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.
If you’re reading this blog at all, I assume you’ve heard of Mikkeller, the Danish microbrewery which has since 2006 been producing a vast range of innovative beers in a range of styles, inspired by and building on the work of the most interesting American craft breweries. I also assume you know that Mikkeller does not have a brewery of its own, but produces its beers at other breweries in Denmark and beyond.
I further assume that, knowing this, and having tried Mikkeller beers, you would already be excited to go to the small, stylish Mikkeller Bar in Copenhagen. So, what with you being so well-informed, I’ll just make a few observations on it, why you should go, and why we visited three times when we were in Denmark:
- It’s beautifully designed, as you can see from the pictures on Mikkeller’s new website. It’s clean and minimalist, but also stylish and quirky. The high tables look like drawers and the furniture makes the best use of the space.
- It’s a small bar with good music at an appropriate level, which makes it feel cozy (hyggelig?), where the light colour scheme and bare design might otherwise make it feel cold.
- They have the type of snacks that can be dealt with by a single member of staff, so nothing hot. However the porter sausage is superb.
- There’s free wifi, which seems designed to allow you to send tweets to provoke jealousy.
- It’s on Viktoriagade, not too far from Copenhagen Central Station (København H) and is in the trendy Vesterbro area. Vesterbro seems to be one of those post-industrial up-and-coming areas has quite a few good bars and restaurants (on which more in a later post), although bear in mind that this sits alongside a (not unusually unpleasant) red light district, particularly on Istedgade.
And then, of course, there are the beers. There are 20 taps with a fairly wide range of styles of beer beyond just Mikkeller, including a number of Danish breweries. Most people seem to enjoy the beers in the smallest, 0.2l measures, in dinky stem glasses.
On keg we enjoyed:
- Mikkeller G’Day Mate APA, a nice fresh fruity pale ale with hints of grapeskins and apples;
- Heretic Evil Cousin IIPA, an excellent fresh slightly sweet IIPA with a building bitterness;
- Triple Rock Pacific Gem Single Hop, which had a slightly wateriness and a sweet almost Belgian taste;
- Hill Farmstead Genealogy, a powerful imperial stout from Vermont with a dark espresso foam head which nonetheless had a lot of fresh American hop flavour lifting it;
- De Dolle Bos Keun, this year’s version of the hoppy Belgian Easter pale ale;
- Mikkeller It’s Alight, a refreshing if slightly watery session strength version of Mikkeller’s Orvalalike It’s Alive, which had a little lemony sharpnes on the finish;
- Mikkeller 1000 IBU, which despite its fearsome reputation was an enjoyable big sweet malt and hop bonanza not unlike Stone Double Bastard;
- Mikkeller Big Worse, simply a good, bitter US-style barleywine; and
- Mikkeller K:RELK, a pale ale with limes and orange on the nose but a relatively restrained flavour.
The bottle menu is pretty astonishing, and we also enjoyed a 2007 Orval, in which the leatheryness was cut through with a pleasant gueuze-like citrus sharpness. Following the wine-aged beers we had tried with Garrett Oliver, we also decided to buy a bottle of Hill Farmstead Flora, a wine barrel-aged version of their 5% wheat saison. This was a wonderful, refreshing and refined drink, with all the charms of a Saison Dupont but rounded off with a little white wine.
If I were given to hyperbole, I might say that Mikkeller Bar is the craft beer equivalent of Copenhagen’s famous Noma restaurant. I will say, though, that if it were a restaurant it would similarly merit three Michelin stars: “exceptional… worth a special journey“. Or two special journeys, or even three.
This was a bit of an odd one. Erasmus was one of the places I’d read about a number of times before coming to Bruges and had been described as a must-visit. I understand that it’s a hotel that has had an exceptional beer bar for some years but which, over time, has become more of a restaurant.
We went in and took a window seat in the modern, minimalist restaurant when it was very quiet at around 3pm on a Sunday. However the beer list on the menu seemed oddly curtailed, with less than two dozen beers. I was very confused, not least because we were sitting by a window that boasted of the “200 artisan Belgian ales” (or similar) on offer.
After a slightly awkward (verging on cryptic, I thought) conversation, the gentleman serving us explained that, due to recent renovations, there wasn’t as much room in the cellar as there had been, so there simply wasn’t space to store all those beers any more. However he said that there was a small selection of interesting beers downstairs, although he didn’t have them on a list.
He then asked if there was anything we were looking for. “Christ,” I thought, “this guy clearly knows everything there is to know about beer and I’m obviously a tourist who knows bugger all squared about Belgian beers. He’s just asked me what beer I would like with no parameters whatsover. What can I say that isn’t going to make me look like an idiot?”
So I asked a question certain to make me look like an idiot; or if not an idiot certainly a dickhead: I asked if he had any Westvleteren. Apart from almost certainly mispronouncing it, I know you’re not supposed to be able to buy it anywhere other than the Abbey and visitor’s centre. However, I knew they were available in at least one other bar in Bruges, regardless of whether it’s ethically suspect and contrary to the wishes of the brewers themselves. He said that they couldn’t be bought anywhere, to such an extent that I suspected there might be a little glint in his eye. However, I respected his apparent honour and let the matter drop.
