Thursday, June 18, 2009


Virgin Beer Festival

Øl og Mat. Or Beer & Food. Light years away from Rome's Bir & Fud, mind you. In more ways than one, it was not only the cool Oslo summer night that marked a stark contrast to its hotter namesake in Rome. While the latter is maybe my absolute favourite beer bar in the world, with a passion for craft beer that you are unlikely to find (expressed) anywhere else, the former is a new entrant on the Norwegian beer scene, still struggling to find its feet.

Øl og Mat is a virgin beer festival hosted in the biggest park in central Oslo, the Sofienbergsparken, located in the trendy neighbourhood of Grünerløkka- far from as cool as Friedrichshain, but less gentrified than Islington.

No jokes about their ambitions, though- the festival fills up a big chunk of the park (much to the annoyance of local Christian People's Party representatives who do not believe much in joy this side of death). I have to admit that my initial enthusiasm was soon replaced by skepticism when I saw the beer list- how can you promote craft beers in Norway when our two most excellent craft breweries, Nøgne Ø and Haandbryggeriet, are not even there with a small tasting?

Craft or not, the scale was impressive for Oslo, even though there were many empty seats on this windy Wednesday evening (plus there was a big Metallica concert 1 kilometre away competing for attention). Though the volume of the rock band playing inside the biggest tent indicated that they were up to the challenge.

Each country likes to do things their own way when it comes to beer festivals, it seems. In Belgium and the Netherlands tokens ("bonnen") rule; in the UK, cash is king. In connected Norway you refill your festival card yourself at the terminals near the gate. Practical as this may be, there is no hiding the fact that the price level is quite steep for a beer festival- 2,50 euros for the card, 3 euros for the tasting glass and 5 euros each for 20 cl tastings.

Cold numbers aside, warm thanks go to the Danish craft brewer Svaneke which provided an extensive range of beers to the festival, many of which I have not tasted before. Personally I do not think that all their beers rock the world, but showing up in force at this festival proves their commitment to the cause (unlike their Norwegian counterparts, one may argue). Also the Scottish craft beer range was quite extensive, but these beers you can already find at premium super markets in the Norwegian capital.

The atmosphere is undeniably amicable for such a big scene with a good mix of people. Knowledgeable middle-aged craft beer lovers can be spotted, but here and there are even some young beauties brave enough to try a Skull Splitter (some of them possibly craft beer virgins).

Virgins themselves at arranging this kind of festival, I have to say that the festival is better than feared. There is no reason for seasoned Ratebeerians to make their pilgrimage to the Øl & Mat festival in Oslo, but for those of us who live here, it does add some flavour to a city that only has one (or possibly two) beer bars of real class.

It is achieved mostly with a little help from international, rather than national, friends. The bar tenders may be all Swedish (like in the rest of Oslo), but ultimately it is the Danish craft brewer Svaneke and its Anglo-Saxon equivalents that represent the craft in the beer festival. The Norwegian alibi was provided by a specially crafted festival beer from Oslo Mikrobryggery that was quite decent, too. All in all, not too bad a performance for a virgin, I guess.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009


Kris Not To Be Missed

I have for too long. Regularly in London, yet still managed to avoid this find.

Kris Wines is the second best beer shop in London, but the number one, the Utobeer stall, is only available during the limited Borough Market hours. On contrast, Kris is available even in late, post-meeting hours.

Not all roads lead to Kris, and my route is probably not one you would try out a late evening wearing your most flashy designer gear. Having attended quite a few beer festivals, my observation is that the latter may not pose too much of a problem to many beer enthusiasts.

The route involved taking the Piccadilly line to Caledonian Road, just one (long) stop east of King's Cross St. Pancras, and making the 10 minute walk up North Road to this splendid beer and wine shop in 394 York Way. From the tube station you get a glimpse of the imposing Emirates Stadium- on Saturdays the fashion code is red and white Emirates shirts in this area. The walk continues past 19th century buildings, full of character despite having seen the ravages of time, dreadful post-war estates that have fared much worse, and then there is the odd noughties building with solid fences around.

Finally inside this unimposing off-licence an impressive arsenal of craft beers- both international and British- await you. Among the international guys, the Belgians impress the most, but the British selection is still the main draw to me.

I think I have found my new, regular hotspot in the British capital, besides The Wenlock Arms. Both offer sufficient ammunition for most beer hunters, in my opinion.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


Olympen of Oslo

I suppose the name must have sounded pretentious for this working-class area of Oslo at the time. Olympen Mat og Vinhus (Olympen Food and Winehouse) was soon brought down from its olympic heights and became known as Lompa (the sausage wrap) on the locals' lips.

