09 May 2017

In Belgium looking out

I'm perceiving a change in the beer scene around Brussels lately. Previously, the selection on offer was almost exclusively Belgian. I don't recall foreign beer featuring at all until the Delirium Café opened its Hoppy Loft extension a few years ago, and it was always a novelty, very much outside the mainstream. Then I guess you had Moeder Lambic Fontainas, still resolutely local but with occasional guest beers from abroad. And then BrewDog arrived with an outlet pushing its own wares alongside the Belgians. It still didn't feel like Brussels had any real interest in imported beer until my last visit a couple of weeks ago. The most shocking feature was the Goose IPA taps, popping up like mushrooms in the most unexpected places. The backpackers' bar ViaVia is perhaps fair enough, but in the resolutely traditional and brown Fleur En Papier Doré? Something has shifted and in this case AB InBev are doing the pushing. (As an aside, one Belgian industry-watcher hypothesises that the Goose in Belgium is locally-brewed, not imported, though the brewery hasn't commented on that so I don't know if it's true.)

And then there was the blackboard at Brasserie 28. Unlike its near-neighbour BrewDog, this place has no compelling reason to offer imported beer, yet five of the 23 draft lines were dedicated to foreigners. Two of them were Irish: a pair from li'l ol' Eight Degrees, and of the remaining three Scandinavians I probably shouldn't be counting To Øl as their stuff is brewed in Belgium, but I'm going to anyway.

Santa Gose F&#% It All is, as the name suggests, a gose. It's a mere 4% ABV and quite refreshing with it, coming across as maybe just a little watery right at the tail end. I got a major hit of fruit salad from it, and picked out pineapple and white grape in particular. Turns out they've added passionfruit, guava and mango to the recipe, and I'm sure they all play their part. Just a light salt tang on the end lends it trueness to style. It's all rather jolly and enjoyable and doubtless works great in quantities larger than the small glass I had.

Omnipollo's Karluminium had me wondering if this was Belgian too but it appears to have been brewed at Buxton in England. It was a staggering €8 for a 25cl measure, but I don't see Omnipollo beers very often, so why not? It's a wheat beer packed full of sour cherries, 6% ABV and a deep purple colour with a pink head. I'm told that it's intended to be served as a slush. Maybe that helps, because as-is it wasn't very good. It's intensely sweet, reminding me a lot of fruit-of-the-forest yoghurt, right down to the thick texture and mild tartness. I'd rather a cherry beer tasted of cherries, not blackberries, and I prefer expensive beer to taste of more than one thing. Hmpf.

Down at Moeder Lambic they were having a celebration of Portuguese beers, with four breweries represented when I visited. My first was Postscriptum Black IPA, a 7.5% ABV number which turns the volume up on everything: a tarry aroma with a consistency to match; huge amounts of roast flavour; and then a bright and spicy grapefruit-meets-nutmeg hop taste. Big, bold and absolutely beautiful.

A couple from Lisbon's Dois Corvos next. Finisterra is described as an imperial porter and is only a small bit stronger than the preceding beer but feels double the strength, with a cloying treacly texture and a sweet perfumed flavour. It's another loud one, but not in the right sort of way, I thought.

L: Voragem, R: Into The Woods
Also 8% ABV is Into The Woods scotch ale. This is a dark and hazy chestnut red and tasted to me more like a dubbel than anything else. It has that heavy toffee character but with a big contribution from the yeast: a gunpowder spice as well as a more prosaic savoury bite. It's not bad, though I think it could do with some cleaning up. Just because a beer is strong and heavy doesn't mean its flavour attributes can't be clear and distinct.

Another black IPA next: Voragem by Mean Sardine. No tar in the aroma this time, just bright and fresh citrus. It's quite dry and crisp to the taste, with lots of deep and dank hop resins and maybe just a touch of roasty darkness. The finish is pretty quick, which is not in its favour: I'd prefer if those oily hops hung around on the palate a little while longer. I'm conflicted as to whether this is ultimately a bit boring and one-dimensional, or the perfect quaffer: the hoppy dark lageralike that the world has been waiting for. You'll have to decide for yourself.

Last of this lot is Letra C stout, by Letra Brewery in Vila Verde in the far north of Portugal. Not a big bruiser for a change, at only 5.5% ABV. They've done a good job of picking out the elements that make for good mid-strength stout: a lightness of texture for refreshment and a subtle dry roast. The finish presents a sweeter rosewater complexity that really enhances it. It's a quietly spoken beer, but brimming with understated elegance.

The last port of crawl before leaving for the airport was the aforementioned Delirium Hoppy Loft. It had just opened for the day and the large windowless space with its wagon-wheel tables was quiet. My first beer was an Italian version of a Kölsch which the barman told me was a weissbier. Hibu's Köln resembles neither, really. It has a spicy aroma which reminded me of tripel, though that could be down to where I happened to be at the time. The flavour opens on a harsh perfume sting, and then turns sweaty and dry, with an unpleasant corn husk taste that's a zombified version of classic Kölsch crispness. Trying to fit it to a style category is a Titanic deckchairs situation. It's just a terrible beer.

That needed a decent IPA to follow and I took a punt on Caps Lock from Warpigs in Copenhagen. Though a mere 6.6% ABV it's a very heavy and chewy beast with bags of soft toffee. It uses this smooth malt base to spread out a mass of hop resins. These give it a bit of a metallic aspirin tang but no real bitterness so the overall effect is more like a barley wine than IPA. It even feels warming and could easily pass for 8% ABV and up. Not what I was expecting but I rather enjoyed it.

My companion John picked Black Is Black I Want My Baby Back by Finnish gypsy brewer Flying Dutchman. I don't know what the hop combination in this black IPA is, but it makes it smell of stale piss. It's very off-putting and nobody wants to approach their freshly acquired beer with thoughts of neglected toilets. Mercifully the flavour is rather... well... cleaner, leaning more on the dark roasted grain element though there is still a bit of leftover dried wee in there somewhere. It's kind of like durian fruit in beer form: enjoying it is a question of knowing how to handle it.

So that's a taste of the imported beer offer in Brussels these days. Much as I love the city's classic pubs and classic beers, I do like having the option of indulging my interest in geek-focussed international craft beer. I'd hazard that some of the locals do too. The next post is pure Belgium, however, as we make our way to the country's biggest beer festival.


  1. Interesting point on the Goose Island taps. For what it's worth, Brewdog themselves seem to be an increasingly standard fixture in anywhere yoof-oriented with aspirations beyond Maes and Jupiler.

    1. I haven't seen that. It would be a shame to see the Zinnebir and Taras Boulba that are making inroads into the mainstream pubs displaced.

  2. Anonymous7:59 pm

    There's also the beginnings of change in what some Belgian brewers are themselves producing. At this year's Brugge Festival the likes of Brouwerij Het Nest and Totem were offering rather good IPA, Pale, Stout and Barley Wine along with their more obviously Belgian beers.

    1. Yep, I covered some of that in this post.