Monthly Archives: January 2010

#77 – Hopus

#77 - Hopus

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 8.5 %

Hopus is a beer that has everything to do with hops. Many breweries attempt to offer a varied range of beer styles, and it is common nowadays to include highly hopped beers in that range. In fact, already being 77 beers in to the journey, it is fairly surprising we haven’t really spoken about hops as yet, as they have been integral to the beer making industry for over 700 years.

Their primary uses in brewing are that of a flavouring agent, and an antibiotic against less desirable micro-organisms than the specific type of yeast selected, and it is probably worth dealing with the science before going any further. Hops are most often dried before use in an oast house or similar facility, which goes to work on the resins within the plant. These resins contain two types of very useful acids – alpha and beta. The alpha acids contain a mild antibiotic effect against harmful bacteria and as already mentioned help to propagate the yeast used. These acids tend to also give the beer its bitter flavour. The beta acids do not tend to add to the flavour of the beer, but through their addition to the wort can give the beer wonderful aromas. The brewers choice of end product will largely determine exactly what type of hops to use in the brewing. The former are generally known as ‘bittering’ hops while the latter are known as ‘aroma hops’.

This degree of bitterness imparted from the hops depends on the extent to which alpha acids are isomerized during boiling, and they tend to be measured in International Bitterness Units (IBUs)*. Many European hop varieties tend to be ‘aroma’ hops, whereas the newer American types, are often ‘bittering’ hops. Bittering hops tend to be used for about 60-90 minutes of the brewing process, whereas aroma hops are often only used at the very end of the process. This normally occurs within the last five to ten minutes of the boil. Often, and this is very evident in Orval (#37), the hops are added after fermentation cold to the wort, which gives a very sharp hop flavour, and is usually known as ‘dry-hopping’.

There is plenty more to discuss on hops, but I shall go into that as and when the opportunity arises. This leaves me time to discuss the Hopus. Another beer poured from the rare swing-top bottle and one that exploded into the glass with a wholesome russet colour and a majestic head. The Hopus was certainly a sipper, which in fact lasted a whole episode of Match of the Day 2, and the flavour stayed true to the end. Nothing special, but certainly worth the trouble.

* For a more detailed discussion of IBUs, see Urthel Hop-It (#150).

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Filed under 7, Belgian Strong Ale, Lefebvre

#76 – Sloeber

#76 - Sloeber

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 7.5 %

You could at the end of a long evening on the Belgians easily mistakenly pick up a Sloeber, thinking you were going for a Duvel (#34). The colours of the labels are fairly similar, and with the slurred bottle design probably looking fairly normal under these circumstances, it is just possible you could be mistaken. It is probably likely that the marketing men at the Roman brewery had devised a cunning plan in order to jump on the successful Duvel bandwagon.

The name in Flemish kind of means ‘bad boy’. Any dictionary search throws up a hatful of possible translations, but perhaps the most likely is that of an epicure – somebody who tends to like the good things in life in a slightly hedonistic, yet mischievous way. It might perhaps represent well the man who likes to drink the finest beers in the world but that just maybe does not know when to stop !

It has become clear that this Belgian Beer Odyssey isn’t just teaching me about beer and about Belgian history, but also about the art of drinking. As age begins to wither me in my mid-thirties, I now have half my mind on the waistline, and the recollection of how bad the last early morning meeting was on a Thursday after one too many Abbey tripels. It hasn’t however always been that way. Please permit me the licence to stray a little off track and use my own personal example of how beer can sometimes make a Sloeber of us all.

I once played for a football team in Devon, and that football team went for end of season drinks as football teams tend to do. Fifteen or so fellows together normally spells mischief but I can sadly and unremittingly point to myself as the main Sloeber of the evening. After the night had ended down in Teignmouth harbour, there were a number of us who wanted more. There was a party across the estuary at Shaldon and we could hear the music, and the laughter resonating across the quiet April night. As luck would have it we were walking past a boatyard and an idea sprung to mind. Boat… water… party.. ‘With no means of propulsion’ aptly reported on the front pages of most of the local media the next day, six grown men sailed into the night, into one of South Englands most strongest currents, and then in a matter of minutes found ourselves many miles out to sea. I can rarely recall ever seeing as much fear etched on drunken faces as I did that night.

