31 May 2017

Sour gets serious

I left you yesterday half way through day two of the Toer de Geuze, leaving Oud Beersel and heading for De Troch. De Troch is best known for its crazy flavoured lambics, released under the "Chapeau" brand and featuring additives as unlikely as banana and pineapple. They also make the only Christmas-themed lambic I'm aware of. I had them pegged, therefore, as one of the soulless shiny and industrial breweries. Boy was I wrong.

On arrival, De Troch has the feel of an old estate farm. Tall blank brick walls lead around the perimeter to the front gate, whence the path descends into a grand courtyard and here the bar, stage and bouncy castle had been set up. The tour was self-guided, winding through the dusty buildings around the edge, past semi-antiquated brewing equipment and, by way of a convenient plank, across the only coolship I saw all weekend. Thankfully it was empty. The path ends at the top of the house where the casks of maturing beer rest and the brewery had conveniently set up a table where punters could get a taste of the straight lambic, decanted directly from the barrels.

De Troch Lambiek is harsh. Way harsh. There's an intense waxy bitterness running through it, alongside an unpleasantly dry and gritty cement flavour. It takes some getting used to. They were pouring the Oude Geuze that it turns into at the bar and it really concentrates those flavours, bringing that dusty dry concrete weirdness right to the fore. Do not want.

By way of relief, here's De Troch Kriekenlambic, except no, it's harsh again. It's a deep red colour and has a lovely concentrated cherry aroma but completely unravels on tasting into hot phenolic marker pens, super-sweet jam and then an unsubtle sour punch. It's more like cough medicine or some ill-advised foreign liqueur than actual beer. Do not want either.

I was charmed by the setting of De Troch, but their beer not so much. Time to bring this Toer to an end.

Final stop was De Cam which had the most confusing layout of all the sites. This is another blendery so no beer is brewed on site. The small barrel room is part of a complex in the village of Gooik that seems to be owned by the local community and includes a café and multipurpose hall. It was in the latter that tables had been set out and there was a stall selling takeaway bottles, but where was the bar? It took me three laps to figure out that the stall also had glasses available and you could open and drink your beer right there if you wanted to.

I did, however, sneak onto a tour group to see the barrel room and get a taste of the lambic from the casks. The big surprise here is that, while lambic breweries usually employ secondhand wine barrels, these ones had all come from the Pilsner Urquell brewery. And it shows in the jonge lambic too: De Cam Lambiek is powerfully buttery tasting and you need to clamber past all that semi-rancid slickness to find a hint of flinty sourness underneath. It's pretty disgusting and hard to see why they thought this was a good idea. Maybe I just got a bad barrel.

Or maybe they're just very clever custodians, because De Cam Oude Lambiek is beautiful. The colour of mature apple juice, it's all about the relaxed smoothness. There's a mild waxy bitterness and a level-headed amount of sourness, but also some lovely red-apple tannins, lending something of the feel of really good aged Norman cider. This is a beer to quaff by the earthenware jugful.

There was a range of off-kilter fruit geuzes on offer as well and I took a couple home, advised that they might be better with a bit of age on them. I did, however, drink on-site a bottle of Tros Bessen, De Cam's redcurrant lambic. It's 6.5% ABV and dark pink in colour. Earthy funk is its signature move, much more so than sourness. There's a bit of a woody seed bite, and behind all the rustic farmyard goings on there is some real summery fruit. The different elements are stitched together rather nicely, even if the joins are apparent. Perhaps it will blend together with time but at the moment it's delicious, and quite different.

I could have spent the evening getting to know more of De Cam's beers but the bus was leaving and the Toer de Geuze had come to an end. Back to Halle for the train back to Brussels.

The next day, unsurprisingly, a large number of tour veterans descended on the Cantillon brewery in Brussels to get their fix. Other lambic brands are all well and good, but everyone comes back to Cantillon in the end. To deal with the masses the management had decided to open the tasting room at the rear of the first floor, and even set up a makeshift bar up there, complete with a cask of Fou'foune, tasting fabulous.

New to me from the line-up was Cuvée Saint-Gilloise, a modern lambic made from beer that's all been in the barrel two years which is then blended together in a steel tank and dry-hopped before being primed and bottled. I'm guessing it's the hops that give it a lemony tang, one which grows as the beer begins to warm up. The base behind this is the picture of smooth maturity with no sharp edges. It's perhaps a little blander-seeming for that, and there's a hint of butter as well that's slightly worrying, but overall it's fairly easy-going inoffensive stuff, perfectly fine even if the usual Cantillon fireworks are missing.

