Monthly Archives: October 2010

#153 – Tripel de Garre

#153 - Tripel de Garre

Size: on cask

ABV: 11.5 %

We started our Saturday evening on the tiles in a highly recommended bar, wedged into a tiny alley, just a stones throw from the main square in Bruges. The Staminee de Garre in fact sits on the shortest road in Bruges, De Garre, and it took us more than a little while to actually locate the place. Once we did however, we found it even more difficult to leave.

Our visit was largely down to the dramatic owner of the guesthouse in which we were staying. On our arrival he had welcomed us with a free round of Brugse Zot’s (#36) – the staple beer of Bruges, and I was keen to see whether he had any more adventurous taste in beer than the Zot. He pulled us closer in a conspiratorial huddle, looking sheepishly around for witnesses, and told us in a hushed whisper of this bar in town, that serves a beer so strong, that they have to ration you. He claimed it was his favourite beer, and was gone as if in a puff of smoke. He was back two minutes later, armed with a map and a pencil, and thus our plan for the first drink of the evening had been hatched.

It was a small intimate bar, set on two rustic floors, which creaked with character every time you lifted a foot or moved on your chair. It was completely packed on arrival, yet within minutes we had squeezed into a gap upstairs, and were ordering the special house beer. The Tripel de Garre is only available here, although is brewed especially for the bar by Van Steenberge. It is a potent 11.5%, and the thick orange coloured brew is served up in a unique thickset goblet, which serves to preserve the wonderful thick white frothy head. As if that wasn’t enough, each beer is accompanied by meaty chunks of the house cheese, and enough celery salt to dry out a table full of beer stains.

All in all, I look very fondly back on this beer. As a strong fruity thick sweet beer it was always going to score highly for me, but to drink this in a great bar with family helped to make the occasion. It is often true that a good beer tastes even better in the right atmosphere. Even my old man, who is a bona fide English ale drinker couldn’t argue with this one. We were all able to neck a couple each before we headed off to dinner, and so were unable to put the rationing to the test. I am reliably informed that the limit is 2 or 3 Tripel de Garre’s per person – although I am sure in these hard financial times, that the bar staff might avert their eyes once in a while.

To find the Staminee de Garre, click here

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Filed under 8, Abbey Tripel, Van Steenberge

#152 – Belle-Vue Kriek Extra

#152 - Belle-Vue Kriek Extra

Size: 250 ml

ABV: 4.3 %

There are a whole host of fruit beers on the market that label themselves rather gratuitously. One that had already begun to confuse me was the way that Belle-Vue had two different types of Kriek. One was normal or classique Kriek, weighing in at 5.2%, and then there is the Belle-Vue Kriek Extra at 4.3%. So, if you aren’t getting extra alcohol in your Kriek Extra, what exactly are you getting?

The official website explains that the Extra, is the sweeter, more fruity variety of the traditional Kriek. It is made only with young lambics, with the addition of extra cherries, thus offering extra refreshment and extra sweetness. By that rationale then, one can only assume by adding extra cherries there is less room for alcohol. I was very much enjoying the irony of this (much more than the beer in fact), in that particularly in the US and Great Britain at the moment it seems brewers are offering more choice of beers, in an attempt to curb the latent binge-drinking culture. Stella Artois (#116) now offers a 4% beer, Becks offer the Fier; not to mention all the American Light beers. Only Belgium could offer a reduced alcohol beer and call it Extra!

I would not have normally gone hunting out the Kriek Extra, but I am on a 1000 beer odyssey after all, and as I saw this lying in the fridge at the guesthouse I was staying in, so decided to slump on the bed and refresh myself after the long haul around Bruges. It was I suppose vaguely refreshing, and at least did the job, in that it didn’t send me off to sleep – I was keen to keep myself fresh for the evenings drinking ahead. It poured a crimson red, and my overall analysis would be that this tasted like cherry cordial with the addition of some sparkling water and extra sugar. Considering the Belle-Vue range are made with lambic, I must admit to being fairly disappointed, although many rumours abound with regards to the actual processes that Belle-Vue use nowadays. Perhaps I can save that for the tougher non-Extra.

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Filed under 5, Belle-Vue (InBev), Lambic - Fruit

#151 – Straffe Hendrik

#151 - Straffe Hendrik

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 9 %

The Straffe Hendrik hasn’t always had things it’s own way. Life certainly hasn’t always been kind, and the fact that the beer is still alive and tastes so damn good is one of the great miracles of Belgian beer.

The original Straffe Hendrik beer was only launched in 1981, by the Brouwerij de Halve Maan. It weighed in at about 7.5% – 8%, and was only available in small kegs. It was named after the original brewer of the Die Maene (The Moon) brewery, as it was back then. His name was Leon Maes, but was affectionately known as Henri I. The beer was particularly potent, and thus it became known in Flemish as Heavy Henry (Straffe Hendrik). The beer is thus greatly symbolic of the brewery, as a succession of head brewers were all sequentially named Henri.

