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Buffalo oak-aged dark ale
I went to the Zythos beer festival last weekend and to say it exceeded my expectations would be an understatement. I had heard the Zythos beer festival described in almost mythical terms in the past. It was always held in St. Niklaas, a small Flemish town roughly between Antwerp and Ghent. But due to its popularity, the festival was moved for 2012 to well outside Leuven at Brabanthal, a less desirable destination and the cause for my skepticism.

Brabanthal could hardly be described as charming. It's a large, gray convention-type hall adorned in drab metal siding. It looks like the type of structure you'd find at the airport. Plus, it's not truly in Leuven. It's closer to Heverlee, a good ten minute drive/bus from Leuven. I envisaged long queues at the beer taps and the shuttles to Leuven, or too many drunks taking the chance to drive.

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Malheur's new black tripel, Novice
But the organizers were well aware of these shortcomings when they planed the event and the few cars in the parking lot were those of the event staff (I'm guessing). The organizers arranged free, frequent (every 15 minutes) shuttles from Leuven station (accessible by bus and train from Brussels) that worked great. Plus entrance was free and the space was big enough to accommodate the larger crowds that were on hand later in the afternoons into the evening on both nights. They sold 15cl tasting glasses and booklets listing all beers by category with their characteristics, and room for you to enter your own tasting notes. Food was unspectacular but hell - we're here for the beer. And they had frites, so what more can you want?

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What about the beer?
According to organizers, there were 490 beers from over 100 brewers. Mostly from Flanders with a couple from Wallonia and Brussels to satisfy any rogue Francophones. One of the best things about these types of festivals is that you can try things you don't find every day, including new releases like Malheur's black tripel, Novice (a novelty with little finish; slight Rodenbach aftertaste); specials like the Duvel Tripel Hop (good overall but a strange mix of hops up front with that signature Duvel taste underneath); rarities such as oak-aged tripels (can't locate my tasting notes on those - D'oh!); and stuff that is outside of your comfort zone. For me, the latter category refers to lambics and gueuzes, the uniquely Belgian openly fermented beers lacking carbonation. And despite my buddy Andreas's best efforts, I'm still not a huge fan of them. They taste a tad too sour to me but I'll give them another try.

Overall, a big thumbs up for Zythos 2012. I hope to update more of my tasting notes soon...

 
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Deus didn't do it for us
It’s rare that a widely celebrated Belgian beer so roundly disappoints. But that was the case last night when 5 of us tried the Deus Brut Des Flandres, which tasted like a strange amalgam of beer, cider (lots of apple and pear tones) and champagne. I suppose part of the problem is that it isn’t really a beer but more of a champagne-cum-beer. Three people didn’t even finish their first glass and we threw away more than half the bottle. Not a good sign for a beer that is marketed as a Flemish champagne of beers and cost around €12 at the supermarket for a 750ml bottle (that would buy you 4 bottles of the same size of the eminently drinkable La Chouffe).

Respected sources like Beer Advocate gave this beer a good score. But for us, it never stood a chance. It was a pity too, because I had built up in my mind quite a reputation for this beer. You don’t see it everywhere and it has some mystique around it. It disappointed though – even for fans of champagne who would say it has an odd champagne-like mouthfeel, with a strange aftertaste of cider that reminded one of us of Tripel Karmeliet, one of my favorite beers.


 
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What, only two Belgians in the top ten of ratebeer’s best 50 beers 2012? The fix must be in. Though the two they chose did rank in the top 5 – Westvleteren 12 at #1 and Trappist Rochefort 10 at #5. So kudos to them for that. And 11 Belgians out of the top 50 is nothing to sneeze at, especially from a country of around 10 million people.

 
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Something Sinterklass and Pere Noel could agree on.
I love Christmas. For the special seasonal beers, that is. Here in Belgium, the highlight is undoubtedly the annual trip (or maybe even twice per winter if you have enough visitors) to the beer shop to load up on Christmas beers. It's fun to see who has added a new one since last Christmas or one that you haven't been able to find in prior years. They're nearly all dark beers, high in alcohol and conducive to enjoying fireside or over a hearty winter stew or hot meal. Hell, these beers are good enough to just enjoy on their own with a cone of hot frites!

