18 May 2018

A load of ballasts

With much fanfare, a range of beers from San Diego's iconic Ballast Point brewery landed in Ireland recently, brought by importer FourCorners. I first encountered them at the official launch event in UnderDog.

My starting point here was Sour Wench, a sour beer with added blackberries. It's a big-hitter at 7% ABV, and is a full-on dense-looking shade of purple. The flavour is extremely jam-like: excessively sweet and missing any real sourness. Mercifully it doesn't cloy, and the finish is neatly clean, but I couldn't shake a feeling that I was drinking the topping from a cheap supermarket cheesecake. I prefer my wenches with more class than this.

Sculpin I've had in the past, and didn't particularly enjoy, and the same went for Grapefruit Sculpin when that came my way a couple of years ago. I still gave Unfiltered Sculpin a go while it was there, and was glad I did. This just seems better balanced than the others; its flavours more integrated and harmonious. A bright jaffa aroma starts it off, and the flavour blends sweet sherbet and orangeade with a stimulating kick of bitter hops. It's altogether smoother and more drinkable than the filtered one. Sculpin as it should be.

I picked up others in the range for drinking at home. Both cans and bottles are available.

Mango Even Keel is a rare beast indeed: an imported American IPA with an ABV under 4%. It's only 3.8% but doesn't look at all understated, being a handsome rich copper colour. It smells quite sugary, like sweet candy or... syrup, which I guess it actually contains. The flavour is powerfully sweet, an overwhelming blast of perfumed candy, lurid artificial treats from the impulse section of the corner shop. Whatever the opposite of wholesome is, it's that. The fake-fruit and perfume effect clings to the back of the tongue and sits there, unwelcome, long after swallowing. There's still a hollow dry fizz behind it, probably where the balancing malt ought to be. I refuse to believe any grown adult actually wants their beer to taste like this. I expected mango, I expected juicy, and I expected some hops. What I got was an off-brand pop from Uzbekistan's cheapest discount supermarket.

I needed something straighter to fix my palate after that, and relied on Fathom IPA to do the job. It looks pretty straightforward, being 6% ABV and unembellished. It's a perfect red-gold colour too, though I didn't get much of an aroma from it, just a mild dankness.The flavour is... understated. There's a pleasant sticky and bitter resin thing, and a dusting of light citrus: jaffa and mandarin. Though the body is as big as the ABV suggests, the finish is quick. While undoubtedly plain, it's good quality and well suited to drinking more than one.

Last of this takehome set is Victory at Sea, described as an imperial porter with added coffee and vanilla, about which I was intensely sceptical. It looked nice, though, pouring a smooth and flawless black topped by loose ivory bubbles. As anticipated it's intensely sweet, with an aroma of ersatz milk chocolate and a flavour adding gooey sugary fondant to that. Cadbury's Creme Egg as a beer? Pretty much. There is something resembling a bitter tang in the finish, but it's artificial and metallic, not tasting like it comes from hops or dark grains. There may well be a decent beer underneath the syrupy gloop, but they've buried it deep.

It's hard to believe they thought this unbeery mess needed further "enhancement", but back in UnderDog there was a hacked version: Coconut Victory at Sea. The hacking is done pretty crudely and it tastes and smells like a generous dollop of coconut sun lotion has been dumped into the glass. It does at least cover up the problems with the above beer, but it does so by adding its own brand of artificial syrupyness, and though the coconut mellows as it goes (or maybe I just got used to it) I really don't see the point of this.

Switching pubs, finally, for the double IPA Manta Ray which P. Mac's had on tap. Far from cheap at €9 for 33cl. And for all that it's rather plain: clear gold in the glass, thick and resinous but with no more than a light zest for flavour. It's fine: understated double IPAs are probably better than the ones that come on too strong, but it left me feeling that I got a very poor return on my investment, tastewise.

I went into this as a Ballast Point doubter, and have come out with that confirmed. Unfiltered Sculpin is a rare highlight, but the rest taste either sticky and fake, or just plain dull.

16 May 2018

Payday!

Perusing the shelves in Fresh with a few quid burning a hole in my pocket I settled on a couple of spendy offerings from Siren: triple IPAs, no less; €14 the pair.

The Tickle Monster is your basic mango and cedar IPA, 11% ABV and a bright hazy orange. It smells herbal, almost medicinal, with eucalyptus and bitter tarragon. The alcohol is immediately apparent on tasting, dry and hot like an overclocked vodka. More subtle features roll in behind this: I get an oily coconut taste first, then a gentle spritzy fruit (maybe mango, why not?), then a faint spice on the end which could easily be cedar. It's really not as much fun as it would have you believe, being mostly about the booze heat. At least the bourbon wasn't going to ruin anything delicate.

