08 May 2017

Low country, high mileage

As usual, I'm a trip to Belgium behind on this blog. What I got up to at the weekend will feature later, but the next few posts are about a few days in Brussels and Leuven I spent a fortnight ago. The occasion was the biannual meeting of the European Beer Consumers Union, which is of course serious business and all of you who drink beer in Europe should be grateful for our selfless service. But there tends to be a bit of beering done on the periphery as well. Today's post brings us around a few pubs; some familiar, some not.

Top of the "not" list was Brasserie 28. This is a venture by the Caulier beer brand, tucked into an airy space behind the war memorial on the main concourse of Brussels Centraal station. With lots of legroom and big plate-glass windows looking out onto the old town it's an ideal place for your first beer on Belgian soil. For that it has a remarkably good international selection on its couple of dozen taps, which I'll get to tomorrow, but there's plenty of local interest too, including Caulier's own range, of course.

To begin, then, Caulier IPA, 6% ABV and a bright and clear gold colour. So far so normal, but it takes a bizarre left-turn on tasting, into the bitter spiced realms of Campari and cedarwood. The aroma is a herbal-chemical bathsalts thing while the thick texture just makes all of this louder. Clean it ain't. I honestly don't know how this was achieved -- perhaps with a yeast that isn't normally used for IPAs -- but I do know that it's just too downright weird to be enjoyable.

So obviously I picked another Caulier IPA for the next round. White Oak is slightly lighter at 5.5% ABV but feels a lot lighter; downright thin, in fact. It's the pale yellow of a witbier and has a similar sort of lemony aroma, one that could even pass as a radler. The flavour is a lot less exciting than the other IPA, though woody spices are very apparent again. Beyond this are some greasy banana and coconut esters. It's fairly dull overall, not living up to its billings of oak or IPA.

The dark orange beer next to it that looks like an IPA is Caulier Tripel, a 9% ABV monster that piles on the alcohol, tasting hot and heavy with a sharp and uncompromising bitterness. There's a little bit of spice and fruit buried deep, but really not enough to provide any sort of balance. This isn't going so well, is it?

Caulier Saison was better, if not exactly a classic of the style. There's a confection of sweet honey and meadowy flowers in the flavour with a mild lemon bitterness. It does lack crispness and occasionally veers worryingly towards soap, but is mostly clean and refreshing, if not particularly exciting. It was still a relief after the last lot, though. Time to cut my losses and move on.

The evening took me and my colleague John down to the Sainte-Catherine district next, to ViaVia, a concrete bunker of a place, recently transformed into a travel theme bar. They had a new one from Brussels Beer Project, the appropriately-backpackish Patagonian Dream. This is a 4.2% ABV witbier which uses Argentinian hop varieties Mapuche and Traful, as well as a generous dose of blueberries. It's a milky pink-orange colour and smells vaguely of lime and fried onions, reminding me a lot of beers which use the native American hop Neomexicanus. Maybe there's a Latin connection here. The intrigue ends there, however. The texture is thin and watery and the flavour dull, with just dry wheat, a vague non-specific fruit edge and a nasty plastic finish. Perhaps witbier wasn't the best vehicle for this experiment, and maybe more than 42g/L of blueberries are necessary.

Our final stop was around the corner at RITCS, the canteenish bar of Brussels's art school, mostly abandoned this Thursday night, presumably because of the Easter vacation. The recommendation was Bersalis Sourblend, produced by lambic house Oud Beersel and composed of its Bersalis Tripel cut with 30% lambic, resulting in a final ABV of 6%. The aroma is a pleasant fruity spice and it tastes strangely meaty: the big iron tang found in black pudding or pâté. There's just a very slight tartness, enough to ensure the yeast spices don't get in the way of its fundamental cleanness. It's still very odd and I'm not at all sure I liked it. More than anything, I kept thinking I'd rather just have the lambic, thanks.

To finish evening one, a couple of local pale ales. Noisy by new Brussels brewery No Science is one of those savoury ones, banging out raw onion and caraway akvavit flavours. The aroma is more of a traditional orange candy thing, so there's always that to fall back on. Interestingly, there was lots of yeasty goop in the bottom of the 33cl bottle but not a trace of it in the flavour, which was nice.

The alternative was Green Machine, by Verzet. There's a bit of yeast in this all right, and a heavy texture. I got herbal aniseed in a big way from the flavour, allying with the residual sugar to create a kind of humbug effect. I think I preferred the onions.

