The Fantôme In The Machine

It’s late night on Boxing Day. Linus and I are at the bar at Spuyten Duyvil, working our way through a big bottle of Fantôme de Noël, a mysterious amber brew with dark cherries in the nose. That’s it for the evening, we agree. Linus wants to go home; I want to go home, and I’m twice as far as he is. We bask in virtuous feelings. Then in walks the Duyvil himself, bearing a trombone, several strange half-liter bottles, and a 5-liter keg that looks like an over-fed beer can. Dan and Joel Shelton have arrived, bearing temptation (and I don’t mean the trombone…)

An impromptu tasting is swiftly in the works; Joe, the estimable Spuyten Duyvil patron, produces a row of glasses, and we start with the Export from Brewery Zehendner in Mönchsambach, Franconia (a town so small, apparently, that there are no street names, the houses are merely numbered and the brewery is Haus Nr. 18.) With a hint of sulfurous bite in the nose that sharpens its honeyed aroma, this unfiltered, slightly cloudy, extremely pale lager starts out very soft, the exact opposite of a crisp pilsener; this is more like drinking velvet. The clean bitterness comes up at the end, but it is rounded, without any sharp edges.

Next comes the “ungespündet lager, equally pale, equally cloudy, equally soft, but with a completely different aroma. There is hardly any sulfur, no trace of honey, but instead a fresh green grassiness that Linus likens to raw asparagus. I don’t remember sniffing raw asparagus, so I can’t confirm; I would say “cut grass” except that this is often used to describe the smell of phosgene, and this beer does not smell like phosgene at all…

We forge ahead. Minikegs are apparently quite popular in Germany, and Inn-Brewery Will in Schederndorf, between Bamberg and Kulmbach (it’s not big either, the brewery is Haus Nr. 19; but then it is a mere Dorf…), offers its Landbier, a light brown lager, in what looks like a 5-liter metal keg equipped with a pull-out plastic spigot. The beer pours with a thick head that leaves abundant lace on the glass; the body is thin, and there is only a hint of caramel. Linus finds “cooked asparagus”. I call it Newcastle Brown Lite, though at 5.1% it is marginally stronger than the English ale.

And talking of Newcastle, a few hops and we’re in Scotland, in Perth to be precise. Blackfriar from Inveralmond Brewery, is reddish amber, caramelized, but it tastes lighter than its 7% ABV. There is little bitterness, all the accent is on the malt as befits a Scottish ale. The highly unusual label, shown on the link above, is actually metallized in golds and silvers! Very medieval.

It’s getting on to 2 a.m. and there’s still a Fantôme to bust. There has been a considerable change as the beer warmed up; the dark cherries are all but gone from the aroma, replaced by intense dry fig notes, while the palate is now dominated by raisins, although the cherries are still there in the background. The figs seem to be linked to the yeast, as the last glass to be poured is by far the more intense. A whole orchard in a bottle!

The Shelton Brothers’ entourage has faded away, Linus is negotiating with a livery cab, and I head for the L train. I have a large book to keep me company; a good thing, because it’s 3:45 by the time I get home. Mission accomplished.

† “ungespündet” is literally “un-bunged”, i.e. beer that is fermented in an open vessel, so that it does not overcarbonate.

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