Category Archives: Belgian Strong Ale

#223 – Guldenberg

#223 - Guldenberg

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 8.5 %

Guldenberg was the very first commercial beer brewed at De Ranke. It was so named because of the ancient Guldenberg Abbey which once stood in the town of Wevelgem, and brewed the local beer. It was in this town that Nino Bacelle, the founder of De Ranke was born.

It all started in 1994 when our man Nino started brewing under his own name. His family had been in the industry since the 1930s, and Nino himself started to tinker with recipes and homebrews from about 1981. He studied brewing (now why didn’t I get that career advice at school?) in Ghent during the mid-Eighties and continued to practice his art. Eventually in the early 90s he had begun to really perfect his passion and friends and family were urging him to launch to the public. He decided to go for it and took the less risky route of using another brewery’s equipment. This meant less initial investment, and so a relationship was formed with Deca Services in Woesten.

In that first year Nino managed to produce nine thousand litres of Guldenberg, which was received to much acclaim. Demand continued to increase and Nino began to once again survey his options. It was then in the mid-Nineties that Nino decided to join forces with a friend and fellow beer lover Guido de Vos, who was a founder member of the HOP beer tasting association, and who had also been tinkering with homebrew for much of his life. The Nino Bacelle brewery suddenly became a 50/50 venture and with that in mind they chose to rename the brewery. De Ranke was officially formed in 1996 and has rarely looked back since. They continued to brew at Deca until 2005 but I will save that story for another brew.

So what about the Guldenberg beer? Well, I would say it certainly lives up to the hype. It’s a strong crisp blonde ale weighing in at 8.5% and is particularly hoppy. This is derived from the use of high quality Hallertau hops, and of course a good measure of dry-hopping. I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s in the same league as the XX Bitter (#131) on that front but it certainly matches it in overall presence, with the extra ABV perhaps giving it a leading edge. It’s a particularly delicious beer and one that essentially launched one of Belgium’s most impressive breweries.

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Filed under 8, Abbey Beer, Belgian Strong Ale, Brewers, De Ranke

#221 – Leffe 9

#221 - Leffe 9

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 9 %

This was my first deviation from the standard Leffe Blonde (#41) and Leffe Brune (#25), and I was reliably informed that the Leffe 9 was the pick of the bunch. It was time to find out. I’ve tended to drift my conversations around Leffe to the politics and machinations of the rise of Interbrew, so I will take a break from that today. I’m going to concentrate on the beer, and according to the website, the Leffe 9 is a perfect Aperitif beer. It all sounded a little bit poncey and thus I deemed it worth the briefest of investigations.

Aperitif is a French term for a starter drink which opens the formalities of a meal. Not only is it a starter but it also serves as the welcome to your guests and is designed to stimulate the appetite. It is usually alcoholic in nature, and comes served with some kind of nibbles. The general suggestion is that the Leffe 9 has ‘spicy, bitter and fruity aromas with a slightly smoky aftertaste’. This would therefore be ‘delightful with charcuterie, cheese or tapas’. I didn’t find this particularly helpful due to tapas normally constituting

a) anything approaching its sell by date which is traditionally given to customers to accompany their drinks (in Spain), or

b) anything approaching its sell by date which is routinely served up in the smallest of portions and charged at excruciatingly exorbitant prices to customers who think that sharing a few meatballs is truly liberating (in the UK).

Why not try making a ‘brioche waffle with fried foie gras and raspberry and spice sauce’ – apparently the power and smoothness of the Leffe 9 will marry well with the baked fois in the apples causing a ‘feast for the senses’. Alternatively why not try ‘mini-sandwiches of smoked trout, Ardennes ham and fromage frais with black pepper’ or ‘mini-skewers of red pepper preserves, chorizo and small sweet potatoes’. I’m trying to take the nonsense out of beer drinking and then Leffe start writing rubbish like this. Whilst there is nothing wrong with admitting that Belgian beer is somewhat more classier than your average lager, any man that cracks open a Leffe 9 and then pops on a pinny to immediately rustle up some vol-au-vents is probably missing the point.

The Leffe 9 is so named because it is 9%. It isn’t therefore a beer to be trifled with. Apparently it is not correct etiquette to lubricate guests beyond the point of not being able to sit up straight or to spend each course staggering to the lavatory so I wonder whether this is the ideal aperitif beer; although again it is common practice to usually only just serve the one. I began to consider the above in terms of my hosting etiquette and realised perhaps that I still had some way to go. One beer just never seems to be enough, and although I very much enjoy a good Belgian beer with good food, the thought of entertaining my friends with a food pairing exhibition fills me with abject horror. I did therefore drink the Leffe 9 alone, and did deem it to be fairly decent but it was far from perfect. It started very strongly with plenty of bite but lost much of its oomph in the middle, thus I promised myself next time I would try it with a terrine of caramelised pheasant offal.

