|Some brilliant Belgian beers.
Fancy tasting some top Belgian beers? Oh, and the tasting is guided by a highly accomplished Belgian brewer. A brewer who used to work in Scotland. And he’s also the chap behind a new, and truly splendid, interpretation of a Belgian abbey-produced lager. To be honest, accepting such a proposition presents little in the way of cerebral challenge (the expression “it’s a no brainer” is one I hate).
So last week I, together with a clutch of other food writers, assembled at Edinburgh’s The Devil’s Advocate bar to share the pleasure of supping some of the finest beers Belgium has to offer. We were guided in this venture by Joris Brams – a Belgian brewer who is the creative genius behind Heverlee, a fantastic lager available at selected venues across Scotland.
The story of how Heverlee came about is as engaging as the beer itself. Involving an ancient abbey, monastic advice, and brewing forensics, it could almost form the plot of a best seller. In brief, Brams has managed to recreate a “lost” beer that was once brewed during the Middle Ages by the monks who inhabited the Belgian town of Heverlee‘s Abbey of the Order of Premontre. I, for one, am very glad this once Scottish-based brew-meister has gone to so much trouble. But more on Heverlee in a wee while.
It is evident that Brams is a man who is passionate about brewing, and the beer of Belgium in particular. So it was a pleasure to hear him wax lyrical about the qualities of six of his favourite brews that hail from his homeland. Here is what we sampled, and what I learned.
La Chouffe (8%)
A splendid blond beer to kick of the tasting, and one I had always thought had a long history. Yet no, it only came to be in the early 1980’s. This golden-hewed brew undergoes its final fermentation in its gnome-adorned bottle, imparting to it a natural, yeast-derived cloudiness. It smacks of coriander, as well as a subtle, clean, almost grassy, hoppiness. And it has a splendid, long-lasting head.
Martin’s IPA (6.9%)
Now this was a bit of a surprise. An IPA from Belgium? Surely some mistake? But as Joris elucidated, of late there has been much cross pollination between the craft brewing scene in the USA (where IPAs predominate) and a new wave of Belgian beer making. This has resulted in a refreshing light-amber ale that has a definite, yet subtle, hoppy character, achieved through cold hopping (adding hops whilst the beer ferments, rather than when the barley is being warm mashed) as well as peppery and citrus notes. With an alcohol content of 6.9% it’s strong for an IPA, but a bit of a lightweight compared to some of the other beers we sampled!
Troubadour Magma (9.3%)
This is another relative newcomer to the world of Belgian beer, as the Brouwerij Musketeers (Musketeers’ Brewery) that produces it was only established in 2000. Troubadour Magma could best be described as a bit of a hybrid, as it combines the intense hoppiness of an IPA with the malty-fruitiness of a Belgian “Tripel” beer. Deep orange in colour, this is a smashingly good beer that marries well-developed, deep notes of bitter hops with the malty-sweetness of plummy fruit and caramel flavours. At 9.3% alcohol, it is most definitely a beer for sipping, as opposed to glugging.
This was the first Belgian beer I ever sampled, during a work trip to Amsterdam in the 1990s, and it remains one of my all-time favourites. Coincidently, it is also a favourite of Joris and I was intrigued to learn from him that it has a Scottish connection. Apparently, in the early days of Duvel there were issues with the yeast that was used to finish it (the beer undergoes final fermentation in the bottle), which was only solved when a highly suitable strain, used in ale production, was sourced from Scotland. The production process for the beer – the name of which translates as “devil” in Brabantian Dutch – is complex, meaning 90 days pass before it is ready to drink. What is produced is a light straw-coloured “blond” brew, with a citrus hint, a dash of spiciness and a pleasantly bitter undertone. And if you like your beer on the yeasty side, you can swirl the last third as you pour, to release the yeast that accumulates at the bottom of the bottle.
Westmalle trapist (7%)
Brewed by the monks of Westmalle Abbey, this is a gorgeously rich brown ale. Ruby-brown in colour, and producing a dense, dark cream-coloured head, it almost resembles a UK porter. Its aroma and taste is not a million miles away from a porter either, exhibiting a fruit-laden nose and tastes that include toasted nuts, caramel and raisin. Containing 7% alcohol, it’s on the lighter side compared to other beers in the tasting, and despite being dark in nature would actually be a quite refreshing quaff on a summer’s day. And according to Joris, it benefits from being drunk at room temperature as opposed to being chilled, as is recommended for many other Belgian beers.
Mort Subite (4.5%)
Now there is a lot of chatter these days in the food and drink press about naturally fermented wines, where grape juice is left in contact with grape skins resulting in fermentation taking place via the natural yeasts that reside on said skins. Yet this form of spontaneous fermentation can also be applied to beers, through something called the Lambic process. This is true for Mort Subite – a cherry-flavoured beer which ferments after being exposed to the wild yeasts and bacteria that are native to the Belgium’s Zenne valley, where it is produced. Think of it as the brewing equivalent of producing a sourdough starter culture, and you are on the right track. Ripened in oak barrels and steeped with fresh cherries, what results is a uniquely fruity, yet sour, cherry-red brew which is both complex in flavour and simultaneously refreshing.
|A glass of heavenly Herverlee.|
We concluded our tasting with some excellent food courtesy of The Devil’s Advocate – try the haggis bonbons! – and a pint each of Heverlee: the forgotten Belgian pilsner that Joris has recreated using ingredients and techniques from hundreds of years ago. It’s a beer that comes as close as possible to the light, fresh-tasting lager that the monks of Heverlee (which now forms part of the municipality of Leuven) once produced, but were forced to stop brewing when beer production became commercial.
Chatting with Joris, it became clear how emphatic he is that beers should not pose as being authentically Belgian when they are in fact brewed elsewhere. That is why, even though available on draft in Scotland, his beer will continue to brewed in Leuven, using a malt and maize mash and Saaz – the world’s most expensive variety of hop.
So what is the beer like? Well it attractively very crisp and clean with a subtle sweetness (much subtler than that encountered in some other “reassuringly expensive” lagers hailing from Leuven) which is perfectly in balance with the smooth bitterness from the hops. It’s poured and presented exactly how you would expect a Belgian beer of this quality to be. We are lucky that Brams’ Scottish connections mean that Scotland is one of the first countries to be supplied this little bit of Belgium in a glass. So if you haven’t tried it already, be sure to seek out a heavenly pint of Heverlee.
Many thanks to Joris Brams, Wire Media and The Devil’s Advocate for hosting such a great evening of beer tasting.