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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Old Town Red Ships of Spain

It doesn't make any sense.
Belgium is such a tiny country that it usually surprises people to learn that there were several regions within its cramped boundaries with distinct brewing traditions.  Even today, when you consider the wheaty beers associated with Hoegaarden and Brussels or the rustic farmhouse ales in the south, you see vestiges of these traditions.  Or when you pass through Flanders, the northwestern part of the kidney-shaped country.  There you will find dark ales, sometimes rich and rounded, as made by the monks at Westvleteren, or acidic and fruity, like those at Verhaeghe and Rodenbach. 

These go back at least two hundred years.  When he toured Belgium in the 1840s, the brewer Georges Lacambre found different kinds of brown beers all across the region.  The ales got dark not by the addition of roasted malt, but because they boiled the worts for insane lengths--from 12 to 20 hours (!).  Over those great lengths, the malts caramelized.  Everyone felt at the time that only good beer came from long, "healthy" boils, and the color was proof of process.  (Nevertheless, Lacambre wasn't impressed.  He said “far from being very pleasant indeed, for it is bitter, harsh and somewhat astringent.”)  Many of the beers were barrel-aged and tart, but there is also a long tradition of these rich, velvety darks that dance on the line between roasty and sweet.

All of which brings me to Old Town Brewing's newly-released Red Ships of Spain, a beer made with the Leuven yeast strain (Brasserie du Bocq) selected for this year's Cheers to Belgian Beers.  Brewer Bold Minister calls it a "Belgian pale," but at the color of Rodenbach (at least in the mood lighting of the old town location), it reads more dark than pale to my eye.  But it is the flavor that gives away the game.  This is no crisp, delicately spiced pale in the mode of a Taras Boulba (Smeirlap!).  No.  It has much deeper, exotic aromas, like I would imagine drift out of Turkish spice markets.  The folds of malt envelop the tongue, and there is a distinctly chocolate note.  I also picked up a warming phenolic sensation that was the physical manifestation of those spicy aromas. 

As I gulped it--Red Ships of Spain, at 6.8%, is a quaffer--I was having clear flashbacks to my stay in Watou, when I drank brewery-fresh Pater 6 at St. Bernardus's Brouwershuis.  The two are kindred spirits.  But because Pater 6 is a somewhat more perishable beer, I've never found it in that fresh state here in the US.  Now, for as long as Red Ships plies the waters of old town, you can experience the joy of an old Flanders dark ale, just like they do in Watou. 

(Red Ships of Spain?  "This is the second in my Robert Goulet series," Bolt said.  And then he went on to explain something obscure about an SNL skit.  We're talking very deep cuts in the reference department here.  Google it if you want to lose a half hour.)

"Beer Sherpa Recommends" is an irregular feature.  In this fallen world, when the number of beers outnumber your woeful stomach capacity by several orders of magnitude, you risk exposing yourself to substandard beer.  Worse, you risk selecting substandard beer when there are tasty alternatives at hand.  In this terrible jungle of overabundance, wouldn't it be nice to have a neon sign pointing to the few beers among the crowd that really stand out?  A beer sherpa, if you will, to guide you to the beery mountaintop.  I don't profess to drink all the beers out there, but from time to time I stumble across a winner and when I do, I'll pass it along to you.

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