Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Eggnog Hedonism, Beer Optional.

My theory is that pasteurized, relatively low-fat, store-bought eggnog has turned a whole generation against the stuff. Here's one way to make the real thing, plus a couple of useful variations for your holiday imbibery. This is for all you decadent foodies out there who prize flavor over arteries.

Separate four eggs. Beat a 1/2 cup of sugar into the yolks until smooth. Stir in 1-1/2 cups of milk. Whip 1 cup of cream until frothy then add to mixture. Beat egg whites and then fold into the rest. Add healthy shakes of nutmeg and cinnamon. Now you've got nog that tastes as naughty as it sounds.

Next: Let's make Beernog, which is the whole reason we made nog in the first place. Full credit goes to Randy Mosher's book Tasting Beer, which has some odd holiday ale concoctions near the back. With luck you already own this book or will be opening it on Friday morning. If not, you can buy it here.

Pick out a nice, strong ale. Mosher suggests Anchor Christmas. Many Belgian holiday beers would do nicely. We've used Rochefort 10 to tasty effect, but our favorite so far has been Hercule Stout — the coffeeish roasty taste adds a certain something. Other strong or imperial stouts are bound to fare well. I've also been thinking a Schneider Aventinus or other malty weizenbock/doppelbock beers would succeed. All are worth trying: with that nog base, it's nearly impossible to make something bad. I'd avoid hop bombs, but even those might turn out all right.

Pour about 1/3 glass of beer. Add a 1/2 shot of whiskey, rum, schnapps, eau de vie, or whatever hooch suits your fancy. Top off with the nog. Stirring is optional, and you can watch as the layers sort themselves out anyway. Sip. Savor. Enjoy. Best done next to a roaring fire.

An interesting effect of the beer, besides that warmth that spreads from your belly to your face: it actually lightens the thick, eggy, creamy nog. More proof that beer is good for you.

You don't drink alcohol, or are hungover perhaps? Here's another option I've been pondering: coffee. Based on the stout success I think 1/3 glass of strong, chilled coffee would be gorgeous with some nog. Maybe for a healthy breakfast on Boxing Day.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Here's to Fried Potatoes.

Today I will do something that blogs are very good at: share a small piece of genius.

So I was listening to the Brewing Network the other day — a raucous, vaguely profane and highly educational radio show/podcast that is mostly about homebrewing — and the guest was beer writer Jay Brooks. He of the Brookston Beer Bulletin.

Anyway, it came out during the discussion that Mr. Brooks has a frite fetish. And rather discretely he maintains a blog about it on the side. So I checked it out. And it's really good. Nothing but acres of fried, salted potato. Beautiful. Needs a bit more geographical breadth, maybe, but the blog is positively appetizing.

One project I have meant to do for a long time is to investigate, evaluate and document the best frites in Belgium according to me. But it would be a lifetime project — far more daunting than beer.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Updated Fest Calendar for 2010, and Lambic Sadly Missed.

In the afterglow of another terrific Kerstbierfestival, the time feels right to look ahead to next year's fests. Friend of the Blog Paul Briggs has updated his calendar for 2010. You can find it here, and I've updated the permanent link on the left.

First one on the schedule: the Richement Beer Fair on January 23 and 24 in Richemont, France, near the borders of Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg. Originally a biennial event for breweriana collectors, the fair now usually includes an entertaining mix of French, Wallonian and Luxembourgish craft brewers.

One event I failed to mention last weekend was the Day of the Lambic in Eizeringen, home of the Grote Dorst — arguably the world's best lambic café. What made this event more interesting than usual was the premiere of Allagash Spontaneous, a two-year-old beer made from traditional lambic methods in Portland, Maine. Maybe the only thing stopping you from calling it a lambic is the fact that it was not made in Pajottenland or Belgium, and there are plenty of people who would love to slap a geographical indicator on the word. However no such thing exists at the moment. You can call it lambic if you want. I don't mind.

So, how was the Allagash sour-beer-made-in-America-according-to-traditional-lambic-methods? I have no idea. Unfortunately the excellent people at the Grote Dorst chose to have the Day of the Lambic on the same weekend as the Kerstbierfestival. Reports are most welcome.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Is This The Best Train Beer Ever?

Forgive my typical American habit for superlatives. I am who I am. But listen: a Christmas Magnum of Rochefort 8 shared among friends, in the time-honored post-fest tradition of grabbing one for the road, after a superb afternoon in Essen.

Can you top it?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

157 Reasons for the Season at the Kerstbierfestival.

Kerstbierfestival is tomorrow. Maybe the best festival on the Belgian calendar. The gents from OBER have outdone themselves this time, putting up 157 winter, Christmas, Kwanzaa, or otherwise really special beers up for tasting. Or drinking. That's a lot of merriment and cheer. Time to study the list and point out a few promising numbers.

We're only scratching the surface here, but what about the Winterkoninkske Grand Cru? It's a new one from Kerkom, makers of the classic Bink Blond. The reasonably spiced and reasonably bitter Winterkoninkske, at 8.3% abv, is already one of the better seasonals out there. For the Grand Cru, brewer Marc Limet kicked it up to 13% with a bigger malt bill and some hungry Champagne yeast. (See Steven Vermeylen's report on the beer here, in Dutch. Don't worry, the photos are in plain English.)

Before that we'll need some Courage. That's the new winter offering from Dochter van de Korenaar. According to the brewer, Courage checks in at 8% abv and is spiced with anise and elderberries, "and is nicely balanced by hops." It will be on draft and in bottle. The spicing doesn't excite me, but the "corn ear's daughter" has yet to disappoint.

The new (or old?) Rodenbach Vintage will be there, for anyone who wants a taste. So will a handful of bruising seasonals from Mikkeler, made in Belgium then sent to Denmark then imported back into Belgium. Also a bunch of offerings from new breweries like Den Tseut and Den Hopperd.

And if those don't work out, there's always the old classics. Like St. Bernardus Christmas (draft or bottle), La Rulles Cuvée Meilleurs Voeux (bottle), and De Dolle Stille Nacht (draft or bottle). Recommended lighter beer, as a starter while perusing the list: Slaghmuylder Kerstbier, an unfiltered lager on draft or in bottles.

OK, there is no Kwanzaa beer to my knowledge. But there should be. Here, however, is a clever Kwanzaa beer stein for 20 bones.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Resolution: If I Open a Pub, It Will Have a Library with a Fireplace.

It's luck of the draw: What's the nearest Podge pub near our hotel?* Well, we're just north of Hyde Park, near the Bayswater tube station. Let's see... Looks like the Victoria. Oh. I think that's a famous one.

So we go to see why. Christmas trees and lights on the exterior soften us up before a full blast of warm holiday spirit when we walk in the door. Friendly hello. Fire blazing. Fellas in suits taking long lunch breaks and talking about shopping. Hops hung like holly and strung with more lights. Real Christmas pudding with brandy written on the chalkboard. (Gotta love any dessert that makes you unfit to drive.)

The full range of Fullers beers are here on cask, including the crisp and hoppy Chiswick Bitter and rich ESB. Both help me make short work of some bangers and mash. We pass on the pudding, since a big dinner is planned for later. (I still can't say if it was the right decision.)

We have a look upstairs and realized we should have been drinking up here all along. One room has decor saved from the Gaiety Theatre, a long-demolished London institution. Or so I read. Then there is the library room. Books. Comfy chairs. A fireplace. Just the spot for a goblet of ESB and some contemplation.

Look, there's Yvan now. Pondering, pondering, pondering the lack of a beer in his hand.

The Victoria is convenient to those of you who come to do touristy things in central London. Address: 10a Strathearn Place, W2 2NH. Go on in and warm yourself.

