12 April 2017

Brew trekked

Following on from Monday's saunter around the pubs of Utrecht, today I'm visiting two of the local brewpubs.

The first is situated in the city centre, in the imposing Stadskasteel Oudaen. The building began as a medieval castle but now houses function rooms, a theatre and the brewery-restaurant on the lower floors. We didn't tour the brewery so didn't get to see the gear, but did work through the beer range in the rather grand bar at the front of the complex.

Start with the pils is my normal procedure, and the one here is a 5%-er called Linteloo Gold. From my barstool I had full view of the thunk-and-slap routine that is beer being pouring in the Netherlands. It looked bang on: a clear bright gold body, topped with a fine snow-white head. Things went a bit askew on tasting, however. The bold herbal bitterness I could handle, even if it did have a touch of liquorice about it, but the sickly fruit-ester-filled middle is absolutely not what I want to find in a pils. It could pass fine as a blond ale, in a rustic brewpub stylee, but the quenching crispness demanded by the pils spec is entirely absent.

Herself went straight for Oudaen IPA which was much better. A modest 5.5% ABV and a clear dark amber colour, it exudes a welcoming tangerine aroma. As the colour suggests, it's fairly sweet but not so much that it gets heavy or difficult to drink: there's enough spritzy zest to keep it bright and fun. Serious IPA connoisseurs might be a little underwhelmed by the lack of punch but I think it performs its job perfectly competently.

I chose Oudaen Stout next, a big-hitter at 8.8% ABV. It's more dark brown than black and tastes sweet and meaty, like barbecue ribs. The finish is sweeter still, turning to milk chocoate and caramel. There's no big-alcohol heat, but neither does it have any big-stout presence, feeling rather thin and, overall, quite underwhelming.

To the right of it there is the cockney-sounding Dubbele Daen: immediately captivating with its beautiful dark ruby colour, though less pretty when the head dissipated soon after pouring. At 7% ABV it's on the money for the style and smells it too, with all the caramel, raisin and biscuit aroma anyone could need. Once again, however, the flavour veers off to the left, turning bitter and thin: more like a Dutch bock than a Belgian dubbel. It's nearly great but just loses its way at the end.

A bit disheartened with the last couple of beers we went on our way but I dragged us back a couple of days later to finish the tick. It was late Saturday afternoon and the place was heaving so we settled at one of the outdoor tables.

I had Ouwe Daen, the witbier. There was a disconcerting blast of banana from this, and bubblegum too, in case it wasn't already weissbier-like enough. There's a slight high-alcohol headache-inducing heat as well, despite an ABV of just 5%. It's all fine once you get used to it, but isn't very exciting, regardless of what sort of wheat beer it's meant to be.

Finally, Oudaen Tripel, which is darker than expected: a clear coppery red-gold shade. It's 8.2% ABV and very hot and sticky with it, smelling of boiled sweets and tasting of seaside rock, adding in clove and aniseed spicing. It lacks many of the subtleties of good tripel but it is enjoyable to drink. It and the IPA are the beers to prioritise when visiting Oudaen.

Of course, that place was very obviously for the casual beer drinkers, the tourists and the norms. Hardcore geeks take the train three minutes out of town, to a large low industrial lock-up just next to Utrecht Zuilen station. For the last year, a large section at the front of the building has been home to Oproer brewery which was formed from the merging of client brewer Rooie Dop with a local brewery RUIG Bier. Oproer is roomy to say the least: the tiny brewhouse and bar are dwarfed in the hangar-like space, but it's warm and comfortable with friendly and helpful staff. The onsite kitchen is vegan so you may need to bring your own bitterballen.

To the beer, then. Just a small selection of their own range, plus a variety of rotating guests. I kicked things off with Oproer's Black Flag, partially because I'm slightly afraid that one day soon all the black IPAs will be gone. Brown more than black, it's a mere 6.5% ABV but is very thickly textured, almost like tar. Yet the hops are pure sweetness and light: a floral meadowy breeze of an aroma and spicy exotic perfume in the flavour: sandalwood, jasmine and rosewater. As that fades a rich and comforting dark chocolate bite creeps in on the end. Beautifully complex and highly entertaining as a result. This sort of thing is why we must save the black IPAs at all costs!

There were only two other house beers on the tap list. 24/7 is the session IPA, a murky orange colour and tasting of orange-infused cookies and yeast bite. The bitterness is low, which adds to an impression of sugary orangeade. But at least it wasn't thin, which is an achievement at 3.9% ABV. Down the hatch and on to the next thing.

Oproer Imperial Oatmeal Stout is another oddly pale black beer, this time with a reddish hue. It's 9.5% ABV and smells very sticky, all toffee and darker caramelised sugar. It scrubs up OK when tasted, however, with raisins and chocolate in the ascendant though just a mild savoury tang of Bovril on the end. Once accustomed to it, the flavours blend into a smooth, warming and pleasant beer, doing what imperial stouts are meant to.

It was a little disappointing that there weren't more Uproer beers on, and it seems that production of the regular range is about to move away from that facility to a bigger industrial brewhouse elsewhere, which is a shame. I hope it'll still be possible to drink some beers at the source when that change happens.

On to the guests, then. W.A.R. is a Berliner weisse, brewed at Frontaal in Breda in collaboration with Garage Brewing from Barcelona. They've tossed in blueberry, raspberry and mint, and ramped up the ABV to a substantial 5.4%. It smells sickly sweet and concentrated, like Ribena, but the sourness saves it, blending pleasingly with the mint for a clean and cleansing mojito effect. The berries are a bonus on top of this, adding complexity. Yes, it could stand to be sourer. Yes, pissing about with Berliner weisse like this is an affront to the glory of Prussia. But it's fun and it works: all the advertised elements play their role visibly. And I think mint deserves more of an outing in beer than it normally gets. A better hop substitute than citrus fruit? I'm just putting it out there.

Hard to believe I've got this far without meeting an Uiltje beer so here we go: Matryoshka Doll, an 8% ABV Baltic porter. There are all sorts of things wrong with the flavour: rubber in the foretaste, then aniseed, tar and stewed coffee. It shouldn't be absolutely delicious but it really is. Part of it is the silky texture which makes it moreish, and there's also a lip-smacking light smokiness and a layer of juicy red grape. It's one of those endlessly multifaceted beers, a bingo card of flavours, yet all of them perfectly integrated into a drinkable whole. Maybe that's how it got its name.

The amber beer beside it is Arcticus, an "American strong ale" from Maximus. Yet again I was put on edge by a sickly sweet aroma but placated by a flavour which is admittedly sweet but has a very frivolous and fun cactus or watermelon pink bubblegum vibe, like you find in Sierra Nevada's Otra Vez. Though 8% ABV and dense it manages not to get cloying or boozy. It's silly, but sufficiently well made to get away with it.

Kromme Haring is another brewpub on another edge of outer Utrecht. We didn't go there but one of its beers, Smokey the Barracuda, was my valedictory glass at Oproer. It's badged as a smoked imperial porter and is 7.5% ABV. I got mild pipesmoke on the nose and then a smooth, sweet and milky porter flavour with just a slight kippery tang on the end. I had been expecting a full-on smoke attack but this is very restrained in smoke, sweetness and alcohol, and much the better for it. It's probably best as a sipper but you don't have to drink it that way.

As for us, we had a train back to Utrecht Centraal to catch. There's one more post of the trip to go, and it's back to Café DeRat to explore some of its imported offerings.

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