Bourbon, you say? The Kentucky Tickle Monster didn't endear itself to me from the outset, with its headless appearance and sickly, sugary-cider aroma. It's sickly to drink as well, with a syrupy texture and almost no carbonation. A hugely sweet vanilla flavour is at the centre, laced with bitter orange and grapefruit in a not-at-all complimentary way. The spice from the cedar is still just about discernible, and provides a modicum of relief, though there's only so much it can do to counter a very obvious 16.3% ABV, and everything it brings with it. A 33cl bottle of this is plenty to share with three or four other people, just not necessarily ones you like.

Triple IPA is mostly not for me; barrel-aged ones even less so.

14 May 2018

Hot to DOT

My collection of DOT Brew tasting notes has grown shamefully large. Time to share them with the world.

They begin back in mid-March with an event in the Teeling Distillery, pairing whiskey, beer and cheese -- big thanks to DOT's Shane for comping the tickets. The first beer out was Single Grain Cabernet Sauvignon Session Ale, Batch II. The modest 4.9% ABV belies the immense complexity in this pale amber beer, beginning at the rich white-wine aroma, all tropical mango and apricot. The flavour is correspondingly massive, piling in tonnes of berries and stonefruit, alongside drier raisins and some light wood. The whiskey barrel was an ex-Napa Valley red wine cask and I was amazed at how the wine character survived, though without the tannins. Overall an absolutely superb opener.

Later on we had the début of B8 D8, over a year in the making and involving a convoluted blend of pale, amber and dark Belgian-style ales, matured in eight separate types of barrel. The style is recorded simply as "Dark Ale" and it's 7.7% ABV. "Dark", here, means a deep red. There's a lot of alcohol in the aroma, both strong red wine and whiskey spirit, as well as some drier cocoa. Stout-like roast is where the flavour starts, picking up buttery toffee and raisin fruit after it. There's an edge of oakiness in the very finish but it's no vanilla bomb. I found it a little confusing at first; it's hard to find something to compare it to. Once you get used to it it's less troublesome, offering a smooth and quite easy-going mix of chocolate and dark fruit, harmoniously melded into each other. Tasting it later on draught, the red wine element is much more pronounced at the expense of the chocolate. On a different day and a different mood I might suggest it tastes of other things entirely.

From the off licence I picked up a bottle of Amarone Amber, which I think is my first Amarone-aged beer, though again the barrels became whiskey receptacles in between the wine being done with them and the beer going in. It's another fairly light one at 5.6% ABV, and seemed thin on pouring, coming out a handsome dark copper colour nonetheless. There's a spiced orange aroma and the flavour doubles down on this, offering a surprise mix of juicy jaffa segments and spicy peppery oak. Though it is a little watery, the finish is decently long, tailing off into honeyed Irish whiskey and citrus pith. I liked that the fresh hops were still making a big contribution, contrasting nicely with the wood seasoning. I would have liked more of a wine character, however. As-is it's a neat little beer and, as the label says, surprisingly refreshing.

And then came the main event: DOT's second birthday party, held at UnderDog. Three new-release offerings were in the line-up and I began with Just Peachy, combining peaches, honey and barrel ageing. It came out an opaque red-orange colour with a lightly woody aroma. The flavour, however, is very forward with the fruit, dominated by the sweet peaches and then seasoned with light oak vanilla and spices. I couldn't find any trace of the whiskey or honey. At only 5.5% ABV it's probably not meant to be a total palate pounder, but there was plenty in there to enjoy.

Funnily enough I got a bigger honey aroma from the next one, Tutti, despite there being no honey involved in the recipe. It's 7.2% ABV and a blend of amber and rye ales aged in both bourbon and Irish whiskey barrels, and I'm guessing it's the latter contributing honey to the nose. The flavour is drier than I expected after that, suggesting cool clean Fino sherry, with hints of hotter sweeter Oloroso. It's a difficult contrast to describe; like B8 D8 above, it's a sensory chimera, with radically different facets of flavour blended together yet still contrasting each other. "Markery but fresh" it says in my notes. Useless. Just try the beer, yeah?

