Saturday, May 30, 2009

Struise Brouwers to Get Own Brewhouse.

Among the most popular brewers in geekdom, Struise is nevertheless not a brewery at all. For the past few years Urbain, Carlo and Co. have been brewing on the equipment at Deca in Vleteren, just a few minutes drive from the Sint-Sixtus abbey in Westvleteren. The beers didn't seem to worry about the arrangement and usually got rave reviews anyway. Just the same, brewing on someone else's kit was never an ideal path to long-term survival.

The word this weekend is that Struise is finally planning to get a house of their own. Head brewer Urbain Coutteau told me Friday that they were in the "building out" process for new digs in nearby Oostvleteren. Some of the kit will come from their "field brewery" at the Struise farm in Lo. I assume the ostriches are staying put, though.

That seems to me the bigger news coming out of an awkward situation in Maine. That's where Struise had been working in cooperation with Jen and Chris Lively (of Ebenezer's fame) to open a new brewpub to be called Pannepot Café. Now it will be called something else and Struise will have no involvement. The split does not appear to have been amicable, but I'm not sure that fact is either relevant or interesting to most of us.

More interesting are the facts that some popular brewers will be getting their own home, and that the owners of a popular pub will be opening a second location—also bound to be much loved by Belgian beer geeks—later this summer in Brunswick, Maine. The new name hasn't been announced. Best of luck to all of them.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Swirl, Sniff, Sip, Repeat. Or Just Drink It.

What the hell is wrong with me? It's Friday already and I've failed to mention that one of the year's best fests is tomorrow and Sunday. My friends, this is the Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation in Buggenhout. That site has all the practical information I could possibly hope to share with you about how to get there and so on. In three languages, no less.

So let's cut through the bullshit and skip right to the beer, shall we?

Draught lambics from 12 breweries and blenderies. Another 11 kriekenlambics (yar, that be the stuff with cherries). How about raspberry lambics from Cantillon and Hanssens, plus—seriously?—a black currant lambic, also from Hanssens.

Drooling yet? We haven't even mentioned the bottled stuff yet, with virtually every offering from each traditional lambic brewery. The really special stuff includes the Drie Fonteinen Schaerbeekse Kriek (local cherries) and Hommage (cherries and raspberries), or the Cantillon Zwanze (rhubarb), 50N-4E (gueuze aged in Cognac barrels) and Lou Pepe series. Plus a few crazy vintages, like the Eyelenbosch Gueuze from 1988.

The geekery commences at 3 p.m. both days.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Brief Update on Setback at Drie Fonteinen.

Regarding questions left unanswered about the loss of 100,000 bottles of lambic at Drie Fonteinen... I can only help with a couple of them after speaking with Armand Debelder again on Monday.

First: Is the beer really ruined? Yes. There is no question about this in Debelder's mind. He told me that the temperature in the storage facility, after the thermostat broke, was higher than 50° C. If for some reason that doesn't satisfy you, chew on these words from the man himself: "There is one thing you can never buy at Drie Fonteinen, and that's a beer I can't get behind. Maybe I could sell some of these beers on the market, but is that what I'm working so hard for?"

Getting rid of the ruined beer is not as simple as pouring it down the drain. Debelder said it must be destroyed at a proper installation, and the nearest one is in Holland. "It would cost a fortune" to send it there, he said.

He is hopeful that the distillation project will work. An acquaintance once made a spirit from the Oude Gueuze and "it's excellent," Debelder said. "Probably it would be a very quality product."

Later, again regarding the spirit, he said, "This would help me survive."

Others (possibly including Dogfish Head brewer Sam Calagione?) have discussed taking up a collection to help the brewery. I mentioned this possibility, and a few times I asked Debelder what his loyal supporters out there could do to help. While he seemed touched, he changed the subject each time. Those who know him better may have more insight and decide to take the lead on such an effort.

(I would only state the obvious: Drie Fonteinen is not a charity, or even a nonprofit like the museum at Cantillon, but a very small business. That is NOT to say it can't be done, but it may need to be pretty clever. Again, I leave it to those who know better.)

As for whether he has insurance to cover the lost beer, I don't know. I honestly didn't think to ask and don't plan to bother him again about this for a while.

However, Armand Debelder is not down for the count by any stretch. He has some really interesting projects on the horizon. I hope to share them with you when he's ready to discuss them publicly.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Beersel, there is something concrete you can do to help out another traditional lambic maker. Gert Christaens and Oud Beersel could use some more votes in their effort to win the national Ultimate Makeover competition. At stake is €200,000 that would be used for a project to make the brewery more sustainable. Anyone with a valid e-mail address can vote once here (in French) or here (in Dutch).

And while we're at it, Cantillon, a.k.a. the Brussels Museum of Gueuze, is competing for the honor of best museum in town. You can offer your support here.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Here's a Fun Game: How Many of the 80 Beers Can You Pick Out from this Photo?

