Andrew Graham Dixon’s new BBC4 series The High Art Of The Low Countries started this week with an episode on Flemish art. You can’t understand the history of art in isolation from the social and economic factors that influence it, so the programme is also a fascinating and enjoyable general background for anyone considering a beery trip to Bruges, Ghent or Brussels.
Partly to introduce the importance of religion and monasteries to the development of the Low Countries, Andrew also visited the abbey at Orval and discussed beer with Brother Xavier. You can view that short section from about the 9 minute point on the BBC iPlayer at this link, which will be available for the next 18 days. However, I would encourage you to watch the whole programme.
Whilst we’re on the Low Countries, I missed North Bar’s Lowlands Beer Festival, but when I called in this week the fridges were still packed with great Belgian and Dutch bottles, both traditional and modern. We enjoyed an Emelisse TIPA and Viven Imperial IPA and finished off the keg of De Dolle Bos Keun, all of which took us back to our trip to Bruges, as recorded in these posts. Andy Mogg has also posted about his trip to Bruges here.
First image from The Arts Desk.
The monks of Ampleforth Abbey, on the edge of the North York Moors, have impressed many with their cider-making and cider brandy distilling in the last decade. Now they have created, along with Hebden Bridge’s Little Valley Brewery, a Belgian-style abbey dubbel. The launch has already been well-reported, with this Guardian article explaining that the ultimate aim is for production to move to the Abbey site, alongside their cider-making. Roger Protz believes the beer is brewed with Rochefort yeast.
The 7% bottle-conditioned dubbel pours a slightly russet cola colour, with no obvious yeast. The cream-coloured head disperses quickly. The aroma is of cocoa, nail varnish and cardamom. The mouthfeel initially seems thin for the ABV, quite cola-like and perhaps a little too sweet and easily drinkable, inviting gulps more than sips. But slowing down and swirling it around a little, I was rewarded with richer flavours, a little bit of raisin, dark chocolate and even some white pepper spiciness.
The beer is perhaps slighty less complex than the most interesting Belgian dubbels, and in my inexpert mind I wondered whether that may be related to the fact that the yeast seems more restrained than in those examples. Nonetheless this is a good beer, perhaps best enjoyed with some cheese or chocolate. It represents something to build on when, as I hope is the case, the brothers decide to brew an Ampleforth Tripel and an Ampleforth Abt.
Why, Sir, you find no man, at all interested in beer, who is willing to leave Belgium. No, Sir, when a man is tired of Belgium, he is tired of beer; for there is in Belgium all that beer can afford.
— Not Quite Samuel Johnson
I loved our trip to Bruges last summer and got to drink some remarkable beers in lovely places, like t’ Brugs Beertje and Staminee De Garre. The one thing that I did notice, however, was that the amazing beer menus were almost exclusively Belgian. I had hoped that there might be some Dutch beers on offer as well, as I had become very excited about the range of innovative breweries in the Netherlands following my short visit to Amsterdam, and the fantastic In De Wildeman.
Fortunately, back in West Yorkshire, North Bar’s annual Belgian Beer Festival has expanded its remit and annexed Holland; the 2012 version, running from 22 March 2012 to 5 April 2012, is a Lowlands Bier Festival. Kate and I visited yesterday when North was quite empty, suffering slightly from the lack of a beer garden in the unexpected March sunshine. Along with a waffle, we enjoyed four really good beers: bottles of Watou Tripel and Struise/Mikkeller Elliott; and from keg De Molen Op & Top and Emelisse TIPA. So that’s really two Dutch Beers, one and a half Belgian beers and a rogue half a Dane.
I was really impressed with the beer list, which also includes delights from the likes of Boon, Cantillon, De Dolle, all the Trappists you can shake a crosier at, as well as a couple of beers from rarely-seen breweries like Brouwerij De Prael, which I’ve never seen outside Amsterdam. I’m going back and this time I’m having cheese. I recommend you do the same.
If you’re above the Low Countries, perhaps preferring your beers single-hopped, Aberdonian and canine, on 28 March 2012 from 6pm North are also hosting a BrewDog IPA Is Dead Launch Night, a sequel to last year’s. The new batch of four single-hopped IPAs are Galaxy, Motueka, Challenger and HBC.
In general, one does not associate Belgium with extremism, but they have given the world some wonderful strong beers. Zak Avery says in 500 Beers that “the journey up the intensity scale from dubbel to tripel must logically conclude with quadrupel”. However, reading about the style you could be forgiven for thinking the debate about “black IPAs” is merely a little local difficulty. Much of the literature (excluding Zak, of course) displays a weary disapproval of the naïve, American-influenced neophyte, fooled into drinking and enjoying an inauthentic beer style.
