Depeche Moeder Lambic – a fashionable dispatch from Brussels

The centre of Brussels has been undergoing a fair bit of transformation over the past few years. This is not before time. Parts of the city had become fairly run down and I’m just talking about the tourist spots. This took away from enjoyment of stunningly beautiful areas such as the Grand Place.

Drinking spots haven’t been immune from this push for a facelift. Delirium has expanded from one large basement area to what has been dubbed a village, taking over all the premises along the narrow laneway and even pushing through to the next street over. BrewDog have just opened a bar in this Other bars have been given at least a lick of paint, no doubt driven by the smoking ban taking hold.

What the centre of this European capital lacks is plenty of options for al fresco drinking. I’m certainly not talking about overpriced bars and restaurants in the Grand Place. Day-trippers to Brussels for EU-related business often find themselves sequestered in featureless and too frequently window-less meeting rooms for hours on end. The thought of a nice beer before heading to the airport is much desired.

The European Quarter is unimaginative when it comes to beer offerings
The European Quarter is unimaginative when it comes to beer offerings

The bars of the European Quarter are relatively unimaginative in terms of the beers they carry. Sure there are a few decent ones available in bottles but most are more than familiar to what you can get at home. Some local bars off the beaten path are marginally better but you have to seek these out and time may not be on your hands.

The safest bet is to head into town on the Metro but to where? One area that has come on in the past few years is Place Fontainas. This is located between Rue du Midi down from the Bourse and a couple of blocks below the Mannequin Pis. One bar in particular needs to be visited – Moeder Lambic Fontainas.

Opened in 2009, this is the sister pub to the original bar located in the suburbs of Saint-Gilles. The original is a classic should be a must on any beery bucket-list. However, it’s trickier to get too and sadly not convenient when a decent after work beer is in order, especially if you’ve a flight to catch.

The pub is modern, long, narrow and post-industrialist. Booths are available on both sides with seating at the bar too. However, it can get fairly busy with people ordering, asking questions and those taking snaps of their beer (me included) so a bar stool may not necessarily grant you any desired solitude. The bar has great wifi too. There’s a big terrace out front so it’s a great place to have a drink on warmer evenings but will still be a place for smokers come wintertime.

The beer list is substantive, with local specialities on draught. There’s 40 taps with some international offering as well. Of course there’s cask lambics on offer. The bottle list is selective and of high quality. On my last few visits, however, I’ve tended to stick with beers from local Brussels brewery, Brasserie de la Senne.

Band of Brothers by Brasserie de la Senne exclusively for Moeder Lambic
Band of Brothers by Brasserie de la Senne exclusively for Moeder Lambic

Band of Brothers by Brasserie de la Senne exclusively for Moeder Lambic
Band of Brothers by Brasserie de la Senne exclusively for Moeder Lambic
First up is Band of Brothers that is produced exclusively for the bar. It’s eye opening at only 3.5% ABV in a town known for stronger beers. Suspicions that even the tap water comes in at a higher ABV. Joking aside, Belgium like elsewhere is seeing a growing thirst for lower strength but not necessarily poorer quality beers. This beer is case and point.

It arrives with a sense that it’s going to be refreshing, which is just perfect for a hot and humid day in Brussels. It’s almost cloudy pineapple juice with a thick frothy head. There’s pineapple and hints of mango on the nose. It’s creamy on first taste before the fresh tropical fruit bitterness takes over. It’s clean drinking. It may appear a little thin but again, it’s only 3.5% abv. Refreshment is its game. You have to take this in the same vein as enjoying the last few spoonfuls of a citrus sorbet that has become somewhat diluted from the melted ice – it’s still bitter and still hits the spot.

While sessionable as a pint, it’s always nice to have Tara’s Boulba in a 33cl pour
While sessionable as a pint, it’s always nice to have Tara’s Boulba in a 33cl pour
Next up has to be Tara’s Boulba from the same brewery and is its best known beer. The brewery has developed a remarkable reputation in a short-space of time for producing session-friendly and hop-forward beers. Taras Boulba weighs in at 4.5% ABV. Yes, it’s perfect for consuming by the pint (or half-litre, it is Belgium after-all) but there’s something pleasurable by having it in a smaller pour and in a far cooler glass.

While sessionable as a pint, it's always nice to have Tara's Boulba in a 33cl pour
While sessionable as a pint, it’s always nice to have Tara’s Boulba in a 33cl pour

Taras Boulba pours a cloudy yellow gold with hints of citrus fruit and banana on the nose. It comes across a little spicy also. It’s topped by a thick dollop of foam. Effervescent with a growing citrus bitterness. It finishes dry and spicy, although you never escape the citrus fruit bitterness. Yeast notes are detectable throughout. If this was released by an American brewery, it might have been called a session White IPA, which shows the blurred or more likely imaginary lines with the style.

So two fantastic beers to set you up for the night or in my case for the trip back to the airport. However, the bar and beers make the short 10 minute walk back uphill to Gare Central pleasantly passable. You may even have the opportunity to smile sarcastically at those who opted just to have a can of Jupiler or Maes on the rain to the airport. As for beers at Brussels Zaventem, you can forget about it. They’re simply not worth the money.

