17 November 2017

Amsterdam and company

Hello Amsterdam! This was the final stop on the ten-day bimble across Belgium and the Netherlands I did in September. We arrived in on a Sunday afternoon and headed straight to Beer Temple, meeting up with a friend who has recently moved to Den Haag and who joined us for the day's crawl.

I'd picked Beer Temple specifically because they had a Hill Farmstead on, and Hill Farmstead generally makes good beer. This was Florence, a saison. Except it's nothing like a saison, except maybe the cloudy pale yellow colour. It's tart, for one thing, almost like a young lambic but with extra fizz. With the tartness goes a gentle lemon zest, some dry straw and a pinch of farmyard funk, all beautifully balanced and complementary. It was hard to hold onto this one for long enough to write about it; suffice it to say it's highly enjoyable.

Also around the table there was King Gose from Hoppin' Frog. It's an especially nasty version of what should be a light and quenching style. This one is a murky orangey beige colour and smells of Jolly Rancher sweets, all artificial fruit and solvents. The texture is greasy which heightens the briny foretaste. This is followed by a worrying gastric acidity, harsh herbal aniseed, plastic and aspirin: all the wrong kinds of tang, all at once. The herbs make it taste like some Victorian medicine, like it should be good for you. It's a downright penitential beer and a travesty of gose.

Next it's X, an "extra pale ale" from California's Alesmith. It didn't have much going for it, being super sweet without any trace of bitterness. The hops bring an orange flavour which, without proper balance, make it taste like orange flavoured cake icing. At 5.25% ABV it probably thinks it's light and easy going but it's really surprisingly hard work.

Last one here before moving on is one of those dessertish confections from Evil Twin: Imperial Mexican Biscotti Cake Break. It's definitely one of the better ones, managing to blend all the constituent parts into a single coherent piece. For reference, those parts include coffee, cinnamon, almonds, cocoa, vanilla, and habanero chilli. Phew! The aroma is both rich and spicy, its impact heightened by the 10.5% ABV. The texture is thick too. Obviously cinnamon is the loudest element, but its cookie sweetness is tempered by strongly bitter coffee, while the chilli is little more than a seasoning on top of this. It's still a silly novelty beer, but a silly novelty beer that's incredibly well made.

Gollem next, and a quickie Van Vollenhoven Princesse. It's a throwback wheat beer recipe, apparently, using a mix of lager and saison yeasts and flavoured with coriander and orange peel. Once extremely popular, it lost ground to pils in the late 19th century and the original Van Vollenhoven brewery stopped brewing it in 1900. I found it crisp and simple with a pleasant green celery hop flavour. Think weissbier without the banana esters or witbier minus the herbs and fruit. It's very refreshing even if the ABV is a smidge high for that at 5.5%.

Our meanderings brought us past De Brabantse Aap at one point, a pub which was on the shortlist of great Amsterdam beer destinations when I started coming here but which you hardly hear mentioned any more. I certainly hadn't been in in years.

It shares an owner with De Bekeerde Suster, the brewpub, so serves a few of its range. Auld Sister was new to me: 5.3% ABV and allegedly an attempt at an old fashioned IPA. The ABV holds true to that at 5.3%. I couldn't say if the rest of it does, however. It is massively dry, which is certainly part of the spec, largely achieved through the huge tannic flavours. This makes it taste of stewed black tea and I confess I always like that in a beer. There's a spicy saltpetre edge which reminded me of several homebrewed red ales I've tasted: I guess it's a yeast thing, and there's lots of roast as well -- not something I'd expect in an IPA. I doubt the dark red colour would fetch it much of a price on the docks of Calcutta either. A bit of a rough diamond this, though not without its charms.

My companion was back on the American gose, this time Holy Gose from Anderson Valley. This one was much more like it. It has the classical balance of good gose with mild salt and a gentle sourness to make it easy drinking and instantly refreshing. There's also a fun Californian bonus in the hints of added tropicality: a burst of pineapple in the aroma and some sweet mango in the flavour. It's deftly done and all the better for not trying to be too clever.

The evening wound on and there was oude jenver tasting and rijsttafel: proper Amsterdam stuff. We finished at another of Peter van der Arend's pubs, near Leidseplein. Last time we were here, in 2015, it was called Jopen Proeflokaal. The tie-up with Jopen must have come to an end as it's now called 'Cause Beer Loves Food and BrewDog is the headline brewer.

We went with two from Flying Dutchman, a Finnish gypsy brewer that gets beer made in Belgium and the Netherlands. These were from a sequence they've literally called the "series of beers with weird and long names".

