Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Fantasizing About Exercise Makes Us Thirsty for Bink.

Mrs. Pilgrim and I own no bicycles, but we occasionally imagine it. Usually this happens only after we've driven our car to a pleasant brewery or café attached to a cycling trail. In Limburg we've been to at least two places that had that effect on us: the Achel Trappist brewery on the Dutch border, and the Kerkom brewery in the pastoral Haspengouw region.

On Saturday it was Kerkom. The brewery sits in an area near Sint-Truiden that offers a mix of trees, farmland and gentle hills—perfect for cycling (or so we gather). It's on a road that's part of several cycling routes, including the Trudo "Local Beers" Route. Four euros gets you a map from the tourist office in Sint-Truiden. You can also rent bikes there for €9 a day.

Like many other old Belgian farmhouses-turned-breweries (and this one first made beer back in 1878), Kerkom's building has four wings that embrace a courtyard—and ideally they would all have cafés like this one. You can sit at shaded tables outside if weather permits; otherwise the warm interior offers bricked ceilings and a large fireplace. (When will other breweries learn that this is the kind of experience that builds brand loyalty?)

Bink is the beer and the nickname for the locals. The beers are all worth trying but geeks will want to ask about the rare Bink de Reuss, a tart and refreshing blend of blonde ale and Girardin lambic. Specialist cafés and the odd festival are your best bet for that one.

We went with the Bink Blond, the noble-hoppy classic, quaffable at 5.5% strength—a nice one to convert lager lovers to ale. Thirst-quenching. Just thing after a long, um, drive.

The fine print: From April to October, Kerkom's café is closed Mondays and Tuesdays, open other weekdays starting at noon, and weekends and holidays starting at 10 a.m. During the cooler months it's only open Thursdays though Sundays starting at noon. For hundreds of other excellent Belgian road trip destinations, invest in the Good Beer Guide Belgium by Tim Webb, a man who owns a bicycle and uses it here as often as possible.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The 'S' on His Chest Stands for Saison.

One of my favorite places in town has revamped its beer list a bit. Nüetnigenough—hold on a second, do you need a pronouncer? I'm no authority on Brusseleer dialect (is anyone?), but I seem to get away with saying it like this, really fast: noot-neeg-enough. Practice.

Nüetnigenough's beer list shrunk from 28 to 25 but now contains no nonsense whatsoever. Light, bitter Taras Boulba and aromatic but sweet Lupulus are there now, plus a rotating beer of the month. In September it's the big and malty but nicely bitter Quintine Blonde from Ellezelloise.

There's also a new one from West Flanders called Papegaei, a blonde of 8% strength. It's said to be from a new brewery in Diksmuide called Verstraete, but in fact it appears to be made at Deca Services—nothing to be ashamed of. The same kit has hosted the brewers from De Ranke (now in Dottignies) and Struise (getting ready to move a few miles away into schoolhouse-turned-brewery).

Can't tell you what Papegaei tastes like. Not when there is Saison Dupont on draft, helping me tear through two large veal meatballs and carrot stoemp. I have no strength in the face of that beautiful kryptonite. Golden, quaffable, thirst-quenching, liquid kryptonite.

Monday, September 21, 2009

New 'Hoppy Loft' Opens at Delirium.

I know people who refuse to go to Delirium because it's too crowded and/or young and/or smoky and/or touristy. Or because it's just plain evil, pushing sugary candy fruit beers on kids who don't know any better, rather than using that incredible cellar as a force for good. Certainly Delirium can be all of those things at once—crowded, young, smoky, touristy and fruity—making it a nearly unbearable place for grown-ups to spend an evening.

Then there are other moments at Delirium. Quieter ones, with cleaner air, fit for drinking something interesting with your conversation. And, increasingly, thankfully, there are more nooks and crannies in which to find those moments.

So, the Hoppy Loft opened two weeks ago. If you're keeping track, the Loft is upstairs from the ground floor Taphouse, which is upstairs from the main Delirium bar and its theoretical 2,000+ beers. As you walk in the front, a set of curvy blue metal stairs leads up to a trap door that opens at 6 p.m. Up there we found a whole space full of quiet tables. The alco-pop kids apparently haven't found it yet.

The Loft's beer selection mainly showcases four American craft breweries: Anchor, Flying Dog, Great Divide and Left Hand. This is actually cutting-edge here, since it remains nearly impossible to find non-Belgian beers in Belgium. Most of the bottles from those breweries are available, plus another 100 or so mostly well-chosen Belgian bottles.

The Loft just might possibly be aimed at pleasing the cranky minority of grown-ups (ahem) who drink better beer and bitch about the rest of the place being unbearable. In the café's August newsletter, translated into English, owner Joël Pécheur notes that a lot of people come to Delirium in big groups to party. Meanwhile, he says, "I have always wanted to create a place where people with an interest for more complexe [sic] tastes could try different products in a relaxing atmosphere with people who share the same interest..."

Hear that? Relaxing atmosphere. I support that.

For the record, the Loft was blissfully quiet a few days ago. Nice place to sip an IPA and chat with the barman—who complained that he was bored because the place was too quiet. No doubt a few drunken backpacker girls drinking strawberry alco-pops would have livened up the place. Guess you can't please everyone.

Worth noting: Six of the Loft's taps were devoted to hoppy American beers. The other four? Floris Passion, Floris Strawberry, and so on. Ah well. It's still a Huyghe-tied bar after all. Better get there soon, before the children find it.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Forty Handles and a Mule.

Forty? Egads. That won't sound like a lot to My Fellow Americans, spoiled as we are by pricey but prolific specialist beer bars carrying everything from Bamberg to Boston to Brussels to Burton. (We make everything bigger. Especially our children.) But in Belgium, proud home of secondary bottle fermentation for "specialty" beers... Well, 40 is a lot of tap handles.

(Here's a poor joke, made poorer by a stereotypical French accent: An old Belgian guy walks into the new Moeder Lambic Fontainas. He sees all the taps and says, "Wow! Zat ees a lot of Jupiler!")*

Anyway, I snuck a peak at the new place the other day, hence the photo. Expect 40 kegs of quality. Disregard the Coca-Cola, which will not be one of them. As I reported back in July, Moeder Lambic Fontainas is set to open in October. That looks to be on track, although it will be later in the month rather than earlier. The exact day depends on the last-minute stuff—including, apparently, the gas company. Official opening party probably on November 7.

For a lot more photos of the Fontainas in progress, there is a Facebook (shhh!) page here. (Just don't tell anyone else about Facebook. It's a secret, only for cool kids and all their relatives and exes and high school classmates and so on.)

*I'm really, really sorry.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Listen: There is No Such Thing as Beer Capital of the World.

My coffee cup is sitting on a beer mat that says "Brussels: Beer Capital of the World." That's odd. Because I live in Brussels, and I've traveled a fair bit, and you know what? This ain't it. And the more I think about it, the more I'm sure there isn't one. You know what else? I'm glad. It would be boring as hell to have just one beer capital.

For starters, Brussels isn't the easiest place in the world to find decent craft beer. Considering this is capital of Belgium, so-called "Beer Paradise," it's surprisingly difficult. And good luck finding anything non-Belgian outside of one or two specialist haunts. Surely a diverse international selection of greats is prerequisite for being "Beer Capital of the World." (Incidentally, that also rules out great German beer towns like Bamberg and Munich.)

Guess what else? There's not even a beer capital of Belgium. Oh, people will make arguments for Brugge or Gent or Antwerp or Brussels. But they're only arguments and none are decisive. In fact that's the general problem with the world's "beer capitals"—London, Portland, Prague, San Frandenverego, whatever. Just arguments.

Nothing wrong with arguing. Hell, it's my third-favorite pastime. And nothing wrong with marketing, even in Brussels' case. My problem is with those who proclaim things without doing enough to make those things reality. Breaking the local stranglehold of A-B InBev, Alken Maes and French wine would be a good start. Cantillon is based here, for god's sake, and you practically need our book to find the stuff. That's a bit shameful.

In the supposed "Beer Capital of the World," it's simply too hard to find the beers that are making this country famous. Only solution: Support the places that are making it easier.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Summer Took a French Exit, the Bastard, But We Outsmarted Him.

Over in that photo, yonder, sits a pale ale on a bar on the top deck of a boat tied to a dock on a really swell lake for skiing or swimming or whatever else you like to do in the water. The sweat, as it always does, tells a story of cold on the inside and warm on the outside. Summer came too late and left too early for us. After four weeks in the Midwest we dropped very suddenly back into crisp, gray Brussels. A shock to the system.

Then, a few nights ago, I tasted one of the best beers I've ever had. Really. It had been waiting patiently in fermenter then luggage then cupboard then fridge to finally say aloha. My brother and I made it in mid-August, in our parents' garage, a week after he got married. We named it after my son, who watched from his grandpa's big burly arms. It was hot out.

The beer pours a bright and clear gold with a sturdy, creamy white head. It smells just like the boatloads of fruity, floral American hops with which we dry-hopped it. It has a firm bitterness that doesn't coat the tongue, getting swept away by lively carbonation and finishing pretty damned dry. It is utterly quaffable. To borrow from the Marines, "there are many beers like it, but this one is mine."

I only have four left in the fridge, and each is more valuable to me than anything in my cellar. Each is summer in a bottle. Four more chances to say aloha. Hello and goodbye.

Monday, September 14, 2009

All the Rest of You are Slackers.

As a matter of course I hunt around now and then for reviews of our little guidebook. We've had our share in the local mass media, but most of my favorites to read are random blogs... Regular folks who found the book and are enjoying it.

My favorite so far has to be Greasy Truckers Party Food. A Mr. George Ternent appears to be working his way through all 80 entries — and blogging each one. Consider me humbled and amazed. If he has half as much fun on his quest as we did researching it, he's in for a treat.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

I've Been Saving Up for You.

Got a gazillion things I want to share, and a couple of them might even be interesting. Sadly, no time. Work to do and a suitcase to pack. Finishing up another piece for DRAFT (tell you later) and getting ready to spend a week in Germany. This trip will include a day in Bamberg, arguably the beer capital of Germany. Arguably.

The Belgian Beer Weekend and all its pomp really got my wheels turning. I came away even more cynical about the Belgian beer scene, if that's possible. For now let's just say I really missed Bruxellensis, which took a one-year hiatus. Hope to go into more detail soon, when my life gets back to normal. Or whatever resembles normal when there's a two-month-old in charge (who, incidentally, attended his first beer festival over the weekend. A Japanese TV crew was intensely interested in Mrs. Thirsty Pilgrim drinking a beer while carrying Junior on her chest. Watch for a very special documentary on alcoholic moms and dads on Nippon National Television...).

Meanwhile here's an announcement that shouldn't wait: The new Moeder Lambic is running only a few weeks late in its plans to open. Good news, I'd say. That means we're looking at late October/early November. Regardless, according to co-owner Jean Hummler, there will be a party the same day as the next Cantillon Public Brewing Session. That would be November 7. Assuming the bar is really open by then, I reckon the event should be open to the public. So there's a date to scratch into your calendar if you're around.

Right. Hungry suitcase, staring at me. Back in a week or so.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Under the Weather, Yet There is 'Work' to be Done.

Back in Belgium, jet-lagged and somewhat out of sorts. Got a big fest today and a tasting tomorrow, yet I can't tell my allergies from a cold. Can't smell a damned thing. A few good beers are likely to be wasted on me. Beats staying home.

And it must be Belgian Beer Weekend, since it's raining. Oddly appropriate and I don't mind at all. I've got my gear and the wet weather seems to clear away some of the casual drinkers. Just got to watch that the raindrops don't smear my notebook.

Last year I wasn't able to talk my way into the pre-fest ceremonies. This year I had no problem. I will be there to witness the consecration of the beer at the cathedral, the knighting ceremony at the city hall, and the "solemn inauguration" of the beer stands. That last one is the best—a blatant way for us VIPs (ha!) to drink for a while before you plebes can enter.

Need ideas for what to try? The list has a lot of chaff. How about St. Feuillien Saison, a dryish farmhouse ale that's getting good reviews. Or the Bockor Cuvée des Jacobins, a reddish-brown sour ale that Bockor uses as a blend in its sweeter beers. (This is likely the same as the damned interesting Foederbier I tried last year... Seems they are getting wise and marketing it a bit, especially for export to the U.S. Yet the Bockor team still seems to think that Belgians can't handle sour stuff and would prefer the sweet fruit beers. More on that another day, hopefully sooner rather than later.)

A couple of mysteries to me: The St. Feuillien Leon and the Verhaeghe Barbe d'Or. Both unknown names from solid breweries. Meanwhile the Maneblusser from Anker, a 6% blonde ale aiming to be the signature beer of Mechelen, is getting some hype.

So there are a few interesting things to try, besides some reliable things to drink—Saison Dupont, Timmermans Oude Gueuze, Petrus Aged Pale, etc.—if all else goes awry. Just hope I can taste them. Sniff sniff BLOW. Don't drink from my glass and please excuse the used tissue poking out of my coat pockets.