30 January 2013

New tricks from the old guard

It had been many years since I tasted any beer from  3 Fonteinen. Once upon a time it was one of the top lambic houses in Belgium and then in 2009 disaster struck when a faulty thermostat destroyed about a year's worth of stock. And unlike most beers, with lambic you can't simply throw together a replacement batch and have it on sale in a few weeks. The company became a blendery, though plans have been hatched to start distilling and brewing once again.

Recently, the missus brought a bottle of 3 Fonteinen Doesjel back from Brussels. This is a blend of 1, 2 and 3-year old lambic and I'm guessing it dates from the post-catastrophe era. It's 6% ABV and a lovely orange-gold colour. The first surprise is in the aroma: sour, of course, but there's a distinct and intriguing sweetness too. On tasting this unfolds into a juicy, pithy jaffa flavour backed by a mild, short-lived, tang of sour funkiness. An odd combination for an old lambic and one that left me feeling something was missing. I expected bigger sourness and perhaps some old wood. Instead, the fruit flavours put me in mind of Cantillon's Iris, except it's nowhere near as good as Cantillon's Iris. Disappointing, in short.

From one first-string gueuzerie to another. You wouldn't have thought one of the most po-faced and serious of the lambic breweries might produce something as frivilous as this garishly-labelled beer. Yet here it is: Framboise Girardin. Proper grown-up lambic, with raspberries.

From the half champagne bottle it looks gorgeous, a crystalline blood red. The aroma is pure raspberry: sweet without a hint of sourness. Nothing sugary when you taste it, though. The raspberry is still present in a big way, but it's the dry crispness of raspberry seeds. You can just about tell there's a sour beer underneath -- a bit of an acid burn in the nostrils and the faintest catch at the back of the palate -- but otherwise it's all about the raspberries, while avoiding any trace of sugary sickliness. It's the sort of beer that reminds me why people thought of putting fruit in lambic in the first place, and makes me wonder why more of them aren't better at achieving this kind of balance.

28 January 2013

Can't see the sap for the trees

The claim on the back to be brewed with "a glimmer of Canadian maple" is a bit of an enigmatic one. I can't help thinking that the word "syrup" got cut from the copy at the last minute. As is, Holt's of Manchester leave it up to us to decide whether it's twigs, bark or something else in their Maplemoon "mystical maple ale".

It looks lovely: a deep clear amber. The aroma is less impressive, vaguely sticky smelling dark malt and a significant carbonic bite, made even more disappointing by the promise of Cascade on the label. Fortunately it's not overly sweet, sticky, heavy or fizzy on tasting, but it's not much else either. The flavour is a short-lived one-dimensional mix of biscuit and dark fruit -- think garibaldis or similar -- and there's nothing as exotic as maple syrup, or Cascade hops for that matter.

Perfectly drinkable, then, but not as interesting as Holt's would like you to think.

24 January 2013

Canal hopping

One of the things that makes Amsterdam a great place for drinking beer is its compactness. Time it right and you can do a very efficient pub crawl through the western city centre with minimal walking between top quality beers. I had a couple of days of bimbling on my last visit so didn't hit all of what follows in one session. But if I had, it would have looked like this:

Starting off at the top of the town and In De Wildeman, the charmingly down-at-heel hostelry famed for the variety of its beer offerings. Left Hand's Stranger was a new one on me: a decent fist of an American pale ale, being quite heavy and possessing a solid, toffeeish malt backbone. The flavour begins with a firm bitter smack, then introduces some lovely oily orange notes. It's a beer with a big flavour, but deftly balanced. For something a bit more outré, there was Sauer Power, a Germano-American collaboration between Freigeist and Jester King. It's the cloudy gold of a witbier and mixes in some quite acrid smoke with saisonish yeast spice and a mouth-watering, tongue-pinching sourness. Interesting up to a point, but the aftertaste leaves a burnt plastic residue which spoiled the experiment for me.

Another round? All right then. The missus opted for Samaranth 12, a very strong dark one by Urthel. This wears its 11.5% ABV right up front, with heady boozy vapours winding seductively out of it. The flavour has a little of the sweet honey of Irish whiskey and even sweeter amaretti biscuits. It's smooth and amazingly not overly hot, but one glass is plenty. More or less randomly, I chose Troubadour Westkust, a 9.2% ABV black IPA. Wow. The nose is pure Fry's Turkish Delight, starting with milk chocolate then adding floral rosewater. It tasted very porterish to me, with coffee and cocoa dominating the flavour and the hops adding a pot pourri element without any real bitterness. Not really the sort of thing I'd expect under the black IPA flag, but as a beer it's flawless.

And with that we leave In De Wildeman, though not before downloading On Tapp in De Wildeman, its wonderful smartphone app, for future vicarious drinking. I'd love more pubs to have something like this.

Southwards we go, feeling a little guilty for passing Café Belgique and trying not to get drawn in by the siren song of De Bierkoning. Just on the far side of Dam Square we reach Beer Temple. I'm keeping to style and order a Mikkeller Sort Gul, a black IPA, this time with a mere 7.5% ABV. No doubt about the hops here: it's danker than a rasta's basement, crammed with funky, oily, herbal flavours and smells. I couldn't decide if I could taste any dry roast or chocolate in it: maybe there was a trace of it, or maybe it was an illusion caused by the colour. Regardless, this is very much a hop-forward beer and gorgeous to boot.

Perfect Crime is one of a growing number of odd transatlantic brewing arrangements being a joint venture by the people behind Evil Twin and Stillwater -- themselves odd transatlantic brewing arrangements in their own right. The beers are brewed in Belgium and on tap at Beer Temple was Smoking Gun, an imperial stout. It's a little on the light side for the style and not all that strongly flavoured, with just some dry smokiness contrasting with pleasant sweet floral flavours. Decent, but there's something wrong when the beer's pedigree is more complex than its taste. There was much more happening in Dark Horse's Double Crooked tree, an innocent pale amber ale that's hiding over 13% ABV. The aroma is wonderful: intensely sweet and citric like dry-hopped cough mixture. There's a tangy sharpness in the flavour at first, but it mellows out into a smooth, manadrin-laced sipper. It's just as well the measures tend to be small in Beer Temple or we'd be here all night. Let's get moving.

A couple of blocks further down and one street over, we reach Gollem. It's packed, but there's just room for us to squeeze in on the mezzanine. A quick headcount reveals that "packed" in Gollem's case means 27 people. From the modest but well-chosen tap line-up one particular beer leaps out at me: St. Feuillien's Black Saison, brewed in collaboration with Green Flash of San Diego. It's a crazy concoction with the typical peppery nose of a good saison but then a bizarre herb garden of a flavour profile, full of sweet and floral botanicals: menthol, eucalyptus, caraway seeds and other flavours I've forgotten the names of but are more often found in nordic aquavit than low countries beer. Strange, but quite wonderful in its own way. Appropriate for Gollem, then.