Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

The KQED Belgian beer tour: The beers we drank

By William Brand
Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008 at 6:52 am in Uncategorized.

(Left to right clockwise) Paul DePas, of Orinda, Joe Houk, of South San Francisco, Alembic server Angela Hart, beer blogger William Brand, Steve White, of Pacifica, Roger Wong, of Walnut Creek, Bob Niehuser, of South San Francisco and Keith Anvick, of San Carlos, (not pictured) toast at the Alembic on Haight Street on Saturday, July 12, 2008, in San Francisco. Niehuser’s wife won a bid on KQED for a Belgian beer pub crawl and gave it to her husband for his birthday. (Jane Tyska/The Oakland Tribune)

In my beer column today in the Oakland Tribune/Contra Costa Times and the other Bay Area Media News Group papers, I wrote about the KQED Belgian Beer Pub Crawl that I conducted last Saturday. The crawl was sold as a fund-raiser on the KQED online auction.

A South San Francisco viewer was the successful bidder and gave it to her husband for a birthday present. I took the birthday boy and five of his friends on a merry pub crawl starting at The Trappist in Oakland, then via Mr. Toad’s Tours, a trek across San Francisco… the Toronado, the Alembic, Monk’s Kettle and La Trappe San Francisco. The pub proprietors at each stop donated the beer. Mr. Toad’s Tours donated a driver and a 1918 Packard Touring Car. And believe me this is just a tiny sampling of the wares available at these fine pubs. Drop in, hoist a glass and say thanks for their generous donation to KQED. (By the way, I e-mail my weekly column, if you’d like to join the list, send an e-mail to: whatsontap@sbcglobal.net.)

Here’s a chronicle of the beers we drank:

The Trappist:

De Glazen Toren Saison D’Erpes-Mer re-creates of a beer style once popular all across Belgium. Before refrigeration, saisons, French for “season,” were the last beers brewed in spring before it was too warm to make beer. They were fairly high in alcohol, often served to farmhands at the end of a day in the fields.

De Glazen Toren means the glass tower in Flemish. The founders, a lawyer and a mathematician, began as homebrewers, then chucked their careers to enroll in a three-year brewing course in Ghent. They opened their brewery in Erpe-Mere in 2004, and have since made waves with a string of striking beers. Saison was their first.

It’s a beautiful beer: 8.5 prcent, pale gold with a spicy nose. Taste is initially slighty sweet with delicious malt complexity and a long, dry finish with a most interesting rising, mild sourness. It’s unusual; worth a desperate hunt to find it.

Caracole Nostradamus****, Brasserie la Caracole, Namur, Belgium. This is a knock-your-socks-off strong brown ale: nose of dark malt and spicy yeast. A beautiful beer.

Allagash White Ale****, Allagash, Portland, ME. 750 ml, corked bottle, 5.9 percent alcohol by volume, about $9.

WITS OR WHITE BEERS, a frothy, spicy style of wheat beer, have been around for years. The style, like many copied these days by craft beermakers, originated in Belgium centuries ago and was revived in the 1960s by Pierre Celis, who has become a legend in the beer business. His original wit, Hoegaarden, is brewed by giant InBev. Allagash White ****, Allagash Brewing, Portland, Maine. I knew it would be good; I’ve consistently heard great things about it.

Allagash White is the first beer Allagash founder Rob Tod released commercially. That was in 1995. He has gone on to specialize in his own, occasionally exotic, excellent Belgian-style strong and sour ales. This is an absolutely excellent wit. It’s a proper cloudy gold color with a hit of spicy orange in the nose. The head is huge and long-lasting, caused I guess, by the proportion of malted and unmalted wheat in the beer. It forms valleys and peaks and trails of lacework down the side of the glass.

Allagash brewer Dee Dee Germain says the beer is a pale malted barley-wheat blend. The use of unmalted raw wheat in the mix gives the beer a distinct flavor. All that wheat also contributes to the unusual towering head. Hops are traditional German and a spicy Czech Saaz.

Toronado

Chimay Bleue***, Abbaye de Notre Dame de Scourmont, Belgium. The Chimay Trappist Monastery is one of six in the world that brew and sell beer commercially in Belgium. Sometimes known as Chimay Grand Reserve, this rich, ruby-colored, 9 percent alcohol beauty comes in a large 25 ounce, corked bottle.

If the storekeeper tells you the beer is old, don’t worry. It will age and change like fine wine. Wipe off the dust and pour carefully.

A one to two year old Chimay Blue is elegant and smooth. A five-year-old Chimay Blue picks up the taste of a fine port. , 25-ounce bottle, about $6.

The Alembic

Duvel*****, Brouwerij Duvel Moortgat, Breendonkdorp, Belgium. Duvel Moortgat of Breendonk, Belgium — says that when someone in the brewery first sipped the beer, he exclaimed, “This is a devil of a beer.”

When Duvel was conceived in the mid-1920s, most ales were dark or copper-colored. Duvel was made with pale malts, which produce a soft, golden elixir. But it was then and still is a very strong ale, 8.5 percent alcohol by volume. But Duvel doesn’t taste strong at all, and that’s the devil of it. Enjoy it, but don’t quaff it.

This is a sophisticated beer: Bottled in a corked, Champagne-style bottle with a high carbonation, the pour is extremely lively. In truth, there’s no other beer quite like it. It should be served in the proper glass, a curved, tulip-shaped glass that condenses and gathers the foam, sending a rich aroma of malt and hops and yeast, hints of pears, perhaps apples and oranges, to the nose.

