'One of our dear followers, Wim Van Laere, known as Alengrin on Ratebeer, has written a detailled description of all our Exceptional Ales. When reading it, your taste buds will already start craving the first sip! Let yourself be carried away by this beautiful poetry.'
So if you want to know what to expect, well, this is Wim his review and rating on the fellowshipbeers he has tasted already.
1. A Long-Expected Party
The first one in Alvinne's Fellowship of Exceptional Ales, a special membership the brewery launched last year, for which this and - so far - eight other very limited brews were created, a completely new concept to the Belgian beer world. This first treat is the wine barrel-aged batch #1000 with lingonberries and blueberries added - so a follow-up to the apricot version of the same brew, so to speak. Limited to only 473 bottles. Forms a mousy, pale off-pinkish, somewhat irregular and lightly lacing head with flat 'islands' in the middle, crowning a misty cherry red beer with warm vermillion hue. Very fruity and complex nose: a frame of rustic old wood embraces impressions of indeed strong lingonberry (Swedish lingonberry jam almost) and equally convincing sour and tangy blueberry, next to hints of damp earth, sour yoghurt, red wine vinegar, soaking wet bread, some underlying caramel, sour cherries, dusty attic and vague touches of wet clay and tomato concentrate. Bursting with fruitiness from the start, the onset is deeply colored with tartness and astringency from the berries, with the flavor of both types still recognizable; the fruit's fleshiness provides a balancing softness, almost sweetish, against the overall acidity, maintaining high drinkability in combination with soft carbonation and a mellow, smooth mouthfeel. More maltiness develops in the middle, softly bready with a light caramelly edge, remaining deeply soaked in generous berry fruitiness, with both a 'stewed' kind of fleshiness and sharper astringency from skins and seeds, supported by background lactic tartness from the wild yeast activity and supported by tannic woodiness. The beer ends tart but with the soft maltiness absorbing part of that tartness; vinous, tannic and earthy features abound, with an unexpected and very late bittering note in the end. This beer was long-expected indeed, but it is more than just a party: this is a banquet of nordic-themed, 'foresty' fruitiness, in which maltiness clevery shaves off the sharpest edges of berry sourness. A banquet that would befit an elderly Hobbit's birthday indeed - but more importantly, one that sets the stage for an adventurous journey into the creativity of one of Belgium's most prominent and fascinating craft brewing projects.
2. The Shadow of the Past
The second Alvinne Fellowship chapter, 679 bottles in total of Cuvée Sofie with silverberries (a species of oleaster typically used as an ornamental shrub but producing edible sour berries), sea buckthorn berries and rhubarb - an interesting combo announcing sharp and tart fruitiness indeed... Some large, transparent, loosely knit, white-reflecting bubbles appear upon pouring, only to vanish into nothing in a matter of seconds; misty, very deeply orange-amber-hued, warm peach blonde beer, the 'headlessness' of which does not bother me at all, considering this is basically a bottled 'foederbier' of a certain kind. Powerful aroma: a deep, soft background landscape of dusty old and soaking wet oak wood - as with many Alvinne sours, I can literally smell the brewery here - and bready, caramelly maltiness supports a complex structure of indeed half-stewed rhubarb (including a touch of wood sorrel), sharp silverberries and tangy sea buckthorn berries with respectively a 'green' (or even dry tree bark) and an 'orange' (even orange peel) side to it, gooseberry jam, home made yoghurt, dry birch tree leaves, old and oxidized wine, oloroso sherry, old crumbled biscuit, wild apples. Flavor embarks on the same complex journey as the aroma, kicking off with astringent, sour berries (the silverberries and sea buckthorn berries combined but interwoven) paired with a wry fruit peel effect, merging with a recognizable oxalic acidity from the rhubarb - yet, as in many of Alvinne's top sours, this puckering tartness and astringency is backed by a supporting role of both fructose and malt sweetishness; carbonation remains soft - though not absent as one would expect based on the absence of head formation - and, humbly, does not prevent the overall mouthfeel from becoming eventually very vinous, even in all its dryness. Soft caramelly malt 'roundness' forms a solid background for all this tartness, but - unlike in some other Cuvée Sofie variations - it is still the tartness that prevails. Retronasal effects of dried weeds, green berries and tree leaves, dusty old attic, haystack and dried bread crumbs add further colour and complexity to a quite intense finish, where the tannic woodiness of the barrel, the tart wine effect as such, the rich and astringent berry effects and the 'green sourness' of the rhubarb help to establish a lovely 'burn', accentuated by a well-measured glow of sherry-like alcohol. Colorful, punchy, enticing, crisp and at the same time breathing a rustic, aged nobility, I guess this second Fellowship Ale does embody Gandalf's arrival probably better than intended. A daring choice of ingredients, none of which are new to Alvinne of course - but in every way a treat to sour ale aficionados. I was not expecting anything less, though.
