Category Archives: Belgian Beer

The Beermonger Review: Van Twee, Life & Limb

‘Collaboration’ is the word. It’s a word that honestly bothers the hell out of me, mostly from overuse. Ever since the 90’s, people have been popping up on each others records and calling it collaboration when really it’s just a joint promotional play between two media entities. If Mary J. sings the hook on your record, that’s not a collaboration. She’s just singing the hook on your record. Sting and Dire Straits didn’t ‘collaborate’ on Money for Nothing. He just sang a background part as a favor for a friend.  Let me drive this home before I go on a real rant….

NOT a collaboration: Close, but no. You just had dudes lay down new tracks in the background for a song that was already a hit. Congrats, you made Diet Cherry Vanilla Coke:

Technically collaboration: All bands are collaborations, but these guys (Josh Homme, Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones) are well known outside of this project (by the way get this album now!!!):

THE collaboration, also one of the best rock songs ever written:

So, collaboration demands a certain level of recognition and prestige of the parties involved. It’s a rare thing in these days where everyone is an expert in every field (just ask me or any of the thousands of beer and wine bloggers out there). There aren’t many opportunities for true collaboration in an era where most industries and arts are devoid of masters. Except, it seems, for the wonderful world of craft beer. It’s become de rigueur for brewery folks to come together, hang out, talk shop and then release a special beer they thought up together.

Not that this is anything I’m complaining about. Some of the most interesting beers of the past few years have come from this phenomenon. The Brooklyn and Schneider breweries practically rewrote the book on Hefeweizen with their dual efforts. Bel Proximus was the culmination of years of study for the Brett Pack and a signpost of American craft brewing’s coming of age through it’s understanding of Belgian brewing techniques. It’s this Belgian/American link that we’ll be exploring first today.

I hadn’t heard of Dirk Naudts until about a year and a half ago, when the beers of his De Proef (Dirk’s nickname, ‘The Prof) brewery arrived in Northern Virginia. It turns out that Dirk is something of a legend over in Belgium; one of the most renowned brewmasters in the whole country. I’m still trying to find out how many recipes from how many breweries are Dirk’s. If you’re enough into beer to be reading this blog, you’ve probably had something Dirk came up with, even if you don’t know it. Well, Dirk eventually came to open De Proef as his own brewery, a small super-precise computer-monitored place that turns out the magic potions that this sorcerer comes up with. My first experience with De Proef was with their excellent Reinaert Flemish Wild Ale, which is just about the most intensely Bretty thing I’ve ever seen. It had great balance and flavor, though, and I knew I’d found a new brewery to be a fan of.

Not all of Dirk’s beers are his alone, however. Not long after first carrying his beers, we received the first in a series of collaborations he was doing. This first one was made with Tomme Arthur of Lost Abbey/Port Brewing. It was a beer with a Brett level approaching the Reinaert but hopped like an American DIPA. The result was tropical, rich, smooth goodness that found a surprisingly large following. When I finally made it out to Cali earlier this year and visited San Francisco’s world-class Toranado, the first draft I had was the Port/De Proef Ale.

Now we have the release of Van Twee (‘from two’), made with John Mallett of Michigan’s legendary Bell’s brewery. I had heard whispers about this one for about a year, but had no idea it was coming in. I happened to notice it on the shelf where I bought it (no I’m not telling—I want to try to get another bottle or two) and immediately grabbed it. The back label describes it ‘broadly’ as a mix of the Porter and Dubbel styles, using Belgian candi sugar and the dark, sour cherries that Michigan is known for as well as some of that cherry juice. The sugar used for bottle conditioning came from Michigan sugar beets and it was finished with a Brett addition and the Nelson Sauvin hop from New Zealand (!). Even the ingredients are in the spirit of collaboration.

Van Twee pours a dark brown hue; in certain light you can detect a hint of red but I really had to look to find it. It looks like a Belgian Stout more than a Dubbel, but the viscosity is consistent with Porter and Dubbel. The nose was doubly tart with the cherry and Brett. Anyone familiar with Bell’s Cherry Stout knows what I’m talking about when I say that I knew there was a malty beer under the cherry aroma, but it’s almost too much work to get past the intensity of the fruit. I feel like it worked a little better in the context of the Belgian beer; perhaps there’s a familiarity we have with sour Lambic beers that makes it a little easier to handle such a sharp cherry smell. Either way, I couldn’t glean much of the beer’s character from the nose, so I dove in.