The symbolism of the beer was such, that in 1988, the Riva brewery took over the brand name. It continued to be brewed in Bruges though, until 2002 when the whole package moved to Riva in Dentergem. This was where things seriously began to go amiss for Hendrik. The quality of the beer began to mysteriously subside, and the ABV soon dropped as low as 6%. Hendrik was losing his weight fast, and like an aging prize fighter, he was hanging on to the ropes to retain what reputation he had left. The poor quality though soon had a devastating effect on the Liefmans Breweries (of which Riva was one), who went backrupt in 2007. Duvel Moortgat took them over, and immediately closed the plant. Heavy Henry was dead on his feet waiting for the count.

It was never to come though. In 2008, the nostalgic hands at De Halve Maan made an agreement with Duvel Moortgat to buy back the brand of Straffe Hendrik, and within months, Henry was back, this time as an utterly delicious 9% Tripel. I had spent the morning with the folks wandering the sights of the old town of Bruges, and while everyone else was happy to stop for a croque monsieur and a coffee, I was gagging for a beer. I had recently read about the revival of Henry, and where better to try it out than its’ spiritual home. It was absolutely perfect – creamy, sweet, bitter and potent and the perfect accompaniment to some local cuisine. An hour later, like a dazed boxer, I stumbled back into the afternoon sun, knowing full well I would be back for plenty more Henry this weekend.

(Post-Script) – In late 2010, Henry was re-united with his old brother. For a time while at Riva, a dark Straffe Hendrik beer was introduced, although of course it really wasn’t working for them at the time. The Straffe Hendrik Quadrupel is a dark complex beer weighing at 11% and is definitely on my hit-list for my next trip to Bruges.

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Filed under 9, Abbey Tripel, de Halve Maan

#150 – Urthel Hop-It

#150 - Urthel Hop-It

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 9.5 %

The Urthel Hop-It was born around 2005 when Hildegard van Ostaden (#101) returned inspired from a beer festival in the USA which was devoted to high quality super-hopped beers. In fact in many quarters today, the Urthel Hop-It is considered to be about as hoppy as a Belgian beer can get – even more than the XX Bitter (#131).

This assumption is based on the concept of the IBU (International Bitterness Unit), which I first introduced when drinking the Hopus (#77). This is a scientific analysis of the bitterness of a beer, and the Urthel Hop-It comes out at a rumbustious 180 IBUs. Simplisticly, the IBU is calculated by determining the ratio of isomerized alpha acid to every one litre of beer. For every milligram, one IBU is assigned. Thus for the Urthel Hop-It, there are 180 milligrams of alpha acids, which is a fair bit more than the XX Bitter. People tend to say this beer isn’t quite as bitter tasting as the XX, but that is more to do with the balance and blend, than the IBU rating. Often a beer with plenty of malt can have the same IBU as a pale ale, but taste far less bitter due to the balancing. Many consider the threshold for common decency to be at 100 IBUs, and so when beers end up nearer the 200 mark, the brewery have to work hard to ensure it is palatable.

The IBU can be very accurately measured in a scientific laboratory, but of course this is rarely done. Mostly, brewers apply a set of criteria to estimate the potential IBUs of the beer. The key is to efficiently estimate the utilisation of the alpha acids, and there are three main methods of calculation used. These are the Rager, Tinseth and Garetz methods, and each approaches it in a slightly different way. If I get a chance I will try and go into more detail the next time I find a highly hopped beer on my table.

Anyway, onto the tasting. I can officially confirm that this may be 180 IBUs, but it wasn’t as cheek-creakily bitter as the XX Bitter. It was certainly very hoppy and full of warm spicy goodness, but in a way that left you exploring other strange things going off on the palate. If I hadn’t just eaten a four course meal I would have considered it perfect as an accompaniment to a gastronomical meal. I actually found myself wedged into a tiny area of Brugs Beertje, the famous Bruges beer bar. Where better to sit with like-minded beer fans and celebrate the 150th beer of my journey? The best testimony I can give to this beer, is that one of the Northern ramblers I met on the table next to me was so impressed with my comments, that he promptly ordered one.

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Filed under 8, Belgian Strong Ale, de Koningshoeven

#149 – Westmalle Tripel

#149 - Westmalle Tripel

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 9.5 %

Just as Westmalle symbolises the ultimate Dubbel (#16), then look no further than Westmalle for the archetypal Tripel. I often get asked by new recruits who I drag to London’s best pubs for a Belgian brainwash, what is a Tripel? This is best answered I think with an elegant glass of this in your hand.

