Sunday, July 23, 2006

A new beer that has recently appeared on the shelves with little fanfare is Mort Subite's Oude Gueuze a l'ancienne, which in essence means it is a traditional gueuze made with a portion of aged lambic. What makes this significant is not the quality of the beer itself, which is average as far as gueuzes go, rather its the fact that it is the first new authentic lambic to be marketed in Belgium since 2003 with the introduction of De Cam. This beer has been available exclusively at the Mort Subite cafe in Brussels where it is served in 75cl bottles as "Gueuze sur Lie".

Oude Gueuze is available at a variety of everyday grocers in Brussels along with their diluted and sweetened gueuze, frambois, kriek and peche. Though not as bad as the Belle Vue brand, these fruit lambics are not for the connoisseur.

My own tasting notes indicate an accomplished gueuze on the dry side, with good acidity but lacking in depth and complexity. The beer doesn't stay on the palate very long like the better gueuzes do. It is worth a try, but I wouldn't go out of my way for it.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

It's been a long time since I've blogged about beer, but here's a few good rare
beers that one should look out for, but don't expect to find them outside of the their respective areas that frequently.

I've noticed a surge in popularity of Saison-style beers with lower alcohol and a crisp bitterness. This is welcome to me since big beers can grow tiresome very fast if you aren't up for swift buzz. One of these comes from a rather new brewery called Brasserie de la Senne and is called "Betchard". It comes in 75 CL bottles and weighs in at 5.5% alcohol by volume, which means even the wussiest of beer drinkers should be able to polish one off by him or herself. It's got a bright golden glow to it with a haziness that starts the mouth watering right away. The aroma is stiff, spicy and slightly wild, somewhat like an Orval. It is lively in the glass, but the head was nothing to scream about. What I liked about sipping this beer was the long hop character that was never to strong, but strung out on your toungue like falling spider: smooth as silk, but you just never know where its going to go, or when its going to stop. This is a promising beer from a brewery that makes a few more beers that I have to try.

The beer that is pleasing my palate as I write this is from Lorraine, picked up on a trip to Burgundy over a long weekend during which we had to make an emergency stop in the lovely city of Nancy, probably the most underrated city in France. This one is called the Duchesse de Lorraine and owes a lot of its style to an Amber bock. It is just that, Amber, super malty, but dry with just enough hops to keep the finish alive. It is a great Spring beer and again at just 5.5% one that I would drink lots of could I find it here in Belgium. It is brewed by Les Brasseurs de Lorraine ( who make a number of other beers, one of which I have in my cellare and hope to review shortly.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The second installment of my blonde analysis features 3 samples with quite different characteristics. They might look similar and saturate your brain at about the same rate, but they couldn't be any more different from each other if you pay attention to the details hidden behind the lustrous golden hue.

The first one on the list is by far the worst of the lot. Abbaye des Bonne Esperance by Brasserie Lefebvre, the makers of the Floreffe range which has severely deteriorated since it sent me into orgasmic shock once in the early nineties, left me feeling a bit empty inside. This one had a deep hue, more of a dishwater blonde than a true specimen. It had a malt balance without so much as a whisper of hops, yet the malt seemed lacking, hence leaving the beer as a whole lacking in kind. Overall I would describe the flavor as crisp and perhaps masked without any defining characteristics. Following all this up in the finish was a mildly unappetizing tartness that smacked of heavily diluted apple cider vinegar. Now the more astute reader might point out correctly that I had rated this beer four gleaming stars once upon a time. This is true. I had it in a 14th century cellar bar in Tournai a few years back when it was a new line and came only in 75cl corked bottles. The beer has recently shown up the local grocer in 33's and seems to have lost a few of its dimensions.

