Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Call It a Midwestern Moment.

More or less off the grid in the Ozarks until after New Year's... Let's face it, it's a Lost Week for many of us.

I'm posting only to brag about some of the best mac and cheese I've ever eaten. It was in a small strip mall restaurant in Ozark, Missouri, across from that roll-throwing tourist trap known as Lambert's. It's not the kind of place you'd normally stop unless you know better. The owner and chef at Grant's is a CIA grad who plied his trade in California wine country for a while before returning home to cook comfort food. This little notch in the Bible Belt is lucky to have Grant Dodge. He's made the sort of unassuming place you see on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and think, "Those lucky bastards." I hope the locals are spending lots of money there.

It's not a beer or wine destination, but there is a bar to the side of the main dining room. I felt lucky enough to choose from a handful of local or regional craft beers. The nitro-tapped Boulevard Dry Stout was a natural.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Not Another Year-End Best-Of List. Or Is It?

Time to gift myself a self-indulgent post about the beers I enjoyed most in 2010. Merry Christmas to me! Oh, I don't know. I guess there's a chance someone out there will find it useful.

Now listen: I'm not saying these are the best beers of the year or any of that nonsense. Clearly we're all experienced hedonists who understand that enjoyment of a beer is highly contextual. The quality of a glass of beer or wine or a meal brings a lot to the table, so to speak, but so does the quality of your company, your surroundings, your mood, the size of the paycheck you just received, and so on. This a collection of memories more than anything else.

In no particular order: These first three might be modern American classics... but I'd never had any of them until this past year. After four years abroad, there was some catching up to do.

I was hanging out with old friends, whom I hadn't seen in some time, when I thoroughly enjoyed a glass of Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter at the Meridian Pint in D.C.* Great roast character combined with a light impression of cocoa sweetness and dryish finish. Hit all the right notes and highly drinkable.

Then there was the Bitch Creek ESB from Grand Teton. Enjoyed that for the first time at the brewery in Victor, Idaho, with my dad, brother and son. I expected a nice malty pale ale. I did not expect the big floral-woody hop aroma. We drank it while admiring the country's first modern growler (cue Indiana Jones: It belongs in a museum!).

Closing out the trifecta of American classics is Three Floyds Gumballhead, my favorite in a box of beers mailed to me by gentleman and scholar Stefan Berggren. It's a hop-forward wheat beer that ducks excessive bitterness and opts for big aroma with notes of flowers, blood oranges and mangos. Refreshing and addictive. I owe him big time.

Going back a bit further: Before leaving Belgium in the spring, if you recall, we opted to drink the cellar rather than try to pack it. We saved one of the best for last: a Fuller's Vintage from 2007. Its flavor blossomed from somewhere among applewood, Port, caramel-sugar and sparkling wine. Maybe it would have continued to improve but I can't say I'll ever regret opening it. These days I miss the occasional cannonball run to London every bit as much as I miss living in Belgium.

Then there was the parting gift from Mr. De Baets: a few bottles of Wadesda No. 1, a mixed-fermentation blend of Senne's Jambe de Bois triple and Cantillon lambic. Two of them I managed to keep. The one I drank had enough lemony, grapefuity, musty Cantillon character to convince me the beer was refreshing. Yet the body and the buzz gave away its 8% abv origins. Terrific and dangerous.

However: My absolute favorite beer from the past year was an unfiltered lager. It was an orange-copper color. It had a sweetish nose with notes of orange zest that carried into the firmly bitter flavor then all the way through the aftertaste. It struck me as the finest nexus of great character and sublime drinkability. It was the Ungespundet from Mahr's Bräu in Bamberg, enjoyed with my wife and dear friends. A liter of the stuff wasn't enough. Someday I hope to go back and drink my fill.

Finally, I've got to mention the glass of Libertas blonde ale I had from the finally-just-about-to-launch Costa Rica's Craft Brewing in Cartago. Crisp, subtle and visually perfect, it has the potential to be a gateway drug for Costa Rican beer lovers tired of the local swill. After months of thin lager, it tasted like liberation.

* Incidentally, check out what's going on at Meridian Pint tonight. Eleven different Bell's stouts for the year's longest, darkest night. Could you get through all of them?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Innocence Lost.

I'm cynical. When I hear that someone is a "beer sommelier" or Cicerone my gut reaction is to think it's lot of puffery. It's a chance for someone to add a fancy label to themselves and lord it over us. It's only beer, after all. Let's not complicate things.

Then I have an experience like Tammy Tuck had recently, which is sadly common. You can read her account in the Washington City Paper (thanks to Lew Bryson for the link). In a classic Adam's Morgan dive called the Asylum,* a bartender told her that Kasteel Tripel was "'like Budwesier times ten,' 'not so sweet like other Belgian beers,' and 'just like a lager.'"

By the way, if you've ever had the misfortune to try Kasteel Tripel,** all three of those things are dead wrong. It's nothing like Budweiser, although the alcohol taste might be like Budweiser times three. It's one the sweetest, most cloying Belgian ales on the market (although that cough syrup called Kasteel Kriek might offer a run for its money). And it's not just like a lager, although it happens to be pale in color.

Tuck then goes to another place called BarCode, where she is told that Goose Island Sofie--a Belgian-style oak-aged pale--is just like Yeungling. Yikes.

I like to say I'm not a fussy drinker, and then I have an experience like that. Or I hear about someone else's. They demonstrate the growing pains of craft beer in America. More flavorful beers are working their way into more places--normal places, unpretentious places, and we should be grateful for that--but the staff have a certain learning curve. Beer is more complicated then it used to be, like it or not. But drinking it should not be.

So: More Certified Beer Servers, please. More Cicerones would be nice too.

Oh wait, now there are more. Word is out that there are two more Master Cicerones in the world, for a total of three. One of them is Rich Higgins of San Francisco's Social Kitchen and Brewery. The other new one is Dave Kahle of Chicago. Plus there are more than 170 regular-flavor Cicerones and 2,500 or so Certified Beer Servers.

Ray Daniels told me that Cicerones should be "guides and not Gods. For the most part they work invisibly to make sure the beer is tasting great and then train the staff to help customers pick a beer with no more fuss than picking an entrée."

Less fuss is good. I'd settle for servers who know what the beers taste like. And bartenders who keep their draft lines clean.

CORRECTED to fix my confusion of Sofie with Matilda and to ADD the name of Dave Kahle as a new Master Cicerone.

*We used to go to the Asylum on Sundays for a ridiculous special. I think it started at 4 p.m. with 25-cent drafts for an hour. Every hour the price went up by 50 cents. For years the beer in question was Shiner Bock, then later switched to Miller High Life. Quality was not our concern.

**If you've ever wondered why I talk mostly about a handful of Belgian breweries and ignore the rest, it's because I rarely have nice things to say. Yet I still think Belgium offers the greatest, most interesting beers in the world. That just shows how good the really good ones are. Meanwhile Kasteel Tripel--sweet, spiked and spiced--in my view represents the worst of Belgian ale. If you like the stuff, well, I hope we can still be friends.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Home (Brewing) for the Holidays.

Supposedly the Costa Rican "summer" starts in December, with hot and sunny days that help you forget that your home country is half-buried in snow. Instead it's been bruxellois gray, windy as hell, and today in the neighborhood of 20°C or 68°F up here on the mountainside. This would seem unfair to spoiled expats who think they're here to enjoy the weather. It rains for months and months, then dry season comes and hey, where's the goddamn sunshine? Awww, that's nice, thank you, thanks for your sympathies. But don't weep any big man-tears for me. I'm celebrating.

What do those temperatures mean to you? To many of you 20°C or 68°F might mean a long-sleeve T-shirt or light jacket. But to at least a few, the first word that pops into your heads is fermentation. It's a pretty ideal temperature for most ale yeasts to go to work. And so there are 10 gallons of hoppy extra pale happily bubbling away in my office closet, with the windows thrown open to let more of that cool air in.

