The wonder, the magic of yeast. The smell? Beer, fresh lemon peel and a coat of wet emulsion.

One of our many rituals is Friday Pizza Night. It’s a signal; the end of the working week is here. An end to weekday patterns of snatched lunches or mismatched family meals. Everyone likes pizza: sitting round; a big knife; chopping big wedges unevenly, roughly, indecorously. From time to time, when time allows, we make fresh bases. Strong white flour, sieved and dusty, a fine veil drifts down by the morning. Greeny-yellow olive oil; flakes of Maldon salt and the magical yeast. To mix, we grab everything together in a claw, like a digger’s grab, pinching and squeezing, mud-flat mix oozing between fingers and thumbs. Not all of us love the kneading but I do and Em does too. Giving it some, elbows out, top teeth gently pressing into bottom lip as she pushes and folds and shoves and pulls.

Em had a pizza party for her birthday.  We made five times the normal…

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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

Tinted Shorts: Mort Subite, original Gueuze, 4.5%

"there’s none of the agricultural astringency of some lambics, but enough of the farmhouse aroma to know that wild yeasts are present."
“there’s none of the agricultural astringency of some lambics, but enough of the farmhouse aroma to know that wild yeasts are present.”

Lowlander Grande Café, London, June 2014

I’m fascinated by spontaneous fermentation. Can there be a stronger link in any food or drink we consume today with the beginnings of civilization; the beginnings of domestication and agriculture? I also find it fascinating that as a brewing method it has only survived in Payottenland in Belgium (at least until recently). Is it because allowing the wort to cool in the attic space, open to the elements is a mucky and time consuming way of doing things? Is it the simple hit-and-miss nature of it all?   Is it the end result – uncarbonated lambics – that are too limited in appeal and there variants, Gueuze, Kriek, Frambozen, Faro too time consuming, too tricky to master?

I thought about these questions as I sipped my Mort Subite Original Gueuze in Lowlander this week. It came in a natty little 25cl bottle which, at 4.5% ABV, was just right for the time. On pouring it was a burnished Chesterfield brown with visible strings of carbonation firing up form around the base of the glass. The head was open and fine, leaving lacing diaphanous and sheer, not the clumpy lines of mixed gas draught beer. There’s a marked (appley?) fruitiness in this gueuze and to sip, a gentle sweet wineyness too (hints of orange muscat dessert wine?); there’s none of the agricultural astringency of some lambics – perhaps not enough in fact – but sufficient farmhouse aroma to know that wild yeasts have been working their magic. It’s not a classic Gueuze by any means; but for the time and place it was smooth, approachable and sufficiently interesting.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

To wit

The landscape of the most southerly part of the Netherlands is not what you would expect from a country where contour lines are collectors’ items. Limburg is a spur; in its northern part, it grips the rest of the country like a rock climber navigating a tricky overhang. South from there, flowing with the river Maas it nips in like a squeezed balloon; tightly constrained between Belgium to the west and Germany, east – it can be no more than 10 miles at its narrowest point before erupting out in a final burst of Dutchiness.   It is a beautiful part of the world; unexpected, rolling, hilly, with beautiful villages and towns, lime-lined lanes and the unsurprisingly cosmopolitan city of Maastricht sitting astride the river. In many respects Limburg feels British: verdantly green fields, half timbered houses, short, sharp hills, hedges, twisting, snaking lanes where you can easily get lost. Yet it is most definitely and perhaps defiantly Dutch: those narrow strings of brick, a greater sense of order and productivity – more neatly clipped than an English shire.

It was here I really discovered wit beer. For many years I have had a taste and interest in wheat beers, but very much in the Bavarian style, where the clovey, bananary chewiness and billowing, puthering head is imparted from the grist and yeast alone. The serve too is decidedly German; elegantly tall glasses yet with a teutonic robustness. ‘Belgian style’ wit beer, if that isn’t too blunt and broad a term, is something else entirely. There’s a playfulness about these beers, a fusion of rustic, agricultural roots from the ‘base’ beer, with the inventiveness that came from adding new world spices – and by new world, we’re talking Indonesia, the Spice Islands – far away; wherever the European merchants were trading. These were the original funky beers.

