Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Midwinter's Night in Brussels.

My first night back in Brussels, and there are 11 Saison Duponts lined up on the bar at Nüetnigenough. They are not all for me. I have 10 companions there to help. It starts with meeting a few old friends for a beer. It snowballs.

Randomly, Dan Shelton (he of Shelton Brothers importers) and Chris DeBenedetti (he of the Great American Ale Trail) are there when we walk in. I am having enough jet-lagged fun that I completely fail to see them. They think I'm leading an organized beer tour of some kind. No, nothing so profitable. Just researching for articles, some sold and some imagined. I'm foggy on the details, but I think Chris is working on an article or two and Dan is helping to show him around. The chat is too brief, as I'm "leading a tour" and they're trying to call it a night.

Somehow gathering a crack squad of 10 old drinking buddies, and then running into those two guys? The world is just smaller in some places.

As for our crew, we aren't quite ready to quit. A night-ending visit to Moeder Lambic Fontainas is in order. Come to think of it, that's also where we started, just a few blocks away. I decide that if I ever live in Brussels again, it would be unwise to live in that neighborhood--an expensive choice, and not because of the rent.

But before we leave Nüetnigenough, there are 11 Redor Pilses lined up on the bar...

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Talking Beer with Pierre at Delices et Caprices.

That's Pierre Zuber from Delices et Caprices, still for my euros the best beer shop in Brussels. It's not for the quantity of beers he sells, which is frankly not large. It's because the beers are well chosen and the man behind the counter knows about all of them. Knowledge and passion are sometimes in short supply in the town's other bottle shops.

On Monday afternoon we shared my favorite beer of the week so far, the L'Enfant Terrible from Dochter van de Korenaar. It's an oak-aged lambic blend of some kind, although haven't had time to hunt down many details. Tart, sparkling, dry, with grapefruit notes and cobwebs. About 7 percent strength, but you won't know it until you stand up and try to walk away. Excellent beer and I wish there were more like it. Why aren't there?

A common theme on my travels this time: Everyone's seen a spike in interest in specialty beers, from visitors from all corners of the globe, in just the last couple of years. Chinese tourists, to name an example, know about Mikkeller and they are asking for it, among others. "The consumer has totally opened up his mind about beer," Zuber said.

But is he asking after the right beers? Sometimes they seem to be more interested in the international- or U.S.-style craft beers -- IPAs and imperial stouts, and so on -- than the traditional ones. "When the IPAs came along, it was slightly over the top. ...  I was dreading a little bit that we were losing focus on what beer really was."

But things swing back around and breweries like the good Dochter make beers like L'Enfant Terrible, and in the end we can skip what doesn't excite us, drink what does, take Pierre's suggestions, and sleep well at night.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Cynicism versus Originality.

Belgian brewing's dependence on the U.S market continues to grow, for better or worse.

From Shanken News Daily, via Appellation Beer: Among the usual numbers of industrial beer flagging and craft beer surging, imports fell 0.6% over the past year but the fastest-growing source of imports was Belgium, with a whopping 28.9% increase in volume. (Mexico is still the largest beer exporter to the U.S., thanks to Corona and the power of the lime.)

It's not clear how much of that Belgian beer is artisanale and how much is, for example, Stella. But many small Belgian breweries already are dependent on exports to the U.S. to survive or succeed (about 60 percent of Belgian beer is for export, and a big chunk of that is bound for American shores). Inevitably, some brewers allow that fact to influence their recipes. Give the market what it wants, right? Or, rather, give the market what the importer tells the brewer that it wants. I won't name names, because most brewers would claim pride in their products, even if the idea were not wholly their own. Even if they are shamelessly pandering to American beer geeks.

Am I being too cynical? I don't think so. This is a story that has already played out in the wine world. Winemakers change what they bottle to satisfy a massive global market and the critics who guide it. As a result, there is not much real variety on the shelves and in the cellars.

Still, there are rogues -- in beer and wine and food -- who follow their own paths. The best brewers will continue to be the ones following their own consciences. These are the ones making exactly the sort of beer that they really want to drink themselves. Ultimately, that's the truest definition of craft or artisanal brewing, even if it's no guarantee of quality and hard to verify without reading their minds.

My theory, possibly naïve, is that those are the beers that drinkers really want anyway, once they learn about them. I refer to the original, the honest, that with personality, and that which says more about its home than its destination.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


I went to an interesting little event in an interesting little place on Sunday. This event said as much as anything I've yet heard about the future of characterful beer in Costa Rica and Central America, more broadly.

In the southeast part of San José, near an area called Los Yoses, is a neat little shop called the Bodega de Chema. Chema is the man who opened it, inspired by the success of Costa Rica's Craft Brewing and already beer-geeky after some time spent in New York state. The best way to describe the Bodega might be part shop and part community education center on the topic of beer with real flavor. He sells beer from CRCB, T-shirts and a couple of books. He also organizes tastings and seminars.

On Sunday he hosted a handful of homebrewers (myself included) to share beers and talk about the future. We've connected over the Internet, but for many of us this was the first time meeting in person. Most of the cerveza casera was made with ingredients acquired with some difficulty from the States. Several employed local ingredients when possible. One of the most encouraging was an extract kit beer in which the brewer had added some of his own farm-grown, home-malted corn and rice. Another really memorable one was a dangerously drinkable porter boosted by Costa Rican honey and laced with a very subtle amount of cinnamon.

There were nine or 10 homebrews in total. All were drinkable, and several were impressive. Naturally, many of the brewers are nurturing dreams of going pro, sooner or later, somehow, someday.

It was event that reminded me of where the U.S. craft beer movement really started. It'll be fun to watch how things continue to develop down here. There will be a couple more events like this in the next few months, and now we have peers to try to please.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Christmas Spirits.

OK class, if you will now all turn to Page 14 in your copies of the latest issue of DRAFT Magazine, you will see a photo very much like the one to the right. And a beernog recipe.

Brings back fond memories of a hot, swampy August night in Missouri, my mother-in-law and I quaffing nog mixed with Schlafly Imperial Stout, pulling out the antique heirloom glassware and fake holly, snapping lots of photos. The things we do for journalism.

Incidentally, the recipe got a little muddled in the presentation. It says, "Pour the beer into the snifter. Add the nog mixture and pour into serving glasses." In fact the snifter(s) ought to be the serving glass(es). I'd repeat the rest of the recipe for you, but I don't need to, since you already have the magazine. Right?

OK, fine. Just find your favorite traditional eggnog recipe, cut back on the liquor, and add some strong beer to your glass. I should note that while my recipe has evolved a bit based on others I've found and tested, the original inspiration came from Randy Mosher's Tasting Beer. In my view the "Beernog (and Other Concoctions)" section near the back was worth the cover price.

Finally: Keeping in the spirit, if you haven't already, go and read the Reluctant Scopper's cautionary Christmas Carol"Is this how it has to end? A piss-stained relic forgotten in the corner of a churchyard where even the knell of parting day doesn't reach?" And much more.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Beer TV News and Orval.

I know it was a long time ago, but back in January I told you about Tim Webb's Beer Amongst the Belgians documentary project. For now, you can still watch the promo episode here.

Well, looky here, I have some news: Director and co-producer Taylor Brush writes this morning that they have received an offer from "a major national channel in the U.S." To start, the channel wants to air a trimmed-down version of the promo -- it would be 22:30 instead of the current 26:11. If there is enough interest, the channel may go with 12 half-hour episodes (Brush and Webb had originally mapped out six hourlong shows).

"Hopefully we can get it done ASAP and be ready to shoot next year," Taylor said in an email.

