16 January 2018

Choosing freely

A week of posts on my winter break in The Hague continues today with a look at the city's better off licences.

Free Beer Co. is a poky little corner shop with a single set of shelves offering a small but interesting mix of bottles and cans from Europe and the US. Behind the counter is a three-tap growler system, and having dropped a few quid I felt entitled to a taste of something. I was also very curious about Milk Shake Stout from Bristol's Wiper & True, not having had any of their beer in ages. To be honest it wasn't very impressive from the sample. There's a considerable hop character, for one thing, a bitter resin which has no place in the style. Then there's not a whole lot else: a plain, slightly dry, slightly roasty stout; fine but unexciting. I like my milk stouts sweet and creamy, and would prefer if brewers didn't mess with the format, thank you.

The first bottle from my haul that I opened was another dark Brit, Collabageddon '17 from Weird Beard and six other brewers. It's 6.4% ABV and described as a Belgian black IPA. It smells like a straightforward black IPA, and a very good one at that: tar, liquorice and roasted coconut. I suspected that Sorachi Ace had been liberally applied as it tasted hugely of that hop's signature orange pith. The label confirmed it's in here, with Simcoe, and also mentions that the Belgian yeast was fermented at an usually low temperature, to minimise ester formation. It worked, because it doesn't taste in the slightest bit Belgian. What you get instead is a classic big and bold black IPA, and I for one am not complaining. I doubt it really took seven breweries to come up with it, but maybe everyone learned something.

Staying on the session vibe, Raï was next, a session IPA from Bulgarian brewer Бял Щърк ("White Stork") but brewed at De Molen. It's a fizzy beast, and I let that foam subside before taking a closer look. The aroma is beautifully tropical, full of tinned pineapple and sharper guava. There is a vanilla sweetness on the flavour, but with enough hop citrus to turn it away from cheap ice cream towards an altogether more classy lemon sorbet. Amazingly it's only 3.5% ABV, bulked out with oats and that lactose I could taste, and the trick works quite well: there's no thinness and the generous hopping doesn't make it harsh. My biggest gripe is really just that carbonation: the fizz adds an unpleasant bite to a beer that shouldn't really be allowed warm up before enjoying. Let it sit in the fridge after pouring? Awkward.

Another foamy one followed next: Between Thieves, a session IPA by Uiltje. It seems to be very much going for a New England vibe, including oats, wheat and spelt in the recipe, pouring murky as hell under all that head, and smelling deliciously juicy. The flavour follows that up with lots of mango and pineapple, though there's an unpleasant yeast bite as well, adding a savoury harshness to the finish. A garlic complexity begins to develop as it warms, complementing the fruit quite nicely. Despite the bubbles this one isn't fizzy, and slipped down smoothly. It's very nearly excellent, squeezing oodles of tropical hop fun into a sober 4.1% ABV. There are just a couple of wrinkles that could do with ironing out, however.

From the same brewery, with the same minimalist can design, comes Me Myself & IPA. No head drama this time, a medium-amber body with just a slight haze. The aroma mixes citrus bitterness with juicy fruit beautifully, promising good times ahead. The flavour is suitably spectacular: heavy resinous dankness kicks it off, then fades and calms, allowing spritzy lime and softer mandarin come through. The finish is maybe a little sweet, adding a note of orange cordial. Overall, though, it's still a well-balanced and flavourful American-style IPA, no messing.

Next out of the lucky bag was Teerling Hopstout from Zeglis. This was a downright gusher, pouring innocently and thickly first before fobbing madly in the glass. That gave me plenty of opportunity to appreciate the aroma, which is indeed delicious, all richly green winter vegetables. The flavour is softer, introducing smooth fresh coffee and floral rosewater, finishing quickly with next to no bitterness. A slight metallic twang is the only bum note, other than that it's a spot-on big hop stout, or a black IPA, whatever you fancy.

A new Dutch brewer for me next: Breda's Bliksem ("Lightning"), and their Pale Rider pale ale. It's 5.6% ABV, presenting quite a dark shade of amber. The aroma is unpleasantly worty: wholesome smelling, but almost sickly sweet. The flavour is indeed sweet, but also dry and tannic, like sugary black tea. The hops add a somewhat harsh cabbage bitterness, and the whole thing gives an impression of a sort-of English-style bitter, by someone who didn't really know what they were doing. I immediately began feeling regret that I'd bought a second Bliksem beer. Oh well...

So to follow it's the alluringly-named Grom, an imperial stout. It looks decent, the brief head a pleasing dark brown. The aroma is a bit rough: savoury yeast and headachey phenols. On tasting, the flavour is rather better integrated, showing assertively bitter dark-roast coffee. It is still a bit severe, however, lacking roundness and warmth, and still with a touch of that high-alcohol marker-pen burn. It unfolds to reveal tobacco oils and a gut-coating tarry thickness. On balance this is passable, but not in the first string of Dutch imperial stouts by any means. Bliksem has been going a couple of years now and, on the evidence of these two beers, I think it still has a game that could do with being upped.

