Thursday, August 28, 2008

Raise Your Glass to Session Beers.

Maybe every young geek of my generation can remember a particular moment when they turned to craft beer forever (tell us about yours!). Mine came on a particularly thirsty evening in college. Someone gave me a cool bottle of Boulevard Tenpenny. A bready and hoppy version of the British bitter style, it was loaded with flavor yet fully thirst-quenching. It also happened to be 3.3% strong, made mainly for the state of Kansas and its reactionary liquor laws. Whatever its origin, it met my needs and pointed me in a new direction.

Boulevard has since retired that beer and moved on to more successful beers of mainstream strength. But I hope they bring the Tenpenny back one day. It might happen.

Now, I'll refrain from suggesting that sessionable beers are an up-and-coming trend, since people have been drinking them for years and years and years. Still, it's worth noting that the inimitable New York Times has just done this piece on quaffers with relatively low alcohol. The NYT will bring it to the attention of a lot of people. Many of them will be thirsty geeks who are secretly tired of overhopped and overboozed strong ales. Insert prediction here.

I've got two easy favorites in this genre, and the NYT names one of them: Dupont Avril, better known here as Dupont Biolégère. Maybe they changed the name so Americans wouldn't have to type the accent marks.

This is Dupont's take on the traditional Belgian table beer. At 3.5% abv, it's quite a bit stronger than the stuff once served to children at school and family dinner tables. To me its strength better reflects the history of saison beers, served to farm workers for happiness and hydration. It's hard to beat a couple of them on a lunch break, like the one glimpsed here at the Fous du Terroir in Brussels. (Tell you more about that place another day.)

The other favorite I'm sure I've raved about before: The Senne brewery's light but hoppy Taras Boulba. Great from the bottle and unbeatable on tap. I'll note their Stouterik also weighs in at 4.5%, while their upcoming lambic-infused Saison will check in at 4.3%. By Belgium's boozy standards, we're talking bantamweights.

Enjoy them while you can. It's still August, usually one of the hottest months of the year across the U.S. Here in Belgium it's already looking like fall. That dark, strong, warming stuff is just around the corner.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Mysterious Belgian Bar Snacks, Part I: Kip-Kap.

Lively discussion going on here about whether a good pub should serve decent food, and the popularity of something called "gastropubs" in the U.K. Let me try to boil it down:

(1) Good pubs don't necessarily need to serve food, but it helps.
(2) Good pubs without food are rare but still exist.
(3) Serving no food at all is nothing to brag about.

All of this has me thinking about the drinking cultures of other countries. And to what extent they include eating as part of the picture. Originally I vomited up hundreds of words about the importance of food to pubs in the U.S., Germany and Belgium. I'll sum it up with a rhetorical question (which means I don't really want you to answer): If you care about either good beer or good food, then why don't you care about both? Because beer is food and vice versa.

Then I deleted it all, because none of it was as interesting as the mystery of kip-kap.

Kip-kap is a local bar snack common in Brussels and surrounding areas. It's a sort of lunchmeat made from, allegedly, pig cheeks suspended in gelatin. Tastier than it sounds, especially with a glass of bottled lambic (pictured here next to some Cantillon Oude Gueuze at the Bécasse café). The gelatin has a faintly lemony taste that gets along with the sour beer, whose natural carbonation sweeps the meat's salt and fattiness away. Something like that.

OK, I'm sure it's not for everyone. But is that really pig cheek in there, or are other organs involved? How is it processed? Who came up with this? Most importantly, why?

On second thought, I don't want to know. The mystery is part of the adventure.

I'm not sure we could handle the truth anyhow.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Sour Ale and Shrimp Croquettes on the Coast.

We could have gone shopping or sightseeing. We could have visited the Ensor House, the art museum, walked the beach, or even rented a bicycle built for two. But no. On a dry and mild day in Oostende, we spent basically all of it eating and drinking.

So, it was a good day.

I had half-baked idea for an article on democratic seafood. By that I mean good and fresh at reasonable prices, upscale restos need not apply. In short: pubs and street stalls.