First is Tight Lipped Dry Humored Why So Serious Nordic Berry Sour Fruit Beer. It's 4.5% ABV and a bright purple colour, topped by lurid pink foam. Turns out it's a glass of pure jam; damson in particular, I'd say. It's altogether too sweet and claggy, with a harsh tacked-on sourness that does nothing for balance. Beer should be able to hold the drinker's attention for longer than it takes to say its name.

Beside it is Tree Hugging Wood Chopping Mother-Nature Loving IPA. This is rather better, albeit not very distinctive. It's one of those US-style IPAs that runs big on oily resinous unctuousness, with a heavy sticky body and lots of toffee malt, but also has enough bitter citrus pith incense spicing to balance it. It could pass for more than its 6% ABV and does a pretty decent job as a nightcap.

Day one in the 'Dam is down. Home tomorrow, but not before another few pubs...

16 November 2017

Everyone else

Rounding off my series on the 2017 Borefts Beer Festival with the brewers I haven't got to yet, featuring the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Spain.

As always, the house had a vast array of beers on offer: core favourites, one-offs and hacked specials. Imperial stout was a big part of the line-up, of course, and I began with Nibs & Beans. That there's coffee in this was in the programme, but I'm guessing from the name that there's cocoa too, and it's been barrel aged. For all that, it's unremarkable: the coffee flavour is light and it's more about the tarry bitterness, entirely in keeping with an imperial stout of 10.3% ABV. The barrel, whatever sort it was, makes no contribution and the whole is just simple and decent, which it's probably not meant to be.

Its companion there is Satan & Gabriel, this one with star anise and pistachio liqueur, which is a new one on me. And this time everything is as billed. The aroma gently suggests star anise, leading up to a flavour which tastes hugely of the fruit, to the exclusion of almost everything else. There's also the sharp bitterness of pistachio skins. Despite being 11% ABV there's precious little stout character in it, just a very slightly acrid dry finish. It's one of those where the beer seems almost incidental. 100% as advertised, though I'm not sure it really works.

Another barrel-aged one in the next pair: Push & Pull, described as a tiramisu stout, and again barrel aged. The aroma is promising: sweeter and boozier than might be expected at just 10.5% ABV, though perfectly to style with its mix of vanilla and coffee. Strangely the first flavour to emerge on tasting is sour cherry, quickly followed by the anticipated blend of cream, coffee and vanilla. It's quite heavy going, and once the novelty has worn off, three sips in, the drinker's attention may begin to waver. It's fun, though, in small festival-sized doses.

The paler fellow next to it is High & Mighty, a saison De Molen brewed using psychoactive plant Salvia divinorum. A fair bit of it, I'd say, because while I didn't float away with the pixies, I did get a strong herbal flavour from it: marjoram and dill, in particular, building to a courgette sort of green vegetal bitterness. Despite the amber colour of the base saison, and the substantial 6.1% ABV, it's not really part of the picture. A decent and interesting beer, overall, if the herbal gruit-ish thing is to your taste.

After two successive years at the festival, Omnipollo was absent this time around. To placate their legion of slavering adherents, up at the windmill De Molen was pouring a collaboration they'd done together: Hypnopompa. It's 11% ABV and officially designated a "marshmallow imperial stout", God help us. There's certainly a dose of Omnipollo's trademark gut-wrenching sweetness in this: that Crunchie bar flavour that ruins their Yellow Belly stout. It's held in check here, however, and ends up rich and luxurious rather than sickly sweet. Beyond the chocolate and honeycomb there's a classy waft of rosewater running through it, tempering the excesses of the malt. Definitely a sipper, however. I doubt I'd enjoy a whole bottle.

Den Haag's Kwartje brewery had a go at matching De Molen at their own game with a selection of strong and barrel-aged palate thumpers. Upgrade is the name they've given to their hacked imperial stout series, and I tried the one with chilli and cinnamon. It's perfunctory: cinnamon completely dominates the flavour, as cinnamon tends to, so there's an inescapably Christmassy vibe to it which gets old very quickly. On the end there's the a powdery rasp of dried chilli which goes some way to counteract the cookie sweetness, but far from balances it. An issue here may be that it's only 9.2% ABV: a bigger body would have made it a better, more rounded, beer I reckon. As-is it's strictly for cinnamon beer fans, assuming some exist, somewhere.

