Category Archives: Belgian Ale

#249 – Les Brasseurs Ambree

#249 - Les Brasseurs Ambree

Size: cask

ABV: 6 %

Most stag weekends these days tend to head to hedonistic Eastern European cities, where the beers are cheap, the police turn a blind eye and if you want to look at ladies or worse, then you don’t have to look too far. Imagine the glares on my friend’s faces when news spread we were heading to Belgium for my weekend of debauchery. A country famed for its expensive beers, heavy handed police and distinct lack of vice; not to mention the tapestries, chocolate and lace.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m the wrong side of thirty, and that my obsession with Belgian Beer was quickly becoming obsessive. Brussels would be the perfect destination for twelve good and proper gentlemen to educate themselves in the art of drinking beer – its just most of them didn’t know it yet. I left the Best Man to sort out the travel and the digs, while I pored over a succession of esteemed beer joints to continue on my Odyssey in style.

Eurostar took eleven of us into the city centre by early afternoon on the Friday, and while we waited for the final team-member to arrive from the Middle East we began to fill our boots in the hotel reception. The sensible ones started on the easy drinking Maes, while in true Beer Shrimper fashion I went for the high ABV Trappists early doors. I’d managed a few of these by the time all parties were present and we headed into town. I’d managed to convince everyone to trust me on the first round of drinks and manfully got the Best Man to rustle up twelve Tripel Karmeliets (#229). While the quality of the beer was never in question there were a few discerning remarks from the real ale drinkers about drinking from floral goblets, and questioning the sexuality* of those who might choose to. If I was to continue educating my group in the finer aspects of Belgian beer then I would need a different approach.

I’d planned the visit to Les Brasseurs de la Grand Place a little later in the night, but now seemed a good a time as any. A real microbrewery, with real mens glasses right in the middle of the famous town square. I could tick off a few more beers that I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else, and my chums could choose from a varied selection of home-made beers or any other lagery drivel they wanted. The more sensible in the group went off and took the opportunity to grab some strategic food to help soak up the alcohol while I stood strong in advocating that any kind of eating was most definitely cheating. It would inevitably be a truly regrettable stance.

The first selection from this tiny little brewpub was the Les Brasseurs Ambree. Contrary to public opinion of which I am now more recently acquainted I found this to be a pretty enjoyable little beer. A deep copper coloured beverage with a spicy little accent on the nose, or at least that’s what I seem to recall. I remember thinking this was going to be the first of many decent beers in this joint but it was largely the pick of what turned out to be a fairly sorry bunch.

*Anybody who has enjoyed the film In Bruges may remember a similar scene.

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Filed under 8, Belgian Ale, Brasseurs de la Grand Place

#247 – Tongerlo Christmas

#247 - Tongerlo Christmas

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 6.5 %

I have slowly been working my way through the Tongerlo collection; a fact made more noticeable by the recent re-marketing of the beers and adaptation of styles. I first tried the very average Tripel Blonde (#30) where I was able to introduce the brewing at the Abbey. I then followed up with the slightly better Dubbel Bruin (#137); and a look at the Norbertine monks. The latest offering is the Tongerlo Christmas beer, and now a closer look at the history of the Abbey.

The religious community at Tongerlo was formed in 1133 by a group of monks from the Norbertine Abbey of St Michael of Antwerp, who had been invited by the wealthy landowner Giselbert Castelre to settle on his Tongerlo estate. The monks were characterised by the Norbertine traditions which was a popular and modern movement at the time. The Abbey grew in power through the 13th Century as a papal bull placed Tongerlo at the centre of a number of parish churches in the region. Numbers soon grew on the estate and the community began to spread itself wider. The remit of the Abbey steadily became more powerful, and the buildings grew in size with the best local architects enhancing the beauty of the place.

The rise to prominence was only checked in the 16th Century when the Abbey fell under the strongly Catholic stronghold of ‘s-Hertogenbosch.Rome began to increase taxes and salaries from Tongerlo considerably, and it was only in 1629 under the Calvinist revolt that Tongerlo was spared. It was probably a case of ‘better the devil you know’ however as the Calvinists banned all Catholic worship and many monks were exiled away from their parishes. Things became even worse in 1796 when the French Revolution swept into town and the Abbey came under private ownership. It was as late as 1838 when the Belgian state came into being, that a religious community found its way back to Tongerlo. The brothers have largely remained ever since; with just a brief sojourn at the Abbey of Leffe when a huge fire swept through and destroyed many of the buildings in 1929.