So best of luck to what would surely be one of the more insightful beer shows yet produced.

Speaking of beer shows: What to help another one become a reality? Lew Bryson would be the gregarious star of American Beer Blogger, should the project raise another $57,000 or so in the next 43 days. After an initial flurry of donations, interest has flagged a bit. Probably that's normal with this sort of thing. Go have a look and see if it's something you'd want to see on TV. I mean, how many times can you watch Sam Calagione in the same six episodes of Brewmasters? Just think of all those times you flip channels and finally settle on something about which you could not give a damn. And remember that if this project doesn't reach its fund-raising goal, then you never spent a dime.

Jesus and Rainbows: Beer writer Chuck Cook gets a peek, as he is wont to do, inside Orval's new brewhouse. You can see a few of his photos here, featuring super-groovy stained glass behind the brew kettles. Then you can go and read his whole Celebrator article online, for free.

Some of the interesting bits: Chuck says that both the dry-hopping and Brettanomyces yeast addition take place in the secondary fermenters. I had long been under the impression that the Brett went in only at bottling... The difference would be more time for that funky Brett character to develop before the bottle goes to market (though another year or two in your cellar certainly doesn't hurt). Chuck also says that some of hops for the dry-hopping hail from Washington state's Yakima Valley, although he doesn't say which variety. The brewing hops are German Hallertauer Hersbrucker and French Strisselspalt. So, noble and spicy.

Finally -- and I think this is seriously, seriously cool -- the brewery has rebuilt its recipe for Petit Orval, available only in the Guardian Angel brewery tap. Previously a pleasant but watered-down 3.5% version of Orval, it's now up to 4.5% abv with greater hop additions for bitterness and aroma, Chuck reports. And it's on draft only at the café.

I've just kicked that to near the top of my Thirsty Pilgrimage bucket list.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Take a Walk with Mr. De Prins.

Brussels is loaded with underpaid and underutilized artistic talent, invariably with an off-centered sense of humor. Occasionally, though, someone figures out how to put it to good use. Such as the Midi Station restaurant, which is right next door to Gare du Midi and a short walk from Cantillon.

The restaurant has posted a series of short films focused on different aspects of Brussels cuisine, situated in Midi's little corner of Anderlecht. Flemish food writer Dirk De Prins is the star, and also manages the restaurant. I'm not sure who directed them, but one is about lambic, as Mr. De Prins pays a visit to Cantillon.

A person from Brussels, the so-called 'Brusseleer’, will occasionally start to fight or sing spontaneously, but will rarely start fermenting spontaneously. No, only Lambiek does this. If wort is exposed to the open Brussels air, it does not start coughing, but spontaneously produces fireworks of yeast due to the fungi and Brussels bacteria which only hang around the Zenne valley. And what a bad smell. But after maturing for three years in old wine casks, you get the most wonderful beer.
Enjoy the movies.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Belgian Beer Cafés, Faux and Real. And Other News and Congratulations.

A long post today. Lots of meat to it, though.

Go here to read or hear The World's radio report on the AB InBev/Creneau International plan to extend an international chain of faux-Belgian beer cafés to the U.S.

Some disclosure may be in order: Clark Boyd contacted me and I pointed him in Yvan's direction. My initial rant is here if you're interested. I still find the sample beer list depressing, weighted with saccharine and fakery, but the most common reaction from beer lovers seems to be "Hey, at least they have Westmalle." Given, more drinking options are always welcome, and these establishments may yet have the freedom and good taste to stock better beers... real lambics, for example. However, I won't hold my breath.

Regarding The World's report: I like the written version, and not just because it plugs our book. It's also because there is an insightful comment there, down below, from a Mr. Barney M. who says he managed a Belgian Beer Café in Australia. There were "over 4000 people through the venue on a busy Friday or Sunday, an average of 8000 litres of draught beer per week," he says. He also says that the plan is not just to expand the concept to the United States but to China as well.

Mentioning China and seeing those numbers puts things in a bit of perspective. This café chain is a very effective and efficient vehicle for exporting AB InBev beer -- lots of it. Why rely on independent specialist shops and pubs, who might or might not like your beers, when you can just open a bunch of your own? (In the U.S. there are legal reasons why you cannot, but I guess they aim to get around them with the design firm, Creneau, in charge. AB InBev, meanwhile, holds the license to the "concept." Whether one can really own the concept of the Belgian beer café is an interesting question, but it's worked for them so far.)

Barney M.'s take on the American venture:

So, a Regular Joe walk’s into a bar, a Belgian the U.S......what does s/he get? What’s the experience? Well, its going to be a formula fit out, dark wooden panels, trinkets from a bygone era, mussel pots on the menu, vis en frites, well groomed staff in full-bodied bib aprons, well-versed in the ‘authenticity’ and ‘superiority’ of Belgian Beer. What’s incredibly ironic is that one of the most historically important beer countries in the universe will be selling beer to THE most avant garde beer country currently in existence! Belgian beers are great....Orval is in my top three. But the entry of the Belgian Beer Cafe concept into the U.S.A. is a waste of time. There are already so many great bars offering not only awesome U.S. craft beers but great beers from Belgium, Germany and the U.K. on a regular basis.
Finally: How cool is it to see Café Verschueren in an international news report? It's the perfect counterpoint.

Some Brussels news, with a lot more to come in the near future: I had reported that the very bruxellois Warm Water café in the Marolles may yet be rescued by new owners. It's safe to say that has happened, although the name has changed. Zabo specializes in simple breakfast and lunch -- tartines, soups, terrines and quiches -- with an organic bent. New owner Isabelle tells me that she currently stocks Zinnebir and Taras Boulba and aims to add several more next month. Let's all pay her a visit and help demonstrate that it's a wise business move on her part.

Last but not least: Congratulations to Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield of Vanberg and DeWulf for 30 years of importing Belgian beers. It would be difficult to overstate the influence they've had on the Belgian and American beer scenes. For those less familiar with their history, it might be epitomized in the (true) story that's become mythology for Belgophiles: It was Don Feinberg who, on the suggestion of Michael Jackson, visited Tourpes and learned that Saison Dupont was possibly on the verge of extinction. He insisted on importing her despite the brewery recommending he take big sister Moinette instead. See? A Cinderella story.

Given the pleasure that Saison Dupont in particular has given me, and many of you, over the years, Feinberg and Littlefield deserve our deep thanks. (Last night, tots in bed, on a cool and wet night in central Costa Rica, I joined the coast-to-coast toast with a glass of Dupont-inspired homebrew.)

Pictured: The line that once separated smoking from non-smoking at the Verschueren. It went across the tables, floor, wall, ceiling, windows and back round again. I assume that the place is non-smoking now, but I also assume the line is still there.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Copenhagen, Hasselt, Westvleteren and Worcester.

It's 11.11.11. Make a wish.

For example: Maybe your wish is to go to Copenhagen next May and sample the rare and unusual, brewed by the rare and unusual. Tickets for the Copenhagen Beer Celebration go on sale today.

I've been a bit snarky (me?) in referring to the fest as "Mikkeller and Friends." It started when the announcement said the brewers there would be the "absolute elite of the international beer scene." Depends on your palate, I think, but I like the confidence. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to be there.

Speaking of festivals... The kind Mr. Paul Briggs recently updated his Belgian Beer Festival Calendar. The link is here and over on the left, as usual. Did you know one of the best fests on the calendar is this weekend? Hasselt. Dig it. Would my first one be a Cantillon Mamouche or a De Ranke Hop Harvest? Tough call.

And a couple of items from the Shelton Brothers...