Yet it's still warm enough to brew and drink and grill outside. Feliz Navidad.

Now for some international beer news:

Brazilian style: Stephen Beaumont has posted his take on certain beers and breweries from his trip to Brazil. Most intriguing to me: an IPA from Cervejaria Colorado brewed with rapadura sugar. In Costa Rica this type of sugar is called tapa de dulce, and it's basically raw, crystallized cane juice. I used the stuff for my strong Christmas stout, and it lends strength, dryness, and a subtle caramel-plum flavor. Now maybe I'll have to try it in an IPA. Not to mention visit Brazil. Go read Stephen's post and thank him for the info on Brazil's up-and-comers.

For Love of Mother: Yesterday I mentioned that Chez Moeder Lambic in Brussels was pouring what appeared to be a new beer from Jandrain-Jandrenouille, still a relative newcomer that has gained acclaim for its hop-forward saison-style beers. The Moeder Lambic crew listed the beer as "La Mére des Moeder's"--something like the mother's mother. But brewer-owners Alexandre Dumont and Stéphane Meulemans tell me that in fact the name is "L'amére des Moeder," which could be "mom's bitterness" but obviously refers to Moeder Lambic herself. I'm told the ale is amber in color, aromatic, hop-bitter, and exclusive for the pub. And no doubt very dangerous.

Costa Rican Craft Beer is Back: It's been more than a year since Cerveceria K&S closed its doors and its Chivo Blanco lager disappeared from shelves and bar coolers. Then there was nothing. Volcano Brew up at Hotel Tilawa was the first to break the spell, with beer pouring there a few weeks ago. And now, according to co-owner Brandon Nappy, a few places in the Valle Central are officially serving beer from Costa Rica's Craft Brewing Co. I don't know exactly where yet. But I'll find out.

It's was a wet and cold year in Costa Rica without craft beer. Now, I think, I see the sun peeking out again. More to come.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Bernard and Yvan Versus the Universe.

Click here for my article in the latest DRAFT about the still-not-quite-open Brasserie de la Senne. Better yet, get thyself out to yon bookshop and buy a copy to keep on the coffee table through the holidays.

Pictured here is a piece of fine art I found taped to the wall of the brewery when I last visited in the spring. I wonder if she's still there. I hope so.

Meanwhile, speaking of great beer in Brussels: the old Chez Moeder Lambic in St-Gilles appears to be pouring one called the Mère des Moeder's, from Jandrain-Jandrenouille. Don't know a thing about it. I'm asking.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Inside the Den of the Elusive Cerevisiae Silvanus...

Costa Rica is famous for an incredible diversity of flora and fauna. The country's tiny landmass has more types of plants and animals than both Europe and North America. And here, ladies and gentlemen, we see a truly rare species: cerevisiae silvanus... the elusive jungle brewer.

This one is a male, has been domesticated, and has a name: Ryan Ackerman. He also has mated with another cerevisiae silvanus named Courtney Cargill. Interestingly, they are native to the eastern regions of North America and migrated here for the climate. Turns out they're natural surfers.

We were able to communicate with these two fine specimens and capture a few rare images like this one after locating them in the southern reaches of the Nicoya Peninsula. We also learned that they are adapting to the environment by using local ingredients, such as the fresh orange zest that went into the hoppy pale ale they were brewing that day.

Not every part of the Costa Rican environment has been hospitable, however. In particular, it features a rather treacherous bureaucratic landscape for non-native species attempting to open small businesses--especially those related to alcoholic beverages. Currently the pair are dotting their i's, crossing their t's, and moving ever closer to making the Perra Hermosa brewery a legal reality. However, they just might start howling and hurling coconuts if yet another lawyer suggests it would be a lot simpler if they reproduced on Costa Rican soil.

In the meantime, these two cerevisiae silvanus are making beer for friends and parties in their jungle den. I'd strongly encourage any thirsty types visiting the Malpaís area to say hello. You can probably try the beer too. Contact them at perrahermosabeer AT gmail DOT com.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

DC's Brickskeller Gets a Chance to Improve?

The news is out today that the Brickskeller pub's current location in D.C. is set to close on December 18 or so. Yes, it's a classic. It's an institution. It was once one of the country's top beer bars. Beery types from coast to coast--including me--have fond, sepia-colored memories of visiting the place and perusing the absurdly long bottle menu.

Now I'll say what most local beer lovers already know: The place has been coasting on reputation. That menu has been a work of historical fiction for quite a while now. For years, the Brickskeller has almost never had what anyone wanted to order. (Not unless you count scoring a hit on your third or fourth try.) I'll pardon the food, since that was never really the point of the place, although the cheese board was usually safe. Meanwhile service ranged from friendly and smart to embarrassing.

Why do I say such mean things? Because they're true, and I like to tell the truth. Remember it next time I post a rave review of some café or brewery.

To be fair: The Brickskeller--which also offers lodging--is not necessarily closing for lack of business. Another boutique hotel is buying up the place, a valuable piece of real estate thanks to its location. Jay Brooks says owner Dave Alexander may well open a new Brickskeller elsewhere. I smell an opportunity.

Since the novelty of über-long beer lists is wearing off these days--well, we still love them, it's just that they're a dime a dozen now--let's hope any new Brickskeller sticks to quality and truth-in-advertising. More like its popular sister pub, RFD.

Pictured: My son chilling at RFD with his beverage of choice back in July. No worries, I wasn't driving. Note who has the keys.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Big Sign is Up.

Looks like Costa Rica's Craft Brewing out in Cartago is one step closer to reality. Now if we could just go out and buy their beer...

Now take a look a those two hard-working fellas who've just done the job. Don't they look proud? Here's to hoping a good number of CRCB's customers are gents like these. I suspect its long-term success will ultimately depend on them, rather than a scarce smattering of expats and tourists. Thankfully I'm just a glorified gossip and not responsible for wooing anyone away from Pilsen or Imperial from time to time. Although, like any enthusiast, I'll do my part.

Cheers to CRCB co-owner Brandon Nappy for sending the photo. In theory the first beer--probably the blonde Libertas ale--will be out on the market sometime in December. I'll let you know when and where, if I can. Since there are at least four of you waiting for news.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Soon Every Home Will Have a Delirium Café of its Own.

It's possible that Delirium Café has more money than it knows how to spend. It's not clear to me why, but I suspect the answer would be why not colonize more of central Brussels.

Anyway, the ever-growing Delirium has apparently gotten tired of expanding farther and farther into its alleyway off of Rue des Bouchers. Now it's opened a satellite outlet a whopping 900 feet away as the drunken, teenage, chain-smoking crow flies. The address is 7 Rue Marché aux Fromages, just a block on the other side of the Grand Place, and more popularly known among late-night drinkers as "Pita Street" for its plethora of kebob joints.

There will be 30 draft beer taps--which used to be a rare thing in Brussels--plus many other means to intoxication. Speaking of 30 taps, maybe they got jealous of Moeder Lambic's second Brussels outlet? Doesn't matter. What matters for us: more options. As always let's hope that not too many of those fonts are reserve for the cheap Floris candy beers too often foisted, in patronizing fashion, on young women.

I and many other champion imbibers received a "VIP Invitation" to the grand opening at on December 17. I can't go. What about you? Drop me a line and I'll forward you the invite. Just tell them your name's Tim Webb.

New Stout from Dupont.

A nasty virus slammed our whole family over the weekend. I'm still trying to shake it. That's my explanation for playing catch-up after disappearing for a few days. And it's my excuse for allowing compadre Chuck Cook to scoop me on this attractive photo and bit of news. Because I was busy playing target for my toddler's projectile yacking. Somehow he always nails the bullseye.

Anyway: a new beer from Dupont. Always exciting news, especially when it's actually a new beer and not simply blending, re-labeling or dry-hopping of their established classics. Somehow the news is even sexier when the beer is black. So, everyone, say hello to Monk's Stout. Monk's Stout, say hello to everyone.

