Tuesday, June 23, 2009

It's All Just Smoke Anyway.

This is the line that separates the smoking from the "non-smoking" section at the Verschueren, a classic and very bruxellois café in the Saint-Gilles commune. This striped demarcation stretches across the ceiling, down the windows, over the tables, and up the bar. Naturally it generates a powerful forcefield that magically contains all of the smoke in one half of the room. In the other half, we're sniffing our Saison Dupont and breathing easy. Hmm.

The Verschueren is known in Brussels as a leftist/communist stronghold. I only learned that recently. Irrelevant! I know another great beer café in Belgium said to be frequented by the far right wing. Ah, this country and its extremes. Anyway, I don't let politics get in the way of fun.

Probably there are bars out there frequented by centrists like me. I bet they're not as cool.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Give a Dog a Cantillon.

This was Cantillon Iris on draft last week at Moeder Lambic. Not on hand pull, but á la pression. American geek cafés get this stuff fairly often, the bastards, but you never see it in Belgium. Nerver erver.

Jean said to wait 15 minutes so the beer could warm up, but it was a really nice day. There's something naughty about drinking serious lambic chilled on CO2. So wrong and so right.

Moeder Lambic is currently the best beer café in Belgium. I want to be clear about that. The other contenders can contact me personally if they want to sway my opinion. But they have a long way to go.

The latest on their planned downtown location: late September or early October. We are optimistic again. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

We Called it 'Editing'

Tomorrow we have a press event to launch the book at Cantillon. Having a press event is an awkward thing when you think of yourself as a journalist. So is writing up a press release, reading it, and thinking, "Does this suck? Would I immediately shit-can this if I still worked for the wire? Probably." However, it does win cool points for being in three languages.

(An important part of journalism is shit-canning at least 95% of the press releases you get. This was back when people still used fax machines... Don't worry. The shit-can was really a recycling bin. That was way too much paper to just throw away.)

I've been told not to expect many journalists to actually show up, and that the "press event" is a glorified excuse to send out a bunch of press releases. Hrumph, as if I didn't already know. Anyway, that's just more beer for us. It's only a cute little guidebook after all, right?

Not that it doesn't have a story to tell.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Hedonism not Fetishism!

I'm toying with this idea, which is not so original, that it doesn't matter where a beer is from any more than it matters what style it is. Just for exercise, let's say, I'm ditching categories like they were training wheels to find balance with what matters most in the whole wide world: whether it gives me pleasure.

As a brewer you can take ideas from anywhere you want, right? And ultimately the finished product is your own, right? So why would you give your precious child to someone and say, "Here, this is an American-style IPA," or "Here, this is my take on a Swedish craft-brewed imperial porter," or whatever. Why put your beer and your drinker in a box like that? Why not just say, "Here, I made this." Keep the inspiration as your little secret. And if they want to know more: "It's a little bitter and fruity. I made it to be refreshing and to go with tacos, because I get get very thirsty, and I like tacos." For example.

Ideally the thing crafted is an expression of the craftsman, not an imitation of a category that probably thousands of other brewers (and homebrewers) have already tried to imitate. So why persist with the fetishes?

Oh, I'm sure there's a perfectly good reason why. Maybe some of you will remind me, since I've forgotten. But I don't have to play along. And if the answer is just, "So we know what to expect," then I would just say, "Then we shouldn't be so damned lazy." I'd also suggest that such labels give you the wrong idea as often as they give you the right one.

My point is—or was, originally—where a beer is from matters less and less these days. Call it another consequence of globalization—especially the ease of international trade, immigration and travel. Ideas are moving around faster than anyone can follow them. Meanwile what has always mattered most with beer is how much you enjoy it.

How else to explain the existence of Mikkeller beers like this one, the Single Hop Warrior IPA. I could say it's a bitter ale with big floral and orange-zest aroma, with a juicy but resiny flavor that coats the tongue and eventually hinders drinkability. I loved the first half-glass. Die-hard hopheads would love much more of it.

Or I could say this beer is an American style based loosely on a British style but brewed by Danish brewers at a Belgian brewery. But what would be the point?

Monday, June 8, 2009

'You're Not the Usual American Sycophant.'

That's what Tim Webb told me once. It was his own sort of compliment, I think. I assured him I was a completely new and different kind of American sycophant.

Anyway: It's impossible for me to write an honest, objective review of the new Good Beer Guide Belgium. So I won't try. Instead I'll sum up my bias: Well before I met Tim and co-wrote a book for his small publishing outfit, the GBG's fifth edition was the best guidebook we'd ever owned. And we've owned a lot of them.

Besides being an instant course on serious Belgian beer—and a platform for Tim's merciless wit—the Guide allows you to suck more of the good life out of this country than any other book on the market. Anyway, that's what it did for my wife and I. We reflexively recommend it to visitors and fellow expats. Even if the only thing they know about beer is that they like it. Especially then.

