Friday, October 31, 2008

Tasting Notes: t' Smisje Speciaal

Brewery: Brouwerij De Regenboog
Style: Belgian Strong Pale Ale
ABV: 10.5%
Date Poured: October 2008

Although it never mentions Halloween, the label of this beer is full of ghosts, jack-o-lantern's and gravestones. Good enough for me. Picked this one up during my trip to Belgium.

Pours a luminous hazy orange with a thin but persistent snow white head. Smells of peppery spice, green apple and tangerine.

Alternately dry, sweet and spicy in the mouth. Dry up front, I suspect from the alcohol but it's not hot or boozy. Next the peppery and sweet spice takes over with black pepper, juniper berry and clove, perhaps a bit a ginger. The big sweetness washes all of the previous flavors away. Big fruity maltiness, sweetened apples and pears. Sweetish finish with a thin hop bitterness peeking out.

Big flavors here, all battling for attention. Somehow it all works. This is not a casual drinker, this is a beer that demands your attention. Worth a taste.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Tasting Notes: Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale

Brewery: Blue Moon/Coors Brewing
Style: Pumpkin Ale
ABV: 5.5%
Date Poured: October 2008

A couple pumpkin/Halloween beers to celebrate the season. First up, Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale brewed by the Coors Brewing Company.

Pours a very bright and clear orangey copper with a big creamy, lacy ivory head. Smells of lightly fruity pale malt, nutmeg and clove. Perhaps a bit of cinnamon in the aroma as well.

Tastes spicy and sweet. Lots of pumpkin spice flavors in the body with a bitter finish. Medium bodied with a spicy nutmeg and clove aftertaste. A bit creamy. Certainly drinkable.

This isn't bad for the style but the it's not really for me. I'm hoping the Halloween ale I brought back from Belgium is better!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Antwerp Slideshow

A quick pictoral wrap-up of Antwerp...

(A link to the full album is at the bottom of the post...)


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Belgium Trip, Day 3: Still More Antwerp

Sunday we slept in a bit due to jet lag, grabbed some complementary breakfast and headed back downtown again. It had been drizzling on and off since Friday but it was still a manageable level of rainfall to handle while travelling by foot. Sunday…it really started to rain.We hit some of the Sunday morning flea markets and then ducked into the nearby Oud Arsenaal for some beers and some shelter. The Oud Arsenaal has been in business since 1924 and, like Quentin Mastijs, looks like very little has changed in the last 84 years. We grabbed some bench seating and checked out the menu. Not an enormous beer list but an impressively chosen one. But I ordered us bollekes of De Konninck to get started since Dave hadn’t had any yet. After that warm up, we delved deeper.

One of my objects during this trip was to get some Faro. This bar had Boon “Faro Pertotale” which was a faro mad eform half old lambic, half young lambic and sweetened with candy sugar. A true rarity, so I ordered a glass. Dave noticed that Rodenbach was the beer of the month and had never had it. Finding out that it was to be served with the traditional side of shrimp for no extra charge only sealed the decision.

The faro was tart and exhibited some light brett funk which was all softened a bit from the added sugar. The beer was quite still, nearly uncarbonated but offered a cider-like drinkability with a touch of finishing dryness. It was really good. The Rodenbach was Rodenbach, tart and acidic but refreshing and smooth at the same time.

And now a word about the privacy of Belgian toilets, especially in pubs and cafes. For men, there is little. Many times, the urinals are in plain site of either A) the women passing nearby to use the toilet or B) the other patrons sitting out in the bar. This is not to say that there is not at least partial obstruction but there are certainly many places where the doors to the WC remain wide open and the urinals are only partially obscured by the angle of the wall or a small half-door. It’s hard to explain but it’s certainly not the privacy of American standards!

Oud Arsenaal took this to extremes. The toilet was basically unisex. The toilets themselves are in tiny separate rooms within the larger restroom area, two are marked for ladies, one for men. But to get to the toilets what do you have to do? That’s right, walk right past the row of urinals! And that’s just what happened to me while I was downloading some urine. Three ladies walked right by toward the toilet. Startling wasn’t the word.

