Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Fakery and the Illusion of Variety.

As a reminder that beer is part of the wider food business and its trends, here is an article from the weekend, from the AP's food industry writer: "As tastes change, big food makers try hipster guises."

The headline and top of the article are preoccupied with "hipsters," which is a distraction. What really jumps out are the companies -- I don't care about their size -- arguably using deception to appeal to a crowd searching for something unique.

There are obvious parallels there with the "fake brewers" issue that troubles Belgian beer people. Even the Wall Street Journal covered it. I'm also seeing it happen in Germany, as people naturally want to cash in on "craft" and its higher price tag.

At least one of my editors is tired of this topic. [Deep sigh.] I'm clearly not done beating the horse though. Because nothing has changed, really. It still kicks. Well, it kicks me anyway.

Part of researching Belgian breweries is trying to sort out which ones are actual breweries and which are pretenders. That way we can tell you about them. There are all sorts of pretenders, many shades of gray. I try to stick to this: A "brewer" is someone who actually brews beer, while a "brewery" is a building with a functioning brewhouse inside.

If that seems simple, it's not.

Now, I like really good marketing. I enjoy it. I appreciate it as a skill and an art. But I hate lying. I hate it when it's done to my face, and I hate it when it's done to nobody in particular -- i.e., to everyone -- on a website or beer label. I get annoyed when a home or office address refers to itself as a "brewery," and I get annoyed when people call themselves "brewers" who are not. Likewise, just having your office in one place does not make your hired product local to that place -- not if you hired it from another province or country. Lately these "local" village beers have been popping up in Belgium more often, and many are less than honest about their origins. Most come from the same two or three breweries.

One day soon I aim to compile a list of offenders, rather than just single out one or two. I've been told that's unfair, to name only a few liars when there are so many more. I disagree, a liar's a liar... but it's not a black-and-white issue. This deception is a symptom of a permissive culture. And we -- beer drinkers, writers, whoever -- are the ones who have permitted it. Because it's only beer, right?

We allowed the language to slip because it didn't seem to matter. Even Ratebeer refers to these beer commissioners as "contract brewers" or "client brewers," both plainly inaccurate in my view. If you are a trained, experienced brewer who sometimes hires other breweries to make your recipe, you are not a brewer in the context of that beer. Sorry.

That might sound petty. I prefer accurate. As an ongoing project I'm trying to connect the clearest meaning of those words -- "brewer" and "brewery" -- with a really simple public interest. Specialty beer is getting more attention these days, but more to the point: People just want to know from whence their food comes. Here is an idea -- radical, I know -- but why not put the place of manufacture on the label?

Here is the truth, ask a homebrewer: Any asshole can come up with a good recipe and email it to a brewery. And why shouldn't you? There is money in it, there is margin. "Craft" has market cachet. So does "Belgian" for that matter. It's a sensible business arrangement. Nobody will hold it against you -- just be honest about what you're doing. (Also, be prepared to get your ass out there and sell, or else don't be disappointed when distributors want nothing to do with it.)

Well, I shouldn't say "nobody" will hold it against you. Some real, actual brewers are pretty pissed off about the "beer firm" phenomenon. After all, they're the ones who actually crush smelly hops in their hands and scrub out mash tuns, and so on. Many of them went to school for a while or otherwise learned the hard way. I can't say I blame them. They take risks and if a beer goes bad, they're stuck paying for it. Not so for the beer commissioner -- the contract brewery would have to start over and brew it again, at no extra cost to the hirer. Did you know that? That deal sounds better all the time.

Anyway, I'm not a brewer. I'm a writer and a drinker. I want to respect the words, and I want to know where my beer was made. Somehow that is a lot to ask.

A parting thought, after this morning ramble: People are paying extra not for quality, but for variety. Because it's fun to see so many taps and bottles from so many different places. So, how much of that variety is an illusion?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Beer Need Not Be Filtered. Options Must Be.

One of these days, on one of these sporadic and lucky visits to Britain, I really ought to get out of London. The problem with London is that there are too many choices. They overwhelm the Traveler with Thirst.

So you narrow things down. Same applies to anywhere with lots of beautiful places to drink. We can't see them all in one go. Time, money, livers, spouses -- these are finite resources.

Even those of us who get to London once or twice a year, if we are lucky, fall back on an old favorite or two. It's easier that way. When it comes to cask ale it's not a bad strategy anyway -- if the beer was in good shape there last time, there is a decent chance it will be today. Maybe.

