Sunday, December 23, 2007


Merry Christmas!

Gold, incense and myrrh were the gifts of choice some two thousand years ago. Whilst gold may still be a great gift, the La Binchoise brewery claims it has brewed a superior replacement for both incense and myrrh.

Their Christmas beer, La Binchoise Speciale Noël, pours cloudy and copper with a big, beige head. For the nose there are liquorice, caramel, spicy yeast aromas with a hint of pear. In the mouth fruity and caramel flavours mix with coriander and some other dry spices. The finish is dry and yeasty, and the beer provides warming alcohol appropriate for this cold, festive season.

When it comes to festivities, the brewery should know what it is talking about. It is situated in the small Hainaut town of Binche, which comes to life once a year with some wild celebrations, that have given rise to the English word "binge". Not well-known outside Belgium their Mardi Gras carnival is a must-see. During the procession, the Gille Character wears his impressive hat covered with ostrich feather and throws hundreds of oranges to (or more often, at) the public.

The Christmas celebration may be rather more subdued and peaceful, but the golden fruit remains one of its countless treats. Another and one highly recommended, is La Binchoise Speciale Noël. Indeed, I see the whole range of Chrsistmas beers as the brewers' annual gifts to the craft beer enthusiasts, as a thank-you for another year of drinking their beer. I, for one, do not miss the incense and myrrh. A merry, beery Christmas to all!

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Thursday, December 20, 2007


Essen on Track

The glasses proudly pronounce "Essen 150 jaar spoorgemeente"- 150 years of train connection from Roosendaal in the Netherlands to Antwerpen via Essen.

The slogan is dated for several reasons. Not only did the celebration actually take place three years ago - glasses are reused so you get your 3 euro deposit back if you hand in a clean glass upon leaving the festival. You may also opt to keep it as an inexpensive souvenir, but appearantly few do so.

Second, it is my prediction that this particular railway line (line no 12) is likely to be less important in the near future. A new high-speed line has been built east of the line 12 connecting Antwerpen and Brussels with Amsterdam via the barony city of Breda. (In an endless series of delays, it now seems scheduled to open in October 2008). It will reduce travel time from Amsterdam to Antwerpen to just one hour!

Unfortunately, the first day of this year's festival was struck by one of several one-day strikes by the Belgian train personnel. Some trains were still running since not all trade unions participated in the strike, but the train company seemed unable to predict which would still leave (even if with a delay). There is an air of helplessness descending upon many Belgian companies and employees when the unexpected strikes, which is so contrary to the originality and creativity shown in Belgian beer brewing. As a result, getting to the festival from inside Belgium was very difficult that day (but manageable from Roosendaal due to some good piece of advice on the festival web site).

The festival itself was on track as always with 126 different beers on offer. As such, it has rightly become one of the biggest annual beer events in Belgium, attracting craft beer enthusiasts from all over the world. In fact, international visitors may well outnumber the Belgians, and the Nordic countries are well represented, especially Denmark.

It was organised for the 13th time, and was subject to some unlucky circumstances this year. However, with the skills and dedication of the organisers, Objectieve Bierproevers Essense Regio, the local branch of Zythos, there was no way the festival could possibly derail. Trains may come and go (or rather not, as the case was), but I am pretty sure that beer tourists will continue to make their annual call at Essen for years to come.

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Saturday, December 08, 2007


B(l)ack to Beer

It has been a busy autumn and as a result a dark period for my beer blogging. I found myself back in London a couple of times during this period, mainly for business. Though a great variety of beers are available in the city, it still requires more time and effort than in the beery paradises of Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. The Cobra cities have bars ensuring that a selection of hundreds, if not thousands of beers are within walking distance of each other.

In the British capital, due to the tradition of cask beers, the selection is often limited to less than ten craft beers even in the most dedicated beer bars. The Tube comes in handy, and a great number of beer bars, luckily away from the bustling tourist centre, can be found along one tube line, namely the Northern Line (Bank branch). It may be black on the map, but is the vehicle to bright drinking moments.

A top-down approach, mapwise and on the social ladder, involves snaking down the Northern Line from the north, starting at the posh Hampstead Heath and finishing near the plainer Clapham Commons. Hampstead is home to one of the very few brewpubs in the city, and The McLaughlins Horseshoe is an easy walk from the Hampstead tube station. There may only be one or two brews available from the brewpub, but there is a decent bottle selection as well. Emphasis seems to be more on food, though, especially in the evening.

The are Belgo treats to be had at the Chalk Farm tube, but quirkier bar experiences await at Camden. Quinn's is almost an institution around here, run by the Quinn family for a generation. The rule of thumb here is that you may get what you see. Never mind the bar list, it is not likely to be updated. Checking that old Mr Quinn picks up and opens the right bottle is suggested. The good thing is that the beer fridge, on display at the one end of the bar, is most likely to include some rare, imported bottles that you have never tried before.

There is nothing beery about the brand new St Pancras International station, where the Eurostars trains now bring you to Paris and Brussels in around 2 hours. There is a long champagne bar and a crêperie- it feels more like a gateway to Europe (read: France) than a welcome to old England. So next stop on the Northern Line for a beer tourist on a mission should be Old Street for a good old cockney pub experience. The Wenlock Arms more than defends the half a kilometer walk from the station- recently polled the favourite London pub by beer blogger Stonch. No further comments needed!

I still have not made it to The Crosse Keys, a Wetherspoons pub with a good cask ale selection not far from the Bank station. I guess it is good to leave some treats for later. However, a must-see is always London Bridge, especially on market days, Thursdays through Saturdays. Picking up some bottles at the Utobeer stall is inevitable. With great pubs like The Rake, The Market Porter and Brew Wharf all close by, it is easy to spend all day here.

Moving south Borough station is only one stop away and the place to go for Harveys ale in London. The Royal Oak is a pleasant neighbourhood pub that serves up the best from the Sussex brewer. According to an ad in the London Drinker magazine they are now also open in the weekends.

All good things have to come to an end. You could continue further down to Clapham North for one Bierodrome experience or make a good 15 minutes walk from Clapham Common to the Microbar with its splendid bottled beer selection. Stopping short of Clapham, in Stockwell, is also warmly recommended. Seemingly forgotten by Ratebeerians The Priory Arms could offer 5 cask ales and some quite rare German bottles on my latest visit. Indeed, I would rank this as one of the top pubs in the capital and definitely one of the most undersung.

In my opinion, for a pub walk to really take off in London you have head underground. There, the deepest and blackest of all lines will bring you to the heights of beery London.

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