Monthly Archives: December 2010

#178 – Girardin Gueuze White Label

#178 - Girardin Gueuze White Label

Size: 375 ml

ABV: 5 %

The Brouwerij Girardin is something altogether a bit special. People often talk about their Gueuze Black Label as being the ultimate lambic experience. When you consider that they live in the company of greats like Boon, Cantillon, de Cam and Hanssens, you begin to generate an instant respect for this quiet and secluded countryside establishment.

With beers as good as theirs are supposed to be, you would expect them to be crowing about it from the top of the hill on which the brewery is spectacularly set, but it’s the complete opposite. They don’t even have a website, which makes the life of snoops like me much more difficult. The family see marketing as nothing more than driving around the local countryside in a van selling their beers to shops and cafes. Paul Girardin, the latest in the long family dynasty is reported to have said “Here we brew beer, we don’t do marketing!”

What happens behind the scenes at Girardin is also a complete mystery. They don’t advertise, they don’t run tours, and they certainly don’t talk about themselves. They just brew. I completely dig the attitude of Girardin. It is indeed extreme but is not atypical of much of the Belgian beer community. Pockets of inspiration hidden away in the countryside behind modest premises often produce such gems of brilliance. Even if there was a beer writer out there who had had the fortune of seeing what goes on behind the scenes at Girardin, they would probably feel like they were telling on a friend were they to share their story.

Girardin don’t actually need to market their beer. It does it by itself. I remember reading not so long ago articles on Belgian beer that were preparing for the death of the craft scene. The astronomical reduction in the number of breweries over the past hundred years is testimony to this but it hasn’t happened. It hasn’t happened because of breweries like Girardin, and because of people like you and me who know what we like. Quality and integrity are rare commodities in business these days, but the beer industry in Belgium can largely hold its head high. I couldn’t think of anything else I would rather write about.

The filtered Gueuze White Label was my first foray into the world of Girardin, and although still completely novice on all things lambic, I was very impressed with the professionalism of this brew. It was clean and crisp and still remarkably tart and pungent. Although still with my true heart in other beer styles, this was my first real feeling that I might someday really start to enjoy gueuze like the moustachioed professional I aim one day to be. The unfiltered pinnacle of the Black Label still awaits my exploration but I think I will be more than prepared for the expedition by the time it arrives.

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Filed under 7, Girardin, Lambic - Gueuze

#177 – St. Paul Double

#177 - St. Paul Dubbel

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 6.9 %

The range of beers named St. Paul are currently brewed at the Scheldebrouwerij, however it hasn’t always been that way. As noted on the St. Paul Speciale (#143) these were once part of the Sterkens family of beers. To all intents and purposes they still are really, since Sterkens just use the brewing facilities at Schelde to produce the beers. Sterkens still market and export the beers as if they brewed them, and a visit to their website gives little away of this secret.

The move away from brewing their own beers has been a gradual one for Stan Sterkens, the fourteenth generation of brewmeister since the family began brewing way back in 1651. He has been very successful in setting up brewpubs for interested parties. They provide the money, and he puts in the equipment and expertise. One such enterprise was with his daughter Leen Sterkens in Spring Hill, USA. Others have been set up in places as far afield as Taiwan and Japan.

The whole idea of going foreign has worked very well in fact, where the export market has proved exceptionally lucrative for the Sterkens clan. Until 1990 the brewery mainly distributed to over five hundred restaurants and pubs in Belgium. Now however, up to 95% of production is sold abroad. You are far more likely to see a bottle of St. Paul in a US bar or beershop than you would in Belgium. It was for this reason that when I saw a selection of the colourful odd shaped bottles in a Belgian beer shop at Christmas last year I snapped them up.

The St. Paul Speciale was hardly a classic, and to be honest I didn’t really get much joy from the St. Paul Double either. To be fair the beers may have been rebrewed, and it looked like I may have an older selection of the range, but I would expect more from a beer firm who are seemingly pleasing the US market. The craft beer scene in the US is probably second only to Belgium in the world, and as you would expect with the Americans it probably won’t be long before they are knocking the spots even off the Belgians. This beer was thin, bland and boring. I still await my epiphany.

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Filed under 5, Abbey Dubbel, Schelde

#176 – Brugs Witbier

#176 - Brugs Witbier

Size: 250 ml

ABV: 4.5 %

Brugs Witbier, or Brugs Tarwebier as it is known locally, is a cloudy unfiltered wheat beer which is based on a traditional Brabant recipe. Although now mass produced by the Brasserie Union (Alken Maes), it was once upon a time brewed exclusively in Bruges, at the now defunct Gouden Boum brewery, which you may recall also used to produce the Brugge Tripel (#104).

