30 May 2017

The many shades of Pajottenland

The final stop on day one of the 2017 Toer de Geuze was Lindemans, probably the showiest of all the sites we visited. The setting is rather beautiful, on high ground in the countryside, with Brussels's tallest buildings almost visible to the east. The campus is low and sprawling, and from the front entrance visitors were treated to a meandering stroll through the brewery, past copper brewing vessels and foeders atmospherically lit with red light, the spookiness enhanced with an actual smoke machine. One emerged from the ghost train in a vast warehouse space at the rear where bars and tables had been set up. A brass band, wheel of beery fortune and the de rigueur bouncy castle all added to the festive atmosphere. The ominous black helium balloons not so much.

To business, then. In addition to Tilquin Mûre which I wrote about yesterday, the only other beer on my must-drink list for the Toer was BlossomGueuze, a sequel to Lindemans Spontanbasil, one of my favourite beers of recent years. This time the added ingredient is elderflower and it leaves no doubt about that in the aroma: a massive, rich, fruit-and-flower smell from the dark gold glassful. The flavour is just as unsubtle, but not in a good way. There's a syrupy taste of concentrated elderflower, a steely bitterness and only a slight sour sharpness as a reminder that this is actually a geuze. It's not a quality blended product, nor even a fun and silly sweetened geuze. It just plain doesn't work.

The Lindemans menu was big on the mediocre sweetened beers that are its bread and butter but one that did catch my eye was Cuvée René Special Blend 2010. This is a limited edition oude geuze released in 2015 incorporating 4-year-old lambic, blended as usual with a younger one. It's another one that ticks off perfectly what I want geuze to taste like: an invigorating sharp pinch at the front, spreading out into a complex mix of minerals and chemicals: saltpetre, nitre, gunpowder: you know the vocabulary by now. The main thing is it's absolutely beautiful and ended the day's touring on a real high note for me.

Day two started the same way, picking up the bus in Halle and this time the first destination was More Subite. Poor old Mort Subite: the first geuze I ever drank, in Dublin's Belgo back in 2000 or so. It doesn't have the best of reputations among the lambic brewers and fanatics, in part because of its product, though also because it's owned by Heineken. It doesn't participate in the celebratory Megablend produced for the Toer de Geuze every two years.

The brewery is tucked well away in the Pajottenland countryside, in one corner of the tiny village of Kobbegem: little more than a church, two pubs and a scout hall. I had been expecting a large industrial facility but it's actually quite a compact site, much smaller than Boon or Lindemans. A marquee with a bar had been set up in the central courtyard and brewery staffers brought groups on regular tours of the facility. At the front is a pretty copper brewhouse which looks like a museum piece but is still fully operational. From there we had a look at the back end and here things were a little more space age, with rooms full of huge stainless steel tanks ageing the product, though there was a modest collection of giant wooden foeders as well. A little wood-aged lambic goes a long way in the blend here.

Mort Subite excelled particularly in the value for money stakes. If you wanted to buy a beer at the bar they were a mere €1.50 each, but just walking in got you a complimentary pour, plus the brewery tour, and a commemorative special edition bottle to take away. Not bad for free.

I've noticed in recent years how the less reputable lambic breweries have begun putting out quality oude geuzes to capture a market (like me) that isn't particularly interested in the sweetened stuff. I've really enjoyed the examples from Lindemans and Timmermans so I was absolutely going to spend my freebie beer token on Mort Subite Oude Geuze. Sadly it's not on a par with the others. The sharpness is a little too severe, veering into vinegar territory, and there's nothing much behind it; few interesting complexities. Just like Mort Subite is lambic for beginners generally, this is oude geuze for beginners too, though I'd direct any actual beginners to Boon's Mariage Parfait first.

To complete the set, herself took a Mort Subite Oude Kriek Lambic. This is rather better, with a beautiful deep purple colour and an assertive sourness plus lots of smooth mature oak. It's maybe a little bit simplistic but it does manage to balance the age thing with the fruit thing quite well.

So it was back on the bus without having to put our hands in our pockets. Them Heineken lads are all right.

Stop two for day two was Beersel, home of Oud Beersel, which had taken over the neighbourhood for the weekend. The ancient former brewery is tucked away behind a tumbledown brick terrace, with a more modern and stable-looking building next door, dating from the business's revival in 2005.

The Vandervelden family had brewed here since 1882 but when the last member retired in 1991 the company began to fall into disrepair. By 2002 it was moribund until three years later a local man, the Steve Carell lookalike Gert Christiaens (left), took it on and began the revival. First to go was the brewing: without space to modernise this was outsourced to Boon. Interestingly, Oud Beersel qualifies as a lambic producer rather than merely a blender because it specifically commissions its own beer from Boon, as opposed to the likes of Tilquin which buys beer that other breweries originally made for themselves. Beer ageing happens at the top of the building where the attics have been kitted out with ranks of Italian-built foeders.

Tour over, exit through the giftshop, and across the road where the bar marquee (and bouncy castle, obvs) had been set up. I hope the residents who lost their front yards for the duration were sufficiently compensated. My first pick was Vandervelden 135, an oude geuze recently released to celebrate the company's anniversary. It's lovely too: not especially sour, but with a beautiful soft honeydew melon taste up front, the tartness gradually rising to deliver a burst of saltpetre in the finish. This is very nicely balanced between the soft ripe fruit and harder mineral sourness.

For the lady, Bzart Lambiek, which appears to be a kind of lambic-prosecco hybrid, based on the former but created using the methods of the latter, presumably in an attempt to open up a sector of the drinks market that wouldn't touch traditional geuze. It smells like a tripel and is off-puttingly sweet, with the candy flavour of a strong top-fermented Belgian ale. There's a fun rocket-like pepperiness to it, but the lambic character seems to have got lost somewhere along the way. I wasn't a fan.

Uniquely among the sites I Toer'd, Beersel was offering collaborative beers from other breweries. My curiosity was piqued by Black Acid, a blend of lambic and stout produced by Lervig in Norway. It was also aged in an akevitt barrel and that's very apparent all the way through: there's a powerfully herbal character, full of sweet basil and bitter liquorice. 8.5% ABV gives it a thick tarry consistency and there's a touch of umami: soy sauce, turning to Bovril. But the lambic side holds its own and the tartness does a great job of keeping the extreme sticky bitterness in check. It's a tough beer to sip through but is absolutely gorgeous in its complexity.

I'll be dealing with the peripheral beers and pubs of the trip later in the week, but while we're here I should just throw in a mention of Oud Beersel Framboise which I happened across in Toone shortly after arriving in Brussels the previous Friday. It was served unpleasantly warm and ended up tasting like yoghurt: actually creamy and thick, with a slightly metallic tartness and the wooden bite of real raspberry seeds. It's quite fun but is missing a proper sour edge, with neither the raspberries nor the lambic pulling their weight.

Anyway, that's enough geuze for today. Tomorrow we'll finish the tour and head for the obvious follow-on destination.


  1. Spontanbasil didn't do it for me. Tasted like someone put turkey stuffing in my geuze.

    1. Can't think of anything not to like about a stuffing-geuze combo. Extra gravy please.