Sunday, 4 December 2011


I am now getting back to Belgian beer after some time away. Tonight, we tried Villée, a collaboration between the Biercée Distillery and the Silly Brewery. Yes, yes, there’s a Belgian town called “Silly”, and you’re not the first to find that amusing.

The jester on the label offers no humour for us, but instead kicks off a debate before we even open the bottle. Fiona doesn’t like it: it’s too, um, well... silly, she says. I’m not so sure. It’s not the same as the gnomes, sprites and pixies you get on far too many Belgian beer labels, and about which I have moaned about here on this blog in the past.

At least jesters existed.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Taedonggang (North Korea)

One of the great things about working for an international organisation is the cross-cultural intellectual stimulation of interacting with colleagues based around the world. I learn so much from them all every day -- about politics, language, business and customs -- expanding my knowledge and understanding of people and societies in every corner of the globe. When we get together, it’s like a personalised, intensive course in foreign affairs, and I feel my mind sponge soaking up the wonders of humanity in all its glorious complexity.

Oh, and they sometimes bring me beer from some strange places.

The latest was from one of my colleagues covering North East Asia: a beer called Taedonggang from North Korea. (Thanks, Dan!)

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Nigerian Guinness

I’m off to Nigeria early next year, and after handing in my visa application today, it seems an appropriate evening to crack open a bottle that’s been sitting in the “to try” crate for rather a while: Guinness Foreign Extra Stout from Nigeria.

Now, there are infinitely more qualified people out there who can tell you all about the history of how Guinness developed such a committed market in Nigeria, but one thing I can say: this is not your familiar Irish Guinness. For starters, it’s 7.5%. Be warned.

The initial aroma is sawdust, which is not entirely pleasant, I have to say. That carries into a slight cardboard note in the taste, which I suspect is a result of oxidation, probably exacerbated by the fact that I let this beer age too long.

Apart from that, Nigerian Guinness is sweet right from the start, followed by some of the stout elements you’d expect: burnt caramels and such. Not refreshing so much as nourishing. And intoxicating -- did I mention it’s 7.5%?

In any case, it’s certainly inviting. I am very much looking forward to trying it in its homeland...

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Gulpener HerfstBok

Readers who pay attention to this blog will notice that I haven’t been. Well, not very much lately anyway. Since the end of summer, it has been pretty mad at the day job, and after a few months of rapid-fire tastings during the warm months, it seemed a good time to cool down for a bit.

And go on a diet.

Lost five kilos, thanks for asking.

But somewhere in the blur of life that was October -- at a moment when I was off in the Dutch countryside at a staff retreat, in fact -- I did manage to try a new beer, Gulpener HerfstBok, and took some notes too.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Herkenrode Bruin: second shot

This is one I’ve tried before -- and not long ago, in fact -- but I wasn’t overly impressed, which was a bit of a shame, I thought at the time, because their Herkenrode Tripel is very good. Anyway, the brewery saw my original post and reckoned I must have got a bad bottle of the Bruin, and they very kindly sent me a few new ones to give it a second chance.

So, I sat down with a few friends one afternoon a while back and popped them open.

Indeed, it didn’t taste much like I had remembered. It was still thin in body as I’d noted, but this Herkenrode Bruin was much more pleasant overall.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Spas, tattoos & mystery lagers

We had another lovely few of days in Aachen, Germany, which as always included a trip to the spa. As I was relaxing in the waters, however, I had a rather disturbing thought about aging.

It occurred to me that I am from an era you might call BT, or “before tattoos”. Not exactly, of course, as tattoos are probably older than Sumeria, which surely dates back before 1968. But I come from a time before tattoos were ubiquitous.

Watching people in the spa very quickly tells me what generation I belong to.

Monday, 22 August 2011

HB Münchner Sommer

Among all the American beers we enjoyed on our summer holiday, there was one lone non-US brew: HB Münchner Sommer, which we tried at Loreley Restaurant & Biergarten in Manhattan.

It’s unfiltered, and it thus appears cloudy. The taste is wonderfully lemony and refreshing, just what’s needed for a shopping break in the summer heat. Very good.

Friday, 19 August 2011

American beers seem to be following me

Going away on holiday is great, of course, but really, we may have overdone it on the tasting notes from our US trip. With so many, I’d ideally use them to stretch out my blog posts on American beers over a couple months. But there are new American tastings on the horizon, some here in Belgium (more on that at the end of this post), so I’ve got to clear the deck.

Where to start, where to start...

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Three American pale ales

Step by step, I am slowly clearing the back log of tasting notes from our holiday in the US. It would seem we sampled 61 different brands in the three weeks we were there, which I think you’ll agree is a pretty good innings.

When it comes to pale ales, I’ve already mentioned the very tasty Smuttynose Shoals Pale Ale, the delicious Kona Fire Rock Pale Ale, and the lovely Captain Lawrence Fresh Chester Pale Ale, in addition to various labels of the sub-species known as IPA.

To that tally, let me add three more.

Not your old American lager

Not long ago, “American lager” meant a pale, thin, fizzy, soda-like substance. Compared to its Bavarian or Czech ancestors, the US brews seemed watered down, diluted to nearly homeopathic “no active ingredient” levels.