Ruby is Kwartje's Rioja-barrel-aged barley wine, with no qualms about ABV here at 14%. This one looks quite stouty but is actually red. It smells red too: fresh and summery raspberries. The flavour opens on a lushly grown-up combination of red wine and dark chocolate, adding in ripe summer fruit, and if it had stayed like that it would be great. Something goes awry with the wine barrel late on, introducing a kind of sour staleness, like a bottle of red left open too long. It puts a sharp edge on what should be a smooth and mature beer and turns it from a triumph to a narrow miss, for me.

L: Lapsang Souchong Alt;
R: Blackadder (see below)
Just one from Borefts regular Kees!: a Lapsang Souchong Alt, though it is in breach of the rule that using a classic well-defined style designation should preclude one from mucking around with the recipe. The smoke gets to work early here, with a hammy undercurrent to the grain aroma. This continues on drinking, with the dryness of a straightforward dark lager meeting a different kind of dryness from the smoke. The two don't gel together well and I kept imagining how it would have been a solid alt-style beer if they hadn't decided to add in the tea.

A new brewer whose beers caught my eye, despite his bar being relegated to a distant corner of the brewery, was Tommie Sjef, specialising in what tend to be be grouped under the broad category of farmhouse-style beers; the sort that are highly attenuated and come in 75cl bottles with minimalist labels.

He had almost sold out by the time I got there on the Friday evening, with just the flagship beer Druif left. It's described as a wild ale with red wine grapes and achieves the classic invigorating mineral kick found in good gueuze. Overlaying that is the chewy sweet grape and this time the two contrasting elements dovetail together beautifully, and all done at just 5% ABV. I thought this was at least as good as the classic red grape lambic from Cantillon, Saint Lamvinus, if not better. When Tommie was back in business the following afternoon I was straight over.

None of the others were quite as good, however. Bloesem was next, one with elderflower, the name immediately calling to mind Lindemans BlossomGeuze, a beer I didn't particularly care for. This one is dark orange in colour and exudes a pure, concentrated elderflower perfume. I quite like elderflower, so didn't mind. It's quite a light beer, both on the floral side and the tartness: well balanced, easy-drinking and refreshing, so basically all the things the Lindemans one wasn't. No spectacular fireworks here, but a very decent beer.

Blauw followed, and I love a bit of blueberry I do. It's a dark mucky red colour and eschews the bright clean flavours of the previous two to go for something much more funky, with a savoury Brettanomyces taste right at the front. The blueberry is pleasingly obvious behind this: properly juicy and sweet, though more on the syrupy concentrate side than real tart berries. Fortunately they're balanced by an assertive palate-tingling sourness. Another deftly balanced complex one this: subtle yet engaging.

My run through these was completed with Tommie Sjef's Framboos-Cassis, a beautiful clear bright red colour. It turns out that mixing raspberries and blackcurrants yields a beer that smells of redcurrants: a summery sort of tartness. On tasting it has the same three-part flavour profile as the Blauw: sourness, funk and fruit, but this time the sourness level is ramped up far too high, turning to vinegar. The fruit flavour still manages to come through past the acrid acid but on the whole it's just not as well integrated as the others.

Minor blips aside, I will definitely be looking for more from Tommie Sjef when in the Netherlands next.

I was all set now for Alvinne to wow me with their Wild West: Grape Edition, a sour ale with Primitivo grapes (10kg/hL, fact fans), barrel-aged for four months and coming out at 6% ABV. It arrived a luminous orange colour with a harmonious aroma of luscious fruit and funky Brett. It's a lot less subtle than the Sjef stuff: puckeringly sour and then slightly syrupy white grape juice. You get everything it promises, though perhaps in bigger portions than you might like. A bit more maturation would do wonders for it, I reckon.

La Pirata were flying the flag for, well, whomever they want to fly the flag for. It said "Spain" in the programme but your constitutional status may vary. I only had their Blackadder porter, a 9%-er which I found quite loud and busy. It's roasty and bitter and floral all at once, throwing out cakes and jam-filled pastries and bitter cooking chocolate, like it couldn't quite concentrate on one thing at a time. Complex, sure, but impossible to relax into, and I think this sort of beer should allow that.

Finally to Bavaria, and the wonderful Gänstaller Bräu. Yes, an Affumicator came first: it always does and always will. To register a tick with them I chose Rauch Royal, described as a smoked imperial India pale lager. My first, I believe. It smells innocently meadowy, the gentle grass and herbs of some German hop or other. The flavour offers a bizarre mix of bright flowers and heavy smoky phenols. There's a sizeable bitterness too, goaded on by a whopping 8.2% ABV. All very weird and completely mismatched, but it kind of works, at the same time: each element performs well separately and it doesn't matter that they aren't integrated. This beer wouldn't be for everyone but I enjoyed the silliness.

