Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Oooh, I Feel Some News Breaking Out.

Friend and colleague Chuck Cook reports that Timmermans is coming out with a traditional Oude Gueuze. This is welcome news from an old family brewery that (under the control of John Martin) has specialized in, frankly, sweet and fruity alco-pops. My theory is that concoctions like Timms Light Kriek and Fruits de la Forêt are for 17-year-old boys to give their 15-year-old girlfriends and hope for the best. But maybe that's unfair to teenagers.

Chuck has tasted the Timmermans Oude Gueuze and gives a good report. Here's to hoping we get a taste on the upcoming Tour. Meanwhile, pictured here is some of Timmermans' draft Lambic Doux from the Bécasse in central Brussels. This sweet but fairly refreshing faro-like drink is only available from this 19th Century café. I'll gladly trade up to some more traditional stuff there, if it becomes available.

Meanwhile: This study says Belgians drank less beer in 2008. It offers no suggestion as to why. Maybe they are drinking better? Drinking more moderately? Driving more safely? (Based on anecdotal evidence, I doubt the latter.) Or maybe they just have less money to spend.

Any locals want to offer their take? My guess is that the biggest guys (InBev, Alken Maes) are taking the biggest hit. Notably, exports are still double the domestic consumption.

Lastly: Hier Stroomt het Bier! is my favorite blog that I can't understand. Check it out. Especially if you can read Dutch.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Witches' Brew.

American beer lovers see breweries as tourist destinations – as in "Let's tour the brewery." It's something to do, and it's beer-related. Fine. Belgians, on the other hand, appear to see breweries in the same way they see museums – as in "Interesting, but where's the café?"

As Harry Pearson writes in A Tall Man in a Low Land, "A Belgian hill without a café athwart its crest is a hill that goes unclimbed." Likewise, a Belgian brewery without a bar attached is a brewery that goes unvisited. And let's be honest: Whose favorite part of a tour is the enlightening lecture on brewing process, or the thrill of a bottling machine in action? The Belgian approach skips all that nonsense and goes straight to the beer at the end.* Saves you valuable drinking time, during which you are free to discuss the rudiments of top-fermentation or the perils of short lagering times, or whatever.

From that perspective, one of the better brewery cafés we've found is Ellezelloise, in the Pays des Collines region of northern Hainaut. You kill two birds here because the drinking room offers a full view of the brewing room.

Oddly, it's not so well known. Ellezelloise flies its broomstick under the radar of many enthusiasts. Maybe they just don't like the beers. Or maybe they forget about them most of the time. One importer told me that Ellezelloise was definitely not on his list of best Belgian breweries. Its beers are absent from 100 Belgian Beers to Try Before You Die by Tim Webb and Joris Pattyn (although most of them get 4 to 5 stars in Tim's last Good Beer Guide to Belgium). They get high scores on Ratebeer and elsewhere, but nobody talks about them much.

Well. It would be pretty damn boring if everyone loved all our favorite beers, wouldn't it?

From the grainy and quaffable Saisis to the big and roasty Hercule Stout, the Ellezellois beers share a house characteristic: they're generally dry as a desert. The Saison 2000 shows more floral, fruity and clove esters than others of its kind, thankfully made serious by a dose of hop bitterness. And in numerous Belgian cafés, just when you start to fret that there's nothing interesting on offer, the Quintine Blonde often makes a timely appearance near the bottom of the drink card. Altogether it's a rock-solid stable of beers.

Things got confusing a couple of years ago when Ellezelloise in Ellezelles and Géants in Irchonwelz merged to becomes Brasseries des Légendes. Nobody really calls them by that name so I stick with the old ones, since they still appear to brew in both locations.

Where was I? The café. It's called La Cantine á Quintine, which rhymes if you pronounce it right. All the beers from Ellezelloise and Géants are available here for €3 a pop. There are croques and crêpes and ice cream and other things to munch on. The witch theme gives it a Halloweenish sort of feel (a sign out front advertised a used broom with only 600 flight hours). The wide terrace outside offers a view of the hilly farmland. And perhaps most impressively: It's open every day from 10.00 to 19.00. Still, this is Belgium. Call ahead to make sure.

The address is Rue Guinaumont 75, 7890 Ellezelles, telephone +0473 72 01 47. And yes, they can even lead you on an actual brewery tour with advance notice. The cost is €3.20 and includes a drink.

