Friday, November 27, 2009

Useful Beery Gift Ideas: Magazine Subscriptions.

This blog has always had two goals: (1) to entertain me, and (2) to be useful to you. And you know what's really useful this time of year? Well, yes, a flask of hard liquor. Besides that. Gift ideas. And another really useful thing: magazines. Also: italics.

What I like best about magazines is portability. On the coffee table, by the bedside lamp, rolled up in your coat pocket, on the plane, in the can. Nothing quite like a glossy collection of recent knowledge, pretty pictures, and targeted advertising. Preferably with a few jokes or cartoons. I also like the fact that they are not very expensive. And even though you know it's coming every month, or every other month, or every quarter, or whenever... it's always a pleasant surprise.

So now this useful blog will do something useful and suggest you make yourself useful and buy something useful for your loved ones: beer magazines. Or print this out and leave it somewhere for your significant other to find. I'll make it easy: Links and (U.S.) prices below.

The Ale Street News is a rag in the best sense of the word. It's newspaper format makes it look like you are reading something quasi-serious. Just the thing for carrying under your arm into the office, with coffee mug in hand and pencil behind your ear. (You don't know that trick? Stick a pen or pencil behind your ear. People will think you're working really hard.) Price is $18.95 for six issues.

All About Beer is the distinguished elder lady among beer mags. She's still pretty hot for an old gal, and maybe the all-around best-written beer mag out there. Burt Reynolds was on the cover once. I wish they would put him on again, for old time's sake. One year is $19.99, two is $37.99, and three is $53.99. It's bimonthly.

Beer Advocate has a stated mission to support craft beer and a bustling online community to back it up. Friend of the Blog Tim Webb has a column in there now. I think he really wants to piss people off but so far, I think, everyone's nodding their head and saying, "Oh yeah, good point." It's also monthly, which is more than most of the other magazines can say. One year will run you $29.99.

The ambitious Beer Connoisseur hits newsstands December 8 and begins as a quarterly. Its first cover is gorgeous. One year costs $21, but two years ($38) or "lifetime" ($90 for 80 issues) gets you a free hat or T-shirt.

BEER Magazine is published by CAMRA in the U.K. (There's also an American magazine simply called BEER, but it's kind of silly and I'm going to ignore it.) The British one is included in the annual CAMRA membership of £20 ($33).

Brew Your Own is homebrewing geekery, raw and uncut. It reminds me of the muscle car magazines my dad used to get — except instead of technical photos of suped-up engines, you get technical photos of suped-up brew systems. The latest issue, for example, shows us a fully automated system three guys built in a garage, complete with computer touch-screen. They wear matching uniforms. It is hilarious and awe-inspiring. Eight issues for $28, or 16 for $44. Add $5 for Canada or $17 for further abroad.

Celebrator Beer News has an annual Brewers Swimsuit Issue, with lots of pasty-looking topless men who don't get outside much. Don't let that put you off. It has a West Coast perspective but does a fair job of covering the international scene. Costs $19.95 for one year or $29.95 for two.

DRAFT has a special place in my heart. It cemented this place when it recently "bought a beer" for my hero Ben Olsen. DRAFT is also one of the prettiest mags on the market and is invariably a fun read. It's also very good at getting B-list celebrities to pretend they're into craft beer. One year of six issues costs $19.99. Two years costs $29.99.

What's Brewing is CAMRA's newpaper, also included in that £20 ($33) membership. Remember that supporting real ale does not necesaarily mean that you oppose deliciously fresh craft beer delivered via CO2.

Zymurgy is the magazine of the American Homebrewers Association. It's prettier and more approachable than BYO, and slightly less geeky I think. Your $38 per year includes AHA membership and, if given as a gift, a free book. International memberships (including the magazine) are also available, starting at $44 yearly.

Just the same, I'd like to see more jokes and cartoons all around.

RIP, Beers of the World.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What's on Your Table Thursday?

