Monthly Archives: November 2011

#219 – St. Sebastiaan Grand Cru

#219 - St. Sebastiaan Grand Cru

Size: 500 ml

ABV: 7.6 %

It’s pretty hard to miss the St. Sebastiaan beers in their 500 ml coloured enamel crocks – which is exactly what the Sterkens family would have wanted. With hundreds of Belgian beers to choose from in the Beers of Europe warehouse the St. Sebastiaan Grand Cru stood out a mile. Even if I didn’t like the beer, the bottle would look great on my shelves.

We have already established that Stan Sterkens was the original father of this range of beers but that the actual brewing now happens elsewhere. When I had previously drunk the St. Paul Double (#177), this was under the remit of the Scheldebrouwerij in Meer, although all beers are now picked up by Duvel Moortgat on behalf of the Sterkens brewery. The Scheldebrouwerij still use the name of the beers though which only further adds to the confusion.

The significance of St. Sebastiaan on the world of beer is unclear, and his story can wait for another beer, however Stan Sterkens clearly likes a saint or two. He is perhaps best known for his St. Paul range of beers, and the family brewpub which opened in the US in Spring Hill was also known as the Saint Sebastiaan Microbrewery. The idea was to showcase to the local population the Belgian way of brewing although to be fair it would all eventually fall on its feet. The location wasn’t ideal and subsequently the beers were perhaps a little ahead of their time for the US Market. The Sterkens family eventually fled back to Belgium and the original Saint Sebastiaan sat empty. I hear it has since been renovated into a stereotypical chain restaurant/bar with no hint of any Belgian beers or a saintly name.

The St. Sebastiaan Grand Cru, or the St. Sebastiaan Golden as it is perhaps more commonly known abroad is a limited edition release. A single batch is made every year to a secretive Sterkens family recipe. It is also brewed in line with the Bavarian Purity Laws which I had explained a while back when drinking the Corsendonk Pater (#35). The Grand Cru was another beer that I shared with my sister although this one didn’t quite have the WOW factor that the bottle would have you believe. It was your average Belgian style tripel which was pleasant to drink but that couldn’t deliver above and beyond expectations. If you like a pale citrus flavour then maybe this is for you, but for me all that glitters in this case was definitely not golden.

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Filed under 7, Golden Ale, Schelde

#218 – La Prime de la Fin d’Annee

#218 - La Prime de la Fin d'Annee

Size: 750 ml

ABV: 8.5 %

This was my first beer from the St. Helene brewery. Interestingly I had driven through the town of Virton on a recent jaunt to Luxembourg and the location of this brewery had randomly popped up on the Sat Nav (Not strictly true as I had painstakingly entered all the locations of the breweries into it before I left – what else would a true beer professional do?). I was surprised to find a small suburban semi-detached house in a quiet residential road. I peered in the front door and called out a few times but nobody heard me. I got back in the car and we drove onwards – the shortest brewery tour ever, and one of the most unremarkable.

It turns out that the current location in Virton was actually something of an upgrade from the previous location. Eddy Pourtois started the ball rolling in 1993 following a succession of experimental home brews which friends and family had loved and encouraged him to continue. By 1995 the first amber beer was produced and the St Helene brewery was kind of officially formed. It took its name from the then home address of 21 Rue St. Helene, Orsinfaing. Despite the 2003 move to Virton, the brewery has kept the same name, and until only recently, virtually the same range of beers.

Eddy Pourtois slowly began to take himself seriously and was making more and more beers. He took courses in biology and chemistry and by 1998 had officially accepted his position as a reputable local brewer. The marketing began in earnest in 1999 and despite the modest facilities he managed to knock out three hectoliters of beer by the end of the year. A further sixty followed in 2000. Eddy Pourtois had found himself and began the search to find larger premises to continue his adventure which would eventually lead him to Virton – where we had almost met.

I’d managed to pick up a 750ml bottle of the La Prime de la Fin d’Annee at the Bruges Beer Festival later in the year based solely on the nostalgia of my little detour. It was an apt name for a beer that is essentially brewed for festivals at the end of the year, and is only produced from October with September reserves. The title of the beer is a reference to a term used in France to denote the end of year reward in businesses. Often a 13th month salary is paid to workers as a bonus for their hard work over the year. This beer is the St Helene bonus to its punters. I was only happy to oblige.