IMG_1614Most know this beer style through a Belgian beer – rather, through the Belgian beer in the style, Hoegaarden. But I got familiar through a hardly-known Limburg wit beer from a small producer in Gulpen, east of Maastricht. The whys and wherefores aren’t important here, but I was there on business and was taken aback by a lovely, traditional set up. The brewery, Gulpener, named from the village it is situated in, is barely more than a series of farmhouses stretched either side of the road. The offices are in the old family home. The brewery tap is a restaurant on the town square. That same road into Gulpen, the one you take as you head east out of Maastricht is an undulating affair. Butting it up to it are fields of barley and wheat earmarked for the brewery, carrying signs signifying the fact as you approach. The main beer is a fruity pilsner, very much in the east Dutch style – grassy, assertive, rewarding yet drinkable. Yet the wit beer – or waere witte in local dialect – is an altogether more quirky affair. Named after a local ground-dwelling hamster, that likes to nibble on local crops and which was, until recently, endangered, Gulpener Korenwolf is a lovely introduction to the style; with a luminescent hazy yellow glow, a bright white head and a pronounced banana ester aroma. Yet the taste is more surprising with a grist bill that contains not just the expected wheat but also some rye and spelt – both more primitive, simple grains that lend a nuttiness in the finished beer. The addition of elderflower too gives a wafty floral essence to the smell and taste. For a while, we sold a decent amount in the UK before my company at the time tired of selling profitable but small brands. And probably, ones with hamsters on the label. Shame that you can’t find it over here now.

IMG_1604But there are plenty of other lovely wit beers. It’s trite to say they make a lovely summer drink – true though it is – but actually there’s so much variation in the style that restricting them to easy generalisations and singular occasions is missing the point. Hoegaarden is the benchmark of the style and some bemoan that it has lost some of its character since ABInbev closed the original brewery and started brewing in their Leuven plant. Yet, this is still a great beer, at a drinkable strength (4.9% ABV) and with loads of interest too. To the eye it has that characteristic wit beer haziness, a browney-lemon colour with visible yeast. The copious white head is characteristic and inviting, but for me, it’s the aroma that draws you in: light cloves, a coriandery-allspice and a mild dash of lemon peel. It’s a ‘drink me’ smell, no doubt. And it’s beautifully presented – in possibly one of the most appealing beer bottles there is and that intriguing ‘Hoegaarden’ script. A lovely beer; a classic beer.

IMG_1610And where the classics tread others follow. Blue Moon Belgian-White is widely available in the UK now; it is the U.S. largest selling ‘craft’ brand at well over a million barrels a year – it sounds staggering but that’s small fry compared with the size of the market. Unsurprisingly, many bemoan this beer too as a result; criticizing it for masquerading as a ‘craft beer’ when it’s brewed by a ‘big brewer’. But it’s just missing the point – this is the largest brand for good reason: it’s tasty and interesting. Unlike Hoegaarden, it’s a sweeter beer, brewed not with the addition of curaçao orange peel (a bitter, inedible orange) but Valencia orange. And oats in the grist give it that smooth, coating mouthfeel that make it a fulfilling drink. It’s recommended to be served with an orange garnish, which I shall politely refuse as it kills the head and deadens the beer’s natural aroma, but that’s not to say it isn’t a good match. My only criticism, the amount of yeast in the bottle is off putting – it’s a sludgy brown colour and very clumpy – whereas normally, I swirl the yeast into the beer, here I was careful to avoid doing that as it made the beer sludgy brown in colour too. Despite this, you get the feeling that with the resources of Molson Coors behind it, this boutique brand is really a sleeping giant.

IMG_1273There’s home based competition though. Living in the Midlands, you don’t see Camden Town’s beers that regularly; so it was a pleasant surprise to find a bottle of Camden Wit up here where the air is thin. Camden is a brand savvy company, but they can clearly brew great beer. The Wit exemplifies this: it’s an enticing beer. Balanced and zesty with just the right touch of hop bitterness; the beer has a good ‘structure’ – forming and retaining a bright, white head with a nice texture and a lemon peel tang. There’s just a good enough slug of yeast in the bottle to give a snippy, lively carbonation and a zippy mouthfeel. Perhaps just a touch more alcoholic body is needed, but let’s not split hairs, it’s a grand beer nonetheless. It left me with the desire to take a trip underneath Camden’s arches to investigate more.

And yet, and yet. Whenever I drink this style, I am taken back. To those gentle, rolling hills; to the verdant fields and narrow bricks. To a farmhouse brewery. To Limburg: and to a hamster on the label.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014