Friday, October 29, 2010

Plan a Beery Trip to Quebec From Your Armchair.

There aren't really that many beery guidebooks out there, although if you read this blog much you might think otherwise. I forgive you for thinking it. I'm more or less determined to spread the word about any of them I can find. Because I like beer and I like travel, as you might have gathered. And somehow I sense that you like those things too.

So, thanks to a tip from Sylvain Dupuis, I'll now call your attention to La Route des Grands Crus de la Biére, by Martin Thibault and David Lévesque Gendron. I can't vouch for it. But I can tell you about it.

As you might have deduced, the book is in French. That doesn't bother me, because I know very well that some of you speak and read French. Hell, I know that some of you, mes amis, are French. But even those of you who can't read a word will find that things like beautiful photographs, addresses and contact information are more or less universal.

The guide focuses on the craft breweries and beer cafés of Quebec and New England. Really handy if you already live there. And what is it about a beery guidebook that gets you to thinking about new vacation possibilities? For example, now I know I can visit Latvia as well as Quebec. I will not go thirsty, and I will have a sense of purpose.

Want to go to the official book launch? It'll be at 4 p.m., November 13, at the Benelux in Montreal. Quebecois ale on cask. See you there. I wish.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Of Gypsies and Race Car Drivers and Auteurs.

Last week I wrote a bit about the phenomenon of brewers without breweries... a.k.a. gypsies or nomads or itinerants or whatever you want to call them. Now I'm really going to pile it on, so in the interest of civility I need to re-iterate that many of them are great people making great beer. If they weren't, I wouldn't even care about this issue. I just can't help wanting bigger and better things for them.

To summarize my argument: Some of the nomads are making great beer, but they have it somewhat easier than brewers who are risking it all to start their own house and make it work. That latter group deserves more fame and honor and, maybe, more of our money. So there is one point. And I would note that it's a point unrelated to the quality of the beer.

So what about quality, then? Is a brewer with his own kit and greater control over it going to make better beer? As hedonists we might say that as long as they are making great beer for us to drink, we don't care where they make it. Persuasive.

However, that is a hedonism of immediate gratification. I'd propose a more thoughtful, long-term hedonism that allows us and our children's children to enjoy those great beers for years to come. Anyway, the troubles of starting and owning a brewery might lead to better beer--even in the short term. Right?

Stan Hieronymous weighed in Monday and got some more chatter going. He suggested that those running their own place are more likely to have a relationship with the maltsters and hopsters--and thus more likely to get exactly the raw ingredients they want for better control over their work. Another point.

More compelling: Stan suggested that every brewery has a rhythm, and if a brewer is only visiting then he is not part of that rhythm. I would elaborate a little more. Brewing is a fairly complicated process. Lots of pesky steps and big machines. Every place has its quirks, and usually there are lots of lots of them. Someone intimately familiar with her own system is going to know those quirks cold, how to minimize some of them, and how to use others as a strength.

It's not a perfect analogy, but try to imagine a race car driver who rents his wheels every weekend. He would probably be at a disadvantage.

We haven't even touched on the issue of product consistency. If it's important to us as drinkers, then surely we've got to favor the brewer-owners, not just the brewers.

But that's business talk. One of the supposed strengths of nomadic brewing is greater creative control over recipes. This suggests an image of artists who don't want to fuss with bookkeeping or employees. No doubt there is something to it--not everyone is cut out for business. Me, for example. But it leads me to another sloppy analogy, this time from film criticism: the auteur. There are directors and producers and writers and actors. Then there are directors who have the freedom and tools to implement their total artistic vision.

Likewise, there are brewers and there are owners. But maybe to really control your artistic vision, if that's what interests you, you also need to control your brewery.

