Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Last Christmas Beer Thingy You Should Read this Year.

What is it about a brewer and a bag of spices that leads to so much trouble this time of year?

Most brewers, or so I gather, are concerned about things like balance and drinkability 99 percent of the time. But give them the chance to make a spiced holiday beer and all restraint goes out the window. Maybe this is the time of the year they get all of that nonsense out of their systems. I'm nearly done with Christmas beers altogether, outside of a few reliable stalwarts. I like to eat pumpkin pie. Not drink it.

Last night I cracked an Abbaye de Saint-Martin Cuvée de Noël, from Brunehaut. Squat little bottle and classy faux-Gothic label. At first the nose was really enticing, something like figs and a touch of rum. As it warmed, more spices came out. And more. And more. On its Ratebeer page you can read the tasting notes. Pretty incredible range of spices that people thought they detected. For me it was overwhelmingly anise. Like fruity licorice kool-aid.

To be fair to Brunehaut, I know for a fact they're capable of making good beer. Their regular stable is refreshing enough and shows interesting farmhouse leanings.

I've still got a few Belgian Christmas ales I haven't opened yet. I'm going to cellar them all until next year and hope they improve. I'm nearly ready for the spring saison season. Which for me runs from January to November.


Sunday, December 28, 2008

Useful French Phrases: Gueule de Bois = Hangover

Not much time to blog for the next few days. I hope to resume in full force after the New Year.

Meanwhile, I thought you might enjoy this loose translation of an invitation from Moeder Lambic, received via Facebook (that name in italics because it should always be whispered, per the policy of the gents at the Brewing Network):

Between December 24 to January 1, we lack pretexts to throw a party. So the Moeder Lambic, in its infinite goodness, is organizing a soirée on December 30.

Every year we close for the first week of January. It would be a shame to waste all those open kegs! This is where you intervene: Starting a midnight, the draft beers go for €1.50! And just so the party doesn't end too soon... we'll open more kegs!

To commence the hostilities, we will hold a raffle after midnight.

The Moeder Lambic team wishes you a joyous hangover!

Want to know what's on tap? The regular stable is Senne Taras Boulba, De Ranke Guldenberg, Cantillon Lambic and Faro, St. Feuillien Blonde, Grisette Fruits des Bois, and Dupont Biére de Miel Bio. Current featured beers are La Rulles Triple and Gouden Carolus Christmas.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Motivation. Or, Hop to It.

I'm happy to boast that two of mine are among the "Final 19 or So" of the Ought-Ocho Yule Log Beer Blog Battle Royale. You can see them here. If nothing else comes of this (besides some hip beer schwag), at least I'm now motivated to get a real camera. One of these days.

On the book: We're really under the gun now. I'm going through the manuscript and finding all those little holes I'd forgotten were there. Our distinguished publisher wants to start looking at whatever we have by Christmas, even if it ain't quite perfect yet. If he means that as a motivational tactic, it's working.

To the right is a photo I hope to include in the section on navigating bilingual Brussels. Not up to me, though.

Finally I want to push you toward a post at Appellation Beer. I know it hits home for me and many other American beer lovers living abroad (or traveling for extended periods of time).

My cravings for intensely hoppy beers have abated somewhat. I have more appreciation than I once did for subtletly, balance and drinkability – whatever those words mean to you. But I can't ignore that even among Belgian ales my tastes run to the hoppier end of the spectrum.

You can take the boy out of America but you can't take the something something I forget how it goes.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Do Authors Smoke Pipes and Wear Corduroy Jackets with Faux Elbow Patches? Because I'd Like That.

Over at the best-researched beer blog on the planet, Ron Pattinson is scheming out a future publishing empire. Books... That reminds me. Ours is almost done. With luck, Around Brussels in 80 Beers will be on shelves and online come March or April.

Tell your friends. Really. If you help spread the word I promise to show some measure of shame at the coming wave of pimpery. That won't be easy, because shamelessness is really more my nature.

When Yvan and I started we thought we'd have a problem finding 80 places in town to drink good, craft Belgian beers. By the end we had a tough time narrowing it down. By telling you about a few of the places we've had to leave out, I might sell you on the quality of the ones we put in. So I'll try that, pretty soon.

Eighty places is a lot, by the way. And we do you a favor by leaving out all those atmospheric but overpriced corporate-beer-list cafés around the Grand Place. You don't need our help to find those anyway.

Meanwhile, go visit Cogan & Mater at booksaboutbeer.com to finish your holiday shopping.

Sequestered in a dark room somewhere, Alan and Stonch are drinking heavily and flipping through slides to judge the best entries in the Beer Blog Health and Beauty Wet Cleanup on Aisle 13 Road Rally. If I don't win I vow to weep big man-tears while screaming and shooting my pistol in the air.

The Embrasse from Dochter van de Korenaar is getting good reviews from the knowledgeable Babblebelters. It appears the beer was a hit at the Kerstbierfestival. Told you it was a good brewery, didn't I? One to watch.

Brand new beer blog launched by friend and artful homebrewer Stefan Berggren. It's called Layers of Foam. Good stuff, check it out.

Christmas beer tasting of sorts tomorrow at my house. Blaugies Moneuse Speciale Noël, Senne Equinox, and De Dolle Stille Nacht. You're not invited, unless you work in my wife's office. But maybe you do.

Monday, December 15, 2008

What's the Deal, Glockenspiel?

Wow, you should have seen the incredible photos I took in Stuttgart, Munich, at Neuschwanstein, and in the Austrian Alps. Beautiful stuff. Really it was.

Too bad the camera got buggy in the mountains at the end of our trip. As a result all photos disappeared from our SD card without explanation. This sad little number to the right was taken soon afterward. This is frustrating and dangerous stuff, since I often promise photos to accompany freelance articles. Time to get a new camera.

Meanwhile, I'll paint you a picture.

The best moment had nothing to do with beer: chilly evening in Munich, strolling through the Englischer Garten, and emerging from dark trees to find the festival of light that was the Christmas Market at the Chinese Tower. Yeah, you should have seen the photos.

If you've visited the country at this time of year you know the Germans beat pretty much destroy everyone else when it comes to creating holiday ambiance. Atmospheric markets can be found in most towns and villages, with lights and angels aplenty and wafting scents of sausages, hot spiced wine, and butter cookies. Something like that. And even if all these markets are eerily similar they do a killer job instilling in you that certain Christmas spirit.

Naturally the Gluehwein helps.

Best meal of the trip: Schneider's Weisses Brauhaus, probably my favorite spot in Munich, chowing on braised pork basted in Aventinus with sauerkraut and potato pancakes. Partnered with a glass of Aventinus. I suppose those old quaffers who have their Stammtisches there must be the happiest bastards on the planet. Possibly the venerable frauleins who work there have a soft spot for them too, and treat them nicely, maybe. I don't know. But by our reckoning these are the rudest, meanest old beer witches in all of Germany. It's exasperating, and then... gulp, gulp... awww, Schneider, I can't stay mad at you.

And I realize that Schneider Weisse is relatively common in Bavaria, but I couldn't help but be thrilled to find a doner kebab joint that served the stuff. It's called Montana and it's just south of the Hauptbahnhof main entrance, at Bayerstrasse 33. If you want to hunt for it. Characterful hefeweizen and spicy kebab make a happy combo.

Best beer of the trip: The Helles at the tiny Sudhaus brewpub in Ludwisgsburg, near Stuttgart. Unfiltered, cloudy yellow-gold, with a serious grass-hoppiness and refreshing bitterness. The place itself is neither special nor famous, but they're making some serious lager and the locals seem to love it.

Back in Belgium. Back to work. More on that soon.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Chouffe Houblon at Delirium was the Nail in my Coffin.

Led an epic pub crawl/tasting last night: La Fleur en Papier Doré, La Porte Noire, Poechenellekelder, a new place I'm keeping secret for the moment, Delices et Caprices, Au Bons Vieux Temps, and a big finish at Delirium.

My head hurts.

No no, I don't want your sympathy.

I'll take this moment to highly recommend Delices et Caprices for your next visit to Brussels. A great beer shop that focuses on quality over quantity. Pierre took great care of us with a mini-tasting that included a spicy chili beer from Millevertus, a big holiday bottle of Rochefort 8 the Great, and some tasty cheese and pâté.

Tomorrow morning the Woman and I are off to Germany. There will be a few days in Munich in there. For the museums, of course. Might not hear from me for a week or so. But you never know.

Ouch. Stop that racket.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Tasty Heresy in Southern France.

We stayed in Carcassonne, just below the castle walls. We walked the battlements and learned about Cathars and other heretics. Lots of people burned at the stake. I mean, a thousand years ago they did. Not last week.

Last week, we were the sinners. Our sin? Gluttony.

My favorite meal was not one of the many tasty cassoulets. Not even the double-ducked one of my Thanksgiving night meal, which also included foie gras on spiced bread, a few French cheeses with red-wine jam, and crème brûlée.

My favorite meal was not even the one at the Michelin-starred Le Parc, where our creative menu seemed built around a colorful Candyland theme. A frou-frou but amusing experience. The scallops were the dish that had everyone making those moaning sounds. The wine was great too, but I can't tell you a damned thing about it. Overall a fun experience, but was it worth the price? I don't know.

I do know that Lou Pescadou was worth it, and then some. That was hands-down my favorite meal of the trip. This is a fish house on the bank of the Canal du Midi, very near the Mediterranean. In fact the village of Agde was an ancient Greek seaport that later silted up.

Here's how Lou Pescadou works, and how it has worked without exception for 42 years. You get five courses. Those five courses are as follows: Fish soup with garlic scraped on crusty bread and shredded cheese; a heaping bowl of mussels with onions and tomatoes; the largest loaf of country pâté I've ever seen; either a fried fish or flank steak; and finally, orange crêpes.

All of that excellent comfort food for just €15 per person. The only choice you get is fish or steak on that fourth course. The rest? Take it or leave it. And at this point I must give full credit to the Lonely Planet guide for sending us there. There was table wine too, red or white. I think it was €4 per liter, something ridiculous like that. Nothing special but definitely refreshing and pleasant with all the grub.

Agde, incidentally, is lesser known than the nearby nudist community Cap d'Agde. Allegedly there is even a bank and a supermarket down there where folks just go nekkid. Sounds wild, but I don't know man. The supermarket? I know one thing: I don't see a lot of nekkid guys using that bread slicer in the bakery aisle.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Beery News from Brussels.

So I'm tempted to bore you with long descriptions of our meals in Languedoc, where pretty much all we did was eat. My lasting memories of that brief trip will be the sight and scent of a steaming bowl of cassoulet, with one or to duck legs poking out of it, next to a glass of red wine. Maybe it's possible to get tired of cassoulet. I never found that threshold.

But I'll save it. Instead I have a few news items. Odd thing for a blog to have, I know.

The Good Daughter: As brewer Ronald Mengerink of Dochter van de Korenaar told us in a recent post, they have a new beer coming out next week. The Embrasse at 9% abv will be the strongest Dochter offering so far, following the refreshing Noblesse (5.5%) and smoky Bravoure (6.5%). The official launch is December 12. Those who attend the upcoming Christmas Beer Festival in Essen will have the chance to try it.

I'm curious about the beer and why they went for a strong one. Many of you abroad will not realize this, but there is a lot of strong, shitty beer in Belgium. The importers generally pick out the good stuff for you. Often the strong ones are too sweet (for me). In this case Ronald's aim, he says, is a malty beer with a cleaner yeast profile than other Belgians. All malt, no adjuncts. His past beers show a willingness to add hops, dimension and character. I'm optimistic.

By the way, I've been mistranslating that brewery's name in my own mind for a while now. Like a stupid tourist I assumed it meant the "Doctor from Korenaar" and was too lazy too look it up. In fact, it means "daughter of the corn ear." It's a reference to a quote from Ghent-born Charles V, who preferred beer – the "daughter of the corn ear" – to wine, the "blood of the grape bunch." And if I've still got it wrong, somebody please let me know.

American Invasion: The Delirium Café here in Brussels has revamped its newsletter, and it looks pretty slick. My sincere thanks to Stephen D'Arcy for passing it on via e-mail, since I keep forgetting to subscribe myself. But none of that is news. The news is that Delirium plans to add five new taps in the upstairs Taphouse, bringing the total to 30. OK, that's still not news either. What interests me is that all five taps are apparently designated for American beers.

American beer geeks may read that and think, "So what?" But you've got to understand the local context. Non-Belgian beer is still nearly impossible to get in Belgium. (Everyone here is a Belgian beer lover, even if they only drink commercial pils. An old fella will point at a can of Jupiler when he tells you that Belgian beer is the best in the world.) This is a market that takes its own stuff for granted. Interesting beers and ideas from the outside can only be a good thing – even if it only leads to Belgian brewers to rejecting overhopped beers, for example, and doing what they do best.

But surely I'm making too much out of it. It's only a few taps at one café, right? Well, no. Moeder Lambic also makes occasional rumblings about adding an American beer or two, perhaps at its downtown location expected to open next year. That place will have a lot of taps too. You heard it here first.

If foreign craft beer is going to get a foothold in Belgium, that is how it will happen. Then, maybe much later, Sierra Nevada at Delhaize. But let's not hold our breath.

Hopduvel is back: It allegedly reopens sometime around December 15, per a post on the Babblebelt. No other details yet. Interestingly, my old post on its closure gets a lot of hits. Let's hope it comes back better than ever.