The term Tripel is mainly used in Belgium and the Netherlands, and now commonly in the USA, to describe a strong pale ale, exemplified in the style of the Westmalle Tripel. The origin of the term is still argued about today, but it almost certainly was a measure of the brews’ strength in the early days. Casks used to be marked with a series of notches or crosses, usually X for the weakest, XX for a beer of medium strength or XXX for the strongest. This makes perfect sense, as does the theory that it was in reference to the original gravity of a beer, which tends to correspond with the 3%, 6% and 9% ABV of beers. You tend to find most Tripels are strong, around the 9% mark, although of course this is no definitive yardstick.

Michael Jackson (the beer critic, not the pop star) argued that the first real Tripel was born in the early 1930s in the Drie Linden (Three Lindens) brewery. The head brouwmeister Hendrik Verlinden had been looking to compete with the strong pale lagers and pilseners coming out of Czechoslovakia, and teamed up with the Trappists at Westmalle to share ideas. Westmalle released the strong blonde ale Superbier, which they labelled a Tripel, and Verlinden followed with the Witkap Pater. This would later become the Witkap Pater Tripel (#94) brewed at Slagmuylder, and the Superbier was turned into the Westmalle Tripel in 1956 with the addition of plenty more hops. It has remained essentially unchanged ever since, and to this day is the paragon of virtue for all Tripels.

I had a number of these in my cellar at home, but chance had not thrown one my way as yet, and thus on my first night in Bruges on a boozy weekend, I couldn’t resist one or two of these over a sumptuous meal. Many modern day beer geeks suggest the Westmalle Tripel isn’t quite the beer it once was, but for me it’s a great beer. It always pours rich and golden, with a thick lemony head, and hits you with attitude on the first bite. By the time you have finished at least two of these off, you are definitely ready to go plonk yourself in the corner of a bar and drink yourself into oblivion.

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Filed under 9, Abbey Beer, Abbey Tripel, Trappist Beer, Westmalle

#148 – Ezel Bruin

#148 - Ezel Bruin

Size: 250 ml

ABV: 6.5 %

The logo of the Ezel beers is one of a donkey holding a frothy glass of beer – hardly surprising when you consider that Ezel is Flemish for donkey. Like everything though with Belgian beers there is always a story behind the name.

The nickname Ezel is one that has been given to inhabitants of the municipality of Kuurne. Situated near to the Bavik brewery, it is only a tiny place, with a population of 12,000, but it has faced much derision over the years from its neighbours. The donkey slurs started many years ago when the traders from Kuurne would arrive early in Kortrijk for the market, with assess and carts loaded up with vegetables. The inevitable hullabaloo of braying animals and the rattling across the cobbles would often wake the unfortunate residents. The common greeting was “It’s those asses from Kuurne again!”

There is another story which is part of local legend, and tells of a priest who unable to hold a funeral service on Ash Wednesday, asked the sacrister to take over. All went reasonably well until the application of the cross of ash onto the foreheads of the congregation, where the sacrister couldn’t recall the latin words which were to be proclaimed. He was later castigated by the priest with the immortal line “You were born an ass, and you will die an ass!”, which of course he mistook as the line he had forgotten for all future funerals.

The whole of the local area is now often tarnished with the Ezel taunt; not really as a taunt of stupidity but more likely a reference to the patient and dogged perseverance of the local people. The people of Kuurne have a lot to answer for! Its all very good natured though and something worthy of local pride – in fact the town even has it’s own donkey statue outside the town hall – an oversized and stylish ass named Ambroos, and the winner of the annual pro cycling race between Brussels and Kuurne receives a large fluffy Ambroos on the podium. The association continues with this rather average beer.

The Ezel Bruin had sat in my cellardrobe for well over a year and was by now covered in a mysterious thin layer of dust. The initial aroma on opening was full of promise also; the wafts of herbs and fruit piercing the stuffy evening air. It all went downhill on the tasting though. A thin, effervescent dark brown concoction which was distinctly average and by the time I was half way through, the 250ml had long since become redeemable. The words the sacrister should have remembered were ‘Remember, man, that dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return’. I am happy to banish this one long from the memory.

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Filed under 5, Bavik, Belgian Ale, Donkey

#147 – Boon Kriek

#147 - Boon Kriek

Size: 250 ml

ABV: 4 %

It seems a long time ago now that I was first drinking the Boon Oude Gueuze (#89) where we first met Frank Boon. I said then I would continue his story, and it’s definitely a story worth telling.

We left the tale just after Frank had begun to invest in the De Vits Gueuze blenders in Lembeek. It wasn’t that he had any particular desire to do so, only that he couldn’t bear to see the place go out of business, and no longer produce his favourite gueuze. It took a while but he managed to identify just why the sale of lambic was declining at a shocking rate – lambic was seen traditionally as a peasants’ beer, thus it often used the cheapest ingredients. The best selling lambics were the best quality ones.

