Monday 28 September 2015

EBBC West Flanders Excursion - Part Two

De Struise Brouwers, Oostvleteren
Following on from Part One of the narration, we re-join the European Beer Bloggers on their West Flanders Excursion

Following our departure from the world-famous Abbey of Sint Sixtus at Westvleteren, our coach drove us along the winding lanes of this flat, but attractive area of West Flanders. After a detour to avoid a local cycle race, we arrived in the village of Oostvleteren, home to the now legendary De Struise Brouwers. Housed in an old school building, complete with corridors, blackboards and even the old school toilets, De Struise have acquired a reputation for pushing the boundaries of brewing. This has inevitably elevated the company to near “God-like” status amongst the beer geeks of this world thanks, in no small part, to reviews received and ratings given for their beers on sites such as Rate Beer and Beer Advocate, (see Hi-Tech Ticking). 
Corridors were never like this when I was at school!
 Quite a few of our party were understandably excited by the prospect of visiting De Struise, but I must admit that until this visit I had never heard of them. The coach deposited us outside the old school and we made our way across what must once have been the playground, to an old class room where we were met by one of the brewery partners. Unfortunately I didn’t catch his name, but he was very friendly and, whilst obviously very proud of the brewery and its achievements, he was very approachable and down to earth.

The brewery was started back in 2001, by two partners who owned an old ostrich farm. The farm had been converted into holiday accommodation for visitors to the area, and the idea was to produce distinctive regional beers to serve to the guests. Starting initially with wheat beer, the partners soon branched out by producing other styles, and since then have never really looked back.
Lessons - De Struise style

Until 2013, when they commissioned their own brewery at the “Old Schoolhouse” in Oostvleteren, De Struise functioned as a “gypsy brewer”, producing their beers at the Caulier Brewery in Hainaut, before moving in 2006, to the Deca Brewing Facility in Woesten-Vleteren in West Flanders. The company also have a shop in Bruges. De Struise are named after the old Flemish word for ostrich, which also is a contemporary slang term meaning "tough". Many of the beer labels feature ostriches, and the bird features prominently on their logo. The name “De Struise” translates roughly into English as "The Sturdy Brewers".

The on-site brewery can produce up to 1,000 litres of beer at a time which, if you’ll pardon the pun, is no small beer. The taproom has around 20 beer lines and after our host had spoken about the company’s history, and talked us through some of the beers, we were offered 8cl tasting glass samples of which ever beers we fancied.

For some people this was like being a kid in a sweet shop, but after several days of over-indulgence taking in some fairly extreme beers, the last thing I wanted was more of the same. I was actually taking notes at this stage, but although I have only written about three of the beers, I am fairly certain that I sampled more. The three I wrote down were: Havic Pilsner 4.5%; Oblis Saison 8.0%; RIP Dark Brown Porter 7.0%.

An impressive row of taps
The brewery has recently ventured into stronger and sometimes rather more extreme beers, with "barrel-aging" becoming increasingly important. As evidence of this, we saw plenty of old wine casks, stacked up in the yard. As I mentioned earlier, many of the party were in their seventh heaven here so I probably sound like a real philistine when I say I found myself yearning not for a super-strength barrel-aged imperial porter or a vanilla-oaked Chardonnay-infused Saison, but a good, a plain simple quaffing beer; something I could sit there and just enjoy, without overly challenging my taste buds, or other senses.

That statement is in no way intended as a snub, or a put-down to De Struise, who obviously produce a wide range of world class beers, but instead is more a reflection of the stage I had reached after five days of sampling, and on the whole enjoying, some of Belgium’s finest but often quite challenging beers. We were privileged to have visited De Struise Brouwers, at their “Old Schoolhouse” home, and to have been talked through some of the beers by one of the partners in the firm.

Chilling out in the old school yard
After thanking our host, and also saying goodbye to our guide, Johan from Poperinge, it was back on the coach. The combination of a warm early evening and a surfeit of strong beer was enough to send me to sleep, so it was quite a shock when one of my travelling companions shook me awake to announce it was time to get off the coach. We had reached the town of Roeselare, home to the legendary Rodenbach Brewery, and our coach was parked right outside the Eetcafe where an evening meal had been arranged for us.

I was still half asleep as we filed into the restaurant, and was not that receptive to the idea of yet more beer. I settled for a glass of water, along with a bottle of Boon Geuze, “just to be sociable”. After a fish-cake starter, we enjoyed a real tasty serving of that most traditional of Belgian dishes, Carbonade flamande. 

Suitably fed and watered, we departed the Eetcafe, and re-joined the coach for the short journey across town to the Rodenbach Brewery. I have written at length here, about our tour round this historic producer of classic Flemish Red-Brown Beers, so I won’t say anymore in this post. Suffice to say that after a late finish at Rodenbach, we were driven to the historic city of Bruges, where we were to stay the night.

A Belgian classic for dinner
It had been one of the best days out I have experienced in a long time, packing in several superlatives and, for me, some places that had been on my brewery “wish list” for ages. I’m certain I speak for all the tour participants when I give thanks to Visit Flanders, for organising the itinerary, and a special thank-you to Yannick, our ever patient, helpful and good natured guide who accompanied us every step of the way and who ensured that everything ran smoothly, and to time.

