A foodie beer blog about the best things in life: Craft Beer, Real Ale, Food and all things tasty.

Written by a foodie-beer geek in London

Beer in Brussels: Visiting Cantillon Brewery

Of all the beery pilgrimages on my bucket-list – drinking fresh tankovna Pilsner Urquell in the Czech Republic, making my way through a tasting tray from Mikkeller in Copenhagen, glugging steins of Marzen at Oktoberfest in Munich, or being braced by brewery-fresh Stone IPA in San Diego – visiting Cantillon brewery in Brussels was right at the top.


For a start the place really has no right to exist at all. Years of decline and changing drinking habits meant that Lambic all but died out, with only a handful of breweries in Brussels keeping the tradition alive and producing tart, spontaneously fermented lambic beers for a small, niche local audience. At the same time, a worrying trend for overly sweetened ‘psuedo-lambics’ began in the 1970s and continues to this day - often heavily dosed with fruit syrups, they carry the name but not methods or true flavours of Lambic.

Eventually, Cantillon were the only ones left brewing Lambic in Brussels, but were rewarded for their perseverance through the dark years of Lambic once America got a taste for it in the late 90s and sour beers became popular amongst discerning beer drinkers. Now they are the most famous and revered lambic brewery in the World.

It’s important to understand the distinction between ‘sour beers’, which can include beers dosed with brett or any number of ‘wild yeasts’, and true spontaneously fermented lambics like those produced at Cantillon. The beers brewed in the Cantillon brewery are fermented solely by the wild yeasts in the air, which is let in through wooden slats in the roof of the brewery and allowed to come in to contact with the freshly brewed wort, which is pumped into the large, square, open topped cooling vessel located in the ramshackled loft.

At one time, this was how all beer was produced and it was only with the discoveries made by microbiologist Louie Pasteur into the fermentation process, specifically the isolation of individual yeasts, which led to the more controlled methods now widely used in modern brewing.

Cantillon has changed very little over the last hundred years and still uses the traditional methods and 17th century brewkit which they, and thousands of other international fans, believe produce the most complex sour beers in the world. This includes remaining in the same, tightly packed brewing space as they always have for fear of upsetting the delicate ecosystem of microbes and yeasts which give the beer its unique flavour.

When it is the living things in the air itself which your business relies on, you can understand why they take this so seriously. This is why you’ll never see a cobweb being swept away inside Cantillon. Because, as strange as it might sound, they are essential to the microcosm of the brewhouse and ensure that a space packed with bubbling barrels of spontaneously fermenting beer isn’t over-run with sugar-seeking fruit flies.

If there were flies around, which there aren’t, they’d have plenty to feast upon. Row after row of wooden barrels line the sprawling cellars of Cantillon. The wooden barrel heads are chalked with various letters which I decipher as referring to Gueuze, Lambic and Iris – the latter being a lambic produced with all pale malt and no wheat, leading to a slightly darker beer, which is then dry hopped for a fruitier, softer sourness.

Darkness and dankness fill the walking space between the rows and the aroma is a soft, intoxicating mix of overripe fruit and damp wood. I take in the space like a crime-scene investigator – floor, walls, surfaces and ceilings – whilst listening for the faint bubble and pop of quietly fermenting beer, breaking free of its barrel’s bung.

You feel a genuine sense of reverence as you explore the well-worn rooms of Cantillon Brewery, with every inch of the place having a piece of history attached to it. Whether it’s the thousand-stacked bottles of gueuze quietly maturing, or that magical open topped fermenting vessel tucked away in the loft, everything has a purpose and a story to tell.

And explore is exactly the right word to use. Even the modestly marked wooden doors of the entrance ensure every person who enters has a look of I found it on their face as they walk into the tasting room - before being ushered through into the brewery itself, armed with some information and a smile, then thrust into the thick of it and allowed to explore, enjoy, at their leisure.

There really is something magical in the air at Cantillon.

 

Brasserie Cantillon
56 rue Gheude,
1070 Brussels

www.cantillon.be

 

 

 

Pork Shoulder Tacos... and learning to love leftovers!

One of my (loose) new years resolutions was to buy better quality meat, but make it go further. It's something that has been surprisingly easy to stick to, with two simple rules being central to making it work: Buy larger, cheaper cuts, and never waste anything.