And so the curtain falls on Borefts 2017, still consistently the best big-but-small festival I've been to. As usual we skipped the official after-festival in Rotterdam, heading straight for the capital and its pubs.


15 November 2017

English spoken here

My third entry from Borefts 2017 concerns the breweries from the English speaking countries: England, Scotland, Ireland and the USA. Not that the beers had anything particular in common but I need to put some sort of order on this, however arbitrary.

It was Cloudwater's first outing to the festival and I expected them to be mobbed, in accordance with their current status at the top of the hype heap in British brewing. And yes there were queues but not really as big as I anticipated, given the size of the event and the profile of the clientele. On a mission to have a beer from every brewer exhibiting, I took my one from Cloudwater early on day two.

NW DIPA Galaxy was the beer in question, 9% ABV, murky of course, and smelling strongly of orange marmalade shred. The flavour is a mix of orange pith and spring onion -- quite harsh and acidic, though offset somewhat by the creamy texture. A faint burr of cardboard creeps in at the end. It's certainly big flavoured, and it hides the alcohol well, but there's a lack of finesse here, a certain roughness crying out to be polished. I wasn't getting back in line for another.

One stand to the right, and attracting almost as much attention, was our own Galway Bay Brewery. Their flower power festival special didn't involve hibiscus for once: Saison Phi was brewed with chamomile, fennel and rose petals. There's not much of the novelty about it, however. Instead you get a rock-solid classic saison, opening with juicy honeydew melon and then turning drier for a poppyseed savoury note, in addition to Belgian yeast spices. All done at just 5% ABV too. Pure quality, no messing.

Also playing the Greek letter game were Brew By Numbers who have a pilot series designated by π. π|10 was pouring here, a pear and ginger saison. I'm unconvinced about pear as a beer flavouring addition: it rarely seems to impart much. This one manages it, however, with a genuine juicy ripe pear sweetness balanced with a kick of fresh ginger. Beneath this is another rock-solid saison, bigger than Galway Bay's at 6% ABV and with a serious farmyard funk. Perhaps not much of a thirst-quencher but interesting, tasty, and not overwrought.

I also had a go of the Bermondsey brewery's coffee porter, 10|10. It's a dense black colour with a deep tan head, reflecting the ballsy 10% ABV. I was expecting something big and rounded but found it rather dry and quite acrid. There's lot of coffee in both the flavour and aroma, however it's all bitter burnt grounds instead of the lovely rich oils you get in better examples. A pass from me.

Weird Beard's strong stout was more enjoyable. They were alternating versions of Sadako imperial stout and it was the rum barrel one when I got to it. It certainly smells of dark rum though the flavour is more of a tiramisu, tempered but not dominated by dry roast. 9.5% ABV gives it a gut-sticking texture exuding belly-warming spirit vapours. Simplistic, perhaps, but it gets the job done.

Their festival special was also a stout, though only 4.2% ABV. Hippy Hating Hippie uses rose hips and cinnamon in the recipe and I had no idea what that would do. The end result is red-brown in colour and, amazingly, does not just taste of cinnamon. There's more of a black pepper quality, with just a faint floral sweetness behind. It is a little thin, but at a forgivable level as it's nicely easy drinking. Refreshing after a round of booze bombs.

Speaking of which, two heavyweight brand extensions from Beavertown next, starting with Lord Smog Almighty on the right, based on their Smog Rocket porter, barrel aged and raised to 12.7% ABV. Putting a heavily smoked beer into an Ardbeg barrel wasn't a great idea. It's insanely phenolic, TCP-laden, like Laphroaig on steroids. Too much hospital disinfectant and not enough beer here.

And if that's too light, there was also Heavy Lord, a blend of their Heavy Water imperial stout and the legendary Three Floyds Dark Lord. 14.5% ABV, so probably one to finish your session on. The flavour is pure dark chocolate: slabs of the stuff, dry and bitter. A gentler black cherry fruit helps lighten the mood and overall it's quite a charming package and far from extreme. I don't know that it's better than the sum of its parts though I liked it a lot.

Flying the flag for Scotland was Tempest whom I almost missed but I grabbed a quick glass of Bourbon Mexicake as I was finishing up. This 11.6% ABV imperial stout does exactly what the name suggests: a dry chilli burn, some sweeter cinnamon and all the sweet cake richness of a moist chocolate muffin. The bourbon element was understated but I was happy it didn't get in the way of everything else.