OK, it's not exactly a new beer, as Chuck correctly notes. It's a revival of an old one. But that just makes it cooler.

Some of you are thinking, "But stouts are not very Belgian, are they?" You may be the same people who think Belgian ales are all supposed to be sweet and/or funky and/or spicy. And so you'd be wrong again. Besides a long tradition of dark and even black ales, British- and Irish-style stouts as well as pale ales were not uncommon in Belgium in the years between and after the World Wars. Imagine that.

More good news: The beer will be around 5.2% abv. So you can have more than a couple of glasses.

Big thanks to Stu Stuart, he of Belgian Beer Me tours, for the photo and heads-up. He took the shot less than two weeks ago at the HORECA expo in Ghent, an annual show for Belgium's considerable hospitality industry.

Senne Brewery 'Expected' to Launch By Christmas.

My article in the latest issue of DRAFT says that brewers Yvan De Baets and Bernard Leboucq expected to launch their Brasserie de la Senne in November. Because that was all true when it went to press. Magazines go to press very early, by the way.

So I feel the need to offer yet another update. The latest: "We are working day and night to get ready to make our first brew as soon as possible," Yvan said in an e-mail last night. "The first test will be made within two weeks!"

So... December 20 or so. Maybe.

Yvan also sent the most complete-looking shot of the brewhouse I've seen yet. And there it is.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sommeliers and Cicerones and Beer Servers.

My memory is not that great, but tell me if I'm wrong about this: Five years ago in the United States, we would've laughed if someone claimed to be a "beer sommelier." Well, I would have. I can't speak for you.

While working on a magazine article, which is not really that relevant to the question, I asked Ray Daniels today how many folks out there can call themselves "Cicerones." The short answer: 173, including just one Master Cicerone. (The only Master for the moment, if you're interested, is Andrew Van Til of the Michigan-based drinks distributor CKL.)

Meanwhile there are nearly 2,500 others approved by the Cicerone program as "Certified Beer Servers." And these days, I think, nobody is really laughing at any of them.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

An Ideal: "Available to Ordinary Drinkers in Ordinary Pubs..."

This one is making the rounds: A thoughtful rant called Down with Craft Beer. It's written by a British cask ale activist, and comes only from that perspective. Phil goes through some pains to explain that the phrase "craft beer" might be perfectly appropriate for the U.S. given its history, but in the U.K. it has become something vaguely pretentious and snobby and he wants nothing to do with it.

Phil's argument is more relevant to beer scenes outside of the U.K., including the United States, than he would like to think.

A few points I'd like to make:

First: Why do we all have this annoying habit of trying to define "craft beer"? We're not tax collectors, so who cares? It's a reaction against bland or bad corporate beer, that's all. Meanwhile, what is and isn't craft beer doesn't have to be so clear cut. So there are a few breweries over which we can argue. I like to argue. It works for me.

And then: His view on what "craft beer" has come to connote in the U.K. reminds me a bit of my occasional ranting about the preciousness of the American craft beer scene. On the surface it appears as if everything is becoming five-course pairing dinners, high-priced rarities, and costly packaging. Ever more expensive, ever more alcoholic, ever more upscale, ever more special. There are more interesting things going on beneath the surface, but never mind that for now.

His rant also reminds me of why I fell in love with cask ale when visiting the U.K.: Because it was tasty and refreshing and affordable and available and it came in really big glasses. Now that I think about it, it had virtually nothing to do with the size of the breweries nor the method of dispense.

Tasty and refreshing and available and affordable. Why does that combination have to be so fucking rare? Now there's a campaign I could get behind. Quoting the Pub Curmudgeon, as Phil did, I'll note that one of cask ale's virtues is that it is "available to ordinary drinkers in ordinary pubs." Shouldn't we have a similar goal for craft beer? Maybe we do have that goal but take it for granted. Maybe it's lost in all the news about special releases and high-octane booze-beers.

On the U.S. scene, I'd settle for more year-round session beers at reasonable prices. A local micro beer in every dive. A hoppy pale ale in every Thai restaurant. You get the picture.

Internationally--outside of the most developed Western countries, let's say--I'd be very surprised if craft beer gains much traction without being both drinkable and affordable. That'll necessarily mean local. Beer is heavy. Shipping and tariffs are a bitch.

What? You mean a craft beer scene exists outside of the U.S. and U.K.? Shocking. Sorry Phil, but that genie can't be crammed back into the bottle. We might, however, keep trying to shove him into more "ordinary pubs," in whatever forms they take around the world.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Beaumont on Brazil.

Have a look here for a Stephen Beaumont take on Brazilian beer, seen through the prism of the annual Blumenau beer fest. Sounds like large quantities of lager inspired equally by Oktoberfest and the warm climate. He promises to post again soon about any beers or breweries that particularly impressed him.

I'm learning daily that beery types in Europe and North America are curious about the Latin American scene... How is it developing now, and does the future look bright? Naturally nobody is more curious about this than Latin Americans themselves.

My usual response is that most national beer scenes in Central and South America still look something like the U.S. did in the late 1970s. Corporate pale lager dominates but there are a handful of promising upstarts. It is not at all inevitable that the 1980s will come to pass. If it does, it will likely be Argentina and Brazil, and possibly Mexico, leading the way on an entirely new path.

And some signs would suggest that it's already happening. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving Pairings: It Ain't Rocket Science.

Listen: Saison Dupont and/or Westmalle Dubbel with your turkey and trimmings. Some sort of big malty stout for your pumpkin pie. Then a fat Rochefort 10 from a snifter for the football game.

But we're off to the Caribbean for a few days. I think it'll be seafood rondon and Guinness Foreign Extra for me.

Don't forget to give thanks to somebody for something.

Hey. Thanks for reading.

Monday, November 22, 2010

And America Gets a New Maker of Session Beers...

The news that the Public House Brewing Company would be in Rolla, Missouri, was enough to pique my interest. That area's been a beery dead zone for a while, even as little breweries popped up in a few of the state's farther rural reaches. Good barbecue, yes. Good beer? No.

But I became downright thirsty when I visited the website and read these words:

[W]e are taking a different approach to the beers we choose to make, compared to other craft breweries in America. Over the past several years, there has been an ever growing trend to pack more flavor and more ingredients into beers. With the inventions of imperial beers, double/triple IPAs, big Belgians, etc. we have decided to get back to our roots.

Now don't get us wrong we have enjoyed watching brewers around the world push the envelope. ... Lately however, we have had just as good a time sitting around the table with friends, hours on end, drinking our favorite session beers. The latter is what we hope to invoke in these first of many beers.
"A new craft brewery dedicated to session beers?" I thought. "Surely they deserve a bit of attention." So I wrote to the two Joshes in charge, longtime friends who are 50/50 partners in this adventure.* Josh Goodridge told me he handles the finance and marketing side, while Josh Stacy brews and manages day-to-day affairs.

Here are a few more things Goodridge wanted to say:
The whole session beer approach came from a lot of intensive beer research (i.e. drinking). It's fairly obvious to most beer enthusiasts that if you look back over the last 10-15 years, the American craft beer industry has done what most American industries with roots in other countries tend to do. They push the envelope to be the biggest, the best, the most flavorful, the most exotic, etc. ... And as much as I love so many of these high gravity concoctions being dreamt up by so many great brewers, I want to be able to walk and talk when the session is over, and it's a little difficult to do that when so many of these beers pack such a wallop.

From a technical standpoint, I also believe that it's actually harder to make a great tasting lower gravity/lower alcohol beer. When you make a really big beer and you pile on the ingredients, they can do a great job of covering up imperfections in the beer. When you have a simple beer, brewed to style (with a little of our own flair thrown in) it has to be done right or the person drinking that beer is going to know that something is wrong. So we take a lot of pride in being able to produce great tasting beers that don't rely on over-the-top hop additions or twelve different kinds of grain or exotic ingredients.

