24 April 2014

New beers from old friends

Troubadour Magma is damn near irresistible, and Westkust is a comforting friend, so I'm always alert for new beers from The Musketeers in the hope that this classic double-act can be turned into a trilogy. The first candidate was one I found at a studenty pub called Le Coq, just up from the Bourse in Brussels: Troubadour Spéciale. And it is grim: a really boring red ale with masses of porridgey grain that is a chore to drink through. Why, Musketeers, why? A few days later, and Waterhuis aan de Bierkant in Ghent. Troubadour Obscura in the fridge, in my glass, in my mouth. What the hell is THIS? It appears to be a stout of some sort, a strong one at 8.2% ABV. It's roaringly sour, all lactic tang and a stubborn awkward brett funk squatting in the middle of the flavour, refusing to let anything else out. There's no mention of this "character" in the official tasting notes so I suspect something just went up the left with my bottle. I think I'll wait until I can have it on draught before chancing this one again. That's 0 for 2 in new Troubadour beers. Stick to the Magma, kids.

The other progressive Belgian brand I always look forward to new beers from is Brasserie de la Senne. They have an adapted version of their classic Taras Boulba pale ale, produced in collaboration with Birrificio di Montegioco and called Taras Runa. Like Taras Boulba this is a hazy shade of yellow, and like Taras Boulba it blends new world citrus hop flavours with light Belgian yeast spicing. Like Taras Boulba it's an approachable, sessionable strength. Actually: this is almost identical to Taras Boulba. It's perfectly decent, but I'm marking it down for being far too close to a beer they already make. What's the point?

De la Senne also have a new black IPA out, called Black in Japan, with yet another gorgeous label. It's 7.2% ABV and was a bit of a job to pour, what with all the foam. I was expecting a much bigger hop punch than it delivered. What we have here is a perfectly decent export-strength stout, with plenty of dry roast in both the aroma and flavour, plus a crunchy veg complexity from the hops. It's not a million miles from good old Wrasslers XXXX, a beer I'm coming increasingly to believe would be badged as a black IPA if it were brewed today for the first time.

This was in Poechenellekelder where one of the seasonal draughts was from the St-Feuillien/Green Flash collaboration series. The black saison they did previously was wonderful, so I had high hopes for Belgian Coast, a 7% ABV IPA. It arrived very cold, rather flat and quite a dark shade of amber and is definitely more Belgium than San Diego in the aroma: sugar, spice, fruit esters, but only a bit of hop greenness. The flavour mixes the sticky Belgian candy with the vegetal hops in an odd way, but it's not without its charms. There's a long metallic afterburn in the finish. Not as much fun as the saison, and not all that different to a zillion other Belgian IPAs, but quite nice to drink.

Dupont's archetypal saison needs very little introduction but I was acutely aware of how few of their other beers I had tasted and decided to put that right. Redor is the basic pils, well-assembled if a little nondescript. A sharp, almost sour, aroma and a flavour which combines light peachiness with some dry grain husk. There's also Monk's Stout, another simple one. 5.2% ABV and nicely dry and crisp: not always a guarantee in a country that seems to tolerate overly sugary stouts. Bons Vœux is a strong cloudy blonde, almost 10% ABV, and nicely warming with it. There's not much going on the the flavour, however, just a bit of cereal and a token sharpness from the hops. And finally Bier De Miel which, as the name suggests, is brewed with honey. Quite a lot of it, I'd say: from the beeswax aroma to the smooth sweet middle to the herbal aftertaste, this definitely shows how good honey can be in a beer without taking it over completely.

I confess I hadn't had any of the beers from the Brussels Beer Project before this trip, but I had heard of them. It's an on-trend collectivised collaboarative contract brewing operation that has been going for about a year and so far produced six beers. I got to try two of them: Dark Sister is a dark ale of 6.66% ABV and uses Citra, Simcoe and Smaragd hops. It pours a blood red colour with lots of dark malt coffee flavours to the fore. This is followed by a kind of plummy sourness and a bit of blackcurrant jam. I'd probably be calling it a dark mild if I had to guess a style, but either way it's a very interesting combination of flavours. Delta is the beer it's a sibling to, a 6% ABV pale ale using the same hop combination. The first one I got was a dud: all stale oxidation and sharp lactic sourness. Reuben rescued me by donating a portion of the one he was drinking. It's another one of those orange barley sweet Belgian IPAs, though a burst of grapefruit zest in the finish, combined with the modest strength, lifts it a little beyond most of its contemporaries.


