07 October 2013

Hopping off

For the third year running my summer finished on the high note that is the Borefts Beer Festival, hosted by the De Molen brewery in Bodegraven. It changes shape every year and for 2013 left the confines of the trademark windmill altogether, in favour of the main brewery premises and yard, and the car park of a former garden centre across the road. It was a big site and the brewery bars were well spaced out, as well as a massively expanded catering area serving meaty and cheesy delights.

As always, the festival had a theme, issued to the invited brewers in advance. This year it was old-style brewing with seemingly an emphasis on unhopped beers and braggots. Braggot -- hopped mead, sometimes using malt too -- is a new experience for me and I'm not entirely sure it fits within the remit of this blog, but it would have been rude not to try a couple. Alvinne's was called Honey-B and is a pale orange colour with quite a sour aroma. Honey is at the centre of the flavour, of course, spiced up with some mild herbal notes. Its overwhelming feature, however, was its dryness, almost resembling the more intense breed of sauvignon blanc. Interesting, but I wasn't much of a fan.

In proper swaggering style, Mikkeller's offering was called Bragging Braggot, this one is the hazy shade of a hopped-up IPA. It smells quite citric, hinting at high-alpha hops, and there's a urinal-cake sickliness to the flavour which bears this theory out. They've tried to balance the hops with honey and the result is super sweet and soupily textured. "Interesting" say my notes again, but just too weird to be enjoyable.

The last hope for braggot redemption was Skogsmölska by Närke. This is described as a "gruit braggot", so herbs instead of hops then, I guess. It's a clear dark amber with huge honey aromas and a rich, warming dark honey flavour. There's just a light carbonation which works to keep it from getting too cloying. I liked this one, but on the balance of these offerings there's little danger of my becoming a braggot blogger any time soon.

Much more my sort of things were the unhopped beers, though they were a bit of a mixed bunch too. My starter was Fyne Ales Wee Jaggy: 3.8% ABV and a beautiful clear golden colour. Amazingly for a gruit it's 100% properly bitter, only not in a hoppy way. Whatever they've used to flavour this they've used a lot, and I approve. A gorgeous white pepper spiciness finishes it off.

I expected big things from the established masters of medieval beer styles, Jopen. They had a special edition Frans Hals Kuit, brewed to celebrate the artist and further highlight Dutch brewing heritage. It's 6% ABV and made with about 50% oats in the grist, pouring a cheery bright lemon yellow. There's a gentle, old-fashioned spiciness which reminds me a lot of Belgian witbier. All very drinkable but not as different, I suppose, as I'd like it to be. Jopen's other unhopped beer was Gouds Gruit, a black one and a little stronger at 7% ABV. It's quite heavy and sticky with some mild chocolate and black cherry flavours, plus lots of gloopy caramel. Both of these lacked the fun and interesting herbs I enjoy in gruit ales and neither had the beatings of Jopen's regular unhopped Koyt for me.

The same cannot be said for Toccalmatto's Sir Dagonet, which has an aroma like inhaling a spice rack: masses of peppery, meadowy, sweet and fresh green smells. It's a bit of a let-down on tasting: watery at its core and the herbs intensify into a slightly unpleasant incense clang, but that aroma excuses all. Give it to me as a nosebag.

Possibly the dullest of the series was Naparbier Gruit. It proved very watery with a kind of herb and rusk flavour: sausages minus the pork. Easy drinking at 5% ABV, but not really worth it. At the opposite end of the alcohol scale was Brewfist Gruit: 10% ABV, and appropriately dark and heavy. More sweet summer meadow in the aroma and a flavour dominated by malt sweetness accompanied by cloves and violets. The resinous texture makes this a fireside sort of gruit ale.

My overall prize for unhopped beer of Borefts 2013, however, goes to The Kernel for their Festival Special. Not only did they not bother hopping it, they skipped the boil phase altogether, and added raspberries. The result is a bright blushing pink beer at 4.3% ABV, quenchingly dry and with all the fruity tartness of a proper unsweetened framboise. Not a trace of herbs mind, but I'll forgive that.

And if an additional palate cleanser is needed after that oddness, our hosts had produced Ginger Shot for the occasion, 4.2% ABV and promising masses of ginger. That's not what it delivered, however. While there's a hint of ginger biscuits in the aroma the main element I got from the flavour was the hops: the heavy dank funk of Simcoe or similar. The ginger sits in the background: raw, unprocessed and unconcentrated and doing little to counteract the hopping which was not part of the deal.

The odd blip aside, I loved the theme and the way the breweries played with it. We move to more usual fare tomorrow. Maybe...

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