Friday, October 2, 2015

Session #104: Our Navels Are Dark and Cavernous, Yet We Must Gaze. Alan Said So.

My policy on this blog, until today, was to never write about writing. I might have wavered once or twice, but mostly I thought it would bore people. Which is odd, since I happen to like the topic. I'm a writer after all. So are you, I reckon.

So with this post, my contribution to the 104th Session, I'd like to formally announce my rejection of that policy. From now on I might write about writing here, or blog about blogging. Executive decision. I won't even bring it up with the committee (which anyway only has two standing members: myself and the beagle intern-for-life).

The thinking behind the policy was that anyone reading a beer blog was interested in beer, not beer writing. In retrospect that was wrong -- or at least it is wrong now. It now sounds like plain common sense that most of the people who read blogs are bloggers themselves. The others left, or were never here. You are a writer, probably. Or maybe you are one of those "beer communicators." I'm not 100 percent sure what that is -- like beer evangelism, except more honest since everyone knows you're getting paid? -- but fuck it, you're welcome here. I've been reading your stuff too, when I should have been working.

It's almost liberating, dispensing with the fiction that you're a general audience. Of course you're not. You never were, excepting that large subset that found the blog by googling Westvleteren. But they left. You came back, even when I didn't. You're (we're) the niche within the niche within the niche. Maybe what I naïvely imagined as a general audience was just a writing circle all along. Well, that's OK. We need those. The beagle is a good listener but he never really contributes much to the convo, you know?

Is it the writers' circle within the geeks within the beer world? Or is it the geeks within the beer people within the writing world? Maybe both. I'm not sure if I can draw that Venn on the back of a deckel. But I'm going to try, and you'll find the inevitably awkward result there on the right.

Seems like the two-pronged spirit of blogging was that (a) it was fun and (b) eh, maybe there is a professional use for it. To me -- a freelance writer's perspective -- "professional" means working for money. There are two important parts of that: working, and money. So much for (b). Blogging never stopped being fun for me. It just... stopped.

It's not like I ever look at my blog sitting over here, gathering dust in the corner, and think: "Can't be bothered, there's no money in it." On the contrary, I suspect that is exactly why I should do it. But lately -- and I reckon this is a good problem to have -- I must look first to a stack of projects that do pay. Can't do it all, so paying the bills comes first. Doesn't stop me from fucking around in any number of other ways though, does it? In retrospect blogging is one of the healthier ways to fuck around.

Oh dear. Next thing you know I'll be blogging up beer reviews. That was another thing I vowed never to do here.

Nah, on second thought. Boring! Who wants to read about beer anyway?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Postcard from Oberfranken

Sitting in the small courtyard beer garden of the Gasthaus Dotterweich in Reundorf. Not the Reundorf north of here near Lichterfels; this is the one in Bamberg Landkreis. You have to now your Reundorfs.

It's not a great biergarten, and it doesn't have a great playground. But it does have a box full of large lego-like blocks. The boy just built a towering church. The actual village church is just across the road. We can hear the singing, now the bells. I think I prefer the hubbub of the Stammtisch over there, well under way by 10:30 a.m.

Mönchsambacher Lager here. Smells of bread and honey, fairly sweet taste with just enough dusty bitterness to pull it off. A comfort beer.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Session #99: What's YOUR Mild?

I have an hour left in my somewhat arbitrarily self-determined work day before I go an open a bottle of something easy to drink. And I see that today is the day of the Session, the first Friday of the month, when a bunch of beer bloggers tackle the same subject. And then I think, "Oh shit! I still have a blog. Why not?"

Alistair Reece at Fuggled has an agenda with this one. He is promoting mild. That is ostensibly a style of beer. And Al is simultaneously proposing and promoting American Mild Month. Which starts today. This is one of the noblest goals I can think of, and not just because I like the style "mild." To be honest I'm not sure mild represents a style or vice versa. But I love what mild stands for: flavorful yet easy-to-drink. To me it's comfort food in a glass.

I have had a few great British milds and a couple of good American ones. Stuff I would drink again without hesitation. But that was not Al's question. He wants us to localize it.

Localizing is tricky for me.

[Stands up from desk. "HONEY! WHAT COUNTRY ARE WE IN TODAY? GERMANY? OK!" Sits back down to write.]

I grew up in Missouri. The one there that pops into my head is the Bird and Baby from Rolla's Public House -- a brewery largely devoted to session beers -- but all of that came long after I left the state.

But right now I'm in Berlin and will live here for a few more years. The local I have chosen to be mine is called Foersters, and I can walk there in 20 minutes. I happen to think it's the best bar in Berlin, but I'm also biased because a lot of the hip beer joints are across town. So far.

OK, wait. Let's abstract the mild a bit. Let's suppose my "mild" is the one that's always at my pub of choice, the first thing I order every time I walk in, it's flavorful -- delicious, even -- but unchallenging. It is comforting like a baby's bottle.

That one for me, at Foersters, is Weiherer Kellerbier. Hazy gold, sweetish, bitterish, with a creamy vanilla impression. Oh there are better kellerbiers out there. In fact there are better kellerbiers at Foersters. But it's the one that's on draught, every time I walk in, and I don't have to use my brain to order it, and sometimes I don't even have to order it -- it just arrives, like a friend who can finish your sentences.

American beer drinkers are getting more and more familiar with the word "session" -- which is great, even if it's always attached to "IPA." Time to take the concept further. Mild could do it, why not? At the very least it could be a much needed calming influence.

But if not mild, explicitly, I'd be more than content to settle for what mild represents. I usually am.

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.