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Archive for the ‘Beer Brewers’ Category

I must admit that I had some pretty grand blogging plans for my current trip to the United States.  I had intended to write at least weekly on my various explorations of American craft beer.  As you can see though, these intentions have mostly gone unfulfilled.  The biggest problem has been reliable internet access.  For the majority of our time in the States, we have stayed with family who live in rural Ohio where internet connectivity is extremely problematic.  This has meant that most of my internet time has had to come through brief visits to the local Mcdonald’s.

Don’t let my lack of blogging give the impression that I have not been pursuing my beer passions while in the US.  Far from it!  In fact, I have had some pretty awesome experiences that have included some pretty amazing brews.  So, I thought that I would at least throw out a brief post sharing my run in with a rather famous brewery from here in the Midwest.  This brewing operation was not on my original brewing “must taste” list, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to sample some of these beers.  During a recent excursion to a highly rated beer store in Dayton, Ohio, I had the good fortune to acquire a few bottles – including a hard-to-find brew – from the Founders Brewing Company out of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

I knew that Founders had a sterling reputation among craft beer enthusiasts here in the States.  Much of their rise to predominance is vaguely familiar in terms of craft breweries.  Like so many other outfits in the US, Founders was started in the 1990s by a couple of homebrewers with an unquenchable entrepreneurial spirit.  After many years of unimaginative brewing, the company was stagnate and on the verge of bankruptcy.  At this point, the two partners, Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers, decided to change their strategy.  Instead of making what they called “well-balanced but unremarkable beers”, they followed their hearts and began brewing beer they would enjoy – brews with complexity, flavor, and depth of character.   This marked the beginning of Founders’ rise to one of the most esteemed breweries in the world.

As I mentioned above, I stopped by a well-known beer outlet during our stay in Dayton, Ohio.  Browsing through their selection, I came across a few shelves stocked with Founders beer.  Seeing their offerings, I was reminded that Founders had just recently released their Kentucky Breakfast Stout – a bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout that is released in limited amounts once a year to much fanfare.  I figured it was a long shot, but I asked the employee stocking the shelves whether they had any bottles of KBS left in stock.  She flashed a doubtful look and said she would check behind the counter.  After a quick glance, she let me know that they had sold out.  Much to my surprise though, she then offered to give up a bottle from her personal stash and allow me to purchase it through the store!  So, I left that afternoon with a bottle of KBS as well as a few other offerings from Founders.

So, what about that beer?  This beauty poured a pure, deep black with creamy, beige head. The aroma is coffee and licorice filled my nose. Taste was something spectacular!  There was amazingly smooth and complex with flavors of coffee, chocolate, and bourbon alcohol. On top of that, I found a nice lactose sweetness on the tail end that made it seem like for a split second you were drinking chocolate milk. The mouthfeel was amazing – smooth and creamy, not overly viscous, just perfect. This is truly one of the best beers out there.  Thank you lady from Belmont Party Supply!

I pick up a few other Founders beers that afternoon, but the one other brew I wanted to share here was their take on the classic Porter.  Aside from the Baltic Porter I had while visiting Three Floyds, I have never had the pleasure of trying a Porter before.  I must say, that if all Porters are anything like this offering from Founders, I am hooked!   The appearance of the Founders version was a solid black color with medium, beige head. The nose was sweet with roasted malts, coffee and some toffee.  And, boy did it taste good – amazingly delicate and complex with dark chocolate and coffee dominant but notes of roasted grains. The real strength of this beer was its hop profile – perfectly balanced with the malty sweetness.  It had a pleasant hop grassy and spicy hop notes that’s not overly bitter, which, combined with a nice medium body and creamy texture, was great on the palate.  Unlike Imperial Stouts, the real flavors of Porters are not overwhelmed by a heavy body, high alcohol, and huge malt bill.  The delicacy and balance have really sold me on this style of brewing.

Well, that’s a quick update on my ongoing introduction to American craft beer.  So far, it’s been an awesome experience.  My only heartache comes from the fact that there is so much to sample.  The more that I try, the more excited I get about the American craft brewing scene.  I’m slowly becoming convinced that the good ol’ US of A is brewing the best beer in the world right now.  It’s a great time to be a craft beer lover in America.

