Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Last Christmas Beer Thingy You Should Read this Year.

What is it about a brewer and a bag of spices that leads to so much trouble this time of year?

Most brewers, or so I gather, are concerned about things like balance and drinkability 99 percent of the time. But give them the chance to make a spiced holiday beer and all restraint goes out the window. Maybe this is the time of the year they get all of that nonsense out of their systems. I'm nearly done with Christmas beers altogether, outside of a few reliable stalwarts. I like to eat pumpkin pie. Not drink it.

Last night I cracked an Abbaye de Saint-Martin Cuvée de Noël, from Brunehaut. Squat little bottle and classy faux-Gothic label. At first the nose was really enticing, something like figs and a touch of rum. As it warmed, more spices came out. And more. And more. On its Ratebeer page you can read the tasting notes. Pretty incredible range of spices that people thought they detected. For me it was overwhelmingly anise. Like fruity licorice kool-aid.

To be fair to Brunehaut, I know for a fact they're capable of making good beer. Their regular stable is refreshing enough and shows interesting farmhouse leanings.

I've still got a few Belgian Christmas ales I haven't opened yet. I'm going to cellar them all until next year and hope they improve. I'm nearly ready for the spring saison season. Which for me runs from January to November.


Sunday, December 28, 2008

Useful French Phrases: Gueule de Bois = Hangover

Not much time to blog for the next few days. I hope to resume in full force after the New Year.

Meanwhile, I thought you might enjoy this loose translation of an invitation from Moeder Lambic, received via Facebook (that name in italics because it should always be whispered, per the policy of the gents at the Brewing Network):

Between December 24 to January 1, we lack pretexts to throw a party. So the Moeder Lambic, in its infinite goodness, is organizing a soirée on December 30.

Every year we close for the first week of January. It would be a shame to waste all those open kegs! This is where you intervene: Starting a midnight, the draft beers go for €1.50! And just so the party doesn't end too soon... we'll open more kegs!

To commence the hostilities, we will hold a raffle after midnight.

The Moeder Lambic team wishes you a joyous hangover!

Want to know what's on tap? The regular stable is Senne Taras Boulba, De Ranke Guldenberg, Cantillon Lambic and Faro, St. Feuillien Blonde, Grisette Fruits des Bois, and Dupont Biére de Miel Bio. Current featured beers are La Rulles Triple and Gouden Carolus Christmas.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Motivation. Or, Hop to It.

I'm happy to boast that two of mine are among the "Final 19 or So" of the Ought-Ocho Yule Log Beer Blog Battle Royale. You can see them here. If nothing else comes of this (besides some hip beer schwag), at least I'm now motivated to get a real camera. One of these days.

On the book: We're really under the gun now. I'm going through the manuscript and finding all those little holes I'd forgotten were there. Our distinguished publisher wants to start looking at whatever we have by Christmas, even if it ain't quite perfect yet. If he means that as a motivational tactic, it's working.

To the right is a photo I hope to include in the section on navigating bilingual Brussels. Not up to me, though.

Finally I want to push you toward a post at Appellation Beer. I know it hits home for me and many other American beer lovers living abroad (or traveling for extended periods of time).

My cravings for intensely hoppy beers have abated somewhat. I have more appreciation than I once did for subtletly, balance and drinkability – whatever those words mean to you. But I can't ignore that even among Belgian ales my tastes run to the hoppier end of the spectrum.

You can take the boy out of America but you can't take the something something I forget how it goes.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Do Authors Smoke Pipes and Wear Corduroy Jackets with Faux Elbow Patches? Because I'd Like That.

Over at the best-researched beer blog on the planet, Ron Pattinson is scheming out a future publishing empire. Books... That reminds me. Ours is almost done. With luck, Around Brussels in 80 Beers will be on shelves and online come March or April.

Tell your friends. Really. If you help spread the word I promise to show some measure of shame at the coming wave of pimpery. That won't be easy, because shamelessness is really more my nature.

When Yvan and I started we thought we'd have a problem finding 80 places in town to drink good, craft Belgian beers. By the end we had a tough time narrowing it down. By telling you about a few of the places we've had to leave out, I might sell you on the quality of the ones we put in. So I'll try that, pretty soon.

Eighty places is a lot, by the way. And we do you a favor by leaving out all those atmospheric but overpriced corporate-beer-list cafés around the Grand Place. You don't need our help to find those anyway.

Meanwhile, go visit Cogan & Mater at booksaboutbeer.com to finish your holiday shopping.

Sequestered in a dark room somewhere, Alan and Stonch are drinking heavily and flipping through slides to judge the best entries in the Beer Blog Health and Beauty Wet Cleanup on Aisle 13 Road Rally. If I don't win I vow to weep big man-tears while screaming and shooting my pistol in the air.

The Embrasse from Dochter van de Korenaar is getting good reviews from the knowledgeable Babblebelters. It appears the beer was a hit at the Kerstbierfestival. Told you it was a good brewery, didn't I? One to watch.

Brand new beer blog launched by friend and artful homebrewer Stefan Berggren. It's called Layers of Foam. Good stuff, check it out.

Christmas beer tasting of sorts tomorrow at my house. Blaugies Moneuse Speciale Noël, Senne Equinox, and De Dolle Stille Nacht. You're not invited, unless you work in my wife's office. But maybe you do.

Monday, December 15, 2008

What's the Deal, Glockenspiel?

Wow, you should have seen the incredible photos I took in Stuttgart, Munich, at Neuschwanstein, and in the Austrian Alps. Beautiful stuff. Really it was.

Too bad the camera got buggy in the mountains at the end of our trip. As a result all photos disappeared from our SD card without explanation. This sad little number to the right was taken soon afterward. This is frustrating and dangerous stuff, since I often promise photos to accompany freelance articles. Time to get a new camera.

Meanwhile, I'll paint you a picture.

The best moment had nothing to do with beer: chilly evening in Munich, strolling through the Englischer Garten, and emerging from dark trees to find the festival of light that was the Christmas Market at the Chinese Tower. Yeah, you should have seen the photos.

If you've visited the country at this time of year you know the Germans beat pretty much destroy everyone else when it comes to creating holiday ambiance. Atmospheric markets can be found in most towns and villages, with lights and angels aplenty and wafting scents of sausages, hot spiced wine, and butter cookies. Something like that. And even if all these markets are eerily similar they do a killer job instilling in you that certain Christmas spirit.

Naturally the Gluehwein helps.

Best meal of the trip: Schneider's Weisses Brauhaus, probably my favorite spot in Munich, chowing on braised pork basted in Aventinus with sauerkraut and potato pancakes. Partnered with a glass of Aventinus. I suppose those old quaffers who have their Stammtisches there must be the happiest bastards on the planet. Possibly the venerable frauleins who work there have a soft spot for them too, and treat them nicely, maybe. I don't know. But by our reckoning these are the rudest, meanest old beer witches in all of Germany. It's exasperating, and then... gulp, gulp... awww, Schneider, I can't stay mad at you.

And I realize that Schneider Weisse is relatively common in Bavaria, but I couldn't help but be thrilled to find a doner kebab joint that served the stuff. It's called Montana and it's just south of the Hauptbahnhof main entrance, at Bayerstrasse 33. If you want to hunt for it. Characterful hefeweizen and spicy kebab make a happy combo.

Best beer of the trip: The Helles at the tiny Sudhaus brewpub in Ludwisgsburg, near Stuttgart. Unfiltered, cloudy yellow-gold, with a serious grass-hoppiness and refreshing bitterness. The place itself is neither special nor famous, but they're making some serious lager and the locals seem to love it.