Three new ones from three of the big-hitting geek-facing Belgian breweries next. VI Wheat (picture, right) is the latest in the numerical sequence by Jandrain-Jandrenouille and it's a weird one. There's a herbal urinal cake aroma and a lot of funk in the flavour. I don't really remember what it tasted like when I drank it in Moeder Lambic Fontainas but my notes say "lemons and cowshit" so perhaps that's for the best. Speaking of sequences, De Ranke have followed up their classic XX Bitter with XXX Bitter, though at 6% ABV it's actually slightly weaker than its predecessor. It's nearly a perfect Belgian blonde, beautifully smooth with clear, clean, polished flavours of light citrus fruit and candystore sugars. And so to Struise, one of the more one-uppy of Belgium's breweries. Their offering this trip was nothing more complicated than a 10% ABV bourbon barrel aged dark rye tripel, and they too have appropriated the XXX name. It's a murky brown and the aroma is full of that loud wood effect you get with so many bourbon-aged beers. On tasting there's no sign of any tripelish qualities, and I couldn't taste any rye. Instead it's smooth and warming with some really beautiful port and sherry notes. And bourbon? Yes, a little: enough to impart the flavour without it completely taking over. Nicely done, Struise.

Girardin is very much an old friend when I'm in Brussels. Their Gueuze is top-notch and can often be found for a euro or so cheaper than its main rivals in the pub. I was intrigued when I discovered that Bier Circus was serving straight Girardin Lambic on cask, pleased when I noticed that they were charging €2 for a 200ml glass of it, and ecstatic when it actually arrived. I never knew Brussels had an answer to Cologne's drinking style and the following review is based on the dregs at the bottom of my third glass. It's an unassuming clear brown colour and almost totally flat. It's also not especially sour, but dry and tannic instead with just the suggestion of oak. More than anything, like your Kölsch and your Alt, it's refreshing, in a grab-sink-and-go sort of way, a pint of Brussels plain, if you will. I wish more places than the Moeder Lambics and Bier Circus served cask lambic.

Until next time, Belgium...

17 comments:

  1. That's an interesting thought about Wrassler's. Wonder if Brendan Dobbin's 'dark but massively hoppy' Yakima Grande Porter would be in the same category. (Now there's a beer we'd love to have tasted.)

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  2. I believe he's still supplying recipes to The Cotton Ball. I wonder if that one could be coaxed out of him.

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  3. Oh my. We'll email him.

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  4. I think you ducked out with the Obscura there and got yourself a duff bottle. It's usually wonderfully rich and stouty. In fact it was one of the original Troubadour beers that got me into The Musketeers.

    And Bailey - yes the Yakima Grande Porter was indeed excellent* (and re-appeared in identical form as Marble McKenna's Porter way back when) but perhaps not the obvious hop bomb your desciption suggests.

    * and in point of fact I still have a bottle.

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    1. Thanks for the clarification, John. I'll look out for it again.

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  5. Oh - and it was meant to be a re-creation of Sierra Nevada Porter

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  6. John -- thanks for the additional info. We're reliant on second-hand tasting notes for discontinued beers and it's hard to know how reliable they are. If Gazza Prescott of all people says it was 'massively hoppy', then we'd be surprised if it wasn't, but perhaps he means 'by 1993 standards'.

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  7. Wrasslers is most definitely a stout. Black IPA? Never.

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  8. Lemons and cowshit sounds very interesting, but you're not really selling Belgium to me with many of those reviews.

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    1. Well, this is the problem with seeking out new beers -- you end up skipping loads of the ones that make Belgium such a great place to drink.

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  9. Herbal urinal cake? Yikes. They must have brewed that beer next to the barn.

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    1. Wouldn't be the first time I've encountered it as a flavour profile. I sometimes find it when brewers get Citra wrong.

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  10. The Girardin Lambic on tap sounds too good to be true.

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    1. Funnily enough I never saw the actual beer engine anywhere on the bar. But it tasted real.

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  11. McKenna's Revenge was a fantastic porter - it's still my idea of what porter ought to taste like, to the extent that porter's a different thing from stout. I wouldn't have called it massively hoppy, though. Not much bitterness & none of that sour burnt-grain quality - just very dark and rich. Maybe that was the hops I was tasting, who knows.

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    1. A late comment as I've been away. McKenna's had various incarnations over the years but the original was a Brendan Dobbin beer identical to his Yakima Grande Porter. It was not what I'd call "massively hopped" and I did drink a fair amount of the stuff. I suspect there was quite a generous hopping regime but it just added to the complexity of the overall beer rather than being there in its own right, if you get my drift.

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  12. Is that Delta a beer or a milkshake. It has a better head that Lucy Pinder

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