Friday, January 27, 2006


Draconian Men's Beer

Gulden Draak or Golden Dragon may give oriental associations, but there is a Norwegian angle as well.

It is not just the red stocking cap worn by the golden dragon. Traditionally worn by gnomes and seen as a symbol of Norwegian introvertedness and naïvety.

In fact, the golden dragon wears the red stocking cap only on the Christmas beer label. The commercially adept brewery of Van Steenberge in Ertvelde, north of Gent in Oost-Vlaanderen, readily admits that the beer, Gulden Draak Vintage, is not really a vintage beer; it is just their name for the Christmas beer version of Gulden Draak. Unusually for a Christmas beer, at “only” 7.5% ABV it is weaker than the everyday, “plain” Gulden Draak , which is a dark heavy-weight reaching 10.5% ABV.

It is still a very well-made Christmas beer. On top of the hazelnut coloured beer rests a rich and lasting, creamy tan head. Spicy yeasty aroma escapes the glass. There are fruity flavours with chocolate and raisins, some underlying sourness as well as good bitterness and dry yeastiness to keep the sweetness in balance. Alcoholic, almost port-like.Good carbonation and full body, too.

The Norwegian king, Sigurd Jorsalfar (Sigurd the Crusader) was by no means a weakling, either. In 1107 -1110 he led the Norwegian contingent in support of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, hence the nickname. According to the saga king Sigurd was well received by the emperor of Constantinople (Istanbul), and when he finally was leaving "he gave the emperor all his ships; and the valuable figureheads which were on the king's ships were set up in Peter's church, where they have since been to be seen."

The saga did not foresee that less than a century later Boudewijn IX, Count of Flanders, became the Emperor of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, taking the Golden Dragon figurehead with him back to Flanders. Today the gilded copper dragon (or rather a replica of it) crowns the belfry of Gent, a UNESCO site.

The Gulden Draak, Vintage or not, is certainly not a beer for the red stocking cap-wearing lager drinkers. Like the dragon itself it is for the well-travelled.

Sunday, January 22, 2006


The Danes Are Coming!

Becoming a beer tourist is no hard choice for a craft beer enthusiast in Norway. It is a necessity. Visitors to Norway are horrified by the price level in general and on alcohol in particular. If they can afford a little more time here, they will also learn the system of state liquor stores, Vinmonopolet, which takes care of retail sales of all alcoholic beverages stronger than 4.75% ABV.

The price level is one thing - it does not seem to deter the relatively affluent Norwegians. Unlike the similar system in Sweden, the Systembolaget, the Vinmonopolet never seemed to care much about their beer side of the business, though things may gradually be changing.

One example is the craft brew revolution at our neighbours to the south, that seemed to have escaped unnoticed by the purchasing staff at the Vinmonopolet, which until recently only had 1 Danish craft brew in store, the excellent Limfjordsporter.

But in their January release two new Danish craft brews were suddenly made available, both from Husbryggeriet Jacobsen, Carlsberg's own microbrewery in Copenhagen. With Carlsberg's ties with the Norwegian mass market brewer Ringnes, it is hardly surprising that the Jacobsen brews are the first to appear.

The beers are a solid Dark Lager and a somewhat disappointing IPA. The bottles are a joy for the eye, a prime example of Danish design, inspired by the lighthouse at Valby near the brewery.

The Danes are coming, and this time they are more than welcome!

Friday, January 20, 2006


Beer at Zero Degrees

The temperature was creeping towards the freezing point as I walked over the open and windswept fields of Blackheath in eastern London. It was beyond dusk on that cold winter evening, and I had just managed to step the zero degree line at the Old Royal Observatory in Greenwich before closing time at 4.30 pm.

A good 20-30 minutes walk later I stepped inside the Zerodegrees microbrewery at the warmer-sounding address of Montpellier Vale in Blackheath.

Blackheath is a nice little village, well-connected with trains to London Bridge. There are also regular bus service to Central London, so you do not have to combine it with Greenwich, though I would warmly recommend it.

Back to the microbrewery and restaurant. They seem to emphasize the latter with only a small drinking area. A bit annoying, really, as there were many available seats in the bigger restaurant section that night. The waiters politely, but clearly indicated that this was no-go area for drinkers only. Compensating for that were the helpful bartenders, offering tastings of the seasonal specials, a strawberry ale and a cinnamon ale.

