Category Archives: Christmas Beer

#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

#243 – Den Drupneuze

#243 - Den Drupneuze

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 8.5 %

The Den Drupneuze beer is the first offering on my journey from the brewery Tseut. It is their Christmas brew and the label festively depicts the friendly pig who typically adorns each of their beers. The oinker in this case is the one wearing a seasonal hat and scarf and who is clearly suffering as a result of the wintry weather – a nice drop of blue snot falling from his snuffly snout. Den Drupneuze of course means runny nose in local dialect.

Beer and alcohol has often been cited as the perfect cure for a cold, and as winter sets in all around us I thought I would put this theory to the test. While the younger of us might head straight for the Lemsip or Night Nurse, ask anyone old enough and they will tell you that a warm cup of booze will cure your ills. It is more likely if you get ill at your Grandmothers house that you will end up with a brandy or a glass of hot toddy (whiskey, hot water and lemon juice) than a nice strong Belgian beer however this viewpoint is so universal there has to be some truth in it. Surely.

The hypothesis here is that alcohol can kill a cold, through the fact that it produces an environment where a virus is unable to survive. Essentially if you were able to get enough alcohol in your blood supply you could in fact create a hostile enough environment to decimate the virus completely. The one downside however is that the levels of alcohol required to support this would also completely kill off your liver. Back to the drawing board. So the next hypothesis asks the question whether regular consumption of alcohol can make the average drinker less susceptible to colds and flu?

There have been a number of studies conducted around this suggestion and one in particular in the USA looked at almost 400 adults and noted that resistance to colds did in fact increase in moderate drinkers, although interestingly not those who smoked. A study in Spain also suggested that a certain amount of units of alcohol per week did indeed correlate with an increased resistance to colds, although they couldn’t prove this in terms of spirits or beer; only red wine, which supports the theories that it is the anti-oxidants present which keep the virals at bay. Now the last thing I want is to shift anyone onto drinking wine so what about a final suggestion – will alcohol and beer in particular help to mediate the side-effects of a cold?

The answer is almost certainly a resounding yes, but it comes with a few caveats. In fact a number of studies have suggested that a good strong beer can temporarily alleviate painful symptoms such as a sore throat or nasal congestion. I’m sure I am not the only one who would prefer a couple of Westmalle Tripels (#149) to taking an ibuprofen or paracetamol? The benefits of drinking beer over pills is self-evident but needs to be balanced against the pain of the evil hangover and of course the fact that drinking alcohol will dehydrate your body – which in actual fact will scientifically prolong the effects of your virus. The moral of the story is drink, drink, and drink, but if you specifically want to help yourself cure a cold, then a little of what you fancy is perfect but any more than one or two is probably only going to make matters worse in the long run.

The Den Drupneuze itself is a rare amber festive beer, a choice based on the brewers natural preference. It is brewed from November to March and the current beer at 8.5% is a more watered down version of the original much stronger brew. I am a big fan of strong amber beers but this one didn’t quite reach my growing expectations. It certainly looked the part but the taste never really went anywhere past a faint malty and fruity bitterness. For the extra ABV this was in the end a very average beer, and certainly not the sort of ale I would entrust in getting me through a severe bout of manflu.

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Filed under 6, Belgian Strong Ale, Christmas Beer, Pig, Tseut

#237 – du Boucanier Christmas

#237 - du Boucanier Christmas

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 9.5%

When you drink 9.5% beers it tends to have an effect on your mental faculties. Of course the range of dysfunction will tend to depend on the number of 9.5% beers consumed however it certainly takes less of these to get to that happy maladjusted state. Once I had got around to polishing off the Biere du Boucanier Christmas I was keen to ask the question – so how do pirates celebrate Christmas?

