08 May 2018

Some light pubbing

A random assortment of beers and bars from my recent Belgian trip in today's post, beginning with an icon. Fresh off the plane I stopped in the splendid Halles de Saint-Géry market hall for a bite to eat. The bar had a few options from Heineken's Belgian arm but I went straight for the flagship, Maes Pils. The best thing about it was the ribbeke glass: no pissing about with chalices here. It tastes sweetly of maize first, finishing on a drier husk. The carbonation is far too high making for prickly and uncomfortable drinking. I got a slight smoky staleness as well. Not an experiment I need to repeat.

There was another golden beer in the fridges at the meeting venue the following day: 100 PAP by 3 Fontaines, a brewery which I can't believe hasn't been forced to change its name by a certain lambic producer. This one was produced as a fundraiser by a migrants' charity and I understand has changed styles since its inception. It's now a blonde ale, or possibly even a pale ale, at 6% ABV. There's a lovely tropical aroma showing mango and pineapple. The flavour is clean and dry, quite lagerlike, with a little crisp caraway seed and some sweeter peach. Simple and decent fare, overall.

You want some wow factor? How about Jester Zinne, the collaborative sour saison from De La Senne and Jester King? How about Jester Zinne for €15 a bottle in Le Coq instead of the €32 that Moeder Lambic was asking for it? It's a modest 5.9% ABV and begins fruitily with fresh and juicy apricot, laced with oily coconut and followed with enough of a bricky gueze kick to make it taste more like a lambic than a saison. It's beautiful stuff, balancing the fruit and aged sourness perfectly, kind of like a junior edition of Cantillon's Fou'foune.

Friday lunch, as is becoming routine for these meetings, was spaghetti at Monk. They've just launched their very own house beer, Strandhut, brewed by the bar staff in collaboration with Stadsbrouwerij 't Koelschip in Ostend. It arrived to the table in a large bottle, a muddy pale amber colour and failing to form a head on pouring. I asked one of its co-creators what style they were going for and got a Klompian shrug in response. I'll call it a Belgian blonde ale so. Even more worrying, asking about the ABV elicited the same annoyed grumbling. "About 6%" he said, adding they didn't really record it accurately. It's quite a thin beer, but pleasantly bitter and spicy, with the level of herbs and lemon rind you might find in a witbier or even a tripel. As a food accompaniment it could definitely have benefitted from a heftier body; as a cheapish house beer: yeah, sure, why not?

Compare and contrast with the beer for dinner that evening, in the cosy embrace of first-rate beer restaurant Nüetnigenough. M'colleague Dr John had picked De Ranke's Guldenberg from the menu for us, a proper tripel of 8% ABV. This is an especially dry version of the style, lacking the honey and candy they often show, and replacing them with grain husk and white pepper. There's a certain apple and grape quality in the middle but it reverts to type in the end, turning acidic. It's a bit of a workout to drink, but I enjoyed the challenge and would come back for more.

The big discovery of the trip was Gist, a recently-opened beer bar not far from Grand Place and Centraal station. We visited a couple of times, enjoying the excellent beer selection and the laid-back vibe which will hopefully continue as it becomes more famous, but probably won't. Funnily enough, at the last EBCU meeting in Milan, I encountered Stradaregina's Sourflowers 02. And here in Brussels for the next one I found Sourflowers 01, the elderflower one. I didn't get much elder from it but there was a gorgeous brett-apricot aroma, and a flavour mixing peaches and gunpowder on a puckering tart base. It's not far off the level of excellence found in Jester Zinne and I'm glad it seems to be a longterm beer that travels. Grab it if you see it.

Gist had two cask engines on the go, but sadly neither was pouring lambic. I had a glass of Psycho, the table beer from local producer No Science. It's a pale yellow colour and at once spicy and flowery, beginning on honeysuckle and incense and ending with a hard kick of citrus and wax. At 4% ABV they've pushed through the limit of what constitutes a table beer, I reckon, though it does deliver that simple yet complex mix of farmyard flavours that the style is all about.