Finally, for a more philosophical perspective, I've got to quote a comment on Stan's blog from "ollllo," whom I suspect is David Schollmeyer from the Phoenix-based Beer PHXation. Obviously he's a fellow thirsty pilgrim: "I don’t want to live in a world where beer (even great beer) magically appears from somewhere. I want to know where it comes from and I want to go where it lives. ... Beer is one of the last great reasons to travel."

Unless you are a brewer. In that case it is one of the last great reasons to stay put.

Pictured: Pieces of brewing kit at the Brasserie de la Senne in March. Their quirks are yet to be revealed. Yvan de Baets and Bernard Leboucq have been making great beer on the road for a few years now. Once they get things running--probably in the next few weeks--I think we can expect it to improve.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Westvleteren to Go On Sale in... the Supermarket?

If there is any justice in this world, this news will destroy the ridiculous secondary market for the stuff. But I doubt it.

According to Dutch-language newspaper Het Nieuwsblad this morning, the brothers at Westvleteren have been in talks with the Colruyt supermarket chain to sell their coveted beers. The goal is simply to raise additional money. A monk told the newspaper via telephone that the monastery's needs were greater than previously thought.

If my translation is correct, the article notes that nothing has been finalized. It's not clear how the beer would be sold, but one option is said to be a box with Westvleteren's three different beers and a glass.

It's not clear if this will really happen--it's hard to believe after all these years--but if so it will be big news in the world of craft beer. Most of us know, deep down, that there is no such thing as "best beer in the world." However if you shut a bunch of geeks in a room and forced them to a consensus at gunpoint, getting past all that "uh, whatever beer is in front of me" garbage, "Westvleteren 12" would be the most likely answer--as it has been on Ratebeer and Beer Advocate for several years now.

For my part, I wish we could fast-forward ahead many centuries to the part where the monks are kegging the Blond and shipping it straight to our local shops so we can take it home and plug it into our kegerators.

In the mean time, take a gander at my old spiel on how to get Westvleteren the honest way. (Damn, was that more than two years ago?) It remains accurate, for now, and one of Thirsty Pilgrim's most visited posts.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Montezuma's Repose.

When you walk into a postcard, I think, you really ought to sit down and have lunch in it.

We rented a house further down the peninsula and came to Montezuma to check out the town and the waterfalls. Just across from the waterfall access is the Hotel Amor de Mar. Late morning-ish, we came there looking for food and coffee. We passed through the open-air hallway and entered the postcard. Green grass, blue skies, big waves, palm trees and the whole bit. Lots of places to sit out there. We drank strong java and frescos and munched on thick sandwiches made from homemade bread. The tykes napped in hammocks. The surf crashed into the rocks. It was all right.

We can't vouch for the rooms or houses at Amor de Mar yet, but we hope to try them out one day. At least we can vouch for the view. The rates run from $40 in low season, sharing a bathroom, to $200 for a beach house in high season. So you can hunt for your price point. Montezuma town is a five-minute walk.

Never did find a decent beer in Montezuma, or anywhere on the peninsula for that matter. But we did pay a visit to the brewers of Perra Hermosa in the surfer town Malpaís. Recently returned from a spell in Boston, the Ackermans are working away on a 15-gallon system and preparing to upgrade it. More on them very soon.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Using 'Session' as Adjective and Verb and Game Plan.

I made a session beer, and today I will session it.

It's dark and roasty but highly drinkable at 3% strength. Call it a mild if you want. That's what I call it, because it's one easy syllable and I can't be bothered with more. Less talk, more quaff.

Usually I wouldn't bore you with my own haphazard homebrew adventures. But it's Saturday, and so few of you read blogs on Saturdays. We all know that blogs are best read and written within cubicles on weekdays when there are more important things to do.

This mild is an experiment gone a-right -- maybe the first time I've ever been able to say that -- made from the second runnings of a strong stout. The alcohol was around 2.5% and tasted watery after primary fermentation, so I added some tapa de dulce -- raw cane sugar. So there's a nice local touch and it sounds much better than "invert" or "sucrose." Probably tastes better too. And adds color. Anyway: success.