Sunday 27 September 2015

Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight

Unfortunately, due to other commitments, I had to miss this year’s Canterbury Food & Drink Festival. The festival, which opened on Friday 25th September, acts as the official launch of Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight. It is also the only location and occasion when all (or nearly all!) Kent Green Hop Beers are available in the same place at the same time.

All is not lost though, as there will be plenty more Kent Green Hop Beers available in local pubs and at other events after the festival. I was drinking Shepherd Neame’s version No.18 Yard, in a Maidstone pub, on Friday evening, (the opening day of the festival). I was there for a significant local CAMRA branch anniversary reunion; but more of that in a later post. I am also certain, that over the coming weeks I will come across more of these seasonal specials on the bars of various local pubs. One local pub, the Poacher & Partridge at Tudeley, is hosting its own Green Hop Beer Festival next weekend. I will try and get over, even if it’s only for a short while, as I’m flying off on the Sunday for my second visit this year to the Czech Republic. (More about that at a later date.)

The general public (but not readers of beer blogs), often wrongly believe that beer is brewed from hops whereas, as we all know, beer is brewed from malted barley (sometimes with the addition of other cereals), with hops providing the ‘seasoning’. Hops impart tanginess, bitterness and aroma, but when beers are brewed with green hops, the fact the hops are fresh and untreated means they are an unknown quantity. This combined with the influence of the weather, and other seasonal factors, on their growing period ensures the flavour of the resultant beer will be different each year. As brewers are normally at pains to ensure their beers taste the same every time, these factors add a variety and interest which would not normally be present. Because brewing with green hops can only be done during harvest, their use creates a very special beer with a truly unique flavour.

Hops are normally dried, prior to being used in brewing, in order to preserve their important flavouring characteristics, and to ensure the harvested crop lasts throughout the year. Green Hop Beer though, is made with fresh, or green, Kentish hops. The resulting beers have a characteristic fresh taste because the green hops used contain oils and other aroma compounds that are normally lost when hops are dried. The brewers make sure the hops are as fresh as possible by using them within 12 hours of being picked.

So far as taste is concerned, green-hopped beers have a definite resinous tang which is almost certainly due to the abundance of hop oils and other flavouring compounds. These are elements which are either diminished, or lost altogether during the normal drying process. There is a distinct mouth-feel to the beer, which is noticeable in the form of a slight furriness on the tongue and the roof of the mouth.

Brewing beer with freshly harvested hops has spread in recent years to other parts of the world, with a growing number of American brewers now producing what is known either as a “Wet-Hopped Beer” or a “Harvest Ale”. During my recent visit to Belgium for the Beer Bloggers’ Conference, we were given several “Fresh Hopped” beers to try. These were in bottled form, as we were a week or so away from harvest time when this year's fresh hop beers will be brewed.

These “Fresh Hop” beers were generally very good, but on our visit to Joris Cambie’s hop farm, close to the town of Poperinge in the centre of Belgium’s hop-growing region, we were told by the farmer himself that several of the bigger brewers partially dry the hops first; so that they can be used a day or two later. This isn’t really entering into the spirit of “green-hopping”, and I told Joris that such beers would not qualify as Green Hopped beers in Kent. He agreed and told us that the fresh hop beer he brews, complies in every way. Mind you with 10 hectares of the finest organic hops growing on his farm, it would be difficult for him not to be using them straight away!

Returning to England; green-hoped beers are all about the heritage and future of the country’s hop-growing industry. This isn't just about grabbing a seasonal product while you can. English hops are in desperate need of a boost. Hop acreage has dropped from a high of 71,189 acres in 1878 to around 2,500 now, and this decline has been exasperated in recent years by the increasing popularity of hops from places like America and New Zealand.

The demand for the citrus and tropical flavours imparted by these hops shows no sign of abating, and is side-lining the earthy, floral, hedgerow fruitiness of traditional English varieties. Anything which helps reverse this trend, by encouraging an interest in our home-grown varieties, has to be encouraged and is surely worth the support of every English beer drinker.

For local readers and those planning to be in Kent during the course of the next two weeks, the complete list of  Kent Green Hop beers, along with tasting notes, can be found by clicking on the link here.

Thursday 24 September 2015

EBBC West Flanders Excursion - Part One

I felt more than a little hung-over on the post-conference Sunday morning, regretting what I knew was a bad decision to finish the previous night’s pub crawl of Brussels with a Westmalle Triple. (I’m talking about the European Beer Bloggers Conference, in case you hadn’t twigged). Still I was up sufficiently early to complete my last minute packing and to check out of the conference hotel before 9am.

The reason for the early morning departure was that I had booked on the two-day, post-conference excursion, organised by the tourist agency, Visit Flanders, and the coach was schedule to depart at 9 o’clock sharp. I said my farewells to those the new friends and acquaintances I had made, who weren’t coming on this particular trip, (there were two other excursions for delegates to attend, plus some people were just heading home), and boarded the coach.

The sun was shining as we set off through the streets of the Belgian capital, heading out towards the city ring-road and the E40 motorway. I know this road quite well, having travelled along it on a number of occasions whilst journeying to and from Cologne for a large trade-show (IDS), with some of my work colleagues. With the sun helping to lift my spirits and the increasingly flat countryside looking its best, as we drove towards Flanders, I began to feel human once more, pleased to be free of the confines of the city and looking forward to exploring this north-westerly province of Belgium in the company of my fellow Bloggers.

