And so we went to Bodegraven, the wife and I, and our fellow Dublin-based beer traveller Derek. We went for the third annual Borefts Bier Festival, a two-day gig at the De Molen brewery featuring an invitation-only roster of brewers from around Europe and a wide selection of serious geek-bait beers. You want it imperial? You want it sour? You want it imperial and sour? This is where you're supposed to be in late September.
Our host was showing off his everso shiny new brewery, a couple of hundred metres down the street from the De Molen windmill, so the festival was set over two locations and a steady traffic of drinkers wandered between them. It was possibly the most civilised beer festival I've ever been at: a diverse crowd from pushchair pushing families all the way up to elderly gentlemen who look liked they were more used to pints and pipes than 100ml glasses but who were having a great time nonetheless. The guy on the left even rolled up on Friday afternoon for a couple of snifters. Food was plentiful, facilities were suitable and no-one got rowdy, unpleasant or any way less than convivial, at least from what I saw.
Like all good beer festivals, it was an opportunity for brewers to show off some new and experimental recipes, and of course De Molen, with a bar at both sites, got stuck right in. Festival Smoked Black IPA was the first of theirs I tried, and I wasn't sure what to make of it really. You get some beautifully zingy fresh peach flavours seriously dirtied up by harsh and phenolic peat notes. Normally I like both of these elements in beer, but together in one glass just tasted wrong. And it looks like Black IPA may have moved on before I've got a proper punt at the style. Oh well.
Top gimmick of the weekend was De Molen Eer & Geweten, an 11% ABV imperial stout, again made especially for the festival. Upon entry, as well as a tasting glass, programme, bottle of water and some beer tokens, everyone was given an entry form on which to guess this beer's mystery ingredient. Finding anything specific in a big imperial stout is a needle-in-a-haystack job. The beer itself was gorgeous, with loads of gooey chocolate overlaid with delicious cherry flavours and a hint of sherry. A slight sourness at the back meant that "plums" went down as my guess. I was wrong and, so it seems, was everyone else. The secret ingredient was later revealed to be aged balsamic vinegar. Perhaps that's where those mild sour notes came from. Stand by for the new wave of balsamic vinegar beers.
Two versions of the deservedly legendary Hel & Verdoemenis imperial stout were on tap. Hel & Verdoemenis 666 Vintage 2011 was one of the overall standout beers for me: infused with 40-year old-cognac soaked out of oak chips. Massively heavy, with the sumptuous thick chocolate almost demanding a churro to be dipped in it. Hel & Verdoemenis MacAllan was less successful: the flavours from the scotch barrel have taken over completely and left next to no stoutiness, unfortunately. Next to it, Rasputin Bruichladdich imperial stout tasted almost bland, but showed much better balance between sweet roasted coffee and slightly woody whisky, all in a lighter and more drinkable package, despite being all of 11.4% ABV.
The Russian theme continues with two versions of Tsarina Esra. Yes, that's another imperial stout. Esra Cognac came out very dry, rather harsh, and unpleasantly spirituous. Wild Esra on Cherries, however, was fantastic. The feral yeast have chomped their way through the high gravity wort leaving an 11% ABV stout with the light body of one less than half its strength. It's beautifully warm and roasty, shot through with puckering sour notes in equal parts from the yeast and the fruit. An amazing symphony of contrasting flavours and an absolute work of art.
Last of the De Molen stouts is Hart & Ziel, a sweet and fruity 11%-er. None of your dark and brooding roasty bitterness here, this is all floral and fruity high notes of raspberries and vanilla with just a smidge of smooth, sweet coffee. Beautiful.
It being Bock season in the Netherlands, De Molen had one out, typically dark red and sticky but with nothing very special about it. The house lager of the moment is an interesting construction: Fresh-Hopped Bohemian is a grainy brewpub pils at heart but has a fantastic bright and clean aroma of lager malt and new hops.
Lastly a couple of pale ales. Bed & Breakfast isn't one to get out of bed for, being slightly oxidised but otherwise uninteresting. Then Amarillo Upgreyde which is nearly too interesting. I first encountered Chris O wandering around the brewery carpark looking a little bewildered by it. My initial impression from its aroma was scented handwipes: there's definitely something a bit cleaning-product about it. It tastes powerfully perfumed, with Earl Grey notes of sweet lemon candy and bitter bergamot. It just didn't sit right with me but my drinking companions were much better disposed towards it.
OK, that's the first of the twelve breweries covered. With cheery thanks to Menno for hosting the gig and brewing some absolute crackers, we move on.