The Zerodegrees is a rather slick affair with steel containers on proud display. The kitchen looks appetizing, it is a combination of Belgo-style and Italian, and features mussels and waffles as well as pasta and pizza. The beers are experimental, not award-winning, but decent. The four regular brews are a Pilsner, a Black Lager, a Wheat Ale and a Pale Ale.

Well worth a walk at zero degrees.

Friday, January 13, 2006


A Dark Duvel?

It is Friday the 13th, the day of bad luck. So has even the devil of a beer - the Duvel, as praised by beer writer Michael Jackson- gone dark for the day?

In Belgium the devil - or rather the Duvel, I suspect- has inspired a range of other strong blond beers, also called hoogblond, like De Block's Satan, Liefmans' Lucifer, maybe even Lefèbvre's Barbãr and Van Steenberge's Piraat.

The idea has even hit on in traditionalist Pajottenland, the area just south-west of Brussels, famous for its lambic and gueuze. The picture above is from The Dovetail, one of London's premier Belgian beer bars. Served in the Duvel glass above is revivalist lambic-brewer Frank Boon's dark interpretation, Donkere Duivel.

The Donkere Duivel is chestnut brown with a small head. It has a tart, fruity aroma and caramel and fruity flavours. Balancing the sweetness is good sourness. It comes from Lambicland, after all.

Quite a special and complex beer, in other words, yet almost as different from the world-famous Duvel as can be.
But then again, even an old devil can surprise.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


No Mean Time

At the rather pompous-sounding address of Royal Hill you will find The Greenwich Union at no 56. It is one of two pubs of the Meantime microbrewery in Greenwich- the other being the recently opened Brew Wharf near the Borough Market. With around ten different Meantime brews on draught, and a similar range of imported quality beers on bottle it is surely an attraction for a beer tourist to London.

Not that Greenwich needs another attraction- it is already packed with some really magnificent architecture, including the National Maritime Museum, the Queen's House, and of course the "home" of the prime meridian, the Old Royal Observatory, making it a top spot on any tourist's list.

But if you get tired of all the grandeur, you can always head for a Meantime; the Greenwich Union is open from 11 am on weekdays and from 10 am on weekends. It looks rather ordinary from the outside, not much different from the Young's pub next door, but inside the bar extends into a nice, contemporary winter garden. Cool Britannia rules even on Royal Hill.

What better place to enjoy a Meantime India Pale Ale, this strong and hoppy beer designed to survive the crossing of the earth's other mid line, the equator, twice and still keep up the spirits of Her Majesty's troops a good century or two ago. With its robust 7.5% ABV, the Meantime India Pale Ale is probably more in line with the brews shipped in the heyday of the British Empire than the weak IPAs finding their way out of most English breweries these days.

The colour is hazy golden, almost peachy, under a decent white head. The aroma is pronounced citrussy. The flavour is quite bitter, though with an underlying malty sweetness. Lots of grapefruit and with a good body this IPA is refreshing and with a lot of character.

The winds may have changed, but there is still no reason for having a mean time in Greenwich.

Sunday, January 08, 2006


Hot Trappist!

Trappist beers are hot at the moment with long queues in front of the Westvleteren abbey gates, La Trappe beers returning to "official authenticity" and the increased volumes at Westmalle and Orval.

At the beer café De Gans in Huise, Oostvlaanderen they have their own way to make trappist beer hot: De Verbrande Trappist. A glass of Chimay Rouge gets an encounter with a red-hot poker from the open log-fire, and the trappist seems to take the treatment as a modern-day flagellant, as a hardship endured on the path to salvation.

As the poker is slowly stirred into the beer, the already decent trappist head rises dramatically, becoming even more creamy.
The beer does not really get very hot, though, but it takes on some really interesting smokey flavours teaming up nicely with the caramelising sugars. The result is indeed a more interesting beer.

Asked whether Chimay Rouge is the only trappist that would benefit from this treatment, the answer was affirmative. Could it have something to do with the amount of candi sugar present?

Burning a trappist may not become your everyday activity, but should be a pleasurable enough exercise, whether you are a believer or not!

Friday, January 06, 2006


Go to De Gans

The Belgian province of Oost-Vlaanderen boasts several world-class beer cafés, and together with De Heeren van Liedekercke at the very top is De Gans (pronounced by the locals more like Hans) .

The name means The Goose, something you will understand from the café decorations, including the menu, as seen on the picture. (Or rather menus, as there is also an extra, on-request speciality beer menu featuring aged beers, not an uncommon practice in many Belgian beer cafés). The address is Kloosterstraat no 40 in the village of Huise, and Gansstraat is just nearby.