Trimming fat from a big cut of meat? Freeze those off-cuts and use em when you need extra flavour in the base of a dish - just fry them gently and then take the fat out of the pan once the oil has leached out, then chuck in some onions. Voila. Porky, beefy or chickeny flavoured onions! Great for the base of a pasta sauce.

Some cuts are just made for this sort of thing. Beef brisket, shoulder of lamb, or basically anything fatty and piggy. In this case it was a big slow-roasted pork shoulder that was providing the leftovers that I used in a smokey, spicy chilli, heady with garlic, ground cumin and smoked paprika.

Dished up inside baby gem lettuce (natures taco), sprinkled with cheddar and then a little salsa - made using chilli, tomato, onion, garlic and fresh coriander - it is a beautiful dish in itself and something which you would never think of as leftovers.

I enjoyed the lettuce tacos with an awesome beer from a brewery that is quickly becoming a go-to for me, Weird Beard, K*ntish Town Beard. It was a good match - with the fruity, lightly sweet wheat beer base matching well with the rich chilli and the citrusy, bitter hop flavours bouncing nicely off the spicy salsa.

It reminds me a little of Meine Hopfenweisse from Schneider Weisse, though with more bitterness and slightly less fruity banana yeast complexity. Still, top stuff from WB once again, and a beer I'll be buying again without hesitation.

 

A smorgasbord of bitterness: Or why you should all be drinking CamparIPA’s

Bitterness is an interesting subject. For me it is as much a feeling as a flavour, something which can register on the palate in a number of ways, coming via indicators as far apart on the flavour spectrum as heavily roasted malt or lemon rind. It’s the reason that dark, dry, well attenuated beers can sometimes give the impression of high bitterness, despite the absence of high hopping rates from the recipe. Bitterness isn’t always about hops.

It’s also the reason that Campari is such a painter’s palette of flavour for bitterness lovers. The king of aperitifs, where spikes of flavour thrust out at you with jolts of pungent, floral herbs, tart grapefruit peel and the astringent qualities of bitterly burnt sugar.

The reason it works is that bitterness also has a refreshing quality, it awakens the palate and gives the impression of freshness. Where sweetness – at the other end of the flavour spectrum – gives the impression of thickness and stickiness, bitterness has a cleansing quality which makes you want to take another sip. A glutton for punishment going back for one more slug, hoping the next sip will quench the dryness left behind by the last, which it never does, until the glass is all but empty.

Campari is of course a classic aperitif, drank by the Italians after work as a sort of boozy amuse bouche, designed to liven your tastebuds, and spirits, before the main event of dinner leisurely rolls it’s way around in the early evening. It is a key component in my favourite cocktail, the ludicrously simple Negroni, which the Polpo cookbook advises should always be prepared with equal parts Campari, gin and sweet vermouth, stirred together in a short glass tumbler with a slice of orange rind, “Don’t mess with these proportions. They are perfect as they are” it boldly claims – and I’m happy to agree.

But Campari can be used in much more than Negronis, as can be seen quite spectacularly in the Campari and IPA spritzer, or as I agree it should be called, The CamparIPA, where the avalanche of bitterness that is Campari is tempered by the malt sweetness of American IPA, peppered with the added complexity of those dancing C-hops.

The ingredients for the CamparIPA are simplicity itself, just a shot of Campari, poured over ice and gently stirred with roughly half a bottle of bitter American IPA, then garnished with a slice of orange or lemon peel – if you’re feeling fancy. I’m using Stone IPA but Lagunitas, Goose Island, or Racer 5 would all work perfectly well I reckon, albeit in subtly different ways.

The results are spectacular.

Freshly poured the first thing that hits you is the fizz, pine and hop bitterness, thrust out of the glass as it reacts with the ice, but then as you swallow your first sip the Campari wafts through your nostrils and that fierce herb and grapefruit character takes over. The finish is a dovetailing of the two with bitter pine, grapefruit, citrus peel and a kiss of sweetness creating a surprisingly balanced yet hugely complex cocktail.

A beautiful combination, that I promise you is worth risking half a bottle of good IPA over.

 

Notes:

I discovered the recipe when reading an online article which linked to this: http://www.thekitchn.com/summer-cocktail-recipe-campari-ipa-spritzer-150343 - the recipe here advises using lemon, which I think would work well too, but I wanted the old-fashioned like sweetness of orange peel to counteract all that bitterness, hence my version above.