Back in Belgium. Back to work. More on that soon.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Chouffe Houblon at Delirium was the Nail in my Coffin.

Led an epic pub crawl/tasting last night: La Fleur en Papier Doré, La Porte Noire, Poechenellekelder, a new place I'm keeping secret for the moment, Delices et Caprices, Au Bons Vieux Temps, and a big finish at Delirium.

My head hurts.

No no, I don't want your sympathy.

I'll take this moment to highly recommend Delices et Caprices for your next visit to Brussels. A great beer shop that focuses on quality over quantity. Pierre took great care of us with a mini-tasting that included a spicy chili beer from Millevertus, a big holiday bottle of Rochefort 8 the Great, and some tasty cheese and pâté.

Tomorrow morning the Woman and I are off to Germany. There will be a few days in Munich in there. For the museums, of course. Might not hear from me for a week or so. But you never know.

Ouch. Stop that racket.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Tasty Heresy in Southern France.

We stayed in Carcassonne, just below the castle walls. We walked the battlements and learned about Cathars and other heretics. Lots of people burned at the stake. I mean, a thousand years ago they did. Not last week.

Last week, we were the sinners. Our sin? Gluttony.

My favorite meal was not one of the many tasty cassoulets. Not even the double-ducked one of my Thanksgiving night meal, which also included foie gras on spiced bread, a few French cheeses with red-wine jam, and crème brûlée.

My favorite meal was not even the one at the Michelin-starred Le Parc, where our creative menu seemed built around a colorful Candyland theme. A frou-frou but amusing experience. The scallops were the dish that had everyone making those moaning sounds. The wine was great too, but I can't tell you a damned thing about it. Overall a fun experience, but was it worth the price? I don't know.

I do know that Lou Pescadou was worth it, and then some. That was hands-down my favorite meal of the trip. This is a fish house on the bank of the Canal du Midi, very near the Mediterranean. In fact the village of Agde was an ancient Greek seaport that later silted up.

Here's how Lou Pescadou works, and how it has worked without exception for 42 years. You get five courses. Those five courses are as follows: Fish soup with garlic scraped on crusty bread and shredded cheese; a heaping bowl of mussels with onions and tomatoes; the largest loaf of country pâté I've ever seen; either a fried fish or flank steak; and finally, orange crêpes.

All of that excellent comfort food for just €15 per person. The only choice you get is fish or steak on that fourth course. The rest? Take it or leave it. And at this point I must give full credit to the Lonely Planet guide for sending us there. There was table wine too, red or white. I think it was €4 per liter, something ridiculous like that. Nothing special but definitely refreshing and pleasant with all the grub.

Agde, incidentally, is lesser known than the nearby nudist community Cap d'Agde. Allegedly there is even a bank and a supermarket down there where folks just go nekkid. Sounds wild, but I don't know man. The supermarket? I know one thing: I don't see a lot of nekkid guys using that bread slicer in the bakery aisle.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Beery News from Brussels.

So I'm tempted to bore you with long descriptions of our meals in Languedoc, where pretty much all we did was eat. My lasting memories of that brief trip will be the sight and scent of a steaming bowl of cassoulet, with one or to duck legs poking out of it, next to a glass of red wine. Maybe it's possible to get tired of cassoulet. I never found that threshold.

But I'll save it. Instead I have a few news items. Odd thing for a blog to have, I know.

The Good Daughter: As brewer Ronald Mengerink of Dochter van de Korenaar told us in a recent post, they have a new beer coming out next week. The Embrasse at 9% abv will be the strongest Dochter offering so far, following the refreshing Noblesse (5.5%) and smoky Bravoure (6.5%). The official launch is December 12. Those who attend the upcoming Christmas Beer Festival in Essen will have the chance to try it.

I'm curious about the beer and why they went for a strong one. Many of you abroad will not realize this, but there is a lot of strong, shitty beer in Belgium. The importers generally pick out the good stuff for you. Often the strong ones are too sweet (for me). In this case Ronald's aim, he says, is a malty beer with a cleaner yeast profile than other Belgians. All malt, no adjuncts. His past beers show a willingness to add hops, dimension and character. I'm optimistic.

By the way, I've been mistranslating that brewery's name in my own mind for a while now. Like a stupid tourist I assumed it meant the "Doctor from Korenaar" and was too lazy too look it up. In fact, it means "daughter of the corn ear." It's a reference to a quote from Ghent-born Charles V, who preferred beer – the "daughter of the corn ear" – to wine, the "blood of the grape bunch." And if I've still got it wrong, somebody please let me know.

American Invasion: The Delirium Café here in Brussels has revamped its newsletter, and it looks pretty slick. My sincere thanks to Stephen D'Arcy for passing it on via e-mail, since I keep forgetting to subscribe myself. But none of that is news. The news is that Delirium plans to add five new taps in the upstairs Taphouse, bringing the total to 30. OK, that's still not news either. What interests me is that all five taps are apparently designated for American beers.

American beer geeks may read that and think, "So what?" But you've got to understand the local context. Non-Belgian beer is still nearly impossible to get in Belgium. (Everyone here is a Belgian beer lover, even if they only drink commercial pils. An old fella will point at a can of Jupiler when he tells you that Belgian beer is the best in the world.) This is a market that takes its own stuff for granted. Interesting beers and ideas from the outside can only be a good thing – even if it only leads to Belgian brewers to rejecting overhopped beers, for example, and doing what they do best.

But surely I'm making too much out of it. It's only a few taps at one café, right? Well, no. Moeder Lambic also makes occasional rumblings about adding an American beer or two, perhaps at its downtown location expected to open next year. That place will have a lot of taps too. You heard it here first.

If foreign craft beer is going to get a foothold in Belgium, that is how it will happen. Then, maybe much later, Sierra Nevada at Delhaize. But let's not hold our breath.

Hopduvel is back: It allegedly reopens sometime around December 15, per a post on the Babblebelt. No other details yet. Interestingly, my old post on its closure gets a lot of hits. Let's hope it comes back better than ever.

Monday, November 24, 2008

War, Beer, Beer, and Cassoulet.

Just a quick hello and a link for you. Short-and-sweet piece there on touring West Flanders. It starts with war but has a happy ending. De Dolle and the Poperinge Hop Fest get mentions. Mostly the piece reminds me of Ter Posterie, a great Ieper beer café and shop that sadly closed last year. To my knowledge nothing has yet moved into Ieper and filled that beery vacuum. Still a fascinating town and well worth visiting, especially for those with an interest in WWI.

Well, OK, one more link. Just to make sure you've seen the New Yorker piece on "extreme beers." Obviously there's a bit of a focus on Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head. Terrific piece of writing that does better than most to capture the innovative spirit of American craft beer these days. It's loooooonnnggg, but well worth your time.

On Wednesday we're off to Languedoc. This year it's cassoulet and red wine for Thanksgiving, kids. I might or might not get one more post in before going off the air until next week.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Where to Have a Beer and Fiddle with Your Girl in Brussels.

"A former brothel that looks like a cross between an opium den and a 1970s porno set..." That's how an old New York Times review paints the picture. I'm unlikely to say it better.

The Goupil le Fol is an intimate, candlelit, unbelievably atmospheric bar near the Grand Place. Sofas line the walls and old records coat the ceiling. Beaded curtains, ancient portraits and low conversation. The modus operandi is French and Belgian chanson. And old-fashioned Wurlitzer blasts Brel and his crooner contemporaries at high volume – a powerful change of mood from the '60s American oldies one hears in too many Belgian beer cafés.

