‘Bucket Lists’. Inherently morbid, Gothic things, Bucket Lists. I managed to exorcise them from my thoughts for many a good year but alas, they kept on scritting and scratting away, finally breaking through and floppily landing, like a dark, flappy-winged and rather sadly pathetic Angel of Doom into my Grey Cells. Must be age. They’re pervasive too, especially, and strangely I find, in the world of beer. If ‘The Good Beer Guide’ is a Penguin Classic, ‘100 Beers to Try Before You Die A Mournful And Slow And Agonising Death’ is the Necronomicon.

But there we go, sometimes you have to swim with the tide and Bucket Lists have broken through. I’ve started to mentally compile them. Six weeks in New Zealand. Return to Iceland. Circumnavigate the coast of Britain. Explore Australia. Ride around the North Sea*.

Yet there’s a more persistent – and seemingly banal – one: to explore The Netherlands. Oh, I grant you, it’s hardly one of Eight Wonders of the World. And that’s rather the point. Holland, if I may call it that for brevity’s sake, really shouldn’t be. It is one of the most civilized societies hewn from the least promising beginnings. Most of it lies below sea level, swampy river deltas and the crushing weight of the North Sea held back by some earthen ditches, a few industrial-scale pumps and a little lad with a fatigued finger. To the north, Friesland, was once a collection of islands; around Amsterdam, enormous lands and new cities sprang out from the sea bed of the Zuider Zee. All through damming and pumping.

And whilst it’s a country I have travelled to frequently, it has invariably been on business and the stereotypes persist: laid-back urbanites with their perfect English, sit-up-and-beg bikes and relaxed attitudes to prostitution and soft drugs; outside the cities, rural cheese-makers, wearing wooden clogs and growing tulips under glasshouses you can see from space. Their Belgian neighbours complain that whilst the Belgians have the flair, slightly barking creativity and variety, the Dutch have focus and effectiveness. Take cheese: two sorts, Edam & Gouda, sold the world over. And take beer: Heineken and Grolsch, pale lager beers, sold the world over.

Of course, the truth is different. Just as the Dutch also make wonderful Ewe and Goat milk cheeses (or even smoked Gouda with caraway seeds), so too do Dutch brewers make a wider range of beers. When I worked for Grolsch a few years back, they brewed a range of seasonal beers – de Vierjaargetijdten – which proved that there was more to them as a brewer than pilsner and swingtop bottles. The main variant was Herfst Bok – Autumn beers being a popular category in Holland. Grolsch’s was sweet and malty. Gulpener’s was more hoppy with a green hop-leaf character. Brand’s was dry. There was a winter warmer, Winter Vorst,  a citrusy, grassy summer beer, Zomer Goud and my favourite was the well balanced and only marginally more pronounceable, Lente Bok, a spring beer with a strong malt backbone, a lemony freshness and a warming alcoholic kick.

Today, the truth is even more different. Today, craft beers in Holland are blossoming and the craft brewery Grand Daddies, Brouwerij ‘T Ij and Brouwerij de Molen are making an impact outside of their home country. I recently got hold of a couple of de Molen beers and another, a collaboration between the two. T’Ij is based in Amsterdam, a ferry hop across the water from the main train station. If you go to Amsterdam, ignore the ‘delights’ of the Red Light district and get over to their beer garden, it’s fantastic. I’ve not been for a few years, but their beers were always characterful and packed some oomph – their website today reveals a wider range – but all looking as beautiful as I remember. De Molen is south of Amsterdam, in Bodegraven, in the cheese-wielding, tulip-waving farmlands at the centre of the triangle formed by Amsterdam, Utrecht and Rotterdam. And to stereotypical form, the brewery is both named after and is situated in, a windmill.