 

Acklam Village Streetfood Market, Portobello Road

A Saturday at Portobello Market is an assault on the senses. Jovial shouting crowds, camera snapping tourists, soul music pumping from battered stereos on second hand music stalls, rack after rack of musty barbours, time-smoothed wooden oddities, a waft of ripe fruit mixed with the sweetly caramelised umami of a far-off simmering paella.

It’s a seemingly endless market which appears to sprawl and stretch with the gentle yet unstoppable nature of a dense fog, inhabiting whichever spaces it needs.

Other days of the week shift the focus of the market towards fresh produce or new goods, but it’s the eclectically British mix of vintage clothing, antique furniture, old records and brac-a-brac that always gave Saturday the unpredictable appeal of a jumble sale for me, even though food always played second fiddle – with stalls dotted around the main strip of Portobello road, there more as pit stops than destinations.

But with the addition of a new* streetfood focussed area called Aklam Market - squatting in the section of Portobello which always seemed to play host to the tattiest of the market’s wares – the balance has shifted, and Portobello seems to have embraced the foodie revolution happening elsewhere in the capital.

It’s amazing the difference a couple of pounds makes. The likes of The Rib Man, Big Apple Hot Dogs, Yum Bun, Smokestack and many more have proven that people are willing to pay a little extra for something that is truly delicious - even if we are eating it standing up. Where once we might have been offered frozen burgers, pukka pies and overpriced flabby chips, now we can get our hands on slow roast Cuban pork rolls, opulently moist salt beef and hand pressed dim sum.

And whilst the food offerings at Aklam didn’t quite nail the quality you’d associate with the likes of Street Feast in Dalston, where restaurant level food is dished out from nearly every intentionally decrepit stall, Aklam Market is a step in the right direction.

The burrito I bought was fresh, full of flavour and made with a real attention to detail (very finely chopped red onions and chilli lending bags of flavour rather than simple raw heat) that made every mouthful a balanced combination of flavours – rich and meaty, fresh and spicy, sour and zesty.

With it I drank a really tasty Czech pilsner I forget the name of. Something beginning with L? It had that caramel and spicy hop thing down anyway and worked great with the burrito.

For me Aklam has added another layer of interest to what was already a world class market, making a trip to Portobello something I won’t wait another two years to make.

 

 

*Aklam Market actually opened in 2012 but I haven’t visited for a few years. Finger on the pulse as ever.

 

Clown Shoes Hoppy Feet Black IPA

I haven't written about a black IPA in a while, is it still 'a thing' in e beer world? It's certainly not en vogue like it once was, but it doesn't look to be going anywhere in a hurry. Anyway, here's another new one on me. From the home of the style, the US.

Hoppy Feet by Clown Shoes pours a total, evil, pitch black. So top marks in that respect.

The aroma has less depth, with simple bitter chocolate and sticky resinous pine but not a lot else. That said it is a very full flavoured, extremely bitter beer but as I suspected from the aroma there is a freshness and fruitiness missing which I love to taste in black ipa.

But let's concentrate on what it does have, not what it doesn't. You get lots of bitter dark chocolate dryness, heavy roasted espresso and a finish which is all black pepper and resinous pine. The aftertaste is spicy, bitter and extremely long.

All-in-all it's a pretty heavy going, strong and straightforward BIPA which fans of hoppy imperial stouts will get on with more than hopheads.

 

Magic Rock Villainous Vienna IPA

Magic Rock have long been an extremely safe-bet on the bar for me, with all killer, no filler being the aim when it comes to their beer range. So when I spotted Villainous - an all Vienna malt IPA - on the bar at CRAFT in Clerkenwell it was an easy decision to order a half.

In the end I ended up having three in a row, which in a bar like CRAFT is pretty much unheard of, such are the treats on offer. But when you’re enjoying a beer as much as I enjoyed this, why move on?

The beer pours a bright Iron Bru orange, only ever-so-slightly hazy with an unusual lemon sorbet coloured head.

The aroma is beautifully fruity with sharp orange, pine and underripe mango. The flavour is balanced (for the style) with a very pronounced fresh hop character, an underlying raisin bread malt sweetness and a flourish of floral, peppery bitterness in the finish.

The bitterness builds after a few mouthfuls and a refreshing almost menthol-like character becomes apparent as an extra top note above everything else, like a triangles 'ting' amongst an orchestra.

Delicious.

 

A Wee Bit of class from Williams Brothers and Brooklyn Brewery

I think the thing I like most about Brooklyn Brewery is the balance their beers always display. Even in their hoppiest Pale Ales or richest Imperial Stouts there is always an effort to make a quality, balanced, complete beer.

