Tonight I am sharing a beer given as a gift from our friendly Belgian with Willow. The last time I had something like this was on a staff do in the old days and I enjoyed it, but couldn't shake the fact that it was pricey and a bit out of my normal range. It was described to me then as a blonde ale, but it's a Belgian golden ale. So... blonde then. For those keeping track, no, this was written before Willow got ill. She is feeling better but not quite up to sharing a decent ale.
It is, of course, Speciaalbier by Duvel. And I have been rather looking forward to it.
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First things first, the case. It's well-presented and the bottle looks lovely. You have to unwrap the gold foil to get at the cap before popping it open (is that like popping a cap?) and then you have to be very careful with the pour. The smell is as I remember it, dry and with a hint of hops, and the pour reveals a straw coloured beer with a massive frothy head and fizz that is much more like champagne. Immediately, I find myself comparing it with the Speciale (link) which makes a great deal of sense because although that wasn't Belgian it was tasted with a Belgian. With the strength at a heady 8.5% ABV it fits in that general area too, because that was a stronger ale. The head refuses to budge and topping up just adds to the confusion but this is partly down to my failure to chill (should be 6 degrees centigrade, or just out of the fridge and left to stand a moment) so it's at room temperature. After taking the snap above (how sad I am) Willow had some of hers and made an approving face, saying things like: "mm, that's very nice." Then she looked at it with the same look she uses on decent fiction or interesting facts about history and nodded, twice, deliberately.
Sure enough, the taste is very pleasing. There's a dryness from the beginning and a great deal of awareness that this has been well carbonated either through fermentation (it is top fermented) or through additional carbon dioxide on bottling. First impressions are of a standard blonde ale, plenty of dry hops and a light malt beneath, but then it changes into a completely different beast, revealing its strength as it rolls over the tongue and then into a long straight with a sweet finish that contrasts with a hoppy bitter aftertaste. Over all of this there are the flecks of spice in the yeast but also from some fiery hops and the strength of the thing. It's just very strong, and I say this not to detract from the taste. It is the ale equivalent of ice cream, home made, or whipped cream of a very high quality added to strawberries on a summer day. Less a toasting ale than Speciale but more frivolous than Jorvik Blonde (here).
It's very much what one would expect of strong Belgian ale and, unbidden, brings to mind my time in Ieper (Ypres) back in 2007 when I ended up with something that ought to be added to ice cream or something. I ended up letting it go off by accident but had someone else's on the trip and whatever that was, it had poppies on it, is very similar to this ale. Coincidentally, this is better than the experience with the bottle on the staff do, not that that was a bad experience, this is just better.
Enjoy this best as a party ale, with streamers and some reason to celebrate. Have party food on hand, jellies and trifle and sausages on a stick (with onions and cheese too). Play some party games and have some fun with it. For a seriously presented ale this is a lovely waft of party time without the need for anything so crass as drunkenness to take things to the next level. Enjoy doubly as much if you enjoy Belgian ale.