3. Three is Company
The third Fellowship ale may well be the fruitiest of them all, consisting of a sweet wine barrel aged Chain Reaction (the blonde sour ale originally developed in collaboration with Six Degrees North) enriched with mulberries, gooseberries and muscat grapes… Large, loosely knit, translucent but white-reflecting bubbles are formed upon pouring, only to vanish in a matter of seconds, on top of a misty salmon pinkish beer with deep and warm vermillion red hue. Intense fruitiness meets the nose: rosé champagne effects from the grapes, sweet-sour purple gooseberries and sweeter mulberries are all very pronounced, dressed in a comfortable coat of soaking wet oak wine barrels and larded with soft yoghurty lactic acidity, adorned with impressions of freshly cut red apples, forest fruit, cherry jam, bread crumbs, old biscuit, sawdust, quince, raspberry vinegar, blood orange, glue, cassis and background caramel. Flavour bursts with the same intense fruitiness, as if crunching a ripe gooseberry with the teeth, tart yet embedded in soft fructose sweetness from the grapes and mulberries, with pear and raspberry effects at the sides; carbonation remains soft, with a smooth, soft-edged mouthfeel. A pleasantly bready malt sweetish underground dried by lactic sourness carries the overload of red-blue fruit onwards to a juicy finish, where strong tannic wood effects and a light hint of grape peel wryness remain subordinate to fructose sweetness – reinforced by the sweet wine barrel residue – and mild fruit acidity, the latter providing a brief but refreshing lemony note in the end. Lovely bread crumb-, even vaguely crumbled cookie-like aspects linger in the background. Classic Alvinne profile, but the sharp acidity of the basic beer is clearly softened by fruit juiciness and sweetness – a carefully designed construction, a feast for lovers of artisanal fruit beers and a doubtlessly healthy tonic preparing one for the epic journey that lies ahead. Very clearly the three fruits applied here, love each other’s company…
4. Two Trees of Valinor-Laurelin (2016)
The fourth Alvinne Fellowship ale, a 'kriek', but that is putting it in an oversimplified way: what we have here, is Cuvée Sofie aged on wine barrels for two years with the renowned 'Schaarbeekse' sour cherries added. Tasted in comparison with the fifth Fellowship ale, which is the same thing, but based on Cuvée Sofie aged for one year instead of two years. This 'old' version produces some white, large and loose bubbles upon pouring, but no real head is formed, let alone retained; beautiful vermillion red robe, misty with a coppery-bronze tinge, looking like old cherry wine. Intense, noble aroma: cherry wine, lots of vanilla-scenting oak wood, candied cherry and even marzipan, raspberry vinegar, sour yoghurt, blue grape peel, old tawny port, cherry stones, old crumbling biscuit, herborized tree leaves, barnyard. Intense sour cherries open the palate, flanked by mildly astringent cherry skin effects and with a vinegary acidity to it that is, as it befits a great Alvinne sour, countered by cherry fructose softness; soft carbonation adds to an altogether 'moelleux' mouthfeel. Lovely rounded bready and even slightly honeyish maltiness is dried by both the fruit acidity and lactic tartness, colorful and leading to a complex finish with a retronasal feast of cherry pie, vanilla, old oak and marzipan effects, highlighted by a warming, madera-flavored alcohol glow that binds all elements together. Sour but complex and nowhere too harsh, this is a prestigious 'kriek' in all respects, glowing like the leaves of the Laurelin tree and fiery like its fruit. Alvinne pulls it off once again - and clearly comparing this one with its younger counterpart is a must, with this one being the somewhat more sedate and noble one of the two, like a mighty old tree standing proudly next to its younger offspring. Majestic cherry beer, one to sip slowly in order to enjoy its full complexity.
5. Two Trees of Valinor-Laurelin (2017)
The fifth Fellowship ale cannot exist without the fourth, a necessary duality like the two trees of Valinor; this one is made the same way as the 2016 version, but the Schaarbeekse cherries in this case are applied to Cuvée Sofie that has been aged for 'only' one year in wine barrels instead of two. Poured right next to the 2016 version, this one looks almost exactly the same, with an unstable array of large, white-reflecting bubbles that disappear quickly over a deep and misty, red beer, this one seemingly a tad deeper ruby-hued than the 2016 version, a very subtle difference only made visible in comparison with one another. Aroma has the same degree of complexity as its elderly counterpart, but with a slightly more crisp cherry juice (almost blood orange-like) and a slightly 'fuller' cherry jam effect, more actual wet wood than aromatic 'oak vanilla', a tad more 'dustiness', more outspoken red wine presence and somewhat more prominent solventy barrel effects (wood glue). Feels a bit tangier and brighter in the mouth as well, a cascade of juicy sour cherries with red berry effects, but backed by the same basic soft Cuvée Sofie maltiness as the 2016 version, equally softly carbonated. Tannic effects from the wood treatment merge with cherry skin wryness, while the cherry flesh acidity - even if the cherry part is exactly the same in this one as in the 2016 version - seems even more fiery and tangy. Ends very complex, long, woody, fruity and almost madera-like, with a soothing alcohol glow rounding off the flavor 'parcours' in the very end. The more youthful of both trees, this one too nevertheless exudes nobility, wisdom and depth - so by no means is this the lesser one of the two. Different but equal, both Laurelins are truly worthy Fellowship ales to enjoy with care and patience - this is sour ale at a world class level.