Things were still not working out though as planned, as between 1985 and 1989 production had dropped from 1240 hl to only 450 hl. De Vits decided to pull out entirely, and so Boon took the complete reins. He put together an agreement with Palm breweries who supported the production of gueuze as a cultural project, while he set up the brewhouse. Within three years all the remaining blenders in Brussels had become clients, the quality had risen steeply, and production shot back up – so much so that by 2007, Boon was churning out over 10,000 hl, twenty times the amount of just eight years ago.

Frank Boon continues to produce excellent lambic beers, and Boon Kriek is a fantastic example of a 100% pure lambic steeped in rich cherries – the 2006 bottle being definitely the best example I have tried yet. It was dank and sour, and yet fruity and pungent. You really need to sniff and breathe deeply as you take each sip. The colour is rich and rewarding, and you’d know it’s full of hearty goodness even if you hadn’t read about it before. Nice one Frank !

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Filed under 8, Boon, Lambic - Fruit

#146 – Vichtenaar

#146 - Vichtenaar

Size: 250 ml

ABV: 5.1 %

The claim to fame often laid at the feet of the Flemish oud-bruin Vichtenaar, is that it is the family favourite. This isn’t just any old family either, when you consider that since 1817, the Verhaeghe clan have been brewing in this area of West Flanders. Even now they dominate the local culture and own approximately 15 pubs and bars in the local area.

The name of the beer is in reference to the tiny village of Vichte, which has been the home to the brewing operations since 1875. Before this, the Verhaeghe’s were holed up in the village of Kuurne. The present owner of the brewery is Karl Verhaeghe and he is extremely keen to keep the family traditions running. It was his great-grandfather who started things off at the brewery in Vichte, armed with his own maltery and copper brew-kettles. These were removed by the Germans during World War I, when Paul refused to brew for the occupants, and the maltery has long since been closed, but much else remains the same – this includes many of the large oak casks, and the koelschip, although this is no longer used.

Paul Verhaeghe carried on the running of the brewery until 1928 when he handed it over to his two sons, Leon and Victor. It would then be another 44 years until they handed over to their sons, Jacque and Pierre. I just love the way that this arrangement is still present in so many breweries in Belgium. This isn’t just a nostalgic look at the way breweries used to be; this is real life, and this is a proper brewery. Beers like Vichtenaar win prizes and turn heads.

The brewing and fermentation process for Vichtenaar is virtually the same as the Duchesse de Bourgogne (#105), except that the beer remains unblended. It is aged in oak casks for eight months and then simply bottled. The result is a typical sour red-brown ale which tantalises the tastebuds. There isn’t a great deal of difference between the two but I would venture that the Vichtenaar is somewhat sweeter, although without the two together it’s hard to compare. I will save that for another night.

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Filed under 8, Lion, Sour Ale, Verhaeghe

#145 – Gulden Draak

#145 - Gulden Draak

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 10.5 %

If you visit Ghent you will almost certainly have to look up at some point at the majestic Belfry in the main square. You shouldn’t need a telescopic lens on your camera to spot the Gulden Draak sat atop the tower. She weighs almost 400 kilograms, is over 3 metres long, and is so famous they decided to name a beer (or two) after it.

There is a legend to the story of the dragon which dates back to the Crusades in the 12th Century, and involves a certain Norse king called Sigrid Magnusson. He had been fighting hard in the Crusades, and had received such a heroes welcome on entering the city of Constantinople (now of course Istanbul), that he took the gold plated dragon from the prow of his boat and donated it to the Hagia Sofia church. Almost a hundred years later, the Flemish earl Boudewijn IX during the 4th Crusade was crowned Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, taking Constantinople from the Turks. Impressed with the dragon, he dragged it all the way back home, which prompted a succession of bids for its possession, culminating in the Battle of Beverhoutsveld in 1382, where the people of Ghent stole it from atop the St. Donaas church in Bruges.

For anyone who has drunk Kastaar, and read the review (#96), an interesting side note is that the legend details the Dragon was originally donated to the people of Biervliet before the Brugse Zot (#36) wrestled it from them, in recognition of the brave soldiers who in 1204 were the first men to climb Constantinople’s walls. This is of course all legend and I plan to disclose the real facts when I get round to tasting the Gulden Draak Vintage (#213).

I can’t say I am particularly looking forward to it though, as the original Gulden Draak was extremely over-rated. I had looked forward to it all day, but all I got was a ridiculously strong dark beer, with no head, and no redeeming features whatsoever. It was bordering on the metallic and was very artificial. Like the legend above, I was beginning to wonder whether all that shimmers really is gold.

