24 April 2017

Belgian purge

All going well I should be just back from Belgium when this gets posted. It'll take a while to process through what I found to drink there so while I'm stringing those words together I thought I'd clear the Belgian beers that had been hanging around the house before I left. I'd built up quite a backlog of them, thanks to the good offices of my other half.

I started with Sheldebrouwerij's Hop Ruiter. It's a few years since I last had anything from them. This one is described as an "IPA tripel" and they're far from the first brewery to have elided those two styles -- I believe that honour belongs to La Chouffe. Appearance-wise, this could pass as either, being a hazy orange-ochre colour. 8% ABV and an aroma full of bright incense spices definitely say "tripel" to me. The flavours tilt the balance back again with mouth-watering honeydew and nectarine, fresh and juicy as you like. The quintessential spicy Belgian yeast is still there in the background, and builds towards the finish, but it definitely does a complementary job rather than conflicting. There's no real hop bitterness, nor big alcohol heat, making for a smooth and well-integrated experience. My balanced assessment is that it's a tripel wearing an IPA hat for marketing purposes, but that's allowed when it's this tasty.

Moving on to a set from Brussels Beer Project, another operation I haven't written about in a while. First up is Black Bird, a "black rye saison" brewed in collaboration with London's Ansbach & Hobday. I wasn't sure what to expect with this and, after the first sip, I wasn't sure what I'd got. It's 6.1% ABV and as well as the rye, Carafa Special I and II and other malts, it has a suite of big-hitting US hops including Chinook, Centennial and Colombus. The aroma is a bittersweet mix of forest fruits and the flavour starts rather plainly with a porter-like creaminess, then dries off the palate very suddenly before the arrival of jammy strawberry and a green rye-grass rasp. The complexity is a little like that found in O Brother's amazing black IPA Bonita, though much toned-down by comparison. I had to work to find the various flavours and if I were drinking it without paying close attention it would probably end up seeming quite dull. Though there are of course elements of saison and rye ale and black IPA and porter in there, it doesn't really make much use of any of them.

The next beer is a double IPA though I'm immediately questioning its credentials at only 7.7% ABV. The name is I Like It Bitter and it backs that up with a claim of one hundred IBUs. This is the "Mosaic & Equinox Edition", which implies that there are or will be others. It seemed a bit flat on pouring, while also looking pleasingly gloopy. There's bit of a mouthfeel all right, though it avoids being unpleasantly hot and heavy: just filling enough. Both the aroma and the flavour tantalise more than they satisfy. The former has a mandarin flesh juiciness and gunpowder spice buried deep within, and I found myself inhaling great draughts of it to try and get the full effect, to no avail. Savoury yeast burr fuzzes out a lot of the same fresh orange-tropical notes in the flavour, and there's a sickly tramps'-beer sweetness that slows down the appreciation of it. I can sense those top-notch hops at work, but big, strong and yeasty is not an environment that suits them. Were White Hag ever tempted to make an imperial Little Fawn, this beer is a clear indication of why that's a bad idea. You want a clean light base for your spritzy tropical hops. This tries to supercharge them with malt and fails miserably. It's not even especially bitter.

I did a bit of a double take when I read the details on the back of Stereo Lips. On the front they call it a "hot rye IPA" and turning the bottle around this is unpacked, revealing rye, smoked malt, smoked chilli, vanilla and a combination of Cascade, Chinook and Sorachi Ace hops. That's a daunting line-up of potential flavours, though in a Twitter poll, 52% of you deemed it "not scary". It looks innocent enough, a deep orange colour with lots of fine fizz and a big fluffy head. Sorachi wins the aroma, pumping out its signature oily citrus peel vapours. This is a major component in the flavour, but it's matched by a hard plasticky taste which I think may be down to the chilli: I've encountered it in badly-made chilli beers before, though this time there's not even any heat. The smoked malt, rye and vanilla are AWOL as well. When the bitterness subsides there is a soft grape and elderflower fruitiness which is the saving of the beer. It's not bad, overall, but I think it could have been achieved with a much simpler recipe. That it's a three-way collaboration is possibly not unrelated to this.

