21 April 2014

Always something new

I've lost track of the number of times I've been to Brussels over the last 12 years. I'm sure it's into double figures by now. And while fixtures like A La Bécasse (right) and Toone are still favourites and oft returned to, there's always somewhere new. Occasionally new to the city, but mostly just new to me. Reuben and I were over on Beoir business earlier this month and as well as the above mentioned fixtures, and several others, I also got to drop in to Café Monk, a beautiful tiled bar near Place Sainte-Catherine, and pay my first visit to The Hoppy Loft, an oasis of calm and good beer above the pandemonium that is Impasse de la Fidelité on a Friday night.

And then there's the beers. In my advancing years I'm finding it harder and harder to pass by old favourites on the beer menus in favour of new ticks, but I try to strike a balance, for you, dear reader.Yes, there was Rodenbach, yes there was Zinne Bir, yes there was Guinness Foreign Extra. But there was also...

Buffalo Bitter, one of many Belgian IPAs I drank while in-country. I discovered this while basking in the sunshine outside Le Lombard. It's 8% ABV, highly fizzy and sharply bitter. Other than that, standard Belgian IPA rules apply: a warm candy-sugar sweetness rests uneasily beside the hops. Still, it was better than Buffalo Stout which is a percentage point stronger and a worrying pale reddish colour. Like lots of continental stouts it has that unpleasant burnt caramel, though not as strongly as some, and there's also a strange sour quality. It's quite plain fare and might even pass for refreshing if it weren't so damn fizzy.

Keeping things strong, dark and outside Le Lombard, there's LeFort by the Bockor brewery near Kortrijk. 8.5% ABV and a garnet colour that's only a little paler than the stout. I have a feeling the the strength alluded to in the name refers not only to the ABV: this stuff is hot. You get caramel fudge and marker pens, and more than an air of tramp-juice syrupyness. It's hard going. The same brewery also makes Vanderghiste oude bruin, a much more palatable dark beer: 5.5% ABV and just lightly sour but mostly balanced and refreshing.

One of the best dark beers of the trip came from NovaBirra, a brewery south of Brussels, near Waterloo, which has been going since 2008. Big Mama is another 9% ABV stout using entirely Alsatian hops which give it a fantastic floral, lavender-and-bubblegum flavour, set against the smooth chocolate from the malt. There was more lavender in Moeder Fucker 3, a heavily hopped saison produced for, and found in, Moeder Lambic Fontainas. Resin on the nose and thick, heavy granny's-bathroom perfume and lavender soap. This sweary beer won't have a problem if someone tells it to wash its mouth out.

Hops are very much in vogue in Belgium at the moment, and among the hop-forward beers I encountered was the aggressively-named Hop Verdomme by Kerkom, on tap in Bier Circus. Again there's that orange boiled sweet effect in place of clean hop freshness, with an exotic incense spicing as well. It's a little sticky despite being a mere 7% ABV, but I detected a hint of sourness about it, a waft of salt and vinegar crisps. Odd, and not the intense hop experience the name promised. While I was drinking this, Reuben chanced his arm on Kameleon Ginseng, a dry hazy blonde beer which tastes powerfully of ginseng: all the herbal, earthy, rooty punch of it. It's a ginseng beer for people who want their ginseng beer to taste unmistakeably of ginseng. It's not for the rest of us.

Back to the hops, and Gandavum was one of the better ones. This is the house beer of Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, encountered when we stopped off in Ghent on the way back to the airport. They advertise it as a dry-hopped blonde but it shows many of the Belgian IPA qualities, better than in some bona fide Belgian IPAs, in fact. Yes there's that candy sweetness, a a Belgian yeast spicing, but there's a lovely simple juicy peachiness as well.

It seems the big boys are well aware of the hop trend, and chasing their own hop-driven La Chouffe brand extensions, Duvel also now make Vedett IPA, the stripy label adapted to the colours of the Indian flag. Having ordered it out of morbid curiosity, I was very surprised to discover it's actually quite tasty. Warm for a beer that's just 6% ABV, and there's the usual Belgian yeast thing going on, but it's a cleaner flavour profile than most, making it possible to pick out a definite citric tartness and soft thirst quenching nectarine flavour as well. This is wonderfully complex in a way I'd never expect a Vedett beer to be. Meanwhile the dunce cap goes to Palm for Palm Hop Select made, it says on the Internet, using hops grown at the actual brewery. Well, maybe they should leave things to a professional grower in future, because this is a dull sweaty mess.

From the odd-but-inevitable file comes this one by Hof Ten Dormaal: Oak Aged Jenever Barrel. So enamoured by their cleverness on jumping aboard the barrel-ageing bandwagon with a native low countries gin cask that they seem to have forgotten about the beer which goes inside. Once you separate out the mild herbal tang imparted by the jenever and the vanilla from the wood you're left with really a rather plain Belgian ambrée.

We'll finish this post back in Ghent, where we ended up at the Trollekelder, a rather fun knockabout multilevel boozer north of the city centre. Among the beers vying to be Ghent's official one is Gentse Strop ("Ghent Noose"), even though it's brewed some distance away in Oudenaarde. The gallows-shaped display stand is ubiquitous around town. It's a pretty straightforward blonde: as clean and clear as you like, with a lovely crisp celery bite. Trollekelder also had a gueuze that was new to me: De Cam Oude Lambiek: spendy at a tenner a bottle, but I was on my way home and still had money in my pocket. I don't know that it's much better than all the other old lambics out there. It has maybe a bit more of a pronounced barrel flavour and is smooth rather than sharply sour. Best of all it's packed with that brick-cellar and gunpowder nitre spice that I love in the style.

So that's what was new and (mostly) exciting. In the next post we'll see how I fared going back to a handful of breweries and brands that I knew of old.

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