Clearly I am here to the tell the story, but only thanks to the Royal National Lifeboats, the Devon Coastguard and one solitary man by the harbour side who had the good sense to raise the alarms. It is worth remembering that mobile phones had not been invented, and we were all wearing t-shirts. Had we not have been picked up we would have frozen to death, even if the weather hadn’t turned the boat over before. I always remember the 26th of April with a great deal of humility.

Had Sloeber been the beer of choice on that fateful night we would have all had passed out long before we passed the boatyard, as this is a pretty powerful beer – full of Belgian guts! It looked like the Duvel on the pour, and yet had the reminiscent lemony taste of the St Feuillien Blonde (#29), although somehow less distinctive. This was certainly not a beer to dislike, but unlike the Dirty Duvel, the Sloeber ran out of energy in the final third. Bad boy indeed.

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Filed under 7, Belgian Strong Ale, Roman

#75 – Hercule Stout

#75 - Hercule Stout

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 9 %

Stout. It doesn’t sound quintessentially Belgian, although the Brasserie Ellezelloise actually define the beer as ‘Belgian Stout’, and there certainly aren’t many of them. I’ll save these discussions for later as there are plenty of stouts around in the low countries these days, but clearly I can’t leave this beer without talking about its namesake – Monsieur Hercule Poirot.

Agatha Christie was not much of a beer lover by all accounts, but Philippe Gerard, the Master Brewer at Ellezelloise has cleverly picked up on the fact that Monsieur Poirot was most likely born just down the road. There isn’t a great deal of evidence in the actual books themselves as to the heritage of Hercule, and it has been left to fans to pick up and solve the case. In 33 novels and 51 short stories between 1920 and 1975 only one book, the watery ‘Taken in the Flood’ pays reference to his family, suggesting he was born as an orphan and raised by nuns. How very Belgian. ‘The Big Four’ goes on to refer to the town of Spa in the Ardennes as a setting for his life, and Christie has since revealed that nearby Ellezelloise was the small village she imagined her famous character living and working.

The ageless detective is one of Belgium’s most well known individuals, which is slightly damning when you consider that both TinTin and Poirot aren’t even real, however what the Belgians may lack in superstars, they clearly make up for in their beer and beer culture. Here a small farmhouse in the middle of nowhere has not only created a beer based on a legend, but nurtured a stout that many conclude to be one of the best in the world. It is this which makes Belgium special, and unless you begin to get out there and find out for yourself you can easily miss the pulse which throbs beneath this wonderful country.

The Hercule Stout is not my ideal drink, but I couldn’t help but enjoy the experience. From the swing-top bottle with the porcelain stopper, to the taste of spruce (well according to the brewers it does. Our long deceased family dog was the only living thing I knew who devoured Christmas trees!). My clothes and soft furnishings have had some bad experiences with swing-top bottles (#28, #54) and I was prepared for this one over the kitchen sink. It merely popped and just a wisp of smoky vapour escaped. It could almost have contained a genie. The smell was genuinely mysterious just like its benefactor, and the flavour dark, sweet, bitter and very malty. I had always known stout as Guinness, and it’s fair to say this was nothing like it really. Drink this and grow your little grey cells !

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Filed under 7, Ellezelloise, Imperial Stout

#74 – Agrumbocq

#74 - Agrumbocq

Size: 250 ml

ABV: 3.1 %

DuBocq announced their newest beer with the following – “After the Applebocq and the Redbocq, the Brasserie du Bocq is pleased to announce the birth of the Agrumbocq”. I wonder if the Director of the movie ‘Air Bud 4: Seventh Inning Fetch’ followed a similar marketing strategy? For anybody who hasn’t seen the movie franchise of the sporting golden retriever – don’t! Where Air Bud is clearly catering for the inane and the immature, I am still no nearer working out what market Agrumbocq is trying to serve. DuBocq recommend on their website that it is ideal after sport. Perhaps this may be why the Belgian national football team have so shamefully failed to qualify for any major tournaments in recent years. I could have sworn something Isotonic would be much more useful, or even a Schweppes soft drink which DuBocq seem to have shamelessly lifted their ideas from.