Sadly for us this place is not really beery at all. On a recent visit the choices were Jupiler, Duvel or Belgoo. An easy choice – the last one is a refreshing blonde made by independent brewer Jo Van Aert at the Binchoise brewery. Maybe not a showstopper but highly drinkable.

Otherwise the Goupil mainly pushes a selection of fruity, sticky-sweet wine cocktails. As far as I can tell, the main purpose is to take your best girl here, ply her with these girl-drink-drunk concoctions, and take her upstairs for some canoodling. I'm not joking. I'm told that Brussels teens have been going up there to bump cheeks for years.

Hmm. I may have just crossed some sort of line. It reminds me of a sage lesson from one of my old journalism professors: Do you know why sex and sells both start with S?

Because sex sells.

Infallible logic.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

In Bruges.

Lightning-quick review of the Bruges Beer Festival: Fantastic venue in the old Belfort. Lots of space and the impression of more with high, impressively raftered ceilings. Even when it got (very) crowded there was always room to get out of the way. The beer was good – if you knew what breweries you liked – but not that exciting. By that I mean there were no new shining stars. No, the beer made from truffles doesn't make the cut. Two really nice ones for me were the tart and refreshing Cuvée de Ranke and the malty, smoked Bravoure from the Dochter van de Korenaar.

In short, it's a good fest for everyone but the tickers. Top 10, but maybe not yet Top 5.

What else: Since we've been discussing (and thinking about and drinking) seasonal beers, check out the (U.S.) Brewers Association page on the stuff. The database allows you to search by state. Microbrewers can add their own seasonal releases. Too bad it's not worldwide.

What else: Tim Webb's Cogan & Mater page mentions a certain upcoming book on Brussels. Very exciting. Deadline approaches.

And while it's on your mind, Tim's 100 Belgian Beers to Try Before You Die (with Joris Pattyn) makes an excellent Christmas gift. It's smartly written, as you'd expect, and the photography is inviting. It's a book that makes you thirsty.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Pairing Turkey and Beer.

If you want a Belgian ale with turkey, go with Saison Dupont. If you want a French beer, go with Castelain Blond. American beer? It's an American holiday, after all. In that case go for the reasonably Saison Dupont-ish Hennepin from Ommegang. That's the prevailing school of thought among the beer-geeky-foodies: Turkey goes best with a classic-style saison or lighter biére de garde. This is one of those rare spots where the prevailing school of thought prevails for a reason.

There's an article in the Savannah Morning News today on pairing turkey and beer. (No doubt there will be more of these in the next couple of weeks.) Great minds think mostly alike. Those three beers are there, plus the Brooklyn Local 1. And may Garrett Oliver smile upon ye.

But I've got to wonder about the Local 1. OK, I've never tried it. But at 9% alcohol it sounds a bit boozy for a turkey beer.

Last night we roasted a big bird for friends as a sort of Thanksgiving warm-up (the holidays approach – my druthers demand a running supply of turkey and/or ham leftovers in the fridge for the next three months). We drank Dupont's Avec Les Bons Voeux, weighing in at 9.5%. I lurve this beer, and others had recommended this to me as a turkey beer. The pairing was fine but not spectacular. Moderate bitterness and lively carbonation cut through the turkey and gravy well enough. The flavors didn't step on each others' toes. But there was definite alcoholic warmth showing through. That's OK with dessert or digestif... but I don't want it with dinner.

So, again: Saison Dupont, Castelain Blond or Hennepin – that last being your best value if you're in the States. Those well-established turkey beers all hover around 7% alcohol. I don't think that's a coincidence.

By the way, lagers also work great... pils if you prefer white meat, Dunkel if you prefer dark meat, and amber if you like both. Yes, I'm aware of how stupid that sounds. Test it for yourself and see.

But you know what? The fun's in the experimentation and screw the conventional wisdom if it doesn't work for you. So, what does work for you? I'd love to hear other suggestions. What's your turkey beer? Or wine? Or whatever?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Christmas is the Best Time of the Beer.

What's your favorite winter warmer? You know: brandy snifter, fireside, beagle dozing at your feet, and so on.

Here's a piece from the Philadelphia Daily News on Christmas and winter beers. He gets a bit ga-ga over Corsendonk, which is OK. Bush Noel and (Heineken-owned) Affligem Noel aren't to my taste, but I guess you can get away with sweet-and-simple in a holiday beer. Nice that Stille Nacht gets a mention.

I can say without a doubt that the best Christmas beer I've ever had is a Stille Nacht Reserva at Kulminator in Antwerp. Actually that's tied for first place with the second time I had a Stille Nacht Reserva at Kulminator in Antwerp. For a sweetish beer Stille Nacht already has some complexity, but with the Reserva the oak performs some sort of Christmas magic that I do not claim to understand. This beer will make you believe in Santa Claus.

Lately I've been enjoying the hell out of St. Bernardus 8, which knocks the socks off of most holiday beers anyway. Rich malt, dark fruit and stewed apples aroma, incredible balance for high drinkability. It fits in the winter warmer category for me. Bought a case and unfortunately I'm tearing through the stuff like it's going out of style. Which it's not. Ever.

My neighbors and I are planning a Christmas party. We aim to celebrate with a keg full of "good wishes" from the Dupont brewery. Want to come?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

More Upcoming Beer-Festing of Note...

Firstly: The next big fest is Bruges this weekend. This fest debuted last year to rave reviews. But we'll judge it for ourselves, won't we?

Here's the beer list. Quite a big selection, and including a taste of Westvleteren 8 and 12. That's exciting news for tourists who may not get another chance. One that piques my scientific interest is Over the Edge made by Van Steenberge for the American market (mixed but basically positive BeerAdvocate reviews here). It's listed here as an IPA. "We'll see about that," says my unbalanced, hop-starved American palate. Coming from Van Steenberge the 9.5% strength is no surprise... it will likely be sweet and fruity as well. How much real hop character comes though is what I hope to find out.

An obscure one there I like is the Noblesse from the Dochter van de Korenaar, which is frankly the coolest brewery name in Belgium. It's intensely Noble-hoppy – dry and grassy. Light and refreshing with a dry finish that makes you thirsty for more.

Secondly: As noted on the Babblebelt, the "Insurance Against Great Thirst" in Eizeringen is having a Day of the Lambic on December 13. I have read the information and all I can tell you is this: It's a day, and there will be lambic. How that makes it different from any other day in Eizeringen I'm not sure, but it's an event. With lambic. That's what matters. Unfortunately there's some overlap with...

Thirdly: The mighty Christmas Beer Festival in Essen is December 13 and 14, and the beer list's first draft is now available for your perusement. Peruse away and commence thirst generation.

Seems like one could make a great weekend out of Eizeringen on Saturday and Essen on Sunday. Unfortunately that eliminates the option of doing Essen both days. Tough call for you. Meanwhile we might be in Bamberg or Munich instead. More on that in the near future.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What's Your Best Train Beer? And an Argument for Cans.

I'm not talking about the tin-can, train-station swill to which we often resort when nothing else is available. I'm asking about your greatest coup... What's the best thing you've drunk on the train? A Westy, maybe? And did you have the proper glass for it?

It's an occurrence that borders on tradition... We take the train from Brussels to some beer fest or other event, out there in the hinterlands somewhere. We memorize the departure times of the last three trains back to Brussels, and we never ever catch the first two of these. Oh hell, we can spend these last 10 tokens if we wait 40 minutes and go for the last train out... Then, 50 minutes later: Time to book it! Grab something good for the train!

After the hop fest in Poperinge we went with the Petrus Blond, a bit sweet and pretty drab by Belgian standards. The Bavik café next to the station was happy to oblige, even if they had never heard of the brewery's aged beers. It got the job done.

