Back from Europe!

DSCF2624Last week at this time, the wife and I returned from a lovely two and a half week trip to Europe. Arranged by my folks, who’ve done the war tour three times between them now, the four of us spent that time in Belgium and Northern France as part of World War I centenary and our personal exploration of World War II sites. In addition to visiting the many museums, memorials, and cemeteries that honor the dead, we also drank a fair amount of beer.

Some of these were familiar to us already, but others were an entirely new drinking experience. And what they told us about the local drinking customs was interesting and even a little surprising. For starters, we already knew that in Belgium, beer is the drink of choice to have with your meals. And whereas we here in North America tend to drink from a pint glass and consider chalices, sleeves and fluted glassware to be something of a novelty. In Belgium, by constrast, the chalice is the standard glass and appears to come in either the 25 or 50 cl (250 and 500 ml) variety.

No surprises there, but I was surprised to see just how prevalent these same drinking customers were in Northern France. While I’ve known for some time that wine is the preferred south Normandy, Brittany and the Calais regions, I wasn’t aware just how fond they were of Abbey beers. Cider, certainly, but in these areas, blonde ales from Belgium and local Abbeys are the first thing you find on tap when you come to a bar. And in addition to some Bayeux cider, Pommeau, and a little Calvados, we drank our fill!

So here is the list of every beer we (or mainly I) sampled, arranged in alphabetical order:

Affligem Blonde: All over the Normandy region, this beer affligemcould be found on tap and was often the brewery of choice for find dining establishments. Given that Leffe is now a favorite of my folks, we were all quite interested in giving this one a try. I was especially interested seeing as how this beer has not yet made it to my neck of the woods. Consistent with the Trappist brewing tradition, this blonde is a crisp, clear, golden pale ale that is quite appetizing and refreshing. Subtle traces of fermenting sugar and yeast also provide a varied palette that is both grainy and slightly sweet.

Chimay Blue: This beer is exactly as I remembered it. But of course, it was a treat to drink one while dining out in Belgium. Basically, the Blue is a dark beer has a some powerful malt that is replete with notes of oak, caramel, yeast, and has a dry, peppery finish.

delirium_tremensDelirium Nocturnum: This is a beer I did not even know existed, let alone had the pleasure of trying, before I visited a lovely bar named The Mayflower in Paris. As the name suggests, this is the dark ale in their lineup. And as the style entails, this beer bears a deeper, fruitier taste than the Tremens. Much like a barley wine, it contains notes of plums, brown sugar, raisins, and a tangy, yeasty profile.

Grimbergen Blonde: Yet another Abbey Ale we got a chance to sample during our travels. Whereas Affligem was the ale of choice in Normandy, and Leffe in Ypres, this one was everywhere we turned while in Paris. Compared to its peers, it was the lightest in terms of flavor, but was still very refreshing and balanced.

Grimbergen Saison: Honestly, I was not a fan of this seasonal brew. It was an appealing concept, infusing their blonde ale with apples and spices, but the end result tasted a little too much like fruit punch. While it was pleasing at first, the taste quickly became both underwhelming and cloyingly sweet after a few sips. Not a good combination.

kwak-glassKwak: Known as the beer that comes in the interesting glass (a shortened version of a yard glass) Kwak is a Belgian beer from the Eastern Flemish town of Dendermonde. A lovely ruby-red in color, has a nice malty and semi-sweet base, and some light fruit esters that call to mind apple, cherry, and plums. The pint of this that I enjoyed in Paris was the first time I ever tried, or even heard of, this beer, and it was a most pleasant introduction!

Leffe Blonde: This beer I’ve had many times over, thanks to the brewery’s immense popularity and worldwide distribution. But it was nice to have it again while staying in the country of its birth. Compared to its peers, it is actually more flavorful, employing that rather unique combination of yeast, grainy malt and touch of honey that Abbey Blondes are renowned for.

Leffe_BlondeLeffe Brune: After enjoying multiple bottles of the blonde, my father eventually made his desire for the brewery’s brown ale known. And as luck would have it, the local stores just happened to stock the entire Leffe lineup. Much like their Blonde, this beer had the yeasty backbone and a hint of honey, but with a deeper, maltier base.

Maredsous Blonde: Back in Ottawa, I came to know of this brewery and enjoyed their Brune and Triple whenever I was looking for a strong, malty, and slightly sugary Belgian brew. However, this was the first time I ever tried their flagship Blonde, which is lighter, but has that characteristic yeasty, grainy flavor with a floral, slightly spicy finish.

