Wednesday, November 30, 2005


Borough Beer Boutique: Utobeer

Little did I know about London Bridge except that it once was falling down, at least according to the children's nursery rhyme.

Truth is that there are actually some real goodies hidden in its near vicinity. Next to Southwark Cathedral there is a cathedral to high quality produce. Every Friday and Saturday the Borough Market opens its gates, conveniently located a few metres from the Southwark Street exit of the London Bridge tube station. Just make sure you hit it before closing times at 6 pm on Fridays and 4 pm on Saturdays.

Most relevant for the beer tourist is what may be the best outlet for quality beers in London, at least when it comes to selection, the Utobeer stall. I have a suspicion that the selection may vary a bit from day to day, but I spotted several interesting French, German, Belgian and American brews as well as British beers. The stall owners are enthusiastic and knowledgable, too.

After a literally heavy shopping spree at Utobeer there are good pubs nearby like the Market Porter to help you regain your strength. And you may need it-the selection at Utobeer is no child's play for a beer tourist with a limited luggage allowance and a human back.

Saturday, November 26, 2005


Pit Stop in Pitfield Street

For beer tourists it is one of those compulsory pit stops in London. The Pitfield Beer Shop is not only one of London's premier beer shops, it also houses a working microbrewery.

Conveniently located just a stone's throw from Old Street tube station in the up-and-coming Hoxton district, the beer shop stocks around 300 beers, mostly British, but also a sizeable Belgian selection.

The day I stopped by they were brewing the Eco Warrier. The brewing takes place in a tiny room next to the shop (behind the closed red gates). I added a bottle of Pitfield Christmas Ale- the label (which was stuck on behind the counter while I was paying) announces that "it's got cinnamon and ginger in it . It's organic and it's vegan." So you can enjoy your Christmas Ale, knowing you have been good this year, too. It certainly gives a good feeling making a pit stop in Pitfield Street.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


Belgian Beer: Give unto the Emperor..

Emperor Charles the 5th (Keizer Karel) is said to have demanded regular supplies of beers from his home turf. The ruler of most of Western Europe was born in Gent in 1500 and raised in Mechelen, which at the time was the capital of the Burgundian Netherlands.

Only right then that Mechelen brewery Het Anker pays its respect to the emperor. In a way, they do so every day with their high quality Gouden Carolus range, commemorating a coin with the Emperor's face on it. They are not alone in celebrating the man. The brewery Haacht brews its Keizer Karel (also called Charles Quint), served in very characteristic four-handled mugs.

However, the prime tribute is made once a year on the Emperor's birthday, 24 February. On this day Het Anker opens its doors to the public and brews the Cuvée van de Keizer, a strong version of the Gouden Carolus.

It is a beer that is likely to improve with age. In my Ratebeer review I recently wrote the following about a 2004 bottle:

"Deep ruby red with modest off-white head. Liquorice, caramel and bitter chocolate aroma.Soft and oily, full body. Initial sweetness is restrained by good bitterness. Lots of fruit and chocolate flavour. A truly great beer, I cannot wait to get my hands on an older "vintage"."

Luckily, I did come across the 2001 bottle, and writing this piece was a good enough excuse to open it. Three years down the road and still going strong. (Though it never was as strong as its 3 year younger brother; the Cuvée has gone from 8.5% in 2001 to a staggering 11% alcohol volume). Fruit (raisins) and chocolate still dominate the aroma and flavours. Still not exhibiting much of the aged beer madeira flavours except for becoming somewhat drier, the big champagne bottle seems to keep it well.

Aged or not aged, the Emperor would certainly have enjoyed this gift.

Sunday, November 20, 2005


Lowlanders' London

There is quite an invasion of Belgian beer on the London bar and restaurant scene. Not only are there Bierodromes in both N1, WC2 and SW4. The Beer Circus has already been mentioned, a name that would have been more appropriate for The Lowlander Grand Café, situated in the heart of London's theatre district, at 36, Drury Lane.

Lowland establishment it may be, but this is still London. My 't IJ Bockbier was served by the pint- a dangerous mix of lowland alcoholic strength and the generous British measures (though, to be honest, I could have asked for a more Continental-style half-pint).

The waiters are polite and professional. Here it is the guests that are playing primadonnas, for instance the young City professional showing off his knowledge to less informed colleagues.

Arriving in the busy hours after work, the place was packed with no seats available. The noise level was high, the Londoners are a loud-speaking lot.

