Thursday, 30 August 2012

Brasserie Cantillon, Bruxelles

Belgium almost feels like a second home to us; in our minds it is forever the home of beer and punk rock, so it's no wonder we keep finding ourselves in this small and oft-dismissed country. Visits to Belgium bookended the time we spent back on home soil earlier in the year; in February we headed straight for Bruges Beer Festival upon touching down in continental Europe after over a year away. Never mind seeing the family! Although in my defence we met my sister, along with a bunch of other people we had dearly missed. Just to top things off it snowed upon arrival, the perfect antidote to a 40+ Australian summer, turning Bruges into a magical Christmas postcard scene. Pretty much the perfect trip!

This time we were making our regular pilgrimage to Groezrock festival before catching our flight to New Zealand. There's nothing particularly Belgian about the festival (apart from a few mainstream beers) and most of the bands are American. Belgium just happens to be conveniently placed to bring together all the punk rockers from across the continent!

We decided to spend a couple of days either side of the festival taking in the cultural delights Belgium has to offer. I'm not being sarcastic when I say it's up there as one my favourite countries in the world, and what's not to like? Antwerp is a fantastic city, full of history and culture. Ghent and Bruges are a pretty picture, and that's even before you get to the quality of the beer and the twice-fried chips! Sure between these places it's mostly flat and industrial, but nowhere's perfect. We thought we should give Brussels a second chance as we didn't think much of it the first time we visited, it seemed like a pretty grey, work-a-day city. I still can't say it's one of my favourite cities but we did a bit more sight-seeing and there's plenty going on.

The highlight of our sightseeing was a visit to Cantillon, an old family-run brewery dating back to 1900. It's still thriving and remains independent, unusual for a small brewery in Belgium these days. It only brews around 1700 hectolitres a year, which sounds like quite a lot but let's put things into perspective; the Stella Artois beer mega-factory in Leuven produces 8.6m hectolitres each year, over 5000 times more. Production was upped to their highest levels ever, 2500 hectolitres, during the 1958 Brussels World's Fair - we had visited the amazing Atomium earlier in the day, the iconic monument built for the fair is now a Brussels landmark.

After getting a bit lost we eventually found the brewery in a slighty seedy area of the city. It's a very unassuming place hidden away on a normal Brussel's street, (looking at Street View 'Brasserie Cantillon' is daubed on the building in big letters but it was obscured by scaffolding when we visited!). It's the kind of place which is a pilgramage site for beer lovers, and isn't big enough for the tour bus crowds, so as such I imagine it doesn't really need to advertise itself much. We got the attention of a member of staff going about their daily business, and were given a quick introductory speech before being handed a guidebook and being ushered off to explorer the brewery on our own.

Cantillon make lambic beer, brewed by spontaneous fermentation with wild yeasts. Before science came along and figured out how and why fermentation occured so that brewers were able to exert control over the yeast, beer would be left in the open air to pick up wild yeast to feast on the sugary wort, making it alcoholic. Cantillon's beer is made with around three times as many hops compared to other Belgian beers, mainly because it is a natural preservative. Although this doesn't mean the beer is a hophead's dream, aged hops of over three years old are used to impart less bitterness but maximise preservation, very important given that the beer isn't particularly strong (5%) and is typically matured for a few years before drinking.

They only brew for 5 months of the year from late October to early April, so there was very little going on apart from in the bottling area. The reason they only brew in the winter is because the beer is still made in a very traditional way, with very little modern technology. The wort (the boiled ingredients of the beer before it has fermented) needs to be cooled to 18-20 degrees celcius, this happens in a shallow cooling tun in the rafters of the building. Up here there are vents which can be opened to let the cold air in (this can only be done on winter's night), and let the wild yeasts come in on the wind. Legend has it that this is only possible in the Senne River valley area of Brussels - although scientifically this has obviously been disproved, but presumably the specific strains of yeast picked up could be unique to the area. Until 1860 all beer was brewed by spontaneous fermentation, as yeast was an unknown quantity, whereas now it is scientifically cultivated to produce various styles of beer, and only lambic beers are still made by this method.

The beer is matured in old wine barrels, or occasionally cognac casks. For the first few days after being filled the casks cannot be sealed otherwise they risk exploding, so alive is the beer. It is then matured for a number of years. In a 500 litre barrel only about 320 litres ends up being sellable. This is due to wastage during the initial fermentation, reduction in volume while maturing and presumably they can't use dregs in the bottom as it isn't filtered. The main style of beer that Cantillon makes is actually a blend of 1, 2 and 3 year old lambics known as gueuze. Fruit varieties are also made. After the beer has fermented for 2 years cherries, raspberries, grapes or apricots are soaked in the beer. This process takes place in summer, as you can imagine all that sticky-sweet beer-soaked fruit attracts a lot of insects. This represents a problem for an organic brewery using only 19th century technology but, as is so often the case, mother nature has the answer. Natural predators are actively encouraged and as such, spiders are sacred here. Destroying a cobweb or killing a spider here is definitely frowned upon!