Of course we nipped into the Botteltje, one of the best specialist beer cafés in all of Belgium. But our highlight was probably the James, a brown café that finds its way into several guidebooks for a singular reason: its garnaalkroketten, or shrimp croquettes. They are freshly handmade, crispy on the outside, and exploding with fresh grey shrimp in creamy goodness.

A pair of these little guys will set you back €10. I haven't decided whether that price is democratic really... Did I mention it's a nice pub? Squeeze your lemon over them and wash down with a bottle of Rodenbach Grand Cru to learn what pairing is all about. The shrimp's natural sweetness and lemon's sharpness find mates in the Flemish red's unique sweet-sour flavor. Then the acidity and carbonation handle that thick creaminess and reset the palate.

That alone was worth the train ride.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Goin' Down in a Blaze of Glory, and Other Old West-Themed Rock Ballads.

Another thing Springfield is known for: a gunfight.

It happened in July 1865, one of the only known shootouts in which the gunmen faced each other and fired simultaneously, quick-draw style. The two men were Wild Bill Hickock and Davis Tutt. If you've never heard of Tutt, that's because he lost. Hickock wasn't really famous until Harper's wrote about the duel two years later.

Now, I know what you're thinking: "What a great piece of history. Someone ought to take that Old West/Wild Bill theme and start a brewpub with it. That's money!"

Too late. It's been done. Hickock's Steakhouse and Brewery opened in December 2005 amid much local buzz. Springfield is a town whose favorite restaurant is the latest one to open. Once the buzz wore off Hickock's quickly gained fame for shitty food and a really cool Old West mural. OK, I can't vouch for the food, I never tried it. Because everyone told me it was shitty. But that mural is awesome. Meanwhile hardly anyone mentions the beers.

Turns out they're pretty damn good, thanks to the direction of brewer Dave Lamb. We got to try them all one day in late June. The crowd was sparse and meanwhile the bartender hinted that the place was going down the tubes. We were happy enough with the Copperhead IPA and an oatmeal stout on creamy nitrogen pour. We all spoke optimistically about how the place might turn its grub and management around to save a solid little brewery being treated as an afterthought.

Hickock's shut its doors about two weeks ago, apparently a victim of poor management. So the place has gone the way of Dave Tutt. Somewhere in there is a lesson for the thousands of brewpubs across America. I'm not smart enough to figure it out. But I think old portraits of gunfighters are cool and every beer blog should have them.

Oh, maybe it was this: Running a restaurant is hard. Most people like food even more than they like beer. Neglect the food and you're dead in the street while other guys get famous.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Me, Rad Brad, and Good Beer in Springfield, Mo.

Hi. I'm from Springfield, Missouri, hometown of Brad Pitt. Now, I know what you're thinking. For a town like that to produce someone like Brad Pitt and someone like me... "Well," you're saying to yourself, "there must be something real special in the water down there." And maybe there is.

Being from Springfield, the Springfield Brewing Co. is our hometown brewery. I'm proud of that. Most beer geeks have never heard of the place. I don't care. Truth is, it's a lot like thousands of other breweries across the country.

It has a shiny brewing kit and shiny dark wood on the bar. It has a mug club for regulars. It has bartenders who don't always know what they're talking about. It has a core of house beers and an always-changing range of interesting seasonals, usually served too cold. There are occasional appearances from a barrel-aged sour ale, a hop monster, and a coffee stout. That's about as wild as it gets. Nothing that really stands out from the pack.

What sets it apart for me, besides the fact that it's my hometown brewery? This: I believe the technical quality is exceptionally high. In my 10 years of legal drinking, I've simply never had a bad beer there. From the light and refreshing quaffers on up to the ponderous Barrel Reserve, it all just tastes good. For me that puts it in the upper 10th percentile of all American breweries.

You might have heard this pointless pub debate: What country is the best/most exciting/most innovative brewing country? There's no correct answer,* and it's usually an excuse for my fellow Americans to pat each other on the backs (which is lame). Or maybe just an excuse to argue (which I respect). Usually the argument brings up all the exciting experiments with alpha hops, wild yeasts and barrels, plus the ongoing efforts to preserve foreign beer styles that have gone extinct. Fine.