First, regarding next year's release of Westvleteren in the U.S.:

We are currently working with the Abbey to determine the way we will distribute the beer. If any retailers are interested in donating your services for the benefit of the Abbey (meaning no profit), please let us know. We may want to take you up on it. Otherwise, once we decide how we will make this available, we will let everybody know.
That's from the importer's newsletter. I have zero inside knowledge on this, but if I were, say, a bottle shop that wanted to stock some Westy, I'd be volunteering to donate my services right about now.

Finally, the Sheltons will be cooperating with 12 Percent Imports to organize a fest in Worcester, Mass., on  June 23 and 24. The two of them represent several of Belgium's best and most interesting small breweries. Closer and cheaper than Copenhagen for many of you. Is it the "absolute elite of the international beer scene"? Again... depends on your palate.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Love Letter to Portland.

Drinking and travel. That's what this blog is supposed to be about, finally, mostly. I get distracted sometimes.

So, Portland. Dig it! I know I have. But you should hear about it from another dedicated traveler and drinker who has been there a lot more often than me. He also takes pretty pictures and sometimes tells jokes. He recently started writing about it again on the interwebs. His initials are M.J. Take that or what it's worth.

I like this part:
Much love for the well-crafted high gravity ales that make Hair of the Dog famous, but the 3.5% second-runnings dry-hopped session ales mentioned before, these have captured me. This is it, friends. These small beers truly make me feel like I can give up this crazy hobby and just sit here for the rest of my life, settling into Don Younger-mode. On my stool. With my glass.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Some Dupont News, and More from Westvleteren.

Chuck Cook, one of the hardest-working dudes in the beer writing business, recently came back from another busy trip to Belgium, his luggage stuffed with loads of photos and knowledge and recorded chit-chat. Much of it will appear in his articles for the Ale Street News and other publications. As usual.

This time, however, he's done something a bit different. Editing together several photos from a visit to Brasserie Dupont, and laying over them bits of conversation with brewmaster Olivier Dedeycker, he has put together a package that includes an in-depth 5,000-word article (more than twice as long as your typical magazine feature). Basically, it's saison-o-porn for saison-o-philes.

Now, here's the really different part: He has self-published the package and is charging for it. You can download the whole thing via his site for US$4.99. That's about what you Dupont fans would pay for a magazine if you saw it had an article on Dupont, and less than you would pay for a glass of Saison Dupont in the States, in most cases.

Of course, you could always download the material and start emailing it around and sharing it on the Internet for free. If you're a douchebag.

As an aside: It has never occurred to me to self-publish and sell in-depth or "extra" content, the sort of thing in which publications either have insufficient space or interest. What do you guys think? What sort of stuff would you pay a few bucks for, honestly?

Now, a Westvleteren update: Lots of snafus with the Colruyt supermarket release of Westvleteren last week. Long lines, some stores ran out, many people had coupons but couldn't find the beer, other people couldn't find the coupons even though their local store had the beer. So, far from perfect.

My early hopes that this would take some of the steam out of the grayish-black online market has proven unfounded, so far. Here is one joker selling the box of six Westvleteren 12s plus two tasting glasses for $899. Or you can "buy it now" for $1,500. Charming, no? Zero bids so far, and if there is justice it will stay that way.

One way to ease the hype, if anything can, would be to spread the word that Shelton Brothers will be releasing next year's batch of fund-raising Westy to the U.S. public. (As far as I know, the Brewbound website first broke that news on Friday.) The importer has a lot of experience with distributing hard-to-get beers to its clients as fairly as is manageable, even if there are inevitably disappointed folks in the end.

Daniel Shelton told Brewbound that in April he will import 7,760 of the special gift boxes, the same sort that went for sale last week in Belgium. Shelton also said that Texas-based importer Manneken-Brusel would be importing some of the boxes as well.

My hope that the eBay pirates will drop their absurd prices is based entirely on the hope that people will stop paying them. This news ought to help in that regard, and give more people a chance to taste the beer for themselves and see if it's worth all the fuss. We shall see.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

More (Better) Beer Guides Please.

Here at Thirsty Pilgrim I've tried to write about beer and never about beer writing. I'll make an exception for one day since the latter is going mainstream.

You see, the Oxford Companion to Beer (have you heard of it?) has an entry on "beer writing," stuck in there 'twixt "beer weeks" and "Belgian brewing degrees" (straight away dismissed as "obsolete," but let's not mention that to the brothers at Rochefort and Westvleteren). And yesterday a magazine no less prestigious than the Atlantic had an article devoted to beer writing.

I'm not going to join the OCB kerfuffle here, except to summarize it for those who don't know: It's a big book, fun to read, and mostly true. A couple of beer historians (much cited and respected by less detail-oriented writers like me) have noted a number of inaccuracies or statements they deem to be misleading. Editor Garrett Oliver and defenders have said that some errors are inevitable in such a big book. In yesterday's article, Atlantic writer Clay Risen sides with the defenders.

I'm not going to side with anyone here, because I want to note two of Risen's more important points: First, we need more beer writers who write well for the wider public, rather than for each other or just for (fellow?) geeks. Hard to argue with that.

His second point is that we need more beer guides -- good ones -- as in, guidebooks with a beery bent. Risen mentions Christian DeBenedetti's Great American Ale Trail. I want to mention Andy Crouch's Great American Craft Beer, Adrian Tierney-Jones' Great British Pubs, and Stackpole Publishing's state brewery guides. Last but not least, self-interest compels me to mention Cogan & Mater's handy series of European beer guides. There are many more.

I don't think Risen is coming from a point of ignorance about these books. I think he knows about them, and he wants to see more. I can get on board with that. I love the damn things. That's why I wrote one.

And since I'm writing about beer writing today, and today only, I'm going to point out one more interesting thing. It's something Martyn Cornell, one of those persnickety beer historians, mentioned at the end of a post a few days ago:

I’m going to try to ignore the OCB now, at least until my own copy finally arrives: all the criticisms (and indeed the praise) I’ve made so far are based only on trying to search through what little is available of the book on the web. But Google Books did turn up something amusing. There is one of the 140-plus contributors who simply copied-and-pasted whole paragraphs from the book he wrote several years ago straight into his work for the Oxford Companion to Beer. Evidently for some people, five cents a word only gets you second-hand sentences.
So... what do you think? Is it past time for beer writing to, I don't know, grow up a bit? It's a risky thing for a beer writer to suggest. Something about casting stones. Maybe that's why I don't like to write about beer writing.

Right. Head down, back to work.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Spirit of St. Louis.

Here is my piece on new St. Louis breweries for the Travel section of the New York Times. And here is the quote so nice I have to write it twice:

So is there a limit to the number of craft brewers that locals are willing to support? 
“Seriously? It’s beer,” answered Dylan Mosley, the head brewer for the Civil Life Brewing Company in south St. Louis. “You know how many people drink beer? If I opened a hamburger joint, nobody’s going to be, like, ’Hey, you know how many hamburger joints there are?’ They’d be like, ’Sweet! Another hamburger joint!’ ”
For me, this is one of those quotes that put things in Perspective -- as in, the Craft Beer Perspective, which is this: Only about 5 percent of all beer drunk in the U.S. is made by a craft brewery. St. Louis is no different in that regard. Consider that the Saint Louis Brewery, better known as Schlafly, makes about 2 percent of what's drunk locally, and that another 2 percent or so is craft beer made outside the St. Louis area. That means this wave of micros is really making their living off of 1 or maybe 2 percent... and there is probably room for more. (Hip-hop head nod to Evan Benn of the Post-Dispatch for helping me to get a handle on the numbers.)

