Trapped in Tilburg

Twenty-four hours in Tilburg isn’t on many a traveller’s bucket list. The small southern Dutch city does not attract much attention. Only the most ardent football fan would recall that it was in Tilburg on 20 April 1994 that Ireland’s Tommy Coyne scored the solitary goal against Holland. It was a warm-up ahead of USA ’94 and it was highly likely the last time the city was mentioned on Irish TV.

What brought me to Tilburg was an invite to a 25th wedding anniversary party. I had gotten to know Willem through my beer tastings. He was a regular fixture in Probus Wines. A group of us from there travelled over for the laugh. It appears that if you’re having a party, the local butcher throws in the bbq, bar & kegs, gazebos, the lot just for buying the food from him. It’s a good deal, even if the beer choice is limited to Jupiler. We did manage fortunately to try some Dutch beers from the local supermarket earlier that day.

 

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We were keen to have a look around the city the following day. Lonely Planet listed only two sights for the city, a textile museum and a modern art gallery. We were also apparently only 5km away from the ‘Dutch Disneyland’. Talking to locals the night before, it was suggested we take in the highest point in the city, no more than a larger-than-normal hump in the road. If we wanted, we could also visit tallest apartment block in the country. Well it was the tallest until the rival city of Breda built a taller one. This had all the hallmarks of a Springfield-Shelbyville sized rivalry. Willem had other plans. As it was a Sunday, he suggested we take a trip to a nearby monastery in Berkel Enschot.

The Abdij Onze-Lieve-Vrouw van de Koningshoeven is situated on the outskirts of the city in a quiet, wooded area along a canal. This it seemed was the place to be on a Sunday. It’s a popular destination for cyclists and the whole families come trundling along. This particular monastery is better known as the home of La Trappe beers (Koningshoeven in the US) and at one time was the only non-Belgian Trappist brewery. There are now two in the country and others have commenced operations in the US, Austria and Italy.

 

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La Trappe is the black sheep of the Trappist breweries. It lost and subsequently regained the right to use the “Authentic Trappist Product”. In 1999 the monastery sold control of the brewery to industrial powerhouse Bavaria. They took this tough decision because the monastery could no longer support the brewery. We tend to forget that they are religious establishments first and breweries second. Trappist monks are reported to say that they brew to pray, not pray to brew. Thankfully six years later, following a new arrangement where monks would have a greater role in the production process, the brewery was allowed back into the hexagonal club.

This wasn’t the first time that La Trappe had a flirtation with other breweries. They licenced their beer to Stella Artois in the 1970s. At one point, they themselves brewed a wit beer for Chimay. Imagine if that occurred today – a Belgian Wit produced over the border! This would attract scorn, derision and protest, well in the dark web of the beer world at least.

 

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Set in the gardens of the monastery, the brewery bar has the look and feel of an oratory. It’s a modern, simple and modest design. Rather than having an altar, a bar immediately faces the congregation of beer drinkers as they enter. The beer garden is extremely popular, which is hardly surprising given the number of smokers about. Beer and traditional Dutch snacks like Buitterballen were plentiful.

 

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One of the remarkable things about La Trappe beers is their value for money. 750ml bottles of the Blonde and Dubbel can be purchased in Ireland for around €7. Here at the monastery was no different. Cars were pulling up at the shop, complete with monks behind the till, to purchase cases of their favourite local beer. The Wit beer in the local supermarket was 70 cent a bottle.

 

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Unfortunately, my time in Tilburg was coming to an end. I was getting the train back to Brussels National Airport. However, it would’ve been bad to have left here without having tried La Trappe Quadrupel Oak Aged. Batch 19 is the Quadrupel aged in banyuls barrels. I’m generally not a fan of this French fortified wine but could imagine how the sweetness could compliment the rich, dark fruit character of the beer. A bottle and glass were quickly sourced from the kloosterwinkel or brewery shop. This was set to be one indulgent train beer!