These days the lips can get to taste more than sausages in this historic beer hall. The building was raised in 1892 by the former Schous brewery. Prior to its latest refurbishment Olympen used to be one of the brownest cafés around, a place where nicotine stains would be your stamps of approval. There are nine big paintings on the walls with motives from this poor neighbourhood a century ago, and they all had to undergo extensive cleaning as part of the refurbishment.

Luckily, the bland Ringnes beers (Ringnes took over and closed the Schous brewery) have also been shown the door in the process. The bottled beer selection now reaches 25, and seems very well picked with craft brewers representing Norway and all the major beer nations. The five tap beers at the time of my first visit were all macro beers, but that is about to change. I was told that the Nøgne Ø and Smaa Vesen microbrewers would be there to install their taps just days later, to be followed by the Haandbryggeriet. Nøgne Ø will have a seasonal tap beer, starting with their porter. Sounds promising, if you ask me.

There is more than beer to Olympen. It may be one of the grandest cafés in the whole of Oslo (yes, maybe even grander than the unbeery Grand Café located on Oslo's version of Champs Elysée, Karl Johans gate) with its huge chandeliers and high ceiling. I thought I even spotted some craft beer interest from the young bar man, but maybe I was just hallucinating. Anyway, upstairs is a rather less beery, but no less stylish and cosmopolitan night club, Pigalle.

Welcoming and open the café remains until 1 am early in the week (including Sunday), stretching it to the regulatory maximum of 3 am later in the week. If you are looking for a drink later than that in the over-regulated country of Norway, you have better find a private "nachspiel" or have a well-stocked fridge at home.

Oh, and did I mention that my home is just a stone's throw away?

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Saturday, August 02, 2008


Heerlijk at De Heeren

De he(e)ren- the gentlemen- in question are the De Four brothers, the men behind the outstanding beer café and restaurant De Heeren van Liedekercke (DHL). If there is a café in Belgium where only superlatives apply, this must be it.

The barrels in front of the building are promising enough signs, but as usual in Belgium there is more than meets the eye. The restaurant is on the ground floor, and there is a nice garden terrasse at the back in addition to the downstairs seatings. When the café/restaurant is busy (and even when it is not), it is not a bad idea to sit close to the bar to attract the waiter's attention.

Joost De Four may be the master of the beer bar and cellar, but his brother Tom rules in the kitchen. He has received many awards over the years; best game chef in Belgium, best fish cook, and recently the best sandwiches in Vlaanderen were also said to stem from his kitchen. My beef in champignon sauce made with Pater Lieven Tripel was definitely a culinary highlight on my latest trip to Belgium. At the Zythos Bierfestival they have been known to promote bierpralines, made in cooperation with a chocolatier in Aalst. As with chocolate and beer, the brothers are an unbeatable combination.

Perfectionism also shone when the wedding between Joost and Jessica was celebrated five years ago. Two oude geuze were specially commissioned from the then (just) geuze blender Drie Fonteinen: J&J Oude Geuze Blauw (for the groom) and J&J Oude Geuze Roze (for the bride)- the former is a blend of 1 year old Lindemans lambiek and 4 year old Girardin lambiek, whereas the latter is a blend of 1 year old Boon lambiek with 3 years old Girardin lambiek. As expected when the best beer café in Belgium teams up the best geuze blender, the result is world-class beers. They are only available at the DHL, but in Belgium you can even buy beers to take away from cafés, a practice unheard of in over-regulated, stern Northern Europe.

Welcoming as the place is, you will still be faced with closed doors on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and with limited opening hours on Mondays outside the summer season. You can get there by train or by De Lijn, but the train is faster. From Brussel there are direct trains to Liedekerke. From there it is a 20 minute walk along the seemingly never-ending Stationstraat. Iddergem station (make sure not to confuse it with Idegem station on the same line; believe me, the only facility there while waiting for the train back is a frituur café) is closer, but you will have to change trains at Denderleeuw. The next big railway project may well bring it even closer. Inspired by the Parisian RER, the GEN - a regional express network around Brussels - is being built. My hope is that whilst bringing beer tourists easier to Liedekerke and around in Payottenland, the network does not challenge this unique part of Vlaanderen with its rich beer culture.

De Heeren van Liedekercke is indeed situated just a stone's throw from Payottenland- the Liedekerke municipality and the Vlaams-Brabant province are just across the nearby river Dender. No wonder then that DHL is especially strong on the lambiek and geuze family.

There is also an old beer list, but you have to ask for it. It may not be as extensive as at Kulminator, but it is very well-picked, featuring many geuze treats from breweries long gone. I had a Kriek from the now defunct brewery De Wets; De Heeren estimate that it was bottled in 1990. 18 years later the burgundy-coloured beer still produce a smallish white head. The body has probably gotten thinner with the years (though I was too young to taste it in 1990), but the port aroma is potent as can be. Good raisins aromas and flavours as well as some cellar character. You can still taste the cherries, though. Truth is that greatness ages well, and if I had been allowed to rate it on, I would have given it 4.4 out of 5 (but the Belgian administrators of that site run a stricter regime of which beers can be entered than their UK and US counterparts, especially for defunct breweries where only few bottles remain commercially available).

