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Beaumont's Journal
Truth and Consequences, Benelux-Style
There are very few absolute truths in the beer world. Few imperatives, either. This much, after over a dozen years on the beer beat, I fully understand.

However, I also understand that when the opportunity presents itself to take in two of the world's finest beer festivals within the span of 10 days, you had best be quick on the uptake. This is one of those imperatives. And that you will likely never find a better bookend of beer fests is one of those truths.

At 24 years of age, the Bokbierfestival in Amsterdam, the first of my matched set of beer fests, trails only the Great British Beer Festival in global seniority. Unlike its more famous contemporary, the Dutch event is a relatively modest affair, the 2001 edition featuring only 46 native bokbiers plus three visiting brews. In its favor, though, is the relative obscurity of the fest's feature style.

At the end of the week was the 24 Hours of Beer in Antwerp. I have written about the 24 Hours in the Celebrator before, so faithful readers will know the high esteem in which I hold this Belgian event. Suffice it to say, the 2001 fest was no disappointment. But more about that later.

As its name would indicate, the Bokbierfestival is entirely concerned with bokbiers. In contrast to their German namesakes, Dutch boks are not necessarily bottom-fermented and, in fact, are even more likely to be ales than lagers. It is primarily larger breweries like Heineken and Grolsch that brew lager bokbiers, while the smaller ones tend to concentrate on ales. As far as taste characteristics go, the Dutch brews, ale or lager, share a sweetness and elevated strength, with each other and with their German brethren, usually sitting around 6.5% alcohol by volume but occasionally reaching the heights of 7.5% or even 8–9%.

My goal was to taste beers I had never previously tried or, better still, didn't even know existed. If it looked unusual, I made a beeline towards it.

After attending my prearranged meeting with Theo Flissebaalje at the fabled Amsterdam beer bar called In de Wildeman, I made my way with the Dutch beer writer to the afternoon's VIP “pre-tasting.” At this early afternoon hour, however, the festival hall was still far from ready, so we hung out in the anteroom of the hall and sampled from the two beer stations that had been set up.

Happily, one of these stations yielded one of the best boks I would taste over the course of the weekend. Ezelenbok is a beer from a consortium of beer aficionados called the Stichting Noordhollandse Alternatieve Bierbrouwers, or S.N.A.B, who develop recipes and contract breweries to make the beers. I found their chosen bok to be a lightly spicy, firmly structured ale with a note of roast on the aroma and with apple, nutmeg and roasted walnut in the body. Concentrated via the traditional “eisbock” process, that 7.5% alcohol brew became the 9% Ijsbok, which I felt lost aromatics in the process and held less depth of flavour than did the original.

Once in the hall, I sampled the Budels Bok from the brewery of the same name, to my taste the fest's best bottom-fermented bok. A 6.5% delight with lots of cinnamony spice on the nose, it offered notes of chocolate in a flavourful and wonderfully balanced body. A somewhat surprising runner-up in the lager department was Heineken's Amstel Bock, a dryish beer with a reserved, tobacco-y aroma and well-developed flavour holding notes of toffee, light roast, well-grilled toast and mild alcohol.

On the local front, Amsterdam's own Brouwerij 't Ij offered a rust-coloured, herbal Ij Bock with honey-ish notes in the body and a touch of elderberry on the finish. It was tasted at the brewery tap, along with their firm, floral Plzen, which I am told is rumoured to actually be a dry kölsch.

Other notable bokbiers included the dark chocolaty Utrecht’s Bok from Ledig Erf; the Hoeksche Waard brewery's toffee-ish, lightly tannic Hoeksche Bokbier; and the fruity-nutty Volenbok from Brouwerij 't Volen. Less delightful was the cloyingly sweet Herfstbok from Grolsch, which I sampled in a northern Dutch bar a day later because kegs of the beer apparently never made it to the fest.

A mere seven days after I left the Bokbierfestival, I entered the new location of the 24 Hours of Beer. Shortly after Christmas 2000, the Stadsfeestzaal Meir, the fest's former and larger home, burned to the ground, so a new site was necessary. But the Oude Beurs, which had comfortably handled the Bier Passie Weekend II this past summer, was pushed to its limits by the significantly larger 24 Hours. Still, if you picked your times wisely and avoided the “rush hours” of the fest, the sheer beauty of the hall more than made up for the inconvenience.

As difficult as it is to ignore such great beers as Westmalle Tripel, Saison Dupont, Drie Fonteinen Oude Gueuze and La Chouffe, that is exactly what I tried to do at the Antwerp fest. My goal was to taste beers I had never previously tried or, better still, didn't even know existed. If it looked unusual, I made a beeline towards it.

Several of my initial tests proved less than totally captivating. There is nothing at all wrong with the floral, peppery Saison Voisin from Brasserie des Géants, for example, but it failed to make me feel delighted to be sipping it instead of its style-mate from Dupont. Similarly, while the softly fruity 't Zwarte Gat from the Brouwerij de Regenboog was enjoyable, it did little to imprint itself on my mental “To Drink” list.

On the flip side were beers like Ter Dolen's outstanding Doppeldark and the surprising Loterbol from Duysters. The former is a two-year-old deep-burgundy ale with chocolate, plum and raisin on the nose and a wonderfully chocolaty body with hints of clove, cinnamon and black plum. While it didn't show much evidence of its age, the Doppeldark nevertheless had terrific depth of flavour.

Loterbol is the flagship beer of a small, six-year-old brewery in the town of Diest. As I was in Belgium, where hoppy beers can hardly be considered the norm, I was frankly shocked when a strong, apparently dry-hopped aroma greeted my nose as it approached the glass. This hoppiness continued in the body of the Loterbol, carrying with it some mild fruitiness and herbals, making me think that while the XX Bitter from De Ranke may still hold the mantle of the country's bitterest beer, this “Belgian IPA” is certainly hard on its heels, and more balanced to boot.

Eventually I came close to exhausting the selection of the unfamiliar, and I made my way to some old faithfuls served with a new twist, like Saison Dupont and Chimay White on tap. Both were delightful and relatively bitter — the Saison carrying a particularly good hit of hops — and provided a suitably impressive finish to a magnificent week of beer tasting. And that's a truth you can take to the bank.




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