01 June 2017


 A weekend dedicated to sour beer definitely needs a few sweeter options sown through it. So it was with the Toer de Geuze weekend. I was sufficiently occupied not to need the services of many pubs, but I did cross the threshold of a few, and there were some late hotel nightcaps as well.

But we start with Leffe. I haven't paid too much attention to AB InBev's flagship Belgian ale recently, though it has been making an effort to get my attention. The "Leffe Royale" range débuted back in 2012 and each iteration has put a specific hop front and centre in an otherwise identical 7.5% ABV golden ale. Naturally, Leffe Royale Cascade IPA was an early member, and it's still around. I picked one up late-night in Carrefour. And I was dead impressed by it too. It's heavy and warming, though not overly sweet or cloying, and has a lovely bright and spicy hop character. The base beer's density and the yeast esters keep it from being over-bittered, allowing the hop flavour to really shine. I got fresh apple and sandalwood from this -- not typical Cascade flavours by any means, but a very enjoyable and not-at-all-dull beer.

That was enough of a positive experience for me to give it another go a day later. This time it was Leffe Royale Mapuche's turn, a beer which uses the exotic Argentinian hop. Same colour, same strength, of course, and a lot of the same sandalwood spicing, so I guess that's the Leffe yeast's contribution. The hop flavour is very perfumey, perhaps rendered more intense by the beer's viscosity. I get a sweetly citric key lime pie effect in the flavour, and a refreshing cloudy-lemonade finish, much more thirst-quenching than it has any right to be. Given the opportunity I think I'll be trying more from this range. Whether they're of any educational merit from a sensory point of view is debatable, but on this showing they're remarkably tasty, and deliciously cheap.

Interesting hops is one way to get my attention. Just standing in front of me is another, and that's what the Leffe marketing folk did when they set up a festival bar dispensing free samples right in the middle of Centraal's ticket hall. I confess it was the dinky little plastic tasting goblets that convinced me to look closer: who says you can't buy class?

As well as the Blonde and Brune they were offering Leffe Rituel, a 9% ABV golden ale which I had never heard of. Fill 'er up. This tastes much more on-brand, being a rather one-dimensional mix of strong Belgian beer flavours, toffee and banana in particular. There's no spicing or other complexity, and no off-flavours either. If your requirements are just for something hot and heavy, Team Leffe has got you covered.

A couple of other random bottles, picked from the supermarket shelves for hotel room drinking: Kustbrouwerij's Dronkenput I chose solely for the disturbing imagery on the label. It's a dark brown ale of 8% ABV and tastes like a mix of toasted grain and ripe cherries. Nice, eh? These flavours are presented wonderfully cleanly with very little by way of esters or heat. Much better than I was expecting from a random pick.

I didn't have such good luck with Ichtegem's Grand Cru but, again, curiosity was satisfied. This 6.5% ABV Flemish red is clearly going after Rodenbach with its styling and name. I tend to find Rodenbach Grand Cru rather harsh for my taste, and so is this: a burning acidity coupled with some extreme fruit sugar for a kind of sweet chilli dip effect. The tomato and vinegar mix of cheap ketchup is also in there, and some tart raspberry for extra weirdness. Yeah, no thanks.

The inevitable bar crawl back to the airport included the inevitable visit to The Hoppy Loft which had just opened for the day. We kept things international in the rounds here, starting with Italian brewery Hibu and their scotch ale Nessy. It's the appropriate dark red colour and smells mostly of toffee with an extra bitter liquorice complexity. Smoke enters the picture on tasting, turning the toffee towards burnt caramel and adding a strong savoury fried edge to the sweetness. It certainly tastes and feels stronger than the very reasonable 5.8% ABV. It suffers a little bit from the kipperiness that sweet red and amber beers often show when smoked malt is employed, but is still quite enjoyable.

I convinced herself to try The Cream Ale by Anspach & Hobday, mainly because I'm still trying to get the hang of this style and I reckon the Londoners would acquit themselves quite well with it. It arrived pale gold and slightly hazy with a disconcerting rubbery aroma and more than a hint of cream ale's key ingredient: sweetcorn. Thankfully that's missing from the flavour and instead it's assertively hopped. I got very sharp green flavours from it: leek, asparagus and spinach, the Germanic noble hop profile which has turned me off many a beer, but it works here. I was surprised to learn from the brewery's official description that Sorachi Ace is doing the business in this one. I can usually spot its distinctive flavours a mile off but didn't twig it this time. Anyway, I suspect that the big hopping is not at all typical for cream ale so I'm not going to give the style a pass just yet.

The next two came from Quebec's Dunham brewery, beginning with Propolis, a saison. It looked unfinished: a densely murky beige colour. The aroma was much happier, if unsaisonlike, with an ice cream character, all vanilla and coldness. There's lots of yeasty spice in the flavour, but it's not heavy, gritty or savoury. Instead it has a musky perfume complexity and a base of crisp grain. A strange beast, but really multifaceted and fun to explore.

The other was called Cyclope Êta, an IPA. In stark contrast to the Propolis next to it, it's a bright clear gold colour with just a very slight haze if you look closely. And while that beer was odd this one is downright weird. The aroma is of sandalwood and there's a bizarre caraway seed flavour: crisp and savoury. At least some of this must be down to a hop variety I'm not familiar with: Pekko. Though there's Azacca as well and I would expect that to bring at least some fruit character, but there's no fruit, no real bitterness, just strange spices and savouries.To be filed under "too weird to enjoy".

Last call, in what is very likely to become a tradition, was at Brasserie 28 in the station. The blackboard hadn't progressed significantly from a fortnight previously but there was still a couple of new beers to tick. Corne du Bois Pendus Tripel is one, stablemate of the dark beer I covered in this recent post. And like the dark one, it's quite understated in its flavour, which can be a good thing in a tripel. No hot and heavy fruity esters here, but lots of herbs: fennel, sunflower seeds, eucalyptus on a clean toasty grain base. Not terribly exciting overall but quite decent.

And ticking off another of Caulier's own range, 28 Pale Ale. It's 5% ABV with a vague kind of peachy flavour and a wisp of Belgian yeast spice, but that's pretty much it. The rest is just a watery void and I swear some mouthfuls of this tasted of absolutely nothing. I departed Belgium with a palate cleaner than I really wanted.

It's two years until the text Toer de Geuze and I feel I have unfinished business. Hanssens, Timmermans: stay there, I'm coming for you.

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