Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Strung Out.

Internet shut off. Unexpectedly. Cold turkey. Angry. Posting via Kindle. Annoying. Slow. Awkward. News in my pocket. Stay tuned. Will be in Bamberg this weekend. Hope to gloat from there. With subjects, predicates, the works. end communication. Grrrr.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Bite-Sized Chunks of Brussels Beer News.

First: Earlier I reported that Dupont plans to release, oh so briefly, a dry-hopped version of its world famous and world class Saison. Now I can confirm that it will be available at Nüetnigenough... sometime in April. Personally I hope it's earlier rather than later. If not, have one for me.

Next: I'm late in reporting this, but Ultieme Hallucinatie has closed, apparently for good. Um, yes, that happened three months ago. The owner was getting up there in years and was unable to find a buyer. The building is an Art Nouveau classic and I'm sure the price was therefore quite high. Sad that it means we can't go there for an Achel or a Cantillon gueuze anymore. I'm holding out hope, but not my breath, that someone will come to the rescue.

Last, for now: The farmhouse beers of Blaugies, typically only available in bottles, are suddenly going into kegs. I was told that was a possibility when I last visited about a year ago. The classic Saison d'Epeautre will be on draft this week at Moeder Lambic St-Gilles. While supplies last.

Pictured: Saison in its conditioning tank at Brasserie Dupont.

Emptying the Cellar.

We could have tried to pack it all, but it would have sat on a warm, sunny dock in Puerto Limón for a few months. Not ideal. We could have tried to ship it all, but too expensive. And anyway, neither option is nearly as fun as trying to drink it all. Making a clean break, you know.

It hasn't been easy. We had a gathering Saturday and put a good dent in it... but just a dent. Anything to get more of these bottles put away. Properly. As in, I'd still like it to be appreciated. Mostly by me.

Pictured: The kind of strange thing that can happen when you empty a cellar. A vertical with one-, two-, and three-year-old Westvleteren 12's. The one-year-old won, I think. Thanks to Jim for bringing the three-year-old, from our original batch we split soon after we arrived in Belgium.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Time is Short. There is Thirsty Work to Be Done.

Just today received my copy of 1001 Beers You Must Try Before You Die. That's the UK title. The US title is 1001 Beers You Must Taste Before You Die. Maybe someone at the publisher decided that Americans don't like to try things, and the British prefer not to taste things.

I'm one of 1001 writers who contributed to this behemoth. Well, OK, there are only 42 of us. That might still sound like a lot, until you do the math. An average of 23.833333333 beers per person. That's a hell of a party if you ask me. (And when I read the other names, frankly, I'm honored to be among them.)

My slightly biased review: It's a much better read than any book of 1001 Anythings has a right to be. It's organized only by color — amber, blond, white and dark. Plus a specialty section for the odd ones. Then alphabetically. The result is that reading from page to page takes you rapidly from country to country, brewery to brewery, style to style. It's comparable to putting 1001 great tunes, most of which you haven't heard yet, on shuffle. You don't know what's next, but it's hard to go wrong.

The book is large. It makes a statement. Put it on your most visible bookshelf, so that visitors will see its wide spine and understand both your priorities and seriousness of purpose. There is never much time left, and if they're not with you they're against you.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Think of Me When You Sip That Cranberry Bastard.

Ah, April 24 and 25. The first of many, many festival weekends where I'll wish I was still in Belgium. But I won't be. So here's your task: Make me jealous.

The Vilvordia BierProefFestival is on Saturday, April 24. Beer list here. Imagine sharing a high school cafeteria with dozens of handsome, like-minded people, tasting many of Belgium's harder-to-find beers.

For those of you in Brussels: It's not some out-of-the way small-town festival where you've got to muster the will to make a couple train changes. No, this one's in your backyard. Specifically, it's at 121 Laarbeeklaan, on the EHB campus, within the outer ring and in the Jette commune. Last year we took the Metro to Simonis then hopped on Bus 13 to its endpoint, UZ-Brussel. Hang a left (south) after the bus stop and hunt for signs pointing toward the "Erasmushogeschool," Jette campus. Works like a charm.

Wish we could be there again. I'll look for consolation in the sunshine. (Today's high in San Jose: 88°F. I don't own clothes for that kind of weather anymore. Hang on: Do you even need clothes for that sort of weather?).

Then on Sunday, April 25: Open Breweries' Day. About two dozen mostly medium-sized members of the Belgian Brewers' Association are opening up to the public. Believe it or not, this is not a normal thing in Belgium. Most breweries don't seem to like visitors much, unless you're a large group and paying with enough cash to make it worth their while. Never mind about smart marketing making friends for life. So this is a step in the right direction.