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Filed under 5, Belgian Strong Ale, Dragon, Van Steenberge

#144 – Artevelde

 

#144 - Artevelde

 

Size: 250 ml

ABV: 5.7 %

As I opened this impressive looking beer on a quiet night indoors I didn’t give a great deal of thought to who it was named after. Once though I had unfortunately drunk it, I needed to know exactly what possessed a brewery to create such a monster.

Jacob van Artevelde is the man in question, who was famous as a 14th Century Flemish statesman and political leader. Born in Ghent, of wealthy stock, he continued to amass fortunes here as an entrepreneur in the weaving industry and as an occasional brewer. During the Hundred Years War though he began to fear for the prosperity of Ghent, as the hostilities between France and England began to crank up a level. He created an alliance with the city states of Bruges and Ypres, and then sided these with the English, in order to continue to gain from the wool and textile trade. At this stage Artvelde almost single handedly ruled Ghent as the Captain General.

His great rivalry was always with the Counts of Flanders who had been unable to check his rise to prominence, and with the Three Member Alliance, and allegiance to England greatly building the wealth of Ghent, he became an easy target for jealousy and resentment. The reality was such that in 1345, Artevelde proposed to recognise the English King as the sovereign of Ghent at the expense of Louis, the Count of Flanders. A large insurrection in the streets ensued, and Artevelde was caught by his own people and murdered at the hands of the mob. It was to signal the return to obedience for the town of Ghent.

Jacob van Artvelde faded into history soon after, but has posthumously regained his status as a key figure in the history of Ghent. He is honoured by a number of statues in the town, and the local brewery Huyghe even went as far as naming two beers after him. Bearing in mind it was Huyghe, it should come as no surprise that this beer was unpalatable and moribund. At least Sexy Rubbel Lager (#87) had the decency to do what it suggested on the bottle, rather than besmirch the good name of a local legend. Avoid at all costs.

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Filed under 4, Belgian Ale, Huyghe

#143 – St Paul Special

#143 - St Paul Special

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 5.5 %

St. Paul has done rather well for himself in the modern world, honoured by London’s stand-out Cathedral, and the biggest city in Minnesota, USA. He would probably be most impressed however to have had a range of Belgian beers named after him; something to which even I still aspire.

St. Paul though is most famously renowned in the teachings of the Bible. He was the main protagonist of the book Acts, and is credited with writing an astonishing 13 books of the 27 in the New Testament. The story in Acts, tells of a man who while living as a diaspora Jew in Tarsus (modern day Turkey) rejected the teachings of Jesus, claiming that nobody suffering the indignity of crucifixion could ever be the Messiah and son of God. Something happened though on the road to Damascus which turned Paul’s head towards Jesus, and he spent the rest of his life turning the words of Jesus from what was then a small sect of Judaism into what most of us now know as the modern worldwide faith of Christianity.

Paul spent the rest of his life on the road, preaching as a missionary and spreading the word of Christ. He undertook three main journeys which took him around Turkey and the Middle East, and eventually to Rome where he would eventually lose his life, beheaded after two years’ incarceration in chains.

Let’s not get carried away here though; while St. Paul is clearly a very important historical character, he was never really famous for beer, and the beers for which he is known are not exactly impressive. While the bottles are uniquely shaped, the contents are distinctly average. The St. Paul Special was weirdly herbal, and extremely dark but nothing your discerning Belgian beer drinker would ever go looking for. Even though these beers are no longer actually brewed by Sterkens (for the story see St. Paul Double #177), I am not particularly worried about seeking out the remainder of the range. It will take more than this to convert me!

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Filed under 6, Belgian Ale, Schelde

#142 – Pere Noel

#142 - Pere Noel

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 7 %

The political situation in Belgium is often centred around the cultural and regional differences between French and Flemish speaking areas. No more abstract an example of the dichotomy exists perhaps than in the celebration of Christmas.

Flemish speaking Belgians get visited by St. Nicholas at Christmas time, whereas the French speaking Belgians get their presents from Pere Noel (Father Christmas to the English) – a simplistic view but something I still found truly astonishing. While St. Nicholas is celebrated for giving gifts to children on the 6th December, Pere Noel visits on the morning of the 25th December. I tried to get interviews with both for the research on this beer, but have thus far been unable to get any meaningful comment. For the time being I will leave St. Nicholas to his busy list-making duties, as he must be beginning to get inundated with requests, and concentrate on the man after which this latest beer is named.

Pere Noel does of course only leave goodies (usually sweets and chocolate) for those children that are good; for those that have been naughty, it’s usually a selection of wooden sticks. (Whether it would be safe to assume most hockey players from Belgium endured wayward childhoods is something for another discussion!).  The children traditionally leave their shoes by the fireplace, filled up with carrots and other exciting treats for Gui (translates as Mistletoe), who is Pere Noel’s donkey. This would explain perhaps why the Pere Noel in France and Belgium is far slimmer than the one I used to see as a child creeping up the stairs with a face full of mince pies.