For his part, John went with Excuse Me While I Kiss My Stout (2018 edition) by Hedonis Ambachtsbier, a Belgian client brewer with which I'm not familiar. It was an 8.2% ABV imperial job with added mint, maple and hazelnut. For all that it wasn't overly sweet, balancing the syrup with bitterness and real coffee, and never getting too thick or hot. It's a balanced sort of pastry stout.

I finished that evening on a Canadian beer, Dunham's Berliner Passion Weisse. The aroma of this is pure sugary passionfruit but the flavour is bizarrely sharp, almost vinegary. It doesn't go all the way there, thankfully, keeping plenty of fruit around to offset the acidity. There's not much going on between its two facets, but what's there is enjoyable.

The inevitable few rounds in Moeder Lambic Fontainas began on yet another new house beer, Moeder Every Day by Jandrain-Jandrenouille. Like the earlier table beer, this is 4% ABV and a pale blonde, showing just a slight haze. Lemon zest emerges first, backed by crisp lagery grains. A tiny bitter yeast kick adds Belgian complexity, but that's as advanced as it gets. It's a beer that's not designed to be pored over or thought about, and I guess even Moeder Lambic has to have one of those on the list.

100 років УНР ("100 Years of the Ukranian National Republic") from Pravda in Lviv had a whiff of more than just nationalism about it. This is a strong stout of 8.5% ABV, densely black in colour with a tan head and smelling harshly of old cigarette smoke. The flavour was surprisingly sweeter, the ash turning to more avuncular pipe tobacco, plus a solid base of chocolate and treacle bread. This is strong yet subtle, and surprisingly easy to drink.

John, meanwhile, opted for Heavy Porter, another No Science offering. It's fairly classic in the way it's constructed, beginning on chocolate, adding in some meadowy floral hops, and finishing quickly and cleanly. This too is dangerously easy drinking, at a not inconsiderable 6% ABV.

I just had a quick sip of someone else's √225 (not pictured), a saison from Swiss brewery BFM. A sip was enough to know it's absolutely terrible, with a harshly concentrated vinegar acidity that's simply painful to drink, or even to smell. Moving on swiftly...

... to the much more friendly-sounding Imperial Hoppy Berliner Weisse from Mont Salève. It's oranges all the way here, from the colour through to the sweet orangeade flavour, complete with a pithy bitterness, leading to a tang of aspirin. The sour side is very mild, and the overall picture is refreshing and fun, more like a tart pale ale than a Berliner weisse. I was shocked to discover it's a full-on 9% ABV, so at least the "imperial" bit holds up.

My companion's finisher was Adelardus by Kerkom, one he knew but I didn't. It's a straight up dubbel at 7% ABV, a dark wine-red colour with a vinous aroma to match. The flavour is much more typical, indeed spot on: cereal and caramel form the foundation, overlaid with bass notes of plum and raisin, then ripe red cherries on the treble. It's rich, smooth and remarkably warming at the relatively low strength.

I'll come back to our other Brussels venue -- another brewery -- in tomorrow's post, but after finishing up here it was off to Leuven. A quickie Saturday night pub crawl began with exemplary glasses of Stella (don't laugh) in the raucous but wonderful Café In Den Ouden Tijd opposite the station, and finished on disappointment at De Blaue Kater, which has moved from its dark and cosy alleyway to a new location across town where it has evolved into a grand multistorey pub and venue. In between there was M-Café.

This modern bar at the front of the city museum was very quiet when we rocked in. It wasn't want of fancy beer that was keeping the punters away: my first was from Warpigs, their Snack Family pale ale. It's a murky orange colour and smelled fabulous, all zesty and spicy. That proved deceptive, as the flavour was disappointing: some mild jaffa, a touch of caraway, but that was it. I got through my glass OK, and enjoyed the part right before each sip. I was left unthrilled, however.

Something even more bro-ish for John: Spacelord, a coffee imperial stout by a Belgian brewer delighting in the name Malterfakker. It was another poor effort, heavy and sticky, lacking the fresh coffee flavour it needed to brighten it, doubling down on syrup and putty. Far too much hard work at this time of night.

I'll get to the beer festival we went to in Leuven later in the week, once I finish with Brussels in tomorrow's post.

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