This idea goes hand in hand with the type of atmosphere we're trying to create in the pub. We believe we've created a unique place that patrons can come to, enjoy a delicious hand-crafted ale, learn about brewing and expand their beer knowledge, and most importantly have a great conversation with our staff or other patrons. That's what a session is all about and it is truly one of life's greatest pleasures.

I do believe that session beers will make a comeback in this country. Like anything, it will eventually revert to the mean. People will always push the envelope and I applaud that. But if everyone is pushing the envelope, after a while I think it loses a little of its luster and people realize they just want to drink a few beers with their friends and not feel so heavy afterwards.

Don't get me wrong--we intend to have some fun with bigger beers like barleywines, imperial beers, winter warmers, etc. After all, that's part of the joy and fun of brewing and drinking craft beer. But most importantly, we want to offer our patrons great beer and a great place to have a session.
I think that's the most I've ever quoted anyone in a blog post. Can't help it if I just like what the man has to say.

The Public House's main stable of beers will begin as a Kolsch, Stout and American Pale Ale in the range of 4.5 to 4.8 percent strength. Plus there is a Mild of about 2.5 percent--and that's downright extreme in some circles. "It's my personal favorite of all the beers," Goodridge said. "I drink one and immediately have to have another. It's amazingly quaffable. It's a thirst quencher. I could talk about it all day." I believe him.

Goodridge also told me the work is about 95 percent done, and they should be ready to open around Christmas. As luck would have it, that's about when I'll be passing through. Might even get to take a few pretty pictures for you.

*CORRECTED to make clear that they are 50/50 partners.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Belgium Gets a New Gueuze Blender.

I'm not sure when a new lambic blendery becomes official, but the day when Pierre Tilquin bottles his first blend--which he expects to do sometime in December--is as important a mark as any other. Being featured in the next edition of LambicLand surely doesn't hurt either.

Just in case you seek more signs that lambic is enjoying a renaissance, then consider this: The Gueuzerie Tilquin in Rebecq will be the first new lambic blender since 1997, when De Cam started in Gooik. It will also be the first in Wallonia, although Rebecq is a leisurely bike ride from Boon in Lembeek.

Lambic's modern homeland has been Brussels and the surrounding Flemish Pajottenland, and its supporters have occasionally advocated an appellation controlée. In other words, if you made it outside of that region you would not be able to legally call it lambic. Expect Pierre's product to be a powerful counterpoint. Brewers in the U.S. and elsewhere making beers with spontaneous fermentation might want to take heed.

Blending is not yet Pierre's day job. Until October 1 he had been working full-time as a statistician in the marketing department of a local bank. Currently his banker's hours are half-time as he transitions into making his dream a reality.

If you're into lambics, then this will mean something to you: Pierre has 222 former Bordeaux casks, each holding a bit less than 400 liters of Boon, Cantillon, Girardin or Lindemans base lambic of various ages. The odd one there is Cantillon, rarely seen in blends outside of Brussels. While Pierre used to work for Cantillon--and I know he has a soft spot for the place--we can safely suppose that he knows exactly what he's doing.

We'll find out for sure next summer.

Thanks to Pierre for sending the photo and logo. If only the rest of you were as thoughtful as he is.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

There's Fresh Beer at Arenal, Kegs in the Valle Central, and Plans in El Salvador.

Lots of newsy news today from everybody's favorite craft beer destination, Central America. Dig it.

First: A surprise message this morning from George Lin, the brewer and partner at Volcano Brew. At loooooong last, there is craft beer there. For real. The long-awaited load of malt showed up three weeks ago and George wasted no time. Now on draft at Hotel Tilawa, overlooking scenic Lake Arenal, are a Beach Pale Ale and a fruity Hefeweizen. And by the way, peak windsurfing season is approaching.

I've written some about Volcano Brew, but mostly I've held off. I didn't want to call too much attention to them before they were really, really ready. It appears that moment has come. Congratulations to George and Jean Paul Cazedessus, George's partner and the hotel's owner. That's them in the photo (J.P. on the left, George on the right). They're interesting dudes and Tilawa is a unique place, to say the least, so expect to hear more about them soon.

Second, an update on Costa Rica's Craft Brewing: Co-owner Brandon Nappy tells me that they're having more success than expected at selling draft beer accounts. This is bigger news that you might think, since draft beer is a real rarity here. There will be some education involved, on maintenance, pouring, glassware, and so on. I'm really looking forward to sitting at a couple of these local places and watching this whole foreign process--what, drink beer from a glass?--in action.

Anyway, choosy bars and restaurants dotted around the Central Valley might start serving CRC golden and pale ales on draft as soon as the first week of December. If I can, I'll share info about where exactly to find it when the time comes. So stay tuned, bebedores.

Finally: El Salvador may get its first brewpub early next year. David Falkenstein is a Salvadoran homebrewer who's preparing to go pro. He's brushing up on his craft and working through red tape to launch a new micro in, theoretically, March or April 2011.

The idea is to attach the micro to an existing and successful pub, the name of which I've been asked to keep mum on for now. Interestingly, David married a gal from St. Louis and learns from the brewers at Schlafly and Morgan Street when he's in town. He's also part of a dedicated group of beer geeks in San Salvador. These guys lug home suitcases full of bottles, malt, hops and yeast whenever they travel. Should be some interesting beers coming out of there, eventually.

That's plenty for now.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

3 Fonteinen to Launch New Dark Beer.

Interestingly, the traffic when I post news about 3 Fonteinen is second only to the traffic for posts about Westvleteren. So there's plenty of interest out there in the wide world for the projects of Armand Debelder, one of Belgium's most passionate brewers.*

The latest: he and wife Lydie are launching a new dark beer called Zwet (or, possibly, zwet.be). They told me in a brief e-mail that "the zwet beer is out and it is marvelous." I'm inclined to believe them. They promise more info and a photo very soon.

It's not clear to me yet whether the beer is a new lambic blend or, perhaps more likely, a stout-like beer brewed at Proef under contract. Proef makes the Beersel line of beers for 3 Fonteinen to Armand's specifications (including my favorite, the dry-hopped Beersel Lager). If anyone knows or has tasted the beer already, please share. Share your beer, I mean. Oh well, if you only have information, you can share that too.

The Brussels-based shop Beer Planet already has a listing for "ZWET BE" in its online shop. It's listed at 7 percent abv.

Shoot, just look at that glass of faro in the photo. Now I've gone and made myself all thirsty again.

*If you've talked to many Belgian brewers, and you've also talked to Armand, then you know that to say he's "one of Belgium's most passionate brewers" is (a) saying a hell of a lot, and (b) absolutely accurate.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Not to Be Taken Too Seriously: USA's Top Microbrew Cities.

I've said that I won't blog about blogging. However I'm not above the time-honored blogger-hack tradition of picking apart dubious lists. That's what the lists are there for, after all.

So we can thank Travel and Leisure magazine for providing this one on the best American cities for microbrewed beer, and Houston-based Examiner writer Bryan Carey for noticing it. Anyway, it's beer and it's travel and that's what we do here at Thirsty Pilgrim Enterprises.

First, take a breath: There are only 35 cities up for contention, and they're the same 35 cities for every list. So Kansas City is there, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, but St. Louis is not. And a city in the Top 20 only had to beat out 15 others. The odds are that your city was not even up for consideration. OK, ready?

The top city is no surprise: Portland, Oregon. I don't see a category for best breakfast, but surely the deadly combo of Pine State Biscuits (pictured) and Voodoo Donuts would've put Portland over the top there as well. And Denver takes second place, so already this list appears more logical than most.

There's another Portland up high: The one in Maine is ranked 5th, no doubt thanks to Allagash, Shipyard and a smattering of brewpubs. That's the good news. The bad news is that it's also ranked 7th among cities with the "least attractive people." (The "winner" for least attractive, if you care, is Memphis.)