There is always lots going on in Brooklyn beers, but they have a poise and completeness that makes the beers drinkable, no-matter the strength.

But this beer, A Wee Bit, isn't the work of Brooklyn alone, it's a collaboration between Brooklyn Brewery and Williams Brothers Brew Co in Scotland – and it’s an absolute masterclass in drinkability.

Trust me, it takes a very steady hand to create a gluggable Scotch Ale brewed with peated malt, treacle and honey. It’s a beer that could so easily have ended up a sticky, overly sweet mess, or even worse something which has far too much peat and medicinal character – evoking thoughts of childhood scraped knees and the painful sting of TCP that followed.

But in the hands of the Williams Bros, with a little help from those magicians at Brooklyn, it has turned out as one of the most surprisingly drinkable beers I’ve enjoyed in quite some time. Like a sort of Scottish Schlenkerla Marzen, albeit not as powerfully smoked.

The initial aroma is that of BIG smokey-sweet frankfurter and woodsmoke with just a little touch of honey dipped pine needle.

The flavour is smooth and flavoursome with a nice smoked marzen like quality and only a touch of sweetness. There’s a lovely underlying roasted malt bitterness that combines well with a clear but restrained peated malt earthiness.

The peat is quite subtle but it's certainly there, something which Scotch whiskey drinkers will no-doubt be able to pinpoint much easier.

The honey and treacle don't really come through, but for me that’s not really a negative.

I was surprised how much I liked this beer. Which, as you may have guessed, was a lot.

 

 

p.s. I was supposed to be reviewing this beer as part of a live tweet-along the brewery held last week, but as usual I was disorganised and unavailable. So my review of this and two other new beers will be coming in three separate parts.

 

How much does the setting, atmosphere, or surroundings affect our drinking experience of beer?

I read with interest an excellent piece on the BBC website recently about how our surroundings, specifically colours and sounds, can affect the way we interpret the flavour of a drink. One of the examples cited is single malt whiskey, where bright green surroundings will bring out the grassy notes of the drink, whereas a wooden floor or crackling fire will evoke thoughts, and therefore flavours, of wood and smoke.


"Neurogastronomy is based on the realisation that everything we eat or drink is processed by our senses. We see it, we hear it, we smell it, we taste it, we feel it. All those senses come together."

It’s an interesting idea, which in many ways is actually very common-sense when you think about. How many times have you been drinking a beer and there’s a flavour you can’t put your finger on, then someone says ‘grapefruit’, ‘chestnut’ or even ‘soy sauce’ and suddenly it’s all you can taste? This is the same thing, albeit done in a much more subtle, almost subliminal way.

I think it’s safe to say that the setting of where and when you drink a beer can have a huge affect on how much you enjoy it, or at the very least will sway your decision in terms of what beer to choose.

This bank holiday Sunday I spent a good few hours wandering around St Albans with my father-in-law, ducking in and out of pubs to avoid the frequent showers and enjoy a number of cask ales along the way. The gloomy weather very much put me in the mood for stronger, darker beers, with the Hop Back Brewery Entire Stout being on fantastic form in the ever-reliable White Hart Tap.

As a hophead it was a strange feeling to be leaning towards malt at the pump-clips, but that’s what the setting can do to your preferences in my experience. There’s just something about drinking a pint of smokey, dry, yet malt led stout in a cosy pub when the rain is lashing down outside. It’s as perfect a drinking experience as enjoying a hoppy pale ale in the sunshine for me.

So was the Entire Stout on particularly spanking form or did the setting play a contributing factor in my enjoyment of it? I’d hazard a guess at it being a little bit of both.

 

How much does packaging affect our drinking experience of beer?

I’m a sucker for attractive packaging and interesting design, even if I sometimes feel like I look at things a little too objectively, rather than simply letting the form wash over me and have its intended effect. I’m very much a constructive criticiser rather than passive appreciator.

I look at a corked and caged bottle of imperial stout and recognise it as something more than a bottle of beer, it’s a representation of how much care has been put into the product by the brewer, a big flashing neon sign that says “we think this beer is special”.

But is that the desired effect? Or does the brewer simply want to change the way the customer drinks the beer, or perhaps I’m being cynical here, simply get a bigger mark up on their beer?