Borefts fixture Hair of the Dog brings this post to a close, starting with one of the core range: Blue Dot. The brewery calls it a double IPA though it's only 7% ABV. An unusual feature is the inclusion of rye in the recipe though I can't say I noticed its contribution. It has a similar sort of dense maltiness as the other strong beers from the brewery, and while the west coast hops add a spritzy jaffa foretaste, there's an earthy English quality to it as well. For a double IPA brewed in Oregon, it's remarkably balanced and mature tasting, low in bitterness and quite easy to drink.

I couldn't resist getting some Cherry Adam to go with it, a cherry-infused version of Hair of the Dog's old ale. It's blood red in colour and quite headless, smelling as syrupy as it looks. And obviously it's very heavy going; definitely a sipper at 13.5% ABV. It tasted most of all like chocolate sauce, with overtones of cherry liqueur and an edge of soy sauce autolysis. The umami-driven Samuel Adams Triple Bock sprung to mind, a beer I'm very fond of. This is similarly smooth and warming. I couldn't tell you which parts are deliberate and which, if any, were technical flaws; only that it made for damn fine drinking.

One more post from Borefts to go, this one featuring, erm, everyone else.

14 November 2017

In from the cold

Sweden, Norway and Estonia provide the beers for today's post from the 2017 Borefts Beer Festival. Närke Kulturbryggeriet attends pretty much every year and has never once, to my knowledge, supplied an advance list of what they're bringing. The flagship on their bar, or at least the one writ largest, was Oktober Märzen, not a style one would expect to compel this sort of crowd.

It's the orange-pink colour of freshly polished copper and has a wholesome bread and biscuit aroma. The taste is perfectly clean and to-style, if maybe a little low on bready malt, replacing it with a hard liquorice bitterness at the back of the throat, plus a touch of green spinach further forward. Simple and decent, it would definitely work well in larger measures, even at 6% ABV.

Närke isn't known (to me anyway) for such clean classics, going more instead for crazy recipes and way-out local ingredients. I figured Midgård Rödmölska, described as a "red Nordic braggot", was one such, although I haven't been able to find out exactly what it's made from. Though 7.6% ABV it's light and sweet and spicy, a little like a very good Irish red ale, with even a touch of roast, suggesting it owes its colour to dark malts rather than anything foraged from a Swedish hillside. There's a certain honey flavour, but it's quite subtle and there's definitely no stickiness. This is another solidly simple and enjoyable offering, and all the more surprising for that.

I haven't had a decent hemp beer in ages so made a point of getting Hello! My Name Is Hampus. I was glad I did: it absolutely nails the style, with a beautifully strong peppery flavour, as well as a real marijuana dankness in both the aroma and the finish. There's an almost burning acidity, yet it stays smooth, aided by a brown-sugar malt base and a light 5.3% ABV. But mostly it's about that white pepper. Perfect.

One beer each from two Norwegians next, both relative veterans of the scene there. Ægir were pouring Lærdøl, a sour cherry rye ale. This arrived a happy clear rosé colour but tasted of sickly cherry jam tacked crudely onto harsh malt vinegar. There's a big hit of marker-pen phenols too, resulting in the diesel flavour from headache-inducing cheap rosé wine. It's only 5.5% ABV but was still an absolute chore to drink.

Less offensive but still not brilliant was VarangerFjord, a blueberry imperial stout brought by Bakunin (see yesterday's post for more of theirs), fitting in here having been brewed as a collaboration with HaandBryggeriet. It doesn't really taste of blueberries yet is still quite desserty, smelling like a cream cake and resolving to Black Forest gateau on tasting. It's OK, but rather plain and understated. The absence of the billed fruit is a bit of a let down.

To Estonia, finally, represented by the only Estonian microbrewery that ever seems to get out and about, Põhjala. Their flower power festival special was called Power Flower and is the third one in a row to feature hibiscus. It's a Berliner weisse aged in gin barrels and also includes rose petals. All of the added features serve to remove its sour qualities leaving a candy concoction behind. Cherry sherbet dips sprang to mind, as well as Lockets throat lozenges and those wax lips sweets that have probably long since been banned. Despite the sweetness it's still quite refreshing, and enjoyable in an extremely silly way.

For something altogether more serious, Talveöö, a Baltic porter. Well okay, semi-serious, as to this stolid strong dark lager they've added coconut, cardamom and vanilla. The coconut really stands out, forming the entirety of the aroma. It's a big part of the flavour too, where there's chocolate as well. I found myself hankering a little after the clean bitterness of a classic Baltic porter and it helped that I thought of this one as more of a flavoured imperial stout. Probably best not to quibble about styles and enjoy the beer in hand, and this one is definitely enjoyable so long as you're OK with the coconut.

