28 Dec 2011

Pretty Things St Botolph’s Town and Christmas Day

The beer

Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project’s story is an interesting one.

Not one that’ll I’ll re-tell here, as they tell it better than I ever could on one of the best, most informative brewery websites I’ve yet to encounter.

I remember there being a little buzz around Dann and Martha’s beers when BeerRitz imported a few cases to the UK this summer.

I noted the name, but on the rare occasion I chanced upon a bottle or two I was always tempted by other choices, being that I was inevitably in a specialist shop, pub or bar that had a dazzling range of beer available.

How I regret that now.

St Botolph’s Town conjures up sweet aromas of toffee, caramel, burnt sugar, treacle and golden syrup.

Its tan head and impenetrable chestnut body seem to hint at a hidden world.

As I close my eyes and drink, the real magic begins: first muscavado sugar, then dark, dried fruit, into syrupy-cake-like sweetness, followed by a yeast flavour not dissimilar to that of Fuller’s ESB, completed by roast coffee bitterness and just a suggestion of butterscotch.

The day

You didn’t actually think I was going to explain Christmas here did you?

If you’re unsure as to what it’s all about, I would suggest watching two critical documentaries on the subject:  National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Scrooged.

That should explain everything you need to know.

The match 

My Christmas Days are all about pure, guilt-free self-indulgence.

Not sure if that’s quite the spirit, but it’s the truth, and it’s the one day of the year I feel I can truly relax.

Clearly, this kind of activity demands great beer.

My line-up this year was pretty exceptional: Stillwater Stateside Saison, 3 Fontenein  Oude Geuze, the traditional Samichlaus and more (I suspect I may have just been a teensy bit over my daily unit allowance).

It was the St Botolph’s Town that stood out though – and not just because the exceptional flavour profile was so evocative of the festive season.

Christmas is all about fantastical tales, and St Botolph’s Town’s story is as compelling as its creators’.

The magical, fairytale aesthetic of Pretty Things adds to the intrigue.

It just felt so right, so celebratory to be drinking this beer on Christmas Day.

But there’s no way I’m waiting twelve months to drink it again. It’s too special for that.

23 Dec 2011

Rodenbach Grand Cru and Golden Pints 2011

The beer

Mahogany brown with a hint of deep maroon , Rodenbach Grand Cru’s effervescence matches my own bubbling excitement whenever I crack open a bottle.

When those bubbles burst they seem to release a hit of vinegar and apple straight to your brain.

Similar flavours emerge in your mouth, but far from being a cheap sour trick there are layers of complexity here that reward the attentive drinker: tannins, cherry, raspberry and so much more.

Puckering doesn’t even begin to explain how it leaves your mouth feeling.  This beer wants you to know you’ve drunk it.

Pay it attention. It deserves it.

The year in review

Best UK Draught (Cask or Keg) Beer
Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter: my session beer and the greatest example of bitter on the planet.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
Fuller’s Bengal Lancer: flying the flag for English-style IPA and repelling all challengers for the crown of world’s finest IPA. When are we going to see it on keg though? #kegbengal 

Best Overseas Draught Beer
Odell IPA: a tropical fruit basket delivered straight to your mouth; the embodiment of all that I love about American IPAs.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
Cantillon Zwanze 2011: a special beer on a special day.

Best Overall Beer
Saison Dupont: sublime, complex, refined, magical. Consistently brilliant.

Best Pumpclip or Label
Dupont (everything): restrained, refined elegance and sophistication. Guess it helps having a graphic designer in the family...

Best UK Brewery
Fuller’s: other breweries of their size just would not be this committed to the artisanal craft of brewing utterly incredible beers.

Best Overseas Brewery
Cantillon: beer sorcery in defence of the old ways.

Pub/Bar of the Year
De Garre: if I lead a good life, it’s where I’ll go when I die. And hopefully many more times before then.

Beer Festival of the Year
European Beer Bloggers Conference 2011: okay, not really a festival, but it was a three-day celebration of all that is good in beer for me. See you in Leeds!

Supermarket of the Year
Sainsbury’s: as much Pilsner Urquell, Duvel and Bengal Lancer as I can drink? Oh, go on then.

Independent Retailer of the Year
Kris Wines: an exceptional range that’s reasonably priced.

Best Beer Book or Magazine
Des de Moor’s London’s Best Beer Pubs & Bars: it turned me onto the Dog & Bell, so I owe much to this publication.

Best Beer Blog or Website
Beer Lens: capturing the inherent beauty of pubs I see with my eyes but can never quite articulate.