I never thought I'd be a big adjunct guy, but there are so many around here to play with. That strong stout -- first runnings, remember? -- also took some tapa de dulce and next will get some organic cocoa nibs sanitized/extracted in guaro -- a local hooch that's a cousin of white rum. Shooting for around 8% and a bruiser that will stand alone or embrace some nog come Yuletide.

Meanwhile, back to sessioning a session with the sessionable session beer: Today is gameday, even if lived vicariously from afar. We'll fire up the grill for a desperate tailgate, but instead of the Columns we have a sweeping view of Costa Rica's Valle Central. Gorgeous day. I'd be surprised if the mild lasts the next 24 hours.

Come on over.

Friday, October 22, 2010

This Weekend's Random Place Where I Would Like to Be: Cabool, Missouri.

Just outside of Cabool is a shed next to a modest house surrounded by cow pastures. That shed is the home of Little Yeoman, an absolutely-no-frills three-barrel brewery throwing an Oktoberfest party tomorrow, October 23. In this era of multi-course beer-pairing dinners and rare boutique bottles, I'd nominate Chad Fredrick's hard-working operation as the Least Pretentious Brewery in the World.*

Bring your lawn chairs and your tents and be prepared to drink, eat and camp. According to a message I received from FOB (Friend of the Brewery) Kenneth Donnalley, the Cream Ale, Porter and American Pale Ale -- believe me when I say that all are robust and well-hopped -- will be going for $1.50 a draw. Munching options will include brats, barbecue, homemade potato chips and "the best baked beans in the world." Six bucks, all you can eat.

There is no website but Donnalley runs a fans' group on Facebook. The brewery's address is 12581 Dallas Lane. Look for the mailbox shaped like a keg and follow the gravel road.

*Have other nominees for this prestigious award? I'd love to hear about them. Send a photo too.

**Pictured: official glassware. So much for drinking with your eyes. Flavor is all that matters in the House of Yeoman. Wish I'd bought one for the collection. Next time for sure.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Oxen Are Thirsty in Atlanta and There's Beer in Texarkana.

Here's a peek at the just-finalized logo for Costa Rica's Craft Brewing Company. I considered asking for the original image file, but the over-the-shoulder screen shot is so much more journalistic. Or is it voyeuristic? Eh, what's the difference?

Note the homage to the carreta, the finely painted ox cart that is one of Costa Rica's national symbols. That's going to look mighty fine on bottle caps one of these days. Or on pint glasses. Or T-shirts. Or -- dare I say it? -- on a carreta.

Imagine hauling some beer to local ferias in a specially painted ox cart with a real live ox. Gentlemen, put that one in your suggestion box.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Honor Thy Brewers (Especially the Ones with Digs of Their Own).

It's one thing to brew. It's not always easy, and some are (much) better at it than others. But it can be learned. It's another thing entirely to run a successful brewery -- small or large -- keep it clean, keep it running, keep the books, and make the business last. Brewers and families with the guts and fortitude to raise the capital and pull that off deserve some extra honor and attention for it.

Some families have been doing it for generations, but it's those initial risk-takers who really impress me. I'm thinking, for example, of the guys at Struise, whose flavorful beers became popular in geekdom before they bit the bullet and opened their own place in Oostvleteren, West Flanders, last year. I'm thinking of my friends Yvan and Bernard of Brasserie de la Senne, who have gone through hell to open their dream brewery in Brussels next month. And lately I'm thinking about these guys trying to make and sell craft beer in Costa Rica of all places. We owe them all congratulations and crossed fingers. Buying their beer wouldn't hurt, either.

Clay Risen's interesting "gypsy brewers" piece today on the Atlantic website is what brought this all to mind.