Maredsous Tripel: As usual, this beer delivered in all the requisite departments, being deliciously malty, yeasty, smooth, and with a hint of sweetness that gives balance to its strong alcohol content. This beer was enjoyed (amongst others) at a Parisian bar named the Mayflower, where they are in the habit of pouring extra-strong Belgian ales into pint glasses for their patrons. A festive time ensued!

Orval Trappist: Another “old faithful” beer, I drank a bottle or two of this while dining out with the wife in Ypres, Belgium. As always, the dark, Trappist ale had some strong, crisp malts that were oaky, dry, and had a hint of cherry flavor. Always good to enjoy a favorite beer in the land of its birth!

page-24-reserve-hildegarde-blondePage 24 Reserve Hildegarde Blonde: Yet another regional blonde ale that I enjoyed while in Paris, the esoteric appeal of the name alone was worth the price. But in addition, it was also a pleasingly tasty and refreshing ale, with a nicely balanced flavor that is gently malty, lightly hoppy, yeast, and with a hint of spice. And unlike most of the other blondes enjoyed on this trip, this ale was actually brewed in France (St. Germain Brewery, Nord-Pas-de-Calais region), rather than being a Belgian import.

Passchendaele Blonde: This was another blonde I enjoyed while in Ypres, and for obvious reasons. In addition to wanting to drink the local beer, I thought it wonderfully appropriate to enjoy one that paid homage to the Great War. Brewed by the Van Honsebrouck Castle Brewery in honor of those who fell in the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, this ale is relatively light in color, alcohol content (5.2%), but still has that distinct, Abbey ale flavor, with grainy malt, yeasts, dry hops, and a slightly spicy aftertaste.

Pelforth Blonde: Definitely was not a fan of this one. I ordered it out of curiosity, at a restaurant where it was the only other beer on tap aside from Affligem. It was the cheaper option, and I could immediately see why. Basically, it had the taste of a generic beer, being both watery and flat in terms of flavor.

Primus Pilsner: During our final dinner in Ypres, whilst I enjoyed a Chimay Blue and an Orval, the wife enjoyed a tall glass of this fine pilsner. While it was certainly very light and not too heavy on the grainy malt and bitter hops Pilsner’s are known for, it certainly delivered in the drinkability and refreshing departments.

Tripel_KarmelietTripel Karmeliet: Also enjoyed at Mayflower, this beer was paired with a Maredsous Triple. It takes its name from the fact that monks of the Order of Carmel have been making it since the late 17th century, and from the three grains fermented to make it. These include wheat, oats and barley, which are then refermented in the bottle to fashion the golden ale. The end result is a syrupy, malty beer that has a hint of sugar sweetness, is slightly coarse, and pretty strong in the alcohol department (8.4% alc/vol).

Westmalle Tripel: This Belgian brew is already one of my all-time favorites. But there’s something to be said about being able to enjoy it in the country of its birth, not to mention being able to purchase it for less than 2 Euros (roughly three Dollars) a bottle! Best case of hotel room drinking I’ve experienced to date!

Obviously, this year’s journey to Europe was not for the purpose of “drinking in” the local culture. No, that was just a bonus to everything else we got to witness, experience, adn share. And as you can see, measured strictly in terms of the amount of beers sampled, it was a pretty wonderful time! I do hope to repeat the experience again someday and venture even further afield, perhaps visiting the abbeys and monasteries themselves, and also delving into those wonderful Flemish sours!

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Westmalle Trappiste Dubbel

Westmalle-dubbelBrewer: Westmalle
Style: Double Ale
Alc/Vol: 7%

Description: An Abbey ale, brewed by Trappist monks since 1856, Westmalle Dubbel is a double fermented ale that is one of two beers that is brewed year round and commercially available. In 1926, the monks changed the recipe to its current, heavier-tasting recipe.

Tasting Notes: This beer is one of the best Dubbel’s I’ve ever tasted, even after many years of sampling. Like a barley wine, it has a strong malty flavor that is rich, sugary and loaded with fruit. The lacy head and yeasty flavor are distinctive and firmly identify this beer as a Trappist product. However, unlike barley wines or other strong ales, at no point is the malt flavor or alcohol content overwhelming or coarse. While I have always been partial to their Tripel, this one is still a top contender for a spot on my all-time favorites list.

Appearance: Dark brown, opaque, strong, lacy foam and good carbonation
Nose: Rich malty nose, light hop aroma, raisins and sugars
Taste: Strong malt backbone and yeasts, notes of brown sugar, raisins, figs and oak
Aftertaste: Lingering yeast, malt flavor and oak
Overall: 10/10

Mc Chouffe Ardennes Brune

mcchouffeAs a self-professed beer snob, it’s always a pleasure when I’m able to find obscure and venerated brews at my local liquor store. It’s also a pleasure when said brews extend my overall repertoire of Belgian beers. As the country that boasts more breweries per square kilometer than any other in the world, and the home of Trappist and countless other brewing traditions, they seem to be able to do little wrong.