One struggles to find a proper definition, and Ratebeer would seem to suggest that there are two distinct styles or sub-styles: dark, maltier Abts (eg Westvleteren, St Bernardus) and paler “peachy” Quadrupels (eg that of the Dutch Trappist brewery, La Trappe). Other accounts would have it that “Abt” (“abbot”) or “12” is merely the original Belgian designation for the style described as “quadrupel” elsewhere, the latter term originating with La Trappe.
However, reading about beers is a poor substitute for drinking them, and I had accumulated four quadrupel/abt style beers. Given the pleasing symmetry, I thought they were worth trying and comparing over a few nights.
La Trappe Quadrupel (10% ABV)
Pours russet, with a large dense, lasting cream-coloured head. Sweet malty aroma. A rich taste with a lot of sweetness up front quickly revealing a toast (actual buttered toast) and caramelised sugar flavour. Not especially bitter, perhaps just enough to add a bit of definition to the finish. Although it has a thick, oily mouthfeel, it’s actually quite mellow and enjoyable in a warm butter croissant way, although I was left wondering whether there was anything to distinguish it from an English barley wine.
Brewery Ommegang 2011 Three Philosophers (9.8% ABV)
This American quadrupel is actually mixed with 2% cherry kriek. The big head is slightly fluffier and a touch more nicotine-stained than the La Trappe. The aroma shows off a tart sour fruitiness at the edges of the sweet maltiness. In colour it’s slightly darker and redder than the La Trappe. In comparison the taste is still sweet but less so; deep and drier with a kriek tartness. I’d like to try a version without the cherry, but suspect the flavour would be more elusive.
Straffe Hendrik 11° “Brugs Quadrupel Bier” (11% ABV)
When we did the brewery tour in Bruges last summer, they told us that this relatively new beer had been suggested by their American distributors. The very big fluffy loose head has a bit of yellow to it. This is obviously a much darker beer than the previous ones: deep reddy -brown that looks beautiful held up to the light. There’s not really much of an aroma, perhaps slightly of malt loaf. The taste is immediately warming and alcoholic, a tingle in the mouth. The sweetness is vinous but tart: almost a hint of brandy, perhaps fortified red wine, and a little dark chocolate. It’s really very enjoyable, a warm bath of a beer.
St Bernardus Abt 12 (10% ABV)
St Bernardus is brewed by the commercial brewery that held the licence to produce St Sixtus beers, before this was withdrawn and the “Westvleteren” beers, including “Abt” (Ratebeer’s best beer in the world) were taken back in-house, or rather in-abbey. As to how similar the equivalent Westvleteren and St Bernardus are, see this post from Boak & Bailey. St Bernardus scores very well on Ratebeer too, although it commands less mystique than the hard-to-find Westvleteren.
St Bernardus pours with a relatively light-coloured head, the beer as dark in colour as the Straffe Hendrik, but less red. The aroma is more upfront, signalling the sweet, dark, vinous maltiness within. It has a similar character to the Straffe Hendrik: a little bit of red wine, some dark chocolate, raisins. There’s something else there though, a little spicy, lifting the taste: vanilla, maybe even cardamom. This, and a less thick body than you might expect from the ABV, makes it very drinkable.
In conclusion it does seem to me that there is a definite difference between the La Trappe Quadrupel and St Bernardus Abt 12, most evident in the colour, but also the taste. My personal preference is for the darker, deeper “Abt”, and it’s a style/sub-style that I’ll definitely be coming back to.
For another comparison of this style of beer, see this post from Mark Dredge, the comments to which display some of the best and worst of online beer discussion.
On our final full day in Bruges we needed somewhere to grab lunch and write some postcards, so I fell back on Around Bruges In 80 Beers and picked De Windmolen, a corner cafe in the east of the city overlooked by two or three of Bruges’ windmills.
Inside it’s a nice little cafe with bare floors and an assorted miscellany stacked on shelves and attached to the walls and roof, including a Michael Jackson book and some very creepy ragdolls. Commercial radio was playing for the bar staff and the three regulars happily propping up the bar in the otherwise empty cafe.
Although it was very pleasant inside, the best place to sit is on the terrace out the front, looking at the windmills, safely under the cover of a canopy if it starts to shower. Which it did.
I enjoyed a Tripel Karmeliet and Westmalle Tripel, as well as tucking into a large Croque-Madame (literal translation: Mrs Crunch / actual meaning: Mr Crunch with a fried egg on his head). This came with a truly enormous salad; the type of salad that could choke a horse, or Gregg Wallace, or Gregg Wallace’s horse. In fact, the type of salad that can take on two strong lunchtime beers and leaves you in the mood for a brisk walk around the canals that encircle Bruges. So that was what we did, ending up slightly drenched in a cafe on the other side of the city, warming up with a St Bernardus Abt.
