Friday, 05 September 2014 10:06

My first Belgian - the Session #91

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Chimay BlueThe Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts the Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing all of the participants. This month, it's the turn of Belgian Smaak, click here for the details.

Those monks have a lot to answer for.

Despite spending the bulk of my younger years trying to escape the clutches of the clergy at a Christian Brothers' grammar school, the Catholic faith ultimately moulded my beliefs while my back was turned.

When I was first told about the Lord's work, I had no idea it could take the form of beer but I suppose God really does move in mysterious ways.

Those Trappist monks and their remarkable creations have left an indelible mark on my adult life, sparking a never-ending quest for ever greater, weirder and more wonderful experiences in beer.

Maybe if they had taught of my first-year R.E. lessons, life would have turned out a lot differently...

Although Belgian beer has only ever constituted around 10 to 20 per cent of my total consumption, it has had a hugely disproportionate impact on my tastes and habits.

It acted as a gateway to enlightenment, the first frontier in my passage from casual drinker to beer geek and that can be attributed to the Trappists.

Growing up in Manchester instilled in me an appreciation of good beer but didn't exactly encourage variety or experimentation.

The traditional family brewers - Holt's, Lees, Robinsons and Hydes - have long loomed large in this city, meaning my diet consisted almost entirely of cask bitter, mild or session pales.

That provided the necessary foundation - an expectation of good, honest, traditionally-brewed beer over mass-produced lager - but things changed drastically when my dad returned from a business trip with three variously-coloured bottles of Chimay.

I wasn't sure what to make of them at first, my first thoughts being 'wow, that's rocket fuel' and 'what's with the dumpy bottles?'

Then I saw the glassware and was stopped in my tracks. The majestic, silver-rimmed chalice appeared to have been transposed from medieval times, its powerful, thick stem and wide bowl fit for a king.

I had to see it in action and, given I don't tend to do things by halves, reached straight for the Blue at 9% ABV.

In my naivety, I was overeager with the pour, creating a glass of around 80% head. But once it had settled down, I was left with a thing of beauty - a deep, rich chestnut-coloured beer topped with a generous, thick, creamy head.

The aroma was unlike anything I'd encountered down my local, although my unrefined sense of smell struggled to pin down the yeast esters, overwhelmed by a mixture of caramel, dried fruit and warming spice.

Each sip danced a merry jig across my palate, light floral notes, clove and nutmeg tickling the tongue in a manner that was almost entirely alien to me. Dried cherry and raisin twisted with oak and caramel settled heavily in the mouth, neatly offset by a subtle bitterness in the finish.

It was an eye-opening experience and one I resolved to explore further.

Initially, this meant cracking open the two remaining bottles of Chimay in quick succession but, ultimately, led to an exploration of the wider Belgian beer scene, that led on to German, American and even a re-evaluation of British beer.

Cantillon Gueuze 100 Lambic Bio

My tastes are not obviously dominated by Belgian beer but the devotion and open-mindedness I apply to seeking out new beer can largely be attributed to that one moment.

Belgian beer also presented something of a final frontier in my experience. Until two years ago, I just didn't get gueuze.

I couldn't understand the face-crumpling sourness, the rough, coarse earthiness or the tight, prickly champagne fizz. None of it seemed to come together in a way that pleased my palate or even one that vaguely resembled my typical understanding of beer.

It was the one style I actively avoided until, inexplicably, I underwent a conversion after receiving a bottle of Boon Oude Geuze in a box of beers given to me as a birthday present.

It seemed ungrateful to pass it on to someone else who might appreciate it more than me, so I sat down on an unusually warm Manchester evening and forced myself to try it.

What started out as a grim endurance test quickly became a eureka moment. Maybe it was the weather or the fact that I'd endured a particularly testing day at work but it felt like a rare indulgence.

The flavours are, at times, jarring and challenging, yet equally intriguing, invigorating and satisfying. Like free jazz for the tastebuds.

There's something enchanting about the way gueuze captures the spirit of time-honoured craftsmanship and the magic of spontaneous fermentation in one neat package. Now, I never tire of regaling friends, family and strangers with stories of Cantillon and the incredible process used to create gueuze.

"They just leave the wort open to the air and it ferments due to the presence of wild yeast. Isn't nature just amazing?!"

Belgian beer has that rare quality of representing the richness of tradition while challenging you to reassess your tastes and beliefs.

It feels as if it's from another time, yet never feels old.

And it's exciting to think there are more 'Chimay moments' yet to be encountered.

Friday, 21 March 2014 13:36

Cantillon Gueuze 100% Lambic Bio

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Cantillon Gueuze 100 Lambic BioCantillon Gueuze 100% Lambic Bio

Bottle from Beer Hawk, 5% ABV

The first time I tried gueuze, I hated it.

Couldn't understand the face-crumpling sourness, the rough, coarse earthiness or the tight, prickly champagne fizz.

None of it seemed to come together in a way that pleased my palate or even one that vaguely resembled my typical understanding of beer.

Call me uncultured or ignorant if you like but it was an experience akin to my first ever pint, when I'd sat choking down a pint of Guinness as a young teen because, basically, that's what I was supposed to do.

I mean, what kind of Mancunian Irishman would I be if I didn't throw copious amounts of the black stuff down my neck? And what kind of beer geek would I be if I didn't sip my way through a bottle of gueuze while nodding with smug satisfaction?

Although I recovered from that unsure start to appreciate the complexity, subtlety and uniqueness inherent in gueuze, it is still difficult to articulate exactly what makes it so good.

I've tried explaining its appeal but people usually switch off somewhere between vinegar and barnyard funk. Most of them probably think the latter is a song from James Brown's country and western phase.

