Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Belgium's New Wave of American-Hoppy Beers.

Well, I think it's a "new wave." I keep repeating it, hoping others will meme it. (Is that a verb? It is now.) I'm talking about the growing number of Belgian beers that show more hop aroma and hop bitterness than in the recent past... most notably several using distinctively American hops.

If you'd like to hunt a few down, here are some leads. There are many, many more that fall short of being interesting. I'll ignore them.

Two of the best examples are the Chouffe Houblon from Achouffe/Duvel and the IV Saison from Jandrain-Jandrenouille, for very different reasons. The Houblon was one of the pioneers, and it smashes certain myths by showing how compatible the citrus-hop aroma can be with Belgian yeasty esters – when done right. The bitterness also hides the (unnecessarily) strong alcohol at 9%. The IV Saison, meanwhile, is an admirable show of balance and restraint. It checks in at a reasonable 6.5% strength, with serious hop aroma but reasonable bitterness that doesn't stick to your tongue. It's pretty damn refreshing and the sort you could drink all day on draft – if you're lucky enough to find it.

La Rulles has been putting out great stuff with American hops for a while now, including its Triple and more sessionable Estivale. More recently the brewery put out a special one called Jean Chris Numero 1 for a couple of friends. Lots of tasty grapefruit in that one, also reasonable at 6% strength.

I'm not a big fan of Lefebvre's beers – some are too sweet and others just plain boring – but I feel OK in recommending the Hopus (which is on the ZBF list, by the way). It's really pretty bitter, even to my de-sensitized American palate, which it makes it more interesting than anything else from Lefebvre. It might even be too bitter, and it's still too sweet and sticky, but like I said – interesting. Another sweetish one that's still pretty decent is the Luppo from Belgoo. It might remind you of canned fruit cocktail, but the hops help make it highly drinkable.

I know what I think. I think the "new wave" might be one of the most exciting things to happen to Belgian beer in years. But I'm not normal. I want to know what you think. OK, maybe you're not normal either. But I'm still interested.

Monday, February 23, 2009

More Beery News You Can Use.

Just some morsels for you today. Mere scraps. You'll take them and you'll like them.

Beer historian and enthusiast Ron Pattinson, whom you may know from such European beer guides as the European Beer Guide, has something useful for you. If you visit Amsterdam. His Amsterdam pub guide is available here in PDF or paperback form. I just ordered the paper one. I don't like to take my laptop in to the john.

Also, you should hunt down and spend money on the latest issue of Beers of the World magazine for my article on beer-hunting in Lisbon. Now if we could only get them to update the website (but anyway you can't take that into the john either). The article is a feel-good story about making the best of a beer-poor situation. Nice photos too, I think.

Speaking of photos, I've entered a few in another contest. This one is at Vote for me. And other people. So far there aren't many people rating the photos. You can do so here. Prizes include a gift certificate to Flying Dog's online store, which sells such treats as Flying Dog socks and Flying Dog condoms. So there's some incentive for you to enter.

Here's a review of my mistress Saison Dupont, from the Oredigger newspaper at the Colorado School of Mines. Of all places. Just in case you wanted an example of how deeply serious Belgian beer has penetrated the American scene these days.

Now. Eleven days to ZBF. Have you been poring over the list, making plans to try all the new ones in proper order? Or just looking for the ones you like and preparing to settle in with those all day long?

Pictured here is a refreshing, bright and floral Saison Cazeau, enjoyed at Bier Circus in Brussels. It's in the DRAFT contest too.

It's Never the Beer's Fault.

She spotted the gigantic black-blue-and-purple bruise on my ass the first night I was back from London. I was equally disturbed. There, in the bathroom mirror, was the first time I'd bothered to look at it myself. Well, it was impressive.

Officially I blame it on Farringdon station's wet stairs, roughly half the size of my gargantuan, snow-booted feet. It's unfair to blame the series of pints enjoyed that afternoon in the Clerkenwell area. It's not their fault. The upshot is that local authorities must have hilarious CCTV footage of my dramatic and fully airborne ass-plant. One lady near me saw it happen and gasped, covering her mouth. She clearly feared for my life.

Sadly I forgot to snap a photo of the bruise for you. It's nearly healed now. You'll have to make due with this shot of my tasty cod and fries from Stonch's pub, the Gunmakers, where my afternoon began. I just said "fries" to be annoying. I know they're chips. I also like to say "soccer" over and over in front of sensitive British people.

On that day I experienced the publican's art firsthand. The Timothy Taylor Landlord at Stonch's place was fresh and grapefruit-zesty and I couldn't get enough of it. Later that night I met my friend Joel at a nice-looking pub elsewhere in town, pleased to see they also had Landlord. But it was not the same beer. Dead and stale. I had known in theory that whatever it is landlords do down there in their cellar with their casks and their tasting glasses, that it matters. Now I know it in reality. The difference was not subtle.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Coming Soon: A Giant Gueze Super-Robot to Lay Your Sweet Beers to Waste.

