Sunday, August 28, 2005


Norwegian Beer: Haandbryggeriet (or There IS life in the beer tundra)

The permafrost may be thawing, though it certainly did not feel like that walking through Oslo's street tonight. Every morning on my way to work I pass by several tank lorries pumping Ringnes beer into the tanks at Oslo's bars and nightclubs. This is the Norwegian beer scene anno 2005- light golden alcoholic water from the almost monopolistic beer producer (calling them brewers I would not, since that is a craft profession) makes sure that people get their alcoholic dosage. Beer is what beer does.

But something strange is happening, even in the country that boasts to be different. Brewers are appearing- enthusiasts that have a desire to create craft brews, despite the hurdles imposed by a government obsessed with alcohol taxes and regulation, monopolistic industry practices and the ignorant consumer.

Already the Norwegian microbrewer Den Nøgne Ø (meaning The Naked Island) is making world-class beers, beers that are prominently displayed even in Denmark, an up-and-coming beer heaven. Now a new brewery has been set up in Drammen, a town just west of Oslo and home of the long-standing, independent Aas brewery, which in between the regular lagers also produce a couple of interesting beers.

The new brewery is called Haandbryggeriet, the old-fashioned, but English-compatible spelling of what translates as the Hand Brewery, and the brewers started brewing as a hobby (hobby brewers are also now as hand brewers in Denmark, by the way).

My friend and I had the pleasure of tasting brew nos. 1 and 4, Bavarian Weizen and India Pale Ale, respectively, at a café that looked like a likely Ringnes outlet, cheap and scruffy. The place, Newman's Pub, next to the Eldorado cinema, seemed to be an unlikely outlet for a quality brew, but the place surprised by also housing a huge billiard venue. There may be more to a place than meets the eye from the outside. In this case, the other Drammen beer on tap may easily be the connection to the craft brewers.

The beers were over-carefully poured at almost freezing temperatures, so that the Bavarian Weizen appeared almost without any head, which is rather atypical for the style, to put it mildly. Both were hazy amber, the weizen lightly so. Of the two I would say the India Pale Ale was the more successful. Only 6.5% but with a good citrus aroma from the hops, balanced by some caramel malt flavour. Not bad for the first attempt, though still a long way to go to reach the Nøgne Ø India Pale Ale (both typical US west Coast interpretations of the style). The yeast did not settle very well, though, so the last centimeters of the 77 kroner (equals almost 10 euro) half litre bottle were rather unattractively muddy. The weizen was rather more lightweight at 5.5% alcohol, but with the typical banana and bubblegum aromas. The finish was more bitter than expected.

Despite my reservations this is an exciting new entrant on the Norwegian beer scene. I look forward to serving this beer at home at a more aroma-friendly temperature, literally serving the beers more justice, hopefully before its becoming winter in this lager beer tundra.....


Belgian Beer Cafés: Kulminator

Much has been written about this place. To cut it short, it is one of the world's top beer cafés and famous worldwide for its vintage beers, some of them dating as far back as to the seventies. It is probably the beer café that made the whole concept of vintage beers known to beer lovers and for many it is the primary reason for visiting Antwerpen.

Nothing wrong in that, but Antwerpen has a lot to offer besides Kulminator. In fact, it may be the most under-rated city in this under-rated country. So I would recommend that you make at least one nights stay in Antwerpen. If you insist on staying in Brussels, know that the last train back from Antwerpen Centraal on weekdays is at 23.23 with the IC I train, on Saturdays you have to get on the IC N train leaving at 23.09. On Sundays this Beer Mecca is closed. You should also allow for 20 minutes to get to the central station from Kulminator, more if you have indulged in decades old trappist beers the whole evening.

On the picture is Leen, who together with her husband Dirk van Dyck (co-founder of the Objectieve Bierproevers-OBF, the forerunner of today's beer lover organisation Zythos) has been running this establishment for more than 25 years. She is about to hand out the beer list- a monster containing some 500-600 beers to a guest. Many of the beers have not been brewed for decades, so do not worry if you do not recognize the names- Leen (who is the most likely to serve the guests) will know them all.

They open late on Mondays (at 20.15) and on Saturdays (at 17.00), other weekdays you can start enjoying their vintage beers at noon. A good tip would be to come here on an "ordinary" day, avoiding the nights of the 24-hour beer festival or the Essen Christmas beer festival, when the place can get pretty packed (and being a husband-and-wife establishment) service be on the slow side. The atmosphere is serene with classical music in the background, only interrupted by a street musician begging for money or a drink.

Kulminator is located slightly off the main tourist area, in the street of Vleminckveld, 5 minutes walk from the Meir or Groenplaats. You can read the newspaper or some magazines or study all the beer gadgets surrounding you (do they ever throw things away here?). Or just reflect on the great beers or life in general. The choice is yours- here there are few intrusions.

Sunday, August 21, 2005


Belgian Beer Cafés: In den Spytighen Duvel, Turnhout

One of the truly great things about travelling in Belgium is that you can get around to almost every little place by means of public transport.
Which is definitely an advantage when exploring the Belgian beer café scene. The Belgians themselves may still be slightly more relaxed about taking a beer and driving, which may be just another good reason for taking the train.

Tim Webb's splendid Good Beer Guide Belgium will probably make you visit not so obvious spots on the Belgian map. In this case, his book enticed me to go to Turnhout - the destination was In den Spytighen Duvel- the spiteful devil.

