Back in the year of 2007 I was a young university student drinking junky adjunct lagers and European beers like Pilsner Urquell. I happened upon Bottlescrew Bills a beer bar in my home town that was one of the only Canadian bars to gain the praise of Beer Hunter Michael Jackson. I ordered a Westmalle Dubbel not knowing how much one beer would change my entire life and take beer from a way to hang out to a passion and eventual career. Westmalle Dubbel is brewed by one of six Trappist breweries in Belgium where monks of the Strictest Cistercian Observance brew beers for charitable proceeds and consumption within the monastery. The brewing of beers by monks originally began to give monks sustenance during the fasting month of lent. This beer consumed by the monks is termed paterbier or monks beer. In 1856 the Westmalle monastery brewed a strong, dark ale that they termed double or dubbel. Today the dubbel is one of the Belgian Abbey styles and is generally characterised by a dark, fruity body and alcohol content up to 8%. I like to re assess this beer every year or two to see how my perception of beer has changed since going head first into the craft beer culture.
Less talk and more about the beer. Westmalle Dubbel pours a dark, murky burgundian brown with a massive beige head that fills the chalice. The aroma is rich and laced with dark fruity esters. Notes of prunes, raisins, cherries and light spice notes waft off the glass. The malt profile is composed mostly of rich toffee, light cocoa notes and a bit of a nutty flavour. Rich and smooth with a silky mouthfeel and strong carbonation that dances on the palate. Rich and well rounded profile adds a sense of class to the proceedings and allows the beer to make a lasting impression. Every time I have this beer I am taken back to that dimly lit bar taking my first sip of this rich malty treasure and thinking damn is this a great beer.
Brewsters Brewing Company and Restaurant is a chain of brewpubs in Alberta and Saskatchewan that has operated on a small scale for the past decade or so. Until recently their beer was only available on tap and in bottle with limited quantities on location. In November 2014 Brewsters released six of their flagship beers in 6 packs for distribution to Alberta off license retailers. Additionally, Brewsters released two of their seasonal brews Blue Monk Barley Wine and Brooding Soldier this past week. Brooding Soldier is a Belgian style tripel boasting 8.5% ABV.
Brooding Soldier pours out a golden hued copper in the body with a thin, fizzy and dissipating head of off white. The aroma is noticeably pungent with alcohol aromas and light spiced notes. Notes of crisp fruits and citrus esters with light floral and spicy hops aromas blend well and fit well stylistically. The first sip is soft and a bit sweet with toasted malt notes, caramel and apple fruit notes. Towards the finish I note flavours of light citrus, coriander and honey. The finish itself is lightly bitter with a bit of hop spice notes and warm booze in the aftertaste. Overall, the yeast accents are subtle and dulled but beautiful fruity notes are accented well. This is a good attempt at a big, boisterous Belgian tripel but misses the point a bit. In general, I am happy to see Brewsters bottling their beer for sale at off license location but would like to see a bit more effort to create a brew that is more unique and original.
Unibroue is firmly implanted as one of Canada’s best breweries, a position they’ve held for over a decade. Although Unibroue was bought by Sapporo several years ago their attitude towards making unique and incredible Belgian style beers remains unchanged. La Resolution is Belgian Strong Ale brewed for the holiday season with a foreboding ABV of 10%. Over the past years of delving into the craft beer culture in Canada I have become acquainted with Unibroue beers and have come to notice a unique yeast aroma and flavor in their beers. Upon popping the cork that familiar house aroma instantly flutters out of the bottle.
Pouring out a muddy, dark brown that is completely opaque in the body with a stack of foamy beige head floating on top. The head dissipates slowly leaving a few splotches on the glass and a thin layer of beige bubbles. The aroma is salivating with big robust roasted caramel and dark malt notes, spicy Belgian esters and fruits blending among each other with warm and satisfying booze aromas. Reminds me alot of Belgian style Christmas beers which was the obvious inspiration for La Resolution. Sweet and sultry malts in the mid palate including toffee, nut and caramel malts on a heavily roasted backbone. An exquisite yeast and ester flavor profile that includes dark and dried fruits of prune, and raisins as well as earthen and woody notes. Overall, La Resolution has a good balance between fruit and yeast notes and the malts. The finish lacks bitterness but a minor roasted malt flavor but a good amount of heat and warmth from the steep 10% ABV would pair well with a fireside on a snowy night. Unibroue seems to know how to emulate Belgian classics with their unique house flavor and a bit of New World flair. Overall, another exemplary brew from Unibroue.
