Tag Archives: kriek

Beer Flights: The Smart Way to Drink

5300-plus breweries in the United States and counting. Another 775 in Canada as of 2016 (and counting). A veritable explosion of new and innovative breweries in Europe’s strongholds of brewing tradition: Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, and Belgium.

Judges at the 2016 edition of the Great American Beer Festival evaluated 96 general categories of beer covering 161 beer styles.

Never before has such a prodigious diversity of beers been available to those of us who like to drink them.

With all this variety, beer flights are more important now than ever before. I’m sure many would agree –– fortunately, flights are ubiquitous at North American craft-influenced establishments, and are on the rise in Europe. But occasionally I’m left scratching my head when hostility to flights bubbles to the surface.

Vinepair recently posted an article asking brewers to name a beer trend “that needs to die.” One response had to do with flights. Patrick Barnes of Islamorada Beer Company in Florida offered this response to the question of which beer trend he’d like to see go the way of the dodo bird:

“Beer flights. Beer is meant to be drunk by the pint, not by the shot. There are a lot of flavors and aromas that are lost in small tasting glasses, as well as switching back and forth between tasters wrecks your palate.”

Since the Vinepair article started making the rounds, more than a few friends, acquaintances, and members of Facebook beer groups have voiced support for doing away with beer flights. (Incidentally, this isn’t the first time that someone has expressed an antipathy toward flights. Back in early 2015, a barkeep in New York’s capitol region wrote an incredibly subtle think-piece entitled “Flights are dumb, and you’re dumb if you like them.”) Why this hostility to flights, perhaps one of the better ideas to come out of this phenomenon we call craft?

Before going any further, though I do have something against the typical shaker-type pint glass for reasons I’ve touched upon in my “Five Ways to Become a Better Drinker,” I have nothing against pint measures and have drunk my fair share. They have their time and place. Like in a beer garden, for example.

But to return to Barnes’s response: the assertion that beer is meant to be drunk by the pint is absurd. Why by the pint? Does every style of beer lend itself to being drunk by the pint? And why don’t we drink wine by the pint? After all, German late-harvest Rieslings have often have a lower alcohol percentage than many imperial stouts.

It’s similarly misguided to suggest that flavours and aromas are lost in small tasting glasses. A 4-ounce snifter that tapers toward the rim concentrates far more aromas than any 16-ounce pint glass of the shaker variety ever will. (I’ll go out on a limb here and assume that the vessel to which Barnes refers when he speaks of pints is the common shaker glass.)

Granted, switching back and forth between tasters can wreck your palate, especially if you have a high-IBU double IPA, an intensely hopped NEIPA, or a wild/sour in the flight. But let’s step back from the bar for a moment. Before the flight even gets off the ground, as it were, it’s the brewer’s or taproom manager’s responsibility to make sure his or her staff are familiar with the best ways to construct a flight so as to avoid palate fatigue. This could take the form of in-house training or subsidized Cicerone courses, or what have you. (Yes, I know that many breweries and taprooms already engage in this best of practices, but since some folks keep trashing flights … .)

Even the oldest brewery in the world is getting into the game

Now, one could adduce more potent arguments against flights along the following lines: Assembling a flight ties up a member of the bar staff who has to pull a number of 3- or 4-oz pours instead of one nice, hefty 16-oz pint. The bar staff then has to make sure that the drinker knows what each beer is. Though I do empathize with harried taproom staff, flights eminently address that wonderful issue of variety I mentioned at the outset. After all, the way I see it, a significant part of being a “craft” brewery or taproom involves education about beer and its myriad styles. Flights are the way to go.

An enlightening side-by-side tasting of gueuze and kriek: Boon, Tilquin, Cantillon, Girardin, etc.