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For this week’s post, I had originally intended to review a well-known local microbrewery and brewpub here in Cologne.  At the last minute though, my plans to visit the locale with a friend fell through, so I’ve been scrambling to find something to post for this week.  Therefore, I’m going to do what every good college student does when they’re up against a deadline – find something you did in the past and recycle it!

Well, it really isn’t a complete recycle job.  I’ve been a fan of the Badische Staatsbrauerei Rothaus for a long time.  However, I’ve only ever sampled their Pils, which is incidentally one of the finest German Pilsners out there.  Just recently though, Rothaus’s seasonal spring beer, their Märzen Export, has started showing up on store shelves.  I figured this would be a good pinch-hitter for this week’s entry.

Like so many other German breweries, Rothaus was original founded as part of a monastery.  In 1791, the abbot of St. Blasien Abbey, a certain Martin Gerbert II, established a small brewery in the upper Black Forest region of southern Germany.  In this economically challenged district, the dutiful abbot wanted his new brewery to help support development in the surrounding area.  The monastery’s brewing activities did not last long though.  In the wake of the Napoleonic invasions, the region was secularized in 1806, and ownership of the brewhouse was transferred to the Grand Duchy of Baden.

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the small Rothaus brewery remained confined to this remote and picturesque country.  Through the years, the brewhouse survived revolutions, fires, depressions, and wars.  After World War I the monarchy was abolished, at which point the brewery found itself again under new management – this time the new federal state of Baden.  As a state-owned operation, the brewery didn’t make many waves in the German beer scene.  This all changed in the 1990s, when under the leadership of a former state official the brewhouse doubled its output.  Rothaus, still owned by the federal state of Baden-Württemberg, enjoys a sterling reputation that extends far beyond the Black Forest.

So, what about the beer?  As part of my sampling, I was able to snag their classic Pils, their Hefeweizen, as well as their seasonal Märzen Export.  While Rothaus beers are not the kind that are going to turn a lot of heads, there is some really quality in this line up.  Let’s start with the Märzen!  This brew pours a nice deep golden color with medium, somewhat fizzy head.  Sticking your nose in the glass, you get an aroma that is sweet malts with a particularly fruity emphasis.  The taste is mostly the corresponding sweetness including some nice fruity notes, particularly grape. The hop flavors are grassy but subdued with very little bitterness.  All in all, it’s a nice representative of the Märzen.

From the bottom-fermented, we move now to the ale arena and Rothaus’s take on the Hefeweizen.  The appearance on this sucker is a relatively clear orange color with some sediment and a huge, creamy head.  The nose is dominated by the Weizen notes – banana, clove, and some floral elements with a flavor profile that is heavy on the banana on the front end.  In contrast, there is a light, herbal hop bitterness that moved the beer into a crisp finish.  The palate was the most disappoint part of this beer.  The mouthfeel was pretty watery, especially for a Weizen, with a distracting fizzy carbonation.  The brew had some amazing flavors but couldn’t quite deliver on the palate.  Regardless, it was a pretty delightful Weizen.

If you’ve been reading this blog at all, you know that I’m on an ongoing search for well crafted German Pilsners.  Rothaus’s version is one of my favorite brews in this style.  The beer has all of the characteristics of a great Pils.  There’s the classic clear, golden appearance along with the sweet bread and malt aromas.  The taste is sweet with the bread and slight floral elements coming through.  But, there’s also that crisp grassy hop flavor that balances the sweetness very well.  This is definitely the kind of beer that you want to keep stocked in your frig.

I’m a sucker for breweries that have not only quality beer but a long history.  After over 200 years of brewing great beers, Rothaus has proven that they’ve got the stuff.  Although these brews aren’t super flashy, they are definitely quality.  In a country that is slowly loosing its grip of its brewing reputation, Rothaus is steadfast holding the line of good brewing craftmanship.

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According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, there are as many as ten Catholic saints with the name of Bernard.  My favorite is probably the abbot and scholar, Bernard of Clairveaux.  The saintly monk was known for establishing hundreds of monasteries across Europe and for being the private tutor to four different Popes.  Then there’s Bernard of Corleone.  This guy elevated the medieval tradition of self-flagellation to an art form.  And, let’s not forget Bernard of Menthon, the patron saint of mountaineers and skiers, who is probably most famous for having a dog named after him.