Agrumbocq is essentially a mix of their Blanche de Namur witbier, and mandarin juice with a hint of grapefruit and lime. Agrum generally refers to ‘the fields’, or ‘the soil’ – not something that springs to mind when considering citrus fruit, but it seemed to work for Schweppes.

On my travels I came across a particular spiritual latin phrase which when translated seemed to perfectly sum up the relationship between Agrumbocq and my 1000 Belgian Beer Odyssey. Per Agrum Ad Sacrum – the Per Agrum (literally through the fields) being the rough unchartered terrain that life entails, and Ad Sacrum (literally out of this world) being the ultimate reward at the end of the pilgrimage. The path to nirvana is often littered with obstacles, and just as my journey to 1000 Belgian beers is going to be rewarded by exceptional tastes and flavours, there are clearly going to be ones that make you wonder why you bothered. It is a common saying in the world, that to meet your prince you have to kiss a few frogs.

The Agrumbocq wasn’t what you might call unpleasant, but then neither is an ice cold glass of Pepsi. The bigger question is can this really be called a beer? I know Tim Webb would be shaking his head at me (#24) but then I took on this journey and I reason you can’t know what’s the best unless you really have tried the worst. I don’t have anything more to say other than it tasted of exactly what it said on the bottle. I only wish I had done some sport before hand and it might have gone down a little quicker.

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Filed under 4, Du Bocq, Fruit Beer

#73 – Pater Lieven Blonde

#73 - Pater Lieven Blonde

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 6.5 %

We have already met the Father of Lieven back in the late teens (#18), and this beer is the second toe dipped in the same range from the Van den Bossche stable. It is worth spending some time introducing the family who for over a hundred years have made quite a name for this brewery.

It started back in 1897 when Arthur Van den Bossche purchased a small plot of land in the picturesque village of Sint-Lievens-Esse in the wonderful Ardennes region of East Flanders. Arthur cannot have imagined the legacy he would leave on the village and in many respects we can see how he almost has come to be revered as the Pater Lieven himself. Arthur had married into a family from Wieze Callebaut who had something of a reputation for making fine chocolates. Between himself and his wife, they began to make quite a business for themselves in the village. It was clear though that Arthur had more of a passion for beer, and set about building a large estate around the brewery for his family. The passion had clearly rubbed off as in 1925 when Arthur sadly passed away, his wife and two sons, Willy and Mark, picked up the reins and really began to turn the legacy into a thriving business. During this tenure in 1957, the highly popular Pater Lieven beers were introduced to critical acclaim.

The baton was further handed down in 1975 when Marks’ son Ignace was made a partner, who then became manager in 1981. The brewery was massively modernised to cope with the modern day brewing requirements, which then takes us bang up to date, where Bruno, the fourth generation Van den Bossche, and eldest son of Ignace now runs the commercial functions of the brewery. Even Ignaces youngest son, Emmanuel, has a functioning role in the day to day work.

This family history is particularly prominent in the many craft breweries in Belgium, and stories such as these permeate the history of beer in the low countries. In many ways it is a testimony to how good Belgian beers are, that so much love goes into the making of them.

I wouldn’t say the Pater Lieven range is anything special, and to be honest I felt this one let down the darker one I tried previously. The pour was golden and carbonated with barely any head, and the first flavours accompanied dinner well. There was plenty of citrus and a slight tartness, however this dissipated into a stereotypical blonde beer after just ten minutes of opening. Certainly not unpleasant but more lagery than craft beer !

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Filed under 6, Belgian Ale, Van den Bossche

#72 – Gordon’s Highland Scotch Ale

#72 - Gordon's Highland Scotch Ale

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 8.5 %

I was fairly uneasy talking about this beer as part of the Belgian Beer Odyssey. The commercial description says everything about how un-Belgian this beer is – “Gordon Scotch Ale was born in the limpid highlands among isolated lochs and haunting Scottish castles”. Then if you consider the tartan and thistle on the label and bottle, and the fact the glass is shaped like a thistle you quite wonder how this can possibly be continental? There isn’t even the faintest hint of its intended market in the title, and yet the brewers John Martin (an equally non Belgian appellation) started to brew this beer in Belgium as early as 1924 in Antwerp. Maybe it is here that I should stop a while and consider the term ‘Scotch Ale’, which might help to begin easing my discomfort.

