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.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Bohemian selection

We just spent an all-too-quick week in Bohemia, visiting old friends, hiking around the highlands and enjoying a few beers. The big news in the small town of Chotěboř, where we used to live about two decades ago, is the new brewery.

Chotěboř Originál is what I think used to be called a “desítka”, or “10”, back when we were there. It seems now breweries are using the terms “original” and “premium” for the weaker “10” and the stronger “12”, or “dvanáctka”. I’d always thought of them as lunch-time and dinner-time beers respectively. In any case, Chotěboř Originál is nicely bitter but a bit flat. Its alcohol level is 4.1%.

Chotěboř Prémium, which would be the “dvanáctka” in my old-fashioned reasoning, is by far the tastier beer. Again, bitterness is the first characteristic you notice. 5.1% alcohol, balanced well with something of a baked sugar cookie aroma. It’s got more fizz than Originál.

Chotěboř Černé Prémium is the town brewery’s dark offering. It’s a black lager not a million miles away from Köstritzer Schwarzbier, though it’s more bitter than that German treat. Worthwhile, though I still think Chotěboř Prémium is my favourite of the three.

From one small town on the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands, we move quickly to another: Hlinsko, whose brewery, offers Rychtář Prémium. Unfortunately, it’s a bit too syrupy in consistency and not crisp or bitter enough.

Moving south just a bit, we come to the district town of Havlíčkův Brod, where the Rebel Brewery makes Rebel Originál Premium. The name somewhat undermines my previous notions about new names, but at 4.8%, I guess it’s more in the 12 range than the 10. Anyway, it’s a good beer, with fine bubbles and decent bitterness. Solid stuff.

Next is a classic, probably the most famous Bohemian beer ever: Pilsner Urquell from Plzeňský Prazdroj in the city of Plzeň, or Pilsen, if you prefer. It’s strongly bitter, with a healthy, lasting head. My Czech friends say it’s good for the stomach, and they’ll recommend it whenever you’ve got a bit of a bug. Seems to work. I was lucky enough to enjoy one in the beer hall of Prague’s Obecní dům, which is one of my favourite buildings in the world.

We also tried Master Zlatý 15°, another one from Plzeňský Prazdroj. It’s clearly trying to occupy, or maybe create, a select spot on the Czech market, with something outside the normal range of pilsner-style beers. It only partially succeeds. Master Zlatý 15° is wickedly bitter and malty, with a 6.7% alcohol, so altogether edging towards a Belgian tripel in taste -- even nearly achieving that well-known grapefruit note. But not quite. It’s a good effort, but in the end, it tries too hard, promises too much, and ends up being disappointingly unspectacular.

Back at the straightforward end of the spectrum is Pardál, the kind of keep-it-simple offering I like. From the Budějovický Budvar brewery in South Bohemia, it’s a solid pilsner-style beer, well bitter, refreshing and uncomplicated.

With Czech beers, I think those that aim to get the basics right are the ones that succeed.