The palate is full-bodied and very smooth. It’s a great balance of rich malty flavors and the tartness of the cherries. The sugars and Brett are used more for texture, for evenness of flavor, with neither having a heavy influence on the flavor. What they do, though, is add elements that seem to come from nowhere: The sugar on the front palate makes you think immediately of a Belgian Dubbel or Stout, and the Brett combines with the cherry on the finish in a way that made me think for an instant of Rodenbach’s Grand Cru. I love Rodenbach Grand Cru. All in all, an interesting one-0f-a-kind brew that you should seek out. Highly recommended.

The collaboration everyone was talking about in ’09, though, was Life & Limb, the long-awaited beer from Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head. Beer Geeks everywhere got all tingly when this was announced, and the speed with which the bottles flew off shelves here in NoVA spoke volumes about how big the craft beer scene has become here. I managed to snag one for myself (only one, unfortunately) for a review.

Life & Limb is a strong dark Ale (10% ABV) made with Chico estate-grown barley and maple syrup from Dogfish boss-guy Sam Calagione’s family’s farm in Massachusetts. The brew is bottle-conditioned and naturally carbonated with Alaskan birch syrup (!). I cracked my bottle and dove in…

The first thing I noticed was the color. Life & Limb pours a deep nutty brown, with a fine but firm head. It looks more like a potion or elixir than a beer, like I should take one of its 24 oz bottles with me into a Legend of Zelda-like dungeon. I got a lot of the maple and birch syrup on the nose, with a hint of that classic unmistakable Sierra Nevada yeast strain (more on this in a second). I lingered on the nose for a bit, because I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I was intrigued for sure, but I didn’t quite get it yet.

After the first sip, I got it. Not nearly as heavy as it looked, not very hoppy at all (even though it clocks in around 50 IBU). Sweet maple syrup and birch notes are kept in check by the richness of the grains. The feel, thanks to the birch syrup, is almost soda-like. I’m a HUGE root beer/birch beer fan, and this was a revelation for me. In a master stroke, the house yeast strains of BOTH breweries was used, avoiding a common knock I’ve heard many people throw at Sierra Nevada beers: That their yeast strain is so neutral and easily accessible as to be a bit dull. I agree that the SN yeast is distinctive and very approachable. Personally, I think that’s where its brilliance lies: In the early days of SN, wouldn’t you want to develop a strain that appealed to as many people as possible? It’s the common thread that lets you know no matter what the style, you’re drinking a Sierra Nevada beer. However, for Life & Limb, the SN strain alone would’ve simply been overwhelmed and even if it wasn’t, it would’ve been a shame not to take advantage of the mad science going on in Delaware. The combination makes this unique Ale drinkable to the Beer Geek and novice alike, and adds an edge to the palate that keeps the whole experience from being cloying and too rich. Variety of notes and flavors as well as its uniquely ‘big tent’ feel for such a robust beer lead to food pairings that are almost endless. This beer could be an ambassador for craft beer if it stays in production.

In the end, I found Life & Limb to be maybe the best collaboration I’ve come across yet. It’s a true melding of styles and philosophies yet is more than elements of the different breweries. This is an independent beer with a life of its own. Something new and alive and undeniable. In fact Life & Limb has its own website, as well it should. I don’t know what the situation is as far as bottles are concerned, but I’ve been seeing bars and restaurants in DC having events and putting Life & Limb on tap, so good luck with that.

And good luck to everyone reading for a happy, healthy, beery 2010! Thanks for taking the time to stop by.


Next time: If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!

Beermonger



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The Beermonger Review: Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus

One of the joys of my first wine store job, aside from learning about wines and delevoping my palate, was being given control of our small (but mighty) beer ‘department’. It was a small little corner of the store, but I had a nice walk-in cooler stocked by the previous beer guy (a big beer geek) with all kinds of stuff  that I’ve never seen since. Stuff like 750mL Dogfish Head 60 and 90 Minute, Hair of the Dog beers that I haven’t seen in VA for years and a thourough collection of Belgian beers, including most of the Cantillon lineup.


I took to the Cantillon stuff almost immediately. I have an issue with many Lambic beers that comes up with many sparkling wines as well: I love the feel and the flavors but the first sip often starts a white hot fire in my esophagus. Over the years I’ve managed to build up a list of Champagnes and sparklers that don’t do this to me, but the Lambic ‘safe list’ is still dreadfully short. Not that it stops me from drinking them. What made Cantillon stand out to me was how smooth the beers were. For all the sour that they had, they didn’t set off the reaction that I expected. Little did I know at the time, the Cantillon that was in that cooler was going to be the last I’d see for a good 3 years…


Fast-forward to my taking the Beer Guy job at Rick’s. As I discovered the joys of my new access to rare and low-production beers, I kept asking about Cantillon. Where was it? Why could’nt we get any? Well, I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere so I gave up save for the occasional request that went nowhere. Then, one magical week, Cantillon Kriek happened to be in stock. Seemingly out of nowhere. The only person happier than me was my Stone rep at the time, who’s a crazy Cantillon freak (hey Scott!). For the rest of my stay at Rick’s I happily stocked the Kriek, keeping an eye out for the day when I’d be able to get more of the line back in. Sadly, that day never came.


Better late than never, though. Recently I popped into the old shop and what did I see? The wonder that is Cantillon’s Rose de Gambrinus. I swiped one and during a quiet evening at home, cracked it open. The aromas were what you’d expect from a Framboise except more elegant, complex, subtle. This didn’t have the intense sharpness on the nose that a lot of Lambic styles carry.


According to Cantillon’s website, artist Raymond Coumans (who painted the beer’s label) noted that “It has the colour of onion skin” while in the copper buckets used to empty the barrels. In the glass it’s not as deep a hue as that, falling somewhere between the skin of a shallot and that of a raspberry.  It was also Coumans’ idea to call the beer a Rose, to convey the sense of elegance that set’s this beer apart from other Framboise Lambics in the world.


The palate is slightly tart upfront, growing rounder in the mid-palate. The fruit and sugars come through at this point, but this is no sweet Lambic. The finish is long with the fruity and sour aspects of the beer fading in unison. It is the structure of the beer, if nothing else, that earns this the tag of Rose. It is very wine-like. Structure; balance; smoothness on the palate; an elegant, ponderous statement of a finish—it really does out-wine many wines out there. Really; try getting all of that from a glass of Yellowtail. I’ll save you the time (and the unpleasantness): you won’t.


On top of all that, I could’ve sat outside all night drinking bottle after bottle never once stopping to lament the reflux that it was causing—because it wasn’t. I literally could not ask for anything more than this beer was giving me. I know there are some out there for whom Lambic is not their thing. They’ve tried it and they just cannot find their way into it. No worries; we all have preferences and won’t be huge fans of everything. But if you’re one of those people who sees anything with fruit and thinks ‘Zima’, or that Belgian beers are ‘weird’ or that everything in this world made with fruit also comes with a ton of high-fructose corn syrup in it—take a chance. There is literally a whole world of beer out there, and to miss out on something as sublime as Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus due to timidity is a sin.


Next: Bell’s goes to Belgium, takes produce with them to DeProef. The results? Not as outlandish as you might think…

Beermonger


Local Kicks Column, Weekend Preview….and The Beermonger Mini-Review: Stone Vertical Epic 8.8.08

Hey Hey,

Local Kicks Column here. Kind of past-due now that I’ve had a chance to try this year’s Vertical, but oh well.

Friday Tasting at Rick’s Wine & Gourmet:

-Victory Festbier

-Paulaner Oktoberfest

-Ayinger Oktoberfest

-Just for the hell of it, I’m tasting out Allagash Four. I’m very curious to try it, and it’s my beer department so that’s what we’re going to do.

Saturday Beer Tasting at Rick’s Wine & Gourmet:

-Allagash Fluxus. Tried this tonight. Very cool beer. Ginger is very much the big flavor here, and it drinks so much bigger than the average Belgian White. This is the beer for your friends who give you shit for drinking White Rascal or Southampton Double White. You show ’em.

-Lagunitas We’re Only In It For The Money. Surprise! The boys in Petaluma weren’t going to send this one out (didn’t want to deal with the state’s label approval bullshit—understandable) but apparently changed their foggy little blessed minds. I’ve heard it’s a Belgian-style Tripel.

-Stone Vertical Epic 8.8.08 (More info below)

-Rogue Brewers Ale 2008. Bigass ceramic bottle. Bigass amber hoppy beer. What else do you need to know?

-Weyerbacher XIII. Trying this out tomorrow. Sounds like an absolute monster. A 13.6% ABV Belgian-style (notice a pattern here?) Stout. I’ll be bringing some serious beer food to handle this beast.

So, Vertical Epic…Always a highlight of the Beer Year for me (it’s like Advent, except not). The ’08 version is a Belgian IPA, and boy is it. It really is San Diego by way of Ghent. I’ll give a shout out to thebeersnob who mentioned mango and banana notes in it. Those are there—the yeasts are very specific in flavor and are huge even for the style. The story here is the hoppiness, which is a ballsy lupulin smack that I don’t think the Belgians have quite nailed yet. Even the biggest of the Belgian IPA’s are finesse; nothing too crazy, hoppy but never leaving your mouth slightly numb. This isn’t a Belgian IPA, per se: It’s an IPA-Tripel.

I think the fruity flavors are great in the beer, though it will be interesting to see how it develops over time. I think in about 8-12 months this is going to be a shockingly refreshing Belgian Strong Pale Ale. Almost like some of the De Dolle stuff, but more exaggerated.

Overall, 8.8.08 is kick-ass. Impressive in all kinds of new ways, as the guys at Stone (who don’t spend a lot of focus on Belgian-style ales, thought that seems to be changing) keep upping their game. Good on ya, gargoyle. See you Saturday if you can make it out.

Beermonger

Weekend Tastings and the Joy of Gov’t. Regulation

So I was trying to get this stuff posted last night, but I had some issues with our internet…

I’ll be doing a rare Friday Night Tasting May 9th from 5-8 PM. I’ll be pouring the Gouden Carolus Grand Cru Van De Kaiser from 2000, 2004 and 2007.

This is going to be something of a ‘make-up’ tasting since I was trying to do this one a couple of weeks ago, but that got nixed when the ’00 and ’04 didn’t show from my distributor. This led to me getting far more worked up than the situation deserved and got me in a little hot water with the distributor that I get the beer from. You see, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, we have what’s known in the business as a “three-tier system”. That means in order for you, the consumer, to purchase a sixer of beer there has to be an entity that imports the beer into the state, buying it directly from the producer. After that they distribute the beer, meaning they sell it to retailers and restaurants. After these middle-men and the government get their cut of money and taxes they deign to allow the average citizen to purchase the product they wish to buy.

As I understand it, this system came to be after the repeal of Prohibition. Essentially, it is an alcohol tax without actually having an alcohol tax. On its own I don’t necessarily have much of an issue with the system except for it seeming awful Puritanical and greedy. But then again, this is America and the Commonwealth of Virginia to boot, so…

My real issue is that distributors purchase “rights” to sell certain beers within certain areas of the state, or for the entire state itself. As a business practice, this is done to ensure that, say, two distributors who handle Sam Adams don’t undercut each other in the same marketplace. Although where the damn problem with that is is beyond me. You see, in practice these Rights create little monopolies, wherein the restaurant or retailer (such as yours truly) is forced to buy a product from a certain company regardless of their pricing or regard for their customers. If you guessed this is a snapshot of the situation I ran into a couple weeks ago, you are correct.

I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to spend the vast majority of my (not nearly as big as it could be) budget on product from one company, only to have the beer I need, that I’ve promised my customers that I would have, sent to some other shop hours away because (are you ready?) they took their delivery sooner. No one gave me the heads up that “Hey, other guys want this stuff, maybe you should take the delivery early”. No. Just sent it out and scolded me like I’m supposed to know.

But that’s what comes along with “Rights” in the three-tier system. You get the right to sell a certain breweries products and with that you get the right to do pretty much whatever you feel like with it. It’s great for them: they can go ahead and not worry about people skills or customer service when hiring, because it doesn’t matter! The customer has no choice but to give their money to the distributor! I could call in an order and they could go ahead and say “Go fuck yourself” and I’d still have to pay them if I wanted to have the stuff in stock that I need to compete with every goddamn chain and big-box store trying to put guys like me out of work!

I’m using this situation as an example: The distributor and I have both said what we wanted to say to each other, and I’m ordering as usual. Really, what choice do I have? It’s not like they have competition. My rep from them and I are cool; I’ve known the guy for a while and it wasn’t all his fault. Bygones and all that stuff you need to say so that people don’t think you’re an uppity retail guy who thinks he’s more important than he is. Trust me, dealing with distributors on a daily basis lets you know exactly how important you are. All I want to say is that there is a word that my mom uses way too often: asinine. It’s not that she uses it too often because it doesn’t apply; she uses it too often because there’s so much in this world that is against all common sense that it seems a shame to throw around such a great descriptor.

The three-tier system and the distributor “Rights” monopolies are asinine. I wish I had a widget that you could click and hear my mom say the word just so you get an idea of how it feels. Asinine.


Anyway, Saturday I’ll be pouring from 12-5 PM as usual. I’ve got Weyerbacher Muse (a cool Belgian-style Saison), Rogue Mom Hefeweizen, the new Sierra Nevada Southern Hemisphere Harvest Ale and Dogfish Head Immort Ale.

Come by if you’re in the hood. Until next time.

Cheers,

Beermonger

Local Kicks Column for 4.23.08

This week’s column for Local Kicks is up and you can read it here. This week, I look at Belgian beer by way of the life of Emperor Charles V.