15 January 2018


I escaped Christmas and New Year this time round, to hide out at my friend's place in The Hague. It was a very relaxing few days, largely spent indoors with a waxing and waning stash of beers which I'll be telling you about later in the week. I didn't do a lot of exploring of the city's pub scene but did pop into a handful of pubs which is what today's post concerns.

I spotted The Fiddler on a walk around town on day one. It's striking because, from the external lettering, it very obviously used to be part of the Firkin chain of brewpubs which started in London in 1979 and was finally wound up in 2001. You can get the full story, and its significance for modern British beer, in chapter seven of Boak & Bailey's Brew Britannia. I stumbled across one ex-member in Maastricht some years ago, and here was another Dutch one.

From the inside it looks like little has changed from the Firkin days. It's still decked out in the chain's traditional livery, a '90s English pub straight from the replicator, including the twee and cringingly risqué signage. It wears its foreignness so strongly that Dutch customers and Dutch staff speak English to each other. Most surprisingly, and pleasingly for me, the brewkit is still fully operational and turning out cask and keg beers, under the name of the Animal Army brewery.

I began with the cask stout, Cream Bee. It ought to have been a belter at 6% ABV but turned out to be surprisingly lightweight. The appearance was the beginning of that: a reddish brown rather than black. The flavour had that slightly meaty quality of plain-tasting beer with a substantial portion of yeast still in it. A mild cocoa flavour is about all it can muster on the stout flavour front. It's smooth, and quite easy drinking, but boring with it and, unforgivably, did nothing to lift the chill of a late December evening.

The seasonal beer of the moment, to the right of it there, was Animal Army Porter. The strength goes up to 6.4% ABV though it looks even thinner: a cola colour. The aroma is intensely roasty, and the first flavour to come out is a dark, dry bite, rather like a schwarzbier. A rising bitterness develops in its wake, driven by a chewy texture, so no thinness here despite appearances. This heavy and bitter yet clean beer reminds me of a Baltic porter more than anything. It's certainly a deal more interesting than the stout.

Round two brought me Sea Lions IPA, again on cask. So I waited for it to settle, but it didn't. Turns out it was just a murky pint, and not in the modern and cool way. It's rather harsh, the hops mainly coming across as acidic, with just a slight jaffa flesh sweetness. The yeast runs rampant, however, making it taste extremely dreggy. Its big 6.2% ABV is entirely unnecessary as well. There's a real amateurish vibe about the whole thing, and I don't know if that's because of the brewing or the dispense, but given that they both happen a few metres away from each other there's no excuse.

A token keg beer to finish on: Howling Wolf bock, strongest of the lot at 6.8% ABV. It's a spot-on interpretation of the Dutch autumn bock style: dark red in colour with a flavour which mixes maple syrup with seasoned logs and forest floors. A mint-humbug spice balances the sweetness and keeps it drinkable. Very nicely done, and perhaps a sign that sticking to the familiar beer styles from closer to home works better than pushing for exotic Englishness.

A beermat flip from the front door of The Fiddler is Beer Garden. As the name suggests, this bar is crammed into a low-ceilinged vault beneath one of the city's historic buildings. The demographic is a youthful one, with trendied-up fast food and a decent if unspectacular beer selection on offer. The table next to us was occupied by a group of international students, or possibly international academics: I've reached an age where it's increasingly difficult to tell the difference.

The house beer is called Beer, and is brewed at one of the local micros, Brouwerij Scheveningen. It's a pretty straightforward blonde ale, a little Duvel-like in its blend of estery fruit and yeast spices, at least in the aroma. It's much plainer to taste, offering little beyond white sugar and a vague green asparagus kick, plus far too much fizz. This is no lightweight either, at 6.3% ABV, but overall is too sweet and otherwise dull.

I saw a few beers from Amsterdam's Lowlander (brewing at Jopen) during the trip, but this Lowlander IPA is the only one I took the trouble to try. And very good it is too. There's coriander and white tea in the recipe, which adds a hint of witbier complexity to a clean and classical new world IPA. Founded on a substantial malt base, it offers gentle lime and grapefruit notes, all balanced and completely novelty-free. Note to self: try more Lowlander.

I can't remember the last time I had a bière de garde so wasn't about to pass up Oersoep's En Garde! It's 6.5% ABV, an appropriate pale amber colour, and beautifully spicy. I picked up cedar and incense, plus more herbal pine, for a kind of aftershave effect. It's not overdone or harsh, however, and there's no interference from yeast, esters, or anything else untoward. I may have forgotten what the style is supposed to taste like, but I'll take this as a good example.

