Monday, December 10, 2012

Not on the level

Flat surfaces are hard come by on the streets of Amsterdam. When having drinkies outside Arendsnest last September with the wife, Zak Avery and Rick Kempen, I harboured a constant fear of my glass sliding sideways off the table and into the Herengracht. Thankfully we all managed to keep it together long enough to get a few down our necks.

Pairs of beers are always interesting, so picking randomly from the Arendsnest blackboard I had an Ongelovige Thomas by Jopen. "Doubting Thomas" is a 10% ABV barley wine which manages to pull off being unctuous and hot while still remaining drinkable and flavoursome, throwing plenty of fresh mango in with the marker pen. Its credulous counterpart is Gelovige Thomas by De Molen: two points stronger but similar in a lot of ways. There's no doubt that all the alcohol is in there: it has cockle-warming caramel aplenty, but once again the hop fruits are also very present bringing balance to the picture, causing the beer to disappear much too fast, when one is seated on an incline.

Sticking with these two first-string Dutch breweries, the next round brought De Molen Dubbelbock, another one in the strong mahogany genre, though with a single-figure ABV. At first I didn't make the link between this and normal red, sticky Dutch autumn bock, but that's what it is, just done very well with everything turned up a little higher: more toffee and more herbs. Mooie Nel, say Jopen, is an IPA. 6.5% ABV and hopped with a heady mix of Citra, Simcoe, Nelson Sauvin and Glacier it throws out masses of gorgeous tropical fruit: the pineapple effect when Nelson Sauvin is behaving itself (when it isn't you get cat wee). The base is soft and heavy, like a Belgian blonde though without any major Belgian yeast notes spoiling the hop party. Jopen is the Dutch brewery I keep forgetting the brilliance of. I must pay them a visit in Haarlem some time soon.

Rick explained that the dodgily-named Tasty Lady is the creation of a group of women (here they are) at the Breugems Brewery in Zaandam. Without meaning to stereotype or anything, it's a very bubbly blonde which smells quite perfumey. My notes say there was a toasty characteristic as well, but to be honest I've no memory of how it tasted, just that no one at the table of either gender was very impressed.

De Snaterende Arend is the brewing company in charge of the house beers for Arendsnest and its sister pub Beer Temple. Among its other beers -- brewed at various sites around the Low Countries -- is Roodburst, a gorgeous red-orange number smelling strongly of toffee but heavily hopped-up giving it a dank and funky quality which I really enjoyed.

Big surprise of the session was the new IPA from Amsterdam's veteran microbrewery 't IJ. Their labels have always had quite an old-fashioned theme, with only the colours and wording changing around the ostrich logo. For 't IJ IPA they've gone for a different sort of leggy bird: a mid-life crisis Harley Davidson of a design. There's a bit of the signature 't IJ funk about this at first, with obviously plenty of suspended yeast in the hazy orange liquid. But underneath the pithy hops are also making their presence felt, adding a stimulating sharpness. Really it's not a million miles from the kind of bitter and funky IPAs that lots of Belgian breweries are turning out these days.

So that was the slanty Arendsnest. We had started out previously in Beer Temple, a short walk away. The menu has got a little more diverse in the three years since it opened, incorporating more local fare among the American beers, but also including unfamiliar breweries from unexpected places. Like Bridge Road in Australia, and their Beechworth Pale Ale. This is a sticky and bitter golden concoction with a heavy accent on the oranges. How it manages to be as thirst-quenching as it is I do not understand.

From the US offerings I picked Southern Tier's Back Burner, an oak-aged barley wine. It's smooth and sweet to start with; the hop kick coming in late and gradually, building from jolly juicy mandarins to more serious pithy jaffa and then on towards more bitter, herbal territory. It's only when it warms that the oak shows up, and it brings quite a harsh, sappy flavour which is often a risk with barrel-aging. I presume it's some combination of these elements that gives it an odd burnt coconut flavour as well. It has all the elements of a great beer but doesn't quite put them together in the right way, unfortunately.

Drinking in Amsterdam is rarely wall-to-wall gold, but there's always something interesting.

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