Basically, all the reasons I think brewers with breweries deserve more applause are the flip side of what's so attractive about itinerant brewing. It takes a lot less money, and therefore less risk. Someone else can maintain the machines. Someone else can pay the rent. So we are enjoying the work of a greater number of creative types who otherwise might not be brewing at all -- or at least, not be making exactly the recipes they want to make. Which occasionally are exactly the recipes we want to drink.

I met Brian "Stillwater" Strumke in Baltimore one night in July. I asked him a bit about his brewing situation. I bugged him about what I thought were high prices on expensively packaged small-batch beers. And then I paid up anyway, of course, and thoroughly enjoyed his Staateside Saison on a few occasions in the D.C. area.

So the hedonist in me wins out. As usual. But with a caveat.

The nomadic brewers making a good product deserve our duckets and pats on the backs too. But maybe they also deserve to be bothered repeatedly with a simple question, if for no other reason than to nudge them toward further greatness:

"So, um, since your beer's so good... when are you going to start your own brewery?"

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How to Make and What to Do with Pineapple Salsa.

Slice a pineapple, a jalapeño, and some red bell peppers. Drizzle them all with a bit of oil. Grill them over fire. Chop them up and toss with fresh cilantro, the juice of half a lime, and a few drops of your favorite hot sauce. Serve it on top of a char-grilled steak.

Wash it down with a Guinness Foreign Extra Stout.

The end.
Damn. I'll never fill a cookbook that way. I'd have to tart it up with stuff like, "Be sure to wear gloves while handling hot peppers, especially if you wear contact lenses," and "The roasted espresso notes in the stout complement the sweet pineapple, while finding harmony with the char on the steak." And so on.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Of Gashed Tires and Sour Fruit Saison.

We were almost totally lost for the third time in two days when it happened. I was driving our truck down a hill from Cartago, looking out over a valley of what appeared to be tugurios, a.k.a. favelas, a.k.a. slums, when I turned and ran over a concrete embankment. It jutted out into the road and was impossible to see from the driver's side. The concrete was not the problem. It was the hidden steel rebar that warped the running board and gashed the tire. The air didn't hiss out so much as whoosh.

So my friend Ryan and I we were late for our meeting on Friday with the guys from the soon-to-be-launched Costa Rica's Craft Brewing Company. Oh, first we put on a show for the locals. Ho hum, just a couple of rich gringos getting dirty, changing a tire on a busy road, don't mind us. I gave two kids a few coins for standing around and trying to look helpful. And we were on our way.

"Here in Costa Rica it's always something, man," brewery co-owner Brandon Nappy said. Naturally I thought of my tire. But he was talking about all the red tape and expense of starting a legitimate business in this country, where bureaucracy and stamps and ribbons are a fine art. "You have to be thick-skinned and level-headed and just go with it."

Nappy ought to know. The 29-year-old previously had a charter fishing business out of Quepos on the Pacific Coast. That lasted about four months. Then the boat sank. Literally.

Much of what we talked about while lingering at the brewery for a few hours, in no hurry to get back on the road during a downpour, was the challenge of doing it all right. On the up and up. Having all the permits. Hiring a lawyer to help cross t's and dot i's. Being ready for inspections, should they come. Getting your trademarks straight. So if the Craft Brewing Company fails as a business, it ought to be for business reasons -- not legal ones.

Then there is the whole problem of, you know, actually selling beer. Finding all the expats, tourists and ticos who would buy more flavorful beer in a heartbeat. Starting to educate the others. And publicizing in an environment where the Imperial logo is practically the national flag.

For example: Draft beer is not that common in Costa Rica. The locals call it cerveza cruda and either treat it as something special or, more often, shun it and drink from the bottle. However, the Craft Brewing Company is dedicated to establishing its beers on draft before selling bottles in the future.

"We have to get them away from the idea that draft beer is raw beer," brewer C.S. Derrick said. Then there is teaching bars about the importance of glassware, and how to keep it sanitary. "One of the biggest focuses starting off here is education."