Something rather sillier next, in the form of Kees! Pink Grapefruit IPA. This wasn't what I was expecting, turning out a murky brown colour and tasting of oily coconut. It's heavy going and there's no zing. It needs zing.

The last one down here is Dark Roast, a coffee stout by vandeStreek of Utrecht. No coffee appears on the ingredients list, though the brewery website says a Kenyan variety was used. And used well it turns out: there's a lovely sweet café crème aroma, followed by a flavour which is properly roasted and stouty, reflecting the big 8% ABV, and complemented perfectly by the fresh coffee oils. It's nice to see a beer like this harmonise its features so well.

A further vandeStreek offering featured when we checked out De Paas, another of the city's well-reputed beer bars. Ice Mint IPA: well that sounds cool. Alas, the reality was rather less fun. It's a thick and murky beer, a full 8% ABV and tasting every bit of it. The mint element, however it was done, is laid on incredibly heavily, beginning at the herbal menthol aroma and then moving on to an unsettling spearmint flavour, reminiscent of mouthwash or toothpaste. Please let this not be a new trend in IPAs: fruit is bad enough.

The Tongerlo Christmas ale, Pax, was advertised via a standy on the table as coming with a complimentary portion of cheese. This did not materialise. De Paas, I name you and shame you, you complimentary cheese deniers. The beer? Oh, it's a 7% ABV job and clear amber-gold, neither of which is particularly Christmassy. It smells and tastes lightly spicy, of nutmeg mostly, with a bit of brown sugar and banana. Overall a fairly meagre celebration is on offer here.

For the serious craftophile, The Hague offers the recently-opened Brody's Taphouse, going all-out for an American look and feel, though mixing US beers with local ones in the line-up.

To begin, Caldera IPA, from Oregon. I wasn't a fan of this old-skool IPA, 6% ABV, dark amber and bitter as all hell. There's a harsh waxy quality to it, and then a tacked-on fruity perfume. It's one of those flavour profiles that just doesn't gel together properly and is hard to enjoy as a result. Even allowing for the brewery's 1990s vintage, this isn't a good beer.

A much better choice was the beer beside it, the thoroughly modern Colorado Wild Sage Bretted saison from Crooked Stave. It's a big 7.2% ABV, and highly carbonated too. The aroma mixes funk and herb beautifully, while the flavour is remarkably sweet, incorporating orange sherbet in with the bathbomb and farmyard notes. The complexity was great fun to explore, each flavour distinct yet contributing to the whole, with the Brettanomyces rendering it just dirty enough to be properly interesting. This has been available in Ireland for a while so I'm probably the last person to try it, but it's well worth your while.

I went local on the next round, getting Apfelstrudel Doppelbock from 't Uiltje. Pastry doppelbock is clearly a genre whose time has come. It's a massive 11% ABV and dark red-brown with a creamy head like an Irish coffee. It does actually smell of pastry: sweet and cakey with a topping of caramelised brown sugar. That turns to marzipan on tasting, with milk chocolate but also an unpleasant plasticky burr. The texture is smooth but the alcohol heat is too strong for my liking and further detracts from it. As is so often the case with pastry stouts, the essential beer characteristic is lost under the gimmickry. I expected a doppelbock on ordering and that's not what it gave me.

The beer in the smaller measure beside it is Oskar Blues Ten Fiddy imperial stout, slightly weaker at just 10.5% ABV. This one is extremely dense, however, with all the dense stout features, like a dark brown head and tarry consistency. The aroma gives strong espresso, and the coffee continues in the flavour, accompanied by dark chocolate, some faint light cherry and... no, actually that's it. It all tails off surprisingly quickly. While this is balanced and drinkable, it's unforgivably uncomplex for the price usually asked for it. Poor value, Oskar.

The parting shot is a Canadian beer: Naughty Neighbour, a pale ale by Nickel Brook. This is a spicy affair, redolent with earl grey, bergamot, orange peel and jasmine, packed into a sub-5% ABV bundle. It looks innocent and calm -- pale yellow with a slight haze -- but really brings the excitement on tasting, and without using any non-standard beer ingredients.

More pub action later in the week when we get out of town. The next few posts, however, will be from behind closed doors.

No comments:

Post a Comment