Thursday 19 July 2012

In Bruges (Part 2)

Note: Before reading on, I highly recommend you read part one here.

We awoke late on Saturday morning and Dianne almost immediately presented me with a birthday gift, a Moleskine beer journal which I could keep my tasting notes in, wonderful stuff. Once we were up and about we once again made our way into the centre of town so that we could get some fresh waffles with slagroom (whipped cream) which we ate whilst sat down outside St. Salvator’s Cathedral and enjoyed some early morning sunshine.

A nice beer to Karmeliet down with
Today we had planned to venture off the main tourist trail and visit Stedelijk Kerkhof, a huge cemetery which is about a 15-20 minute walk from the centre of Bruges. On the way we visited a few more sights including Michelangelo’s statue of the Madonna in the Church of Our Lady and sat and ate lunch by the Minnewater, we then made our way over the river and out of town. Dianne posted about this beautiful cemetery on her own blog but as there was no beer there I’ve little more to say about it here but what I will say is that if you want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city centre for a couple of hours it’s well worth the walk.

We got back into town around 3pm and I suddenly it dawned upon me, I was more than half way through my own birthday and not a single drop of beer had yet passed betwixt my lips. We found a nice cafe on the square outside the Church of Our Lady and within minutes I was drinking a superb draught Tripel Karmeliet and Dianne was once again on the Kriek. Tripel Karmeliet is for me one of the quintessential Belgian beers and along with Duvel is one of the first I would recommend to someone looking to explore Belgian Blonde Ales and Belgian beer in general.

After we had finished these beers Dianne let me indulge myself a little and whilst she went to use the free wi-fi we found in the town hall I went to buy myself a few birthday presents in the De Struise shop which is located right on Burg Square next to the Basilica of the Holy Blood. There were already three American tourists in the shop who were merrily chatting away to the friendly member of staff behind the counter. I started perusing the selection of around fifteen bottled De Struise beers (I was later told that they usually have over twenty in stock) before I heard the word Brewdog being mentioned and seized my opportunity to join in the conversation. I was happy to indulge the beer geek within while I tried a sample of the excellent De Struise/Three Floyds collaboration ‘Shark Pants’ which was a wonderfully boozy number chock full of caramel malts, dried fruits and an almost spicy grapefruit bitterness. I found the Struise brews interesting because while they are definitely different to other Belgian beers I have tried before, they are still extremely Belgian in character with that trademark flavour of brown sugar and the funky yeastiness that typifies the style.

The Bruges Cemetery is well worth a visit
I left the Struise shop a happy man despite my wallet being several Euro lighter and after making my rendezvous with Dianne we retired back to the hotel to prime ourselves for the evening ahead. After another delightful bottle of La Chouffe I cracked open what is undoubtedly my very favourite Trappist brew, Rochefort 10. There is something about the beers from L’abbaye Notre-Dame de Saint-Remy that keeps drawing me back and it’s the flavour of figs and dates soaked in brandy that I find in the 10 that makes it my favourite of the beers they produce. It may have been a little early in the evening for an 11.7% stonker such as this but as it was my birthday I felt that it was my prerogative to indulge myself.

After we had showered and changed we headed out to what was meant to be the next of my birthday treats, a meal at Cambrinus, the famed Bruges beer restaurant that had been recommended to me above all others. When we arrived it was rammed to the gills with punters, a waiter made his way over to us and asked ‘do you have a reservation?’ We didn’t, we hadn’t thought ahead and assumed that as Bruges has so many restaurants that surely even a place as busy as this would have a table for two on a Saturday night. Sadly it wasn’t to be but before we left with our tails between our legs we made a reservation for the following night.

We walked into town, momentarily confused by the shock of not getting to eat at the restaurant of our choosing. After the fog had cleared we made the executive decision to go and get ourselves some Moule Frite at the nicest looking place we could find. Within ten minutes we were sat outside Poules Moules and I was sipping on a cold Duvel waiting for the huge bowl of mussels that I had just ordered. The food was an absolute delight, it’s probably not the cheapest place to grab Moule Frite in Bruges but from what we saw it might just be one of the best, highly recommended. After I sank my second glass of Duvel I felt an incredible wave of relaxation and satisfaction and the regret of not getting into Cambrinus had completely disappeared, I was also a bit drunk.

