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.

Orders please: the Westminster Barliament is open

Wow, what an election that proved to be over there in Britain.  I had an eerie feeling that it could prove to be ’92 all over again for Labour.  In certain areas it was even worse. While they retain control of every former mining area, they ‘lost’ Scotland. The SNP, the real surprising force, now occupies the third party spot, previously held by the Liberal Democrats in Westminster.  And with 56 out of a total of 59 seats, they are the undisputed party of Scotland.  Whereas UKIP and the Green Party received 15% of the popular vote, they only managed one MP each.  In an election full of surprises, few expected the Conservatives to win an outright majority. However, this could prove to be a pyrrhic victory. Without the Lib Dem crutch, they could find themselves at the mercy of their Eurosceptic wing.

Two pints for two-terms as Prime Minister - David Cameron returns with a single party government
Two pints for two-terms as Prime Minister – David Cameron returns with a single party government

Last month, I featured a piece on what the election could do for beer (British general election 2015: political pint scoring).  Now in its aftermath it is time to look at what is likely to happen.  The Queen’s Speech to parliament contained few bills that would have direct impact on the British beer industry. This is hardly surprising, as the Tories wish to remain silent on the issue of Minimum Unit Pricing, for the time being at least. It could be back on the agenda pending the outcome of the legal challenge to the Scottish equivalent.

Harriet Harman is acting leader of the Opposition and of the Labour Party. She is pictured alongside Lib Dem Danny Alexander, former Chief Secretary to the Treasury and one of the big names to lose
Harriet Harman is acting leader of the Opposition and of the Labour Party. She is pictured alongside Lib Dem Danny Alexander, former Chief Secretary to the Treasury and one of the big names to lose

In a move that will boost consumer demand generally but will spill over to beer, the Treasury will not increase income tax rates, VAT and national insurance before 2020 at the earliest (i.e. not before the next general election, providing it goes full-term). What is unknown is whether George Osbourne will reduce excise duty for a fourth consecutive time. There is a second 2015 budget scheduled for July 8. But this emergency budget is likely to focus on measures to reduce the deficit. We may have to wait until Budget 2016 before seeing any additional moves on excise.  Britain needs to address the legacy of the duty escalator, which caused excise to increase by 42% between 2008 and 2012.

Back as Chancellor, will George Osborne continue work to reverse the "beer tax"?
Back as Chancellor, will George Osborne continue work to reverse the “beer tax”?

The British political scene is marked by “buzzword” overkill.  This could be observed when the British monarch confirmed that her government will be doing the hokey cokey on the Brussels dancefloor in the lead up to an “in-out referendum” to be held by the end of 2017. Speculation is mounting that it is likely to be held sometime in the autumn of next year. Cameron won’t want this issue to completely dominate the national agenda and the longer it drags on, the less stable his government could be. The deal he will seek to do with Brussels will focus primarily on regulatory issues and possible opt-outs. These discussions and the subsequent referendum may attract a negative sentiment towards British imports across the EU, but this is likely to be over-stated.  What is likely to happen is that more sectors of the British economy will publicly acknowledge the importance of the EU for their business. The brewing industry could well be one of them. While its practitioners may not agree with all aspects of labelling regulation, a move on the origins, ingredients and ownership issues would be supported by the likes of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). So too would dealing with certain issues as part of the EU-US trade deal, the Trans-Atlantic Investment Partnership.

Nigel Farage of UKIP and "pint-op" fame lost his election bid and can look forward to more beers in Brussels and Strasbourg
Nigel Farage of UKIP and “pint-op” fame lost his election bid. He can look forward to more beers in Brussels and Strasbourg

A new Enterprise Bill will be introduced to Parliament with the objective of cutting £10bn worth of red tape. We can expect to see plenty of bizarre regulations appearing over the coming months to illustrate the types of reforms that will be introduced, such as the removal of fines for “No Smoking” signs being the wrong size or in the wrong font. The main beneficiaries of this bill will be small businesses, which includes virtually all breweries in Britain. Business rates are to be reformed and a Small Business Conciliation Service will be introduced. This will be a low-cost mechanism for solving disputes (e.g. payments) and could bring benefits to the supply-chain dependent industry that is brewing. Energy costs are also likely to be addressed but as part of a separate bill.

Devolution is back on the agenda, with added powers promised for Scotland and Wales.  Expect to hear a lot about “metro regions” and the “northern powerhouse” (buzzword overkill?) as regional administration is reformed and new directly-elected mayors introduced. Pub goers can expect more integrated public transport across cities and not just London, apparently. Holyrood has recently agreed to commission a study into the tied-pub sector in Scotland to provide evidence on what changes need to occur. However, it remains to be seen whether any changes can be introduced ahead of next year’s Scottish parliamentary elections.

