Tuesday, June 10, 2008

At the Mercy of Mad Scientists, and Ostriches, in West Flanders.

The Struise brewers are the beer-geek darlings these days. Among those who sniff and swirl and sip from tulips and take notes on aroma and head retention, there's nobody hotter right now in Europe or even the U.S. Now, I hate being a crowd-following sheep. I've got a rebellious gene that begs me to ignore Struise and the hype and go get excited about something else. But I can't. Their beers are just too damned good.

So the other day I hopped into a car with a friend and lucked into an adventure that took us to the Struise farm, tucked into the pastures of West Flanders. There are ostriches there. And a secret laboratory fit for mad scientists. And a brewery in a tent. Plus more than a few bizarre and delicious things to taste. Be wary, I thought. They will brainwash you with beer.

The most impressive was the Dirty Horse. Let's call it a backyard lambic, equal parts patience, talent and insanity. Five years ago, the mad scientists left some wort out for two days, using a clean tarp and plastic tunnel as a coolship. I'm not totally clear on what happens next, but various snapshots from the ale's childhood would portray sherry casks, Rodenbach yeast and lots of cherries, followed by three years of adolescence in oak barrels. The final product takes five years and is intense, tart and funky at a reasonable 7 percent strength. The powerful nose offers cidery must, grapefruit and lemon, and those tart cherries in the backdrop. I sniffed. I swirled. I sipped.

While there we also got to help brew a test batch for a top-secret beer. Sorry, can't tell you a thing about it. I only mention it to annoy you. And if the beer turns out any good, I'll claim full credit after personally stirring the mash for about five minutes. All in my patented figure-eight technique.

Now comes the part where I level with you. For a while I've thought the Struise guys were geniuses at creating buzz among the geeks. The reality is much simpler. They are friendly dudes who make beers--in small batches--that are not only interesting but dangerously easy to like and drink. They also happen to be geeks themselves. They want to share their beer with you and talk about it. There is no secret here. Look them up and visit the farm.

And if you really want to come out on top, bring them some IPAs.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Mad Max: Beyond Lambikodrome.

OK, a bit of news. What a novel idea for a blog.

Lovers of Belgian sour stuff are all atwitter because one of the very best is opening a new tasting café. That would be Armand Debelder, brewer and blendmeister at 3 Fonteinen in Beersel, just south of Brussels. (In my opinion, the free expression of which is why I have a blog, this is not just one of the best lambic breweries in Pajottenland... This is one of the best breweries in Belgium.)

The café's official opening is on June 14. You can show up that day and party. Better yet, wait a week or so for the crowds to thin out, so you can have elbow room with your lambic. Those planning to visit Belgium on their next beery vacation are hereby advised to make this place a priority.

The café, which sits directly in front of the brewery, is said to be named Lambikodrome. The space is less fearsome than the name. It's a fairly simple room with several tables. Armand has promised us a very interesting list with several vintages and brews that have never been available before. But he offers a few warnings:

1. It won't be cheap (nor should it be).
2. Beer is available for tasting on-premises only. No takeaways.
3. No food. For that go to the always excellent 3 Fonteinen restaurant around the corner.

That second rule, if it holds, is sure to disappoint many a nerdly ticker and trader of exotic beers. You know who I mean. Those who lust for, and feel entitled to, every beer they've never had. Especially when it's physically and/or financially out of reach.

There's something that's been on my mind lately. Specifically, the time, money and energy required to always pursue new and interesting beers, versus enjoying whatever is accessible and tasty. Beer hunting is a wicked hobby. But there is always more to explore within your favorite local beer, isn't there? Think global, drink local, and all that.

Easy for me to say. I live near Beersel.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Not a Run of the Molen Place in my IJ.

See Podge, I couldn't wait to steal your phrase. Damn if I didn't go ahead and give you credit for it.

This is all a cheap segue into more of our Amsterdam adventures. I'll cut right to it, for you poor souls who don't think "beer" when you think of Amsterdam. About 20 minutes walk southeast of the central train station is a windmill that looms over a small brewery. The brewery is called IJ, pronounced "eye" and named for the huge puddle that makes Amsterdam what it is and occasionally inspires me to sing like Brel and Bowie.

Inside the brewery is a slightly shabby little pub that opens at 3 o'clock sharp. Reportedly this used to be a bath house for the neighborhood. Now it hosts a healthy mix of locals and tourists bathing their taste buds in fresh, creamy beer.

Six of its beers were available on our visit. One of the most interesting was Struis, a tart and fruity ale at 9 percent strength. I believe the missus' favorite was the IJwit, a Belgian-style white beer with Hefeweizen leanings... bubble-gum and bananas in the nose, yum. My personal favorite was the lightest of the bunch, the Plzen. Grassy and bitter with a citric edge, very refreshing.

We tried everything they had. You can see why I married her. Why she married me, I have no idea.

If you take the family to Amsterdam, here's a scheme for you: Say you're taking them to see a real Dutch windmill. Then you get to drink nice beer and avoid the Red Light District too. Everybody wins.