More Borefts tomorrow.

13 November 2017

Hello stranger!

The Borefts Beer Festival is a constantly evolving event, each year introducing a couple of changes which in aggregate mean it's a very different gig now to the first one I attended back in 2011. I missed last year so got a double dose of difference this time round. Most significant is that it's now on an all-ticket basis, and I think the absence of the casual walk-in drinkers has changed its nature and made it a little more serious and a little less festive. It was a pleasant surprise to find that its home town of Bodegraven has finally recognised its existence, and actively set out to welcome the thousands of thirsty visitors who poured off the trains and into the De Molen brewery over the two days.

The exhibitor line-up changes every year too, and 2017 offered a very pleasing array of far-flung breweries: unlikely beer countries like Hungary, Russia, Japan and Ireland all sent representatives of their microbrewing scenes.

The Hungarian brewery was Monyo Brewing, from Budapest, and that's where I started, with Flying Rabbit IPA. It's a dark and dense one, smooth of texture and rich in perfumed resins. This isn't always in an IPA's favour, but it works very well here: though the bitterness is low and there are no sharp edges, it's not overly sweet and has plenty of herbal hop character, a refreshing mintyness being the most prominent feature.

I suspect that Mahna Mahna, Monyo's New England IPA, is only a slight twist on the Flying Rabbit recipe. At 6.6% ABV it's roughly the same strength, and it shows a similar herbal quality. It is paler, however: a sickly witbier yellow. Though there's a pleasant light lemon aroma, the flavour is very sticky and sweet, with the tackiness of low-grade vanilla ice cream. I guess it fits the style spec but doesn't bring any of its positive elements.

Given that experience, I don't quite understand how later on one of us bought Yummy Mummy, a double New England IPA, 8.3% ABV, with added hibiscus, brewed especially for the festival. It's pink, of course, and has yet more of that claggy, gummy ice cream stickiness. It couples it with a truckload of garlic, in both the aroma and flavour, clashing badly with a vanilla custard sweetness. The hibiscus stays well out of the fray, contributing nothing but the blush. A bit of a mess this one, so just as well it's a one-off.

Next, to see if they fare any better with stout. Boris the Blade is a Russian imperial one at 8% ABV. Coffee is what they've gone for here, starting with the heady warm-café aroma. The flavour is that of a creamy macchiato, turning to more bitter espresso in the finish and with a caress of Tia Maria heat. The silky texture really helps with the feeling of understated elegance. It's not complex, particularly, but very enjoyable and worth taking time over. Not that I did.

Avi Cousin, Monyo's wheat wine, wasn't quite as successful. The one dimension here is alcohol. It's 10.2% ABV and an innocent pale gold colour. The aroma is all hard candy, the flavour specifying pear drops. It's full of burning booze and sugar, almost to cough mixture levels, and very tough to drink as a result. I get that they don't do subtle, but this one is far too extreme.

Before leaving the Monyo range I couldn't pass by their braggot, Anubis X Twins. They've aged this in barrels acquired from Hungary's better-known drinks industry, Tokaji. The sweet wine really does blend well with the honey and there's a complementary elderflower and Malteser character. It's smooth, clean and delightfully sippable, just like Tokaji itself, I guess.

I had never heard of Tamamura Honten Brewery (aka Shiga Kogen Beer), the Japanese representative at the festival, but I think a few other attendees had as every time I looked at their bar it was crowded. For that reason I made do with the one beer of theirs I tried early on: Snow Monkey IPA. It was very good too, only 6% ABV, murky orange in colour and massively juicy, packed with mandarin and jaffa, with a mildly acidic garlic edge, in keeping with modern sensibilities. I'd love to have tried more from here but not enough to queue for it.

Bakunin Brewery from St. Petersburg débuted at Borefts last year. The range of strong, hoppy and sour beers looked impressive on paper so I was keen to get stuck in. First up was All Inn: Citra, a 6% ABV hoppy sour blonde. It's a refreshing little number, exuding a limey Citra aroma though tasting of lemon, getting that tartness from both the hops and the sour culture. It's very easy drinking and quenches a thirst swiftly; just a shame the ABV is so high.

I thought their Mescalime Berliner weisse would do a better job, though even it is strong for the style at 4.4% ABV. And while it definitely piles in the lime flavours, it's at the expense of everything else and it just tastes of limeade and lime cordial: nothing beery about it and barely sour at all.