The Tongerlo Christmas is not your traditional dark Christmas fayre. It pours a rusty copper colour with a small and unassuming head. The hint of vanilla on the nose wasn’t completely lost on me, although I struggled to reach the same conclusion once it hit my tastebuds. It was a fairly fruity and enjoyable beer which just lacked any unique characteristics which might have led me to recommend it any further. Essentially if Father Christmas was buying you a sack full of Christmas beers this yuletide you might be a bit disappointed with too many of these.

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Filed under 7, Abbey Beer, Belgian Ale, Christmas Beer, Haacht

#242 – St Idesbald Blond

#242 - St Idesbald Blond

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 6.5 %

One of the highlights of drinking a thousand Belgian beers is the opportunity to tell a good story. I’ve already come across a number of Saints on my venerable journey thus far and I’m expecting plenty more to come. This time it’s the turn of St Idesbald to distract us from our guzzling, although to be fair during his actual lifetime there wasn’t a great deal to set the pulse racing.

The chief protagonist of the tale was born in approximately 1090 in West Flanders. He was of good solid stock, belonging to the noble family of van der Gracht who were lords of Moorsel. He continued to ingratiate himself with the more esteemed end of the community as a courtier and page to the Count of Flanders and followed a life of piety as a Cistercian monk. He became a canon priest in the beautiful town of Veurne in 1135, and by 1150 shortly after being widowed he joined the Abbey of our Lady of the Dunes (ten Duinen). He would eventually serve as Abbot until his death in 1167, where he was buried in a lead coffin shrine within the Abbey.

The Abbey was an important pillar of the society, and as the beer label will attest, in 1138 it was taken by the Order of Citeaux as an adopted daughter of the Cistercian Abbey of Clairvaux. The St Idesbald beers in many ways celebrate this milestone as much as they do the man – who for centuries lay dormant in his final resting place. It was only in 1577 that things started to hot up a little, when the Gueuzen (essentially the Flemish uprising) plundered the Abbey and razed it to the ground. St Idesbald had been a key figure in the history of the Abbey and the locals were keen to ensure his remains were left untarnished and so transported his shrine to a farmhouse in Bogaerde. It remained here until 1623 where a macabre local survey was carried out which involved opening up the coffin. Amazingly the body of St Idesbald was found to be fully intact and uncorrupted.

The relics of St Idesbald were to become extremely important to the local populace and while the Abbey no longer existed, the farm in Bogaerde housed the coffin. He remained here until the French Revolutionary troops plundered the area whence his holy remains were whisked off to the relative safety of Bruges, eventually ending up in the hospital chapel at the Abbey of our Lady of the Potteries. Amazingly St Idesbald was not venerated as a Saint until 1894, and you can still visit his untarnished remains at the chapel in Bruges to this day, although unlike in 1623 you cannot actually view his lifeless body any longer.

You can though have a beer to celebrate his life, although the St Idesbald Blond is also hardly a brew to get your pulse racing. It is a typical standard Belgian blonde beer which pours a pale gold with a quite ferocious head. The nose is nothing to write home about and the flavour offers little distinguishable above a light fruity twang. This would be a pleasant enough summer barbecue beer for friends who perhaps don’t quite have the urge to explore anything too interesting on the tongue but want something a little stronger than supermarket lager.

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Filed under 6, Belgian Ale, Huyghe

#233 – Malheur 6

#233 - Malheur 6

Size: 250 ml

ABV: 6 %

The de Landtsheer brewery is yet another family business that has transcended the ages of Belgian history. The current President, Manu de Landtsheer is the latest in a long line of ancestors who have brought highly regarded beers to the market.

The founding father of the Malheur beers was Balthazar de Landtsheer, an exotically named gentleman who was born in 1773 in the hamlet of Bassrode. He set up a small rustic brewery on his farmstead which he named ‘De Halve Maan’. His son Eduard was born in 1808 and aside from eventually taking over the reins at the brewery, he also became the mayor of Bassrode. The nature of his involvement in politics meant that progress in brewing was slow, and it wasn’t until his son Emmanuel took over in the mid 1800s that the business began to muster strength.