Brouwerij De Ranke in Dottignies, Belgium is a bit of a fairy tale story for many beer enthusiasts…started in 1994 by two best friends as a home-brewing fascination it quickly turned into more than a hobby. After a few short years they acquired weekend brew space at the historic Deca Brewery in West Flanders. After 11 years of sharing space and capacity with Deca, De Ranke built their own brewery in Dottignies, a town only a few minutes from the French border. De Ranke beers have been scarce both out of and in Belgium until their import to Alberta last year. Pere Noel is a Belgium Strong Ale (a category lacking boundaries besides being of Belgian origin)> brewed with brewers gold, hallertau hops and licorice. Unlike most Belgian Christmas beers that are rich, dark and fruity Pere Noel is spicy, sweet and bitter. At 7% ABV Pere Noel is about normal for Belgian style beers but rather low for a Christmas beer with most others hitting upwards of 9% ABV.
Pouring out a bright golden amber Pere Noel lacks the heavy effervescent head of other De Ranke beers and settles rather quickly. A thin line of lacing foam sticks easily to the glass as the head subsides slowly to a thin layer of bright white bubbles. The nose seems a bit out of place with the style as it is predominant with citric and grassy hops, toasted caramel and bready malts, mild spiced notes and a bit of alcohol warmth. A subtle yet pervasive funky aroma sticks to the nose throughout the tasting lending a bit of intrigue to this beer. The mid palate of taste is smooth and somewhat fruity with mild citrus hop notes as well as hints of apple and pear combining well with notes of toasted wheat, caramel, cereal grains and light licorice/anise spice flavors. The finish has a moderate bitterness that lingers unexpectedly into the aftertaste leaving mild resinous notes and sweet fruity flavors. Pere Noel has a great balance overall with bitterness, spices and malts blending well and leaving a crisp, clean but bitter Belgian flavor profile. Overall, a interesting and unique twist on a Belgian Christmas beer.
Price: $12.99 Grade: 90/100
The Uncommon Brewers founded in 2002 stay true to their name by using extremely unusual and organic ingredients. Located in Santa Cruz, CA the Uncommon Brewer’s have a small but unique repertoire of flagship brews. Their mantra is “uncommon beer for uncommon people” and after looking at the ingredients I couldn’t agree more. The Siamese Twin ale is an 8.5% ABV Belgian Dubbel brewed with Kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, coriander. Unlike most Belgian Dubbels Uncommon Brewer’s further distances themselves from the norm by using 500mL cans rather than bottles. On a past trip to Vancouver I managed to find Uncommon Brewers’ Baltic Porter which is brewed with licorice root and star anise. I was rather impressed by the unique pseudo-Baltic Porter and so the Siamese Twin Ale is similarly interesting to me.
Cracking the can and pouring into a trappist glass, mild carbonation helps form a thin but dense beige head atop a burgundian brown body. Holding the glass up to a light a beautiful ruby red tinge and a slow cascade of bubbles become apparent. The nose has a mild roasted character with an overall fruity aroma. But first and foremost a strong accented coriander and cracked pepper spice waft off the head. Delving deeper into the aroma I find earthen malts with a toffee and caramel sweetness atop the candied Belgian fruit notes. The aroma is in general a nice combination of malt, fruit and spice despite straying from the usual Belgian Dubbel style. My first sip has light caramel and toasted bread malts, toffee and molasses sweetness with a light candied raisin also become present. Beautiful mildly roasted malts and sweetness part to a prominent coriander spice note towards the finish with a bit of lingering on the finish. A hint of citrus fruit and hop bitterness dry out the palate towards the finish. Despite the 8.5% ABV this is remarkably sessionable by taste. Despite all the odd ingredients, this tastes like a Belgian Dubbel except for the intense coriander nbtes and a lighter than usual body. Overall this is a unique and definitely uncommon beer.
