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!

Those Crazy Belgians

Here is the first in my Belgian-themed posts for the month of October 2011. Once again, the theme came to me on a whim, but its a good whim so bear with me! And please, please, if you get a chance, get out and try some of these. You haven’t tried beer until you’ve tried a real Trappist or at least a Belgian-style beer. Trust me!

Alright, so let’s kick this month of Belgian beers off right! As promised, the entire month of October will be dedicated to beers that are Belgian and Belgian-inspired. Let me start by pointing out why I decided to do this in the first place.

Not only is Belgium famous for making lots of beer, what they produce is pretty damn good too. With 300 breweries, they have more breweries per square kilometers than any country. In addition, it was in Belgium where the venerable tradition of brewing with hops originated. Sure, the Bavarians created a law for it (the Bavarian Purity Law), but they were just jumping on the bandwagon. It was the Trappist Monks who started that, having learned what worked. In short, malt, hops, yeast and water. No mushrooms, no wormwood, no poisonous herbs!

Speaking of Trappists monasteries, there are only seven of these left in Belgium (with one in the Netherlands), and I intend to give them all their due this month. They are, in alphabetically order: Achel, Chimay, La Trappe, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, and Westvleteren. Most I’ve tried, some I need to reacquaint myself with, and one or two I still need to find!

La Trappe Tripel: Although technically not Belgian, this brewery is nevertheless a Trappist Monastery and hence a Trappist brew. And I can say without exaggeration that its a fine example of a Tripel (a triple fermented ale). By nature, these beers are heavier, stronger, fragrant and flavorful, and are either light in color or rich and dark. In the case of La Trappe’s Tripel, the color is caramel, the nose is sweet, malty and even kind of smoky. The taste is also characteristic of true Belgian ales, being both sweet, syrupy, and slightly floral. In terms of alcohol, it packs a respectable punch at 8% alc/vol. 8/10  

Orval: A recurring favorite of mine, this Belgian ale is a relatively light and lively number, being 6.2% alc/vol, but which is dark, smoky, and with a taste that is just slightly reminiscent of cherry. A good dessert beer, best when served with something chocolatey or fruity. 8/10

Chimay: This breweries lineup comes in four varieties: red, blue, white, and doree (golden). The last I have yet to find, and is quite rare when compared to the others, so I shall confine myself to the red, blue and white.

Red: The Red is the most common and is considered the premiere beer, meaning the most widely distributed and popular. It is dark brown, has a fruity nose, and tastes both sweet and oaky. 8/10

Blue: This ale is classified as the Grande Reserve (meaning of a special stock) that is the second most popular of the Chimay lineup. This beer is a lighter, coppery color, is stronger at 9% alc/vol, has a more complex flavor that is slightly peppery and has notes of caramel. 7/10

White: A golden Tripel, light orange in color, 8% acl/vol, and the most hoppy and crisp tasting of the three. Like many Trappist beers, it has a strong note of fruit to it, reminisicent of grapes and raisins. 7.5/10

I should mention that these beer are definitely an acquired taste, but once acquired, is most appealing to the palate!

La Rochefort 8: Like most Trappist and/or Belgian beers, this brewery produces at least three varieties. In this case, those come in the 6, 8, and 10, corresponding to their alcohol content. The Rochefort 8 is their flagship beer, being the most common and popular. The color is dark, the nose is floral and malty, and the taste is correspondent, being at once smooth, sweet and smooth. Definitely one of my favorites beers and in the top five Belgians! 8.5/10

Westmalle Tripel: As usual, I saved the best for last! Shortly after my favorite beerhall (Vineyards, Ottawa) ran out of my favorite beer (St. Ambroise Millennial Ale), I began searching for a viable replacement. I found it with this, the Westmalle Trappist Tripel. Golden in color, with a crisp taste, slightly hoppy, floral nose and a distinctive, sweet finish, this beer charmed my palate and is still a favorite of mine today. I cannot emphasize enough how this beer combined complexity and subtlety with a fine sense of drinkability, all the while being 9.5% alc/vol. Anytime I pop into Vineyards, I order one. 9/10!