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:


8 comments:

  1. There must have been another batch of the Speling Van Het Lot I: Nocturne on by the time Bus 10 made it to 3 Fonteinen. Mine was an almost perfect blend of dark roasty malts, bitter chocolate, sour cherry and lambic funk, and might just edge out the Zwanze and Zwet.be if I could trust that my excitement at the day hasn't coloured my ratings. I really wished that I'd had a glass of it (or an Otterbank) earlier in the day to hand to the guide in Tilquin who was pondering the nature of stout while rhapsodising Rullquin^2.

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    1. Or it could be that you liked a beer I didn't like. Not for the first time, I'm sure.

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    2. I've seen a tease of some Speling Van Het cork cages, so hopefully we'll get a chance to try them from bottles soon. The Lot 2: Robijn that followed was a cherry wine spectacular.

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    3. And I doubt it would be the last time. (But, that said, my glass was livelier looking than your photo, and soy and cardboard aren't listed on my forgivable flaws card!)

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  2. Yeah, we didn't really get on with the 3 Fonteinen event, despite obviously having massive respect for them as brewers and blenders. The queues and the trips back-and-forth for more tokens and the unavailable beers and the fact that everything was a bit pricey meant that we never really relaxed and started enjoying ourselves. Oud Beersel and Boon (we were only out for the Saturday, pottering around by public transport) were a lot more fun.

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    1. I could have stayed a lot longer in both of those too. And also in De Cam, but that's for tomorrow.

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    2. We actually stuck around Boon until about 10pm, it was amazing fun. Basically a village hall disco, with a cheesy Flemish wedding-singer type band[1], grannies in a conga line, the whole shebang. Plus, y'know, a few beers.

      [1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZR5cwC6w7mo

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  3. Anonymous9:30 am

    I believe the draught in tilquin was the assemblage, at least that's what we were told. The meerts comes from Boon
    Steve

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