Then, in my personal timeline anyway, came Samuel Adams Boston Lager, offering richer flavours: deeper maltiness and an unashamedly bitter finish. Over the years, it has deservedly become a classic of the quality beer scene in the States -- so popular, in fact, and produced in such quantity, that some apparently started to wonder if it could still be called a “craft beer”. In any case, Boston Lager surely deserves the moniker, “gateway craft beer”, because for many people, this is the first step on a life-long love affair with quality brews.

But now, all sorts of things seem to be going on with “American lager”, and there’s a range of flavours within, from the solid, simple and traditional, to the wild and weird. Here’s a few we tried this summer.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Ending my anti-can snobbery

As anyone who’s ever read this blog before understands, I don’t really know a whole lot about beer. Even after sampling many hundreds of different brands, I still find myself struggling desperately in my amateur efforts to describe them.

Still, my deep ignorance hasn’t stopped me from becoming something of a beer snob. Indeed, it has probably accelerated the process.

Take my attitude toward beer in cans, for example. Despite my family connections to the home of such modern conveniences, I have always seen canned beer as a down-market, overly fizzy and taste-damaged product. I swore I could detect the metallic element to the taste. Even when I probably couldn’t.

You wouldn’t catch me with a can in my hand, no sir.

I was forced to reverse this prejudice a few weeks ago, however, when I tried Sixpoint Bengali Tiger IPA. It comes from a can, but there is nothing tinny about this one at all.

In fact, it’s a very fine IPA, with a lively floral aroma and pine notes in the flavour. It’s not too carbonated either. Super yum.

Despite being from a can.

Lagunitas backlog

The catch-up on tasting notes from our American holiday goes on... Today, let me add some additional beers from California brewer Lagunitas, makers of the fine Lagunitas IPA and the outstanding Hop Stoopid, reviewed earlier.

Lagunitas Imperial Stout pours darker than tar in a cave at night. Nona dubs it, “a black milk shake”. Indeed. Flavours include burnt malt, ripe fig, prune juice and, oh so amazingly, roasted ginger. Excellent stuff.

Lagunitas Wilco Tango Foxtrot seems to be a kind of light stout, with a very strong maltiness, trending into molasses and something medicinal. It’s got a sticky mouthfeel combined with a biscuit note, as well as hints of creamed spinach and candy canes, all ending in a sour aftertaste. I was struck speechless by this one, to be honest. Maybe its complexity simply overwhelmed me.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

More from Dogfish Head

On our summer trip to the US, we tried loads of beers from Delaware-based brewer Dogfish Head, one of the drivers of America’s great craft beer renaissance. There were super-hop IPAs like Dogfish Head Squall IPA and Dogfish Head 60-minute IPA; stranger offerings, like the historic beers, Theobroma and Midas Touch; and, of course, the astounding Bitches Brew.

But that was not all. Oh no.

We also tested Dogfish Head Raison D’ Être, which pours chestnut brown and has an aroma similar to Belgium’s Palm Royale. The flavour is not a million miles away from it either, though less sweet. Bob found a note of dark raisins, though the label says green raisins, while I was thinking it was more like blueberries. Bob also thought he detected an aftertaste of asparagus. The alcohol (8%) seems a bit too strong, that is burning and out of balance.

Much better was Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale. Already a favourite of Bob’s, it’s not brown so much as black and dark. The aroma first hits you with an old fruitbowl air, and the flavour darts back and forth between an IPA and a stout. There’s a definite pumpkin note in the middle -- nothing subtle about it: it’s like sticking your head into a carved jack-o-lantern. And then there’s a whiff of maple syrup. Very interesting. Very good.

Dogfish Head 90 Minute Imperial IPA does not seem to do much on aroma, but it whacks you around the head and shoulders with the flavour of strawberries. The aftertaste is lingering, with something like a Sharpie pen hit of gorgeous, lasting hops.

Smutty memories

About 25 years ago, I spent the summer on the Isles of Shoals, a collection of rocky outposts off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine. I was doing courses in marine science on Appledore Island, to be specific, which is just across a narrow channel from Smuttynose Island, namesake of today’s beers.

The brewery is not on the island, of course. About the only thing out there, apart from the ghosts of the victims of an 1873 axe murder, are a bunch of seals. Smuttynose Brewing Company is located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which has fewer seals flopping around its streets, as I recall, and hopefully fewer ghosts as well.

I used to be rather excited by a life at sea, and for me, the Isles of Shoals were really inspirational, influencing so many of my study and work moves in the years immediately after. From there, I found my way on to research boats, then on to traditionally rigged sailing schooners, plying the waters between Newfoundland and the Caribbean.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Madison beer fest

No one will believe this, but by complete coincidence there was a beer festival in Madison, Connecticut, the very weekend I happened to be in town. I wasn’t looking for it. Honest.

I was visiting my brother around the corner, and we popped into the Madison Wine Exchange, where MWE’s Ted Satinsky spotted us poking around the beer shelves and struck up a conversation. He told us of the upcoming charity event, “From Hops to Hope”, and so, two days later, on 24 July, we went down to check it out.

