Friday, October 30, 2009

Today is Moeder Lambic Day.

The new joint on Place Fontainas opens officially today. The project has gotten some well-deserved publicity from Le Soir and elsewhere. Can't wait to see what's on draft to kick things off... I'll be sure to report back with a snapshot or two.

Feel free to use this space to share your congratulations with Jean, Nassim, Andy and the whole Moeder Lambic team. Wielding a central location, 40 taps, six handpumps, and — most importantly — a critical perspective, they have just altered the face of Belgian beer locally and nationally. There will be reverberations. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Around Antwerp in a Couple of Beers.

The coziness and reassurance of a well-worn, well-warmed pub in October. Being American, I know about bars. And the Belgians can call this a café or whatever they want. But this is a pub.

I'm hiding in the loft at the Paters Vaetje, just across the road from central Antwerp's Cathedral. The "Monk's Casket" has been a familiar friend of traveling beer lovers for years, but this is my first time. Crowds, companions and the nearby Kulminator thwarted my previous attempts. But this time I am early, and alone, and thirsty. And in no particular hurry.

So from my upper-floor table I'm looking down on the punters glued to the bar. They get to choose from any of 102 beers here, so naturally they opt for pils and bollekes. I go for 37.5 cl of Drie Fonteinen Oude Gueuze at €4, which is a steal. The music has been mellow — Neil Young, Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan — avoiding the overplayed standards. Less mellow is the barmaid. And now I understand the punters a little better. Sorry boys, but the view is better from up here.

Later I head for the Oud Arsenaal. The chalkboard beer list is impressively obscure, but I settle for a three-year-old Rochefort 10. It would be easier to enjoy if there were about 50 percent less smoke and 90 percent fewer people. One small room is all this place has, and there are more people standing than sitting. I reckon the seats, all 16 or so of them, were gone at opening time.

Hard to get comfortable. Hard to have a chat. Hard to think. Easy enough to drink.

Yep. This is a bar.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sessionability, Belgian-Style.

Beer historian Martyn Cornell opines today on sessionability. A favorite topic of mine. Pointing as many people as possible toward that post, and toward Lew Bryson's Session Beer Project, is the goal today. The rest is just a photograph and some hope.

The photograph: Jandrain-Jandrenouille's delicious and subtle IV Saison, enjoyed on draft not too long ago at Moeder Lambic. Made to be highly drinkable, and it is, but yet — at 6.5% abv, in a 25 cl glass, and with a fairly high price tag — it's still a bit precious to be a real, all-night session beer. Not that I haven't given it the old college try.

The hope: that after a century in which the alcohol content of Belgian ales ramped generally upward — at first to warm a public whose gin had been banned, and then to battle for the "specialty beer" market scraps left by industrial lager brewers — we're seeing a growing number of craft beers of more useful strengths. Recent stars include Rulles Estivale (5.2%) and most of the Senne range (especially the Stouterik and Taras Boulba at an honestly sessionable 4.5%). Then there are old friends like Dupont's Biolégère a.k.a Avril (3.5%) and Bink Blond (5.5%).

More hope: that we could start seeing larger glasses with which to hold these quaffable beauties. Sorry, but these dainty 25 cl tulips just don't cut it for big, thirsty clods like me. Imperial pints would be fine but are unlikely on the continent. So, with a nod to Lew, I propose half-liter willibechers.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Mythology of Glassware.

We've got a mirrored hutch full of fancy beer glasses. They're mostly from a six-month flurry of collecting after we first moved here a few years ago. Thankfully, before things got out of hand, we realized most of them were useless. OK, useless is a strong word. They do hold liquid. They have a use. Impractical. That's the word.

Here's another in a long series of myths about Belgian beer: Each beer must be served in its own special glass. What nonsense. (In fact I suspect it may be what the bruxelloise call a zwanze – a practical joke. On all the rest of us.)*

And here's a universal truth about all beer, including that from Belgium: Each beer is best drunk from the glass from which you would most enjoy drinking it.

Finally, here's something I've never told anyone: As much as I love most Trappist beers, I hate the chalices. Especially the stylish Orval glass. They look pretty and that's about it. They don't do the beer any favors. Give me an Orval — bitter, complex pale ale that it is — in a straight-sided tumbler any day. Give me an intensely aromatic Westvleteren 12 in a brandy snifter, which nearly demands sipping and swirling and contemplation. The chalice lets all that aroma just slip away. It's kind of a waste.