A beer that needs serious revision

I was in Tesco yesterday picking up yet another forgotten ingredient for dinner. Why is it that no matter how long you spend shopping, you nearly always forget something. Or you since changed your mind on what you feel like eating. Anyway, whenever I’m in the store I like to peruse the beer fridges. Who wouldn’t? The alcohol section is often the quietest part of the store… thankfully. It’s become a sort of an oasis of calm even if the stock on the shelves are largely barren of charm and appeal.

Since it was a Sunday evening, I thought why not have a beer to round off the weekend. Tesco isn’t the usual place of choice for my berry acquisitions. I wanted something different and opted to try the Saison from the Revisionist range, “craft brewed by Marston’s exclusively for Tesco”.

The label's not bad as far as own-brands go but the beer doesn't match up. Which is more important?
The label’s not bad as far as own-brands go but the beer doesn’t match up. Which is more important?

So what’s it like? Well aficionados of Belgian farmhouse ales should look away. It pours a clear yellow gold with a head that quickly dissipated. The nose is dominated by a trifecta of lemon, plasters and toffee (too harsh to say butterscotch?). The citrus notes carries into the flavour but it’s not clean tasting. The carbonation level contributes to the disjointed nature of the beer. There is indeed citrus bitterness with only a slight hint of cracked black pepper in the finish. Overall the mouthfeel is somewhat soapy but it’s perhaps a tad mean to say this beer doesn’t pair so well with a meal but would go well with the washing up.

I’ve now had the opportunity to try the full Revisionist range. The Rye Pale Ale and Dark IPA are passable but the rest are mediocre. The branding is good and screams premium own brand. However, this is beer we’re talking about. Price matters and this is certainly true in the congested retail environment that is Tesco. At a relatively high price point, none of the Revisionist range represent value.

All is not lost, however, Bo Bristle has joined the likes of O’Hara’s, McGargles, Solas range and Finn Lager on the shelves of Tesco. The Irish craft offerings either match the Revisionist prices or beat them. Now that’s value. Every little helps.

Budget 2016 – more cash for beer

Budget 2016 has to have been one of the most leaked or at the very least, most openly discussed budget in history. The media coverage over the past two weeks has proven to be remarkably accurate. This surely cannot be a shrewd tactic? Is the Government making sure that all key channels of influence were well-briefed so they could sell the message to the people ahead of time? With an election on the horizon, the Government certainly doesn’t want a repeat of the aftermath of last year’s budget. They were talking up the benefits of the budget but most of real benefits not coming into people’s pockets until the first pay-packet of 2015. However, last year’s budget was certainly positive for craft beer with the increase to excise relief.

Tax cuts will certainly boost consumer demand. Plenty of other sources will cover the tax cuts, impact of the USC, changes to entry points etc. It is worth noting that the 9% VAT rate is being retained, for at least another year.  Craft brewers will hopefully see the impact in increased sales as it is expected that some of the gains will find their way into discretionary spending. This is after tax increases, contracting income and making ends meet over the past 7 years. However, we must not overstate the impact. There’s a long way to go to redressing the damage that people have experienced in recent years.

Excise duty on alcohol has not been touched but a packet of cigarettes will go up by 50 cent per pack. As the Minister of Finance, Michael Noonan TD said “this is the only tax increase in the budget” and was taken as a “public health measure”. Does this mean that alcohol is finally being separated from the “old dependables”? I certainly hope so. Perhaps it’s an indication that the work of the producers, their supply-chain and impact right across the economy.

Of course the budget does not just benefit tax payers. The Minister for Finance said “we will need to encourage new entrepreneurs and to support existing ones”.  For those owning or setting up a craft brewery will be able to avail of an earned-income tax credit of €540 so they don’t lose out by not being a PAYE worker. The revised capital gains rate of 20% will only apply to those selling their brewery and more likely to be used in other industries. However, this may make it attractive to some to sell up at some point in the future.

Last year, I increased the amount of beer that micro-breweries could produce and still qualify for this excise relief. To further assist their development, the relief will now be available upfront thus reducing the cash-flow burden of the current rebate scheme – Michael Noonan TD, Minister for Finance

Last year, the cap on total output of craft beer eligible for excise relief was increased by 50% to 30,000 Hl.  A major problem for breweries, however, was that they had to claw-back the relief, which tied up vital cash flow. Craft breweries will now be available to claim upfront the excise duty relief. The initial scheme was introduced in Budget 2005 and the recent improvements are acknowledgement by the Government of the contribution that these breweries are making to the economy, particularly in terms of regional growth.

The tax relief reducing the standard rate of Alcohol Products Tax by 50% on beer produced in microbreweries will now be available upfront as well as through a rebate. This will assist microbreweries with their cash flow and cash position  Budget 2016

So Budget 2016 is looking good for brewers and beer drinkers. But the efforts need to continue. Promotion of entrepreneurship and start-ups should not just be confined to the tech sector. We need to be championing craft beer. We need our breweries to be considered alongside the wider maker-economy, especially in the agri-food sector. The excise duty relief needs to be competitive with schemes in other European countries. The enterprise agencies need to step up their support to existing breweries, especially with exporting, and those looking to start. Breweries need to be able to operate tap-rooms should they wish. This would boost cash-flow, further connect breweries to their localities and also benefit tourism.

The impending general election is an opportunity to highlight such these highlighted above. Nonetheless, I think we should welcome these measures announced today.