*One downside for foreigners and geeks is that good brewery tours are relatively rare in Belgium. There are a few great ones – Cantillon and De Dolle, for example. Others demand high fees or ridiculously large groups – say, 25 or 50 people – to make it worth their while. They are missing opportunities, but that's a topic for another day.

Monday, March 23, 2009

All Aboard the Lambic Bus.

Think of it as a festival on wheels. HORAL – the High Council for Artisanal Lambics – has announced the bus itineraries for the Tour de Geuze on Sunday, April 26.

Basically the Tour is just a day when several Pajottenland lambic brewers and blenders open their doors to the public. You can drive yourself to them, or teleport, or arrive however you wish. But since beer is the focus it makes good sense to have others drive you around. (Attention: Drunken teleportation is incredibly dangerous.) Hence, the buses.

Most of the buses depart around 10 a.m. from various train stations and parking lots. They each visit a unique sequence of lambic makers (make sure your favorites are on the list) and return to the starting point about seven hours later.

Something else going on that weekend: The Vilvordia BierProefFestival on Saturday, April 25 in Jette, in northern Brussels. Interesting beer list here. In a near-future post I'll work out how to get there without a car and make it plain as day, thus saving your employer 15 minutes of precious productivity.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tobacco Companies Need Not Fear the Next Generation of Young Belgians.

Been running ragged all over town this snapping photos, breaking my own personal records for time logged on trams and buses. And lots and lots of walking. Lots. It's been fun but tiring, so it was a much-needed few beers enjoyed with Adeptus of the Bitten Bullet last night.

I'd just been waxing poetic about the De Dolle Cosmos Porter from the Zythos fest, wondering if the beer would ever be widely available, when we wandered into the Delirium Taphouse and found the blessed thing on tap. Surprises rarely get more pleasant. Its intensity and complexity were nearly enough to make us forget the smoking, singing hordes of drunken Belgian teenagers.

Belgium, by the way, is one of the West's last great bastions of public smoking. It's still cool here. No-smoking stickers in the dining areas of cafés and brasseries are more amusing than anything else. One pub here took it up a notch with some arts and crafts hanging from the ceiling. You would think people would get the hint. Or at least the joke.

It's a nice little place too, with a solid beer list in a part of town with few of them. I'm not ready to tell you where it is yet, but if anyone knows I'll be really impressed.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Where a Lambic-Lover Might Stay in Brussels.

Completely swamped. Finishing old projects and starting new ones. I should be pleased, but I'm too busy to enjoy the thought.

Meanwhile, something I've been meaning to tell you about: the Hôtel Galia. For this place I bend the vague policy of not giving the book away. This has the potential to be the overnight stop for beery travelers in Brussels. Or it could become just another hotel. We need to help it decide. Let's call it a project.

The hotel is on a corner of Place de Jeu de Balle in the heart of the traditionally working-class Marolles neighborhood. Lots of character here, lots of antiques, lots of comic book murals painted on building walls, lots of history. On the square there's an eccentric junk market every morning, a true brocante that is a Brussels institution, where you can peruse or haggle or just observe from a nearby café while sipping your gueuze. It's a 15-minute walk from the hotel to Mannekin Pis, Grand Place and the rest of the tourist center, so the location is solid. Rooms are basic and clean, and the rates range from €75-85 nightly for a double. Reasonable.

But the real selling point for the Galia – for beer travelers – is its own café. A murderer's row of serious lambics is on display: Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen, Girardin and more. Briefly this café was open to the general public – not just hotel guests – but too briefly for geeks to discover it and spread the word.

The problem: the café no longer caters to the general public, officially. At the moment it's mainly for hotel guests fueling up with complimentary breakfast. The lambics are still on display, but who's going to ask about them? Besides me. In fact I do keep asking, and most of them are still in the fridge. But they're endangered. What's needed here is a polite and friendly kick in the ass.

Our hope is that lambic lovers will take notice of this place, come stay here, and encourage them to keep serving the beers. It's a nice place, after all. If the lambics here dry up, nearby café classics include the Brocante, Warm Water and Restobieres – and that's just on one street. But better if these lambics don't dry up in the first place. And better still if the café re-opens to the general public, serving gueuze on the terrace perch well into the day, long after hotel guests have filled up on free cornflakes.