But that's just ranting. What do you like to drink from what?

*Joke or not, it's great marketing. Pushing your competitors' glasses off the shelf behind the bar is a nice way to increase visibility.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Beer to Hunt: Rodenbach Vintage 2007.

Rhetorical question: If you had an exceptional oak tun in which you were aging some exceptional sour ale for a couple years, wouldn't you name it something besides Vat #230? I can't think of so many better names. Chewbacca! ... Zeus! ... Jenkins! Always liked that last one. But #230? That's so—I don't know—Short Circuit of them.

Anyway, the news: Rodenbach is releasing a special bottled beer in November called Rodenbach Vintage 2007. It appears to be an unblended sour ale from the aforementioned, imaginatively named vat. According to U.S. importer Latis, brewmaster Rudi Ghequire "describes Vintage as having a red copper glow with complex flavors but at the same time very smooth. Vintage is 7% ABV is [sic] more mild than Rodenbach Grand Cru."

If it's really unblended I wonder why it's "milder" than the Grand Cru, which is somewhat diluted with younger beer these days. Could be #230's fault. It's a pretty mild name, after all.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Struise Brouwers to Open Struise Brouwerij in November.

The address is Kasteelstraat 50, 8640 Oostvleteren, and its doors will open to the public starting November 1.

According to the brewers' Facebook page (shhh), Struise man Carlo Grootaert will be welcoming visitors at the renovated schoolhouse that Sunday. Afterward, the new brewery and its shop will be open Wednesdays to Saturdays from 1:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Otherwise known as "between lunch and dinner."

Could be just the thing for your beery West Flanders trip, after a morning visit to Westvleteren and In De Vrede. So first church, and then school, for some of the strongest beers Belgium has to offer. Hail to the bus driver.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

DRAFT Magazine: Brussels on a Shoestring.

Check out the Sept/Oct issue of DRAFT Magazine for my article on how to do Brussels and its beers on the cheap. You won't find it on, but that's OK since you were just on your way out the door to your nearest quality bookstore anyway. Hunt for it next to the fancy wine and food magazines. While you're at it, go here and subscribe.

Among other gold worth mining out of that issue is a feature on a American beer gardens. These are very much on my mind at the moment, not just because it's October, but because I've been reading Maureen Ogle's fascinating Ambitious Brew. Aside from her historian credentials she's a smooth storyteller and does an admirable job of painting a picture I've always wanted to see: What were our German immigrant forefathers up to in the 1800s?

As it turns out, at least part of the time, they were hanging out in massive beer gardens and beer halls built in and around large American cities. Of course the breweries built them. The folks were socializing, bowling, playing cards, walking their toddlers around, and drinking hearty amber lagers of about 3 percent strength.

Honestly, that sounds like my scene.

Pictured is part of the beer list hanging over the bar at Monk, one of the cafés featured in the article. A lot of really great beers there for les than €3.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Talking Beer with the Chief Beer Officer.

Had a chance to chat and have a few beers last week with Scott Kerkmans, chief beer officer for Sheraton's Four Points hotel line. He was in the midst of a tour and had a stop in Brussels — at Delirium, specifically — where a handful of breweries appeared to be trying to woo him and his colleagues. It was interesting to watch smaller commercial breweries like Huyghe spinning the old "Belgium is beer paradise" line for someone who is savvy enough to know the truth is a bit more complicated.

Anyway: You may remember the well-publicized search for Sheraton's chief beer officer two years ago. Thanks to the publicity and straight-up attractiveness of the job, the Starwood-owned hotel chain got more than 7,000 applications from 30 countries. Kerkmans, a former brewer at the Alaskan Brewing Company who is still not yet 30, eventually came out on top.

It didn't take long for me to see why they hired the guy. His job is not just to push the Four Points hotels into stocking better beer; he is also the public face and voice for that effort. From what I saw last Tuesday, it continues to be a smart publicity move. It might typically go something like this: Kerkmans visits a city with a Four Points hotel, the hotel alerts the local journalists that the "chief beer officer" is in town, and the journalists come to drink beer and meet the guy with the dream job. Maybe they also write about it.

Besides talking to journalists and posing for pictures, Kerkmans says he's doing his damnedest to get each Four Points to stock interesting, local beers. The rule for the bar: There must be four drafts and eight bottles at a minimum, and at least half of those should be local.