After 40 minutes or so, we turned off the E40 and headed off in a north-westerly direction towards the town of Leper (Ypres); the scene of so much fierce fighting during the Great War. With the sun beating down on the pleasant and peaceful countryside, it’s hard to imagine the carnage and slaughter which occurred here one hundred years ago. We skirted around Leper and before long reached the first stop on what promised to be a busy and quite beery day.

The assembled party outside the Hop Museum
The town of Poperinge is the centre of hop cultivation in Belgium, but the hops grown in the surrounding fields are all that remain of a once much more extensive industry; one which met its nemesis during the conflict of 1914-18. The town was several kilometres behind the Allied front line, and we were told it became a resting place for battle-weary troops during all too brief moments of respite away from the fighting. No doubt there were many cafés to keep the troops refreshed, and also brothels and bordellos to allow relaxation in other ways!

Our coach dropped us at the "Hop Museum Poperinge", housed in a tall 19th Century building, right in the centre of Poperinge, and we spent a pleasant hour or so being shown around the various exhibits by Johan our guide. Hop picking in Belgium was much the same as I was in England, although the drying kilns seemed a lot less sophisticated than the traditional oast houses we have back in Kent. One difference was the hops were measured by weight, rather than volume and the pickers’ were paid accordingly. This led to all sorts of sharp practices; some a lot less savoury than others, whereby coffee or certain other liquids were tipped into the baskets containing the hops, in order to increase the weight.

A suitably rustic lunch at De Stadsschaal
After the tour, we were shown into the  "De Stadsschaal" café attached to the complex for a rather tasty rustic lunch; accompanied, of course, by some equally rustic and hoppy beer: the latter in the form of Poperings Hommel Bier. Suitably refreshed, we made our way back to the coach and continued with our trip around West Flanders. Johan, our guide from the Hop Museum, joined our party, although he later “jumped ship”, when his wife picked him up when we stopped at the Struise Brouwers in Oostvleteren – more about that later.
It was only a short ride to our next stop; the De Plukker Brewery attached to the hop farm of Joris Cambie. I have written a separate post here about Joris’s farm, the organic hops he grows and the excellent beer he brews in the on-site brewery so, apart from saying that farm, farmer and brewery were all very much part of the scene in this hop-growing region of Belgium, I will not repeat myself further.

Sign at the abbey entrance
After leaving De Plukker Brouwerij, our coach headed towards one of the most famous, but also one of the most reclusive Trappist Breweries, the Abbey of Sint Sixtus at Westvleteren. Our coach pulled up in the lane outside the abbey, and many of us wandered up to the gate. The gates, however, were firmly shut, not only to protect the monk’s privacy and preserve the atmosphere of quiet contemplation which forms an essential part of any monastic community, but also to deter those individuals who drive up to the abbey hoping to purchase beer.

Beer is sold weekly, in small quantities, from the doors of the monastery itself to individual buyers after they have reserved their order by phone. Sales are limited to one order every 60 days per person per license plate and phone number, and it is a matter of “pot luck” as to which of the abbey’s three beers are available. The type and quantity of beer available for sale are only revealed when order are placed, making the whole process very secretive. As the beers have increased in popularity, the number of 24-bottle crates per car permitted has decreased. For the highly sought-after Westvleteren 12, it is now limited to just one case.

In de Vrede
Fortunately, for travellers like us there is one other official sale point for the beer, aside from the brewery itself. A short distance down the lane, and set back from the road, is the abbey-owned “In de Vrede”. This modern, barn-like structure acts as a cafe and visitor's centre, and all the Westvleteren  beers can be bought there for immediate consumption or take-away, depending on availability. However, as our visit took place on a warm and sunny late summer Sunday, the place was absolutely heaving, and there was no beer available for take-away at the shop.

Fortunately there was plenty of beer for the thirsty hordes. We managed to grab a couple of long bench tables outside and soon after a  waiter appeared to take our order. All three Sint Sixtus beers were available; namely Westvleteren Blonde (green cap), 5.8% ABV, Westvleteren 8 (blue cap), 8% ABV and Westvleteren 12 (yellow cap), 10.2% ABV.

Whilst many of my fellow travellers opted for the world-famous Westvleteren 12, (voted by Rate Beer as the “best beer in the world”), I decided to go for something lighter, in the form of the 5.8% Westvleteren Blonde. This was a deliberate choice as, however famous the12° beer might be, I did not wish to drink such a strong beer on a warm and sunny afternoon; especially as I knew there were two other brewing establishments to visit later that day, plus a dinner which invariably would include more beer! The other reason was I have never seen Westvleteren Blonde on sale anywhere else, so this seemed the perfect opportunity to acquaint myself with it.

Enjoying Westvleteren beer
I was extremely glad I did, as the beer was excellent; served as it was in a Westvleteren chalice-glass. Sitting out in the warm late summer sunshine, sipping this perfectly chilled blonde master-piece of a beer in the company of like-minded beer enthusiasts, reminded me, as it did in Franconia a few months previously, that life doesn’t get much better than moments like these.

I was reluctant to leave “In de Vrede”, and as we walked back to the coach through the large and virtually full car park, it was plain to see the obvious popularity of the Sint Sixtus “brewery tap”. I was also impressed by the amount of bikes we saw parked outside, and the number of cyclists out enjoying the late summer sunshine, but then this part of Belgium is so flat it invites itself to those who wish to explore it on two wheels.

To be continued............................................