New York City and Washington, D.C., are totally absent, which means they got beat by places like Nashville, Phoenix and Houston. Which is fairly silly, because I think both are among the world's great places to drink craft beer. But there are two groups who vote on these lists: residents and visitors. Not experts. The upshot is that most people who live in or visit those cities don't really know about their craft beer scenes. Or, another possibility: the phrase "microbrewed beer" implies the existence of actual breweries--not a strength of either D.C. or NYC.

Who's missing? And if we compiled a world list, who besides Portland and Denver make the cut from the U.S.?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Rooting on Beer Hobbits in Africa and China and El Salvador.

Two newsy items are drawing my interest today. They have a common thread, a familiar story, approached from two different perspectives. Both are near to my heart for different reasons.

The first item is from St. Louis, where I lived for a while. An article from the Bloomberg business wire looks at the beer scene there. It's about how loyalties have shifted away from foreign-owned AB InBev and toward locally owned operations like Schlafly--something I've written a bit about. Even at Busch Stadium--that temple to the city's most beloved sport still bears the name of a family brewing company it once embraced to the exclusion of all others--vendors are adding craft beer taps. Why? Because that's where the money is.

The second is from Tom Cizauskus at Your for Good Fermentables. Tom is in the D.C. area, where I also lived for a while. But that's not the perspective to which I refer. His post is about beer growth outside of the U.S. and Europe--the "rest of the world." That's where I live now. It's a point of view that interests me these days.

As we ought to know by now, overall beer sales are basically static or declining in North America and Europe--even while craft beer posts steady growth. However, Tom notes that overall beer sales are up 3 percent in South America and 5 percent in Africa. Meanwhile the marketeers expect Asia to account for 38 percent of beer drunk by 2015.

This all leads to Tom's question: "Combining the large brewing corporations' continued ignorance of taste trends and their refocused attention eastward: will the so-called 'craft' brewing industry have a less fettered opportunity to grow here?"

My answer is no. But I've got to pick on Tom's question a bit. I don't like the idea of "refocused attention eastward," which is a natural assumption to make and one I've heard before. The thing is, it reminds me of the "Great Eye" from Lord of the Rings. Remember in the films, how it seemed like Sauron's big evil headlamp could only focus on one place at a time? Just dodge the spotlight and mosey on up to Mount Doom! Somehow I don't think AB InBev and Heineken work the same way.

This is not a story, I would argue, of American and European bullies leaving the backyard so you can play in peace. These are global companies in a global marketplace. They've been in the "rest of the world" for a long while now. And by the way, they're still in the backyard too. Craft breweries still have to compete with the big boys, and with each other, for our short attention spans and hard-earned duckets. Even in St. Louis, Schlafly drinkers are still a small minority compared to Bud loyalists.

Also--and here is a point I want to make more often--craft beer is not just American. It's not even AmericanCanadianEuropeanAustralian. It's easy to think that certain regions are the historical home of beer, and so that's where craft beer lives. But the world hasn't worked that way in a long time. I'm not accusing Tom of thinking that way, but in fact it's a mistake that lots of us tend to make. Especially as Americans, for some reason, we cling to this old narrative of American David versus American Goliath (or American Frodo versus American Sauron?) and forget that the reality is much wider and more complex.

Beer drinking, like soccer and soap operas, is a global phenomenon. Those giant beer companies span the globe, but so do the reactions to their relatively bland products. Africans and Asians and Latin Americans travel the world too, they like to drink beer, and they appreciate flavor and quality just like everyone else. That's why exports of U.S. craft beer are growing and little breweries are popping up virtually everywhere.

Granted: the craft beer movement--as market segment or cultural phenomenon--is less advanced in the "rest of the world." All the more reason for concern when the big boys are licking their chops at developing markets. For my part: I'll be rooting for all the little Frodos, everywhere around the world. Mainly because they make it a lot more fun to travel.

*Anyway, I'm almost certain they are. It's a point I'll address in a future post.

**Pictured: the bar at the Bridge tap house in St. Louis. Nothing from AB InBev, but they do have PBR.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Promise: I Do Not Blog About Blogging.

But I do blog about brewing sometimes. Like right now. Today I put on the rubber boots and helped out the guys in Cartago. I took a wet rag and wiped down coppers. I stood around bullshitting and trying to sound smart. I ate chili for lunch. I nicked my finger and got an owie.

So I didn't do much actual brewing, but that's OK. I can do that at home. Wearing the boots all day was pretty sweet though. I stood in puddles--on purpose! Later I might even share some kind of news or information with you. And a pretty photo.

Meanwhile here's the first stab at a Facebook group for craft beer drinkers in Costa Rica. All four of us. Eh. We'll see where it goes.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Don't Hasselt Me, Bro. And, the Updated Belgian Beer Fest Calendar.

Many thanks, as usual, to Paul Briggs for the latest version of his Belgian Beer Festival Calendar. This one includes a few for 2011 and a few new ones for 2010. Have a look and make your plans.

Cheers to Paul, Stephen, and the rest of the CAMRA gang in Brussels. Paul was kind enough to hand me an '05 Stille Nacht Reserva as a parting gift just before I left town. And what did I ever do for that guy, except show up late and ask him to please repeat what he just said in English, rather than Yorkshire? Good people in that crew. I've managed to lay off that Reserva so far, but I don't expect it to last through Christmas. For now it's one of the 11 best bottles of beer located in Costa Rica. Nine more are in a box in my closet. The 11th is in Cartago, waiting for a brewery opening.

Anyway: All the best to any of you who will make it to Hasselt for the Bierweekend, which kicks off at 6 p.m. Friday. You can peruse the list here. As usual it's loaded with lots of new and unusual beers you won't find at other festivals. Hasselt can be a ticker's dream... especially since the waiters bring the beers around to you. Very relaxing. Let me know about that Finesse from Dochter van de Korenaar. Or anything, really. All reports welcome, anytime, especially if they come with photos.

Finally: Fellow Belgophile and beer writer Chuck Cook is expanding his presence with a new blog here, with some interesting geuze news. Yves Panneels from the Insurance Against Great Thirst lambic café in Eizeringen is helping to organize a combination geuze-blending workshop and five-course beer dinner with Chris Lively of Ebenezer's in Maine. Only 30 folks will be able to attend the event on Friday, December 10, at Eizeringen's restored castle. Not sure yet what it will cost. Sounds classy though.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Session #45: Wheat Do You Want From Me? Or, If You Can't Take the Wheat, Get Out of the Kitchen.*

What can I tell you about wheat beers? I don't know. I'll think of something.

I can tell you my favorite wheat beer off the top of my head. Lots of beers use wheat, but we're talking about beers that we think of as wheat beers, right? So we're not counting lambics, or Rochefort with its wheat starch, etc. Mine's the Saisis from Ellezelloise. It doesn't have orange peels or coriander or chamomile or any of that nonsense. But it's got wheat and it's got generous hop bitterness, and it's dry as a bone. Very refreshing. And it's more like a traditional saison, in my mind, than the same brewery's Saison 2000.

(I can also tell you what I just learned from the Ellezelloise website. The tasting café is closed until April 30, 2011, while they construct a new building. The old one was one of the most visitor-friendly in Belgium, as I wrote in a recent article for DRAFT. No word yet on whether the new one will still include a view of the brewing kit. I'll let you know.)

Or I can tell you that one of the better beers available in Costa Rica is Paulaner Hefe-Weissbier (pictured). It's surely one of the sexiest (come on, just look at her!). As a bonus, it comes in half-liter bottles. Luckily we have half-liter glasses. And then I get to re-use the bottes for homebrew. That almost makes it worth $5 a pop. Yikes.

I can tell you that Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat is hugely popular in Missouri and its neighboring states. Hugely popular, as far as craft beer goes anyway. Therefore geeks tend to underrate it or ignore it altogether. Until one day they mature, they come back around to it, they fend off the lemon wedge, and they discover one of the region's great session beers at 4.4% strength. It's lemony on its own, bready, dry, and it practically mows the lawn for you.