The experiments are fun, but you know what's better? More and more small- and mid-sized cities having perfectly decent breweries of their own. One they can call their own. Imagine it! After decades of light lager then 30 or so years of craft beer revolutionizing, we're finally getting to a point where nearly every town bigger than a village has a local that makes its own beer. That's so, I don't know, German of us.

Speaking of Germany, the Springfield brewery makes one of the best Schwarzbiers I've ever had. And I've had a lot of them. In Germany. It's not a style I get excited about, but this one just tastes good. Chalk it up to a high degree of technical skill if you want.

Or maybe there's something in the water.

*I'm lying to your face to make a point here. In fact the correct answer is Belgium.

Monday, August 18, 2008

My Fellow Americans, Don't Forget to be Hedonists.

Hey: Collecting and analyzing and arguing about beer really doesn't do any good unless it contributes to your enjoyment of the stuff.

Imagine a Venn diagram where one circle represents people who spend way too much time thinking about beer. Another represents people who spend way too much time on the Internet. Those of us who live in that overlapping area can be a really weird sort. It can get ugly out there in cyberspace.

We can imagine more circles in this diagram. Americans. Brits. Europeans. Those who have beards. Those who collected baseball cards or comics when they were kids. Those who don't have favorite beers because they only rate new ones. Those who have read a couple of books and thus are authorities. Those who never learned how to have civil discussion with other human beings. Those who don't eat with their beer because food affects their palate. Those who are disappointed by an otherwise tasty beer because it doesn't match up with someone's idea of its "style." And so on.

I'm 31 years old. Beer and girls were still icky to me in the 1970s and 1980s, when there was no Internet. America was just waking up to craft beer. Michael Jackson was using journalism to teach the world about foreign beers, and there were not yet experts at every computer. I'm nostalgic for a time I never knew.

I'll tell you what I was doing then: collecting comic books. But I took really shitty care of them. I was more interested in reading them, over and over.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Around London in 1 Book.

I've never been to London. Well, that's not exactly true. I was once there for two days. But my mission then was not to pub crawl, crazy at it may seem. So that doesn't even count, does it?

Now I'm ready. The other day I got my copy of Around London in 80 Beers in the mail. The authors are thirsty pilgrims Chris "Podge" Pollard and Siobhan McGinn, who you may know from such books as Around Bruges in 80 Beers. The publisher is Tim Webb's Cogan & Mater, alias Buy them all, straight from the Web site.

Attention: Around London is essential for any beer lover visiting or living there. Or even thinking about it. The city's loaded with nice pubs, but how can you be sure you'll get the good stuff? This book skips the chaff and offers only the wheat, plus all the handy maps, transit info, and contact details you need to call ahead and make sure they're open. Not to mention a nice prelude from London barman pub-gaffer and beer-blogger Jeff Bell, a.k.a. Stonch, future author of Around London in 80 Packets of Pork Scratchings.

Did that sound like a sales pitch? That's odd.

Oh, what's this on the book's last page? It says, "Coming from Cogan & Mater..." then blah blah blah, oh here it is: "Around Brussels in 80 Beers, by Joe Stange & Yvan De Baets (April 2009)."

So. There's some more news.

More People to Blame for the Westvleteren Phenomenon.

According to legends now shrouded in mist, the great Westvleteren beer was once a well-kept secret. Or at least it was easier for the few people "in the know" to get their hands on the stuff.

Then one day, so the story goes, sprang up from the ground as if from nowhere. This site and its tickers proclaimed Westvleteren the best beer in the world. Suddenly the abbey had mile-long lines to get the liquid gold, which was going for $50 a bottle on eBay. The monks had to set up a (not so) complicated reservation system. The secret was out! Worst of all: the people who used to be in on that secret could no longer get their beer without a lot of trouble. Very annoying.

Ratebeer, in short, ruined it for everyone. Anyway, that's the conventional wisdom. But that's a bit too simplistic for me. Boring! So I've thought of lots of other people and things for you to blame.

