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..?

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.

Restobieres: "No beer for you!"

duvelsign.jpgRestobieres has a nice website, which I spent a bit of time looking at before we set off for lunch yesterday. The menu looked simple and — most importantly — we’d heard that the beer was decent.

The website advertised something described in English as “The Set Beer Menu”, which I tried to order from the French menu. The website says it’s four beers: Bink blonde, Witkap Stimulo, Lamoral degmont and “Trappiste”, for 15 euros.

But my French is appalling, and the owner — an, er, colourful chap called Alain Fayt — reminded me somewhat of the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld. The whole thing was, therefore, a bit of a disaster.

After I’d placed the order, there was some grumpy dialogue which I didn’t follow, and off he went. Sometime later, my first beer arrived. There was a lecture in French on its origins, which I just about followed. But it wasn’t Bink Blonde — it was Watou Wit. Confusing. But fine — I drank it. It went really well with my pate, both bringing out interesting flavours in the other. So far so good.

A long while later, when I’d nearly finished my second course, Alain returned. He collected my glass and gave me what you might call “the stink eye”.

He returned with a bottle of something else. I say “something else” because he poured me a splash into a glass and walked off, very quickly, with the bottle. “Hmm,” I said. “That’s interesting. It’s not one of the beers on the list, and I’ve only got about 100ml of it.” It was very nice, whatever it was.

Things reached a head with the third beer — Caracole’s Nostradamus. Not on the menu. He poured me a splash but this time left the bottle. Being thirsty at this point, I proceded to finish it. Oh dear.

He returned looking like I’d insulted his family. “You must not drink it all. This is a degustation — tasting!”

“Oh, sorry,” I said, Englishly. I went red and felt guilty, as if it was entirely my fault. He slammed down a splash of another beer (again, no idea what, but a stout of some sort) and said, slightly more warmly, “It’s OK.” And that was that. No more beer for me.

So, yes, it’s an interesting place, with great beer, and decent food, but don’t go here expecting to be mollycoddled… and read the menu carefully.

Bailey

Apologies for the irrelevant image. I was too scared to use my camera in the restaurant…

Ciney vs. Chimay

chimay_ciney.jpgFor the last few days, we’ve been seeing advertisements for Ciney beers, which we’d never heard of before. The astounding thing is that Ciney have completely borrowed Chimay’s logo and typeface. What’s more, even though they’re not a Trappist or even an abbey brewery, they’ve stuck a church spire in their logo to give that impression. In fact, they’re owned by the huge Alken-Maes Group.

So we assumed they’d be, at best, clones of the Chimay beers and, at worst, horrid.

When we found ourselves this afternoon in the legendary bar “A La Morte Subite” and noticed that the menu had a full range of both Ciney and Chimay beers, we thought we’d compare them. We ordered them in pairs — Ciney Brune with Chimay Rouge; Ciney Blonde with Chimay Triple.

And do you know what? They were not at all similar. Ciney’s beers are characterised by an underlying sourness. They smell sour — fruity sour — and taste slightly less so. Both the brune and the blonde are excellent, but the brune was the real stand out. It’s rich and full of flavour, but not heavy. If you see it, give it a go.

Few of you need us to tell you about Chimay. Suffice to say, they were also great.

To follow in the next few days:

  • Restobieres — “No soup for you!”
  • Chez Moeder Lambic
  • Ghent
  • Westvleteren — easier to find than we expected… but is it real?
  • Deus — posh, expensive, but is it any good?
  • “Fake English”: Belgian attempts to “do” English beer
  • Cantillon brewery (if we get up in time tomorrow…)

L’Ultime Atome

caveoftrolls.jpg Andreea recommended this place which we checked out at lunchtime today. We had a few nibbles and tried three beers each, all of which were good, and a couple of which were great.

The photo is of Cuvee de Trolls — the 20th beer Andreea ever reviewed, back in February 2006. It looks great, and has a lovely glass (frosted, like the one Babar comes in). The beer itself was decent, if not mindblowing.

The highlight of the session was “Poperings Hommelbier”. Poperinge is the Belgian hop growing region, and “hommel” is the local word for hops. And how. Like the little guide to Belgian beer we picked up says, “this beer has about twice the bitterness of other Belgian beers”. The first thing we were reminded of was an English IPA.

  • Ale? Check.
  • Pale? Check.
  • Bitter? Check.
  • Strong? 7.5%.

For all that, though, it’s not quite in the same territory. For a start, there’s the distinct sugar taste and aroma which you get in a lot of Belgian beer. There’s also not much in the way of flowery hop aroma, which you’d expect in an IPA. Nonetheless, an interesting and refreshingly bitter beer which we’d recommend heartily.

We also tried Hoegaarden Grand Cru, Ara Bier and Moinette Blonde.

Had a slight hangover by 5pm. Urgh.

PS – Spotted some “bootleg” Westvleteren in one of the main touristy beer shops in the centre of town.  They weren’t making a big show of it but it wasn’t hidden either.  6.25EUR a bottle. Didn’t have the 12 though.

Notes

L’Ultime Atome is at 14 Rue Saint-Boniface, Brussels 1050. There are a number of interesting bars and restaurants in that area, including lots of African places. We may do a Google Map when we get back if we can be bothered.