I had just a small taste of Gueuzestraminer which, as the name suggests, is a grape lambic. Expecting soft and sweet fruit I was instead shocked to find it's a riot of spicy gunpowder and full-on acidic sourness. The fruit is present in the background but it's not the main feature at all. I really enjoyed the uncompromising aggression of this one, and how it manages to pack a serious punch without coming across as harsh or uncouth.

The beer everyone in the room was talking about was Lou Pepe Kriek, and specifically the 2008 edition. Somehow, by a counter-intuitive miracle of biochemistry, the cherry fruit in this tastes bigger, brighter and fresher than in a younger bottle. The overall effect is of a warm cherry tart with then a refined balsamic sourness behind and a quick clean finish. It's not crazy or shocking like the previous beer, just very very tasty and lots of fruity fun. I hadn't given much thought to ageing lambics, having found in the past that older ones tend not to be as enjoyable as all the character ages out of them. But my Megablend experience mentioned on Monday, and this triumph of a kriek, suggest that there may be something to it after all. I won't be in any rush to open the bottles I brought home.

That's it for the geuze-related shenanigans on this trip. To conclude, tomorrow's post will quickly take in the other beers that passed my way this time. You know the drill by now.

Coolship at De Troch

30 May 2017

The many shades of Pajottenland

The final stop on day one of the 2017 Toer de Geuze was Lindemans, probably the showiest of all the sites we visited. The setting is rather beautiful, on high ground in the countryside, with Brussels's tallest buildings almost visible to the east. The campus is low and sprawling, and from the front entrance visitors were treated to a meandering stroll through the brewery, past copper brewing vessels and foeders atmospherically lit with red light, the spookiness enhanced with an actual smoke machine. One emerged from the ghost train in a vast warehouse space at the rear where bars and tables had been set up. A brass band, wheel of beery fortune and the de rigueur bouncy castle all added to the festive atmosphere. The ominous black helium balloons not so much.

To business, then. In addition to Tilquin Mûre which I wrote about yesterday, the only other beer on my must-drink list for the Toer was BlossomGueuze, a sequel to Lindemans Spontanbasil, one of my favourite beers of recent years. This time the added ingredient is elderflower and it leaves no doubt about that in the aroma: a massive, rich, fruit-and-flower smell from the dark gold glassful. The flavour is just as unsubtle, but not in a good way. There's a syrupy taste of concentrated elderflower, a steely bitterness and only a slight sour sharpness as a reminder that this is actually a geuze. It's not a quality blended product, nor even a fun and silly sweetened geuze. It just plain doesn't work.

The Lindemans menu was big on the mediocre sweetened beers that are its bread and butter but one that did catch my eye was Cuvée René Special Blend 2010. This is a limited edition oude geuze released in 2015 incorporating 4-year-old lambic, blended as usual with a younger one. It's another one that ticks off perfectly what I want geuze to taste like: an invigorating sharp pinch at the front, spreading out into a complex mix of minerals and chemicals: saltpetre, nitre, gunpowder: you know the vocabulary by now. The main thing is it's absolutely beautiful and ended the day's touring on a real high note for me.

Day two started the same way, picking up the bus in Halle and this time the first destination was More Subite. Poor old Mort Subite: the first geuze I ever drank, in Dublin's Belgo back in 2000 or so. It doesn't have the best of reputations among the lambic brewers and fanatics, in part because of its product, though also because it's owned by Heineken. It doesn't participate in the celebratory Megablend produced for the Toer de Geuze every two years.

The brewery is tucked well away in the Pajottenland countryside, in one corner of the tiny village of Kobbegem: little more than a church, two pubs and a scout hall. I had been expecting a large industrial facility but it's actually quite a compact site, much smaller than Boon or Lindemans. A marquee with a bar had been set up in the central courtyard and brewery staffers brought groups on regular tours of the facility. At the front is a pretty copper brewhouse which looks like a museum piece but is still fully operational. From there we had a look at the back end and here things were a little more space age, with rooms full of huge stainless steel tanks ageing the product, though there was a modest collection of giant wooden foeders as well. A little wood-aged lambic goes a long way in the blend here.

Mort Subite excelled particularly in the value for money stakes. If you wanted to buy a beer at the bar they were a mere €1.50 each, but just walking in got you a complimentary pour, plus the brewery tour, and a commemorative special edition bottle to take away. Not bad for free.

