First encounters with Belgian beer and the Dove revisited

Boon beer at the Dove pub, hackneyRon’s been posting a fair few reminiscences recently, including a couple of posts on first encountering Belgian beer – here, and here.

My first encounters were not so cool. Around about the turn of the century, when Leffe and Hoegaarden were beginning to appear in trendy London pubs, a mate suggested going to the Dove, Hackney for her birthday.

Having got a bus to the really rough bit of Hackney, and walked underneath some dodgy railway arches to get there, I was already in a bad mood that she hadn’t suggested somewhere closer to home. I got even grumpier when I saw what was on offer – weird foreign stuff at MORE THAN £4 A PINT!!! The barstaff did try to explain some rubbish about how in Belgium you drank it from nice small glasses, but I wasn’t having any of it. And it tasted weird.

I can’t remember exactly what I drank – I think I had a fruit beer (don’t people always when they’re faced with a Belgian beer menu for the first time?) and a Delirium Tremens, because the elephants were cool. We moaned to my friend for having brought us there for quite some time afterwards.

I’m always sceptical about people who claim they’ve always been into cool stuff. I’m happy to admit to being a philistine. And I think my experience is illustrative of the difficulties that Belgian beer faces in gaining acceptance in the UK, particularly the insistence on the pint as the only measure that makes sense.

Anyway, I went back to the Dove a year or so later, when I was a bit more open to it (i.e. had a job and could afford it). I picked beers with odd names (Slag Pils! Mort Subite!) and funny beer glasses (Kwak pipes aplenty), and enjoyed the food. It became a bit of a treat. Then it became the victim of its own success, and the last time I went there before today I remember the service being dreadful, the food so-so, the beer a bit off and the whole place full of smoke and screeching media types.

Then, having watched “In Bruges” earlier this week (we liked it) we got a bit of craving for Belgian beers in “gay glasses” (to paraphrase the film) and decided it was time for a return.

We’ve learnt from past experience that places in London can go from being great to lousy to great again — the power of the internet, perhaps, as bar managers respond to comments on review websites and blogs? At any rate, the Dove was in top form today – superb food, and a great selection of Belgian beers on tap and in bottles. They also had six or so British ales on, included Oregon Best from Crouch Vale, a delicious homage to American pale ales.

The staff look like they’re all in trendy bands, but manage to hold it together long enough to carefully serve your beer in the right glasses.

It’s a very cosy spot, full of nooks and crannies and reminiscent of a pub in Ghent we went to. With the smoking ban in place, it’s an extremely pleasant place to spend a gloomy afternoon and gently souse one’s liver. Highly recommended.

We may blog more about some of the bonkers Belgian brews we had, including one that tasted like Heinz spaghetti…

Boak

Here’s a map to the Dove.

Fruit beers in the garden

We were going to return to our quest for a decent Baltic Porter, as we’ve got a few awaiting tasting. However, it was such a lovely day yesterday that we decided to drink fruit beers in the garden instead.

To give some context to our tasting notes; neither of us are massive fruit beer fans, and we certainly both prefer our fruit beer to be identifiably *beer* first and foremost, not an alcopop. I really can’t deal with overly sweet drinks of any form, but I do have a bit of a “sour tooth”, whereas Bailey doesn’t tend to go for sour flavours.

Timmerman’s Kriek, 4%
Looks quite artificial, with deep red colour and pink head. There’s a definite hint of sourness in the aroma though, which is promising. The taste – Bassett’s cherry drops. The aftertaste contains a blast of pure sugar on the end of the tongue which I’m not so keen on, but overall, it’s not as bad as I was expecting, i.e. not as sickly sweet as Fruli.

Boon Kriek 4%

We had high hopes for this one, as it seems to be generally quite rated and is as authentic as you like. However, it was a lot like the Timmerman’s – overly sweet and not very complex at all. It was a bit more buttery than Timmerman’s, and had even less sourness.

Mort Subite Kriek (original) 4.5%
This we liked a lot. It’s a much less lurid pink, and the flavour is a great balance of sweet and sour, with a nice dry refreshing finish. Definitely a lot more going on with this one than Timmerman’s or Boon. The difference is in the aftertaste – whereas with the above two we got sugar, and not a lot else, here you get a crisp fruitiness that lingers on the palate.

