Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Again with the Westvleteren legend...

Well, it's the big 12.12.12 sell-off of Westvleteren in the U.S. today. There is no end to the legend, it seems...

NPR did a story on it for Morning Edition. I drove out to the abbey at the weekend with my friend who's the correspondent here, and she came up with this lovely piece:

A Sign From Above? Needing New Roof, Monks Sell Rare Beer In U.S.

Definitely worth a read and a listen, particularly for the excellent quotes from a certain "beer connoisseur".

And when you're finished, have a look at why I've not included Westvleteren in my list of top ten Belgian beers...

Sunday, 18 November 2012

A bit of beer

"Abends Bit, Morgens fit" ran one slogan for Bitburger Primium Pils back in the 1950s -- or “Have Bit in the evenings, and you’ll feel fine in the morning". It sounds snappy in German, but snappier still is the advertising line everyone associates with this beer: "Bitte ein Bit". It's simple and easy to remember, and even comprehensible to non-German speakers, unlike, say, Audi’s "Vorsprung durch Technik", which, though famous, is a bit of a murky mouthful.

Not quite as murky as our arrival in Bitburg, however. The Eifel Hills fog was so thick as we pulled in that we couldn't even see the town until we'd arrived in the middle of it. But we had reached our goal: the Bitburger Brewery for a grand tour.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Schieven IPA

Sometimes, I see a bottle of beer in a shop that I’ve never encountered before, and I think, “oh, maybe I’ll try one of those”. It’s a natural enough reaction for a beer blogger, after all. If it turns out to be delicious, then I’ve found an unexpected joy, and if the new beer ends up tasting like pickled aardvark droppings, well, I figure I’ve only wasted a few coins, so no great loss.

But when I saw Schieven IPA at my local provider’s, I bought a whole case without giving it a second thought.

Though a decision made in haste and relative ignorance, it was nevertheless logical. From the label I saw it was an IPA produced by the fantastic Brasserie de la Senne in Brussels in collaboration with Americans Jeff Bagby, of Bagby Beer and Mike Rodriguez of Lost Abbey. I just knew it was going to be great.

And, hey, no surprise: it is.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

British Ales in Belgium

For those living in Brussels, finding high-quality British ales isn’t easy. Short of jumping on the Eurostar, in fact, it’s nearly impossible. Nearly.

The assumption is, perhaps, that Belgium has such great beers already, who needs to look elsewhere? Well, those of us who enjoy a bit more variety, for one, and in particular, those of us who crave super-hoppy IPAs, which are only just starting to catch on here.

This was the thinking my friend Bob had when he selected his beers for Deliciously Different, his online shop and roaming market stall offering great British ales, as well as cheeses, chutneys, spices and other things rare on this side of the Channel.

He invited me over for a tasting a couple weeks back, and I have to say, he’s got some great beers on offer. Here are just a few:

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Beers in the Midi

Our holiday travels shifted gears rather abruptly in late July, as we left Scotland for the south of France. Scottish beers in comfortable pubs gave way to glasses of rosé on a boat tied up along the Canal du Midi. Still, we managed to find a few beers even amongst the vineyards.

Arriving in Aix-en-Provence after a day of busses, planes and trains from Edinburgh, we needed something to wash off the dust of a long journey. Pelforth Brune, a northern transplant rather like us that day, did the job.
It’s got minimal head, and it’s a bit too sweet, but it was a welcome sight -- and taste -- nonetheless. Much like Pelforth Blonde, it is nothing spectacular, but it has a part to play.

We also had two southern French beers. The first was La Cagole, a lager from Marseille, which offers some nuttiness and a black cherry note on top of a malty background. We found it surprisingly more nourishing than refreshing for a 4.7% warm-climate lager. Not bad, but not great. The label is pretty nifty though.

La Belle en Goguette is a reasonable enough bottle-fermented blonde ale from Brasserie des Garrigues in Sommières between Montpellier and Nîmes. Again, nothing outstanding, but not terrible either.

Overall, I’d have to say we’ve tasted far better French beers, both north and south. Most nights along the canal we just stuck with the rosé.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Scottish Wildcat

After leaving the isolation of Knoydart and its remote beers, we journeyed first by train from Mallaig to Fort William and then north by coach to Inverness. It’s a spectacular bus ride snaking along the serpentine banks of the famous Loch Ness, home of, well, you know...

No, we didn’t see a giant reptile rise from the murky waters, but we did see rather a lot of vomit emerging from one of our little monsters.

Our youngest gets terribly carsick -- or coach sick, really, because it only seems to happen on long-distance busses. We had thought she might be outgrowing it, so we went ahead and ordered the tickets. Sadly, not.