This year my favorite was the Corsendonk Christmas Ale. I love both Corsendonk tripel and dark anyway. So it was no surprise that the Christmas was delicious - rich velvety smooth feel with strong tones of chocolate, citrus and malt as it goes down. It's beautifully colored in the light too - a rich darkness balanced well with amber and chocolatey tones.

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Stille Nacht christmas beer from Dolle Brouwers
My favorite all-time Xmas beer is probably still Stille Nacht from Dolle Browers brewery in West Flanders. This family-owned brewery cranks out nothing but outstanding, high-alcohol beers with seasonal offerings for both Christmas and Easter. Stille Nacht is 12% ABV with a cloudy amber appearance and wonderful, complex smell of citrus and caramel malt. The taste is sweet but not too sweet, IMO, with hints again of citrus and, at least for me, nutmeg and caramel. It really says Christmas, this beer.

(PS: I love this brewery, as a prior post explains. They recently launched a stout for their US distribution. I've never seen it in Belgium but would be curious to taste it. There aren't a lot of Belgian stouts and few are anything special.)

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I recently went back for a U.S. visit and met up with a friend of mine from college who I hadn't seen in almost 20 years. We caught up on small-talk and I told him I'm now living in Belgium. Before I get to what he said next and the moral of this story, I need to describe my friend (let's call him 'Steve' because, well, that's his name) a bit: he's technically half American/half British, but he's Yank through and through. I'm guessing he earns well into six figures, works in Manhattan and does the sympathy-inducing commute to the NJ suburbs every night to be with his wife and 2.2 children. He doesn't live in a red state, drink Bud/Coors/Miller Lite or reside in a double-wide. I figure he knows the difference between a Merlot and a Zinfandel, dined with regularity at Tavern on the Green in its day and drives an imported car (ok maybe minivan). In other words, he's a successful if, in many ways, typical American.

So when I told our 'Steve' that I live in Belgium, he gushed: "Oh, I love Hoegaarden!" Naturally, I cringed inside (the way one might cringe at a hotel bar offering Bud/Bud Light/Heineken/Amstel as your choices on draft). I didn't cringe because Hoegaarden is, prima facie, a bad beer. It's just because, compared to the rest of the exceptionally broad universe that is Belgian beers, it isn't even a speck of "gist" as the Flemish might say. After my first month or so living in Belgium, rarely did a Hoegaarden pass my lips. Why would it?! It's rarely warm enough for a blanche and there are so many more interesting choices.

And here, in the interest of full disclosure, is the real kicker: before I lived among les Belges, I also would have said that I love Hoegaarden! I remember paying $9-10 a six-pack for it. That's right. In fact I used to love Hoegaarden, Leffe, Stella and Duvel -- the four legs that comprise the barstool of accessible Belgian imports to the U.S. I still gladly drink Duvel, mind you, but only resort to the other three in when they're free or there's nothing more interesting around.

But back to our Steve. The point is that if Americans are willing to pay premium prices for the mass-produced AmBev's (Stella, Leffe, Hoegaarden) and, to a lesser extent, Duvel's of the world, how much would they plunk down for a really good artisanal Belgian blonde, trappist or dubbel?

I dare say there is still room to grow in this market, but it needs a lot more exposure. The 'Steve's' of the world love Hoegaarden because it's so hard for them to regularly find the more obscure, complex Belgian brew, and little information about these beers available to Americans. AmBev has a massive advertising and distribution network, so their Belgian brands are accessible.

Incidentally, when I got back to Belgium, I emailed 'Steve' a Belgian beer drinking assignment, based on diversity, accessibility, excellence and Wow factor -- that 'holy shit, that was good' feeling you get when you taste your first out-of-this-world Belgian, like a Westmalle Tripel, etc.

