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.