Wednesday, 22 December 2010

St Bernardus Christmas

On just about the longest night of the year, we are celebrating with St Bernardus Christmas. Often recommended to me and long sought after, particularly as St Bernardus darks are firmly established on my list of top ten Belgian beers, St Bernardus Christmas continues a healthy run of Christmas beer tastings on this blog.

I’d bought two bottles for two separate occasions, but unfortunately, one fell through. Bob didn’t make it here to share the first with me yesterday as expected. You might consider him another victim of Europe’s air travel chaos, but his was a snow travel story with a happy ending, because, strangely, the confusion meant he somehow made it back to his family in the US a day earlier than expected. Still, bottle two was at the ready for another planned tasting with a friend this evening...

Immediately on popping the cork, I could already smell the classic St Bernardus aroma of rich, dark caramel and spices. The first sip was a bit of a disappointment, I have to admit, because it was so fumy, meaning the alcohol level was too strong. But that soon wore off, thankfully, as the booze wove its way into other flavours, notably a biscuity baseline supporting grilled dates and other dried fruits, as well as nutmeg.

“I like the initial bitter blast and then the slight sweetness at the end”, Jonathan said. He also rightly noted, “It was a bit too fizzy at first, but it calmed down after a few minutes.”

In all, an excellent beer, though I think I’ll let that second bottle sit in the cellar for another year and see how it matures. I bet it evolves from excellent to fantastic. We’ll see next Yuletide season.

St Bernardus Christmas is also a perfect beer with which to end this year. I’ll be back in the new year, dear readers, with a whole bunch of new posts to take the blog from this, beer tasting number 290, to number 300 and beyond. Until then, best wishes to all, and to all a good beer.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

De-ice your own beer at Brussels Airport

I had a number of friends with disrupted travel plans over the last few days, as Northern Europe’s airports tried to get to grips with the cold and snow, highly unusual in these parts in December and not the kind of weather anyone could ever expect, let alone prepare for. It's ruined a tasting event I had planned, so I looked into the matter more deeply.

Brussels Airport at one point announced that it had run out of de-icer, so planes were grounded. I found that somewhat odd and called the airport hotline to inquire what had happened. I was passed from one person to another, but to Brussels Airport’s credit, their staff did have some pretty solid justifications for the shortage, including:

“We were waiting to buy de-icer in the after-Christmas sales.”

“With all this talk of ‘global warming’, we figured it wasn’t going to be necessary this year.”

“I wrote down ‘buy de-icer’ on a yellow sticky note and put it on my computer screen, but it must have fallen off. Or maybe the cleaning staff removed it.”

“We were all sure there was another season between autumn and winter, so no one was rushing out to buy it.”

“I ordered de-icer in French, and the Flemish-speaking guy pretended not to hear me.”

“We haven’t had cold weather for so long -- like ten months or something -- so we just sort of forgot about it.”

“Too few budget airline passengers paid the ‘de-icer supplement’ when purchasing their tickets online.”

“We were waiting for the new Belgian government to formally approve the order for more de-icer.”

“Wait, I thought you bought de-icer.”

“We’d cleaned out the de-icer holding tanks to fill them with Leffe for the big staff barbeque in July.”

Sunday, 19 December 2010

La Mère Des Moeder’s

Now pouring at my favourite Brussels bar (top of my brand new and extremely official list of best places for beer in Brussels), La Mère Des Moeder’s is another winning brew from Brasserie de Jandrin Jandrenouille, makers of the amazing IV, V, and VI.

Like those others from Jandrin Jandrenouille, La Mère Des Moeder’s has that pink grapefruit note, but then about two dozen other tastes jump out and vie for your attention. It’s rich and fragrant with a fruity, bubblegum nose, evolving into, oddly enough, cuberdon.

There’s then something like the dust off a boiled sweetie, or the red fruits of a Jolly Rancher candy. Pear drops emerge, or even very ripe pear. Yes, that’s it: it’s like slicing into an over-ripe pear. Through all that, however, it’s not sweet. And at the same time, it’s got an undercurrent of a rough pizza dough keeping it grounded.

That probably sounds pretty strange all put together, but trust me, it works. Very yummy.

Top ten bars, pubs and cafés for beer in Brussels

This post comes to you by popular demand. I am constantly asked what are the best places to enjoy a beer in this city, so it’s about time I set it all down properly.