DHL is strong on trappists as well, aged or not. Indeed, if you order an Orval, you will get a bottle that has been aged for 6 months unless you specifically ask for a fresh bottle. The Ambassadeur Orval title was granted to 340 cafés, taverns and restaurants which promote Orval with good presentation, service and originality. An obvious PR stunt from the brewery's side, but needless to say, DHL qualifies.

Another trappist, Westmalle, have coasters reading "Heerlijk duurt het langst" - the delicious lasts longest ( a pun on the proverb "Eerlijk duurt het langst" - honesty lasts longest). As any visit to De Heeren van Liedekercke is likely to be a delicious experience, it promises well for the future of Belgium's no 1 beer café.

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Friday, July 18, 2008


Peaceful Pilgrimage

"In Flanders Fields the poppies blow".

In the western corner of Vlaanderen, De Westhoek, not only poppies, but also hops grow. The area is home to some of the best brewers in the world, notably the Sint-Sixtusabdij at Westvleteren and De Struise Brouwers, who brew at Deca brewery in nearby Woesten-Vleteren.

The former is already a beer tourist pilgrimage destination, and the ostrich farm of the latter may well gain popularity with the opening of a brewery shop there.

The abbey of Sint-Sixtus itself, including its brewhouse, is beyond reach, and the brewery outlet also has more limited availability these days. It is open only from 2-5 pm, closed on Fridays and Sundays, and beers can only be bought (in crates of 24 bottles) with a reservation. The new restrictions seem to have relieved the surrounding area of the traffic jam that arose after the great publicity around the Westvleteren beers being rated as the world's best.

The most likely source for beers to take away may well be the little shop in a corner of the café and visitors centre, In de Vrede (The Peace). It is just across the street ("in the shadow of the Sint-Sixtus abbey"), owned by the abbey and open every day except Friday, the day of the crucifiction. The beer is sold in nice-looking sixpacks.

On the day of my visit, only the Extra was available from the shop. Judging from the best-before date, which is 3 years after the bottling date for all the Westvleteren beers (a mere formality, of course, since at least the 8 and 12 will improve for years beyond that if stored correctly), the beer had just been released from the warm room. There it is conditioned at 26 degrees Celcius for 10 days, according to Chuck Cook, one of the anointed few to get granted a visit behind the abbey walls.

As can be seen from the picture, the monks recommend that their beer be served and stored somewhat cooler than that; to be kept at 12-18 degrees C and served at 12-16 degrees is their recommendation.

Served at correct temperature and in great condition are all the three beers in the café proper, where one quarter of the total production ends up. In addition to the beer, the café serves up lighter meals such as a hommelpaptaart - hop porridge tart- that actually does not feature any hops in its recipe. Indirectly it certainly does, as it is made with the hoppy Poperings Hommelbier from local brewer Van Eecke. The ice cream, however, is made with Westvleteren Extra/ Westvleteren Blauw (the blue cap)/ Westvleteren 8- a dear child is known by many names. As always, for all you want to know about Abdij Sint-Sixtus and In de Vrede few web sites are as thorough as the one of the late John White.

Though spacious, In de Vrede fills up quickly in summer; many of the tables may already have been reserved. Judging from my observations, the combination of quiet country roads and world-class beer is appearantly not a good recruiting ground for a Bob- the term for a designated driver in the Low Countries.

My Bob was the belbus, the De Lijn mini bus on call, which leaves once an hour (if needed) and must be booked two hours in advance. For out-of-towners it is worth noting that the timetable seems to correspond well with the hourly train from the terminus of Poperinge. It is not unlikely, however, that the likeable little West-Vlaanderen town of Poperinge, famous for its hops and hop festival, may lure you to stay a little longer. There is a hop museum and a couple of decent bars. Among them is another café dedicated to peace, Café de la Paix.

The café names cannot disguise the fact that De Westhoek will forever be associated with The Great War rather than peace. After Poperinge the train calls at Ieper, the end of the line for a generation of men some ninety years ago, where the evidence of WWI is everywhere, but few places as strongly as at the Menenpoort with its 54,900 names of men lost and where the Last Post is played every evening.

The Flanders Fields have some chilling reminders of the horrors mankind can create. On the other hand, their brewers also prove what greatness can be achieved.