One of Bruges best bars
It was then time to head to ‘t Brugs Beertjes and you’ve guessed it, drink some more beer. The bar was busy but we managed to get a table right away and while Dianne decided to venture beyond her Kriek safety net (with a Lindemans Pecheresse, one of the nicest fruit lambrics I’ve tried) I ordered at random and ended up with a completely forgettable beer to the point I’ve forgotten what it was actually called. I didn’t make the same mistake when it came to round two though and was soon presented with my first ever bottle of Cantillon Geuze. The farmyard aromas of dry hay and green apples enveloped my nostrils and excited my tastebuds, I couldn’t remember the last time I had been this excited about trying a brew for the first time. The sourness buzzed through my palate like battery acid but once I had gotten used to this extreme sensation I soon found myself enjoying those sour apple and Haribo tangfastic flavours that I had previously enjoyed when I tried Oude Geuze Boon but this time they were cranked up several notches. There was also a healthy dose of pure, unadulterated Belgian funk that lifted this beer onto a higher plain. I passed it to Dianne as she had been drinking fruit lambics all weekend and despite her thinking it smelt like, and I quote ‘the first piss of the day’ she actually found it quite palatable, despite being a little sour for her personal tastes.

At this point a man in a Delirium work shirt who we assumed either worked for the brewery or for one of the local bars noticed Dianne was trying to decide what to try next and recommended a Delirium Red, their take on the Kriek style. It was a nice beer, too sweet for me but it seemed to be just ordinary Delirium Tremens mixed with a Kriek, I think Dianne enjoyed it but at well over 8% it knocked her for six. Sensibly after this she ordered a gentle Lindemans Cassis which ‘tasted like Ribena’ and to be honest she wasn’t far wrong. I decided to plump for a Houblon Chouffe which according to the label is a ‘Double IPA Tripel’ and as the usual La Chouffe Gnome found on the bottles label was accompanied by several rows of hop bines I was convinced I was on to a winner. I wasn’t wrong, Houblon Chouffe was undoubtedly my favourite beer of the entire weekend with the yeasty Belgian Tripel flavours combining with a wonderfully pithy hop bitterness. The most impressive thing was that neither of the two elements that made up this beer dominated the other with the IPA elements being perfectly balanced with the funkiness of the Tripel, superb.

After these beers it was almost midnight and as well as being tired from all the walking we had done we were decidedly half cut so we decided to call it a night on part two of our Belgian adventure.

Thursday 12 July 2012

In Bruges (Part 1)

Next year my girlfriend Dianne and I will turn 30, our birthdays are two days apart and we’ve decided that when the time finally comes around we’ll probably throw a big joint birthday party to celebrate. This year however we decided to go away for a weekend and have a quiet one, I suggested we visit Bruges as I knew Dianne had been wanting to go for some time and there is, of course, a huge amount of Belgian beer that I want to try. To my delight she agreed instantaneously and so Eurostar tickets were booked and hotel reservations were made, I couldn’t wait to be merrily ambling along the cobbled streets and around the alcoves.

I love a good Geuze, me
I first visited the city of Bruges when I was twelve years old, I was on one of those school trips which involves a huge group of kids roaming the streets with seemingly no adult around to control them. Beer had barely entered my radar when I was twelve, that trip was about chocolate, lots of chocolate, too much chocolate. So much in fact that the only thing I remembered about Bruges was the first ever toilet I had to pay to get into (my twelve year old self was outraged) and that on the way back I was so sick I had to sit at the front of the bus with the teachers, what little playground credibility I carried with me was lost on that bus journey.

Fast forward seventeen years and my priorities had shifted somewhat, I was now interested in the medieval history, the food and of course, the drink. I’ve been interested in Belgian beer since my dad bought me a Chimay gift pack for my seventeenth birthday but ever since my discovery of modern American and British craft beer it’s slipped off my radar a little. My impending trip to Bruges had reignited this old love and I couldn’t wait to sit outside a cafe on a square and enjoy a cold Duvel or a Tripel Karmeleit. Plus there were new horizons to discover, Belgium has not been absent from the craft beer revolution with new Breweries such as De Struise appearing on the scene and I also wanted to spend some time exploring what some beer geeks consider the final frontier, geuze.

Soon I was sitting on a stationary train in St. Pancras station on the day before my birthday, my palms were sweating with anticipation and excitement, it might have been eight in the morning but I was almost ready for a beer. It wasn’t long before my wish was fulfilled, after three and a half hours we arrived at our hotel, checked in and headed out to explore the city. Before long we’d found a basic cafe and along with some savory crepes I ordered my first beer of the trip, a Westmalle Dubbel. I’d not had this beer in a few years but its fruity, sugary goodness primed me for the rest of the weekend nicely.