Oh, Americans and our Thanksgiving abroad. Sure we could've invited someone over. Maybe some other Yanks who haven't found a table yet. Maybe some locals who ought to experience a real Turkey Day. Or that skinny, ragged lady up on the corner, who's always begging for loose change so she can sit at the corner bar and have a Stella.*

But then there'd be fewer leftovers for us.

The program: Funky lait cru goat cheese with 3 Fonteinen Oude Gueuze, turkey and all the trimmings with Saison d'Epeautre, and real pumpkin pie with Hercule Stout.

For those celebrating: What's on your table Thursday? What's your ultimate turkey beer?

*Absolutely true, and it should make you re-think any notions about Stella being a "premium lager."

Friday, November 20, 2009

And the Hop-Flower Girls Will Arrive Promptly at 4:37 p.m.

Sunday is Brew Day. It feels more like Wedding Day. I'm getting ready to form an unholy union with that 15.5 gallon kettle and his rowdy groomsmen.

I've brewed before, with family and friends. You can count the number of times on two hands. This will be the first time on my own system. Having helped with both extract and all-grain batches, I decided to jump straight to all-grain. Like a schoolgirl hoping she finds the right man someday, I've been reading brewing books for a couple of years now. I have an academic understanding of what is supposed to happen on our wedding night. My friends have shared their private tips. But I'm nervous. What if he doesn't think I'm any good?

Yesterday I found myself, with five-month-old Junior in tow, standing in the plumbing aisle at the local hardware store. For 30 minutes. Looking at hose barbs and tubing, wondering if this European Metric thing would squeeze in to that 1/2" American thing. Hunting for litmus paper to test pH, taking it as seriously as if they were color swatches for new wallpaper.

"Stop it," Junior said. Or maybe it was my last shred of sanity speaking. "Leave this place now. The beer will be fine."

Ugh. I've become Bridezilla.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When is a Brewery Not a Brewery?

So, the Brugge fest was a good one. Plenty of interesting new beers and old classics. Plenty of familiar faces and new friends.

One thing that stuck out on the beer list: a lot of asterisks. Each one stands for a brewer or contractor who does not have a brewery. The lion's share were made on contract at Proef, adding to that house's prolific list of products. And to paraphrase Tim Webb, a lot of the beers that come out of there are annoyingly good.

One to watch, maybe: Viven. Another Proef contractor. We sampled the Ale, Porter and Imperial IPA. The latter two, I think, would hold their own with many of the better American craft-brewed examples. The Porter was espresso-roasty, dry as a bone, and dangerous in its drinkability. The American-hopped Imperial IPA was aromatic, juicy and bitter, and basically only sippable (what, you expected drinkability from an IIPA?). But my favorite I think was the Ale. More a pale ale in the English style, it was hoppy, dry and sessionable.

I say "maybe" because I don't know what their future plans are. Maybe they're content having an excellent technical brewer execute their excellent recipes. Certainly I'd be content to drink them. But I don't have to be impressed until they can pull off the feat with their own hands, in their own place, keeping the floor clean and the books in the black.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Bruges, Beers, Belfries and Books.

Only in its third year, the Bruges Beer Festival has become one of the country's most popular among enlightened drinkers. The main reason is Bruges itself. The prolific beer list doesn't hurt, with 277 different beers from 67 breweries and beer firms.* And it's hard to beat the location in the base of the Belfort tower.

This is all to remind you that it's going on this weekend, if you don't have other plans yet. It runs from noon to 10 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to to 9 p.m. Sunday. The horseshoe-shaped room got pretty crowded in the afternoon last year, so consider arriving early to claim your personal space.

I should mention that Tim Webb and associates Cogan & Mater will have a presence in the festival's bookshop. (FYI, Cogan is the tall one in the dark suit, while Mater carries the metal briefcase chained to his wrist.) Tim will be signing the indispensable** latest edition Good Beer Guide Belgium, while Podge and Siobhan will be signing Around Bruges and the hugely underrated Around London. And at 3 p.m. Sunday Yvan and I will be signing Around Brussels. Stop and say hello, especially if the bookshop is far removed from the beer stalls, in which case we may get mighty lonely.