Here is the evidence that Dutch brewers are now doing variety as well as efficiency, nettle clad yarg not just industrial pseudo-Cheddar. The collaboration between ‘T Ij and de Molen is a Double IPA; a deep, caramel brown beer with a cream-tan head, persistent if not profuse. On breaking the crown, a crisp, malty biscuitiness is foremost, then layers of hop, leafy, green, grapefruity. And if the Dutch deserve their reputation for thriftiness, it was not in evidence here, with four hops – Simcoe, Amarillo, Columbus and Cascade – but not overplayed at all, a well balanced beer working off a dark malt base. A double IPA by name but done with the best of new world hoppy swagger and old world drinkability (and at 9% too – you’d probably not guess). Vuur en Vlaam is not only a great beer – not only, in fact, a terrific beer – but it also enjoys a name to make it famous. Fire and Flame. Sturm und Drang. Cagney and Lacey.  Four hops aren’t enough here; it is intensely hopped with six varieties yet, again, retains a quality so often missing in new wave IPAs, a satisfying moreishness. I wish I’d bought more.   And finally Zwaart en Wit, black and white. An 8.4% dark IPA. This is not just a dark beer, but jet black with an oil spill head; a head that was effusive with a loose bubble, with roast aromatics leaping up from it. This was perhaps more fire and brimstone than the previous beer. But no: it is handled dexterously: with only a light roastiness to smell, and whole hops bursting through not subdued and not overbearing, and even a juicy citrusiness evident as well. To taste: a happy bitterness, not overdone with a roasty dryness. Three wonderful Dutch beers.

Going back many years, Grolsch had a ground breaking TV campaign. ‘Vakmanschap is meesterschap’ it pronounced: ‘craftsmanship is mastery’. Now it seems, that mantle has moved on.

de Molen_fotor

*This is not as wet as it sounds. You basically follow the east coast of the UK, through the Orkney’s and Shetland, down Norway and Jutland and back around through Germany & Belgium. Ferries for the moist bits, clearly.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

Where the wild things are

The first time I went to New York everything was so familiar I managed to convince myself that I must have been here before. I hadn’t. Years of episodes of Taxi, Friends, big budget movies, low rent movies and the persistent ability to be at the centre of global news makes it so familiar. From the ridiculous to the sublime perhaps, but I feel the same way about Brussels and the Payottenland, the low, hedge lined, deep ditched farmlands out to the west of the Belgian capital. I’ve been only twice, both fleetingly.  The first time was a road trip, passing through whilst heading elsewhere and pausing only on the outskirts of the capital. The second was a business trip, where any memory was wiped clean by one too many devilish beers in La Mort Subite.  

Yet it all seemed so familiar. And again, this was the case when I received some Cantillon lambic beers from Beer Hawk last week: the Gueuze, the Kriek and the Rosé de Gambrinus framboise. I’ve not been to Cantillon yet, but ex-colleague, friend and Edinburgh brewer Bob Knops has – some of his photos appear below. The product shots are mine: strange how even the packaging can link you to a place. These are the bottles of gourmands. Of people who care for tradition and taste above function and form. Thick, heavy weight bottles, fortified bases to withstand the pressure of refermentation in the bottle; wide brimmed crowns, levered off to reveal a cork seal below. Unnecessary? Antiquated? Yes to both if you wanted to argue it that way, which underlines how important these beers are.

Cantillon brews in a very traditional way, even for lambic beers; making a gloopy, turbid mash of malted barley and unmalted wheat; a prolonged and vigourous boil with the addition of aged, cheesy hops, required not for their aroma but their antiseptic band-aid protection. And then inoculation of the wild yeasts begins, as the wort is put in a broad and shallow coolship, under the roof beams of the brewery, to let nature’s playthings have their saucy way with the wort’s sugars.  For the base lambic, the beer is moved into oak barrels, where it goes through a journey of staged fermentations, not just with brewing yeasts, but wild yeasts and bacterias that produce a wild array of different flavours & aromas. These fermentations are only complete two years later (and potentially longer).