The sixth Fellowship Ale is something different altogether: limited to 437 bottles, this is the classic Wild West (aged for 9 months on red wine barrels so longer than the original Wild West) with a very non-classic herb added, known by its Japanese name shiso, but in Dutch sometimes referred to as "notenkruid" or even "biefstukplant" as well. This cultivated Perilla species has essential oils with a specific and very expressive aroma, sometimes compared to basil or cilantro. Shiso has on rare occasions been applied in craft beer, most notably in Japan (because of the plant's origins) and the U.S. (because, well, American craft beer has been trying just about anything since its beginnings), but I never saw it in any Belgian beer, let alone a Belgian sour… Forms a medium thick, tightly and refinedly lacing, eggshell-white, delicately creamy and remarkably stable head, crowning a hazed apricot blonde robe with a pale orange glow and minute but vivid bubbles rising up through the haze. Earthy, herbal aroma: the musty, funky character of Wild West gets a subtle yet distinctive herb treatment here, resulting in impressions of purple gooseberries, overripe blue plum, very 'nutty' sherry, delicate and volatile shiso aspects reminiscent of dried basil and lemonbalm, strawberries, red juice oozing from a medium rare steak, crabapple, old orange juice starting to ferment, barnyard, rose petals, clay, sour cream, soaking wet brown bread. Refreshing crispness opens the palate, rounded plum- and gooseberry-like fruit sourness with a tangy, lemony edge, but, as usual in Alvinne's sours, backed by that soothing, mellow malt sweetishness, sweetbread-like almost, even if this underlying sweetness is largely 'obscured' by the overall, yoghurty-lactic sourness. This sourness blends with tannic woodiness in the end, though in this case and contrary to some of the other Fellowship (and other Alvinne) sours, it is the wine tartness and grape peel-like effects that prevail. The shiso remains altogether subtle: a discreet pinch of kitchen herb-like, ethereal aromatics, almost green tea-like and indeed basil-like, but not overly dominant anywhere - though the lovely aromatic nuttiness that follows retronasally, might just as well be attributed to it, enhanced perhaps by malty and yeasty aspects. Ends as crisp and refreshing as it began, with a lingering lime-like sourness drying the throat and fully quenching the thirst, like a herbal tonic served at an inn in Middle-earth would be, I can imagine. Athelas may be a healing herb in Tolkien's universe, this Alvinne brew is certainly a healing drink in our world.
7. Honey Cake Sourire De Mortagne with honey and smoked figs – the seventh Fellowship ale promises to be the liquid equivalent of Beorn’s honey cake, but with a special twist… The last one I tasted in the series, this honey beer was eager to get out of the bottle, but with a glass positioned nearby, it should be possible to catch its escaping foam – resulting in a towering high, creamy, yellowish beige, very frothy and densely lacing head resting on top of a misty, beautiful copper-coloured beer with reddish bronze tinge, the haze perturbed by fierce sparkling throughout, clearly the honey added extra fermentative enthusiasm here… The aroma is complex and downright divine: raisin bread, lots and lots of actual fig, a smoky note (from aforementioned figs, which were smoked before being applied) reminiscent of smoking pipe tobacco and growing a bit stronger as the beer warms up, red apple, pecan nut pie, artisanal brown honey, madeira, blackberries, ripe nectarine, stewed plum, brown sugar melting on a hot pancake, red wine, minerals, tea bags, dry tree leaves, sugared rhubarb stew. Lots of lovely fig-like sweetness in the onset, plum, nectarine and sweet ripe apple aspects with a sourish, blackberry-like edge which in the end will become quite tangy but still very refreshing; lively carbonation accentuates the sour side a bit, before plunging into a thick, soft, fluffy bed of raisinbread- and caramel-like malt sweetness, gently dried by the sour effect. The figs continue to guide the palate and their smokiness becomes quite apparent retronasally, with a meaty and tobacco-like colour to it that stirs up memories of earlier Alvinne experiments with smoked pineapple and smoked peach. Sweet-sour, very rich and satisfying finish, honey aroma but sweetness as well, balanced by a dash of earthy hop bitterness and concluded by a soothing afterglow of rum-like alcohol. Wow, this is something else – a “sour quadrupel” so to speak, but only gently sour and in that sense perfectly embodying the idea of a nutritious and healing, luscious honey cake baked by the Beornings. Goes down treacherously easy while never losing its complexity, the aroma changing colours all the time as temperatures vary – this is a stroke of genius.