*"Beer firms" is the term for all those who either brew in other people's breweries or hire others to do it for them, and the designation says absolutely nothing about quality. It only means that they are not technically breweries.

**It's plainly true and sadly I don't get paid extra for saying so.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Long Live Lou Pepe.

Old Jean-Pierre Van Roy has officially brewed his last batch of lambic. You might taste the effort in a gueuze one, two or three years from now — much longer even, if the bottle is well kept. But the man's own influence will live on much, much longer.

His son Jean poured us a small but potent glmpse of the present and future. The Zwanze series of lambics has been the younger Van Roy's brainchild. Last year it was a rhubarb lambic, tasty as usual and interesting as hell. He's outdone that one with the Zwanze 2009, steeped in elderflowers. The aroma is plainly floral without being over the top, mingling with the lemony and musty Cantillon character to pleasant effect. Naturally it's sour yet dry, drinkable and refreshing, with the floral backdrop remaining throughout.

Thanks largely to Jean-Pierre's wily efforts, Cantillon managed to survive an era that many other traditional lambic breweries did not. A younger generation has now tapped into the bines of a more flavorful past, and I'm not just talking about Jean Van Roy. You can meet Lou Pepe's protégés — and the protégés of his protégés — in cafés around Brussels and indeed in a few breweries across the country and abroad.

These days they're all planting their own bines.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Brussels Glass — Currently Half Full.

I've been pondering a letter in last week's Bulletin, Belgium's long-running and popular English-language magazine. David Macdonald is the writer's name. The letter is about Brussels.

So when the question is asked "How might we improve our city's image to visitors?", I am tempted, aside from some obvious cleaning up of our filthy streets, to reply, "Why should we?" Let's face it, we are the ones who live here. It's our city. Hidden behind its dull external Europolitic image is one of Europe's best kept secrets — a quirky, shabby, lovely, ugly, graceful, animated, and above all wonderfully human, surprise. I am proud of Brussels and love introducing my city to visitors, but that doesn't mean I have to nurture its image for their benefit. Take it or leave it, love it or hate it, it's what it is.
I'm reminded that whether a person loves a city has more to do with the person than the place. My wife and I occasionally meet fellow expats who absolutely hate it here and can't wait to leave. They're on another planet.

Loving or hating where you live takes effort either way. Effort takes determination. As an acquaintance once told me, "Love is not a feeling. It's an action." It takes work.

With that in mind, here's an article in the latest Tribune de Bruxelles, a local rag (and I mean that in the best possible sense). The focus is on those who are working to promote craft beer locally. Specifically mentioned are Yvan de Baets and Bernard Leboucq of Brasserie de la Senne, Cantillon, the Moeder Lambic team, several discriminating cafés and shops, and our little book.

Speaking of Cantillon, the semiannual Public Brewing Session is Saturday. "Lou Pepe" himself, patriarch Jean-Pierre Van Roy, will briefly step out of retirement to brew his last batch of lambic. Then he will hand the proverbial mashing fork over to son Jean once and for all.

Now I will make explicit what must have been this blog's subtext for many months: An energetic and creative new generation is taking over the local beer scene. It's their city now.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What Are Your Favorite London Pubs?

Let's give American beer mag readers the real ale experience. I want to know: Where are your favorite spots in London for drinking well-kept cask ale?

I've been there a few times on my own and have some ideas. But here's what I want from you: Imagine plucking an American extreme hophead beer geek off the street and showing them around London. Where would you take them for a proper brainwashing?

A few notes: You need not be local to respond, especially if you've visited and some place left a mark on you. No foreign beer bars, please — we're talking British cask ale. And feel free to argue vehemently amongst yourselves.