Thursday, January 28, 2010

Beery Guidebooks are the Best Kind.

One should never leave home without them. The most useful thing: They always end up being about more than beer. Those who care enough about beer to buy such a book also tend to enjoy other things, such as food and atmosphere. Exactly what you want when traveling abroad, or in your own neighborhood.

See, those generic guidebooks have no idea what you want. They have to guess. A beery guidebook just knows.

Anyway, the most useful guidebook we've ever owned is Tim Webb's Good Beer Guide Belgium. Maybe because we've been living there for a few years. The second-most useful, by a long shot, is Steve Thomas' Good Beer Guide Germany. Maybe because we travel to Germany a lot.

Ah yes... long drive on Autobahn, kid screaming in the backseat, we're all getting hungry... What to do? Mr. Thomas knows. Next stop: Mettlach. What matters about Mettlach is only this: It's near this particular stretch of highway, and there is a brewpub there. Nothing like a brauhaus lunch to take the edge off.

This is back in the fall I guess. We find a sunny spot in the biergarten, with a view of the Saar river when we bother to peek over the line of hedges. The Abtei-Bräu is theoretically a Märzen but it looks like a cloudy but golden Helles to me — not that it makes a bit of difference. It's bitter, somewhat lemony, and refreshing. In that bier and in that garten we find peace, respite, and Schweineschnitzel.

All because we have the right book. I wonder where Frommer's would have sent us.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Kids in Pubs.

When we were little tykes ourselves, my siblings and I, Mom would occasionally drag us into a friendly bar after work, always to meet one friend or another. I think we liked it. There was food. There were friendly people. Occasionally there was Ms. Pac Man or a jukebox. Usually there was a non-smoking section. Never occurred to me there might be anything wrong with it.

There was, now that I think about it, a brief period of my life when I would've hated to see kids in drinking establishments. Usually because I was going there to drink a lot and think selfish, young-adult thoughts. Children have a way of ruining that.

Now we have a kid of our own, about 7 months old now. And we enjoy going out when we can muster the energy, will, and various accessories. We take him to pubs, if it's not smoky. He doesn't seem to mind. The Belgians seem pretty tolerant of it. It wasn't until last weekend in London that we ever had an issue with it.

There was no kerfuffle or anything. Just a tired, thirsty couple of young parents who wanted to visit the Princess Louise, a real Victorian classic in Holborn. The barman politely informed us that children were not allowed. Fair enough... but it would have been even fairer to post it out front. The place was gorgeous, incredibly ornate, lots of stuff to stare at while sipping a hypothetical pint. What a tease, that Louise.

Luckily a helpful smoker outside asked if were looking for something in particular. "Just a pub." So he pointed out the Shakespeare's Head around the corner. This would become my first visit to a Weatherspoons pub.

British drinkers will need no explanation of what that means. So I will do my best to explain it to everyone else, based only on what I saw: Imagine if a giant, unremarkable English pub had sex with an American roadside truck stop, and their offspring were all cheap, messy, and incredibly useful.

Perfectly decent cask ale, and an interesting selection. Comfortable enough tables. Tons of room for us and our all-terrain stroller (um, pram, or whatever). Pages and pages of Weatherspoons ads and propaganda at every table and posted above the urinals in the men's room. Fruity gambling machines (though no Ms. Pac Man or jukebox). The food looked boring but cheap and filling.

Not a nice place. But incredibly useful. And we were welcome there. We know, because a sign out front told us so.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

How to Get Some Armand'Spirit.

Here are some more details on the Armand'Spirit, the 40% abv eau de vie made from Drie Fonteinen geuze. That was the same beer that became undrinkable in the Catastrophe and nearly ruined Armand Debelder's business. It makes for a pretty fine liquor though, and is selling well, helping to rescue the Drie Fonteinen beermaking operation after all. Funny how life works sometimes.

If you visit the blendery in Beersel (formerly the brewery... takes some getting used to), a half-liter bottle costs €36. The shop and tasting café there are open Fridays and Saturdays, and of course you can also sample the spirit in the neighboring Drie Fonteinen restaurant (which is a must-visit for anyone who enjoys lambic and classic Belgian cooking).