It’s not something I’m sure many people have ever thought about and once I was sober again I realised it was a stupid question. I have to admit to searching on Google in the extremely optimistic hope that somebody had published a university paper on the subject. Aside from finding a plethora of Christmas carols which had been butchered to fit a jaunty nautical theme or a number of children’s storybooks I found very little. What was I hoping for? A Christmas tree plundered from an island and tied to the mast? Boozed up buccaneers passed out around the wireless waiting for the Kings speech?

I am surprised though that the marketeers haven’t yet cashed in on the festive piratical theme when it comes to the du Boucanier range of beers – they seem to have covered everything else. The beers are brewed by Van Steenberge but marketed and distributed by a company called Icobes. The portfolio of beers consists of the Blonde Ale, a Red Ale (#27), a Dark Ale (#174), and this Christmas Ale. There is also a Buccaneer Old Reserve beer which seems to use the same theme but is actually the same beer as the Bornem Tripel. This is also the same brewery which makes the much tastier Piraat 9 (#15), and Piraat 10.5. Clearly somebody at Van Steenberge likes pirates, and Icobes certainly feel there is a market given the merchandise available.

The beers, in particular the flagship (excuse the pun) Blonde Ale are sold in anything from 33cl bottles, six pack gift boxes and 750ml bottles, to Magnums, Jeroboams and the mighty Salmanazar. These are largely for one-off brews such as the Grand Reserve 3rd Millenium, and the Grand Reserve Prestige du Brasseur, although I have never seen any of these and given the dated nature of the company website can only assume the novelty of the du Boucanier beers has waned in recent years. If anyone wants to put this to the test the following can be ordered for Christmas presents:- T shirts, baseball caps, posters, mirrors, enamelled pins, picture frames, bandannas and shawls, as well as the regular beer mats, gift sets and beer glasses. You can also buy the boot shaped 0.5l glass which was discovered in the du Boucanier Dark Ale (#174). I rarely see these beers anymore although still cling to the hope of trying the popular Blonde Ale some day.

The Christmas beer itself though was really quite disappointing. While the Red and the Dark Ales hadn’t exactly been seminal brews they did at least have some redeeming features, whereas this high strength amber could and should have delivered so much more. It’s a style of beer that I am particularly fond of, but there was very little flavour to the beer, aside from a pineapple tinge and the extra strength offered no increase in character in any way. It will get you pissed though which is at least something when you have had enough of the relatives on Christmas day.

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Filed under 5, Belgian Strong Ale, Christmas Beer, Van Steenberge

#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

#207 – Silly Enghien Noel Tripel Blonde

#207 - Silly Enghien Noel Triple Blonde

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 9 %

The Silly brewery acquired the Enghien range of beers in 1975, when they took over the Tennstedt Decroes family brewery in the town of Enghien. The staple beer at the time was the Speciale Double Enghien, which is now more commonly known as the Double Enghien Brune. Over the years the Silly Enghien Blonde, and the Silly Enghien Noel Triple Blonde have been added to their range.

The Brasserie du Pot d’Etain as it was known was founded way back in 1880 and only just fell short of its centenary celebrations, when the Van der Haegen-Mynsbrughen family did the business deal with the local Tennstedt-Decroes family. This ensured the continuation of the Enghien beers with an already well established brewery in the locality. It seems a shame though not to dwell on some of these now defunct breweries, and so I would like to concentrate for the rest of this review on the original name of the brewery.

Pot d’Etain is actually a common title in France or Belgium and is often used in the names of breweries, hotels or bars. It actually translates into English as The Pewter Pot – a type of lidded drinking vessel often used in bygone days. Pewter is a metal alloy, mostly made of tin but mixed with other metals such as copper, bismuth, antimony and lead. Before the widespread manufacture of glass, most items of tableware throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th Centuries were made of pewter. Although not widely used anymore there is almost a deferential nostalgia for beer steins made of pewter and it is widely held by scientists that the pewter ensures the consistent temperature of the beer, protecting it from the warm hands of human beings. As a boy I remember my dad having a pewter beer pot sitting in the sideboard in the lounge gathering dust for a special occasion. I must ask him what he did with it.

