Thursday, January 24, 2008

Twenty Centiliters, Down the Hatch.

Someday I'll give you my complex theory on why the American craft beer palate leans toward the hoppy and extreme. It's a theory that draws from cultural studies, economics, history and my own personal experience. In short, it's total conjecture. Barroom talk. Bullshit. Someday I'll tell you about it, but not today. Today I only wanted to say that when I was in Dusseldorf over the weekend, I was drawn again and again to the hoppiest Altbier in town: Uerige.

I tried a lot of Altbiers over the two-day period. To be honest, I enjoyed them all. Even the relatively subdued big-market ones, like Gatz and Diebels. But my favorites definitely hailed the dim, smoky, bustling Altstadt pubs where the stuff is still brewed on the premises. Especially the Schlussel and the Uerige.

The Zum Schlussel pub was too crowded the first time we tried. Not just too packed to sit, but too packed to stand. But it was fate, because we vowed to come back for lunch. So we did. And we were glad. My bratwurst, with fried potatoes from the same skillet, plus red cabbage and apples, was one of the best meals I've had in Germany... and I've had plenty of meals in Germany. The Schlussel Alt was the bitter, malty, fresh bow tied on to the package. I love how they keep it coming, long as you don't put your coaster atop the glass.

As nice as Schlussel was, Uerige was my vice. We had to stop in there the first evening. And again the next afternoon. Oops, once more late that night, on the way back to the hotel.
Something about that fresh, serious, dry bitterness kept me coming back. I only knew that I wanted more. I want more right now, frankly.

Well, listen: I'm not wholly converted to American, barrel-aged, imperial craft-beer extremism. One thing I love in a beer is sessionability. Quaffability. Refreshment! Nothing wrong with a beer that makes you want to drink it all weekend.

Ah, Dusseldorf. The Duece. Probably for the best I don't live there.

Friday, January 18, 2008

I ate lots of cereal when I was a backpacker. But I never drank cereal wine, to my knowledge.

Delirium Cafe in Brussels is a schizophrenic place. Its personality differs, depending on when you show up. My usual rule is to visit in the early afternoons, when the place is quiet. That's so the bartender can hear me order the hard-to-pronounce beer buried in that phonebook of a menu.

At night, when it gets packed and boisterous, it's best to grab a spot at the bar. That's what I managed to do earlier tonight, even while students and backpackers filled the tables.

Because of those crowds, I've been neglecting Delirium lately. After browsing the new offerings in that massive list tonight, I know I need to get back more often. I get it. And to hammer the point home, the bar sent me off with 37 and a half centiliters of heaven.

The Rodenbach Vin de Cereale -- which roughly translates to barley wine -- pours a coppery gold from its paper-wrapped bottle. It's sour, tangy and fruity. No wait, go back and add superlatives to all three of those adjectives. It's also 10 percent alcohol, but you wouldn't know by tasting it. It was flat-out delicious.

Rumor is that there will be something like 40,000 bottles of this stuff out there, which is plenty. It won't be impossible to find. I'm hoping to buy a few, bury them in the cellar, and forget about them for a while.

Meanwhile, I'm glad Delirium and I can be buds again.

I still owe you a post on an odd little place in Saint-Gilles. Soon, soon. First, the missus and I are off to Dusseldorf this weekend. Altbier, here we come.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Mother Lambic Dusts Off Her Underside

One of the many reasons I'm a lucky sonuvabitch is the place I consider my local: Chez Moeder Lambic. About 250 beers, and some of the city's friendliest, coziest ambiance, are a brisk 15-minute walk from our apartment. It's easily one of Belgium's best beer pubs.

Not so long ago, according to many reports, this place was a bit of a disaster. There were complaints about service, and they'd run out of many beers on the list. Or maybe they just couldn't find them in that trainwreck of a cellar.

Things have taken a U-turn under the new ownership. Thanks to Jean and Nassim, tart and refreshing Cantillon lambic is pumping from the cask. The old mess of a menu had become one of the best-organized lists in the country. There are new cheeses available, and a new kitchen in which to prepare them. The latest project: cleaning up that cellar.

Their plan is to rent the space for tastings or other events. Here you can see the cleaned-up space... Now they're just waiting to have some shelves put in. The latest delay is that the shelf guy threw out his back. So it goes in the world of Brussels contract labor.

One downside to all this work is that they can't get to all of their beers. There's a temporary menu of 30 or so beers until the cellar is finished (sometime in February, I'm guessing). However, it's a short list full of quality... sweet, bubbly, malty quality.

You can find Moeder Lambic at Rue de Savoie 68 in Saint-Gilles. If you're staying in downtown Brussels, just take the #4 tram from the Bourse to Albert station, and from there it's a five-minute walk.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Pub of the Unknown Land

Beer cafes in Brussels tend to be dark and smoky with walls heavily laden with old beer signs or other tacky knick-knacks. Light is scarce, let alone sun-light. Good taste is irrelevant.

Nothing wrong with that. I feel pretty cozy in that kind of joint.

Just the same, it's nice to find something different. Enter Terra Incognita. We were there yesterday, and so was sunlight. Kitschy beer signs and smoke were notably absent. The place had a healthy feel about it. There were even used books. What is this, some kind of brainy, pompous-ass, coffee-sipping, wireless Internet cafe? Where in the hell is the beer?