Here are some ideas:

Why not blame the monks for making such great beer and making it hard to get?

Why not blame the fact that everyone loves a great story about a beer that's hard to get?

Why not blame all the major newspapers for covering it every so often, because it makes a good story?

Why not blame all the beer lovers who like that good story and want to get their hands on some?

Why not blame Tim Webb for giving it five stars in his incredibly useful books?

Why not blame Michael Jackson while we're at it, for initially getting beer tickers all excited in the first place?

Why not blame Al Gore for inventing the Internet, which created an age in which it's virtually impossible to keep a really tasty beer secret?*

Why not blame the loudmouths who keep going on about it?

* OK, I worry that future generations will think that Al Gore actually did invent the Internet, for all the cracks made about it. So listen here, future generations: Al Gore did not invent the Internet. Ratebeer did.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

How to Get Westvleteren, the Holy Way.

This is for all you do-gooders out there who want to do it the monks' way. I raise my chalice to you.

1. Plan a trip to Belgium. You know you want to anyway. Rent a car so you can roam at will.

2. Call 070 21 00 45 (or +32 70 21 00 45 if you're outside Belgium when you call). Listen and find out when you can call back to get which type of beer.

3. Have your car's license plate number handy, and call again at reservation time. It will be busy. Perfect the art of quickly hanging up (or hitting the "flash" button) and hitting redial. If you're quick enough and do it for long enough, you will get through. Set aside some time, be patient, and remember the great beer that lies at the end of your quest. For the record: It's never taken me longer than 45 minutes to get through. Sometimes it's only 5 or 10 minutes.

4. When you get through, make your appointment. Don't worry, he speaks English. Tell him your license plate number and how much beer you want.

5. Courteously show up on time. In fact, be an hour early so you can enjoy one in the café across the street before you pick up your booty. Then go over and fulfill your quest. The 12 will run you €33 per case. That works out to a very reasonable €1.375 per bottle--about one-tenth of what those suckers are paying on eBay. Go on, buy a set of glasses while you're at it. They make nice gifts.

6. Take the treasure home, or ship it. Later, stop to admire the beautiful sight: multiple cases of the elusive Westvleteren, just sitting there. In your cellar.

7. Drink one. You earned it. And the brothers approve.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Sly Foxes, Disappearing Drunken Tour Guides, Trumpeteers in Cossack Outfits, and Other Belgitude.

Didn't have to be a bender on Saturday. But plow some fine people with plenty of lambic and €1.50 goblets of Witkap Stimulo, and that tends to happen.

We begin at the Rare Vos café in Schepdaal for some tasty vittles and a unique beverage found on cask there. This place is a bit legendary among the geeks; Michael Jackson wrote about it, Ommegang named a beer for it, and Tim Webb gives it a strong recommendation. The weather is perfect so we're more than pleased when they hide the loud Americans on the back terrace.

Girardin makes a special drink, named for the café, by blending lambic, gueuze (which is a refermented blend of old and young lambic), and faro (which is old lambic with some candy sugar in it). Confused? Me too. I'm not sure how old that base lambic is. But the final product comes out fruity, refreshing, and damned interesting. You can even get mussels cooked in the stuff. Me, I can't pass up the raw ones next to some 3 Fonteinen gueuze. After and before glasses of Rare Vos, naturally.

Then we're off to the open house at Slaghmuylder, where the Stimulo has begun to flow and some odd folk in costumes are carrying in various wind instruments. Inside the brewhouse, an old steam engine chugs away on an alternator. It's not clear whether this is a quaint antique or actually connected to the brewery. We'd like to find out, and a young curly-headed dude offers to give us a tour in English... once he finishes this next beer. Trouble is, he keeps getting a next one, and a next one. So do we. Before long, all hope of a proper tour is flushed down the port-a-potties, and we're lost in a crowd of drinkers enjoying a bizarrely costumed Balkan-style oompah band called Yah Tararah. To be frank, we are unprepared for that level of raw, eccentric belgitude. Somehow I manage to make a short video before we escape.

