Tag Archives: hops

#203 – Silly Saison

#203 - Silly Saison

Size: 250 ml

ABV: 5.2 %

Way back when I drank the impressive Saison Dupont (#71), I introduced what the ‘saison’ style was all about, and of course with beer it is almost impossible to truly define a style as you only need to change one or two ingredients and you can end up with a drastically different beer.

For reasons already clarified, the Saison is loosely determined as a beer that a) is brewed to last the summer months, and b) that is not too strong. With a definition like that you can begin to see the problem. The signature Silly Saison gives me a further opportunity to clarify the style via the production methodology, by which brewers attempt to produce medium strength beers which are well hopped, yet still have the famous thirst cutting acidity and quenching finish.

Some do it through using harder water, while others ensure the temperature at mashing is higher which allows more un-fermentable sugars to develop giving a harder edge to the final beer. Older techniques have relied upon the wort developing higher levels of lactic acid either before the boil or while it is cooling, and some have even exposed the wort to the air – a technique known as the Baudelot system. Other brewers have encouraged the beer to gain its acidity during maturation while in tanks made of steel. Another technique is to use dry-tasting spices or by adding dry hops to the brew – there simply is no golden rule, which makes trying new beers such fun.

The Silly Saison is one of the best known of the saison style, and the brewers at Silly have used a very different style to acquire the desired result. They take a batch of top fermented beer which has been stored for about twelve months, and blend this with a freshly brewed batch. From this they then store part of it for next year, and so the cycle continues. In the case of the Silly brewery it is all about balancing the sweet and sour enough each year to ensure the correct consistency in aroma and flavour.

I first tried the Silly Saison on a quiet night in, and the pour was uneventful leaving a thin brown ale, which was reliably more orangey when held up to the light. There was little head to talk about which meant I was able quickly to get my thirst quenched. I was under the impression that most ‘saisons’ tend to be highly carbonated, but the Silly Saison was quite flat – in fact if I had not known I might have thought this was a typical Flemish sour brown ale on first taste. The sweet hoppy flavour eventually came through as I guzzled the 25cl bottle, but I was left fairly underwhelmed in the end. This may now be a saison for the masses but I would be particularly silly to choose this over the classic Saison Dupont.

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#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

#131 – XX Bitter

#131 - XX Bitter

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 6.2 %

By now propped at the bar, I had decided that I must have overdone it on the lambic. My gut was making extreme noises, and I had begun to look a little off colour. I spotted a XX Bitter in the fridge and having heard very good things about this beer, decided to finish off my night with a bit of good old fashioned hoppy goodness.

I was attracted to the XX Bitter due to its association with one of my favourite beers. The commercial description suggests this is reminiscent of Orval (#37) in its heyday, and this is true to some extent – Orval certainly used to add more hops to its mash in bygone days. The gentlemen at De Ranke, big fans of Orval, noted this and decided to try and reverse the trend by adding more and more hops. The result is now possibly Belgium’s hoppiest beer!

The process of making a beer this hoppy requires some care and attention from its owners, and this is why Guido and Nino at De Ranke use only hop flowers to make their beers. Almost every brewer in the country has moved towards using hop extracts now, but our protagonists argue that you cannot match the texture and complexity of a beer which uses the flower as opposed to the pellet.

There are a number of reasons why brewers have opted away from the flowers themselves. Firstly, because the flowers are so fresh they have a massive impact on the flavour of the beer. This is great if you have a high quality hop, but very bad if you don’t! It can often be hit and miss, and expensive to get the best hops. Hops are also seasonal and so you have to buy the optimal amount at the start of the year, and then it is also very expensive to continue to keep them fresh. This requires refrigeration which is expensive on a grand scale. Finally, hop flowers require a lot of cleaning due to their propensity to stick to anything after being cooked. If you opt for hop flowers, then you can pretty much kiss goodbye to automatic production.

De Ranke remain committed to making beers this way, and only tend to use the highest quality hop flowers from Poperinge. If the XX bitter is an example of a beer made this way, then I only wish I was born in the pre-pellet era. The bitterness of the XX was staggering, yet it was full of flavour and attitude. I nursed it like the last beer I was ever going to drink and eventually the bar staff had to kick us out.

