10 May 2018

Get innovative!

And the winner of the Most-Overstated Beer Festival Name goes to... "Leuven Innovation Beer Festival", for the fourth year running. I spent a long afternoon here but didn't really see what was so innovative about it. The format was perfectly sound: organised by Belgian microbrewer Hof ten Dormaal, hosted in the former Stella Artois brewery, now an exhibition centre, and featuring 17 breweries from across Europe plus a couple of American ones, all mostly pouring a selection of their beers from bottles.

My journey began at the sole German representative, Schwarzwald Gold, from the south-eastern corner of the country. And I will admit that Pomme D'Or, a beer made with apples and fermented with cider and champagne yeast, does carry at least some air of innovation. I've certainly never had anything like it. It's around the 8% ABV mark, and has the funk aroma of a heavy aged cider. The flavour mixes juicy sweet cider with a damp, autumnal funk, finishing on a crisp note of wheat. It's odd, carrying influences from both cider and weissbier. It's tasty too: complex and warming, like it has been pre-mulled. Pleasingly it's still identifiable as a German weizenbock, despite all the... well... innovation.

Next door was Birrificio Sorrento which had a couple of grape ales on the go, and it's my new rule to never pass an Italian grape ale by. I started on Elèa which was 7.5% ABV, a medium amber colour, and exceedingly plain; disappointingly so, in fact. There's a helles-like sweetness and only the fainest hint of grape must. Definitely not what the style demands.

I had higher hopes (it wouldn't be hard) for their other one, Ligia. This is a lighter 6% ABV and spicy like a tripel. Not a bad beer in and of itself, but there was no trace at all of grape, so I was even more let down by this one. I guess if I drink enough of any style I'll eventually find examples I don't like, but to be honest it genuinely never occured to me that it could happen with Italian grape ales. Innovation again.

I was back at Sorrento towards the end of my visit to try one more: Syrentum, a saison with local lemons in the recipe. There's a bubblebath aroma but fortunately no soap in the flavour. Instead there's an intense lemon zing; very real, like homemade lemonade with all the bits in. Once again the style guide is thrown out the window, but this one at least tastes nice, and at 5.5% ABV is well capable of refreshment on a balmy Campanian evening.

South Plains is a brewery that's easily mistaken for an American but is actually Swedish. Its yee-ha Brett IPA is called Hophead Harry, coming in at a modest 5.5% ABV. I wasn't a fan. This one is horribly, cloyingly sweet, opening with a shock of sharp perfume, before proceeding to an artificial floral candy: think Parma Violets or Rhubarb-and-Custards, '80s kids. It's cloying and difficult, the Brett doing nothing to clean (or dirty) up its sugary excesses. A hard pass from me.

Randomly to Poland next, and Browar ReCraft, from near Katowice. Milkołak ICE is, as the name implies, a milk stout. And it's fine. A little strong for one of these at 6% ABV, but with the appropriate sweet condensed-milk aroma, and a flavour which balances that with dark roast and husky cereal grain. Straightforward, boring perhaps, depending how you take to milk stouts, but on-point as far as I was concerned.

The UK was represented by Vibrant Forest, a south coast brewery I'd heard of but never encountered. I went with Dahlia from their selection, a Chardonnay barrel-aged sour beer with added Brettanomyces: you know, like everyone is making these days. It looked like wine, being a pale yellow-green and quite flat. My first impression was of Fino sherry: that slightly sharp, salty, almost vinegar-like edge, then spicy oak and sour green grape. As in many a well-made beer of this genre, the Brett doesn't come on very strongly, adding little more than a sprinkling of funk; a seasoning. Classy stuff, this, if just a little un-beer-like.

Lo Vilot, the Spanish brewery, had a wide selection on offer. I went with Psicocherry, a light, soured, cherry beer, and it's probably the reason I didn't try any of their others. It's plain and watery, candy sweet, with an unsubtle sourness tacked on to the end. I got the impression of a brewery trying to be on trend but not really getting how to do it. This did not compare favourably with the beer that preceded it.

From Moscow, the alarmingly named Red Button brewery. Soledad was my one from them, an IPA with Thai blue tea and lychee. The aroma is floral and enticing, while the soft and sweet lychee really comes to the fore in the flavour. The main contribution of the tea is turning the whole thing a vivid purple colour. Overall it's clean and refreshing, not bursting with hop flavour, but at 5% ABV that's somewhat excusable. This is decent overall, confining its gimmickry to the colour.