See, coincidence. Beery things just find me, that’s all.

It was a great afternoon out, with dozens of craft brewers, US and international, pouring their goods. Brian and I managed to try quite a number of new beers. One of these, Dogfish Head Midas Touch, I’ve already written about, so on to the others...

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Two historic brews

I like to try “historic beers” when I can -- that is, beers made to very old recipes that attempt to recreate the flavours of bygone days. They’re always very weird, and none of them are ever going to become regular tipples for me. But still, they are fascinating.

Those I’ve had before, including Gageleer and Dupont Cervesia, are recreations of the pre-hop era of brewing in Europe’s Middle Ages. If nothing else, those beers show you why hops supplanted bog myrtle and other herbs in brewing.

The following two beers, however, trace their roots back much further: with recipes originating in BCE times.

An evening at the Brooklyn Brewery

Our beer tour of Brooklyn could, of course, never be complete without a visit to the Brooklyn Brewery, one of the powerhouses of today’s quality beer renaissance in the US. So, Bob took us there for one of their Friday evening openings.

The bar area of the brewery is a lovely space, but the noise is incredible. There’s something about the acoustics in the place -- with hard-surface walls all around and nothing to break up the sound of people trying to talk with each other, everyone just shouts louder to their friends standing next to them, creating an upward spiral of deafening din. It was like normal crowded bar noise times ten.

Now, before you think this is just some old fart moaning about loud young people, let me tell you that my observation was independently verified. I took out my phone and opened an app to give me a noise reading. It said 95 decibels, which is apparently the “level at which sustained exposure may result in hearing loss”. No kidding. It was loud.

But we weren’t there for the sound; we were there for the taste.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Peppery bliss

One evening during our stay in the Brooklyn, New York, neighbourhood of Williamsburg, we went out to pick up a growler at the drugstore, but somehow got distracted at Breuckelen Beer Merchants around the corner.

Distracted, that is, by a flight of four beers.

One was Empire IPA, which I’ve already discussed, and two Brooklyn Brewery beers I’ll write about later. The fourth was Elysian Saison Poivre, which turned out to be one of the best beers I had on our US trip.

Elysian Saison Poivre is not much aroma, but the complexity of its flavour more than makes up for that. “Poivre” means pepper, and although peppery notes are not unusual for a saison beer, this one has it in bags. It overflows with a gorgeous spiciness. Then there’s something in the mid- to late taste that’s like maple syrup. The evolution of the flavours in your mouth is thus quite remarkable.

It’s produced by the Elysian Brewing Company, which, interestingly, got its start in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district, where I used to live back in 1990-91. Elysian opened in 1994, so I just missed it, sadly.

Had beer like this been around a few yeas earlier, I might have stayed in the States... How different my whole personal history could have been...

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Williamsburg growlers

One thing that struck me on my recent excursion into the land of American beer is the ubiquity of the growler. The refillable glass jars, which people take to shops and bars for quality craft beer to consume at home, remind me of the Czech tradition of the džbánek, which though usually made of ceramic, is the Bohemian cultural equivalent in functional terms. Anyway, in the US, growlers seem to be everywhere you look.

Or at least everywhere I look.

In the Williamsburg neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York, for example, they have become so popular that an outlet of a major drugstore chain is now acting as a beer refueling station. The Duane Reade apparently took the move to overcome anticipated area resistance to a big chain moving into the community, and it looks like it’s worked. They seem to have won over the locals.

Or at least the locals I know.

Wanting to familiarise Fiona and me with local customs as smoothly as possible, Bob and Nona got out their growlers, and we headed for the drugstore. Several times, in fact, during the week we stayed with them. Here are five we tried...

Beer in the Garden State

Today, we’re again looking at some American beers, and readers, be advised that there are more on the way. This might seem strange for a predominantly Belgian beer blog. But hey, I’m also now a member of the British Guild of Beer Writers. As Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large. I contain multitudes.”

Whitman’s final resting place, by the way, is in New Jersey, the source of today’s beers.

Times have, of course, changed since I lived in the US twenty years ago. It used to be that if you told anyone you were from New Jersey, the standard response was, “what exit?” Indeed, the “Garden State” was often known more for its highways than its green areas.

There was even a kind of attempt to develop this reputation in a virtuous direction, with service areas on the NJ Turnpike, for example, named after such New Jersey luminaries as Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Edison and, yes, Walt Whitman.

Now, however, when I mention the state of my birth, people seem to think first of The Sopranos. Not sure that’s an improvement. There’s no service area named after Tony Soprano. Yet.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

American IPA Hopsterism

Even just a short beer-tasting trip to the US will tell you that the country has gone mad for super-hoppy India pale ales. You can’t swing an empty growler without hitting a hop-bomb IPA these days.

While I have a hobbyist’s interest in noting how this popular preference evolved, I am more immediately concerned by the fact that my wife has caught the bug and is now on her way to becoming a serious hophead. Seems they just can’t make a beer with a triple-digit IBU number that she doesn’t like...