Following last year's Brassigaume my friend Matt and I grabbed one (or was it two?) bottles of Saison Dupont and made use of our tasting glasses. Then the train packed up with post-holiday students on their way back to school, standing in the aisles and sitting in each other's laps. We felt it was only polite to share. By then I felt a bit ill from motion and claustrophobia and just possibly from too much beer. Unfortunately a pack of younglings had hemmed me in, preventing ay dash for the men's room. I managed to fight the bear and win, as we say in the Ozarks, but that was a long ride back from Marbehan.

Then last Friday was Hasselt's excellent Bierweekend. After more than three hours of festing Kjeld and I accidentally-on-purpose missed the last direct train to Brussels and opted for the change in Leuven. We grabbed two 75cLs for the ride – the hoppy blond Lupulus from 3 Fourquets and the quasi-mysterious Helkiase from Dupont. (I suspect that last to be the Vielle des Estinnes with another label, this one made for a medieval hospital museum in Lessines.)

Both were tasty but that saison-ish and refreshing Helkiase really won me over. Unfortunately it also hit the seats and the floor. I returned from a trip to the toilet to find a guilty-looking Kjeld and beer splashed everywhere. Apparently the train had lurched and he was unable to save my glass. Something seems to have dulled his reflexes. We were the only ones riding the train except a conductor, and he was less than impressed.

That's the problem with glassware on the train, isn't it? Once it spills, you've lost that beer. But a tin can... You might lose a few glugs before a dramatic and triumphant rescue.

That gets me thinking more about cans. I'd love to see a few Belgian craft breweries start using them, as some American ones do (see 21st Amendment or the mighty Oskar Blues). In terms of quality there is no reason not to do it. Yeah, there's a certain loss of aroma and prestige.

On the other hand, you look like a real asshole drinking from a tulip glass while fishing.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Birra and Poetry.

I'll more effort into sharing news relevant to thirst and travel. So I'm a few days late on suggesting this fine piece on Italian craft beer by Prague-based Evan Rail. By now many of you have read it. If not, then do so now. Pass it around.

While you're at it, also check out Evan's Good Beer Guide to Prague and the Czech Republic, from CAMRA Books.

I must say: It is incredibly cool that an Italian brewery, Grado Plato, named a beer after Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology. Now there's a little piece of Americana. Apparently the book is well-known in Italy; a shame it's not more famous in the States outside of lit classes. Haunting and beautiful stuff... also fairly unchallenging and fun to read. Each poem is an epitaph. Here's my favorite.

You have to admit that "Spoon River Ale" is a better name than "SloCK." Which I'm off to try in Hasselt tonight. Good weekend to you.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Don't Avoid the Hasselt.

If you're in the neighborhood of Belgium and looking for something to do this weekend, consider Hasselt.

The Belgian Beer Weekend there kicks off at 6 p.m. Friday and again at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The list of 140 beers is impressive and interesting.

A few that tweak my curiosity:

Finneke looks to be a new one from Glazen Toren, an East Flanders brewery that hits all my sweet spots. Its beers are typically in the saison mold, very dry and spicy with noticeable hop character. Glazen Toren also gives really good head – it must be among the laciest, sturdiest beer foam in the world. The crisp and refreshing Saison d'Erpe Mere is a classic in my mind. So what's the Finneke? No idea.

SloCk from De Graal, with apologies for the apparently accurate spelling. This is another in the encouraging trend of Belgian brewers experimenting with American hops. It looks to be in the blonde mold at a reasonable 6.5% abv. My theory is that the capital "C" in the silly name stands for C-hops. Sounds promising but here's my advice for friends with American craft-beer palates: Don't get your hops up. I mean hopes, of course, don't get your hopes up.

And finally, Black Jack Imperial Porter from the Struise boys at Deca. Struise is somewhat controversial because despite the lack of their own brewery thay have achieved incredible popularity among the international beer-geek community. I openly admit to being a fanboy. The Black Jack is said to be an American-style porter of 7.5% strength. Bottles have been sighted here and there, but the stuff is scarce. We'll see how long it lasts this weekend.

If you've been to this fest before, note the change of venue. This will be at the Cultereel Centrum at Kunstlaan 5. See you there.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Saturday Morny and Lambic Horny at Cantillon.

I'm a card-carrying, dues-paying member of the Brussels Museum of Gueuze. In other words, I give €15 per year to the Cantillon lambic brewery.

This is a practical matter as much as anything else. I'd been taking several guests per year there and paying five euro-duckets each time. With membership I no longer pay when taking the self-led tour for the umpteenth time. Also I get a letter every few months with an insider's scoop of what's going on at the brewery.

For example: Did you know that the grocery store chain Delhaize sells Cantillon gueuze and kriek to the tune of 25,000 bottles a year? Well, they don't. Not anymore. Delhaize dropped Cantillon in May. That should have been a tough blow, except all that volume went to exports and an uptick in sales at the brewery. It's all in the letter. Read it and weep, Food Lion!

And did you know that the celebrated Kriek Lou Pépé was made this year with frozen organic cherries from Turkey? "The result was a (pleasant) surprise," esteemed patriarch Jean-Pierre Van Roy writes in the letter, "and gave us new ideas."

There's a reason I'm bringing all of this up, besides the fact that this is a Brussels-based beer blog, gueuze is the Champagne of Brussels, and Cantillon is the only real brewery left in town. That reason is that November is a big month for devotees of the lambic house on Gheude street.

This Saturday is the Cantillon's Open Brewing Day. It's a chance to tour the brewery, pepper the brewer with questions, and see the magical coolship and barrels up close.

Now if you're asking, "How does that make it different from any other day that Cantillon is brewing?" – well then, you're a very smart person. Here's the difference: The tour is free, and so are the coffee and croissants if you get there inhumanly early when the most interesting brewing is going on. That's also when you'll be in a small company of hard-core enthusiasts so dedicated that they wake up before dawn and stand around thinking seriously of having their first glass of the sour stuff around 8:30 a.m. I don't recommend going in the afternoon, when there are bigger crowds and often a wait for tours that may or may not be in your language.

I'm more excited about Quintessence on November 22. Imagine a "progressive" party where each successive room offers a world-class lambic paired with world-class, locally made food. Ten courses. This goes from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and costs €15 a head for non-members. It's €12 for us card-carrying elites.

Instead of describe the menu to you, I'm just going to paste the whole thing below. Just to make you drool. Book now if you want to partake.

Quintessence Menu

* 2 year old Lambic of Cantillon
* Grand Cru Bruocsella bottled in 2003
- "Pottekeis" - recipe of Cantillon

* Gueuze-Lambic bottled in 2006 (Lambic 03, 04, 05)
* Gueuze-Lambic bottled in 1996 (Lambic 93, 94, 95)
- Smoked mackerel – (Supplier : La Mer du Nord)

* Kriek-Lambic bottled in 2006 (sour cherries harvest 2006, lambic 2004)
- Pâté with kriek beer and rillette of duck with lambik beer - (Supplier: Halle de l'Abattoir)

* "Trou bruxellois": Gueuze sorbet (Supplier: Framboisier Doré)

* Rosé de Gambrinus bottled in 2006 (raspberries harvest 2006, lambic 2004)
- Rillette with salmon - (Supplier: La Mer du Nord)

* Cuvée Fou’foune bottled in 2006 (apricots harvest 2006, lambic 2004)
- Cheese with Gueuze beer - (Supplier: Brasserie Dupont)

* Vigneronne (grapes harvest 2006, lambic 2004)
- Old parmesan- (Supplier : Langhendries)

* Cuvée Saint-Lamvinus (lambic with Merlot grapes, harvest 2006, lambic 2004)
- Sausage with ceps - (Supplier: café des Spores)

* Iris 2004 (pure malt)
- Cake with nuts – (Supplier : Laurent Dumont)

* Faro (lambic 2006 with candy sugar)
- "Pain à la grecque" - (Supplier: Dandoy)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Revenge of the Schnitzelbank.