  • Flights allow you to taste beers side by side. Depending on the flight that you or the bartender put together, you can taste a number of similar beers to see what makes a style tick, you can taste stouts next to porters to see what makes these styles subtly or not so subtly different, or you can run the gamut from a lager to a lambic. Say a brewery offers a range of IPAs –– something not entirely uncommon these days. Try them all next to each other in a flight. If you’re at a taproom, put together a flight of IPAs from different regions and taste them next to one another. Not only is this fun, it’s educational. Tasting beers side by side is much more of a revelation than drinking beers in succession.
  • For people just getting into craft beer –– or even for seasoned veterans –– flights provide an easy and enjoyable way for brewers or taproom staff to introduce drinkers to new styles, innovations, or experiments without the visitor needing to go “all-in” on a pint. (That smoked meat and maple syrup porter aged on juniper branches and blueberries sounded interesting in theory … )
  • Knocking back a few pints in a beer garden or in the pub on the way home from work is great if the beer clocks in at 4.8%-5% ABV. But when you’re talking American-style IPAs and numerous latter-day stouts, many of which clock in well north of 6.5% ABV, you’ll be feeling the hit sooner than later. Flights can make the next day that much more bearable.
  • Sure, anyone living in the vicinity of a particular brewery can head over from time to time to taste his or her way through the brewery’s offerings, pint by pint. But if I’m traveling through town and have only one shot at experiencing what a brewery has to offer, a flight means that I don’t have to get hammered in the process. I might eventually settle on a pint; offering a flight of beers gives me a chance to find that beer or beers.

So there you have it. Flights are smart, and you’re smart if you like them.

And sometimes only a pint will do. Cheers, everyone!

Related Tempest articles:

Five Ways to Become a Better Drinker in 2015

Epicurean Unbound: Five Ways to Expand Your Drinking Horizons

Three Vintages of Goose Island’s Sofie

All images by F.D. Hofer.

© 2017 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

Where the Wild Beers Are: Brussels and Flemish Brabant

Skimming place names on a map of Belgium is like going into a prodigiously stocked bottle shop. Where do you start in a country with a beer heritage as rich as it is in Belgium? Trappist beers, witbier, saison, Flanders red, oud bruin? What about all those famous towns like Chimay, Roeselare, Poperinge, and Westvleteren –– to say nothing of urban beer havens such as Antwerp and Leuven?

For me, the choice was relatively easy: I had never had the opportunity to taste lambic, those Belgian ales discussed in hushed and reverent tones among adepts of the zymurgical arts, beers that rarely make it beyond the immediate vicinity of Brussels.IMG_7820

Lambic had become something of a holy grail for me.

So when I found out that an old friend had moved to Brussels for work, it was only a matter of time before I made the pilgrimage. My friend got things off the ground the right way, greeting me upon my arrival from the airport with gueuze and kriek from Oude Beersel. Things only got better from there.

Scratching the Surface of Brussels’ Beerscape

Before venturing out into the countryside around Brussels, why not an evening of aperitifs to set the stage? Brussels –– capital of one of the most fascinating beer countries in the world –– doesn’t disappoint on this score.

Our first stop was À la Mort Subite, a classic Belgian beer café dating from the prime of the post-Great War years before the Depression. Cream-coloured walls, wooden brasserie-style tables and chairs, small globe lights casting a soft light over the cafe, brown bench seating built in along the periphery walls, rows of painted metal art-nouveau columns, an arched threshold with wood-framed doors, and a floor-to-ceiling showcase window perfect for watching the world drift by. Blink and you might think you’d been transported back to the 1920s.IMG_7798 I ordered up a Mort Subite Witte Lambic, which sounded interesting on the surface of things. It turned out to be a sweet and apricot-fruity beer –– refreshing and approachable, but with little in the way acidity and no wild-fermented complexity. Fortunately, though, this mild ordering fail did nothing to detract from the atmosphere of the place. And besides, there’s plenty more on the menu.

From there, we made our way to Moeder Lambic via the Galeries Royales St-Hubert and the Grand Place, which was actually quite grand. Tastefully lit at night, it’s the kind of place that has the power to stop even seasoned Euro travelers in their tracks. If you’re there during the day, check out the brewing museum in the Brewers’ Guildhall (L’Arbre d’Or).IMG_7808

Moeder Lambic on Place Fontainas serves up lambic, gueuze, and other styles aplenty. Their expansive menu makes for some interesting reading. Cantillon’s wares feature prominently, and rare bottlings from other lambic/gueuze producers abound as well –– some selling for as high as 200 euros per bottle. If you want to keep it simple but still be able to try something you won’t find far beyond the Brussels region, opt for a Gueuze Tilquin on draft.

Lambic, Gueuze, and Kriek in Flemish Brabant

The next day dawned all golden sunshine, auguring well for our planned cycling tour of the fabled valley where the wild-fermented beers are.

