Once a year, I retire to a remote location with a group of friends to tell lies and behave badly. I abandon vegetarianism and drink more than I ought. This year's edition took place in Central Oregon (review of Three Creeks Brewing forthcoming), with the surprise attendance of a crop of lovely foreign beers brought secretly by a friend. A partial list, by memory: Hitachino Nest Red Rice and White, Grain D'orge Belzebuth, Steenberge Gulden Draak, (De Proef) Reinaert Flemish Wild Ale, Corsendonk Pale Abbey, St. Sebastian Dark, Castelain St. Amand, Huyge Delirium Tremens and Nocturnum, O'Hanlon's Thomas Hardy, and Samiclaus. What's really remarkable is that the friend who delivered this bounty isn't even a beer drinker: he picked them up at a beer store in California on the advice of the salesperson. Not bad.
We didn't drink all of these, and some are old standards. Some, like the Corsendonk, is one of those famous beers I've never tried (for shame!). But there were also some discoveries, and I'd like to share three. Consider these strongly recommended.
Castelain St. Amand
An authentic French Biere de Garde is a rare bird. Of the several companies making versions, I have been thrilled by few (Jenlain in particular leaves me cold). I find that most of the examples I've tried--including those brewed by US breweries--tend toward heavy sweetness. Castelain's is exquisite. Just 6% (the low end for style), it nevertheless tastes drier and more substantial, like a more fortified ale. It was a friend who identified the key element of the beer when he asked if it was a lager. Not exactly. It is an ale, but it's cold-aged. The result is a silky, dry beer with lovely warm undertones. Wonderfully drinkable.
Hitachino Nest White
Although I've tried a number of beers from this brewery, I've somehow missed the White. A mistake. While some of their other experimental beers achieve a quality one might dub "interesting," White is flat-out tasty. It takes as its inspiration Belgian wit (wheat, coriander, orange peel), but departs pretty sharply from the originals. The nose is almost exactly like lemon meringue pie. Like the nose, the beer is a balancing act between sour and sweet--though nothing like actual lemon meringue pie. It finishes crisply, with a lip-smacking flourish. To achieve this, the brewery adds orange juice and nutmeg. Wait for a hot day and track down a bottle.
Reinaert Flemish Wild Ale
I regret to say that I didn't take notes on this beer, from De Proef. Brettanomyces can do a lot of things--make a beer funky, sour, or bone dry. In this case, it's the latter, which is what I mainly recall. Despite this, it was on the straightforward side of wild--not too funky or unapproachable. An inverse of the Castelain, it is light and suggestive of modest alcohol. Resist the urge to quaff it like a session, as I did. You'll come back to the bottle and discover it's 9%. In my case, too late. Ah, but my punishment wasn't too objectionable.
Of course, there were other great beers in that batch, including world standards. You may not have tried all of these three, though, and I hope you will. Big fun.