11 May 2017

The hazy, the crazy and the just plain weird

Belgian New England IPA: I never thought I'd see the day. But here we are. A couple were on show at the 2017 Zythos Beer Festival in Leuven. The first one I spotted was called Ceci NEIPA Une IPA and was from the Broers brewery. Like what I suspect is a majority of beers in this style, it's clear: a bright orange-gold colour. It offers very much a Belgian perspective since, alongside the heavy dankness and fresh mandarin, there's a spicy clove and fruit ester quality. NEIPA's signature Vermont yeast does tend to leave behind a smooth, almost greasy body, but in this it's pretty much indistinguishable from any other big-bodied strong Belgian ale. I enjoyed it, though. There's no arguing with those lovely hops.

That was one of my early beers of the day; the last one I drank before leaving was another New Englander: Me So Juicy by Préaris. This is a wan yellow colour and has a decent bit of haze going on. Though only 6% ABV it has quite a boozy aroma, with just a hint of fruity chew-sweet thrown in. The texture is unforgivably thin, watery even. It does have that style-appropriate spun-sugar quality in the flavour but it's useless without the body to match. The hops are generous but the bitterness is too high, giving it a jangling sharp grapefruit aftertaste. I guess this is the point where NEIPA meets Belgian blonde ale, and it's not a happy place.

Not for the first time, the best expression of New England IPA's qualities was to be found in a beer that wasn't badged as one of the style. This was at the Totem stand, Totem being a client brewer, brewing mostly at Bryggja in Moerkerke, near Bruges. It was the first bar where I saw a queue, punters drawn in by the off-kilter styles of both the beers and the bar staff. Shame about the Comic Sans on the ol' signboard, though.

So, Aðumla, then, is a "milkshake IPA" and combines a fresh and peachy hop flavour with a luxurious soft and creamy body. The hops are piquant rather than bitter and the whole thing is as refreshing as an actual milkshake while still being definitely beer. I wanted to try more of what Totem were offering, so back in the queue.

L: Qwertyuiop, R: Itzamna
Their session IPA was next, called (if I've got this spelling correct) Qwertyuiop and a tiddly 2.9% ABV. They've done a great job with the aroma, which is all bright and punchy citrus but that daring ABV was a step too far and has left the beer watery as a result. The hops are grand on the opening sip but it all tails off very quickly leaving just a plain grainy crunch by the end. So there's a reason people don't generally do IPAs at this strength.

Next to it is Itzamna, an oatmeal IPA. There can't possibly be any problem with the body here. Bizarrely, there is. Even at 5.8% ABV it's still thinner than it ought to be. But the hops are its saving grace, bringing some real bitter new-world action, with pine in the aroma, an intense bitter lime kick running right through the flavour and leaving a long and satisfying acid scorch on the palate long after swallowing. It's a long way from balanced but has decided that that's your problem. Deal with it.

I popped back later for just one more Totem beer, after the crowds had died down a little. Another session IPA, this time with added smoke, and called Ah Puh. The smoke almost completely covers up any IPA qualities and there's just a tiny trace of light lemon zest to be found in the background. The foreground is a massive honking kick of chlorophenols for the full 3D 4K surround-sound Laphroaig experience. And yet it manages to remain crisp and clean, which is down to the modest 4.5% ABV strength, I guess. You'd probably have to be a peat fan to enjoy it but I am and it uses it very well.

With all of that strange and interesting stuff from Totem, I figured I should drop around to Bryggja's own stand to see if they were being equally daring. Not really, but I tried their Triple-B IPA. It's not great. Perfume looms large in this one: spicy jasmine on the nose, which isn't a problem, but intensified in the flavour, simultaneously far too sweet and far too bitter, with a nasty melted plastic edge on it. Poor show.

Also in the mediocre one-offs file was Sterrenhemel, part of the Eulegoemse range from Hemelbrouwers. How many brand names does one beer need? I was drawn to their bar by their cool logo, and of course good branding indicates that it's a contract brew, produced at Pirlot in east Flanders. Sterrenhemel is a 7.5% ABV black IPA and does everything a black IPA normally does, except in disappointing miniature. There's a mild tarry roast and a wisp of green spinach acidity plus a pinch of spiced red cabbage. It feels like there should be more, that the big flavours are just about to kick in, but they never do. It's inoffensive stuff but at that strength should definitely taste of more.

Even in Belgium, gose is inevitable these days, and I was looking for the plain one produced by Brasserie du Brabant. It was sold out, however, so I had to make do with Rêve de Gose Pom, the version with added pomegranate. It's the unattractive beige colour of an abandoned mug of milky tea. There's the soft briney flavour of a balanced gose, livened with a small fruity acidic boost. I felt it ended up falling between two stools, having the classical quaffable qualities of straight gose but also the dullness they often show. The fruit interferes with the simplicity without adding anything bold or fun. As a fruity gose it's fine, but it's no Salty Kiss.

The same brewery produced the most daring beer I saw at the festival, the portentously named Plato's Cave. This is a double IPA which they've aged in cognac barrels. Cognac grande champagne barrels, they are at pains to point out, so they must have cost a bit. From the first sip there's a shocking kick of harsh incense and aftershave so my first impression was that this was a total disaster. But after a moment or two it settles down and becomes more softly spoken. There's a pleasant warming quality, and those incense fireworks fizzle out to a nostalgic and comforting Old Spice fug, much smoother than at the outset. I could see myself sipping this, and it was really only at the end of my sample that I realised that this double IPA has no hop character. Oh well.

Finally, it was great to get a taste of the beers from Siphon Brewing, the brewery recently established by Belgium-based Irish beer blogger Breandán Kearney, aka Belgian Smaak.

Stout to begin with, of course: Cassandra, a 7% ABV one which includes crushed oyster shells for a bonus salty tang. I can't say I noticed the oysters in the flavour as this is big and rich and thick, all sticky toffee pudding and chocolate brownie. There's a boozy coffee bit in the middle which turns it to tiramisu, plus a generous sprinking of hazelnut. This is the entire dessert trolley in one beer and is sumptuous.

As is Tronk, Siphon's vanilla and orange quadrupel. It smells a little bit unpleasantly hot -- a touch of the marker pen -- but calms down on tasting. It's still fairly boozy with a banoffi pie sweetness, some chocolate and a nice balancing oily orange vibe. You know you're getting full value out of the 10% ABV.

And to finish something in completely the opposite direction: Rule of Three, a golden rye ale of just 3.3% ABV. This was brewed to celebrate Belgian Smaak's third birthday and was a collaboration with Donegal's own Kinnegar. You can read more about its creation -- breaking the conventions of Belgian brewing -- in the latest issue of the Beoir magazine here. I found that it manages to be light and refreshing without being thin and has a flavour profile reminiscent of good central European pilsner: the same sort of honey and grass. Great as a palate-cleanser, especially after the other two Siphon bruisers.

It's fascinating to watch the Belgian speciality beer scene grow to become almost as diverse as the ones in less tradition-bound European countries. I hope the drinkers are having as much fun with it as the brewers seem to be.

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