Over Zwickel beers one night at Urban Chestnut, still a few weeks before his new brewery opened, Civil Life owner Jake Hafner followed the Mosley hamburger-joint quote with this:
But it's a little counter-intuitive than what normally happens in industries. … In our case, there's four new places, but the pie is so big right now. And we just need a small piece of it... We just need a little fraction of it and all of us are fine. And so collectively, we're so much stronger together, like, us working together and getting the word out about craft beer...
It's a familiar story in America's craft beer segment -- folks who compete nonetheless helping each other out -- and St. Louis is only one of many places where that story has played out. The numbers, or rather the smallness of them, help explain the phenomenon.

But are there cultural factors as well, which might vary in degree from city to city?

Joe Esser (pictured) is the assistant brewer and cellar manager at Six Row. He's from New Jersey but went to graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis about 20 years ago. He got his master's in literature, so naturally he soon found himself brewing in New Jersey. He returned to St. Louis in October 2010 and started at Six Row, right when the local beer scene was getting ready to pop.

Esser noted the city's underground music and art community, which he's experienced both times he's lived here. It enjoys a spirit of cooperation, he said. “There was always a welcoming, warm scene for that. And it's like that for craft beer too. I mean, the craft beer scene worldwide is sort of like an artist's colony. … And St. Louis right now is kind of like a microcosm of that. We feed our own.”

He continued: “I think that's why craft beer right now is blossoming. … There's something about this town. It's a small big city or a big small city. There's a small hometown vibe that you don't find in a lot of other cities. There's that chemistry and that warmth.”

Meanwhile all the micros remain “ïn the shadow of the behemoth,” he said. They're competing with each other, of course, “but happily we don't look at it that way.”

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Nougatty Chunks of Belgian Beer News: Jean-Chris, Cantillon, Struise, and More.

Is nougatty a word? Doesn't matter.

Fans of La Rulles or Brasserie Ste-Helene may remember the Jean Chris beers... Rulles brewed the first one and Ste-Hélène the second, both designed for Jean Le Chocalatier in Habay-le-Neuve (run by a guy named, you guessed it, Jean) and the Mi-Orge Mi-Houblon beer shop in Arlon (run by a guy named Christophe). Part of the idea is to pair the beer with chocolate. Jean and Chris are buddies. Remind me to get together with a buddy one day and have top-flight Belgian breweries make beer for us.

One was a hoppy pale ale, the other was a stout. Both were short-lived, or so it seemed. Now I see both are on tap again at the Delirium Taphouse (that would be the ground level of Delirium Imperial Headquarters on Impasse de la Fidélité), according to the emailed newsletter. It's not clear to me whether these are freshly brewed again, or if the bar had been holding some kegs back for later (as it often does). I suspect the latter. Delirium co-owner Joel Pecheur has confirmed to me by email that these are fresh kegs, recently brewed, and he has my apologies for the unnecessary speculation.

The bigger news is that as of last month there is a third Jean-Chris beer, and this one comes from Cantillon. The Jean-Chris Nomad is a gueuze, bottled and blended from lambics of three different years aged in three different wine casks: a Bordeaux red, a Bordeaux white, and a Côtes du Rhône. So it's not simply a re-labeled Cantillon gueuze but apparently an original creation. Mi-Orge Mi-Houblon was selling the bottles, limited to three per person, starting in late September. It took less than a month to sell out. However, they are still available at Delirium and (I presume) Moeder Lambic as well.

OK, now for Struise: The guys in Oostvleteren have updated their draft list for the Copenhagen Beer Celebration (a.k.a. Mikkeller and Friends). Never you mind that it's not until May 11 and 12! These guys are prepared. And a little advance buzz never hurts. What jumps out at me from the list are the top three beers:

1. Havic - 4% bottom fermented dry hopped lager
2. Single Black - 2% BOB Stout
3. Sniper - 1.5% IPA
In other words, Struise has just destroyed your last hope of generalizing about their beers. And possibly they got sick of smart-asses like me asking when they're going to make a session beer. (Pictured: Urbain Coutteau in repose at the Struise farm.)

Finally: A blog that is right up my alley, and probably yours: Have Beer, Will Travel, there featuring a beery walk around Brussels. Nothing fancy, just lots of photos of beer we'd like to drink in places we'd like to be. The author, I believe is Fred Waltman, he of the Franconia Beer Guide and Mad Brewer. Apparently his blog has been around for a couple of years. But then, so have a lot of them.

Friday, October 21, 2011

I Wish More Pubs Did This.

Once every couple of weeks or so I've been getting an email from Bier Circus in Brussels with a handy little photo attached. It's the same one you see to the right: what's on tap... an actual shot of the chalkboard inside the restaurant. (If you want to get on the Bier Circus email list too, just drop them a line here.)

Of course, lots of places publish their tap lists online. Most seem to be "example" lists of what they might have on at any given time. Just to give you an idea. It's better than nothing, but I like to see more effort.

Many places these days will announce special taps via Twitter, which is OK, but not as useful as seeing a whole list. And by "useful," I mean "mighty fun to look at while killing time at work and thinking about what you'll drink when you go out to meet your friends." Also, there is the ongoing problem that everyone on Twitter thinks that everyone is on Twitter.

Some savvier pubs frequently update their online tap lists, often by uploading the menu in PDF format. Examples include the Bridge in St. Louis (updated two weeks ago) and the Churchkey in DC (updated yesterday). Max's Taphouse in Baltimore has a "now serving" list on its front page, but I can't say how live it truly is. I'd guess that most of the prolific taphouses (read: bars with insane numbers of taps) have something like this nowadays.

What I'd really like to see is real-time stuff... I have vague memories of seeing live webcam shots of chalkboard menus... It might have been the Pelican in Pacific City, Ore., or the International Tap House in Chesterfield, Mo. Neither of those sites have them now, but I'm sure there are more. Maybe this is more trouble for the publican than it's worth. But if you can think of websites where you can see draft lists in real time, please post them in the comments below.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Stuff Rich People Like.

Oi, beer geeks, let's be honest about who we are when we're plunking down $10 or more for a six pack or $5 or $6 for a pint in a bar. Generally, we are not poor (although the few of us who technically are poor, according to whatever definition, do have excellent priorities). And we should be careful about assuming that we represent some great cross-section of America.

Have a look through some photos of your favorite beer festival and see what sort of cross-section it represents. Well-fed white folks, that's what I see.

So there is no reason to get upset over this quote from Harry Schumacher, editor of the Beer Business Daily: "The brands that are growing are the brands the rich people drink."

Now, "rich" is a relative thing, and there are many well-off Americans who would hate to think of themselves as "rich," because that's a word reserved for the bad guys in the movies, not for all us equals. But there are a lot of ways to determine whether or not someone is "rich," and to the minimum-wage or unemployed stiff trying to rationalize putting even the cheapest beer into his family's grocery cart, since the food stamps won't cover it... I suspect that one look at your latest bottle-shop receipt might decide the matter for him.

Also let's remember that craft beer is still less than 5 percent of total beer sales volume, and that we are talking about a wider movement toward better-quality and/or non-mass-produced and/or locally made food and drink. It's not poor folks behind this movement. These things come with a price tag.

And there is some of the usual teeth-gnashing from the beer industry in this latest article from Advertising Age. The comments come from a National Beer Wholesalers Association meeting in Las Vegas. The big boys are still scratching their heads and trying to figure out why they're bleeding sales while higher-end liquor, wine and beer is mopping it up.