My thoughts: Some of the best education and publicity will come from other customers. I'm not just talking about word of mouth. When you see someone else with a glass of that crisp, golden ale and its fluffy, persistent head -- and that froth is something no lager in Costa Rica can match -- you just want one for yourself. Meanwhile the pale ale -- named Segua for the Cartago folk legend about a she-monster who punishes drunken, unfaithful men -- has the sort of hopping and bitterness that American craft beer drinkers have come to expect as a matter of course. If all goes according to plan, both these beers will be available in November. Stay tuned to find out where.

Then, later, for those willing to pay more for something special, there may be a few surprises. Such as an experimental saison we tasted that had been aged on sour cas. It confirmed my previous suspicion that this acidic fruit begs to be used as a brewing ingredient. Derrick's cas saison was tart, dry and sparkling, with the lime-like aroma and taste of the cas providing an unmistakable lambic-like quality. Really encouraging stuff.

On the way back, despite clear directions from Nappy and Derrick, we missed a turn and got lost in San José. Rough neighborhoods. Again. At night. Another opportunity for Costa Rica to show off its near total lack of street signs. Please understand that when I say we had to use a compass to find our way out, it is not a figure of speech.

By the way, beer enthusiasts and homebrewers in Costa Rica are welcome out at the brewery. Say hello and make friends. Maybe even pitch in and help out. The "address" is 800 meters west of Riteve, in Tejar El Guarco, just outside of Cartago. I recommend you use a GPS. And watch for embankments.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Cuppa Trivia and Camp at Café Britt.

Here are three things I learned from the popular Café Britt coffee tour yesterday:

1. My coffee grinder sucks. I have a small spinning-blade type coffee grinder. I tend to grind aggressively and get everything from tiny shreds to espresso-like powder. We were told the roller-mill types are better, because you want a grind of uniform size. Sort of like grinding malt for a brewing mash. Fair enough.

2. Decaffeinated coffee comes from Hamburg. Or, a lot of it does, apparently. Producers like Britt send their green coffee beans to Germany for processing. A company in Hamburg extracts the caffeine, sells it to other companies, and sends the coffee back to Costa Rica. Or wherever. Fun trivia for you.

3. Coffee tourism is a cottage industry. It's not huge, which is why I put it in a cottage. But on our way to Café Britt in Heredia, and driving through the hills above Alajuela, we saw a signs advertising other, lesser-known coffee tours. The feedback form we completed at Britt asked if we had attended other tours and how they compared. So there is competition. (Someone has to check them all out, right?) Coffee tours are not quite up there with Volcan Arenal and Manuel Antonio, but they are definitely one of the things to do in Costa Rica.

Quick review of the Britt tour, which would be the one in all the guidebooks: Plenty of entertainment and information packed into 90 minutes, before a coffee tasting and buffet lunch of comidas tipicas -- included in the $35 price. Visitors are guided on the tour by faux-farmers, actors well practiced at not appearing bored by the tried-and-true jokes they've been telling for years. It's easy to play along with the campiness. As a bonus the guides obviously know their subject cold.

I can recommend it to any coffee lover looking to kill an afternoon in the Valle Central. Then again, I don't have any other coffee tours with which to compare it... yet.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Costa Rican Functionaries, Get Your Ribbons and Stamps Ready for a Load of Malt.

Local update: Brewer George Lin of Volcano Brew, at Hotel Tilawa up near Tilarán, reports that things are still on track up north... The long-awaited malt delivery is finally and officially on the way. This is just a guess on my part, but figuring in local importation bureaucracy -- a true art form in Costa Rica -- and plain old fermentation and conditioning time, we might see some finished beer up there come December or January. Again, that's my guess, so don't blame them if I'm too optimistic. I'm learning, too slowly, that all the usual timetables are tossed out the window upon arrival in this country. Pura vida.