Before I left for Bruges I had asked twitter for some recommendations of where to eat and drink and after lunch we wandered around so we could locate them thus making them easier to find when we wanted to pay them a visit. We located ‘t Brugs Beertjes ‘Bierboetiek’ with zero effort as the street it was on was directly opposite the cafe we had lunch and we soon found Cambrinus, the restaurant that we had been recommended above all others. We then decided to get a three day museum pass (highly recommended as it gets you into all the main museums and saves you a few Euro) and then somewhat foolishly (considering I’d just had a massive ham and Roquefort crepe) climbed the belfry in the centre of town so we could suss out the lay of the land. After 300-odd steps we were exhausted and it was near impossible to make out the twisted mess of Bruges streets that sat below us, almost mocking us and our tired legs.

There's more to Bruges than just beer y'know
Sensibly after this epic climb we decided to do some more walking and browsed in a few of the more tourist orientated shops. I of course used this opportunity to look around some of the incredible beer shops that sold hundreds of different bottles of exciting looking Belgian beer with 2be and its wall of beer being by far the most impressive. Dianne then blessed me with words of wisdom, advising me that a local supermarket probably had loads of beer at half the price and thankfully she wasn’t wrong. We picked up supplies of bread, meat and cheese from the supermarket in order to save our precious pennies for some nice meals later in the weekend and I picked up a four pack of La Chouffe and some of my favourite Trappist beer, Rochefort 10. The beer was significantly cheaper in the supermarket and there must’ve been a selection of around forty or fifty bottled beers. As an example a four pack of the delightful Kasteel Rouge which will set you back up to £4.50 a half in a fancy beer bar was a paltry five euro, bargain.

That evening we had a relatively quiet one deciding to save our energy (and more importantly our cash) for the two full days that were yet to come. After a couple of cheeky liveners (I had some La Chouffe and Dianne tried some Palm Lager and the first of the many Kriek beers that she would imbibe this weekend) we headed out to find some cheap eats on the Sint Amandsstraat and noticed how difficult it was to find traditional Flemish cuisine but how easy it was to find Italian, French, Spanish and Chinese food. We settled on a relatively cheap Italian place that didn’t set our world on fire so isn’t worth mentioning here but the beer was good, Dianne had some KRIEK MAX (Max meaning more fruit and lower alcohol evidently) and I had a locally brewed Brugge Tripel which was very pleasant but didn’t excite me enough to warrant scribbling any notes.

After dinner we went for another stroll and somehow managed to find ourselves at the north part of town as the sun set behind three beautiful old windmills. The walk had made us thirsty and we found a bar, the name of which I forget, that was full of younger locals enjoying the Euro 2012 match between Greece and Germany. The beer menu was good and as Dianne delved into yet another Kriek I finally got hold of my first Geuze of the weekend, Oude Gueze Boon. It was a wonderful flavour bomb of sour apples, sherbert and haribo tangfastics a totally different flavour experience to a really bitter IPA but just as pleasurable, it was also a great starter Gueze and prepared me for some of the more insane beers I was yet to try over the next couple of days...

Thursday 5 July 2012

Beer School at Brewdog Camden

It’s a Monday night and I’m making my way to Brewdog Camden to meet up with my friends Steph, Greg and Jo. We’ve signed up to take part in the bars weekly ‘Beer School’ event which is a tutored tasting of six Brewdog beers accompanied by some fine meats and cheeses.

I love Brewdog Camden, I’ve been here several times now, I’ve never failed to have a great time and consistently seem find myself well lubricated by the time I leave. They have an excellent selection of ever rotating Brewdog and guest draught beer, a superb collection of bottles and a friendly and enthusiastic team of staff who are more than happy to advise you on your next purchase or offer you a taster before you order your next drink. In addition to the excellent beer selection the menu, which was designed by 2011 Masterchef winner Tim Anderson is brilliant and features burgers, pizzas and cheeseboards at reasonable prices, the Milwaukee Pork and Fennel burger being a particular favourite of mine.

It's Educational
I arrive at the bar at a few minutes to seven just before the event is due to begin but a few attendees are running late so I order my friends and I some halves of the new Brewdog pale ale, Dead Pony Club. I’ve seen many glowing reviews of this beer but I personally found it to be a bit lacking, the initial hop hit of lemon rind, pine and grapefruit was incredible for such a low ABV beer but that was it, there was very little body, no detectable malt backbone and the finish was so crisp and dry I found myself questioning whether I’d actually taken a sip or had it just been a figment of my imagination. I can see why it would be popular for summer drinking but I’d rather go with a Punk which has all the hop flavours but is properly balanced with a decent amount of malt in the brew.