Of course, everyone looks for something different in a bar or pub, so my list may not match everyone’s tastes. My three criteria for evaluating places are at least straightforward.

Firstly and most obviously, it’s got to have a solid beer selection. By this I mean quality not quantity. I’d rather a few good beers than a two-hundred-bottle list. And craft beers have to be well-represented, preferably on tap, though I’m no anti-bottle snob -- plenty of tasty beers live in bottles.

The second criterion is attitude. I don’t just mean that staff are friendly and so on. That’s important, of course, and not always guaranteed in Brussels, to be frank. But under “attitude”, I am also referring to an establishment’s whole approach to their trade. I can think of some Brussels beer bars catering to the pack-em-in, “let’s get bladdered” tourist market. Yawn. I can also name a few dozen pubby looking places that are so up themselves about being “restaurants”, that even when they are empty, they won’t accept customers who want to come in just for a drink or two.*

My third criterion is pretty simple: I want a non-smoking place. It’s not that I’ll never go into a smoky place, but if you’re asking me about “the best” bars and pubs, I’m not going to include a place where breathing is considered of little advantage. Don’t expect Delirium in the list, then... [UPDATE, June 2012: Since writing this 18 months ago, new anti-smoking legislation has eliminated the problem in most places, though smoking does still seem to be allowed in some bars -- or at least it happens with a nod and a wink. Not sure what the rules actually state, but it's much better overall.]

OK, then, enough introduction and explanation. On with the list of my top ten

1) Chez Moeder Lambic Fontainas (Place Fontainas 8): With 40 or 50 craft beers on tap and gorgeous artisanal cheeses to match, this slickly designed new palace of taste exploration is without equal in Brussels. The only thing that comes close is...

2) Chez Moeder Lambic St Gilles (Rue de Savoie 68): The original, cozy corner pub dedicated to Belgian beer. Amazing selection and, like its younger, sleeker sister, run by friendly folks who will talk you through the possibilities with care.

3) L’Ultime Atome (Saint Boniface 14): With a fairly extensive beer list and changing guest beers, L’Ultime Atome is easily one of my favourites. The food specials draw me in for lunch frequently (no, really, it’s the food), but they’re perfectly welcoming if you show up for just a drink.

4) Café Belga (Place Flagey): The great bar at the water-line of the ship that sails along Place Flagey, Café Belga is an institution. We love coming here on Sunday afternoons, but in winter, you’re lucky to find a seat. Despite the large size of this place, it gets packed quickly with the similarly minded.

5) Le Châtelain (Place Châtelain): Not a bad beer list and friendly service, this place is a steady, hassle-free local. Solid.

6) Café Sisisi (Place Janson): Of all the names on the list, this is, I’m willing to bet, the one most readers will have never heard of. But by the three criteria, Sisisi well deserves mention. It was closed for ages and recently reopened with a fair handful of bottled craft beers on offer. This is one to watch out for. I think it will do pretty well, as it’s literally just around the corner from one of Brussels big tourist attractions, the Horta Museum on Rue Américaine. Sisisi would be a good place to grab, say, a Zinnebir after a visit to this famous Art Nouveau monument. [UPDATE, June 2012: Hmmm... not so sure now. I went there the other day, and the beer selection was a bit pants.]

7) Au Soleil (Rue du Marché au Charbon 86): Sit back, have a Chimay White on tap and watch the world go by. Reviewing an old blog post, I realise it was a Chimay White at Au Soleil that started changing my thinking on strong blonde ales.

8) Supra Bailly (Rue du Bailli 77): This favourite comes with a huge proviso. Supra Bailly is only tolerable when the weather’s good and you and sit outside. If you ever go inside the impossibly hazy bar, you’ll be smoked like a kipper in about 20 seconds. But at a pavement-side table on a warm evening after work, it’s a fine place to enjoy a St Feuillien.

9) Brasserie de l’Union (Parvis de Saint-Gilles 55): A good beer list and an unpretentious place. I wrote about a Moinette Blonde I had there not too long ago.

10) Bar du Matin (Chaussée d'Alsemberg 172): If the sun’s out -- or if it’s not pouring down rain, at least -- sitting outside the Bar du Matin is a lovely way to spend an hour or two. And if you’re inside, the style of the place will make you forget about any bad weather.