Anyway that's enough of a history/science/brewing lesson, not that I pretend to be an expert in any of those fields as I'm sure you can tell if you have read this far! As interesting as the process is, the proof is in the pudding so to speak, and after wandering around the brewery it was time for the best bit; tasting the beer.

The samples we were given were the original Cantillon Gueze, delightfully hazy and with a funky farmyard aroma. It was tart and refreshing, and had more than a hint of dry Somerset cider. We also tried two of the fruit varieties; Kriek (cherry) and Frambois (raspberry). Still tart but with a sweet edge, the raspberry was our favourite. This stuff is the real deal, and beats the more prolific commercially brewed gueuzes (sweetened with syrups and matured for only a few weeks) hands-down. I just wished I'd stashed a few bottles in my bag, but it didn't seem like the most practical beverage to take to a festival!

After a very enjoyable hour or two we made our way out into the pouring rain, to meet our fellow punkers and head to the festival - more can be read about that element of the trip, including our night in Leuven, famous for 'the longest bar in Europe', here!

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Australian Beer Round-Up

Given that we left Australia almost 7 months ago, this write-up is long overdue. But there was a pretty cool beer culture to be found in good ol' WA if you looked for it, and I felt it would be a shame to go undocumented. To be fair we have touched on it more than a few times in our travel blog, but I wanted to condense into one post some of our favourite beers while living in the Golden State.

My original idea for this post was to write it over Christmas, where we would likely be drinking something different each day. I had the witty idea to punningly title it 'Twelve Beers of Christmas'. Getting round to writing this up means I have monumentally missed the boat, to the extent that as I started to write this Christmas four months gone, and now as I actually get round to publishing it, 8 months! I also don't think I did manage a different beer each day, and if I did I can't remember what it was! So I decided instead to write up our favourite beers from our time in Australia, my fading memories aided by the little beer diary that Charlotte bought me for my birthday. This way I won't have to bore you to death with descriptions of twelve beers, you can count yourself lucky to be getting away with a mere seven.

Bootleg Brewery – Grandfather Barley Wine
This beer came in a regal 800ml champagne bottle that demanded to be opened on a special occasion. It was slap bang between Christmas/my birthday and New Year and we were on holiday, so it just about met this criteria. I bought this while the Parkers were visiting us and we had taken a trip to Margaret River. Joe and I had opted to drive and do beach and breweries rather than cheese and wineries with Charlotte, Mike and Kath. I couldn't resist picking up a bottle and the wonder is that it lasted 3 months in the cupboard. It had already been aged a year so it had had sufficient time in the bottle to develop rich and plummy qualities. My notes tell me it tasted of treacle and cola sweets, and it was certainly a lot darker and more fruity than any barley wine I have ever tasted. It managed to balance a brooding richness with sweet effervescent refreshment, making it a perfect celebratory yet warming drink on a winter's evening. We were drinking it in the summer so we enjoyed it late on when the temperature had dropped, but I can imagine this going down well at a festive fireside celebration back home, and despite it's 9% strength it wasn't too heavy at all.

Coopers – Original Pale Ale
This was a staple that we regularly grabbed from the fridge or the esky on a hot day, super crisp and dry in true Australian style. To be fair it is quite a long way from a pale ale but it's very refreshing nonetheless, just what the (Fremantle) doctor ordered down the beach on a sunny day. The only thing I'm not convinced about is whether the yeast floating around in it adds much flavour, I suspect it's a gimmick as I didn't notice the difference when drinking the more finely filtered draft version. It does look fairly unappetising if you bother to pour it in a glass (in fact my notes tell me it looked like "cloudy urine with floaty bits"!). But Australian beer isn't often afforded the luxury of a glass, probably so as not to waste precious time in the journey from fridge to mouth in the stifling heat. As for the sediment, Coopers actively encourage you to shake it up and drink it along with the beer, unlike most English or Belgian ale which would often be advised to store upright for at least a day for it to settle before pouring carefully into a glass. Of course some people choose to pour the yeast in too, to add an extra dimension of flavour (or ruin the beer depending what it is). A quick glance at their website reveals there is a 'ritual' specific to each of their beers (apart from the finely filtered lagers and light beers of course). It is apparently proper to roll, rock, tip, twist or rotate the bottle a specific number of times before opening. Never mind that the act of drinking out of the bottle is going to shake up the sediment anyway. But the marketing worked, and I happily carried out the 'ritual' of rolling my pale ale before twisting off the cap and taking a long gulp; cold, refreshing, dry and crisp - all fairly meaningless descriptors but apt in this moment. It had just enough malt character and bitter hops, along with a good value price-point (beer is expensive in WA!), to keep me coming back for more.

