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.