(Interlude, for a confession: As a Traveler with Thirst I don't really care about British "craft beer." It's OK as a curiosity. As a journalist it's interesting. But these days you can get aromatic, bitter IPA nearly anywhere in the world. Even Costa Rica. Even Germany. Why would I drink that in the UK, which has its own, special, underappreciated thing? Yes, I can see how folks who have drunk brown bitter all their lives might be bored with it. I'm not.)

Also, you can't just go to beer pubs, right? I mean, London is an important city historically. There are things to learn. You have to take in some culture. Cultural experiences are important. That's why, when in London, you need to eat curry. So, we went to a curry pub.

We went to the Warwick Arms. I don't know if anyone else will mention this place to you. Maybe. It's a Fuller's pub, which is another nice thing that bores London beer people. I won't say that Londoners are bored with curry, because that is scientifically impossible. It's in the DNA. Of the cumin. But it could be that cozy pub in the front with an Indian curry house party in the back has a certain logic to British people. "Of course there are curry pubs, harumph," says the major. To everyone else it's just a marvel.

We drank a summer seasonal. The Beachcomber, maybe? To be honest we had been at the Great British Beer Festival all day. We were not qualified to judge it. The curry disappeared as if it were ambrosia. Cultural experience, that's the point.

Also, it was near our hotel. And that's another way to narrow down the options: proximity. I might want to go to the Southampton Arms and Gunmakers every time I'm in London (and I do). But THEY are on the OTHER side of town, and I am on THIS side.

So where are the neighbors drinking?

Monday, June 23, 2014

More Book Pimping: All Tomorrow's Parties.

Events! Happenings! Got a few more of them coming. At which I sell a book not yet technically available in the United States, vandalize it with my name and perhaps a poor joke or sloppy doodle, and we all taste a few delicious beers and have a good larf.

One of these might even become legendary. A thirsty belgophile event for the ages.

This Friday, June 27, from 4 to 7 p.m.: At the superb Brown Derby International Wine Center in my hometown Springfield, Mo., taking over their usual Friday beer sampling with Belgian fluids and chatter. Meet my random friends and relatives and other frequent liquor shoppers.

Next Monday, June 30, from 5 to 7 p.m. and maybe a bit earlier and a bit later: At the excellent Craft Beer Cellar in Clayton, Mo., a.k.a. posh St. Louis. Beers on tap and books and more jokes. Get a nice buzz then throw even more cash at Ryan and Brandon than you normally would.

OK, those will be fun. But sane. Ready for the preposterous?

Starting around 2 p.m. on Saturday, July 12, in Washington, D.C., the world-class ChurchKey is allowing several of Belgium's more interesting beers to take over the taps. And I will be there with books, and ink pens, and a little dongle-doodad that allows me to accept credit cards, and happy to talk Belgian beer with whomever.

The Good Beer Guide to Belgium Event Draft List:
3 Fonteinen
Alvinne Bolleville: Calvados Barrel Oak-Aged
Alvinne Podge: Bourgogne Barrel Oak-Aged
Blaugies Saison d'Epeautre
Cantillon Rosé de Gambrinus
Cantillon Cuvée St-Gilloise
Cazeau Saison
De Dolle Oerbier
De Glazen Toren Saison D'Erpe-Mere "Speciale Editie"
De la Senne Jambe-de-Bois
De la Senne Taras Boulba
De la Senne Zinnebir
De la Senne Band of Brothers
De Ranke Saison de Dottignies
De Ranke XX Bitter
De Struise Imperialist
De Struise Weltfreude
De Struise Weltkrieg
De Struise Black Albert
De Struise Cuvée Delphine
De Struise Pannepeut
Des Rocs Grand Cru
Dupont Saison Dupont Cuvée Dry-Hopping
Ellezelloise Hercule Stout
Géants Goliath Triple
Gouden Carolus Cuvee Van De Keizer Blauw
Hof ten Dormaal Special 14
Hof ten Dormaal White Gold
Jandrain-Jandrenouille IV Saison
Kerkom Bink Blond
Kerkom Bink Tripel
St. Bernardus Abt 12
St. Feuillien Tripel
Tilquin Gueuze
Val-Dieu Grand Cru

Nuts, right? Free admission. Pay only for what you drink and read.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Catching Up With America.

