Thursday, July 31, 2008

Cab Drivers Say, "My Friend!" But They Don't Mean It. I Do. My Friend.

Belgium's population of 10 million is close to that of Michigan, which has about 75 breweries by my count. Most of them are little brewpubs. Belgium has about 120 breweries.

My point: This little bitty country has a lot of places that make beer. Not all of them are very good. But there are enough good ones that, even if you're a beer geek living here, it's easy to forget some of them for a while.

Then you come across one of their beers again, and it really fits. It's fun. Like being with an old friend you haven't seen lately.

Like me and Verhaeghe. The old Duchesse was one of those beers that blew me away when I first tried her. She blows a lot of people away. In her class of Flemish sours she's the one after Rodenbach most likely to succeed. But we mature, we move on, we become enamored with other beers and other breweries. Weeks go by, then months. We reminisce but don't revisit.

Not until a different bottle catches our eye at the local drinks market. This one says "Caves." This is one of Verhaeghe's lesser-known beers, which is a shame. It should be right up there with their other sours, which are among the tastiest made anywhere. Including California.

This bright reddish-brown beer has an intensely vinous and fruity nose with an impression of sour cherries. It's a tart yet thirst-quenching beer, lightly acidic. It's begging for some creamy cheese or shrimp croquettes to scrub off your palate.

By the way, Verhaeghe's Echte Kriek and Vichtenaar are also damned tasty and interesting beers. Refreshing too. If you see one of them, warmly invite her into your home. And afterward... do try to keep in touch. My friend.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Case for Nurturing Your Inner Geek (discretely, if you must).

I'm a big supporter of beer rating, ticking, note-taking, whatever you want to call it.

Why: It compels you to seek out new beers and interrogate your palate. You pay more attention to what you're tasting, thus you get a better idea of what you like and don't like. If you aim to find great beers and not just rack up big numbers, the successes become a serious boost to your quality of life. Even while continuing the hunt for new and interesting beer (or wine), you get to cellar plenty of the stuff that makes you really happy every time you drink it. And that's what it's all about.

But I make this vow: I'll never "rate" a beer on this blog. Anyone can do that, and there are others that can do it better. Especially when the sites are either (A) written by someone with years more experience, or (B) collect the opinions of thousands of schlubs like you and me.

Besides, I subscribe fully to the "each their own" school of subjectivity. You know your own likes and dislikes better than anyone.

But I can tell you a beer's story without giving you a score. I can nudge you down roads you wouldn't have explored otherwise. In short, I can help you cut through the bullshit. Lots of bottles on the shelves these days. Lots of places making them. And lots of places to drink. How do you choose?

Hey, that's what friends are for. If I find something I think is great but flying under the radar, I'll let you know.

Tomorrow, in fact.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Speculatin' on a Hoppy Hypothesis.

I'm not a "hophead" per se. I'm not very interested in uber-double-imperial-IPAs or the latest hoppy monsters unleashed by extreme American breweries. But I did hone my palate on American craft beer. And I do pine for Belgian ales with more hop character--especially if they can also be refreshing.

Here's some welcome news then: Hoppy Belgian beers are on the rise. Anyway, they are according to all of my sloppy anecdotal evidence.

Witness the interest in products like Chouffe Houblon, made strictly for the U.S.A. but guzzled down like mad in Brussels whenever Delirium Café opens a keg. The locals also appeared to be loving the stuff on tap at the brewery's resto in the Ardennes. And it was popular enough that Moortgat rushed out its expensive and clumsy Duvel Tripel Hop to grocery stores before the holidays last year.

The small Senne brew firm exports its bitter and quaffable ales, but meanwhile its working overtime to meet growing demand in the local market. Estivale from La Rulles is also a popular choice. Géants recently hopped up its Saison Voison to nice effect.

And the last Zythos festival, a popular event to launch new products, offered a wave of hop-focused beers: Anker's Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor, Alvinne Extra Restyled, Lupulus from Les 3 Fourqets (run by the Achouffe co-founders, incidentally), Slaapmutske Dry-Hopped Lager (made at Proef), and Cuvée De Ranke, a hoppy blonde blended with lambic. That's just off the top of my head. The next year will no doubt bring more.

Here's what I'd really like to know: Is this only because of the American export market, on which most of the small breweries depend? Or is it possible that Belgian drinkers also long for stuff that's not just sweet and strong and also isn't the same-old lager?