I was on steadier stylistic grounds when a keg of Olly's Barrel Aged Imperial Stout went on. The eponymous Olly is DOT's honey supplier, and there's no mistaking the stuff in this one. While it's a thumping imperial stout through and through -- 11.1% ABV, densely textured with lots of milky coffee flavours -- the sticky honey sweetness laces the whole thing. A balancing bitterness arrives on the end, with the light runny honey turning to dark treacle, finishing on a stimulating kick of espresso. This was a great one to end the evening on.

Year three of DOT began just last Friday with a tap takeover up at Brickyard in Dundrum. I arrived to find Andrew had kindly set me up with a glass of Olly's Barrel Aged Imperial Stout with Morello Cherry. The fruit doesn't improve it any, giving it a cherryade sweetness in the foretaste which combines with the thick beer and turns it to sticky liqueur or, less kindly, cough medicine. For all that, it's not unplesantly cloying: the texture is remarkably light and it slips back easily as a result. It is quite unbeery all the same, and doesn't really give the drinker the benefit of the base stout or the honey.

Bourbon Dark is a DOT offering that's been around a while but which I'd not been able to get hold of, and here it was on tap. This is a relatively modest 6.5% ABV and poured a dark chocolate-brown colour. The aroma offered a gentle waft of coconut, and that's very much what I got in the foretaste too. Behind, there's some rough and woody oak sawdust and a sharp shot of espresso. The combination works quite well: starting out sweet ahead of a long dry finish. Something for everyone there. I didn't get any specific bourbon taste but it's definitely warming and smooth so perhaps the whisky was working away in the background somewhere.

Another dark one to finish, the Barrel Fermented Dark Saison. This presented like a stout -- pure black with an off-white skim of foam on top. The flavour is unmistakably saison, however: dry and crisp and its core but livened up with juicy white grape. After a moment or two, something more uniquely dark emerges, a layer of milk chocolate counteracting the dryness, complementing the fruit and generally offering a deft twist on the style. There was a considerable alcoholic warmth going on as well so I wasn't completely surprised to read that it's 8.4% ABV, far stronger than saison normally is. And yet it's not heavy or any way difficult to drink, all being very well balanced and integrated.

That's everything DOT which passed my way this spring. Shane tells me there's an IPA on the way, though in what form remains to be seen.

11 May 2018

Ankers away!

Yesterday's megapost came to you from the Leuven Innovation Beer Festival which happened last month. I mentioned that it was organised by the Hof ten Dormaal brewery. They were also kind enough to send up a selection of their beers for us EBCU delegates to have with our lunch once we'd finished our meeting in the room at the top of the building.

The first one I tried was their collaboration with Weird Beard, the tortuously-named If Only The Hof Had A Beard. See what they did there? It's a soured IPA of a mere 3.8% ABV and poured a hazy yellow colour. The carbonation is low but it's not thin, despite the strength. The centre of the taste is a beautifully zingy lemon rind flavour, fading to a clean chalky mineral finish. This refreshing mix of mild sourness infused with hop sparks makes it fit neatly into one of my favourite sub-categories of beer. I'd drink this by the pint if I could bring myself to order it by name.

I didn't realise that Dormaal had hitched their wagon to sourness quite so securely, but the other two were sour also. Duindoorn too much so. Ostensibly it's a Flanders red, and a strong one at 6.5% ABV. It looks awful for a start: a murky amber brown. The aroma is strongly funky, real dirty farmyard stuff, which isn't a flaw by itself, but combined with a taste that is pure unadulterated malt vinegar, it doesn't go any way towards making this more palatable. Maybe there's a sour beer bro out there who thinks he likes this sort of thing. I, meanwhile, would be willing to support an assessment that it's objectively awful.

I thought I was in for more of the same with Winter 18, a 9% ABV coffee-infused barley wine, soured and barrel-aged for some reason. It smelled rank, like cold stale black coffee. The flavour is better, however, the sourness a nuanced black cherry balsamic, followed by Turkish coffee notes adding a balancing sweetness. It's not one I'd drink a lot of, but a small glass provided plenty to think about.

The bottles of Torpid Mind by Czech gypsy brewer Badflash may have been supplied by the Czech delegate at the meeting as he was also wearing the t-shirt. It's an imperial stout of 10% ABV with smooth and creamy coffee flavours, livened up by just enough bitterness from leafy green-veg hops and any cloying sweetness washed away by black-tea tannins. No gimmicks here in this serious yet fun thumper.

The following morning was our last in Belgium. The vague plan had been to head for Brussels and tramp the well-worn path of familiar pubs before making for the airport. Before checking out of the hotel I opened a map and zoomed out of Leuven, noticing that Mechelen was nearby. It's also handy for the airport and neither of us had been before. That settled it. Train in twenty minutes?