Words just don't do it justice because, on paper at least, the different flavours don't seem to mix particularly well. Or belong in a drink at all for that matter.

For me, enlightenment came in the form of a bottle of Boon Oude Geuze on a summer's day. Perhaps it was the haze of an unusually warm Manchester evening or the fact I'd endured a particularly testing day at work but, suddenly, it felt like a rare indulgence.

The flavours are, at times, jarring and challenging, yet equally intriguing, invigorating and satisfying. Like free jazz for the tastebuds.

My preferences have since developed further and few breweries encapsulate the essence of gueuze quite like Cantillon.

Each bottle feels somehow historic, as if they've managed to capture the spirit of time-honoured craftsmanship and the magic of spontaneous fermentation in one neat package.

It isn't a polished production-line beer, rather a wild, living, evolving product that's always full of surprises.

Upon popping the cork, aromas of crisp apple and young apricot escape the bottle and pouring reveals further layers of white wine vinegar, hay and earthy funk. There's a tantalising hint of Calvados lurking somewhere in there too, carried by a breeze of alcohol freshness.

The taste is deliciously tart and sweet at first, soured apples causing the mouth to water in an explosion of juicy excitement.

Lip-smacking lemon juice washes across the palate before notes of vinegar and oak slowly but surely assert themselves, growing and multiplying alongside a strong astringency.

As the mouth loses moisture, earthiness and grass come to the fore, accompanied by a phenolic character that's almost medicinal in its nature, reminiscent of homemade root beer.

The taste of vinegar lasts throughout a never-ending, arid finish, which also combines lemon zest with a fresh vinous character and a beautiful, warm breadiness that leaves a sweet must in the back of the mouth.

There's simply nothing like it.

Monday, 17 February 2014 13:44

Duvel Tripel Hop (2013)

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Duvel Tripel HopDuvel Tripel Hop Sorachi Ace

Bottle, 9.5% ABV

Sorachi Ace.

Those two words are enough to put an inane grin on the mugs of a thousand beer geeks and cause a thousand more to recoil in disgust.

Few issues in the world of beer are quite as divisive.

Well, perhaps apart from a discussion I overheard in the pub the other night about method of dispense - the bearded old-timer in the sandals and the beardier youngster in the plaid shirt seemed pretty heated about it anyway.

But hops are clearly far more important than that. It's about what's put in the beer, innit?

Sorachi Ace was a strain originally developed by Japanese giant Sapporo for use in its range of hugely uninspired beers but has more recently found favour with the craft crowd - almost to the extent where you ain't a craft brewer if you ain't used Sorachi.

Many laud its lemony character or liken the fresh, fragrant profile to Thai cuisine but others detest the dill flavour that frequently shines through. More still pick up coconut, bubblegum and onion or dismiss it as unpleasantly oily.

This unusually wide range of taste experience is probably the root of the 'marmite effect' but I love Sorachi Ace's bold, distinctive characteristics. There's absolutely no mistaking it in a beer.

Duvel's most recent triple hop effort must rank as one of the best recent examples of Sorachi at work.

It pours clear, light yellow with a rocky white head that leaves faint lacing all down the glass.

The aroma is clean and bright, providing a fresh breath of grass, lemon, white grape and green apple. The hops add a further fragrant dimension of lemongrass and flowers, while the yeast comes through strongly, tingling the nose with peppery spice.

The taste blends sweet, sour and spicy, in an often balanced but sometimes uneven manner.

First, subtle sweetness comes from the malt before the vivid, citrus hop flavours ring loud and clear, lemon and orange adding a fantastic juicy sourness.

Sharp tartness then develops into a vinous Sauvignon Blanc character and ultimately yields to a cutting, bitter zestiness.

Meanwhile, pepper, spice and floral notes jump around the tongue and there's a lingering creaminess, somewhat reminiscent of lemon meringue pie. The Sorachi lends a bit of oiliness to the mouthfeel but it's also highly carbonated and finishes extremely dry.

An incredibly enjoyable beer, which would surely go a long way to converting many of the Sorachi doubters.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013 14:03

#12BeersOfXmas day eleven, Mont des Cats

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Mont des CatsMont des Cats

Bottle, 7.6% ABV

This beer is having an identity crisis.

It doesn't know whether it's French or Belgian, Trappist or not.

Although it purports to be made with the cooperation of the monks at the abbey of Mont des Cats in France - famous for their cheeses - but is actually brewed across the border at Scourmont Abbey, better known as the birthplace of Chimay.

As a result, this isn't an official Trappist beer, given it isn't produced inside the walls of the abbey.

But, most importantly, is it any good? The answer to that is also going to be a little vague.

It practically exploded out of the bottle, leaving me in a frantic scramble to salvage enough of the murky amber liquid to actually taste. So, not the best of starts.

Any head must have been left in the bottle because what remained looked pretty lifeless in my Chimay glass, not even the merest hint of froth surviving the first 30 seconds after pouring. Still, the beer remained quite highly carbonated, giving it a prickly mouthfeel.

The nose offered few surprises, dominated by burnt caramel and spice but also providing soft herbal notes and even a light touch of banana, with a sharp alcohol freshness.

Initially, the taste is overwhelmingly sweet, soft caramel soothing the front of the tongue before candi sugar and sugared plums take a more assertive approach.

These flavours are countered by the underlying presence of burnt toast, which comes through stronger as the spice profile grows.

Cloves are particularly prominent,delivering a light heat that numbs the back of the tongue, but this is also generously hopped for a Trappist beer and a fresh grassiness eventually cuts through the spice.

It becomes somewhat tart, rather than bitter, tingling the corners of the mouth until a drying finish strips the palate completely.

Ultimately, it's pleasant but too sweet and lacking in depth. Perhaps fitting it didn't make the grade as an official Trappist beer.