Meanwhile: You can also order bottles from the Huis van de Geuze, the online shop associated with the legendary Grote Dorst lambic café in Eizeringen village. Then you can either pick them up at the café or have them delivered by courier service. The Huis can de Geuze also ships orders overseas, and my understanding is that the Armand'Spirit can be part of such an order.

Armand's wife Lydie now tells me that they will "join a list of wholesalers in Belgium," so the remaining stock could be going fast. So if you're stopping by to buy a bottle, her advice — which is always good advice in this country, frankly — is to phone ahead.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dupont to Release Special Dry-Hopped Saison.

Saisonophiles, hold on to your straw hats: I was at Brasserie Dupont today, gathering material for an upcoming article, when I heard this bit of news: The brewery will release a special dry-hopped version of Saison Dupont in April.

Gust Simons, the commercial manager at Dupont, said the plan is for the dry-hopped saison to be a once-per-year, very limited release — about 250 kegs and 300 to 500 Magnum-sized bottles.

As this is a sort of experiment, Simons said it's unlikely that any would be exported to the U.S. or elsewhere. The brewery will give their best clients in Belgium first crack at it. The beer doesn't have a name yet — possibly Saison Dupont Dry-Hopped Cuvée, or something along those lines.

Those are all the facts I have. Now comes the pure conjecture: I don't know how it will go over in Belgium, but Saison Dupont has plenty of devotees abroad who would love to get their hands on some of this. If the initial release is a success — i.e., if the beer is as good as one would expect — one would think they would make more (and send some overseas) next time around.

In the meantime, this is the plan: once a year, very limited.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Loophole Shrinks on Belgian Smoking Ban.

On January 1 the smoking ban in Belgium went from being a bit of a joke to something reasonably effective — as far as I can tell. The loophole has shrunk substantially, and many cafés face a tough choice: smoking or food.

This appears to be the pertinent law here (in French). As I read it, pubs can allow smoking if the only food they serve is pre-packaged and keeps for at least three months.

Before, the only places where smoking was banned were proper restaurants of the kind that are open only for meal times, shutting during the afternoon for example. Brasserie-type cafés, where a lot of people eat anyway, could be smoky and stay open all day long. In theory only 30% of sales could be from food is smoking was allowed, but judging by a few places I don't know if that was ever really enforced.

The local news has reported that smoking bars can only serve "chips and nuts." That's true in spirit but not quite accurate. I can think of other foods with longer keeping periods that could conceivably be "pre-packaged." Dried sausages. Aged cheeses. TV dinners. Spaghetti-O's. Use your imagination — because the bars will, if that means keeping smokers but giving folks a chance to eat something decent.

Stay tuned... I intend to talk more with some local proprietors about it. For now, the law appears to be good news for those of us who like to smell and taste our food and drink.

The photo shows a clever window display at El Metteko, a café on Boulevard Anspach near the Bourse in Brussels. It says, "This is the end of an era."

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Liter of Stille Nacht. Sharing Recommended.

Everyone has their tastes, and mine tend to shy away from sweet beers. Another thing that everyone has: exceptions. One of my favorite exceptions is Stille Nacht. Fresher bottles tend to be honey-sweet, with great malty depth, only barely balanced by bitterness and alcoholic warmth. More balance and greater complexities emerge after a year or two of age.

Anyway: Moeder Lambic Fontainas currently has Stille Nacht on draft, along with a slew of other Belgian winter and holiday beers (including Rulles Meilleurs Voeux, Senne Equinox and Zinnebir Xmas, Dupont Avec Les Bons Voeux, Gouden Carolus Christmas, Tournay Noël, Gouyasse Noël, and more). And because I think I failed to mention it before, Fontainas also has its draft beers available by the pitcher — a true rarity in Belgium.

These 1L pichets cost the same as four 25cL glasses or three 33 cL's, so there's no deal to be had. But it's not about thrift. It's about quantity. This makes a lot of sense for beers like Taras Boulba, for example, at a refreshing 4.5% abv. My thirsty belly laughs at 25cL of that stuff and demands a half-liter. But a 1L pichet? Well, that will do. Do I have to share?