Here are the beers that comprised that assignment along with my commentary:

  • Judas (similar to Duvel but more devilish)
  • Triple Karmeliet (a slightly sweet blonde but well balanced. I love this beer).
  • Le Chouffe (may be hard to find in NYC but very good Waloon beer, blonde or brown)
  • St. Feuillen (they have a blonde and brown and both are excellent)
  • Brugse Zot blonde
  • Gulden Draak triple (10% ABV but you won't notice until it's too late)
  • Westmalle triple (a trappist and maybe not easily found in US. I didn't see it when I was in NYC. But among my favorites. The dubbel - brown - is growing on me too)
  • Rochefort 8 or 10. The numbers refer to the ABV. All are decent. There is also a 6.
  • Maredsous 10 Tripel (may be hard to find). A bit sweet for my tastes.
  • La Cuvee des Trolls (decent, lemony blonde)
  • Grimbergen Tripel (not excellent but they have good distribution, so may be available).

 
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Went to the annual Hapje Tapje beer festival in Leuven recently and was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

I’ve been to much bigger/grander beer festivals in Belgium, but somehow I found this little one in Leuven more charming and enjoyable. It lasts just one day, Sunday, versus, say, the Brussels Beer Weekend, which goes all weekend including Friday night. In fact, Hapje Tapje technically lasts just 12 hours, from noon to midnight.*

The beer stands are all in the Oude Markt in Leuven, which is a larger space than for the Brussels beer fest. It makes it easier to move around, beer lines are shorter or nonexistent, and it has less of that feel of madness like you find at the big beer fests like in Brussels or Ghent.

Hapje Tapje is the type of beer fest you could safely bring your children or parents too, and feel confident they wouldn’t step on broken beer glass or face drunken rowdies. The ratio of outlandish drunken behavior was far less at Hapje Tapje, which sees none of the “beer tourists” you’ll find from the UK, Netherlands or France at the Brussels beer fest. Hell, Hapje Tapje hardly sees tourists from the rest of Flanders, save Europe.

And that is what I think is part of its charm. It still has energy, crowds and a buzz to it. And the beer is excellent if a tad pedestrian, including Alpaïde (known as the black Hooegarden), Waterloo (like the beer but still not sold on that earthenware goblet), Saison Dupont and my favorite on the day, Val Dieu. It’s also neat to enjoy draft versions of beers you commonly only see in bottle.

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Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the Brussels beer weekend. From the pomp and ceremony of the opening Blessing of the Kegs to the setting on Grand Place, it’s a spectacle. But it’s a pain in the ass there to have to wait in line to buy your tokens (recycled bottle caps) for beer, then wait your turn to enter the roped off central area past the gruff guards and then make your way through the throngs to your desired beer tent, then wait again to get your beer, then try to find an open upright table that isn’t full of empty beer glasses or drunken tourists so you can drink your hard-earned beer. And if the beer you want is on the other side of the whole affair, it’s a good half-hour commitment to fight your way over to it. The whole thing is quite an ordeal.

And you don’t get that at Hapje Tapje. Yes, there are plenty of students overimbibing, but they are more of an enjoyable component of the afternoon. I plan to go again next year.

*It never ceases to amaze me how dedicated vendors in Belgium are to festivals like these. The setup of the festival started Thursday afternoon for a festival that would go for just 12 hours. You’d think it would make sense to realize economies of scale — hell, the setup will take a couple days so we should at least make the festival go for two days. But they don’t look at it like that here. The festival lasts only as long as it needs to last, no matter the time/hassle of setting it up. I’d argue it should be two days, as the crowds on Sunday would justify that, but whatever…it was still a fun event.


 
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We made a trip last weekend to De Dolle Brouwers brewery in West Flanders. It was one of those delightful "only in Belgium" kind of experiences that lingers in the mind. It's almost two hours west of Brussels near Diksmuide, and not any place you'd just stumble upon. You really need a reason to be out there. Fortunately, this wonderful family-owned brewery gives you plenty of reasons to visit.
The brewery (also a distillery back in the day) originally dates back to the 1830s. It ran for three generations until it died before being revived in 1980 by two brothers who continue to run it to this day, still very much as a family enterprise. The brewery is only open on the weekends and they offer tours Sunday afternoon, which we were lucky enough to time perfectly.