Beer of the moment around Brussels, or at least the one being pimped for all it's worth by its owners, was Cornet, a blonde ale by industrial brewer Palm. The glass, in fairness, is lovely, and is mostly what prompted me to order one at Café Monk the following day. It has a summery floral aroma with a touch of honey sweetness but is another one of those beers that loses its integrity, and the drinker's attention, once tasted. The floral thing hangs on, but becomes little more than a waft of fabric softener. The brewery also claims that it has been oaked in some way, but there's no sign of that. It's almost like they dialled down the main flavour to leave room for the oak, then forgot to add it. Anyway, buy two and you get to keep the glass, which is the only reason I can see to buy any.

That was my lunch beer; dinner was a return to the wonderful Nuetnigenough where I took a chance on Alvinne's Mad Tom session IPA. As seems to be par for the course with Alvinne, their yeast is a hyperactive overachiever, thinning out this 4%-er to the point of removing the flavour, and adding in a palate-bashing high carbonation. This does help push out the lovely fresh jaffa aroma, and there's enough of that left in the aftertaste as the beer's saving grace, but it's a bit of a workout to drink otherwise. I certainly couldn't imagine a session on burpwater like this.

With the main course we ordered a sharing bottle of La Vermontoise, a saison brewed by Blaugies as a collaboration with Hill Farmstead. As one might expect, it's an absolute triumph, smelling sweetly of apple and peach compote followed by a sauvignon-like soft melon flavour. Though quite dry there's a wonderful roundness to the body, an oaty, porridgey weight that gives the elements a wide stage on which to sing their part in the harmony. There's still just enough farmhouse roughness to prevent it seeming too polished and poncy, though that may be a deliberate front on what's doubtless a precision-engineered recipe.

When we moved to Moeder Lambic for after-dinner beers, we returned to Blaugies in the hope of something just as good. Darbyste, another saison, isn't quite up there, but it's close. I thought it was going to be a disaster at first: it smells horribly skunked, like green-bottle lager left on a windowsill. That's how I was expecting it to taste too, but instead it's clean and sharp, like a baby geuze. There's a slightly chalky mineral edge and a smooth texture for ease of drinking. It's deliciously refreshing too. If pale Rodenbach were a thing, I'm guessing it would taste like this.

Day three brought us to Leuven, but not before stopping at Toone on the way to the station to say hello to the new cat and I caught up with a beer I forgot I'd never tasted. Maredsous 8 is the dark bruin in Duvel Moortgat's abbey range and is a perfect warmer for a cold afternoon. 8% ABV and a beautiful chestnut red colour it has a wholesome chewy texture and flavours of liquorice, toffee and good old belly-warming booze. It's a beer you could cut into slices and eat. I'm sorry I overlooked it so long.

The main business to take care of in Leuven was the Zythos beer festival but I'll come to that in a later post. Post-show come-down beers were had in hopping downtown Leuven, awash with stag-and-hen revellers. A few wandered in to see us at De Metafoor but few stayed. I drank Goudenband and Hommelbier.

We had a nightcap at the fabulous brown-café-cum-jazz-bar De Blauwe Kater. For me, Luvanium, sold on the localness though obviously brewed miles and miles from Leuven, this being Belgium after all. At 7.2% ABV this blonde ale is in an unusual spot between the Leffes and the Duvels. It tastes nothing like either, however, going for bright and distinct liquorice flavours against a clean base with lots of prickly fizz. A little one-dimensional, perhaps, but decently refreshing.

John went for Tumulus Nera, ending the night on a dark note. This is 8% ABV and does a very competent stout impression: roasty on the nose with a creamy texture and a touch of coffee. It's balanced and pleasant, but again not exactly a flavour-bomb.

Before heading home on Sunday we were back in Brussels and dropped by Poechenellekelder where I did some more completist ticking, opting for a Gordon Finest Scotch Ale: one of those ancient Belgian beers you can't help wondering if anyone still drinks. That glass looks lovely but its a bugger to hold. Anyway, the beer isn't great, with a metallic saccharine tang and a disconcerting wisp of smoke, but not much else. Sinfully plain for mahogany brown and 8% ABV.

So that's your basic four-day, two-city, pub-based Belgian round-up. Tomorrow's post will look at the non-Belgians I discovered along the way.


  1. That Vermontoise is one of my desert island beers - fantastic stuff.

    Oh, and unless I'm missing something, Noisy is by No Science, not Lefevre. It's decentt, but its little brother, Psycho, is an absolute cracker at 3%.

    1. Haha. I misread their address as their home brewery. Only the thoroughest beer journalism on this blog!