I can also tell you to order the wheat crust at Shakespeare's. With pepperoni and pineapple. Do it.

*I dedicate today's brief title to Arn, a pun aficionado.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Beer Geeks in Costa Rica, Such as We Are, Could Use Your Advice.

So, we've got a smattering of people down here in Costa Rica--ticos and gringos and other extranjeros--who have a taste for more flavorful beer than we can generally buy locally. I'd guess that we number in the hundreds but not the thousands. Thing is, we don't know each other. We really ought to get together sometime.

I don't mean we should meet for lunch or throw a party (although we should do that too). I mean we need a way to communicate. We need a way to say things like, "Dudes, I just saw that this beer is available in that place," and "Yo, I know where to get homebrew stuff without paying an arm and a leg." That sort of thing.

We probably need a new website. I might as well be the one to get it rolling. The thing is, we have too many options. I'm just trying to sort out which one might work best. A Facebook page? A forum? A Twitter feed? Combination Twitter feed and blog? To make things more interesting, we ought to do it in both English and Spanish.

You're an international audience of intelligent people. Help us out. Post your ideas here.

And for you thirsty types in Costa Rica who are ever-so-gradually stumbling across this blog... stay tuned. Hell, drop me a line. Maybe we'll have lunch.

Pictured: The pilot system at Costa Rica's Craft Brewing Company in Cartago. I'm heading back down there Tuesday to help brew a batch. Hopefully it will be less exciting than last time.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

This Is My 300th Post, and This Is What I Choose to Do With It.

I choose to share this rather vanilla photo of the newly installed bottling line at the soon-to-launch Brasserie de la Senne in Brussels (photo courtesy of Yvan De Baets). Because it means we're just a little bit closer to a day a lot of us have been anticipating for quite a while.

"Soon-to-launch." Damn. As Yvan told me, "I don't give any date no more as we've always been wrong..."

But I like dates. Or at least months. I even offer one in an upcoming DRAFT article. We'll see if it turns out to be correct. I wouldn't bet my donuts on it. But things are looking good over there, in Molenbeek. The number of real, working breweries in Brussels is about to double (current total: one). And besides more Senne beer on the market, there will be a new place to visit in Brussels. The idea is to have a tasting café where visitors can sit and sip and watch the brewers in action. Or in inaction. Depending.

Meanwhile, may all your cups runneth over with Taras Boulba. May your thirsts guide you toward new places and new paths. And may you be patient with another 300 posts of tips, news, pics, jokes, shameless plugs and overly long titles.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Beer and Thai Food: Two of Life's Great Joys.

They get along so well, particularly when the dish is spicy and the beer is hoppy. A certain harmony plays out among the bright flavors of many Thai dishes and the floral, citric aromas of big American hops... Meanwhile the bitterness and carbonation help douse and carry away that spicy heat, so you can start all over with another bite. The combination usually lacks subtlety and is not for those who prefer to ignore the taste of their food and drink while carrying on a conversation. Bite, FLAVOR, gulp, FLAVOR, repeat. Whatever you were going to say was not that interesting anyway.

Now: There are pubs and brewpubs that serve a Thai dish or two. There are, thankfully, plenty of Thai restaurants with a decent beer list. However, I can only find one currently operating, honest-to-goodness Thai restaurant that happens to make its own beer: The Thai Me Up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. (If you know others, I'd like to hear about them.) Based on a brief visit in early August, I can recommend Thai Me Up as a joint serving up food with real heat and ales with real hop.

Remember when we talked about auteurs the other day? Jeremy Tofte is the owner, chef and brewer. When you're eating and drinking here, like watching a great film, you're participating in his total creative vision. (Interestingly, the walls feature a tasteful selection of vintage movie posters.) When I spoke with Jeremy, he was proud of not being another Jackson Hole "trust fund kid" who bought a restaurant with his parents' money. He said he worked his way up in the restaurant business and had been a homebrewer for years. Thai Me Up is the culmination, then, of his experiences and ideas. And you can either like them or not.

Four of us shared a platter of what the restaurant claims is "some of the best larb gai in the world." I'm not a larb gai connoisseur so I can't dispute the claim, but we enjoyed it. Think chicken with chilies, lime leaves and lime juice. Bright and hot and thirsty. The 2x4 Quadruple Pale Ale that washed it down was über-zesty, juicy, lively enough to lift away lingering chili heat and hop resin off our tongues--and at 9.5%, dangerously drinkable.

Clearly, we left our interest in subtlety at the front door. We said "wow" a few times. Otherwise, nobody talked much.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Sour Beer, White Cheese and Sport Finches: LambicLand Re-Launches, at Long Last.

It's a specific kind of devotion that leads you into the Brabantine countryside, where the roads thin out, English and French become as scarce as the hotels, and mass transit may be less than useful. To really explore Pajottenland, unless you speak Dutch, it helps to:

(a) rent a car, because working out the bus schedule and waiting at stations will kill your valuable café time, and
(b) practice your hand gestures. (Hold up empty tumbler so that flatcap-wearing barman can see. Point at tumbler. Hold up number of fingers representing how many glasses of lambic required.)

Tim Webb published the first edition of LambicLand, via his Cogan & Mater outfit, in 2004. It sold out. Two years later I couldn't find a copy anywhere, online or in Belgium. (A few pirates would sell used copies on Amazon for something like $80, but they don't count.) I think it was sometime in 2008 when I finally found one, against all odds, in a drawer at Brussels' Warm Water café.* By then it was four years old. The folks there were kind enough to sell it to me at cover price. It was in perfect condition and still smelled like the printers.

This time, as the Brussels-raconteur-turned-Latin-American-corresondent for Cogan & Mater, I get a free copy. Bias isn't an issue, since I don't really attempt objective book reviews here anyway. It's makes a lot more sense to say, "Here is yet another book you might find really useful." Written by Webb along with Chris "Podge" Pollard and Siobhan McGinn, the pattern will hold: Names, addresses, opening hours, contact information, favored lambics, photos, descriptions of the most random details, and deadpan jokes drier than the finest geuze.

The first edition was bilingual, in both English and Dutch. This one is in English only, perhaps a shrewd calculation based on the troubles of translation and the fact that many Dutch-speakers have been loyal to Cogan & Mater's English-only books. That's what they get for being so damned good at languages.

Naturally I have to point out that Brussels is an ideal base from which to explore Pajottenland, which surrounds the city on three sides. So it would be pretty savvy, I think, to own both LambicLand and Around Brussels in 80 Beers. Sleep in Brussels, breakfast and lunch in the countryside, then enjoy an evening pub crawl back in the city. And never step foot inside a boring place to drink.

Order them now and save yourself the trouble later. Have you heard that Christmas is approaching?

*The Warm Water (one of the places featured in Around Brussels, is a Marolles institution that specializes in Girardin lambic, Brusseleer dialect, and vegetarian grub including typical breakfasts made with local cheeses. It's just up the hill from one of the world's most interesting junk markets.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Plan a Beery Trip to Quebec From Your Armchair.

There aren't really that many beery guidebooks out there, although if you read this blog much you might think otherwise. I forgive you for thinking it. I'm more or less determined to spread the word about any of them I can find. Because I like beer and I like travel, as you might have gathered. And somehow I sense that you like those things too.

So, thanks to a tip from Sylvain Dupuis, I'll now call your attention to La Route des Grands Crus de la Biére, by Martin Thibault and David Lévesque Gendron. I can't vouch for it. But I can tell you about it.

As you might have deduced, the book is in French. That doesn't bother me, because I know very well that some of you speak and read French. Hell, I know that some of you, mes amis, are French. But even those of you who can't read a word will find that things like beautiful photographs, addresses and contact information are more or less universal.

The guide focuses on the craft breweries and beer cafés of Quebec and New England. Really handy if you already live there. And what is it about a beery guidebook that gets you to thinking about new vacation possibilities? For example, now I know I can visit Latvia as well as Quebec. I will not go thirsty, and I will have a sense of purpose.

