Thursday, May 17, 2012

Attending Sour & Bitter 2012

In November 2011 word got out that Danish beer importer Drikkeriget was planning their own, very exclusive, beer festival in May 2012. Only 250 tickets would be sold for an event that would include the appearance of 3 Fonteinen from Belgium, one of my favorite lambic breweries.

To obtain a ticket people had to email Drikkeriget and make a money transfer within a given date, I was fortunate enough to obtain a ticket for myself and spent the next five months counting down to May 10, 2012.

3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze Armand & Tommy
- one of the new releases at Sour & Bitter.


Before continuing this saga, a few words should be said about Drikkeriget. This company, owned by Henrik Boes Brølling and Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, has become one of the most important craft beer importers in Europe with a good network in both America, Asia and Europe. These two also own a beer shop, the world famous Ølbutikken in Copenhagen, which for long was their main outlet for the imported beers. While Ølbutikken is still ranked among the best beer shops in the world, Drikkeriget now distributes beer much wider than just Copenhagen or even Denmark.

For a number of years now Drikkeriget and Ølbutikken have been associated with great sour ales, in particular with lambics from Belgium. Ølbutikken has got an exclusive deal with Cantillon in Brussels who receives fresh blueberries from Denmark twice a year and brews the rare Blåbær Lambik exclusively for Ølbutikken. Drikkeriget, on the other hand, has bought up large stocks of geuze and krieks from 3 Fonteinen, helping this lambic brewery survive financially. It was this latter brewery that had been invited as the guest of honors at Sour & Bitter 2012.

By the way, Jeppe is the twin brother of gypsy brewer Mikkel Borg-Bjergsø aka Mikkeller and recently started brewing professionally too - as Evil Twin Brewing - in case you wondered.

The venue

As their venue of choice, Drikkeriget had rented a warehouse-like building at Refshalevej 163A on the Refshaleøen island in the north east of Copenhagen. This warehouse is the home of Zonen for Madkultur ("zone for food culture") and features a big, industrial sized kitchen that would be put to good use during the festival.

Not being that familiar in Copenhagen and knowing that the venue wasn't that centrally located I opted to go by cab to get there. Arriving at Refshaleøen I would have been hard pressed to locate the festival, but fortunately I saw other beer geeks walking into a certain warehouse so I followed suit.

Bean bags used as chairs at Sour & Bitter.
Inside, Drikkeriget had erected two stands along one of the walls - one for serving draft beer from Pizza Port and one for serving bottled beers from Port Brewing, Lost Abbey, The Bruery and 3 Fonteinen.

Along another wall, some tables had been put up but not sufficiently many to cater for all 250 guests so a number of blue bean bags were stacked up in the middle of the room to be used as chairs. I personally preferred tables and regular chairs, in order to write notes and take photos, and fortunately I arrived early enough to secure space at a table. For next year, I hope Drikkeriget will set up more tables, because so many of the guests were forced to stand or sit on the soft bean bags, causing beers to be spilled and notes impossible to write down.

The star factor

Because of the exclusiveness and small size of Sour & Bitter 2012, the brewer-to-guest ratio was very high and I actually became a little star struck - walking among so many famous brewers from Europe and America! 

Some of the brewers at Sour & Bitter were off duty, just chilling out before Copenhagen Beer Celebration the next day. I recognized the guys from Brouwerij de Molen, always with a new beer in their hands, as well as Hoppin' Frog and Three Floyds from America. Others were there to look after their beer, such as Jeff Bagby from Pizza Port.

In black cap Armand Debelder of 3 Fonteinen
- guest of honor at Sour & Bitter 2012.

Despite all the great beers from Pizza Port, Port Brewing / Lost Abbey and The Bruery, the guests of honor at Sour & Bitter 2012 were two unassuming Belgian brewers - Armand Debelder and Michaël Blanckaert from 3 Fonteinen in Beersel, Pajottenland. They used this opportunity to promote several new sour ales and some rare, old beers that few have been able to taste. Naturally, Armand and Michaël were constantly being surrounded by a flock of people, ranging from beer geeks to brewers, so I never got the chance to pay my respects and congratulate them on the new brewery being constructed at 3 Fonteinen.

The food 

Like all good beer festivals Sour & Bitter made food availble to its guests, but unlike all other festivals I've been to it was done in such a manner that I basically gave up the idea. It felt more like an art concept than food for a hungry beer drinker. 

Instead of selling food at dedicated stalls, the host had servants carry food around on big serving plates. One food item at a time, be it ribs, cheese or a salad. While doing so, the light was dimmed so that small lights on the serving plates could be seen by the guests, who would flock to each and help themselves with food. No guests had plates, so the food had to be placed on napkins and eaten by hand. Which turned out really messy when the food item was a greasy piece of ribs!