Clearly it's because of branding. Sure. Wouldn't that be convenient? Much easier to fix than a wide-ranging change in public taste. That would be unthinkable.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Westvleteren 12 to Hit Supermarket Shelves for Limited Time.

Beer-savvy Belgians will be buying newspapers on November 3 and clipping a very special little coupon. They will then take that coupon to the nearest Colruyt supermarket and, in orderly fashion no doubt, use it to purchase a six-pack of Westvleteren 12 and two Westvleteren glasses for €25 (about US$33).

Not bad, eh?

Here is the news (in Dutch) from the Standaard (with a hat tip to Jimbo at the BBB). Or here you can read it in French from Le Soir, which is where I nabbed this promotional photo. Check out the new roman numeral branding on the glasses and bottles. I don't know... I think I liked it better when they just recycled the ring-necked Westmalle bottles (among others) and left them label-free.

Those with good memories will remember hearing about this Colruyt possibility nearly a year ago. My hope then was that this would somehow take the steam out of the absurd gray-market sales, but that seems unlikely since this appears to be a one-off deal.

There will be 93,000 of these special little "brick" boxes for sale, with all the proceeds going to a major reconstruction project at the abbey. The monks have resisted selling their ales outside the abbey walls for a very long time, in the face of much international hype that would have increased the market value. It's easy to imagine them fretting over where to get the funds for their renovations when they have been sitting on the gold mine all along.

For more Thirsty Pilgrim posts on Westvleteren, click here. They include what is by far this site's most-visited post ever on how to get the stuff the legal way (as in, one to three cases of of it) from the abbey.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

On Embracing Local Limitations.

Ryan is a friend I made in Brussels. He's one of those diplomatic types. At the moment he is taking up homebrewing in Ghana, which will be worth a whole post of its own one of these days. He sent his take on terroir and beer, and I shared it in the comments of the last post.

Interesting that so far the most skeptical comments on terroir in relation to beer have come from beer people. Then along comes a wine guy (who is now a beer guy too, I guess) who says, "Hey, that fits." I'll share his take again in a moment.

To back up just a bit: Don Feinberg proposed something called "monoculture" brewing. I'm not sold on that term for a whole bunch of reasons I'll save for another day (soon), but for now here is the basic idea:

There may be other ways to create a discernible character that sets a beer apart and above others but to me the surest way is the house character that comes only from the combination of water, climate, brewery configuration and one yeast strain. This character, without exception, limits the styles the brewery can produce. But, when used successfully, it also means brewery X can produce one style of beer better than other breweries.
I emphasized the word that I want to emphasize: limits. I think that might be what resonated with Ryan the Diplomatic Wine-Turned-Beer Guy too. Here's his take again:
It is absolutely more than dirt and rocks and weather, although those are the influencing factors. Terroir is about the confluence of circumstances that, if a producer is interested in making the absolute highest quality product possible, force decisions which limit your options.
To get straight to the point: As others have noted (not just here but in many other discussions on this topic), brewers today have virtually unlimited choices. It has not always been that way, but as Max said, the process of brewing beer has arguably always offered more control over the final product (in relation to wine), thus making terroir less relevant. I'm not sure anyone can dispute that.

But if brewers have unlimited choices thanks to a global marketplace of ideas and ingredients, then they also have this choice: They can subject themselves to some local limitations. It's a bold choice, and it's unnecessary, but I think that's the interesting possibility that Don is proposing. (And of course it's something that more and more brewers are doing all the time, to varying degrees, with the emphasis on local this or that.)

On the quest toward making the best product possible, a brewer can subject herself to the local limitations, forcing a whole bunch of decisions that lead toward a distinctive product.

Now, if you want to get really philosophical, that is inevitably what happens to us as mortal human beings. We are not born into this world as blank slates, capable of being whatever we want to be. From the outset we get parameters from our DNA, our families, the cultures and institutions that bring us up. Within those parameters we make choices, sometimes just for survival, but ideally toward being the best person we can be.

One could argue that those limitations make things a hell of a lot more interesting.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Lots More on Beer and Terroir.

Just to catch you up: Remember that Washington Post article on "Belgium's upstart innovators"? I know, this is the third time I've brought it up. But it's where the conversation started, thanks to the quote from Wendy Littlefield of Vanberg & Dewulf.

She said that brewers like Alvinne and Struise are "really, arguably, are hurting the very culture that they claim to be arising out of."

Hang on, I thought. Now that is interesting. Not sure if I agree -- and it's worth noting that Littlefield says the quote was out of context -- but it's interesting nonetheless. So Littlefield and I struck up an email exchange on things like tradition and sense of place in light of brewers like Alvinne, Struise, Mikkeller, and others. I referred to them as part of a postmodern, transnational craft beer scene. (Insert "absolute elite" jab here.)

Meanwhile the Pour Curator published an interview with V&D's Don Feinberg. Part of what he said: "There are a couple brewers in Belgium who are making beer for Americans. We’re interested in Belgium, we’re interested in their traditions ... There are certain flavors that are true to a type of culture, and if you don’t believe that, you’re one step away from making soda."

Are you with me so far? Good. Because I have some more thoughtful stuff from Feinberg and Littlefield. It takes the form of an essay defending the idea of terroir in beer. Here is Wendy to introduce it:

I promised to send Joe more thoughts on the topic of what we think a good and true Belgian beer is – or is not. Don and I talked a bit – then Don left the room and wrote the essay that follows ….at the end of July – What with our with our crazy schedules and a little wrangling about whether it should appear under both our names or just his - I am only now getting around to sending it to Joe and posting it on our blog. So what constitutes terroir in the beer world? 
We commend you to the writings of Stan Hieronymous ... He has given the topic a good deal of thought. 
Full disclosure: We founded Brewery Ommegang –producing Belgian style beers made in America on a former hops farm. We certainly thought they had terroir – but then again….an argument can be made to the contrary. What do you think?
It is clear enough in the essay that terroir for Feinberg is much broader than dirt and rocks and weather. There is a sense of identity and taste from a particular place.
A great Saison made in Denmark is beer without a home, an orphan, a delicious flavor without roots, trapped in a glass. So is an IPA made in Belgium, or an Belgian Triple made in California.
So how does a brewery find its terroir?
There may be other ways to create a discernable [sic] character that sets a beer apart and above others but to me the surest way is the house character that comes only from the combination of water, climate, brewery configuration and 1 yeast strain. This character, without exception, limits the styles the brewery can produce. But, when used successfully, it also means brewery X can produce one style of beer better than other breweries. It is why so many European breweries typically specialize and brew only one style, lambic, weizen, abbey etc.
For lots more discussion fodder, here is the complete essay.

The floor is yours. And if any of you blogger types decide to riff on this elsewhere, please post a link in the comments if you don't mind.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Thirsty Pilgrim Roundup: Danish-American Elite Edition.

Question for those who have been to both the Great American Beer Festival in Denver and the Kerstbierfestival in Essen, Belgium: To which would you rather go?

GABF starts today. Long lines for beers and hundreds of people with whom I'd love to chat. Sounds like a lot of work to me. Thirsty, thirsty work.

Hey: It’s nearly time for you to take that long-dreamt-of trip to Denmark. By “nearly” I mean that your trip is approximately eight months away. May 11 and 12, 2012, to be exact. That’s when itinerant international-but-Danish brewer Mikkeller is organizing the first Copenhagen Beer Celebration. Says Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, "Our intention is to make a small, cozy festival where the main priority is quality." Laudable, I say even if it's tough to agree on what is quality. Interestingly (or not), the brewers lined up so far are mostly American. They include Jolly Pumpkin, Cigar City, Struise and Brewdog, among others. The announcement refers to them as the “absolute elite of the international beer scene” (again, according to whom? Ratebeer?). Anyway, “Mikkeller and Friends” would be a sitcom at least as interesting as that Dogfish Head show.

