It's one of my hobby-horse topics on The Session this month: beer travel. But Brian isn't letting us just drone on about where we went on our holidays, and there's certainly been enough of that on this blog lately. No, we're asked specifically to consider the beer pilgrimage, the brewery visit, the drinking-at-source. Do we do it to enhance our sensory experience by seeking the optimum condition for our beer, or is it more of an abstract thing -- a quest for understanding? I'm pretty much in the latter camp: I like drinking in breweries more to see the context and culture that gave rise to the beer than to try and get the best version of it. I wouldn't be entirely sure that the quality thing always stands up, as neatly illustrated by the last brewery I visited: De Prael in Amsterdam.
I've been before, several times, but it had been a while and options for early Sunday drinking in the city centre are a little on the thin side. It was all go in the roomy bar behind the brewery when we got in -- an energetic jazz band was playing up a storm to a crowd of early Sunday-lunchers. From the bar, three unfamiliar beers. Well, the wife and I got grown-up beers; our companion Zak opted for a flight.
First the positive news: Rubberen Robbie is a 6.7% ABV smoked porter brewed at De Prael in collaboration with under-construction Amsterdam brewery Oedipus. It gets just the right balance of strong flavours, matching the heavy chocolate from the base beer with big meaty smoked bacon notes. Some fruity pipesmoke provides complexity and there's a surprise pleasing bitter finish. Nicely done and hats off to both brewers.
Staying on the malty side of the house, Doemaar is a scotch ale, laying on the alcohol at 7.7% ABV and ending up incredibly hot which doesn't help the intense sugary sweetness. This is further topped by lots of brown banana esters for a gloopy, burny, teeth-rotting, heart-palpitating mess of a beer. But even it tasted like Pliny the bleedin' Elder compared to...
Nick & Simon. A 6.5% ABV IPA, arriving hazy and pale yellow, like a witbier, but that's rarely any harm. I didn't get it at first, finding it a simple if rather waxy beer, but both my drinking companions looked like they were being asphyxiated after one sip of it so I took my time to try and find what they were tasting. Oh, there it is now, just as the beer starts to warm. And it gets bigger. And it doesn't stop. Arrgh! Diacetyl is the first deadly sin: big butterscotch on an otherwise quite light texture is horrible. Then there's a nasty sourness, in both the aroma and flavour: lactic, turning towards... cheese. The stinky feety cheesy guff of hops that were not fit for use in beer (isovaleric acid, if I'm not mistaken, chemistry fans). The whole is a bit of a perfect storm of off flavours and is one of the worst beers I've had the misfortune to taste. I drank it less than 10 metres from where it was produced and it should never have got even that far.
I like to think that, out in the wild, any sensible speciality beer bar manager would not have deemed Nick & Simon fit for sale and sent it straight back. But maybe that isn't an option at the brewery bar. Whether it be group-think, palate acclimatisation, economic concerns or fear of the owner's wrath, it's conceivably more likely that you'll get bad pints, wonky batches, at the source than out where the product is subject to beer peer review.
For me, having the experience trumps any individual bad beer episode. Visiting a brewery is always, foremost, an opportunity for learning, not a quest for objective beery perfection. The city which is home to Prael and Bierfabriek teaches us that better than most.
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