I've noticed in recent years how the less reputable lambic breweries have begun putting out quality oude geuzes to capture a market (like me) that isn't particularly interested in the sweetened stuff. I've really enjoyed the examples from Lindemans and Timmermans so I was absolutely going to spend my freebie beer token on Mort Subite Oude Geuze. Sadly it's not on a par with the others. The sharpness is a little too severe, veering into vinegar territory, and there's nothing much behind it; few interesting complexities. Just like Mort Subite is lambic for beginners generally, this is oude geuze for beginners too, though I'd direct any actual beginners to Boon's Mariage Parfait first.

To complete the set, herself took a Mort Subite Oude Kriek Lambic. This is rather better, with a beautiful deep purple colour and an assertive sourness plus lots of smooth mature oak. It's maybe a little bit simplistic but it does manage to balance the age thing with the fruit thing quite well.

So it was back on the bus without having to put our hands in our pockets. Them Heineken lads are all right.

Stop two for day two was Beersel, home of Oud Beersel, which had taken over the neighbourhood for the weekend. The ancient former brewery is tucked away behind a tumbledown brick terrace, with a more modern and stable-looking building next door, dating from the business's revival in 2005.

The Vandervelden family had brewed here since 1882 but when the last member retired in 1991 the company began to fall into disrepair. By 2002 it was moribund until three years later a local man, the Steve Carell lookalike Gert Christiaens (left), took it on and began the revival. First to go was the brewing: without space to modernise this was outsourced to Boon. Interestingly, Oud Beersel qualifies as a lambic producer rather than merely a blender because it specifically commissions its own beer from Boon, as opposed to the likes of Tilquin which buys beer that other breweries originally made for themselves. Beer ageing happens at the top of the building where the attics have been kitted out with ranks of Italian-built foeders.

Tour over, exit through the giftshop, and across the road where the bar marquee (and bouncy castle, obvs) had been set up. I hope the residents who lost their front yards for the duration were sufficiently compensated. My first pick was Vandervelden 135, an oude geuze recently released to celebrate the company's anniversary. It's lovely too: not especially sour, but with a beautiful soft honeydew melon taste up front, the tartness gradually rising to deliver a burst of saltpetre in the finish. This is very nicely balanced between the soft ripe fruit and harder mineral sourness.

For the lady, Bzart Lambiek, which appears to be a kind of lambic-prosecco hybrid, based on the former but created using the methods of the latter, presumably in an attempt to open up a sector of the drinks market that wouldn't touch traditional geuze. It smells like a tripel and is off-puttingly sweet, with the candy flavour of a strong top-fermented Belgian ale. There's a fun rocket-like pepperiness to it, but the lambic character seems to have got lost somewhere along the way. I wasn't a fan.

Uniquely among the sites I Toer'd, Beersel was offering collaborative beers from other breweries. My curiosity was piqued by Black Acid, a blend of lambic and stout produced by Lervig in Norway. It was also aged in an akevitt barrel and that's very apparent all the way through: there's a powerfully herbal character, full of sweet basil and bitter liquorice. 8.5% ABV gives it a thick tarry consistency and there's a touch of umami: soy sauce, turning to Bovril. But the lambic side holds its own and the tartness does a great job of keeping the extreme sticky bitterness in check. It's a tough beer to sip through but is absolutely gorgeous in its complexity.

I'll be dealing with the peripheral beers and pubs of the trip later in the week, but while we're here I should just throw in a mention of Oud Beersel Framboise which I happened across in Toone shortly after arriving in Brussels the previous Friday. It was served unpleasantly warm and ended up tasting like yoghurt: actually creamy and thick, with a slightly metallic tartness and the wooden bite of real raspberry seeds. It's quite fun but is missing a proper sour edge, with neither the raspberries nor the lambic pulling their weight.

Anyway, that's enough geuze for today. Tomorrow we'll finish the tour and head for the obvious follow-on destination.

29 May 2017

Geuze bus tours!

Once every two years a group of the lambic beer producers scattered through the Pajottenland -- a mostly rural patchwork of towns and villages to the immediate west of Brussels -- open their doors to visitors. Their industry representative body, HORAL, provides a bus service so that pilgrims can travel easily between the sites, and so the Toer de Geuze is born. For the eleventh outing of the Toer in 2017 the event was expanded to two days, covering a Saturday and a Sunday. So it was that on the morning of 6th May, the wife and I took the train from Brussels Centraal to nearby Halle where the Toer's coaches were lined up waiting.