I’m afraid it was a rather terrible trip, and we weren’t able to enjoy the fantastic scenery as we’d all hoped. As for spotting Old Nessie, well the beast could have been jumping clear out of the loch and doing triple back-flips for an hour, and we would have missed it.

Now, with a segue as rough as a dry heave, I can point out that I am allergic to cats in a way my youngest is allergic to long bus journeys. And that brings us to today’s beer, Wildcat from Cairngorm Brewery in Aviemore near Inverness.

It pours dark amber, and there’s something almost almost candy-ish -- maybe butterscotch? -- on the nose, which continues into the taste: malty sweet with something else as well... A hint of ginger, perhaps?

In any case, it was a pleasant way to unwind in Inverness after a most unpleasant trip.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Deuchars IPA

“When you get up to Edinburgh, you’ve got to try Deuchars IPA.”

Thus spake the journalist with the sweetest gig ever as we sat sipping Tilquin Lambic Blend at Chez Moeder Lambic a couple months ago. And just a few weeks later, his advice was heeded, and the prophecy was fulfilled at The Standing Order on George Street.

It is a pretty amazing pub. Being a Wetherspoon place might put some people off, I know -- another big chain bar dominating the market and squeezing out the little guys etc. But this location is special: a converted bank, it is really quite a grand space for enjoying a pint. Wetherspoon’s Counting House in Glasgow, also a former bank, is similarly impressive.

Apparently the most popular cask ale in Scotland, Deuchars IPA from Caledonian Brewing is an odd sort of beast. Hop heads looking for modern mouth explosions of passion fruit, grapefruit and pine will be disappointed, as will fans of bubbles.

“This has no taste whatsoever”, says Fiona. “Where are the hops? And where’s the fizz? Everything’s so flat here.”

Honestly, when it comes to beer, you wouldn’t know she was brought up in the UK. I also suspect the salt and vinegar crisps were throwing off her senses, because Deuchars IPA is nothing to complain about.

The hoppiness is there, I think, but it’s a very hempy sort of hop flavour, not the sledgehammer tropical kind you find in, say, a BrewDog or an American IPA. Interestingly, Deuchars IPA is only 3.8% ABV, which makes it light, refreshing and sessionable. I might not rave about it like my journalist friend, but I find nothing to fault it either. In fact, with the greatest of respect to my better half, I quite like it.

Though yes, it’s flat, so if you need bubbles in your brew, this -- and countless other British ales -- won’t be your thing.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Punk Pub

As I was just saying, back when I went to the University of Glasgow, the beery distractions were somewhat limited. Certainly there was nothing like BrewDog Glasgow in the neighbourhood.

This shrine to fantastic beers and fuck-you marketing must distract rather a lot of students these days, but it also makes a perfect recharging station for your batteries after a few hours roaming around the wondrous Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum across the street.

We kept it simple with Punk IPA and pizza for a late lunch, and then played some of the board games they make available to customers.

I’ve described BrewDog Punk IPA elsewhere, so I won’t go on about it, though it would be easy to rave about its passion fruit and pink grapefruit lusciousness. Needless to say, Fiona was in hop-head heaven.

It’s probably a good thing that BrewDog Glasgow wasn’t around in the 90s, otherwise the temptation might have been too great.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Glasgow: Go West

Glasgow holds a lot of family connections for us. It’s Fiona’s mother’s home town, and back in the 90s, Fiona and I spent a year there, while she took a teacher training course, and I did my masters.

Returning there last month was a combination of the familiar -- it rained non-stop for two days -- and the unusual: we found some great beers.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Hebridean Gold

While waiting in Mallaig, Scotland, for the boat to Knoydart and its remote beers, we had a few minutes to enjoy one at The Tea Garden by the pier. It’s not an outstanding place, but to its credit, it offers Hebridean Gold from the Isle of Skye Brewery.

Billed as a “porridge oat and malt ale”, it is sharp and clean, with a slight candy note and hints of bramble, all backed by strong bitterness in the finish.

“This would make a great breakfast beer”, said Fiona.

It was a comment that might have suggested a bit of jet lag after our long travel to get there.

Except we’d taken the train.

Then again, the enchanting five-hour trip up from Glasgow is one of the greatest rail journeys in the world, so some disorientation could be expected. Or maybe she was distracted by all the childhood memories rushing back to her, having spent many family holidays there in and around Mallaig, her father's home town.

“Is that the porridge talking?”, I asked.

“OK, breakfast might be a bit early. Let’s call it a brunch beer.”