Emmanuel decided to transfer the business from Bassrode to Buggenhout more as a means of getting in with the daughter of another local brewer who, to be fair he eventually married. Together they bought a small farm brewery named ‘it Meuleke’ and renamed it the Brouwerij de Zon (Sun Brewery). The business boomed and the company became so successful that they traded off the farm and concentrated solely on the beer. Emmanuel eventually passed away in 1879 leaving the business to his son Charles, who would in due course leave it to his own son; also named Emmanuel. The handover however was untimely as World War I arrived and brewing would have to cease. As was common at this desperate time, the family looked for alternative incomes and the brewery became in the end a depot for Pilsener Urquell, Westmalle, and the now defunct brewery Lamot.

The brewery would continue to remain inactive until 1997. Emmanuel and his son Adolf had by this time set up a successful hop farm on the premises but Adolf true to family tradition became the mayor of Buggenhout which would always distract him from his dream of once again brewing beer like his forefathers. He was mayor for a total of 33 years and he passed away in 1991. It was at this point that his son Manu felt the calling to vicariously achieve his father’s dream by reigniting the beer production on their farm. It’s fair to say they haven’t looked back since.

The Malheur 6 is a mid-strength copper coloured pale ale, which for me was distinctly average. There is much clamour around the globe now when the name Malheur is mentioned, but I would imagine it’s more for the dalliances into champagne style beers such as the Dark Brut, or the Cuvee Royale, than it is for the runty little Malheur 6. It poured an insipid looking amber colour with minimal head, and there was sadly very little of note from either the nose or the palate to recommend, which just like its name is fairly unfortunate.

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Filed under 6, Belgian Ale, de Landtsheer

#232 – Hougaerdse Das

#232 - Hougaerdse Das

Size: 250 ml

ABV: 5.1 %

I would imagine there aren’t many beer fans out there who haven’t at least once tasted the beer Hoegaarden (#81). As previously explained this beer hails from the small Belgian village of the same name. Since the brewing operations of the beer have moved back to the locality there are now two brewing establishments in the vicinity, however it is astonishing to think that in 1750 this tiny place once had 35 breweries operating at one time. With a population of around two thousand people that works out at about one brewery for every 57 people!

A number of reasons have accounted for this massive decline; notably two World wars, and the mass commercialisation of craft beers by bigger companies (of which the beer Hoegaarden has perhaps suffered more than any). A few famous old names have fallen by the wayside including the Brasserie Louis Tomsin, where Pierre Celis once worked when he was a boy, and de Grote Brouwerijen van Hoegaarden, or as it was more commonly known – Brasserie Loriers, for the name of the street on which it once proudly sat.

It was the Brasserie Loriers that launched a beer in 1931 called Hougaerdse Das. The brewmaster was Marcel Thomas who had been travelling to various breweries in England and had tried a small beer which he fell in love with. It became a very popular beer in the locality for the next thirty years until in 1960 the brewery at Loriers went the same way as so many others – bought out by Artois (a forerunner of the foodchain that is Interbrew-InBev-AB/InBev etc). It was only a couple of years and the brewery was shut for ever. Hougaerdse Das became a lost beer, although InBev continued to use the Das yeast to create their Vieuxtemps beer.

If we go back to the story of Hoegaarden (#81) we follow that Pierre Celis set up his de Kluis brewery in the village as a result of watching all his favourite breweries get closed down. In fact, Marcel Thomas helped Pierre to set up his own brewery. Following the terrible fire in 1985 Celis was forced to take alms from Interbrew, and of course the same fate befell him in 1987 when he was bought out. As a result of this unlikely partnership however, Hougaerdse Das was unexpectedly revived in 1996. Perhaps it wasn’t to be too unexpected though, as Celis had used the Das yeast for his own beers also in the early years.

I’m almost certain that in the early days this Speciale Das Ale was probably quite a beer, but it certainly isn’t anymore. It is an unfiltered light amber barley beer, which according to the official website is ‘easily drinkable, full of character and appealing to beer aficionados who like to experiment’. The recipe contains coriander and orange peel in addition to the usual water, barley, malt and hops, although the flavours were largely anonymous. Just like the original Hoegaarden beer changed under new stewardship, so probably has the Hougaerdse Das, given its local reputation of yore. I almost feel like euthanasia might be the best thing for this beer.

