16 November 2017

Everyone else

Rounding off my series on the 2017 Borefts Beer Festival with the brewers I haven't got to yet, featuring the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Spain.

As always, the house had a vast array of beers on offer: core favourites, one-offs and hacked specials. Imperial stout was a big part of the line-up, of course, and I began with Nibs & Beans. That there's coffee in this was in the programme, but I'm guessing from the name that there's cocoa too, and it's been barrel aged. For all that, it's unremarkable: the coffee flavour is light and it's more about the tarry bitterness, entirely in keeping with an imperial stout of 10.3% ABV. The barrel, whatever sort it was, makes no contribution and the whole is just simple and decent, which it's probably not meant to be.

Its companion there is Satan & Gabriel, this one with star anise and pistachio liqueur, which is a new one on me. And this time everything is as billed. The aroma gently suggests star anise, leading up to a flavour which tastes hugely of the fruit, to the exclusion of almost everything else. There's also the sharp bitterness of pistachio skins. Despite being 11% ABV there's precious little stout character in it, just a very slightly acrid dry finish. It's one of those where the beer seems almost incidental. 100% as advertised, though I'm not sure it really works.

Another barrel-aged one in the next pair: Push & Pull, described as a tiramisu stout, and again barrel aged. The aroma is promising: sweeter and boozier than might be expected at just 10.5% ABV, though perfectly to style with its mix of vanilla and coffee. Strangely the first flavour to emerge on tasting is sour cherry, quickly followed by the anticipated blend of cream, coffee and vanilla. It's quite heavy going, and once the novelty has worn off, three sips in, the drinker's attention may begin to waver. It's fun, though, in small festival-sized doses.

The paler fellow next to it is High & Mighty, a saison De Molen brewed using psychoactive plant Salvia divinorum. A fair bit of it, I'd say, because while I didn't float away with the pixies, I did get a strong herbal flavour from it: marjoram and dill, in particular, building to a courgette sort of green vegetal bitterness. Despite the amber colour of the base saison, and the substantial 6.1% ABV, it's not really part of the picture. A decent and interesting beer, overall, if the herbal gruit-ish thing is to your taste.

After two successive years at the festival, Omnipollo was absent this time around. To placate their legion of slavering adherents, up at the windmill De Molen was pouring a collaboration they'd done together: Hypnopompa. It's 11% ABV and officially designated a "marshmallow imperial stout", God help us. There's certainly a dose of Omnipollo's trademark gut-wrenching sweetness in this: that Crunchie bar flavour that ruins their Yellow Belly stout. It's held in check here, however, and ends up rich and luxurious rather than sickly sweet. Beyond the chocolate and honeycomb there's a classy waft of rosewater running through it, tempering the excesses of the malt. Definitely a sipper, however. I doubt I'd enjoy a whole bottle.

Den Haag's Kwartje brewery had a go at matching De Molen at their own game with a selection of strong and barrel-aged palate thumpers. Upgrade is the name they've given to their hacked imperial stout series, and I tried the one with chilli and cinnamon. It's perfunctory: cinnamon completely dominates the flavour, as cinnamon tends to, so there's an inescapably Christmassy vibe to it which gets old very quickly. On the end there's the a powdery rasp of dried chilli which goes some way to counteract the cookie sweetness, but far from balances it. An issue here may be that it's only 9.2% ABV: a bigger body would have made it a better, more rounded, beer I reckon. As-is it's strictly for cinnamon beer fans, assuming some exist, somewhere.

Ruby is Kwartje's Rioja-barrel-aged barley wine, with no qualms about ABV here at 14%. This one looks quite stouty but is actually red. It smells red too: fresh and summery raspberries. The flavour opens on a lushly grown-up combination of red wine and dark chocolate, adding in ripe summer fruit, and if it had stayed like that it would be great. Something goes awry with the wine barrel late on, introducing a kind of sour staleness, like a bottle of red left open too long. It puts a sharp edge on what should be a smooth and mature beer and turns it from a triumph to a narrow miss, for me.