The list of participating breweries is here. Have to say that Rodenbach would top my itinerary. Hypothetically.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

De Dolle Fire Update.

As Toine noted, De Dolle has posted some information about yesterday's fire on its website. Not exactly good news but much better than the earlier reports.

To sum it up: The fire started with a water tank, causing smoke damage to the tasting bar (including some of brewer Kris Herteleer's own artwork) and the roof. The brewhouse and bottling line are intact. Thankfully, the injured worker is recovering at home and will return to work Monday. Upcoming bottlings of Arabier and Oerbier will be delayed, but the other beers are still on sale.

The most amazing bit to me is that the weekly Sunday brewery tour — maybe the best in Belgium, by the way, just edging out Cantillon thanks to Herteleer's feisty mom — will continue. The English tour starts at 2 p.m. No doubt this weekend would be an interesting time to go and see the place.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fire at De Dolle Brouwers.

Some troubling news from West Flanders this afternoon. A fuel tank exploded, causing a serious fire at the De Dolle brewery in Esen, wounding one brewery employee. According to initial local news reports, the fuel tank was apparently in the brewery's cellar.

That's all I know at the moment. I'll update this post later today if I can.

Just based on this scarce information: It is likely to be a severe blow to one of Belgium's most popular craft breweries. Opened in 1980, its Oerbier, Arabier and Stille Nacht are widely considered to be world classics. Meanwhile our thoughts are with brewer Kris Herteleer and his employees.

Big thanks to Darin for the tip.

Thirsty Pilgrims Move On. That's Why We're Called Pilgrims.

Announcing the important announcement of an announcement... No, I'll just come out and say it: We're leaving Belgium soon. We're moving to Costa Rica in about a month. But this blog will keep on chugging.

I don't need to explain the challenges inherent in moving a beer blog's base of operations away from beer paradise and into a beer wasteland (even if that wasteland is, more or less, an actual paradise). Nor the problem that I've apparently become a beer writer. My next book: Around Costa Rica in 80 Bananas. Ho ho.

Here's the thing about the blog: If I'm right, it won't change all that much. It will still be about drink and food and travel, with an emphasis on craft beer. The photos will be sunnier. Until now the blog's spotlight has been pretty narrowly focused on Belgium, mainly because it's where I've lived and there's more to write about here than any one blog can handle. Initially I'd intended to cast the net much wider. Now I'll have another chance to do that.

What you can expect: More useful information and news for thirsty and hungry travelers worldwide, including Europe and North America. I'll keep covering Belgium, to a degree, because despite my cynicism I still think this country makes the best beers on Earth.

Meanwhile I'll have a unique chance to cover the Latin American craft beer scene... Imagine going back in time and being able to write about the handful of 1970s and early '80s American microbreweries, knowing what we know now. A scene like that can use honest writers, I think, to help keep it healthy.

I'll also be writing more about homebrewing, and what it's like to brew in a place like Central America. Because partly out of sheer need I'll be doing a lot of it.

That's the plan anyway. It will change. It always does. Meanwhile I still have plenty of Belgitude to empty from my notebooks. Stay tuned.

In the somewhat crappy five-year-old photo: The hot-spring-fed swimming pool at Tabacón Resport, near the base of the Arenal Volcano in northern Costa Rica. From our honeymoon. Going down the water slide and swimming across to the bar in one smooth motion fulfilled a life goal. Never mind what we drank. In the future, all bars will be swim-up bars.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

ZBF Post-Game Analysis.

Another ZBF come and gone. Another chance to schmooze, booze, spot up-and-coming breweries, and discover beers perhaps best described as "potential future classics."

An annoying trend worth mentioning: As with the Bruges festival, ZBF is gradually being colonized by beer firms whose products are made at one brewery: Proef. True, many of those products are very good. And it's a great compliment to the contract-brewing business that Proef is running. Just the same, I'd prefer to see a greater diversity of actual brewers at these events.

Off the soapbox. Briefly I'll point out three beers that left me most impressed. If you weren't in Sint-Niklaas, watch for them in your favorite pubs and bottle shops.

Troubadour Magma. From the Drie Musketeers beer firm and made at, yes, Proef. It's got a huge American-hop aroma and flavor — citrus and pine — without being overly bitter. It's also got the relatively light-and-lively mouthfeel you expect from a Belgian ale, so it's dangerous at 9% strength. One of the better so-called Belgian IPAs that has emerged so far.