There are ten different bus routes, each covering a different combination of sites. I picked bus 8 as it offered the best combination of my favourite brands of lambic as well as some others about which I was merely curious. And it started at Tilquin.

Guezerie Tilquin is an anonymous modern warehouse, just off a country road surrounded by truck and tyre dealerships. From Google Streeview it appears that it used to be one itself. For the Toer, a marquee and bar had been set up, with a pig on a spit awaiting hungry visitors. When it was time to look around the inside, the first thing our guide told us is that Tilquin is not actually in Pajottenland, being just over the Flemish border in Wallonia. Since it doesn't brew beer and merely blends lambics from other producers there's no problem with the authenticity of the product. And that also means, of course, that there's no shiny brewhouse or coolship to see, just tiers and tiers of lambic filled wine casks, a small blending room and a bottling and warehousing section.

By way of illustrating how the process works, we were given a sample of lambic from the handpump at the start of the tour. This is presumably the beer that they release as Tilquin Jonge Lambic, though I guess that means that it's unblended so comes from one of the supplying breweries. If so, we weren't told which one. If anyone more knowledgeable on the ins and outs of gueze knows, give me a shout in the comments. Anyway, it was beautiful: soft fruity peach and explosive saltpetre, uncarbonated so with just the gentlest effervesence, and altogether extremely sessionable. But we were on the hoof, so that wasn't an option.

At the beer tent, top of my to-try list was Mûre, an oude geuze with blackberries, kind of a sequel to their plum geuze, Quetsche. It looked lovely in the glass: a shining even pinkish-purple. But the flavour was a little lacklustre, being quite sharp and waxy with none of the smoothness one might expect from an aged product, and not much by way of fruit character either.

Out of pure morbid curiosity I took a punt on Tilquin's Meerts, or "March beer". This is a very young lambic of 3.6% ABV which gets blended with older lambics to create Tilquin Gueuze. I can see why they don't normally serve it straight: worty and watery, it has only a slight sourness, but that fades very quickly leaving little behind. I'm sure it does a bang-up job when put to proper use, but is no more than a novelty on its own.

For each Toer de Geuze, a subset of the participating producers create a Megablend which is available at the sites. I had intended to buy a souvenir bottle of Megablend 2017 but since Tilquin had it on draught I thought I'd try it out first. It's a dark orange colour and hellishly fizzy, the overactive carbonation all but drowning out the flavour. Underneath that it's a fairly basic geuze: a clean mineral sourness with no real distinguishing features. My plan to purchase a bottle was in review as we re-boarded the bus and set off for the next stop.

After the compactness of Tilquin, Brouwerij Boon felt like a sprawling conurbation. As well as the glass-fronted brewhouse there's an assortment of other buildings on the campus, including vast halls of giant oak foeders with the lambic slumbering inside. This is geuze production on a massive scale. The tour here was self-guided, through the shiny bits, past the packaging machinery, silenced for the day, and finishing in amongst the showpiece foeders.

Down at the far end of the site an Oktoberfest-style tent had been set up with seating for hundreds and two bars. The main one had all the flagship Boon beers though wasn't getting a whole lot of action this early in proceedings as the smaller one at the other end was dishing out the specials and rarities, some from Frank Boon's personal stash, apparently.

Much attention was being lavished on Vat 44 which had only just become available. This had been originally released in a limited edition in 2013 and is now in very short supply. I reviewed another Boon monoblend -- Vat 77 -- a while back and found it a little heavy and plodding. This too appears to have had the joie de vivre aged out of it, tasting maturely of toasted walnuts and hazelnuts. Though the aroma is enticingly sharp and spicy, the flavour has only the mildest of tart edges. Obviously I just don't have the refined palate for this sort of thing, but I thought it quite bland.

My wife's choice, Boon Lambiek 5-Year Old, was much more like it. This was a special edition released specifically for the Toer and poured on gravity from the cask. Every description of lambic will mention the role of local strains of Brettanomyces in its production but this is the first one I've encountered that has Brussels Brett's riot of tropical fruit flavours. It's quite thick and flat but smells and tastes magnificently of peach, pineapple and lychee. The density does make it a little cloying after a few sips though there is a lovely clean chalky finish. It's spectacularly different to any lambic I've had before, even other aged ones. Definitely one of the weekend's highlights.

