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.