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Filed under 7, Abbey Beer, Belgian Strong Ale, InBev (Belgium)

#218 – La Prime de la Fin d’Annee

#218 - La Prime de la Fin d'Annee

Size: 750 ml

ABV: 8.5 %

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under 8, Belgian Strong Ale, St Helene

#215 – Satan Red

#215 - Satan Red

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 8 %

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under 9, Belgian Strong Ale, De Block

#213 – Gulden Draak Vintage

#213 - Gulden Draak Vintage

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 7.5 %

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

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

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

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

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

#208 – Oerbier

#208 - Oerbier

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 9 %

Oerbier is the flagship beer of the de Dolle Brouwers, and was the first beer to be launched by the Mad Brothers. The name of the beer roughly translates as ‘primitive beer’, ‘original beer’, or ‘beer from the source’ – a title which reflects the evolutionary nature of both the beer and the brewery.

The de Dolle Brouwers story first began in 1980 following brothers Kris and Jo Herteleer’s attempts to make home brew from English supermarket kits. They were still at college at the time and making a shed load of experimental beers. Eventually they decided to enter a competition in Brussels, and they picked one of their 35 creations. Amazingly this Oerbier won, and the cash first prize was all the incentive they needed to begin their new business.

The success of the Oerbier was really down to a change of approach from the Mad Brothers. The initial efforts at brewing hadn’t really yielded anything worthwhile, so they opted to use the finest natural ingredients – spring water, fresh hops and yeast, only malt, and strictly no colouring, preservatives or filtering! This philosophy has continued to guide de Dolle Brouwers to cult success now across the world where their beers are revered. The Oerbier continues to be the flagship beer, and the small yellow man on the label continues to represent the brand. The cartoon figure is a sprouting yeast cell, who carries a mashing fork in one hand and the perfect glass of Oerbier in the other. The year Anno 1980 represents the date the brewery began, and the words Nat en Straf literally translate as ‘Wet and Strong’, which is a pretty decent analogy of the Oerbier, although it has been even stronger at times.

The real beauty of the Oerbier, which may frustrate those who seek consistency, is that each annual effort is brewed differently. I found this out later in my journey when I tried an older version at the Kulminator bar in Antwerp. When the beer was first made it used Rodenbach yeasts which left the beer at around 7%. Eventually in around 1988 once Palm had taken over Rodenbach, the de Dolle Brouwers started to evolve their own mad strains from the original yeast and the ABV rocketed. In around 2000 the beer was over 10%. Nat en Straf indeed!

The 9% version of the Oerbier I tried was simply immense. It poured a beautiful conker brown with an attractive mop of white head glistening like an oasis on the top. There was an adequate dosing of sediment which added to the experience, and the aromas were far too abundant to even begin trying to decipher. The first taste was divine, a sweet and complex meaty brew that scintillated every taste bud. Again, there were so many flavours that I couldn’t begin to tell the story. It’s not often I drool over beers, but this and the Boskeun (#82) are easily amongst my top five brews – so much so that on my last trip to Belgium I called in to the brewery to stock up on supplies and get my own flagship glass.

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Filed under 9, Belgian Strong Ale, De Dolle Brouwers

#205 – Grimbergen Cuvee de l’Ermitage

#205 - Grimbergen Cuvee de l'Ermitage

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 7.5 %

Another beer from the surprisingly extensive Grimbergen range, and following the recent review of the Optimo Bruno (#194), here follows another with a bold claim of greatness. One would fully expect that with the appellation Cuvee de l’Ermitage this would be some kind of serious brew – Cuvee de l’Ermitage translates crudely as the monks best beer from the most select vats, or something along those lines.

This claim is more likely to have been true in the past, as Alken-Maes (who took over the old Union brewery in 1978) inherited this then highly regarded beer. The original beer was a full 1% stronger in ABV weighing in at 8.5%, and was brewed largely as a Christmas beer. At one time it even bore the name Cuvee de l’Ermitage Christmas. It was largely brewed as a kind of seasonal beer using a selection of three kinds of hops and a variation of special malts. After fermentation it was left to rest for three months in carefully designed tanks which would allow the beer to develop its characteristic flavour – often referred to as bitter, and not unlike Armagnac brandy.

The term ‘Cuvee’ as it is most often used these days in relation to wine seems to apply fairly reasonably to this old beer, in that it reflects a batch of beer blended in a distinctly different way to the rest. The term Hermitage refers most generically to a place where groups of people would live in seclusion in order to devote themselves fully to religious or monastic purposes. This was almost always ascetic in nature, and some of the finest beers known to humanity have been made in this way – the Trappist way.

I never tried the original beer, so I can only comment on the latest incarnation of the recipe, but this is certainly no Cuvee, and it certainly isn’t made in a Hermitage. For me the Cuvee de l’Ermitage is just another average beer that isn’t even as good as the two staple Grimbergen beers (#8, #9) on which it is trying to clearly discern itself from. It was firstly far too thin, with a weak insipid head, which ended up resembling a faded pale amber. It didn’t smell of a great deal but had a fairly unique flavour – quite hoppy with plenty of citrus. This was once a seemingly great beer, but is now little more than a marketable addition to an extremely average range of brews. What else would you expect though from Alken-Maes?

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Filed under 6, Abbey Beer, Alken-Maes, Belgian Strong Ale, Phoenix