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Filed under 8, Belgian Ale, De Ranke

#118 – Kerelsbier Blond

#118 - Kerelsbier

Size: 250 ml

ABV: 6.4 %

The Kerelsbier Blond label doesn’t give much away, but if you dig a little deeper there is a bit of a story behind this fairly non-descript beer. If you know your Flemish, then the clue is in the title.

Kerelsbier essentially translates into English as ‘a beer for guys’, especially your tougher kind of guy! The hard nut that brewers Leroy were so inspired by was Nicolaas Zannekin; a Flemish peasant leader famous for struggling against the French in the Peasant revolts in Flanders during the mid 1300s. Zannekin had a number of early successes against the oppressive Count of Flanders, by taking Veurne, Ypres and Kortrijk, although King Charles IV of France eventually intervened, freeing the Count. What followed was the vicious Battle of Cassel in an area that is now just south of the Belgian border, where the incumbent French King, Philip VI quashed the revolt and brought Flanders under strict French control. Zannekin fought bravely and cleverly but was let down by his compatriots. He and over three thousand other men died valiantly in this battle.

The old brewery of Nevejan; local to the story above used to brew this beer, but sadly the brewery was demolished during the 1990s. Some small relics remain, but at least the Nevejan premises are now an impressive beer shop who still have a number of beers made for them by Leroy, including the popular Poperings Nunnebir and of course Kerelsbier.

The Kerelsbier Blond label may not highlight the true inspiration for the beer, but you clearly know you are in for a hoppy experience, and it doesn’t let you down on that front. At first taste I thought this was heading down the Orval (#37) road, albeit a little sweeter, and perhaps hints of honey and fruit. The longer it went on though the more insipid it became until it petered out into dismal mediocrity. This was no tough beer I’m afraid.

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Filed under 6, Belgian Ale, Leroy

#103 – Steenbrugge Tripel

#103 - Steenbrugge Tripel

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 8.5 %

Having already told the story of St. Arnoldus and his waffle-stick (#26), its time to talk about another thing Steenbrugge beers are associated with – gruit, and the best way to do that is to take a little journey back in time.

Gruit, or grut as it is sometimes spelt is a medieval mixture of various herbs which were used for bittering and flavouring beer. It was clearly the precursor to hops and could include almost anything that would give flavour and conserve the life of the brew. Again, its worth reiterating that beer was often preferred to water in these days as it was a lot safer to drink! The composition of the gruit could be almost anything, but often included gale, mugwort, yarrow, heather, juniper, ginger, caraway, aniseed – you get the picture.

It was around the 15th Century that hops became the preferred agent used to make beer, and there are a number of reasons that have been cited – some of which are more likely that others.

Firstly, is the association with the Reformation in Europe. At this time the churches were monopolising the beer production, and Protestant princes in Europe saw the advent of hops as a way of cutting down the revenue of the Roman Catholic church. It has also been posited that it may have been a social measure taken by the more austere Protestants to calm down the more stimulating Catholic beers, by ensuring the sedative effects of hops. Although a touch spurious, certainly around this time the Bavarian Purity Laws were in abundance in Europe which as we know (#35) limited the brewing of beer to only key ingredients like malt or barley, water and hops.

Two much more likely reasons remain though. Firstly, there were often ‘incidents’. Accounts abound of beer being spiced with deadly nightshade or henbane. Local governments and lords needed their workers alive and while hops were suddenly in abundance this was much more satisfactory. Another much more likely reason is that hops tend to work much better and more consistently than gruit. This was evidenced in the late 19th Century when India Pale Ale was made with higher concentrations of hops to keep better on long sea journeys.

Either way certain brewers, especially those of the craft variety in Belgium and the USA, have recently experimented with re-substituting hops with gruit mixtures. Steenbrugge beers are one such example. Hops are still used but the Palm brewery has been keen to remarket these beers as containing the famous mixture. To be fair you can hardly say the effect was overly noticeable. I suspect this is a nice little marketing ploy to discern it from the beer I drunk next. It was a pleasant tasting strong tripel which went down extremely well, and it would end up being the first of six new beers I would try tonight, not to mention those home bankers I had already tried. It was to be quite a hangover !