Corsendonk Agnus is a blonde only because it fits the bill but says nothing of its pedigree on the bottle. An Abbey beer by marketing status, it can often be found in its original half-rubbed-off painted bottles rather than the later paper incarnations. This is a beer that, maybe due to its slightly higher price, I've passed over many times while grabbing my fix. No more will this one fly under my radar. A bright yellow-gold in color with a fluffy head and beaucoup aroma, it is just begging to be downed like a Pabst or two in 1 inch tubing. Actually, its in a different class altogether and shouldn't come into contact with automotive grade polyethylene at any stage in its consumption. A bready, honeyish aroma wafts pleasantly from the froth and again on the palette as it passes smoothly over it. Another malt-balanced blonde, but this time with much more to fill in the gaps. It finishes a bit thin, but not in a negative way, more in a refreshing gotta-have-another-sip sort of way. The other aspects to the beer are the delicious citrus notes and a mild tartness to accompany them. Not an outstanding beer, but one worth a serious sampling to enjoy a fresh perspective on blondes.

Though not admittedly a blonde, St. Bernardus Triple doesn't really attain enough strength to enjoy true triple status at a mere 7.5% by volume. A fine beer by any standards, however, and one which deserves a sampling if you can find it. This one pours a bit flatter than most and seems to blow chunks into the glass no matter what you do. These only add to the rustic allure of its off-color robe. This one borders on Amber, but as enough true blonde appeal to hang out with them. In fact it's more of a light, light, light brown than anything else. It assaults the nose with honey and sweet spices such as nutmeg while going all-out malt and honey on the palette. It is extremely soft in the process and finishes clean without too much distinction. It is loaded with short-term flavor however and more than satisfies.

Now for an entry from the Barbarian half of Belgium, the Flemish, who have a truckload of blondes themselves. A beer that might easily fool an unsuspecting tool like myself is HAPKIN (8.5%) from the corporate giant Alken Maes. An endorsement from Michael Jackson on the bottle sells it shamelessly. Michael states "HAPKIN has a very good, fresh, flowery Saaz hop aroma; a very big creamy head, a soft malt character, and a spritzy, perfumy fruitiness drying toward the finish." Now, my mom taught me that if you can't find something nice to say then don't say anything at all. When paid, however, it is of course acceptable to make stuff up that sounds nice. I imagine Michael's spew here wasn't an entirely soulful analysis based on my humble first impression. Replace "fresh and flowery" with "sulfury and green" and we begin to approach the truth. Perhaps with a bit more time in the bottle this will subside, but this is a bottom-shelf blonde, not one from the connoisseurs corner. Though somewhat malt-balanced it has a distracting hop flavor that doesn't really work well with the overall theme. It is more of a sharply oxidized flavor than a spritzy, perfumy fruitiness. There is nothing remotely like that in this beer and should be stricken from the record. In fact, I've already spent too much time writing about this beer and will gladly end it here.

Monday, January 09, 2006

In Belgium and France beer consumers, and certainly brewers, are not as concerned with styles as one might be in the U.S. or even Germany. Often styles refer to nothing more than a beer's relative strength, as in the dubbel and triple designations, yet these style designations have come to imply other more specific characteristics, even ingredients, based on a particular beer that exemplifies the style. Westmalle's Trappist beers a perfect examples of this; Westmalle Triple is by far the most common triple on any Belgian menu and is truly a world class beer. It is however, not the only excellent triple and recipes for triple shouldn't be limited to the "one malt one hop" style that appears so commonly in the literature. Another misconception is that triples are inherently underhopped, but one sip of a fresh Westmalle triple will squash that notion.

At least one major style category, and probably the most confusing of the lot, is based on how the line is marketed. I refer to the well known Abbey classification which includes names such as "Pater" and "Prior" that do nothing to help the consumer. Does an Abbey beer have to be strong? Does it have to be a certain color?
No, it can be whatever it wants to be within reason; you will never see a sour beer or a stout masquerading as an Abbey beer. Another common type of style category is based on general color, as in the Blondes and the Brunes. These are everywhere in Belgium and often a brewery will only produce these two styles along with a seasonal or two.