Brunch beer it is then.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Most Remote Beers in Britain

We’ve just returned from long holidays in Scotland and France, and now I’m facing an inevitable backlog of beer reviews from our weeks among the Auld Alliance partners. Not sure why I don’t just write them up at the time... It might have something to do with being on holiday.

Perhaps it’s best to start with the most far out beers of the trip: two we enjoyed at The Old Forge in Knoydart, Scotland, billed as “Mainland Britain’s Remotest Pub”. It is, indeed, somewhat end-of-the-road -- or a bit beyond that, actually, as there are no roads connecting Knoydart to the rest of Britain.

To get there, you take the West Highland Line rail service from Glasgow right to its end at Mallaig, a small port town once a major fishing base but now better known as a passing-through point for tourists on their way via car ferries to the islands beyond, most importantly the Isle of Skye.

But to reach Knoydart, you give those big ships a miss and hop on a small boat to the village of Inverie, population 100 or so. For 20 or 30 minutes you’ll bounce across the waves with a few others huddled together on a couple square metres of sea-splashed deck or in a modest cabin with the captain, whom you’ll no doubt see in the pub a bit later.

“The pub”, of course, is The Old Forge, a spectacular place, as welcoming and comforting as it is remote.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

A Previously Unknown Chimay

A couple months ago, one of my interns told me she had found a bottle of Belgian beer I’d never tried before. However, when she said it was a Chimay, I laughed, thinking I’d tasted everything that Trappist brewery had to offer.

But she’s laughing now.

I should learn: every time I pretend to know something about Belgian beer, I end up getting whacked with a new lesson in humility.

True, I’ve tried a number of different Chimay ales, including Chimay Red, Chimay Blue, Chimay White, and a variety of Chimay Grande Réserve bottles of varying ages.

But I’ve never had Chimay with a brown label...

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Laughing Skull Amber Ale

After a long day on a hot beach, there is nothing better than a cold beer.

So, back in December, when a sandy day of shell hunting on Sanibel Island, Florida, came to an end, we headed over to our favourite restaurant in the area, RC Otter’s on neighbouring Captiva Island.

I’m not sure what it is about the place. Is it just that every time we go there we’ve got that post-outdoorsy ravenousness, or is it that their fishy fare is so drool-inducing? Well, probably both, but their beer list helps too...

I chose a Laughing Skull Amber Ale, which hails from Red Brick Brewing Company in Atlanta.

It arrives on the table with an inviting dark red to copper colour. The aroma has a light lemony hint, and that carries on into the taste. Surrounding the citrus note is a strong maltiness. It’s not overly complex to be honest, but it’s excellent with a blackened tuna sandwich or a sloppy yet delicious grilled grouper rueben.

And it’s perfect for a day after the beach.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Storms in Indonesia

When someone mentions Indonesian beer, I typically used to think of warm-climate lagers like Bintang. That, however, was before my last visit a few months ago, when my friends introduced me to Storm beers.

The Storm brewery is apparently located on the island of Bali, but I’ve never managed to get to that bit of paradise. So, I tried two of their beers in a shopping mall in the capital, Jakarta.

Almost as good, I’m sure...

Storm Pale Ale is light and thinnish in mouthfeel, with a gentle hop bitterness in the finish. There’s a grassy note that’s very welcome and would stand up well to a spicy curry.

Storm Bronze Ale takes a slightly darker route, with a coppery hue and a maltier taste. Hops are present clearly, but it’s slightly sweeter than I’d like.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

AkuAku Lemongrass Ale

From the land of the most expensive beer imaginable comes a refreshing concoction: AkuAku Lemongrass Ale.

This Norwegian brew was another one I tried down at Chez Moeder Lambic the other day, and it does much what you’d expect.

It’s a crisp ale with notes of citrus and grassiness. It comes on slightly sweet but leads into a lasting light bitter note. Think lavender with a light limoncello.

Very nice...

Friday, 6 July 2012

Tilquin Lambic Blend

I went down to Chez Moeder Lambic Fontainas on Monday to have a chat with a journalist writing a piece on beer and food in Brussels for an airline’s in-flight magazine. It’s about the sweetest gig a hack can get, I’d imagine: spending a few hours sampling fine beers in the best bar in Brussels and, well, getting paid to write about it.

We tried a healthy variety of Belgian beers to understand different styles, tastes and histories. I’d had most of them before, but one name was new. Or, more accurately, it had been sitting in my mental “to try” category since I’d read about it coming on to the market last year.