My wife's Grandma Bernie has a lot of old family letters, books, photos and other documents that go back to the mid- and late 1800's. Most of them are in German up to a point, then they all go English. You can deduce why. Probably the same reasons my great-grandparents changed the pronunciation of our name in the 1930s. Germany was very uncool in America for a while.

Anyway, Grandma Bernie recently mailed us this song sheet/advertisement for Gluek beer. I date it to 1923 or thereabouts. She sent it and I scanned it just in time... after the journey it's suddenly falling apart. It's digitized form doesn't have the same feel and musty scent, but it's better than nothing.

Gluek was a Minneapolis brewery that goes back to 1857, although it had a different name at first. It was one of the many American breweries founded by Germans and later participating in the rampant popularity of pale lager. Gluek still exists today as Cold Spring Brewery. It still makes Gluek. I suspect we all know pretty much what it tastes like. Meanwhile a glance at the Web site reveals that Cold Spring has adapted to the times by selling health drinks and crafty-looking ales. Any reports on this brewery or its history are welcome.

Back to the literature: It folds out to three pages, front and back, and inside are a bunch of drinking songs – some in English, some in German. Pretty cool, I think. Maybe not cool in the '30s and '40s. But pretty cool now. It's a glimpse of a brief time when German-Americans were still proud of their heritage. They were still teaching their kids to talk and sing in both English and German. I don't want to over-romanticize it. But it's fun to think about.

I also don't want to overload this post with heavy jpeg files, so I'll post more of the sheet another day. And maybe another. If you're interested.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

We Are All Jelly Donuts.

I was physically in Berlin 10 years ago. From the train I saw a skyline packed with cranes, so I continued on to Hamburg instead. At the time I only wanted to party and see pretty things, not hang out in a massive construction site.

So, that was a mistake. Now I wish I had really seen it 10 years ago, to have those before-and-after snapshots in my mind. The Missus and I found that we really just dug that city. A lot. It was one of those visits where you feel a connection to a place. Like we could move there next week and not miss a beat.

Our families are both German-Missourian. My grandfather was born near Kiel, in the north. I don't believe in blood calling out to a place. That's romantic and stupid. But I do believe culture is not so easily shaken off after a just couple of generations. Not even in America.

Anyway: Let's discuss material things. Not the means but the ends: food and beer. The undisputed highlight of our trip was Brewbaker. This is one of Berlin's more adventurous brewpubs – and if you're there this week you can probably try some pumpkin lager for Halloween. There were no special brews on either of our visits, just the Czech-style pils and a dunkel. Both were exceptional and harmonious with serious bitterness and good malt character. Thirst-quenching and brilliant with the food.

The cooking there is worth mentioning on its own. You can watch the chef work in the open kitchen with all-fresh ingredients. With friends we all had two incredible dinners there – I did not know blood sausage could be that good. Getting them all to go back a second time was an easy sell. And here's a peek at my juicy pork cutlet from our last evening in town.

You don't need a stubborn German grandfather to appreciate it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

On a Midnight Train to Berlin.

We're off to Berlin until Monday. I've been informed we won't be drinking beer all weekend. Of course the correct response is, "You're absolutely right. We won't be drinking beer all weekend." No doubt we'll fit in a little history and/or culture between pubs.

But I ask you: What's more cultural than pubs? What's more artistic than beer? Berliner Weisse is pretty historic. What's more educational than barroom conversation? Rhetorical questions for the choir.

The translated title of this song is, "Beer Drinking is Important."

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Spookiest Beer-Blog Post Ever.

I'm writing a piece on Paris and beer. Feeling a bit artsy, I've been digging through Edith Piaf lyrics for anything useful. Maybe not. The best I can do is the song "Le brun et le blond," in which her light-haired lover drains his beer glass before shooting himself in the head. A bit dark, non? But also kind of funny. It was probably Kronenbourg.

I'll give you a heads up when the piece comes out. I'd appreciate it if you listen to this tune in the background while you read it. She's pretty amazing. I find her creepy and ghostly, like a phonograph you'd hear from behind a closed door at the Overlook Hotel.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Westmalle's Tap Closes. (BOO!) Then it Reopens Anew. (YAY!)

A couple of weeks ago I saw this message from our friend Podge that the Café Trappisten was about to close for an unknown timespan. The Trappisten is the official brewery tap for Westmalle, not far east of Antwerp city. That café is as close as you'll get to the source without taking vows, normally.

Not knowing how long it would be closed – and still stinging from not visiting the Hopduvel one last time – drinking buddy Matt and I went to check it out. Glad we did. The sunny and sprawling terrace was inviting, but we went for the inside portion whose days were numbered.

We thoroughly enjoyed our Trip-Trap – a 50/50 blend of the Dubbel and Tripel. Go on, try it at home. It's pretty much what you'd expect: tastes like a 50/50 blend of the Dubbel and Tripel. No, there is no magical gestalt there. No powerful Trappist super-robot-beer greater than the sum of its parts. Just two excellent ales that remain excellent when mixed together. Meanwhile the snack menu had kip and also kop but no kip-kap. Thus I fell short of my dream to have kip-kap with my Trip-Trap. All part of my theory that rhyming foods taste better.

The old café was really a nice place. It was large yet lived-in and cozy. The Germans would note its Gemütlichkeit and start claiming tables for their Stammtisch. It takes years and years to build up that sort of character. I'm still scratching my head wondering why they decided to scrap it.

Maybe we'll find out very soon. The new café opens to the public this Saturday, October 25. Plus there is a sort of reopening party starting at 4 p.m. this Thursday. All are welcome, I was told.

Then, after investigating this newfangled place, we can decide whether to like it or lament the old one. Or, more likely, some of both.

Friday, October 17, 2008

How to Make Your Own Personal Carbonnade.

Carbonnade is like the chili con carne of Belgium. Everyone seems to have their own recipe, or lack thereof, and the basic concept is wide open for creative variation. It's also pretty easy to cook. Here it is, in a nutshell:

Heat a little oil in a stockpot or Dutch oven, then brown your beef chunks in it. Remove the meat and sauté some onions, adding a little beer to help deglaze. Then put the meat back in, adding enough beer just to cover. Bring it to a boil, cover, and simmer on the stovetop or in the oven for 90 minutes to two hours. Taste it, add thyme, salt and pepper as necessary. Or whatever else you think it needs. Simmer uncovered on the stovetop until thickened to your liking. Voila.

That's the minimalist version. Here's the nitty:

What beer to use? The classics are a nice dubbel like Westmalle or a Flemish red/brown like Rodenbach. I've also had great success with Mc Chouffe. The truth: It doesn't matter that much, because as it simmers the beefy flavor will take the lead and put the beer in the backdrop. What does matter is that it's (a) not bitter, and (b) not too expensive. You're cooking with it, after all. I once used Westvleteren to see if it would make a difference, and frankly I should be shot for even thinking it. If you're in the U.S. and want a cheaper, more available option, try New Belgium Abbey. But anything malty and fruity rather than bitter will probably work just fine.