A Scotch Ale is one of many types of Pale Ale, which is a bit of a convenient catch-all for a variety of beers of low to medium strength which utilise ale yeast and pale malts. These could include IPA (India Pale Ale), Red Ale, American Pale Ale and good old English bitter on which I was raised. Some of these pale ales are made stronger (normally above 7%), and Scotch Ale is an example of this. There are a couple of convincing reasons why the term ‘Scotch Ale’ came about. Some say it is due to the fact that it originated in Edinburgh in the 1700’s which seems a reasonable claim – others suggest it is due to the fact that the Scots tended to use smoked malts while brewing which gave the beer the flavour of whisky or scotch.

None of this explains however why this is a Belgian Beer by designation, or why a brewer in Antwerp wanted to create this beer outside of its obvious surroundings. Well, sadly the answer is probably that Belgians (and Americans where this beer is also very popular) have a particularly sweet tooth. The beer in question was known in the UK as McEwans Special Export, a drink normally associated with the unkempt who frequent railway arches at night. Because the Belgians enjoy this kind of drink and have learnt the art of drinking in moderation, an even stronger version of this beer was introduced to the market where it has remained remarkably popular as a heavy aperitif or nightcap on winter nights. The fact that you are unlikely to find it in Scotland amidst the wispy lochs and limpid highlands satisfies my concerns for now.

The beer itself was on the menu of the Lowlander at Creechurch Street (now sadly closed), and ended up on my table only due to the fact that about another four beers were apologetically not available. It was dark, very dark, with a surreal red glow permeating through it when any light source caught it. The flavour was heavy and sweet, and not distinctly unpleasant, but at the same time not a drink that I would eagerly seek out again, unless of course they surrounded it in a label of the Belgian flag or stuck TinTin eating a waffle on the front.

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Filed under 6, Brewers, John Martin, Scotch Ale

#71 – Saison Dupont

#71 - Saison Dupont

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 6.5 %

I spent the evening in the Lowlander near Fenchurch Street (now sadly closed) in London for a spot of dinner and took the opportunity to get my hands on another couple of beers that I didn’t have in my cellar. I started proceedings with the Saison Dupont – something of a classic apparently. In fact in the magazine Mens Journal in July 2005, it was named ‘the Best Beer in the World’.

Saison Dupont is traditionally a seasonal beer from French-speaking Wallonia – the saison in the title is the french term for ‘season’ – and refers to the fact that in olden days these types of beer were traditionally brewed in autumn or winter, but only for consumption during the summer months. These were your real working class beers, in that they were brewed for the farmhands to drink while working in order to quench their thirst. For that reason they needed to be low in alcohol and able to be stored throughout the winter. While our modern day farm hands would probably reel at the thought of working in the fields and drinking alcohol all day, it is worth remembering that the water in rural areas in the 1800’s was of a dubious quality.

It is also worth noting that in the past, refrigeration was the luxury not of the poor, and so during the summer the beer would likely spoil, and so Autumn and Winter were the best seasons for producing the workers’ beer. It had to be strong enough not to weaken over the next six months, yet as we mentioned before, moderate enough not to inebriate the workforce. The beers were also highly hopped so as to ensure they preserved as long as possible.

There is no official style to describe a saison beer, although of the various breweries that do indeed produce one, they all tend to try and copy the success of Dupont. The saison of the 21st century will still tend to be well hopped and dry, yet much stronger. Without the refrigeration issues faced by the traditional ‘saisoners’ most saisons are bottle fermented now, where complicated styles of yeast are added to give their beers the unique flavours, which is where the Saison Dupont leads from the front.

The beer itself certainly quenched my thirst after a long day at the office, and I can only echo the views of the masses in that this beer is delicious. It poured a cloudy amber, and smelt remarkable, with plenty of fizz and head. There were hints of citrus and other unnameable fruits to accompany the hops, and I found it hard to concentrate on the conversation with this little beer at my side. I vowed next time to drink this alone on a warm day outside and really get to grips with it.

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Filed under 8, Dupont, Saison