Like many a town in the Low Countries, Mechelen takes its time to get going on a Sunday. When we arrived late morning one of the few options available was the town's ancient brewery, Het Anker, famous for the Gouden Carolus range of beers. That's where we headed.

Having booked our tour we had a couple of minutes to kill in the brewery bar where I opted for Anker Pils, never having seen it before. Our tour-guide-to-be passed by the table and made a disdainful comment, which I thought odd for someone employed to put a positive spin on the brewery and its wares. On the tour later on we learned that Het Anker ceased brewing pils decades ago and this one, created to meet local demand, is contracted out to another brewer in a neighbouring town. As a Sunday morning pils it's fine: light, sweet and crisp, mixing a gentle lemon zest with dry grain husk. It's refreshing and uncomplicated and I was happy with it.

The tour of the quaint facility across the courtyard ended back in the bar with a run-through of the core range. I've covered most of them before but not Carolus Tripel. It's sweet for the style, showing higher fruit levels than normal, and corresponding lower spices. Served on draught it was clear and clean, though still with a big boozy punch. It's OK, but not a classic Belgian tripel by any measure. I'm not inclined to believe the bottled version will be any great shakes either.

Among the recent brand extensions is Cuvée van de Keizer Whisky Infused which started life as a one-off in their Indulgence series in 2015 but went on to become a permanent feature, and was on tap. It arrived a gorgeous clear red wine colour with a nose of plump raisin and, yes, whisky. The flavour is whisky first, then smooth and vinous malt-driven beer afterwards. There are no warm fruity esters, no booze heat despite 11.7% ABV, and generally no sharp edges. This is smooth to the point of being, well, dull. It's certainly nowhere near as complex as I was expecting.

A lovely glass of Hopsinjoor finished me off for the brewery, and a lovelier Oude Gueze Boon at charming waterside bar De Gouden Vis finished me for Mechelen. Back to the airport, then, with enough time to check out its new beer offer.

For all the time I've been flying out of here, Interbrew/InBev have had a near monopoly on the beer supply: nothing but Leffe, Hoegaarden and Stella. That arrangement seems to to have come to an end and there's now a fancy new food hall with a range of fancy, if expensive, Belgian beers, including gueze from Beersel. There's even a house beer: Bistrot Airport by Brouweij Dilewyns, best known for its Vicaris range and situated not far from the airport. I was poured a goblet of thick orange beer with lots of suspended floaty clumps in it. The aroma is thickly sweet, like hard candy, though thankfully its flavour is drier, with wholesome breadcrust the main feature, backed by a subtle note of exotic jasmine. This is an unadventurous beer, but unmistakably Belgian, so ideal for the weary traveller.

This weary traveller quaffed it down and went home to Dublin, full of the joys of multifaceted Belgian beer.

10 May 2018

Get innovative!

And the winner of the Most-Overstated Beer Festival Name goes to... "Leuven Innovation Beer Festival", for the fourth year running. I spent a long afternoon here but didn't really see what was so innovative about it. The format was perfectly sound: organised by Belgian microbrewer Hof ten Dormaal, hosted in the former Stella Artois brewery, now an exhibition centre, and featuring 17 breweries from across Europe plus a couple of American ones, all mostly pouring a selection of their beers from bottles.

My journey began at the sole German representative, Schwarzwald Gold, from the south-eastern corner of the country. And I will admit that Pomme D'Or, a beer made with apples and fermented with cider and champagne yeast, does carry at least some air of innovation. I've certainly never had anything like it. It's around the 8% ABV mark, and has the funk aroma of a heavy aged cider. The flavour mixes juicy sweet cider with a damp, autumnal funk, finishing on a crisp note of wheat. It's odd, carrying influences from both cider and weissbier. It's tasty too: complex and warming, like it has been pre-mulled. Pleasingly it's still identifiable as a German weizenbock, despite all the... well... innovation.

Next door was Birrificio Sorrento which had a couple of grape ales on the go, and it's my new rule to never pass an Italian grape ale by. I started on Elèa which was 7.5% ABV, a medium amber colour, and exceedingly plain; disappointingly so, in fact. There's a helles-like sweetness and only the fainest hint of grape must. Definitely not what the style demands.

I had higher hopes (it wouldn't be hard) for their other one, Ligia. This is a lighter 6% ABV and spicy like a tripel. Not a bad beer in and of itself, but there was no trace at all of grape, so I was even more let down by this one. I guess if I drink enough of any style I'll eventually find examples I don't like, but to be honest it genuinely never occured to me that it could happen with Italian grape ales. Innovation again.