Wednesday 16 September 2015

Bad Day at Black Rock

The news today that the world’s biggest brewing group, Anheuser-Busch InBev, has made a takeover bid for the world’s number two, SABMiller, might not have come as much of a surprise to industry analysts, as the deal has long been anticipated. A merged group would have a market value of around $275 billion at current prices.

A series of deals over the past decade have transformed AB InBev and SABMiller into the world’s two biggest brewers and the two, along with Heineken and Carlsberg,  produce half the world’s beer. If the deal goes through, the merged company would produce one third of the world's beer. A merger would combine AB InBev’s dominance of Latin America with SAB Miller's strong presence in the African market where it is dominant in 15 countries, and is represented in a further 21. Both continents are fast-growing markets.

AB InBev said it had approached
SABMiller's board about a "combination of the two companies". However, it added that there was no certainty the approach would lead to an offer or an agreement. Earlier, SABMiller said it had been informed that AB InBev was planning to make a bid, but that it had no details as yet

AB InBev and other top brewers are trying to move into new markets as they look to shrug off weakness in North America and Europe, where drinkers are increasingly moving either to craft beers, or to more traditional beers made by independent local producers. It is therefore somewhat ironic that the industry is looking to consolidate further, just as consumer tastes in beer are fragmenting.

For consumers in general the idea of such a merger is unwelcome to put it mildly, as it will inevitably lead to plant closures, culling of brands, job losses and other associated cost-savings. The knock on effect will ultimately mean less choice for the drinker and a loss of the heritage associated with any losses that occur as a result of this deal going through.

Sources: BBC News; Financial Times; Reuters.

AB InBev is the largest brewing group in the world and includes Budweiser, Stella Artois and Corona amongst its brands. The group is controlled by 3G Capital, a private equity fund run by a group of Brazilian investors.

SABMiller is the world’s number two brewer and maker of more than 200 beers including Peroni, Grolsch, Pilsner Urquell and, most recently, Meantime of Greenwich.

Tuesday 15 September 2015

Beer Review -

Well those good folk at have sent me yet another case of beers to review; the fourth such, totally un-solicited case I have received. I have gone on record stating that I don’t receive that many freebies, but this is becoming something of a habit!

I actually don’t like the term “freebie”, as everything has a price, and nothing in life is ever totally free. This case of beer is no exception, as in return for accepting the beers, I have agreed review them on behalf of There are eight beers in total, from various European countries, including the UK, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Norway and Spain. Here then are my thoughts on the beers.

Lervig - Lucky Jack – American Pale Ale 4.7% - brewed by the Lervig Aktiebryggeri in Stavanger, on the west coast of Norway, this Pale gold coloured beer has an intensely hoppy aroma, and hops are to the foe in the taste as well. Presented in a 330ml can, the beer is hazy as is unfiltered and un-pasteurised. Brewed using Amarillo, Chinook and Citra hops, this American Pale Ale is hop, rather than malt driven, but given its relatively low strength is quite quaffable.

Brewfist Caterpillar Pale Ale 5.8% - a collaboration brew between Brewfist of Italy and BeerHere of Denmark. Brewed using large quantities of Columbus and Moteuka hops; the latter coming from New Zealand. The inclusion of rye malt in the grist, contributes toffee and malt flavours which balance the hoppiness and give the beer body.

Amber in colour, with a slight haze, this is another very drinkable beer.

"Ferment" Beer Review
Cloudwater Grisette 3.5% -  a light and refreshing Saison-style beer brewed with a proportion of wheat and flaked oats in the grist and bittered with Perle hops. Eldorado, Willamette and Galaxy hops are added for aroma.

This very pale-coloured beer is the ideal summer beer, even though summer is now rapidly disappearing. Cloudwater Brew Co are based in Manchester, and are one of the city’s newest breweries.

Six˚ North Hopclassic Belgian IPA 6.6% - Six˚ North specialise in Belgian beers, even though they are based in North East Scotland. This beer apparently was the first brew the brewery produced, when they opened back in 2013. Pale gold in colour with plenty of juicy malt, balanced by a nice citrus-fruity bitterness. Bottle-conditioned.

Strangely enough, on my recent trip to Belgium,I was told there was no market in the country for strong, “hop bomb” IPA’s. This one obviously bucks the trend, and very nice it is too.

Brønher The Drunk Hop 4.7% - described as “large lager”, what ever that is, but this golden coloured beer is brewed with a mixture of Pilsner, Vienna and Carapils malts, and hopped with Magnum, Hallertau, Mittelfrüh, Citra, Cascade and Columbus hops.

The result an easy-drinking, malt- accented lager, brewed in the southern European style, in Alicante, Spain.

Vocation Heart & Soul 4.4% - a hoppy, session-strength IPA, brewed by Vocation Brewery, who are based in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. Packaged in an attractive, eye-catching, matt black can, this pale golden yellow beer pours with a slight haze. There are plenty of tropical frits present in the aroma and overall the beer has a fruity- hoppy taste.

A very drinkable and enjoyable beer, brewed at a sensible strength.

Beer Project Brussels Dark Sister 6.6% - a dark IPA, brewed by Brussels’s newest brewery. Dark brown to black in colour, with a nice fluffy white head, Dark Sister has fruity notes, chocolate and spices, mixed in with an underlying bitterness.