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Filed under 4, Belgian Ale, Hoegaarden (InBev), Lion

#222 – Slaapmutske Bruin

#222 - Slaapmutske Bruin

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 6 %

When I started this Odyssey I wasn’t entirely sure what it would bring. To be honest I wasn’t sure that writing about beer was really that interesting but I had fallen in love with the beer. I’m not turned on by beer rating websites – they don’t do it for me. I started to plot my journey on ratebeer but I soon got fed up of that. I’m not sure the swigging and swilling, and the sniffing and swishing were what I wanted to be a part of. What I have found though is that I really love the stories that every beer seems to be screaming to tell. I’d almost go as far as to say that in some cases the stories are just as good as that first taste of a new beer, and the Slaapmutske Bruin is the perfectest example.

The protagonists of this wonderful tale are Dany de Smet, the one-time brewmaster at Huyghe, and Marleen Vercaigne, his partner and beer lover extraordinaire. They shared a passion, and that passion led them to creating their own homebrews with the dream of one day setting up their own brewery. This unadulterated passion would eventually lead to marriage, and inevitably a baby boy called Jonas was born to both in 1999. As is surprisingly common amongst brewers, the happy couple celebrated the birth by making a new batch of homebrew which they christened Jonasbier. As a new dad I can testify to the fact that newborn babies have a natural tendency to cry just as you are trying to sleep off the sneaky few Tripels you had left in the cellar, and Jonas was no exception. In fact it got so bad during one particular night that Dany and Marleen decided as a last resort to try dipping his pacifier in the latest incarnation of their Jonasbier.

It’s certainly not in the baby raising textbooks, but the result was that Jonas immediately stopped fussing and almost slept for the whole night, which allowed Dany and Marleen to return to the sitting room to continue working out a name for this latest brew. Marleen had commented that “This beer is a real Slaapmutske”, which in East Flanders literally means ‘sleeping hat’, or what we in the UK might call ‘a cheeky little nightcap’. Suddenly the beer had a name, and as it was the middle of winter, this latest incarnation of the Jonasbier became the Slaapmutske Winterbier (later to be also known as the Slaapmutske Bruin). So impressive was this latest batch, that later the following the year the beer was released to the Belgian market. The couple were now living their dream.

It’s no surprise that the Slaapmutske Bruin was the catalyst for their mainstream movement into brewing. For a 6% beer it is remarkably tasty, mainly due to the blending of colour malts, aromatic hops and coriander. It is sweet, rich and spicy, yet velvety smooth on the tongue. Rarely have I been so impressed with a beer of this strength. I have often recommended friends and colleagues to pick some of these beers up in Belgium, and rarely has anyone been disappointed. I only wish this particular nightcap was just that little bit stronger.

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Filed under 8, Belgian Ale, de Proef

#220 – Kossaat

#220 - Kossaat

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 6.7 %

The Kossaat beer is brewed by the unremarkable Lefebvre, but on behalf of the Brouwerij Vercauteren. There is a genealogical link for the name of this beer which takes us way back through history. It will explain the rustic looking gentleman on the label of the beer.

The Vercauteren story starts in the late 18th Century with Cornelius Cuyckens who was a farmer and occasional brewer by trade. He tended a small plot of land on the edge of the village at Malderen, and when he died he left behind seven children. It was one of his sons Peter who would take over the reins of this small-holding, and when he too eventually died, again the reins were passed on. Eventually after a couple more generations one of the granddaughters of Peter married an Alfons Vercauteren who took up the challenge and inspired the eventual modernisation of their practices. The journey continued through son Maurice and then grandson Andre before the brewing finally stopped with the latest in this long line – another Alfons Vercauteren.

The gentleman celebrated on the label of the Kossaat beer is the original farmer and brewer of this long chain – Cornelius. A Kossaat is/was a term largely used in Prussia during the 18th Century for a farmer who lived on the edge of the community and who largely eked out a living from their small plot of land. This was often impossible, and so they might have worked extra manual work for the richer farmers and landholders. Neither though were the Kossaaten the poorest around – at least they had some land, and the odd bit of livestock. The etymology of Kossaat derives from the Kotta, which was the Germanic name for the small cottages in which they would live. The term Kossaat literally means ‘those who sit in the cottages’.

It is likely that the Kossaten were of Slavic origin, and that this spread through to Prussia and into this Western corner of Europe. Cornelius Cuyckens certainly lived this simple lifestyle, as did his ancestors, and he was the one who essentially kickstarted the Brouwerij Vercauteren all those years ago. The beer, as you would expect from Lefebvre was distinctly average with very little to get excited about. It was a standard pleasant blonde with a light fruity flavour that was laced with some faintly impressive hopping. The history of the Kossaat may be semi interesting but the beer certainly isn’t.