One of my favorite styles is the Blonde (Blond in Flemish). I really love this beer for a number of reasons. The most important reason for me is that I know it is going to be good 90% of the time. The comptetion in this category is fierce and brewers know this. There are so many good blondes out there that one can easily go to a specialty store and walk out with 20 different labels and usually find a couple of new ones in the lot each time. All of them will be drinkable, only a few of them will not be worth drinking again. A lot of beers that are blondes call themselves something else which adds even further to the crop. If a blonde is not obvious by the name, such as "Super des Fagnes Blonde", often it will at least throw you a bone with the tag "Bière Blonde" somewhere on the bottle.

Reason number 2 is that Blondes exemplify the finest qualities a beer can posess, in my opinion. The brewing technique must be sound as it is impossible to get away with defects. A proper balance between hops, malts, and herbs must be achieved or the whole thing collapses. Finally, the beers often let the essential malt character shine through, accented nicely by fermentation by products, spices, hops and often a little house character.

Reason number 3 is that they are beautiful to look at, often cloaked in a deep golden robe that one rarely sees outside Germany, Belgium or France. American beers and the British styles they are based on are mostly either amber and up or the color of a barfly's urine. Blondes can be anywhere from the color of Budweiser to a soft peachy amber color, yet the deepness of color does not imply a corresponding richness of flavor. A straw-colored Bush Blonde at 11% has more than enough flavor to sip cautiosly for an hour.

In the following articles I'm going to highlight some of my favorite blondes and recommend some other blonde's with similar characteristics that, if you like beer A, you might also like beers B, C, and D. I certainly won't get through all the blonde's in Europe but I'm sure it will be more than enough to keep your cellar full.

The Blonde I'm drinking while I write this is a sample from Lorraine in France called "La Bière a frometon - Bière a Fromage" which is a curious name that means, of course, "Beer with Cheese". I guess this implies that it should be eaten with a good French cheese, of which there is no varietal shortage in these parts to stimulate the senses. I picked it up at a market in Metz for about 6 Euros (750ml corked bottle).

The beer has a lovely golden hue with a fluffy white head that lasts reasonably well. The aroma is of high-quality malt and baking spices: vanilla and nutmeg specifically. There is virtually no hop aroma. The first quality that I notice when sipping it is the mouthfeel, which is substantial and yet soft enough to work with the flavors. It immediately seemed to have a bit more body than most blondes I've had the pleasure of knowing. The flavor does not disappoint. It evolved over the 3 glasses I've poured from slightly astringent to spicy and mildly tart, and finally to soft and malty with a lasting aftertaste of sweet spices. In these flavors are to be found the heart and soul of a blonde, a beer that can yield so much from so little in the kettle. Honest malt character, a hint (and I mean just a hint, perhaps a suggestion) of acidity, honey, citrus, vanilla and yes a mere presence of hops to balance it all out. Other beers with the same general characteristics that I would recommend are Barbar, Biere des Ours, and Quintine Blonde to name but a few. More to come in other tastings.


Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Authentique Brasserie in Blaton, Namur Province, is a brewery with a very standard range of styles and a rather bland label. I had not seen these labels before on the shelf, nor had I seen them on any menus, so I figured I'd take the plunge and buy the whole series. A typically unsystematic and highly qualitative review of the beers willl surely follow. I don't plan on drinking them all in one sitting, however, so I can assure a relatively centered approach.

Blonde - Alc. 6.9%
Apparently inpired by some of the best blondes in the region, and it has fairly stiff competition to be sure, this one is a joy. The head didn't exactly make me want to nap in it like some, but it had a nice carbonation level with a decent fluff. the aroma was of malt and honey, while the flavor rolled over my tounge with much of the dry, malty, ever-so-slightly fruity and bready character of a Saison style, though this is still far enough away from that style to retain a simple blonde designation. Few hops, and a lasting honeyish aftertaste support that as well and make for a highly drinkable product.