If you're keeping score, that makes three craft breweries trying to find their legs here: Costa Rica's Craft Brewing Company in Cartago, Perra Hermosa in Malpaís, and Volcano Brew on Lake Arenal.

The owners and brewers are more or less in touch with each other. They generally say they are rooting each other on, and I believe them. It's obvious, I think, that it would take more than one or two ambitious risk-takers to foster the beginnings of something resembling a craft beer culture -- a culture that would become their niche market.... their supporters and their customers.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

An Honest to Goodness Public House in the Middle of Nowhere, America. (And I Mean 'Nowhere' in the Best Possible Way.)

We're on the road from Eugene to Bend and need a place to hole up for lunch. There is one hungry, cranky toddler and three hungry, cranky grown-ups. One of those grow-ups is also pretty thirsty. Guess who.

Luckily I've done the advance work. Scribbled in my notebook is a name and a town: Brewers Union Local 180. Oakridge, Oregon. There are some crude stars and underscores, meant as a clear message to myself: "Hey, as long as it doesn't piss everyone off, we really need to stop here." So the timing works out. And that, ladies and gents, is why we do advance work.

So besides the clever, blue-collar name, what's so attractive about this place? Why the stars and uderscores? Allow me to quote a few things from the website: "The Brewers Union Local 180, Oregon's only Real Ale Pub and Brewery, is a blend of the best of the British Public House, the American spirit of adventure, and the natural scenic beauty of Oregon's Cascade Mountains."

Come on, that's only the first sentence. There's lots more, such as "you will find a throwback to when the community gathered regularly to share news, when beer was brewed in the back of the pub and pulled from the cellar out of a cask, and when the weary traveler found a cozy nook and a good meal. ... You won't find any gambling machines, overbearing television sets, or blaring piped-in music. Better yet, expect to find yourself a comfortable spot in the quiet front parlor, enjoy a cup or two of good coffee and a good book, or show off battle-scars from that last downhill ride in the public bar over a pint of cask conditioned ale. You will not be processed through the typical restaurant theater, but instead you can stay as long as you wish, right up to the last orders bell."

I didn't mean to quote the whole thing. But I couldn't stop. It all sounds so perfect to a thirsty anglophile. And because, basically, it is exactly what we found. Go on, put it in your notebooks now. With all the stars and underscores. Start planning your detours.

The food and pints are more than reasonably priced. And crowd-pleasing. Toasted cheese and bacon with sweet potato fries for $7 strikes that balance between interesting and unpretentious. So do the beers, including a decent best bitter and a couple of impressive, stronger pale ales that make good use of fruity Northwestern hops without overdoing it. My favorite is the Baba O'Ryely. I'm spelling it correctly. Can you guess the special ingredient? Hmm.

Now I feel I ought to offer a gripe or two, for credibility's sake. So it's not all boring enthusement. I'm a serious journalist, you know. OK then. The beers were a little under-attenuated for my taste... just a touch too sweet.

But just a touch.

The other gripe is that the place is so far out of the way. Portland has a boatload of breweries and yet it ought to be ashamed that it doesn't have a place like this. Meanwhile, because of its location, the Brewers Union is flying under the radar. It's been open since 2008 yet enjoys only a couple of reviews on Ratebeer and a couple more on Beeradvocate. So I feel a certain duty to spread the good word. With apologies to all those who've been trying to keep the secret, more folks ought to know. Anyway the place is in no danger of being overrun.

It's worth the detour. Come thirsty. And if you come really thirsty, don't worry... there's a genuinely nice-looking hostel just down the street. I've also been told that Oakridge is a mountain biking paradise. One Southern Oregonian's eyes glazed with deep envy when I told him we might stop there. A veteran cyclist, he explained that Oakridge is his favorite place on Earth.

And he didn't even know about the pub yet.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Like Brussels Itself, Always a Work In Progress.