Meantime Raspberry Grand Cru 6.5%
Bit of an odd one out in this session (raspberry, not lambic, British) but it’s always been a favourite, not least because it’s beer first and raspberry second, with a good bitterness that you don’t tend to get in fruit beers. That’s what we remembered, anyway (see a review from December 2007 here). It always tastes slightly different from batch to batch in the Union, their brewery tap, and we’ve noted that in the last few years it’s become less pink and less obviously raspberry-flavoured.

However, this incarnation (and it is the stronger “grand cru” version) seems to have forgotten the raspberries altogether. There’s a generic fruity taste, a bit like a nice Koelsch, but unless someone told you it was raspberry, you wouldn’t know. The refreshing tartness makes it a pleasant drink, but I think would be a disappointment to people looking for a fruit beer, and at 6.5%, this is not one you want to quaff much of in the sun.

Disappointing – I know this can be better.

Cantillon Kriek 5%
We bought this when we visited the brewery back in August 2007, so it’s been in storage for around nine months, in addition to the time it’s already spent at the brewery.

You have to have the courage of your convictions when you drink this beer. If you gingerly sip it, all you get is SOUR, but if you take a big gulp and let it cover your tongue, there’s a pleasing explosion of apple, cherry, pink grapefruit and strawberry, with red wine / sherry notes in the finish.

I’d be lying if I said I wanted to sip this all day long; even in the sun it’s hard work, although the champagne body and bubbles gives it a pleasing decadent feel.

All in all, Mort Subite was the surprising winner for both of us.

For more tantalising beer on grass action, check out Beer Nut’s post on wheatbeers. He’s got a bigger garden than us though.

For more on fruitbeers, here’s a Session post we did back in August 2007 on the same topic, including notes on our own blackberry beer.

Boak

St Bernardus Abt 12 v Westvleteren 12

What beer-lover isn’t intrigued by the history and production of Westvleteren beers, the12s.jpg most reclusive of the Trappist producers? The angle that always caught our attention was the similarities (or not) between St Bernardus Abt 12 and Westvleteren 12. The St Bernardus brewery has its origins in a commercialisation experiment by the monks at the abbey of St-Sixtus in Westvleteren, whereby they licenced commercial production of the abbey’s beers to an enterprising cheese producer. The licence ended in 1992, and since then the St Bernardus brewery has continued, removing references to St Sixtus and Trappist beers.

There are various rumours about the similarity of the recipes; that they’re the same but the yeast and water are different; that once they were exactly the same but now they’re different for various reasons etc. We’re not beer historians, so don’t know what’s true and what isn’t; if you want to read more, an old article by Stonch with related comments and links is a good place to start.

12s3.jpgWe thought we’d try the two together and see how similar they were. We tried to make the experiment as fair as possible, serving them in identical glasses at the same temperature etc. However, our Westvleteren has been “aging” in our “cellar” for about five months whereas the St-Bernardus was bought last week.

There’s an obvious difference in that St Bernardus is 10% whereas the Westvleteren is 10.2%. Interestingly though, the St Bernardus (right on our photo) has a stronger body and better head retention.

As for colour – there is a slight difference, with Westy being more brown and St Bernardus being more red-black. But that could be down to the amount of yeast shaken into both.

There is a stronger aroma with the St-Bernardus – it smells like a good sherry, with lots of fruity flavours. As for the taste – we always struggle to describe the flavour of Belgian beers, but here goes. We’d describe both as fruity, but Westvleteren had more milk-chocolate flavours, whilst the St-Bernardus had more tangy apple overtones. St-Bernardus was both sourer and more bitter (though in a very balanced way). As you go down the glass, the St-Bernardus gets more tangy, whereas the Westvleteren gets sweeter.

We concluded that we would be pretty happy to be served both; Bailey had no preference but Boak preferred the St-Bernardus. But they’re definitely different beers with their own identities.

Of course there is a slight possibility we mixed the two up during the photo-shoot…

Notes

The Westvleteren website is here and has got to be my favourite beer related website… You should go there to purchase your share, but you could also have a look on the “top shelf” of various touristy beer bars in Brussels.

St Bernardus site is here. Their products are available in a few more locations, including Quaffs in London where we got ours.

