23 November 2015

Brussels brewing

In Brussels for the Autumn 2015 EBCU meeting, I didn't mean to visit every operating brewery in the city. It just kinda turned out that way. I trod a path similar to the one Steve did here during the summer, though with more of the breweries actually in action. It's interesting to observe just how fast the brewing scene in Brussels is currently moving.

First stop as soon as I reached the city was Brussels Beer Project which had opened specially for delegates just ahead of its grand launch a week later. The taproom, on the edge of the city centre just beyond Sante-Catherine, is open Thursday to Saturday and the intention is to pour the brewery's own beers alongside selected guests. In a room behind it is the shiny steel brewkit and a handful of wooden casks with experiments ageing within. The plan, the founders told us, is to make around 20 different beers a year, collaborating as much as possible and becoming an integral part of beer in Brussels. Bottles of the first few new ones were on display but weren't quite ready for drinking so we made do with the last of the beers BBP has been producing elsewhere over the last couple of years.

Delta IPA and Dark Sister black IPA I've covered before; suffice it to say that the latter was on particularly good form and I hope the recipe makes the transition to in-house unscathed. My first was Babylone, a dark amber coloured IPA of 7% ABV with a fun gimmick in that 30% of the grist is made up of unsold bread they collect from bakeries. (40% is possible, said Dimitiri the bar manager, but inadvisable.) The hops are a transatlantic mix of Chinook, Crystal and East Kent Goldings and the end result a gorgeously thick and spicy beer, oozing bitter resins as it sparks with black pepper. I'm not sure how much I could get through in one sitting, but I wouldn't mind putting that to the test.

But there was another beer to try, namely Grosse Bertha, a hybrid of the German weissbier and Belgian tripel beer styles. It could pass for either on appearance and the opening impression is soft and wheaty like a weizen, incorporating the de rigeur bananas plus the sort of green celery effect that German hops sometimes bring to these. However, it's also 7% ABV and carries all the heat and spice you'd expect from a tripel as well. It fascinated me for a while, standing with a glass on the brewery floor, flipping my perception between the two styles like a lenticular picture. The problem arose when it came time to finish the glass and move on to something else: the flavour is so big and busy that it actually becomes difficult drinking quite quickly, especially if it gets warm. Sharing 33cl measures of beer is, of course, a dreadful abomination, but you might get away with it here.

Naturally the trip incorporated a visit to the city's oldest working brewery, Cantillon. It's undergoing a bit of a supply-side crisis at the moment, and though the range of beers being produced has never been greater, a lot of it seems to be confined to the brewery bar: off sales are severely limited, in both variety and permissible order size. The issue is one of space, we were told, and a new warehouse currently being prepared will go some way towards relieving it. Meanwhile, just one new Cantillon for me: Haute Densité. You can read the convoluted history of this one here, and it certainly lived up to its name, being 9% ABV and incredibly heavy despite the high attenuation. There's the characteristic earthy lambic funk alongside a very uncharacteristic sweet honey flavour, as well as an intense beeswax bitterness. Yet all throughout, there's a mature smoothness that ensures its drinkability. A lovely twist on good gueuze, and I look forward to Cantillon getting more experiments like this out on the market.

From the oldest brewery to the newest (or at least the newest then; these guys have opened subsequently with no regard for my publishing schedule), En Stoemlings is a two-man operation in a tiny premises by Chapelle station, not far from both Gare du Midi and Place Fontainas. The name translates roughly as "the sneaks", recalling the time before their commercial operation was quite as above-board as it is now. They make one beer, 125 litres at a time, and sell 80% of it at the front door of the brewery. The beer is called Curieuse Neus and is a 7% ABV tripel, available in 75cl bottles and on draught in a handful of outlets, including Bar Recyclart around the corner under the railway tracks. The beer is... OK. Workmanlike. The ABV is on the low side for a tripel but it's still surprisingly heavy. The classic tripel spices are present and correct though a touch of hot marker pen phenols on the finish compromises it a little. Decent for a first effort and I'm sure it's merely the gateway to greater things.

That just leaves Brasserie de la Senne, a relative brewing veteran at this stage. My first encounter with their beer this time was at Pin Pon, a charming little stand-up bar in a renovated fire station on Place du Jeu de Balle. Senne makes a house lager for them, which is also called Pin Pon. It's 5.2% ABV, a perfect clear blonde and with a slightly waxy pils bitterness but not much else to say for itself. Not made for the geeks, but that's OK: they're allowed brew beer for normal people to drink.

Not being a normal person, a couple of days later I went up to the brewery. It was Finnish delegate André's idea, and Reuben and I accompanied him to keep him out of trouble. The journey is a long one on the 82 tram through the heart of the Molenbeek district almost to the north-west edge of the city. You duck in behind a car wash, along the back wall of a cemetery and the warehouse is there at the end, past the industrial laundry. It's a large and busy space inside but they've boxed off one corner of calm with chipboard sheets and installed a bar and tables. And a merchandise shop, of course.

I started with Brusseleir, badged as a "sweet IPA" which, it turns out, means something brown and portery with lots of chocolate in the foretaste followed by a mellow hop bitterness in the background, plus a wisp of coconut, because why not? It wears its Belgian credentials in the aroma: an earthy and estery warmth, as might be expected at 8% ABV. Overall a very classy blend of English and Belgian flavours, and sure to piss off the people who still think the letters IPA actually mean something, which is good.

We'll finish with a final Senne beer in the hallowed hall of Moeder Lambic Fontainas. Schieve Tabernak is a hazy orange ale, mixing in pleasant peach and apricot with a less welcome savoury yeast bite. Good potential, but it could really do with cleaning up.

It does, however, lead us neatly away from the breweries and into the pubs: always a highlight of Brussels. A full account of what I drank in them follows next.

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