That’s it. That’s the list. But like my list of top ten Belgian beers, I suspect this one will also evolve over time.


* A good example of this counter-productive attitude to serving customers and making money generally is Les Brassins (Rue Keyenveld 36). It’s got a decent beer list, and it was until recently a favourite of mine. Unfortunately, they’ve now taken to not letting you even sit down unless you’re ordering a meal. We tried going in there the other day, and it was well after 10, so past the time they could expect dinner-eating clients, yet despite having empty tables, they refused to serve us just a beer. Now, I understand if it’s 8 or 9 o’clock -- so a normal time for an evening meal -- as a proprietor, you want your tables going to people worth 20 or 40 euros rather than people worth 5 or 10. But insisting on your “restaurant” status when no one’s going to eat is just self-defeating snobbery. Basically, it’s a pub that thinks far too much of itself. Wrong attitude.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Little Delirium Café grand opening

I was initially quite excited about yesterday’s grand opening of the Little Delirium Café on Rue Marche au Fromages. Promising 30 brews on tap, the new location looked like it might become a solid addition to the city’s quality beer scene. Sadly, the night didn’t work out as I'd hoped.

I showed up a fashionable-yet-still-eager 15 minutes late for the grand opening party, but the place was a construction site, with at least a dozen people moving furniture, playing with power tools and making busy with a shop-vac. OK, I thought, things are running a bit late. That happens. So I went to Grand Place to enjoy the light show for a while.

When I came back, things still weren’t quite ready, but the workers were taking a break with a glass of rosé. There was still no beer flowing, which for a beer place, seemed to be missing an important part of the equation. I left a second time, now thirsty for a beer, and went elsewhere.

A few hours later, we returned again, and the place was hopping with a beer-drinking crowd. But when we opened the door, and stepped in, my trachea went into revolt. The bar was thick with smoke, making it nasty and unwelcoming for breathing types like us. For the third time in the evening, we left.

I don’t want to be completely dismissive. I’ll probably give the Little Delirium Café another chance at some point. But heavy smoke is the reason I don’t much like the old Delirium bar at Impasse de la Fidélité. No use having over 2000 beers if you're choking while trying to taste them.

It could also be that the whole Delirium phenomenon is just not really my thing. As the pink elephants slowly surround Grand Place, it seems more and more like a chain of tourist traps. It may forever be a draw for drunken visitors, but it’s not really for me (unlike Delirium Christmas beer, which definitely is for me).

Back to Taras Boulba

As I approach my 300th beer tasting on this blog, it seems a good time to review my list of top ten Belgian beers. I’ve made a few changes to it here and there over the years, of course, but there still seems to be something unbalanced about it.

One thing that needs correcting is that some beers I enjoy quite regularly -- what some call “session beers” -- have taken a back seat to some rarely quaffed brews. But should something great be overlooked in a “best of” list just because it is relatively easy to find? Has familiarity numbed my sense of quality?

Perhaps the best example of this is Taras Boulba. I suppose I could have chosen another of the excellent beers for the Brasserie de la Senne, like Zinnebier or Stouterik, but Taras Boulba is the one that reaches out to me. I drink it quite often -- maybe so often that I’ve taken it for granted. But ever since I attended a tasting at which Yvan de Baets, the inspirational master brewer at De la Senne, introduced this beer, I’ve realised I really need to give it the credit it’s due.

Taras Boulba has got massive hop, with a bit of grassiness and a faint note of grapefruit pith. There’s a dryness in there that makes you want to take another sip. And as Taras Boulba has a fairly low alcohol level for a Belgian ale, 4.5%, you don’t have to think twice before doing so. I particularly like it on tap.

So, Taras Boulba has now joined my official top ten Belgian beers, and I think there may be a few other shake-ups to that list in the coming months.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

An Alpine Adventure

I was invited to speak at a conference in Switzerland on Monday, and in the brief 22 hours I spent in that country, I managed to try two Swiss beers, both as I waited for my plane at Geneva airport on my way home.

Regular readers of this blog may note some similarity between this situation and an incident at London’s St Pancras last week... My attitude is I shouldn’t miss an opportunity to try a new beer.