So, we made a tour of some new-American IPAs while in and around New York, a few of which I can describe here.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Bitches Brew

Back in December, I met an old friend at a conference in Switzerland, and she brought me a couple bottles of beer from the US as a gift from both her and her husband, also an old friend. In fact, I think I can take some small credit for them getting together, as they actually met through an online magazine I started about 12 years ago.

The bottle of Fisherman’s Imperial Pumpkin Stout went down in January, and it was delightful, let me tell you. But the second bottle, Bitches Brew from Dogfish Head, sat in my cellar for seven months, waiting for the right moment. Tonight.

It’s another deep, dark treat. Clearly, my friends had been reading my blog before they went shopping and knew that for me, the darker, the better.

Apparently, Bitches Brew is not a very easy beer to find these days, and I can see why. It is astounding, and would disappear from store shelves quickly. It pours ludicrously dark. A laser wouldn’t get though a glass of this stuff.

The initial aroma is a very pleasing whiff of caramelised carrot. The flavour is, as you might guess, espresso and dark chocolate through and through. Malted bitterness reigns here.

The bumf says Bitches Brew is, “a fusion of three threads imperial stout and one thread honey beer with gesho root”, which is a kind of African shrub that is sometimes used in the same way as hops are. (Yes, I had to look it up on Wikipedia...)

Thanks, Andrew and Susan!

Monday, 18 July 2011

Tyttebær: what kind of fruit are you?

Tonight’s beer is a Scandinavian treat. I’ve already mentioned a number of Norway’s mortgage-wrecking beers, but Tyttebær is something new.

The label proclaims it to be a, “wild ale brewed with Scandinavian cranberries”, though it goes on to explain that a tyttebær is also called a lingonberry or mountain cranberry. Some apparently call it a cowberry.

If, like me, you are still not really sure what the hell fruit this beer is all about, Wikipedia can help.

Produced by Mikkeller at the Nøgne Ø brewery using wild fermentation, Tyttebær pours a reddish-brown, and the aroma and flavour are indeed pretty wild. Somewhere at the core of it, Tyttebær almost seems like Orval, but layered on top of that base flavour is... urinal puck... drifting off into red currents... or raw cranberries... or lingonberries, I suppose... and then some tannin takes over. In the end, the overall tartness means it finishes very clear.

It is, um, interesting, to say the least. Fiona gave up and ran away screaming, “it smells like wee, it smells like wee”. Sure, and while I’m not about to make this my daily tipple either, there is something in the astringency of Tyttebær that I find quite compelling.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Aachen weekend

We went to Aachen last weekend. As we often do. And we tried a few German beers while there. As we often do.

First off were two bottled Alt beers: Hannen Alt and Diebels Alt. Both seemed good to us. Hannen was maybe a bit maltier than the average Alt, and if I had to choose between them, I’d go for the more bitter Diebels. Still, we both thought they weren’t as good as other Alts we’ve had. In particular, I recall that Schlüssel Alt we had a couple months ago... yum...

But the next beer threw us a bit. Not for its taste, mind you -- Öcher Lager comes to the table a lovely tan, and the taste is something not a million miles from an Alt beer, if not quite as bitter. Looking around the web a bit, I’ve seen it labelled an Alt. But here’s where the confusion comes in, because I’ve also seen it called a Kölsch-style ale. But the name suggests it’s, um... a lager.

Clearly, something doesn’t add up. Is it top-fermented, like an Alt or a Kölsch, or bottom-fermented like a lager? Trying to find the brewery online doesn’t help. Some websites claim it’s produced by the Lahnsteiner Brauerei in Lahnstein, south of Koblenz, but that doesn’t make any sense if, as other websites suggest, it as a “local beer”. And the Lahnsteiner Brauerei website makes no mention of this beer.

Anyway, if you’re ever in Aachen, step into the Aachener Brauhaus, which used to be a brewery but no longer is, and give it a try.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Jambe de Bois

For those just joining the story, let me fill you in...

I have already expressed a deep and inexorable love for the beers of Brasserie de la Senne, in particular Taras Boulba. So, you can bet that I’m going to enjoy tonight’s beer.

Jambe de Bois is a Belgian triple, and it’s an excellent example of the style: creamily carbonated, that classic note of grapefruit pith... It adds a very gentle candy element. 8% alcohol if you’re counting.

According to the label, it’s a “Belgian revolution triple”. I’m not sure how rebellious it is or how much in the spirit of 1830 it is. Maybe even drinking it these days is making a bold statement, given the current dysfunctionality of this country’s politics.

But it is a good beer. And really, that’s what matters.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Queue de Charrue Brune

Sometimes I think I’ll just never get the hang of Flemish red-brown ales. We’ve now tried several, and we’re almost never impressed: vinegar, soy sauce, sourness, over-ripe fruit. Just not my thing in combination.

About the only exception was Rodenbach Vintage 2008, which we really quite liked. But all the others, well, I can leave them, to be honest.

So it is, sadly, with tonight’s beer, Queue de Charrue Brune. I think it’s a worthy example of the style, for sure. Not for me, though.

Monday, 11 July 2011

How many Belgian beers are there?