I’m not sure how the Silly Enghien Noel Triple Blonde might have tasted in a Pot d’Etain, but at least in the glass I had chosen I could apply the routine inspection of the full beer before tasting, which was a medium bodied darker blonde. It had a real essence of farmyard to the aroma, and I was surprised how hoppy it was on the tongue. It certainly started out not unlike the XX Bitter (#131), or the Buffalo Belgian Bitter (#196) although at 9% ABV I expected it to retain its flavour a bit more which did fade a little as I supped. It didn’t particularly strike me as a typical Christmas beer, but I guess it was an excuse for Silly to raise the stakes on the 7.5% Silly Enghien Double Blond, which I would argue is a success. There aren’t that many strong bitter triple blondes out there worth a try, but I would recommend a solitary bottle of this for the cellar. Why not even go one better and try it in a pot d’etain?

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Filed under 8, Abbey Tripel, Brewers, Christmas Beer, Silly

#193 – Saint-Martin Cuvee de Noel

#193 - Saint-Martin Cuvee de Noel

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 8.5 %

It had been a while since my last grapple with a St. Martin beer (#69), and I tried the Cuvee de Noel with next to no anticipation whatsoever. It was better but really only marginally. So who was this St. Martin whose reputation seems relatively under threat now due to this recurring crap beer association?

He was born in Italy of all places in the 4th Century, the son of a Roman military officer and tribune. He would join the army himself at the plucky age of fifteen having recently discovered Christianity, and ended up serving in a garrison in what is now Amiens in France. He clearly wasn’t the fighting type though, and he was jailed for cowardice at a young age for refusing to join a battle; citing his faith as the catalyst for this change of heart. He chose instead to help the sick and needy, and is famously represented in modern day imagery giving half of his officer’s cloak to a beggar who entreated him. It’s difficult to make out but this also seems to be the illustration on the beer’s label.

A lull in the war saved Martin, who was released from all military details. He promptly took up service as a spiritual student at Poitiers, and sought to convert all those he came into contact with; from the thief who once robbed him in the mountains to his own mother back in Lombardy. He was eventually chased out by heretics to the island of Gallinaria (now Isola d’Albenga) where he settled as a hermit for ten years, eventually forming a Benedictine Abbey in Liguge with a bevy of likeminded monks. He gained great success in building churches and converting the unconvertible, and his reputation soared culminating in his eventual consecration as the Bishop of Tours in 372.

St. Martin continued to live as a hermit after becoming a Bishop becoming clearly a much revered figure who gave almost everything he had to help the needy and the poor.  I’m sure though that he would have also liked a good beer in those days – after all what monk didn’t? although I don’t really think he would have approved of this particular beer. An instantly forgettable, thin and uninspiring ruby red beer which started spicy enough but ended up losing all its strength;  just as St. Martin did in 397 before dying amongst his brethren.

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Filed under 6, Abbey Beer, Belgian Strong Ale, Brunehaut, Christmas Beer, Horse

#191 – Bon Secours Blonde de Noel

#191 - Bon Secours Blonde de Noel

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 10 %

While guzzling on the Bon Secours Brune (#28), I introduced the Bernadine nunnery that was formed in Peruwelz in 1904, and then much later while drinking the Bon Secours Blonde (#159) we got to explore the history of the St. Bernard dogs who bedeck the Bon Secours labels. This latest beer brings these two stories to a nice neat conclusion.

Prior to the formation of the nunnery, a monastery had been founded by monks in 1628 in the rural town of Peruwelz. There are legendary tales of the first brewmaster and unsurprisingly this chap, Father Baudelot was something of a habitual drinker. Sundays were the days where the monks would travel between the monastery and the village of Bonsecours to celebrate at the local church, and the journey back for Father Baudelot was always something of a pub crawl. He would spend long convivial evenings hopping between taverns listening to the stories of the locals. Most nights he would stagger home late, although there were times when he might only make it intact, with the help of his St. Bernard dog who would lead him back in a straight line in the early hours of the morning. Bon Secours does after all translate as ‘good help’ in French.