What we missed last weekend, along with the Beer Nut: The All-Ireland Craft Beerfest. (Is it weird that I'd rather be there than in Denver?) Among the participants: Eight Degrees, which I mention mainly because it will also be at that Mikkeller fest I just mentioned. An Irish craft brewery, run by an Aussie and a Kiwi. They appear to be pretty much brand new. Any reports?

Just south of DC, the old Shenandoah Brewing Co. -- where anyone could come and brew their own -- is gone (we made a couple of batches there ourselves there back in the day). Now the space will house a local edition of the Philadelphia-based Farmers Cabinet. Upscale comfort food and house-made beers. Brewmaster Terry Hawbakers says he’s into farmhouse styles, and that article mentions a funky, 3.8% abv grisette. “I think we want to focus on session beers,” he says. Promising.

From the Baltimore Sun, a visit to the Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia, Md. Apparently the monthly beer tasting dinners there catching on (as they are in spots all over the country these days) and the chow is serious. Something to put on your Baltimore-Washington area to-do list. Let’s overlook the fact that the Sun writer referred to Lagunitas as “boutique” beer. That’s the sort of perfumey word that will send everyone running happily back to “craft.”

In Hoboken, N.J., a beer lover raves about the Gemütlichkeit at the new Pilsner Haus beer hall. Twenty-one taps with strength in Continental European beers and grub. Large mugs of lager. Everybody happy.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Costa Rica to Get Its Own LHBS (Local Homebrew Shop).

Fostering a culture of better beer in Costa Rica... That's is one of the stated goals of that craft brewery in Cartago. It's also one of the goals of Luis Arce, who aims to open the country's very first local homebrew shop.

Although there has not been a lot of variety locally, beer is popular in Costa Rica. So when many ticos travel to the United States for work or play, and it's not uncommon for them to come back with a taste for something more flavorful than the national lagers. But for Arce, it wasn't North America that first inspired him. It was the U.K., where he worked for an IT company and meanwhile developed a taste for darker ales. He also made a friend who brewed his own.

"You know, I started to get more into beers in general," Arce said. Then he returned home in 2009. "First of all, I saw how difficult it is to get good beer here. I was so used to that range of options. ... Especially ales. I love ales."

So naturally he started looking how he could brew his own in Costa Rica. He ran up against a hard truth: You can't grow hops here, and nobody malts barley. Neither was anybody importing the ingredients and equipment made brewing possible. Arce did, however, find a few kindred spirits. "I'm not the only one. If you look around on the Internet, you can find all these posts from Costa Rican guys saying, 'Where can I find these ingredients?'"

For now, there are only two ways: international shipping and travel. Shipping can be prohibitively expensive. It can also raise the eyebrows of customs officials, who don't always know that homebrewing is legal in Costa Rica. They can potentially block the shipment or else ask for some "lunch money" to look the other way. (Arce says his lawyer did due diligence investigating the legality of homebrewing. It is apparently legal as long as the beer is for personal use, i.e. not for sale, and below a certain percentage of alcohol.)

Bringing the ingredients via travel can be as simple as stuffing them into your suitcase. Arce is lucky enough to have a job where he flies to the States now and then. He's got it down to a science: Rather than visit the local homebrew shop, he orders what he needs online and has it delivered straight to his Chicago hotel. He's also been known to ask friends and colleagues to stuff some malt extract or hops into their luggage. 

Naturally, all this hassle got Arce to thinking: "What if I opened up my own homebrew shop?" For the past couple of months he has been working through all the red tape -- no small feat in bureaucracy-obsessed Costa Rica. He estimates that he has at least two more months of paperwork and meetings before he can begin selling a few products online, which is how the shop will debut. Because importing hops involves jumping through some extra hoops, he might begin by selling simple, pre-hopped malt extract kits. The idea is get the shop up and running and get some beginners hooked on the hobby.

Meanwhile, Arce has been organizing a few beer-tasting seminars in Cartago. The next one is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Friday, October 7 21 and costs about US$30 for a flight of seven different beers. (Interested? Register via Facebook. Drop me a line at joe dot thirstypilgrim at gmail dot com and I'll pass on the details.)

"It's not just about opening a homebrew shop here," Arce said. "It's also about creating a culture here. ... It could work. There's people that definitely find that attractive. Because ticos, you know, we're really beer lovers."

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Belgium's Worst. Inquire Now About Franchising!

"EXPERIENCE THE WIDE VARIETY OF BELGIAN BEERS," trumpets the headline atop the beer selection on the Belgian Beer Café's website. It would be a joke, if it were funny.

Maybe you've heard the news that Belgium-based Anheuser-Busch InBev aims to open a chain of 60 or so Belgian Beer Cafés in the United States, besides 55 already open in other countries. If there is any justice in this world, this cynical attempt to profit on Belgian beer's ever-growing cachet in America will fail spectacularly.

Oh, go on and defend it if you want. Go ahead and say that bringing the Trappist ales Westmalle and Chimay to more people who may never have tasted them can't be all bad. To that I would say: OK, but did you see the other 40-odd beers on the sample list? They are a better primer than I could have written myself on the over-sweetened, over-spiced, over-boozed or otherwise just plain insipid direction of most Belgian "special beer" makers. Twist my arm and I might start naming names.

"Special beer," by the way, is Belgium's phrase for "not lager." It has nothing to do with quality and everything to do with the leftover scraps of yet another pils-loving national market. But why be content with scraps when you can sell your sweetened concoctions to much larger markets abroad, add a charming accent to your sales pitch, some stemmed glassware, and a bit of snob appeal? When we are talking about markets in North America and Asia and beyond, the scale becomes immense. He with the biggest production capacity wins, period.

When the Belgian Brewers Guild, a.k.a. the "Beer Paradise" Marketing Campaign Inc., puts on costumes every year and anoints certain people Knights of the Mashstaff, they are usually honoring folks who have helped promote "special beer" exports. In many cases, those exports are said to be the only thing keeping some of these "smaller" breweries alive. A closer look reveals a couple of things: Some of those breweries are not so small, in the Belgian scheme of things. Others should have had the plug pulled on them long ago, but for Americans curious about Belgian beers in general and often enticed by anything with high alcohol and an exotic name.

If only that beer list were just plain old mainstream. If they were just 60 Stella Artois bars I wouldn't have raised an eyebrow. But it's worse than mainstream. That beer selection features some of Belgium's sweetest cough syrups and parades them as "local beers." Essentially A-B InBev has partnered with just a few of Belgium's not-so-small breweries to ensure that the beer list provides a wide range of colors--all of this from a shameless caricature of Belgian culture and atmosphere replicated 100 times over. It's a cookie-cutter for industrial speculoos.

I suspect that most beer aficionados will see through it. It's everyone else I worry about, those hapless folks excited about trying Belgian beer for the first time, because they've heard so much about it. Will Mommy pull the trigger on a Floris Mango? Will wine-loving Dad order a Belle Vue "Gueuze" after reading something about lambic in the New York Times? No doubt much Kwak will be sold on the merits of the glassware alone.

My main fear, I suppose, is that clumsy A-B InBev is going to capitalize on Belgian beer's reputation and flush it rapidly down the toilet. You think my fear is exaggerated? If this thing really takes off, let's take the temperature in a few years and see if Belgian beer is as "cool" as it used to be.

The Belgian thing would be to laugh this off. So why do I feel like weeping?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Damme the Children.