Following the recent buzz of articles and radio interviews highlighting this humble blog, I have received a wave of comments both public and private about the true number of Belgian beers. I have been saying the number is close to 800, but this seems to have caused a bit of controversy.

Now, of course, I realise that the number 800 is an estimate. Beers come and go with the changing success and failure of various labels and breweries. There are seasonal beers that are only made for, say, Easter or Christmas. And then there’s the issue of aging beer. Every attempt to pin down a precise number is trying to hit a moving target at best.

But some readers said I was way off, claiming Belgium had 1000 beers. Others said 1500. Still others said 1800. And one even claimed 2400. Some of them offered lists but none offered tasting notes for each one, which is what this blog is about, of course.

Still, I consulted a few experts on the matter. The late, great Michael Jackson, in his seminal work Great Beers of Belgium, said the country had “around 500” beers, but that was a few years ago, of course. Brussels tour guide and “expert on all things Belgian”, Jan Dorpmans, says 700-800. Wikipedia, which is what I think I used at the beginning of this blog in late 2007, says there are 800 “standard beers”, though they also note, “When special one-off beers are included, the total number of Belgian beer brands is approximately 8,700.”

Ultimately, however, it is not just a question of numbers. This quest is about exploring the quality of Belgian beer and writing about it much more than tallying up a total number. I probably won’t stop at 800 anyway.

Mikkeller Beer Geek Bacon

As the whole issue of Belgian beer became a bit too controversial over the weekend, Bob and I decided to choose a Danish Mikkeller for our trans-Atlantic tasting last night.

Called "Rauch Geek Breakfast" in the US and "Beer Geek Bacon" here in the EU, this is another tasty treat from the world's favourite "gypsy brewer". It is, as you might expect, a lot like Mikkeller Beer Geek Breakfast with a bit of smokiness added, though no where near something like Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier.

Beer Geek Bacon offers up dark chocolate and espresso in a thick oozy concoction the viscosity of motor oil. Just gorgeous.

We made a short podcast about the experience, which you can listen to below...

Beerly Coherent 11: Beer Geek Bacon (mp3)

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Waterloo Double 8

Yesterday’s hullabaloo has spread, as these things do, with more interviews for other newspapers today, demonstrating once again rule number one of communications: nothing attracts media attention like media attention.

Of course, every moment you experience that makes you feel on top of the world contains within it a seed of pure humility. So it was with me this evening when, after the newspaper photographer had finished shooting me at the bar of the Supra Bailly pub for a story about a celebrated Belgian beer expert, I got to talking with him over a couple Orvals and came to realise he knew about seventy-four million times more than I do about Belgian beer.

Many years ago, he’d worked as a bartender at a pub with loads of small brewery beers that now no longer exist. He waxed lyrically about Monk, the pub down on Place St Catherine’s with some solid craft beer options. He had just finished a photoshoot concerning aged Cantillon, and he was very well versed in the subtleties of different kriek and gueuze. About the only thing he hadn’t tried was Westvleteren, so, of course, he’s now on the guest list for my next tasting evening.

But on to this evening’s beer: Waterloo Double 8.

I’ve already done the ABBA joke with Waterloo Triple 7, so I’ll spare readers a repeat of that. Actually, the Triple was a pretty good beer considering it initially seemed a bit of a gimmick. I was most impressed.

Waterloo Double 8 is much the same: quality stuff. It’s got the complexity you’d expect from a bottle-conditioned Belgian dark: creamy mouthfeel, sweet malts transforming into a long, lightly bitter aftertaste, and notes of raisins and dates. If it has a flaw, it’s that it is slightly too sweet for me, but I think the solution for that would be to put a bottle in the cellar for a few years. I bet it would be awesome with a bit of aging.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Herkenrode Bruin

It’s been a heady day for this humble beer blog, with loads of new readers flooding in from today’s article in the Wall Street Journal. But when the fanfare subsides and the instant of fame passes, normal life must go on: there are still many beers to taste and review...

Tonight’s beer -- number 394 -- is Herkenrode Bruin, an abbey beer.

Now, somewhere about a hundred beers ago, I tried a Herkenrode Tripel and expressed my typical amazement at finding yet another great Belgian brew I had never heard of before. Sadly, its sister ale is not going to get the same high praise.

Herkenrode Bruin pours a gorgeous orangey red, and it’s clear, so not bottle-fermented. However, I think that may be part of the problem, as the whole thing just comes across as if most of the tasty bits you expect in a quality Belgian dark beer were filtered off or otherwise removed at some point. It looks great, but it seems to be lacking any flavour complexity at all. The mouthfeel is thin, and while a comforting bitterness makes itself known, there’s not much else to it. Maybe an apple note, but I’m reaching here. In short, it’s just a bit limp.

It’s a shame really, as Herkenrode Tripel was truly excellent.

Glory at the half-way point...

As I approach the 400th tasting here on the 40b40, the Wall Street Journal has published a piece about this humble blog today, calling it "one of the handiest Belgian beer references in English on the web".

Wow. I'm deeply honoured. Seriously, this is ace.

Now, all I have to do is fulfill the prophecy by tasting 400 more Belgian beers. Could be a bit tricky...

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

A bit of Dutch Bohemia?

