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Bokbier Fest

When faced with 50-plus beers, Alfa is a good place to start

Having once conducted a tutored tasting at the New York Stock Exchange, I now like to have a beer among the bulls and bears, wherever I am in the world.

Around this time last year, I began to wonder exactly where I was when I sighted a Flying Fish having a goat brew. Yes, it was Rick Atkins, of the selfsame Jersey brewery, noted for a Belgian abbey-style "Double" that tastes like plum brandy.

We weren't in New York, Jersey or Belgium, though the last was near enough. We were in the former Commodities Exchange of Amsterdam, in The Netherlands. This a handsome, cloistered, 1903 building, with stained glass windows, takes its name from its architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage. The Beurs ("Bourse") van Berlage is on the Damrak, the broad main street that runs from Amsterdam's Central Railway Station.

I was tempted to nip down the nearby alley that leads to the Wildeman, one of the world's great beer-bars, but there was work to be done. There were 50-odd beers to taste, all with a potency of at least six per cent by volume, and some at more than eight.

"The British had something to protect when the Campaign for Real Ale was established. All we Dutch had apart from our everyday Pils was a few sweetened dark lagers, some pretty decent seasonal Bokbier each October and just the one Trappist abbey. That's why we focussed on Bok when we started our annual beer festival," I was told by one of the organisers, from the Dutch consumerist organisation PINT.

"Remember, you opened the festival once before, in the early 1980s?" Remember? I had only just recovered. "Back then, we had only about a dozen Boks (the Dutch usually spell in that way, though some of their breweries prefer Bock, with a "c".

Now, I was faced with four times that many.

Alfa seemed the place to start. The old-established local brewery of that name, in Limburg, has a sweetish Bok. I had forgotten what a good job Heineken does with its Amstel Bock: attractive, ruby colour, huge fruity-malty richness; satisfyingly creamy flavours in the middle; beautifully rounded hop balance. Bokkendonks Bok, from the Mieghelm brewpub, near 's Hertogenbosch, was medicinal and warming. Budelse Bock, from the old-established local brewery of the same name in Brabant, was clean and toffeeish. Burg Bok, from Gelderland was fruity and winey.

I was not out of the B's yet, and already thankful that there was

no Dutch Bokbier or brewery beginning with "C" on offer. "D"? De Hemel had a surprisingly delicate smoked example called Moenen. (This brewpub has a new address: 1 Franse Plaats, still in the eastern city Nijmegen (tel 024-360-61-67), in "Bridge Too Far" country.

A homebrew group in Heemskerk also had a hand in this one. I always enjoy the beers produced by the foundation, though there is something comic about its Dutch acronym SNAB.

Then there was Ezelbock, toffeeish and a cedary, from the North Holland Foundation of Alternative Brewers. A homebrew group in Heemskerk also had a hand in this one. I always enjoy the beers produced by the foundation, though there is something comic about its Dutch acronym SNAB. I have since tasted from this source an Ice Bock of 9.3 per cent: big and fruity but also crisp; dryish; like a tart made from brambles, plums and cherries soaked in alcohol.

Back at the festival, I was hoping to reach Omega but instead arrived at Osserbock, from the Maasland micro. It was smooth and fruity, with an excellent hop finish. Onward, with the oily, spicy, cinnamon-like, Pelgrim Bock, from the brewpub of that name in Rotterdam. I very much liked the flavour-packed, malty, nutty, peppery, Skille Bok, from the island of Texel.

My pilgrimage ended somewhere around Uden's Bockbier, pale, licorice-ish, and perilously drinkable, from the Jantje's ("Jack Tar") micro and café, in Gelderland. A beer called Zondebok was on my list, but then I must have been zonked. That was last year. Now it's your turn.

Visiting the Steam Brewery in Utrecht

What, you may ask, about the "Four Grain Harvest Beer", from the Steam Brewery in the city of Utrecht, more or less in the centre of The Netherlands? I would describe that as delicious: garnet colour; the aroma of clotted cream; the flavours of nuts, perfumy honey and bitter chocolate. The grains are malted barley, wheat, oats and rye.

The building, taking its name from a merchant family called Oudaen, was regarded as the town's castle.

I sampled this Vier Granen Herftsbock at the brewery, in the arched cellars of an elegant, five-storey medieval town house, parts of which date from the 1200s. The building, taking its name from a merchant family called Oudaen, was regarded as the town's castle. It was in a run-down condition, being used as a student residence, before it was bought and restored a decade ago, initially as a cafe, with the brewery being added a year later. A couple of years ago, it was acquired by the well-known Dutch hotel group Krasnapolsky.

As well as a cellar bar for visitors to the brewery, the "castle" boasts terraces at canal and street levels, both casual and formal dining, function rooms and a small theatre used mainly for business presentations.

When I called, brewer Nico Derks was making some very hoppy-tasting beers. He has now moved on to the brewery on Texel, but his colleague Joscha Schoots is producing much the same range.

The hops, in three additions, are beautifully balanced with nutty maltiness in a full-coloured Pilsener called Linteloo (after another family that owned in the castle). Ouwe Daen, a play on the building's name, is broadly in the style of a Belgian wheat beer. Only 25 per cent wheat is used, and the rather sherbety orange character outweighs the coriander, though there there is a nice dryness imparted by the hops. Jonge Daen is the filtered version (the prefixes mean "young" and "old").

"Ice Breaker" is a winter ale of 10.5 per cent, brewed with several grains, honey, laurel, cloves and anis. "A barley wine?" suggests Joscha. With its fruitiness and power, it reminded me of an Armenian grape brandy. Where was Charlie Papazian when I needed him?

Stoombierbrouwerij, Stadskasteel Oudaen, 99 Oude Gracht, Utrecht (tel 030-236-8543)

Published Online: SEPT 11, 2000
Published in Print: AUG 1, 1999
In: Ale Street News

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