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Filed under 7, Belgian Ale, Lefebvre

#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

#211 – La Binchoise Blonde

#211 - La Binchoise Blonde

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 6.2 %

La Binchoise Blonde is another beer which is dominated by the Gilles on the label. For more information on these strange characters then please feel free to divert your attention to the La Binchoise Brune (#121). Today though I want to concentrate on the modern day history of the brewery, and in particular Andre Graux.

The modern day brewery in Binche was only founded in 1986, which is fairly young by Belgian standards. It was set up by Andre Graux and his wife Francoise Jauson who were both unemployed at the time and shared a passion for beer. The business first began at home, but eventually they bought an old malthouse and the reputation of their early beers led to moderate success. At the time the brewery was particularly well known for making their beer in a cauldron which they procured from the Belgian National Guard which added to the intrigue.

The two beers which really launched the commercialisation of the brewery were the Fakir, and Reserve Marie de Hongrie. Strangely, having just literally written about label beers in my last review (#210), both these beers developed alter egos for the linguistically distinct areas of Wallonia and Flanders. The Reserve Marie de Hongrie would double up as La Binchoise Brune in Wallonia, while the La Binchoise Blonde took on the Fakir mandate. Fakir just happened to be the childhood nickname of our chief protagonist Andre Graux. I have added the label of the beer for posterity which is now retired and I am therefore unlikely to run across it again on my travels.

Fakir

The La Binchoise Blonde and La Binchoise Brune remain the flagship beers of the brewery and these two are often relabelled for local shops, carnivals and fetes; in particular the Blonde which accounts for about half of the entire breweries current output. You can also find it locally known as La Molagnarde Blonde.

In my humble opinion the La Binchoise Blonde is a particularly average blonde beer. You can’t dislike it but equally I’d find it unlikely that with the breadth of good solid blonde mid-range beers available that you would continue to drink this one. It looks the part though, with a thick rich amber pour, and the aroma is sweet and fruity. There is a good helping of yeast in the flavour and some basic citric fruits which isn’t that surprising given it is brewed with orange peel – this addition reflective of the orange blossom regularly thrown at the carnival. I may decide to drink this again if a) I ever actually make it to the carnival, or b) if I am lucky enough to get my hands on a Fakir, or a La Molagnarde Blonde.

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Filed under 6, Belgian Ale, La Binchoise

#202 – La Trappe Blond

#202 - La Trappe Blond

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 6.5 %

When I tried the La Trappe Dubbel (#159) I introduced the history of the Trappist Abbey of Koningshoeven across the border in the Netherlands. I promised then that I would continue the story, and so the La Trappe Blond gives me that opportunity.

We left the story just where the head Abbot Nivardus Schweykart in 1884 decided that the Abbey needed a brewery, and effectively its been there ever since. Many breweries suffered at the hands of the copper-hungry Germans in World War I, however the Netherlands remained neutral at this time and so the Abbey of Koningshoeven remained untouched. In fact in the 1920s the production at the brewery began to increase, and the brewery was modernised considerably in order that it could cope with the demand.

The brewery continued to brew lighter blonde beers, including a first prototype of the La Trappe Blond, and it continued to flourish until World War II when resources were scarce. The 1950s and 1960s saw further developments including a lemonade factory and laboratory being built, and more recipes were established including dark beers, Pilseners, Dortmunders and Bocks. A number of collaborations were made with other brewers to enable the monks to find time to pray, however by 1980 the monks regained full control and established the La Trappe brand, which has remained true to this day.

In 1987 a brand new brewery was reconstructed on the premises moving the production firmly into the 21st Century, and more La Trappe beers were to follow until another partnership was formed with the Bavaria brewery in Lieshout. A new bottling plant followed shortly after, and the Koningshoeven story ambles to a unremarkable conclusion – the brewery now living well off it’s claim as the 7th Trappist brewery, and attracting Belgian beer hunters the short distance across the border.