The beer poured cloudy with an appearance of mahogany. Strong oak wafted from the bottle once the cork was popped. This aroma was not only immediately apparent to me but also to a fair few fellow passengers. It didn’t help that I was standing between the carriages, trying to pour this beer carefully into a glass.

 

La Trappe Quadrupel Oak Aged

Once the oak notes had settled down somewhat, the aroma took on a plum, raisin and sherry-like character. This continued into the flavour. This beer was pleasantly smoother and creamier than you might expect. It’s unmistakably a Quad but it has an exceptional complex finish. It’s a blend of desiccated coconut, honey and sherry. All of this is on top of a warming alcohol finish. It was certainly an interesting sipper and helped the journey pass by.

Tilburg was certainly worth the visit. A number of beer bloggers will be touring La Trappe this week as part of the European Beer Bloggers Conference. Unfortunately, I will be unable to make this year’s conference in Amsterdam and excursions. I was registered to attend but other matters have gotten in the way. I’m already looking forward to next year’s event.

Musings on the best Irish beer fest yet

The All-Ireland Craft Beer and Cider Festival has attracted a lot of attention online and save from repeating a previous post, I have opted to provide a series of short observations on the festival. Oh and did I mention that I attended all four days because where else would I be!

Packed house on Festival Saturday

In no particular order:

  1. Biggest festival yet! Huge crowds over the four days (over 10,000 according to Ruben @TaleofAle). It was packed on the Friday and many had made their way up from the Aviva after the Ireland-Sweden march but Saturday was something else. The crowds simply kept on coming with a queue to get in and an even bigger one at the token stand.  if keeps growing like this, it’ll probably have to move into the main hall next door.
  2. Two collaboration brews can be best described as sweet. The O’Hara’s/JW Sweetman’s version containing honey. There’s a story to be told about it but can be best summed up as there’s a group of people out there nerdier than beer enthusiasts – honey people! Troubled Hooker from guess which two breweries (see my previous post if you can’t for the life of you work out who it is) was a mistake gone well. It was supposed to be a Double IPA but became almost a sweet Belgian Tripel, even sweeter than Kwak.
  3. Dry-hopped Irish reds, what’s the point? The malt sweetness is there for a reason. Leave the hops for the “Irish” pale ales & co.
  4. The Hop Randall festival goes to try the Kinsale Pale Ale with added Simcoe, Citra and Nelson Sauvin. The Hop Randall  has now been introduced by the Bull and Castle and the Bierhaus in Cork . Has it already been condemned to the realm of gimmick?
  5. Franciscan Well wasn’t picketed by members of the craft purist front and the casks ran dry fairly early on. Punters weren’t put off by this big beer-owned concern.
  6. In previous years Dungarvan trialled their seasonal beers for the following year (Comeragh Challenger and Mahon Falls). Cormac brought six variants with him, including a Saison, Amber Ale, Mild, session DIPA, Wit IPA and an IPA. I  still don’t know which or if any are scheduled for release  in 2014.
  7. Every time the show the All-Ireland Hurling Final On festival Sunday, it ends in a draw.
  8. In past years people flocked to the White Gypsy stand to imbibe on the stronger beers available. However, I don’t know what is happening down in Templemore as a string of very fine session beers turned up at this year’s festival.
  9. Did every band at the festival do a cover of The Lumineers’ Ho Hey? Don’t get me started about the Johnny Cash covers!
  10. Two barley wines at the festival and two were duly sampled. I know barley wines are known for their port/sherry like comparisons but I’m not going to go into how one was sweet (Porterhouse) and one was dry (O’Hara’s). That’s just going too far!
  11. Putting the newer breweries in one corner (although Brú was across the way) grouped in one corner was a great way of concentrating interest in them. One thing noticed is that the newer breweries have fantastic branding and T-shorts for sale (in the past this sort of behaviour was confined to Metalman and the Porterhouse).
  12. Beers to look out for include Eight Degrees’ Amber Ella (might give Howling Gale Ale a run for its money in the popularity stakes), Kinsale Pale Ale (a great beer to show to festival novices that Ireland can match Sierra Nevada et al), Mountain Man’s Hairy Goat (nice copper ale for the autumn) and hopefully Five Lamps will release the darker version of their Liberties Ale (they have a lager so why put out a golden ale?).
The fantastic branding from some of the newer breweries at the festival

