I had no idea what to expect from these two: big 75cl corked bottles with a very modernist new-world-wine sort of label, though peer closely at the enigmatic logo (a wineglass on its side? a malt shovel? a man with a crewcut asleep?) and the brewer's initials are revealed: the ordinarily staid and traditionalist De Koninck of Antwerp. What are they up to? Let's find out.
I tackled the blonde first: Gusto 1833 is the title, commemorating the year the brewery was founded. Perhaps the first part of the name is a sign that they're making a play for the whole Special Beer For Food thing, which may be in danger of becoming a niche. I get a loud pop as the cork comes out and lots of short-lived champagney fizz while it pours. A centimetre of head sticks around, over a hazy pale gold body. There's a mild sherbet aroma, and on tasting my first impression is of standard Duvelesque Belgian strong blonde. At 8% the ABV is in the right ballpark too. Then my nosehairs start to burn. This beer is very highly carbonated, to the point where it becomes difficult to taste. I need to leave it to flatten out for a while.
When I do, it's still very Duvelish: sweet, soft and boozy, like a pissed-up peach. Squinting for difference there might be a little bit of extra sweetness, some floral perfume perhaps, but no real distinction I can nail down with certainty. All that matters is that it's enjoyable, I guess, which it is. With food? Sure, why not?
Gusto 1833 Ruby Red appears to be a brand extension, or perhaps they're aiming for the whole red wine / white wine duality. The cork cage was of a sort I've never seen before: there's something a little BDSM about it. I was definitely expecting another fizz bomb. There was a loud pop and oodles of foam, this time disappearing completely after a minute. However, the beer underneath is much smoother than the blonde.
First things first: it's definitely not ruby red. More murky brown. Garnet, if one were feeling charitable. The taste is deliciously off kilter. It has all the balsamic vinegar richness and spice of a full-on Flemish red, except... without the vinegar. It's really quite sweet, shading towards the dubbel end of the spectrum, but the complexities are pure Rodenbach. It went great with the hot chocolate fondant I felt immediately compelled to zap in the microwave and consume alongside it, and which brought out a wonderful strawberry fruitiness.
So there so have it: two bottles you can plonk down in the middle of a table and get some excited ooohs before the diners realise that it's only beer.