The address is Place de Jeu de Balle 15-16, telephone +32 (0)2 502 42 43, and you can request reservations at www.hotelgalia.com (French only, but you can sort it out). Even if you don't stay here, it's worth a look. They might even serve you a glass of beer, since the other guests don't seem interested.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Two Stealth Bombers Attack Zythos Fest.

Plenty of good beers yesterday at Zythos, but in my mind there were only two revelations: the V Cense from Jandrain-Jandrenouille and the Cosmos Porter from De Dolle. Both are great examples of why it's pointless to cram oddly shaped Belgian ales into the square peg-holes of style definitions.

The V Cense (like cinq sense in French, but call it "Five Senses" if you prefer) is not your typical Belgian amber ale. As if there was such a thing. Still, amber is its color, and it's nice and bright when settled. The nose is thankfully un-subtle sweet oranges. Some drinkers I polled thought there was orange peel in the beer, but no. That's all Amarillo hops. Like its sibling the IV Saison, the V Cense avoids sweetness and goes for a refreshing dryness instead (although with more malt backbone, it's less dry than the saison). The alcohol is stealthy at 7.5% or so. I asked the brewers, "What kind of beer would you say this is?" Just curious. "It's a really fucking dangerous beer, that's what it is," they said. Is there a style category for that? More about this brewery, which I visited Thursday, in a future post.

Meanwhile, the Cosmos Porter is not really a porter at all. Unless brewer Kris Herteleer says it is, and then who the hell are you to say otherwise? (Mr. Herteleer, by the way, was looking snappy as always yesterday, in his long Oerbier coat and American-flag bow tie.) The best way I could describe it is a Rodenbach Grand Cru on steroids. Definitely there's a Rodenbach-like yeast involved. This is really a Flemish sour ale, even if it's a strong at 8%. Another stealth bomber. In the nose and backdrop you find plenty of sour cherry with a balsamic accent. It tastes quite tart from start to finish – in a quenching way, stopping just short of puckeringly sour – and doesn't put a foot wrong the whole time. Remembering that I'm a hedonistic drinker and not a trained palate, I reckon it was damned near perfect. Let's cross our collective fingers and hope this becomes a regular addition to the De Dolle stable.

Besides my old pal Taras Boulba, those are the two beers I kept going back to yesterday. Judging by my chats with others, I wasn't the only one. Keep an eye out for them.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Session #25: Finding Lager in an Alestack.

It's a beer festival weekend. Not just that, but it's Zythos weekend. There is a crisp, thirsty anticipation in the air. Even my hound dog senses it, giving me sad and pitiful looks, as if he knows he's going to get walked considerably less over the next few days. "Stop it," he says. "I always look like this. You're internalizing my permanent facial expression again." Oh. Sorry, boy.

Today it's also time for the Session. This is a monthly navel-gaze where beer bloggers opine on a common theme. In this case the theme is lager, the most popular and least appreciated style of beer on the planet.

Perhaps nowhere is it more popular and less appreciated than in Belgium. You heard me right. Despite everything you've known and tasted about great Belgian ales, the most popular kind of beer here by far is lager. The cliché is the brown café geezer explaining to you that Belgium makes the best beer in the world, even as he raises his eighth glass of Jupiler. (And Jupiler, if you don't know, is something like Belgium's Budweiser. It's even made by the same company these days.)

Meanwhile, aficionados tend to skip the local lagers and head straight for the ales. A reasonable thing to do – except that many of them miss out on a handful of really interesting, flavorful lagers made by Belgian craft brewers.

Someday I will tell you about the best lager I've had in Belgium. Not today. It deserves a day and a post all its own. Anyway, this is festival weekend. As it happens, the second-best lager I've had in Belgium is available this weekend in Sint-Niklaas. In my private little world where I try in vain to ignore what other people think, it was the (i.e., my) revelation of last year's ZBF. I'm talking about Slaapmutske Dry-Hopped Lager.

The beer is exactly what you'd want from the name: A clean, gently bitter and aromatically hoppy golden beer. Very refreshing and full of character, my two favorite beery traits. Someday I hope to see it outside of a festival. The only thing I hold against it is that it's made at Proef. This is a Belgian brewery known for cranking out oodles of contract beers hired by people who often pretend (or are happy to let you believe) that they have their own little brewery somewhere. What makes this more annoying is that many of those beers are pretty decent. This Dry-Hopped Lager is one of the best.