Although the above is all now just history, the Brugs Witbier label still interestingly adorns the logo of the Gouden Boom (Golden Tree). This is a nostalgic reference back to the Gouden Boom trophy which was awarded to knights that won medieval tournaments in the city way back in the Middle Ages. The Golden Tree has been a key symbol of Bruges since 1587 and even now is still a key part of the traditions of the City. Tourists often flock to the Pageant of the Golden Tree which is a massive carnival held in the town square which seeks to recreate the famous wedding of Charles the Bold (the Duke of Burgundy, and Count of Flanders) to Margaret of York (the sister of King Edward IV of England) which took place in 1468. The modern day festivities usually comprise well over 2000 actors, six choirs and 100 horsemen who retell the events within around ninety different scenes.

Even now wandering around Bruges, it is difficult to wander the cobbled streets and not feel yourself transported back in time. It is unlikely however that the Cities’ coaching inns and taverns would have served the Brugs Witbier to its discerning customers. In the 21st Century, the Brugs Witbier is traditionally served with a slice of lemon, and is brewed with bitter orange peel and coriander. Had any man asked for a pint of this in bygone days, then execution for treason may have been a suitable punishment. The beer is though particularly turbid, which would have been representative of beers of the Middle Ages, where particularly crude filtering techniques would have been employed.

The Brugs Witbier that I was drinking was very typical of a modern day wheat beer – it was cloudy, fairly tart and even without a slice of lemon was reminiscent of citrus. I really struggle to get excited about most Belgian wheat beers today. I don’t think any country really makes a better wheat beer than the Germans, and this was absolutely no exception.

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Filed under 6, Alken-Maes, Belgian White (Witbier)

#175 – Pilaarbijter Blond

#175 - Pilaarbijter Blonde

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 7.5 %

There are two Pilaarbijter beers produced by Bavik, and I was drinking the Blond today. Pilaarbijter is a word that is largely disused in modern times, but was prevalent in the 16th Century and meant ‘a hypocrite’, especially with regards to views on religion. The term literally translates into ‘pillar biter’. There is a very good reason why Bavik chose the name of this beer, but I will save that for the Pilaarbijter Bruin.

The real fun with this beer came when I discovered where the brewery got the image of the unfortunate looking gentleman biting the pillar on the label. If you study the painting of ‘Netherlandish Proverbs’ by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, you will eventually find the identical image – I say eventually, as it took me ages to pore through the detail. I won’t spoil the fun of pointing out its exact location so feel free to try and find it yourself. In fact, if you look close enough you can find over a hundred different proverbs being acted out in this crazy village scene.

The point of the painting wasn’t to catalogue as many Flemish proverbs of the time in art form, although it would have been a bloody good idea. Brueghel’s real aim was to define on canvas the pure stupidity of man. The original title of the painting was ‘The Folly of the World’, and if you look closely at the characters you can see the blank faces which Brueghel often used to represent fools in his work. Just sitting there picking out the characters got me thinking – surely there must be more proverbs which relate to my journey to drink and write about all these Belgian beers?

People mocked me when I began my Odyssey. Perhaps I was trying to hold an eel by the tail (to undertake a difficult task)? Or was I just simply yawning against the oven (to attempt more than I could manage)? It is worth bearing in mind though that once I have spilt my porridge I cannot scrape it all up again (once something is done it cannot be undone), and that the journey is not yet over until I can discern the church and steeple (do not give up until the task is fully complete). It may take many years but an odyssey is an odyssey after all. I still got plenty of empty fields to walk through yet!

Anyway in the midst of all these proverbs there’s a beer that needs my attention. The Pilaarbijter Blond was a decent one at that. There was enough body and strength to keep it interesting, and plenty of fruity citrus which blended well against a spicy backdrop. I would hazard a guess at peaches and lemons. I’m distracted. Sorry, I can’t leave without a few more brilliant 16th Century Flemish proverbs.

1. What is the good of a beautiful plate when there is nothing on it – some beers certainly look a lot better than they taste.

2. You shouldn’t cast roses before swine – yes, maybe I am wasting some of my time on drinking the unworthy!

3. Wild bears prefer each others company – I thank all the sad beer drinkers of the world for that!

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Filed under 8, Abbey Tripel, Bavik

#174 – du Boucanier Dark Ale

#174 - du Boucanier Dark Ale

Size: 330 ml

ABV : 9 %

I had already tried the du Boucanier Red Ale (#27), which dealt with the origins of buccaneering. I won’t go into that again, however it would be good to explore the links between buccaneers and their beer. They certainly didn’t mess around when it came to drinking!

These undesirable pirates of the Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean had a tradition of drinking a toast while on the deck of plundered ships or harboursides they may have just overrun. Not content with a nice 330ml tumbler or tulip, buccaneers had an altogether different vessel of choice for their strong seafaring ale – their boots! A sobering thought given the hygiene issues many of these vagabonds would have endured. To drink from the boot of a fellow buccaneer was seen as a symbol of brotherhood and a bond of trust between fellow seafarers. It was known as the custom of being “brothers of the coast”.