What other ingredients?
This is the fun part. Some people add beef broth and/or tomato paste to the liquid; I think it's unnecessary and detracts from the subtle beeriness. I do like to add some minced garlic to the onions. Carrots are fair game. Prunes are fairly common and tasty, drawing out the beer's fruitiness. Sliced mushrooms can be nice too, but add them later if you want to taste them. A whole range of herbs and spices could go in there. I visited my neighbor last night and he was chucking in a Chinese five-spice blend and cayenne pepper – I was skeptical until I tasted it. Finally, five to 10 minutes before serving, you can also finish it with a tablespoon of Dijon mustard and/or fruit jam, like blackberry.

How best to thicken it? You can flour your meat in the first place, but this browns the flour rather than the meat. That takes away from the nice seared-beef flavor. Instead I add flour to the onions and stir it in, before deglazing with the beer. You can also add a paste of flour and water in the later simmering. It's common in Belgium to finish with a hunk of bread and let it soak in, for added thickness and texture. And of course you can always let it cook down.

How long should it take? Two to three hours, start to finish, but most of that is unwatched simmering. Remember that – like chili – it tastes even better after a night or two in the fridge.

What to serve it with? In Belgium it's usually a heaping pile of frites. Nothing wrong with that. At home we prefer a heaping pile of mashed potatoes, all the better to soak up that sauce. More importantly, don't forget to have it with lots of the same beer you used for the stew.

As you enjoy it, assuming you played around with ingredients, take pride in the fact that nobody will ever be able to duplicate it. Not even you.

And if you have your own variations or suggestions, please share them.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

You Can Be My Saison Cowgirl.

The week before last I was downtown with some time to kill. Often when that happens I suddenly find myself at Delirium, in the Taphouse upstairs, flipping through the book to see what's on draft. Lots of American craft beer in there lately, and this time I go with a Flying Dog Doggie Style Pale Ale. (Love the labels, like the beers, hate the stupid names.)

The beer is quaffable and has what I want just then: good old American, citrus-hop aroma. My nose also catches a big whiff of fresh paint – but that's not the beer. It is yet another addition to the now-sprawling complex that is the Delirium Café. In this case it's a new room in the Taphouse with enough tables for 60 more people. That's welcome news in a joint that still manages to get too packed and smoky at night.

Naturally every inch of the new space is layered in more breweriana. If you've ever tried to seek out an old Belgian beer sign and had difficulty, it may be because Delirium has them all. I'm especially fond of this one. As you may know I'm a bit of a saisonophile (yes, I just made that word up). I'd never heard of Saison Cow-Boy* until I saw this sign. The translation is, "If the young knew, if the old could, they'd all drink Saison Cow-Boy." I think.

That reminds me of an genius idea I had on the plane yesterday. It's a hypothetical beer name. The next brewer to make a hoppy or sour American-Belgian hybrid can have it for free. Ready for it? "Ça C'est d'la Bonne Merde." It doesn't translate perfectly, but that's OK. Neither will your beer.

*Made by Brasserie Ponselet, which was in the Hainaut town of Anderlues from 1836 until its closure in 1971. I'd love to know more about the beer, but there's precious little online except old labels for sale.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Turns Out You Can Dance at Every Wedding.

Still in Missouri. Homebrewing, eating juicy steaks and witnessing marriages.

The beery highlight, if you're interested, has been tasting the crisp, dry saison I cooked with my brother a few months ago. In the meantime we whipped up a batch of smoked porter. A close second goes to the Two-Hearted Ale I sipped yesterday in Columbia with some Shakespeare's, still the best pizza in the world and a solid beer selection to boot. Too bad our Tigers let us down. And then there was the open-beer-bar wedding reception at Schlafly's. Which was too short.

I'll be back in Belgium in a couple of days, and this site will reanimate. See you then.

Friday, October 3, 2008

'Odds and Ends' Would Be the Least Original Title for a Blog Post Ever.

My plan today was to share some strange and ancient propaganda from the Gluek Brewing Company, based in Minnesota. It's an old sheet of drinking songs, half in German and half in English, with plenty of interesting photos and advertising. Unfortunately my scanner is also strange and ancient, and it's taking longer than I thought to get it working. So that fascinating glimpse of prewar German-American culture will have to wait for another day.

Meanwhile, some news on the professional front: The U.K-based Beers of the World just published my article on Belgian beer fests, co-written with friend and fellow freelancer Roy Stevenson. (And maybe by the time you click, the site will be updated with Issue 20.)

Look for another article in BOTW early next year, and also in the January/February issue of the U.S.-based DRAFT. And meanwhile we're trying to finish the book... It's nice to be swamped. Really.

Can't tell you more than that, yet. But I will say, if you don't know, that those are two of the classiest beer magazines out there. Buy them. Read them. Subscribe. Then spend lots of money at all the companies that advertise in them.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Tin Mill: Proudly Bottom-Fermenting in Middle Missouri.

I'll be back home for a wedding next week. So Missouri and marriage are on my mind, besides Oktoberfest.

By the way, if you're in Missouri and want a taste of Oktoberfest, there's only one place to go: Hermann. Every weekend in October, a good chunk of the state descends on this little town to fully partake of its many wineries and solitary brewery. That brewery is a relatively recent development, and its name is the Tin Mill.

Housed in a former MFA feed store, the Tin Mill has an unusual mission: brew only the finest German-style lagers. Forget ales, there are enough of them in brewpubs across the country. Besides that, here is a town extremely proud of its German roots. A local microbrewery devoted to the Reinheitsgebot is just too perfect.

The good news: Its beers are mighty tasty. The Missus and I visited in June and tasted a few. Our favorite was the Tin Mill Pilsner – floral, grainy, crisply bitter and dry. I want some right now.

Hermann, by the way, is the same town where my wife and I got married. See how I bring it full circle? Too bad Tin Mill wasn't around then. Our families would have demolished several kegs of the stuff.

No, the wedding next week isn't in Hermann. It's in St. Louis. I won't complain: The reception is at the Schlafly Tap Room. Sorry, you're not invited.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Do-It-Yourself Oktoberfest.

Oktoberfest is on as we speak. Aren't you jealous? Me too. Ideally we could duck in for a few liters, some sing-songs, and be back for dinner and an evening in the armchair. Unfortunately there's the whole getting to Munich, finding a room, and fighting the crowd thing to worry about. Scheisse, that's too much work.

So I like this idea that you can make a little Oktoberfest in your own home. Why not? Crack some Ayinger, fry up some sausages, wrap the wife in a drindl, and strap on the lederhosen. Hell, by that measure it's Oktoberfest six days a week in our house.

Or you can do it like the journalists in Framingham do it. Have the dawgs over on Sunday. Put on some football. Line up every Oktoberfest beer from the local bottle shop and get to work.

Depending on whether you've ever worked as a journalist, this video may either smash or confirm every stereotype you have about newspapermen. Having been one myself, those guys look eerily familiar. Get the feeling they weren't expecting the video camera to show up?

In keeping with the theme, more German stuff later this week. Meanwhile have a look at the Bitten Bullet, a relatively new blog drenched in delicious German lager.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Hopduvel Closes, and Gent is Just a Little Bit Colder.

It seems we'll never get another chance to visit the famous Hopduvel in Gent.

This has been one of Belgium's top beer cafés, even if it is a frustrating hike from the city center. Just like Tim Webb's Guide had warned us. The Missus and I walked that labyrinth with friends one chilly night last winter. The café was the embodiment of warmth. A wood stove blazed in the corner as we feasted on stoverij – alias carbonnade – a hearty beef stew cooked in Westmalle Dubbel. Then some rich, malty and tart Oerbier provided warmth of its own.

Glad we got to be there once. Various reports are surfacing on the Babblebelt and elsewhere that the Hopduvel has closed for good. I'm told there was a private farewell party on Friday. Now nobody is picking up the phone.