The Senne/Zenne rises north of Brussels and once flowed through the city before it was covered over in the nineteenth century as part of an ambitious urban works project that dramatically reshaped city. Today, the river reemerges to the southwest and continues on its gentle way through the rolling hills of the Payottenland.IMG_7856 As late as the turn of the twentieth century, some three hundred lambic brewers lined the Senne and spread out into the surrounding hills and farmland. Now the region is home to just over a dozen lambic brewers and blenders, with only one –– perhaps the most famous one –– located within the Brussels city limits.

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After a walk through the monumental and rather monolithic Parc du Cinquantenaire, we boarded a train from Gare Bruxelles-Schuman to Hal/Halle. The short train ride leaves just the right amount of time to talk about those enchanting and enigmatic ales that brought me here. I realize that unless you’re an avowed beer enthusiast or “beer geek,” you might not know what a lambic is –– and that’s just fine. It took me some time as well to disentangle lambics from gueuzes and krieks, and Flemish red ales from oud bruins.

A lambic is a spontaneously fermented ale made from Pilsener malt and anywhere between thirty to forty percent unmalted wheat. This sets lambic apart from German or American wheat beers, which use malted wheat. Lambic gets its minimal hop charge from Belgian or Central European varieties that have been aged for up to three years.IMG_7919 Process-wise, the wort is set out to cool overnight in a large shallow vessel called a coolship often located in the attic of the brewery before being transferred to barrels for fermentation. During the months and years the beer spends in the barrel, the microbes that inoculated the wort overnight join forces with the organisms that inhabit the barrel to work their magic. The resulting array of aromas and flavours might, at first blush, strike anyone unfamiliar with spontaneously fermented beers as downright odd, if not repulsive. Sometimes described as vinous or cidery, lambics typically exhibit lactic, citric, or malic (apple) sourness, and they can be tart and tannic when young. Notably, lambic brewers aim for a level of acidity similar to that of a zippy white wine. Balance is key. More does not necessarily mean better.

The same goes for the “funk” level in the aromatics and flavours. Sure, the Saccharomyces, Pediococcus, Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, and other organisms combine to impart aromas at times reminiscent of barnyard, hay, horse, horse blanket, and washed rind cheese. But the concentrations should be “pleasant.” Admittedly, like durian or pungent cheese, it’s an acquired taste, but worth the effort.

Sound appetizing so far? Depending on the various yeast and bacteria strains, lambics may also recall pineapple, tart cherry, oak, and even honey as the beer ages. Whether you’re a fan of sour/wild-fermented beers or not, what might strike you most about lambics is the (virtual) absence of carbonation. Like most wines, lambics are still. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t see any trace of a head on your beer. That’s entirely normal.IMG_7864

Comprised of one-, two-, and three-year-old lambics, gueuze showcases the skills of the seasoned blender. Highly effervescent, gueuze is to Champagne what lambic is to wine. Under optimal cellaring conditions a gueuze will continue to evolve for years. Dry, tart, and with a dense and frothy foam cap, gueuzes run the gamut from fruity (citrus, green apples, tart cherry) to phenolic-spicy, from earthy and leathery to oaky with hints of vanilla, and from fresh-cut hay to barnyard and horse blanket.

IMG_7872Kriek is a younger lambic to which cherries have been added. But don’t expect a well-brewed traditional kriek to be sweet. Wild yeasts thrive on the sugars present in the fruit, leaving behind an intense fruit character with no residual sweetness. If you have a kriek that tastes sweet and syrupy, it has been back-sweetened. Best bet: look for a bottle that has “oude” in front of the word kriek. Cantillon adds 150 kg of Schaerbeek sour cherries per 500 liters of two-year-old lambic and leaves the cherries to macerate for five to six months before adding a quantity of young lambic –– one third of the volume of the kriek for anyone who wants to try this at home –– to kickstart secondary fermentation in the bottle.

Biking for Beer in Lambic Land

Chances are, you didn’t bring a bike with you to Belgium. No worries. You can rent a passable bicycle for 10 euros per day near the Halle train station. Exit on the east side and return along the tracks in the direction of Brussels and you’ll find the rental place. Before venturing out for that ride through the countryside, keep in mind that Flemish Brabant is not flat. In exchange for a few hills, though, you get pastoral scenery that inspired the likes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and some room in your belly for beer.IMG_7825

We jumped on our bikes, took a slightly round-about route through farmers’ fields and small villages to Beersel via Huizingen and Lot, stopped briefly at the Kasteel Beersel to learn about the lambic and gueuze possibilities in the area from one of the castle attendants, and then braced ourselves for the hill to Drie Fonteinen.