As Tim Webb compiles the Good Beer Guide Belgium, he receives a lot of tips from a loose network friends and allies who live in the country or visit there often. They do it only to help him make a better guide, and they deserve a lot of thanks not just from Tim but from all of us who rely on the book.

Our network for Around Brussels in 80 Beers is not so extensive... The first edition (and hopefully there will be a second, someday) is based mainly on a lot of research and legwork on the part of Yvan and myself. However there are a few people who have begun sending advice, updates and feedback from time to time. A serious omission from the book is a little paragraph, somewhere, explaining that we really, really like that sort of person. One of them is Mr. Simon Croome, who takes the Eurostar down from England now and then and makes excellent use of our little guide. May he be a good example to the rest of you.

Feel free to send any personal experiences, reviews, updates, suggestions or profanity to joe dot thirstypilgrim at gmail dot com. Photos are also welcome, and with permission I might post one or two to the blog. Also I will get back to you personally with thanks, and somewhere from within a very-soon-to-be-bustling warehouse brewery in Molenbeek, Yvan thanks you too.

Here is some of what Simon says, which is especially interesting to me because he and Jackie left the well-worn city-center pathways. Also I have to mention that, to their great credit, they were oblivious to the fact that the Brussels Beer Weekend was happening before they visited. Instead they came mainly for the festival at Moeder Lambic. Let's join him on their pub crawl, shall we?

Vieux Spitigen Duivel, in the southern reaches of Uccle: "It got mixed reviews from some of the other people we mentioned it to -- they felt it had gone down hill with the change of owners. Decent enough beer selection (I had an Omer for example) and we could quite happily have stayed for another beer if it wasn't already so late..."

Matin, up the hill from Chez Moeder Lambic in Saint-Gilles: "What a difference. I bet a lot of typical beer geeks would hate this place but for us it was a nice change. Great decor and loud latino music but still with Zinnebeer and Taras Boulba to drink. And amongst all the hubbub one old, flat-capped Belgian sitting at the bar oblivious to the noise..."

Moeder Lambic St-Gilles: "Finally on to the main event of the night - our first visit to the old Moeder Lambic. Quite a contrast from Fontainas but still the same great atmosphere and beers. We tried several of the festival taps -- the 2010 Fou F'oune was outstanding, really fresh and full of fruit..."

Brasseurs de la Grand Place: "Missed breakfast at the hotel so we popped in ... for brunch. Good value food surprisingly, shame the same can't be said of the beer -- fairly pedestrian but expensive."

Delices et Caprices: "a marked improvement. Pierre is an excellent host and the ability to try any of the beers straight off the shelf is dangerous. Pierre got me to try a Jessenhofke Tripel to see if I could guess the mystery ingredient, I failed as it's a quite subtle addition but still found it an excellent beer."

Schaerbeek Beer Museum: "Odd kind of place and not really my sort of museum, too much stuff with little explanation given; however it was free entry and the 75s of their 'house' beer were only 4.20 euros so we sampled one in the cafe and picked one up for the tickers back home."

Moeder Lambic Fontainas: "We finished off the festival taps that we hadn't got yesterday and then Jean mentioned his special bottle selection. I take it you know the story behind Cantillon Pinot D'Aunis, I can confirm it's an exceptional beer almost like a rose version of St Lamvinus. Not allowed to take this beer away you had to drink it in one of the four establishments involved. We also had the Wadesda 1 from Senne, and there was a Rulles 10th Anniversary beer, both of which we picked up a bottle of."

Restobieres: "Luckily it was still open and we were allowed to order. Very good food, even something as simple as sausage and stoemp had great depth, I'm glad we got to visit after passing its door so many times. We lingered for a while over a bottle of Bon Voeux before going down the hill to..."

Brocante: "which we were very surprised to find closing up at only five in the afternoon. Was that Brussels' way of saying we'd had too much already? Oh well, back to Midi and the train home."

Many thanks to Simon and Jackie and anyone else who has sent similar tips or will do so in the future.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Actually, Cask Ale IS Growing... Isn't It?