On Europe's eastern frontier, in the Ural mountains, you'll find Crazy Brew. I gave their Russian Imperial Stout a spin, of course. There's a gorgeous café crème aroma from this 11%-er but it unravels after that, turning too sweet at first, and then slightly plasticky. I couldn't pinpoint anything specific that had gone wrong with it, it just didn't taste right to me.

Let's stay with imperial stouts from points eastern and check out Tumaine, also 11% ABV and hailing from Estonia's Pühaste brewery. There's coffee in it, though that wasn't apparent to me from the flavour, which starts on gentle chocolate and rosewater then builds gradually, aided by an incredibly dense texture, to liquorice and other medicinal herbs. There's quite a lot of alcohol heat, combining with the thick slickness to make it a kind of liqueur. It's an intense experience, but not necessarily a great one, lacking finesse.

Possibly my favourite name of the festival was Anarkriek by local outfit 't Hofbrouwerijke. It's not a kriek, however, but a porter with cherries, a big-hitter at 8.5% ABV. There's a very interesting contrast in the mix of dry roast and sweet cherry liqueur chocolate. Then it's let down by a savoury autolytic twang and a faint vinegar burn. This may have been left in the fermenter longer than was good for it, but there's potential for greatness here.

I got more cherries from Nacht, a dark ale by Purpose Brewing in Colorado, yet it wasn't brewed with cherries. It appears to have been brewed with damn near everything else, though: coconut, orange peel, vanilla beans, grains of paradise and wood aged. As well as the cherries I found chocolate, hazelnut and raisin in abundance, like a boozy liquid version of a Cadbury's Fruit & Nut bar. Beautiful.

The Purpose beer that garnered most attention on the day was called Smoeltrakker #68. Assuming it has been honed through 67 previous iterations, that's hardly surprising. The base is a sour blonde ale and it has then been aged in bourbon barrels -- how innovative! The end result is beautiful, however: bright and spicy oak, perfumed with incense-like cedar notes, overlaying a mild cleansing tartness. This is no show-off, there's nothing extreme or overdone about it; just perfect balance and harmony. Maybe 9.1% ABV is excessive, but I'll live with it.

The other American brewery was the intriguingly named Pen Druid, out of Sperryville, Virginia. From their offer I picked Telemachus, a 7.5% ABV sour murky brown thingy. There's some herbal aniseed in with the sharp acidity, but also lots of dreggy yeast fuzz. Clean it up and you might have a halfway decent Flemish oud bruin, otherwise I'm not sure what it's supposed to be, only that I don't particularly like it.

It's sour here on out: I guess that's all you need to make to be considered innovative these days. Swiss brewery Trois Dames were at the show and their line-up included Fiancée (Chasselas), a sour saison with grapes. Sounds promising! It's a pale yellow colour and quite assertively tart, with close to a vinegar edge. Fortunately a juicy complexity in the background goes a long way to offset this, though more in a tropical fruit style than wine grapes. Once you get used to it it's quite easy to settle into; pleasant if not spectacular.

The brewery's more spectacular one was the spontaneously fermented Sauvageronne, which had a kick of real lambic about it: from the flat murky orange look to the saltpetre spiced flavour, with a rounded oaky smoothness from the wine barrels it was matured in. The lambicness shouldn't be surprising as the brewery did blend in some Oud Beersel beer years ago, at the beginning of the long-drawn-out solera ageing process. While the painstaking blending and re-blending paid off -- the beer is great -- it's still a little too vinegary to sit side-by-side with Pajottenland's finest.

With night falling and the pubs of Leuven calling, my final beer token went on Weelde, another lambic-a-like, this time from Dutch breweries Oersoep and Nevel, in collaboration. As well as the spicy bricky nitre, there's a lot of tangy fruit, and grapefruit in particular. It's cleansing, invigorating, and like the Smoeltrekker above, quiet and respectful, without being any way boring. The perfect reset beer ahead of the evening's second phase.

Whatever about the innovation aspect, this festival was great for showing me corners of the brewing world I'd never encountered previously. Thanks also go to the guys from Galway Bay, also exhibiting, for the occasional between-ticks tasters. One more wrap-up post to come before we depart.

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