10 May 2017

The Zythos file

There's usually a very good social programme around the serious business of the EBCU's biannual meetings. At the end of the Friday session of the Spring meeting in Brussels last month we were joined by Thomas Vandelanotte, brewer at the venerable Belgian producer and importer John Martin, for a talk and tasting of some of their beers. He covered the company's history, their more recent projects, and lots of fun technical stuff about lambic, via Martin's lambic label Timmermans.

We began with Récolte, from the brewery's Waterloo range. It's roughly a saison, 6% ABV and a very pale blonde colour. There's a sharp and dry quality to the flavour, rustic and grainy like rye bread. It's fine, but not very exciting.

The bag of Timmermans Oude Lambiek 2014 got the room's attention, however. I was amazed by the level of fruit flavour in this: it has a sweet botrytised-wine quality in the foretaste, finishing clean and sharp with a seam of gunpowder spice running throughout. I love the idea -- and unfortunately it's mostly just an idea these days -- of straight lambic as an everyday cheap session beer, served from the cask and knocked back quickly. This is one that would fill that role beautifully while also possessing a magnificent complexity. The bag didn't last long in a room full of international beer obsessives, unsurprisingly.

Martin's seems to be engaged in a big push for Bourgogne de Flandres as its flagship beer these days. They have a fancy new showpiece brewery in the middle of Bruges. As I'm sure you're aware, Bourgogne is a blend of Timmermans lambic with a strong brown ale. Thomas brought along some samples of the latter, named Bruinen Os ("Brown Ox"). This is 8.2% ABV and a very dark red colour. It has a serious amount of umami in the flavour, the earthy savoury taste of shiitake mushrooms. There's a more typically Belgian brown banana element behind that, as well as a big dose of dry roasted grain. It's all rather severe and difficult to drink; definitely a sipper, if even that. I can see why somebody decided to start cutting it with lambic.

The brewery also does some barrel ageing and Bruinen Os given time in a red wine barrel comes out rather better: smoother and, while still meaty, it has a lovely chocolate and toffee flavour as well.

The after-meeting arrangements on Saturday were nothing more elaborate than go to the Zythos Beer Festival which had just opened in Leuven. I was last at this four years ago but it hasn't changed much, though they have reduced the number of stands in the hall slightly. I had skimmed the list of exhibitors in advance and there wasn't much that struck me as must-trys, although there were a couple of Rodenbach brand extensions available here that I hadn't got round to yet, so my first stop was the Palm bar.

Rodenbach Alexander is made with added cherries. It's quite a confection: sugary sweet, like one of those mass-market krieks the less-reputable lambic houses produce. The base beer is still discernible, however, with its cornbread dryness and an acidic burn. From the stern gaze of Mr Alexander on the bottle label I was expecting something classy and serious rather than the frivolous fun that this is.

For classy and elegant, there's Rodenbach Vintage. This is a dark brown colour and has a seriously funky aroma as well as a heavy texture. The weight of it takes some of the sharper edges off the sourness but there's a definite malt-vinegar tart quality. At the centre of the flavour is a blend of fruit and savoury flavours: the tamarind and date you get in gloopy Indian dipping sauces, or even plain old HP. This is definitely a Rodenbach for sipping, though it doesn't lose sight of its essential Rodenbachness.

Like Martin's, Palm also has a small experimental brewery these days, pushing out small-batch specials very obviously designed to compete in the craft arena. There's a series called "Arthur's Legacy" and the first beer under the badge is a 7.1% ABV wheat beer with added juniper, called White Widow. Someone passed me a glass of it at one stage in the evening because they were horrified by it. I was horrified too. It tastes of burnt plastic. This experiment should never have passed the brewery gates.

Also from the big brewers' limited editions file, I gave Duvel-Moortgat's Lost In Spice a go. This is a clear golden ale brewed at De Koninck and seems to have been popular enough to be made permanent. I don't know what went into it but there's definitely ginger. It's very light, to the point of being thin, but I don't think that's really a sin in these lemonadey ginger beers. They're designed to be thirst-quenching and refreshing, and this definitely meets those criteria. It is just a little bit too sweet, though. While the ginger flavour is present, I'd like a bit more dryness from it. Overall, though, I could happily quaff lots of this if spending the summer in Antwerp.

I was expecting more sweet and spicy from Toetëlèr's Speculaas but this strong and thick dark brown beer doesn't really taste like the cinnamon cookies that inspired it. It's more herbal than spiced, reminding me first of cola and then of Fernet Stock: ansieed, cardmom and that sort of thing. I don't know how much of it I could handle in one sitting, but it's fun and surprisingly tasty.

The festival was very crowded when we arrived, though mercifully began to clear out steadily as the evening progressed. At one point it was so difficult to get around that I just grabbed the nearest beer I could find. It happened to be Scotch Silly from Belgian fixture Brasserie Silly. It's pretty damn good. too. Beautifully smooth with soft and luxurious toffee yet not too heavy or overly sweet. The texture is just chewy enough to be substantial and the whole thing is masterfully balanced. I really was not expecting to come out of the festival raving about this old-timer, but there you have it.

Nearby was 't Kroontje brewery and my colleague John decided to give their Rebelle Brett a go. On just a small taste I found it a bit too harsh. It starts well enough, with the lovely tropical peach and passionfruit flavour certain strains of Brettanomyces produce, but there's a piney hop bitterness that rises and eventually smothers any subtlety, resulting in a beer that tastes too close to floor cleaner for comfort.

Over the wires from Carlow came a recommendation by Liam to try the beer from De Leite, and their Cuvée Soeur'ise in particular. So off I went and procured what proved to be a kriek: pale pink in colour and tasting brightly of fresh cherry juice. Behind this is a sherbet spice and just enough sourness to balance the sweet fruit. It was all rather lovely and fun so I was straight back to their bar to see what else they had.

Femme Fatale was next, a hazy golden tripel of just 6.5% ABV. As befits the low strength it's not exactly bursting with flavours, but what's there is good, mixing up honey, beeswax, grain husk and sweet lychee. After that it was Fils À Papa, described intriguingly as a "dubbel kriek". It's a dark shade of pink with a similar cherry juice flavour to the Soeur'ise but seasoned with a strong element of oak as well. It gives an assertive acidic burn at the back of the throat but still manages to remain fun and drinkable with all the ease of an alcopop kriek plus a more serious complexity. Very nicely put together overall.

That's it for this first run through Zythos. More tomorrow, including a look at some of the more daring and outré offers.

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