I was back at Sorrento towards the end of my visit to try one more: Syrentum, a saison with local lemons in the recipe. There's a bubblebath aroma but fortunately no soap in the flavour. Instead there's an intense lemon zing; very real, like homemade lemonade with all the bits in. Once again the style guide is thrown out the window, but this one at least tastes nice, and at 5.5% ABV is well capable of refreshment on a balmy Campanian evening.

South Plains is a brewery that's easily mistaken for an American but is actually Swedish. Its yee-ha Brett IPA is called Hophead Harry, coming in at a modest 5.5% ABV. I wasn't a fan. This one is horribly, cloyingly sweet, opening with a shock of sharp perfume, before proceeding to an artificial floral candy: think Parma Violets or Rhubarb-and-Custards, '80s kids. It's cloying and difficult, the Brett doing nothing to clean (or dirty) up its sugary excesses. A hard pass from me.

Randomly to Poland next, and Browar ReCraft, from near Katowice. Milkołak ICE is, as the name implies, a milk stout. And it's fine. A little strong for one of these at 6% ABV, but with the appropriate sweet condensed-milk aroma, and a flavour which balances that with dark roast and husky cereal grain. Straightforward, boring perhaps, depending how you take to milk stouts, but on-point as far as I was concerned.

The UK was represented by Vibrant Forest, a south coast brewery I'd heard of but never encountered. I went with Dahlia from their selection, a Chardonnay barrel-aged sour beer with added Brettanomyces: you know, like everyone is making these days. It looked like wine, being a pale yellow-green and quite flat. My first impression was of Fino sherry: that slightly sharp, salty, almost vinegar-like edge, then spicy oak and sour green grape. As in many a well-made beer of this genre, the Brett doesn't come on very strongly, adding little more than a sprinkling of funk; a seasoning. Classy stuff, this, if just a little un-beer-like.

Lo Vilot, the Spanish brewery, had a wide selection on offer. I went with Psicocherry, a light, soured, cherry beer, and it's probably the reason I didn't try any of their others. It's plain and watery, candy sweet, with an unsubtle sourness tacked on to the end. I got the impression of a brewery trying to be on trend but not really getting how to do it. This did not compare favourably with the beer that preceded it.

From Moscow, the alarmingly named Red Button brewery. Soledad was my one from them, an IPA with Thai blue tea and lychee. The aroma is floral and enticing, while the soft and sweet lychee really comes to the fore in the flavour. The main contribution of the tea is turning the whole thing a vivid purple colour. Overall it's clean and refreshing, not bursting with hop flavour, but at 5% ABV that's somewhat excusable. This is decent overall, confining its gimmickry to the colour.

On Europe's eastern frontier, in the Ural mountains, you'll find Crazy Brew. I gave their Russian Imperial Stout a spin, of course. There's a gorgeous café crème aroma from this 11%-er but it unravels after that, turning too sweet at first, and then slightly plasticky. I couldn't pinpoint anything specific that had gone wrong with it, it just didn't taste right to me.

Let's stay with imperial stouts from points eastern and check out Tumaine, also 11% ABV and hailing from Estonia's Pühaste brewery. There's coffee in it, though that wasn't apparent to me from the flavour, which starts on gentle chocolate and rosewater then builds gradually, aided by an incredibly dense texture, to liquorice and other medicinal herbs. There's quite a lot of alcohol heat, combining with the thick slickness to make it a kind of liqueur. It's an intense experience, but not necessarily a great one, lacking finesse.

Possibly my favourite name of the festival was Anarkriek by local outfit 't Hofbrouwerijke. It's not a kriek, however, but a porter with cherries, a big-hitter at 8.5% ABV. There's a very interesting contrast in the mix of dry roast and sweet cherry liqueur chocolate. Then it's let down by a savoury autolytic twang and a faint vinegar burn. This may have been left in the fermenter longer than was good for it, but there's potential for greatness here.

I got more cherries from Nacht, a dark ale by Purpose Brewing in Colorado, yet it wasn't brewed with cherries. It appears to have been brewed with damn near everything else, though: coconut, orange peel, vanilla beans, grains of paradise and wood aged. As well as the cherries I found chocolate, hazelnut and raisin in abundance, like a boozy liquid version of a Cadbury's Fruit & Nut bar. Beautiful.

