Bar Trek: The Wrath Of Zwanze
You can hear it as it rises from the corner booth at your local craft beer bar. Or maybe that one friend of yours with too much disposable income who boasts a beer and Buffalo Trace Antique Collection cellar asked it of you the one (and only) time he invited you to a Bottle Share. No matter the horrible station between life and death you find yourself, there is the voice of the neckbeard. It is loud enough to assert dominance over his beta peers, yet hushed so as not to attract unwanted attention from the crowd. The question he posits, “Do you even Zwanze, bro?” makes little sense without context.
Allow me to explain.
The story begins, of course, in Belgium. Specifically at Brasserie Cantillon. Founded in the year 1900, Cantillon is a traditional lambic brewery in Brussels widely considered to be one of the finest beer producers in the world. I’d tell you all about their history, but you can read it here if you want. In the meantime I’ll cut to the chase. Cantillon is quite hard to come by in The States. For years it was easiest to just order bottles direct from Belgium, but these days it’s difficult to sneak large boxes of alcohol shipped intercontinentally through airport customs depots. Most stores mark up the price of bottles they receive, and they still sell out instantly. Most consumers rarely encounter bottles in the wild beyond the flagship Gueuze and Kriek.
In addition to those two classics Cantillon has a few special brews that are reserved or released only for special occasions. The Zwanze series of beers and events began in 2008. Since then, brewer Jean Van Roy has used the celebration days associated with those releases to bring lambic enthusiasts together around the world. Cantillon’s website notes that the word zwanze in the Brussels dialect refers to a semi-sarcastic style of humor. That sense of humor is often reflected in the experimental nature of the beers. For example, last year’s Zwanze was a Wild Brussels Stout that was spontaneously fermented. This year’s Zwanze was a raspberry lambic blended with blueberry lambic with a small amount of vanilla added for flavor.
The release of Zwanze each year is limited to a very small number of bars and breweries worldwide. This year less than sixty locations around the globe received the release. For the second year in a row I was lucky enough to nab a couple tickets to the afternoon “brunch” session at Beachwood BBQ in Seal Beach.
Beachwood does an amazing job of managing their Zwanze Day event. It is ticketed so as to manage crowd size and ensure pours for all those in attendance. This year each ticketed patron received an 8oz. pour of Zwanze in a taster glass that was ours to keep. In addition there were 5oz. pours of four other Cantillon brews — all of which differed from last year’s event. There was a buffet set up along the rear of the dining room with three varieties of steamed mussels, sole meuniere, beef balls, beef stew, frites…I think that was it?
I enjoyed this year’s Zwanze much more than the previous iteration. The nose was raspberry forward with a strengthening vanilla presence as the glass warmed. A light but ever-present “funk” familiar to Cantillon drinkers (like a musty cellar or wet hay with a hint of manure) filled out the aroma. The taste was tart berries, sweet and woody, with hints of straw and a slightly bitter finish. The vanilla, I assume, was used more for aromatics than flavor because my palate could not discern any. And I have a palate to which only a six year old whose diet consists of cottage cheese and rice cakes could relate. It was light/medium bodied with good carbonation, and ridiculously drinkable. Eight ounces wasn’t nearly enough to satiate my thirst.
The crowd in the dining room could be described as amiable and disparate. There were local brewery owners, young couples, the aforementioned neckbeards, beer drinkers of all shapes and sizes. Our four-top table was shared by a couple of guys older than myself but my no means “old.” We chatted about our favorite SoCal breweries, music and travel. We compared tasting notes (thankfully mine seemed to align with theirs, either that or they were placating me…) and offered advice for an upcoming Insane Clown Posse show they were going to with their children.
That wan, sad-looking carbonation-less glass on the left was Iris Grand Cru. Next to it, the one with the light foam ring around the edge of the glass, is Mamouche. Grand Cru is aged for three years in barrels and is not dry hopped or “champagne-ized” like “classic” Iris. The still appearance gave me pause. The musty, earthy, woody aroma was enticing enough but I found it tart and herbaceous with a lingering bitterness. It was thin and medium bodied, but the lack of carbonation was more than a bit off-putting. Not my favorite, and in fact I ended up with two glasses because someone didn’t want theirs after two sips. I couldn’t abide a full five ounce pour left behind, so more frites and beef stew were required to get the job done. Thankfully Mamouche was delightful and fitting way to conclude the event. First brewed in 2009 for Zwanze Day, Mamouche is now a regularly bottled offering that is made with elderflowers. The aroma a funky, woody and citrusy melange with noticeable amounts of honey and tea. It tasted like classic Gueuze with a pronounced bitter fruit flavor. Mamouche was light-bodied, had a creamy and rolling mouthfeel and a dry finish. I enjoyed it enough to tell the Iris Grand Cru abandoner that I was taking their Mamouche as settlement.
Because I was being chauffeured from Los Angeles down to Seal Beach, of course I suggested a stop in Torrance on the way home. Why not scope out Monkish and Smog City? It’s been far too long since I last visited the tasting room at Monkish. Since then they’ve become the lone SoCal brewery to attempt mimicking the Northeast-style pale ale trend, complete with weekend can releases that attract hundreds of losers who wait hours and hours and hours in line to buy four-packs of sugar water.
Ask me how I feel about waiting in line all night to buy beer.
To be fair, Monkish “My First Canning Line Double IPA” is a very tasty beer. I am one of those who things that the use of the IPA moniker for such beers is a bit of a misnomer. It’s a hoppy beer for sure but these are aromatic bombs with no bitterness. They nailed the soft mouthfeel of a Julius or Susan. Was it refreshing and enjoyable after a morning of lambics? Of course! Is it worth lining up for and wasting half a Saturday to procure cans to take home? Absolutely not. In the future I’ll settle for enjoying whatever is available on draught when I’m in the area. By the way I also tried Ghetto Bird, Knowledge & Peace, Spoon Sweets and Vellichor on this trip to Monkish. Vellichor was the standout.
Around the corner from Monkish is Smog City. Again, I haven’t been there since a bottle release months ago. Since then, two releases have piqued my interest: the new batch of Snugglebug and the new batch of Bourbon O.E.. Both were impressive. The former had a great lingering sourness with just enough fruit to balance it out, while the latter had figs and caramel in abundance with great barrel character. Oh, and stay far, far away from Chai Leche Oscura. I had all kinds of problems with it. I grabbed a bottle of Snugglebug for my sister and was a bit surprised I didn’t pass out in the car on the way home.
Why can’t every Saturday be as entertaining as this one?
The Verve – Make It ‘Til Monday [MP3]
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