The next one I picked on stylistic grounds: you don't see a black tripel very often (my previous and only was in 2014). Kandy Express is from Utrecht's Neobosski, a tiddling 7.5% ABV, and pouring like a stout, with its dense black body and latte-coloured head. That stoutishness continues on drinking, offering a roasted tarry aroma and lots of dark chocolate and black coffee in the flavour. There is the merest hint of tripel spicing in there, but it's easily missed: this really doesn't meet the requirements of tripel at all. As a stout, it's pretty good, if a little overly fizzed.

Final beer in this haul from Free Beer Co. is by local brewer Kwartje. It's called RSI (Rye Smoked IPA; yes, the "I" stands for "IPA" *sigh*). 6.5% ABV and with yet more awkward gushing as it poured. It's a murky ochre colour and smells downright infected, though I guess the bitter phenols are there by design. It's smoke to begin with on tasting, lots and lots of Laproaigish TCP. Underneath it is a fresh and juicy pale ale, showing mandarin and a extra spike of jasmine spice, but that only flashes tantalisingly briefly before vanishing again. It left me feeling I'd like to get to know the beer beneath the smoke better. Usually I like smoke, but it's just an interference here, I think.

A couple of streets away from Free Beer Co. is De Filosoof, an upmarket wine boutique which also runs to a very decent selection of beers.

First up from there is Mr Cacatoe, a strong porter by Bird Brewery, an Amsterdam-based client brewer brewing at Jopen in Haarlem. They've added cocoa and lactose to this, which does give it a gummy sweetness, though one which struggles to assert itself over a rich herbal bitterness with elements of dark-roast coffee, liquorice and smoke. The unfermented sugar is really put in its place, allowed to make a contribution but leaving the main one up to the malt and hops. Though a large head formed on it, it's not too fizzy, and with a proper milk-stout thickness and smoothness, something that helps give the flavour extra legs.

"I don't know how they did this" said the guy in De Filosoof when I brought the bottle of Septem 8th Day to the counter. Ooookay, I thought, it's  a 7% ABV US-style IPA; how bizarre can it be? It certainly smelled superb, if not special, as I poured it: the aroma is a striking fresh mandarin and lemon, promising much citrus joy to come. That is sort-of delivered, but there's a lot of malt in front of it, and a savoury hop dank too: it's not just bright and fresh tropical fruit. As old-fashioned malt-forward American-style IPAs go, this is one of the better ones, describing a world where Mosaic was available in 1998. I enjoyed it, and I bet it's a lifeline to beer enthusiasts in its native Greece, but world class it ain't. Good beer, though. I'd be happy if I had made it.

The Septem beer that really caught my interest was the one in the half litre bottle with the fancy brown-paper label. Lava, it's called, described as an "imperial India red ale" and 9% ABV. It's an opaque muddy brown with little head. The aroma is a lovely ripe red fruit thing, all strawberry and red cherry. There's a bitterer kick than that in the flavour: aniseed, coconut and thyme. This contrasts nicely with the malt and the whole thing is rounded and warming; properly hoppish but giving plenty of smooth sweetness for balance. It's a beer to sink into and be enveloped by. I can't imagine drinking it under Greek sunshine.

Filosoof's house beer, piled up by the case and decorously displayed by the till for impulse tickers, is Beirut, a product of Lebanese drinks giant Kassatly Chtaura. Like all the festive beers, it was set on the balcony to chill when I got it home, and I only realised a few days later that leaving a green bottle in daylight was probably a poor idea. The north-facing aspect came to my rescue, fortunately, and it wasn't skunked when I got round to opening it. It's actually not a bad effort, quite similar to a million other beers made and consumed around the Mediterranean, with the added advantage of being all-malt. It's satisfyingly full-bodied, but not too heavy at 4.6% ABV. There's an authentic Bohemian grassy buzz as well as a mineral softness. Thirst-quenching when cold, and tasting like proper beer. Sometimes that's all that's required.

A final outlier comes from Doorst off licence in the south of the city. De Molen's Quirks & Quinine is described as a "gin & tonic spiced saison" on the label and was brewed in collaboration with Beavertown. It's a saison all right: straw yellow in colour and smelling of white pepper. The flavour continues in that vein: a spicy herbal bitterness set on a hard dryness with a swish of smoke but no fruit or booze heat. It's certainly dry, and full marks there, but I don't get what makes it gin and tonic themed. I'll take it, but ding it for lack of novelty value at the same time.

So that's where the cool people buy their beer. Tomorrow I'm joining the norms at the supermarket.

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