After talking with one of the brewers who works on the barrels, we made our way to to Drie Foneinen’s restaurant for –– finally!! –– my first-ever sip of lambic.IMG_7823 Wonderful stuff! Worth the journey to Brussels, the train ride to Halle, and the ride up the steep hill to the Beersel town square. Absolutely still with a few errant bubbles skirting the surface of the beer, darker than I expected (amber-hued, an indicator of some barrel age), and slightly hazy. Refined, with a subdued tartness and a meadow-like scent of hay. The Oude Gueuze was lively, with plenty of juicy lemon and green apple along with an oak/tart cherry character from the wood. Hungry after all that riding around, we tucked into a generous portion of Stoofkarbonaden, a rich rabbit stew that was an ideal foil for the Oude Gueuze’s acidity.

Slightly down the other side of the hillock you’ll find Oude Beersel. Everything was locked up tight when we arrived, but I rang the bell anyway. Just as we were about to give up and move on, the door swung open and one of the brewers invited us in for more lambic and an animated conversation about larger versus smaller lambic producers. If you show up on a Saturday between 9:00 am and 2:00 pm, you won’t have to ring the bell. Oude Beersel runs English-language tours at 12:30 on the first and third Saturday of the month.IMG_7892

Then down the hill we went, and back up a hill, and back down, till finally we landed back in Halle, where we returned the bikes and took a bus to Lembeek in search of Boon. Just our luck. It, too, was closed. So I rang the bell again and waited until someone poked his head out of a second-story window and arranged a fabulous personalized tour for us with one of the brewers.IMG_7853

Frank Boon, a driving force behind the gueuze and lambic revival, opened his brewery on a site that was once a seventeenth-century farmhouse brewery and distillery. Boon’s brewers still brew on their old system, but they have also installed a shiny new brewery around and adjacent to the old one. Though some of the initial fermentation now takes place in stainless steel tanks, Boon still maintains a large cellar stacked with barrels for aging.

Not far from the gates of the brewery and just off Lembeek’s small town square you’ll find De Kring, a cozy café with an excellent selection of Boon beverages. We rewarded ourselves for a day well spent –– there’s something wholesome about biking for your beer –– with bottles of Oude Gueuze Boon and Kriek Mariage Parfait, which was stunning it its crystalline expression of cherry flavour. De Kring evokes a bygone era when locals of all ages gathered in the local tavern for a drink, sometimes with the kids in tow. With its wood paneling and diffused light, this classic café feels like a trip back in time.IMG_7862 Go there before time catches up to it.

Brussels Reprised

What better way to cap a day of riding around the Payottenland countryside in search of lambic and gueuze than to head out for the exact same thing in the big city?

With a pleasant glow, we stepped into the evening sunshine and made our way back to Brussels for dinner at Bier Circus Bruxelles, another renowned Brussels watering hole, for a Girardin lambic and Gueuze Girardin 1882, both of which exhibited a distinctively round, mildly lactic buttery note. Pair them with the Waterzooi, a Flemish specialty made from fish, chicken, or veal. I had the fish version, an excellent fit with the beers we had.

Coffees done, we headed over to L’Ultime Atome, a cool bar in the Ixelles neighbourhood with funky Japanese-influenced lighting fixtures, floor-to-ceiling windows, and plenty of hazelnut-coloured wood for one last round before calling it a night.

Tomorrow, Cantillon.

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Odds and Ends

I didn’t get around to visiting the Bezoekercentrum De Lambiek (Lambic Visitor Center) in Alsemberg near Beersel. Simply too much to do and see. By all accounts, this museum and tasting facility provides a prime opportunity to sample most of the region’s gueuzes, lambics, and krieks in one place. Next time.

Related Tempest Articles

A Twist of Sour: New Belgium’s 2013 La Folie and Verhaeghe’s Duchesse de Bourgogne

Craft Beer at Time’s Precipice: Cellaring Tips

A Rodenbach Grand Cru in the Fridge, or a Six-Pack of Lesser Beer in the Fridge?

Sources

Jeff Sparrow, Wild Brews: Beer Beyond the Influence of Brewers’ Yeast (Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 2005).

“Brewery Cantillon: Traditional Family-Run Brewery,” (Brussels, n.d.).

Gregg Glaser, “In Search of Lambic,” All About Beer Magazine (July 1, 2001).

All images by F.D. Hofer.

© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

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