Just to be clear: Local for the Four Points in Brussels does not mean Cantillon; it means anything Belgian. "Here, Hoegaarden would still be considered local," Kerkmans said. Yes, even though it's owned by Belgian-Brazilian-Missourian-global giant A-B Inbev. Not that he is satisfied with that.

"My job, I feel like, is to do my best to get one or two very interesting local producers a seat at the table," he said, "so that people like us can go to the hotel and find something we'd like, something we'd enjoy. ... It's always a challenge to set the balance right."

People "like us"? I presumed that he meant geeks. Aficionados. Kerkmans is a genuinely good guy who's good at talking to journalists. Have any of you visited a Four Points lately? Did you have a beer there? I'd be very interested to hear how he's doing at the other part of his job.

Friday, October 9, 2009

They Only Make the Kind of Beer They Want to Drink.

I hear it a lot from craft brewers in Belgium. It would be cliché if it weren't so awesome.

Kerkom's slogan is scrawled on the farmhouse wall: "We make the beer. We drink the beer. We sell what's left." And as my friend Yvan De Baets of the Senne brewers has told me often, he and Bernard Leboucq make their beers only to their own tastes. Of course they're happy if others like it too.

The other night I had the chance to talk with Grégory Verhelst of Rulles, another brewer whose products I would have on tap in my garage, kitchen and shower if I could (especially the fresh Estivale, oh my). I'm saving more for an upcoming article, but this is a little of what Grégory said: "I created a beer for my own taste... It's impossible not to drink more of a good beer. Me, I am a drinker of good beer. I make the beer first for me. And so, I provide a very drinkable beer."

Elesewhere I have heard and read folks wrestle with the definition of craft beer. Surely it's in that philosophy somewhere. Now, to be fair, I have also heard this basic message from craft brewers who make what I think is shitty beer. That's OK. They don't need my favor to have my respect.

Not that they care what anyone else thinks.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Paul Briggs' Famous Belgian Beer Festival Calendar, Now Online.

Thanks to the magic of Web 3.14159265 or whatever the hell version we're on now, it was stupidly, drunkenly simple to publish it to the Internets. I mean, I just pushed a couple of buttons, turned this here knob, flipped a switch, and it practically happened by accident.

You can find it here.

I'll add a link to the left sidebar and update it whenever Paul does. All you have to do is buy Paul a beer at the next festival you attend. Oh, don't worry. He'll be there. Just listen for someone speaking Flemish with a Yorkshire accent.

I recently learned that I can understand Paul's Flemish better than his "English." And I don't speak Flemish.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Upcoming Beer Events in Belgium Worth Mentioning: Fall 2009 Edition.

Once upon a time I meant to do this every few months or so. Instead I end up doing it when the sheer weight of festivals on the calendar threatens to crush me if I don't write it all down. Now the burden is yours.

As usual, big thanks to Paul Briggs of the CAMRA Brussels crew for his festival calendar. He assembles a mighty Excel file with great diligence and sends it out via e-mail. If you'd ike to be added to his list, drop me a line to the address mentioned on the left. I'll connect you.

Paul's calendar is far more comprehensive than this. I chop off most of the small village fests and open brewing days, keeping only what I think should most interest you. Which is mainly what interests me. Funny how that works.

This Saturday, October 10: BLES Bierhappening in Zottegem, East Flanders. There will be 23 breweries, mostly small Flemish ones. If you never have, try that Valeir Extra on draft from Contreras. Runs from 2 to 10 p.m.

October 17-18: Brassigaume in Marbehan is one of the best on the calendar. This festival in the Luxembourg province celebrates small craft breweries, led by locally based Rulles. There will be 19 of them this year, including five from Italy and two from the U.K., but the emphasis is on Wallonian ales. Normally takes place in a tent near the soccer field, about 10 minutes walk from the train station. Just follow the signs. Runs from 2 p.m. to midnight Saturday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.

October 24: Diesters Bierfestival in Diest. Strength in regional breweries but a fairly impressive list otherwise, including a new one from De Ranke called Hop Flower Power. Interesting. Runs from 1 to 11 p.m. in the fest hall at Zoutstraat 11.

October 24-25: Karakterbierfestival in Poperinge. A fun party with 18 breweries at the Palace Hotel. Last year a woman in a nun costume sat in my friend's lap. Can't seem to find that photo at the moment. Struise was there last year; not sure about this year. Runs from 2:30 to 11 p.m. both days.