The brewery Caulier later honoured this story of Father Baudelot through the addition of the St. Bernard dog to the label of their Bon Secours beers. The monastery is long gone, as is now sadly the nunnery which recently shut down in Peruwelz, but through the local beers the legend still remains at large. I might have chosen a better beer however to regale this story. The Bon Secours Blonde de Noel was not an entirely pleasant experience. It was somewhat doughy with a flat overpowering hint of rotten fruit, and although I like strong beers, this one completely overpowered any quality the beer might have had. I definitely needed rescuing from this one, and there was not a helpful dog in sight.

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Filed under 4, Abbey Beer, Belgian Strong Ale, Caulier, Christmas Beer, Dog

#188 – Gaspar

#188 - Gaspar

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 8 %

Gaspar is one of the three Christmas beers produced by Alvinne to celebrate the Epiphany. See my review on Balthazar (#163) for the background. Whereas the previous report concentrated on the swarthy King of Sheba, this one looks more closely at he who was claimed to be the King Of Tarsus.

As with all the three wise men though, there is actually very little evidence to support exactly who they were or where they came from. Even the gifts they purportedly brought to the crib of Jesus are stuff of legend. Stories throughout history have called them Kings, wise-men or Magi – the truth is nobody really knows anything other than at the birth of Jesus there was a visitation of men from the East who bore gifts. Nobody can say for sure there were three or that all three brought a different gift other than that gold, frankincense and myrrh were presented.

With regards to Gaspar, Jaspar or Caspar as I knew him at school, legend has it that he was a white-bearded king from the land of Tarsus (now in modern day Turkey). Others say he was the Indo-Parthian king called Gondophares, whom interestingly the name of the Afghan city of Kandahar is said to be derived from. Bible historian Chuck Missler also refers to an Armenian tradition which locates Gaspar from India. Whoever he was, or wherever he came from, tradition has dictated that he brought gold as his gift. Some have said this was to represent the spirit of the new born baby, others have suggested the gold was testimony that Jesus was born a king.

Whoever he was, or wherever he came from, at least he brought gold and not this beer. The whole course of history could have been changed in an instant had the Alvinne Gaspar exploded all over the son of God, as it did over me. Sometimes you forget that beers have a life of their own, and I never seem to learn my lesson. Twenty minutes later in a new set of clothes and with little more than two-thirds of a beer left I started again and to be honest wished I hadn’t. This was foul. I’m largely a big fan of the Alvinne picobrewery, and do not wish to cast aspersions so for now I will just suggest this was a one-off bad brew. Lots of likeminded souls rate the Gaspar and its 115 IBUS, so perhaps whatever it was that caused the nuclear reaction in the bottle was probably the same thing that made this beer taste of stale camel urine.

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Filed under 1, Alvinne, Belgian Strong Ale, Camel, Christmas Beer

#163 – Balthazar

#163 - Balthazar

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 9 %

Balthazar is one of three Christmas beers produced by the Picobrouwerij Alvinne. They are labelled as the Epiphany beers, which toast the pre-Christmas holiday of Epiphany which is popular in Belgium. Epiphany is also known in the Christian calendar as Three Kings Day, which is customary to be the Sunday which falls between 2 and 8 January.

Anybody who was dressed up at primary school as a shepherd will probably remember they spent the whole Christmas play wishing they were one of the Three Kings or at least Joseph! The feast day of Epiphany, certainly in Belgium, commemorates the visitation of the Magi, or Three Kings to the birthplace of Baby Jesus. Balthazar was the dark swarthy third King of Sheba in the story, or at least in the modern accounts of the story which were first documented in about 9 A.D. The legend has it that Gaspar (#188), the white-bearded King of Tarsus brought gold for Jesus, that Melchior, the aging King of Arabia brought Frankincense, and Balthazar came with myrrh. Each of the three above are all Christmas beers from Alvinne.

Balthazar derives from the Phoenician language, and generally is thought to mean “Baal protects the King”, which is apt when considered in terms of the Nativity story. However Balthazar also has other meanings. Some more recent conspiracy theories have suggested the link between the demon Balthazar who was committed by the Demon King Seth to rot in the Fires of Hell for eternity. The thought that the King of Sheba may have also been an incarnation of Satan is a sobering one, but could explain the portent of his impending doom. The Myrrh after all according to legend was saved for the burial of Jesus.

More merrily, and back of course on to our favourite subject, any learned wine or beer scholar will know that a Balthazar is also 12 litre champagne or wine bottle. I’m not sure any beers have ever been packaged in a Balthazar, but if they have then that’s going straight on my Christmas list for Santa. The Balthazar I was drinking tonight however came rather disappointingly in just a third of a litre bottle. It was fairly interesting however, being unsurprisingly dark and full of eastern spice – Balthazar is brewed with four special malts, dark candies and coriander, cardamom and ginger. The result was a unique beer, that was fairly pleasant to drink, but which by the end was perhaps just a bit too quirky to be truly remarkable. This was certainly not an Epiphany for me !

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Filed under 7, Alvinne, Belgian Strong Ale, Christmas Beer

#155 – Abbaye des Rocs Speciale Noel

#155 - Abbaye des Rocs Speciale Noel

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 9 %

The last time I attacked a beer from the Brasserie des Rocs – the Brune (#67), I was bombarded with sediment. The Christmas beer from the same stable was again no exception – it was literally swimming in the stuff. To be honest I was slightly put off by it at first, but have now slowly begun to appreciate the compliment by the brewer.

The reason the brews from Brasserie des Rocs can look so unappealing is due to the fact that the brewery do not filter their beers at any stage of production. They refer to it as the “Methode Traditionelle des Annes 1900”, which is essentially how beers were commonly made in the early 1900’s. Their disclaimer is that the beer should be poured very slowly into the glass, making sure to leave about an inch in the bottle. They even suggest a strainer can be used as well (I did actually try this with the Brune, and it only made it worse).

The common question of course, is whether all this muck is good for you, and the general answer is that it certainly won’t harm you. All the sediment really is, is the remnants of the yeast, proteins and other natural ingredients which in time leave these harmless meaty chunks. Many beer drinkers, who tend to dislike the textured mouthfeel, opt to leave the gunk in the bottle, whereas others embrace the wholesome goodness by tipping the last bit onto the head and quaffing it down. Some even go so far as to eat the final bit. Either way you look at it, it is for me a great symbol of the traditionality of Belgian beer. It certainly hasn’t stopped the Brasserie des Rocs from selling their beers, which do especially well in the USA.

I had taken a couple of days off the beer since the Quadrupel induced hangover (#154), and even as I poured the dark Abbaye des Rocs Speciale Noel, I was still slightly queasy. I completely forgot to pour with care, and I was faced with a thick dark soup full of yeasty morsels. If anything was going to act as hair of the dog, then this would be it. Again I wasn’t as impressed as the general beer drinking community are with these beers. It was strong and sweet which I enjoyed, but at the same time was more fizzy, and more artificial than I would have liked. There was a lingering taste of charcoal, and I ended up a bit disappointed. Again, it may have been a day too soon for a beer like this, but I will keep the faith. There are plenty more to try from this stable.

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Filed under 6, Abbaye des Rocs, Abbey Beer, Belgian Strong Ale, Christmas Beer

#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

#127 – Val Dieu Biere du Noel

#127 - Val Dieu Biere du Noel

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 7 %

There was a time when I seemed to drink an endless swathe of Abbey beers, but its been a while since I was able to talk purely about an Abbey. In fact the Abbaye d’Aulne (#60) was about the last monastic history lesson.