Which Bernard became the inspiration for St. Bernardus Brouwerij, I have yet to figure out.  I’m guessing it’s probably not the flagellation guy.  At any rate, the jolly old monk that graces each bottle of St. Bernardus beer is more than likely fictive.  The name of the brewery is actually derived from a location rather than a person.  The Refuge of Notre Dame de St. Bernard in the Flanders town of Waton was established in the 19th century by monks fleeing anti-clericalism in France.  Like many of their monastic cousins, the refuge became  known for their production of cheese and beer.  After the community returned to France in 1934, a local resident adopted the St. Bernardus name and developed a thriving cheese business.

The story of how this family of cheese makers moved into brewing involves another famous monastic community known for beer – namely, the St. Sixtus Abbey and their Westvleteren Trappist ales.  Prior to World War II, the Trappist Abbey of St. Sixtus practiced within their confines their centuries-old tradition of brewing beer.  This production was originally meant solely to supply the needs of the monastic community.  But, after the war, the abbey decided to expand their production and distribution making their Trappist ale available to a wider market.

The brewing of the beer, which was marketed under the name St. Sixtus, was licensed to an independent brewer who sold the it under the Trappist name.  The brewer who received this lucrative license was, you guessed it, the same family that ran the St. Bernardus fromagerie.  The original St. Sixtus Abt 12 was born.  As a part of this license, the St. Sixtus monks supplied their rent-a-brewer with their recipes and yeast strains making the St. Sixtus beer a faithful representation of the brew enjoyed by the monastic community.

The deal came to an end in 1992 when the Abbey of St. Sixtus joined the other Trappist brewing monasteries in forming a protective brand.  From that point on, only beers brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery could carry the name Trappist.  However, this was not the end of the brews from Watou.  The family was allowed to continue its operations under the resurrected name of St. Bernardus.

Since then, St. Bernardus has become world-renown for its amazing Belgian ales.  Using the traditional numbering system based on alcohol content, the main line-up of St. Bernardus features two Abbey Dubbels – the Pater 6 and Prior 8 – and a mind-blowing Quad, the Abt 12.  Over the years, the brewery has also added several other offerings, including two Abbey Tripels, a Witbier, and dark ale called Grottenbier.  For my tasting and your reading pleasure, I was able to procure the two Dubbels, their mainstay Tripel, and the delectable Quad.

So, what about the beer?  The story of the Pater 6 is one of subtlety.  The beer pours an opaque red-brown color with light head.  A light aroma of hay, Belgian yeast, and raisins fills the nose.  The taste of this brew is very subdued.  Fruity malts with only a mild sweetness make up a relatively narrow flavor profile.   There’s also a pronounced doughy yeast flavor along with some resin hops balancing it all out.  With a light to medium body and a soft carbonation, the beer has a very pleasant mouthfeel.  It’s not the best stand alone beer, but it would go really well with some appropriate food pairings.

The next step up is their Prior 8, which is in essence a beefed up version of the Pater 6.  The brew pours a rich opaque brown color with two fingers of head that has some gorgeous lacing.  Aroma is sweet with dried fruits especially plum and raisin, and yeast.  The taste is complimentary with a prominent dried fruit flavors, along with spice, doughy yeast, and alcohol esters.   It’s very smooth on the palate, medium-bodied, and has a sweet-bitter balanced aftertaste.  This is what I think of when I hear the word Dubbel.

The grande dame of the bunch is their Quad, the Abt 12.  This beauty is dark brown, almost black in appearance.  The aroma is extravagant – heavily floral with distinct notes of yeast, dried fruit, and citrus. The taste is dominated by the malt flavors, mostly yeast and raisins, but also a touch of banana.  But, the beer doesn’t stop there.  These flavors also bleed into a very firm base of citrusy hop bitterness that carries over into the finish.  What I found out later was that the Abt 12 is using the same Westvleteren yeast strain that the brewery acquired under its license agreement almost 60 years ago.  So, if you’re having trouble getting your hands on a Westy 12, this brew is not far off.