However, Oud Arsenaal was an inviting and cozy place, our server was quite helpful and friendly and outside of Kulminator, it may have been my favorite pub in Antwerp.

After a beer or three, the rain had let up so we headed further in toward the old city. Ducking in and out of shops, the rain had really started to soak us. So we ducked into a bar right next to the Cathedral called the Elfde Gebod (The Eleventh Commandment). This pub is filled with religious statues giving it the feel of an altar or the storage room for the nearby Cathedral. The roaring fireplace helped to take the chill out of our bones but we were looking for something to warm us from the inside too.

I ordered a Rochefort 10, a Trappist quadrupel that weighs in at 11% ABV. Boozy but lovely, it's a nice warmer on a dreary rainy day. Dave got another Trappist ale, the Westmalle Dubbel on draft.

Our server was a good guy named Kurt. He noticed what we were drinking and pointed out that St. Bernardus Tripel was available on draft. He brought us out a sample of the tripel so we could try it. That's a rarity where I live so I ordered the tripel next. Dave got the La Trappe Quadrupel, a beer from the Koningshoeven Trappist monastery in the Netherlands. Big malty beer at 10% alcohol.

After feeling considerably toasty, we thanked Kurt, he gave us his card for a new business venture called Belgium in a Box and we headed back out into the weather. I suggested that Dave needed to see Quentin Matsys so we took the three block walk.

Quentin Matsys was quite crowded this time around so we grabbed a couple seats at the bar. I ordered a De Koninck Tripel while Dave continued the high octane trip with a Kasteel Blond. Both were very good. Next we ordered a Gordon Finest Scotch Ale, mostly because we saw the amazing thistle glasses they served them in. But the ale was very good as well and gave us a rare chance to try a Belgian brewed Scotch ale.

We decided to move on and find some food since it was late afternoon but found we were not in any mood to keep fighting the rain. So we headed back to the hostel. On the way back I spotted a frituur so I doubled back and grabbed a couple orders of frites and brought them back to our room. We had frites and some Chimay Grand Cru cheese on crackers, washed it down with some Timmerman's Fruits de la Foret and some Lindemans Faro.

Antwerp had literally rained on our parade on Sunday but we were still able to get to three great pubs and make the best of a bad situation back at the room. We just tried our best to dry out our clothes, pack our bags and get ready for our drive out to Wallonie the next morning.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Out of the Cellar: Middle Ages Tripel Crown Part II

Brewery: Middle Ages Brewing Company
Style: Tripel
ABV: 10%
Date Cellared: October 2004
Date Poured: October 2008

The last time I tried this beer, I thought it could use another year in the cellar. I missed that date obviously but sampling this in October gives me an even four years in the cellar so it seemed like the right time to crack it open.

Still pours a hazy orange but seems to be a darker orange. Creamy and persistent ivory head but quite thin. Sheeting lace.

Smells of spiced apple and pear, some vanilla and other sweet spice. Hint of alcohol in the nose.

Very sweet in the mouth, very fruity. Lots more toffee and caramel flavors, almost no spiciness as noticed in earlier tastings. Oaky and vinous. Lots of rich maltiness. Still, still, a lot of alcohol in the mouth. Not unpleasantly hot but still quite evident. The alcohol helps dry out the mouth, balance the sweetness. Some bitterness in the finish. Can't tell if its the meager hops profile breaking through or if it's a side effect of the alcohol.

Overall, still really tasty. No need to go any further in the cellar in my opinion.

Middle Ages Brewing

Friday, October 24, 2008

Tasting Notes: Alvinne Podge Belgian Imperial Stout

Brewery: Picobrouwerij Alvinne
Style: Belgian Imperial Stout (?)
ABV: 10.5%
Date Poured: October 2008

Alvinne is a brewery located in West Flanders and has been brewing in earnest since 2004. In addition to more traditional imperial stout ingredients, it is supposed to be brewed with candy sugar and a strain of Irish ale yeast.

Pours a murky dark brown with a thin brown head. Smells fruity. Like ripe dark fruit. Smells quite boozy with some vanilla and sweet dark malt too. Also lightly spicy.