So it was with some anticipation that I managed to procure and tilt a bottle of Mc Chouffe’s Ardennes Brune. A relatively new operations by Belgian standards, the La Chouffe operation is nonetheless pretty renowned, producing a series of traditional, unfiltered ales that are refermented in the bottle. The Mc Chouffe is the dark ale of their lineup, boasting fruitier, more sugary malts, and weighing in at a respectable 8% alc/vol.

Appearance: Dark brown, opaque, mild foam retention and carbonation
Nose: Sugary malts, molasses, brown sugar, herbs
Taste: Immediate burst of sugars, giving way to mild tang and yeast, molasses, raisins
Aftertaste: Mild bitterness and lingering herbs
Overall: 8.5/10

All in all, the Mc Chouffe dark is comparable to most Belgian brown ales I’ve tried, combining a fruity profile that is typically characterized by raisins, plums and dates with notes of sugar, molasses and spices. And of course, it compliments all this with a telltale yeasty flavor and aroma, and of course a strong dose of alcohol. I hope to sample their flagship brew, La Chouffe Blonde, in the near future. As it happens, I know just where to find it!

Dead Frog Valiant Belgian IPA

dead_frogvaliant-belgian-ipaDead Frog is back with another limited release, arriving on the heels of their Brazen IPA, Winter Beeracle and Fearless IPA. And with the exception of the Brazen, which I have yet to try, these limited releases have been quite impressive, in my opinion. Basically, they show that the spirit of craft brewing and experimentation are alive and well in yet another big Pacific Northwestern brewery.

As for this latest experiment in craft brewing, the Valiant is a twist on your classic Belgian Abbey ale, relying on Belgian yeast and a lengthy fermentation process to achieve a distinctly strong and flavorful ale. At the same time, they’ve incorporated a good dose of hops, the classic Pacific Northwestern IPA varieties of Centennial and Columbus, to achieve a strong bittering effect.

Appearance: Golden-orange, cloudy, good foam retention and carbonation
Nose: Distinct Belgian yeast, notes of citrus hops
Taste: Immediate notes of wheat malt and yeast intermixed with hop bitterness 
Aftertaste: Tang and lingering bitterness, traces of Belgian yeast
Overall: 8.5/10

The result is something that is becoming increasingly common here in the Pacific Northwest, a merger between disparate traditions that work great on their own and are… interesting when combined. Like most Belgian IPA’s I’ve had, I found this one a little odd at first, but grew to like it with each sip. In the end, it really captured the essence of a strong Belgian Ale, and the bitter finish offers enough of a compliment without getting in the way.

Corsendonk Pater Dubbel

corsendonk_paterA familiar name popped for me at the liquor store during my most recent visit. It goes by the name of Corsendonk, a Belgian brewery that I first encountered during my extensive time in the fine bistros of Vineyards and Pub Italia back in my hometown of Ottawa. I couldn’t remember the last time I had a beer by this brewery, or even which kind it was. So naturally, I snatched up one of their fine, 750ml corked bottles as soon as I could and set down to (re)sample it. In this case, it was the Corsendonk Pater, a double-fermented ale done in the traditional Belgian style of top-fermented, bottle conditioned beer.

I’ve had my share of Belgian dubbels in the past, but rarely have they been light, refreshing, and an fine example of clean drinking. But that’s the world of Belgian brewing, where a country with centuries of brewing traditions which boasts more breweries per square kilometer produces can still find ways to surprise you. So here’s what I thought of this traditional, yet surprising Belgian brew:

Appearance: Orange-brown, good foam retention and carbonation
Nose: Light, sugary malts, bouquet of raisins, apricots and yeast
Taste: Light, sweet malts, notes of raisins, plum fruit, champagne-like effervescence
Aftertaste: Very clean, mild taste of yeast and lingering malt
Overall: 8.5/10

Initially, I was hoping for something a little more sugary, and with stronger traces of raisins, plum fruits, and even spice. Basically, the stuff one expects from a strong Belgian ale. And yet, I couldn’t complain. Not only was it was refreshing and clean, the subtle nature of the taste was also quite pleasing. Moreover, it reminded of several other Belgian beers, such as Belle-Vue Gueze and others that incorporate champagne yeast into the fermentation process. At once bubbly, fruity, clean and mellow, this dubbel was quite the addition to my list of Belgian beers to sample!