These are trendy now, I guess? Half/session/all-day/baby IPAs. And the like.

Forgive me if I don't scoff at the trend or argue that they really shouldn't be called IPAs (nonsense) or sweat over the exact ABV. They are useful and generally full of flavor. Malty ones will be next. Bring on the American milds.

So there is nothing new under the sun. We knew that already. Fact is, we wanted this. And we're finally getting it. A little more of THIS please. Not only THAT. Options. They had to expand upward into preciousness before they could expand back downward into plain old tasty drinking beer.

Now we only need to haggle about price.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

It's Summertime and the Schleppin' Is Easy.

Returning to the back end of this blog to scribble is like returning to a summer home that deserves more life. Smells musty. Time to blow the dust off the turntable, pull the plastic off the furniture, stuff it into the closet, heat up the grill, hold court on the deck.

Lots to say, but one thing at a time. As of yesterday we are homeless for two months. Betwixt postings. America seems like a fine place to spend that time. Very fine indeed.

Between some exciting new projects and quality family time, I will be appearing in a few choice places at choice times to plug a book. Oh, about that book: It's been out in the UK since March, and is available for worldwide shipping. For complicated logistical reasons I am too stubborn to understand, it is not officially out in the United States until October.

But I am in the United States. And I have books. It's like a sneak preview tour. So come find me.

June 11-13: Bouncing around the National Homebrewers Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. No official signing event for me, because it's not a homebrewing book. But I will be there with press credentials. (And books. And a fancy pen.)

June 20: Book signing and beer tasting at the superb Left Bank Books in the Central West End of St. Louis, beer provided via the righteous dudes at Craft Beer Cellar in Clayton. Idea is to match beers to a few choice discussion topics. Tasty politics.

June 27: Hosting/signing at a tasting at the Brown Derby International Wine Center in Springfield, Mo. A really excellent wine and beer shop in my hometown.

July, date TBD: A very exciting event in Washington, D.C., about which I can say no more just yet.

Watch this space. Bring a lawn chair.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


What's this guy about, anyway? Would this fly in the States? How do the Belgians call it kitsch and get away with it?

I suppose we could open the whole Zwarte Piet debate. Or maybe not.

I was struggling with how to describe this fellow. Minstrel statue in the stars and stripes? I don't know.

The fact is that this gentleman, for better or worse, happens to be standing in one of the most characterful and character-full little cafés in Brussels, the Laboureur.

Oh look, there's a character now. I'm not sure if she's waving hello or saying, "Do not take that fucking picture. They will think we are racist." Never noticed her until weeks later.

This is not the old Laboureur that used to be near Gare du Midi until about six or seven years ago. (Remember that one?) This is the one that has been on the corner of Rue de Flandre and Rue Léon Lepage for much longer. How long? My theory is that when Saint Géry came to set up a chapel on the Senne in 580, the Belgae already had the Laboureur set up. It was hardly more than a few logs and a cookfire, plus a jug of proto-lambic.  Over the fire they were frying parsley and hand-breaded shrimp croquettes. It was enough that the Belgae couldn't be bothered with chasing off the Christians. In fact on the wall there is a black-and-white photo of Saint Géry with the tribesmen, crowded out in front of the bar. They're all drinking Stella.

Sadly there is no proto-lambic these days, but there is a hardy list of 35 modern beers. Stouterik is there, Papegaei, Orval, Rochefort 8, Hoppus. To pick a few of the interesting ones.

There is an old numbered charity box on the wall. It looks like the place you'd insert your hotel key, and then never get it back again. Out front the neon is cool art deco, and the street artist Invader has left his little creature there.

You might call this a café populaire in French, but that doesn't mean it's popular. Even though it is. It means it's a bar for the common folk, the salt of the earth types. You might have guessed that by the name. These days the common folk around Rue de Flandre are not as common as they used to be. There are bright streaks of posh mingling with the workers and hobos. But they're all welcome here.

The Laboureur is inclusive, you see.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Flowers, Candlelight, Long Walks on the Beach, Movies with Happy Endings.

Duvel Moortgat is not a brewery. Not exactly. Not anymore. It is an international company that takes control of regional ale breweries. It has a strategy. Duvel is "determined to occupy a leading position as a niche player in the profitable segments of speciality beers and premium brands, both in Belgium and in priority export markets."

And you know what? There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Is there?

