Brouwerij 't IJ and De Molen Double IPA
Bottle from Beer Hawk, 9% ABV
When preparing a trip to Amsterdam for later this year, both these breweries were added to the list of essentials.
De Molen's reputation speaks for itself, while Brouwerij 't IJ (pronounced 'ut eye' I have been reliably informed by a real-life Dutchman) has been quietly producing quality beers in Amsterdam since 1985. For those of you unfamiliar with the latter, their standard IPA and Struis barleywine are a good introduction.
Fulfilling the Dutch cliché, both breweries are also famous for featuring windmills. Whether the staff are forced to wear clogs has, as yet, been unconfirmed.
Returning to the more important issue of the beer at hand, it was exciting to discover the Netherlands' two best breweries had joined forces, particularly in the form of an uncompromising imperial IPA.
However, this eagerness was almost engulfed by a cloying sweetness that initially threatened to overcome my palate.
Still, I gave it time and I'm glad I did because it's definitely a grower.
Once the palate became accustomed to the heavy flavours and big body, more of the complexities began to reveal themselves. It's not a citrus or tropical hop bomb but rather a double IPA that demands a glacial pace, its flavours revealing themselves carefully rather than announcing their arrival amid a huge fanfare.
Heavy caramel dominates the aroma and this sugariness follows through into fruity notes reminiscent of Fruit Salads, those penny sweets that glue the teeth together and make the jaw ache with their stubborn chewiness.
The near-synthetic notes of pineapple, passion fruit and orange are rounded off by a drop of vanilla essence.
That aforementioned cloying sweetness is all too evident in the first sip and takes some getting used to but balances comes as the palate adapts and the beer warms.
Unsurprisingly, caramel asserts itself strongly in the first sip, possibly only outdone by the taste of jelly sweets. Now we're not talking Haribo here but the somehow less trashy fruit jellies from your childhood that coated the tongue with a sticky syrup of indistinguishable fruit flavours.
Notes of pineapple, tangerine, passion fruit and strawberry offer a thick, sticky, near-synthetic taste but depth is provided by a growing floral perfume, hanging like incense in the back of the mouth.
Slick honey soothes into a dry finish that threatens to pack a pithy punch until the rough bitterness is met head on by the enduring malt sweetness, the two eventually reaching a cordial truce.
It's not without its flaws but it remains a beer worthy of your attention.
Emelisse Aceto Balsamico #1 barrel aged
Bottle from Cotteridge Wines, Birmingham, 7.5% ABV
Who could possibly think it's a good idea to drink balsamic vinegar?
When those doyens of popular music Calvin Harris and Tinie Tempah wrote their smash hit 'Drinking From the Bottle', I'm pretty sure they didn't mean a 12-year-old vintage from Modena.
It might be the perfect addition to a multitude of meals but it's not exactly the kind of thing you want to be sipping after a stressful day at work.
I've regularly scolded my partner for drowning her salad in balsamic vinegar, patronisingly reminding her that it's meant as a dressing rather than a sauce.
So, returning to my original point, how could you possibly want to drink the stuff? More to the point, why would you want to make a beer that replicates it?
Apparently, those Dutch kooks Emelisse didn't share the same reservations. And, apparently, neither did I when push came to shove, as I felt compelled to buy a bottle of this when I saw it on the shelves in Birmingham's bottled beer Mecca, Cotteridge Wines.
Perhaps I'm the ultimate 'craft' sucker but my curiosity was piqued far beyond that of the proverbial dead cat.
I suppose balsamic vinegar had always been ripe for a craft makeover. After all, it's sour and aged in all manner of wood casks, including chestnut, acacia, cherry, oak, mulberry, ash and juniper.
Nothing makes a craft brewer happier.
Joking aside, however, Emelisse actually did a decent job of making this drinkable. Granted, it's not going to become my new 'go-to' Saturday night beer but it's got a strange allure that made it a really enjoyable sipper and a fascinating take on Flemish oud bruin.
Although it certainly won't be to everyone's taste, it's a genuine feat of conceptual realisation.
Everything from the look - a beautiful deep brown colour tinged with ruby red - to the aroma and taste recreates the pleasure of good balsamic vinegar. I'm not quite sure how Emelisse did it but they've hit the nail firmly on the head.
The nose is full of rich balsamic character, sour dark fruits, grapes and redcurrant before applying a crisp apple bite on the tail.
Unsurprisingly, the taste starts sour but also packs a bold, sticky sweetness reminiscent of red berries and molasses. Sharp, sour fruit swiftly slices through the initial richness, as crushed grapes and barberry prickle the sides of the tongue and a vinous, astringent character begins to take hold.
The finish is extremely dry but laced with a residual sourness containing hints of balsamic and tart fruit, while dull oak and bread hang in the mouth.
Suddenly that bottle of vinegar in my cupboard looks a lot more appealing.
Rooie Dop Double Oatmeal Stout
Bottle, 9.6% ABV
Don't take you eyes off Rooie Dop.
Madcap Dutch brewer Mark Strooker, apparently also known as 'the Dude', will be one to watch in 2014. If you've had the privilege of tasting his Utrecht Strong Ale you'll know exactly why.
It shouldn't really come as a surpise either. Rooie Dop is currently a house guest at De Molen, where all its commercial beers are produced, so can call on expertise and advice from an ideal mentor.
The Double Oatmeal Stout certainly follows in the strong tradition of dark beers established by De Molen, delivering a medley of massive flavours while weighing in at a hefty 9.6%.
It pours darkest black with a small, foamy beige head that quickly dissipates to leave the glass full of something resembling crude oil.
The nose is possibly not as thick as expected, instead dominated by a tangy fruitiness, which verges on sour. The oats are prominent, alongside notes of damson and plum, sitting on top of a firm base provided by roasted malts and milk chocolate.
It's unusually thin-bodied but extremely oily, a slick stickiness coating the mouth and softly massaging the various flavours into the palate. As such, the bold malts don't batter you into submission but rather exert a progressive power which never leaves you feeling overwhelmed.
The taste is immediately sweet and creamy, full of luxurious milk chocolate with a touch of oats, but this isn't initial sweetness isn't given the chance to take over. Instead a slight sourness cuts through, again provoking thoughts of overripe damson and blackberry and adding bags of drinkability to what otherwise might have been a heavy stout.
This mellows into a bitter finish full of coffee and roasted malt, allowing a lasting milky sweetness to sit contently in the mouth.
It's a unique, unusual imperial stout that slips down far too easily given it's strength. And I'm reliably informed the barrel-aged version is even better. Keep 'em peeled!