 

Revolution in Red, White & Brew

The week being in it, there’s nothing more appropriate than to start with the country where the revolutionary beer war began. Ever since that lunch in the original Spaghetti Factory back in 1965 where Fritz Maytag learnt of the impending closure of his favourite brewery and purchasing a 51% shareholding the very next day, the slow re-introduction of choice and taste into the American beer market began.

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Fritz Maytag has to be viewed as one of the original authors of the declaration of independent choice. It was his original vision of “small is beautiful” along with the 1975 tax breaks then effectively defined the term of “craft” beer. The Brewers Association defines such breweries as “small, independent and traditional” and that was Anchor Steam to the core.

Aspiring brewers such as Ken Grossman, who would go onto found Sierra Nevada, paid pilgrimage to the brewery to see how it could be done, as well as searching out sage advice from another early revolutionary, Jack McAuliffe. The New Albion Brewery was the first “new” brewery to be established from the ground-up, unfortunately it was to close in 1982 but its legacy lives on. Boston Beer Company recently produced a beer dedicated to this founding father.

Jim Koch started what was to become the largest US independent brewery (along with DG Yuengling and Sons) in 1984, with Boston Beer Company’s Sam Adams being brewed in Pittsburg. On the night of Paul Revere’s famous ride to warn people that the British were coming, it was to warn John Hancock and Sam Adams that there were to be arrested. They were in Lexington at the time and so began the American War of Independence. Revere’s actions to warn Sam Adams and co was to be commemorated by Maytag through the special release of Liberty Ale on the the bicentennial of the event in 1975. There was no more appropriate beer to pay homage to this historic event as the beer itself was to create history in the craft beer movement. It was the first beer to be brewed using the Cascade hop, which was only developed in 1970. While the beer itself disappeared soon after and not to be released again until 1983, it changed history. Sierra Nevada took note and the Cascade hop was to be the backbone of its Pale Ale, which was released in 1981.

Tasting Liberty Ale on 4 July, I was met by what is now the familiar floral, citrus and pine aromas imparted by Cascade. What is striking is that it does also give an extremely pleasant bitterness to the beer. This is overlooked these days due to high- and super-alpha hops. We forget that this hop helped define “hoppy” beers and it became the ubiquitous hop to be used in practically all subsequent American pale ales. I can only imagine what it must have been like to taste this beer in comparison to the other beers that were available almost 40 years ago.

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Of course there were other factors at play that helped sow the seeds of the revolution. At the beginning of the 1970s on the west coast beginning in California and expanding northwards, there existed some of the key elements that contributed to growth of the of the craft beer movement. These included a young population that had experience of beers from Europe and the motivation to do something different, a spirit of bending the rules by home-brewing when it was still illegal, a sense of place and pride in locally produced food etc. Let us not forget that the American wine industry was beginning to flourish at this time and in the similar locations. The University of California – Davis employing Michael Lewis in 1970 as America’s first full time professor of brewing science. Lewis would go on to train a vast army of brewers, as well as conducting key research and sharing his wisdom amongst aspiring beer entrepreneurs. The craft beer movement became identified with a strong spirit of fraternity because brewers new the odds were stacked against them.

By 1979, there were only 89 breweries remaining in the US. Prohibition and increasing consolidation along with rapid growth in the middle class hooked on drinking light and adjunct packed lager at home had all contributed to this decline. Thankfully today there are 2,403 working craft breweries across America with another 1,528 in planning stages (May 2012). When Maytag sold his brewery to the Griffin Group (one of the backers of BrewDog) in 2010, he was safe in the knowledge that choice in the beer market has been well and truly established.