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Filed under 7, Abbey Beer, Abbey Tripel, Brewers, Palm

#92 – Abbaye de Malonne Brune

#92 - Abbaye de Malonne Brune

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 6.3 %

There isn’t much more to be said about the Abbaye de Malonne which I feel I amply covered when introducing the blonde (#14). There is going to come a time when I run out of things to talk about a beer that is as indistinguished as this, but rather than rush off it would be worth taking some time to look at the range of brown beers, and in particular those from Belgium.

It would be easy to look down any supermarket aisle these days and see brown ales as the minority; beer made for the discerning gentlemen only, however historically beer has almost always been brown. This was until the 20th Century when technology started to improve. In fact in Belgium in the 1930s, 80% of beer was brown. I would hazard a guess that these days the variety of brown beer in Belgium would be as low as 25%.

Belgium was world famous for its early brown beers, with varieties such as oak aged browns from Oudenaarde, and Trappist dubbels (#16). As we have already seen in other tales though, the rise of blonde beers and lagers began as these were cheap and simple to make, and the brown beer began to fall in popularity. In fact, one might even argue that was it not commonplace these days for breweries to make a range of beers to satisfy all their customers then there may have been even less around. The quality though of course can be up for question in many of these, where brewers have found simple ways to turn blonde beers to brown with the simple switch of a button.

The above issue does illustrate a pertinent point however; that of brown beers being generally made from similar ingredients. Darker forms of malt, or a higher concentration of caramelised sugars can turn any beer brown, and these are often used as a replacement for hops to attain the preferred degree of bitterness. I have always been a massive fan of the Belgian brown ale, although have been quickly learning on my Odyssey that just because it is brown it does not guarantee quality. I would advocate that the Abbaye de Malonne Brune is a decent example of this.

It was a particularly dark beer, almost stout-like in appearance, although my final impression was that of prune juice. It was silky and soft on the palate, but the flavour never really got going and was particularly limited. Compare this to something like the complexity of a St. Bernardus Abt (#46), and you can understand where this beer sits in the pantheon of brown beers in Belgium – inherently pleasant but distinctly average – although better than the blonde of course.

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Filed under 6, Abbey Beer, Abbey Dubbel, Haacht

#86 – Watou Tripel

#86 - Watou Tripel

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 7.5 %

Watou is a bit of a haven when it comes to beer. If you start to plot breweries on a map of Belgium – which lets face it is a perfect thing to do on a quiet Sunday 😉  – you start to notice a batch of them all concentrated in a quiet area of countryside just north of the French border. Westvleteren, Van Eecke, Struise Brouwers and St. Bernardus are within a stones throw of each other, and each are renowned for the quality of their beers. The latter is based in the small village of Watou for which this beer is named.

The brewery claim that this beer was made for the French, maybe as a compromise for the fact that in 1793 this area was designated to fall within Flanders, as opposed to France. It’s odd because the beer sounds French, although there are villages that ended up in France at the carve-up that sound nailed on Flemish such as Steenvoorde and Winne Zele. It just happened that the geographical location of two rivers meant that it ended up in Belgian hands.

Watou generally translates as “watery area”, a direct reference to the rivers that dominate the locality. It only has a population of around 2000 people, but often the streets are bursting with visitors to the Flanders fields, or to a number of annual festivals that take place in the village and surrounding areas. One of these is a choir festival that takes place in St. Bavo church, the one so beautifully recreated on the label of this beer. The church has been a preserved monument since 1939 and contains the tombs of two of the first counts of Watou. Other visitors come to visit the brewery of St. Bernardus and the famous hop farms of Poperinge.

Local hops are used to make this extremely pleasant medium strength blonde. The bitterness of the hops is played off expertly against the zesty fruity tang which accompanies every sip. To be honest it didn’t start off as a great beer, but it grew with every inch downed. Where it began mellow and indistinctive, it ended alive and buzzing with energy. Rarely does a beer start as a six and end as an eight – though you would expect nothing less from a St. Bernardus.

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#77 – Hopus

#77 - Hopus

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 8.5 %

Hopus is a beer that has everything to do with hops. Many breweries attempt to offer a varied range of beer styles, and it is common nowadays to include highly hopped beers in that range. In fact, already being 77 beers in to the journey, it is fairly surprising we haven’t really spoken about hops as yet, as they have been integral to the beer making industry for over 700 years.

Their primary uses in brewing are that of a flavouring agent, and an antibiotic against less desirable micro-organisms than the specific type of yeast selected, and it is probably worth dealing with the science before going any further. Hops are most often dried before use in an oast house or similar facility, which goes to work on the resins within the plant. These resins contain two types of very useful acids – alpha and beta. The alpha acids contain a mild antibiotic effect against harmful bacteria and as already mentioned help to propagate the yeast used. These acids tend to also give the beer its bitter flavour. The beta acids do not tend to add to the flavour of the beer, but through their addition to the wort can give the beer wonderful aromas. The brewers choice of end product will largely determine exactly what type of hops to use in the brewing. The former are generally known as ‘bittering’ hops while the latter are known as ‘aroma hops’.

This degree of bitterness imparted from the hops depends on the extent to which alpha acids are isomerized during boiling, and they tend to be measured in International Bitterness Units (IBUs)*. Many European hop varieties tend to be ‘aroma’ hops, whereas the newer American types, are often ‘bittering’ hops. Bittering hops tend to be used for about 60-90 minutes of the brewing process, whereas aroma hops are often only used at the very end of the process. This normally occurs within the last five to ten minutes of the boil. Often, and this is very evident in Orval (#37), the hops are added after fermentation cold to the wort, which gives a very sharp hop flavour, and is usually known as ‘dry-hopping’.

There is plenty more to discuss on hops, but I shall go into that as and when the opportunity arises. This leaves me time to discuss the Hopus. Another beer poured from the rare swing-top bottle and one that exploded into the glass with a wholesome russet colour and a majestic head. The Hopus was certainly a sipper, which in fact lasted a whole episode of Match of the Day 2, and the flavour stayed true to the end. Nothing special, but certainly worth the trouble.

* For a more detailed discussion of IBUs, see Urthel Hop-It (#150).

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Filed under 7, Belgian Strong Ale, Lefebvre

#71 – Saison Dupont

#71 - Saison Dupont

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 6.5 %

I spent the evening in the Lowlander near Fenchurch Street (now sadly closed) in London for a spot of dinner and took the opportunity to get my hands on another couple of beers that I didn’t have in my cellar. I started proceedings with the Saison Dupont – something of a classic apparently. In fact in the magazine Mens Journal in July 2005, it was named ‘the Best Beer in the World’.

Saison Dupont is traditionally a seasonal beer from French-speaking Wallonia – the saison in the title is the french term for ‘season’ – and refers to the fact that in olden days these types of beer were traditionally brewed in autumn or winter, but only for consumption during the summer months. These were your real working class beers, in that they were brewed for the farmhands to drink while working in order to quench their thirst. For that reason they needed to be low in alcohol and able to be stored throughout the winter. While our modern day farm hands would probably reel at the thought of working in the fields and drinking alcohol all day, it is worth remembering that the water in rural areas in the 1800’s was of a dubious quality.

It is also worth noting that in the past, refrigeration was the luxury not of the poor, and so during the summer the beer would likely spoil, and so Autumn and Winter were the best seasons for producing the workers’ beer. It had to be strong enough not to weaken over the next six months, yet as we mentioned before, moderate enough not to inebriate the workforce. The beers were also highly hopped so as to ensure they preserved as long as possible.

There is no official style to describe a saison beer, although of the various breweries that do indeed produce one, they all tend to try and copy the success of Dupont. The saison of the 21st century will still tend to be well hopped and dry, yet much stronger. Without the refrigeration issues faced by the traditional ‘saisoners’ most saisons are bottle fermented now, where complicated styles of yeast are added to give their beers the unique flavours, which is where the Saison Dupont leads from the front.

The beer itself certainly quenched my thirst after a long day at the office, and I can only echo the views of the masses in that this beer is delicious. It poured a cloudy amber, and smelt remarkable, with plenty of fizz and head. There were hints of citrus and other unnameable fruits to accompany the hops, and I found it hard to concentrate on the conversation with this little beer at my side. I vowed next time to drink this alone on a warm day outside and really get to grips with it.

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#35 – Corsendonk Pater

#35 - Corsendonk Pater

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 7.5 %

I have already been impressed with the Corsendonk Agnus Tripel (#4), and now it was time for the dark Pater. We already know from the earlier drink about the history of the Priory in Turnhout, but Corsendonk beers are also something of a rarity in the Belgian pantheon in that they are brewed to comply with the ‘Reinheitsgebot’ – the strict German beer code which allows only barley, hops, water and yeast to be used in the construction of the beer. The original ‘Reinheitsgebot’ – meaning ‘law of purity’ originated in Ingolstadt in Bavaria in 1516, although had been applied previously in the late 1400s. The law has since been repealed, although only in 1987 but many brewers in Germany still claim to adhere strictly to it.

The original ruling only allowed barley, hops and water, but following the introduction of yeast in the 1800s, this was added. There were three main reasons for the ruling. Firstly to prevent inferior methods of preserving a beer, as hops were much more effective than stinging nettles, henbane and in some cases, soot! The second was that by restricting brewers to barley, it would prevent price wars with bakers over wheat and rye and thus ensure a higher quality of affordable bread for the populace. The final reason was largely financial with part of the rule decreeing that the beer could never be sold above a set price – originally 1 to 2 Pfennigs.

Considering the proliferation of high quality wheat beers now in Bavarian Germany, it is likely that the law perhaps raised the stakes eventually for beer in the region. Corsendonk of course only follow ‘Reinheitsgebot’ for marketing purposes, but in a world that is becoming more eager to pollute with sugars and syrups this is something of a healthy diversion.

Struggling back from illness this beer had been sitting waiting. The appearance was solid and dark, and the smell malty and quite potent. Although the head thinned rapidly, the effervescent brown brew was malty and hoppy with some treacle – a little like the Het Kapittel Pater (#2) but slightly more distinguished and effervescent. Wanted perhaps just a little more mystery – although not bad with the limited ingredients.

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Filed under 7, Abbey Beer, Abbey Dubbel, Du Bocq

#12 – Timmermans Tradition Gueuze

#12 - Timmermans Tradition Gueuze

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 5 %

This is a tough ask – to sum up Gueuze in a paragraph or two. How can one possibly do that without delving deep into the world of lambic? Well here’s the whistle-stop tour. We can wade deeper into the effluent as the journey continues.

OK. Lambics are beers but not as we know it. They require wild yeasts that sit in the air in the Payottenland area around Brussels to ferment the beer, and they sit for long periods open to this natural process. They do indeed use hops, but only the oldest ones, and so the usual beer flavours are barely noticeable. It is a combination of these two circumstances that cause Lambic based beers to be sour, acetic and somewhat an acquired taste. Gueuze is the by-product of carefully combining these lambics, and so by mixing older ones with younger ones, blenders are able to sweeten the final result. This occurs as the younger lambics have yet to fully ferment and so the fermentable sugars start to work on the combination – the end result being Gueuze.

Timmermans have been making Gueuze since 1781, and despite now being subsumed into the Anthony Martins group, they still retain their ancestry in the staff and identity in their brand. I get the feeling this was a pretty tame Gueuze to begin with. It was particularly sweet and I expect the brewery intended this to make it more marketable alongside a number of their other fruit lambics. The sweeter a Gueuze, the more able it is to mask the often difficult flavours behind it. This tasted more like a flat cidery champagne to me, as I kind of expected. There were some hints of grapefruit in there which added to the sourness somewhat. I have certainly lain my hat in the strong Belgian ale and Abbey Dubbel brands, and so this was an interesting diversion. I can’t say I am a true fan yet !

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Filed under 5, Lambic - Gueuze, Timmermans