*Podge pub being the universally accepted shorthand for any of those found in the incredibly useful Around London in 80 Beers, by Chris "Podge" Pollard and Siobhan McGinn, available from Cogan & Mater.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

There Will Be a Stille Nacht Reserva Next Year (Probably).

In my latest DRAFT article, I wrote that Kris Herteleer of De Dolle makes the life-experience-in-a-bottle Stille Nacht Reserva every five years. Turns out I was wrong. And right.

From the Mad Brewer himself: "Joe, there is no rule that every five years there should be a release of Reserva Stille Nacht. But next year we plan to have one batch of that. It is brewed yet, but not yet on barrels."

So the angels have yet to take their share, but next Christmas could be a very merry one for those of us lucky enough to find a bottle. We can expect a Stille Nacht Reserva 2010 (following the legends of 2000 and 2005). It's greedy to hope for more.

Those who want to taste what the fuss is about: The Kulminator in Antwerp still had the 2005 last I checked. Bring a friend and share.

Monday, December 7, 2009

In the Future, All Desserts Will Be Chocolate Towers.

Still recovering from a fun and reasonably productive two-day trip to London. This included the British Guild of Beer Writers dinner on Thursday. The five-course feast went about one more than I could handle. My fault, not the dinner's. I had a big pub lunch that must have displaced most of dessert — a hulking dark chocolate tower with ice cream, paired with Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter.

My favorite course was easily the third: braised rabbit leg wrapped in roasted rabbit saddle with a bottle of Ringwood's Old Thumper pale ale. I found it a subtler, deeper match than the rest — so good I forgot to snap a photo that wouldn't have done it justice anyway. And since the next morning I've been mourning the chocolate tower that went to waste. Next time I'll bring a ziplock baggy for leftovers, which would be just about as classy as the blue jeans I wore to a lounge-suit event. Anyway.

Pete Brown was the big winner, as it should be. Read about all the winners here. In particular I want to point out the work of Mark Dredge, which may still be unknown to those of you who don't read beer blogs all the time. (It's an unhealthy habit and I don't recommend it. But if you must die reading beer blogs, then do so in style. Read Pencil and Spoon.)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Yule Dig This.

Getting ready to hop on a train, but I wanted to point out the latest issue of DRAFT... featuring my article on the most interesting Belgian Christmas beers. All feedback welcome.

And Norm is on the cover. How cool is that?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Thirsty Pilgrim's Book of the Year: Hops and Glory.

I used to be a real political reporter, with suits and ties and everything. Now I'm out of practice. Perpetually rumpled. So I'm having trouble packing for London and tomorrow night's British Guild of Beer Writers awards dinner. I'm neither British nor likely to win anything, but I was invited, and it sounds like a good party doesn't it? Wonder if I can get away with blue jeans. Maybe with a big belt buckle and a thick Ozarks accent. As if I ever had one.

"Lounge suit" attire. Hmm. I think that means a real matching suit. Damn.

Listen: I was going to do a long, boring post on beer books — as in, which ones from the past year should be on your Christmas wish list. Then I realized I wasn't wild about most of them. So I'm going to make it easy and narrow it down to one: Hops and Glory. A few of you know it, but not enough of you.

The synopsis: Regular dude Pete Brown gets the brilliant and stupid idea to escort a barrel of IPA via boat all the way from Burton to India. Between dramatic episodes he delivers the deepest and best-written history of India Pale Ale you are ever likely to find. It's a seriously fun read for anyone interested in beer, boats or bribes.

One way to score beery books is based on how thirsty they make you. This is the clear winner of 2009. Lots of hot weather, cool and bright beer, and fruity hop aroma. Just thinking about it makes my mouth a bit dry.

I met Pete at the Great British Beer Festival last time I was in London. He was signing Hops and Glory. I told him he was a sonofabitch, because I'd been reading Three Sheets to the Wind and couldn't get his voice out of my head. It's a bit contagious, which is nice for him but annoying when you're trying to write something yourself. He told me to go read Stephen King. I'm still not sure if he was joking. I don't think so.

Meanwhile, Pete has been busy lately, both promoting and reporting on British craft beer more visibly than anyone else. I hope he wins some silverware tomorrow night.

The real question is, what will he be wearing?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Useful Beery Gift Ideas: Magazine Subscriptions.

This blog has always had two goals: (1) to entertain me, and (2) to be useful to you. And you know what's really useful this time of year? Well, yes, a flask of hard liquor. Besides that. Gift ideas. And another really useful thing: magazines. Also: italics.

What I like best about magazines is portability. On the coffee table, by the bedside lamp, rolled up in your coat pocket, on the plane, in the can. Nothing quite like a glossy collection of recent knowledge, pretty pictures, and targeted advertising. Preferably with a few jokes or cartoons. I also like the fact that they are not very expensive. And even though you know it's coming every month, or every other month, or every quarter, or whenever... it's always a pleasant surprise.

So now this useful blog will do something useful and suggest you make yourself useful and buy something useful for your loved ones: beer magazines. Or print this out and leave it somewhere for your significant other to find. I'll make it easy: Links and (U.S.) prices below.

The Ale Street News is a rag in the best sense of the word. It's newspaper format makes it look like you are reading something quasi-serious. Just the thing for carrying under your arm into the office, with coffee mug in hand and pencil behind your ear. (You don't know that trick? Stick a pen or pencil behind your ear. People will think you're working really hard.) Price is $18.95 for six issues.

All About Beer is the distinguished elder lady among beer mags. She's still pretty hot for an old gal, and maybe the all-around best-written beer mag out there. Burt Reynolds was on the cover once. I wish they would put him on again, for old time's sake. One year is $19.99, two is $37.99, and three is $53.99. It's bimonthly.

Beer Advocate has a stated mission to support craft beer and a bustling online community to back it up. Friend of the Blog Tim Webb has a column in there now. I think he really wants to piss people off but so far, I think, everyone's nodding their head and saying, "Oh yeah, good point." It's also monthly, which is more than most of the other magazines can say. One year will run you $29.99.

The ambitious Beer Connoisseur hits newsstands December 8 and begins as a quarterly. Its first cover is gorgeous. One year costs $21, but two years ($38) or "lifetime" ($90 for 80 issues) gets you a free hat or T-shirt.

BEER Magazine is published by CAMRA in the U.K. (There's also an American magazine simply called BEER, but it's kind of silly and I'm going to ignore it.) The British one is included in the annual CAMRA membership of £20 ($33).

Brew Your Own is homebrewing geekery, raw and uncut. It reminds me of the muscle car magazines my dad used to get — except instead of technical photos of suped-up engines, you get technical photos of suped-up brew systems. The latest issue, for example, shows us a fully automated system three guys built in a garage, complete with computer touch-screen. They wear matching uniforms. It is hilarious and awe-inspiring. Eight issues for $28, or 16 for $44. Add $5 for Canada or $17 for further abroad.

Celebrator Beer News has an annual Brewers Swimsuit Issue, with lots of pasty-looking topless men who don't get outside much. Don't let that put you off. It has a West Coast perspective but does a fair job of covering the international scene. Costs $19.95 for one year or $29.95 for two.

DRAFT has a special place in my heart. It cemented this place when it recently "bought a beer" for my hero Ben Olsen. DRAFT is also one of the prettiest mags on the market and is invariably a fun read. It's also very good at getting B-list celebrities to pretend they're into craft beer. One year of six issues costs $19.99. Two years costs $29.99.

What's Brewing is CAMRA's newpaper, also included in that £20 ($33) membership. Remember that supporting real ale does not necesaarily mean that you oppose deliciously fresh craft beer delivered via CO2.

Zymurgy is the magazine of the American Homebrewers Association. It's prettier and more approachable than BYO, and slightly less geeky I think. Your $38 per year includes AHA membership and, if given as a gift, a free book. International memberships (including the magazine) are also available, starting at $44 yearly.

Just the same, I'd like to see more jokes and cartoons all around.

RIP, Beers of the World.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What's on Your Table Thursday?

Oh, Americans and our Thanksgiving abroad. Sure we could've invited someone over. Maybe some other Yanks who haven't found a table yet. Maybe some locals who ought to experience a real Turkey Day. Or that skinny, ragged lady up on the corner, who's always begging for loose change so she can sit at the corner bar and have a Stella.*

But then there'd be fewer leftovers for us.

The program: Funky lait cru goat cheese with 3 Fonteinen Oude Gueuze, turkey and all the trimmings with Saison d'Epeautre, and real pumpkin pie with Hercule Stout.

For those celebrating: What's on your table Thursday? What's your ultimate turkey beer?

*Absolutely true, and it should make you re-think any notions about Stella being a "premium lager."

Friday, November 20, 2009

And the Hop-Flower Girls Will Arrive Promptly at 4:37 p.m.

Sunday is Brew Day. It feels more like Wedding Day. I'm getting ready to form an unholy union with that 15.5 gallon kettle and his rowdy groomsmen.

I've brewed before, with family and friends. You can count the number of times on two hands. This will be the first time on my own system. Having helped with both extract and all-grain batches, I decided to jump straight to all-grain. Like a schoolgirl hoping she finds the right man someday, I've been reading brewing books for a couple of years now. I have an academic understanding of what is supposed to happen on our wedding night. My friends have shared their private tips. But I'm nervous. What if he doesn't think I'm any good?

Yesterday I found myself, with five-month-old Junior in tow, standing in the plumbing aisle at the local hardware store. For 30 minutes. Looking at hose barbs and tubing, wondering if this European Metric thing would squeeze in to that 1/2" American thing. Hunting for litmus paper to test pH, taking it as seriously as if they were color swatches for new wallpaper.

"Stop it," Junior said. Or maybe it was my last shred of sanity speaking. "Leave this place now. The beer will be fine."

Ugh. I've become Bridezilla.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When is a Brewery Not a Brewery?

So, the Brugge fest was a good one. Plenty of interesting new beers and old classics. Plenty of familiar faces and new friends.

One thing that stuck out on the beer list: a lot of asterisks. Each one stands for a brewer or contractor who does not have a brewery. The lion's share were made on contract at Proef, adding to that house's prolific list of products. And to paraphrase Tim Webb, a lot of the beers that come out of there are annoyingly good.

One to watch, maybe: Viven. Another Proef contractor. We sampled the Ale, Porter and Imperial IPA. The latter two, I think, would hold their own with many of the better American craft-brewed examples. The Porter was espresso-roasty, dry as a bone, and dangerous in its drinkability. The American-hopped Imperial IPA was aromatic, juicy and bitter, and basically only sippable (what, you expected drinkability from an IIPA?). But my favorite I think was the Ale. More a pale ale in the English style, it was hoppy, dry and sessionable.

I say "maybe" because I don't know what their future plans are. Maybe they're content having an excellent technical brewer execute their excellent recipes. Certainly I'd be content to drink them. But I don't have to be impressed until they can pull off the feat with their own hands, in their own place, keeping the floor clean and the books in the black.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Bruges, Beers, Belfries and Books.

Only in its third year, the Bruges Beer Festival has become one of the country's most popular among enlightened drinkers. The main reason is Bruges itself. The prolific beer list doesn't hurt, with 277 different beers from 67 breweries and beer firms.* And it's hard to beat the location in the base of the Belfort tower.

This is all to remind you that it's going on this weekend, if you don't have other plans yet. It runs from noon to 10 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to to 9 p.m. Sunday. The horseshoe-shaped room got pretty crowded in the afternoon last year, so consider arriving early to claim your personal space.

I should mention that Tim Webb and associates Cogan & Mater will have a presence in the festival's bookshop. (FYI, Cogan is the tall one in the dark suit, while Mater carries the metal briefcase chained to his wrist.) Tim will be signing the indispensable** latest edition Good Beer Guide Belgium, while Podge and Siobhan will be signing Around Bruges and the hugely underrated Around London. And at 3 p.m. Sunday Yvan and I will be signing Around Brussels. Stop and say hello, especially if the bookshop is far removed from the beer stalls, in which case we may get mighty lonely.

*"Beer firms" is the term for all those who either brew in other people's breweries or hire others to do it for them, and the designation says absolutely nothing about quality. It only means that they are not technically breweries.

**It's plainly true and sadly I don't get paid extra for saying so.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Long Live Lou Pepe.

Old Jean-Pierre Van Roy has officially brewed his last batch of lambic. You might taste the effort in a gueuze one, two or three years from now — much longer even, if the bottle is well kept. But the man's own influence will live on much, much longer.

His son Jean poured us a small but potent glmpse of the present and future. The Zwanze series of lambics has been the younger Van Roy's brainchild. Last year it was a rhubarb lambic, tasty as usual and interesting as hell. He's outdone that one with the Zwanze 2009, steeped in elderflowers. The aroma is plainly floral without being over the top, mingling with the lemony and musty Cantillon character to pleasant effect. Naturally it's sour yet dry, drinkable and refreshing, with the floral backdrop remaining throughout.

Thanks largely to Jean-Pierre's wily efforts, Cantillon managed to survive an era that many other traditional lambic breweries did not. A younger generation has now tapped into the bines of a more flavorful past, and I'm not just talking about Jean Van Roy. You can meet Lou Pepe's protégés — and the protégés of his protégés — in cafés around Brussels and indeed in a few breweries across the country and abroad.

These days they're all planting their own bines.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Brussels Glass — Currently Half Full.

I've been pondering a letter in last week's Bulletin, Belgium's long-running and popular English-language magazine. David Macdonald is the writer's name. The letter is about Brussels.

So when the question is asked "How might we improve our city's image to visitors?", I am tempted, aside from some obvious cleaning up of our filthy streets, to reply, "Why should we?" Let's face it, we are the ones who live here. It's our city. Hidden behind its dull external Europolitic image is one of Europe's best kept secrets — a quirky, shabby, lovely, ugly, graceful, animated, and above all wonderfully human, surprise. I am proud of Brussels and love introducing my city to visitors, but that doesn't mean I have to nurture its image for their benefit. Take it or leave it, love it or hate it, it's what it is.
I'm reminded that whether a person loves a city has more to do with the person than the place. My wife and I occasionally meet fellow expats who absolutely hate it here and can't wait to leave. They're on another planet.

Loving or hating where you live takes effort either way. Effort takes determination. As an acquaintance once told me, "Love is not a feeling. It's an action." It takes work.

With that in mind, here's an article in the latest Tribune de Bruxelles, a local rag (and I mean that in the best possible sense). The focus is on those who are working to promote craft beer locally. Specifically mentioned are Yvan de Baets and Bernard Leboucq of Brasserie de la Senne, Cantillon, the Moeder Lambic team, several discriminating cafés and shops, and our little book.

Speaking of Cantillon, the semiannual Public Brewing Session is Saturday. "Lou Pepe" himself, patriarch Jean-Pierre Van Roy, will briefly step out of retirement to brew his last batch of lambic. Then he will hand the proverbial mashing fork over to son Jean once and for all.

Now I will make explicit what must have been this blog's subtext for many months: An energetic and creative new generation is taking over the local beer scene. It's their city now.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What Are Your Favorite London Pubs?

Let's give American beer mag readers the real ale experience. I want to know: Where are your favorite spots in London for drinking well-kept cask ale?

I've been there a few times on my own and have some ideas. But here's what I want from you: Imagine plucking an American extreme hophead beer geek off the street and showing them around London. Where would you take them for a proper brainwashing?

A few notes: You need not be local to respond, especially if you've visited and some place left a mark on you. No foreign beer bars, please — we're talking British cask ale. And feel free to argue vehemently amongst yourselves.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Today is Moeder Lambic Day.

The new joint on Place Fontainas opens officially today. The project has gotten some well-deserved publicity from Le Soir and elsewhere. Can't wait to see what's on draft to kick things off... I'll be sure to report back with a snapshot or two.

Feel free to use this space to share your congratulations with Jean, Nassim, Andy and the whole Moeder Lambic team. Wielding a central location, 40 taps, six handpumps, and — most importantly — a critical perspective, they have just altered the face of Belgian beer locally and nationally. There will be reverberations. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Around Antwerp in a Couple of Beers.

The coziness and reassurance of a well-worn, well-warmed pub in October. Being American, I know about bars. And the Belgians can call this a café or whatever they want. But this is a pub.

I'm hiding in the loft at the Paters Vaetje, just across the road from central Antwerp's Cathedral. The "Monk's Casket" has been a familiar friend of traveling beer lovers for years, but this is my first time. Crowds, companions and the nearby Kulminator thwarted my previous attempts. But this time I am early, and alone, and thirsty. And in no particular hurry.

So from my upper-floor table I'm looking down on the punters glued to the bar. They get to choose from any of 102 beers here, so naturally they opt for pils and bollekes. I go for 37.5 cl of Drie Fonteinen Oude Gueuze at €4, which is a steal. The music has been mellow — Neil Young, Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan — avoiding the overplayed standards. Less mellow is the barmaid. And now I understand the punters a little better. Sorry boys, but the view is better from up here.

Later I head for the Oud Arsenaal. The chalkboard beer list is impressively obscure, but I settle for a three-year-old Rochefort 10. It would be easier to enjoy if there were about 50 percent less smoke and 90 percent fewer people. One small room is all this place has, and there are more people standing than sitting. I reckon the seats, all 16 or so of them, were gone at opening time.

Hard to get comfortable. Hard to have a chat. Hard to think. Easy enough to drink.

Yep. This is a bar.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sessionability, Belgian-Style.

Beer historian Martyn Cornell opines today on sessionability. A favorite topic of mine. Pointing as many people as possible toward that post, and toward Lew Bryson's Session Beer Project, is the goal today. The rest is just a photograph and some hope.

The photograph: Jandrain-Jandrenouille's delicious and subtle IV Saison, enjoyed on draft not too long ago at Moeder Lambic. Made to be highly drinkable, and it is, but yet — at 6.5% abv, in a 25 cl glass, and with a fairly high price tag — it's still a bit precious to be a real, all-night session beer. Not that I haven't given it the old college try.

The hope: that after a century in which the alcohol content of Belgian ales ramped generally upward — at first to warm a public whose gin had been banned, and then to battle for the "specialty beer" market scraps left by industrial lager brewers — we're seeing a growing number of craft beers of more useful strengths. Recent stars include Rulles Estivale (5.2%) and most of the Senne range (especially the Stouterik and Taras Boulba at an honestly sessionable 4.5%). Then there are old friends like Dupont's Biolégère a.k.a Avril (3.5%) and Bink Blond (5.5%).

More hope: that we could start seeing larger glasses with which to hold these quaffable beauties. Sorry, but these dainty 25 cl tulips just don't cut it for big, thirsty clods like me. Imperial pints would be fine but are unlikely on the continent. So, with a nod to Lew, I propose half-liter willibechers.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Mythology of Glassware.

We've got a mirrored hutch full of fancy beer glasses. They're mostly from a six-month flurry of collecting after we first moved here a few years ago. Thankfully, before things got out of hand, we realized most of them were useless. OK, useless is a strong word. They do hold liquid. They have a use. Impractical. That's the word.

Here's another in a long series of myths about Belgian beer: Each beer must be served in its own special glass. What nonsense. (In fact I suspect it may be what the bruxelloise call a zwanze – a practical joke. On all the rest of us.)*

And here's a universal truth about all beer, including that from Belgium: Each beer is best drunk from the glass from which you would most enjoy drinking it.

Finally, here's something I've never told anyone: As much as I love most Trappist beers, I hate the chalices. Especially the stylish Orval glass. They look pretty and that's about it. They don't do the beer any favors. Give me an Orval — bitter, complex pale ale that it is — in a straight-sided tumbler any day. Give me an intensely aromatic Westvleteren 12 in a brandy snifter, which nearly demands sipping and swirling and contemplation. The chalice lets all that aroma just slip away. It's kind of a waste.

But that's just ranting. What do you like to drink from what?

*Joke or not, it's great marketing. Pushing your competitors' glasses off the shelf behind the bar is a nice way to increase visibility.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Beer to Hunt: Rodenbach Vintage 2007.

Rhetorical question: If you had an exceptional oak tun in which you were aging some exceptional sour ale for a couple years, wouldn't you name it something besides Vat #230? I can't think of so many better names. Chewbacca! ... Zeus! ... Jenkins! Always liked that last one. But #230? That's so—I don't know—Short Circuit of them.

Anyway, the news: Rodenbach is releasing a special bottled beer in November called Rodenbach Vintage 2007. It appears to be an unblended sour ale from the aforementioned, imaginatively named vat. According to U.S. importer Latis, brewmaster Rudi Ghequire "describes Vintage as having a red copper glow with complex flavors but at the same time very smooth. Vintage is 7% ABV is [sic] more mild than Rodenbach Grand Cru."

If it's really unblended I wonder why it's "milder" than the Grand Cru, which is somewhat diluted with younger beer these days. Could be #230's fault. It's a pretty mild name, after all.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Struise Brouwers to Open Struise Brouwerij in November.

The address is Kasteelstraat 50, 8640 Oostvleteren, and its doors will open to the public starting November 1.

According to the brewers' Facebook page (shhh), Struise man Carlo Grootaert will be welcoming visitors at the renovated schoolhouse that Sunday. Afterward, the new brewery and its shop will be open Wednesdays to Saturdays from 1:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Otherwise known as "between lunch and dinner."

Could be just the thing for your beery West Flanders trip, after a morning visit to Westvleteren and In De Vrede. So first church, and then school, for some of the strongest beers Belgium has to offer. Hail to the bus driver.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

DRAFT Magazine: Brussels on a Shoestring.

Check out the Sept/Oct issue of DRAFT Magazine for my article on how to do Brussels and its beers on the cheap. You won't find it on draftmag.com, but that's OK since you were just on your way out the door to your nearest quality bookstore anyway. Hunt for it next to the fancy wine and food magazines. While you're at it, go here and subscribe.

Among other gold worth mining out of that issue is a feature on a American beer gardens. These are very much on my mind at the moment, not just because it's October, but because I've been reading Maureen Ogle's fascinating Ambitious Brew. Aside from her historian credentials she's a smooth storyteller and does an admirable job of painting a picture I've always wanted to see: What were our German immigrant forefathers up to in the 1800s?

As it turns out, at least part of the time, they were hanging out in massive beer gardens and beer halls built in and around large American cities. Of course the breweries built them. The folks were socializing, bowling, playing cards, walking their toddlers around, and drinking hearty amber lagers of about 3 percent strength.

Honestly, that sounds like my scene.

Pictured is part of the beer list hanging over the bar at Monk, one of the cafés featured in the article. A lot of really great beers there for les than €3.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Talking Beer with the Chief Beer Officer.

Had a chance to chat and have a few beers last week with Scott Kerkmans, chief beer officer for Sheraton's Four Points hotel line. He was in the midst of a tour and had a stop in Brussels — at Delirium, specifically — where a handful of breweries appeared to be trying to woo him and his colleagues. It was interesting to watch smaller commercial breweries like Huyghe spinning the old "Belgium is beer paradise" line for someone who is savvy enough to know the truth is a bit more complicated.

Anyway: You may remember the well-publicized search for Sheraton's chief beer officer two years ago. Thanks to the publicity and straight-up attractiveness of the job, the Starwood-owned hotel chain got more than 7,000 applications from 30 countries. Kerkmans, a former brewer at the Alaskan Brewing Company who is still not yet 30, eventually came out on top.

It didn't take long for me to see why they hired the guy. His job is not just to push the Four Points hotels into stocking better beer; he is also the public face and voice for that effort. From what I saw last Tuesday, it continues to be a smart publicity move. It might typically go something like this: Kerkmans visits a city with a Four Points hotel, the hotel alerts the local journalists that the "chief beer officer" is in town, and the journalists come to drink beer and meet the guy with the dream job. Maybe they also write about it.

Besides talking to journalists and posing for pictures, Kerkmans says he's doing his damnedest to get each Four Points to stock interesting, local beers. The rule for the bar: There must be four drafts and eight bottles at a minimum, and at least half of those should be local.

Just to be clear: Local for the Four Points in Brussels does not mean Cantillon; it means anything Belgian. "Here, Hoegaarden would still be considered local," Kerkmans said. Yes, even though it's owned by Belgian-Brazilian-Missourian-global giant A-B Inbev. Not that he is satisfied with that.

"My job, I feel like, is to do my best to get one or two very interesting local producers a seat at the table," he said, "so that people like us can go to the hotel and find something we'd like, something we'd enjoy. ... It's always a challenge to set the balance right."

People "like us"? I presumed that he meant geeks. Aficionados. Kerkmans is a genuinely good guy who's good at talking to journalists. Have any of you visited a Four Points lately? Did you have a beer there? I'd be very interested to hear how he's doing at the other part of his job.

Friday, October 9, 2009

They Only Make the Kind of Beer They Want to Drink.

I hear it a lot from craft brewers in Belgium. It would be cliché if it weren't so awesome.

Kerkom's slogan is scrawled on the farmhouse wall: "We make the beer. We drink the beer. We sell what's left." And as my friend Yvan De Baets of the Senne brewers has told me often, he and Bernard Leboucq make their beers only to their own tastes. Of course they're happy if others like it too.

The other night I had the chance to talk with Grégory Verhelst of Rulles, another brewer whose products I would have on tap in my garage, kitchen and shower if I could (especially the fresh Estivale, oh my). I'm saving more for an upcoming article, but this is a little of what Grégory said: "I created a beer for my own taste... It's impossible not to drink more of a good beer. Me, I am a drinker of good beer. I make the beer first for me. And so, I provide a very drinkable beer."

Elesewhere I have heard and read folks wrestle with the definition of craft beer. Surely it's in that philosophy somewhere. Now, to be fair, I have also heard this basic message from craft brewers who make what I think is shitty beer. That's OK. They don't need my favor to have my respect.

Not that they care what anyone else thinks.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Paul Briggs' Famous Belgian Beer Festival Calendar, Now Online.

Thanks to the magic of Web 3.14159265 or whatever the hell version we're on now, it was stupidly, drunkenly simple to publish it to the Internets. I mean, I just pushed a couple of buttons, turned this here knob, flipped a switch, and it practically happened by accident.

You can find it here.

I'll add a link to the left sidebar and update it whenever Paul does. All you have to do is buy Paul a beer at the next festival you attend. Oh, don't worry. He'll be there. Just listen for someone speaking Flemish with a Yorkshire accent.

I recently learned that I can understand Paul's Flemish better than his "English." And I don't speak Flemish.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Upcoming Beer Events in Belgium Worth Mentioning: Fall 2009 Edition.

Once upon a time I meant to do this every few months or so. Instead I end up doing it when the sheer weight of festivals on the calendar threatens to crush me if I don't write it all down. Now the burden is yours.

As usual, big thanks to Paul Briggs of the CAMRA Brussels crew for his festival calendar. He assembles a mighty Excel file with great diligence and sends it out via e-mail. If you'd ike to be added to his list, drop me a line to the address mentioned on the left. I'll connect you.

Paul's calendar is far more comprehensive than this. I chop off most of the small village fests and open brewing days, keeping only what I think should most interest you. Which is mainly what interests me. Funny how that works.

This Saturday, October 10: BLES Bierhappening in Zottegem, East Flanders. There will be 23 breweries, mostly small Flemish ones. If you never have, try that Valeir Extra on draft from Contreras. Runs from 2 to 10 p.m.

October 17-18: Brassigaume in Marbehan is one of the best on the calendar. This festival in the Luxembourg province celebrates small craft breweries, led by locally based Rulles. There will be 19 of them this year, including five from Italy and two from the U.K., but the emphasis is on Wallonian ales. Normally takes place in a tent near the soccer field, about 10 minutes walk from the train station. Just follow the signs. Runs from 2 p.m. to midnight Saturday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.

October 24: Diesters Bierfestival in Diest. Strength in regional breweries but a fairly impressive list otherwise, including a new one from De Ranke called Hop Flower Power. Interesting. Runs from 1 to 11 p.m. in the fest hall at Zoutstraat 11.

October 24-25: Karakterbierfestival in Poperinge. A fun party with 18 breweries at the Palace Hotel. Last year a woman in a nun costume sat in my friend's lap. Can't seem to find that photo at the moment. Struise was there last year; not sure about this year. Runs from 2:30 to 11 p.m. both days.

November 7: Public Brewing Day at Cantillon, most likely to coincide with a party at the new Moeder Lambic Fontainas. Watch this space for further details.

November 7-8: Bierweekend in Hasselt. There are a handful of draft beers but for everything else you're buying the whole bottle. Bring friends with which to share. Wave a sign in the air and waiters come to take your order. Numbers on the wall tell you if your beer of choice is still available. A classy operation all around. Quite a hike from the train station, though. The Cultuurcentrum is at Kunstlaan 5.

November 14-15: Brugsbierfestival in Bruges. A whopping 67 breweries are expected this year in the hall at the old belfry tower, right on the Grote Markt. There are two frites stands out front—will someone please remind me which is the good one? I'll be signing books there on Sunday afternoon at the Cogan & Mater table. Stop by to say hello.

December 12-13: Kerstbierfestival in Essen. Totally devoted to Christmas and winter beers, this is simply the best event on the Belgian beer calendar. The smart folks stay in Antwerp and split cabs to Essen. I've never been that smart. Someone want to drive me and my wife there? And someone else want to babysit? Also: Watch for a related article in an upcoming issue of DRAFT.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Peek Behind Girardin's Curtain, Thanks to Chuck.

Chuck Cook might be the most determined dude in the beer-writing biz. Despite only getting to Belgium twice or thrice a year—his trip itineraries are insane; how does he find the time to stop and drink?—he's managed over the years to get behind the walls of places like Rochefort and Westvleteren.

But his latest coup, I think, is more impressive. Earlier this year Chuck was the first beer writer allowed into the secretive Girardin lambic brewery since Michael Jackson in 1993.

To read about his visit you need to go buy or subscribe to the latest issue of the Ale Street News. Do this now. Besides Chuck's regular column in there you get other goodies like Lew Bryson's truth-laden "Steaming Pile" (this month: "Pumpkin Beers Mostly Suck"). It's a fun paper to read.

A sneak preview: According to Chuck, Girardin grows all its own wheat for its lambic beers. (Lambic recipes are typically about 30 percent unmalted wheat, with the rest usually pale malt.) It also grows barley and sells it unmalted to buy malt. So, basically, most other places calling themselves "farmhouse breweries" can crawl on over and lick Girardin's big rubber boots.

Also: Those beautiful, shining brewing coppers, which anyone can see through the window from the road, are not used for lambics. Instead they're used for the brewery's Ulricher Pils. The lambic kit is tucked away deeper inside the brewery, away from prying eyes.

There's a lot more in the article, and more stories and photos from his visit in the pipeline. But he worked hard for them, so now you've got to do your part and pay up. That's just how it works. Subscribe to Ale Street here.

The photo is mine from a visit in January. Not a forbidden tour, just a stop to buy lambic. Read here about how and when to go and get your own jug of some of Pajottenland's finest.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Another Heavy-Handed Hedonistic Post.

Stop and smell the roses. We've been told that since we were kids, if not by our parents then at least by popular culture. A simple message: Stop, pay attention, enjoy life. A lot of people forget to do it. Or so I've heard. My theory: That's the real secret behind food-and-drink pairing. More broadly it may also be a driving force behind craft beer, great wine, the foodie movement, and so on and so forth. Nothing revolutionary here: People seek greater flavor because they want greater joy in their lives.

But about pairing—with beer and food, for example—there is no real magic there. I wouldn't even call it science. There are a few matches where identifiable flavors in a food either harmonize or complement those in a beer. And there is a much wider range of foods and beers that both taste great while not stepping on any toes, let's say. But the real trick, and it's almost sleight of hand, is getting someone to pay attention to what they're tasting. It's fun to really taste something good, to tap into what is literally your sensual side. Somehow it's even more fun when you know that someone—a brewer or a chef, for example—has used a lot of passion and knowledge to make it better for you. There is special communication there, even if there is money involved. And there usually is.

Stop and smell the roses. Some people pay good money to be reminded of it—how about $350 for this meal in New York (with a hat tip to Andy Crouch). But you can do it far more cheaply at home, or in your favorite local corner restaurant. Unless you're the sort that always needs to be told what to do.

The shot here was from a birthday dinner at Restobiéres a while back. A robust Hercule Stout with roast piglet. Neither stepped on any toes. It was joyous. And considerably less than $350.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Fantasizing About Exercise Makes Us Thirsty for Bink.

Mrs. Pilgrim and I own no bicycles, but we occasionally imagine it. Usually this happens only after we've driven our car to a pleasant brewery or café attached to a cycling trail. In Limburg we've been to at least two places that had that effect on us: the Achel Trappist brewery on the Dutch border, and the Kerkom brewery in the pastoral Haspengouw region.

On Saturday it was Kerkom. The brewery sits in an area near Sint-Truiden that offers a mix of trees, farmland and gentle hills—perfect for cycling (or so we gather). It's on a road that's part of several cycling routes, including the Trudo "Local Beers" Route. Four euros gets you a map from the tourist office in Sint-Truiden. You can also rent bikes there for €9 a day.

Like many other old Belgian farmhouses-turned-breweries (and this one first made beer back in 1878), Kerkom's building has four wings that embrace a courtyard—and ideally they would all have cafés like this one. You can sit at shaded tables outside if weather permits; otherwise the warm interior offers bricked ceilings and a large fireplace. (When will other breweries learn that this is the kind of experience that builds brand loyalty?)

Bink is the beer and the nickname for the locals. The beers are all worth trying but geeks will want to ask about the rare Bink de Reuss, a tart and refreshing blend of blonde ale and Girardin lambic. Specialist cafés and the odd festival are your best bet for that one.

We went with the Bink Blond, the noble-hoppy classic, quaffable at 5.5% strength—a nice one to convert lager lovers to ale. Thirst-quenching. Just thing after a long, um, drive.

The fine print: From April to October, Kerkom's café is closed Mondays and Tuesdays, open other weekdays starting at noon, and weekends and holidays starting at 10 a.m. During the cooler months it's only open Thursdays though Sundays starting at noon. For hundreds of other excellent Belgian road trip destinations, invest in the Good Beer Guide Belgium by Tim Webb, a man who owns a bicycle and uses it here as often as possible.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The 'S' on His Chest Stands for Saison.

One of my favorite places in town has revamped its beer list a bit. Nüetnigenough—hold on a second, do you need a pronouncer? I'm no authority on Brusseleer dialect (is anyone?), but I seem to get away with saying it like this, really fast: noot-neeg-enough. Practice.

Nüetnigenough's beer list shrunk from 28 to 25 but now contains no nonsense whatsoever. Light, bitter Taras Boulba and aromatic but sweet Lupulus are there now, plus a rotating beer of the month. In September it's the big and malty but nicely bitter Quintine Blonde from Ellezelloise.

There's also a new one from West Flanders called Papegaei, a blonde of 8% strength. It's said to be from a new brewery in Diksmuide called Verstraete, but in fact it appears to be made at Deca Services—nothing to be ashamed of. The same kit has hosted the brewers from De Ranke (now in Dottignies) and Struise (getting ready to move a few miles away into schoolhouse-turned-brewery).

Can't tell you what Papegaei tastes like. Not when there is Saison Dupont on draft, helping me tear through two large veal meatballs and carrot stoemp. I have no strength in the face of that beautiful kryptonite. Golden, quaffable, thirst-quenching, liquid kryptonite.

Monday, September 21, 2009

New 'Hoppy Loft' Opens at Delirium.

I know people who refuse to go to Delirium because it's too crowded and/or young and/or smoky and/or touristy. Or because it's just plain evil, pushing sugary candy fruit beers on kids who don't know any better, rather than using that incredible cellar as a force for good. Certainly Delirium can be all of those things at once—crowded, young, smoky, touristy and fruity—making it a nearly unbearable place for grown-ups to spend an evening.

Then there are other moments at Delirium. Quieter ones, with cleaner air, fit for drinking something interesting with your conversation. And, increasingly, thankfully, there are more nooks and crannies in which to find those moments.

So, the Hoppy Loft opened two weeks ago. If you're keeping track, the Loft is upstairs from the ground floor Taphouse, which is upstairs from the main Delirium bar and its theoretical 2,000+ beers. As you walk in the front, a set of curvy blue metal stairs leads up to a trap door that opens at 6 p.m. Up there we found a whole space full of quiet tables. The alco-pop kids apparently haven't found it yet.

The Loft's beer selection mainly showcases four American craft breweries: Anchor, Flying Dog, Great Divide and Left Hand. This is actually cutting-edge here, since it remains nearly impossible to find non-Belgian beers in Belgium. Most of the bottles from those breweries are available, plus another 100 or so mostly well-chosen Belgian bottles.

The Loft just might possibly be aimed at pleasing the cranky minority of grown-ups (ahem) who drink better beer and bitch about the rest of the place being unbearable. In the café's August newsletter, translated into English, owner Joël Pécheur notes that a lot of people come to Delirium in big groups to party. Meanwhile, he says, "I have always wanted to create a place where people with an interest for more complexe [sic] tastes could try different products in a relaxing atmosphere with people who share the same interest..."

Hear that? Relaxing atmosphere. I support that.

For the record, the Loft was blissfully quiet a few days ago. Nice place to sip an IPA and chat with the barman—who complained that he was bored because the place was too quiet. No doubt a few drunken backpacker girls drinking strawberry alco-pops would have livened up the place. Guess you can't please everyone.

Worth noting: Six of the Loft's taps were devoted to hoppy American beers. The other four? Floris Passion, Floris Strawberry, and so on. Ah well. It's still a Huyghe-tied bar after all. Better get there soon, before the children find it.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Forty Handles and a Mule.

Forty? Egads. That won't sound like a lot to My Fellow Americans, spoiled as we are by pricey but prolific specialist beer bars carrying everything from Bamberg to Boston to Brussels to Burton. (We make everything bigger. Especially our children.) But in Belgium, proud home of secondary bottle fermentation for "specialty" beers... Well, 40 is a lot of tap handles.

(Here's a poor joke, made poorer by a stereotypical French accent: An old Belgian guy walks into the new Moeder Lambic Fontainas. He sees all the taps and says, "Wow! Zat ees a lot of Jupiler!")*

Anyway, I snuck a peak at the new place the other day, hence the photo. Expect 40 kegs of quality. Disregard the Coca-Cola, which will not be one of them. As I reported back in July, Moeder Lambic Fontainas is set to open in October. That looks to be on track, although it will be later in the month rather than earlier. The exact day depends on the last-minute stuff—including, apparently, the gas company. Official opening party probably on November 7.

For a lot more photos of the Fontainas in progress, there is a Facebook (shhh!) page here. (Just don't tell anyone else about Facebook. It's a secret, only for cool kids and all their relatives and exes and high school classmates and so on.)

*I'm really, really sorry.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Listen: There is No Such Thing as Beer Capital of the World.

My coffee cup is sitting on a beer mat that says "Brussels: Beer Capital of the World." That's odd. Because I live in Brussels, and I've traveled a fair bit, and you know what? This ain't it. And the more I think about it, the more I'm sure there isn't one. You know what else? I'm glad. It would be boring as hell to have just one beer capital.

For starters, Brussels isn't the easiest place in the world to find decent craft beer. Considering this is capital of Belgium, so-called "Beer Paradise," it's surprisingly difficult. And good luck finding anything non-Belgian outside of one or two specialist haunts. Surely a diverse international selection of greats is prerequisite for being "Beer Capital of the World." (Incidentally, that also rules out great German beer towns like Bamberg and Munich.)

Guess what else? There's not even a beer capital of Belgium. Oh, people will make arguments for Brugge or Gent or Antwerp or Brussels. But they're only arguments and none are decisive. In fact that's the general problem with the world's "beer capitals"—London, Portland, Prague, San Frandenverego, whatever. Just arguments.

Nothing wrong with arguing. Hell, it's my third-favorite pastime. And nothing wrong with marketing, even in Brussels' case. My problem is with those who proclaim things without doing enough to make those things reality. Breaking the local stranglehold of A-B InBev, Alken Maes and French wine would be a good start. Cantillon is based here, for god's sake, and you practically need our book to find the stuff. That's a bit shameful.

In the supposed "Beer Capital of the World," it's simply too hard to find the beers that are making this country famous. Only solution: Support the places that are making it easier.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Summer Took a French Exit, the Bastard, But We Outsmarted Him.

Over in that photo, yonder, sits a pale ale on a bar on the top deck of a boat tied to a dock on a really swell lake for skiing or swimming or whatever else you like to do in the water. The sweat, as it always does, tells a story of cold on the inside and warm on the outside. Summer came too late and left too early for us. After four weeks in the Midwest we dropped very suddenly back into crisp, gray Brussels. A shock to the system.

Then, a few nights ago, I tasted one of the best beers I've ever had. Really. It had been waiting patiently in fermenter then luggage then cupboard then fridge to finally say aloha. My brother and I made it in mid-August, in our parents' garage, a week after he got married. We named it after my son, who watched from his grandpa's big burly arms. It was hot out.

The beer pours a bright and clear gold with a sturdy, creamy white head. It smells just like the boatloads of fruity, floral American hops with which we dry-hopped it. It has a firm bitterness that doesn't coat the tongue, getting swept away by lively carbonation and finishing pretty damned dry. It is utterly quaffable. To borrow from the Marines, "there are many beers like it, but this one is mine."

I only have four left in the fridge, and each is more valuable to me than anything in my cellar. Each is summer in a bottle. Four more chances to say aloha. Hello and goodbye.

Monday, September 14, 2009

All the Rest of You are Slackers.

As a matter of course I hunt around now and then for reviews of our little guidebook. We've had our share in the local mass media, but most of my favorites to read are random blogs... Regular folks who found the book and are enjoying it.

My favorite so far has to be Greasy Truckers Party Food. A Mr. George Ternent appears to be working his way through all 80 entries — and blogging each one. Consider me humbled and amazed. If he has half as much fun on his quest as we did researching it, he's in for a treat.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

I've Been Saving Up for You.

Got a gazillion things I want to share, and a couple of them might even be interesting. Sadly, no time. Work to do and a suitcase to pack. Finishing up another piece for DRAFT (tell you later) and getting ready to spend a week in Germany. This trip will include a day in Bamberg, arguably the beer capital of Germany. Arguably.

The Belgian Beer Weekend and all its pomp really got my wheels turning. I came away even more cynical about the Belgian beer scene, if that's possible. For now let's just say I really missed Bruxellensis, which took a one-year hiatus. Hope to go into more detail soon, when my life gets back to normal. Or whatever resembles normal when there's a two-month-old in charge (who, incidentally, attended his first beer festival over the weekend. A Japanese TV crew was intensely interested in Mrs. Thirsty Pilgrim drinking a beer while carrying Junior on her chest. Watch for a very special documentary on alcoholic moms and dads on Nippon National Television...).

Meanwhile here's an announcement that shouldn't wait: The new Moeder Lambic is running only a few weeks late in its plans to open. Good news, I'd say. That means we're looking at late October/early November. Regardless, according to co-owner Jean Hummler, there will be a party the same day as the next Cantillon Public Brewing Session. That would be November 7. Assuming the bar is really open by then, I reckon the event should be open to the public. So there's a date to scratch into your calendar if you're around.

Right. Hungry suitcase, staring at me. Back in a week or so.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Under the Weather, Yet There is 'Work' to be Done.

Back in Belgium, jet-lagged and somewhat out of sorts. Got a big fest today and a tasting tomorrow, yet I can't tell my allergies from a cold. Can't smell a damned thing. A few good beers are likely to be wasted on me. Beats staying home.

And it must be Belgian Beer Weekend, since it's raining. Oddly appropriate and I don't mind at all. I've got my gear and the wet weather seems to clear away some of the casual drinkers. Just got to watch that the raindrops don't smear my notebook.

Last year I wasn't able to talk my way into the pre-fest ceremonies. This year I had no problem. I will be there to witness the consecration of the beer at the cathedral, the knighting ceremony at the city hall, and the "solemn inauguration" of the beer stands. That last one is the best—a blatant way for us VIPs (ha!) to drink for a while before you plebes can enter.

Need ideas for what to try? The list has a lot of chaff. How about St. Feuillien Saison, a dryish farmhouse ale that's getting good reviews. Or the Bockor Cuvée des Jacobins, a reddish-brown sour ale that Bockor uses as a blend in its sweeter beers. (This is likely the same as the damned interesting Foederbier I tried last year... Seems they are getting wise and marketing it a bit, especially for export to the U.S. Yet the Bockor team still seems to think that Belgians can't handle sour stuff and would prefer the sweet fruit beers. More on that another day, hopefully sooner rather than later.)

A couple of mysteries to me: The St. Feuillien Leon and the Verhaeghe Barbe d'Or. Both unknown names from solid breweries. Meanwhile the Maneblusser from Anker, a 6% blonde ale aiming to be the signature beer of Mechelen, is getting some hype.

So there are a few interesting things to try, besides some reliable things to drink—Saison Dupont, Timmermans Oude Gueuze, Petrus Aged Pale, etc.—if all else goes awry. Just hope I can taste them. Sniff sniff BLOW. Don't drink from my glass and please excuse the used tissue poking out of my coat pockets.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Quiet Death on the Hatters' Street.

The nature of guidebooks is that they're out of date as soon as they're published. No surprise, then, that the 80 all-stars from Around Brussels have suffered their first casualty.

The Chapeau d'As, a quiet brasserie just two blocks from the Grand Place at Rue des Chapeliers 36, shut its doors a short while back. It had a brief but interesting beer selection, paneled walls with benches, and a Magritte-esque painted ceiling complete with derby hats blowing around a blue sky. It was a place of peace. Except that now it's being replaced by a Scandinavian restaurant. Whatever that means.

But guess what? There are new all-stars on the horizon. And hopefully a second edition in a couple of years or so. In the meantime, 79 out of 80 ain't bad.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

New Beer Mag on the Way from Belgium.

Howdy from the Ozarks, where I am kept fat and happy with a steady diet of barbecue, baseball and IPA. A little too quiet on the lake this morning. I can hear a train whistling over the hills yonder. Fish are biting. Or so I'm told. Today my only mission is to ride a Jet-Ski. Like I said, too quiet.

OK, check out this upcoming Belgian beer mag called Bubblzzz. It is theoretically possible that the name is less silly in French or Dutch than in English. I couldn't say for sure. Regardless, it's a beautiful magazine with lively writing. Its preview issue is ambitious, ranging from Trappist beers to Pierre Celis to Zythos to Lambics and more. I reckon the idea is to show advertisers the great potential here. Much of the photography is gorgeous.

And there's a glowing review of Around Brussels in 80 Beers (page 12). This is my favorite review yet, thanks to the phrase, "Joe a le flair d'un chien de chasse dopé au houblon," which is something like, "Joe has the nose of a hop-addicted hound dog."

How cool is that? Our beagle would be so proud if he could read it. Unfortunately Truman was born in Flanders, and has been raised as an American, so he can't really be bothered with French.

Gotta go. I think I smell Centennial, ever so slowly seeping out of one of those bottles in the fridge.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Books Come to Life and Dance with the Janitor When the Shop Closes at Night.

Sitting on a farm in mid-Missouri, sipping coffee. Junior was hungry and it's damn early. Feeling strong and virile thanks to a steady diet of sunshine, lake time, red meat, and Boulevard beers. Also feeling like a salesman this morning.

I'd hope that Thirsty Pilgrim readers are a saturated market when it comes to owning the handy little guidebook, Around Brussels in 80 Beers. But I know that you have friends. And they, obviously, want to know where to get a copy of their own. Since you're too cheap to give them one.

Well, as you know, there's the instant mail order. Or if you're in Brussels there are a bunch of shops: Waterstones, Sterling Books, Filigraines, Bier Tempel, Beer Planet, Beermania, Delices et Caprices and a couple others. Still more to come.

Waterstones especially—and perhaps against their better judgement—has seen some potential in us. They bought a very large amount of books and put up a window promotion. Here you see the photographic evidence.

Mr. Jackson's books are below ours, but we won't let that go to our heads. And I don't think he'll hold it against us.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Today, a Sneak Preview...

Coming eventually: a TV documentary series hosted by Tim Webb, author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. What you see below is the very beginnings of the project. The man behind this little piece of magic is documentarian Taylor Brush, a fellow expat based in Belgium. There are funds to be raised and a lot of production to be done, which would in theory be seriously under way by next summer.

This is just the initial tease, with the slightly longer promo to come soon, as I understand it. But... very promising, no?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Beer and Breakfast in Plain English.

Up at 4 a.m. Which is no big deal these days, thanks to Junior. Aiming to get to the station early. Train leaves at 6:59 a.m., arrives around 8 a.m. London time. A two-hour trip, but it's as if England has awarded me with an extra hour of life. So I spend it on breakfast. My old friend the Betjeman Arms at St. Pancras, sadly, is no longer open that early. Not until 10 a.m. Fine. I consult Podge's guide... not too many (pub) options this early... and I'm off to the Fox & Anchor.

This is a classy Victorian gastro-pub near the Smithfield Meat Market. (I thought I'd seen London meat markets before, having been out to the late night clubs. But no, I'm told this is an actual working market where foodstuffs are bought and sold. Interesting.) There are several pubs in London as nice as the Fox & Anchor, but one way it distinguishes itself is the morning hours for market traders and serious breakfasting. By the way, it also has six rooms and they look pretty damned nice.

Food. I could have gone with Eggs Benedict, but if I'm priming for a Great British Beer Festival, I've got to go with the proper English breakfast, don't I? Fried eggs, thick bacon, two sausages, blood pudding, beans, juicy tomatoes, grilled mushrooms, toast. I'm forgetting something. Oh yeah, a pint. In this case, a pewter tankard of Nethergate's soft, nutty and fruity Dr. John's Panacea. It was decent.

My next choice was even better: a Meantime Helles on draft. Lively, bitter and refreshing. Attention British people: If you must have a lager, consider that one.

More on the festival, probably, when I get the chance.

Monday, August 3, 2009

It's Not Easy to Type with One Hand.

The little feller is asleep in my other arm. He's the full-time job these days. So it's with some mixed feelings that I report to you the demise of Beers of the World, a nice little British magazine that had published my work a couple of times. I had hoped it would do so again.

It really tickles my wife whenever I make some duckets from this funny beer writing thing. One source of tickling has left us. Sad news in this house.

There is some able pondering here and here about whether this demise signals "the end of beer writing as we know it," as Mr. Tierney Jones said, and Mr. Hieronymus said again. The speculation: There's just not many duckets in beer magazines, therefore not many duckets in clever, long-form feature writing about our favorite subject. Meanwhile those pesky bloggers are giving lots of clever (and not so clever) writing away for free.

So, a question: Are beer blogs the future of beer writing?

God, I hope not. Here's the thing: I sort of dislike reading beer blogs. Sorry, guys. Ironic and true.

This here laptop, you see, is for work. Even if I waste lots of time on it, and even if the work is often lots of fun. Reading blogs feels like work to me. Cracking a book or a magazine, however, and putting up my feet... now that's leisure time. That's pleasure.

Now that I think about it, I don't even like writing about beer blogging. I'd rather just write about beer. For people who really like beer. Enough then.

Tomorrow morning, obscenely early, I'm off to London for an afternoon at the Great British Beer Festival. I hope to squeeze an article or two out of it. Something that would give somebody, somewhere, pleasure. That would help justify the price of the train ticket. And tickle my wife. And if I can't sell anything, well... I've got this other project here, in my other arm.

Just hope he doesn't expect to go to a nice college.

Worth noting: The recent launch of Beer Connoisseur magazine. At the moment it is essentially a collection of beer blogs. But friend and colleague Chuck Cook reassures me that there are plans for a quarterly print version to launch in November. Here you should read Chuck's recent column on the new Moeder Lambic.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

In Case You Get Thirsty in Shanghai...

This is Rudy Wimmer. He is one of a handful of people giving some hope to a relative beer wasteland.

Rudy is the proprietor of Kaiba, a Belgian beer bar in Shanghai, China. It's really a very nice café. I know this for two reasons: (1) because Rudy is a righteous dude; and (2) because the title on his business card says "Beer Lover."

He's in Belgium at the moment meeting brewers and other contacts helpful to the cause of bringing better beer to his café. Meanwhile he's also opening a second location in Shanghai.

One of the coolest things I learned about Kaiba: Rudy makes a serious effort to keep his beer prices low, even while other places unscrupulously gouge customers with what amount to $7 glasses of cheap lager. As fellow Beer Lovers, we see that sort of gouging in expensive cities where beer inexplicably becomes a precious commodity (Paris anyone? New York?). We support all efforts to undercut such thievery.

I've never been to Shanghai. But when I get there, eventually, I now know where to drink: 528 Kangding Road, Building D, 101.

Here we see Rudy enjoying a Zinnebir at the Soleil café in downtown Brussels. Incidentally, you could throw a rock down that street and possibly hit the awning of the new Moeder Lambic.