there were a lot of itchy craniums in my queue, let me tell you -- what the hieroglyphics are trying to tell you is that you must use your black-but-really-yellow chip to put a deposit on the glass, but you have to return your glass to the right brewery to get your deposit chip back: brewery A glass cannot be returned to brewery B's stand. And putting a deposit down on a glass doesn't mean you can keep it. They check your bags on the way out. No joke.

Ename dubbel
Anyway, once you have an unwieldy and bulky zip-lock sack of the special bottle caps and deposit chips, you can go to one of the various brewery stands and order a beer -- by this point, you certainly need it -- parting with caps according to a price list and one chip per glass. Cheers!

Who invented this ridiculous system? The customer service staff of the business division of the Westvleteren brewery, perhaps? Who else could let hundreds upon hundreds of customers stand in motionless queues when they could instead serve them and take their money?

Sure, making money is not the be-all and end-all of life, but in business, I cannot see any benefit in deliberately annoying customers, and hoping as many potential customers as possible flee in frustration to spend their money elsewhere. Don't get me wrong: I love the slow food movement. Quality food and drink should be produced and consumed with loving care and unhurried appreciation. But that doesn't mean the service of those products should function at a glacial pace or the payment system be labyrinthine. Raising ludicrous barriers to acquisition does not improve the overall taste experience.

What is it with these token complications in particular? Why don't the beer stands all work with some easier form of compensation for their product? I could imagine many ways to improve this festival, but by far the best would be for the brewery stands to take a common form of inter-operable, physical monetary units, like, maybe, um, euro notes and coins? I mean, really, why reinvent the wheel with bottle caps and plastic chips? In our modern times, many businesses and their customers are turning to "cash" as a convenient and efficient way to work together.

Little if any of this is the individual breweries' fault, mind you. I strongly sense they would prefer to serve more customers, sell more beer and make a bit more dosh. It's the festival
Witkap Amber
organisers to blame here. I've no idea what they're thinking, but they do a tremendous disservice to the promotion of this country's greatest product. They're not helping to win converts to quality Belgian beer; they're turning people off the whole concept.

Anyway... enough of my disgust with the beer festival organisation, and let's move on to my degustation of the festival beer. Somehow, despite the initial difficulties, I managed to sample 12 Belgian beers over two days. For the most part, I went for things I hadn't tried before, and, of course, I avoided the big breweries. Why Anheuser-Busch InBev had a stall there, I don't know -- this sort of event should really be trying to help promote the little guys out there. But anyway, let's now take the tastings one by one...

First was Witkap Dubbel, from the Slaghmuylder Brewery, makers of the delightful Witkap-Pater Stimulo and a tasty Paasbier. The dubbel was not quite as brilliant as those two, but it's respectable, for sure. It's quite refreshing for a dark beer actually, with a lemon note.

Bob and I also tried Witkap Amber, which we found hoppy and drinkable but not remarkable. "It doesn't stand out", said Bob.

Ename Dubbel I've had before and liked. It's a tasty, smooth dark, with a bit of nuttiness and raisin, all underlined by a good roast malt.

Caracole was a new one for me. It's from the Brasserie Caracole in Falmignoul near Dinant. It's rich and thicker than it first looks, with a bit of syrupiness, even honey flavour, and then some notes of something like white pepper. It's not too bad for a sweet beer, and that's saying something, because I usually don't like the sweeter ones.

Next to the festival stand of the Schelde Brewery, which is located way north, right on the border with the Netherlands.

I'd never heard of this small producer before, but I liked every one of the four beers of theirs that I was able to try.

Scheldebrouwerij Oesterstout is an excellent, complex dark beer. It's more than a stout, with resiny bitterness, sure, but also a creamy richness closer to a St Bernardus Abt 12, yet more herby. It's very challenging to capture all the tastes, but it's great. This one for me was "the find of the festival".

Scheldebrouwerij Zeezuiper is a tripel with loads of herbal notes. Sharp, not sweet. Again, it's complex, worth another taste.

Scheldebrouwerij Lamme Goedzak is a blond that's quite creamy, with a bit of aniseed developing mid-mouth, then evolving into burnt honey. Orange notes. Very good.

Scheldebrouwerij Straffe Toeback is described as a "quattro", which I guess is the same as a "quadruple", though neither name really defines a category I could say I really understand. This is a strong blond ale, with something heavier and all-guns blazing about it. There's definitely an apricot note in there, but it has other fruits and flavours as well.

In all, I'm glad I found the Scheldebrouwerij stand at this festival. They make some fantastic stuff, and I'll have to try to find their products again.

 Lamme Goedzak
At the St Bernardus stand, we had a taste of Prior 8 just to try it on tap, as opposed to bottled, which is how I normally drink this long-time favourite. Then, however, we tried the brewery's blanche, St Bernardus Wit. It's an interesting take on the form, with banana and maybe even mango drawing a lot of your attention. Bob had it on day two and felt it was missing the classic warm spices and citrus of other "white beers". I thought it was brilliant, though.

I tried a Carolus Classic, which I've had before on tap, but this one at the festival was not as good as I remember it. It was too sweet and even a bit watery. Not really sure why it was different to previous occasions, but there are a million possible reasons.

St Feuillien Saison
Outside the Belgian Beer Weekend, Bob, Fiona and I had one new beer at Chez Moeder Lambic Fontainas. We initially went there on the evening of day one so we could introduce Bob to the outstanding V Cense, which is now on my list of top ten Belgian beers.

But we also sampled Val-Dieu Grand-Cru, which was sadly just far too sweet -- some nuts and date tastes develop as it warms up, but mostly it's just crystalline sweetie sweetness. Too bad.

Back at the festival, Bob and I also tried St Feuillien Saison. This is a wonderfully hoppy and floral beer, with a hint of something surprisingly resiny or sawn wood about it. Bob said it sat in the mouth for a long time, with "a long essence". Evan, the journalist from TV Brussels who interviewed me at the festival, agreed, noting the pleasant "long aftertaste".

St Bernardus Wit
I'm looking forward to that interview coming out now. (Update: it's out.) We spent a fair bit of time on Saturday with Evan -- who very clearly knows a thing or two about Belgian beer himself -- not only shooting the interview, but also collecting some footage for atmospherics and so on. It will hopefully go live on Sunday, 12 September, and be online around that date as well. I will post links or embed it here, of course!

Overall, then, the Belgian Beer Weekend was a mixed bag. It gets top marks for tastes, obviously. I discovered at least one fantastic brewery I'd never heard of before, Scheldebrouwerij, and a few other valuable gems. It's just a shame the organisation of the festival didn't come anywhere close to the same high standards of the beers on offer. Perhaps next year they'll do things a bit more sensibly, and more people will be able to enjoy it.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Val-Dieu Blonde

I have been called by the Immortals to the valley of the Supreme Being. Well, ok, maybe not quite that... I have, in fact, been invited by TV Brussels to talk about the beer festival on Grand Place this weekend.

It's quite an honour. In my day job, I do a lot of talking to the press, but this will be my first time on TV as a Belgian beer expert. Apart from being some welcome recognition for this humble blog, it's a significant step in my ten-year career-change plan...

In celebration, I popped open a new beer for a tasting: Val-Dieu Blonde. It's number 224 on the 40b40. An abbey beer from Aubel, in the far east of Belgium.

The taste is smooth, not too bubbly, with slight notes of peppermint stick. Not outstanding, maybe, but certainly not bad. 6% if you're counting. But famous TV stars never count.