I decided to share the bottle with my sister who isn’t one to shy away from a decent beer and we were both suitably impressed. It poured a muddy milky chocolate in both colour and texture and sported a most mysterious nose. The taste was ruggedly unique and rustic, with the subtlest sweetness of chocolate throughout. This was backed up by the bottle which confirmed it was brewed with colour, caramel and chocolate malts. My only regret was that I had shared my annual beery bonus.

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Filed under 8, Belgian Strong Ale, St Helene

#217 – Grimbergen Tripel

#217 - Grimbergen Tripel

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 9 %

Only beer #217 and it was with some relief that I reached the end of the Grimbergen range with the Tripel. I’m not saying that these beers are awful in anyway, but if ever there was an example of mass marketed mediocrity then this is it. This is an accusation often levelled at Leffe, but to be fair I’d take the Leffe Blonde (#41) over any of the Grimbergen beers any day.

It was only a few beers ago when I went exploring the Grimbergen website to search for the Goud/Doree (#212) and it was there that I found something most peculiar. Everything was in order on the Belgian version of the website, but somehow I had also managed to end up on a slightly different version of the website which presented me with what could only amount to a parallel universe. Where I was previously perusing through the Grimbergen Blonde (#8), and Grimbergen Dubbel (#9), I suddenly found myself at the end of a long dusty wardrobe staring out at an alien wintry landscape – there in full Grimbergen regalia stood a Grimbergen Blanche, and a Grimbergen Rouge. I rubbed the centre of my eyes to dramatic effect and looked again only for a Grimbergen Ambree to bounce into view. I really had entered some awful version of Beer Narnia.

With the horrific realisation that I might have to try more Grimbergen beers, I panicked and stumbled back through the wardrobe grasping at the fur lined coats and gasping for breath. As I sat in a puddle on the floor I tried to make sense of what I had just seen. I tried the website again. Nothing. I searched for Grimbergen. Nothing. I even checked with the O’Mighty one at ratebeer. Still confused. I looked back through the wardrobe and there was nothing but a sturdy oak panel. Christ, what did they put in that Val-Dieu Tripel (#216)?

Once my mind was straight(er) I was able to eventually find my way back to the reality which all stems from the history of takeovers which have punctuated the existence of the Brasserie Union; from its days as Alken-Maes, to the takeover by Carlsberg, and now where it sits under the watchful sentry of Kronenbourg. The latter of course are a monolithic beer producer in France, and all the apparitional beers which clouded my judgment do exist but more notably for the French market. There is even a Grimbergen La Reserve which I’m still working out whether I need to consider adding to my Odyssey. For now though I’m drinking the Grimbergen Tripel with the view that this will be my last for quite some time.

In fairness this may not have been that bad a beer. Although the pour was particularly flat with little sign of any lasting head, and that there was a certain flatness to the carbonation – the taste was quintessentially Tripel. There was some medium spicing and a good level of alcohol which you would expect from a beer of 9% ABV. I would go as far as saying this was the pick of the range that is marketed in Belgium – and I will leave it there for now. I have grudgingly accepted that that there is no quelling that damned Phoenix.

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Filed under 7, Abbey Beer, Abbey Tripel, Alken-Maes, Phoenix

#216 – Val-Dieu Triple

#216 - Val-Dieu Tripel

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 9 %

The Brasserie de L’Abbaye du Val-Dieu is in actual fact the only non-Trappist brewing Abbey in Belgium. I won’t go into the history of the Abbey as I covered that when christening the Val-Dieu Biere de Noel (#127) but that opening gambit is certainly an interesting enough nugget of factoid to whet my appetite for the Val-Dieu Triple.

The whole rules and regulations thing which governs becoming ordained as a Trappist brewery has been covered before (#7) although I will need to refresh slightly to explain how the Abbey at Val-Dieu was left high and dry. Firstly in 1997 the brewery at the Abbey ceased to function as a fully operational monastery – there were simply not enough monks remaining. Today at the brewery all the main duties are carried out by laymen, and it looks likely to remain this way for the foreseeable future, despite the fact the Abbey remains a fully functioning religious institution.

The other issue, which is much more complicated is that which relates to the subtle differences between Trappists and Cistercians. For a starter explanation have a read of the Witkap Pater Tripel (#94) but essentially the Cistercians were a splinter group from the Benedictines, and the Trappists were a splinter group from the Cistercians. It’s very loose, but essentially the Trappists are actually known as ‘Cistercians of the Strict Observance’, and they focus far more attention on being contemplative. This aside – the bottom line is that the Abbey at Val-Dieu is Cistercian and always has been.If this religious pendancy wasn’t quite so rigid we would see far more designated breweries across the world than the Magnificent Seven we have in Belgium (and the Netherlands). In particular in Germany there are many non-Trappist monasteries producing beer just like the one at Val-Dieu. Its just they aren’t Trappist.