Guess it doesn't matter much. Long as it finds its way into our bellies. Meanwhile, feel free to blame Belgian brewers for their part in the global hops shortage.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Another Thought on the Political Thing. Last One, I Swear.

Infamously, current Prime Minister Yves Leterme once said that the only things Belgians had in common were “the king, the national football team and certain brands of beer.”

When I read that, I knew Belgium would be all right. The king seems like a nice dude. Soccer is huge, even if Belgium's not all that good at it lately. And if beer can't keep a country together, nothing can.

It's more than Missouri and Kansas have in common, frankly.

Yet They Never Ask What I Think of Belgian Cheese.

Since I live in Belgium, friends often ask what I think of the political situation here. Since I'm from Missouri and used to live in St. Louis, they also ask what I think of InBev buying Anheuser-Busch. But opinions are like assholes, and so am I.

Monday was Belgian National Day. As my man Rich and I went from pub to pub, we saw a lot of national flags waving and impressive military jets flying overhead. Lots of unity on display. But it's easy to show unity in Brussels, which speaks French yet is the capital of Flanders.

We marked the occasion at the great Poechenellekelder by drinking a brand spankin' new beer from Brasserie de la Senne: the Jambe de Bois. Subtitle: "Belgian Revolution Tripel." Like most tripels, it is sweetish and strong (8% abv) with yeasty orange-citrus and some herbs in the aroma. It had a dryish, hoppy edge like other Senne beers. I'd love to try it with some creamy, funky Herve cheese. That's from Belgium, you know.

"Jambe de Bois" means wooden leg, incidentally, and the beer's name honors a hero of the 1830 Belgian Revolution who had, well, a wooden leg. What will happen to those heroes if the country splits? What will happen to the significance of the Place des Martyrs in Brussels? Did you know the remains of 466 dead guys are buried under there? Flemish and Wallonian and Bruxelloise. Did they die just so they would be neither Dutch nor French?

Before our recent trip back to the States we went to the Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation in Opstal. Author and publisher Tim Webb gave a seminar on lambic and mentioned this little problem: What happens to Belgian beer if theres no Belgium? Wallonian beer, Flemish beer, Brussels beer... Doesn't have the same ring.

A highlight of that weekend was getting to try an ancient ('92) bottle of Belle-Vue Selection Lambic. Very lemony-sour, pretty acidic, and damned interesting. But if it mellowed with age, I'm glad I didn't try it 16 years ago. There may be a practical application for that stuff in car batteries. Belle-Vue, by the way, is now an InBev beer. Soon to be Anheuser-Busch InBev. One global company buying another. In Missouri and other states, people will lose jobs and charities will lose money.

Where am I going with all this? Oh yeah: I love Belgian cheese.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Best of the Rest of the Fests.

Yesterday I promised more on upcoming beer festivals. This might be the only time I deliver on such a promise. Don't get used to it.

Let's say you've got the time, money, inclination and tolerant spouse needed to hit at least one great beer festival in Europe in the near future. Good for you, lucky bastard! Now you've got the best kind of problem: which one? There are a bunch of options, and I'll list as many as I can below. But first I've got to point out two of the most interesting ones. Damned if they aren't the very same weekend: September 12 to 14.

My very favorite little beer festival in the whole wide world is Saturday and Sunday that weekend in the Saint-Gilles area of Brussels. Why is Bruxellensis my very favorite? Because it's so close to Casa Pilgrim that I can literally crawl home from there if necessary. Meanwhile it doesn't hurt that it's one of Belgium's best, thanks to the high standards of the organizers. Heading up that team are gentlemen and scholars Yvan De Baets and Bernard Leboucq, brewers at Brasserie de la Senne.

Bruxellensis is dedicated to small craft breweries--but not just any small craft breweries. It showcases those making interesting beers of character, in the view of the organizers. What does that mean, really? In effect it means that you tend to find more complex beers or those of an austere nature... bitter, dry or sour, for example. The simple, strong, sweet stuff that's common elsewhere is generally absent here. It also means finding a great beer is less of a crapshoot--the festgoer benefits from the event's careful snobbery. It also features a handful of breweries and beers from other countries, including some fresh German barrels hauled over by gentleman and scholar Andy Niel of Bier-Mania tours.

Now for the other end of the spectrum. Starting on Friday that weekend is a new, gigantically gigantic event in Copenhagen, possibly modeled after the famous Great American Beer Fest in Denver. The European Beer Festival claims to be this continent's biggest with more than 2,000 beers from 450-odd breweries. Geeks will mingle with brewers, pub owners, chefs and other drunks. There will even be an international homebrewing competition. It all sounds incredible.