The dog is looking at me again. He thinks I should go work out or something. Damn you, beagle.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Session Blog.

If you're into beer meant for drinking and not just for tasting, do yourself a favor and track down the latest issue of All About Beer magazine. Even better, subscribe. Among other interesting reads, the March 2009 issue includes what I think is an important piece on session beer by Lew Bryson. I'm fully on board with his Session Beer Project, even here from high-octane Belgium. Give it a gander.

Speaking of All About Beer, have a look at Daniel Bradford's blog here, as he carries out a quest to become an expert on beer. Good stuff so far. And here I thought all you had to do to be an expert was post something on the internets.

Meanwhile I'm excited as all-get-out to be attending the Pre-ZBF event at the Alvinne brewery this Friday. A lot of incredibly interesting stuff on that list meant for tasting, as it were. (Yes, I swing both ways.) Just the same I was relieved when Glenn from Alvinne announced that Dutch brewer De Molen would be bringing along its Amerikaans, which appears to be an American-hopped, British-style bitter. The payoff is that it's only 4.5% alcohol. Very reasonable. As tasty and intriguing as the other beers are bound to be, there was only one other below 7%. Many are around 10-12+% range. It's a de facto extreme beer festival. Nothing wrong with that, but I'm glad De Molen is bringing an escape hatch. Hope it lasts.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Grilled Meat and Farmy Ale Near the French Border.

I've been working on a piece about visiting Belgium's great farmhouse breweries. Haven't sold it yet. (If you're a magazine editor, you should buy it. Drop me a line to find out more.) Meanwhile, the research was an excuse to do something we've been meaning to do for about two years: visit the Brasserie de Blaugies for lunch.

Specifically, we'd been hankering some chow on some flame-grilled meat at the Fourquet, the tavern run by the same folks who make the beer. We washed down a terrine of duck and some shrimp croquettes with the Darbyste, which is brewed with fig juice and is one of the driest fruit beers you'll ever find. My thick, juicy pork chop found a good buddy in the Saison d'Epautre, a grainy spelt-based beer that is one of Belgium's best saisons. But the Woman won the day with her grilled lardon. Imagine two obscenely thick slices of bacon and you've got the gist.

For Blaugies, it's not just a romantic gimmick to call it a farmhouse brewery. It's the fact of the matter. The farmhouse's small garage might hold two little Euro-cars, maybe, if there weren't a nanobrewery in it. To cart the beer across the road to the bottling barn, the family uses a former dairy tank attached to wheels stripped from an old French artillery gun.

Just like a family farm, everybody does a bit of everything. Ma and Pa – Marie-Noëlle Pourtois and Pierre-Alex Carlier – both brew and run the tavern, with Pierre-Alex often spotted working the grill. ("You see that workhorse on the label?" Pierre-Alex said. "That's me!") Sons Kevin and Cedric also brew and get help from a couple of "interns."

The address is Rue de la Frontiére 435, 7370 Blaugies. It's very near the French border and not much else. Bring your GPS, your thirst, and your appetite.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Little Something for Your Cantillon Fetish.

I had just walked through the doors of Cantillon with a few visitors when Yvan told me about the unique beer he was making with brewmaster Jean Van Roy. I believed Yvan because (1) I'm not always sure when he's telling a joke, and (2) Cantillon makes several special beers for people on contract.

Want a special dry-hopped cuvée to celebrate the birth of your daughter? OK. Want a special bottled lambic, to be sold only at your small little Northern European pub, steeped in your native country's precious dingleberries? Done.

That's why I took him seriously as he explained they were making a lambic for Japanese panty-hose fetishists, by special request. Naturally the fetishists requested that they be used panty hose, previously worn by the brewer's wife. Otherwise what's the point, right?

OK. Turns out the panty hose were not previously worn at all. But they do make a really handy sack for dry hopping. By deduction we can surmise this was either the Iris or the Cuvée des Champions. So next time you sip one of those, think about the particular method in which they were dry-hopped. And if that turns you on, just a little, well, you don't have to tell anyone.

To see other arcane techniques up close, consider hitting one of Cantillon's semiannual public brewing days. The next one is this Saturday, March 7. Get there early for free coffee and croissants.