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The brothers' 93-year old mother led our tour in English, crediting her health, longevity and excellent humor to her strict regimen of a daily beer. One brother is the brewmaster and the other an artist who creates the charmingly colorful logos for the company's beers. Their flagship brew, Oerbier, is a strong dark beer at 9.5% but eminently drinkable with a fruity taste that doesn't overdo it on the sweetness. Their blonde, Arabier, is most memorable for its large foamy head. It's just as tasty as the dark and lower in alcohol at 8%.Next time you're out in West Flanders, pay a visit to this place. You won't regret it. Support your local brewer!

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Nat en straf (West Flemish for wet and strong)
 
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Sorry, Carlsberg, this is "probably" the best beer in the world
I finally made my first trip out to the Sint Sixtus Abbey in west Flanders for some Westvleteren! It's over 90 minutes from Brussels, but well worth the trip (especially since I, like most Belgians, have a company car with free fuel).

I drove out there with two other beer-loving friends to fetch the beer that is customarily named the best in the world. Before making the trip, I phoned the hotline at the brewery, presumably manned by the Trappist monks who work there and make the stuff. I was lucky to discover the beer they were offering was Westvleteren 12, their flagship dark brew.

You're limited to two cases per vehicle per month (they note your license plate when you place your order) to make access to this hard-to-find beer even more limited. I've only ever seen it sold in 2-3 bars in Belgium, and then for as much as €12 for a single 33cl bottle!

When you buy it here at the brewery, it still isn't cheap. You have to fork over deposit for the bottles and the rustic wooden crate, bringing your total to around €100 for two cases, or about €4 per bottle. But boy is it worth it!

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Beer pickup
It's all about the Balance
I found this beer worth the hype. It is so rich and well-balanced, with tones of toffee and burnt caramel and the exact right amount of carbonation. You have to remind yourself that at more than 10% ABV, it's closer to a wine in alcohol content than a beer. I'd find myself daydreaming and longing to try this beer all the time in the days after my visit, wondering how long my stash would last. But don't take my word for its quality - see what others say.

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Another happy customer
It's to be savored for special occasions. It's not your Tuesday-night-after-dinner beer. Near the monastery they have a cafe dedicated to Westvleteren where they serve all three versions - 6, 10 and 12. We tried all three and although the 12 is far and away the best, the others are excellent too. I found the 6 really drinkable and strategically important since I still had a drive of more than 90 minutes back to Brussels.

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Next time, I'd say make a weekend of it. Book your Westvleteren in advance the next time they're offering the 12 and add in a visit to Dolle Brouwers brewery in Diksmuide (fortuitously open Sundays) and a stop at the moving Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres to dedicate the WW1 battles (though closed on and off until 2014 anniversary observances).

 
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Last weekend we had one of those wonderful “only in Europe” kind of experiences.
A milestone birthday is approaching soon for me (let’s just say it isn’t my 30th and leave it at that) so I wanted to do a special MTB ride to mark the occasion. A friend suggested a ride he’d recently done near the Orval abbey/brewery which is way down in the Ardennes along the French border, about 2 hours from Brussels. A little riding, some Trappist beer and cheese – what could beat that?

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The ride itself wasn’t really epic – there are far better routes in La Roche en Ardennes or Ohey that give better elevation gain, singletrack and terrain – but the experience couldn’t be beat. The route we’d uploaded into my friend David’s GPS turned out later to be full of huge inaccuracies (off by as much as 100 meters) resulting in lots of stopping and starting, missed trailheads, indications to turn down into steep ravines or cross streams, and a 50km ride instead of 41km.

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But it didn’t matter. The day was uncharacteristically sunny for Belgium and the actual trail crisscrossed over the Belgian/French border more times than we could count. Near the end of the ride, we stopped for a delicious cheese plate to see us through the rest of the ride. And it wasn’t the typical large chunks of Gouda you’d find in Belgium, either. We were in France, remember? The gorgeous cheese plate was comprised of cheeses from the different regions of France and accompanied by a small salad. We washed it down with, what else, a bottle of Orval, possibly even hand-carried to the restaurant from the brewery.

As the ride ended, we made our way to the Orval abbey itself. It’s a huge place, made all the more interesting by the fact that just 13 monks live there! The ruins of the former monastery from the 12th century are there and you can walk around them. The current monastery was constructed from 1926-1948, so it feels new by comparison. There is a small gift shop where you can buy their beer, cheese and other food as well as books on their history, etc.

