10 April 2017

Hello U

Over the years that I've been attending the Borefts beer festival at the De Molen brewery I'd noticed that many of the other international visitors tend to set up basecamp in nearby Utrecht rather than my usual choice, the almost equidistant Leiden. It seems the beer offer in Utrecht is just better, something that I've seen borne out via the always-reliable Dutch Beer Pages blog. With my growing curiosity came the shameful realisation that in all my years of visiting the Netherlands, I had never set foot in Utrecht. That needed to be changed and, over four days last month, it was.

It's a densely packed and always-buzzing little city, possessing all the charm of Amsterdam's prettier bits but on a much more human scale. When half their cathedral fell down in a storm they just bricked up the gap and got on with things: they're a practical lot. One of the city's more interesting features are the werfs, former cellars and storerooms below street level and fronting onto the main canal which have been converted into restaurants, clubs and the like.

We ate in one such on the first night, a hopping American-style barbecue joint called Beers & Barrels. The food was good and, as the name suggests, beer is at the centre of the offer, with a long list of Dutch and American options. An IPA from De Molen to get things started: Hop & Liefde. It's a lightweight at just 4.8% ABV, dark orange coloured, with a slick and resinous mouthfeel. Unsurprisingly there's a weighty dankness in the aroma, though the flavour is lighter and brighter, all spritzy lemon zest. I imagine if served anything less than perfectly fresh this beer would be tough going but this bottle kicked the evening off beautifully.

The second round involved a couple of brews from an operation I'd never heard of before: Two Chefs, based in western Amsterdam though with beers currently contract-brewed in Belgium. I opted for Holy Günter, described as a helles but a massively out-of-style 6.5% ABV. The hazy orange colour doesn't rein it in any, nor the spicy orange and jasmine flavours. It does have the smoothly round body of a big helles, and I thought of Augustiner Edelstoff in particular, though with all the spicy orange it could very nearly pass a tripel too. Either way it's a bright, sunny, fun beer.

My long-suffering companion went for something more serious: Two Chefs's "imperial porter" Howling Wolf. It's a spiky beast, tasting every molecule of its 8% ABV and combining a strong roasty bitterness with a thick milky-coffee effect. I'm not really sure if I liked it, but it certainly delivers all the way down the strong stout bingo card.

My favourite pub in town was Café DeRat, which gives the first impression of a very typical Dutch corner pub, charmingly shabby round the edges and watched over by two friendly resident cats. But there's no Heineken or Bavaria here: the selection is carefully-chosen, with a handful of rotating tap beers and an extensive bottle list, offering both local and imported products.

From the Dutch draught selection: Dr Rudi Double IPA by Eem. The strength is a little on the low side for the style at just 7.5% ABV, and the hops are a little shy too, making no contribution to an aroma that's more stale biscuit than anything else. The flavour presents an odd mix of bittersweet perfume and green broccoli. There's kind of a worthy wholesomeness to the whole package but it's just too heavy and lacking balancing zing to be properly enjoyable.

Staying with double IPA, it was hard to pass by Kompaan's 58 Hand Langer, for purely puerile reasons. This one is much more on the money: 8.2% ABV with fresh and dense hop oils in its aroma. There's an oily quality to the flavour as well, a smoothness that feels like it's going to bring an unpleasant boozy heat but delivers popping-candy spices and a mellow floral lavender flavour instead. Despite the density it's very well balanced and quite easy to drink.

The next round began with Sin & Remorse, a collaboration between De Molen and Jopen. An imperial stout this time, but once again a tour de force version of the style. Fresh milk chocolate with café mocha overtones are the main thrust of it, the 10% ABV giving it a warming glow. To keep the sweetness in check there's a pinch of bitter roast and a hint of fresh herbal hops right on the end. This is another beer that can be slurped back easily but is complex enough to take time over. Two breweries at the top of their games here.

Beside it is another imperial stout: Krachtig by Eem. It's only very slightly weaker than the previous one but isn't nearly as well put-together. It's remarkably thin, for one thing, and has a very bitter coffee-like flavour. I got a lot of the same sort of taste you find in a dry German schwarzbier, but amplified to the point of being uncomfortable. A tiny hint of cherry fruit provides a modicum of light relief in an otherwise very serious beer. I did like it, for all its severity, but it did not compare well to the beer alongside it.