When I saw the bottle of Calanda at the airport self-serve restaurant, I figured it was going to be a plain mass-market lager, but I gave it a shot anyway, because I thought it might go well with the stir fry I was having. Turns out, it was worse than that: heavy and syrupy, below average even for a dull lager. The label promised, “bière normale”. If only. (The stir fry wasn’t so great either, in case you’re wondering.)

Luckily, my second beer offered something different: flavour. Ittinger Amber pours copper coloured and has a taste bordering on an alt, with a light mouthfeel, mild caramel and a gentle nuttiness, all with a dash of bitterness to round it off. I’d get this one again.

I leave you, then, with three short videos. No, there’s no beer in them; only trains. Switzerland has railways across some of the craziest, and most beautiful, terrain anywhere. As my conference was up in the mountain-side village of Caux (above Montreux), I got to take not only the express along the lake, but also one of the cog railway services that ascends at an absurd angle. If you’re a train freak as well as a beer geek -- or even if you just want to see some amazing scenery -- have a look at these clips: two on the mountain and one along the water.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Delirium Christmas

Amid all the holiday fever, what beer could be more appropriate than Delirium Christmas?

It pours a wonderful chestnut colour and draws you in with its warming spice aroma. The taste is brandy and brown sugar, with fine bubbles and a whiff of nutmeg.

We paired it with a traditional Christmas pudding, which was a perfect match, the burnt sweetness and dried fruits blending beautifully with the beer. It’s got ten per cent alcohol in case you’re counting, but given the calories in the pud, it seems best I don’t dwell too much about the numbers.

Delirium Christmas is, overall, an excellent drink, and I rate it a good deal higher than regular ol’ Delirium tremens. Hopefully I’ll be able to taste it again at this Friday’s grand opening of the new “Little Delirium Café” downtown. The invitation says they’re going to offer 30 beers on tap, so chances have to be pretty good.


Stille Nacht

We popped into L'Ultime Atome after a bit of nosing around the shops in the Matonge district. This bar's got a respectable beer menu, but we immediately chose one of those offered on the specials blackboard: Stille Nacht from Brouwerij De Dolle Brouwers, makers of the pretty well-known oerbier.

But right from the first sip, we felt disappointment. It was unbalanced by heavy sweetness. Some acidity and fruitiness were fighting for attention, but the sugars punched them back flat. Too bad.

It was the first beer in our new “Beerly Coherent” podcast series that we actually didn’t much like. Bit of a shame, perhaps, but we’ve got to call them as we find them. (Interestingly, I also found oerbier a bit too sweet in an tasting quite a while back.)

To listen to the tasting of Stille Nacht, click on the link in the player below...


Tuesday, 14 December 2010


With a rare second posting of the day, I suppose I’m not really disguising the fact that I’m many write-ups behind, with tasting notes and photos scattered about and in need of getting into the blog. Still, this beer was a memorable treat.

From Brasserie Caracole, producers of the peppery sweet Caracole, Nostradamus bruin is a sugar and burnt caramel number with a bittery biscuit base line and notes of roasted chestnut and honey. It’s quite fizzy, and the alcohol, at nine per cent, doesn’t exactly hide itself. As it warms up, a fascinating fennel aroma develops.

In short, there’s a lot going on here, but the flavours seem in harmony when taken together.

We enjoyed it with dark bread, Herve cheese and sirop de Liège, which suited this beer very nicely.

La Rulles Cuvée Meilleurs Voeux

This was a very pleasant beer tasting for two reasons. First, it was yumminess in a glass. Second, it helped me overcome my fear of La Rulles.

I occasionally happens that you get a bad bottle of something, and it darkens your outlook on a whole brewery’s output. Let’s not forget the Cookie Beer incident... In a similar way, I had tried La Rulles Brune almost three years ago and was very unimpressed.

However, I kept reading high praise for the beers of this brewery, and so I decided to give it another chance with La Rulles Cuvée Meilleurs Voeux, on tap at Chez Moeder Lambic St Gilles the other day.

This Christmas beer is full of rich dark caramels, with notes of burnt gingerbread and nutmeg. It’s got a welcome bitterness too. In all, it’s a really well put-together brew. Actually, it’s one of the better Christmas beers I’ve had this season. And that’s saying something.