Looking at the numbers – let's see, beep boop beep beep bop (that would be the sound of me punching numbers into my magic calculator) – my recent post mentioning the Tour de Gueuze is getting lots of hits. At that time I promised more news on the event. And Googling "Tour de Gueuze" turns up this site even before HORAL's... So, maybe you'd like to know more. Eh?

Well, friend Chuck Cook reports that eight of the participating producers have all contributed lambics for the blending of one giant, Voltron-esque Geuze Mega-Blend. In each 75 cL bottle there will be a little bit of Boon, De Cam, De Troch, Drie Fonteinen, Hanssens, Lindemans, Oud Beersel and Timmermans. Just a silly gimmick, or a mighty gueuze gestalt, greater than the sum of its parts? Probably the former, but I look forward to finding out.

Chuck also notes that nine of the current producers will be participating in the Tour... Just add Mort Subite to the list above. Everyone except Cantillon and Girardin. Let's just say they prefer to do their own thing.

Hope to have more details soon on the bus routes...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Of Beer Fests and Mutually Supportive Geekery.

There's something about a beer festival. Maybe it's the camaraderie of other obsessive men. Because that's the prevailing demographic, even if a few obsessive women attend now and then. Which is always refreshing. Occasionally you even encounter a well-adjusted, well-rounded man or woman, which is like a ray of sunlight, or rather a breath of fresh air in a room full of beer farts. My point: the beer-fest strata is not far off from those at comic book conventions or stamp collector... thingies. Whatever it is that stamp collectors do.

Entering this sort of nerd-lair brings certain comforts. Two great ones spring to mind: First, the freedom to "geek out" with others who not only tolerate it but encourage it. Take notes. Expound on obscure flavors to show off your palate. Be a know-it-all. Or just drink and listen. Nobody cares. We're all enablers.

Speaking of enablers, this is the second great comfort: an abundance of alcohol. The food is typically forgettable.

So in Chelmsford I was relieved to find that British beer fests have certain commonalities with Belgian and American ones. (German beer fests are other creatures entirely, and they have their own merits as total piss-ups. But that's a topic for another day.)

I hate to be the guy who likes the strongest suds in a stable studded with sessionable stars. But the Felstar Back Stabber Stout was a real winner despite its 10% strength. It was a black and viscous liquid, a touch sweet, with caramel, roast coffee and toffee aromatics. Alcohol well-hidden. I expounded on those toffee flavors to anyone who would listen. Nobody cared. It was lovely.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Of Pubs and Fires and Old Dogs and Contemplative Silence.

A bunch of snow hijacked England just before my trip there last week. I had fears of canceled trains and dragging my suitcase through white stuff. Instead, on Thursday at least, it just rained. So I dragged my luggage through gray slush instead. Getting into Chelmsford too early to check in to my hotel, I dragged it all the way to a nice warm pub.

I picked a good one. The Queen's Head is a bit of a showcase for the excellent and local Crouch Vale brewery. I enjoyed a Brewer's Gold and warmed my feet. The fireplace was fake but the place was authentic. An old mutt came over to collect his dues – I paid my respects with a few head scratches – then he moved on. It was incredibly, mercifully quiet. The biggest racket was when the only other patron rustled his newspaper. Keep it down over there!

I suspect the only reason it was nearly empty is the festival. More about that later. The Brewer's Gold hit my sweet spot, by the way. Refreshing, with nice citrus fruits in there. And it's very pretty, don't you think?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Cosmic De Dolle Debut, and Other News.

Firstly: The Belgian beer world is highly populated with two sorts of breweries: up-and-comers and they-just-ain't-what-they-used-to-bes. Several others never rise above mediocrity, so let's ignore them.

Who does that leave? The heavyweights. The old guard. Regardless of size, these are the breweries that put out the true "world classics." They don't diminish with success. You can count them on two hands, and you won't even need all your fingers.

One of the indisputable heavyweights is the 29-year-old De Dolle, makers of Oerbier. Thus a quick persual of the Zythos Beer Festival's list produces a major piece of news: a new beer from De Dolle. The Cosmos Porter is 8% strength. Cosmos apparently was the name of three beers made at defunct Costenoble, which occupied the ground where De Dolle now brews. According to our friend Joris Pattyn at the Babblebelt, none of those three was a porter. And that's all we know at this point.

Nextly: Watch out for a Brussels-based brewery called OWA. In fact, it's not a brewery at all. Apparently the man in charge has been telling anyone who will listen, including journalists, that he is a brewer and has a brewery in Brussels. Not true. Meanwhile, let's all think about the importance of accurate beer labeling. Would it be so hard to legally require breweries to publish the actual location of brewing on their labels? In Belgium there are too many fakers. I have no problem with "beer firms," but many are only too happy to be mistaken for real, working brewers with their own breweries.