The sour beer they created for the festival had the audacity to describe itself as a lambic, and like Monyo's bespoke creation used hibiscus -- the theme was "Flower Power", by the way. Hibiscus Lambic is 5% ABV, a pale pink colour and opens on an unpleasant phenolic nastiness, derived I know not how. There's a decent dry and floral beer behind it, but it doesn't get much of a look-in past the harshness. I think something went wrong here.

I was similarly unimpressed with Isabella, part of their Gone Wild series of sour beers, this one brewed with grapes. It's a brown-ish red colour and tastes as dirty as it looks. I got a muddy putty or clay taste at the base, with sickly plastic overtones and a layer of harsh lavender perfume. More merciful grape juice is discernible late on, but it's far too much work to get to it. The whole thing is overwrought and unpleasant.

I gave Bakunin their last chance with затмение (zatmenie, "eclipse"), their imperial milk stout with cocoa. It's not as difficult as Isabella, but once again there's too much going on. There's a surprisingly powerful bitterness, for one thing, and then a peppery incense flavour which seems very out of place, as does the savoury caraway and cardamom flavour. It's seriously lacking in chill and isn't as gentle and relaxing as the description promises. It's not flawed, however, and I'm sure someone with more of a taste for busy imperial stouts would like it.

Last brewery for today's post is a Swede that's new to me: Stigbergets. Their seven-beer selection was made up almost entirely of IPAs, of which I tried two. West Coast, on the right of the picture, is 6.5% ABV and appropriately pale and hazy. It has a beautiful fresh lemonade flavour, starting bitter, turning resinous, and moving on to become spicy and peppery. Stimulating stuff. The finish is a mouth-watering rush of citrus juice. It's a fantastic example of how to pack flavour into a beer of this style without resorting to gimmicks or higher gravities.

Speaking of which, Business As Usual beside it is 7% ABV. It's the same hazy yellow colour but is thicker and the flavours altogether more sluggish. There's a bathsalts quality to it all: lavender, violet and chalky talcum. The fresh fireworks of the previous beer are absent. Again it's one that probably turned out as the brewer intended and fits the profile of an American IPA. Its sibling throws some serious shade on it, however.

And with those two toes dipped in the water of Nordic brewing at Borefts 2017, tomorrow's post will look at more from up there.

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.

08 November 2017

Bruges, properly

I had been to Bruges three times previously, once even (just) within the purview of this blog. But there remained the nagging knowledge that I'd never done it properly: I had never stayed over and had never been to the famous Brugs Beertje pub. That was high on the list to be rectified on this trip. The other specific draw I'll get to later, but first, time for a beer.

We rolled into town early on a Monday afternoon and the only place of interest that was open was Café Rose Red, one of the well-reputed beer destinations in the city, and another I'd never been to before. It's a bright and smart little bar attached to the Hotel Cordoeanier. The beer list isn't exhaustive, but it's impressive and looks conscientiously chosen.

I went for Cuvée des Jacobins to begin, a Flemish red. Very red, it turned out: a clear deep ruby shade. It's extremely tart, with an enamel-stripping vinegar acidity. The burn lasts all the way through, into a long finish, and isn't especially pleasant. There's only a slight puff of black cherry to lighten the mood. This beer really lacks the finesse of the better versions of the style. If you just want raw sourness then it might be for you.

An IPA to follow: Jack's Precious from Musketeers, the first of their beers I've had that isn't part of the Troubadour series. It's 5.9% ABV and a hazy gold colour with a quite off-putting sickly aroma. The flavour is beautiful, however: a stern green-leaf hop bitterness first, calming down quickly to give a juicy peach middle, before tailing off cleanly. It is still sweet, but I guess that's Belgium for you. Nothing about this is overdone, however. It's an IPA of classy restraint.

And so to 't Brugs Beertje. Whiffs a bit, doesn't it? Has Febreeze technology not yet reached Belgium? The cramped little bar was packed on a Monday night but we managed to secure a couple of seats in the front parlour.  I had De Zwaret Zwaan, brewed at Proef for the Brugs Bierinstituut. I'm guessing that stout is the style they're pitching for as it's black with a generous tan head and blends dark coffee roast with sweeter mocha in the flavour. The finish is a burnt ashen dryness that would be harsh in a lighter beer but, with 8% ABV and a big chewy body to balance it, works very well here. This is a lovely rich and comforting sipper.