The mystery of The Goose for many beer tourists seems to be how to get there without driving. Situated in the countryside in the middle of what is know rather ambitiously as the Flemish Ardennes, public transport is not immediately evident. But there is a solution, and it is a very pleasant one as well. Where the Flemish bus company De Lijn does not offer fixed bus lines, they have an excellent service called the Belbus. Bellen means to call in Dutch, and you have to call ahead at least two hours in advance, though more is recommended, to book seats between two bus stops. For Oost-Vlaanderen the phone no is (09) 210.94.94, and the belbus stop you want is De Oude Smisse in Huise (Zingem)- it is on Belbus line no 85 Zingem- Oudenaarde. It is very convenient to make Oudenaarde station your starting and ending point because the belbus is set up to correspond with the train service there. The operator, who normally speaks English well, will tell you when you have to be at the bus stops. The bus stop De Oude Smisse is less than 100 metres away from the De Gans.

The drivers of the mini buses are very chatty- making the 15-20 minute trip, the time depending on where the other passengers are going, a pure pleasure.

In other words, an appropriate introduction and ending to a visit at De Gans. The café has been run by the couple Ingrid and Hein for 24 years (almost as long as legendary Kulminator, which has been around for 26 years at their present location in Antwerpen). It is only open Fridays from 6 pm, Saturdays from 4 pm and most of Sunday. Note that they close for a fortnight in summer- call ahead, they are, of course, described in the Beer Bible. (I did not call ahead last summer and ended up with just a pleasant belbus roundtrip of the Flemish Ardennes!)

350 different beers, some of them quite rare, as well as decent snacks like pancakes are on offer. There is an open log fire inside the cosy café, and I will come back to its beery application in a later post. Ingrid and Hein are an enthusiastic and genuinely friendly couple, making it hard to leave for your belbus appointment. Yet with the belbus available, you would be a goose to ignore this great café!

Wednesday, January 04, 2006


The Great Microbar

The British love understatement. London's Microbar must be a prime example in that regard. Not only does the name indicate a small affair, its web site hardly does much to promote this place either.

It may not be the most easily accessible bar in London, situated a good 15 minutes walk away from the nearest tube station in Clapham, at 14 Lavender Hill, and open only from 6 pm on weekdays (from 4 pm on Fridays) and from 2 pm on weekends. Clapham Common would be your tube station of choice unless you fancy a slightly longer walk from Clapham North, allowing you to pass by a Bierodrome in 44-48 Clapham High Street on the way.

For a beer tourist to London the Microbar is a must. A great selection of beers, mostly imported quality brews from the Lowlands, Germany and America, all served in a stylish yet relaxed atmosphere. The owner is not only friendly, but also very knowledgeable. The comfortable leather chairs are not the only reason why you may find it hard to leave again.

Microbar is a bar for microbrews, and that is a great concept!

Monday, January 02, 2006


No Short Cuts to Good Beer?

There are probably no shortcuts to making a good beer. It can sometimes be said about getting a good beer to drink as well. The only place where you can sample the delicious brown ale from the Cnudde brewery is in the Oudenaarde suburb of Eine.

The Oostvlaanderen town Oudenaarde was famous for its tapestries in medieval times, though beer enthusiasts would first and foremost associate the place with the tradition of oak-aged, sweet-and-sour brown ales, also called Flemish Old Brown Ale (Vlaams Oud Bruin) or even Oudenaards Bruin. It is a style that was about to disappear, men things may be changing with the increased interest in Belgian craft beers.

The most famous of these breweries is Liefmans, but they no longer brew at their Oudenaarde plant (according to Tim Webb maturation may again take place there). A much smaller affair is the brewery of Cnudde, whose brown ale is found on tap only in the brewery's own Cafe Casino and the more fascinating Kaffee Barbier in nearby Nestor de Trièrestraat no 140, both in Eine. Eine is a mere 4 minute train ride away from Oudenaarde in the direction of Gent; buses will bring you there, too.

As there are no shortcuts to business profits either, this fifties-style barber shop combines as a beer café, with seating just opposite the huge barber chairs for waiting and/or drinking customers. There is a separate bar area at the back of the salon as well.

The beer itself is chestnut brown with a small, creamy off-white head. Fruity and lightly sour with some vanilla notes. Initially sweet and fruity, it develops towards a more sour finish.

Well worth going out of the way for, though in this case short cuts are possible.

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