Monday, 13 December 2010

The saintly, the pants and the crass at St Pancras

By my own personal mathematics, one delayed Eurostar from London equals two serendipitous beer tastings. Happily, St Pancras International houses a little spot called the Sourced Market shop, which has a fair selection of bottled British craft beers.

At least, it seems a fair selection to me. I’m British, but I only really started taking a proper interest in beer when I moved to Belgium, and I have everything to learn about UK brands. So, while I wasn’t going anywhere anyway, I thought, time to get educated...

Now, somewhere in the back of my mind, I’d heard of Meantime, so, when I saw Meantime London Stout on the shelf, I went for it. Good choice as it turns out.

It was rich and smooth, with deep burnt flavours throughout, along with bittersweet coffee surrounded by little if any carbonation. There was something of a Christmas pudding about it, as well. Or maybe I simply had that on the brain because I had just bought one to take back to Brussels. (More on that in a future post...)

The selection at Sourced
The Sourced Market shop, by the way, also has a few Belgian beers, including Rochefort 6, surprisingly. This most elusive of the Rochefort labels, and my favourite of the three, makes a welcome change from the thumping ubiquity of Leffe Blond, Hoegaarden and Stella, which seem to be the only things most of London would ever know of Belgian beer -- and don’t get me started on the others you find everywhere: American Bud, Fosters, San Miguel, Corona, and Peroni.

OK, you got me started: what’s up with that particular selection of boring brands, unchanging from bar to bar? I know that mass market beer is all about shifting units via marketing rather than taste, but why have five or six soulless drinks when really one would do?

Anyway, train delays being what they are, I decided to try another British beer off the richly stocked Sourced Market shelves: Dark Star Espresso (Rich Coffee Beer). The mouthfeel was immediately thinner than the last one, but the overall impression was no worse off for it. The first flavour was of very dark roasted malt, but then the coffee taste kicked in. And how. No mistaking this beer’s been rightly named.

Something like straw moves to the fore soon after, dusty, fragrant and inviting. Leave it for a few minutes, and black cherry appears, along with woody or barky notes and over-ripe apple (in a nice way). That complexity I found a bit unusual for a beer that’s not so creamy as other darks I know. Still, I wasn’t complaining: both beers, new to me, were a great way to pass the time in Eurostar limbo.

But, dear reader, be warned: don’t expect anything interesting once you check in. The Eurostar waiting area itself is a desert of dullness. The single pub on the far side of the security and passport controls, the “undercroftbar”, is dire. I’d call it the “underpantsbar” to emphasise just how pants it is, but that would sound very immature and not very helpful for my credibility just I am about to make a very important point. Oops.

Seriously, how is it possible that a major international travel terminal has only one bar after check-in? The only international departure areas that allow a monopoly bar these days are those in nasty authoritarian regimes (and even some of those have a better beer selection). But this is the UK, and they just dumped about seventy-two squizillion pounds on the beautiful new St Pancras and its new Eurostar station. How can it be that there is not more choice? Any choice?

So, remember, if you want a decent beer before you get on the train to Brussels or Paris, be sure to have one before you check in to the Eurostar area. And if you one day in your travels find this handy tip saves your taste buds from ruin, please feel free to offer your thanks by buying me a beer. But not in the underpantsbar, of course.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Mikkeller Santa’s Little Helper 2009

Tis the season and all that, so we’ve been doing our part to maintain the yuletide spirit by sampling a good number of Christmas beers in recent weeks. This time, it’s a Danish one rather than a Belgian.

Mikkeller is all the rage in the world of beer snobbery, and having tried two divine Mikkeller brews already -- Monk’s Elixer and Beer Geek Breakfast -- I can very easily understand why. This third Mikkeller beer, Santa’s Little Helper 2009, was every bit as wonderful as the first two.

It pours absurdly dark and rich, and the taste is burnt cedar and heavy spice: cinnamon, coriander and star anise. Chocolate notes swirl around with hints of orange peel. Just fantastic. Everything I love in a dark beer. More please...

We also made a podcast for this one as part of our “Beerly Coherent” series. Have a listen...


Monday, 6 December 2010

Hoppy, hoppy, ho ho ho

Another weekend of woeful weather brought another bout of tap beer tasting at Chez Moeder Lambic. Bob and I managed to try a number of new ones, including more Christmas beers, just in time to boost that holiday spirit.