Less than 39,000 souls populate this little town on the outskirts of Antwerpen province, close to the Dutch border. Not really a tourist spot, I did the place as an afternoon trip from Antwerpen.

The IR g train- IR meaning interregio, inter-region, usually a bit slower than inter-city, IC, trains leave Brussels South station at x.14 in the weekdays, passing by Mechelen and Lier and arriving in Turnhout some 72 minutes later. In the weekend the IR g train leaves from Antwerpen Centraal instead at x.56, arriving in Turnhout after 52 minutes travel. Going there from Antwerpen on a weekday (note that the café is closed on Mondays, though) I had to connect in Lier.

It is actually a good 15 minute walk from the station, which you may keep in mind if you have to catch the last train at 22.34 on weekdays and as early as 21.12 on weekends. There are few good reasons for being stuck at this outpost overnight- as a border town it may well attract more than its fair share of dubious individuals. Attractions other than the beer café are few, despite a glorious history, having been the seat of government.

And the Spytighen Duvel itself? Not bad for such a small place with some 300 quality beers on the menu. Moreover, the atmosphere is relaxed and the owner (seemingly a one-man shop) takes his time to pour the beer in a proper fashion for you, in the correct glasses and at not-too-cold temperatures. The only thing lacking was that special beer, aged or not, that is not available elsewhere. But such a sour remark on this fine establishment makes me sound like a spiteful devil...

Friday, August 19, 2005


Belgian Beer: The Big Trappists (or the Battle of the Giants)

Admittedly, it was an ambitious task for a late Friday night, after a long week at work. I think it was spurred by the recent news reports on Westvleteren's inability to meet the demand for their world class beer, rated the best in the world at ratebeer, extensively discussed on the yahoo group belgianbeer, moderately by Flemish beer enthusiast Filip Geerts.

I still felt a head-to-head tasting would be appropriate to learn more about the characteristics of these unique beers. I was tempted to add a third beer to the tasting, St Bernardus Abt, which I believe is very closely related in style to these two great trappist beers, in addition to the historical links with the Sint-Sixtus abbey of Westvleteren. However, Westvleteren 12 and Rochefort, 10.2% and 11.3% alcohol by volume, respectively, are heavy enough to handle by themselves, adding a third heavyweight to the scene could just turn ugly.

Though I have to add that these are a rather young (and in my opinion, marked by so many visits to Beer Heaven on Earth, alias beer café Kulminator in Antwerpen) premature examples of God's own beers. I suppose this is how His beers would taste on the first day of creation. My Westvleteren beer has an expiration date of 14.03.08, so it was bottled three years earlier, in March 2005. The Rochefort has 18.05.10 printed on the label; so the bottling date would be five years before, in May 2005. As you can see, the bottles did not last beyond August 2005.

Both are deep reddish-brown beers, the Rochefort being ever so slightly darker. Both pours with a nice (though restrained) heads that leaves a lot of lace on the glass. The froth of the Rochefort is rather tan, whereas its sister at Westvleteren shows off an off-white head.

Aroma (and flavour) contradicts the initial impression, though. Using terms from the wine tasting world, I am tempted to apply light-coloured fruits to describe the aroma and flavour of Rochefort and darker fruits for the Westvleteren beer. For the latter I felt the chocolate taste was more present. Light-coloured fruit includes pears and bananas , whereas for darker fruits I get associations to prunes and raisins in this case.

I have to admit that I have always had a soft spot for the Rochefort 10, feeling that it has not received the attention it deserved from beer lovers (as opposed to the mythical Westvleteren beers). Loving the bitter chocolate, toffeeish, raisiny flavours of aged beers it should not come as a big surprise that my sympathies have been changed by this tasting. Or maybe Rochefort 10 is the (not so ugly) duckling that needs a few more years before showing off its superior qualities?

Saturday, August 13, 2005


Belgian Beer: Oude Gueuze

Ok, normally I only drink only one beer at a time. The other night I found an excuse to open three bottles at a time. I did so knowing that I was dealing with the champagnes among beers (no, I am not referring to the new invention by the Buggenhout breweries)- I was in for an evening of Oude Gueuze. I had secured one bottle each of oude gueuzes from Hanssens, Drie Fonteinen and Oud Beersel. The latter is now out of business- all the gueuzes were bottled in 2003 or early 2004.

My suspicion was that of all beers these were the least likely to go flat after a few hours. I was not disappointed. Mostly due to what was available at the Dorstvlegel beer store in Antwerpen they were all of (almost) the same "vintage"- a fact I was quite content with as I started my tasting session, since these are prime examples of beers that develop over time.

All the three are dark golden in colour, pouring with a nice head. Of the three Hanssens had the least persistent head. Hanssens also distinguished itself as not quite as dry as the other two, maybe the colour was even a touch darker as well.

Whereas Hanssens displayed a complex fruitiness with a hint of melon, the oude gueuze from Oud Beersel had a marked green apples taste. The latter also had a very dry finish.

Dry bitterness was a defining trait in the other entry from the town of Beersel, namely the highly esteemed Drie Fonteinen oude gueuze. I would have to say that the hints of citrus, apricots and oaky vanilla (without being overpowering) made the latter slightly more complex.

For me the comparative tasting shed more light over the unique characteristics of these rare beers. Hopefully, there is still a bit left of my teeth's enamel for another gueuze tasting in the future.

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