Considering my limited but disappointing history with Tripels, I was looking forward to giving St. Bernardus’s variety a spin.  This version pours a nice opaque golden orange color with a significant amount of dense head. The aroma is citrus, rose-water, floral, and spice.  There’s a corresponding taste of citrus, sweet malts, with a hint of cinnamon.  The brew also has a very mild bitterness – almost like orange peel – towards the end that merges into a lightly bitter finishing.  St. Bernardus has succeeded in getting me excited about the Tripel.

As much as I love Trappist beers, St. Bernardus just proves that quality is not necessarily in a name.  I would gladly stack any beer from this family brewery against any of those monk ales.  Because of their enduring commitment to quality and tradition, St. Bernardus has earned its place in the pantheon of beer greats right alongside the likes of Westvleteren.

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The beer market in Germany today is slowly becoming a monopolistic beast.  The dominance of the top ten brewing companies in the country effectively limits the availability of smaller, regional breweries anywhere else besides their particular area.  Living in Cologne where the undisputed king of beer is Kölsch makes it even more difficult to acquire brews from other parts of the country.  Because of this limitation, every time I make a trip to another area of Germany, I try to find a good Getränkemarkt in order to pick up a few bottles of the local speciality.

Last month, while my parents were visiting us from the States, I took a day trip with my father up to Lower Saxony to check out my family’s ancestral castle (yeah, that’s right…we have a castle).  Now, Lower Saxony isn’t known nowadays for its beer.  In fact, outside of Bavaria, Franconia, and few other isolated pockets, the German beer landscape is surprisingly dull and monochromatic.  But, there is one brewery in Lower Saxony that has a good reputation, a rich history, and the beer to back them up – I’m talking about the Einbecker Brauhaus.

This modest regional brewery has a rather outrageous boast.  On the back of each of bottle they claim that the sleepy town of Einbeck is the home of Bockbier.  Their official slogan reinforces this boast reading “Without Einbeck there would be no Bockbier” (Ohne Einbeck gäb’s kein Bockbier).  In light of Bavaria’s well-known association with Bock, especially the delectable Doppelbock, such a claim seems a little far-fetched.  But, in actuality, the lineage of the beer we today call Bockbier can be traced to this small community.

The area that is today the federal state of Lower Saxony was not always a beer wasteland.  Long before Oktoberfest and the Reinheitsgebot, the region extending inland from the North Sea was the center of the brewing world.  Varieties like Hamburg’s wheat beer or Mumme from the city of Braunschweig, known throughout the Western world, were exported far and wide.  Much like Belgium today, every town had their own unique style of brewing.

Einbeck brewing at the time was actually a collaborative effort of almost 100 breweries in the city who were organized into a powerful guild which made it the most significant economic force in the region.  Fortune smiled on this small town in two ways that helped propel it to such prominence.  In 1368, the small town of Einbeck entered the Hanseatic League.  Membership into this powerful trading bloc guaranteed that Einbeck’s most important commodity became a household item by the 16th century.

On top of that, Einbeck was located in a region known for hop cultivation.  At a time when hops were replacing spices as the primary preservative in beer, Einbeck found itself uniquely situated.  The intense hop profile in Einbeck beer made it easier to preserve and therefore able to be exported great distances.  By the 16th century, Einbeck’s beer could be found as far as Jerusalem.

The Einbecker art had one particularly interesting patron.  Martin Luther was known to be a big fan of beer.  He once jokingly wrote that, “Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!”  It is said that on the evening of Martin Luther’s fateful meeting at the Diet of Worms, he received a special gift from the Duke of Braunschweig – a pot of Einbecker.  Although he preferred home-brewing (apparently, his wife, Katharina von Bora, was a heckuva brew master), Luther had a special fondness for Einbecker beer (great article on Luther and beer).

The destruction of the Thirty Years War and the subsequent downfall of the Hanseatic League ensured the end of Einbeck’s dominance.  Without the powerful backing of the League, the ability of Einbeck to export its brand quickly diminished.  But, they had one more part to play in German beer history.  When Duke Maximillian I of Bavaria realized that his supply of Einbeck’s finest was running dry, he brought the city’s chief brew master, a man by the name of Elias Pichler, to Munich in 1612 in order to develop the Einbecker speciality for himself.  Within a few years, the brewhouses of the city were churning out a decent version of the Einbeck original.  The word bock is, in fact, derived from the Bavarian pronunciation of Einbeck, or Ainbocker.