Want to go to the official book launch? It'll be at 4 p.m., November 13, at the Benelux in Montreal. Quebecois ale on cask. See you there. I wish.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Of Gypsies and Race Car Drivers and Auteurs.

Last week I wrote a bit about the phenomenon of brewers without breweries... a.k.a. gypsies or nomads or itinerants or whatever you want to call them. Now I'm really going to pile it on, so in the interest of civility I need to re-iterate that many of them are great people making great beer. If they weren't, I wouldn't even care about this issue. I just can't help wanting bigger and better things for them.

To summarize my argument: Some of the nomads are making great beer, but they have it somewhat easier than brewers who are risking it all to start their own house and make it work. That latter group deserves more fame and honor and, maybe, more of our money. So there is one point. And I would note that it's a point unrelated to the quality of the beer.

So what about quality, then? Is a brewer with his own kit and greater control over it going to make better beer? As hedonists we might say that as long as they are making great beer for us to drink, we don't care where they make it. Persuasive.

However, that is a hedonism of immediate gratification. I'd propose a more thoughtful, long-term hedonism that allows us and our children's children to enjoy those great beers for years to come. Anyway, the troubles of starting and owning a brewery might lead to better beer--even in the short term. Right?

Stan Hieronymous weighed in Monday and got some more chatter going. He suggested that those running their own place are more likely to have a relationship with the maltsters and hopsters--and thus more likely to get exactly the raw ingredients they want for better control over their work. Another point.

More compelling: Stan suggested that every brewery has a rhythm, and if a brewer is only visiting then he is not part of that rhythm. I would elaborate a little more. Brewing is a fairly complicated process. Lots of pesky steps and big machines. Every place has its quirks, and usually there are lots of lots of them. Someone intimately familiar with her own system is going to know those quirks cold, how to minimize some of them, and how to use others as a strength.

It's not a perfect analogy, but try to imagine a race car driver who rents his wheels every weekend. He would probably be at a disadvantage.

We haven't even touched on the issue of product consistency. If it's important to us as drinkers, then surely we've got to favor the brewer-owners, not just the brewers.

But that's business talk. One of the supposed strengths of nomadic brewing is greater creative control over recipes. This suggests an image of artists who don't want to fuss with bookkeeping or employees. No doubt there is something to it--not everyone is cut out for business. Me, for example. But it leads me to another sloppy analogy, this time from film criticism: the auteur. There are directors and producers and writers and actors. Then there are directors who have the freedom and tools to implement their total artistic vision.

Likewise, there are brewers and there are owners. But maybe to really control your artistic vision, if that's what interests you, you also need to control your brewery.

Finally, for a more philosophical perspective, I've got to quote a comment on Stan's blog from "ollllo," whom I suspect is David Schollmeyer from the Phoenix-based Beer PHXation. Obviously he's a fellow thirsty pilgrim: "I don’t want to live in a world where beer (even great beer) magically appears from somewhere. I want to know where it comes from and I want to go where it lives. ... Beer is one of the last great reasons to travel."

Unless you are a brewer. In that case it is one of the last great reasons to stay put.

Pictured: Pieces of brewing kit at the Brasserie de la Senne in March. Their quirks are yet to be revealed. Yvan de Baets and Bernard Leboucq have been making great beer on the road for a few years now. Once they get things running--probably in the next few weeks--I think we can expect it to improve.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Westvleteren to Go On Sale in... the Supermarket?

If there is any justice in this world, this news will destroy the ridiculous secondary market for the stuff. But I doubt it.

According to Dutch-language newspaper Het Nieuwsblad this morning, the brothers at Westvleteren have been in talks with the Colruyt supermarket chain to sell their coveted beers. The goal is simply to raise additional money. A monk told the newspaper via telephone that the monastery's needs were greater than previously thought.

If my translation is correct, the article notes that nothing has been finalized. It's not clear how the beer would be sold, but one option is said to be a box with Westvleteren's three different beers and a glass.

It's not clear if this will really happen--it's hard to believe after all these years--but if so it will be big news in the world of craft beer. Most of us know, deep down, that there is no such thing as "best beer in the world." However if you shut a bunch of geeks in a room and forced them to a consensus at gunpoint, getting past all that "uh, whatever beer is in front of me" garbage, "Westvleteren 12" would be the most likely answer--as it has been on Ratebeer and Beer Advocate for several years now.

For my part, I wish we could fast-forward ahead many centuries to the part where the monks are kegging the Blond and shipping it straight to our local shops so we can take it home and plug it into our kegerators.

In the mean time, take a gander at my old spiel on how to get Westvleteren the honest way. (Damn, was that more than two years ago?) It remains accurate, for now, and one of Thirsty Pilgrim's most visited posts.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Montezuma's Repose.

When you walk into a postcard, I think, you really ought to sit down and have lunch in it.

We rented a house further down the peninsula and came to Montezuma to check out the town and the waterfalls. Just across from the waterfall access is the Hotel Amor de Mar. Late morning-ish, we came there looking for food and coffee. We passed through the open-air hallway and entered the postcard. Green grass, blue skies, big waves, palm trees and the whole bit. Lots of places to sit out there. We drank strong java and frescos and munched on thick sandwiches made from homemade bread. The tykes napped in hammocks. The surf crashed into the rocks. It was all right.

We can't vouch for the rooms or houses at Amor de Mar yet, but we hope to try them out one day. At least we can vouch for the view. The rates run from $40 in low season, sharing a bathroom, to $200 for a beach house in high season. So you can hunt for your price point. Montezuma town is a five-minute walk.

Never did find a decent beer in Montezuma, or anywhere on the peninsula for that matter. But we did pay a visit to the brewers of Perra Hermosa in the surfer town Malpaís. Recently returned from a spell in Boston, the Ackermans are working away on a 15-gallon system and preparing to upgrade it. More on them very soon.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Using 'Session' as Adjective and Verb and Game Plan.

I made a session beer, and today I will session it.

It's dark and roasty but highly drinkable at 3% strength. Call it a mild if you want. That's what I call it, because it's one easy syllable and I can't be bothered with more. Less talk, more quaff.

Usually I wouldn't bore you with my own haphazard homebrew adventures. But it's Saturday, and so few of you read blogs on Saturdays. We all know that blogs are best read and written within cubicles on weekdays when there are more important things to do.

This mild is an experiment gone a-right -- maybe the first time I've ever been able to say that -- made from the second runnings of a strong stout. The alcohol was around 2.5% and tasted watery after primary fermentation, so I added some tapa de dulce -- raw cane sugar. So there's a nice local touch and it sounds much better than "invert" or "sucrose." Probably tastes better too. And adds color. Anyway: success.

I never thought I'd be a big adjunct guy, but there are so many around here to play with. That strong stout -- first runnings, remember? -- also took some tapa de dulce and next will get some organic cocoa nibs sanitized/extracted in guaro -- a local hooch that's a cousin of white rum. Shooting for around 8% and a bruiser that will stand alone or embrace some nog come Yuletide.

Meanwhile, back to sessioning a session with the sessionable session beer: Today is gameday, even if lived vicariously from afar. We'll fire up the grill for a desperate tailgate, but instead of the Columns we have a sweeping view of Costa Rica's Valle Central. Gorgeous day. I'd be surprised if the mild lasts the next 24 hours.

Come on over.

Friday, October 22, 2010

This Weekend's Random Place Where I Would Like to Be: Cabool, Missouri.