And the winner of the 2011 Award for Best Beer and Life Match 2011 is...
Brooklyn Local 1 and Dog Day Afternoon: just one of those incredible, euphoric moments spent with great beer. An outside shot considering the once-in-a-lifetime experiences I’ve had with beer this year, but it was such simple, effortless perfection that it represents exactly what motivated me to start writing this blog.

The match

I’m finding reflecting on a year of beer therapeutic.

The tart sourness of the Rodenbach Grand Cru is a sharp reminder of how far I’ve come in terms of appreciation of beer over the last 12 months.

As I think about the beers I’ve encountered over the last 12 months, each one is framed by what was happening in my life at the time.

It’s been a year unlike any other for me, one full of the most extreme ups and downs. I’m keen not to trivialise these events by writing about them on what is ostensibly a beer blog.

I’ve needed moments of calm contemplation, and beer has provided the platform for that – much like it’s doing now.

I’m excited about the future, but apprehension dwells somewhere deep within too.

What is certain is that I will continue my pursuit of great beer moments, and rely on them to help me through both the good and bad times.

11 Dec 2011

Boon Oude Kriek Mariage Parfait and 't Brugs Beertje

The beer

I’m not much of a fruit beer drinker.

In fact, I think have may have been avoiding fruit beers for a few years.


Well, because one of the major factors that set me on my path to beer enlightenment is the ability of expert brewers to create such a vast array of flavours from essentially the same four key ingredients: water, grain, hops and yeast.

Within those parameters they can conjure up pineapple, grapefruit, lime, lemon, mango, banana, apple and so much more – so why introduce actual fruit to the mix?

Isn’t that cheating?

It’s for that reason that I haven’t drunk much kriek.

That, and the fact that, er, cherry beer just seems like a bit of a girl’s drink doesn’t it?

Clearly, I’m an idiot.

As I’ve learnt more about lambic and gueze, I’ve realised that fruit definitely has a role to play.

The time has come.

And what a way to introduce kriek into my life it is.

This 2007 Boon Oude Kriek Mariage Parfait is unbelievably good.

It might even be better than the 2007 Geuze Mariage Parfait that so defined my last trip to Bruges.

A flash of intense lipstick red illuminates the room as I pour.

The cherry hit on the nose I’m expecting doesn’t come. Cherry aromas are barely detectable.

I’ve been told it’s better to drink krieks fairly young. I may have made a mistake going for the 2007.

As the liquid passes my lips those fears are allayed.

It’s like silky smooth version of Geuze Mariage Parfait, with none of the intense acid spikes of that beer. Christ, it might actually be better!

Then, as it leaves your mouth, it rains cherries.

Not a brutal storm, more a refreshing spring shower that has you tilting your face to the heavens to behold its true glory.


The café

't Brugs Beertje is possibly the friendliest beer destination in the world.

It doesn’t quite have the je ne sais quoi of De Garre, but the welcoming warmth more than makes up for that.

The service is simply outstanding.

And it has one of the best beer lists in Europe, if not on the planet. You can just sit and read it for hours, absorbing its glory.

The decor is charming without being twee, interspersed with appealing beer memorabilia.

The match

This is the last night of my Belgium trip.

The highlight has undoubtedly been the Cantillon Public Brewing Session, but this day spent in Bruges has been fantastic, and confirmed just how much I love this special city.

Did I mention I came to Belgium by myself to drink beer?

Some people find that a bit weird. I have friends (honest), I have a fiancé (no lie), but I came here alone.

I thoroughly enjoy the company of others, but like the solitude that solo adventures can bring.

Luckily for me, the aforementioned fiancé is beyond saintly in her understanding of this.

Equally, I have no qualms about drinking alone.

I’m hoping that doesn’t make me some kind of social pariah.

It gives me time to think and slows my hyperactive mind down.

These moments are deeply meditative for me.

I appreciate the gentle murmur of voices around me, but don’t require any interaction.

Pure contemplation.

Just me and Boon Oude Kriek Mariage Parfait, enabling me to give it the appreciation, concentration of thought and respect it deserves.

Allowing me to give it the undivided attention that recognises the labour and imagination that has gone into its conception.

It’s an almost spiritual connection.

Goodbye Bruges. Goodbye Belgium. Until next time.

8 Dec 2011

Tripel van de Garre and Staminee de Garre

The beer

Served in the most stylish, elegant glassware in beer history.

Presented on a small wooden tray draped in lace, accompanied by a few cubes of local cheese.

Fuzzy, off-white head contrasted against fierce orange body. A tiger in a transparent prison.

