Another national beer festival, another aircraft-hangar-like space crammed with beer stalls and punters. The 2013 Zythos Beer Festival at the Brabanthal on the outskirts of Leuven wasn't quite on the same monolithic scale as the Great British Beer Festival when at Earls Court, but was certainly bigger than the Irish equivalent at the RDS last September. Just over 100 stalls had beers for sale, usually four or five each. The parsimonious trappists shared one austere bottle-only stall between six of them while A-B InBev sulked in a corner wondering why nobody wanted to buy its Leffe Royale. The show-offs were Struise and Alvinne, boasting a massive menu board on their neighbouring booths, side-by-side at the entrance.
Top of my hitlist was a beer I've been meaning to get hold of for years but never managed to: Duvel Tripel Hop. The 2013 edition has been given the Sorachi Ace treatment and the aroma from it is spectacular: a massive burst of fresh nectarine and passionfruit. The flavour is rather spikier, the soft fruit turning to sharp lemon pith which is a little overpowering. Still, worth it for the smell. I see that Kill enjoyed it too. Also on the long finger was Slaapmutske Dry-Hopped Lager. This wasn't as impressive as I'd heard, being a passable full-bodied hazy pale lager with a slight sharpness but mostly smooth and drinkable.
Of the IPAs on show I was especially impressed by Hopjutters Triple Hop. Its aroma goes past fruit into an intense eye-watering perfume though the flavour is much more restrained with big succulent peaches in abundance. 7.2% ABV yet dangerously easy to drink. I hope we'll be seeing more from this outfit soon. De Dochter van de Korenaar did something entirely different with their IPA Extase. So Intense You Won't Be Able To Taste Anything Else For Half An Hour!! squealed their poster. That's nice dear. Extase is a dark hazy orange colour and quite heavy and hot. The hop flavours lean towards the medicinal: eucalyptus and menthol notes in particular. I'm not really sure if I liked it or not but I've never tasted anything like it from a Belgian brewery, so it has that going for it. The wooden spoon of the IPA section goes to Green Cap, brewed by Belgian brewery Gulden Spoor for Dutch brand Butcher's Tears. There's a decidedly unBelgian blast of toffeeish crystal malt at the centre of this; behind it little more than a citric tang and a sharp finish, but it's very much malt driven, and one-dimensionally so.
One brand whose hop prowess I've been impressed by in the past is Troubadour and I almost succumbed to another hit of their sublime Westkust black IPA. But, stuck for time as always, I opted instead for Mundus Vetus, a 9% ABV rye tripel, produced in association with Anchor of San Francisco. It's dark for a tripel: much more amber than gold, and pulls off a stunning balancing act between the yeast based spiciness of tripel and the almost peppery piquancy you get from rye. There's a lot of vegetal leafyness going on but balanced against some purely Belgian candy sweetness. And speaking of sweet, Ecaussinnes's Ultramour is one to mark For My Palate Only. It's insanelysweet, almost to saccharine levels. No right-minded beer drinker could possibly enjoy a concoction like this. There's a great big raspberry on the label but the dominant flavour I got was cherry: a concentrated syrupy cherryness which brought me back to my first ever kriek experience, with Bellevue, a beer I still have a soft gooey spot for. It's fine: you just leave me and Ultramour alone for a while and go and drink something else. I'll join you in a minute. It's always nice to see a bit of gimmickry going on with lambic. Timmermans had a limited edition Oude Gueuze on offer. It's straight-up sour, which is unusual for Timmermans. It even leans a little bit towards the vinegary side of the house but fortunately doesn't quite go all the way there. Tilquin had their Gueuze on the handpump and it was really fascinating. Sour: yes, completely, but not in any way tart or sharp. Instead it's a weird sort of smooth sourness, with that heady brick-cellar spice. It was also almost totally flat which helped make it ridiculously sinkable. I'd love to settle in for a session on this some time.
The Gimmick of the Festival award goes to Girardin, and again it was an Oude Gueuze they were serving. Only somewhere they'd managed to get hold of your actual Randall The Enamel Animal, still bearing the Dogfish Head logo on its exterior. The tube had been stuffed with Nelson Sauvin and it had a wonderful effect on the dark gold lambic, adding a whiff of white grape flavour to proceedings along with a tiny extra acidic bite. The possibilities created by this sort of thing are immense. Let's get more Randalls into the hands of lambic producers. And that brings the festivities to a close. I liked ZBF: not so vast as to be heartless but still with bags of choice from Belgian breweries of all sizes making every kind of beer. What a national beer festival is supposed to be, in short.