Kees Bald Eagle was brewed for Peter van der Arends's Morebeer pub chain and is possibly the finest bit of self-deprecating humour I've ever seen in a beer name. It's a double IPA and came with a warning that the yeast might be better served on the side; and a tasting glass for decanting it into. 8% ABV and boasting 20g of hops per litre, it looks attractively clear and copper-coloured, my missus getting full credit for pouring so deftly. I almost let her drink all of the beer. Its aroma is sweet and oily: a mix of fresh orange blossom and funky human sweat, and it has a dense texture to match. Solidly west-coast American hops open the flavour, starting on a spritzy waft of fresh lemon, fading to a harder pine bitterness. But that's when the density kicks in, smoothing out the hop acid with soft pillowy malt. Balancing a double IPA is tough but this one manages to make great use of big strength and big hops without turning hot or harsh.

But back to the stouts. Duits & Laurent Winterstout was next: a paltry 8.5% ABV and with a split personality aroma giving hot tar and ripe summer fruit. The flavour starts smooth and creamy but finishes on a dry burnt note. Maybe it's just the name but this really spoke of winter to me, evoking blazing fireplaces and calorific food. A few sips in and the sweet caramel centre becomes the dominant feature, rounding out a very decent traditional-style strong stout.

Much to the relief of my liver, the next beer was only 4% ABV. It's a Broyhan (a what?) brewed at Oedipus in Amsterdam as a collaboration with The Commons (the what?) in Oregon. It's called Transatlantic Foosball but let's just ignore that. They've used white pepper in the recipe but I couldn't really detect any hint of it, finding instead lots of soft melon and lychee flavours. There's a certain amount of sourness but it's low-level. Like many an archaic top-fermenting German style, it's pale, light and refreshing. Berliner weisse and Gose have both had their moments in recent years, with Grätzer bringing up the rear. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see neoBroyhan in the limelight next: on this evidence it has a lot of the same, eminently hackable, features.

Nearly time to move on from DeRat's Dutch selection, but not before going out on Kracht Hout, a quadrupel brewed at Breugem and aged on Palo Santo wood. It's black and it smells of mince pies. In particular there's spicy cinnamon and booze-soaked dried fruit in the aroma, and then a smoother flavour of cinnamon, clove and coconut-infused cookies, tailing out on eucalyptus and vanilla. I don't know how much of the complexity was deliberate and how much purely accidental from the ingredients, but if you like playing tasting note bingo across the pub table with your spouse, this is a good one for that.

I will come back to DeRat later this week for a look at its foreign beer selection, but now we cross the canal and head for De Drie Dorstige Herten, another corner pub that looks homely and welcoming and normal, though also carefully picks its beer list.

I kept it local with Neobosski's 8.5% ABV Sooty Otter imperial porter on draught. It looks appropriately stouty ("imperial porter" is stout; let's just put that away now): a pure black body topped with a creamy head. Bitter and boozy is my notebook's assessment, leafy green cabbage in the aroma, turning to the clove-and-juniper-spiced red variety on tasting. There's a harder tarry bitterness behind the fresh hops and it's all carried along in a very jolly way by a rounded creamy body. Yet another strong, complex dark Dutch beer. They set that bar pretty high around here.

For herself, 't IJ American Barley Wine: 8.6% ABV, dark brown and brewed with Ahtanum, Ekuanot and Centennial hops. Fruitcake is the main face it presents to the drinker: smelling and tasting of sultanas and citrus peel in particular. There's a rich, wine-like, boozy depth, and thick cakey substance. Despite the citrus there are very few sharp edges in the profile, being smooth all the way through. It departs the palate with a flourish of warming herbal eucalyptus that sits comfortingly in the belly for a while after. I am really enjoying the depth, breadth and cleanness of 't IJ's beers since they moved to their new brewery.

I really felt I had unfinished business in Utrecht by the time it was time to leave on the afternoon of day four. It would have been nice to do a bit of undirected random café-hopping. But train time rolled around and I made a last minute decision to grab a couple of beers at the station for the trundle back to Schiphol. Mine was Pandora, an IPA from local outfit Maximus. I regret not having the chance to drink it from a glass because even by the neck it smelled and tasted fantastically tropical, almost like pure pineapple juice. 6% ABV gives it a sufficiently dense malt weight and the fruit sweetness is balanced by a dry wheaty malt backdrop. For all that I wanted to do more sensory analysis on it, I also got the impression that this would work perfectly well as an everyday house beer. I can't imagine one would get bored of it easily.

So that's a quick run around the headline locations in central Utrecht. But there are also two very different brewpubs in the locality. I'll cover what I found there in the next post.

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