At the end of the day what matters (to you, or so you say) is how much you enjoy their products. They are producers. We are consumers. We fulfill our roles. Even if we don't assign scores to our beer, we assign a certain amount of our money to it. That shows up as a number. That number is higher than the one that refers to how much Duvel Moortgat spent on making, marketing and sending it somewhere. The difference is called a margin. And at the end of the day that's what matters (to Duvel Moortgat).

Romantic, isn't it?

I'll be straight with you: The news about Duvel taking over Boulevard disturbs me. I'm a belgophile who happens to be from Missouri. I'm a Missourian who happens to write about Belgian beer. I grew up with Boulevard. I've also watched what Duvel has done in Belgium (and consumed more than my share of their products). They've bought regional ale breweries. They might have saved a couple, but they also turned Achouffe into Achouffe (Duvel Moortgat). They turned Liefmans into Liefmans (Duvel Moortgat). De Koninck (Duvel Moortgat). Ommegang (Duvel Moortgat).

And now my home state brewery--a favorite, if I'm honest--will be Boulevard (Duvel Moortgat). Another link in a strategy to become "a niche player in the profitable segments of speciality beers and premium brands."

I have not read a single article about this purchase yet. Not one. I promise to do so after I publish this post. Someone sent me a link. I didn't click on it. I saw a couple of tweets. Still haven't clicked. I wanted to record my thoughts--why not here?--before wading into the inevitable bullshit. I reckon it will be thick. No, don't tell me. Is there stuff in there about how this is a natural fit? About how, hey, the brewmaster is Belgian too? About how Duvel Moortgat can take Boulevard products national or international? About how Duvel Moortgat prioritizes quality and lets regional breweries pretty much do their thing?

And do you believe it?

Here is my opinion: It depends. De Koninck seems more or less the same to me, so far. Achouffe does not. Liefmans now sells something called "Fruitesse" and suggests that we serve it on the rocks. The flagship Duvel beer has, er, flagged, but the Tripel Hop is interesting in a way that is not especially original these days--but still, interesting.

Here is what we write in the next Good Beer Guide Belgium: "In its various plants DM now packages more than 800,000 hectolitres of beer per year, ensuring that none makes a bad beer but less active in their pursuit of of the memorable."

I'm not sure that's 100% correct though. Fruitesse might just be a bad beer. La Chouffe, while decent and cleaner than it used to be in bottles, can be an boozy-hot coriander-spiked mess on draft. Memorable? Sure. But that's my opinion, opinions are like assholes, and so am I.

Boulevard, though. Will I still reach for my stand-by Pale Ale when I head home for the holidays? Probably. Eventually. But I will be annoyed. I will wonder when things will change, for change must come eventually--and how often do bigger beer companies improve the breweries they acquire? In the American experience, not often. In the Belgian experience, not often. People saying that they will not change does not make it so.

But Boulevard will still make mostly good beers. A few may be great. And, like I say, there's nothing wrong with any of this, mind you. It's just not very romantic. I happen to like romance, especially when it swirls around beers with which I've long nurtured a relationship.

Also, just in case this matters to you, it's not "craft." Not exactly. Not anymore.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Can. Most Will.

This is a giant jug of cider in the keller.

His word for it is 'Most', even if that usually means the unfermented stuff. This has been fermenting since last October, going on nine months of age now.

Pours a clear copper in the glass, smelling of orchard, leather and lambic. It tastes juicy and tart with a natural roughness to it and a light sparkle. They like to mix it with sparkling lemonade to make it easier to drink. But it's better straight.

He tells me it's about 9% alcohol. This is a man who makes wine and owns a refractometer, so I believe him. He adds some sugar and just a bit of yeast to the juice, and that's it, plus time. Apfelwein, in truth, but we still call it Most.

There is a lot left in this jug to drink. Also, there are little green late-summer apples everywhere, the first of the season. Where we currently live apples are precious imported things, but this corner of Swabia seems to be lousy with them. They need help eating them. 

And more apples are coming, with surplus going into more Most. They need help drinking it.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Slaughtering the Fat Ox.

Seems like I was working on some kind of list here. I had it scribbled down on a long skinny piece of paper ripped from a reporter's notebook. It was hanging right. there. Now it's gone. I reckon some toddler snatched it down and put it somewhere, a waystation en route to the trash, long gone.

I don't remember the rest of the list. But I do remember this: the Fat Ox.

The Vette Os is a steak restaurant in Veurne, West Flanders. Give me a moment to put my visit there in context.