Now, Stille Nacht. It's 12% abv. A pitcher of that stuff should be just evil and wrong. Except that it's good and right. Must be one of those exception things.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Drie Fonteinen to Stop Brewing, Keep Blending, Start Distilling.

Armand Debelder is sleeping better these days, thanks in part to a difficult decision: "I'm not brewing anymore. That's definite." Thus the master blender has concluded a decade of making his own lambic at Drie Fonteinen, a run that included several special bottled beers beloved by aficionados.

The Debelders have been blending the region's lambics to make fine geuzes in Beersel since 1953. Armand started brewing his own lambic in 1999, adding it to the blends that also included Boon, Girardin and Lindeman's. He put his own artful stamp on the beers but also added substantial workload.

Then the events of May 16, 2009 — which Armand simply calls "the Catastrophe" — played the role of fate. That's when about 100,000 bottles of Drie Fonteinen geuze and other lambics perished thanks to a busted thermostat. It was a severe blow to the business and one that had Armand thinking of quitting more than once.

Things looked bleak, but various friends offered support and Armand had a few ideas up his sleeve. One of them, to distill the ruined geuze into an eau de vie, came to fruition. Made at a distillery in Hainaut, the Armand'Spirit is 40% strength, clear as water, and dangerously smooth. The drink launched in October and by mid-December Armand and wife Lydie had already sold 3,000 bottles — half the stock. The liquor has helped the business pay its debts.

Another idea was to hold a "mega-sale" on October 22, to coincide with the liquor launch. Up for purchase were hundreds of bottles of vintage Drie Fonteinen geuze, most of them bottled in 2002. The sale paid off. "Thanks to my vintage geuzes, I have a future again," Armand said.

The decision to stop brewing came down to age and economics. Armand is 58 years old and brewing meant long, exerting days. To continue he also would have needed a new brewing kit. However, "the cost of the Catastrophe was the cost of a new brewery," he said.

Then there is the presence of Lydie, whom Armand married in August. "I'm not a free man anymore," he said with a smile. "I'm not 9 to 5."

Meanwhile, the success of the Armand'Spirit has fueled a new dream: to open a small, working distillery at Drie Fonteinen. Armand and Lydie would use the still to make a variety of special liquors, many in the jenever style.

Looking back on his time as a brewer, Armand said "I had the time to make my lambic and what I wanted to make, and I can say that I made very, very beautiful lambic. And we blended a lot of beautiful things. ... In the end it's not a Catastrophe. Maybe I can make a new start in my life by distilling."

It's worth noting that the craft of distilling is much less work, physically, than brewing. "Brewing is working in the kitchen like a chef," Armand said. "Distilling is like a patisserie; everything has to be correct. ... Distilling is more subtle."

Adding the distillery also addresses a concern: that he might get fewer visitors, since many people come partly to see the brewery. "When people come to see a brewery, they want to see a brewery installation," Armand said. "So I'm losing a part of my attraction. But we will add a new attraction by distilling."

About the geuze: Ideally, it won't change much. Frank Boon in Lembeek has agreed to brew Armand's lambic exactly like Armand made it in Beersel. For example, this means continuing to use Challenger hops, which Armand will still age himself. It also means the same malt and wheat in the same proportions. Thus future Drie Fonteinen geuzes will be a blend of Girardin, Lindeman's and Boon lambics, plus the Boon-made Drie Fonteinen recipe.

So Drie Fonteinen was a blendery before Debelder started brewing his own lambic in 1999, and it remains a blendery after 2009. It may also become a distillery soon. And there is every reason for lambic lovers to continue associating that name with quality.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Stonch bids Adieu.

Tipped hat and raised glass to Jeff Bell, who on Sunday concluded three years of provoking thought at Stonch's Beer Blog. He is a writer of strong opinions — clever, incisive and concise — and put his money where his mouth was when he took over as landlord of the Gunmakers. I'm going to miss his blog.

Incidentally, Jeff and his well-run pub figure into a piece I've written for an upcoming issue of DRAFT. Here's the man himself, explaining to an ignorant American (i.e., me) how things work in the cellar. Stay tuned.