This news leaves one undisputed champion of beer-specialist haunts in Gent: the Waterhuis aan de Bierkant.

What can I tell you about the "Waterhouse on the Beerside"? Well, the beer list is an attraction. It's got a nice waterfront location. It's small, dim and smoky. Dried hops hang everywhere. To match them try the house beer called Gandavum Dry Hopping, refreshing despite 7.5% strength, made special for the café by Proef. Also get some cheese or sausage and some of the spiciest nostril-burning mustard you'll ever try. (Later go around the corner to the Tierentyn-Verlent shop and buy a fresh jar of the stuff to take home.)

The Waterhouse doesn't have much in the way of food. That's why I like the place next door, Chez Leontine, even better. This cozy spot specializes in Belgian grandma food. It also shares the entire Waterhouse beer list. Ditch the smoke, keep the beer, get some grub in the bargain. Try the rabbit stew.

So raise your glass to the Hopduvel, whose fire has gone out. But don't give up on Gent.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Mysterious Belgian Bar Snacks, Part II: Plattekaas.

It's called plattekaas, or flat cheese, and the name is apt. It's white, creamy and bland. Normally it comes with radishes, onions, possibly shallots, and the most gigantic slice of bread you've ever seen. It's one half of the breakfast of old flat-capped Belgian champions.

What's the attraction? By itself, I have no idea. But it turns out the stuff goes pretty well with lambic, the other half of the breakfast of old flat-capped Belgian champions. Go figure.

Pictured here is a plate at the famous Mort Subite café in the Brussels city center. In this case they pair the gargantuan slice of bread with gargantuan green onions. See that tiny fork in the photo? No, that's a normal-sized fork. Actually somewhat large, as forks go. Then you get to do all the cutting and spreading yourself. A lot of work, but I guess it gives us non-smokers something to do with our hands.

Me? I prefer schepkaas. It's salty as all-get-out and smells like hell. But that's an entry for another day.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Digging into Brussels' Nooks and Crannies.

I mentioned once before that I'm working on a book. Collaborating, more accurately, on a guide to the best places in Brussels to drink good beer. A lot of strenuous research, as you can imagine. No fun at all.

Anyway, our editor suggested that I not give the book away for free on this blog. Sage advice, I think. So, how do you feel about five months or so of cruel teasing?

Try to guess this one if you want, if you've done some café-hopping in Brussels. I might or might not tell you if you're right. And taking a cue from Stan Heironymus, you might or might not get a prize. Also: There's no point looking at places on Ratebeer or Beer Advocate for clues. We're digging deeper and plan to reveal several "new" places to the non-Bruxellois world.

For example: This is on the edge of town, far from tourist civilization. Very quiet. It's also really and truly smoke-free, a rarity in Belgium. The list includes gueuze and kriek from every serious lambic brewer, including 3 Fonteinen, Cantillon, De Cam and Hanssens, served lovingly in big, bulbous burgundy glasses. The management keeps years of tasting notes and beer-related news clippings in a file behind the bar. It also sells older and lesser-selling bottles from the cellar once per year, at rock-bottom prices, to local connoisseurs.

So, where is it?

Tell you next spring.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Celebrating Hops and Making Small Children Wear Funny Costumes in Poperinge.

Arrive to find all of Poperinge barricaded off like it's preparing for a zombie invasion. Pay €7 to enter. Feel safely protected from vehicular traffic, freeloaders and the undead.

Food search reveals pricey three-course meals or cheap bratwurst. Easy choice. Enjoy brat while looking for open café table. No problem there; you're a good planner and anal-rententively early. Have some Hommelbier and wish it was hoppier.

After a few rounds, here comes the parade (zombie-free, although there is one giant devil, a giant spider, and several Germans). Cute little tykes in insect costumes. Everything decorated in hops, whose resinous aromas waft through the air. Bavarian oompah bands. Locals pretending to be Americans, migrant workers and drunks (some don't have to try very hard). Hop queens past and present. More cute little tykes in insect costumes. Then a big finish before the beer festival in the main square. Turns out to be just a Jupiler festival. Back to the café to grab a few decent beers for the train ride.

A tip: The best beers and parade views appeared to be at the Palace Hotel on Ieperstraat. Get there a couple of hours early for a curbside table. The Café de la Paix is also worth a look, especially if you're looking for a proper sit-down meal.

But don't stress about it. You have until 2011.

In the meantime, meditate on this strangeness:

Friday, September 19, 2008

Gemütlichkeit On Tour.

Our friend Andy Neil at Bier-Mania tours is a busy guy these days.

First he found time to post some lovely shots from last weekend's Bruxellensis fest here. Next he'll be swamped with a series of Oktoberfest tours in Bavaria, which can't be nearly as fun for him as he makes out. (You try leading that tour four or five times in a row, see if you feel like a champ.) By the way he still has some spaces available on September 28 in the atmospheric Hacker-Pschorr tent. You know you want to.

Meanwhile you British types who read this blog (approximately 10.67% of you, according to my rough calculations) can catch the Andy Neil road show from October 9 to 12 at Zeitgeist, at the Jolly Gardeners in Lambeth.

Go for that Sternbräu Dunkel Rauchbier. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Vapeur Means Steam, Get It?

Speaking of slow things: Sometime you really ought to spend a Saturday out at Vapeur.

Vapeur is a brewery in the Wallonian province of Hainaut, right in the heart of saison country. Its claim to fame is the restored and operational steam engine that powers its mashing tun. And it's worth a visit just for that old engine chugging away like a locomotive, cranking a series of pulleys over your head, and ultimately stirring up that sweet mash. A beautiful thing to see and smell at 9 in the morning.

Yes, you should get there by 9. You don't want to miss anything, do you? Actually once you've seen the engine cranking and poked around the brewery a bit, take a little drive. Go visit nearby Dupont or Dubuisson as noon approaches. Then hurry back. Because Vapeur's blowout banquet lunch is nearly as famous as that steam engine. Possibly more so.

The beer is all-you-can-drink, by the way. OK I'm not wild about the stuff, spicier than I like. But did I mention it's all-you-can-drink? Did I mention the food? The usual offering is a ham slow-cooked in Vapeur's sweet brown ale overnight. Some other smoked salmon and ham may be there too. Baskets full of freshly baked beer bread with various spreads and spices at your disposal. A cart loaded with about two dozen artisanal cheeses, many of them made with beer.

Then once you're stuffed you wait a while. It's getting close to the 3 p.m. mark by now. Drink more beer. Later comes the tarts and beer-schnapps. Well come on, you'll need a digestif after all that.

Vapeur's Open Brewing Day is the last Saturday of every month in the village of Pipaix. Ring ahead at +32 (0) 069 66 20 47 or drop Mr. Dits a line at brasserie at vapeur dot com to make a reservation. Usually it costs €30 per person, payable when you get there, or sometime after.

No rush though.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Slow Beer and Hedonism. Or, Time for a Heavy-Handed Post on Beer Philosophy.

Hey there, beer snob. Oh come on, fess up, you know what you are. You're among friends. But what does that title mean to you, "beer snob"? Something I've been thinking about. I'll try to illustrate with a true story. Yay, story time!

So it's muggy mid-summer in Washington, D.C., and I'm camped at the bar of RFD. Sipping a hoppy and overpriced beer. Waiting for a friend. A clean-cut, necktied young man arrives and waves down the bartender. This is what he says: "I'll take a bottle of the DT's!"

DT's, eh? Interesting, I think. Never heard of it. The barkeep pulls a familiar, gray, ceramic bottle from the cooler. Oh... Right. Delirium Tremens. DT's, get it? Cute.

