Some of you may have tried a Blonde Belgian beer called Augustijn, it's pretty rare over here but a few of the more specialist bars do have it. You may also have heard that SabMiller (booooo hissss) have struck a deal with the brewery behind the beer to launch it proper to the UK market, under the new title of St Stefanus.
Now before you get your knickers in a twist and start having a go at the big bad boys from the Macro make sure you know the details. Because this isn't a buyout. They haven't bought the
brewery in order to acquire the brand and knacker it up. What they've done is struck a distribution deal with Brouwerij Van Steenberge to market their beer to the UK under the new title of St Stefanus (there was some argument with another company using a similar name to the Augustijn brand, so they changed it). Importantly, it is EXACTLY the same beer. Brewed by the same brewery, in the same way as it always was, just with some rather nice branding and a new name.
And what a brand. They've clearly thrown some money at this because the branding (and I'm a geek for this sort of thing) is beautiful. Elegant, clean, original and just well, classy. I mean the video below shows how seriously they're taking this.
The reason I've included the above video as well is because it does a fine job of explaining the history of the beer produced by St Stefanus, although Roger's account is also excellent, so I'd recommend giving that a read a read too.
Essentially though the St Stefanus blonde is as close as possible to the recipe of the original Abbey beer produced by the Augustijn Monks hundreds of years ago. I'm no beer historian, I'm a flavour fiend, so read Rogers article for the nitty gritty historical details.
What I really want to talk about is the beer. In firstly the Blonde, which I loved.
Listening to Jef (pictured), the hugely knowledgable and downright charming brewmaster of this beer, talk about what he aims for when brewing was not only really interesting, but also pretty enlightening. It made me think slightly differently about Belgian beer.
What Jef says is that it's all well and good producing beers that are super hopped, or really dark and boozy, or bowled over by malt, but what's really difficult to do, and what he always tries to do, is to produce a beer which tastes greater than the sum of it's parts. A beer that when you taste it you can't quite put your finger on whether it's the malt, hops, or yeast that are producing those flavours, but that instantly tastes right. As his Grandfather use to say about only the best brews, something that you taste and think "That's good beer", but can't really say why.
In many ways that's the beauty of Belgian beer for me, and it's exactly the reason that I loved the St Stefanus Blonde (and equally why I didn't like the Grand Cru, but more on that later). It tasted just right, with a nice balance of light bitterness, peppery, dry hops, a biscuity pale malt character and a really satisfying balance between citrus fruit and the touch of sour funk and dustyness from the combination of the three different yeasts used, including a wild Brettanomyces culture. The hops used are Saaz and German Hallertau, and the malt bill is Pale, Pilsner and Munich, along with a little brewing sugar.
I also got the chance to try the other beer being released in the UK in the near future, the Grand Cru. It's a 9% version of the Blonde but for me it was too harsh, with a far too prominent Sake Wine quality (we later found out Jef likes to use Rice in this beer to avoid it becoming too 'sticky' at that abv, so I was quite happy with my Sake spot). That said, beer is a question of taste and this is a beer worth trying, it just wasn't my cup of tea.
Oh, and Ghent, where the brewery is based, is BEAUTIFUL. Here are some pics.
A big thanks has to go to the guys handling the St Stefanus account in the UK for inviting us over and spoiling us rotten. It was awesome, and you guys made it even better by not acting like 'PR People' or avoiding our frequent, and often brutally honest, questions about what exactly your intentions were with this lovely little brewery.