Ambrée - Alc. 6%
Inspired by some of the more average ambers in the country, this one just didn't seem to do it for me in any way. Dry but not hoppy, smooth but not malty, and spicy but not interesting, it is one that I certaily wouldn't recommend seeking out. It must be a flavor profile that some folks like as there seems to be plenty of ambers like it around, but I don't know these people.

621 (Brune) - Alc. 7%
A light and mildly fruity brune with the requisite amount of carmelized candy sugar, but also with 6 different malts. It is a classic example of underachievement with over-use of ingredients. Why use 6 different malts when you can get more flavor from one? It is a very well-balanced and drinkable beer, but doesn't give you anything you couldn't find in 200-odd other beers out there.

Triple - Alc. 9.5%
Quite frankly the easy winner of the lot, and not just because it is full of flavor, but because it is just different enough from other triples to seek out and try. The head was a disappointment, and a stout chill haze marred the view, but sweet spices jump out of the nose and leave a distinct aftertaste on the palate. The body is firm and full of malt. I like this and would recommend it to anyone looking for a solid triple.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

What does age do to a Liefmans Goudenband? 

Liefmans Goudenband has been a bit of a mystery with its inconsistency and promise wrapped up in white tissue and corked.  A legendary beer that has undergone minor renovations with Riva,  it may not be what it used to be, but it is still a world class beer.  Unlike the lighter Oud Bruin, Goudenband is a strong beer of 8% and aged and blended to yield a buttery smooth brown ale riddled with subtle character that makes it so much more.  It can be tart, vinous, citrusy, or toffeeish and caramely, depending on the bottle.  This is of course, is a positive quality to many craft beer lovers who appreciate the anticipation, rather than the expectation, that comes with opening each and every bottle. 
I left a bottle in my cellar for 18 months and decided to open it today.  I wondered all that time what might be going on behind that fine, twisted paper.  Was it growing sour, or turning into cardboard?  Was it truly alive in the bottle or was the sediment just a token?  I got part of my answer as the cork launched across the kitchen ahead of a plume of beer before I had the last twist unwound.  The odd thing was that it didn't continue to gush after opening like most gueuzes that I leave in the cellar a bit too long.  There was still plenty of nectar inside the bottle to answer my long-awaited questions.  So,  how does this Goudenband, awoken so violently from an 18 month slumber, actually taste?
The first impression, coming from the nose of course, was a tad disappointing; It seemed that some of the fine aromatics of the beer had been lost or perhaps masked over time.  The first taste, however, was far from regrettable.  Even through the lively CO2 I recognized all the vestiges of a young Goudenband.  The soft, vinous, ever-so-slightly-tart, caramely, buttery goodness was all there, only better.  The mouthfeel was oily-smooth with a medium carbonation. After a while of settling,  there wasn't a shade of alcohol anywhere in the profile and I couldn't find a flaw to speak of.  Not many beers can stand up to the test of time and actually improve upon their basic flavor profile, but this aged Goudenband has and truly has few peers in the world of beer.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Here's an entry for a couple of fine beers that left me quite satiated this evening.

Liefmans Oud Bruin is a classic Oudenaards brown ale of medium strength with a soft fruity sourness that washes away with few relics to remind you of its wonderful yet ephemeral passing. It starts out winey, then its oh-so-soft body rolls over into gentle tarness that quickly gives way to a latent sweetness. The aroma is of pears and banana. I really like this beer and wonder why this is my first time tasting it. Better by far than the Burgogne des Flandres, and slightly more interesting than the Petrus Oud Bruin, this beer would do fine as a regular old brown sipper.

Before the Liefmans I consumed, rather uneventfully, an Ambiorix Dubbel from a brewery nearby in Ninove. It was bone dry and accented with caramel and bit of dark chocolate. The aroma was nothing to write home about, but it did have a great frothy head that clung to the glas like seracs off a glacier. At 8%, I had hoped for a bit more lustre. Not one I would go out of my way for again.


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