Tilquin Lambic Blend, from the Tilquin Gueuzerie just a bit outside Brussels, is an awesome addition to the wild fermentation tradition around these parts. With typically low carbonation and a very sharp tartness, it is, to use a very technical term, yummy.

I’ve been on a kick lately for wild fermentation beers, and this is a welcome new brand. If I had to compare it to anything, I suppose it’s somewhere between Cantillon Gueuze and Cuvée de Ranke. Still, that may be a bit unfair to all three, as they are all worthy. I’m going to have to hold a proper side-by-side blind tasting of these someday.

For more on Tilquin, have a look at Chuck Cook’s piece on it, in which he describes the grand opening of the brewery -- sorry, gueuzerie! Wait, is there an English word "gueuzery"?

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Mort Subite Witte Lambic

After finally completing my three months of intensive French courses, I am ready to celebrate the official start of summer with something special.

Just for the occasion, Fiona found a bottle of Mort Subite Limited Edition Witte Lambic “Zomer 2012 Été”, so we’re popping the cork today.

The aroma is all ripe apricot, and the taste is a mild version of the same with a creamy mouthfeel and just the slightest touch of bitterness in the finish. It’s a bit sweet but not absurdly so like many modern “lambics”.

I suppose I would have preferred a tarter beer, but all in all, this is not a bad beginning to the summer holiday.

And what do you know: the sun just came out...

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Getting Real about Westvleteren

When I was a young boy, we used to play a game called, “kill the guy with the ball”.

The rules, such as they could be defined, were rather straightforward. Someone would pick up the ball and start running, and the rest of the gang would chase him down, drive him into the dirt, and pile on top of him until he couldn’t breathe. There were no boundaries, no safe zones, and no time outs. If you ran into the woods or onto the road and were tackled there, then so be it.

Your pulverisation was inevitable. Even fast runners would tire out eventually and get creamed into the ground by the hunting pack. And dropping the ball in fear would only lead to your getting whoomped twice as hard for being such a wuss.

It must have seemed great fun at the time, because we’d usually play for hours, often until someone had to go home for iodine and bandages, or to the hospital for stitches.

Looking back on it across a span of time too long to mention, I cannot easily understand what ever inspired any of us to pick up the ball in the first place. I mean, other games that have more or less the same rules -- say, rugby -- at least have the marketing sense to change their name to encourage people to take it up. But this was a model of truth-in-advertising: no one could mistake “kill the guy with the ball” for anything else. You knew what was coming.

What pushed us to put ourselves forward for slaughter was, of course, social pressure. The boyhood dare, the challenge of tempting fate, of trying to be the top of the group for even just a few seconds... that was the glory and social credit to which we aspired. It seemed well worth any scrapes and bruises.

Peer pressure can certainly make us do strange things.

It is much the same story for me with Westvleteren beer. OK, maybe a little less violent, but hear me out...

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Nairobi’s Big Five Beers

When someone says “brewpub”, what comes to your mind?

I think of straightforward places, designed simply, with an overall theme of a romanticised early industrial or even pre-industrial age. No-nonsense wooden floors and furniture -- preferably benches and long tables -- are essential, as are bits of old brewing equipment scattered around to suggest decades of artisanal continuity amid new stainless steel vats.

In short, to me, a brewpub generally looks more folksy than flash, and the clientele (myself included) more often than not follow suit.

It’s completely the opposite at the super-swanky Brew Bistro in Nairobi, Kenya.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Star of Nigeria

Back in February, I spent a bit of time in Nigeria. It was a work-related rather than beer-related trip, but along with busily doing the day job, I did have at least one evening free to sample some of that country’s finest brews.

I have written before about Nigerian Guinness, but Star was new for me. It’s one of the big pils brands in the country, and its advertising is pretty much ubiquitous in the metropolis of Lagos, where I first had it.

Star is, much as you might expect, a fairly typical warm-climate lager, so there’s not a whole lot much to say about the taste. It’s crisp and very slightly biscuity, and it offers faint suggestions of bitterness.

Star is not there to be complex. It’s designed to be straightforwardly refreshing on a hot day, and it fulfils the mandate beautifully. Served bottle-sweatingly cold with some egusi soup and pounded yam, it’s quite good.

With catfish pepper soup, it’s even better.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Witkap-Pater Tripel

Another Belgian ale we should have tried already, Witkap-Pater Tripel is apparently a bit of a classic. It turned out to be something of a disappointment, however.

Dropping into the inimitable Le Châtelain the other day, we decided to go for it. Fiona said it smelled like orange squash, which seemed a potentially promising start...

The taste, though, was a flash of biscuit that quickly disappeared, then pine and, oddly, menthol, followed by rosemary. Complicated, perhaps, but not something I’d order again.

In short, I wouldn't write a long blog piece about it.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Two Beers from Paradise

Wandering around the neighbourhood yesterday evening, Fiona and I stumbled upon paradise practically on our doorstep.

At the Parvis de la Trinité, a small square just a few minutes from our place, there was a street party -- a marché gastronomique, in fact -- which we had no idea about beforehand but which turned out to be a great serendipitous find. Sponsored by the Franco-Belgian magazine Juliette & Victor, it was a lovely little public event with a lively atmosphere and lots of tasty treats from France.

But what really made it special for us was the French beer on offer.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Cohort Double Black Belgian Rye PA

If ever a beer posed a challenge to the idea of recognised styles and brewing traditions, this is it.

Cohort Double Black Belgian Rye PA is a multiplicity of paradoxes. A dark India pale ale produced by the Summer Wine Brewery in Yorkshire, it uses Belgian yeast and New World hops as well as rye. Confused yet?

I’m not sure why the word “double” is in there, but I’m assuming it’s short for “double take”, which is what you’ll do when you try this beer.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Camden Pale Ale

British Prime Minister David Cameron said yesterday that he would “roll out the red carpet” for French corporations and their top execs who might leave their homeland to avoid a new tax President François Hollande has promised to implement.

His comment was seen as tactless and rather ill-advised by at least one British commentator, and it has naturally enough caused a stir in France, where the proposal of a top rate of 75% on earnings over a million euro a year is quite popular.

But should the UK face a fresh influx of flush French folk, surely the most important question to ask is: what beer will they all want to drink?

French wine and French beer will obviously be unavailable to them after Great Britain is cast out of the EU and placed under embargo in retaliation for being so welcoming to Continental tax evaders. So, what’s it going to be then?

Well, there are an endless number of British beers, of course, but how about starting with a Camden Pale Ale? It pours a beautiful golden colour with a firm head. The aroma is heady and musty, and the flavour is firmly bitter and dry with notes of biscuit and grilled carrot, leading into a lasting citrus pith in the aftertaste. Very drinkable and very enjoyable.

What better way to spend your millions in exile?

Monday, 18 June 2012

Timmermans Kriek

Finding myself downtown with a few minutes to kill today, I wandered into A la Bécasse, a traditional pub half-hidden down a tiny alleyway around the corner from the Bourse. It’s a pretty classic place, and even though it looks like a tour group might barge in at any moment and ruin the atmosphere, it’s still worth taking that chance.

I tried a Timmermans Kriek from the tap. It’s not what I’d call an old-fashioned style brew. The cherry aroma is certainly there, but the taste is more sweet then sour. Perhaps the sweetness doesn’t last quite as long in the mouth as some of the ultra modern krieks, which are more like soda pop than anything else, but still I prefer the sour ones. Give me Kriek De Ranke, Cantillon Kriek or, probably my favourite, Boon Kriek Mariage Parfait 2008, any day.

However, you should give A la Bécasse a try. They’ve got several other lambics and gueuze on tap that are just waiting to be tasted.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Silber Füchschen

Somehow, someone broke into my brain while I wasn’t paying attention. They rummaged around in there and found all my worst nightmares. Then they took them to Hollywood and made a movie out of them.

That’s the only way I can possibly explain how a flick like “Rock of Ages” gets made. I mean, a movie showcasing the spandex-rock hits of the 1980s and starring Tom Cruise? What has the world done to deserve such cinematographic abuse?

But enough of the big silver screen and on to the little silver fox...

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Belgoo Luppoo Blonde

This is perhaps the most manic time of the year for us. The kids are taking exams, Fiona’s working late to finish up her student reports, and even though I’ve been on sabbatical, I find myself exhausted from intensive French lessons. Add to that the near constant rain this week, and by the time Friday rolls around, we’re looking at a grumpy group.

To set the mood for the much-needed weekend, I tried a Belgoo Luppoo Blonde, which is currently a featured beer at L’Ultime Atome, one of my top bars for beer in Brussels. From the makers of the reasonable if not outstanding Belgoo Magus, Luppoo is billed as "hoppy" on the label, and the taste is exactly that.

It’s doing that extra-hopped Belgian tripel thing that seems to be challenging the traditional style a wee bit in this country. Along with excellent products like Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel and Duvel Tripel Hop, Luppoo is dry-hopped, but at 6.5% alcohol, it’s a lighter ale than the others, which makes it very refreshing and very drinkable.

Go out and find this one.

Friday, 15 June 2012

I don’t like beer

Believe it or not, I occasionally meet people who tell me they don’t like beer.

Yes, dear reader, it is sadly true. The world is full of horrible things...

But we have to face reality squarely and resolutely. It is up to us to challenge this attitude at every opportunity.

Now, if a person doesn’t drink alcohol or is allergic to one of the ingredients in beer, then fine. But to everyone else we must say: it’s not that you don’t like beer; it’s just that you haven’t tried a beer you like yet.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

The Mystery of Zwijntje

Um... Right. I’ve no idea with this one, so it’s going to take a bit of online research...

Apparently, according to Google Translate, zwijntje means either “piggy”, “a bit of luck” or “bicycle”. Judging by the label, I’m assuming the porcine option is the right choice there.

The back of the bottle also says it was, gebrouwen in opdracht van de feestcommissie Zwijnaarde, or “brewed under commission by the festival committee in Zwijnaarde”. Heading over to Google Maps, I find that Zwijnaarde is a village near the city of Ghent.

I think I’m correct in saying that “Zwijnaarde” would roughly translate as “swine-earth” or perhaps “swine-land”, but before anyone gets snooty about such a humble name, you should know that Wikipedia says the place is home to a science park with “a cluster of biotech companies”.

So, we’ve got a beer named “piggy”, made especially for a festival in a high-tech village named Swine-land. You just have to love Belgium.

But what neither Google nor Wikipedia can tell me is how a bottle of Zwijntje got in my “to taste” crate. That remains a mystery.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Kriek De Ranke

“It would be nicer if the weather were warmer”, says Fiona.

Indeed. We’re inside on a 12C day in the middle of June, dreaming that we’re sitting on the terrace sun-trap on a summer’s day. Or, well, a hot day. Because it is summer technically...

Still, Kriek De Ranke is lovely. The aroma smothers you in amarena ice cream, but the taste is a whack of mouth-watering tartness that somehow evolves into velvet and something else besides.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Namur Chronicle: La Guillotine

0833: Starting off from Brussels, the train first heads north, which is a bit worrying given that the city of Namur lies to the south. But hey, I’ve got nothing to do and all day to do it, so if I’m on the wrong train and end up in Antwerp, that’s fine.

0855: No, we’re OK. The train swung around to dip under Schumann and Place Lux to pick up any Eurocrats needing to head to Luxembourg. We’ve been 20 minutes on the train, and we’re still not out of Brussels. Tedious.

0902: Two women travelling with a group of older students break the boredom by passing out onion seed rolls to everyone, including me. Yummy.

0956: The train finally arrives in Namur with an 18-minute delay, which is really not that bad considering all the works going on along that particular line.

1000... My first impressions of Namur are good. The old town is very pretty in parts. Sure there’s a bit of post-war architectural abomination, but overall it’s quite beautiful. The streets are bustling and active, shops are open, people are spending money, there’s construction and renovations going on all over... There’s not much sign of the European financial crisis here, nor of Wallonia’s economic troubles, which are often very evident in this part of Belgium. Rich and busy, Namur reminds me of, um, dare I say: Flanders.

Special De Ryck

The café "C'est Pas Raisonnable!" on Ixelles high street is a new place for us, but seeing the "bière du mois" sign, we figured it might be worth checking out. The beer of the month was something we'd never had before: Special De Ryck. Turns out it was all quite reasonable, in fact.

Pouring it out from its wonderfully mung-bottomed bottle, this beer hit us with a lemony aroma. Fiona said it smelled sour.

The taste was something really different. It's not often we find a Belgian beer that doesn't conform to a clear style. This one, though apparently an older Belgian beer category known as "special", really is in a class of its own.

Right, so it's unique. But is it any good?

Monday, 11 June 2012

Big Mama Stout

Here’s a bottle that’s been sitting in the “to-try” crate for a little while...

Big Mama Stout emerges from a recipe developed by NovaBirra, though it’s brewed at Jandrain-Jandrenouille, makers of some astounding beers, including the pink-grapefruit-juice loveliness that is V Cense, on my list of top ten Belgian beers for some time.

Burnt caramels, sharp and astringent, play a leading role in Big Mama Stout, as you’d expect. This is certainly not anything resembling a traditional Belgian dark beer.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Taking beer bottles on planes

Something that often comes up in my beer-related discussions is the matter of carrying bottles of beer on airplanes. In fact, someone mentioned it again just yesterday, regretting he couldn’t bring bottles of Belgian beer home with him on the flight from Brussels.

It's true that, given the post-9/11 security hoo-ha, you’re not allowed to take bottles in your carry-on baggage. And after the “shoe bomber” and the “underpants bomber”, you're not even allowed to bring it onboard with you in a more intimate location. If you try, you’ll be faced with a bittersweet drink-it-or-lose-it policy at best, and at worst, an all-expenses-paid trip to Cuba where you’ll be fitted for an unfashionable orange jumpsuit and given extremely limited access any to Belgian beer whatsoever.

But you can put those bottles underneath the plane in your checked-in luggage. Really, you can.

Wait, I hear you say, won’t they explode in my suitcase and destroy all my stuff?

No, not if you’re careful...

Straffe Hendrik

Some time ago -- OK, a couple years ago, actually -- a reader left a comment on my list of top ten Belgian beers, expressing surprise that I hadn’t included Straffe Hendrik in there. Indeed, I hadn’t yet even written about this beer, which could well be, he noted, “the Jimi Hendrix of beers”.

Now I don’t know about that, but I should at least give it a try. And after all the jacks are in their boxes, and the clowns have all gone to bed, I’ve got a quiet moment to pop open a bottle.

Straffe Hendrik pours a very appealing red, very close in fact to the colour of my wife’s hair. It’s notably effervescent -- again, much like soul mate.

But similarity fosters no affinity in this case.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Viven Porter

Tree-branch-snapping winds, buckets of blinding rain, biting cold temperatures... Ah, summer in Brussels...

Just when we think we might have a chance to get out on the terrace sun-trap and sip something refreshing on a hot day -- like some Cuvée de Ranke for instance -- the weather returns with a vengeance to spoil our plans. Oh well, at least we had a few days of heat in May. That will have to last us until next year.

So it’s been back to the cold-climate beers once again. Yesterday’s delicious black IPA made us forget about the weather for a brief moment, and today’s beer, Viven Porter, promises to do much the same.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Emelisse Black IPA

Black IPA is fast becoming my favourite style of beer. No, scratch that. It is now my favourite style of beer.

I know it doesn’t make any sense as a traditional style, but I don’t much care. It’s a form of the brewer’s art that combines my long-term love of serious dark beers with my more recent appreciation of IPAs. Yum plus yum times infinity trumps style pedantry. So there.

Emelisse Black IPA, from The Netherlands, is a great example of the genre. It’s as dark as an overcast night with a tan head, cloudy and menacing. It offers up an aroma of musty tar, and the taste follows naturally: as bitter as a pine box, dipped in turpentine before being lowered into a newly dug grave.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Barcelona: Moritz Epidor

Barcelona has got to be the most beautifully liveable city in Europe today. How I managed to be on this continent for twenty or whatever years before getting there is beyond me.

I finally made it to Barcelona back in February and was hugely impressed. The people are friendly, the weather is great, the city has some staggering architectural wonders, the infrastructure is modern and reliable, the food is awesome, and the beer is...

...well, it’s actually pretty good, in fact. It doesn’t offer as much variety as the local wine, of course, but it’s better than you may imagine.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Jupiler Blue

I’m a great fan of Brussels, and I enjoy living here. Still, there is one thing that’s been bothering me for quite a while about the city: Manneken Pis.

Isn’t time for all of us residents to say loud and clear that a statue of a little boy pissing is neither cute nor clever and that to make it the symbol of this fine city is an embarrassment?

I don’t really care if it is supposedly 400 years old. First, the statue everyone sees is not exactly ancient: it’s a replica dating back to 1965. Second, even if the idea started in the 17th century, it was hardly an original concept for a statue at that time. It’s certainly not unique to Brussels, and it has little if any artistic value.

It may be on the general tourist trail for those who visit the city because some uncreative guidebook writers couldn’t be bothered to look around for more interesting sites. However, it is not a “tourist attraction” in any true sense: no one comes here for piss-boy.

And when visitors see it, they can only ever be underwhelmed. “That’s it?” is the most common response, and indeed, that’s the kindest reaction one can have. No matter what doll’s dress its keepers have wrapped it up in that day, it’s still just a statue of a kid peeing.

I mean, sure, I appreciate toilet humour as much as anyone, but Manneken Pis is just a tired, old bad joke.

Anyway, staying with the subject of urine-related public embarrassments, we come to today’s beer: Jupiler Blue.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Catching up in French and in beer

Why does everyone who sits next to me in every bar in Brussels -- no matter how small and out of the way -- speak English? Am I some kind of magnet for Anglophones or what?

No, really: wherever I go, it’s the same. I’ll find an empty little pub far from any known international institution or tourist attraction, and the next person through the door will plunk himself down nearby and start yatting away on his mobile in fluent English. Or a group of Americans or British will come in for an alcohol-fuelled decibel contest. Lovely.