If you've been reading my blog for a while, this won't surprise you: One of the things I miss most about living in Belgium is living nearer to British cask ale.

I already loved Belgian beer when I moved to Brussels more than four years ago. I expected to keep loving it. What I did not expect, while there, was to fall in love with British cask ale. Also unexpected was finding a thriving cask ale scene on my visits back to the States.

And so I've got to raise a point and a question about the latest Cask Report, written by colleague Pete Brown and funded by the industry. The gist of the report is that more British people are drinking cask ale, and more British pubs are selling it, even if volume there is not increasing overall. (All this is happening while pubs are closing and other beer sales are dropping pretty dramatically, so one way to put it might be, "Wow, guys, things sure could be a lot worse!" Which is totally fair to celebrate, frankly.)

On his blog last week Pete wrote, "But despite the fact that many people simplify this good news into 'cask is growing,' actually it's not. Cask's fantastic performance is great news for drinkers, but good as it is, it's still only static in volume terms."

Here is my point: The Cask Report only covers the U.K., which is what it is supposed to do. It does not cover the U.S. (although Garrett Oliver notes in the foreword that "hundreds of American craft breweries make cask beer these days.") Meanwhile I've seen--with my own beady eyes, I mean--plenty of anecdotal evidence that cask ale is thriving among us Yanks. Everywhere I went on my recent trip--Mid-Atlantic region, Midwest, Mountain states, and the Pacific Northwest--I found cask ale options that had not always been there. And I saw people drinking it.

Here is my question: Does anyone have numbers to prove or disprove my point? My suspicion is that cask ale volume is actually increasing in the United States... and it might even be increasing somewhat dramatically. That would mean logically that cask ale volume overall is increasing as well, although it would sadly not include the British brewers and enthusiasts who sponsor the Cask Report.

But for for those of us who carry a love of cask ale with us wherever we travel, wherever we live, it would be welcome news just the same. Because, to quote Mr. Oliver's foreword again, "British cask beer is an inspirational thread that runs through a worldwide artisanal brewing movement."

So... Does anyone track cask ale production or consumption in the United States? Or farther abroad?

Upper photo: Cask porter and fries at the Mad Fox Brewing Company in Falls Church, Virginia. Lower photo: Oliver head brewer Steve Jones peeks into the cask cellar--into which only he is allowed--beneath the Pratt Street Ale House in Baltimore.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Please Welcome Costa Rica's Craft Brewing Company.

I like that name. Clunky but sensible.

The news: A microbrewery is planning to launch its first beer the first or second week of November. The new Costa Rica's Craft Brewing Company is in Cartago, the same spot formerly occupied by Cerveceria K & S. Same place, same system, new owners, new brewing team. And plenty of new ideas.

Already fermenting, I'm told, are pilot batches of experimental, sourish farmhouse beers using cas, passion fruit, mango and guava.

Brandon Nappy, who owns Costa Rica's Craft Brewing along with business partner Peter Gilman, said a hoppy American-style pale ale is coming in the near future. However, "the first beer will be a very light golden ale, because we know that most people down here aren't really ready for that punch in the face."

See? I told you. Sensible.

The brewmaster is C.S. Derrick, who co-founded Crested Butte and has brewed for Flying Dog. Derrick also launched and ran a brewub in Venezeula for about five years, so he should be familiar with Latin American culture and the challenges of selling craft beer here.

Nappy said the team aims to properly introduce Costa Rica to American craft beer -- beer dinners, tastings and other special events included. "We want to bring not just the beer but the culture as well."

So there's a tease for you. Plenty more coming soon.

Photo courtesy of Brandon Nappy. I haven't met these guys in person yet, so I'm not sure who's who, but I reckon the guy with long pants and heavy shoes would be the brewer. In my limited experience, the guys who wear flip-flops inside breweries are the owners. Nobody else would be allowed.