I was two-and-a-half weeks into a fairly intense Belgian beer café research tour. That means, however fun it was: Lots of beer and lots of coffee and lots of snacks. You can't drink beer in all those places, especially if driving to the four corners. And you can't eat full-on meals in all those places, even if you wanted to. So you end up nibbling. And drinking lighter beers. And coffee. And water.

This was the day of the coastal swing. I took the train from Brussels to Knokke-Heist and then, stopping several places along the way, took the coastal tram all the way down to De Panne. Northeast coast to southwest coast. Lots of vacation, lots of sandy-people-watching, and good cheap fun. (Look for an article about the Belgian coast in an upcoming issue of Draft.)

From De Panne in the evening I jogged in on the train just a bit to reach Veurne. Despite having lived in Belgium for a while, this was my first visit to Veurne, last summer. Every bit as quaint and cobbled as they say. And there was a party on. Hence the photo above. A local fest, and oddly for Veurne and this part of the country, it had nothing to do with penitence. They love penitence down there. They feel really sorry about some old stuff that was not really their fault, and then they party. It works.

I checked in at a B&B-ish hotel called the Old House. Smallish rooms, but they took an old administrative building and somehow made it feel like a stately manor. It was nice. And its bistro, with a top-rate breakfast,* stocked St. Bernardus ales and other goodies. It was just a block or two off the main square.

There were a few cafés on and off the Grote Markt I needed to check out. I wasn't especially excited about eating in any of them. So I asked the B&B owner where to eat. And he sent me to the Vette Os. I'm glad I listened.

Candlelit and cozy, it was full of couples and families and groups of friends. I gathered that I was lucky to get a little table to myself. I don't think they even had beer, probably a token pils if I had asked for one. Meanwhile they also ran a wine shop next door, specializing in bottles from unusual places. I drank a bottle of something with my Irish ribeye. Not a glass, but a bottle, because whatever it was I wanted wasn't available by the glass. I don't remember what it was. I don't remember if I finished it. I didn't take notes. I wasn't working.

I do remember that the ribeye was the best, most flavorful cut of meat I've had in Belgium. Thank you, Ireland. No need for a rich sauce to ladle over it (although I wouldn't have turned it away). There were no mediocre beers I felt the need to try. No little bowls of nuts or crackers or gouda. No espresso watered down to coffee-cup-size. Just a great meal, good wine, and good company (myself).

That was a highlight.

And while I am slightly buzzed and thinking about this, let me say: What a wonderful job I have. It is so wonderful that I am taking a second job, just so I can afford to keep doing it.

It's important to remember those moments as I embark on a different sort of trip tomorrow. The highlights will be different. My better half and our two kids are coming.

My four-year-old son says he wants to come on a brewery tour. He wants to take pictures for me. I am very much inclined to let him. I promise to post the results here. Unless he throws them away.

* In much of Western Europe, "top-rate breakfast" means to an American not just bread and jam and cold ham, but also an egg or two made to order. Bacon is nice, if you can get it.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Bruine Café Visitors' Center

I haven't been there yet. I'd like to go. I mention it here because I think others might like to go too. So here is some useful info about the Bezoekerscentrum 't Bruine Café.

One of the newer, smaller and quieter breweries in Belgium is the Stadsbrouwerij Aarschotse, city-sponsored makers of the retro local beer, Aarschotse Bruine. It's a sourish local brown ale style whose existence had been flickering. Larger, more distant breweries had made it on contract for many years, its authenticity leaning toward the dubious side.

This new brewery, which opened late last year, is a city effort to re-claim the beer, stoke some civic pride, and perhaps draw some tourists in the bargain. Upon launching they announced—and I find this promising—that the revival of Aarschotse Bruine was a response to "the sweetening and commercialisation of our tastes," which threaten "the link between taste and region."

So, you and me, we're the tourists. Want to visit? Unless you want a guided tour of the brewhouse, you won't need to round up a bunch of friends and book ahead (although you can, if you want). Individuals can roll up unannounced to the Bruine Café Visitors' Center, at 22 Gasthuisstraat in Aarschot, during these hours: Tuesday to Friday, 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.; or Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Closed on Monday.

Local tourism officials will be there, in the brown café homage, to serve the beer and fill you in on its history and how it's made. Many thanks to Annabelle Verhaegen of Toerisme Aarschot for the details. The photo comes from their website, too.