Brewed using the brewery’s Saison yeast to really bring out the spiciness, this beer ends on a dry finish. Unfortunately there wasn’t time on my recent trip to Brussels to visit the Beer Project, but several fellow beer writers did manage to make their way there and were very enthusiastic with what they saw.

Gosnells Mead 5.5% - I don’t think I’ve ever drank mead before, but I’m pleasantly surprised by this modern interpretation on this most ancient of drinks. There are floral notes in the aroma, with citrus fruit on the palate as a foil against the sweetness of the honey lurking in the background.

Brewed in Peckham of all places, by Gosnell's London Mead from just honey, water and yeast, this fresh take on mead is the perfect late summer drink.

If you fancy giving the company a try, click on the link here to their website, then enter the code BAILEYSBEER10. This will get you £10 off your first box of eight beers, making it £14 instead of the normal £24. You will receive free delivery, plus a copy of the company's new craft beer magazine, 'Ferment'.

This 24-page magazine is an excellent read in itself being packed with interesting and informative articles about craft-beer, as well as containing background information about the beers in your case. 'Ferment' has come on in leaps and bounds since the last edition I saw, with much larger pages and printed on much higher quality paper. The issue I received (No. 15), contains articles by amongst others, Mark Dredge, Melissa Cole, Matthew Curtis and the Two Thirsty Gardeners. Dare I say it, but I found it more interesting, and packed with a lot more information, than CAMRA’s flagship Beer Magazine.


If you would like to send me beers to review, please be aware that I will give a totally honest opinion of your product. If I like it, then great, but if for some reason I don’t, then I will say so.

If the beer is not to my taste, but has been brewed correctly, and is not suffering from off-flavours, then I will again be honest. I will probably say that the beer in question is a good example of the style in question, but it just doesn’t float my boat! You can’t say fairer than that!

Monday 14 September 2015

Rodenbach Brewery

It was getting dark as our coach pulled in through the narrow gate of the Rodenbach Brewery. Our party of 15 had been on a whistle-stop tour of West Flanders and now, after an excellent meal at the Eetcafe Rodenbach in the centre of Roeselare, we had made the short coach journey across town to the world famous Rodenbach Brewery.

From a personal perspective, this was one brewery I had desired to visit for many years; having seen photos and read descriptions of the place in books by the legendary Beer Hunter, Michael Jackson and beer writer Roger Protz. What really inspired me were the photos, taken in the brewery, of row after row of massive oak vats, all containing beer which was quietly maturing away.

I probably wasn’t quite so keen on Rodenabch after I tasted their beer for the first time, during the early 90’s, but back then my taste buds weren’t as mature as they are today. Also, sour beers were a completely alien concept, as far as I was concerned sour meant “off”. Little did I know!

Rodenbach is probably the most famous of the Flemish Red-Brown Beers, which are a blend of young acidified, mature acidified and oak-matured beer. This long maturation in oak casks lowers the pH of the beer and gives it a longer shelf-life. The sour beer imparts a complex and agreeably refreshing flavour, thus imparting this blended beer with a distinctive edge, and making it the perfect aperitif.
Old advertisements

It is worth mentioning briefly, that hops are used quite sparingly in the production of these types of beer, and Rodenbach is no exception. Bitterness does not sit well with sourness, so hops are primarily used for their preservative properties, rather than for any flavour they might add to the finished beer.

The normal Rodenbach is a blend of 75% young beer and 25% aged beer. Another beer, called Rodenbach Grand Cru, is a blend of 34% young beer and 66% old beer. Not surprisingly Grand Cru has a much more pronounced sourness, and is much sought after by beer connoisseurs.  In addition, they have a Foederbier, which is a 2 year old beer drawn   straight from the maturation cask, or "foeder". It is only available in a few select outlets.

After we had disembarked from the coach, we were met by Brewmaster Rudi Ghequire in the brewery yard, and before going inside we were given a short introduction to the brewery and its history. Rodenbach can trace its history back to 1821, when the four Rodenbach brothers (Pedro, Alexander, Ferdinand and Constantijn), who were originally from western Germany, invested in a small brewery in Roeselare. The brothers formed a partnership to run the brewery, which lasted for fifteen years, until Pedro Rodenbach and his wife Regina bought out the other three partners.

In 1864 their son Edward took over the brewery and business prospered considerably under his stewardship. Edward's son, Eugène, took over in 1878, having first travelled to England where he learned how to mature and ripen beer in wooden vessels, and how to then blend old and young beers to make a drink which appealed to the public. The skills he acquired in regard to the maturation of beer in large oak casks, or “foeders” (maturation casks), were instrumental in producing the beer that Rodenbach became famous for; and the company owes Eugène Rodenbach an enormous debt of gratitude for the unique quality and character of its beers today.
Foeders - full of maturing beer

Some brewery historians have speculated that Eugene may have learned these skills at the Greene King Brewery, in Bury St Edmunds, where a blended beer called Strong Suffolk Ale is still produced. Strong Suffolk Ale is a blend of two beers, BPA - Best Pale Ale and Old 5X. BPA comes in at 5%, but Old 5X registers 12%. Old 5X is matured at Greene King, in three huge wooden vats for a minimum of two years.

A few years ago, at the Great British Beer Festival, Greene King made a few casks of Old 5X available for people to try. It was well worth queuing for half an hour to enjoy a sample of this historic beer (third of a pint only). Its slight sour background, contrasted with the rich malty sugars still present in the beer, and the whole thing reminded me very much of a glass of fine Oloroso Sherry.

