Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Costa Rican Beer Scene, Such As It Is.

When we learned that we would leave Belgium, and after I wept big man-tears about having to leave behind all those great beers, I consoled myself with this: There is a craft brewery in Costa Rica. You see, there are still plenty of countries without any at all. We very well could have been sent to one of them. But in Costa Rica there is something on which to build. There is a micro, a noble thing run by heroes, and it is called K&S Cerveceria.

And then, in November, it closed. The owners sold the kit and the brewer moved home to Arizona. And then there was nada. Poof! Gone.

So, the status quo here is back to being status quo. If you catch my drift. There is one giant company dominating the market with a few similar, predictable brands. A few imports sneak in, but nothing too exciting. As I've ranted already, this is unacceptable.

Thankfully, there are at least a few others who agree. The growing powers of craft beer and globalization make this inevitable, even if they do not necessarily make it easier to succeed. Employing three-barrel systems, five-gallon soda kegs, and the thirst of beer-savvy tourists, there are two working micro — nay, nanobreweries that expect to open here in the near future, in different parts of the country. I'll tell you about each of them very soon.

Also to come: the challenges of homebrewing in paradise, bars that make the best of a bad beer situation, tico moonshine, and anything else I can contrive. Just think of me as the McGyver of beer writers.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

New Beer on the Way from Jandrain-Jandrenouille.

The Brasserie de Jandrain-Jandrenouille is about to release its follow-up to cult favorites IV Saison and V Cense.

Its title will be VI... quelque chose. VI something. Brewers Stéphane Meulemans and Alexandre Dumont haven't decided on their new baby's full name yet. (Suggestions? Feel free to post them below.) What is decided is that the first kegs will be tapped at Moeder Lambic Fontainas very soon, possibly this weekend. So get thyself down there and ask nicely.

Meulemans and Dumont told me their next offering is a blanche, or Witbier, pale and cloudy and made with wheat. However they are adding no spices, bucking recent tradition, its character coming rather from the careful use of aromatic American hops. Thus it follows in the footsteps of IV and V, embracing the traits that endeared those rising stars to aficionados in Belgium and abroad. This will surprise nobody who knows that the brewers' day jobs — from their office in Louvain-la-Neuve — are to sell and promote Oregon's Yakima Chief products to the wider world. We won't know until we taste it, but I think we can expect big, fruity hop aroma and sheer drinkability.

Whatever happened to I, II and III anyway? When I visited the brewery's farmhouse last year, Dumont quipped that they wanted to "do it like Star Wars." So maybe we'll see the prequels next. Hopefully they're better than the movies. Stay tuned.

Pictured: a IV Saison enjoying its last moments on earth at Moeder Lambic St-Gilles.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Not Quite News, Saturday Morning Before I Go to the Beach Edition.

The latest issue of Draft is out, including my non-expert-hey-I'm-just-a-tourist-here postcard from London. (What I saw: Plenty of young people and women drinking cask ale.) That's right: I'm not an expert, I'm a journalist. Which reminds me of John Kruk's famous line, "I'm not a athlete, I'm a baseball player."

There are lots of other cool articles on beer in strange places like Haiti, South Africa, and New York's Lower East Side. (Remember when the magazine about beers of the world was, um, Beers of the World? Maybe Draft is doing its bit to capture the international scene.)

Anyway: I believe the same issue features a Chuck Cook exclusive on the secrets of Girardin, but I haven't seen the print version yet. Takes a while for the mail to get here.

Also: I've updated the link to the Briggsian Belgian Beer Festival Calendar, there on the left. This weekend: the Weekend der Belgische Bieren in Olen.

Finally: Moeder Lambic Fontainas is closing from Sunday to Tuesday this week for some interior redecorating... Specifically, they have decided to make those tables a bit more spacious and comfortable. They deserve much credit and silver for heeding the complaints of patrons. As an aside, when catering to beer lovers it's always a good idea to think large.

Friday, April 16, 2010

This Post is Perfect for the Climate.

You might have noticed that I'm not so much into beer styles. I'm into beer enjoyment and I don't get the preoccupation with style. To me it looks like a fetish.

OK, when traveling, have you ever shown one of your favorite guidebooks to a local? It sucks when they laugh. Doesn't mean it's not a useful guide. Maybe beer styles are the same way. So I'll try to be sensitive.

I'm in no position to explain why there ought to be a special category for Australasian, Latin American or Tropical-Style Light Lager. Compare guidelines if you want; it won't enlighten you. I suspect it comes from a certain mindset. This happens to be the mindset of most thirsty drinkers in beer-poor, sunny, tropical countries. It goes something like this: Well, it's perfect for the climate. I have heard (or read) normally intelligent, discriminating beer aficionados say ridiculous things like that about beers they wouldn't give to their neighbor's dog. As if the beautiful weather and lack of locally grown hops and barley somehow excuses the near-total absence of flavor.