The La Trappe Blond recipe has altered a fair bit since the 1920s, and is now a solid golden blonde which was the perfect accompaniment to a spicy tandoori chicken curry. This was a really thick fruity brew which for its relatively low strength by Belgian standards was very impressive. It faded a little in the final death throes, which may have something to do with being completely stuffed with curry, but I’d definitely seek this beer out again; even though it isn’t strictly Belgian*

* I have argued my case for inclusion somewhere before – I think it was #101

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Filed under 8, Belgian Ale, de Koningshoeven

#199 – Waase Wolf

#199 - Waase Wolf

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 6 %

If ever there was a beer that deserved to be blogged then Waase Wolf is that beer. I mean, here is a beer with the tagline, ‘Not for little lambs’ that was brewed in memory of a legendary wolf that ran amok on the Belgian/Dutch border in 2001 mauling and killing sheep for fun. Brilliant stuff – and I reserve any apologies to any sheep offended by this article.

The terror started in October 2000 when a number of farmers around the Zeeland/Waasland border found their valued ovine littered as carcasses across the countryside. Initial thoughts were that this was the work of a depraved fox or dog, but once an eye-witness video of a stray wolf emerged, coupled with reports of a private owner losing such an animal, then word of mouth spread – as did the number of mutilated flocks. The farming community laid siege to the local authorities, and soon the united forces of the police and specialist wolf teams were scouring the countryside in tracking down the beast. Everyday new evidence emerged of alleged sightings as more and more victims piled up.

Like the Beast of Bodmin did in the UK many years ago, so in this small quiet area of Belgium did the Waase Wolf burst into prominence in local folklore. Known at the time as ‘Isegrim’, the animal captured the nation’s attention. Sheep farmers became increasingly anxious as the body count continued, and in the Netherlands rewards of up to 10,000 guilders were placed to kill the wretched beast, much to the dismay of the hordes of conservationalists who rallied in support of the perpetrator, sticking two fingers up at the families of the poor innocent dead sheep.

Then one day in late December, with the collateral at 62 (47 in the Netherlands, and 15 in Belgium), an anonymous email to police reported the beast had been quelled by a bullet and buried humanely in the woods. Nobody ever found the whistleblower or the cadaver but sure enough not another animal was harmed after the 22nd December, and on the 9th January 2001, both police forces officially closed the case. Cue a lifetime of novelty thimbles, tea-towels and t-shirts for anybody visiting the area. And of course where else but in Belgium a commemorative beer.

The Waase Wolf was a thinly bodied amber that was littered with sediment. It smelt absolutely delicious, and once settled I was able to sit back and enjoy this lovely beer. I wasn’t really expecting from the first appearances a really light fruity taste and it made a real change from the recent selection of beers I had tried. There was enough spice and hops to make it interesting, coupled with the delicious sweetness which always seems to keep me coming back for more. The Boelens brewery have delivered  much more here than simply a commemorative beer – I will definitely go back for a pack of these.

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Filed under 8, Belgian Ale, Boelens, Wolf

#186 – Bourgogne des Flandres Blonde

#186 - Bourgogne des Flandres Blonde

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 6 %

There are two beers which make up the Bourgogne des Flandres range. Most punters would likely have first tasted the brune, which is a famous sour ale from this area of West Flanders. I however first managed to get my hands on the golden Bourgogne des Flandres Blonde, the stronger but less auspicious sister beer.

The most striking quality about these beers is perhaps the bottles. Both come packaged without traditional labels but with beautifully crafted and embossed images of the Bruges skyline, complete with the famous Belfry, or Belfort. It was here about seven generations ago that the artisanal brewers of the Van Houtryve family first got their hands dirty with the fine sour brown ale. A further clue to this strong family tradition is the shield of the Van Houtryve family which bedecks the neck of the bottle itself.

The family stopped brewing the beer themselves in the 1950’s, whereupon distant relatives at Verhaeghe took over the production; themselves well renowned for their sour ales of Vichtenaar (#146) and Duchesse de Bourgogne (#105). Time ran out on this partnership however in 1985 when Timmermans offered to become chief custodians. The 25 year relationship has been successful for the Bourgogne des Flandres beers, which have been marketed under the Anthony Martin’s “Finest Beer selection since 1993.

To be fair most of the marketing around the beers is about the famous sour ale which continues to gather dust in my cellar, however the blonde accompaniment is no trite addition. It is a lively little beer which mixes a spicy bitterness with a dry hoppy nature. It doesn’t exactly blow you away, but I’d recommend anybody buying at least one and keeping the bottle on a dusty shelf somewhere for friends and family to admire at their leisure.