The Purpose beer that garnered most attention on the day was called Smoeltrakker #68. Assuming it has been honed through 67 previous iterations, that's hardly surprising. The base is a sour blonde ale and it has then been aged in bourbon barrels -- how innovative! The end result is beautiful, however: bright and spicy oak, perfumed with incense-like cedar notes, overlaying a mild cleansing tartness. This is no show-off, there's nothing extreme or overdone about it; just perfect balance and harmony. Maybe 9.1% ABV is excessive, but I'll live with it.

The other American brewery was the intriguingly named Pen Druid, out of Sperryville, Virginia. From their offer I picked Telemachus, a 7.5% ABV sour murky brown thingy. There's some herbal aniseed in with the sharp acidity, but also lots of dreggy yeast fuzz. Clean it up and you might have a halfway decent Flemish oud bruin, otherwise I'm not sure what it's supposed to be, only that I don't particularly like it.

It's sour here on out: I guess that's all you need to make to be considered innovative these days. Swiss brewery Trois Dames were at the show and their line-up included Fiancée (Chasselas), a sour saison with grapes. Sounds promising! It's a pale yellow colour and quite assertively tart, with close to a vinegar edge. Fortunately a juicy complexity in the background goes a long way to offset this, though more in a tropical fruit style than wine grapes. Once you get used to it it's quite easy to settle into; pleasant if not spectacular.

The brewery's more spectacular one was the spontaneously fermented Sauvageronne, which had a kick of real lambic about it: from the flat murky orange look to the saltpetre spiced flavour, with a rounded oaky smoothness from the wine barrels it was matured in. The lambicness shouldn't be surprising as the brewery did blend in some Oud Beersel beer years ago, at the beginning of the long-drawn-out solera ageing process. While the painstaking blending and re-blending paid off -- the beer is great -- it's still a little too vinegary to sit side-by-side with Pajottenland's finest.

With night falling and the pubs of Leuven calling, my final beer token went on Weelde, another lambic-a-like, this time from Dutch breweries Oersoep and Nevel, in collaboration. As well as the spicy bricky nitre, there's a lot of tangy fruit, and grapefruit in particular. It's cleansing, invigorating, and like the Smoeltrekker above, quiet and respectful, without being any way boring. The perfect reset beer ahead of the evening's second phase.

Whatever about the innovation aspect, this festival was great for showing me corners of the brewing world I'd never encountered previously. Thanks also go to the guys from Galway Bay, also exhibiting, for the occasional between-ticks tasters. One more wrap-up post to come before we depart.

09 May 2018

Taproom fashion

L'Ermitage Nano Brasserie opened in Brussels last autumn. It's in Anderlecht, just around the corner from the more-established Cantillon. And while the latter is a living fossil, preserving equipment and methods that have died out completely in the city, L'Ermitage is the height of modernity, a converted light industrial space with bright coloured murals and furniture made from hacked up packing crates. It could be in Brooklyn, Bermondsey or Barcelona -- the generic taproom chic.

Dr. John and I popped in on a Friday evening, raising the average age of the clientele considerably by doing so. In the interests of sampling efficiency I ordered a flight. That began with Soleil Session, a white IPA. It started well, with a bright fresh pineapple aroma, but went rapidly downhill on tasting, coming out dreggy and unfinished-tasting. Behind the yeast there's a strong -- harsh even -- hop bitterness that's shocking at first but you get used to it. When it settles down there are still no real redeeming features in this slipshod mess. Not a good start.

A pale ale was next, a bit of a thumper at 6.4% ABV, brewed with added green tea and jasmine, going by the grand title of Théorème de L’Empereur. The grandeur is cut short and I think the guy writing my notes was losing patience already as he's just written "plasticky and unpleasant". Perhaps that's all you need to know. Consider yourselves warned.

Surely they'll get the porter right, I thought. You can't go wrong with a porter, especially a big strong one like Noire du Midi at 6.9% ABV. It looked every inch of it too: a dense obsidian topped with tan foam and giving off a powerful waft of strong coffee. No doublecross this time, it really tastes of coffee, and the umami buzz in the background indicates it definitely hasn't been put on tap too young; quite the opposite. I liked its oily texture as well as the coffee roast flavour. While not the greatest beer of its type, it was a relief to find a good one.

Another white IPA followed, onwards and upwards. Chute Libre was brewed as a collaboration with Swiss brewery La Nébuleuse. It's 6.4% ABV and a happy hazy witbier yellow with a lovely orange juice aroma. There's an absolutely perfect blend of its wit and IPA aspects in the flavour, at once piney and dank while also spicy and fruity, and above all clean, and perfectly refreshing with it. An exemplary expression of the style.

