27 Nov 2011

3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze and Le Bier Circus

The beer

Brouwerij Drie Fonteinen makes my favourite gueuze – the one that’s in the title of this post.

Today I’m drinking it from a bottle that was sealed in December 2000.

I’ve previously only ever sampled younger versions.

Though ‘younger’ is a relative term here – this Oude Geuze, as it is with similar products from the other HORAL members and traditional gueuze blenders, is a fusion of 1-, 2- and 3-year old lambics.

In order to underline the differences I encountered in the aged version, I’m going to talk generally about 3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze now.

Deep apricot in colour, it smells like taking shelter under an oak tree during a summer thunderstorm.

Lemon and lime acidity slaps your tongue awake before gentler, fizzing sherbet sourness takes over.

After that aperitif it’s straight onto the main course: steak with peppercorn sauce.

I’ve never encountered a beer that shares the overtly savoury, spicy meat flavours found here.

As your plates are cleared away, a drying, Champagne-like finish emerges.

The bar

While maybe not having the chic appeal of Moeder Lambic Fontainas, or the charm of A La Bécasse, Le Bier Circus should definitely be on your Brussels beer hitlist.

The beer list is fantastic, particularly when it comes to aged bottles.

It was quiet when I visited, but I liked that. Slightly off the beaten track, it’s a cool, relaxed vibe that greets you when you enter – particularly appealing when set against the relentless bustle of Brussels city centre.

The match

This post is really just about me documenting my consumption of a 10-yr old version of one of my favourite beers.

Last time I was in Belgium was the first time I drank 3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze. It was instantly added to my greatest-of-all-time list.

I shelled out more than €11 for this vintage 375ml bottle, but I would have easily paid double that.

Initially I’m concerned I’ve made an error of judgement. There’s hardly any aroma coming off the beer as I pour. I suspect it may be dead.

But it’s still as effervescent as fuck, so I convince myself everything will be alright.

Then BANG.

That citrus acidity I mentioned? Turn that up to 11! Super spiky and way more punchy than in younger versions.

The meatiness is still present, but it’s softer, more rounded, more melt-in-the-mouth – a bit like slow-cooked or cured meat.

The sparkling dry finish remains as appealing as ever.

I can’t believe the process this beer has undergone in the bottle over the past decade. Rather than mellowing, it’s got more intense and added complexity.

Here’s hoping I age as well as it does.

22 Nov 2011

Cantillon Zwanze 2011 and the Cantillon Public Brewing Session

The beer

Every year since 2008, Cantillon have conducted an experiment.

That experiment is Zwanze.

This year no bottles were made available for sale.

If you didn’t get to taste it at one of the participating bars (none of which were in the UK) on Zwanze Day 2011 (17 September), the only place to drink it is at the brewery itself.

It pours a pinkish-red with a fizzing white head.

Raspberry and damp soil fumes pulse from the glass.

Once it’s past your lips, the real alchemy begins.

Red grape, berries, oak tannin, freshly-ground black pepper.  Puckering tartness and a delirious finish that fuses summer fruit sweetness with subtle red wine-like flavours.

I have never drunk anything like it. Anything.

The event

Apologies for shattering any visions you may hold of the Cantillon brewery being on an idyllic farmyard in rural Belgium, but it actually resides in a dingy, semi-industrial area of Brussels.

That doesn’t make it any less special.

The brewery is open to the public all year round, but at the start of their brewing season (they can only brew when ambient temperatures drop to a certain level) they invite people to join them for a Public Brewing Session.

I don’t have much more to add here other than this: if you love Cantillon beers as much as I do (i.e. a lot) I urge you to attend one of these events.

The match

It’s 6.30am on a Saturday morning and the alarm has just gone off in my hotel room in Brussels.

Since 10pm there has been a wall of noise assaulting my eardrums.

Shouting, screaming and weird chanting. At 7am it abruptly stops. Instant silence.

It’s still dark as I emerge bleary-eyed onto the Brussels streets.

There’s broken glass, half-drunk bottles of wine, empty beer cans and shit everywhere. Everywhere.

The only people on the streets are drunken men stumbling into one another. No one else.

I work and play hard in London. I live in a fairly grimy part. Brussels shocks me.