A massive pale ale, packed with juicy hops this is a supremely quaffable beer for hot summer's day. The hops pack a sweet grapefruity punch, before culminating in an aggressively dry finish. Dangerously drinkable, you wouldn't know it was almost 6%! Feral have been making a name for themselves recently, and I've already come across a couple of their beers in New Zealand. I also read this week that one of their brewers is shipping out to England to help Wetherspoons brew a cask Australian IPA for their annual beer festival. Let's hope he can help turn Australian's on to the beauty of cask ale, although maybe to be drunk in winter only!

Gage Roads – Saison 2008
I found this in a booze warehouse (think B&Q but filled with alcohol) down near Albany, but it was actually brewed just down the road from where we lived, in Palmyra. I can't say they usually brew anything particularly inspiring so I was interested to try one of their one-off specials. Saison originates as a French farmyard ale, brewed with wild yeasts. As such this can give it a somewhat barnyard flavour, but in a good way! This was a very classy Saison; ultra-dry and super-fine carbonation gave it a likeness to Champagne. Quite a hoppy affair, giving it a pleasant lemony flavour. A very enjoyable beer, and more than worthy of it's posh bottle.

Little Creatures – Rogers
This is a malty beer in the English style but with a hoppier slant, probably to ensure it stands up to antipodean standards of chilling (ie. to within an inch of the beer's life). Any Australian will tell you this is a typical 'whining Pom' complaint, and to be fair in summer the colder the beer, the better. If it's too cold then you need only wait a few minutes for it to warm up a bit. But what I found annoying was that in winter it was still served outrageously cold, and given that all the bars were designed for summer they generally weren't very warm. So you'd go to the bar and order a nice porter or stout, maybe even an imported European festive special, hoping to feel warm inside with some roasty malty goodness, only for it to served at the kind of temperature that makes your hand stick to the glass. Anyway, rant over, back to the beer. This is lovely malt dominated beer, sweeter and lower alcohol than most Australian brews and perfect for an afternoon barbecue. I reckon it would have tasted pretty good on cask too.

Little Creatures – Pale Ale
This was our go-to beer for the time we spent in Australia, it isn't referred to as the beer that spawned a hundred pale ales for nothing. Delicously malty with a good whack of citric hops, but still in fairly dry, dusty style as favoured down-under. It was excellent to regularly enjoy this at their brewery bar, literally straight from the maturation tanks. Working a stone's throw from this place required epic restraint not to pop in every lunch time! Beer geek side note: I did find that the filtering was hap-hazard at times; sometimes you'd get a wonderfully fruity and hazy beer, and other times it was crisp and clear as a bell, which changed the dynamic of the beer completely. Needless to say I preferred it the less filtered version, but it was always a very enjoyable beer. Just thinking about it makes me feel homesick for Freo!

Mountain Goat - Rare Breed IPA
This is probably one of the best beers I had the pleasure of trying in Australia, big malt backbone with a hoppy bite which we both likened to lemon bon-bons. Sadly I didn't catch on to the 'Goat until towards the end of our time in Australia. I got this bottle from the awesome bottle shop, The Freo Doctor. A great beer, it was indeed just what the doctor ordered!

If you've made it this far down, bravo. This was a bit of trip down memory lane for me; thinking about the various occasions I had the pleasure of supping these tasty drops. At the beach, in the van, on the balcony, in one of our favourite bars (Sail & Anchor, Clancy's Fishpub - miss you!) or plonked on the couch. All happy memories bookended by good beer. Cheers to that!

Cheers To a New Chapter

Hello, and welcome to my new blogging endeavour! As well as the 'day blog', I wanted an outlet to talk/bore at length about that irresistible nectar we call beer. I'm not going to be too strict with it, but beer will undoubtedly be the common theme throughout. I'm aiming to keep things broad, although will mostly be writing from personal experiences. Mainly I'm just going to write things up that have struck me as interesting or got me thinking, mostly for my own benefit but also with the hope that someone, somewhere might find it interesting and/or informative!

My main inspiration for this blog has been the recent Beervana and Wellington on a Plate festivals here in Wellington; the sheer range of quality liquids and foodstuffs that have passed my lips these past few weeks is absurd, although I still feel like I barely scratched the surface of the craft/artisan/whatever-you-want-to-call-it beer and food scene in New Zealand.

Of course it's hardly a revelation that I have really enjoyed what I've been eating and drinking lately, anyone who has spent any time with me will realise that I've always had an appetite for... well just a general appetite! But I've always been keen to try new flavours, and have been known to obsess over searching out perfection in my favourite dishes or beverages. Eating and drinking can certainly can be one of life's supreme pleasures.

I'll start off with a couple of pieces that have spun-off from the travel blog, and are based on experiences from much earlier in the year. Bear with me and I'll get a bit more up to date in the coming weeks - famous last words!