Anyway, the beers in question that are produced at Aubel are based upon an original recipe from the Val-Dieu monks, and they bear the hallmark which designates them as Authentic Belgian Abbey Beer. The Val-Dieu Triple regardless of its designation was a particularly decent beer – as standard a tripel as I could describe in terms of looks, aroma and taste. It was sweet, strong and quite dry on tasting but it didn’t jump out in any way from its competitors. In many ways, just as all the above will confirm, it really is the nearly-man of Belgian beer.

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Filed under 7, Abbey Beer, Abbey Tripel, Val Dieu

#215 – Satan Red

#215 - Satan Red

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 8 %

The de Block brewery in Peizegem is probably most noted for its two Satan beers. Certainly the bulk of the marketing around the brewery centres around the little red devil on the label, although it isn’t always positive as the below will attest.

Belgian beers sell very well across the world, and probably none more so than in the United States of America. The most logical place would be the Eastern and Western seaboards where craft breweries are growing in number every week. Distributors may though wish to exercise a little more caution in the Deep South following the extreme reactions from the local population which followed the launch of Satan beers there in 2008. The people of the Deep South tend to have something of a reputation for being somewhat ‘god-fearing’ and puritanical. I don’t particularly have an opinion on the matter but I certainly found the associated stories amusing and worth sharing on here. *

It all started with a distributor who unimaginatively called themselves Cask Distributers. They picked up on the lifting of the high-gravity beer ban in Charleston by adding a number of Belgian beers to their range. One of the companies main outlets was the chain of Piggly Wiggly stores until customer complaints saw the store manager ban the beer. Bill Trull, the General Manager commented “We’re in the Deep South. We have to be careful of what we put in front of families”. The shop also no longer stocks the ‘Best Damn Chili ever’ or Fat Bastard, Old Fart and Bitch wines. Another store in the area was making remarkable sales on Satan and a beer called Arrogant Bastard, but again following complaints these were hidden in the back of the shop and then made available on ‘special order’ only.

It isn’t just a localised issue though. In Houston, a church group staged a sit-down protest at a local grocery store and refused to leave until Satan was removed from the store. Further trouble flared when an underage and undercover person was sent by the state’s alcohol authority to purchase beer, and the little blighter selected Satan. An investigation followed, and the Noble Union Trading company who imported the beer was banned from Texas. They were particularly unimpressed and suggested that in the Deep South there seems to be a “Bible thumping crusader behind every tree”. The clamour of the launch of Satan caused such a stir that even the brewery de Block were forced to make a statement. They pointed out that the name emanated from the old brewing traditions of slaving over a hot fire rather than it being about any religious statement. They were also keen to point out the popularity of beers such as Duvel (#34), Lucifer (#169) and Duivels Bier (#179), and that even the Belgian national football team are called the Red Devils.

Despite the ban, sales have continued to be strong. In the case of Satan Red, this isn’t just a result of gimmicky labels – it’s a fantastic beer. It was even more satisfying as I really wasn’t expecting it, especially as the beer appeared a little thin on pouring. The aroma was keen and fruity though and the beer certainly packed a trifle-like punch. A wonderful mix of hoppiness, strong alcohol all served up with an unforgettably delicious tangy flavour. The newspaper originally covering this story had come up with a number of headlines for beer shops to accompany the beer. The one which most sums up the experience must be “It’s so good, it’ll have you speaking in forked tongues”.

* I will find out for myself next Easter as myself and a few pals are undertaking a baseball road trip from Chicago to Jacksonville.

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Filed under 9, Belgian Strong Ale, De Block

#214 – Achilles Serafijn Blond

#214 - Achilles Serafijn Blond

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 6.2 %

We first met Achiel van de Moer when I tried my first Achilles beer – the Serafijn Tripel (#161). The Serafijn Blond was next up, and an opportunity to explore the symbolism of the Serafijn brand.

