19 October 2016

Belgium's smallest pub crawl

A mid-afternoon flight home meant I only had time for a handful of beers on my last day in Brussels. I began by nipping across to Cantillon, to restock my cellar with lovely lovely gueuze. There was much of interest on the bar blackboard there, but only by the 75cl bottle, so not practical drinking for the solo traveller in a hurry. Back, then, to Moeder Lambic, which had just opened its doors.

I started my day, as perhaps one always should, with De Ranke's Cuvée de Ranke. It's a handsome clear gold colour and smells like a classic gueuze: it has that woody bricky quality. The resemblance ends on tasting, however. It's powerfully tart: a big smack of raw sour power followed by a hard mineral edge. A softer chalkiness rolls in behind it and then the more subtle flavours emerge: lemon zest and a pinch of vanilla. 7% ABV gives it plenty of warmth as well, limiting its ability to refresh, I thought. Though perhaps not as harmoniously constructed as gueuze, the different elements are well coordinated into a single smooth sour experience.

A stablemate to follow: Kriek de Ranke, the same strength so presumably the same beer with added cherries. It's honkingly sweet at first, the cherry syrup mixing with the alcohol for a disconcerting cough-mixture effect. That sharp nitre sourness peeks in around the edges, but doesn't really get to do much. While Cuvée de Ranke could fill in for a gueuze when none is available, this is no substitute at all for decent kriek.

There was a new house beer on the menu, a companion to L'Amer des Moeders. La Moederation is also brewed by Jandrain-Jandrenouille and is 8% ABV. It looks like Duvel, all pale and slightly hazy, and it smells like Duvel too: a familiar strong candy-sweet aroma. But it doesn't taste like Duvel. It doesn't taste like anything really, which is very sad. There's a sort of white-sugar plainness, and a dry saison-like fruity quality from the suspended yeast. But there's no contribution from the hops and the flavour screams out for a bit of green punchiness. Give me 80cc's of Styrian Goldings, stat!

My wander back towards the station left enough time for a very swift one at an old favourite, the charmingly eclectic Poechenellekelder. I think I'm reaching that happy stage in life where I can go into a Belgian beer café, even one with a reasonably substantial menu, and there won't be any new beers to tick so I can settle down with something familiar. And I nearly did that here, but for one niggle. I was reminded recently that while I have a review of a vintage version of De Dolle's Oerbier on here, I'd never written about the original.

So Oerbier it was, a dark brown 9%-er. It smells warm and dark, like moist fruitcake: all raisins and bread. The first impression on tasting it cold is of a rough and gritty Belgian yeast flavour, and then all the heat of that high strength. I had been expecting smooth and warming but it's really rather rough and savoury, with the fizz level somewhat overdone. When the temperature rises a few degrees a kind of malt loaf flavour emerges but it's still tough going to drink, which isn't ideal when you're watching the departures board on your phone. If you just want strong and dark and Belgian, Oerbier is that. But in the complexity stakes it's a long way behind the likes of Rochefort. Like the sour beer I came in on, the established classics still have the beatings of the younger upstarts, in this old fart's opinion anyway.

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