How was John getting on? Well he seemed happy with his choices. I was more dubious when I tasted them, however. Lanterne Pale Ale (left) was another dreggy one: overly hot and with too much savoury caraway. It's not actively unpleasant but was just too raw and unfinished to be enjoyable, I thought.

Laboritoire D'Alchimie 2 (right) is described as a New World Pilsner. That suggests to me some element of fruit, be it bitter citrus or sweet tropicality. But this tasted pretty much like a normal central European pils, mixing up grass, celery and dry chalky soda in a clear golden package. It's light to the point of watery and just not very interesting, beyond the intriguing mystique of the name.

So that's L'Ermitage. Maybe they're still getting their act together and more of the beer will be more polished next time. At least there's somewhere to go after the bar at Cantillon closes each day.

08 May 2018

Some light pubbing

A random assortment of beers and bars from my recent Belgian trip in today's post, beginning with an icon. Fresh off the plane I stopped in the splendid Halles de Saint-Géry market hall for a bite to eat. The bar had a few options from Heineken's Belgian arm but I went straight for the flagship, Maes Pils. The best thing about it was the ribbeke glass: no pissing about with chalices here. It tastes sweetly of maize first, finishing on a drier husk. The carbonation is far too high making for prickly and uncomfortable drinking. I got a slight smoky staleness as well. Not an experiment I need to repeat.

There was another golden beer in the fridges at the meeting venue the following day: 100 PAP by 3 Fontaines, a brewery which I can't believe hasn't been forced to change its name by a certain lambic producer. This one was produced as a fundraiser by a migrants' charity and I understand has changed styles since its inception. It's now a blonde ale, or possibly even a pale ale, at 6% ABV. There's a lovely tropical aroma showing mango and pineapple. The flavour is clean and dry, quite lagerlike, with a little crisp caraway seed and some sweeter peach. Simple and decent fare, overall.

You want some wow factor? How about Jester Zinne, the collaborative sour saison from De La Senne and Jester King? How about Jester Zinne for €15 a bottle in Le Coq instead of the €32 that Moeder Lambic was asking for it? It's a modest 5.9% ABV and begins fruitily with fresh and juicy apricot, laced with oily coconut and followed with enough of a bricky gueze kick to make it taste more like a lambic than a saison. It's beautiful stuff, balancing the fruit and aged sourness perfectly, kind of like a junior edition of Cantillon's Fou'foune.

Friday lunch, as is becoming routine for these meetings, was spaghetti at Monk. They've just launched their very own house beer, Strandhut, brewed by the bar staff in collaboration with Stadsbrouwerij 't Koelschip in Ostend. It arrived to the table in a large bottle, a muddy pale amber colour and failing to form a head on pouring. I asked one of its co-creators what style they were going for and got a Klompian shrug in response. I'll call it a Belgian blonde ale so. Even more worrying, asking about the ABV elicited the same annoyed grumbling. "About 6%" he said, adding they didn't really record it accurately. It's quite a thin beer, but pleasantly bitter and spicy, with the level of herbs and lemon rind you might find in a witbier or even a tripel. As a food accompaniment it could definitely have benefitted from a heftier body; as a cheapish house beer: yeah, sure, why not?

Compare and contrast with the beer for dinner that evening, in the cosy embrace of first-rate beer restaurant Nüetnigenough. M'colleague Dr John had picked De Ranke's Guldenberg from the menu for us, a proper tripel of 8% ABV. This is an especially dry version of the style, lacking the honey and candy they often show, and replacing them with grain husk and white pepper. There's a certain apple and grape quality in the middle but it reverts to type in the end, turning acidic. It's a bit of a workout to drink, but I enjoyed the challenge and would come back for more.

The big discovery of the trip was Gist, a recently-opened beer bar not far from Grand Place and Centraal station. We visited a couple of times, enjoying the excellent beer selection and the laid-back vibe which will hopefully continue as it becomes more famous, but probably won't. Funnily enough, at the last EBCU meeting in Milan, I encountered Stradaregina's Sourflowers 02. And here in Brussels for the next one I found Sourflowers 01, the elderflower one. I didn't get much elder from it but there was a gorgeous brett-apricot aroma, and a flavour mixing peaches and gunpowder on a puckering tart base. It's not far off the level of excellence found in Jester Zinne and I'm glad it seems to be a longterm beer that travels. Grab it if you see it.