When I walk through the door of Cantillon all the tension and unease brought about by the unsettling night of manic screeching dissipates.

The combination of restorative black coffee, croissant and wood stove does wonders for my fragile state.

It’s busy as I wait for the English tour to start. There are dudes here who are sloping around, clearly drunk. It’s slightly surreal.

The tour itself is incredible. I’ve been to Cantillon before, but to be there when they are actually brewing, in amongst the buzz of the Public Brewing Session is magical.

To watch – and smell – such astounding beer being crafted is a privilege.

My euphoric mood is only slightly tarnished when talk of increasing pressures from health and safety legislators suggests there is a real threat to this enigmatic brewery and the traditions it upholds.

After the tour we get our complimentary beer. I’m drinking Gueuze at 9am. I’m at a bit of a loss as to what to do with the rest of the day. I had thought I’d be here all day watching different elements of the brewing process. But evidently it’s now just about hanging out.

I get chatting to @jonathanmoxey, who was on the tour with me (I was the only person on it from the UK).

He proposes we share a bottle of Saint Lamvinus. I second the motion. And I’m so glad I did.

Once that had been consumed there was only one logical step: Zwanze 2011.

It was unlikely I would ever get another opportunity to try this beer. It had to be now.

Oh how it fulfilled expectations.

I felt like dropping to my knees and pleading to the Cantillon staff and volunteers to release just one bottle to me, but I knew it would be ultimately futile.

And in a way, only being able to drink it here, in this moment, crystallises just how special this beer is and ensures the memory of this perfect experience is preserved.

As I stumble back out into the sunlight, even the Brussels grime cannot harsh my vibe. It’s Zwanze-proof.

20 Nov 2011

Dupont Bons Voeux and Moeder Lambic Fontainas

The beer

Originally given as a gift to their best clients, Dupont’s Bons Voeux is a beer designed to be drunk as you welcome in the New Year.

However, there is nothing stopping you from enjoying it all year round.

From keg to glass it emerges as a swirl of sumptuous, clouded copper-orange liquid and voluminous white lather.

A gentle carbonation strokes the side of the branded glass.

Hold it under your nose and you’re greeted with orange zest and carrot peel, as if you’ve just ordered a freshly-blended juice from the bar.

Less fresh – but no less appealing – are the wet hay and damp wood aromas.

There’s an immediate sharp, tangerine-like sweetness as you begin to drink, which is swiftly followed up by dustings of black pepper and coriander.

The finish feels like a Dupont signature move: dry, sour and distinctly Belgian.

The bar

Moeder Lambic Fontainas is the most recently opened and larger of the two Moeder Lambic bars in Brussels.

Enter and you’re greeted with exposed brickwork, wood, steel and low-level lighting. It oozes pure, modern European style.

Forty-plus taps run the length of the bar and an exclusive selection of Cantillon cask beers nestles between the well-stocked fridges.

The match

After leaving A La Bécasse, I head straight to Moeder Lambic Fontinas.

The vibe in here is completely different.

It’s a much younger, trendy crowd and the ambience reflects that. However, it’s still laid back, chilled and instantly inviting.

I take my place at the bar. This will be my spot for the next couple of hours.

The bar itself is at a bit of an odd height in relation to the stool and I’m not immediately comfortable. A quick glance along a bar full of awkward positioning confirms that it’s not just me.

The beer list, somewhat unusually for Belgium, has a decent representation of hard-to-find international beers.

But I’m not here for that.

I’m here for beers like Bons Voeux. On draught. An experience I’m unlikely to have in any other country.

I don’t have to scrutinise the menu any further at this stage. Bang.

As my eyes look up from the page, a barman, sensing the strength of desire for the beer I’m about to order, appears in front of me.

And within a few minutes of entering Moeder Lambic Fontinas I’m drinking one of my favourite beers of all time as fresh as it could possibly be.

A few beers – Cantillon Lambic (cask), De Ranke Saison de Dottignies and Noir de Dottignies (both keg) – and a generous helping of warm bread and pâté later, and I’m thinking about how much I love Belgium (yes, probably in a ‘your my beshtest mate and I fahcking loooove you’ way).

This in the country I’ve spent the most time in outside of the UK.

First it was music that brought me here repeatedly. Now it’s beer. It’s where I got engaged.