It gets cuter. This young buck, no doubt fresh from a long day of fiddling around on MySpace in his cubicle, forks over his eight dollars. And he promptly proceeds to slam his "DT's." Straight from the bottle.

Mind you this is a potent brew of 8.5% strength. And while it's sweeter than I like, this is still a good beer. In the grand scheme of things. But give the knucklehead credit for knowing exactly what he wants out of life – inebriation – and just embracing it. Chase your dreams, young feller! Don't let flavor hold you back!

Now: That kid was a hedonist. But we're hedonists of a different sort, aren't we? Beer snobs, I mean.

I keep thinking of the Slow Food movement. Besides that philosophy's ecological and political components – which are fine – there's an especially brilliant notion that food is not just a means but also an end. It's the same with beer, wine, and many other arts. There is real pleasure to be found in good beer and good food. If you take the time to enjoy that pleasure it can set your life apart from others. This is nothing radical. There are a lot of unhappy people in this world. They get too few moments that make them happy to be alive. We know that good food and drink can do that – if we stop to pay attention.

OK. So let's say Slow Beer* is the notion that beer should taste good, and that we really ought to stop and enjoy it. If you want to add the bits about environmental impact, fair pay for labor, blah blah blah, that's OK with me. As long as we get the fun part in there.

So, what's snobby about this? Because there's something at least a little snooty about gnashing our teeth and wishing that dude would drink his ale from a glass.

Beer snobs want to enjoy their beer of course, but we also want to drink better beer. More often than not, we also want others to do the same. This implies a certain objective standard. Otherwise, how do we know which beer is better? We're all critics. Criticism assumes that some is good, some bad. For example, we might say that Miller Lite is bad, Westvleteren good.

Here's where it gets tricky. Think about a friend who likes beer but isn't geeky about it. Would you rather see her really savor and enjoy her Miller Lite, or slam a Westvleteren 12 so fast she can't even taste it?

And if I vote for Miller Lite, can I still be in the club?

*Slow Beer is not new either, of course. An Australian chain uses it to market craft beer. A festival in San Francisco is named for it. Other bloggers have written about it here and here and elsewhere no doubt. Quoting beer scribe William Brand from that last link, "beer is one of the original slow foods."

Monday, September 15, 2008

Upcoming Belgian Beer Fests. New! With Unasked-for Commentary.

There were many beers drunk, T-shirts sold, and glasses broken. Lovely ladies played music and manly men kissed each other on the cheek. After two days of festifying, my friends and I marveled at the feat of offering so many good brews from so few breweries. Here's to hoping Bruxellensis was half as financially successful as it was flat-out fun.

Moving on: Here's a look at the upcoming fest calendar. There are beer (or beer-related) fests going on nearly every weekend of the year in Belgium, but some of the most interesting are just around the corner.

(BIG thanks to the Bierebel site and also to Paul Briggs for sharing his excellent list.)

September 19-21, Poperinge Hop Festival. Only happens once every three years, and this is one of them. Not technically a beer fest, as it celebrates the crop rather than the final product. Still, we have it on good authority that there will in fact be beer there. It might even be good beer, if you know where to look.

September 20-21, Fête de la Bière, Pain et Fromage in Durbuy. Alas we'll be in Poperinge instead, so maybe next year. The only way this fest could be more attractive is if it was called "Fête de la Bière, Pain, Fromage et Sex."

September 27-28, Open House at Brasserie Dupont in Tourpes. Drink fresh saison on tap and see where the magic happens.

October 5, Brocante Tégestophile at the Belgian Beer Museum in Lustin. Here is your French word of the day. A "tégestophile" is someone who collects beer glasses and other breweriana. In other words, antique schwag.

October 18-19, Brassigaume in Marbehan. Like Bruxellensis, this one is dedicated to small brewers. Lots of strange and interesting beers here. Last year I became a Belgian TV star in my own mind after an inebriated news interview. See if you can spot me in this clip.

November 7-9, Weekend of Belgian Beers in Hasselt. More than 120 beers in a nice town. Have a look at the Jessenhofke, a B&B run by dedicated homebrewers.

November 8, Public Brewing at Cantillon in Brussels. Celebrate the start of lambic-brewing season. Get there bright and early for coffee, croissants, and a taste of fresh wort. And also to beat the crowds.

November 15-16
, the second-ever Bruges Beer Festival. We heard glowing reports last year. Great location at the Belfry, and a special focus on food.

November 22, Quintessence at Cantillon in Brussels. A sort of progressive where you go from room to room, sampling a long series of lambic-and-food pairings for as long as you can stand it. Damn it, this country is going to be the end of me.

December 13-14, Kerstbierfestival in Essen. Highly recommended. Well worth abandoning your family during the Christmas season to attend. My wife has been the DD two years running, and she says it's my turn. Which means we'll take the train.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Not Tonight, Dear.

Last year at Bruxellensis: It's late on Sunday afternoon and simply time for me to go. Or so I'm told by the Woman, and she's nearly always right about these things. So we leave. We make it about one block before I realize I left my backpack at the fest. "You go on," I say. "I'll just go grab it and meet you at home."

Well, come on. I can't just go back without having another beer or two, can I? Obviously it's my subconscious trying to tell me something.

So then it's getting into the evening hours, and I am rapidly becoming unfit for public consumption. That's when the horns start up, clear and brassy, and suddenly making their way through the crowd is a veritable gaggle of young women wielding various wind instruments. I think there are about 20 of these angels, possibly costumed. And they might be playing "Billie Jean." You know, as in, she's not my lover.

They are hilarious and make beautiful music. The group's name is Pas ce Soir, Chéri. (Great name that translates well, I think.) Anyway, this potent combination of tasty beer and intoxication and music and Belgian oddity produces for me one of those moments. You know the kind. The ones you remember vividly, cutting through what ought to be a beery haze. The kind that can come back to you unbidden months or years later as you sip something that, come to think of it, you also sipped that very day.

Anyway. I'm happy to report that Pas ce Soir, Chéri is on the schedule again this year. 6 p.m. Sunday. Think I'll try to pace myself this time.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Let's call it the Beermuda Triangle of Saint-Gilles.

If you're planning to devote some time to Bruxellensis this weekend, it can be nice to get away from the crowd. You know, get some air. That's why it's well worth the seven-minute walk from the fest hall to see what's on tap at Moeder Lambic.

How excited are these guys for the fest? I dropped by for a quickie Taras Boulba yesterday (my dog walked me there) and the staff were already wearing their Bruxellensis T-shirts. Four days early.

Proprietors Jean Hummler and Nassim Dessicy have been telling us for weeks they plan to roll out some special stuff. Possibilities include up-and-comer IV Saison (from Jandrain-Jandrenouille) on draft, the new Saison Cazeau, and a new dark beer from De Ranke called Noir de Dottignies. There may be other surprises; they were also hoping to get an interesting American craft beer or two. You won't know unless you drop by.

Here you can see how easy it is to get from the Albert premetro station to Bruxellensis, from Bruxellensis to Moeder Lambic, and from Moeder Lambic back home again. Architectural sites along the way include the old faux-castle prison and gilded Saint-Gilles Hotel de Ville. Ooooh. Aaaaah. We're walking, we're walking... we're stopping.

About those T-shirts... The Missus and I will be hawking them at the fest Saturday evening. Just look for the two Yanks struggling with euro coins and mercantile French. Our shirts say "STAFF" on the back. No, sorry, those aren't for sale. Don't touch.

Bring us a beer if we look stressed.

No, scratch that. Bring us a beer anyway.