Gist had two cask engines on the go, but sadly neither was pouring lambic. I had a glass of Psycho, the table beer from local producer No Science. It's a pale yellow colour and at once spicy and flowery, beginning on honeysuckle and incense and ending with a hard kick of citrus and wax. At 4% ABV they've pushed through the limit of what constitutes a table beer, I reckon, though it does deliver that simple yet complex mix of farmyard flavours that the style is all about.

For his part, John went with Excuse Me While I Kiss My Stout (2018 edition) by Hedonis Ambachtsbier, a Belgian client brewer with which I'm not familiar. It was an 8.2% ABV imperial job with added mint, maple and hazelnut. For all that it wasn't overly sweet, balancing the syrup with bitterness and real coffee, and never getting too thick or hot. It's a balanced sort of pastry stout.

I finished that evening on a Canadian beer, Dunham's Berliner Passion Weisse. The aroma of this is pure sugary passionfruit but the flavour is bizarrely sharp, almost vinegary. It doesn't go all the way there, thankfully, keeping plenty of fruit around to offset the acidity. There's not much going on between its two facets, but what's there is enjoyable.

The inevitable few rounds in Moeder Lambic Fontainas began on yet another new house beer, Moeder Every Day by Jandrain-Jandrenouille. Like the earlier table beer, this is 4% ABV and a pale blonde, showing just a slight haze. Lemon zest emerges first, backed by crisp lagery grains. A tiny bitter yeast kick adds Belgian complexity, but that's as advanced as it gets. It's a beer that's not designed to be pored over or thought about, and I guess even Moeder Lambic has to have one of those on the list.

100 років УНР ("100 Years of the Ukranian National Republic") from Pravda in Lviv had a whiff of more than just nationalism about it. This is a strong stout of 8.5% ABV, densely black in colour with a tan head and smelling harshly of old cigarette smoke. The flavour was surprisingly sweeter, the ash turning to more avuncular pipe tobacco, plus a solid base of chocolate and treacle bread. This is strong yet subtle, and surprisingly easy to drink.

John, meanwhile, opted for Heavy Porter, another No Science offering. It's fairly classic in the way it's constructed, beginning on chocolate, adding in some meadowy floral hops, and finishing quickly and cleanly. This too is dangerously easy drinking, at a not inconsiderable 6% ABV.

I just had a quick sip of someone else's √225 (not pictured), a saison from Swiss brewery BFM. A sip was enough to know it's absolutely terrible, with a harshly concentrated vinegar acidity that's simply painful to drink, or even to smell. Moving on swiftly...

... to the much more friendly-sounding Imperial Hoppy Berliner Weisse from Mont Salève. It's oranges all the way here, from the colour through to the sweet orangeade flavour, complete with a pithy bitterness, leading to a tang of aspirin. The sour side is very mild, and the overall picture is refreshing and fun, more like a tart pale ale than a Berliner weisse. I was shocked to discover it's a full-on 9% ABV, so at least the "imperial" bit holds up.

My companion's finisher was Adelardus by Kerkom, one he knew but I didn't. It's a straight up dubbel at 7% ABV, a dark wine-red colour with a vinous aroma to match. The flavour is much more typical, indeed spot on: cereal and caramel form the foundation, overlaid with bass notes of plum and raisin, then ripe red cherries on the treble. It's rich, smooth and remarkably warming at the relatively low strength.

I'll come back to our other Brussels venue -- another brewery -- in tomorrow's post, but after finishing up here it was off to Leuven. A quickie Saturday night pub crawl began with exemplary glasses of Stella (don't laugh) in the raucous but wonderful Café In Den Ouden Tijd opposite the station, and finished on disappointment at De Blaue Kater, which has moved from its dark and cosy alleyway to a new location across town where it has evolved into a grand multistorey pub and venue. In between there was M-Café.

This modern bar at the front of the city museum was very quiet when we rocked in. It wasn't want of fancy beer that was keeping the punters away: my first was from Warpigs, their Snack Family pale ale. It's a murky orange colour and smelled fabulous, all zesty and spicy. That proved deceptive, as the flavour was disappointing: some mild jaffa, a touch of caraway, but that was it. I got through my glass OK, and enjoyed the part right before each sip. I was left unthrilled, however.

Something even more bro-ish for John: Spacelord, a coffee imperial stout by a Belgian brewer delighting in the name Malterfakker. It was another poor effort, heavy and sticky, lacking the fresh coffee flavour it needed to brighten it, doubling down on syrup and putty. Far too much hard work at this time of night.

I'll get to the beer festival we went to in Leuven later in the week, once I finish with Brussels in tomorrow's post.