There isn’t a cafe or anywhere on premises to actually drink the beer, but it’s ubiquitous so that is not an issue. I really like Orval. It’s hoppy, fruity and a bit malty, and lower in alcohol than most trappists or abbey beers at 6-7%, making it a bit more drinkable.

 
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So you’ve likely heard the distinction between Belgian Trappist and Abbey beers, among others. But what exactly does it mean to be designated a Trappist beer? Can just anyone brew a Trappist? I mean, could I make it in my bathtub and sell it at the market if I were wearing the right brown robes and chanting all the while?

Fortunately no — it’s more discriminating than that. Trappist is a type of beer brewed by monks of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (or Trappists). There are more than 170 trappist monasteries worldwide, but just seven have the right to brew beers bearing the Authentic Trappist Beer Logo. They also make cheese and other foods.

The seven monasteries and their locations are:
To bear the Authentic Trappist name and logo:
  • The product must be made within the walls of a Trappist abbey or in an immediate vicinity.
  • The equipment necessary for the production must clearly express a dependency on the monastery.
  • The product must be made by or under the supervision of the monastery community.
  • The largest part of the profit must be spent on social work.
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_This may explain why its difficult to find some of the Trappist beers outside of Europe and why the most elusive, Westvleteren, is only sold at a few locations in Belgium. In fact, that Trappist is so scarce in Belgium (only 3,500 hectoliters or 92,000 gallons are produced annually, versus 120,000 hl/3.1 million Gallons annually of Westmalle, the leading Trappist) that reservations are required to visit and purchase it at the Abbey, and you are limited to just one case per customer per month — if you can get a reservation. They even note your vehicle number plate to ensure you don’t exceed your allotment! The beer costs from 28-38 Euros per case depending on type, or you can sample one at a time in the neighboring cafe.

So How Do the Trappists Taste?

To be honest, they really vary. As mentioned in a previous post, I love the Westmalle beers. I find Achel an average beer at best and the others are somewhere in between. Here, then, is my ranking of the Trappist beers, scored by my favorite offering from each*:

  1. Westmalle: far and away my personal favorite Trappist beer (so far*). I love both the tripel and double and never tire of them.
  2. Rochefort 10: thick, smooth and complex. Just remember that they are over 11% ABV. The 6 and 8 are also excellent, but cannot top the 10.
  3. Chimay: I like all three Chimays (red, white and blue, in increasing alcohol content). These days I favor the white, aka Tripel, at 8% ABV.
  4. La Trappe Quadrupel or Tripel (Koningshoeven): I’ve found the Dutch Trappists to be quite polarizing. Some feel the Quadrupel (10% ABV and aged in oak barrels) achieves its high alcohol content too artificially. But I find the Quad to be complex, with two to three discrete waves of tastes, including fruitiness (maybe grapefruit) and perhaps burnt toffee. I found the Tripel less memorable and was surprised to see they offer a white trappist (haven’t tried it yet).
  5. Orval: I went through phases with this beer (they only offer one type). When I first arrived in Belgium, I found it a hoppy revelation with rich, deep appearance. After I discovered what else was out there, Orval seemed a bit underwhelming to me with little taste complexity. But lately I came to again appreciate its subtle hoppiness in contrast to its cousins. I like to order it on certain occasions, particularly as it is lower in alcohol at 6.9% — practically non-alcoholic by Belgian standards. I also really like their logo and beer squares.
  6. Achel Blond: I wish I could report otherwise, but I am not a big fan of this Trappist. I had one just the other day and found it unidimensional and uninteresting. When there are so many more delicious and rewarding beers out there, I can’t see myself drinking many of these. Ok, it’s still a good beer. But it doesn’t stack up well. Perhaps the bruin would be better?
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*Note: I have not yet enjoyed the privilege of tasting any of the Westvleteren beers (6%, 8%, 10%). Since they appear to be even more of an endangered species than a Belgian store open on Sunday, I will only have to imagine them for now. But I vow a trip to the abbey or cafe to try and buy before I leave Belgium. I also have heard they sell them at Beer Mania in Brussels, between 14-16 Euros for a 33cl bottle. Yipes, for that price they’d better include a handful of Indulgences.