With my appetite for smoke unsated, I looked forward to something more forthcoming from Smokey Li, brewed by Préaris and using Lapsang Souchong tea instead of your actual smoked malt. It's pretty convincing too, golden and sweet with a distinct and fresh tang of smoke. I'm reminded a lot of the classic clean stylings of Bamberg's finest. Rather than smoked ham it tastes of very crisp bacon, the flavour tailing off with a pleasing dryness. The amazing bit is that it's a gigantic 8% ABV and there's not an ounce of heat or malt weight to it. I could drink this all day, but that's probably not a good idea.

The next beer is tantalisingly one of a set. There's a tripel and a blond which I don't have, but this is La Corne du Bois des Pendus Black: 8% ABV and declining to give itself a style, other than, well, "black". It's not even black, either, more a reddish brown. The topping is a steady mousse, not dissimilar to the head on a stout, and it has the same sort of dense creaminess. The flavour is in that direction too, though very much on the sweet side, with milk chocolate and rosewater, building to a heavy perfume that sits uncomfortably on the palate. The sweetness increases as the beer goes, turning to saccharine, aftershave and some half-memory of lurid milkshakes from my childhood, made from chemicals that are doubtless illegal now. Anyway, it's not great. More than anything, I kept thinking it's unBelgian: this is not how Belgians normally make beer.

Moving on to a handful of beers from Caulier, a Wallonese client brewer which confusingly shares its name with an unrelated Wallonese brewery. I hadn't encountered many of their beers before and they only came to my attention now when they opened what is apparently a rather grand bar in Brussels Central Station. Hopefully by the time you read this I'll have been in for a gander myself, but I directed the missus to it a while back and she picked these up for me therein.

Caulier Brune makes much of its "low carb" credentials, which is a bit worrying as Belgian brune is supposed to be heavy and sweet, isn't it? This one is a rather pale red-amber, though smells fun: all wintery roast chestnuts, sweetmeat and treacle. It's not as busy on tasty but is perfectly palateable, and not far from an Irish red ale really: lots of fizz, some candy sugar, summer fruit and woody maple syrup. I was happily slurping it back and letting it quench my thirst when I noticed it was 6.8% ABV. Yikes! It doesn't taste anything like that powerful. I suppose this one should also get a ding for lacking Belgian yeast esters, but to be honest I really didn't miss them and was happy for the bonus cleanness instead.

The brewery's "premium" range all have a big 28 on the label. 28 Imperial Stout was next, an even bigger hitter at 12% ABV. It even smells heavy, a frightening mix of burnt toast, molasses, rubber and tar. Like the beer that preceded it, it's calmer when tasted. Not sweetness-and-light by any means but a more integrated blend of plums, tawny port, treacle and pipe smoke (Latakia, specifically, pipe fans). According to the label this was all achieved with nothing more than water, malt, hops and yeast, but the Caulier website says that this one also includes chilli and coffee: naughty to not say so on the bottle. Though I don't detect coffee notes beyond what's normal in a big imperial stout, there's is a growing heat in the pit of my stomach suggesting the warming caress of the chilli pepper. It's perhaps a little over-boozed but is great as a slow sipper. Pair with a decent cigar.

You didn't think this post was going to end, did you? I certainly had my doubts. But here's the last beer for today: 28 Brett, the 2013 edition, if that's relevant. It's 7.5% ABV and, when I finally wrenched the cork out, an ochre red-brown. The Brettanomyces yeast hasn't been too overworked in there over the last four years as it's still very sweet, tasting of hard orange candy and fruitcake in particular, with a pinch of oily coconut as well. The earthy funk is more present in the aroma than the flavour and from the initial sniff I thought I was in for something very like Orval, but that resemblance goes no further than the vapours. There is a faint Brett tang in the finish but it's more sour than farmyard, giving the beer a Flemish-red edge. Overall it's a bit of a bruiser: the substantial quantity of residual sugar means it's another one to take time over and share. On balance, though, I think I'd like my Brett beer to be Brettier than this.

That concludes the Belgian beers for now. There's plenty more where they came from, however. There always is.

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