Not two weeks after we returned from our European tour (which I wrote about here and here), I was back off to Europe with The Soft Walls for a few more shows on the continent. As ever, I was on the hunt for good beer, and here’s what I found.
Last time we were in Paris, time was too tight to go looking for beer though, to be honest, I had little inclination to do so. I know there is good beer in France, but you have to try pretty hard to find it – you can walk past countless interesting looking bars, only to find they serve nothing more exciting than Kronenburg or Leffe. After we soundcheck, we go to meet the promoters for tonight’s show at a bar down the street and, as the subject of beer comes up in conversation, one of them informs me of a good beer bar just around the corner. After dinner, we head over to check out La Fine Mousse. It’s a trendy place with an air of a yuppie wine bar, and some of the bar staff seem to be actively trying to promote stereotypes about Parisian nonchalance. But the atmosphere is good, and the tap list strong – plenty of French beers alongside Belgian, Dutch, British and other imports. My first choice is Special Bitter from Brasserie du Mont Saléve. Although it tastes nothing like an English bitter, dominated as it is by US-style grapefruit and sweet orange hop flavours, it is refreshing and sessionable in much the same way. It’s very clean and fresh-tasting, perfect for a summer evening, and, though served from keg, I think it would make a very fine cask beer. Next up is Thiriez Etoile du Nord. Billed as an English saison, this was originally a collaboration between Thiriez in Escquelbecq and John Davidson from (now defunct) Swale Brewery in Kent. The hops are all from Kent, and the beer comes off something like a malt-driven, bready English golden ale spiked with peppery saison yeast. It's great, and perhaps this one might work well in the cask, too. Worried about drinking too much before we play, I leave it at that, though I would have loved to have stayed and sampled some more of the French beers. The general neighbourhood, as well as the bar itself, are worth visiting if you are in Paris – the atmosphere here is great and a lot different from the usual tourist areas of the city I’d visited before.
The next day we’re off to Eindhoven in the Netherlands for the Eindhoven Psych Lab festival. Happily for me, Van Moll, a brewery based in the city, has a stand at the festival. Whilst watching our pals Doug Tuttle play a ripper of a set, I sample a beer I’d been eagerly awaiting – Dougal, a Belgian golden ale brewed with Chanterelle mushrooms and Rochefort yeast, and brewed especially for the event. It instantly tastes great – spicy yeast flavours leaning more towards sharp apple and rhubarb than the soft, bubblegum flavours you sometimes find in this style – though I assume the mushrooms are a bit of a gimmick, a light-hearted nod to the psychedelic leanings of many of the bands playing the festival. But after a while, I swear I can detect a certain earthiness, which works very well with the dry finish of the beer – everything comes together perfectly. Not so good is the Doerak IPA, which is like cloying Fruit Salad sweets with an aftertaste of cheddar cheese. It doesn’t put me off, though, and I decide to take the walk across town to visit the Van Moll brewpub.
Simple though the journey is in theory, I soon find myself deeply involved in my apparent new favourite hobby – wandering around unfamiliar European cities in an increasingly fraught state, searching for beer bars. This time, for a refreshing change, I’m doing it in the middle of a thunderstorm. When I arrive I’m pretty well drenched, and very thirsty. Luckily, the bar is great, worth the journey – large, bright and cosy. There are six house beers on offer, though not all are brewed on the premises, alongside some guest beers and a wide selection of bottles - many of the locals are drinking Thornbridge Halcyon or Kernel export porter. I go for Van Moll’s Gizmo IPA, which quickly extinguishes that thirst. Earlier in the day I’d had a bottle of Goose Island IPA, and Gizmo reminds me of that, though fresher, more nuanced and more bitter than the Goose, which was maybe past its best. Funky Lambertus next, intriguingly described as ‘dubbel + the funk’. This beer would appear to be a blend of St. Lambertus, Van Moll’s dubbel, and Mud and Funk, a brett-aged imperial stout collaboration between De Mollen and Anchorage. I haven’t tasted either beer in isolation, but the combination really works – initially, it’s a huge burst of very ripe bananas, but the typical fruit cake dubbel flavours are sacrificed in favour of cheek-puckering, tart green apples.
We’re back in Belgium the next day and, having not made much of an effort to explore the watering holes of Brussels on our last trip, I’m determined to get to a great beer joint in Antwerp. Kuliminator comes highly recommended, and I can’t wait to get there, racing off as soon as we’ve packed up after our set. This journey is relatively painless, through eerily empty streets. The occasional cry from a small bar or living room reminds me that it’s the Champion’s League final, but I couldn’t care less. The bar, when I get there, has a similarly serene atmosphere – very quiet, with classical music playing, and a perfectly peaceful environment for contemplative sipping. The place is a sight to behold, too, resembling an old eccentric’s living room more than an internationally renowned beer bar – there’s stuff everywhere, not all of it beer related, and no less than five cats running around. I love it, but even if you didn’t, you’d stay for the heavyweight beer list. My knowledge of Belgian beers isn’t good enough to truly appreciate its wonders, though I’m amazed to see that bottles of Chimay from 1981, many years before my birth, are available. I choose a glass of Avec les bons voeux, from Brasserie DuPont, from draught. I’ve never strayed from the brewery’s style-defining saison, but this is every bit as good, a huge hit of orange sherbert with a comforting booziness and quenching dry finish. Next is Petrus Aged Pale, which I’ve been wanting to try since hearing about it on the Beer Talkers podcast a while back. It’s the base beer for the Brabandere sour red and brown ales, and the late Michael Jackson encouraged them to release it in its own right. I have no doubt that aging any beer in oak barrels significantly affects its flavour, but this beer seems to have picked more of a musty, leathery wood flavour than most. Perhaps that doesn’t sound appealing, but it is delicious, and adds background to the bracing sour cheery and raspberry flavour that is upfront (to be clear, the beer contains no fruit – these flavours are just naturally in there). It’s a terrific beer which I hope I can drink again soon. I wish I could have stayed until closing, delving ever further into that epic beer menu, but I can’t. I heartily recommend you do – it’s worth making a special trip for.