8. 1 Yule "Winter Solstice" The end of a year on the Shire calendar in Tolkien’s legendarium is celebrated in this series by a blonde ale loosely inspired by the old German Steinbier method, but flavoured with Christmas tree needles and fermented with an ancient Lithuanian farmhouse yeast – befitting the revival of old, local and often endangered yeast strains, a trend in which Alvinne can certainly play an important role, in view of their experience with wild yeast strains and sour ales. This ‘Christmas beer’ only in the loosest sense of the word produces a thick, frothy, beaten egg-like, mousy head leaving behind a thick layer of papery lacing, over a misty peach blonde robe with pale orangey tinge – rather than the dark robe one would classically expect from a Christmas or winter ale. The aroma is a bit challenging, with rather earthy, natural scents first catching the attention: petrichor (the scent of rain falling on dry soil), hot stones submersed in cold water, freshly fermented farmland, wet clay, a sulfuric whiff of a freshly struck match. Only after the nose gets used to these ‘elements of nature’, more subtle and alluring, yet still earthy and somewhat challenging impressions arise: freshly cut parsnip, cold French fries, dried apricots, cumin seed and indeed a subtle whiff of young spruce shoots from the Christmas tree, dried lemon peel, dry bread, cheese crust, hay. Opens with pronounced esteriness in the mouth: apricot, pineapple, butternut squash, but remaining restrained in sweetness, with a soft lactic sour edge; carbonation is spritzy and adds minerally notes, again reminiscent of stone, though this is probably autosuggestion due to the Steinbier premise. Very bready middle, rusk and old bread crust, with the sulfuric, petrichor and farmland effects making their return retronasally; fruity esters and spicy phenols linger, the latter briefly and subtly highlighted by a piney effect from the Christmas tree needles. A soft bready ‘bed’ fills the back of the mouth, with a soft sourish accent and a leafy, late hop bitter note. Lithuanian top fermentation seems not too far removed from our Belgian traditions, producing estery and phenolic effects in an almost farmland-like setting, albeit much more outspoken than most cultured Belgian yeast strains would. A saison-ish result, in all, not only unique in this series of Fellowship ales, but unique ‘tout court’, with a lot of things happening. A category of its own and likely the most challenging of them all: unlike a Yule feast, this will take the taster some time to get enthusiastic about, I think – but when it hits you, it does show off its full complexity.
9. Nine for the Mortal men Doomed to Die The ninth Fellowship ale closing the ring, a hefty barleywine consisting of a complex blend of Cuvée d'Erpigny and Cuvée de Mortagne, with part of the first one having undergone the Eisbock treatment - clearly no effort was spared here to create a mighty ale that demands respect and caution. A loosely knit, off-white, large-bubbled head forms on a truly ravishing, 'automny' robe of molten copper, a deep and misty bronze with an amberish glow - I have rarely seen a beer so visually perfect for a windy February afternoon. The aroma is as intoxicating as it is gorgeous: a carrousel of odors enter the nostrils, varying between candied figs, dried orange peel, hazelnut liqueur, almond, frozen cherries, calvados, cloves, pecan nuts, fried apples, old oak furniture, venison stewed in madera, dried sausage, varnish and dry forest floor. A noble, candied sweetness opens the palate: candied figs and cherries, marmalade and a ton of softly carbonated nuttiness in its purest, finest form, merging seamlessly into a profound, multi-layered maltiness, deeply nutty and bready with a toffeeish edge, massive and intense, carrying an almost unfathomably complex structure of fried apple, madera, very strong drying wood tannins and candied orange, with a lingering yet up till this stage, unforeseen aspect in the end I can only compare with hazelnut saucisson - an umami presence that adds an extra, playful layer of complexity to an already hugely complex beer. All these different flavors are perfectly tied together by a calvados-colored alcohol glow, soothing the chest and warming the heart, yet avoiding harshness - which at this ABV is highly remarkable and a testimony of Alvinne's capacity to produce beers that belong to the top quality beverages in the world. This barleywine to me is on a par with the world's greatest examples of the style and among the most majestic beers Alvinne has ever produced - I am left deeply impressed. A monument of a beer, but as announced on the label, treat this one with care and utmost respect, as it has enough power and strength to fell nine mortal men in one blow...