Names are supposed to identify things, but sometimes they just confuse matters by creating false expectations. After many years of living in Bohemia, I easily become befuddled by the staggering ubiquity of “pilsner” beers around the world.

I’ve tasted attempts at pilsner in some pretty unusual places, far from Central Europe, but nothing ever matches the original, Pilsner Urquell. It’s not my favourite beer, nor even my favourite Czech beer. However, it’s a faithful, reliable classic and always a welcome regular.

Now, the Brouwerij ’t IJ in the Netherlands makes some very good beers, but I’ve never tried their “Plzeň” label before, and I’m rather nervous that this one will be an outlier like other wannabe pilsners. It’s somewhat encouraging that they use the Czech name of the southern Bohemian city that gave the brewing world so much, complete with a háček over the n. But brewed in Amsterdam, can “Plzeň” really be a proper pivo plzeňského typu?

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Supermarket single hops

My wife is incredible. How she always manages to find astounding new beers in Brussels shops and supermarkets is just beyond me.

Of course, she would say it has something to do with her willingness to actually go into shops and supermarkets. In fact, standing behind me, she just did say that.

Still, it has to be more than that. Sure, I hate shopping, and I’d probably starve -- or eat out a lot more -- if it weren’t for her practical acceptance of consumer culture, which tends to overwhelm me. But even taking all that into account, Fiona just has a nose for good beer. Really, that must be the reason. Not that I’m lazy or anything.

In any case, she spotted something quite amazing in a Delhaize supermarket the other day: three “Limited Edition Single Hop” beers. Packaged in 750ml bottles with sharp labeling and accompanying literature, this is supermarket beer at its most upscale.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Buckwheat and pixies

My opinion of beer labels showing pixies, sprites, gnomes, fairies and trolls is well-known among readers of this blog, I assume. Still, allow me to summarise my general thesis on the matter here for the uninitiated: they are stupid.

The makers of tonight’s beer, Sara, have unfortunately never received these sage words of wisdom, by the look of it. Nor, for that matter, has the Brasserie de Silenrieux thought much about their online presence, which has the catchy web address:

Of course, marketing doesn’t really matter if the taste is there -- a maxim of many small Belgian brewers, I suppose, given the often alarming disparity between comical efforts outside the bottle and exceptional product within.

Though the aforementioned website shows it to be dark in the glass, Sara actually pours straw blonde. The mouthfeel is somewhat thin and fizzy, and overall it is quite light and refreshing. Most intriguingly, it offers some pleasant and gentle fruity notes: grape, strawberry and Galia melon.

The name “Sara” apparently comes from sarrasin, the French word for buckwheat, from which this beer is made. Silenrieux also makes a beer from spelt called Joseph, which tasted more like the liquid leavings from a wrung sock. Sara is thankfully different, and despite bad labelling and an ugly URL, the beer itself is worth having again.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011


Today's beer, OWA, is a bit of a mystery. The label says it’s, “brewed in Belgium by Japanese brewer”, but the website offered,, doesn’t reveal much more.

Some additional online research unearths a site that has a bit more information, but it’s still not a whole lot to go on. The bottle before me may have been brewed at Brasserie de la Senne. Or perhaps De Ranke.

The brewer, it seems, is Leo Imai, who may actually have a recording contract with EMI. Or maybe not.

But enough mystery. Let’s move on to the taste. An amber beer, OWA has a thin yet fizzy mouthfeel, and the base is a good mix of sweet and bitter. It has notes of Tootsie Roll, somewhat oddly... 5.5% alcohol. Overall, it’s OK, though not spectacular.

The brewer says OWA is especially good in combination with sushi and sweet soy sauce. Thinking about it for a bit, that’s probably quite right. I bet they would all work pretty well together...

Monday, 27 June 2011

Dulle Griet

Scheldebrouwerij, some readers may recall, was the Belgian beer find of 2010, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve had five or six of the beers from this small producer north of Antwerp, and every single one has been outstanding. The names of their excellent brews -- such as Hopruiter, Oesterstout and Wildebok -- are now etched in my mind as labels to look out for when on a bottle hunt.

Tonight’s beer, Dulle Griet, is no exception to the rule and looks set to join them on the mental shopping list.

Dulle Griet pours a murky brown, and its flavour is dominated by dark caramels. It’s not at all sweet, however. Delightful black cherry notes peek in oh so briefly through the chocolaty, earthy mist. Overall, it’s somewhat similar to last night’s Hof ten Dormaal Donker, but Dulle Griet is a bit creamier in mouthfeel. Excellent stuff.

It confirms everything I know about Scheldebrouwerij: if you see any of their products anywhere, buy them. You won’t be disappointed.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

First trans-Atlantic beer podcast

Well, Bob and I finally managed the technology, and we at long last synchronised our beer purchases, so that this evening we sat down and made our first trans-Atlantic beer tasting podcast.

We tried Hof ten Dormaal Donker, an excellent farmhouse dark ale. Opening the bottles proved a bit messy, but the experience was well worth it, with rewardingly complex layers of flavours, including chocolate and brandy.

I leave you with the podcast...