Instead I explained that Kate was quite keen on pale hoppy Belgian beers and I wondered what he had to that end. So we ended up with a Viven Imperial IPA and a De Dolle Bos Keun. The Viven is a beer that Phil Hardy had recommended and I really enjoyed it. It had a great mango aroma, a bitter but sweet fruity taste and a nice alcoholic warmth in the bitter finish.
However I should say that, for a Belgian beer, it tastes completely like a US double IPA. Whether that’s a good, bad or indifferent thing is debatable: I noticed that in all the superb beer bars I went to there were hardly any non-Belgian beers on offer. This speaks of a confident and diverse national brewing scene but surely it wouldn’t be at all out of place to put a few De Molen on the list? Or Mikkeller? Or Stone? After all, the US craft beer scene’s approach to ABV and sipping beers has more in common with the attitude of the Belgians, than to us British session drunkards.
The Bos Keun was a different kettle of hops. This 10% blonde ale had a lot of Belgian yeast character as well as a lot of hops. A nice bubblegummy aroma and a dusty, musty hoppiness came through, and the helpful barman warned us about the extensive sediment so we poured carefully. It was a great beer and one of those that helped convince Kate that she could really like Belgian beers over the course of the holiday. Luckily when we came back we found that Further North had a few left in the fridge so we could pretend to still be in Bruges.
So I found Erasmus a bit confusing really. The gentleman who served us, however inscrutable he seemed initially, clearly knew his stuff and was very helpful. However it’s not quite a warm and laid back place to enjoy a good beer. We didn’t eat there so maybe it’s simply more of a great beer restaurant than a beer cafe now, as the decor would suggest. If you’ve been recently, please let me know your thoughts.
Phew, it’s been a challenging weekend for my liver. On Friday I went to The Grove in Holbeck for the leaving drinks of my friends Tom and Holly, who were regulars there but are now moving to Masham. Fortunately I understand that it’s not hard to get a beer in Masham, so I’m looking forward to visiting.
I started with Moorhouses’ Premier Bitter, but wasn’t entirely convinced so moved on to Elland El Divino, a “blonde premium bitter” which was excellent. Good beer, food and chat in a great pub.
Saturday night found me out on Lower Briggate and Call Lane, the latter swarming with underdressed posers. However the Smokestack was reasonably good fun and surprisingly had bottles of Anchor Steam and Liberty Ale in the fridge. Then on to Call Lane Social, a relatively new bar opposite Oporto which had decent music and both Brooklyn Lager and Anchor Porter in the fridge, but was crammed to the rafters.
Two nights that had ended in the purchase of kebabs should sensibly have been followed by a quiet Sunday in front of the Antiques Roadshow (or indeed Last Of The Summer Wine). However Dean from Mr Foleys had invited Kate and me out for a few drinks with James and Andy from Summer Wine Brewery.
With just a bacon sandwich to recover with, I had Crown Brewery HPA; Summer Wine Blizzard and Heretic Black IPA; and Revolutions The Original 45 Porter in Mr Foleys. Dean’s clearly been buying in a lot of great beers recently and has nefarious plans for lots more.
Summer Wine’s Heretic is a fantastic example of the black IPA style, with only a very slight roastiness at the start and a pleasant wallop of bitterness. Great as it is, James said that they’re going to tweak the recipe for the next brew.
The Original 45 Porter is Revolutions’ first commercial beer, and it’s a very promising start. I’ve had a lot of porters in recent weeks and this is one of the best. Worth keeping an eye out for.
On to the Victoria, where nine pumps were rapidly dwindling to three. I had a North Peak Vicious American Wheat IPA, which seems to be in every single M&B pub in Leeds just now (Palace; Adelphi, Scarbrough). It was an unusually hoppy wheat beer – not as big and punchy as Schneider Weisse Tap 5 but at the same time less thick and sweet, seeming less than 6%. It was very good but due to the limited choice we moved on to North Bar.
North had O’Dell IPA on keg, which James and Andy informed me uses Citra hops. I’ve liked this beer for a long time and it’s great on keg. Another example of knowing something’s great but not knowing why. Andy came back from the bar with a bottle of De Dolle Stille Nacht, which was 12% and incredibly bubblegummy.
After a Leodis Lager in The Brewery Tap and a final Timothy Taylor’s Landlord in the Scarbrough Taps (both had slightly disappointing selections), we headed home. It was very kind of Dean to invite us along and it was great to chat with him, Andy and James about beer and pubs. I have a lot to learn about brewing but once again they were really friendly and their passion for exciting beer is infectious. Thanks lads!
After all that, I should be ready for the Christmas party season…
(For much fuller and more informed notes on some of the beers above, see Leigh’s latest post on The Good Stuff, in which he tries Heretic, the 45 Porter and Vicious.)