I meant to post this Damme beer festival thing a couple of weeks ago, but sadly it got lost in this stack of toddler birthday party invitations. I mean, what the hell, you tell me: Do two-year-olds really have friends? Four-year-olds, maybe. But not two-year-olds.

Speaking of four-year-olds: That's the age of the Dams Bier Festival, scheduled this year for October 2. The club that organizes this one is called 'TONafhankelijk Biergen(o)otschap, which has way too many consonants, capital letters, and puncuation marks, but it's not like anyone is going to ask you to pronounce it. You just hand over your beer-token money to the nice fellows and say, "Dank u wel."

Damme is just outside of Bruges. This year's event is attracting some pretty interesting breweries from the vicinity and beyond: Kerkom, Légendes (a.k.a. Ellezelloise and Géants), Senne, Struise and Viven are among the beer-peddlers.

Viven I remember clearly from the Bruges festival a couple of years ago, thanks to an American-style Imperial IPA. Maybe not the style I would imitate, but frankly it's refreshing to see new beer companies making something besides the same old sweet blonds and bruins. Incidentally, the firm appears to still be brewing its recipes at Proef.

I guess Viven is about two years old, if we count Bruges as its debut. It does appear to have friends. I wonder when it will get the keys to a brewery of its own?

Monday, September 19, 2011

This Is Not a Beer Post.

And that headline is not a clever bit of Magritte-style surrealism. This isn't a beer post. It's a potato post. But anyway: I've found a high correlation between lovers of fine beverages and lovers of fried potatoes. Imagine a Venn diagram with massive overlap, and only two thin slivers on the far sides of either circle. One sliver represents health nuts, no-carb dieters, and other fools. The other sliver represents teetotalers.

This is all to point you toward an interesting article published in Saturday's Wall Street Journal. It's all about the bintje.

According to several sources in the article, global fast-food demands are putting Belgium's traditional bintje potato in danger. Why is that a problem? The bintje just makes flat-out better frites.

You've never heard a story like that, have you? About global demand of some kind stomping out local variations in flavor?

Well, what's to be done then?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Moeder Lambic vs. Stone.

I ought to be happy for all those Belgians who get to try Stone beers for the first time this weekend. For some of them, maybe, it will be the first taste of a true American-style IPA. It will also be a welcome event for the handful of expats who care about such things. I know I hankered for an occasional C-hop fix when I lived there. Being a good American and all.

Plus, the Stone mini-festival at Moeder Lambic Fontainas is sure to be a hell of a party. They've closed the street out front. Even the New York Times is talking about this thing (cheers to Evan Rail).

It all starts at 11 a.m. on Friday when Greg Koch will say a few words and drink some beer with Brussels and U.S. Embassy officials... which is just plain weird, if you ask me. Oh, Koch makes sense; being much like the rest of us (albeit more successful) he would happily spend more of his life at Moeder Lambic if he could, drinking Belgium's finest. You can learn as much from this video he made last December. So it's not Koch, it's all the stiffs in suits that don't fit. Isn't this the counter-cultural café of Belgium's counter-cultural beer scene? Still, they should be good for a few laughs. Hopefully Koch will make another video.

So what is it about all this that bugs me? Hard to say. Maybe it's all that American beer invading what I personally think is the best Belgian beer café right now. It could be that simple. It could be that I'm nostalgic for the days when American craft beer was impossible to find in Belgium, and Moeder Lambic focused only on the best that Belgium has to offer. But the café has since been offering excellent German, French, Italian and Spanish beers, among others, and I think that's pretty exciting. So why should Stone bug me? Because it's American?

Is it jealousy? Would this be like me going out with some really hot Belgian girl who spoke no English, having to leave her, and then learning that she's been practicing English and dating an entire American football team? Because that would sting.

Or maybe it's the fact that the Stone event is overshadowing Zwanze Day. Jean Van Roy of Cantillon will be at Fontainas to tap the new Zwanze lambic at 9 p.m. on Saturday, in coordination with 22 or so other pubs around the world. Yet even Moeder Lambic's announcement describes Zwanze Day as an "event within the event." No café in the world is more dedicated to Cantillon than the Moeder Lambics, so I'm sure they didn't mean to make it sound like Van Roy is playing second fiddle to Koch. But that is what it sounds like.

Or maybe there is an elephant in the pub, and that elephant is the business side of things. Maybe, in the back of my mind, I am remembering something about Stone -- which makes upwards of 100,000 barrels of beer a year, and is the USA's 14th largest craft beer company -- planning to build a second brewery in Europe. (In fact, that's apparently part of the reason Koch is in Europe; he's scouting locations.) Stone may be a craft brewery in the American sense, but is it a brasserie artisanal in the Belgian sense? For example: There are certain discriminating beer enthusiasts on the Belgian scene who have nothing nice to say about Duvel Moortgat these days. Duvel has been expansion-minded, but a few years ago it was not much bigger in terms of production than Stone is today.

Maybe this illustrates the dangers of focusing too much on brewery size. One day, you open a café dedicated to small artisanal breweries. Later, a bigger one from another country is throwing a party at your house... and hey, the beer is pretty good.

"I think for the most part, most European beer fans won’t know what hit them," Koch told the NYT, which also noted the presence of a "vanilla-bean smoked porter, imperial black I.P.A. and brews aged in red wine barrels."

"Frankly, every single one of them is completely unique in the European market," Koch said.

Does he really believe that? Excuse me, Mr. Koch, meet Struise. And Alvinne. And various concerns brewing at Proef. And Mikkeller. And Brewdog. And a whole host of other lesser known outfits in various countries that have -- partly inspired by Americans like Koch -- been more than willing to make exactly those sorts of beers in recent years.

There it is again: That pesky transnational craft beer scene, doing its best to make us uncomfortable in our old assumptions. Maybe those days I spent wandering Brussels, with nary a Cascade hop in sight, were the last days of a Modern Age that was already on life support. Now we are well into the Postmodern, and things are getting surreal. Hell, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium might be drinking Arrogant Bastard before lunchtime Friday.

Or maybe I'm just pissed because I'm going to miss the party. Yeah, that must be it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Costa Rica's Craft Nets Silver in Chile.

Not bad for a brewery that's barely nine months old.

Costa Rica's Craft Brewing Company is maxing out its brewhouse and selling every drop it makes. The beer is now available in 8o-odd bars and restaurants across the country, with a waiting list of would-be clients who are ready for the brewery to add more capacity (i.e. fermenters). The early success says at least as much about the locals' thirst for something different as it does for the quality of the beers.

About that quality: An international jury in Chile thought highly of it (a jury that included Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker and beer writer Jay Brooks, among others). At the Copa Cervezas de America, CRCB just won a silver for Segua, its hoppy red ale. Congratulations are due to brewmaster C.S. Derrick and the brewery team.

The four gold medal winners: Augustijn Blonde from Belgium's Van Steenberge, the Weizenbier from Brazil's Cervejaria Bamberg, Holland's La Trappe Dubbel, and the Stout from Chile's own Cuello Negro. Augustijn also won the Best Beer award, while Cervejaria Bamberg won Best Brewery.

Besides Van Steenberge, other Belgian breweries to take home medals included Bosteels, St. Bernardus and Brunehaut. Scotland's Brew Dog won a silver for its Hardcore IPA.

Also interesting: The organizers based the beer categories on the standard BJCP guidelines, but they also added a few subcategories: Patagonian Pale, Patagonian Amber, and Patagonian Brown.