The vats at Bury St Edmunds are not dissimilar to those at Rodenbach, which is probably what prompted speculation about a link between the two breweries; but after consulting the brewery archives at Rodenbach, Roger Protz found no trace of such a connection. Instead, he proposed the brewery of John Barras, in the north east of England, as a more likely contender for Eugene’s apprenticeship.
The new brewhouse

Eugene produced no male offspring, so a public limited company was created, with most of the shares remaining in the hands of descendants of the Rodenbachs. This arrangement lasted until 1998 when the current generation, having lost interest in running the brewery, sold it to the family-owned Palm Brewery.

One of the first things Palm did when they took over was to upgrade the brewing equipment so they could increase capacity, quality, and efficiency. The old 19th Century plant was on its last legs, due to a combination of inertia and lack of investment, so in 2002 a shiny and new brew house was opened to replace the old. We didn’t go inside, but could clearly see the glistening stainless steel, state of the art brewing vessels through the modernistic glass fronted building

Historic malt kiln
How it works
Towering over the brewery is the impressive and quite dramatic-looking malting kiln. Up until fairly recent times, Rodenbach malted their own grain, but today, the brewery has far outpaced its ability to malt its own grain efficiently and has it custom malted by a large Belgian malt house. We were allowed inside the kiln, which has now been converted into a museum piece for the brewery.

Impressive though the malt kiln was, the real highlight of the whole brewery tour/experience was the world-renowned cask halls with their 294 oak vats or “foeders”, some of which are 150 years old. They are recognised as part of the industrial heritage of Flanders, and are protected as such. The halls are interlinked, and we walked through several, pausing to admire these massive structures which towered over our heads.

Another row of foeders
Part way through our journey through these halls, Rudi turned off and led us into the company cooperage. Here there were wooden staves and boards in various degrees of conditioning being turned into lids or staves. Rodenbach employ two coopers, who carefully select the oak for the foeders so they can control this vital part of the maturation and hence flavouring processes of their beer. The coopers also check each foeder on a regular basis, to make sure here are no leaks, or other damage present.

Finally we arrived at Rodenbach’s event and hospitality centre which is situated at the end of one of the cellars. Here we were given a glass of either standard Rodenbach, or Grand Cru. I opted for the former, and very nice it was too, with just that subtle edge of sourness providing a refreshing edge to the fullness of the dark red beer. I probably could have tried the Grand Cru as well, but it had been a long day and the hour was getting late. Despite his infectious enthusiasm for Rodenbach’s beers, our host undoubtedly wanted to get home to his family, and we had still to complete our journey to Bruges; where we were to spend the night. Under the circumstances that cool, thirst-quenching glass of Rodenbach sufficed and I drank up more than satisfied after an amazing, and long sought after brewery visit.
Rudi - pouring the beers

I am certain that none of the 15 of us, present on that tour, could have failed to be impressed by the care, tradition and heritage of what we experienced at Rodenbach. The visit will certainly live on in my mind as one of the best and most fascinating brewery tours I have been privileged to have been party to.

Friday 11 September 2015

Some Local Flavour & Character

Although this short post is aimed primarily at a local audience, I have included it as something of a break from all the stuff about Belgium which I have been posting recently. (There’s more to come!).

Yesterday saw one of my favourite local breweries featured on a programme called "Terry and Mason's Great Food Trip". Not being much of tele addict these days, this series had completely passed me by, but basically it features Sir Terry Wogan and London cabbie Mason McQueen "on a food trip around the UK, seeking out weird and wonderful regional British cuisine and discovering how our tastes have changed over the years."

Yesterday’s programme saw the unlikely duo visiting Royal Tunbridge Wells, where they breakfasted at Sankey’s Champagne & Seafood Bar, down on the Pantiles, before moving on to visit local celebrity chef, Rosemary Schrager, at her cookery school in the town. They then ride out in Mason's cab,  to the historic Penshurst Place; described as one of the finest examples of a fortified manor house in the country.

Bob and his team with Sir Terry Wogan & Mason McQueen
The final part of the half hour episode, sees radio presenter and cabbie visiting Larkins Brewery, deep in the Kent countryside on the edge of the village of Chiddingstone. Proprietor, and head brewer, Bob Dockerty takes them on a trip to see the hops he grows, before returning to the brewery to sample the beer. They then join Bob, his nephew Harry (who is learning the trade), office manager Guy Beckett, plus one of the brewery workers, for lunch of shepherd’s pie – washed down of course with several pints of Larkins full-bodied and well-hopped beer.

As you can imagine, the series is all very light-hearted, and only skims the surface of the places visited. For me, it has a very personal interest, because for many years I was CAMRA Brewery Liaison Officer for Larkins, and I know Bob, his staff and the brewery very well. I am also an enormous fan of Larkins beer; especially the 4.4% Best Bitter, and the wonderful 5.2% Porter. The latter is only available during the winter months, but it is always a beer to look forward to.

I have posted a link to the episode on BBCiPlayer, but as the programme will only be available to  view for the next 28 days, enjoy it whilst you can.

Monday 7 September 2015

A Flemish Hop-Grower

Almost ready for harvest
 Not only is it an over-worked cliché, it’s also one I don’t normally care to use – think sales conferences, self-improvement seminars, or anything of a similar ilk that originates from across the pond (another awful cliché), but on this occasion it’s more than a little appropriate.