Taste is crisp, with a bit of orange or citrus tang fading into a spicy follow with a lingering taste of malt. It’s no wonder this is a world classic. Duvel is brewed in a warm fermentation, using a yeast that, according to the Campaign for Real Ale and beer expert Michael Jackson, was harvested from a bottle of McEwan’s Scotch Ale imported into Belgium after World War I. Hops are spicy Saaz and Styrian Goldings.

The warm (room temperature) fermentation, CAMRA says, is followed by a cold (near freezing) fermentation, then refermentation in the bottle — a bit of fresh yeast is added to each bottle in the ancient manner of preservation, so fermentation continues for a time in the bottle.

This adds to the carbonation and as the beer ages, makes it drier, less fruity with muted spice. Personally, I like my Duvel fairly fresh, and these days most of the Duvel on shelves of good beer stores is fresh.

Reinaert Primitief****, Proef, Lochristi, Belgium. This is one of a range of beers from Proef imported by Shelton Bros., Belchertown, MA. Each has different hopping, whichis shown on the label. If you’re looking for the beer in stores, look for Reinaert Wild Ale, which is similar and also made by Proef. The importer,  Alan Shapiro of Seattle-based SBS Imports, sells this 7.5 percent modern classic, made in an ancient manner. It’s fermented with regular ale yeast and with brettanomyces wild yeast. It has a bit of a “horse-collar,” barnyard nose. The taste is very accessible, a bit sour, but refreshing.

Shapiro said a couple of years ago, he commissioned Proef to brew a house Belgian fruit beer for Brouwer’s Cafe the Seattle specialty beer establishment. “We did three different blends, but they didn’t care for them. Just then, the people who run the Michael Jackson Rare Beer Club called and said they had a gap in their monthly schedule, did I have a beer they could use.” Jackson, the British beer critic, who died last year, loved them.

Jackson, in his dry, sharp English manner, had this to say about “cultivated wild yeast” used in Reinaert Wild Ale:

“To put it in animal terms, a dog is a real domestic animal (like a regular ale yeast). A cat plays at being a domestic animal, when it suits the cat, but you can’t make the cat fetch the Sunday newspaper from the store. Semi-wild yeasts are like cats.” Long live cats.

Monk’s Kettle

Brother David’s Tripel Abbey-Style Ale**** , Anderson Valley Brewing Co., Boonville, CA. David Keene, proprietor of the Toronado is the inspiration for this Belgian-style, 10 percent ABV beer and its dusky companion, Brother David’s Double. Since the intitial batches, Anderson Valley has refined brewing techniques and made the tripel a real treat, no rough spots at all.

The brewery’s own tasting notes sum it up very well:

A bright dry aroma tops off this deeply complex Belgian-style beer that has over tones of malt, fruit, and freshly mown fields. The intensity of the higher alcohol is rounded out by the deep richness of the malt and the light hop flavors. Light and pale in color, a nice malt backbone holds up the highlights of spicy hops intermingled with yeast esters and aromas. The triple (or “tripel” as the Belgian’s call it) is a medium-bodied strong Belgian-style beer, with just a touch of mild malt sweetness and a dry finish on the palate.

The comparatively light body of this beer is achieved by substantial additions of candy sugar in the kettle and medium-high carbonation level. The hopping has been kept low, with the use of classic European hop varieties to give just a hint of spiciness.

Stone 11th Anniversary Black India Pale Ale, 8.7 percent ABV ***1/2, Stone Brewing, Escondido, CA. This beer is a study in complexity. Released in September, 2007 this beer has mellowed with age and will still taste great years from now. It’s a dark brown beer, but lively, with a big head of lasting tan foam, surprising hoppy nose. There’s some sweetness, but the overall taste is dry with notes of vanilla and roast malt. Those hops – we’re talking aroma, not bitterness, last and last. A wonderful beer.

Stone 12th Anniversary Bitter Chocolate Oatmeal Stout***, 9.2 percent ABV is a beautiful beer, inky black with a big rising head of foam and as the name implies, a fairly incredible nose: chocolate, roast malt, licorice. The taste is mildly sweet with lots of roast grain and chocolate which lasted into a long finish with warming alcohol lingering on the tongue. Bitter chocolate from Chuao Chocolatier, a small San Diego County company, was added to the beer, post fermentation, I guess.

Here’s the problem with the beer, in my opinion: It’s very young. This is a big beer with lots of elements, roast grain, oatmeal, chocolate, high alcohol. It needs time for its many elements to blend and mellow into a harmonious whole. It’s unfiltered and non-pastuerized, so it definitely will age. Should be a great beer about the time of Stone’s 13th anniversary. My advice, and what I’m going to do: Buy two bottles Monday. Drink one in six months; the other next summer.

La Trappe San Francisco

Eric’s Sour Peach Ale****1/2, New Belgium, Fort Collins, CO. These notes come from New Belgium and I totally concur.

Eric’s Ale is part of New Belgiums “Lips of Faith” program. Select beer bars are participating. Each beer is an experimental beer made at New Belgium in small batches.

This Peche, or Peach beer, started as an ale aged in 130 hl wooden vessels called Foedres for three years. It was then transferred and real peaches were added. A second Strong Golden Ale was brewed and blended back into the sour ale. Subtle peach, tropical fruit and tart aromas in the nose, plus some vanilla and oak. The flavor is a balance of sweet and sour. A drinkable and refreshing sour beer hybrid.

Goudon Carolus Tripel****, Brouwerij Het Anker, Mechelen, Belgium, This 9 percent beer is a head trip: intoxicating, mild spicy nose, dry finish with warming alcohol. The beer, says Tim Webb in his authoritative Good Beer Guide to Belgium (CAMRA Books, 2005) was named after a coin from the reign of Emperor Charles V.

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