Lots of dark fruit again, overpowering, with some dark chocolate and sweet roasty malt. This one is much more sweet than roasty. Some alcohol warming as it goes down. Sweet finish. Medium to full bodied. A sipper for sure.

Quite unusual but it's not half bad. Certainly different from your average imperial stout.

Picobrouwerij Alvinne

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Coaster: Trappistes Rochefort

I got this coaster at the Elfde Gebod (The Eleventh Commandment). I enjoyed a Rochefort 10 which helped warm me up on a chilly rainy day.

The English translation (roughly): "Beer brewed and tapped by the Fathers. A beer brewed with knowledge is tasted with wisdom."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Belgium Trip, Day 2: More Antwerp

Having turned in so early the night before, I was up early on Saturday. I had time to kill. Dave’s plane wasn’t arriving in Brussels until 17:30. I grabbed some of the complimentary continental breakfast my hostel offered (toast with orange marmalade and a slice of cheese and salami on the side) and headed down to the old city to see what I could do.

Arriving at the Grote Markt so early allowed me to get some great photos of the square unencumbered by throngs of tourists. I grabbed a waffle and strolled around. I headed over to the Mayer Van Den Berg Museum (which was amazing) to kill some time until the pubs opened. It was now just after 11:00. With all that time to kill, I figured I’d head north out to a bar called t’Afspanning Waagstuk. This former coach house features a house beer called Zeppelin, a Belgian stout. Since Belgian stouts were one of the things I wanted to highlight on this trip, I thought it was worth the trip off the beaten path to get there.

The streets of Antwerp are tricky. They can literally change names from block to block, very few run in straight line and there are very few right angles at intersections. Subsequently, it took me some time to get my bearings. This is a veiled way of saying I got lost trying to find it. But after about a half an hour, I was able to locate it in the corner of a tiny square. And it was closed! Damn! One of the quirks you need to get used to is the seemingly arbitrary adherence of Belgian cafes owners to their advertised hours of operation. So, disappointed and thirsty, I headed back toward the Cathedral.

There, I was able to locate Quentin Matsys. No, not this guy but the café that is his namesake. It’s a 16th century bar and very little seems to have changed in the 450 years since it opened. It’s difficult to convey but if you look at the pictures, you’ll see a typical Belgian “brown bar” of a bygone era. They even had an old bar game on the premises as well. Not sure of the rules but something about rolling a wooden ball into holes with assigned point values. Renaissance skeeball?

I ordered some Ardense Pate and an Orval and had a tasty lunch. Orval is one of my favorites but this is the freshest bottle I’ve ever had. The hops dominate which is good if you like hops. Some suggest that Orval is not at its peak until 6-12 months after it is bottled. I can certainly understand that argument but I have to say I liked it fresh as well.

At that point, it was time to head back out to the airport to meet Dave. I hopped the requisite trains, we grabbed his bags, took the train back to Antwerp, dumped his stuff at the hostel and headed out. Saturday night was critical for this trip because it was the only night we would both be in Antwerp while the famous Kulminator would be open for business.

Much has been written about the Kulminator and now I’m going to write a little more. The short story is the husband and wife team of Dirk Van Dyck and Leen Boudewij had opened the café in 1979 with the idea of offering rare beers. What they started to do next is cellar some beers for sale later. That is mainly what they are known for today. In addition to an extensive and well-chosen list of “fresh” beers, there is an extensive list (the size of a phone book) detailing their extensive collection in the cellar. There is really nothing else like it in the world.

I had attempted in vain to locate Kulminator 11 years ago and had missed it twice in efforts to locate it on Friday. But Saturday morning, I had studied the maps again and taken my GPS with me as well. I had finally found it and committed the route to memory so I could find it in the dark. Thus, we arrived at the Kulminator before 19:30. And we were most pleased.

Kulminator is not as small as the Paters Vajtje but we were lucky to find the last table open in what was a relatively full house. We were presented our enormous beer menus which took us a full 10 minutes to absorb on a cursory level. And that didn’t even include the impressive list of draft beers they had available!