Not to worry. The cafe has about 30 options in the realm of malted barley beverages. The main attractions for us were two fresh, draft ales from the local Brasserie de la Senne: the Zinnebir and the Taras Boulba. (Or, as my wife calls it, "Terrence Boobila.") Both were bright, bitter and refreshing. Besides being full of hoppy flavor--a surprisingly rare thing in Belgium--their alcohol levels are reasonable. The Zinnebir checks in at 6 percent, and Mr. Boobila at a mere 4.5. Good luck getting snookered on that business, knuckleheads.

About de la Senne: Word on the street is it's building aits own brewery in Brussels. Currently its brewers are making beers under contract at De Ranke (whose excellent Guldenberg and XX Bitter were also on the Incognita list). When it opens, it will be only the second proper, working brewery in Brussels. There used to be dozens, but now there is only Cantillon, so the news about de la Senne is exciting. One of these days I'll see if I can have a sit-down with one of its founders. You'll be the first to know.

Terra Incognita is at 56 Rue de Roumanie in the St. Gilles neighborhood. That means you can walk about 7 minutes from there to Chez Moeder Lambic... and another odd, special place I'll tell you about very soon.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Little Birdie Want a Sip of Beer?

When a top-notch craft brewery is at the center of civic life, you know you’re in a good town. That’s the setup in Gooik, about a half-hour west of Brussels.

OK, nerd, if you want to get technical: De Cam isn’t a brewery. It’s a blender, and what it blends are lambics. De Cam’s own lambics happen to be some of the most funkiest, most tartest beers in the world—in a good way. On Wednesday we went to sample the goods at the source.

Next to other lambic makers, De Cam is just a baby. When it started putting out beers in 1997, there hadn’t been a new blender in Belgium for four decades. Yet in terms of quality, De Cam holds its own with the country’s best. All its beers get high marks from lambic lovers. The tart and juicy Oude Kriek is a particular favorite of mine. (Aw yeah, wash some old goat cheese down with that, can I get a “smakelijk”?)

Yet De Cam is more than a beer maker—it’s the ultimate hub of local culture. It’s a community center that hosts clubs and events. It’s also a museum devoted to old musical instruments and folk art. (In Belgium, there are museums for everything. Including one dedicated solely to beer trucks.)

But still, this is Pajottenland. And here there is arguably no folk art more important than the brewing and blending of spontaneously fermented beer. The flavor of traditional lambic is arguably the flavor of this region. And Pajottenland, if you don’t know, tastes intensely sour and fruity. Incidentally, it also smells like a barn decorated with old gym socks.

That’s right, sonny, take a deep whiff. That there is the odor of craftsmanship.

Looking for our next beery life experience, our destination was the café. Because that’s the place where you drink.

Like so many other great Belgian beer cafes, the De Cam Volkscafe is largely populated by older gents. You’re free to imagine a bunch of geezers sipping the authentic, sour stuff from crockery mugs if you like. Ah, it’s a romantic notion. Unfortunately it ignores the well-known law against old Belgian men drinking interesting beer. By royal decree (as far as I can tell) all Flemish and Walloon gents beyond a certain age are required to drink Jupiler or Maes, Belgium’s answer to Bud and Miller. Sad but true.

So that’s the scene: Plenty of wood and breweriana and old guys sipping lager for lunch. It’s a pleasant scene, though, one made pleasanter by the tweets and tweedles of singing finches, whose cages sit in the middle of the room. Finch-singing competitions, if you don’t know, are a serious sport in Belgium—especially among the aforementioned geezer constituency. Those old bird men are cutthroat. We’re talking bloodsport here.

Damn it! Weren’t we about to drink some beer? On the menu—written in a local dialect that we suspect nobody actually speaks—there's a list of more than 30 different bottles beers, with plenty of quality. But that’s not why we’re here. Available on cask are De Cam’s own lambic and kriekenlambic, plus the Oude Gueuze in bottles. Except that they’re not all available. Not for us, anyway.

It turns out that the man himself—blendmeister Karel Goddeau—who plies his trade all of 40 feet from where we sit, hasn’t delivered beer to the café in more than a month. Out for the holidays, apparently. All they’ve got left is the kriekenlambic, which suits us just fine. They get respect for serving it in those old-school, stoneware type mugs—a bit cold at first, but once it warms the tart fruit really comes out and punches you in the face.

It’s delicious, and the acidity gets my belly roiling for food. Now.

So we hike up the road to a well-regarded spot called the Groene Poort. Behind the green door is not Marilyn Chambers, but a nice enough lady working all by her lonesome. We’re the only customers. Despite a chalkboard placard promising eel in green sauce and other treats, we’re told the only options are spaghetti or sandwiches. With stomachs demanding something to dissolve immediately, we’re in no condition to argue. All worries vanish as we wash the pasta down with some Girardin gueuze. Black label. The good stuff.

About De Cam: Show up on Sunday afternoon if you want a tour. That’s my plan for next time. Hopefully the café will be lucky enough to re-stock its beers by then. And maybe I’ll be lucky enough to munch on something long and snakey and covered in green sauce.