Finally in a stroke of pure indulgence we stop at the Heeren van Liedekercke on the way home. Yet another legend of beer geekery, thanks to its incredible cellar of vintage Belgian ales. By then I'm loose enough to drop the extra duckets on a special one-off gueuze made by 3 Fonteinen five years ago. This is the intense and ponderous J&J Oude Gueuze Roze. The other members of my crack drinking squad go for cheese and salami, but I'm trying to save myself for dinner...

Dinner? Oh hell, we're having friends over. Nearly forgot. I'm in charge of pairings: 3 Fonteinen gueuze (again? uh-oh) with fresh goat cheese, La Rulles Triple with a spicy Thai squid dish, and Struise Black Albert stout with homemade burnt-sugar ice cream. (Yeah, that's how we roll. You should come over sometime.)

Next morning, I'm trying to think of something better for a Sunday hangover than non-stop Olympics coverage on TV.

Nope. Drawing a blank.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Put This Post in a Barrel with Some Wild Yeast and Forget About it for a Few Years. See What Happens.

Barrels. Wild yeasts. Sour stuff. That's what's new and hot in craft brewing these days. But those are old magicks, aren't they?

The Bourbon Barrel-Aged Angel's Share from Lost Abbey in California just won the gold medal for best American cask ale at the Great British Beer Festival. There are a growing number of sour ales on RateBeer's excitable Top 50. (And if you adjust that to include retired beers you'll see several more lambics.) Several people have found this blog just by searching for the words "Dirty Horse." And thanks to those successes we'll be seeing more and more breweries experimenting with barrel aging and wild yeast in the next few years.

Maybe it represents a return to old knowledge, old ways. Wood and air instead of steel and laboratory yeast strains. Or more accurately, the best of both worlds.

Have young guns like Lost Abbey in the U.S. and Struise in Belgium surpassed places like Cantillon, 3 Fonteinen, Verhaeghe, Rodenbach... I don't think so. Apples to oranges, maybe.

That doesn't matter anyway. This does: There is a hell of a lot of interesting beer out there to try. Your new favorite could be just around the corner.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Going Where Unsmiling Women Dance for Hops in the Fields.

This weekend we're off to the open-doors day at Slaghmuylder, makers of the underrated Witkap beers. I've got a soft spot for the hoppy and sessionable blonde Stimulo. Nice from the bottle and even nicer fresh on tap.

The brewery's a straight 25-minute drive west of Brussels in Ninove, roughly where Flemish Brabant starts to become East Flanders. Like the Stimulo itself, this region is underrated. Between Brussels and well-traveled West Flanders you've got the lambic country of Pajottenland and the dark, barrel-aged ales of East Flanders. And plenty of other oddities, like the bone-dry "Flemish saisons" of Glazen Toren, whose brewery shop we aim to visit. Another possibility is the Casino café in Eine, home of the Cnudde old brown ale. Sadly we're told by friend and tourmeister Podge that the village's Kaffee Barbier beer café/barber shop has shuttered.

Maybe while we're out there we'll also see some unsmiling Flemish women dancing for the children, hops and wheat in the fields. Or something like that. That's right! Again with the Brel.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Promising New Brewery in Brel's Flat Country.

So not too long ago I'm at the Poechenellekelder, one of the city's top beer cafés, sipping a beer called Betchard. It's a refreshing blonde with a hoppier character than you typically get in Belgium. That's a good thing, since many blondes here lean toward sweet, overspiced, or just kind of boring. Not this one.

But I didn't know the story behind the beer or where it was brewed. The label said Brasserie de Tubize, which I was pretty sure didn't exist. Turns out I was right. It didn't exist... yet.

Evan Rail in Prague reports that Jean Rodriguez of Spinnekopke fame is close to achieving a dream: His Tubize brewery should be completed in October. In Belgian terms, that means it may be finished next spring. My fondest wish is that the Web site for his brewery someday adds a swell Jacques Brel song, just like the one for his restaurant.