Soon it was time to begin and after tonight’s ‘teacher’ Joe had introduced himself to the cosy group of ten he popped upstairs and returned with the first of this evenings six beers, Punk IPA. Before he began talking about how Brewdog go about their business he talked us through how best to taste and appreciate the beers we had been presented with. ‘You have five senses, use them’ ordered Joe, I couldn’t have said it better myself and with the beer being served in Brewdog's wonderful Teku glass is was easy to appreciate every aspect of the beer. First we held the beer up to the light to appreciate the colour and then we moved on to the aroma, cupping our hands over the glass, swirling it around and letting the carbonation build up releasing a huge heady aroma from the glass. I hadn’t actually used this technique before, usually I just stick my nose straight in but along with the shape of the glass this really helped those citrus and mango aromas leap out.

We then moved on to the tasting and Joe asked the group to say what flavours came into their head as they drank the beer. Punk had everything Dead Pony Club was lacking, all that mango and grapefruit hop bitterness balanced by digestive biscuit and caramel malt flavours, it was delicious. This beer was tasting great, I’m yet to taste one of these so called bad batches of Punk, in fact I could have gone for a whole pint but still had five more beers to work through so thought better of it.

The next beer was Zeitgeist, Brewdog's black lager and it went down a treat, all of those robust coffee and chocolate malt flavours ending with a really crisp, refreshing finish. The food was brought out at this point and the Zeitgeist went exceptionally well with the selection of cheeses on offer, the Oxford Blue being the unanimous favourite. After we rinsed our glasses we were then presented with a glass of 5am Saint which I hadn’t had for a while. It was like welcoming an old friend back into my life with all of those marmalade, pine and grapefruit aromas being wrapped up in sweet, bready malts, I had really forgot just how great this beer is.

Next up was Chaos Theory and if ever there was a tribute to the Nelson Sauvin hop, then this beer was it. Describing this beer as vinous almost feels like an understatement, it has such a strong Cabernet Sauvignon quality that if it wasn’t for the robust malt platform you’d probably be able to fool someone who doesn’t drink much that it was in fact wine. Well, probably not but this is a beer I would love to offer up to a stalwart wine drinker who doesn’t have time for beer and see if it altered their perception, brilliant stuff. Chaos Theory really shows off Brewdogs mastery of the Nelson Sauvin hop which they seem to use an awful lot in their core brews.

Moving on and beer five was one I had been itching to try for a while but hadn’t had the chance, Libertine Black Ale. I notice that this beer was originally billed as a 6.1% porter when it was first released but they seem to have settled on calling it a black ale and it’s been amped up to a slightly more boozy 7%. I told Joe that this is what I would class as a Black IPA, it had all the qualities, in fact the aroma was so full of citrus that it was almost beguiling, just like a Black IPA should be. It was a beautiful beer, those citrus flavours joined by pine and an almost spearmint like sensation and then a wash of coffee and licorice came through in the beers long, bitter finish.

Joe got his Squirrel out
The final beer of the night was Brewdog's Imperial Stout, Riptide and after the pithy onslaught of the last few beers I was ready for something a little different. Riptide didn’t disappoint, it was a bombardment of coffee, chocolate and red berry flavours with just a little bitterness keeping it balanced, after all that strong cheese I really fancied a massive slab of chocolate cake to balance all of the riotous flavours that my tongue had experienced this evening but the cheese was tasting so good I had no choice but to power through regardless.

It was then time to finish, or so I thought, once we had finished our beers we were invited up to the bar for a seventh taster of our choosing. I felt a bit cheeky asking but couldn’t resist going for the AB:10 and to my surprise Joe was happy to oblige.

I’ll admit that I think barrel or oak ageing a beer doesn’t always work for me (take Great Divide Rumble for example) but AB:10 is a beautiful example of it being done well, an 11.5% imperial brown ale that has been aged in sweet red wine barrels from Malaga. The first thing you get when you stick your nose into this beer is that huge, boozy red wine smell with hints of oak, port, bourbon and molasses. I was expecting it to be a messy melange of flavour on the palate but the flavours were blended beautifully, combining to create something that tastes like a decent tawny port but with the body and mouth feel of an imperial stout, superb.

Beer school was a fantastic experience and Joe was a great tutor who talked about Brewdog and their beers with genuine passion and enthusiasm and most importantly without pretension. There was a range of people attending from out and out beer geeks like myself to relative craft beer newcomers like some of my friends and I think we all took something useful away from this experience. Perhaps most importantly I think this session builds a rapport between the bar staff and the customer, something that is sorely lacking in modern drinking establishments, it literally makes you want to go back and drink there again. I also thought that for only twenty pounds it was actually quite reasonable, with the taster servings being quite generous and the portions of food being more than enough to go around.

Joe did mention that they would be taking a break from Beer School during the Olympics but at the time of me writing this there are still places available on next weeks session, you can email should you wish to attend.