The Abbey of Val Dieu started way back in 1216 as a tiny settlement, following the migration of a few monks from the Maastricht area who were looking for an uninhabited haven to settle in. This place, now Aubel, deep in the east of modern day Belgium, they decided to call Val-Dieu – the Valley of God, such was the splendid location. Here the monks were able to reap the land, brew beer and live to the Cistercian ways (#94).

The original church buildings didn’t last long though as in 1287 the War of Succession in the Duchy of Limburg caused irreperable damage. She was rebuilt again only to be destroyed in 1574 during the Eighty Years War, and then again by the armies of Louis XIV in 1683. Shortly after this the Abbey began to flourish as one of the most renowned in the country under the jurisdiction of Jean Dubois, but bad luck of course struck again during the French Revolution, and she was destroyed for the fourth time.

It would be a slow return for former glories as between 1749 and 1844 the once regal premises remained empty becoming eaten by the ravages of time. A local monk who had lived through the Revolution, and four monks from Bornem eventually restored the Abbey, which survived as a working Abbey until 2001. Since then it has been home to a small Cistercian community, and of course a brewery.

The Val Dieu Biere de Noel was a fairly solid amberish Christmas beer with good legs and a yeasty topping – the head dissipating into what looked like a trail of amoebas. The beer was too inherently thin to be a classic, but was powerful enough on the taste buds to be enjoyable. I melted back into the sofa and let the last vestiges of the weekend wash over me.

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Filed under 6, Abbey Beer, Belgian Strong Ale, Christmas Beer, Val Dieu

#124 – Winterkoninck

#124 - Winterkoninck

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 6.5 %

As we have already ascertained, the Antwerp beer scene is synonymous with De Koninck (#122), although it would be most useful to find out quite how this happened with another history lesson.

The De Koninck story begins as far back as 1827 when a certain Joseph Henricus De Koninck purchased an old coach house which straddled the border post between Antwerp and Berchem. The border was marked by a solitary stone boundary post, on which was sculpted an open hand. The coach house, known as the De Plaisante Hof, was a popular stopping point for travellers who would pull up at the sculptured hand and pay a toll to cross into Antwerp.

Joseph Henricus sadly though was not long for the world, and no sooner than 1833 his widow Elisabeth Cop had remarried a warehouse foreman named Johannes Verliet who decided to convert the coach house into a brewery. The inspiration was the stone boundary post on the roadside, and the new venture became known as the Brouwerij de Hand. Since that very day, the same hand has graced the labels of the beers that have come from this historic brewery.

The fact that the brewery is not known as Verliet may have something to do with the fact that in 1845, Carolus De Koninck, the eldest son of Joseph Henricus took over the business. The place has been in the family ever since, and since 1912 has been called the Brasserie Charles de Koninck. The story of the next hundred years I will happily retell on a later beer, but anybody keen on dropping by the brewery can still see the original stone post which after years gathering dust beneath the Vleeshuis is now proudly and rightfully on show in the brewery courtyard.

If the previous tipple, St Feuillien Noel (#123) was the epitomy of an idyllic white Christmas, then I am afraid the Winterkoninck was of the regular overcast Christmas variety, complete with grey skies and miserable relatives. It had a very dreary amber complexion, with a tacky synthetic aftertaste. While not being horrible in any way, I was just disappointed to follow the St. Feuillien with this. It really was the slushy mess that follows a white Christmas.

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#123 – St. Feuillien Cuvee de Noel

#123 - St. Feuillien Cuvee de Noel

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 9 %

We already know who St. Feuillien was (#29), and that beer was brewed in the Abbaye St-Feuillien du Roeulx in his honour. Production did stop here in 1796 though when the French Revolution did its worst, but the story and beers of St. Feuillien continue to live on, and that is largely due to Stephanie Friart who resurrected the St. Feuillien brewing tradition in 1873 in a new set of premises on the edge of Roeulx. The Brasserie Friart was born.

