One of the things that makes Amsterdam a great place for drinking beer is its compactness. Time it right and you can do a very efficient pub crawl through the western city centre with minimal walking between top quality beers. I had a couple of days of bimbling on my last visit so didn't hit all of what follows in one session. But if I had, it would have looked like this:
Starting off at the top of the town and In De Wildeman, the charmingly down-at-heel hostelry famed for the variety of its beer offerings. Left Hand's Stranger was a new one on me: a decent fist of an American pale ale, being quite heavy and possessing a solid, toffeeish malt backbone. The flavour begins with a firm bitter smack, then introduces some lovely oily orange notes. It's a beer with a big flavour, but deftly balanced. For something a bit more outré, there was Sauer Power, a Germano-American collaboration between Freigeist and Jester King. It's the cloudy gold of a witbier and mixes in some quite acrid smoke with saisonish yeast spice and a mouth-watering, tongue-pinching sourness. Interesting up to a point, but the aftertaste leaves a burnt plastic residue which spoiled the experiment for me.
Another round? All right then. The missus opted for Samaranth 12, a very strong dark one by Urthel. This wears its 11.5% ABV right up front, with heady boozy vapours winding seductively out of it. The flavour has a little of the sweet honey of Irish whiskey and even sweeter amaretti biscuits. It's smooth and amazingly not overly hot, but one glass is plenty. More or less randomly, I chose Troubadour Westkust, a 9.2% ABV black IPA. Wow. The nose is pure Fry's Turkish Delight, starting with milk chocolate then adding floral rosewater. It tasted very porterish to me, with coffee and cocoa dominating the flavour and the hops adding a pot pourri element without any real bitterness. Not really the sort of thing I'd expect under the black IPA flag, but as a beer it's flawless.
And with that we leave In De Wildeman, though not before downloading On Tapp in De Wildeman, its wonderful smartphone app, for future vicarious drinking. I'd love more pubs to have something like this.
Southwards we go, feeling a little guilty for passing Café Belgique and trying not to get drawn in by the siren song of De Bierkoning. Just on the far side of Dam Square we reach Beer Temple. I'm keeping to style and order a Mikkeller Sort Gul, a black IPA, this time with a mere 7.5% ABV. No doubt about the hops here: it's danker than a rasta's basement, crammed with funky, oily, herbal flavours and smells. I couldn't decide if I could taste any dry roast or chocolate in it: maybe there was a trace of it, or maybe it was an illusion caused by the colour. Regardless, this is very much a hop-forward beer and gorgeous to boot.
Perfect Crime is one of a growing number of odd transatlantic brewing arrangements being a joint venture by the people behind Evil Twin and Stillwater -- themselves odd transatlantic brewing arrangements in their own right. The beers are brewed in Belgium and on tap at Beer Temple was Smoking Gun, an imperial stout. It's a little on the light side for the style and not all that strongly flavoured, with just some dry smokiness contrasting with pleasant sweet floral flavours. Decent, but there's something wrong when the beer's pedigree is more complex than its taste. There was much more happening in Dark Horse's Double Crooked tree, an innocent pale amber ale that's hiding over 13% ABV. The aroma is wonderful: intensely sweet and citric like dry-hopped cough mixture. There's a tangy sharpness in the flavour at first, but it mellows out into a smooth, manadrin-laced sipper. It's just as well the measures tend to be small in Beer Temple or we'd be here all night. Let's get moving.
A couple of blocks further down and one street over, we reach Gollem. It's packed, but there's just room for us to squeeze in on the mezzanine. A quick headcount reveals that "packed" in Gollem's case means 27 people. From the modest but well-chosen tap line-up one particular beer leaps out at me: St. Feuillien's Black Saison, brewed in collaboration with Green Flash of San Diego. It's a crazy concoction with the typical peppery nose of a good saison but then a bizarre herb garden of a flavour profile, full of sweet and floral botanicals: menthol, eucalyptus, caraway seeds and other flavours I've forgotten the names of but are more often found in nordic aquavit than low countries beer. Strange, but quite wonderful in its own way. Appropriate for Gollem, then.
A U-turn across Singel brings us onto Herengracht and we follow the canal north, counting down the house numbers from the 200s until we reach the magic 90: home of Café Arendsnest and the place where all my Amsterdam pub crawls seem to end. Habitually, I scan the tap list for anything unfamiliar from De Molen. Dol & Dwaas? That'll do. It's an odd orange-red colour with a bit of a haze but doesn't have much to say for itself, really: a bit of smoke and a little hoppy funk, but nothing especially distinctive. A much more interesting smoked experience came from SNAB's Roock, a black beer which mixes fig and plum notes with salty seaweed and iodine. Delicious and thoroughly defiant of style rules and categories.
Phew. Anyone fancy a coffee? There's Emelisse Espressostout: it's 10% ABV and nicely sweet and unctuous, but the coffee does little other than add a dryness to it. I need a bigger jolt than that. Rooie Dop's Daily Grind provides just the hit needed. First there's that faintly sweaty smell of strong hot coffee and a major hit of freshly ground coffee flavour on tasting. There's the dry roast finish again, though here I think it's the beer's underlying stout nature peeking through; the same goes for the heavy texture. Mostly, however, Daily Grind is all about the coffee, as a coffee stout should be, in my opinion.
And we're done! Time to leave the beer specialists behind and drift back into normality. A nightcap, you say? Well OK. The pubs where the normal people drink have a few winter seasonals in from the bigger brewers. Brand, for instance, have Sylvester: red and sweet, though not in a warming toffee way, but rather a disappointing fake-fruit bubblegum thing plus a bit of nasty brown apple. I'd pass if I were you. De Koninck are offering Winter Koninck and that's much more like it: a lovely warming Christmas cake nose and lots of dubbelish dark fruits. A chewy, warming finish to the session.
Until next time, Amsterdam.