Monday, November 24, 2008

War, Beer, Beer, and Cassoulet.

Just a quick hello and a link for you. Short-and-sweet piece there on touring West Flanders. It starts with war but has a happy ending. De Dolle and the Poperinge Hop Fest get mentions. Mostly the piece reminds me of Ter Posterie, a great Ieper beer café and shop that sadly closed last year. To my knowledge nothing has yet moved into Ieper and filled that beery vacuum. Still a fascinating town and well worth visiting, especially for those with an interest in WWI.

Well, OK, one more link. Just to make sure you've seen the New Yorker piece on "extreme beers." Obviously there's a bit of a focus on Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head. Terrific piece of writing that does better than most to capture the innovative spirit of American craft beer these days. It's loooooonnnggg, but well worth your time.

On Wednesday we're off to Languedoc. This year it's cassoulet and red wine for Thanksgiving, kids. I might or might not get one more post in before going off the air until next week.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Where to Have a Beer and Fiddle with Your Girl in Brussels.

"A former brothel that looks like a cross between an opium den and a 1970s porno set..." That's how an old New York Times review paints the picture. I'm unlikely to say it better.

The Goupil le Fol is an intimate, candlelit, unbelievably atmospheric bar near the Grand Place. Sofas line the walls and old records coat the ceiling. Beaded curtains, ancient portraits and low conversation. The modus operandi is French and Belgian chanson. And old-fashioned Wurlitzer blasts Brel and his crooner contemporaries at high volume – a powerful change of mood from the '60s American oldies one hears in too many Belgian beer cafés.

Sadly for us this place is not really beery at all. On a recent visit the choices were Jupiler, Duvel or Belgoo. An easy choice – the last one is a refreshing blonde made by independent brewer Jo Van Aert at the Binchoise brewery. Maybe not a showstopper but highly drinkable.

Otherwise the Goupil mainly pushes a selection of fruity, sticky-sweet wine cocktails. As far as I can tell, the main purpose is to take your best girl here, ply her with these girl-drink-drunk concoctions, and take her upstairs for some canoodling. I'm not joking. I'm told that Brussels teens have been going up there to bump cheeks for years.

Hmm. I may have just crossed some sort of line. It reminds me of a sage lesson from one of my old journalism professors: Do you know why sex and sells both start with S?

Because sex sells.

Infallible logic.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

In Bruges.

Lightning-quick review of the Bruges Beer Festival: Fantastic venue in the old Belfort. Lots of space and the impression of more with high, impressively raftered ceilings. Even when it got (very) crowded there was always room to get out of the way. The beer was good – if you knew what breweries you liked – but not that exciting. By that I mean there were no new shining stars. No, the beer made from truffles doesn't make the cut. Two really nice ones for me were the tart and refreshing Cuvée de Ranke and the malty, smoked Bravoure from the Dochter van de Korenaar.

In short, it's a good fest for everyone but the tickers. Top 10, but maybe not yet Top 5.

What else: Since we've been discussing (and thinking about and drinking) seasonal beers, check out the (U.S.) Brewers Association page on the stuff. The database allows you to search by state. Microbrewers can add their own seasonal releases. Too bad it's not worldwide.

What else: Tim Webb's Cogan & Mater page mentions a certain upcoming book on Brussels. Very exciting. Deadline approaches.

And while it's on your mind, Tim's 100 Belgian Beers to Try Before You Die (with Joris Pattyn) makes an excellent Christmas gift. It's smartly written, as you'd expect, and the photography is inviting. It's a book that makes you thirsty.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Pairing Turkey and Beer.

If you want a Belgian ale with turkey, go with Saison Dupont. If you want a French beer, go with Castelain Blond. American beer? It's an American holiday, after all. In that case go for the reasonably Saison Dupont-ish Hennepin from Ommegang. That's the prevailing school of thought among the beer-geeky-foodies: Turkey goes best with a classic-style saison or lighter biére de garde. This is one of those rare spots where the prevailing school of thought prevails for a reason.

There's an article in the Savannah Morning News today on pairing turkey and beer. (No doubt there will be more of these in the next couple of weeks.) Great minds think mostly alike. Those three beers are there, plus the Brooklyn Local 1. And may Garrett Oliver smile upon ye.

But I've got to wonder about the Local 1. OK, I've never tried it. But at 9% alcohol it sounds a bit boozy for a turkey beer.