At the other end of the spectrum, another way to increase your profits is to produce a beer which has the appearance of something which you can passively drink without too much thought, a beer which is for everyday drinking - ‘fridge beers’ as I call ‘em. Without changing the flavour of a beer some breweries will try to change our overall perception of it through packaging, with the desired end-goal of encouraging us to drink more of it.

The most obvious way this is done is through the use of cans in craft beer. It just screams “drink me now, drink me cold”. There’s just something about a stubby little 330ml can that encourages you to drink the beer immediately rather than save it, simply sup it and then crack open another – no bottle caps, no mess, no fuss. Hell, drink it straight from the can if you like.

It was the can of Flying Dog’s Snake Dog IPA sat in my fridge that got me thinking about this. Even at a not-exactly-session-strength 7.1% it strikes me as an everyday drinking beer because of the packaging – a lawnmower beer the Americans call ‘em – something which is there to be drank and enjoyed rather than savoured and obsessed over.

But it isn’t just the switch from bottles to cans that has this effect. There’s something about the stout, no-fuss shape of the American Red-Hook bottles that implies they aren’t ‘fancy’ beers (Camden’s 660ml bottles have a similar aesthetic). The shape and branding implies that these are beers brewed to be drank and enjoyed, but there’s no need to make notes.

It’s an impression that carries over to my experience of the beers themselves, but is that a residual feeling left over from my perception of the packaging, or has the bottle design been chosen to suit the no-fuss, drinkable style of the beers?

How much can we really separate the impression given by the packaging, branding, history, from the flavour of the beer itself? Isn’t it all one experience, no matter how objective we try to be?

On the flipside, look at the shape of Meantime’s bottles. Slender necked, elegant, very un-beer-like in many ways, they shout at you to pour the beer into a stemmed glass and take your time. In fact they are even cleverer than that, with that long neck and fat bottom making it awkward to drink the beer direct from the bottle - something which would not suit the brand at all.

And, lone behold, my honest impression of Meantime beers is that of subtle refinement. Not shouty, not always exciting you could argue, but always good quality, with a sense of class that other breweries don’t often achieve.

The interesting question for me is how much do you notice packaging in beer? Not just the obvious gift-boxing of expensive beers, but the subtlety of shape, form and branding of the bottles.

Because if you don’t notice it, then it may be having even more of an effect on you than you’d think.

 

Rediscovering the classic beers that helped define a style

I found Rob’s review of Fuller’s ESB over on Hopzine really interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, Rob is a man who really knows his beers, but ESB seemed to have him flummoxed – how could that be the case? I mean, it’s a beer you can buy in most supermarkets and a hundred different Fullers pubs around London, and a beer which many people around the UK know extremely well.

I think one reason is that in the pursuit of the next best thing us beer lovers (and I wholeheartedly include myself in that) are sometimes guilty of forgetting ‘the classics’ - beers that have a mighty reputation but which we bypass in the search for something new. This is particularly true of World-famous British beers from the likes of Fullers, which the Americans go crazy over yet many British beer lovers pass by as old-hat.

But it’s not just classic British beers we’re guilty of ignoring, it’s anything we’ve become too familiar with. A perfect example of which is Duvel, the Belgian Golden Ale by which all others are judged and a beer with much more complexity than many beer geeks give it credit for. Try it cool, but not fridge-cold, and you’ll be rewarded by heaps of fruity, almost pear-drop-like fruit esters, a creamy malt smoothness and a spicy, yeasty aroma you never new were there.

It really is a clever little beer, beautifully clean and drinkable for its abv with a subtlety and class so many beers are lacking.

Another example of a style defining beer is Schneider Weisse Tap 7, which whilst it isn’t the earliest weisse bier, it is undoubtably the beer and brewery that kept the style alive when other brewers were abandoning it (middle of the 19th Century) in favour of more ‘modern’ bottom fermenting lagers.

Even putting the history aside, Schneider Weisse is, for me, the German style wheat beer against which all others are compared - and a stone cold classic that I return to again and again.

But these are much more than beers which have simply stood the test of time. What most people don’t realise is that beers such as this, particularly ESB, define the beer style category* they now sit within. Which in a world of beer as diverse as we live in now, is really something quite special.

I think as a beer lover it’s important to check back in on these classic beers, as often you might have forgotten how good they really are - or at the very least be surprised by what you find.

 



*Somewhat ironically Fuller’s ESB doesn’t meet the style guidelines of English Extra Special Bitter according to the Great American Beer Festival, but that’s a whole other blog post in itself.

Image credit: http://brouge.co.uk/drinks-2/