In the context of Bruges, De Windmolen doesn’t really register as a beer destination, but it is a lovely, friendly, pretty little place with good staff and a well-chosen selection of bottled beers (the book says 19). Worth both the dander to and the stumble away from.
For the rest of my posts on Bruges, click here.
It’s fair to say that Bruges is an expensive city. You’d be lucky to pay less than €20 for a bowl of mussels. However the most extravagant thing we did whilst we were there was to have dinner on our last evening at Den Dyver, a fine dining restaurant with a focus on matching beer and food, which has previously been featured on The Hairy Bikers.
The restaurant looks minimalist from the outside but inside has something of a mediaeval tavern feel, with hanging lamps and some gothic/churchy fittings, although this isn’t overdone and is offset with some pieces of modern art on the walls. Despite this, it definitely had the quiet and refined tone of a fine dining restaurant, but with a certain warmth.
Rather than having a beer list for you to choose from, each dish is matched with a particular beer in what Around Bruges In 80 Beers describes as a “dictatorial” approach, but is perhaps more accurately described as “prescriptive”. There is a similar approach to wine, should you opt for that instead. There is a short a la carte menu but Kate and I both opted for the three course set menu. She chose a fish starter and main whilst I went for the least ethical options: a foie gras starter and a veal main.
The night started with a champagne flute of the house beer, which is from Brouwerij Van Steenberge, who also brew the house beer for De Garre, which I think the founders of Den Dyver previously owned. It’s a similar and similarly excellent beer, although I don’t think it’s the same one, as I’ve read in some places online.
With the bread came some crispy sea bass goujons and a dipping sauce, which went well with the blonde hoppy beer. We also received an amuse bouche: mussels on a herby mash, a shot glass of gazpacho and a piece of (raw? cured?) herring. Everything was a little treat in itself and a great start to a very special meal.
Kate’s starter read as follows:”Redfish filet. Spider crab. Broad beans. Leek. Oca leaf. White radish. Parsley flower.” This came with a bottle of Petrus Blond from Brouwerij Bavik.
Mine was: “Baked goose liver. Pata Negra. Grilled green asparagus. Pearl onions. Avocado pear. Westphalia rye bread.” This came with a bottle of Kapittel Pater from Van Eecke, a soft dark beer to match the rich dark flavours of the foie gras and the crisp asparagus.
I thought it worked well, although the starter was so delicious I had to remind myself to drink. The only criticism I would have is that there seemed to be two starters, really: the asparagus and ham wasn’t really needed alongside the foie gras, although all were very lovely. You could extend this criticism to the main courses but they probably sat together more convincingly.
Kate’s main course was: “Grilled monkfish. Rosemary potatoes. Palissons and lemon lentils. Broccoli and lettuce. Ratatouille.” The fish main course similarly came with a blonde beer, but this time the hoppier Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor from Brouwerij Het Anker. It was an excellent beer and she was very impressed with the fish.
My main course was “Baked veal. Ravioli of calf’s head and chanterelle mushrooms. Swiss chard. Sour-salt red cabbage. Celery and lavas.” This absolutely delicious plate of rich, slightly autumnal food was well-matched with another dark beer, a Gusto Ruby Red from Brouwerij De Koninck.
This beer was more interesting than the first and really very well suited. The veal, which I choose to believe was ethically sourced, was really very delicious. Kate didn’t like the ravioli when she tasted it and although I did, I can see why: it was slightly offally, but again this was a good match with the beer.
Kate opted for the dessert whilst I decided to go straight for the cheese. She had: “Fresh red fruit salad. Yogurt mousse. Basil biscuit. Lime-honey popcorn. Ugandan dark chocolate sorbet.” This looked absolutely superb and came with a glass (not a full bottle) of Goudenband from Brouwerij Liefmans.
This was Kate’s favourite course. The fruity, sour and sophisticated beer (an Oud Bruin) was a good match for the bitter chocolate and light tart berries. I’m not a massive fan of desserts but this one looked and tasted great.
I can’t remember the name of the cheeses on the cheese course but I do remember that they were wonderful, and were matched with some chutney, nuts and a St Bernardus Pater 6. This was a great beer, although I had actually tried a few other St Bernardus beers earlier in the day and thought the rich cheeses could have coped with their Abt, but there’s probably something to be said for a level of sweetness so that you can fully appreciate the flavours of each cheese.
After our final course we had a final little amuse bouche of pannacotta. It was one of the more expensive meals that we’ve had recently, although certainly less than the Devonshire Arms. I really felt that it was worth it though, with some very special food and wonderful beers. If you’re looking to really treat yourself on a holiday to Bruges, I would recommend a visit, although be sure to make a reservation as it was full even on a Monday night.