10 November 2017

Just passing through

Time to put the hammer down on the whirlwind tour of northern Belgium I've been reliving on the blog this week. But first a slight rewind. Before Ypres and Poperinge we landed in Brussels on a Friday night. Herself had picked an hotel, one of her favourites, in the European Quarter. I was braced for a quiet night on dead streets between the darkened office buildings. Just around the corner, however, Place Jourdan was hopping. There are a number of bars and cafés, with crowds of weekend revellers letting off steam inside and out. The beeriest of them is called Le Beer Bank ("Invest in Happiness!") and we set up at one of the outside tables to watch the evening unfold.

She opted for Big Nose Tripel by NovaBirra. It's a dark and murky amber colour, 9% ABV and smelling weirdly of pineapple and nail varnish remover. The flavour is thick with earthy yeast, hiding a fruit salad sweetness -- pineapple and white grape in particular -- deeper down. There's an acrid wisp of smoke as well, which doesn't belong. Overall it's quite hard drinking and, despite the Pythonesque name, devoid of fun.

Summer was still just about clinging on so I drank a last-chance Chouffe Soleil. 6% ABV instead of 8% and tasting every inch like the watered-down La Chouffe that it probably is. The signature peppery spice is still present, and there's the big fizz too, but there's just less heft to it all. This is probably deliberate: I'm quite prepared to believe that it answers a requirement for an easier drinking La Chouffe for use on warm afternoons, and I feel a bit guilty for dissing it because I drank it out of context. I'd still rather sip a proper one more slowly, however.

Ypres and Poperinge followed the next day, as described on Monday, followed by Bruges where I left you on Wednesday. I stumbled upon another La Chouffe brand extension there.

The Provincial Court building, a grey neogothic pile, sits on Grote Markt, overlooked by the more famous Belfort at the opposite end. An interactive immersive historical exhibition occupies the ground floor while a room upstairs, and the adjoining terrace, have been leased to Duvel Moortgat as The Duvelorium. A changing range of beers from their stable is available on draught and bottled, all at a reasonable price and with a lovely view of the square below. Beer of the Month on our visit was Cherry Chouffe.

According to the description, La Chouffe's scotch ale MacChouffe is the basis for this, so it's the full 8% ABV and the boozy toffee is still perceptible. Everything is drenched, however, in a massive sweet cherry flavour, making it taste like an amped-up version of those candystore lambics. I loved the silliness and would happily have had another.

On a subsequent visit I chose De Koninck's Wild Jo, not sure what it was going to be and half expecting a dull blonde ale. It's not, though. They've piled a load of Brettanomyces into this 5.8% ABV golden ale giving it a powefully musky and alluring funk, very much like in Orval. There's a lemon pith complexity, a bouquet of meadow flowers and a more serious herbal rasp of urinal cakes, with a dusting of cinnamon for good measure. The body is heavy and slightly greasy, which does make it a little difficult to drink but doubtless helps the flavours be so prominent. It really is all over the place but highly enjoyable once you get used to it. It's certainly a brave move by such an established brewer.

De Koninck is, of course, the signature beer of Antwerp, and that was the next destination. For the journey I had a bottle of Brugse Bok which I picked up at the Halve Maan brewery. I strongly recommend doing this tour if you're in Bruges, even if like me you aren't particularly fussed about the Brugse Zot beers. The manner in which they've squeezed a museum, an antique brewery and maltings, and a modern production facility into one vertical space is architecturally impressive, if nothing else.

Anyway, the beer. It's pretty much as expected: a clear copper colour, 6.5% ABV and smelling like a toffee apple. The flavour is a little more subtle, but along the same lines: light caramel balanced by tangy and bitter green apple skin. All suitably autumnal and warming, but not madly interesting beyond the basics.

We only had one night in Antwerp, and I only had one pub on my agenda: the legend that is Kulminator. More like an antique shop than a bar, beer and breweriana crowds every surface. The counter has long since fallen beyond use, covered in empties selected for retention on I know not what basis. What ought to be a choice table in the corner has been commandeered by proprietor Dirk van Dyck (yes, really) as his office, where he sat among stacks of papers,  punching away at his calculator while we drank.