Beerly Coherent 10: Hof ten Dormaal Donker (mp3)

Halal beer: La Sultane Kriek

Once again, Fiona has come home from shopping with an amazing find. This time it’s La Sultane Kriek, a halal beer. Following on our tasting of the kosher beer, He’brew, a few weeks ago, it somehow seems only right to give this one a try too.

Belgium’s Caulier Brewery is clearly trying to reach out to a new market here, but whether they are on to something is hard to say. This drink is properly certified halal, and that may draw interest from some practicing Muslims here in Belgium. Perhaps it has export potential as well. This blog on (mostly) Belgian beer receives plenty of hits from predominantly Muslim countries, including some where alcohol is completely illegal, and maybe some of those readers would prefer a non-alcoholic product with a bit more style than the average “near beer” you tend to get in the Near East.

In taste, La Sultane Kriek is like a super sweet cherry soda, much more similar to Belle-Vue Kriek than a traditionally made kriek where tartness predominates, like Cantillon Kriek or, my favourite now, Boon Kriek Mariage Parfait. The absence of alcohol probably does remove some balance from the overall flavour, but it’s hard to discern much of anything beyond sugar.

If La Sultane Kriek helps Caulier access new markets, that’s great. But for me, I’ll stick with tart krieks over sweet.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

June madness

About a thousand things happen all at once every June. The kids go into exam mode, and Fiona struggles through countless end-of-year reports and various meetings concerning her students. That makes for a stressed family, and it only gets worse when downtown shopping is on the Saturday agenda, adding my annoyance to the mix and making it a four-out-of-four grumpy bear picnic.

About the only thing that can get me into Central Brussels on a Saturday is the promise that, when the shopping is over, we can duck in somewhere for a good beer. So it was today, when, after being battered by wave after wave of shoppers, we washed up on the familiar shores of Chez Moeder Lambic Fontainas.

I went for a guest beer, Montegioco Open Mind. Having tried the outstanding Zona Cesarini a few days ago, I was optimistic about another Italian ale. Open Mind starts out a bit sweet, but a late bitterness kicks in eventually. It has a very notable green apple flavour, if not the tartness that might imply. There are loads of layers besides: florals, fruits, herbs... Complex and fascinating.

Fiona chose a Mikkeller Bravo Single Hop IPA, which was simply gorgeous. Super hoppy and floral-citrus. Excellent in every way.

Not sure either could ever fully alleviate the stress of a hunter-gatherer foray into downtown in June, but it helps, that’s for sure.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Beer in the age of austerity

These are tough times here in Europe. With the Greek crisis threatening the collapse of the euro, member states are facing austerity measures in an attempt to bring finances under control. It is in a spirit of solidarity, that we embrace tonight’s beer.

Delhaize 365 Pils Bière, a supermarket own-brand lager, costs exactly 14 euro-cents per bottle. It cannot get any more austere than this, dear readers.

Somewhat shockingly considering the price, it’s actually not awful. It pours out with a decent head, and the flavour has a sturdy crisp, hoppiness. For a bargain pils, it’s OK. In fact, penny for penny, Delhaize 365 Pils Bière probably cannot be beat. Served cold, it’s even better than Jupiler and others in the "premium pils" group.

Shall we ship some to Athens?

[UPDATE: More on the European crisis and beer...]

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Léon 1893

Chez Léon is something of an institution in Brussels. By many accounts, it is this city’s best friture -- a word that might translate as “chippie” if you didn’t understand the Belgian adoration of the deep fried potato. After all, how many chip shops do you know of that have a tri-lingual website and take reservations for dinner?

Elevating its status higher still, Chez Léon also has its own beer.

Produced for the restaurant by St Feuillien brewery, Léon 1893 is a fairly tasty blonde ale, which also comes in live bottles sometimes available at the supermarket, which is how we’re drinking it this evening.

It pours dark golden and has a stiff head. The flavour starts off much as you’d expect for the style, but it includes an odd vegetable note -- steamed celery? They’ve added orange peel apparently, and it is just about noticeable.

I imagine it would go very well with moules-frites. I’ll have to phone and make a reservation at the chippie soon.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Beer blog impact...

It’s been a busy and exciting week on the proper job side of things, with some wonderfully spirit-boosting signs of success. I was selected as one of Foreign Policy magazine’s “FP Twitterati 100”, a sort of who’s who of 140-character commentators on international affairs. And just a few days before that, one of my blog posts got over 20,000 pageviews in a single day, which for me is a record.

When it comes to this humble beer blog, however, evidence of impact is a bit harder to come by. Rewards and recognition are rare, and daily readership tends to be in the hundreds of pageviews rather than tens of thousands. Still, something happened today that gave me some encouragement.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

La Trappe Puur

Brooklyn Bob and I are currently in complex negotiations over a trans-Atlantic tasting event, and the issue of which beer to feature is causing us some headaches. When I suggested La Trappe Puur, he scoffed, saying we’d tried it before, and it didn’t deserve a write-up, let alone an international podcast.

But I can’t remember ever having tried it, and I have no notes on it in my master list, so I decided to test Bob’s theory and open a bottle of it tonight.