While the bock name grew to be associated with Bavaria, Einbeck and her beer sunk into relative obscurity.  By the end of the 19th century, only two breweries were operating in the town having only a modest reach in the region.  In 1920, these two breweries merged to form the modern Einbecker Brauhaus that we have today.  This is not all that changed either.  The modern Einbeck brewery eventually adopted the Bavarian lager method of brewing Bock.  The original medieval version, which was probably more akin to a Belgian Abbey Ale, has been lost to history.

So, what about the beer?  Right up front, I’ll say that none of their beers are going to win any awards.  That being said, their Bock offerings are really nice brews that certainly hold their own.  Along with their Bock beers, Einbeck also brews two types of Pilsner (of which, their Premium Feinherb is decent) as well as a Dunkel lager, all of which are not really worth going into.  So, for the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on the beers that were truly noteworthy – the Bock.

In harmony with the Heller Bock style, Einbecker’s Ur-Bock Hell has the best hop profile of their Bock line up.  It pours a pleasant crystal clear, golden color with a medium, off-white head.  The aroma really stands out with this beer.  Full of herbal hops and sweet malts, it hit my nose before I even finished the pour.  The flavor profile of this beer was pretty straight forward – nice malty sweetness with notes of cereal and citrus which is balanced very well with a dry, grassy hop bitterness.  The only compliant I had with this one was that there was a little bit too much alcohol flavor for a beer clocking in at only 6.5% ABV.  Regardless, this was my favorite of the batch.

Einbecker’s Ur-Bock Dunkel is the brewery’s nod to the original Bock beer.  This brew pours a very nice dark brown color with medium head.  The nose is a little weaker than the Heller, but pleasant nonetheless with a nice roasty sweetness.  The taste is fairly sweet with a significant dose of roasted malts and flavors of cereal and caramel with only a slight floral hop character to back it up.  The medium- to full-bodied palate leaves a nice and long-lasting sweet aftertaste.

Finally, I had the pleasure of sampling Einbecker’s winter seasonal beer, the Winter-Bock, which is their sole Doppelbock offering.  With a rich, dark brown pour and a hefty nose of fruit, caramel and roasted grains, this beer has a lot in the initial presentation beckoning you to taste.  Where it counts though – the flavor – it doesn’t match up to its famed Doppelbock cousins from Bavaria.  The taste is fairly simple – almost like a amped up version of the Dunkel.  Sweet roasted malts and caramel dominate the flavor along with a slight nuttiness and grassy hop bitterness in the finishing.  This is a great beer that is exceptionally drinkable.

Like I said, these beers are probably not going to be winning any awards.  But, what they lack in complexity, they make up for in essential quality and drinkability.  They are wonderful beers in an ever-growing sea of mediocrity.  The overall quality behind their brewing combined with the rich history of the city makes Einbecker one of my favorite German breweries.

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Driving through southwest Belgium, one is easily enchanted by the rolling hills, dense forests, and small quaint villages dotting the landscape.  This rugged region is known as the Ardennes.  Nestled in this magical landscape is a valley called Vallée des Fées or “Valley of Fairies”, and within this valley is a small town named Achouffe.  This fantastical locale is the home of and inspiration for a relatively young brewery on the Belgian beer scene – Brassiere d’Achouffe.

The Ardennes is a place that in many ways has escaped the touch of time.  While the consequences of modernity are, of course, ever-present, the people continue to hold on to the values and traditions that have marked this land for centuries.  Folklore still grips the hearts of those who live here – tales of fairies, dwarves, and gnomes flavor the local imagination.  In this milieu of fantasy, inspiration for a distinctive local take on the Belgian brewing tradition emerged.

In 1982, two local brothers-in-law set out to make their mark on the Belgian beer world.  They founded the small, independent Brassiere d’Achouffe naming it after their beloved hometown.  Naturally, the face of their new brewery drew from these same fairy tales and folklore that stamped their cultural surroundings.  It wasn’t that far of a leap either – Achouffe is very similar to the local word for gnome, which is chouffe.  The gnome became the symbol of the fledgling brand.