Last night we roasted a big bird for friends as a sort of Thanksgiving warm-up (the holidays approach – my druthers demand a running supply of turkey and/or ham leftovers in the fridge for the next three months). We drank Dupont's Avec Les Bons Voeux, weighing in at 9.5%. I lurve this beer, and others had recommended this to me as a turkey beer. The pairing was fine but not spectacular. Moderate bitterness and lively carbonation cut through the turkey and gravy well enough. The flavors didn't step on each others' toes. But there was definite alcoholic warmth showing through. That's OK with dessert or digestif... but I don't want it with dinner.

So, again: Saison Dupont, Castelain Blond or Hennepin – that last being your best value if you're in the States. Those well-established turkey beers all hover around 7% alcohol. I don't think that's a coincidence.

By the way, lagers also work great... pils if you prefer white meat, Dunkel if you prefer dark meat, and amber if you like both. Yes, I'm aware of how stupid that sounds. Test it for yourself and see.

But you know what? The fun's in the experimentation and screw the conventional wisdom if it doesn't work for you. So, what does work for you? I'd love to hear other suggestions. What's your turkey beer? Or wine? Or whatever?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Christmas is the Best Time of the Beer.

What's your favorite winter warmer? You know: brandy snifter, fireside, beagle dozing at your feet, and so on.

Here's a piece from the Philadelphia Daily News on Christmas and winter beers. He gets a bit ga-ga over Corsendonk, which is OK. Bush Noel and (Heineken-owned) Affligem Noel aren't to my taste, but I guess you can get away with sweet-and-simple in a holiday beer. Nice that Stille Nacht gets a mention.

I can say without a doubt that the best Christmas beer I've ever had is a Stille Nacht Reserva at Kulminator in Antwerp. Actually that's tied for first place with the second time I had a Stille Nacht Reserva at Kulminator in Antwerp. For a sweetish beer Stille Nacht already has some complexity, but with the Reserva the oak performs some sort of Christmas magic that I do not claim to understand. This beer will make you believe in Santa Claus.

Lately I've been enjoying the hell out of St. Bernardus 8, which knocks the socks off of most holiday beers anyway. Rich malt, dark fruit and stewed apples aroma, incredible balance for high drinkability. It fits in the winter warmer category for me. Bought a case and unfortunately I'm tearing through the stuff like it's going out of style. Which it's not. Ever.

My neighbors and I are planning a Christmas party. We aim to celebrate with a keg full of "good wishes" from the Dupont brewery. Want to come?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

More Upcoming Beer-Festing of Note...

Firstly: The next big fest is Bruges this weekend. This fest debuted last year to rave reviews. But we'll judge it for ourselves, won't we?

Here's the beer list. Quite a big selection, and including a taste of Westvleteren 8 and 12. That's exciting news for tourists who may not get another chance. One that piques my scientific interest is Over the Edge made by Van Steenberge for the American market (mixed but basically positive BeerAdvocate reviews here). It's listed here as an IPA. "We'll see about that," says my unbalanced, hop-starved American palate. Coming from Van Steenberge the 9.5% strength is no surprise... it will likely be sweet and fruity as well. How much real hop character comes though is what I hope to find out.

An obscure one there I like is the Noblesse from the Dochter van de Korenaar, which is frankly the coolest brewery name in Belgium. It's intensely Noble-hoppy – dry and grassy. Light and refreshing with a dry finish that makes you thirsty for more.

Secondly: As noted on the Babblebelt, the "Insurance Against Great Thirst" in Eizeringen is having a Day of the Lambic on December 13. I have read the information and all I can tell you is this: It's a day, and there will be lambic. How that makes it different from any other day in Eizeringen I'm not sure, but it's an event. With lambic. That's what matters. Unfortunately there's some overlap with...

Thirdly: The mighty Christmas Beer Festival in Essen is December 13 and 14, and the beer list's first draft is now available for your perusement. Peruse away and commence thirst generation.

Seems like one could make a great weekend out of Eizeringen on Saturday and Essen on Sunday. Unfortunately that eliminates the option of doing Essen both days. Tough call for you. Meanwhile we might be in Bamberg or Munich instead. More on that in the near future.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What's Your Best Train Beer? And an Argument for Cans.

I'm not talking about the tin-can, train-station swill to which we often resort when nothing else is available. I'm asking about your greatest coup... What's the best thing you've drunk on the train? A Westy, maybe? And did you have the proper glass for it?

It's an occurrence that borders on tradition... We take the train from Brussels to some beer fest or other event, out there in the hinterlands somewhere. We memorize the departure times of the last three trains back to Brussels, and we never ever catch the first two of these. Oh hell, we can spend these last 10 tokens if we wait 40 minutes and go for the last train out... Then, 50 minutes later: Time to book it! Grab something good for the train!

After the hop fest in Poperinge we went with the Petrus Blond, a bit sweet and pretty drab by Belgian standards. The Bavik café next to the station was happy to oblige, even if they had never heard of the brewery's aged beers. It got the job done.

Following last year's Brassigaume my friend Matt and I grabbed one (or was it two?) bottles of Saison Dupont and made use of our tasting glasses. Then the train packed up with post-holiday students on their way back to school, standing in the aisles and sitting in each other's laps. We felt it was only polite to share. By then I felt a bit ill from motion and claustrophobia and just possibly from too much beer. Unfortunately a pack of younglings had hemmed me in, preventing ay dash for the men's room. I managed to fight the bear and win, as we say in the Ozarks, but that was a long ride back from Marbehan.

Then last Friday was Hasselt's excellent Bierweekend. After more than three hours of festing Kjeld and I accidentally-on-purpose missed the last direct train to Brussels and opted for the change in Leuven. We grabbed two 75cLs for the ride – the hoppy blond Lupulus from 3 Fourquets and the quasi-mysterious Helkiase from Dupont. (I suspect that last to be the Vielle des Estinnes with another label, this one made for a medieval hospital museum in Lessines.)

Both were tasty but that saison-ish and refreshing Helkiase really won me over. Unfortunately it also hit the seats and the floor. I returned from a trip to the toilet to find a guilty-looking Kjeld and beer splashed everywhere. Apparently the train had lurched and he was unable to save my glass. Something seems to have dulled his reflexes. We were the only ones riding the train except a conductor, and he was less than impressed.

That's the problem with glassware on the train, isn't it? Once it spills, you've lost that beer. But a tin can... You might lose a few glugs before a dramatic and triumphant rescue.

That gets me thinking more about cans. I'd love to see a few Belgian craft breweries start using them, as some American ones do (see 21st Amendment or the mighty Oskar Blues). In terms of quality there is no reason not to do it. Yeah, there's a certain loss of aroma and prestige.

On the other hand, you look like a real asshole drinking from a tulip glass while fishing.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Birra and Poetry.

I'll more effort into sharing news relevant to thirst and travel. So I'm a few days late on suggesting this fine piece on Italian craft beer by Prague-based Evan Rail. By now many of you have read it. If not, then do so now. Pass it around.

While you're at it, also check out Evan's Good Beer Guide to Prague and the Czech Republic, from CAMRA Books.

I must say: It is incredibly cool that an Italian brewery, Grado Plato, named a beer after Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology. Now there's a little piece of Americana. Apparently the book is well-known in Italy; a shame it's not more famous in the States outside of lit classes. Haunting and beautiful stuff... also fairly unchallenging and fun to read. Each poem is an epitaph. Here's my favorite.

You have to admit that "Spoon River Ale" is a better name than "SloCK." Which I'm off to try in Hasselt tonight. Good weekend to you.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Don't Avoid the Hasselt.

If you're in the neighborhood of Belgium and looking for something to do this weekend, consider Hasselt.

The Belgian Beer Weekend there kicks off at 6 p.m. Friday and again at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The list of 140 beers is impressive and interesting.

A few that tweak my curiosity:

Finneke looks to be a new one from Glazen Toren, an East Flanders brewery that hits all my sweet spots. Its beers are typically in the saison mold, very dry and spicy with noticeable hop character. Glazen Toren also gives really good head – it must be among the laciest, sturdiest beer foam in the world. The crisp and refreshing Saison d'Erpe Mere is a classic in my mind. So what's the Finneke? No idea.

SloCk from De Graal, with apologies for the apparently accurate spelling. This is another in the encouraging trend of Belgian brewers experimenting with American hops. It looks to be in the blonde mold at a reasonable 6.5% abv. My theory is that the capital "C" in the silly name stands for C-hops. Sounds promising but here's my advice for friends with American craft-beer palates: Don't get your hops up. I mean hopes, of course, don't get your hopes up.

And finally, Black Jack Imperial Porter from the Struise boys at Deca. Struise is somewhat controversial because despite the lack of their own brewery thay have achieved incredible popularity among the international beer-geek community. I openly admit to being a fanboy. The Black Jack is said to be an American-style porter of 7.5% strength. Bottles have been sighted here and there, but the stuff is scarce. We'll see how long it lasts this weekend.

If you've been to this fest before, note the change of venue. This will be at the Cultereel Centrum at Kunstlaan 5. See you there.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Saturday Morny and Lambic Horny at Cantillon.

I'm a card-carrying, dues-paying member of the Brussels Museum of Gueuze. In other words, I give €15 per year to the Cantillon lambic brewery.

This is a practical matter as much as anything else. I'd been taking several guests per year there and paying five euro-duckets each time. With membership I no longer pay when taking the self-led tour for the umpteenth time. Also I get a letter every few months with an insider's scoop of what's going on at the brewery.

For example: Did you know that the grocery store chain Delhaize sells Cantillon gueuze and kriek to the tune of 25,000 bottles a year? Well, they don't. Not anymore. Delhaize dropped Cantillon in May. That should have been a tough blow, except all that volume went to exports and an uptick in sales at the brewery. It's all in the letter. Read it and weep, Food Lion!

And did you know that the celebrated Kriek Lou Pépé was made this year with frozen organic cherries from Turkey? "The result was a (pleasant) surprise," esteemed patriarch Jean-Pierre Van Roy writes in the letter, "and gave us new ideas."

There's a reason I'm bringing all of this up, besides the fact that this is a Brussels-based beer blog, gueuze is the Champagne of Brussels, and Cantillon is the only real brewery left in town. That reason is that November is a big month for devotees of the lambic house on Gheude street.

This Saturday is the Cantillon's Open Brewing Day. It's a chance to tour the brewery, pepper the brewer with questions, and see the magical coolship and barrels up close.

Now if you're asking, "How does that make it different from any other day that Cantillon is brewing?" – well then, you're a very smart person. Here's the difference: The tour is free, and so are the coffee and croissants if you get there inhumanly early when the most interesting brewing is going on. That's also when you'll be in a small company of hard-core enthusiasts so dedicated that they wake up before dawn and stand around thinking seriously of having their first glass of the sour stuff around 8:30 a.m. I don't recommend going in the afternoon, when there are bigger crowds and often a wait for tours that may or may not be in your language.

I'm more excited about Quintessence on November 22. Imagine a "progressive" party where each successive room offers a world-class lambic paired with world-class, locally made food. Ten courses. This goes from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and costs €15 a head for non-members. It's €12 for us card-carrying elites.

Instead of describe the menu to you, I'm just going to paste the whole thing below. Just to make you drool. Book now if you want to partake.

Quintessence Menu

* 2 year old Lambic of Cantillon
* Grand Cru Bruocsella bottled in 2003
- "Pottekeis" - recipe of Cantillon

* Gueuze-Lambic bottled in 2006 (Lambic 03, 04, 05)
* Gueuze-Lambic bottled in 1996 (Lambic 93, 94, 95)
- Smoked mackerel – (Supplier : La Mer du Nord)

* Kriek-Lambic bottled in 2006 (sour cherries harvest 2006, lambic 2004)
- Pâté with kriek beer and rillette of duck with lambik beer - (Supplier: Halle de l'Abattoir)

* "Trou bruxellois": Gueuze sorbet (Supplier: Framboisier Doré)

* Rosé de Gambrinus bottled in 2006 (raspberries harvest 2006, lambic 2004)
- Rillette with salmon - (Supplier: La Mer du Nord)

* Cuvée Fou’foune bottled in 2006 (apricots harvest 2006, lambic 2004)
- Cheese with Gueuze beer - (Supplier: Brasserie Dupont)

* Vigneronne (grapes harvest 2006, lambic 2004)
- Old parmesan- (Supplier : Langhendries)

* Cuvée Saint-Lamvinus (lambic with Merlot grapes, harvest 2006, lambic 2004)
- Sausage with ceps - (Supplier: café des Spores)

* Iris 2004 (pure malt)
- Cake with nuts – (Supplier : Laurent Dumont)

* Faro (lambic 2006 with candy sugar)
- "Pain à la grecque" - (Supplier: Dandoy)