Just outside of Cabool is a shed next to a modest house surrounded by cow pastures. That shed is the home of Little Yeoman, an absolutely-no-frills three-barrel brewery throwing an Oktoberfest party tomorrow, October 23. In this era of multi-course beer-pairing dinners and rare boutique bottles, I'd nominate Chad Fredrick's hard-working operation as the Least Pretentious Brewery in the World.*

Bring your lawn chairs and your tents and be prepared to drink, eat and camp. According to a message I received from FOB (Friend of the Brewery) Kenneth Donnalley, the Cream Ale, Porter and American Pale Ale -- believe me when I say that all are robust and well-hopped -- will be going for $1.50 a draw. Munching options will include brats, barbecue, homemade potato chips and "the best baked beans in the world." Six bucks, all you can eat.

There is no website but Donnalley runs a fans' group on Facebook. The brewery's address is 12581 Dallas Lane. Look for the mailbox shaped like a keg and follow the gravel road.

*Have other nominees for this prestigious award? I'd love to hear about them. Send a photo too.

**Pictured: official glassware. So much for drinking with your eyes. Flavor is all that matters in the House of Yeoman. Wish I'd bought one for the collection. Next time for sure.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Oxen Are Thirsty in Atlanta and There's Beer in Texarkana.

Here's a peek at the just-finalized logo for Costa Rica's Craft Brewing Company. I considered asking for the original image file, but the over-the-shoulder screen shot is so much more journalistic. Or is it voyeuristic? Eh, what's the difference?

Note the homage to the carreta, the finely painted ox cart that is one of Costa Rica's national symbols. That's going to look mighty fine on bottle caps one of these days. Or on pint glasses. Or T-shirts. Or -- dare I say it? -- on a carreta.

Imagine hauling some beer to local ferias in a specially painted ox cart with a real live ox. Gentlemen, put that one in your suggestion box.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Honor Thy Brewers (Especially the Ones with Digs of Their Own).

It's one thing to brew. It's not always easy, and some are (much) better at it than others. But it can be learned. It's another thing entirely to run a successful brewery -- small or large -- keep it clean, keep it running, keep the books, and make the business last. Brewers and families with the guts and fortitude to raise the capital and pull that off deserve some extra honor and attention for it.

Some families have been doing it for generations, but it's those initial risk-takers who really impress me. I'm thinking, for example, of the guys at Struise, whose flavorful beers became popular in geekdom before they bit the bullet and opened their own place in Oostvleteren, West Flanders, last year. I'm thinking of my friends Yvan and Bernard of Brasserie de la Senne, who have gone through hell to open their dream brewery in Brussels next month. And lately I'm thinking about these guys trying to make and sell craft beer in Costa Rica of all places. We owe them all congratulations and crossed fingers. Buying their beer wouldn't hurt, either.

Clay Risen's interesting "gypsy brewers" piece today on the Atlantic website is what brought this all to mind.

Basically, all the reasons I think brewers with breweries deserve more applause are the flip side of what's so attractive about itinerant brewing. It takes a lot less money, and therefore less risk. Someone else can maintain the machines. Someone else can pay the rent. So we are enjoying the work of a greater number of creative types who otherwise might not be brewing at all -- or at least, not be making exactly the recipes they want to make. Which occasionally are exactly the recipes we want to drink.

I met Brian "Stillwater" Strumke in Baltimore one night in July. I asked him a bit about his brewing situation. I bugged him about what I thought were high prices on expensively packaged small-batch beers. And then I paid up anyway, of course, and thoroughly enjoyed his Staateside Saison on a few occasions in the D.C. area.

So the hedonist in me wins out. As usual. But with a caveat.

The nomadic brewers making a good product deserve our duckets and pats on the backs too. But maybe they also deserve to be bothered repeatedly with a simple question, if for no other reason than to nudge them toward further greatness:

"So, um, since your beer's so good... when are you going to start your own brewery?"

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How to Make and What to Do with Pineapple Salsa.

Slice a pineapple, a jalapeño, and some red bell peppers. Drizzle them all with a bit of oil. Grill them over fire. Chop them up and toss with fresh cilantro, the juice of half a lime, and a few drops of your favorite hot sauce. Serve it on top of a char-grilled steak.

Wash it down with a Guinness Foreign Extra Stout.

The end.
Damn. I'll never fill a cookbook that way. I'd have to tart it up with stuff like, "Be sure to wear gloves while handling hot peppers, especially if you wear contact lenses," and "The roasted espresso notes in the stout complement the sweet pineapple, while finding harmony with the char on the steak." And so on.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Of Gashed Tires and Sour Fruit Saison.

We were almost totally lost for the third time in two days when it happened. I was driving our truck down a hill from Cartago, looking out over a valley of what appeared to be tugurios, a.k.a. favelas, a.k.a. slums, when I turned and ran over a concrete embankment. It jutted out into the road and was impossible to see from the driver's side. The concrete was not the problem. It was the hidden steel rebar that warped the running board and gashed the tire. The air didn't hiss out so much as whoosh.

So my friend Ryan and I we were late for our meeting on Friday with the guys from the soon-to-be-launched Costa Rica's Craft Brewing Company. Oh, first we put on a show for the locals. Ho hum, just a couple of rich gringos getting dirty, changing a tire on a busy road, don't mind us. I gave two kids a few coins for standing around and trying to look helpful. And we were on our way.

"Here in Costa Rica it's always something, man," brewery co-owner Brandon Nappy said. Naturally I thought of my tire. But he was talking about all the red tape and expense of starting a legitimate business in this country, where bureaucracy and stamps and ribbons are a fine art. "You have to be thick-skinned and level-headed and just go with it."

Nappy ought to know. The 29-year-old previously had a charter fishing business out of Quepos on the Pacific Coast. That lasted about four months. Then the boat sank. Literally.

Much of what we talked about while lingering at the brewery for a few hours, in no hurry to get back on the road during a downpour, was the challenge of doing it all right. On the up and up. Having all the permits. Hiring a lawyer to help cross t's and dot i's. Being ready for inspections, should they come. Getting your trademarks straight. So if the Craft Brewing Company fails as a business, it ought to be for business reasons -- not legal ones.

Then there is the whole problem of, you know, actually selling beer. Finding all the expats, tourists and ticos who would buy more flavorful beer in a heartbeat. Starting to educate the others. And publicizing in an environment where the Imperial logo is practically the national flag.

For example: Draft beer is not that common in Costa Rica. The locals call it cerveza cruda and either treat it as something special or, more often, shun it and drink from the bottle. However, the Craft Brewing Company is dedicated to establishing its beers on draft before selling bottles in the future.

"We have to get them away from the idea that draft beer is raw beer," brewer C.S. Derrick said. Then there is teaching bars about the importance of glassware, and how to keep it sanitary. "One of the biggest focuses starting off here is education."

My thoughts: Some of the best education and publicity will come from other customers. I'm not just talking about word of mouth. When you see someone else with a glass of that crisp, golden ale and its fluffy, persistent head -- and that froth is something no lager in Costa Rica can match -- you just want one for yourself. Meanwhile the pale ale -- named Segua for the Cartago folk legend about a she-monster who punishes drunken, unfaithful men -- has the sort of hopping and bitterness that American craft beer drinkers have come to expect as a matter of course. If all goes according to plan, both these beers will be available in November. Stay tuned to find out where.

Then, later, for those willing to pay more for something special, there may be a few surprises. Such as an experimental saison we tasted that had been aged on sour cas. It confirmed my previous suspicion that this acidic fruit begs to be used as a brewing ingredient. Derrick's cas saison was tart, dry and sparkling, with the lime-like aroma and taste of the cas providing an unmistakable lambic-like quality. Really encouraging stuff.

On the way back, despite clear directions from Nappy and Derrick, we missed a turn and got lost in San José. Rough neighborhoods. Again. At night. Another opportunity for Costa Rica to show off its near total lack of street signs. Please understand that when I say we had to use a compass to find our way out, it is not a figure of speech.

By the way, beer enthusiasts and homebrewers in Costa Rica are welcome out at the brewery. Say hello and make friends. Maybe even pitch in and help out. The "address" is 800 meters west of Riteve, in Tejar El Guarco, just outside of Cartago. I recommend you use a GPS. And watch for embankments.