Welcome to the second entry in a series pairing Brussels culinary classics with beers brewed in Brussels. You can find the previous editions here.
It’s taken until 2018, but there’s now a variety of beer being produced in the city, including but expanding from the spontaneous fermentation beers of Brasserie Cantillon and the hoppy ales of Brasserie de la Senne to IPA, porters, tripels, witbiers, and more.
To stress test this variety, instead of choosing one beer with one dish, we’re going to go about this a little differently – two beers will be selected on the basis that whatever the style of the beers chosen, they should pair well with a particular dish.
Each dish chosen for the series originates or has a long-standing connection to Brussels. Some of them are recognisable Brussels exports – pralines or fries – whereas others are more local peculiarities – think pottekeis or pain a la greque.
The only rules are: the beer has to have been brewed in one of Brussels’ 19 communes, and the dish has to have a verifiable link to the city.
In this round: Neuhaus dark chocolate pralines, paired with Nanobrasserie L'Ermitage Noire du Midi and Brasserie Cantillon Kriek 100% Lambic Bio.
Chocolates are to Brussels as beefeaters are to the Tower of London – inextricably linked. First introduced to the city by the city’s Spanish Hapsburg rulers who brought it back from their plundering of Central America. It wasn’t until the 19th century that chocolate making emerged as an industry in the city, on the back of rising consumer demand and fuelled by easy access to chocolate from King Leopold II’s fiefdom in Belgian Congo.
Whole neighbourhoods were given over to chocolate manufacturers, and the city’s Koekelberg district sells itself as the “chocoladegemeente” (chocolate municipality) thanks to its two working chocolate factories, a chocolate museum, and a folly of a chrome fountain dedicated to the cacao bean.
What really put Brussels on the world chocolate map was the invention of the praline in 1912. Jean Neuhaus II had the notion to replace the medicinal filling of the chocolate sweets he was serving in their then-pharmacy with a soft chocolate alternative. Thus was the Belgian praline born, and Neuhaus are still making them and selling them at the original pharmacy shop front in the city’s Galeries Royale St. Hubert shopping arcade.
The chocolates for this taste test were bought at that self-same shop, and are “Jean 64% cocoa” pralines, a dark chocolate rectangle filled with Peruvian-origin dark chocolate ganache (64% cocoa).
Noire du Midi is Nanobrasserie L’Ermitage’s take on a hoppy American porter, on the robust end of this beer style’s spectrum at 6.9% ABV. Originally named for the Ixelles neighbourhood, the Noire d’Ixelles American porter transformed into the Noir du Midi hoppy porter when the brewery moved into their own facility in the shadow of the Tour de Midi, close to Brussels Midi train station.
The beer itself pours thick and dark into the glass, almost black but lightening to dark ruby at the edges. A thick brown head of foam dissipates quickly. The aromas and flavours are of a piece – roasted grains, bitter dark chocolate, and coffee. On the tongue there is also some smokiness and a hint of dark fruit berries. It’s a full-bodied beer, though a little sticky, and is strongly carbonated. Dark beer with dark chocolate is a classic food pairing – with good reason. The Noire du Midi should complement and amplify dark, roast, coffee-like flavours of the chocolate and bringing forward some of the dark berry flavours in the praline.
Cantillon Kriek hardly needs much introduction. According to Lambic.Info, records of brewers buying up cherries go back to the 1700s, and there are recipes for Kriek dating to the early 1900s. Traditionally made with the mostly vanished Schaarbeekse kriek cherry, modern-day brewers who are not experimenting with growing their own cherry trees source theirs flash frozen from Poland and Croatia. Cantillon’s kriek is made by using two-year year old lambic and a maceration time of one to two months, with this lambic being blended back with young lambic for carbonation and to reach a final fruiting rate of 200g of cherries per litre of bottled beer.
The bottle chosen for this tasting was relatively fresh, with an ABV of 5.5%. It is deep cherry red in colour, with a fizzy pink-white head of foam. It gives off an aroma of fizzy cherry sherbet, which is followed up in the mouth with a tart fruitiness – mostly cherry but some other red fruit – backed up with a hit of almond, and some farmhouse funk (this kriek is still young). It is effervescent, and the beer’s tartness strips the palate clean.
Barely less orthodox a pairing than porter and chocolate is one of cherry and dark chocolate. A tart kriek like this one should be able to cut through some of the creaminess of the chocolate, at the same time as accentuating some of the same dark berry flavours and providing a sweet counterbalance the bitterness of the dark chocolate.
As expected, the roasted notes of the Noire du Midi pair well with the 64% dark chocolate. The bitterness of the chocolate even brings out some of the citrus notes of this hops porter. However, what makes this a blockbuster combination is the interplay of the slight fruitiness of both the dark chocolate and the porter, bringing through and accentuating new, darker fruit flavours (think blackberries).
On the other hand, the Cantillon kriek complements the creaminess of the chocolate. The tart kriek softens and sweetens the dark chocolate, rounding off some of its harsher edges, and ultimately making it taste closer to milk rather than the (bitter for my tastes) dark chocolate that it is.
While the kriek does have a curious effect on the chocolate, rounding it out and lending it a creamier texture, the Noire du Midi makes the chocolate more intensely chocolate and fruity, brining new flavours out in both when combined.
We have a winner
Noire du Midi hoppy porter, by Nanobrasserie L’Ermitage
The Next Round
Home-made Pottekeis, paired with Cantillon Gueuze and Brasserie de la Senne I Rate Saison.