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