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...