Achiel was a music and dance teacher before he moved into brewing, and is still a keen musician today supported ably by his wife Jo. Legend has it that if you pass by the microbrewery at the right time of the day or night you may be lucky enough to hear a duet or two resonating around the copper kettles. With this in mind, it was perhaps a logical choice to choose the Seraph as the symbol for the house beers – the Seraphim are the six-winged high angels of Heaven who exist to serve as messengers between God and man. They are particularly noted for their sweet celestial singing skills, and Achiel would go as far to argue that the Seraphim are also natural beer lovers – although I found little evidence of this in any research I did.

In fact the angelic female form that Achiel has chosen to use on his labels are perhaps a far cry from the reality of the real Seraphs. The Bible reveals the Seraphim in the Book of Isaiah to be fiery six-winged beings who continually praise God while encircling his throne, and the etymology of the word Seraph translates literally as “burning ones”. The Book of Revelation goes onto describe the Seraphim as having ‘eyes all around, even under his wings’. Both Hebrew and Christian Bibles even use the term Seraph as a synonym for serpents. Not ideal images I suppose to promote a family run brewery.

The image of the Serafijn throughout the ages though has tended to be portrayed in the more euphemistic light. Thomas Aquinas considered that the Serafijn “have in themselves an inextinguishable light, and that they also perfectly enlighten others”.  Pico della Mirandolo’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (1487) also went as far as to say that “they burn with the fire of charity as the highest models of human aspiration”. Which just leaves the question of whether the beers can live up to the brand?

The Serafijn Tripel had certainly previously delivered, and the Serafijn Blond really wasn’t that far behind. It poured obediently and hit all the right buttons on the aroma. Here was a pertly crisp blonde beer with enough bite to distinguish it from the pantheon of average mid-strength blonde beers. I am not convinced that the two beers I had tried thus far serve as the highest models of human aspiration, but considering they are pretty much made in Achiel van de Moer’s garage, they get my vote.

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Filed under 7, Achilles, Belgian Ale

#213 – Gulden Draak Vintage

#213 - Gulden Draak Vintage

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 7.5 %

Although I had previously recounted a version of the legend of the Golden Dragon in my review of Gulden Draak (#145), there is an even more fanciful alternative in a book by Bertha Palmer Lane called ‘Tower Legends’. This anthology details the mystical dragon from Aleppo, and other similar stories related to an assortment of world belfries. It’s more a book for children, and considering children aren’t supposed to be drinking beers and almost certainly should have better things to do than read about beers, I am going to dispel all those myths right here. I did the same whistleblowing recently on the gnomes of Achouffe (#185), and nobody there has come knocking on my door yet.

Despite the fact that the people of Bruges seem to think that their Golden Dragon was stolen by the people of Ghent in actual fact this is complete baloney. It’s hardly surprising they might think this though given that Emperor Maximilian once labelled his own Brugeois people as mad (Brugse Zot #36). We can assume that without the invention of broadband at that time that maybe word of mouth and propaganda was responsible, although the myth has permeated through to the 20th Century. Not only are there still regular requests in Bruges to have the dragon returned, even the people of Norway made a request in 1918 for their claim on the prize. It was after all a Norwegian king who in the legend had first donated the mythical dragon to the Turks. Sigh.

The actual dragon that sits atop the belfry in Ghent was commissioned at the request of the people of Ghent in 1378. It was suggested the dragon would be symbolic of the power and freedom of Ghent at that time, and as dragons are supposed to never sleep, this creature would always look out across the city and protect its citizens. It has often been involved in key historical festivities, notably first in 1500 at the baptism of prince Karel, and on regular occurrences since when it would spit fire (no doubt some sly mechanical sleight of hand in case you were beginning to wonder). It has lain dormant however since 1819; no doubt when the people of Ghent began to realise it was in fact just a copper statue.

Whether you prefer the facts or to lose yourself in the legend, there is no getting away from the popularity of the copper statue and the role it plays in the identity of the city. The two beers made by Van Steenberge are equally iconic; although I haven’t myself quite worked out why as yet. The Gulden Draak Vintage was slightly better than the original beer, but to be honest it wasn’t by a great deal. The Christmas version started badly by viciously exploding on my lap (when will I learn?) and having managed to first decant it into two glasses and then scrubbed the sofa I was able to continue with what was left. I found the remains to be less artificial than the original but lacking in any real flavours which you might expect from a seasonal beer. It packed less of a punch but was slightly more rounded in flavour than the Gulden Draak. I may be in the minority on this one but I’d give both beers a wide berth – once again the truth is less interesting than the hype.

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Filed under 6, Belgian Strong Ale, Christmas Beer, Dragon, Van Steenberge