L: Lapsang Souchong Alt;
R: Blackadder (see below)
Just one from Borefts regular Kees!: a Lapsang Souchong Alt, though it is in breach of the rule that using a classic well-defined style designation should preclude one from mucking around with the recipe. The smoke gets to work early here, with a hammy undercurrent to the grain aroma. This continues on drinking, with the dryness of a straightforward dark lager meeting a different kind of dryness from the smoke. The two don't gel together well and I kept imagining how it would have been a solid alt-style beer if they hadn't decided to add in the tea.

A new brewer whose beers caught my eye, despite his bar being relegated to a distant corner of the brewery, was Tommie Sjef, specialising in what tend to be be grouped under the broad category of farmhouse-style beers; the sort that are highly attenuated and come in 75cl bottles with minimalist labels.

He had almost sold out by the time I got there on the Friday evening, with just the flagship beer Druif left. It's described as a wild ale with red wine grapes and achieves the classic invigorating mineral kick found in good gueuze. Overlaying that is the chewy sweet grape and this time the two contrasting elements dovetail together beautifully, and all done at just 5% ABV. I thought this was at least as good as the classic red grape lambic from Cantillon, Saint Lamvinus, if not better. When Tommie was back in business the following afternoon I was straight over.

None of the others were quite as good, however. Bloesem was next, one with elderflower, the name immediately calling to mind Lindemans BlossomGeuze, a beer I didn't particularly care for. This one is dark orange in colour and exudes a pure, concentrated elderflower perfume. I quite like elderflower, so didn't mind. It's quite a light beer, both on the floral side and the tartness: well balanced, easy-drinking and refreshing, so basically all the things the Lindemans one wasn't. No spectacular fireworks here, but a very decent beer.

Blauw followed, and I love a bit of blueberry I do. It's a dark mucky red colour and eschews the bright clean flavours of the previous two to go for something much more funky, with a savoury Brettanomyces taste right at the front. The blueberry is pleasingly obvious behind this: properly juicy and sweet, though more on the syrupy concentrate side than real tart berries. Fortunately they're balanced by an assertive palate-tingling sourness. Another deftly balanced complex one this: subtle yet engaging.

My run through these was completed with Tommie Sjef's Framboos-Cassis, a beautiful clear bright red colour. It turns out that mixing raspberries and blackcurrants yields a beer that smells of redcurrants: a summery sort of tartness. On tasting it has the same three-part flavour profile as the Blauw: sourness, funk and fruit, but this time the sourness level is ramped up far too high, turning to vinegar. The fruit flavour still manages to come through past the acrid acid but on the whole it's just not as well integrated as the others.

Minor blips aside, I will definitely be looking for more from Tommie Sjef when in the Netherlands next.

I was all set now for Alvinne to wow me with their Wild West: Grape Edition, a sour ale with Primitivo grapes (10kg/hL, fact fans), barrel-aged for four months and coming out at 6% ABV. It arrived a luminous orange colour with a harmonious aroma of luscious fruit and funky Brett. It's a lot less subtle than the Sjef stuff: puckeringly sour and then slightly syrupy white grape juice. You get everything it promises, though perhaps in bigger portions than you might like. A bit more maturation would do wonders for it, I reckon.

La Pirata were flying the flag for, well, whomever they want to fly the flag for. It said "Spain" in the programme but your constitutional status may vary. I only had their Blackadder porter, a 9%-er which I found quite loud and busy. It's roasty and bitter and floral all at once, throwing out cakes and jam-filled pastries and bitter cooking chocolate, like it couldn't quite concentrate on one thing at a time. Complex, sure, but impossible to relax into, and I think this sort of beer should allow that.

Finally to Bavaria, and the wonderful Gänstaller Bräu. Yes, an Affumicator came first: it always does and always will. To register a tick with them I chose Rauch Royal, described as a smoked imperial India pale lager. My first, I believe. It smells innocently meadowy, the gentle grass and herbs of some German hop or other. The flavour offers a bizarre mix of bright flowers and heavy smoky phenols. There's a sizeable bitterness too, goaded on by a whopping 8.2% ABV. All very weird and completely mismatched, but it kind of works, at the same time: each element performs well separately and it doesn't matter that they aren't integrated. This beer wouldn't be for everyone but I enjoyed the silliness.

And so the curtain falls on Borefts 2017, still consistently the best big-but-small festival I've been to. As usual we skipped the official after-festival in Rotterdam, heading straight for the capital and its pubs.

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