01 April 2013

Spice of life

Knowing my prediliction for beers with odd ingredients, my wife frequently brings me back strange beery concoctions from Belgium, where unorthodox recipes seem to be much more commonplace than here. I did a bit of a clear-out last week and this is what I found in Novelty Corner.

First up was Goji, presented with very scant information on where its brewed and by whom. Brasserie d'Écaussinnes near Charlerois seems to be the most likely origin. What we do get told is that it's top-fermented, 5% ABV and flavoured with goji berries. Pouring revealed a clear blonde beer, fizzing madly at first, then settling down, like champagne. And like champagne the flavour is crisp and clean, with a lovely succulent juicy berry flavour, from the gojis, I guess. It's sweet, but not overly so, echoing the flavour profile of a mimosa or bellini, I thought. It's a simple drink, and not a particularly beery one as such, but tasty. A good start.

The clunker of the bunch came next, when we switched to the MilleVertus brewery and their saffron ale La Safranaise. It started intriguingly: 7% ABV and pale amber with a lovely peppery medicinal nose, promising an intense taste experience. And that's what it delivers, but so intense as to be absolutely disgusting. The body is very sticky and infused with a powerful eucalyptus and disinfectant flavour, like someone left the golden syrup too close to a tub of Deep Heat. Bleurgh!

We stay with MilleVertus next, and L'Amarante -- a little stronger again at 7.5% ABV and pouring a beautiful clear dark gold. The promised peppercorns are absent in the flavour and instead we get lots of fun sweetness, with notes of chocolate and peppermint. The aroma is the only herbal element in the package, giving off a gentle fennel perfume. It's a simple, understated and pleasant beer, in stark contrast to La Safranaise.

For the last three it's back to Écaussinnes, starting with Cookie Beer, conjuring the speculoos biscuit as its inspiration. It's yet another golden offering but this time with some horrible great lumps of sediment cavorting indecently in the glass. First impressions are of a full, sweet and fizzy beer, kinda like Duvel minus the hops. But then the lacing of cinnamon kicks in and spices things up, but not too much. For something that screams novelty it's actually quite subtle.

Florilège d'Hibiscus was the only one of the set with true novelty value, pouring a dark purplish colour, topped by cherry blossom foam. The beer is rich and syrupy but in a good way when you don't have too much of it to drink. And the flavour is a strange mix of lurid red ice cream sauce from childhood coupled with very grown-up blackcurrant tea. Sophisticated yet cheeky, as a more twattish beer writer might put it.

Late for the photocall up top, there was also La Loubécoise, 8% ABV and brewed with maple syrup. This is a deep mahogany red but keeps its secrets to itself on sniffing. I guess the maple syrup is doing what is expected of it, since tasting reveals a heavy, sickly beer with a touch of woodiness to it. A smoky acridity adds complexity but doesn't make it any nicer or easier to drink. I've known maple syrup to work well in beers, but either they haven't used the right stuff or -- more likely -- they've added way too much.

On this showing I can see why some people give novelty ingredient beers a wide berth: it really is a bit of a crap shoot. But if you'd asked me which would be the best and worst additives out of goji berries, saffron, peppercorns, cinnamon cookies, hibiscus or maple syrup I'd have guessed completely wrongly. And having one's assumptions challenged is all part of the fun with beer.

1 comment:

  1. Gary Gillman3:14 pm

    Interesting, it seems the Belgians still lead in terms of odd and unusual corners of the beer world! I like spiced beers when the spice or flavouring isn't too potent - extreme brewing doesn't suit the genre IMO (i.e. in the sense of adding more and stronger of everything). But when the spice or flavour is an accent and balanced or even shadowed by good hopping, excellent results can follow. Coriander and similar flavours can do excellent work in stout and other beers when well-used for example, but this is true (in my experience) also of sweet gale and other of the berries, herbs or spices traditionally used.