First on the menu was Hop Harvest 2010 from De Ranke brewery, which also makes the plummy Guldenberg, the hop-happy XX Bitter, and the pitch black Noir de Dottignies. Hop Harvest 2010 is indeed what you'd expect: um, hoppy. It's bordering on piney even. But it was a little disappointing, to be honest, because undermining the bitter, dry crispiness was something a bit sweet and syrupy. I was thinking it would be a bit more refreshing than it turned out to be.

Père Noël, also from De Ranke, set off my hop-detectors much more than Hop Harvest. It's sharp and dry rather than sweet, which is not what I generally think are the qualities of a Belgian Christmas beer, but I've yet to ever really nail down any notion of a proper style in the whole Xmas beer malarkey. What do Affligem Christmas, Tongerlo Christmas Amber, and the other Christmas beers I've had lately have in common? Still, Père Noël does have something that evokes the season in it: some warming spices like nutmeg and, more obviously, a bit of candied orange peel. Very yummy.

Tournay Noël arrives at our table dark, with a beautifully heavy foam. It's produced by Brasserie de Cazeau, makers of the very good Tourney Blonde and the outstanding Saison Cazeau. The taste of Tournay Noël is lightly smoky -- or maybe that should be, mildly burnt -- and somewhat sweet, with some rich biscuity flavours, cinnamon, nutmeg and licorice. The aftertaste almost edges toward that of a vinegar-like Belgian brown ale, but don't let that put you off. All its flavours blend very nicely, creating a taste that is complex and multi-layered, yet still unified -- both very rich and very mild at the same time. It's just incredibly smooth.

Bons Vœux comes from the Dupont brewery, and though Chez Moeder Lambic was offering both the 2010 and the 2009, we only got a chance to sample the latter. Again, the layers jumped out at us. It's got a strong herbal nose, which nears medicinal strength on the tongue, where the heavy floral notes are also amplified. Then, all of a sudden, your tongue and lips are sealed in wax, such is the aftertaste that hits you. It's a bit alarming at first, but then as you grow used to it, something else emerges: mango. Loads and loads of mango, like dried mango or, given the thick richness in mouthfeel of the liquid generally, even a mango lassi. Yum.

While those draft beers were enjoyed in Chez Moeder Lambic Fontainas, the final one -- Oud Zottegems Bier from the Crombé brewery -- we sampled in Chez Moeder Lambic St Gilles, after climbing the hill in the cold and wet. It's served in a tall glass, pouring a light amber colour. The taste is refreshing and slightly herbal, not a thousand miles from the Bons Vœux, in fact. But it's not that complex, doesn't demand as much, and ends up being somewhat easier to just enjoy rather than analyse. Simply moreish.



Thursday, 2 December 2010

Ultra délice, Ultra blonde & Ultra ambrée

My tour through the beers of Brasserie d’Ecaussinnes continued with three "Ultra" offerings: Ultra délice, Ultra blonde and Ultra ambrée. After the debacle of Cookie Beer, I was wary to even open the bottles...

Well, the good news is, removing the cap of Ultra délice did not result in a foamy wee fountain in my kitchen. It poured -- didn’t spray -- a lovely chestnut brown, in fact, with a gentle cappuccino-crema head.

The taste, however, wasn’t something I was thrilled about. It’s got a pleasant, thick mouthfeel, but it’s quite sour and marmitey. It seems like there are some spices trying to push their way out through the vinegar, but sadly, unsuccessfully.

Ultra blonde pours a butterscotch hue, and also suffers from a bit of sourness. It’s missing those flavours I associate with Belgian strong blond ales -- none of those bitter grapefruity pithy notes, for example. There’s something fruity, like over-ripe apple, that almost moves in to save the taste.

But not quite. It falls well short of being something I'd order again.

Third up, then, was Ultra ambrée. It’s got a pleasing copper colour with a healthy, lasting head. In taste, the first thing that hits you is candied orange peel, and then it mellows into a kind of fresh-baked lemon cake, smooth, with no sharp edges. Overall, it’s a bit too sweet for me, but Ultra ambrée is at least interesting and complex. It’s easily the best of the four beers from Brasserie d'Ecaussinnes that I’ve now tried.