Modern day acts of brotherhood often include initiation rituals or the sharing of blood. I would imagine all are preferable to swallowing the verrucas and corns of stinking scurvy ridden sailors. This hasn’t deterred the marketeers of the du Boucanier beers though, who have continued the tradition into the modern day world, and sell glasses shaped as half-litre boots. These can be ordered from their website should anybody wish to indulge.

I opted for a half of the dark ale served somewhat more sedately in a Grimbergen chalice. It was not how I would have envisaged real buccaneer dark beer to be though. Although strong and weighing in at a hefty 9%, this beer didn’t have a lot of guts. It was thin and limp, and lacking in any real definitive robust flavour. I enjoyed it, as I do most Belgian beers, however these leaner dark beers often tend to be ten to the penny on the market, and thus this one gets the boot from me I am afraid.

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Filed under 6, Belgian Strong Ale, Van Steenberge

#173 – Omer Traditional Blond

#173 - Omer Traditional Blond

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 8 %

Omer Traditional Blond is a highly regarded beer whose recipe is based on one that has been passed down from generation to generation of the Vander Ghinste family. It all started way back in 1892 when Remi Vander Ghinste bought a brewery for his son Omer. As part of his gift, he named it the Brouwerijen Omer Vander Ghinste. This name stuck for another 85 years until 1977 when the brewery was renamed Bockor for commercial purposes.

The recipe for Omer has always been something of a secret, and each father of the family would pass it down to his own son. This has continued at the latest count for five generations, and the upshot is that the eldest son of every generation is called Omer, and hence becomes the head of the brewery.

The reason for this is particularly interesting. Back in 1892 it was unusual for brand names to be used for beers, moreover they were often named after the owner and the brewery. Omer Vander Ghinste had promoted his beer by making stained glass windows which incorporated the slogan ‘bieren Omer Vander Ghinste’, and after passing on the brewery (and recipe) in 1929 to his son Remi, it was deemed excessive to have to replace the expensive windows every time there was a change of owner. It was therefore decided that the name Omer would precede the name of each owner for every generation to come. This is true for Omer who followed Omer Remi in 1961, and then for Omer Jean in 2007 who still runs the company today.

Clearly this tale of old traditions has been the inspiration behind the name of this beer which celebrates the famous recipe, and of course keeps loyally to the same name. The beer itself is made from the highest quality malted barley from the Loire region of France, and uses three varieties of hops harvested from the fields of Germany, Slovenia and the Czech Republic. It is these hops which help to identify the sharp bitterness which this beer imparts on consumption. The Omer Traditional Blond is a good beer which is crisp and fruity, as well as hoppy and is very professionally produced. It doesn’t quite leave you gagging for the same beer again, but then I am becoming more and more choosy with each beer.

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Filed under 7, Abbey Tripel, Bockor

#172 – Timmermans Kriek

#172 - Timmermans Kriek

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 4 %

It has been a while since I last supped on a Timmermans beer (#12), which gave me the opportunity to talk about their gueuze. It seems only right now to introduce a little bit of the history.

Timmermans is naturally a family business, and first started brewing gueuze in a disused cow shed in Itterbeek, a suburb of Brussels, way back in 1781.The first brewer was a gentleman by the name of Henry Vanheyleweghen who eventually handed over and leased the buildings to Jacobus Walraevens. By 1832 the smallholding had amassed also a farm, an orchard, café and malt house, and also a name – the Brasserie de la Taupe (the Mole brewery).

Eventually the son of Jacobus, Paul Walraevens inherited the business and continued to provide a multitude of excellent local products. It was only in 1911 under new ownership that all subsidiary activities were finally stopped, with the complete focus being the pub and brewery. The youngest Walraevens daughter had married brewer Frans Timmermans, although the name didn’t finally stick until 1960 when Paul van Cutsem, the son-in-law of Frans, took over proceedings and changed the name to Mol Timmermans.

The Timmermans name still lives on even though the brewery is now under the stewardship of the Anthony Martin group. They are famous for their lambic gueuze and faro, and for the colourful range of fruit lambic beers of which the Timmermans Kriek is one of the most popular – I certainly did enjoy this one. There are almost certainly more authentic and traditional lambic krieks out there, but this one certainly hit the spot for refreshment and sweetness. I had the larger 330 ml bottle which meant it wasn’t over before it had begun. The flavour lasted to the very end, and bearing in mind they sell this in my local supermarket, I may well be going back on a hot summers day to try this one again.

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Filed under 7, Lambic - Fruit, Timmermans