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Filed under 7, Belgian Ale, Timmermans

#180 – De Block Speciale

#180 - De Block Speciale

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 6 %

De Block is a solid little brewery tucked away in the Flemish Brabant region of Belgium. I had already tried their Dendermonde Tripel (#47), and Kastaar (#96), each of which had a unique story to tell, but as yet the story of De Block has gone untold. They don’t produce a wide range of beers so I will take my opportunity now.

It’s another great family tradition that has endured for well over half a millennia. The actual brewery was initiated by Louis de Block who was a local miller and farmer, who married the daughter of a brewer from Baardegem. This was particularly handy for Louis as he had inherited a right to brew beer from his immediate family. Henricus de Block way back in the 14th Century had been bestowed this privilege for his contribution as a vassal of the Duke of Brabant and Burgundy. Whether Louis had chosen his bride out of love, or for her specialist brewing knowledge is now immaterial.

As is common in the lowlands, the family tradition has been to hand down the baton of brewing to the next family member, and the De Blocks are no exception. We can trace the family history right the way back. The most recent beneficiary is Paul Saerens who married into the De Block family. He has been keen to ensure that the De Block name continues despite the apparent void of male heirs. It has been under Saerens that De Block have widened their scope in the export market. Flemish Brabant is not shy of a few breweries, being one of the most condensed areas in Belgium for beer production. Saerens spotted this and opened up De Block to the rest of Europe, North America, Australia and Japan, and now almost 80% of current production leaves Belgium for foreign shores. Perhaps the most recognisable brand is that of the Satan beers which dominate the brewery’s marketing.

You might be mistaken for thinking as I was that, that the De Block Speciale is a staple house beer. It is far from that! The unique taste of this attractively packaged beer is certainly one to divide opinion. It is actually a brew blended from both young and old beers, and is flavoured with pomegranate and elderflowers. This certainly accounts for the bizarre medicinal floridity which is definitely one of the most unsubtle kicks I have had so far on this journey. Although on first appearance the De Block Speciale looks like a traditional golden ale all comparisons thereafter can be written off. This is a particularly carbonated fruity sour ale albeit with a redeeming bitterness. It is certainly unique, although after about half a glass becomes somewhat tiresome. I guess this is one of those beers you would have little chance of not recognising blindfolded, and I am still trying to work out if that is a compliment or not.

(Thanks to Andrew at 40 Beers at 40 for the excellent photograph)

 

 

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Filed under 6, Belgian Ale, De Block

#170 – Palm Speciale

#170 - Palm Speciale

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 5.4 %

In 1984, the legendary beer guru Michael Jackson was reported as saying “If I could have a beer for breakfast, I would have a Palm.” I can only assume he was severely hungover when he said this, or maybe I am doing the brewery a disservice. One thing is certain though – there is certainly some history!

Palm, or De Hoorn as it was previously known, is so old it’s frightening. They are a Belgian institution and for that certainly deserve some respect. There is evidence that from 1597 on the site opposite the church in the town of Steenhuffel, there was a farmstead named “De Hoorn” (the Horn), which by 1686 was an inn with its own brewery and the same name. In the 1747 census of Steenhuffel there is categoric evidence of the De Hoorn brewery in direct competition with another brewery named “De Valk” (the Falcon).

In 1801 the brewery, which by now contained a malt factory, farm, brandy distillery, and inn with stables, was bought out by Jan Baptist de Mesmaecker. His great-granddaughter Henriette would eventually marry Arthur van Roy who took the production of beer at the brewery in more ways than one into the 20th Century. While the brewing world was beginning to move away from classical hop-fermented beer and choose cheaper pilsner style lagers, Van Roy stuck true to his principles. That was until World War I when the brewery was completely annihilated. Arthur van Roy now had grand ideas for a rebuild far beyond the village environs; but that’s a story for another beer I am afraid.

The Palm Speciale had been sitting in my cellar for quite some time. I had picked it up in a small rural store in Purnode for just 76 cents. It is made with a mixture of English hops, French barley and Belgian yeast – a truly cosmopolitan concoction. I wasn’t expecting great things despite the proclamations from Mr Jackson, and indeed from the website, which goes so far as to suggest that Palm Speciale is “one of the better beers of the 20th Century”, and the “Absolute number one Belgian amber beer”. I would say that for a 5.4 % ‘sensible alcohol content’ beer, that it is reasonable but some of these assertions are just ridiculous. The website also calls it ‘the sociable beer for every day, for everyone’. If you consider that the vast majority of Belgians themselves still choose to drink Jupiler above their craft beers, they may still have a point I suppose!