Beer bars in Brussels: Chez Moeder Lambic and A La Mort Subite

Isn’t it funny how bad reviews of a place can influence you much more than good reviews? You can have a page of excellent reviews, and yet one bad review will give you serious second thoughts about whether to go.

Both Chez Moeder Lambic and A La Mort Subite seem to suffer from a few negative comments about the service. Not quite sure why, as we had a great time in both and have no complaints about service or anything else.

chez_moeder_lambic.jpg

First CML. This is a very small bar out in the “St Gilles” region of Brussels. It’s actually only about 5 minutes on the Metro system from Gare du Midi. Directions below, once again courtesy of Andreea. It has around 200 beers in bottles and around 7-8 on tap. No food other than several types of Belgian cheese (served with bread). We think cheese is a perfect snack to beer so we were more than satisfied.

It’s dark and cozy, and we found it very friendly. It wasn’t busy until about 10:30 (though this may be because an August weekend in Brussels is very quiet indeed!). The bar staff seemed happy to offer recommendations, and warned us about the Brussels cheese (it’s very salty and smelly).

We also loved the decor – it’s a real temple of beer, with hundreds of beer bottles, adverts etc tucked into its tiny interior. Also, less congruously, loads of mouldy comics in the windows. Fabulous place. Definitely recommended.

mort_subite.jpg

A La Mort Subite is cavernous by contrast. We almost didn’t go – freshly sore from the Restobieres experience, the idea of more rudeness / bad service didn’t appeal. Plus it was very busy. However, we did go, and we loved it.

Firstly, it’s really beautifully decorated – allegedly the original 1928 decor. We couldn’t stop taking pictures (no doubt contributing to its “touristy” reputation in the meantime!)

Our waitresses were both extremely friendly and attentive, so absolutely no complaints about service.

The beer selection is not huge (probably around 30 beers?) but a lot of these are on tap and in excellent condition. I had a couple of beers here that I’d previously not been impressed by – Chimay triple and Mort Subite Geueze – both of which tasted much fresher and tastier than I’d remembered.

This isn’t the place for the serious beer geek wanting to sample Belgian obscurities. However, it’s a lovely place to hang out for a few hours drinking good quality Belgian brew.

Notes

  1. Chez Moeder Lambic is at Rue de Savoie 68, 1060 Brussels. To get there, take the Metro / Pre-Metro to Horta. (The “Pre-Metro” is an underground tram). Once at Horta, left out the station down the hill to the crossroads / roundabout, left and left again so you’re going up a road almost parallel to the one you came down. You should see a huge municipal building at the top. Cross to the right hand side of the car park, and CML is about 10 metres further on (look out for the red neon sign)
  2. A La Mort Subite is at Montagne-aux-Herbes Potagères 7, in the middle of town, around 5 minutes walk from the Grand Place. There’s a map on their website.

Fake English

speciale1900.jpg Why “fake English”? It’s a phrase we came across on a beer menu in Ghent, referring specifically to “John Martin’s Pale Ale”. JMPA is a well-known British-style ale brewed in Belgium. This post isn’t about JMPA — it’s about another beer that we thought better deserved the same description.

The beer in question is actually a very obvious clone of Palm Special, and other “Speciale Belge” beers. Nonetheless, we thought it was delicious. We admit to having a weakness for Sam Smith’s Pale Ale (despite it not being bottle conditioned, etc. etc.) and this was like a much more intense version of that. Orangey, hoppy, not at all sugary — which latter can be a real turn-off for us in Belgian beer.

And the hops were English, too — Kent Goldings? Kent isn’t far away from Belgium as the crow flies, after all.

Despite having all their own amazing beer, Belgian brewers obviously have a soft spot for British styles.  There are a number of “Scottish” brews around, for example, Gordon’s Scotch being the most ubiquitous. But until this trip, we’d never tried a Belgian stout. Now we’ve had three. One remains unidentified, despite Andreea‘s best efforts, but we can’t recommend Hercule Stout or De Dolle Extra Export Stout highly enough. De Dolle seem to have based the label on the Harvey’s Imperial Stout. Hercule Stout is a fake British stout named after an English author’s fake Belgian — Agatha Christie’s Poirot. How’s that for confusing. Both were what you’d expect — strong, gooey, chocolatey. And strong. So strong that our notes on both are useless beyond that.

Now, where’s that Belgian imitation of cream-flow nitro-keg bitter we’re all waiting for..?