As for the beer, this was a slight variation on the Christmas theme; where most festive brews tend to be dark and spicy, this was immediately amber blond on the pour. It was still thick and full of spice, but also had the hoppiness and complexity that you would expect from De Ranke. It was also quite dry and surprisingly strong for the relatively low 7% ABV. If I got a crate full of this for Christmas this year, I can’t say I would be disappointed.

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Filed under 8, Belgian Ale, Christmas Beer, De Ranke

#141 – Silly La Divine

 

#141 - Silly La Divine

 

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 9.5 %

This beer has been going for quite a while, and is one of the flagship beers from the Silly brewery. It has survived a number of label changes, ending up with a rather small innocuous woodland chapel championing its marketing.

La Divine, most simply means sacred, or devoted to god, and it got me thinking about how apt the word devotion is when it comes to beer. Almost certainly the most peaceful and sacred place in my home is the cupboard which serves as my cellar, and which only in the past year has replaced my floordrobe. There aren’t many nights when I don’t stare inwards with my torch and mutter reverences at the dusty bottles. I decided to do some digging into the internets darker niches and feel I have every justification now for assigning my hoard a ‘shrine’ status, although bearing in mind that beer has been around for donkeys years, it shouldn’t really be surprising that many cultures around the world have a nominated God or deity dedicated to beer or brewing.

Dionysus is probably the most well known, the son of Zeus and Greek God of wine and beer. He was often known as the liberator due to the intoxicating power of the alcoholic drinks he would put away. In Ancient Sumeria, the Goddess of beer and brewing was Ninkasi, who was said to have provided the world with the secret to making beer. I wouldn’t argue with this one (#1), although the Egyptians might. They strongly believe that Osiris taught the world how to brew the potent beverage made with barley. The Norse people were never shy of a drink or two, and although Aegir is known primarily for being the God of the Sea, they also swear blind he is the chief God of beer also.

The Aztecs claim it was Tezcatzontecatl, the Zulus are adamant it was Mbaba Mwana Waresa, and in many African cultures, it is Yasigi who is revered. It is hard to argue with this when you consider her statue represents a large breasted female clinging to a beer ladle. The Czechs worship Radegast as the God of hospitality who created the first beer, and if you are ever in Latvia, you are lucky enough to have Raugupatis and Ragutiene – two lovers who look after the late night drinkers there.

Whatever you end up believing in, have a couple of Silly La Divines, and you probably wont care too much anymore. This is a truly delicious beer. Every now and then from the depths of nothing you find a gem that nobody else raves about but that really does it for you. The Silly La Divine makes drinking 1000 different beers all the more worthwhile. It was thick, strong and full of a sweetness that I have rarely found since Boskeun (#82). I have since bought many bottles of this, and although they have never been quite as sublime as that original taste, they have rarely let me down. Amen.

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Filed under 9, Belgian Strong Ale, Silly

#140 – Bavik Pony Stout

 

#140 - Bavik Pony Stout

 

Size: 250 ml

ABV: 5.2 %

Bavik is a famous old Belgian brewery; and one that is proud of its traditional history. I am almost certain that the labelling of their sweet milk stout comes with a glowing testament to the role of the horse in the history of brewing beer. It might not be obvious to all of us who have grown up in the modern world, but the horse (or pony) once played two pivotal roles in ensuring the production and delivery of beer to the masses.

The first is grossly underestimated. Probably the most labour intensive part of brewing is the grinding of the malt. Even during the Middle Ages, brewers had used oxen, water or wind to supply power to turn the mill stones. Horses became the next best way of providing this service, and were harnessed to a series of spokes which radiated from the central shaft of the milling equipment. These often malnourished and ill treated animals would walk in circles all day massively increasing the efficiencies of entrepreneurial breweries. In the 18th Century, the horse wheel was also used to work pumps moving the liquor to and from the coppers. Horsepower was cheap and very effective – any decent sized brewery of the time could easily have around twenty horses in service.

Horse lovers must have breathed a sigh of relief in 1781 when James Watt patented the steam engine, however the need for the horse remained, as brewers and distributors began to rely heavily on the horse and cart for deliveries. As an example, in the late 19th Century your average brewery in London required about fifty horses for every 100,000 barrels of beer sold. In England, these tended to be dray horses, normally Shires, or Suffolk Punches. In Belgium, the most popular type tended to be the Percheron. This reliance on the horse or pony continued until the early 20th Century when the motorised transport revolution began. By the end of World War II the horse had largely been consigned to the knackers yard. In fact in thirty years between 1920 to 1950, the number of draft horses alive and working in England had astonishingly been decimated from 2,000,000, to just 2,000.