The front cover I posted before was stand-in. A dummy. A fake, if you will. Here's the real deal, Holyfield. Meanwhile, books should start going out from Cogan & Mater headquarters the first week of June. Many thanks to those of you who have already pre-ordered—and also to anyone who has helped spread word to those who could use a book like this.

Copies of Tim's Good Beer Guide to Belgium will be out a little before that. Expect an obviously biased but equally honest review soon afterward.

Meanwhile: Huge spike in traffic yesterday from the Drie Fonteinen news. I didn't expect that. I hope it is correctly seen as relevant industry news rather than self-serving blog gossip, although the line can be fuzzy. Tomorrow I'll be in Beersel and may find out more about what, if anything, the brewery's supporters can do to help. (Folks on Ratebeer have been discussing a donation system of some kind.)

Lastly: Those interested in Belgian brewing, and don't mind reading a little French, would do well to visit Ron Pattinson's blog. Check out this post on making lambic, faro and biére de mars in 19th century Brussels. By that account faro was made from second runnings, lambic from first (and strongest) runnings, with biére de mars being a "small" beer made from third runnings. For those who have no idea what that means, we're talking about running hot water through the grains multiple times to get successively weaker types of beer.

Since there were (I've been told) around 150 breweries in Brussels around that time, it may not be wise to put too much stock into any single account of how it was done back then. But it's damned interesting anyway.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Serious Blow to Drie Fonteinen.

Just heard a bit of news from brewer/blender Armand Debelder at Drie Fonteinen in Beersel. For those of us who love his beers, this certainly qualifies as tragic.

Because of a busted thermostat, excessive heat ruined about 100,000 bottles of lambic and gueuze in storage last weekend. He said that represented about a third of his annual revenue, so it is a serious blow to his business. It is not a fatal blow—he is determined to survive and keep going—but it is serious nonetheless. For example, there will be virtually no 37.5 cL bottles of gueuze on the market this summer. Options available at the tasting café and restaurant may be limited.

There are two silver linings here.

One is that Armand has been taking a distillation class (with Marc Limet, incidentally, the brewer from Kerkom). He is hoping to possibly distill the ruined lambic into a liquor that could be sold, thus salvaging a positive from the catastrophe.

The second thing is that, not long before the temperature accident, Armand's partner Lydie accepted his marriage proposal. So some congratulations are in order there.

Those who know Armand or are passionate about his beer, or both, are sure to feel a bit of heartbreak at the difficulty and at the loss of all that fantastic beer. If there's any way for us to help his business out (beyond continuing to buy his beer), I'll find out and let you know.

In the meantime, going out and spending some duckets on a fine bottle of Drie Fonteinen lambic is never a bad idea.

*Spelling corrected from Lidi to Lydie, 5/27 13:39 p.m. Sorry Lydie!

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Vote for Oud Beersel is a Vote for Freedom.

Lambic revivalist Gert Christiaens is hoping for an extreme makeover. You can help him get it.

Well, it's not Gert who could use the makeover exactly. He's a handsome enough dude already. It's the Oud Beersel brewery that could use the attention, to help ensure the viability of its traditional lambics for years to come.

In Belgium there is a program called Ultimate KMO Makeover... or Ultimate PME Makeover depending on the language. KMO and PME and acronyms that mean the same thing: small businesses. Oud Beersel is one of three finalists for €200,000 that would be used on projects to make sure the brewery/blendery can survive and prosper.

All they need is votes. It's really easy to vote. You can do it here.

Meanwhile: I'm swamped. That's not a complaint. Generally when a freelancer says that he or she is swamped, that's a really good thing. Hooray work!

Brussels book news: Pre-orders are rolling along nicely. Thanks to all for helping spread the word to anyone who can make use of it. The Facebook page has 170 fans and counting. Go on. All the cool kids are doing it.

And Beer Planet (entry #7 in the book, incidentally) is the first shop in town to order a bunch of them. Makes me want to go there and buy a bottle of beer. Or several.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Testing for Happiness of Animals and Malted Barley.

The original plan was to go fishing. In the end we left the poles at home and reeled in waiters at lunchtime. I heard no complaints. Least of all from the fish.

We spent the weekend in the Ardennes, near Malmedy. With friends we rented a rural gîte and made ourselves at home in the backyard. We slept late, drove around the countryside, ate trout for lunch, worked through a fridge full of beer, and barbecued at night. Look at this cute little guy on the right, dressed in a fashionable coat of terragon sauce. He's smiling! Happy trout are tasty trout.

I've got my friends so well trained now that beer tourism is inevitable, even when I don't plan for it. Turned out the small, three-year-old Bellevaux brewery (aw, it's just a toddler) was on a hillside very near our place. We landed there at the same time as a large caravan of Dutch people and managed to snake a table before they could get organized. Beer samplers all around.