The Gueuze is a blend of young (roughly two year old lambic) and older, 3+ years,  lambic. The older lambic is reinvigorated by the sugars remaining in its younger sibling and refermentation begins anew. The result is a sparkling beer (unlike lambic, which like traditional cider is all bit still).  Immediately on prising out the cork the wild aromas fly out: winey, ascetic, and vaguely pooey, a mucky straw smell like a remember from the floor around Reynolds farm when I was younger. Unattractive? The description sounds it I’m sure, but the words do not do justice to the aroma which is endearingly attractive – surprising, and complex.  To the eye, it was a hazy yet vivid gold, with a profuse head that quickly dissipated to a thin velvety sheet atop the beer.  Carbonation was visible and audible, and felt too, with a tingly sizzle in the mouth. The taste is led by a coating dryness, quite sour but appetising and finished with a surprising touch of lemon peel.

The Kriek lambic was a delight too: building on the flavours and aromas of the Gueuze but overlain of course with the marzipan nuttiness of cherry stones and the plump berry fruitiness of the cherry flesh. The beer was burgundy red in colour, with a pink, sustained, head that formed energetically. This was a refined beer: which in a ironic twist tasted fresh and young despite its ageing. The playfully named Rosé de Gambrinus is the real jewel.  Whole raspberries are steeped in two year old lambic only. Compared with the other two, at first I thought this beer was thinner, less complex – but on continued drink, so I realised what an elegant, refined beer it is – more a champagne than a Rosé. To smell, there’s plenty of delicate berry fruit, yet it’s not over sweet and has a clear, corky sourness too. The beer had taken the ruddy hue of the raspberries with a lighter, pink head than the Kriek and a strong, excitable, effervescent carbonation. To taste, the beer was neither as dry nor as punchily sour as the other two, but it was sour all the same – drinkably so. The raspberry sweetness – the little there is surprisingly – is superbly balanced, just sweet enough to pull you back for the next sip yet with a complementing, ascetic bite to complete the circle and quench. It’s nothing like sweetened beers that are increasingly popular where the sugar has been used in the fermentation. In fact it’s nothing other than an excellent framboise; an excellent beer.

I must go there, to this rural brewery in the the city. But when I do, it’ll feel like an old friend I’m sure.






© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014
First three photos,Bob Knops. http://www.knopsbeer.co.uk

Born on the 18th of April

The 4th July is a special day on the Old side of the Atlantic; it’s the day my eldest daughter was born. Apparently, it’s of some significance on t’other side too, being the day when (it is generally agreed that) the Declaration of Independence of the United States from Great Britain was adopted by the Continental Congress. For a short time we played with the idea that my daughter should perhaps have a suitably independent (middle) name: like Freedom or Liberty. Then we realised that she would be commemorating those darned Yankee Rebels all her life, which, well, was jolly well not on. It would, I later learn, also mean she was commemorating the day that three of the U.S. Founding Fathers, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe died. All of them, remarkably, passed away on that day. Party poopers. A later President, Calvin Coolidge, on the other hand, also added some mid-party entertainment by being born on the day (not in 1776, I should add).

However, there’s an American Beer Day that deserves to be celebrated more: the 18th of April. This was the day in 1975 when the Anchor Brewery brewed a beer that would kick start the U.S. craft beer movement, and in particular a beer style, that of the American Pale Ale. Anchor, in fact describe Liberty Ale on their website as an IPA – if it is, it is more in the English tradition, except for the incredible, resinous, peppering of hops. Liberty Ale remains not only a historical classic, but a beautiful, refined beer.

IMG_1927_fotorIt starts with the bottle and the label. Many beers sport interesting labels, but Anchor has a bottle shape it owns, mid-height, broad shouldered & rugged yet smoothly curved to appeal to the fairer sex too. The labels, printed on a thick gauge, matt and textured paper are decorated with illustration that harks back to the immediate days of independence. The beer remembers the ride of Paul Revere to warn the rebels in Concord to move their munitions as the British were on to them.

More than anything, Liberty Ale is a celebration, a veneration, of the Cascade Hop. Here, it is used in its whole cone form and you can tell. Everything about this beer is refined – not delicate necessarily – just not overplayed. It’s a luminescent, gold beer, with a bright, white, long lasting head, a natural bead of fine carbonation (no artificial carbonation here) and filigree lacing. Its aroma is pungent and piney but again restrained and leafy. To drink, this is a clean and focused beer, the hop provides beautiful, layers of hoppy, citrusy accents off a rich malty, well structured base. It is in short, sublime.