The brewery held on to this title for well over a century until in 2000 the fourth generation of Friarts decided to revert back to the monastic title of Brasserie St. Feuillien, to match the name of their popular signature beers. It hasn’t always been plain sailing though, with the brewery being shut for production between 1980 and 1988 when all brewing was undertaken on their behalf at Du Bocq. I can verify there is still a working relationship taking place between these two, as on a visit to the Du Bocq brewery recently the main beer in production was the St. Feuillien Blonde (#29).

The recent success of the brewery since re-opening has been clearly evident in sales, especially at a time when the powerhouses of beer production in Belgium are putting pressure on the independent brewers. Much of this success sits with the industry and application of the founders great-grand niece, Dominique Friart who in her role as Managing Director for the business has kept the home fires burning while travelling the world and marketing the beers. If ever there was an example of a successful family run business – this is it.

Anyway, I was thirsty, and on my third or fourth beer of the evening when chance led to the St. Feuillien Cuvee de Noel cooling nicely in the fridge. I had for some reason expected this to be a run of the mill addition to the evening, but I was completely mistaken. This was easily the best Christmas beer I had drunk yet. Dark, thick and warmly satisfying – the perfect addition to a winter’s night. It wasn’t perhaps as complex as a Trappistes Rochefort, yet was equally as nourishing. I will be seeking this out by the crate-load on my next Christmas jaunt to the continent.

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#83 – Bush de Noel

#83 - Bush de Noel

Size: 250 ml

ABV: 12 %

Bush de Noel represents the first Christmas beer on my journey. If you are going to stock up on rare winter beers for your cellar, then the winter months are the ideal time to do so, as there are many rare specials made by breweries which normally suit the cold winter months. There tends to be a good number of reasons why the seasonal winter beers are brewed, and I will run through these below.

Firstly, and probably the original reason, is that of practicality. The late summer harvest usually ends up leaving plentiful supplies of grain, and the old stocks simply need to be used. Coupled with the need to provide enough beer through the winter months, this additional brew is just common sense really.

The second reason really stems from the first, in that it gives the brewery the opportunity to make a beer that is well suited to the winter conditions. In the cold weather, there is nothing more warming on a bleak night than to be tucked up by the fire with a strong dark beer full of spices and fruit. Not all Christmas beers fit this description, but many do. The spices vary and often include cinnamon, allspice, ginger or nutmeg and variations of dried fruit. Often breweries try to replicate Christmas treats such as mince pies in the liquid form.

This also gives the brewery a third reason – that of marketing. Customers like to try new beers, and the winter months tend to give the good craft brewer a great reason to experiment. Winter beers can often vary every year as the creative brewer tries to find great new recipes that might end up becoming a popular year-round brew. These Christmas beers are then often showcased at a winter beer festival, like the one in Essen.

Brewers see these as a Christmas present to their customers. Most tend to use more ingredients in these Christmas beers, and as the beers tend to be stronger, there is a higher levy of duty to be paid to the taxman. Brewers, particularly in Germany, argue that there is not so much money to be made on Christmas beers, and therefore this is their gift for their customers loyalty. Whatever way you look at it, if you are planning a raid on the Belgian countryside to stock up, this is the time to do it !

The Bush de Noel may be small but it is potent at a steaming 12%. It has a dark red-amber colour which is attained by adding caramel malt in large quantities. The beer is also quite bitter which is achieved by dry-hopping while the beer rests. It is one of the more recognised Christmas beers and can often be found in the UK and in many Belgian drankencentrums. It has been doing the rounds since 1991 believe it or not. It was fairly pleasant, but like most beers from Dubuisson it was over just too soon, which considering its flat appearance wasn’t a major worry. It reminded me rather oddly of the colour of water that is left to rot in a car radiator for years – dark and coppery. It is strong this beer, and ideal for a winter night in, but I’m sure there are so many christmas beers better than this !

(Post-Script) – interestingly the little house on the label covered in snow is the main Dubuisson brewery on the main Pipaix road.

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Filed under 7, Belgian Strong Ale, Christmas Beer, Dubuisson