If you haven’t already guessed the phrase I’m referring to is, “Walking the Talk,”, and on the first day of the recent EBB post-conference excursion, my fellow beer writers and I were fortunate to meet someone who is doing just that! Joris Cambie is a farmer and now also a brewer, who represents several generations of hop growers. He cultivates around 10 hectares of hops on his farm, which is situated a short distance from the town of Poperinge in West Flanders.

Poperinge is the centre of hop cultivation in Belgium, but the hops grown in the surrounding fields are all that remain of a once much more extensive industry; one which met its nemesis during the conflict of 1914-18, which saw this pleasant, but unremarkable corner of Belgium, turned into the killing fields of Europe as its royal houses sacrificed the flower of a generation in a bid to sort out their petty differences and vain ambitions.

Cascade Hops
Ghastly though the Great War was, it wasn’t wholly responsible for the loss of this once important agricultural activity; as Joris explained to our group as we sat listening in his hop shed-cum-brewery. The real reason for the decline of hop-growing in this part of Belgium is that the soil is so good that farmers can grow virtually anything. Contrast this to Germany’s famous Hallertau region; the largest continuous hop-planting area in the world. Here, according to Joris, the soils are poor and sandy, and hops are one of the few plants which will grow here.

I don’t know how true this is, but it seems plausible, but I do know that Joris grows a mix of aroma and high alpha hops, which include the English varieties Goldings, WGV, Pilgrim, Challenger and the American variety Cascade. At the time of our visit, the hops were nearly ready for harvest, and it was good to walk right up to the edge of a hop-garden planted with Cascades, and see the tall bines laden with their abundant green cones; all just ripe for picking.

Somewhat surprisingly Joris' hop farm is a member of English Hops; the largest hop growers co-operative in the UK. Joris claims he gets a better and more stable price by selling his hops through this organisation, which are based just down the road from me, in Paddock Wood, Kent. All hops grown on the farm are 100% organic, and Joris explained to us all the extra work which this entails.

You would have thought that growing hops was a demanding enough business on its own, but Joris thought it would be good to utilise some of the farm’s hops in the brewing of beer. To him, this seemed a natural progression, but the local bureaucrats had other ideas. Joris was told that brewing constituted an industrial activity, whilst he was situated in an area reserved for agriculture. Undeterred, Joris continued with his plans and even committed to grow a certain amount of barley, which could also be used in the brewing process.

Fermentation Room
The town-hall bureaucrats had obviously missed the point that within living memory, many farms in this part of Belgium, and also in neighbouring France, had brewed beer; primarily for their workforce, but also on a semi-commercial basis. In the end Joris won the day, and in November 2011 brewing commenced on a fairly small-scale to start with, in a shed on the hop farm that had formerly been used to pick and dry the hops in. Some modifications were necessary to meet food safety regulations for many decades, but De Plukker Bier proved popular with local inhabitants and production slowly increased as the market for the farm’s beers began to expand. Output today is around 650 litres every three weeks, but bottling and labelling continues to be done by hand. All the beers are unfiltered, un-pasteurised and bottle-conditioned.

During the introductory talk, we were given a glass of De Plukker’s most popular beer, the 6.1% ABV, Keikoppenbier. This is a blond, top-fermented ale which uses three varieties of hops (Admiral, Golding and Cascade), to give the beer its distinctive hop aroma and to provide a good balance with the malt base. We then moved back outside for a look at the nearby hop-garden, where Joris continued his talk on the joys, as well as the pitfalls of hop-growing.

De Plukker's Brown Belgian Ale
Back inside the shed, we were treated to one of the brewery’s other beers; namely Rookop, a 6.5% ABV Brown Belgian Ale which until 1963 had been brewed by the St.-Joris Brewery in the village of Reningelst. This beer is brewed with Admiral and Golding hops, and is fruity and sweet with some chocolate notes.

Every year the brewery celebrates the end of the hop harvest by brewing a beer which includes all the hop varieties grown on the farm. In 2014 these were Goldings, Pilgrim, Cascade, Challenger and WGV. The resulting beer is called "All Inclusive IPA”: the “All Inclusive” referring to the fact that all the farm’s hop varieties are used in the beer. Last year’s beer weighed in at 8.0% ABV.

Export boxes?
For me, our visit to Joris’s farm and the De Plukker Brewery was one of the highlights of the trip; even though there were several more superlatives to come that day. I am almost ashamed to admit that despite having been an avid beer drinker for the past forty or so years, a former home-brewer and someone who takes a keen interest in all things brewing, that this was my first ever visit to a hop farm. It’s even more incredible when you consider that I live in Kent; one of the premier hop-growing regions of England!

It was however, well worth the wait!

Friday 4 September 2015

European Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference 2015 - Brussels. Day Two

The following day’s proceedings kicked off at 10am sharp; although I did notice a substantially reduced number of delegates in attendance for the first presentation, from WordPress are an important sponsor of the Beer Bloggers’ Conference, and their software is understandably very good. It wouldn’t be powering over 24% of the internet if it wasn’t!

Major Sponsor
However, not long after the presentation started, I realised it was very similar to last year’s talk in Dublin. To be sat there in the hall, half-heartedly listening to something I’d heard before, was rather disappointing, to say the least, especially as I could have been enjoying a wander around Brussels in the late summer sunshine instead!