I was not particularly looking to try any beers from the cellar. I’m not sure why but I just didn’t’ think that the extra cost involved would be worth it. But Dave was intrigued and to my surprise I saw that there were many aged beers that I considered to be reasonably priced. So I decided to take the plunge and try a beer from the cellar to start the evening.

My selection was a 2000 Boon Oude Gueze Marriage Parfait. This beer is one of my favorites but I had never had any aged Boon lambics, certainly not a eight year old vintage. Dave went back even further with a 1995 Saison Regal. He also ordered a plate of smoked cheese which he generously shared with yours truly.

I can’t say enough about how great my Marriage Parfait was. If you can use these words to describe a beer, elegant and exquisite would be the first ones to mind. It was so smooth and the flavors were meshing so well. It was tart and funky and dry at the perfect levels and in all the right places. It is one of the great eye-opening beer experiences of my life. I age beer myself but for the first time I see what perfect conditions and time will do to create such a delicate balance of flavor.

Dave’s Saison Regal was very good too. The age had darkened the beer a bit and the oxidation was surely evident in the nose. But it the mouth the beer was so smooth and spicy with just a hint of oaky and vanilla oxidation. Again, a great example of what the right conditions can coax out a beer.

In the meantime, the crowded conditions had brought a couple locals to the table so we picked their brains about beer and the best places for frties in Antwerp. A father and son group came in with a guitar and clarinet and serenaded the crowd with jazz standards, Sinatra and a strange but endearing version of Tom Jones’ song “It’s Not Unusual”.

Next, Dave’s interest in Abbey style beers prompted me to point him toward St. Bernardus Prior 8 (a smooth and flavorful Abbey Dubbel…St. Bernardus doesn’t make a bad beer.) while I tried the Gouden Carolus Christmas beer on tap. The Gouden Carolus had a unique spicing to it which I could not identify. Dave has correctly able to identify it as anise or licorice and it was a good compliment to the rich fruity dark malt.

Hunger and calls to home drew us away from the Kulminator and back down to the main square. Upon recommendations from the locals, we stopped at Frituur No. 1 for an order of frites topped with mayonnaise. They were good but a little mayo on my fries goes a long way. I vowed I would try some other style of sauce the next time we hit a frituur.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tasting Notes: La Maitresse

Brewery: Brasserie Artisanale de Rulles
Style: Blonde Ale
ABV: 6%
Date Poured: October 2008

Brasserie Artisanale de Rulles is an artisinal brewery in the Belgian province of Luxumberg. I found this bottle in a beer store at the center of the village of La Roche-en-Ardenne in the same province.

A luminous cloudy yellow-gold with a billowing snow white head. The head dissipates fairly quickly but leaves behind a lot of fine lacing. The aroma from this ale is quite herbal and floral. Some crisp pale malt in the nose as well.

Very lively in the mouth. Herbal bitterness (perhaps from the woodruff?) intertwined with a citrusy and strident hoppiness. Underpinnings of a full bodied sweetish malt. Nice body for an ale that claims to be only 6% ABV. Nice carbonation scrubs the tongue as it finishes. A clean aftertaste save for the bitter hops and perhaps the herbal bitterness of the woodruff. Exceedingly drinkable and refreshing. A very unique and surprisingly well-crafted ale. Get some if you can. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Belgium Trip, Day 1: Antwerp

It was a steady drizzle when I finally got off the train in Antwerp. That made the walk down the hostel a bit unpleasant but I was too tired to care. Larry the Dirty Hippy™ had decided to lay his seat back in my lap all the way to Brussels so sleep had been rare and sporadic. That coupled with an exceptionally long slow-moving line at Customs, lugging my bags around the airport and then the Brussels Centraal station had left me worn out upon my arrival in Antwerp. Instead of looking for a beer, I was looking for a bed.

I was early but the hostel let me drop off my bags even though my room wasn’t ready yet. This was just before 10:00 so it was expected. The clerk told me my room would be done by noon so I headed out to find something to occupy my time for a couple hours. I didn’t want to go to the old town just yet. I wanted to rest up and do that correctly. Instead, I headed for the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Royal Museum of Fine Arts) to stroll around and see if I could find some good Brueghel and such to occupy my time. And I did.

