06 May 2013

Leuven large

A return to Belgium was top of my to-do list for this year. It's been so long they've probably changed all the beers in my absence. Certainly there was no shortage of new things to try. Most of the weekend was spent in Leuven, the university town near Brussels playing host to both the Zythos Beer Festival and the EBCU spring meeting. More on the the former later.

I arrived into town on a sweltering hot afternoon and started with a leisurely stroll from the station to the town centre. I'd been here once before, 11 years ago, and the Domus brewpub was among the first I ever drank in. It hadn't changed: still a slightly rambly multi-level bar, all bare brick and bric-à-brac, with the brewery in an adjacent building. A friendly waiter showed me to a table I could plonk myself at and I picked the unfiltered pils from the menu, a beer somebody chose to call Con Domus and nobody chose to stop them.

At first I thought it was a mistake: the beer that arrived was perfectly clear, the clear gold of many an industrial lager. The flavour was a lot more interesting, however: sweet at first, then suddenly bitter, reminding me of dipping a finger into hopped malt extract. A simple, decent beer, and bang on the money after a long journey on a warm day.

At this point I spotted the three-beer tasting tray on the menu and opted for that, confirming for myself that it was the house pils I'd just had, not a macro alternative. The other regular beer they make is Nostra Domus, a hazy dark orange ale with lots of very typical Belgian yeast esters. The carbonation is low and there's a little toffee but not much else. Another simple beer but pleasantly full-flavoured. Too many mass-market Belgian amber ales have an unpleasant watery core, but I have no such criticism to make of this.

The seizoen on the day was a Blond, though I thought it was a witbier the first I saw it, as it was the exact same hazy yellow colour. An immediate kick of nutmeg spice begins things, followed by a little bit of banana and a growing warmth from the alcoholic vapours. Eventually it just got a little too heavy to enjoy properly and had me hankering for the cleanliness of the pils again.

The designated meeting point for EBCU delegates was M-Café, attached to the city museum. The selection here was certainly a cut above the normal museum café, with five non-macro beers on tap and dozens of bottled options. Special of the day was a comparison tray of St Bernardus Abt. 12 and Westvleteren 12 for €8. You wouldn't get that in Collins Barracks. I ordered a Taras Boulba while I made up my mind what to have next and, occasionally, socialise with people.

A popular option among the group was Hanssens Oude Gueuze, a brand I was completely unfamiliar with, so that's what I had next. It's a fun little lambic, cloudy orange and with the full bricks-and-gunpowder aroma but totally smooth on the palate; all its sharp edges have been rounded off with time. I got a shock when I saw Ommegang on the blackboard, but this isn't from Duvel-Moortgat's New York operation, it's by Brouwerij Haacht, one of their Keizer Karel series. There's not much going on in it: it's a middle-of-the-road 8% ABV blonde ale with some nice herbal bitterness but then a nasty contrast of dry fizziness and alcoholic burn. Time to see what's on tap.

Taking a chance on Caulier Special Extra, I found it to be a lovely light sessioner. Just 4.3% ABV, a hazy pale gold and with wonderful jasmine perfume flavours. Very clean and sinkable. The tap next to it intrigued me: Alpaïde, from Nieuwhuys, an independent brewery in the town of Hoegaarden. Well done them. It's a rich and fruity 9% ABV dark ale, brimming with the raisin and fig notes typical of top-notch dubbel.

There's an Alpaïde Blond too, another standard strong one which is decent, unfussy and miles better than the Ommegang. I found it in Metafoor, a relaxed and hip-but-not-too-hip café bar not far from the main city square which my fellow Irish delegate John and I visited on the Friday of the trip. We came there from Wiering, another multilevel bar one street away, where I'd had yet another blond ale, Wolf 7, which has some very nice candy and meadow blossom flavours going on.

Once started, a series has to be continued, so on to Wolf 8: a decent dubbel with a fair whack of prune to it but not a whole lot else going on and far far too fizzy for my liking.

A wrong turn on Friday night brought us into a student dive bar where we sat at the back and pretended to fit in. From the taps under the DJ box there was Hector Tripel, an interesting mix of herbs, sugary sweetness and boozy heat. Quite easy drinking so perfect for when you just need to drink up and get out. Last port of call that evening was De Blauwe Kater, a wonderfully relaxed watering hole hidden up a secluded alley. I took the opportunity to make some notes on the legendary Saison Dupont, though it's hard to say more than: it's straight up what saison is supposed to be -- dry, clean with just a little gunpowder naughtiness. This, combined with the proprietress's complete lack of hurry to close up, made that a late evening.

Saturday was ZBF, after which my palate could do nothing but plonk itself on a stool back at Metafoor and drain glass after glass of Rodenbach. On Sunday we went to Brussels and my prime target here was Moeder Lambic Fontainas. Traffic was slow in the long ultra-modern pub, and the beer list surprisingly short by Belgian standards -- only a few dozen options -- but all obviously hand picked. Several of the draught specials were Italian and I opened with X-Ray by Brewfist. This imperial porter is 8.5% ABV, pouring jet black with a creamy ivory head. It's fantastically smooth, offering all the roasted coffee and dark chocolate you want, plus a cheeky hop nip just at the tail end. The perfect Sunday brunch in a glass.

The house beer is Band of Brothers by De La Senne, with quite wonderful artwork, as usual. This was being served from cask, the first time I've seen something other than lambic served this way in Belgium. It's a pale and hazy yellow-orange, with a touch of yeasty sharpness in the aroma. None of that on tasting however, mixing a beautiful fresh apricot character with some lip-smacking thirst-quenching tannins. Overall, a very pleasant blend of the good parts of Belgian blond and English bitter.

The main event for me was Tilquin Quetsche. I hadn't heard of this until the day before, when it sold out rapidly at ZBF. It's a plum lambic from Belgium's newest blendery and pours a happy shade of blushing pink. The aroma is pure barnyard with perhaps a hint of raisin fruitiness behind it. The first thing I got on tasting it was wood, followed by a dash of plum and then a massive salivatory rush as the sour finish kicks in. The fruit and the funk give the whole sensation of eating plums round the back of a cattle shed, which is noteworthy in itself, but I've never encountered a beer that has made my mouth water like this. I look forward to what they come up with next at Tilquin.

And there's another from them and more Belgian breweries coming up in the next post, covering Belgium's biggest annual festival of beer.

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