The menu is vast, much of it made up of multiple vintages of classic Belgian ales, some going back to the 1980s and even earlier. If it's Westvleteren that takes your fancy you'll need to ask for the "special" menu, a single laminated card kept behind the counter and shared furtively with those in the know.

None of that for me, though. I just went for the beer of the month: De Dolle's Dulle Teve. It's a 10% ABV tripel which manages to keep things nicely clean despite being warming and slightly syrupy. There's a fruit salad flavour which assists with the easy-going quality, and while the alcohol is certainly present it doesn't grow or become unpleasantly hot. Oerbier's output can taste a bit overwrought at times, but this one is masterfully put together.

Keeping things local, that's De Koninck Imperial Stout next to it, another 10%-er. This starts well, all creamy and coffee-like, and there's a bitterness which is entirely appropriate and enjoyable at first. But it increases in intensity as the flavour goes along, eventually becoming a hard metallic edge which makes it quite tough to drink. This tastes like a beer from a rougher age, when consuming a luxury drink was something to be earned by hard grown-up labour. Too much work for me.

My last one here before we moved on was chosen based on a poster above our table: Inglorious Quad from local client brewer Inglorious Brew Stars ("Hops your brain!") brewing at Anders! in Halen, east of Brussels. More stout than quadrupel say my notes on it. There's a rich dark chocolate quality which gives it a bitterness, but no typically Belgian esters or dark fruit flavours. It's nice for all that: maybe a little one-dimensional, and at 10.3% ABV it ought to be pulling more daring moves, but it's fine as-is.

Tonight's hotel nightcap, best of a bad lot in the local supermarket, was Grimbergen Optimo Bruno. 10% ABV yet again but this time the sweetness is absolutely piled on, pushing beyond caramel into diabetes-inducing banoffee. There's the tiniest of hop twangs in the finish but mostly it's a very straightforward onslaught of brown sugar. At least it didn't keep me awake.

We departed Antwerp's glorious railway station the next morning, making our way further east and over the border into the Netherlands. Nijmegen had been chosen for our next overnight more or less randomly, but it was a great choice. It's the oldest city in the country, dating back to Roman times, and more recently was briefly the centre of attention during World War II when the failure of Operation Market Garden extended the war into 1945. There's an excellent choice of eateries (we dined well at De Bok) and it's home to the fascinating Dutch bicycle museum. And, in a charming old mansion on the edge of the city centre, there's the stadsbrouwerij, De Hemel.

It was a pleasantly balmy afternoon in the beer garden, with the first leaves coming off the trees. I began working through the range with Luna, the pils. It's a hazy gold colour with a worty aroma and not much going on flavour-wise. There's kind of a malt-loaf quality as the main taste, and a minor waxy kick in the finish. It is nicely full-bodied, but otherwise pretty basic, leaving me with the impression of a perfunctory pils made by someone who desn't really like the style but has to have one in stock.

Mariken, to the left of it, is described as a blonde ale but is definitely a copper colour. Any aroma of hard candy leads on to a spicy mix of humbugs, aniseed, mint and eucalyptus in the flavour. It tastes old-fashioned and wholesome, helped no doubt by the 6.5% ABV, but is still enjoyable with it.

Round two brought Nieuw Ligt (right of picture), a 10% ABV barley wine. There's no heat to this one, nor much by way of bitterness. Instead there's a fresh mix of citrus fruits: orange, lemon and lime, but in their chewy Starburst sweet forms rather than the real thing. It's fun and quite easy-going, if lacking a little in complexity and subtlety.

Next to it is Moenen, the murky red smoked beer. I'm never sure whether smoked beers are a good idea or not but this was superb: a rich hammy aroma and a sweet but clean flavour, tasting like smoked sausage plus a gentle burnt caramel edge. Very nicely balanced and getting great use out of the smoked malt without overdoing it.

That's all the ticks for Nijmegen. Next stop Bodegraven and the Borefts Beer Festival which I'll be telling you all about next week.

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