I'd had the Black before, and it was roasty and interesting at least. The Blanche avoids much spicing and is on the light, refreshing end. The Blonde had some actual hop flavor. The Brune was my favorite, quite a bit maltier than most Belgian ales, with a chewy caramel aspect to it. None were world-beaters, but none of them were bad either – all technically solid. Might even be a brewery to watch if they can dial up the character a bit. And anyway, there's not much else in that part of the country. Bellevaux is a welcome newcomer for sure.

From there it was back to the house to begin the nightly Trivial Pursuit marathon and long, slow cooking of spare-ribs. Like the fish, the pork was silent on the matter. But just going on flavor I'd say those pigs were pretty happy about the whole deal.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Gratuitous Shot of a Dirty Bottle of Lambic from the Cellar.

I'm learning that getting a book out is a bit like making sausage. You don't want to know.

Part of putting this thing to bed is plugging in a few art-holes. That's what I call them. In one art-hole we needed a photo of Cantillon Kriek. "Easy," I thought. "Got one in the cellar."

Actually it's a 10-year-old bottle. And it's filthy. I bought a few of them at the SBS drinks market here in Brussels before some rich Danish person swooped in and bought its entire stock of vintage beers. Drank one, still have two.

I'd consider opening another one, but I'm fascinated by the filth that's accumulated. Somehow they've gotten three times as dirty in the 18 months they've been in our cave. More than I want to taste them, I want to see how much nastier these bottles can get.

Meanwhile: There's now a Facebook page for Around Brussels. It might even become useful once my friends and family pipe down. Ah, Facebook.

If you're on that there Facebook thingy, please sign up and help spread the word to anyone who might make good use of a book like that. If you're not on Facebook yet, and you value your spare time, then run away while you still can. Now. GO!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Rochefort and Spice and Not Being Nice.

It's not every day that you hear from the Beer Drinker of the Year. Nor that he accidentally brings to your attention an oversight on your part.

The 2009 BOTY Cody Christman – who has his own BOTY e-mail address, by the way, how cool is that? – left a comment somewhere down below regarding Rochefort and coriander. This was related to an article – "Heavenly Brews of Belgium" – co-written with friend Roy Stevenson and published in the most recent issue of Zymurgy. This is an article I haven't yet seen in published form.

In the piece we divulge the no-so-well-kept secret that Rochefort adds a touch of coriander to its beers. Did you know that, by the way? I didn't, not for sure. Not until I read Stan Heironymous' fun and well-researched book, Brew Like a Monk. Maybe you can see where this is going.

Cody asked how we knew for sure that Rochefort uses coriander. The simple version of my answer was, "Because Stan said so." In fact I thought we attributed it to him in the article. But if we had, Cody wouldn't be asking, right? Right. There's the oversight. I take full blame for not ensuring that the attribution was in there and remained there.

For the record, here's the relevant excerpt, from page 66:

"[Brewer Gumer] Santos downplays the use of coriander. 'It is a small amount, but people outside of Belgium think (Belgian brewers) use a lot of spices,' he said. 'Most of what they think are spices comes from the yeast.'"

Sorry, Stan. Thank you, Cody. And you're welcome, in advance, to those who take my advice and buy Brew like a Monk. It's an absolute must-read for anyone inspired by Trappist ales.

P.S. Anyone taking this information as license to throw a bunch of coriander into your homebrewed Rochefort clone would do better to save it for soup. Instead, I recommend whispering the word "coriander" over your brew kettle while bowing in the direction of Belgium.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Around Brussels in 80 Beers: Now Available for Pre-Order.

Those looking to suck the marrow out of Brussels and Belgium this summer will have some top-notch resources available. If we do say so ourselves.

Tim Webb's intrepid publishing outfit, Cogan & Mater, has just updated its website. Among other things, the site now allows you to place advance orders for Around Brussels in 80 Beers.

This book is the result of a unique partnership between myself and Bruxellois brewer Yvan De Baets. A wide-eyed expat and a cynical local. An enthusiast and a savvy cynic. A journalist and an activist. It was Tim's idea to put us together, and we hope you'll agree with the results. We continue a series that has been admirably carried to date by Podge and Siobhan with Around Bruges and Around London.

Also available now is the long-awaited sixth edition of Tim's Good Beer Guide to Belgium. It would be impossible for the Missus and I to understate all the fun we've squeezed out of the last edition. Suffice to say it should be a must-own for anyone visiting or inhabiting Belgium – even if beer is a minor interest.

Cogan & Mater is a small publisher – very small. It lacks the marketing and distribution power of the big boys. But for beer lovers it's putting out some of the most useful guidebooks on the market. Think of it as a microbrewer putting out quality beer, confident in its product but always grateful for a helpful nudge.

That's my clever way of asking for your help in spreading the good word.