I personally gave up the idea of eating there, as I didn't want my notebook and beer glass to become stained in grease. What irked me even more was that it was next to impossible to take down further beer notes while the light was dimmed, I barely saw the color of the beer in my glass and much less the letters in my notebook! Fortunately, the light was turned back on after a few complaints had been made.

For next year I hope Sour & Bitter will either provide a food stall selling regular pub grub or at least provide their guests with plates and silverware to eat their food from, this was too artsy and really messy.

The Lost Abbey Veritas Ale 008
- a personal favorite at Sour & Bitter

The beer selection

When it came to the beer selection, Sour & Bitter 2012 sounded really promising when I first heard about it 6 months ago. And when I finally arrived at the festival and walked along the stands of Pizza Port, Port Brewing / Lost Abbey, The Bruery and 3 Fonteinen I knew the festival would live up to the high expectations.

Where else in the world can you find sixteen - 16 - Pizza Port beers on draft!? And where can you find rare bottles of Cuvee de Tomme, Isabelle Proximus, Veritas and Sinners from Lost Abbey / Port Brewing? And how about the 14 year old Millennium Geuze made by De Cam and 3 Fonteinen back in 1998 or the rare 3 Fonteinen Oude Lambiek or their Framboos 2010?

Thus, I knew I had to plan well to get through it all so I started out carefully with the 10 cl samples from Pizza Port who came with a good range of imperial porters and stouts. To obtain a sample you had to buy a small slip of paper with the numbers 1 to 4 on it for DKK 100, allowing you four samples of Pizza Port. 

Pouring a Pizza Port Coffee Monster at Sour & Bitter

Starting out with the 9.3% abv Coffee Monster from Pizza Port Carlsbad, a rich espresso beer with a massive dose of  chocolate, I tried a number of good imperial stouts and porters - in particular enjoying the 8.5% abv Jules Winfield imperial stout, creamy and smooth, from Pizza Port Solana Beach. I worried that the more hoppy beers would ruin my taste buds, so I mostly stayed with the dark beers.

A bottle of Isabell Proximus at Sour & Bitter
After tasting a number of Pizza Ports it was time to try out the sour beers, in particular the rare ones from The Lost Abbey / Port Brewing. First one out, The Lost Abbey Sinners 08 didn't quite live up to my expectations, as it felt a bit watery and oxidized, but the next one, Veritas 008, was a beauty of fresh apricot and nice sourness, almost like a really young Cantillon Fou'Founes! Cuvee de Tomme 2008 also went down well, though less fresh than Veritas. Isabelle Proximus, brewed at Port Brewing in 2006, had a good lactic acid character combined with some lemon sourness and a funky brett note, reminding me of a Rodenbach Grand Cru on steroids - nice.

The Bruery also had a number of beers with them, and I did try their Sour in the Rye (very decent), Oude Tart (a bit mild and ordinary) and Trois Poules Francais (refreshing and drinkable), but at this point I was ready for the master of geuze blending - Armand Debelder of 3 Fonteinen - and the beers he had brought to Sour & Bitter.

3 Fonteinen Framboos 2010 is the first framboise (raspberry) lambic made at 3 Fonteinen in more than ten years, so it was an obvious beer to start with. It was rich in raspberries with a good fruit sourness but still a bit young in my view, lacking the vinous and funk character of older lambics. Next out was the blend made with Tomme Arthur of The Lost Abbey, the Oude Geuze Armand & Tommy, which had a lovely sourness, mild barnyard notes and a tart finish.

3 Fonteinen / De Cam Millennium Geuze
- a 14 year old sour ale masterpiece.
The 4 year old Oude Lambiek, bottled in May 2011, was another exciting beer to try and though it didn't reach all the way up for me, it lacked the carbonation to bring out the flavors, it was a nice and drinkable sour ale.

The highlight from 3 Fonteinen, at least for me, was the 14 year old Millennium Geuze that geuze blender De Cam had made together with Armand Debelder at 3 Fonteinen in the autumn of 1998. It was still amazingly fresh, with a good, fizzy carbonation, nice fruitiness and a rounded sourness. An ageless masterpiece!

Because the bottles from 3 Fonteinen was large 75 cl and cost a good deal, the Millennium Geuze a hefty DKK 600, it was nice to be able to share with friends around the table, so those who came alone to Sour & Bitter may have missed out on some of the beers because of the size and price of some beers.

At the end of the festival, it was announced that beers from 3 Fonteinen would be sold from two vans parked outside, so the guests lined to buy their share of Framboos 2010 (just 3 bottles per person), Armand'4 Oude Geuze (all four seasons) and other sour ale gems from the festival.

3 Fonteinen Framboos 2010 at Sour & Bitter
- one of the most sought after beers in the world


For a first time festival, Sour & Bitter really was a success story. The atmosphere was great and the beer selection world class. But there were things to improve, such as the number of tables and not to forget the way they provide food for their guests. Remember, this is a beer festival not an art event. Good luck in 2013!

Photos from Sour & Bitter 2012 can be found at: Flickr.

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