New MPs can look forward to enjoying one of eight bars in Westminster
New MPs can look forward to enjoying one of eight bars in Westminster

CAMRA ran an effective campaign in the run-up to the general election and sought pledges from candidates to “support well-run community pubs”, “promote Britain’s 1,300 breweries” and “represent pub goers and beer drinkers”. Over 10,000 of its members contacted their local candidates to support these issues. The organisation received pledges from 1,162 candidates, of whom 211 were returned to Parliament. This means 32.5% of the MPs in Westminster have committed to supporting the beer industry. As the table below shows, this support is spread right across the board, with less than a third of the ruling Conservative Party pledging their commitment to beer. Oddly, UKIP’s sole MP, Douglas Carswell didn’t sign up to the campaign. This is in spite of UKIP incorporating these priorities in its manifesto, along with other issues close to CAMRA’s heart. Perhaps he had enough of Nigel Farage’s endless “pint-ops” for Britain?

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But it’s early days and naturally it’s difficult to predict with any great certainty what the political landscape will look like next year let alone in five years’ time. What will happen to the likes of Nigel Farage? Will he finally be allowed to resign as UKIP’s leader? Obviously, alcohol will continue to be linked to health and crime policies by all parties. Regardless, I think “pint-ops” will be here to stay and the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group will have some new faces.

Beer for breakfast (on a Tuesday night, of course)

Difficult to work out if smoke is coming from the pan or the beer

A Tuesday night in January just has that dreary feel to it. Tuesdays are not that great and January is one of those months we hope to get out of the way as fast as possible. I did however use a recent one to conduct another experiment of beer and food matching, this time beer to go with breakfast.

Objectivity and rigour are important in conducting any such experiment so I would like to point out that I conducted this in the evening time (health and safety of course necessitated this). The idea came to me by looking in the fridge and deciding that all I felt like for dinner was a fry. This got me wondering what beers would match and this of course would be applicable for those who avail of all-day breakfasts (or brunch if you want to be posh) as well.

A number of beer books feature beers to go with breakfasts as part of general guides to food matching but I haven’t had the opportunity to try them. Besides a few early houses, we really don’t have a culture of early morning drinking (probably for the best). When I was working in Brussels I went to grab a coffee and a pain au chocolate in a café under the Berlaymont (aka European Commission HQ). I didn’t stand just stand out because I wasn’t wearing a grey suit, I was the only person not partaking of a beer at breakfast (it was 7.45am or in Brussels 07h45). Observing this scene, it wasn’t some romanticised scene portrayed in many a beer book, it was simply something that was done and they were drinking cheap lager straight from the can.

So with the pan on the hob and the sausages frying away, I selected the beers to be used. With such a meal we overload on fatty foods. A crisp lager to cut through such food would be too easy a choice. A Mild Ale, breakfast in a glass in its own right, could be a runner but I had none at hand. I was thinking of beers that contain flavours that our brains would easily make the connection with breakfast time. Unfortunately I didn’t have Mikkeller’s Beer Geek Breakfast to hand, so I focussed on wheat because of our familiarity with cereal, bread etc. With a fried breakfast, we have an unbelievable ability to consume a wide array of pork products so why not try and match it with a smoked beer. The two beers selected were these: Weisser Hirsch, a Hefeweizen by Privatbrauerei Höss der Hirschbräu and Schlenkerla’s Aecht Rauchbier Märzen

The two contenders

First up, Hirschbräu’s Hefeweizen poured extremely pale with a good head and remarkable lacing around the glass. The aroma was an incredible blend of ripe banana and clove. It had a pleasant body with an off-dry finish. Frying the sausages resulted in some caramelisation occurring, which clearly allowed the food to really emphasise the sweetness in the beer, reminiscent of Weetabix. It also matched perfectly when the toast was taken into account. This beer was refreshing in the finish and gave me the impression, like I had a fresh juice alongside my meal.

The second beer being possibly the most iconic of smoked beers. I must admit that I do enjoy Schlenkerla’s Aecht Rauchbier Märzen once in a while (and I also mean no more that one at a time as well). This is a beer that needs food for it to be truly enjoyed. I’ve read how well this goes with German sausages and now its time to see how well it goes with an Irish fry. It pours a rich caramel colour that’s on the point of turning burnt. There’s no head and the beer itself has a transparency to it that you wouldn’t expect in such a dark beer. On the aroma front, it is pure smoke, so much so that you don’t know if it’s the beer or that you’re burning the pan. Besides intense smoke, bacon and leather aromas (what a combination) come through. This beer is clearly enjoyable with food. It works, don’t get me wrong but I feel that it was not the right match on this occasion as I did not have the ingredients on hand that would really allow it to shine.

Difficult to work out if smoke is coming from the pan or the beer

The Aecht Rauchbier Märzen deserves real quality ingredients, from the type of sausage to the type or rasher. Smoked meats would come into their own alongside this beer. How I wished I had one alongside a fantastic breakfast that I had in the Loveless Café during a recent trip to Nashville. The pit-cooked pork barbeque & eggs could be the ideal match for this beer (although it was smoked with hickory wood, unlike the beer which has malts kilned above beech).

The Loveless Café’s famous pit-cooked pork barbeque & eggs is just crying out to be served alongside Bamberg’s finest

This was certainly a fun experiment for a Tuesday night. I would be leaning on the hefeweizen as a good match, although if I had a breakfast roll and was consuming everything at once, the rauchbier might win out. I doubt, however, if I will be reaching out for a beer anytime soon alongside my breakfast and will most likely be sticking with coffee. That is not to say that you can’t match beer with breakfast.