It’s not that I’m against the English language, of course, but it does make it that much harder to learn French here. I’m currently on a professional sabbatical to improve my French, and in addition to the courses I’m taking, it would be nice to be able to go somewhere and immerse myself in a Francophone social atmosphere.

It’s not as easy to do in Brussels as you might think.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Schieve Tabarnak

“Hmmm... that’s yummy”, says Fiona, finding happiness in bitterness.

Schieve Tabarnak is a joint venture ale, a product of the breweries of Trou du Diable in Quebec and Brasserie de la Senne in Brussels. I hadn’t heard of it before our friend Benoît enthusiastically handed us a bottle a while back, singing its praises.

The name is apparently some kind of take on the infamous "crooked architect" of Brussels, about whom we've written before. Joseph Poelaert designed the giant blot on the cityscape known as the Palace of Justice, destroying half of the Marolles district in the process and insuring that the word “architect” would be an insult in Brussels for years to come.

Exactly how they get “Schieve Tabarnak” from “schieven architekt” eludes me. There’s something crooked there in any case.

But crooked or not, Fiona’s right: it’s yummy. Bitter blonde with hints of lavender and fruit, leading into a pithy astringent aftertaste. At 5.3%, it’s just about light enough to make it a session beer, but unfortunately, I haven’t seen it in the shops anywhere, so this one bottle from our friend is all that’s left here. And it's not left anymore...

Thanks, Benoît, for finding this one for us!

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Return to Lille

Even moaning expats in Brussels have to agree this city is well connected and can be a great base for exploring this part of Europe. Paris, London, Amsterdam and Cologne are all so close via high-speed rail that you barely have time to drink a beer on the train before you arrive.

Another great destination for a weekend city-break, though one that too often gets overlooked, is Lille in northern France. And for beer-lovers, it’s a mandatory stop. We took another trip there last month and fell in love with the city all over again.

Apart from the culture, architecture, markets, shopping, and free zoo, Lille offers pubs and restaurants with a great variety of beer-related enjoyment.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Diamond Jubilee Beer

Since everything in the UK is Queen-themed at the moment, you had to expect someone would make a Diamond Jubilee beer. In the case of Sandringham Diamond Ale, that someone is M&S, a name almost as revered in Britain as the reigning monarch herself.

The retail giant commissioned Elgood’s Brewery to produce this fermented commemoration of Elizabeth’s 60 years on the throne. It’s a lovely bottle with a great cap, but what’s inside fails to live up to the pageantry.

The taste made me think less of the Queen and more of Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers. Seriously, this beer is a few of those in liquid form. Sweet and biscuity. And sweet some more. That’s fine if you’re expecting caramel wafers, but I was rather thinking there might be beer involved somehow.

Perhaps this is how the Queen prefers her ales, but personally, I wouldn’t feed it to the Corgis.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Expats vs Brussels

I was recently asked to take part in a survey about expats in Brussels, and apart from being shocked that it didn’t address any beer-related issues, I found its questions pretty revealing about how foreigners and locals view each other.

We're getting close to nine years here -- the longest I've ever stayed in any one place in my adult life -- and we're pretty well beyond the age of stereotypes of both expats and Bruxellois. But still, it makes for good sport, and we can root for both teams.

What stereotypes, you ask? Well, the survey made it clear enough...

Monday, 28 May 2012

Hoegaarden Rosée 0.0%

Nothing. That’s what Hoegaarden Rosée 0.0% promises. And that’s what it delivers.

It’s not a product I would normally buy, let alone drink, but a can came free with one of our online shopping orders, so it sat around for a bit until the right occasion.

That moment came when our friends Alison and Gareth dropped over for the weekend, and we sat on the terrace sun-trap on the hottest day of the year so far. We were all parched after a walk around town to check out the Jazz Marathon, but while the rest of us were spoiled for choice of beers, there was nothing for pregnant Alison.

So, we offered Alison nothing. Or Hoegaarden Rosée 0.0% as it were.

It’s supposed to be a non-alcoholic wheat beer with raspberry essence, but it really falls into the non-beer category, I think. Anyway, it was safe for the bump.

Most Belgian beer labels are very clear about the inappropriateness of their alcohol-laden products for the gravid among us. It takes a moment to decipher the symbol, however -- we initially thought it suggested that beer was not suitable for people with back problems and beer bellies. But no: it means that pregnant women shouldn’t drink beer. Who knew?

And the verdict on Hoegaarden Rosée 0.0% by Alison, now drinking for two?

“It’s not beer”, she said, “but it’s drinkable.”