Den Triest Dubbel. Marc Struyf's home brewery has become a microbrewery, and we should all be glad. So far he's making flavorful, dryish abbey-style beers with real malt backbones, bitterness, and without silly spicing. His Dubbel had real roast and toast to it, a clean bitterness, and just an impression of sweetness. I want more.

Saison de Dottignies. This is classic De Ranke — well-hopped, floral and dry — so in some ways this beer is no revelation. But it's lighter and brighter than the XX Bitter, refreshing as a saison ought to be, and at 5.5% strength ultimately very useful. And some good news: Jean at Moeder Lambic Fontainas says it should be a permanent fixture on draft there.

So, for those of you who went, what did I miss? Anything else catch your imagination?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

If 'Forced Carbonation' Sounds So Wrong, Why Does It Taste So Good?

Another update on this weekend, courtesy of the Moeder Lambic team: The full stable of Cantillon beers will start pouring Thursday at Fontainas, not Friday. So there's some extra flexibility for travelers in town for (Pre-)ZBF as well as us lazy townies.

Any thoughts on traditional lambic being served à la pression? Because surely there are some die-hards out there who hate it. And more simple hedonists like me who love it. And lots of thoughtful wishy-washy types who have mixed feelings. I'd love to hear from any of you.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Semantics of Lambics and Other Pastimes.

Some useful details for those of you planning on the Night of Great Thirst in Eizeringen this Friday. Then we talk lambic philosophy.

Transport info here, including free shuttles, flat taxi rates, local bus lines, and driving directions. (Incidentally, it's only about 20-30 minutes drive west of Brussels, depending on where you start.) And a list of beers here — note the spontaneously fermented beers from Allagash in Maine, including one made with raspberries, another with cherries, and a vaguely gueuze-esque blend. The festivities kick off at 7 p.m.

The Allagash beers represent a small, budding trend in America: craft brewers attempting spontaneously fermented beers that honor the Pajottenland tradition yet refusing to call them — for marketing purposes, anyway — lambics. So here's a fun question to be discussed among enthusiasts: If you make a beer exactly the same way a lambic brewer in Brussels or Pajottenland makes it, but you do it in Maine or California or wherever, then what have you made? Is it lambic?

Turns out it's not a legal question. It's philosophical. Specifically, it's ethical and semantic.

In the DID YOU KNOW!?* category: A common myth is that "lambic" is a protected, geographic appellation. Not true. Its method and contents are somewhat protected by the EU — and arguably, not very well. But its status does not include geographical indication. So, theoretically, you could make a traditional lambic in Kentucky and market it as such in Europe.

Would that be a good idea? Maybe not. At best it would be rude. So far brewers like Allagash are avoiding words like lambic and gueuze out of sheer respect for their Pajottenland colleagues. I also suspect that aficionados might be turned off by that sort of audacity. So we end up with an "appellation" that is really more ethical than legal — and it might turn out to be good marketing to boot. Or at least the avoidance of bad marketing.

Finally, a trick question, but an easy one for a few of you: At which brewery is the barrel in the photo above located?

*Always to be exclaimed in a loud, deep, echoing voice.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Visitors to Hoppy Loft Will Now Be Able to Smell Their Hoppy Beers.

Just a brief piece of news, or two or three, as we pore over this weekend's beer lists for mysteries and surprises.

First of all, according to its latest newsletter, Delirium's Hoppy Loft is now open Monday to Saturday, 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. It's also gone... wait for it... non-smoking. Previously it was only open weekends, and it was clouded when crowded. Not anymore.

I was there a few weeks ago, after the new smoking ban had passed, hoping to find that at least the Loft had gone clean. I wouldn't expect a fat cash cow like Delirium, dependent on mobs of chain smoking teenagers, to go totally cold turkey... But I thought at least the Hoppy Loft might. It's theoretically aimed at a different audience, after all. One that likes to sniff, you know, hops. No such luck that night. I'm happy to see they've found some sense.

I'd like to compile an up-to-date list of which beery joints in town have gone smoke-free. In my theoretical free time. Meanwhile, off the top of my head, you can now smell your beer in these places: the Moeder Lambics (St-Gilles and Fontainas both), Delirium Hoppy Loft (but not the rest of Delirium), Poechenellekelder and Nüetnigenough. Please tell me more if you know them.

The other bit is that this Friday only, to mark ZBF weekend, the Hoppy Loft will open at 2 p.m. When you also think about the nearby Night of Great Thirst, the Cantillon open brew day, and Moeder Lambic's Cantillonaganza*, Brussels is becoming a smart base of operations for incoming festgoers.

*Not the event's actual name, but maybe it should be.