(Aside #1: Ever notice that places with good beer also tend to have pretty good food? Generally speaking. Trust a beer guide to send you to a decent restaurant, that's all I'm saying.)

The Babblebelt has a review of the Guide here. Meanwhile CAMRA is having a little contest to promote it, with a weekend in Brussels as the carrot.

(Aside #2: A simple recipe for an excellent day is a set of wheels, a navigation system, and a decent guidebook.)

A solicited endorsement from the Missus: "I have seen so much more of Belgium, from the countryside to small towns to its larger cities' side streets, than I would have seen without the Good Beer Guide. My husband and I had a lot of fun adventures with the GPS taking us down cow paths to find tiny little bars that serve some very special beers. I gained a whole new appreciation for what 'special beer' means."

I knew she would work in the cow paths, somehow. Our GPS has a knack for finding all of them.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Warming Your Extremities with Calvados Barrel Oak-Aged [insert noun here].

There is a lot of anticipation in the air at Thirsty Pilgrim HQ these days. Even the hound dog can sense it. Not only is Around Brussels in 80 Beers about to become officially available, for real—mailing may start this weekend—but Mrs. Pilgrim is theoretically about a month away from delivering Thirsty Jr. to the world. For reasons related to that second fact I stayed home and missed out on the Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation. From all reports the event was another hit. I'll once again hope to partake next year.

So instead I stayed close to home and had a sort of mini-beer festival of my own. The hound had been noticing the slow accumulation of random "special" beers in the cellar. You know the sort. The ones where it usually doesn't feel right to open it on your own... You need some sort of occasion. Or at least a pretext. Or, in this case, a private festival.

Instead of tweak you with a vaguely pornographic list of bottles opened, I'll just tell you what I liked best: Alvinne Melchior Calvados Barrel Oak Aged. It's a funny name, I think, vaguely pornographic on its own and apparently missing some hyphens, or perhaps an extra noun at the end. It's a name that stretches its way around a label, trying to convince you of how special it is. I was skeptical, not usually being the extreme type and having tasted several "off" bottles of Alvinne beer in the past.

But in the end I was wowed.

Original flavor Melchior, if you get the chance to try it, is an amber-colored, zesty, bittersweet barley wine. It's a fine beer but not a world-beater. This one spent some time in casks once used for apple brandy, then spent some time in my cellar, then in my snifter—with an aroma like earthy mandarine-orange liqueur—then on my tongue—creamy roundness of tart, bitter and faintly sweet—and finally destined to warm my belly with its 11.5% or so strength.

And the world was beaten on Sunday. Whether you knew it or not.

Speaking of uber-complex barrel-aged Belgian ales made for sipping: Mad brewer Kris Herteleer reports that his 2008 batch of De Dolle Oerbier Special Reserva is due for bottling this weekend. It will need a week of bottle fermentation before availability. Get it while you can. Original flavor Oerbier, vinous and bitter, is already one of the country's most unusual dark ales before it spends some time in Bordeaux casks. Something so insane shouldn't be so immediately likeable.

Oof, all this talk of extreme beer. Makes me thirsty for a Biolégère or something. Or maybe just some water.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Drie Fonteinen Spirit on the Way.

Props to Steven Vermeylen at Hier Stroomt het Bier! for a solid update on the situation at Drie Fonteinen. Yes, it's in Dutch. But since he's done all the work, all we have to do is translate it. International newsgathering at its finest, ladies and gentlemen.

To review and clarify: On May 16 a busted thermostat in one of Armand's storage facilities pushed temperatures up to around 60° C (about 140° F) for as long as 36 hours. This effectively ruined the flavor of about 100,200 bottles—representing about 49,000 liters of beer. Some bottles exploded while the rest were completely oxidized. According to Armand that was a whole winter's worth of bottling, valued at €224,000.

Meanwhile Armand and friends have successfully distilled a test batch of the lambic at the Distillerie de Biercée in Thuin, not far from Chimay. The plan is to go forward with the distillation, which should produce about 8,000 half-liter bottles of a fine, unique, genever-like drink. The spirit would go on sale at the Lambikodroom tasting room at Drie Fonteinen, and possibly elsewhere. Buying some would be an excellent way to help out Armand, Lydie, and the brewery.

On May 30, Vermeylen reports, about 30 gueuze lovers met bright and early in Halle to help Armand destroy some beer and prepare about 10,000 liters for the trip to Halle. Fellow brewers and blenders have also offered their assistance.

"I am broken over what happened, but the solidarity is heartwarming," he said.

Again: Hat-tips and head-nods to Steven. Great report.

A side note: Regarding the Distillerie de Biercée, when I spoke with Armand last week he wondered aloud whether some Flemish friends would raise their eyebrows at working with a facility in Wallonia. He almost seemed to enjoy that possibility—"I'm very Flemish," he told me, "but I'm also very Belgian."

And for those of us who love Belgian beer in general, that sentiment is heartwarming as well.