Finally, and most importantly by far: Our thoughts are with beer journalist William Brand, his family, and his friends. Bill was in a coma after being struck by a commuter train Sunday night in San Francisco. A news report is here. His recent coverage of SF Beer Week is here.

Bill was listed in critical condition. Jay Brooks reports that doctors have said his condition has stabilized, but it appears that he is still listed as critical. My best guess is that he is still in a coma but, after surgery, his injuries are no longer immediately life-threatening.

Bill: I've never met you in person, but I admire you. There are a lot of beer writers out there these days. There are too few beer journalists. Stay with us.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

First Thing in London...

Between a fest in Chelmsford, getting dragged out to clubs the next night, and a pleasant tour of Cambridge, I didn't fit in a whole lot of London pub crawling. Not as much as I would have liked. But the crawling I did was greatly aided and abetted by Podge and Siobhan's guide. If you live in London or plan to visit, and you don't own it already, you've got no one but yourself to blame.

I can thank that book for the first thing I did in town, after the men's room and cash machine: the Betjeman Arms. Two pints and a cold meat pie sent me forth on a righteous path. When you arrive at St. Pancras station, the Eurostar terminus, just look for that sexy sculpture called the Meeting Place. The pub is just below it on the other side.

I wouldn't call its atmopshere cozy, exactly. Actually it's a bit modern and cold, with tall ceilings and big windows and not much color. But it's better than most station bars by a long shot. I reckon it's what they call a "gastro-pub" in those parts. I'm not sure why a pub that has decent food needs a fancy category, but that's the way of things it seems.

For its upscale aim and location I expected the Betjeman to be pricey... but the pie-and-a-pint deal for £7 seemed pretty reasonable to me. As you can see it came with some sort of red onion relish. Surely one of you knows the proper name for that. I don't. Anyway, it was tasty. And thus it came to be that my first two pints in London were the house Betjeman's Ale and Bateman's XXXB. Both bitters. Neither was a barn-burner but both were damned refreshing.

A hearty welcome.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Down on Struise Farm.

Urbain Coutteau and Carlo Grootaert of Struise are two of the most hospitable guys in Belgium. A buddy and I were out in West Flanders last week and stopped by the Struise farm. Not to see the ostriches this time, but just to say hello, bring them a couple beers, and taste a few things. So glad we did. I annoyingly call them "beer geek darlings." I pepper them with questions about their long-term plans. Yet they show me a good time anyway. Great couple of guys.

We also got to meet Devon and Beejay, their two American apprentices. Those dudes are working their butts off and loving it. With a partner back home they plan to start a new craft brewery. Watch for it, and expect them to bring a healthy dose of Belgian eccentricity to the US scene. Anyway, a few beers, a roaring fire and great conversation made for a fine afternoon.

Here comes the useful part: Not a lot of people realize the Struise farm, called Noordhoek, doubles as a rural holiday spot. With advance booking it can handle groups of anywhere from two to 25 people. Its location in Lo provides a reasonable base for beer tourism in West Flanders, including Westvleteren, De Dolle and Watou. Plus you'll almost certainly get to try some Struise beers while you're there. For booking in English, this page is your best bet.

Getting Silly: Big thanks to Randy for passing on this link: Stars & Stripes did a quick-and-dirty piece on visiting Silly and drinking its beer. Random, yes, but worth a look.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Coming Soon: Super Close-Up Photos of Pork Scratchings. Hopefully Stuck in Somebody's Beard.

We enjoyed the BBC's Super Bowl coverage last night, or this morning I should say. As I told a friend: On the downside, we didn't see all the American TV commercials. On the upside, we didn't see all the American TV commercials.

Instead of a jug of Girardin lambic we went with a 5L one from Drie Fonteinen this time. Whereas the Girardin was softer and highly drinkable in the neutral sense of the word, the Drie Fonteinen seemed more sharp, acidic and just flavorful. It was heavenly. I think someday all us lambic geeks should take up a collection and buy Armand a big-budget Super Bowl TV commercial, complete with talking animals and scantily clad women.

Speaking of real ale (weren't we?), I'm off to England this weekend. I aim to conduct an anthropological study of British beer geekery. And to drink a little. This includes a Thursday night visit to a fest in Chelmsford. Podge has promised me pork scratchings, at last. And a Friday paying-of-respects at Stonch's pub. I think it's in the beer-blogger bylaws that I'm legally bound to stop in there. It is written.

Chelmsford's beer list is here. Any recommendations? I'm almost totally ignorant of British beer except what was commonly available in the States. I'm a blank slate. Ready to be corrupted. Looking forward to it.