Well, I don't accept it. I won't. Not in this day and age.

I've been here a week. The weather has been beautiful. And I've had a few Imperials. I've had a couple of Bavaria Darks. Refreshing, yes. Drinkable, sure, especially when cold. And you know what else? Almost totally flavorless. I don't want to hear any euphemisms about how the taste is "delicate" or "soft." No. Flavorless is flavorless.

Here's the thing: It is entirely possible to have a refreshing, drinkable beer that has plenty of good flavor. This is well known. It is no great revelation. The problem is that it usually takes a craft brewer to make that kind of beer. And that kind of artist-engineer is all too rare in this neck of the woods.

But there are a few. They do exist. They need more customers. And they need more attention.

There's the context. Now I've set you up. Coming soon: beer news and current events.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Everybody's a Winner. Oh, Except That Guy, Over There. Sorry Dude. (cough)Loser(cough).

I get a kick out of reading the winners at events like the World Beer Cup in Chicago. Everyone's got their favorite teams to support.

For example, I'm pleased to see Boulevard pick up a gold for its new Pilsner (Category 35: American-Style Specialty Lager, whatever that's supposed to mean), although I haven't had the chance to try it yet. And I was recently blown away by the Ballast Point Sculpin IPA (Category 90: International Pale Ale, whatever that's supposed to mean), for its stunning fruity-hop aroma and flavor. The Sculpin meanwhile ducks the resinous bitterness that — for me — dashes the drinkability of so many otherwise tasty IPAs. More notably, Ballast Point picks up the Champion Brewery and Brewmaster award among small brewing companies. They and the other champions deserve warm congratulations. You don't get there without making lots of great beer.

I also like to see European beers win the European-style categories. Call me old-fashioned. And so I've got to stand up and applaud for Unertl, one of my favorite lesser-known German breweries, for winning two silvers (in Category 73: German-Style Pale Wheat Ale, whatever that's supposed to mean, and Category 74: German-Style Dark Wheat Ale, whatever that's supposed to mean). What's more, I've drunk more than my fair share of Unertl and can confirm that they are, in fact, German-style.

That was a joke.

Anyway. Ninety categories? Really? If you care, the most entered category was Wood and Barrel-Aged Strong Beer with 113 entries. In a sign o' the times, plain old non-strong Wood and Barrel Aged Beers got only 32. The least entered category? Only nine German-Style Sour Ales. Whatever that's supposed to mean.

The nonsensical category that most piques my interest, as I write to you from a Costa Rican hotel room: No. 38, Australasian, Latin American or Tropical-Style Light Lager. I'm not into acronyms, so let me spell out my rhetorical question: What The Fuck? And also: Why?

A thought occurs to me now: Style guidelines and competition categories are pointless unless we can have our fun in tearing them apart. I believe that is the main joy they bring to the world. If, and only if, that sport is part of their function can I personally support their existence in my hedonistic worldview.

With that in mind, Category 38 deserves to be torn about three or four new assholes. And I think that doing so would, in the short and long term, add more joy to the world. Stay tuned.

The snapshot was Mrs. Pilgrim's idea. Actually she wanted me to do a W sign for Winner, but I'd never even heard of that.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Ooohs and Ahhhs in Bamberg.

Beer geeks all know about Bamberg, but how do you explain it to more normal folks? Maybe like this: It might have the highest per capita quantity of quality beers in the world. That is to say, it makes many more great beers than a town that size should. Something like that.

Anyway, we were there last Saturday. Part of our farewell tour. And it's a good thing the most memorable beer of the day was so memorable, because I forgot to take a picture. I guess I was too busy enjoying it to bother.

On the way to Mahr's Bräu from Café Abseits — walking through a pretty drab suburban area but with a buzz so pleasant we didn't care — we passed a beer-touring British couple. The Steve Thomas guide poking out of her purse gave them away. So we flagged them down. The long-haired fellow told us to go and order at Mahr's by saying "ah-ooh." The "ooh" representing capital U for Ungespundet — Mahr's unfiltered lager, served via gravity from the keg.

We followed their advice and received our mugs of copper-colored love. Highly quaffable, as if you didn't know, with a nice hairy bitterness and fruity notes that reminded me of orange zest. I had to have another and the rest of the day was a blur.

Thirsty Junior, all of nine months old now, decided not to join us in Bamberg. He stayed with his adopted Swabian grandmother and thus could not have known about Mahr's Bräu. Yet I swear to you, next morning at breakfast, amid his growing repertoire of syllables, he clearly ordered an Ungespundet.

*The photo is of another Ungespundet in town. Very tasty, but not so amazing that I forgot to take a picture.