Even before it gets anywhere near your face, Tripel van de Garre is a joy to behold.

The closest beer has ever come to art.

Classic Belgian yeast and candi perfumes send a frisson of excitement pulsating through your nervous system.

Taste buds primed, mellow, refined sweetness sweeps into your mouth.

A sublime, dry, wine-like finish almost makes you weep as it slips down your throat, such is its gracefulness.

Its 11% ABV is masterfully hidden – just as it should be – and there’s no alcohol burn.

The house beer.

The definitive example of the style.

The bar

De Garre doesn’t seem to be there the first time you look for it.

Tucked away down an inconspicuous alley between two confectionery shops in Bruges, when you finally reach your destination, it feels like you’ve boarded the train from platform 9¾ at King's Cross station, found the secret garden, discovered Narnia at the back of a wardrobe and stepped through the looking glass.

There is something magical about places that are hidden.

When you uncover the entrance to this place you feel special, privileged and like something fantastically amazing is about to happen.

And it does.

Ramshackle timbers, decrepit staircases, soothing classical music and a murmuring buzz of friendliness greet you like an old friend.

There is nowhere like Staminee de Garre.

The match

Bruges is drenched in a deep fog tonight.

It makes the city distinctly eerie – still undoubtedly charming, but with an edge of mystery, a sense of sorcery afoot.

Ducking down the alley towards Staminee de Garre fills me with an infantile glee that I haven’t experienced in some time.

Coming in from the cold, I take my seat at an empty table and feel a wave of comfort wash over me.

The house tripel please.

I am Jack’s ultimate definition of relaxed.

Staminee de Garre is a place you can drink in alone without ever feeling awkward. My ultimate definition of a great place to consume great beer.

If I were to open a pub in London, it would be modelled on De Garre; a killer house beer, a decent list and a vibe that is so chilled it’s practically asleep. A dream-like atmosphere that still pulses with human activity.

In my quiet contemplation I ponder whether this kind of establishment could be ported over to my hometown.

Sadly, I don’t think it would work.

My perception is that Londoners don’t tend to drink this way. At tables. Nibbling on cheese. Thinking.

I wish I could drink this way. Every night.

5 Dec 2011

De Struise Westoek X and the De Struise store

The beer

I don’t fully understand how Westoek X came to be.

From what I gather, it was commissioned by a US importer, who asked the Deca brewery in Woesten-Vleteren to create it, who in turn roped in Urbain Coutteau to aid in its conception.

Whether that makes it a De Struise beer I’m not sure, but the label design is aesthetically similar enough to the rest of the range that I’m going to flatly refuse to change the title of this post.

I do know that I’m glad this beer exists.

Straight from the tap, soothing wet straw and damp earth vapours trigger imagined Belgian-farmhouse memories.

Fluffy and white in the head, deep burnt orange in the body, it entices you in.

Subtle, sweet honey greets you. A gentle, refreshing dryness asks if you want to stay the night. And you do.

And you want still more each time that tender caress leaves your mouth.

The store

Situated on Burg, the smaller of the two main squares in Bruges, the De Struise store nestles inconspicuously among the historic buildings that surround it.

As well as almost the entire current De Struise bottle range, it has a tall cooler which chills three rotating taps.

There are a couple of seats outside and the counter serves a makeshift micro-bar. Well, it did for me...

The match

Ahhh, Bruges.

Beautiful, enchanting Brugge.

I feel instantly relaxed here after the relative craziness of the Brussels weekend. I kinda feel like I’ve come home.

No, not quite home.

More special than that. But I’ll save that for another post.

I head straight for the De Struise store as soon as I arrive. No map required.

I order a beer and start chatting to David, the gentleman behind the counter.

He’s instantly friendly and genuine. We talk about nothing but beer for 45 minutes. He speaks about his beyond-incredible bottle collection, but I still manage to impress with my Zwanze exploits.

As we move on to discuss the De Struise range I get a bit depressed – I just do not have the physical capability to carry any more beer home following a number of purchases at Cantillon the previous day.

The Black Damnation range is of particular interest.

To some, De Struise might seem like something of a brewing anomaly in Belgium.

It seems to share more in common with the American craft beer scene than Belgium’s rich heritage.

But the quality of their beer suggests otherwise. It’s not just hype – they combine European history with cutting-edge US style to create a canon of wonderfulness.

Along with this Westoek X, Ardmonnik, Tsjeeses and an intense taste-off between various Pannepot Grand Reservas punctuate this trip with glorious flavours.

De Struise, and fellow innovators like De Dolle, ensure Belgium has a future as well as a past.