I haven’t been a great fan of the La Trappe products, and I’ve tried most of the beers from this Dutch Trappist brewery: La Trappe Blond, La Trappe Dubbel, La Trappe Quadrupel, and La Trappe Witte. But none of them impressed me hugely.

Organic La Trappe Puur, however, is quite good. Sorry, Bob.

It’s got a thinnish mouthfeel, and it’s very sharp and wonderfully hoppy. Refreshing. The relatively low alcohol level (4.7%) makes it go down easy, and I can imagine it as a very solid session beer. Overall, La Trappe Puur is much like the fantastic Westmalle Extra, though it is missing that spiciness.

I wish Puur were easier to find. I’ve never seen it before today. Honest, Bob, I’m sure I haven’t...

Monday, 20 June 2011

Guilt-free Beer: Bolivar

Today’s new beer is Bolivar, a Fairtrade beer from Oxfam, which we bought at one of their charity shops here in Brussels a while back. And before you ask: no, it’s not a second-hand beer.

It is produced for Oxfam by the Huyghe Brewery, makers of the various Delerium beers, including the delightful, Delerium Christmas. The label bills Bolivar as, “the best of both worlds”, with the traditional brewing methods of the global north (read: Belgium), and ingredients from the global south, specifically: cane sugar from Costa Rica, quinoa from Bolivia and rice from Thailand.

So, drinking this beer is a do-gooder act -- if you don’t think too much about your carbon footprint perhaps...

But how does it taste? Well, it starts off looking and smelling like a fairly typical Belgian strong blonde ale, but the mouthfeel is thin, rather than fizzy or fluffy. It has something of a clay note about it, which is not very welcome, but the bitterness kicks in to help the drink along somewhat. The alcohol level is 7.5%, but it seems more noticeable than it should be.

Overall, I’d say the warm feeling of the concept tops the flavour of the actual product.

Sunday, 19 June 2011


I’ve seen a number of reviews of this beer, but I don’t just want to parrot what I’ve read elsewhere, so here’s mine.

Papegaei is from the Verstraete brewery in Diksmuide, West Flanders. It’s a strong blonde ale and fairly honest to that Belgian style, though it is perhaps a fizzier and foamier in mouthfeel. The taste includes notes of herbs and boiled sweet. Fiona picked up violet on the nose as well.

We would say it’s solid enough for the style, but not particularly outstanding or unusual.

As for food pairing, it would probably go well with, um, a cracker?

Saturday, 18 June 2011


About ten years ago, we spent the Christmas break on Sardinia. It was a famous family learning experience.

We learned that the Mediterranean is not a warm get-away in winter. The entire island was cold, grey and wet for the whole week, and no place we stayed had any heating.

We learned not to give our children dairy products before travelling. Our daughter covered the inside of the car in vomit within about five minutes of our renting it.

And we learned not to buy flights just because they’re cheap.

All these memories of Sardinia came rushing back when Fiona came home the other day with a bottle of Ichnusa, a beer from that ill-fated isle. Where she finds these things in Brussels, I don’t know.

The taste is nothing special. It’s a typical mass-market lager with nothing much to distinguish it from hundreds of others. Still, it’s not bad. I can still find a way to enjoy it.

That’s how it was with the holiday, too, really. Things like freezing rain and a chunder-mobile made no difference -- Sardinia is still very beautiful. Any holiday is still a holiday, and any beer is still a beer.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel

The phone rings in the middle of the day: an emergency call from the wife.

“Hi, what’s up? Everything OK?”

“I’m in the supermarket. You’ll never guess what I’ve found!”


“Chouffe IPA.”


“Yeah”, says Fiona. “How many bottles should I get?”

It’s wonderful how, after 19 years of living side by side, two minds become one...

“How many can you carry?”

We had no idea Chouffe made an IPA. Actually, we didn’t know that any Belgian brewer was really concentrating on this style. And with our recent IPA proclivities, this is big news.

So, not wishing to waste any time at all, we tried it this evening.

It pours a gorgeous cloudy gold, with loads of fizz and a robust head. The taste is immediately hop-rich, for sure, in that way of all IPA goodness, with strong floral and citrus notes. We think it’s creamier and more buttery than other IPAs -- that's the tripel part, the Belgian shining through -- and it’s also quite strong at 9%. And very bitter.

“It’s almost too bitter,” says Fiona, “almost too harsh.”

Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel is very good. An excellent find, though it’s powerful and almost intimidating stuff. For a hoppy Belgian session beer, we’d still prefer Taras Boulba. But for special occasions and dedicated tasting sessions, Chouffe IPA is very much worth picking up if you ever see it in your supermarket.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Caulier Bon Secours Blonde

Here’s another bottle that’s been patiently sitting in my “to taste” case for rather a long time: Caulier Bon Secours Blonde. I wasn’t overly impressed with its sibling, Bon Secours Brune, but we should always keep our minds open...

The taste is unbalanced: strongly alcoholic with artificial fruit -- like vodka jelly (jello) -- and a fairly unpleasant clay note that leaves a dusty aftertaste on the tongue. Nope, sorry. Not good.

Yes, we should always keep an open mind, but at times, it may be better not to open our mouths.