The next session, entitled Beer Marketing, was definitely the liveliest and controversial one of the whole conference. Jean Hummler, owner of the renowned Moeder Lambic café, made a scathing attack on what he called the “fake brewers”; gypsy or cuckoo brewers to you and I. His point was they were diluting the impact and, by implication, the chances of success for genuine brewery start-ups, and he was quite vociferous about one well-known Danish brewer in particular. It was probably just as well that no drink had been taken at this stage, as who knows what might have ensued. Let’s just leave it by saying the language was rather colourful at times!

The so-called “Walking Lunch” which followed, paired various Belgian Beers with Traditional Belgian Foods. The lunch was hosted by tourist organisation, and major conference sponsor - Visit Flanders, and featured some typical Belgian and Flemish foods paired with Beers produced in the Flanders region. I have to say there were some excellent pairings; my favourite being that of Fish Soup, with the refreshing and slightly tangy Gruut Wit, from the Gentse Gruut Brewery in Ghent,  but the Flemish Meat Stew, matched with Gouden Carolus Cuvée van de Keizer, from Het Anker Brewery, came a close second.

In the Conference Hall
It was back into the lecture theatre after for a presentation of the State of Beer in Europe, presented by Bo Jensen, Executive Member of the European Beer Consumers Union and Simon Spillane, Senior Advisor with the Brewers of Europe. This presentation started off well, with some interesting facts and figures about the importance of the brewing industry to Europe’s economy, but unfortunately got bogged down by a rather turgid discussion about duty rates and scare tactics, adopted by the anti-alcohol lobby in many European countries.

The session on Beer Blogger & Writer Reports, which followed, was one of the best of the conference, with British and Irish writers to the fore. All presentations were restricted to just five minutes a piece, so there was real pressure to pack as much in as possible, whilst at the same time trying to avoid information over-load. Matthew Curtis, whose website is Total Ales, gave an excellent presentation on how to use photos properly on your blog, with tips on what makes a good photo, and how to compose, take and edit photos for maximum impact. Baron Orm and Chris Routledge, explained how they conduct their Baron Rating live beer ratings, on the Ormskirk Baron Blog. They described the software they use to edit the recordings, post review, before the ratings are published on the blog.
So Now You Know!
Special mention should also be made here of Pedro Marques,  who had travelled all the way to the conference from Brazil, and Jeffrey Michael, The Biking Brewer. Pedro gave an interesting over-sight of the brewing scene in his native country.  Whilst Jeffrey, who had cycled half-way across Europe to be at the conference entertained us with his presentation on the joys of biking, combined with stories of the people he met, and the beers he drank along the way.

The final session on Sour Beers, was also one of the most  interesting and enlightening, and I am sure we all learnt a lot about how sour beers are brewed and aged. Presented by Petrus Sour Beers, who also provided some excellent beers for us to taste; the session covered both the science and the magic which goes into the creation of these fascinating and refreshing beers.

Sour Beer Tasting

Last on the agenda was Saturday evening’s dinner, hosted by Pilsner Urquell at the Hotel Marivaux. The Czechs had brought one of their Tankovar cellar tanks, pumped full of un-pasteurised Pilsner Urquell, across from Pilsen for us to enjoy. Needless to say, the beer was excellent. Before the meal commenced, we were entertained with a talk from company Master Brewer Vaclav Berka. We were also each given the opportunity of having a Pilsner Urquell glass mug engraved with our name.

The main course consisted of a mammoth and rather tasty hamburger with chips and salad, and was followed by a very rich and filling dessert called a “Marriage of Three Belgian chocolate Mousses”. I struggled to finish mine, given the size and richness of this dessert, but the night wasn’t over yet, as there was an Optional Pub Crawl departing from the hotel lobby. The crawl was led by Paul Walsh of Belgian Beer & Food Magazine, although several of us decided to do the tour in reverse.

"It's all got to be drunk tonight!"

This meant taking a taxi to La Fleur en Papier Doré; a converted maisonette style house dating from the middle of the 18th century. The pub became famous as the meeting place of the surrealistic scene in Brussels, and included such luminaries as, René Magritte, Marcel Lecomte, and Georges Remi (Hergé) amongst its customers.

Stepping inside, I realised that I had been to the pub before; on the same trip to Brussels which included the visit to Café Delirium. It was a nice traditional Belgian pub, with a nice atmosphere and a good mix of clientele. Our small group of four was soon joined by a couple of other groups, which prompted us to move on and try somewhere else.

Charcuterie Board with Pilsner Urquell
Although two of us had been there already over the course of the weekend, the two girls in our party were keen to try Moeder Lambic, so following a walk back towards the city centre, which took in the Manneken Pis statue, I found myself back, once again at this specialist beer café. This time we sat inside, as there were no empty tables outside. As well as specialising in Lambic and Gueuze beers, Moeder Lambic includes various guests amongst its portfolio. Some of these were from closer to home, with beers from Kernel and Siren on offer.

Belgian Chocolate Mousse
The last port of call was a charming little pub called Toone, tucked away down a narrow alley and just a stone’s throw from the Grande Place. Toone is a unique combination of cafe and marionette theatre, with three distinct rooms and far more seating than you would expect from the outside. Despite its location, it was pleasantly quiet and was a good place to end up in, and to round of what was, I’m sure for all attendees, a very successful European Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference.