Cantillon at 9:30 am

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Does lambic beer taste better first thing in the morning? Or have we finally “got it” with lambic?

Having had a great long weekend in Belgium, there was time for one last trip before the Eurostar trip home. The Cantillon brewery is very handy for Gare du Midi (5 minutes away) so with luggage and rare beers stashed away in left-luggage, we set out into the Brussels rain to find out more about this lambic lark.

We knew a bit about lambics before we set out – we knew that the classic lambic beer is created from “spontaneous fermentation”, matured for several years and mixed with younger versions of itself to make Gueuze, cherries to make Krieks, raspberries to make, well, raspberry beers and so on. Little baby lambics are called “Faro” and are supposed to be less “extreme”.

I think it’s fair to say that lambic beers are an acquired taste. Long maturation and the distinctive yeasts used elimate all of the sugar so there is absolutely no sweet taste – it is overwhelmingly sour, with some bitter notes. Cantillon has a reputation of being one of the hardest “tastes” to acquire.

We were still comparative newbies to lambics. You know: the stage where you drink one and say “hmm, very interesting; isn’t it sour” and then choose something else next round. We’d enjoyed a couple of Gueuzes from other breweries, but our only brush with Cantillon was a “Rose de Gambrinus” (Cantillon’s raspberry lambic) at the Great British Beer Festival. It had tasted rather like a raspberry vinegar that my dad used to make. However, we were not put off by this – many beers are not at their best in that kind of environment – and were determined to give them another go. And where better than at the brewery itself?

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Despite knowing the theory of lambic production, it’s only when you see the equipment used (and particularly the rows and rows of maturing barrels and bottles throughout the brewery) that you can picture the production process. (NB – you can probably go one better if you visit between October and April. Brewing stops during the summer months)

You get an introductory spiel (possibly from the head brewer, Jean van Roy himself) and an informative leaflet to guide yourself around. We learnt a number of interesting things. We learnt that large amounts of hops are added for their preservative / antiseptic quality – but they’re aged for three years first to cut out the bitterness. We’d both assumed before we went that the beer was open to the elements for a long period of time, but actually the window for “spontaneous fermentation” is very small — only overnight, while the beer cools. Yet it (almost) always works. This is down to the apparently unique natural yeasts in the Brussels region.

The cooling room is really atmospheric – an enormous (but shallow) square copper dish in a dark attic, with shutters to control the heat and light. Apparently the roof tiles are original, re-installed after the roof itself was replaced to preserve the “micro-organic equilibrium”. Someone should write a ghost story set in a room like that.

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We got to the end of the tour with some trepidation about the tasting session to come. Tasting one of the world’s sourest beers at 9:30 in the morning? (8:30 UK time!)

We were given some Gueuze, and it was a revelation. For a start, we could taste much more than just sourness — a real full and fruity flavour with a subtle bitterness at the end which we’ve never really got with other lambics. I don’t know if this revelation was due to us slowly becoming accustomed to lambics (in the same way that we only recently “got Koelsch“); the fact that Cantillon is “better”; or just perhaps that our tastebuds were more alive at such an early hour. Whatever it was, it left us keen to try more.

They gave us a glass of Rose de Gambrinus, which was also delightful. Whereas before we could only really taste sour, the fruitiness really came out and left a lovely aftertaste.

We left with as many bottles as we could carry, some glasses and a t-shirt. We’re converted.

I wonder what wild yeasts in the London area are like…

Notes

The Cantillon brewery is 5 minutes walk from Gare du Midi Station (where Eurostar comes in), assuming you go the right way out of the station. Come out at Horta Place (entrance/exit nearest the Eurostar arrivals with the taxi rank), go up the street you can see with the bus / tram stops, straight across the roundabout (Baraplein) up Limnander-Straat, then over the road at the top into Rue de Gheude. It’s at number 56.

It’s open 8.30am-5pm Mon-Fri, and 10am-5pm on Saturdays. At 4E, including two small glasses of beer, it’s well worth a visit. They also run various public brewing days. The next one’s on 10th November 2007.

Do not try this at home (or anywhere else): Mongozo coconut beer

When we set up this blog, one of our unwritten rules was that we would not be overly negative about beers. If we didn’t like something, we would move on and blog about something we did like.

I’m going to break this rule now to warn to fellow beer lovers, particularly you experimental types. Do not try Mongozo coconut beer. It is possibly the nastiest thing I have ever tasted (yes, that means worse than the polio vaccine). I’m not the only one to be disgusted – see reviews on RateBeer. coconut-beer.jpg

One of my locals has been stocking this stuff for years, with increasingly desperate signs (“Have a refreshing, unique coconut beer!”). I should have heeded the warning, but I was in an experimental mood. Oh dear. Having had a couple of sips and visibly reeled from the shock, I tried my usual tactic in these circumstances of pretending it wasn’t beer. That didn’t work either.

The sad thing is that I like the idea in principle. The Mongozo beers are brewed by Brouwerij Huyghe and use fairtrade coconuts. I’ve nothing against coconuts in beer, and think they could work quite well. Lew Bryson (“Seen through a glass“) has a review of a Coconut Porter here which sounds right up my street.

The problem with this one is the sugar. It is just so sweet, you can feel your teeth rotting as you drink it. I can forgive many flavours in a beer, but excess sweetness is not one of them.

Sorry Mongozo. I wanted to like you, I really did. If it makes you feel better, The Beer Nut has had some other Mongozo products and is cautiously polite about them.

Boak

Adventures in Cornwall part 1: St Austell’s Admiral Ale – in a good restaurant!

bottle_beer_cropped_admirals_ale.jpgLast night I was in a lovely restaurant in the fishing village of Fowey, Cornwall. (I’m down for a wedding).

Having been involved in a minor bus crash, I was keen for a drink; my heart sank slightly on seeing the Peroni tap. “Do you have any other beer?” I asked. “Yes, we have San Miguel, Kronenbourg…”. Heart sank a little further, which the waiter picked up on. “Do you like ales?” he said. “er…yes” I said. “Well, we do have some ale. One of the local brews”. And out came St Austell’s Admiral’s Ale. It was bottle conditioned and absolutely superb – glorious red-brown colour, slight toffee aroma, tasted a little bit like a cross between a good dark wheatbeer and an ale. I’ve enjoyed their “Tribute” a couple of times, and recently picked up a couple of their other products, “Proper Job” (an IPA) and “Clouded Yellow” (a continental-style wheatbeer brewed with British yeast). But this was the king of the crop. I was so impressed, I went out and bought a case.

And how great to see a good restaurant offering quality beer. (I got some funny looks mind. I like to think this was the mixing strong tasting beer with strong tasting seafood, and not some lazy stereotype about ladies drinking ale)

More on St Austell later – I went on the brewery tour today and had a chance to chat to the head brewer about how they make it… And it has just been on BBC local news, as they are now doing double shifts to cope with demand for Tribute. Well done lads.

Boak

  1. The restaurant was “The Other Place” and was fantastic. Fowey can be reached by public transport by taking a train to Par or St Austell, and getting a bus.

Of trends in British bottled beer; Hook Norton AD 303

From a recent unexpected treasure trove (an off-licence in Stoke Newington) – Hook Norton AD 303, a bottled beer which exemplifies several trends to be seen in British bottled beer.

1. The “patriotic” thing. The large independents just can’t get enough of St George, bulldogs etc. (see Young’s St George’s Ale, Charles Wells’ John Bull.) Seems to be a lack of imagination amongs the marketing guys.

St George enjoying a pint 2. Have a significant year, the older the better. Fuller’s 1845 may have started the trend; not to be outdone, Shepherd Neame went for 1698. AD 303 is surely just taking the p*ss though.

3. Seasonal beers. This I’m a great fan of in theory, although by the time you pick it up in an off-licence you may have gone round the whole calendar at least once. (We also picked up their Haymaker in the same trip – according to their website, available July-August, so presumably last year’s batch). James Clarke, MD of Hook Norton has since informed us that they bottle the seasonal beers all year round.  See Comments.

The other trouble with “seasonal” beers in the UK is for some reason they all seem to translate into very bitter pale beers, whatever the season (OK, I’m being unfair. In the winter you might get a “winter ale” which may even be more than normal bitter with extra caramel).

AD 303 is not bucking any trends here. It’s (surprise surprise) pale and very bitter. Pleasant enough, but not up to HN’s usual outstanding quality.

Boak

Notes:

  1. Hook Norton is a 150-year old “family run” brewery in the Cotswolds (a picturesque part of England near Oxford) . There’s an article about them by Roger Protz here (although I think it’s quite old). I’ve only had the pleasure of trying Old Hooky, Double Stout and Hooky Bitter, and I’ve generally been impressed so far. I look forward to trying Hooky Dark, which sounds enticing and original.
  2. Ad 303 is apparently when St George was martyred in Palestine. Born in Turkey, he is also the patron saint of Aragón, Canada, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Montenegro, Portugal, Serbia, Russia, and Palestine, as well as the cities of Beirut, Istanbul, Ljubljana, Freiburg and Moscow, as well as a wide range of professions, organisations and disease sufferers. There is no evidence he ever set foot in England, let alone delighted in our brewing traditions.

Meantime Extra Dry Stout

Publicity photo of meantime coffee stout

After a visit to the Greenwich Union, I can confirm that Meantime‘s seasonal “Extra Dry Stout” isn’t all that exciting, as Stonch has already said. It was too fizzy on the tongue, and a little thin-bodied.

I followed it up with a bottle of coffee stout, which has always been, and remains, incredible. They’d run out of chocolate stout, but there were enough chocolate flavours in this to do the job for me. Smooth, chewy, bitter…. just perfect. And Cooper’s Australian “Best Extra Stout” was just slightly better again. The extra 1.5/2% alcohol – they’re both just over 6%, while the dry stout is 4.5% – and the extra body really makes a difference in their impact.

But I trust Alastair Hook to get it right. I think we can expect to see the recipe tinkered with for some time to come. Meantime’s wheat beer was pretty dull at first, but has evolved into a thing of beauty (especially in its strong 6.5% grand cru incarnation).

I also suspect that we’ll see a “Taste the Difference” stout in Sainsbury’s in the next year or so, based on this recipe.