La Guillotine is a Belgian Strong brewed in the triple fermentation method to 8.5% ABV by the Belgian family brewery Huyghe in Melle, Belgium. The Brewery Huyghe is best known as the producer of Delirium Tremens which also comes in the ceramic-like painted bottles. A brewery has been in operation in Melle since 1654 but it wasn’t until 1906 when Leon Huyghe bought the brewery. In 1989 the Huyghe Brewery launched La Guillotine to celebrate the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Within recent decades, Huyghe has bought many breweries and now brews close to 100 beers and brands.
La Guillotine has a brazen copper toned amber appearance with a huge fluffy white head that settles at a snails pace. A few lacing rings form are short lived but the head tends to slide right off the glass. The nose has a bready malt base with spicy yeast notes and an accompanying handful of grassy vegetal hops. A definite alcohol aroma with a hint of honeyed and caramel malts. The first sip is quite sweet with big bready and light caramel toasted malt notes. Hints of lemon rind and citrus fruits with a few pinches of spices blend well in the middle. The finish has a gentle spice that lingers and a moderate hop bitterness. The aftertaste has an impending and lingering alcohol presence that seems unrefined for a triple style beer. After letting La Guillotine warm up to near room temperature I notice more cloves and a cracked black pepper in both the aroma and the taste. The hops have seemed to settle in well and have been covered by quite a forceful alcohol presence throughout the finish leaving a mild bitterness but quite a pungent booze filled aftertaste. Overall, a good Belgian style beer but the unrefined alcohol presence certainly draws away from its overall quality.
Grade: 83/100 Price: $4.49
Few craft breweries have the ability to put out more than one Christmas seasonal beers annually besides the Danish gypsy brewer Mikkeller. Thanks due to the unique situation at Mikkeller, the brewery is able to release close to ten seasonal Christmas beers. I recently wrote an article on the Fra Til Christmas
porter from Mikkeller which I found to be simply outstanding. Santa’s Little Helper is a annually brewed Belgian Dark Strong Ale brewed to 10.9% ABV. The high alcohol level is achieved by the addition of Belgian candy sugar during the boil.
Santa’s Little Helper pours a purely opaque viscous black oil with a thin dense tan head. A few bubbles slowly seep to the dying layer of head and a pungent rich aroma wafts out of the glass. The nose is incredibly rich and intense with massive chocolate and roasted almost burnt malt aromas. “Santa’s” has an
incredibly sweet molasses and brown sugar richness that accompanies the roasted malts well. This beer has a literally enticing and appetizing aroma that truly defines a great beer.
Taking the first sip I find a sweet, luxurious almost syrupy flavour with intense roasted malts following soon afterwards. Dark ripened and dried fruits joined with dark chocolate and a hint of of nutmeg spice are noted mid palate. I think I may have poured this a bit too cold and I cup the trappist glass to warm it up. The flavour of roasted malts lingers on well into the aftertaste despite a moderate alcohol presence on the finish. As the beer warms up the flavour profile seems to shift and I find more dried and candied fruits predominate. This is just an incredibly diverse and unique beer that I could describe as part Imperial Stout and part Belgian Quadrupel. Overall, Mikkeller never seems to fail and I’d have to say that Santa’s Little Helper sure doesn’t break that rule.
Grade: 94/100 Price: $12.99
Brouwerij De Ranke located in Dottignies, Belgium opened in 1994 when Nino Bacelle brewed Guldenberg, an Abbey Tripel named after the Guldenberg Abbey in Wevelgem. The Guldenberg Abbey had previously brewed Abbey style beers in the early 1900’s. Stylistically, Guldenberg is a Abbey Tripel with a rather heavy dose of hops so I suppose it falls under the pseduo category of Belgian Strong Ale.
Guldenberg pours out a bright glowing orange with a thick foamy white head that streams endlessly from the bottle. Sparkly effervescence in the body with a fairly sediment heavy appearance. A fresh and floral hop heavy aroma with zesty citrus notes. Taking another long sniff I get bright fruity esters with notes of lemon peel and a hint of tartness with a pinch of black pepper.
My first sip has a burst of floral esters with a ton of fruity flavours including lemon peel, honeydew and bit of green grape. A rather vinous and dry mid palate with a crackingly astringent finish. Mild toasted and wheat malts with a light estery base. For an Abbey Tripel, Guldenberg is rather dry and astringent with a heavy hop finish. Overall, a very well balanced beer with some definite oomph throughout the taste.
Grade: 90/100 Price: $12.99