Fort Lapin is one of the handful of breweries in and around Bruges. The missus picked Fort Lapin Quadrupel for hers. I wrote about their tripel back in 2013, finding it quite heavy for the style. The opposite is true for the quadrupel. A chestnut brown colour, it's light and gently perfumed with no alcohol heat: especially surprising at 10% ABV. A sandalwood spicing adds some complexity, but it's no palate thumper, and probably a better beer for that.

The evening ended there, and first thing on Tuesday we went to find the other thing that had drawn me to Bruges.

There seems to be a movement among Belgium's bigger brewers in recent years to create visitor experiences. Duvel Moortgat has one at the De Koninck plant in Antwerp now, while Van Honsebrouck has begun inviting punters to its impressive Bierkasteel. Back in April I heard that John Martin's had set up something similar for its Bourgogne des Flandres brand in Bruges and immediately wanted to take a look. And here we are.

The Bourgogne des Flandres Brewery opened in 2015 in a pretty little courtyard down a Bruges side-street, within sight of the Belfort which adorns their labels. The company claims the site is just 50 metres from one of the historic breweries that originated Bourgogne des Flandres before being amalgamated into a single local brewery, Den Os, which closed in 1957. The brand found its way to Martin's in the 1990s when it acquired the Timmerman's lambic brewery. The new site houses a museum which tells the whole story, a canalside café offering a range of Martin's beers, and a small but smart modern brewery. A real live brewer is always on duty to greet visitors and answer questions.

Bourgogne des Flandres isn't actually made here but they're only cheating slightly. It's a blend of strong brown ale, Bruinen Os, and a specially-created weak Timmerman's lambic. The facility in Bruges only produces the former, which is then tankered away for blending and packaging at headquarters, though it is available for tasting in the bar.

I'd already had it so went for a Martin's IPA, which was new to me. This is a glorious golden amber colour, clearly made for drinking on the terrace. There's a tart marmalade aroma but quite a sweet flavour, showing the hallmarks of Belgian candy. The slightly sticky texture goes along with that and it's not terribly far from a Belgian blonde ale, though without the spices. At 6.9% ABV it's no lightweight, and the alcohol becomes increasingly apparent as it warms. So too does a dry tannic bite which helps make it more refreshing than one might expect. Like most of the Martin's beers it's a decent, clean and unfussy beer, well-made if lacking in bells and whistles.

Moving on, the next venue off the tick list was De Garre, a poky two-storey pub down a hidden alleyway. Tripel de Garre is the house beer, available all across Belgium but I'd never tried it. It's strong even for a tripel at 11% ABV, presenting a clear dark orange colour with a full and creamy mouthfeel. Orange peel is the dominant note, sweet at first but turning more pleasantly bitter after a moment or two. The alcohol kicks in with that, however, and it turned too hot and boozy for my liking. There's a lovely set of typical tripel flavours in here, but the alcohol is suffocating them.

We dropped by Cambrinus when we were passing, which is more of a restaurant than a bar but they tolerated us just having drinks. There are two house beers: Cambrivinus Huisbier Blonde which is 7% ABV and a beautiful mix of honey and pineapple flavours. It's a little syrupy but the sweetness is offset by a beeswax bitter finish. And Cambrivinus Huisbier Bruin which is much plainer fare, a pale garnet colour and lightly caramelly with a faint whisper of hop bitterness. Balanced to the point of boring.

The last bar for today is Le Trappiste, not the oasis of contemplative calm implied by the name, but a slightly scuzzy metal-soundtracked cellar bar. You order and pay for your drinks at the bar like some kind of savage. I went with Homo Beerectus Peculiar Pupil, a lager with added hibiscus, which is therefore a purpleish-pink colour. I had initially thought it was done with cherries as there's a certain tart and jammy red fruit quality. There's a major savoury element as well, poppyseeds in particular. The flavours don't sit well with each other and the whole is quite an uncomfortable mix of clashing tastes.

No such qualms with Della Fonte Robust Porter, and how odd to stumble across an Italian beer in a Belgian bar. It's 6.6% ABV but tastes like more, with a big liquorice bitterness and swathes of warm roasted grain. A floral lavender element adds a lighter touch and the creamy smooth body helps make it sinkable and satisfying. Clearly this recipe has been conscientiously designed to exhibit all the things that make porter enjoyable, at which it very much succeeds.

For a nightcap here's whisky-infused Waldorph from De Vierkante Meter, a soupy cocktail of phenols and autolysis tasting as bad as it looks. There's no head and the body is a murky muddy brown colour. The saline scotch whisky is detectable but it adds nothing positive to the whole picture. This stuff is grim drinking and unlikely to lead to restful sleep. Here's to a brighter third day in Bruges, next.