Little surprise that, just like Paul Revere’s ride, it was the start of something revolutionary.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014


(Liberty Ale is distributed in the UK by James Clay @jamesclaybeers)

Holy Moly

ABInbev, makers of Stella Artois make the claim that their beer is so special, so worthy, that it should only be served in a chalice. But for a lagered beer, a chalice is all wrong: too wide mouthed to funnel the aroma, too broad and round to allow the fine head of a lager form and retain.  No, a chalice should be saved for those most reverential of beers; beers truly of the highest worth; those from a heavenly source, the Trappist beers.

Trappistes reverentialI mulled on this when I finally got my Trappistes Rochefort chalice from The Beer Emporium in Sandbach, my home town.  I’d been meaning to get over there for a while but business got in the way and eventually my parents took delivery. The chalice? A thing of pure beauty, curvaceous, broad rimmed, delicately branded: could the beer match it? And a chalice indeed, fitting enough to be put on a high alter for worship.

Trappistes Rochefort beers are held in high regard. I bought two bottles; one of Rochefort 6, the other of Rochefort 8; beers that I knew by reputation but had only tried the stronger 10 before. I couldn’t wait.  The Rochefort beers don’t use what has become the ‘standard’ Trappist and abbey terminology: a Dubbel (normally dark & sweet) and a Tripel (typically pale, hopper and strong). More simply, more archaically their beers are defined in Belgian degrees: 6, 8 and 10. All are strong: the 6 at 7.5% ABV, the 10 at 11.3% ABV.  All are dark.  All have a sweeter character.

IMG_1859The 8 smells nutty and earthy.  It pours a deep burnished brown; brown like a Tudor dresser, with a creamy head carrying a mark of an espresso swirl from the yeast. The lacing is profuse yet of a gossamer thinness – a thing of wonder, draping the side of the glass as you sip.  To drink there is a sizzle of carbonation from the refermentation, which despite the darker, heavier appearance gives this beer a wild, refreshing spritziness. It is complex and malty with a yeasty, warming alcohol; it is earthy not spicy. It is, ironically, a diabolically good beer.  The 6 is equally complex, equally intriguing.   Whilst not light in alcohol it is moderately lighter in colour with a redder tinge. Like the 8, it is an earthy beer: flavours matching Nature’s colour palate of greens and browns, of falling leaves and New England, yet with dried fruit flavours: raisins, currants and very much the Old World. Is this really the Monks’ session beer? It is humble, but humble in its majesty.

IMG_1874Serendipitously, friends bought some beer over when we had a barbecue a few nights ago; bottles they had bought on a Calais booze cruise. Yes, there were some Euro lagers but also, nestling in the corner of the box were some 25cl bottles of a more religious kind: Leffe. The comparison had to be made. If Rochefort beers are relatively hard to come by; steadfastly uncommercial, then Leffe is at the other end of the spectrum.  The Leffe abbey beers (brewed on behalf of the monks of the Norbertine abbey, Notre Dame de Leffe by A B Inbev) are widely available, even promoted occasionally.  Brewed by the world’s largest brewer, distributed by a sales and marketing machine, it would be easy to assume that they don’t merit mention, don’t warrant comparison.  True, neither have the alcoholic punch of the Rochefort beers; neither enjoy the same complexity; neither brewed with the same heavenly single-mindedness and passion. Yet these are interesting, tasty beers. The Blonde is 6.6%, with an orangey-bronze colour and a spicier nose than those of Rochefort. It is a fruity beer, that easily forms a fulsome head and drinks rather like a spicy wit beer, only with less citrus and even a slight barnyard, Brettonamyces character (which is coincidental). Good, but I preferred the sweeter Bruin, at 6.5%. This is a deep brown beer, presumably with dark candi sugar in the mash; it is more layered; and to drink suggests Christmas cake with spiced apple. A savouring beer; but a devilishly drinkable one at that.  If any of ABInbev’s beers should be served in a chalice, then this would be the one.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014