L: Foeder No. 97, R: Foeder No. 104
There was a fun opportunity to learn about the effect that the individual foeders have on their contents with a pair of lambics from neighbouring vessels. We got Lambiek Foeder No. 97 and Lambiek Foeder No. 104 to try side by side. Both are pale orange, though the 97 was a little lighter in colour. 97 also had more of a carefree breezy vibe about it, spritzy with fresh peach and just a cheeky sour bite in the finish. It was hard to believe it's all of 6.5% ABV. 104 on the other hand was more taciturn and serious, eschewing the fruit for an intense bricks-and-nitre sourness and a rougher finish. Both were excellent but I think I preferred the growling minerals of 104 to 97's giggling orchard.

I mentioned the Megablend above and Boon is where the blending actually takes place each time, so there was a fine selection of older vintages. I took a chance on Megablend 2013 to see if it was any calmer than fresh 2017 and it really was. While still a little bit thin there was a fantastic and unusual complexity, all herbs and spices with a strange combination of nutmeg and coconut. That made up my mind to definitely acquire a 2017 but to leave it away for a couple of years at least. Lambic guru Dina, conveniently on-hand, advised that even the 2015 edition was not fully matured yet. As it transpired later, I was able to pick up a 2015 when I bought my 2017, so that's something to look forward to around 2021.

I've long been a fan of Boon's classic Mariage Parfait but had never tried the cherry version. Here they were serving a 2015 vintage of Kriek Mariage Parfait so one of those was acquired. This is blood-red, heavy of texture and smooth of flavour. The sour geuze side is understated, favouring instead a rich and jammy cherry flavour. It's sweet without being overly sugary, and has just a pinch of gunpowder in the finish. This is a fun take on mature kriek without going all the way to frivolous or silly.

It would have been wrong to leave without at least saying hello to the poor bored servers over at the main bar and, oh look, there's a beer I've never heard of before. Duivels is a strong and dark brown ale and is a throwback to a local beer style passed between various breweries in the area over the 20th century and finishing up at Boon. Moortgat's more famous Duvel is a descendent, though it turned pale in the 1960s. Wikipedia tells me Duivels was originally brewed for pilgrims and I can see the benefit of it there: it's heavy and wholesome, tasting of bread and raisins. There's a tiny touch of sourness in the profile but it's heavily concealed by all the brown sugar and treacle. This is simple and pleasant, and not million miles away from many a dark Belgian abbey beer. It's nice that Boon has given the old-timer a home.

After a fine long spell at Boon our own pilgrimage was ready to move off. Stop three was 3 Fonteinen, not the brewery but the Lambik-O-Droom café they've opened in Beersel. A note here about organisation: probably the most frustrating thing about the Toer de Geuze was the variation in the way each site was organised. While admission was free everywhere, most had a token system for beer, some required a deposit on a glass too, some had guided tours and others self-guided. Trying to figure out exactly how to do the visit when there was a relatively small time allotted for each stop was a bit of a ballache. And the Lambik-O-Droom, because it's accessible by public transport, was packed, with long queues for glasses, tokens and beer. And although there's a grand bar inside the facility, it had been closed in favour of serving everything from a marquee bar on the lawn. To top it off, only a handful of the beers on the menu were actually available at any given time. I had been really looking forward to 3 Fonteinen, and now I'm looking forward to visiting it properly on a later trip when it's more manageable.

3 Fonteinen Jonge Lambik, which was complementary and did not require a deposit for its glass, put me in a better mood straight away. This one-year-old is lambic the way I like it: sharp and edgy, evoking grand vaulted brick cellars, dripping with white nitre stalactites; a gunpowder factory of spicy saltpetre, the acidity scouring the palate and catching in the throat. Gorgeous.

Beside it there is Nocturne, a spontaneously fermented dark beer of 5% ABV, brewed as a one-off in 2015. It's brown and unattractively flat and headless. The flavour is a raving umami bomb, smelling and tasting of soy sauce in particular, with just a touch of wet cardboard on the side for bad measure. The flatness and density just add to the savoury saucey effect. I found this actively unpleasant.

Herself opted for 3 Fonteinen Oude Kriekenlambik which was flat again but tasted much better. Rather than sweet cherries it pulls out the essence of the fruit, creating a finely spiced perfume, seasoned with what I assume is the oak but ends up tasting of exotic sandalwood. Utterly luxurious and one of the finest expressions of kriek I've met. Another mood swing bringing happy thoughts about 3 Fonteinen before we left.

There was one more brewery on the day's itinerary but I'll pick that up in tomorrow's post. In the meantime, to comply with all relevant laws governing blog posts about lambic breweries, here's a photo of some giant foeders, at Boon: