Friday, January 30, 2009

Session Beer Project, Belgian Chapter.

I've long had a thing for low-alcohol beers. I mean, I like them. Maybe because I can drink more beer before losing control of whatever organ it is that moderates the use of my mouth. Which one is that again? You know, the mouth-moderator thingy.

Oh I assure you, I have such an organ. Even if it seems like I don't. I'm not a fan of tact, really, but I at least like the option of using it. In the Woman's presence, mostly.

What? Oh yeah, low-alcohol beers. Session beers. You can drink a lot of them. You can drink them with lunch. Hell, drink them while you work. They are largely unappreciated in these days of barrel-aged-quadruple-imperials. They tend not to rate well on websites that do such things. But they need more attention. Because they're really useful. Some of them are even very, very good.

In Belgium I'd steer you first toward Dupont Biolégère (3.5%). Note my careful use of accents. I would have mentioned Senne's excellent Taras Boulba and Stouterik first, but they're pushing the session-beer definition at 4.5%. Still worth mentioning. Repeatedly. The same brewers' Saison de la Senne, blended with Cantillon lambic, weighs in at a lean 4.3%. But it tends to be hard to find and expensive so it would be a rare session indeed. Another recent discovery is Ridder (2.25%) from the Leroy brewery in West Flanders. It's a wet beer but does have some refreshing hop bitterness to it.

I'll keep looking. In the meantime, have a look at Lew Bryson's Session Beer Project. This is a grassroots campaign, so participation is simple. If you are a drinker, look for sessionable beers and drink them. If you own a bar, serve them. If you are a brewer, make them. But make them good. And otherwise, just spread the word.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tour de Gueuze and Other News to Insure You Against Great Thirst.

Still swamped. A nice problem to have. Meanwhile I have some lambic news for you.

First off, the Tour de Gueuze is set for Sunday, April 26. What sounds like a drunken bicycle race is in fact, theoretically at least, much safer. Instead of a bike you ride a bus around to a handful of lambic brewers and blenders in the Pajottenland region outside Brussels. This event only happens every other year. At this point six nine lambic makers plan to open their doors: Boon, De Cam, De Troch, Drie Fonteinen, Hanssens, Lindemans, Mort Subite, Oud Beersel and Timmermans. I'll share more details as they become available.

Also noteworthy: the café known as In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst – the Insurance Against Great Thirst – will be open that day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., four and a half hours longer than its usual opening time. This is so Tour-goers in the area can make their pilgrimage to perhaps the world's top lambic café. Across from the Eizeringen village church, this is a special little place that normally open only for Sunday mornings and funerals (don't do anything drastic... just go on a Sunday).

And: The Grote Dorst has added another event to your lambic calendar: The Day of the Kriek on June 6. The spotlight will be on Belgium's famous spontaneously fermented beer steeped in cherries. Krieks from nine breweries will be there, not all of them very traditional, but you'll be able to assemble a tasting of four choice samples. Sounds like a nice event for newcomers as well as enthusiasts.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation on May 30 and 31 in Buggenhout. Probably the best lambic fest of the year. We're talking sheer quantity and quality here. Take the Woman's advice and bring your own blankets if you plan to crash in the horstel (part horse-riding school, part hostel). Believe me, I'll never hear the end of it.

Oh. And there's another Cantillon Public Brewing on March 7, same day that ZBF kicks off.

And I think that's really enough, don't you?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Unlike Most Supermarkets We Make Our Blog Posts Fresh Day and Night.

We've had some fine Flemish adventures in the past few days. These included visits to the outstanding Hommelhof restaurant, the hospitable Struise farm, and two trips to Westvleteren. Sadly I have no time to do them justice at the moment. Too busy making the donuts and the duckets.

Instead I'll take this moment to share with you this old-school Saison Dupont glass spotted a Brussels café. You probably don't know this place yet. You will. As soon as Around Brussels in 80 Beers is published. Besides the saison there is draft Taras Boulba, the food is excellent, and the place is totally non-smoking. I'm tempted to tell you all about it anyway, as a token of goodwill. Maybe I will. But not now. Again, no time to do it justice. There was a point to all this. Oh yeah: Is that a cool glass or what?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

First: a New Warm Room. Next: World Domination.

Thanks to its new boss, America is getting some good vibes from the rest of the world these days. But there is at least one little place in Belgium where those good vibes never stopped: Glazen Toren.

Largely thanks to U.S. demand, this small but savvy brewery in East Flanders is doing well and looking to expand. As you may suspect if you've ever tried to find its distinctive, tissue-wrapped bottles in Belgium, this success has virtually nothing to do with the local market. A full 80 percent of what Glazen Toren makes is bound for the United States.

We stopped in there last Saturday, in the village of Erpe-Mere, ostensibly just to buy beer. We hoped for a peek at the brewery but were pessimistic. Its website warns that visits are for groups of 15 to 35 people, to be arranged in advance, and that they're all booked for the coming months. As I said, we were just looking to buy beer.

Instead we got a long chat, brief tour, and tasting with brewery partner Marc De Neef, while co-founders Jef Van den Steen and Dirk De Pauw said hello and continued brewing. I didn't even mention the bit about being a writer until the end; Marc – who is a librarian in his day job – was very generous with his time (incidentally, Jef is a writer and retired mathematician, while Dirk is a hospital administrator). Also we were lucky since they weren't bottling at the time. Apparently that's a three-man, five-hour operation.

Glazen Toren began as a 50L hobby but now has a 2,500L capacity. Its backyard has the makings of a small construction site so that capacity can grow further. The installation of a new warm room, where the bottled beer conditions at a toasty 29.5 °C (about 85.1 °F), means more storage. And that, Marc explained to us, means that the trio can double their weekly output if they want, brewing on two days instead of just one.

When asked about the brewers' ambitions – how big do they want to get? – Marc said they planned to take over InBev eventually.

In case you don't get the joke, I'm going to ruin it. Glazen Toren's output last year was about 800 hectoliters (or bout 1,363 kegs worth). In 2007 InBev sold more than 230 million hl – and that was before its merger with Anheuser-Busch, cranking the amount up to an estimated 350 million hl. So there's some perspective for you.

I have a soft spot for Glazen Toren's beers, and it has nothing to do with the small American flag posted on one of its fermenters. The brewery's house character is dry, crisp and hoppy. It's more carbonated than some people like, but I don't mind that much personally, and a related effect of that is a beautiful head – pour for pour, consistently one of the prettiest in Belgium. I reckon the Saison d'Erpe Mere as one of the country's best saisons if you like beers of that character. In Marc's humble opinion it is the best. (I'm not ready to take the crown away from Saison Dupont.)

If you want to find these beers in Belgium, you'll need to check the more prolific bottle shops and beer-specialist cafés. In Brussels that means mainly Moeder Lambic, Delirium, Bier Circus, Bier Tempel and Beer Planet. Anyway, those are the only places in town I've seen them lately (feel free to tell me differently). There are also a handful of cafés in the area around Erpe-Mere. In the U.K. or U.S. check your favored specialty bottle shops and there's a decent chance you'll find them.

Of course you can always visit the brewery itself on a Saturday. The posted shop hours are Saturday 10.00-12.00 and 14.00-16.00. The address is Glazentorenweg 11, 9420 Erpe-Mere. The brewery is named after the street, if you're curious.

With luck and friendliness you may get to see more than just the shop.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hail to the Chief, Baby.

I'm an avowed centrist and devil's advocate. Whatever your political beliefs, I'm more than happy to poke holes in them. Man, I love to argue. I'm also cynical as hell and was even a political reporter in a not-too-distant former life. What I learned about covering politics was that I really hated politics.

But now as I sit here in Brussels watching the inaugural coverage via satellite, I can't help but get a few chills. Wow, those crowds in DC are incredible. I hate crowds. Sort of glad I'm not there. Looks cold. Ain't television great? Sure is comfy in here. Time to put my feet up and open a great American beer. Something hoppy.

Cascades smell like freedom, did you know that?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sunday Night Football and Old Lambic. Lots of It.

Upstairs in my neighbor's fridge is a 10-liter jug of Girardin old lambic. It is flat, softly tart, lemony, cidery and wonderful. They told us we only had a week or so to drink it before it really goes downhill. We're doing our damnedest. With the NFL playoffs tonight, it's salty snacks and sour beer for us.

The jug is part of our bounty from a productive beer expedition yesterday. Girardin was our first stop. I knew the brewery in Sint-Ulriks-Kapelle was not generally open to visitors. It's famously secretive and doesn't do tours. But I'd heard it was possible to buy lambic there, if you showed up at the right time. I cynically expected this to be some narrow window of time Saturday afternoon, or every third Tuesday after the dog howls at a full moon. Turns out it's open for sales every day except Sundays and holidays. Easy.

The brewery is an old farmhouse, square-shaped with an open courtyard in the middle. From the road as you approach you see two large, gleaming coppers through plate-glass windows on one side. That's about as transparent as this brewery gets. The rest is mist and rumor.

Picking up a jug is like the Pajottenland version of getting a growler from your local brewpub. For the record, a 10-liter plastic jug of Girardin lambic – young or old – will run you €15.80 (plus €10 deposit for the jug itself, but that doesn't count). Do the math on that and you're looking at €1.58 per liter, or less than 53 cents per glass of beer. Just pennies really, for something handmade by real artists and matured in oak for up to three years.

It's a steal. It's bargain-basement beauty. It's exactly the sort of discovery that makes you secretly hope that lambic never again catches on with the general Belgian populace. They'd only drive up the prices! Why cost-conscious Belgian lads aren't all picking up jugs of this nectar on Saturdays, when they have their buds over to watch Jupiler League, I have no idea.

Oh wait, yes I do. It's because they're drinking Jupiler.

I have many more thoughts on Girardin, but I'll save them for future posts or barroom chats. I'm going to steal some more from my neighbor right now. For handy reference, the shopping hours at Girardin are Monday through Friday 8.00-12.00 and 13.00 to 18.00; Saturday 8.00-12.00 and 13.00 to 15.00; closed Sundays and holidays. The address is Lindenbergstraat 10, 1700 Sint-Ulriks-Kapelle.

Ten liters is a lot, by the way. We could use some help. Come on over.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Trappist Ale by Candlelight.

I've noticed that many young Belgians – like young Germans, I think, and all Europeans for all I know – are attracted to slick, modern, boring bars and restaurants. It's like they want to reject the old, cozy, authentic pubs of their grandfathers and embrace something all their own – even if it sucks.

As a foreigner from a much younger country, having seen that anything "modern" only lasts about 10 years at most before it looks stupid, I much prefer a more venerable place – even if it sucks. I don't want to drink in a shiny factory. I want to drink in the Middle Ages. And yes, this does explain the bizarre phenomenon of Medieval Times.

That brings me to the Pelgrom in Antwerp. in the 15th Century it was a cellar to store victuals for the city's trade fairs. Now it's a pub. We popped in there for the first time recently. It offers exactly that sort of arched-brick-ceiling, candlelit, metal-beer-tankard ambiance that so delights naïve American and Japanese tourists. Like us. I half expected our server to limp out with a hunched back and take our orders with the simple question, "Yar?" Then we would clap and cheer and take flash pictures and happily part with many duckets. I loved the feel of the place, even if the beers lean a bit to the corporate side.

At least they had Westmalle Dubbel on draft. What a tasty, sneaky concoction that is. I reckon the pressurized tap and fresher hop presence help make it so dangerously, dangerously, drinkably light compared to the bottles. If only they'd serve it those large tankards instead of a chalice. Maybe if we ask nicely next time.

The Pelgrom is at Pelgrimstraat 15 in Antwerp. It opens at 5 p.m., generally.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Getting Around Belgium Without Wheels.

If you can use the Internets, you can figure out how to reach your favorite Belgian breweries without a car. Usually there's a short hike or bike ride involved. Most of us probably shouldn't be driving on these excursions anyway. Well, I can't speak for you. I shouldn't be driving. And let's face it: You could use the exercise, Tubs.

No matter which part of the country you're in, there's an easy-to-use website that tells you how to get from A to B to Durbuy. If you're in Flanders it's De Lijn. The Wallonian TEC site is even better since it's available in English. Same goes for STIB in Brussels. And covering the country as a whole is the Belgian rail site, also in English. You can fill in the gaps with Google Maps, which now offers cool walking directions.

Naturally these things are no substitute for a sexy Bob, working GPS, and well-researched guidebook. In that case you can hop in the car and make it up as you go along. But not all of us are so lucky. Fatty.

Monday, January 12, 2009

And Beer Shall Flow Freely From the Fountains...

The boys at Moeder Lambic, who have quietly made their café in Saint-Gilles one of the best in the country, are on the move. This summer Jean Hummler, Nassim Dessicy, Andy Mengal and their team plan to open a second location in the city center, a short stroll from the Mannekin Pis and Poechenellekelder.

They've rented the location, at Place Fontainas 10. Andy, formerly a helpful presence at the nearby Poechenellekelder, will head up the new effort. Now it's a matter of getting the builders in gear on the renovation. At the moment Jean – seen here with the top-secret blueprints – says he expects a May or June opening. But this is Belgium, so don't plan your holiday around those dates just yet.

While the smaller Saint-Gilles location will keep on rolling, the new Fontainas branch is to improve on the old in a few ways. The first is more space, with seats for about 95 inside and as many as 60 on the terrace. That terrace might expand to the square as well, if the city follows up on plans to close the street out front and make it pedestrian-only.

And great news for those of us who like to smell our beers: A big chunk of the indoor space will be set aside for non-smokers. Jean and Nassim have long pondered doing this in Saint-Gilles, but they suspect their regulars would stage a revolt. Hopefully they can breathe cleaner air in the new place with less trouble.

Perhaps the most exciting improvement is a greater emphasis on draft beer. There will be 40 taps plus four British-style handpumps, exceedingly rare in Belgium yet ideal for dispensing real lambic. Breweries that have already agreed to provide kegs include Dupont, de la Senne, De Ranke, Het Anker, Kerkom, Légendes (Géants and Ellezelloise), Jandrain-Jandrenouille, St. Feuillien and Contreras. That doesn't include the Cantillon lambic, faro and 3 Fonteinen Kriekenlambic that will be on the pumps, plus a rotating guest lambic. Plus there will be 150 or so different bottled beers, with emphasis on gueuze and vintage ales that keep well, in large bottles for sharing. No industrial brewers here: The largest one on the menu will be Orval.

Among the 40 regular taps about 10 will be reserved for quality guest beers from other breweries. The pressurized beers also will include sparkling lambics such as Cantillon Gueuze – yes, the blended, refermented magic normally experienced only in bottles. There have been successful experiments with this at specialty beer bars in the States, as geeks there may know. Moeder Lambic is bringing this effort back home.

Compare the planned 44 draught beers here with the 30 at Delirium's upstairs Taphouse. It would be fun to see a small-scale arms race, no? Meanwhile in Brussels we're seeing a new emphasis on draught specialty beer as opposed to bottles. In my mind this coincides with the still-up-and-coming wave of hoppier Belgian beers, which usually taste better fresh on tap.

Last thing to mention is food and soft drinks, whose quality would match that of the craft beer. They intend to offer locally sourced cheese and bread, quiche, juices and so on. There will be real tea, not supermarket tea bags. As Jean told me: "If you have Gueuze Cantillon on draft, and your wife has a Lipton, what's the point?"

Bear in mind that most of these plans are still just that – plans. Sometimes these things fall short. But I have seen these plans on paper, and I've also seen Jean and Nassim accomplish everything they've set out to do so far. Locals and future visitors have good reason to start getting excited.

I'm tempted to go cheer on the builders.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Quick Fly-by. Bye Bye.

I've got some really good stuff for you. You might even call it news. It comes complete with useful information and a photo or two. It will change all of your future visits to Brussels. Unfortunately I don't have time at the moment to share it. You'll have to wait a bit longer. Tomorrow or Monday, I think.

I'm off in a few minutes to watch a friend homebrew. Yes, homebrewing in Brussels if you can believe it. Here's all I know: He hasn't brewed in a few years. It will be all-grain, since that seems to be the only viable option in Belgium unless you want to use those Brewferm kits ("the ones for kids and Japanese tourists" as a local put it to me once). Also, he plans to dry hop.

I'm bringing a few interesting bottles to share for the privilege of looking over his shoulder and asking tons of impertinent questions.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

How to Make the Westvleteren Pilgrimage Without a Car.

I write about Westvleteren every now and then. It might be because I see the same questions over and over, thus I see shining opportunities to serve the greater public. Or maybe it's a shameless way to drive up my hit count. You decide.

Just in case you don't know: Westvleteren is a village in West Flanders. It is also the site of a monastery. It is also the name of a beer. That beer is made at the monastery, and thus is a Trappist beer, which is part of what makes it special. The fact that it really is a great beer also helps a lot. But the two things that make it the mostest specialest are (1) it is hard to get, since the monks don't want anyone else selling it, and (2) a lot of people think they have to have it because they heard it's the "the best." Some people will do anything just to have the "best."

Question: Is Westvleteren "the best"?
Answer: No. That would be fresh Saison Dupont.

Now, to the main issue which I intended this post to address: If you are visiting Belgium and don't want to rent a car (nobody should have to drive in beer paradise, should they?), how can you get to Westvleteren?

Here's how: Take the train to nearby Poperinge. Then either bicycle, Belbus or walk.

For those looking to rent bicycles, here are a few options in Poperinge. I've heard it's a pleasant (and flat) ride that becomes a memorable life experience for many who visit Belgium. See the map below.

The Belbus, meanwhile, is a shuttle service run by the Flemish public bus authority. It's very nice if you plan at least three hours ahead. Just call +32 (0)59 56 52 56 and tell them where you'd like to be picked up and dropped off. They will almost definitely speak some English. There's a stop just outside the abbey. The cost is the same as other De Lijn buses... At the moment I think it's €2 per person per ride if you're buying from the driver. For more details, see the late great John White's page here.

Finally, you can have a nice long walk. Google Maps says it would take an hour and 17 minutes to walk the 6.4 km from Poperinge station to Sint-Sixtus.

Remember that you can't get beer from the abbey unless you have a reservation. See this post on how to get one. Otherwise, you have a decent shot at buying a six-pack in the café, In De Vrede, where you can also sit and drink it to your heart's content.

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Friday, January 2, 2009

Session #23: Sympathy for the Duivel

In '09 I'm going to miss the nooks and crannies – the little places, off the beaten path in far-flung quarters, that I wouldn't have found if I hadn't been working on the book over the past year. Oh sure, there are a few favorites to which I'll go back. Maybe more than a few. But much of the thrill of discovery will be gone. By now I've figured out a handful of favorite haunts among thousands of Brussels cafés. Mostly I'll be sticking to those.

During the project I was also bound to this city more than I'd like. I've been neglecting the rest of Belgium. I've only been to four Trappist breweries – can you imagine it? – so Chimay and Rochefort still beckon. I've only been to the great Heeren van Liedekercke twice, shamefully. I've yet to see Bierloods. I haven't yet gone cycling around to lambic cafés in Pajottenland.

I know. You feel sorry for me, don't you? Especially those of you who never get to visit Belgium. Well, I'm touched, but save your tears. Because those are among the things I'm most looking forward to in 2009.

However. Those pale in comparison with the big thing. There's something that will impact these plans more than I'd like to admit. We're expecting a little Thirsty Whippersnapper come July. So I guess that's the thing to which I'm most looking forward.

In 2009, Drink a Beer with Your Lunch.

In a half-awake, half-slumbering state on New Year's morning, I was thinking about the "aughts." Since Aught-One I have been saying "aught." It's much quicker than saying, "in the year of our Lord two-thousand-and-one," for example. My time is valuable. So is yours.

All the aughts since then have sort of flown by, from Aught-Deuce to Aught-Ocho. Many good times therein. So yesterday morning, still sort of dreaming, I realized that we had reached the last of the aughts. That saddened me. This one deserved a really good name. I declared to the Woman that Aught-Nacho had arrived. I still don't know if it's a good name, but it's too late to take it back. It is written.

Now, what will Aught-Nacho have in store for us?

There is some chatter going on here and here and probably elsewhere about drinkers, anti-drinkers, moderation and the lack thereof. To unfairly abbreviate it, this eventually leads somewhat logically into calls, again, for lighter-alcohol beers. A few right-minded people would love to see 'o9 be the year of the session beer. Works for me.

It would be a mistake to think more session beers would lead to more moderation – could be quite the opposite. In fact most of the strong-beer drinkers I know also tend to be best at self-moderating – for whatever reason. Maybe because they are drinking for taste and not just to drink. Meanwhile most of the drunkenness I see at home and abroad is the sort where someone is drinking a long series of 4 to 5 percent beers. Usually lager.

Still, the year of the session beer? I'll support it. If nothing else comes of it, maybe more of my fellow Americans would get the stones to have a single beer with lunch. In my opinion that's one of the simplest ways to improve productivity and quality of life. Possibly even health.

Pictured above is a glass of Dupont Biolégère, known as Avril when exported. Note my careful and possibly pretentious use of accents. It's easy once you learn how to type them. This was enjoyed at a rustic lunch place here called Fous du Terroir. The Biolégère is a true session beer at 3.5 percent strength, a more faithful descendant of the old saisons given to farm workers.