My life forever intertwined with this place.

The beer culture in particular blows me away every time and I get a bit depressed when the time to leave it behind approaches.

The knowledge that I’ve got two days of pure, unadulterated Belgian beer indulgence ahead of me fills me with a sense of well-being as I head for the exit.

19 Nov 2011

Timmermans Lambic Doux and A La Bécasse

The beer

The house speciality, the slightly-sweetened Timmermans Lambic Doux, is, according to the menu I’m staring at, a ‘young gueuze, fresh and amber’.

It’s served to me in a ceramic jug, accompanied by a squat tumbler.

In the glass it looks almost exactly like clear, concentrated apple juice. Pure translucent burnt caramel. The only hint that it’s beer is the exceptionally thin head and occasional bubble.

After a couple of minutes, there is zero carbonation present.

It smells like apple juice too. Not even cider – actual apple juice like you’d get out of a carton.

At this point I’m wondering if my very basic French is even worse than I thought and I have, in fact, ordered apple juice.

Upon tasting, I still doubt my linguistic ability, as a sharp apple hit continues to confuse my brain.

There is, however, enough sour acidity to convince me that only a beer could deliver this range of flavours.

The bar

As with the Cantillon brewery a mile or so away, A La Bécasse seems at odds with the city it inhabits.

Brussels is full of hustle and bustle, neon lights, fast food and grime (not the music).

Stepping into A La Bécasse is like being transported into a different world.

Full of wooden beams, brass long tables and an authentic antiquity, its charm doesn’t take long to win you over.

The beer list is by no means the most extensive in Brussels, but it has enough classics on it to keep you going.

The match

I'm in Brussels on a Friday evening, ahead of the Cantillon public brewing session the following day.

A La Bécasse wasn’t necessarily on my Brussels beer hitlist, but on the advice of @caskcrusade and @CarsmileSteve I headed there as soon as I’d checked in at my hotel.

And I’m so glad I did.

The place is buzzing, but in a really welcoming, comforting way.

I find a seat and pointlessly examine the menu. I already know what I want: the house lambic and kip kap!

There’s one waiter to about fifty people, but he swiftly acknowledges my presence and swings by after a couple of minutes.

I’m repulsed by gimmicky tourist tricks and can spot them a mile off. The serving of the beer in ceramic jugs doesn’t feel forced. It just seems like the right way to do it here.

The slight spice from the kip kap actually works really well with the beer and offsets some of the sharp sweetness.

I’m not going to lie though; I don’t think this beer is exceptional by any means

It is kinda fun however, and I’m digging the atmosphere here. I’m comfortable and relaxed.

If I drank it anywhere else, I’d probably dismiss it. But here, well, it works.

The absolute definition of a great match.

16 Nov 2011

Brooklyn Cuvée de la Crochet Rouge Riesling and Garrett Oliver

The beer

As far as I can remember – my notes for this are almost entirely covered in mustard and there’s little info online – Brooklyn Cuvée de la Crochet Rouge Riesling is a variation of the superb Local 1, aged on Riesling lees.

It’s golden in colour, translucent, with little-to-no head and practically zero carbonation.

Along with subtle Belgian muskiness, familiar wine grape odours mix with gentle wood aromas.

The ageing process has resulted in this beer drinking more like wine than beer, but not in a bad way. Not bad at all.

There’s still elements of the bright citrus and slight sourness found in Local 1, but there’s a massive hit of vinous grape and the finish is pure, unadulterated dry Riesling (a wine I quite like).

The man

Garrett Oliver is one of the few genuine beer superstars.

Brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery, he is enigmatic, talented and a great advocate for beer.

He stands out a like the most stylish sore thumb you’ve ever seen in an industry awash with unfunny beer slogan t-shirts.

At this point I’m trying not to gush too much – fawning fan boy is not a strong look. If you want to know what makes him special, there’s a extensive feature in Edible Brooklyn that I came across a few months ago.

Also, he doesn’t seem to age, which suggests those ‘beer has health benefits’ claims may have some validity.

The match

I’m at The Draft House, one of my favourite SE1 haunts, for the London launch of The Oxford Companion to Beer, edited by the man himself.