The contest's entries and awards were mainly dominated by South American breweries, although a few from elsewhere participated. The organizers billed it as "Latin America's most important beer competition," although this was a first-time event. Regardless, the award for Segua makes a sort of statement for Costa Rica and more broadly for Central America, a region that is generally forgotten amid discussions about craft beer or cerveza artesenal in Latin America.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Earning the Spurs.

Here you can see the saloon.

You can get there the back way, which is through the 2nd Shift brewhouse. Walk past the kegerators, up the flight of stairs, and through the door. Suddenly you're behind the bar.

Or you can come in through the front door, from the street of the re-created Old West town. Sadly it's just a normal wooden door, and not the old-timey swinging doors. You know, the sort where you slam them open and step inside, the piano stops playing, and all the card players and rotgut drinkers with ZZ Top beards stop what they're doing and have a look at the new kid in town.

Presently the saloon doubles as 2nd Shift's rather civilized tasting room.

When I visited Steve Crider at his New Haven, Mo., brewery last year, I thought his exceptional hop-bombs would lead him to success in the St. Louis area. When I say "exceptional," I mean that his IPAs are unusually drinkable for the amount of lupulin that goes into them. Absurd on hop aroma, large in hop flavor, yet the perceived bitterness never seems to cross that resinous threshold that prevents me from ordering more -- that's what I mean by exceptional. Then there is Little Big Hop, which can match its big brothers for flavor, yet has a lighter body and hovers somewhere around 4% abv. It's the sort of beer I wish more brewers would make, but it's not clear yet whether there's much demand for it.

In my view Crider is making some of the best hoppy ales in America right now. But maybe exceptional isn't as exceptional as it used to be in Missouri, where Stone and Green Flash recently entered the market. Maybe it takes more than hop wizardry to stand out these days.

Enter the Hibiscus Wit.

It's not easy to explain, but I get annoyed when I find a tasty Witbier made from spices, flowers, herbs or other salad ingredients. Maybe it's because I've tasted too many overspiced, sweetish, soupy ales -- many of them in Belgium, many others elsewhere by brewers "inspired" by the ones Belgium. So Crider's Hibiscus Wit doesn't fit into my worldview, because I like it. So do many drinkers in St. Louis, apparently, and their bars and distributors. They've all got Crider thinking that maybe the flowery wheat beer will be his flagship. Meanwhile his fermenters are filled to capacity and more will be there soon, if they're not already.

So now Crider is one of the new kids in town. Folks in the St. Louis area are stopping to look. It'll be fun to watch what happens next.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Free Soccer Movement.

As I write this, it's evening in Brussels and the USA is playing Belgium in a friendly at Roi Bauduoin Stadium. It's 0-0 at the half. No, I'm not in Brussels, nor can I get the game on TV. I'm in Escazú, Costa Rica, and there is thunderous thunder outside. The rainy season is getting ready to do what it does best. Which is perfectly welcome after a weekend of too much sun and sand at the beach.

To mark the occasion of the US playing an exhibition in arguably the world's most interesting beer country, I was asked to write a little something for a site called the Free Beer Movement. Dan Wiersema runs the site and does a helluva job, and he doesn't even get prickly when I act like a cranky old geezer and point out that I invented the Free Beer Movement in the first place. This was back when I was writing something called We Call It Soccer. It was a blog about American soccer. Now I know a lot of you Brits are going to read this and want to bring up the F-word, which is fine, but listen: There is nothing worse than a Yank with a Yank accent using the word "football" when he means "soccer." It's like fingernails on a chalkboard, really. Just because you invented the game doesn't mean you get to tell us what to call it, same way you don't get to tell us how to spell "tyre" or what exactly a "fanny" is.

The idea behind the Free Beer Movement was and is simple: To get a fellow American interested in the beautiful game, buy them a match ticket and provide the beer. People are amazingly receptive to new things under the influence of alcohol. And there is just something magical about free beer, generally.

Can the craft beer world learn something from this? Is the stubborn American who thinks that soccer is boring the sports equivalent of the Bud-Miller-Coors drinker who won't try anything new? Maybe. Or maybe there is a class thing at work here, as upper-middle-class white guys think they know best about what other white guys ought to be doing with their time. I can't really say. My motives have always been selfish. I personally wanted better atmosphere at the soccer games I attended, and that meant getting more people interested. I personally want more beer choices in more bars and restaurants and shops, and that means getting people more interested in different beers.

You don't buy that, do you?

Oops. Belgium up 1-0 in the second half, says the intertubes. Surely I ought to be working.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Vive La Franco-Belge Résistance.

Here I am with all this great stuff saved up from our American swing, and off I go on a Brussels kick. No complaints I hope?

Yesterday I mentioned the Belgian Beer Weekend on the Grand Place and its merits (namely, Belgian beer and the Grand Place). But just a few blocks away, the guys from Moeder Lambic Fontainas are--in true Moeder Lambic fashion--offering an alternative:

"This small group of rebels is fighting back against bad taste in beer, by preferring hops to sugar, quality to quantity. ... We needed an excuse, an occasion on which to do it, and the Belgian Beer Weekend festivities on the Brussels Grand Place seemed liked the perfect opportunity.

This is the annual high mass of the Belgian brewing scene, with its procession of insipid pasteurized beers wrapped in lovely marketing labels with devils, elephants and fake monks; all poured into delightful glasses.

However, the truth is in the tasting. We are hoping the contrast will be overwhelming, and so are inviting you all to come along on the first weekend in September to taste these new waves alongside the Belgian resistance beers that we already support and defend."
The emphasis will be on the "other" French beers, i.e. biéres artisanales. They are seeking recruits for the Hexagonal Libeeration Front, reminding us that the resistance continues despite the French having lost the beer war back in 1664. As is well known, of course.

Featured French breweries are to include Agrivoise, Garrigues, Paradis, La Franche, Fleurac, Pleine Lune, Matten. And let's be honest: Unless you're a freak (and some of you are), most of those names are new to you. Exciting things happening in French craft beer these days. Plus there will be the usual Fontainas lineup and no doubt a couple of surprises.

For example: the release of a collaboration brew between the boys at Senne and Allagash. How cool is that? Said to be 5.2% alcohol, amber in color, 55 IBUs.

Let's go ahead and call it what it is: Brussels Beer Week.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Brussels, Mussels and September.

I often wish I were back in Brussels. Here from my bed in Escazú, I have pleasant dreams about visiting old cafés, drinking lambic, and scribbling notes. My subconscious is researching another guidebook, even if I'm not (yet). No doubt the wife and tots prefer it that way.

Right now, though... I mean, if you had to pick one time of year... hey, mussels are in season. So are beer festivals. This is the time of year that Bruxellensis happens, in that parallel universe where Bruxellensis is a regular occurrence. (Hey, maybe next year.) And the Belgian Beer Weekend kicks off this Friday on the Grand Place. I don't love all of the breweries that tend to participate, but... it's not like I go thirsty, is it? And you can't really beat the Grand Place for a beer-fest backdrop.

Just up the hill from the Grand Place party is Bier Circus, of course. This morning I got their newsletter. Mussels are on. Cooked in Girardin lambic, in Witbier and watercress, or in Rochefort and stone-ground mustard.

Back to the Grand Place for a peek at the list: Lots of clutter there, but I could do with a St. Bernardus 8, a Witkap Stimulo, or a Saison Dupont. Or several. For something different, a Cascade-hopped Armand from De Dool. Then a Hercule Stout to punctuate the evening.

For now I have some hoarded lambics and a few bottles of Saison Dupont smuggled from the States. Tonight, before bedtime, I may have to open a bottle, bending my thoughts toward shellfish and tiny snifters of 10-centiliter servings.