After crossing the Channel this and other Lowland establishments seem to apply a bit more style than their counterparts "back home". The beer list may have few surprises, but holds a decent standard with some 60 different beers on offer.

Another reason for not feeling low in London..

Saturday, November 19, 2005


British Beer Festival: Visible in Woking

Woking enjoys a rather anonymous existence in the English county of Surrey, also known as the stockbroker belt. This is London's suburbia extended. Its claim to fame is being the home of novelist H.G. Wells, author of The Invisible Man (1897), for a couple of years.

This year Woking's 12th annual Beer Festival was held on November 11-12. Getting into the festival proved no easy matter. The festival was divided into three sessions with separate tickets for each. I booked a month in advance and only the Saturday lunchtime session was still available. As the ticket could not be sent out of UK, I had to rely on the safe on the premises, Woking Leisure Centre. No need to worry, though, the ticket was ready for me as I entered the reception.

Woking being a rather small town, I was surprised at the scale and professionalism of the event. Woking Leisure Centre is a rather large indoor sports hall, some 10 - 15 minutes walk from the train station. With sheets hanging from below the ceiling, some beer tent atmosphere was created. Casked ales from almost 50 breweries from all over Britain were available, as was a good range of imported bottled beers. Among the British beers there was an overweight of bitters, as you might have expected in this part of the country. Personally I was not bitter when the lunchtime session came to an end at 3.30, only glad that I took the 25 minute train ride from London in the first place.

A well-organised beer festival like this one absolutely makes Woking visible.

Thursday, November 17, 2005


Beer Circus Bonanza

It seems to be good times for beer circuses these days. Not only has the world's first and foremost beer circus, Le Bier Circus in Brussels, just moved into bigger and brighter premises down the road at rue de l'Enseignement no 57. Britain's equivalent seemed really packed when I arrived one wet Friday evening this November.

The address is 282, High Street in Croydon. Not really in the centre of the world, but not more than half an hour away from it either. Trains from London Bridge and Victoria stations in central London may take some 15 minutes to East Croydon station, from where it is a 15 minute walk. There is even something as continental as a tram line from the station.

I still had to add what seemed another 15 minutes before I got served in this busy bar, better stocked with Belgian beers than all other places I have seen in Britain so far. But then the fun could finally start- as there are some real gems on the menu, beers that are difficult to get across even in Belgium.

For those in know, there is not much circus about these venues, neither in Brussels nor in London. The old Bier Circus café at rue de l'Enseignement no 89 took its name from the Koninklijke Circus (the Royal Circus) next door. Don't expect royalties around these great beer bars, but they are quite entertaining anyway.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


Norwegian Beer: Black Christmas

It looks like it is going to be a black Christmas. I am not referring to global warming, even though that is evident too.

Most of the Norwegian micro brews seems to have gone dark this Christmas. Understandably for the Julefnugg- literally Christmas (snow) flake- brewed by the Berentsens brewhouse in Egersund, the dark mainland of Norway ( a term used to describe the Bible Belt in Norway, probably stemming from the many missionaries leaving the area, bound for Livingstone's dark continent). Long journeys were incidentally the background also for the beer styles emerging this Christmas from the Norwegian microbreweries, the Imperial Stout or the Baltic Porter.

The new Christmas beers have got a somewhat mixed review with some critics claiming that the traditional Norwegian Christmas beers, more in the bock tradition, provide a better match to traditional, fat Norwegian Christmas food dishes like pork and lamb ribs.

The critics can be attacked on two grounds. First of all, the bock beers are not the most natural matches to the fatty dinner dishes in the first place. Second, to most people Christmas represents a two week long, non-stop eating orgie of everything digestable from ribs to sausages to nuts and chocolate and seven sorts of cakes. You need a great variety of beer styles to match that bill!

So all in all, a Black Christmas may not be such a bad dream. It may in fact be much better than a Weiss or even a Wit one.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


Belgian Beer: Blown Away by Blaugies

You could take it literally. The big bottles from the little brewery of Blaugies, 300 metres from the French border in the Wallony province of Hainaut (even with the address of Rue de la Frontière), does represent a hazard to your health.

First of all, you have to survive the uncorking process- remove the wire and keep the bottleneck pointed away from yourself (unless you're a masochist, that is). The cork may come out rather violently. However, the danger is not over. Once you have tasted La Moneuse or its Christmas version or their Saison d'Epeautre you might become addicted. These are dangerously tasty beers.