I still don't know whether that particular Betchard I enjoyed was brewed by the smart Senne or prolific Proef. There ought to be laws requiring labels to penetrate such mysteries. But I do know to expect tasty things from Rodriguez and Tubize. This is a man who wrote a book on Belgian beer cooking, and I reckon his beer recipes will be written with food firmly in mind.

Meanwhile, Spinnekopke trucks right along. Its prices may be slightly inflated by guidebook-infused popularity, but in my experience the food usually leaves you happy. The 3 Fonteinen lambic and faro on draft don't hurt either.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Gueuze, Shellfish, and Other Perfect Marriages.

Raw mussels.

That's what lambicmeister Frank Boon said when I asked what food he liked best with his gueuze. This was after a tour of his brewery in January, arranged thanks to Andy Niel at Bier-Mania tours. Until then I didn't know mussels could be eaten raw, like oysters. Indeed they can.

Lacking the gumption to try raw mussels at home, the notion camped in the back of my mind. It sounded like something best left to professionals. Later I learned that you can find such professionals running a top-notch raw bar at Belga Queen in Brussels. And what do you know? They also serve Boon lambics.

So that's where the Missus took me for my birthday, back before our summer vacation. We didn't confine ourselves to mussels, ordering a heaping platter of various mollusks and crustaceans. We took our sweet time about it too, cracking them open one-by-one and washing them down with bottles of Boon Mariage Parfait. The beer's name was apt for many reasons.

An aside: The climate in the Brussels region is mild thanks to the air sweeping over from the Atlantic. This is the case even in winter, when lambic brewers chill their wort under the open breeze to collect the wild yeasts that ferment the beer. Local legend holds that the Senne River makes it all possible.

Nonsense. I think it's the ocean, only because I can taste it when lambic and seafood come together. Something about a tart, funky gueuze brings out the best in those squishy critters, and vice versa. White wine can't even touch that marriage.

But whatever you do, don't take my word for it.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Toward a Unified Theory of Food-and-Drink Pairing.

That's something I'm working on. Well OK, it's not really a theory. Just a simpler way of thinking about it. Less pretentious and mystical. More user-friendly, less snobby. In the end, it's all hedonism anyway.

Here's what I've got so far:

Taste really is subjective, so experiment. Palates vary widely. So do contexts and moods. Recommendations (Try that Rodenbach with some shrimp, my friend!) can be useful and occasionally spot-on. They make great starting points. But in the end, it's all about what you like. Experimentation--testing and tasting--is more than half the fun. Obviously this is true for any food and drink on its own. But I reckon it's especially important for pairing.

Connected with that idea: Pay attention to what you eat and drink. Most of the pleasure we get from beer, wine and food happens because we remember to check our senses. Taste especially, but also sight, smell and texture. It's sensual in the most literal way. The ability to stop, ponder and enjoy what we're doing is what separates us from animals.

Food and drink often taste better when we're on vacation. Usually that's because we want it to taste better, so we're paying more attention. I'd argue that you can have that in your own kitchen any day of the week.

I know, I'm probably reinventing the wheel. But some people earn a living by appearing to wield secret knowledge. Making it more complicated than it needs to be. Here it is, demystified: Play with your food. And enjoy it.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Ménage à Trois.

We're on a train to Paris in less than an hour. There I will continue hunting places to find good French beer in the French capital. It's not easy, friends. And I imagine some wine will cross our path along the way.

The main reason we're going down there is to attend a wedding, with a couple of friends, via the Internet. Seriously. Strange times.

Meanwhile we just got back from a perfect afternoon down at 3 Fonteinen in Beersel. Armand's Lambik-o-Droom is open. And one of these days I really ought to learn how to spell that name properly.

A sunny, pleasant day with some vintage gueuze. Then some mussels cooked in gueuze and a pitcher of kriekenlambic and then more gueuze. Then back to the tasting café for more old gueuze. Gueuze gueuze gueuze gueuze and sunshine. Incredible.

One day we will look back on our time here and be jealous of past selves. But you can be jealous of us now if you like. We don't mind.