It also sounds like a bit much. I'll stick to the one from which I can crawl. All reports on Copenhagen welcome, though. Maybe next year.

Here's a brief schedule of some other upcoming fests through the end of August, mostly in Belgium. Big thanks to Paul Briggs for sharing his exhaustive list with various friends and strangers. There's also a great list here, if you can work through the Dutch. The Belgian Beer Board also has a decent calendar here. And Google is my friend.

This weekend: The fourth Festival of Namuroise Beers in Anseremme. About 50 Wallonian ales from the Namur region, a few of them hard to find elsewhere.

August 2-3: The Hapje-Tapje culinary event in Leuven brings together two of your three favorite things: beer and food. The third thing might also be possible, but you bring your own luck.

August 5-9:
The Great British Beer Festival goes off in London. A life goal, unachieved. Unlikely to be achieved anytime soon, thanks to the brutal exchange rate.

August 8-10:
The Grand Choufferie. Had a blast at this last year, camping in someone's backyard and watching drunks tumble from towering stacks of beer crates. You at least have to hear to the song. It's catchy, but sadly I'll forever associate it with hangovers.

August 14-15:
International Specialty Beer Festival, Zwevegem. Handful of new beers on that list; I'm intrigued by the new dark beer promised by the excellent De Ranke brewery.

August 15-17:
Small Laakdal beer fest in its 20th year, with about 60 beers. The locals have two weeks to recover before Laakdal's neighboring village Groot-Vorst has its own beer party on August 30-31. Think there's a rivalry there?

Also on August 30-31: The Lambikstoempers of Alsemberg have their own Streekbierweekend, with more than 100 beers. Serious lambics featured prominently, no doubt.

As you can see: If it's spring, summer or fall and you're in Belgium with a free weekend, you can be fairly sure there's a little or big beer festival somewhere. I'll go ahead and promise a September schedule later. For whatever that promise is worth.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Before Rocktober, there is Hoptember.

If there's anything Belgium loves more than beer, it might be random, small-town festivals. To live here is to experience the joy of throwing cats off towers or racing down rivers in bathtubs.

Of course, it's best when beer and random festivals collide, as they often do. Looking ahead, September is loaded with that sort of chicanery. For example, there are not one but two fests dedicated to our dear friend Humulus lupulus, better known as the hop.

From September 12 to 14, the tiny Brootcorens brewery in Erquelinnes is hosting the Fête du Houblon. This is spittin' distance from the French border. Just in case you'd like to spit in France's general direction.

The more famous event is the following weekend: the Poperinge Hop Festival from September 19 to 21. They party so hard at this one that they can only hold it every three years. You know a town is serious about hops when it has a whole museum dedicated to them (yes, the tour includes a free beer).

So I'll have to pass on Erquelinnes this time around. Besides, that's the same weekend as at least two major beer festivals. More about those later.

Anyway, you can't dance at every bathtub regatta. Or so I am told.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Farmhouse Ales, Missouri Style.

Our long home leave in the American hinterlands has offered lots of chances to sample hugely hoppy brews. Sadly, not much time to blog. I did get to homebrew with my brother a bit, partly inspired by my Belgian experiences.

That boiling pot you see there is 10 gallons of Missouri farmhouse experiment. Half became a refreshing American pale ale with reasonably hoppy flavor. The other half is nearing completion as a Belgian-style saison. Same ingredients, including some juicy American hops for aroma, but wildly different yeasts and fermentations. Maybe I'll let you in on the side-by-side results after bottle-conditioning is done. This much I can say: We're pleased to get such flavorful beers weighing in at a highly quaffable 4 percent alcohol. In that sense they're closer to the real farmhouse ales that farmers gave their workers in the old days. Those ales inspired the somewhat stronger, modern versions like the great Saison Dupont.

Also apparently inspired by that classic was a beer I'd long been waiting to try: the Boulevard Saison. This one is easy to like, mildly bitter and spicy with a dry finish. Some subtle citrus aroma adds to the refreshment. It was damn hard to beat in the thick of Missouri summer, with some grilled steaks down at the lake. Or on the farm.

The farm where we brewed, incidentally, was owned by my grandparents until they died last year. Our family still owns it, for now. No ostriches, but there are some chickens. They got to eat the spent brewing grains. Happy chickens.