Moreover, their availability is rather limited. Luckily, one source would be De Bier Tempel, the most professional and most easily accessible speciality beer shop in Brussels, located a stone's throw from Grand' Place at Rue Marché Aux Herbes, a must-see for any beer tourist to Belgium. They even have a shop in Brugge now (which is, in my view, better stocked and organised than the original outlet in Brussels).

The Blaugies beers are mostly original (and spiced) versions of the traditional Hainaut beer style of saison. The wheat with all its proteines is a likely contributor to the fantastic head.

It certainly made my head spin...


Red Label for Christmas

The Christmas beers have just arrived in Norway. It is the one time every year when the newspapers take some interest in the beer scene, arranging blind tastings where the winner might just as well be the one nearest in taste to the everyday pilsner.

I think the award for the nicest Christmas beer label this year should go the Nissefar label from the newly started Haandbryggeriet. Red for Christmas with an innovative design and informative, too.

Though when it comes to information content few can beat the new Nøgne Ø label series. Stating not only bottling date (in addition to the largely irrelevant best before date for this bottle-conditioned type of beer) and batch no., the brewers also take pride in telling us the malt, hop and yeast varieties used, the degrees Plato and the IBUs (International Bittering Units). With even advice on how to store and serve it (no, not half-frozen as is common with bland lagers), how can you go wrong?

Back to Nissefar, the (Christmas) gnome, or specifically the beer itself, which is not at all bad. To quote from my Ratebeer review:

"Dark, almost black, with a creamy beige head. Roasted malts aroma with hints of coffee and chocolate. The flavour is sweet, but balanced, ending dry.Chocolate and roasted malts are dominating. There is even a hint of some refreshing citrus. Full body, soft."

The bland lager loving newspaper critics would hate it.....

Saturday, November 05, 2005


Christmas comes twice

Yesterday was the start of the two month Christmas season in Norway. Not only were the stronger Christmas beers released by my local Vinmonopolet store (the state liquor store selling alcoholic beverages stronger than 4.75% alcohol volume), it was also the day of the Norwegian Christmas Beer Festival.

Held in the dark basement of Chateau Neuf- party venue for the Oslo students- it was already quite lively when I arrived two and a half hours after the opening.

Not too many stands could be spotted; the two big brewery groups were there, the great little Nøgne Ø brewery faithfully turned up, as did two other microbreweries. A stand with imported beer completed the list.

The guests had to drink their beers from plastic glasses- on the podium sat the wise men, four of them for the occasion, sipping beers from tiny wine glasses- without uttering a word. Slightly bizarre, if you ask me.

Altogether no more than 23 brews were on offer, 8 of which were imported and 8 representing the big brewery groups. Not an amazing choice- I was a bit disappointed that so few microbreweries found it worth the effort of participating. But then again effort seems to be a scarce resource in this country.

Not wanting to appear like a grumpy old man let me add that the atmosphere was relaxed and friendly, and craft brews offered by the microbreweries were excellent.

For me it was a nice warming-up session before visiting maybe Europe's best Christmas beer festival in 6 weeks time, taking place in the little Flemish border town of Essen, a short train ride north of Antwerpen. There virtually all Belgian Christmas beers can be enjoyed. Needless to say there would be more than 23 beers to choose from! It is like Christmas coming twice.

Friday, November 04, 2005


Bière de garde (or not)

Bières de garde (or beers to keep) are France's unique contribution to beer culture. Labelled as such (at least according to Ratebeer) was also Hommelpap by the microbrewery Ferme Beck in Northern France.

Maybe the beer is somewhat inspired by the renowned Poperings Hommelbier from just across the border by Van Eecke. Anyway, the presentation is one of the best around with the label taking the shape of a hop cone. I had certainly enjoyed the beer at a beer festival in the small town of Temse, Oost-Vlaanderen (East Flanders) earlier this autumn.

But, as you can see from my Ratebeer review, I wasn't too pleased with what poured out the grand bottle:

"Strangely unpleasant wet dog aroma with some orange peel in the background. Sweet malty flavours balanced by harsh bitterness. Notes of orange peel. Below average carbonation, texture is rather thin."

Indeed, the whole style of bière de garde seems to be watered out, not least by the French themselves. According to one French beer merchant any beer from the region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais could pass as a bière de garde. As most of them are bottle-conditioned and thus should keep well, this is plausible enough. However, I believe most beer enthusiasts expect to meet a musty, cellar-like aroma when they open a bière de garde, like for instance the magnificent Milliacus Ambrée.

Let's hope that the beer style biére de garde keeps better than this Hommelpap...

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