29 June 2011

Because "Belgian" is no kind of descriptor

We do tend to throw the B-word around rather indiscriminately. It generally means a very full-bodied, estery, slightly yeasty kind of thing: cloudy, funky, and available in any colour from pale Duvel-yellow to dark Rochefort-brown. Hoppy it ain't, despite even the new wave of American inspired hop-driven Belgian ales; and there's certainly nothing you'd call "clean" in the profile.

One brewing company in particular is doing its utmost to break out of the strictures of national beer stereotyping: De La Senne, from Brussels. I've covered a couple of their beers previously (here and here) and the wife kindly brought two more back from a recent trip to Belgium.

Zinne Bir calls itself a "Brussels' People Ale", in what can only be a cheeky attempt to wind up the beer style purists. And the English grammar purists too, I guess. It's 5.8% ABV and pours a cloudy orange shade, quite fizzy but not really throwing out much by way of aroma -- just some lightly spicy jasmine sweetness. The first impression on tasting is bitterness, and lots of it, with both the yeast and hops ganging up together and introducing their respective brands of sharpness simultaneously. It calms down after a moment and finishes pithy rather than sharp. The fizz makes it refreshing and it's all really quite quaffable. An ordinary decent beer for the citizens of Brussels? Yes, I can see how that works. And if it means more Cantillon for me, then I'm happy.

I figured that Equinox would be somewhat more typically Belgian: an 8% ABV dark ale in a 75cl bottle? Has to be vaguely trappist in tone, hasn't it? Nope. I think they've assembled this the way one would for an abbey beer and then used a totally different, unBelgian yeast. Of fruity esters there are none. Instead it's a very dry, bitter, and slightly smoky beer, nearly akin to a strong Irish stout. It's full-bodied almost to the point of greasiness and the liquorice aroma is the nearest thing to fruit that it offers. I found it hard going, all in all. An enjoyable novelty, but I didn't need to devote my evening to three quarters of a litre of it.

It's always good to see brewers breaking free of received notions of what beer in their country is supposed to be, especially in countries like Belgium with well-established brewing traditions. Here's to the tinkerers.

27 June 2011

Session sequencing

It was tough picking an order in which to drink these Fyne Ales: all pretty low ABV session ales; two of the three on the pale side; all claiming generous hopping. Um. Errr. Best to just muck in and see how it goes.

So first up was Piper's Gold. The name's a bit of a turn-off. I'm sure there's a Scottish equivalent of paddywhackery and "Piper's Gold" stinks of it: haggis an' kilts an' aw the rest of thon oul shite. But beers don't get judged on their names on this blog. Much. Behind the label there's a slightly hazy blonde ale of 3.8% ABV. I didn't see anything on the label about bottle conditioning or an admonition to pour carefully, but I think there might be a bit of a yeast component in the flavour: a slight grittiness. Surrounding that it's fairly nondescript. The best bit is a little burst of juicy fruit bubblegum in the aroma. Tastewise you don't get much: that yeast, plus a slight rough oiliness which I can only describe as coconut even though doing so caused my wife to give me the you-don't-know-what-you're-talking-about look (to which, fortunately, I'm immune at this stage). All in, it's quite drinkable and you'd be happy to see it on tap in the pub. It probably doesn't lend itself to considered analysis, though. Nothing for it but to open the next beer, then.

I had been going to put the darker Highlander at the beginning of the sequence, until the label started talking about its citrus aroma in capital letters. A malt-driven hoppy amber ale? That could go any way, so I put it in the middle. It's not that dark, as it turns out: rose-gold to amber rather than anything redder. That citrus aroma? Yes, it's there to an extent, but not in a big way. I'd have thought the busy fizz would have pushed more hops out, but they just mustn't be in there in any great number to begin with. And neither's anything else really: it's another light, simple pale ale with a little too much water and fizz to be properly enjoyable.

Doubt was starting to creep in about whether these lacklustre offerings really were from the same brewery that made Avalanche and Vital Spark. Luckily I had the big gun saved up for last. Beer geek scuttlebutt has it that Jarl is the money-maker of the line-up. Off with the cap then...

I swear I was wielding the bottle opener at arm's length, but I got a massive hop waft along with the first hiss: almost skunky, in fact. Leaning in to the bottleneck I get a smell that takes me right back to wrong turns in Amsterdam on a cold Friday night: a different sort of skunk but all botanically related. Appearance-wise it's very very pale, blending in with my walls until the camera flash drew out the contrast. Expecting an incendiary hop-bomb from the aroma (despite only 3.8% ABV) I was very pleasantly surprised on the first pull: lots of really quite sweet fruit in the juicy mandarin and nectarine bracket. It fades quite quickly and the hops (all Citra, I'm told) add a final bitter flourish, before the palate is clear and ready for another gulp. While trying deperately not to sound like an insufferable fanboy, I must say this is probably the best bottled session beer I've ever come across. It's a recipe that deserves to be ripped off mercilessly for the greater good of beer-drinking kind. But while that's happening, a standing ovation for Fyne Ales for Jarl. Believe the hype.

So not the end-to-end quality bevvy experience I was anticipating, and I'm very happy with the order I picked: Jarl is unfollowable by anything other than more Jarl, or someting from a totally different end of the beer spectrum -- imperial stout or one of them mad fellas. I get the impression that Fyne are primarily a brewer for the on-trade, and that the bottles shouldn't be expected to live up to the pub experience. But if Jarl's better on cask than bottle I may actually implode with joy.