I was hungry though and after an hour and a half decided to try to find t’ Pakhuis, a brewpub a few blocks from the museum. Sleep deprivation torpedoed those plans however as I had completely forgotten my maps at the hostel and my senses were such that I could not remember the address nor get my bearing in that part of town. But it was noon now so I decided to cut bait and head back to the hostel. A two-three hour nap and I would be ready to hit the cafes in earnest.

But upon my return, the room still wasn’t ready! I gave up on the nap and not wanting to make more trips back and forth, I packed up my supplies in the backpack and headed for the old city. I was just going to have to go for as long as I could and then turn in early. Some first night in Antwerp…

As I walked around the old town, I was surprised and disappointed to see no “frietkots” like I had seen on my previous visits. Frites had been my first choice for sustenance but I did not know which of the storefront “frituurs” made the frites in the traditional way. So I passed and went to a restaurant that specialized in “doner”. Imagine a gyro without the pita and a garlic sauce on the meat. It came with a small salad and some fries (not good) so that hit the spot in absence of other foods.

I got down near the Cathedral (beautiful as ever) and found myself in view of the Paters Vaetje. It's a small pub but what it lacks in physical size, it makes up for with an impressive beer list. I sat down and ordered a “bolleke”. I thought that my first beer in Antwerp should be Antwerp’s most popular beer.

In Pennsylvania, there is a phenomenon in bars where customers just ask for “a lager” and are brought a Yuengling without hesitation. In Antwerp, you call for a “bolleke” and you are brought a goblet of De Koninck with a small 25cl pour. It is the beer I drank most when I was here 11 years ago and one that I was looking forward to having when I came back. (I have had the bottled version back in the U.S. and it was extremely disappointing. De Koninck is a beer that needs to be served quite fresh to truly shine.)

De Koninck did not disappoint. It is an amber ale that clocks in at a 5% ABV which by Belgian standards is fairly puny. It is easy to dismiss this beer at first taste because it is quite light and there doesn’t seem to be a lot going on. But if you stick with it, you’ll start to pick up a lot of subtle flavors that battle for supremacy on the tongue. One sip will give you fruitiness, the next is crisp and clean. One sip reveals breadiness and earthy qualities and the next highlights a surprising hop profile. So simple but so complex. I had wondered if my memories had been playing tricks on me but this ale was as good as ever.

As I finished my second beer, (Cuvee de Trolls, a 7% ABV blonde ale seasoned with orange peel, brewed by Dubuisson) I could already feel the waves of sleep starting to come strong over me. I had a fair walk back to the hostel so I headed back, stopping off at a grocery store to pick up some cheap beer glasses, some Timmerman’s lambic and some snacks. I finally got settled into my clean room, had some Chimay cheese and bread with the Timmerman’s and turned in. It was only 19:30. Lame. Outside of a couple highlights, a disappointing first day in Belgium.

Monday, October 13, 2008

And So It Begins...(Belgium Trip Prologue)

I am sitting here in Atlanta Hartsfield airport waiting for a flight to Dulles Airport and then on to Brussels. Surprise! The flight is delayed.

So the question becomes where to spend my time. Atlanta Brewing Company used to have a pub here in the airport but it has been closed for sometime. Fortunately, Sweetwater Brewing has opened one of their own out in Terminal B. So I headed over for some lunch and a beer.

They have four Sweetwater brews on tap: 420 Pale Ale, IPA, Summer Hummer and Blue. I ordered a draft of the excellent IPA. Surprisingly, $6.90 buys you a big 20 oz draft, not a bad price for an airport pub. I ordered the hot wings and they were actually quite good as well. Spicy with plenty of sauce and blue cheese dressing, hot and fresh out of the kitchen. Nothing better to drink with your wings than Sweetwater IPA!. The staff was prompt and friendly on top of everything else.

Marooned in the Atlanta aiport? Get down to terminal B near gate 11. It'll do in a pinch...