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.