Belgians take their beer religiously.
It first began in the time of crusades, a time when the Catholic church was absolute. It is hard to image that the regal, prim and proper Old World we love and hate today was once a disheveled and bedraggled mess shrouded in paganism, witchcraft and dung. With little access to drinking water, local Flemish and French abbeys began, under strict supervision, brewing and distributing the low-alcohol drink as an alternate, more hygienic form of potation: raising funds to sustain themselves while establishing their power base. Trappist beers still maintain this century-old tradition, except that the profits today are used for less “oppressive” agendas such as giving to charity. Abbey beers on the other hand, needn’t be solely made or supervised by any monastery. In fact, they could even “adopt” an abandoned abbey or saint, or simply brand themselves under a name which never existed. What’s more, they needn’t even be Belgian. While it may not be a product of heritage and tradition, abbey beers has helped proliferate Belgian beers to an increasingly appreciative global audience in a manner that Trappist monasteries could never hope to achieve.
Grimbergen, first brewed in 1128 in the abbey built by Saint Norbert of Xanten, is now brewed by Alken Maes, a brewey group co-owned by Carlsberg and Heineken. Contrary to popular perception, abbey and Trappist are merely classifications of manufacture, and not indications of type. Therefore, an abbey or Trappist may be anything from amble ales to wheat beers. Convinced that anything can become hip and cool as long as you throw enough money at it and market it right, Carlsberg launched Nassim Hill, a bistro, as well as 1128, the world’s first flagship Grimbergen bar at Tanglin Post Office. It is a completely ineffectual title since half of the pocket-sized bar and cocktails are occupied by Absolut’s branding of Elyx, the Swedish vodka maker’s attempt at cracking into the luxury vodka market. Nevertheless, both Nassim Hill and 1128 will be the only place on the island where you’ll find Grimbergen.
Fuss-free, Grimbergen narrows your choice down to just three: Blanche, Blonde and Ambree.
The Grimbergen Blanche, a wheat beer, is said to possess a certain citrus and fruity character. Whether that’s true or not, I couldn’t really tell. After all, what good is alcohol appreciation if you’ve never tasted what whatever tastes like. If even three is too much for you, and beer’s not your thing, go for the Blanche. It’s light and refreshing, and not dissimilar to many Asian beers such as Tiger, Chang and Asahi. While it goes well with food, it’s best paired with aromas that are, well, less complex regardless of the flavor or hotness, such as Singapore style chili crab or Dim Sum. If you’re intending on having it on its own, it may however, come off as being too bland, shallow and slightly bitter on the palette. For more flavorful and complex dishes, look to the Grimbergen Ambree, an amber ale said to be sweet with a caramel touch. The darkest shade of them all is actually an angel at heart, finishing well with virtually every dish except the least exciting ones. It should be noted that the color is not indicative of the flavor nor the alcoholic strength. To assume such, would be a gross mistake. The Grimbergen Blonde, a blond ale, was my least favorite because at 6.7% alcohol, 0.2 to 0.7% higher than the previous two, frequently overpowered the impression of the later courses. I’d imagine that the Blonde would be magnificent on its own, and a great way to start the weekend.
Grimbergen is very eager to express onto Asian consumers that it’s a good complement to local fare, so instead of the usual bar bites, you get a repertoire of Asian fare. There were certainly honest intentions, but there were some which were a little too left field in my opinion, such as the Chicken Heart stir-fried with green chilies and shallots. Fortunately, every part of the chicken still tastes like chicken. I had expected them to half-ass this, because chicken heart isn’t easy to cook. While it can’t be served medium rare, it can never be cooked well done for it’ll take on a rubbery texture. Instead, it was succulent and juicy – a pleasant surprise.
Fried skins are fairly commonplace throughout Southeast Asia. Indonesia for example, serves fried beef skin as a condiment for soup. It is even eaten as a snack in place of potato chips and other crackers. With the country’s renewed emphasis on health and fitness, I was somewhat surprised to see this Southeast Asian favorite in Asia Minor. However, my worries came to nought when my fellow diners started lapping this Crispy Chicken Skin up. It jolts up memories of that wonderfully aromatic and delicious crispy skin that is KFC but has none of the oil, and none of the guilt. It is after all, a light beige, ultra thin and not glazed in grease. Maybe we could excuse our hard and fast rules after all.
The Pork Cubes return the gastronomic trail to the subdued and familiar. Nicely fried and served in a hoi sin sauce soya sauce blended with chili padi, this was one that begged for a beer pairing and boy did it go well. It was borderline alright when paired with the Blanche, but came into its own when sipped with the Ambree. It’s interesting to note that these bar crumbs are eaten with chopsticks, which should make for all kinds of awkward social situations when the table’s a tad too tipsy.
These Deep Fried Wontons were just, massively huge. Positively humongous, and rather extravagant in my opinion. I’d imagine that they had to justify the SGD 12 price tag, so they super-sized. Stuffed with a filling of prawns and minced pork, I felt it was a little “fishy”, if I could even describe it like that? There was something a little off about the wonton that just didn’t go down well, even with the beers. I can’t really put a finger to it, but yeah, off.
Next, we head up to Nassim Hill for some dinner.