This led Winston Churchill to comment that ‘the substitution of the Internal Combustion Engine for the horse marked a very gloomy passage in the progress of mankind’. It is this sentiment that has sparked something of a nostalgic return to horse and cart delivery, but only really as a gimmick by some craft brewers. If it could happen anywhere though, then my bet would be on Belgium.

As for the beer itself, it was something of an anti-climax. It was certainly dark and sweet, but had a slightly odd flavour, ranging from the deeply herbal to what you might call synthetic. Like the pony on the label, this one was being consigned to the knackers yard. This is no thoroughbred!

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Filed under 5, Bavik, Brewers, Horse, Sweet Stout

#139 – Moinette Blonde

#139 - Moinette Blonde

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 8.5 %

There could be a handful of reasons why Dupont chose to name their popular beer Moinette Blonde. I’m happy to run through a number of hypotheses and let you play detective (#75).

1. Well its obvious really. The word monk in French is moine. The success of Abbey beers led to the association. The little monk beer.

2. The original name of the beer created in 1955 was the Abbaye de la Moinette. It was the showpiece beer from Dupont, and again was paying lip service to the sellability of Abbey Tripel style beers on the market. The name was changed to Moinette in 1980 due to the fact there is no Abbaye de la Moinette.

3. The Dupont brewery is situated in a swampy area renowned for its marshland. The modern French term for swamp is marais, whilst the ancient French term was moene. The beer was therefore named Moinette, as it was from the Moene region.

4. In the tiny village of Tourpes, which is the home of Dupont, there used to be an old mill, and a farmstead which belonged to the long line of Dupont ancestors. This farmstead was known as the Cense de la Moinette. The name of the flagship beer was chosen as a sentimental reference to the good old days.

It’s safe to say that all the above are pretty much a minor variation on a common set of truths. The one common factor that is beyond doubt however is the general appreciation of this beer. Aside from qualifying in the Top 100 Belgian Beers to try before you die book, the label and style of this beer reeks of professionalism. The beer itself was similar with a classy velvet finish. The flavour was smooth without being stunning, and yet had all the hoppiness I have come to expect from Dupont. It’s a great beer, but isn’t necessarily the kind of style that I get overly excited about.

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Filed under 7, Abbey Beer, Abbey Tripel, Dupont

#138 – Saxo

#138 - Saxo

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 7.5 %

Caracole lovingly adorn their beer labels with incarnations of snails. The reason for the snail on the label of this beer being mocked up with a saxophone is because Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the instrument, was born in Dinant; a stones throw from the home of Caracole.

Antoine-Joseph “Adolphe” Sax was born in 1814 into a musical family, and seemingly was always going to follow the trade of his father. He began to make his own instruments at school, and went on to study the flute and clarinet at the Royal School of Singing in Brussels. When he left there he devoted his life to improving the design of instruments, including the bass clarinet, and valved bugles which became known as saxhorns. These saxhorns were a revelation and changed the world of orchestras for ever, really laying the foundations for the brass band movement which was to come.

His coup de grace was to come in 1846 with the successful patent of the saxophone, which completely imposed his reputation on the world, ultimately securing a lucrative teaching job at the Paris Conservatoire in the 1860s. It wasn’t always plain sailing for Adolphe though, who continued to design instruments, and found himself bankrupt twice over claims he had stolen other designers ideas. He eventually passed away an old man in 1894, and was buried in the Montmartre cemetery in Paris.

The town of Dinant is very proud of Monsieur Sax. I had recently stayed near the town, and took advantage of a number of bars and restaurants in the town of an evening. When the lights come down on the main street, crudely hung neon saxophones flicker into action, and thanks to Caracole, you can even pay homage to the great man with a very enjoyable beer. It pours a deep amber and smelt so good that the first taste almost came as a bit of a disappointment. Where my nose was initially flooded with sweet caramel, I was slightly surprised with the mild bitterness which followed. That said, this beer got better and better on drinking, and was an excellent example of a sweet beer with a bit of a tang. The Caracole Saxo should be instrumental in any serious collectors cellar!

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Filed under 8, Belgian Ale, Caracole, Snail

#137 – Tongerlo Dubbel Bruin

#137 - Tongerlo Dubbel Bruin

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 6 %

This is the second dabbling I have had with the beers of Tongerlo, my first stop being the Tongerlo Tripel Blonde (#30) which gave me a chance to introduce the Abbey which so elegantly adorns the beers labels. The abbey is famous for its Norbertine traditions, but just what sets aside a Norbertine from say a Cistercian, or a Trappist?

It all stems funnily enough from St. Norbert, who was a migrant preacher that founded the religious community of Premontre in France in 1121. The influential teachings here spread like wildfire, and the Norbertines or Premonstratensians were soon involved in the beginnings of Tongerlo Abbey in 1133. You may also recall he was the founder of Grimbergen Abbey (#8).