November 7: Public Brewing Day at Cantillon, most likely to coincide with a party at the new Moeder Lambic Fontainas. Watch this space for further details.

November 7-8: Bierweekend in Hasselt. There are a handful of draft beers but for everything else you're buying the whole bottle. Bring friends with which to share. Wave a sign in the air and waiters come to take your order. Numbers on the wall tell you if your beer of choice is still available. A classy operation all around. Quite a hike from the train station, though. The Cultuurcentrum is at Kunstlaan 5.

November 14-15: Brugsbierfestival in Bruges. A whopping 67 breweries are expected this year in the hall at the old belfry tower, right on the Grote Markt. There are two frites stands out front—will someone please remind me which is the good one? I'll be signing books there on Sunday afternoon at the Cogan & Mater table. Stop by to say hello.

December 12-13: Kerstbierfestival in Essen. Totally devoted to Christmas and winter beers, this is simply the best event on the Belgian beer calendar. The smart folks stay in Antwerp and split cabs to Essen. I've never been that smart. Someone want to drive me and my wife there? And someone else want to babysit? Also: Watch for a related article in an upcoming issue of DRAFT.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Peek Behind Girardin's Curtain, Thanks to Chuck.

Chuck Cook might be the most determined dude in the beer-writing biz. Despite only getting to Belgium twice or thrice a year—his trip itineraries are insane; how does he find the time to stop and drink?—he's managed over the years to get behind the walls of places like Rochefort and Westvleteren.

But his latest coup, I think, is more impressive. Earlier this year Chuck was the first beer writer allowed into the secretive Girardin lambic brewery since Michael Jackson in 1993.

To read about his visit you need to go buy or subscribe to the latest issue of the Ale Street News. Do this now. Besides Chuck's regular column in there you get other goodies like Lew Bryson's truth-laden "Steaming Pile" (this month: "Pumpkin Beers Mostly Suck"). It's a fun paper to read.

A sneak preview: According to Chuck, Girardin grows all its own wheat for its lambic beers. (Lambic recipes are typically about 30 percent unmalted wheat, with the rest usually pale malt.) It also grows barley and sells it unmalted to buy malt. So, basically, most other places calling themselves "farmhouse breweries" can crawl on over and lick Girardin's big rubber boots.

Also: Those beautiful, shining brewing coppers, which anyone can see through the window from the road, are not used for lambics. Instead they're used for the brewery's Ulricher Pils. The lambic kit is tucked away deeper inside the brewery, away from prying eyes.

There's a lot more in the article, and more stories and photos from his visit in the pipeline. But he worked hard for them, so now you've got to do your part and pay up. That's just how it works. Subscribe to Ale Street here.

The photo is mine from a visit in January. Not a forbidden tour, just a stop to buy lambic. Read here about how and when to go and get your own jug of some of Pajottenland's finest.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Another Heavy-Handed Hedonistic Post.

Stop and smell the roses. We've been told that since we were kids, if not by our parents then at least by popular culture. A simple message: Stop, pay attention, enjoy life. A lot of people forget to do it. Or so I've heard. My theory: That's the real secret behind food-and-drink pairing. More broadly it may also be a driving force behind craft beer, great wine, the foodie movement, and so on and so forth. Nothing revolutionary here: People seek greater flavor because they want greater joy in their lives.

But about pairing—with beer and food, for example—there is no real magic there. I wouldn't even call it science. There are a few matches where identifiable flavors in a food either harmonize or complement those in a beer. And there is a much wider range of foods and beers that both taste great while not stepping on any toes, let's say. But the real trick, and it's almost sleight of hand, is getting someone to pay attention to what they're tasting. It's fun to really taste something good, to tap into what is literally your sensual side. Somehow it's even more fun when you know that someone—a brewer or a chef, for example—has used a lot of passion and knowledge to make it better for you. There is special communication there, even if there is money involved. And there usually is.

Stop and smell the roses. Some people pay good money to be reminded of it—how about $350 for this meal in New York (with a hat tip to Andy Crouch). But you can do it far more cheaply at home, or in your favorite local corner restaurant. Unless you're the sort that always needs to be told what to do.

The shot here was from a birthday dinner at Restobiéres a while back. A robust Hercule Stout with roast piglet. Neither stepped on any toes. It was joyous. And considerably less than $350.