It is inspiring that this small brewery could make an impact on the beer scene so quickly.  To put it mildly, Belgian craft brewing is an intensely competitive market.  It surely wasn’t easy developing new and original ideas among perhaps the most sophisticated beer-drinking public in the world.  They carved out their niche by developing unique brews that combined the best of the Belgian tradition with ideas borrowed from beer offerings from around the world.

Their aggressive expansion beyond Belgium also helped their cause.  Today they are an anomaly in their home country having over 60% of their production destined for foreign consumption.  Achouffe is the only Belgium brewery that actually has more sales in the Netherlands than in Belgium itself.

In 2006, the two brothers-in-law sold their interest in the brewery to the Belgian beverage conglomerate, Moortgat.  It was disappointed learning that this traditional, family brewery had some time ago fallen into the corrupting influence of big business.  That suspicion was quickly allayed when I realized that Moortgat is the same company that controls Duvel and Maredsous.  The brothers still continue the day-to-day operation of the brewery ensuring the continuation of their exceptional craft.

So, what about the beer?  All of the offerings from Achouffe are firmly in the Belgian brewing tradition – top fermented ales that are unpasteurized and bottle conditioned.  However, this brassiere also has found inspiration from other brewing styles from around the world that they have incorporated into their beers, creating some original and innovative brews.

The flagship beer of Brassiere d’Achouffe is their La Chouffe, a Strong Belgian Pale Ale consisting of a classic Belgian pilsner malt with Tomahawk and Saaz hops spiced with coriander.  The brew pours a lush orange-yellow color with a light, foamy head.  What stood out immediately in the taste was tropical citrus like pineapple.  There was a definite herbal hop flavor in the middle which is where you get a sense of the coriander.  The taste then moves into a strong grassy hop finish.  The brew is a complex beer and a strong contributor to the Belgian ale style.

The great mystery of the bunch was their Mc Chouffe.  The mystery was, namely, what exactly is it?  RateBeer.com lists Mc Chouffe as a Scotch Ale whereas BeerAdvocate.com has it down as a simple Strong Belgian Ale.  According to the story, the brewers at Achouffe were inspired by a Scottish friend of theirs to bring a Scotch Ale flair to a traditional Belgian ale.  The result was the brown ale called Mc Chouffe.  Dried fruits, caramel, and earthy hops dominate the flavor of this beer.  Although it has a robust 8% ABV, you hardly notice any alcohol, which makes it one of the easiest beers from Achouffe to drink.  Think of this one as a Scotch Ale with a spicy Belgian take on it.

You wouldn’t be a Belgian brewer if you didn’t have a seasonal winter ale, now would you?  Achouffe, therefore, gave us their brew N’Ice Chouffe.  In this one, you find all of the usual suspects: nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon.  This spicy profile is supplement to a malt flavor centered around notes of dried fruit and caramel.  I’m usually not a big fan of Christmas beers, but this one was nice.

For me, the All-Star of the lineup from Brassiere d’Achouffe is their Houblon Dobbelen IPA Tripel.  The idea behind this beer was to combine a strong American style Imperial IPA with the Belgian Tripel.  With this beer, the story is the hops.  The brew has an amazing hop profile which is achieved mainly through their use of the American Amarillo variety, which passes on a very strong aroma and bitter flavor character.  This beer has it all.  Right out of the bottle there is a fresh aroma of floral hops and orange citrus.  The taste has the big malt body found in the best Tripels which then shockingly moves to a pronounced hop bitterness leading into a dry finish.  This brew is easily one of my top 5 favorites of all time.

When you’re talking about Belgian beer, it’s really easy to get overwhelmed with the vast amount of quality brews that come out of that small country.  Although Brassiere d’Achouffe only has 5 offerings (their fifth beer, Chouffe Bok 6666, is only sold in the Netherlands), they consistently produce amazing beers that are hard to match.  They have honed their craft well.  I hope someday to make my way over to the Ardennes to visit the small town and its brewery.  Until then, I’ll just have to rely on Deutsche Post to bring me bottles from this magical maker of beer.

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