The main difference in the Norbertines of the Premonstratensian order was that they weren’t exactly monks, they were canons regular. It’s a subtle difference, one in which I am trying manfully to get my head round – especially as the orders and expectations manifest themselves so differently through time. Essentially the Norbertines originally based their traditions on the Cistercian (#94), and Augustinian ways, in that they were seeking a more austere way of being, but fundamentally they acted as canons regular, and therefore did not lead the true monastic contemplative life. They had far more responsibility in looking to minister to those outside the abbeys, and were if you like, the link between the inner sanctum of the monks, and the wider secular clergy. A subtle difference but one which saved the canon regulars from the long choral duties, and systemic moral reproofs which characterised the monks lives.

At the end of the day though, they were bonded by the brewing of the beer, and I say amen to that. The Tongerlo Dubbel Bruin itself was a safe brown. Thinner and fizzier than I expected, but with the subtle maltiness that you expect from a decent brown beer. At 6% it didn’t have the kick of some darker Belgians but is one I wouldn’t have a problem drinking again.

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Filed under 7, Abbey Beer, Abbey Dubbel, Haacht

#136 – Cuvee li Crochon Brune

#136 - Cuvee li Crochon Brune

Size: 250 ml

ABV: 8.7 %

This beer took me back in time, to reclining by the sumptuous Lake D’Iseo in northern Italy and polishing off the rather uninspiring Cuvee li Crochon Blonde (#58). It was time to offer one last chance of redemption to the sister brown beer. I had previously introduced the Brotherhood of Li Crochon, who were set up to promote the local cuisine and tourism, and it is on the medallions of these officials that we see the link to the heron on the label of the beer.

The reference of the heron is in testimony to the many of these wading birds that have used the local area as a stopping off point during their periods of migration. The small river valley of the Condroz is a sumptuous pastoral landscape which is perfect for birds seeking the peaceful solitude and verdancy which accompanies the bloating of the river in the wet months. The valley is punctuated by charming picture-perfect villages, local taverns selling regional beer and hundreds of miles of walks, fresh air and touristic activities.

I have headed here on numerous occasions while stocking up on beers, to escape London and to take some time exploring the local area. Two worthy stops on this itinerary are the Abbey at Maredsous (#44, #111), and the chateau at Falaen, another place where the heron can be often be sighted, and which interestingly is watermarked on the label.

If on your travels you do find the li Crochon beers on offer, I strongly advise you to opt for the stronger brown. Having expected very little from this one I was very nicely surprised. At 8.7 % she immediately grabbed your attention, with a mixture of malt, licorice and other dark pleasures. My only disappointment was that with just 250 ml, she was gone before I knew it.

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Filed under 8, Belgian Strong Ale, Brewers, Du Bocq, Heron

#135 – Hapkin

#135 - Hapkin

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 8.5 %

Hapkin may now be brewed by giant Alken-Maes, but it hasn’t always been this way. The Brouwerij Louwaege was formed in 1877 and lasted five generations until its premature closure in 2002. The 7500 square metre site in Kortemark, West Flanders was eventually demolished after the acquisition and it is hard now to find much information on this sad demise.

The axe truly fell across the head of another community brewery – a fairly apt analogy for a beer symbolised by the weapon of choice of a certain Lord Hapkin of Flanders. Also known as Boudewijn Hapkin/Baldwin VII – the Count of Flanders.

This terrifying figure only ruled Flanders for eight short years, but his contribution in this time was a bloody rebellion against the murderers, thieves and oppressors of the people of his land. A kind of Belgian Robin Hood, seeking a peace for his land by the most ironic means. Often this was at the expense of the nobility who wielded horrific abuses at the hands of the middle classes.

Hapkin was born in 1093, and came to power at a rather unripe 18 years old. He would eventually die on the battlefield in 1119 – legend has it through a resounding cut to the head – a fitting end for a man renowned for his bloody axeplay.

It seems a rather odd choice of hero for a beer, but there is a nice twist to the tale. During his reign over 900 years ago, Lord Hapkin commissioned a strong blond beer at the Abbey Ter Duinen Cistercienzerpaters, a beer which history dictates was the original recipe of the latest Hapkin incarnation. The beer was allegedly so good that it was known country wide, and so strong that it made even the most cowardly soldier feel invincible. It is almost taken for granted now that Lord Hapkin would have bloodily fallen in the name of his people, drunk on his own home-brew.

This is certainly a beer in the mould of its master. Strong and belligerent in appearance and thick and dangerous on the palate. It looks like a proper tripel and with the addition of a sweet back-kick you wouldn’t be disappointed if you inherited a crate of this. It did fade a little near the end, a little bit like the Champions League game I was watching at the time, but definitely a worthy contender for something to knock out your mates with.

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Filed under 8, Alken-Maes, Belgian Strong Ale