I've been out of the beer blog loop for a while, but I’m aware there’s been some debate about this book. I’m late to the party, so I’m not going to wade in here with any opinion, particularly as I don’t have the knowledge or the expertise to do so with any authority whatsoever.

One thing Garrett says about the book particularly resonates with me. Again, the mustard-drenched notes prevent an accurate direct quote, but it was along the lines of ‘this book details the things that are happening now in brewing, the things that aren’t written down anywhere else’.

As a brewing industry outsider this felt like the truth.

I’m as thirsty for knowledge about modern brewing practices as I am beer. If details of recent advancements in brewing techniques are either ready available in print or easily accessible online, I’ve yet to come across them.

I am also extremely time poor, so consuming great scientific tomes or even undertaking practical study through brewing is not really an option when all I want is a quickly digestible answer.

Couple that with a memory like a goldfish that renders anything a brewer tells me pointless within a week and you get a man who sometimes struggles to comprehend what goes into creating beer at a granular, contemporary level.

Oral tradition to written history. An important step for any culture.

Garrett also states that the purpose of crafting beer is so that people enjoy consuming it. I’ve questioned whether that should be the case in the past, but it is a good point nonetheless.

And as I enjoy consuming this Brooklyn Cuvée de la Crochet Rouge Riesling I begin to understand this position more.

Garrett has no reason to innovate  like this. He could just churn out the core beers in his range (brilliant as they are) and watch the money pile up.

Instead he opts to do something that pleases me greatly with its complexity of aroma and flavour.

And he's done it with such sophistication that he could never be accused of gimmicky attention-seeking.

A true man of the people.

15 Nov 2011

Bear Republic Racer 5 and Football Manager 2012

The beer

Racer 5 is an American-style IPA.

It's made by Bear Republic, a Californian brewery.

Underneath a pristine white cloud, golden fogs and orange mists swirl in the glass.

Wafts of caramel-sweetness, Belgian waffle-like in nature, hit your nose as you draw close and the crystal malt performs its duties.

There's very little of the tropical fruit aroma that other west coast IPAs are famous for. Well in this bottle I'm drinking, anyway.

Similarly, the hop character is not as big as I might have expected, not the brutal assault on the tastebuds I had anticipated, but drying nonetheless, offsetting the more dominant, sweeter flavours.

The game

Football Manager 2012 is a life-ruining football management simulator.

I have no doubt it has been cited in divorce cases and devastated otherwise healthy relationships.

It is dangerously addictive for anyone interested in football.

When you find yourself devoting a lot of thinking space to a game – when you're not actually playing it – you know you're in a bad place.

It should be boring. If you stripped away the graphical interface, it would be a spreadsheet of formulae and cascading numbers. A bit like when Neo comprehends the true nature of the Matrix.

But, oh, what algorithmic beauty!

The match

Football Manger 2012 release day.

The annual internal struggle is upon me again: to buy or not to buy?

The desire is strong. But as a grown man, can I justify the purchase? Can I devote the time that it deserves? Will I devote the time anyway and potentially screw up some actually important stuff in my life?

I hold out for about five minutes and then begin the download. I'm nervous and excited.

Playing Football Manager 2012 is the perfect game to be accompanied by some contemplative beer drinking. You control the pace, it requires a bit of reading and you only need one hand to play it.
At this stage I've given in to pure indulgence, so I figure I need a beer that reflects my state of mind.

Racer 5 ticks the boxes – it looks kinda fun, is of a style I'm likely to dig, and is rare enough in the UK that it feels special and a bit decadent.

I pick my club based on some long-established criteria: lower league club, young squad, potential for growth and a chairman looking to move on. Inevitably this always seems to see me selecting Port Vale. Every year.

I crack open Racer 5 and am initially a little disappointed.

There's not the big hop kick I was looking for and it feels a little thin.

I set about shaping the club in my image. Loan signings and free transfers for key positions, set up a rigorous training regime, refine my tactics and scrutinise my squad to pick out potential stars.

I'm engrossed, and it's a little while before I realise how much I'm actually enjoying Racer 5.

It didn't quite fulfil expectations – I probably need to drink it fresher – but it's sublimely balanced, smooth and satisfying, with enough going on to make it interesting.

Now, if I can only get my team to play football like that...