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Sunday, July 06, 2008


Domestic in Diest: Ons te Huis

The doors have closed for the last time for many Belgian beer cafés over the last few years, especially those off the beaten track. As the Belgians are drinking less beer, their beer cafés are becoming more dependent on beer tourists from abroad.

I was lucky enough to visit both Kaffee Barbier and Café 206, but never came around to blog about the latter, situated in the Antwerpen village of Sint-Katelijne-Waver, before it was too late. I regret not making it to Eglantier in Sint-Truiden or De Oude Speye in Damme. The best remaining beer cafés in rural Belgium are mostly weekend-only establishments, where the owners are making a living outside the less lucrative café business during the week. Examples of the latter are 't Kroegske and De Gans.

On the tourist trail the story is quite the opposite. The beer scenes in Brussels, Brugge and Gent are booming. The best beer selection these days is found at Delirium Café in Brussels and at Bierbrasserie Cambrinus in Brugge, cafés that have seen the light of day only during the last few years.

So it was with curiosity and delight that I approached a great "new" beer café in the less-visited, northeastern corner of Flemish Brabant, specifically in the little town of Diest. Ons te Huis, which translates as At our Home, has been around for some years, but this year their beer selection trebled as they started combining as a beer store. The deal is that the 170 beers in the yellow section of the menu are available cool and served in their correct glasswares. The 350 beers in the green section of the menu are from the beer store, but if you want them served in the café, just let the barman (or woman) know half an hour before, and he will have the bottle cooled for you.

The café may look quite plain, not unlike the bars found across the border in the Netherlands, but the service is unparallelled (the barman even helped me remove the beer labels for my collection). Winand and Moncy, the couple running the place, make sure that Diestenaars and others who find their way to Diest, are faced with an open door 7 days a week from early morning till late at night (the only exception being Mondays, when their home opens at 4 pm). Many of the beers are hard to hit elsewhere, and they are without exception sold at very democratic prices.

Indeed, my wish is that the locals vote with their feet and take advantage of the hospitality offered by Ons te Huis. It may not be the closest to the big sights, but in my opinion the rich beer culture of Belgium is dependent on locals like this to stay open.

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Saturday, March 08, 2008


Where is Welschland?

Belgium is not the only country split along linguistic lines in Europe, but there is a country that tackles it much better. Whereas the best Swiss microbreweries are looking to Belgium for inspiration, the reverse should have been true for Belgian politicians. But then again, copying the Swiss model would leave many of them without a job, so I suppose it is out of question.

Switzerland has as many as four official languages with Romansh having the same marginal role as German in Belgium. Meanwhile, in Switzerland the German-speaking region, Deutschschweiz (mind the consonants if you are drinking!), is by far the biggest.

Welschland is a schwützerdütsch (the Swiss dialect that can frustrate any student of Hochdeutsch) nickname for the Swiss French-speaking region (which prefers to be called Romandie).

The is nothing derogatory about Welschland in Zürich, however. A wealth of artisanal products from the Western, French-speaking part of Switzerland is competing for your attention (and luggage space), including sausages, wine, cheese and, of course, beer. At the time of my visit they had only 10 beers, all lined up in the picture, far less than the major beer supplier in town, the centrally located Drinks of the World. Unless you have a particular liking for similar-tasting blond lagers though, you will find the beers of Welschland far more rewarding.

In fact, I encountered surprisingly few memorable beers from Deutschschweiz despite its proximity to Germany. The friendly co-owner of the Welschland delicatessen explained that the poor growing conditions for grapes, especially in the cooler Jura canton, paved the way for beer brewing there. It cannot fully explain why all the best craft beers are made in that region.

One of them, BFM- Brasserie des Franches-Montagne, occupies 10 of the top 20 twenty ratings for Swiss beers on Ratebeer, a position resembling that of Nøgne Ø in Norway. The decent beers of the Trois Dames brewery of the nearby Vaud canton do not reach that high only because they are generally rated by too few people. Both give a successful Swiss twist to beer styles originating in Belgium and beyond.

La Salamandre by BFM was among the beers in my luggage that managed to escape the destructive efforts of the SAS Ground Staff at Copenhagen Airport- for their careless and beer-hostile luggage handling I wish they be served Bud Light in all eternity. In contrast, La Salamandre is orange golden and cloudy with an admittedly minimal head. The nose is acid and complex, revealing lemons, orange zest and spices. Flirting with geuze characteristics. The sour lemony and orange zest flavours find balancing honey sweetness. An outstanding beer - a flavourful ambassador for this otherwise neutral country.

Unlike the Belgians the Swiss always preferred to perfect their own little world rather than conquering the rest of it. Unfortunately, perfectionist Switzerland seldom turns out beers that deviate from the main. But when they actually do, their craft beers should feature high among enthusiasts worldwide. Finding the good stuff remains a challenge, though.

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