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Filed under 5, Belgian Ale, Horse, Palm

#162 – Duvel Groen

#162 - Duvel Groen

Size: 250 ml

ABV: 7.5 %

Red devils are commonplace in myth and folklore (and Old Trafford), but very few people have heard of a green devil. The archetypal golden ale of Belgium – Duvel (#34) has been sold successfully around the world, resplendent in it’s red and white packaging. It does however have a more reclusive brother beer – the Duvel Groen (Green) which is much harder to track down.

Duvel Groen is essentially the same beer as the normal Duvel, in that it uses exactly the same ingredients. Same yeast, same Styrian and Golding hops, same pilsner malt. The big difference is the timing. After about thirty days of the first fermentation, the brewmaster at Duvel Moortgat usually brings in his taste panel, whom once satisfied, sign off the beer for its secondary fermentation in the bottle, with additional yeast and sugar. Not all the beer however has always been sent on for bottle conditioning. There are those, particularly staff within the brewery, who have enjoyed the flavour which results from cold-filtering the first batch of single-fermented Duvel. This has then been bottled and given the green label.

The bottled Duvel Groen is rarely seen outside of Belgium, and only in Belgium in selected locations. There has been however more recently a draft Duvel, again labelled in green, which made its way to export, but although it follows the same processes as above before being kegged, isn’t exactly the same beer, as it weighs in only at 6.8%, but is essentially the red Duvel sent to keg as opposed to a 250ml bottle.

Either way I was particularly excited to be trying this rarer beer. If the CEO of Duvel Moortgat can be believed, then this beer is essentially a lighter and crisper version of the red classic, with all the developing flavours of the brother beer, but one that is lower in alcohol and carbonation. My overall impression however was that it was further from the real Duvel than they imagined it to be. It did have hints of the wicked edge that we have come to enjoy from Duvel, but it lacked any kind of bite that you might expect from a 7.5% beer. It faded fast and by the end I was hankering for the original. Here is categoric proof that green devils are much less menacing than red ones.

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Filed under 6, Belgian Ale, Duvel Moortgat

#156 – Plokkersbier

#156 - Plokkersbier

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 7 %

Plokkersbier is a tribute beer specially brewed by de Bie in honour and appreciation of the hop-pickers of the Poperinge region. Plokkersbier means “Pickers beer” in the local language, and the label of the beer depicts one of these folk of old, relaxing on a barrow of hops and quenching his thirst with a well earned beer. There is the other possibility of course that while everyone else is working, this lazy bugger isn’t !

Poperinge is the hop-capital of Belgium, with hectare upon hectare of prime crop needing to be harvested. Much of this is now done mechanically, but in the olden days the fields of Poperinge would be awash with seasonal workers chipping in to bring the crop in. It wasn’t just local people from the country who were used – amazingly, many townspeople and city dwellers would flock to the country in holiday season to escape the soot and the bustle and pick hops. It may seem strange to us now, but it was such a tradition in Belgium, that everyone went hop-picking – a tradition that dates as far back as the Middle Ages.

Days would start as early as 7am, where families and friends would join a cavalcade of carts, bikes and charabancs put on by the farmers, laden with food and drinks to be consumed as they worked. Each individual or family was paid by weight, and thus the more each could collect in their baskets, the higher the wage at the end of the day. Camaraderie was very common between workers, although one always had to be alert to the gypsy children who would try and steal from the workers baskets. The foreman would get around all the workers with a vegetable broth or soup, while each took turns to shelter from the weather on their hessian sacks. I feel almost nostalgic just thinking about it, with vague recollections of Sundays spent fruit picking in Essex as a child flooding back.

With such pleasantries running through my mind, it was with some disappointment, that the beer didn’t quite live up to the mindplay. It was probably one of the better beers I had tried from de Bie, but up to now that wasn’t really saying much. Again, it may have been that the beer was a long time out of date, but that isn’t usually a major issue for Belgian beers if they have been stored well. It was an attractive misty blonde, bordering on amber, with a very fruity mouthfeel and aftertaste. It began to wane and fade midway through, just as I probably would if I was in the fields picking all day. I expected a bit more from a 7% beer to be honest.

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Filed under 6, Belgian Ale, De Bie

#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

#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