Thursday, June 30, 2011

History Lessons and the Sweet-Smelling Mess in My Closet.

There was an imperial porter volcano in the closet last night. I should have used a blow-off tube. On the upside, the home office smelled pretty tasty this morning. Mess managed, now I can work to the soothing sounds of bubbling airlocks.

Baloop, baloop, baloop, baloop. I know, I don't usually write about homebrewing. But...

My blog. I write what I want.

So I part-gyled yesterday. Since this isn't (usually) a homebrewer's blog, I'm going to explain that: I made two beers from the same mess of grain. First runnings for a strong beer meant for keeping... maybe until Christmas, when it might be enjoyed from cute little snifters, with strong cheese or a cigar. Second runnings for a beer that will be drunk sooner, from larger glasses.

The original idea was an imperial stout and a mild. But then the mild wound up with an original gravity of 1.050, which means it'll likely end up with around 5% alcohol. Maybe I'll call it a porter then. And the big one--OG 1.092, maybe 9% strength when it's finished--can be an imperial porter.

So, porter and imperial porter. It was Martyn Cornell who got me thinking about the latter. He's uncovered a newspaper clipping, as he is wont to do, that mentions "imperial porter" and predates the earliest known reference to "imperial stout." "[A]lthough to a late Georgian drinker," Cornell notes, "stout, or at least brown stout, WAS porter, just the strongest version thereof."

Well, why not call it a stout anyway, then? I don't know. Maybe because it reminds people of Guinness. And because I just like the word "porter." It has a sort of old-timey, sepia-tinted, workmanlike cool. It reminds me of big glasses, flat caps and Flogging Molly.

But: Maybe I shouldn't be so quick to reject the mild thing. Milds used to come in all sorts of strength, as Ron Pattinson likes to remind us. Just today, in fact, he's posted up one of his historical-turned-homebrew recipes for an 1879 export mild. It's stronger than 8%.

In that case, maybe I just made a mild and an export mild.

My brewery. I call it what I want.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Maybe We Should Just Call it Light Beer.

Nice that the Wall Street Journal dedicated this piece--"The Connoisseur's Light Beer"--to session beer. Shame that all its picks are mainstream strength, from 5% to 5.4% abv. As I've argued before, the "session" mark has got to be set lower than that if it's going to mean much.

Lew Bryson's 4.5% mark seems low enough to be meaningful but high enough to be reasonable.

Meanwhile: Andy Crouch neatly sums up the marketing problem facing session beers, if they're to gain wider traction:

Our drinking culture is goal oriented: have a beer to accompany a meal or fill a short window of time after work and before a commute. Most drinkers don’t sit around and have a half-dozen beers before heading home and with craft beer prices in many markets approaching $7, 8 or even $10 a pour, regular ‘sessions’ would be bankrupting.
Thoughtful stuff from Andy as usual, and he hits upon an important truth there. But it's not the whole truth. The reality of the U.S. beer drinking market is that people are drinking loads of 4.2% light lager. Considering the steady growth of craft beer, there would appear to be market opportunities for light beers of greater flavor.

But as far as craft goes, I agree with Andy that "American beer culture has a long way to go before lower alcohol drinking gains a true foothold." Despite all the buzz about session beer, there is not yet anything other than anecdotal evidence that it is becoming a true trend. (I tried to make this point last month using Ratebeer data-- problematic, although I still believe that new beer entries on that site are a solid indicator of American craft beer trends.)

As far as fighting to "redefine American beer culture"... I'm no Lew Bryson, mounting an explicit awareness campaign, but I am a writer and drinker (is that redundant?) who often enjoys the lighter stuff in quantity. I can't speak for all sessionistas but I suspect most of them have motives as selfish as my own: to find more, better lower-alcohol options in our locals and shops.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Beer: Still Not the New Wine. Drink Up.

There are lots of types of peoples out there. Lots of types of drinkers. Maybe too often we make the mistake of thinking that they're all pretty much like us. But maybe they're not. Maybe we're rare. Maybe nobody thinks like us at all, and we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that they do.

I wonder if the Pour Fool has been making that mistake in his Seattle Post-Intelligencer column. He has no qualms about judging people who drink more than three or four beers in a night. No matter how low the alcohol, it seems, that's not a session but simply "drinking too much." Really.

Maybe the sessionistas should cultivate that bad-boy, binge-drinking image. It's sexier than the usual low-alcohol, drinking-in-moderation spiel.

The Pour Fool reminds me of Notch Session brewer Chris Lohring's thoughts from the other day:

Amazing how many who are entrenched in the craft industry loathe what I am up to. ... On that note, I have discovered a whole new beer consumer that has been cultivated in the past 5-10 years. The insufferable 20-something beer snob born on rare, imperial, double and sour, and are as closed minded as a Bud drinker. Worse than a wine snob, and the craft beer industry created them.
Except that Mr. Body appears to be coming from the wine side--which in turn reminds me of Stan H's New Beer Rule #7: Beer is not the new wine.

Finally, it reminds me of some other geeks I've known, who are more interested in sipping and savoring than gulping and gulping. For some of them it's hard to understand why you'd want to drink the same beer more than once. Children of plenty, they are. Products of the insane variety that's available these days.

Me? I'd like to think there's a place for all of it. I'll try not to make the mistake of assuming that you agree. Some of you obviously do not.

Hey, Velky Al at Fuggled is musing on session beers today too.
I have heard several times from respected brewers that there "isn't a market" for low alcohol beers, and yet I constantly hear in the pubs and bars of America a sizable segment of beer drinkers wishing there was more choice of low alcohol beers. So where has this disconnect come from? In my more cynical moments, I wonder if brewers are losing touch with drinkers in the pubs and bars up and down the country, in favour of great ratings on websites that advocate beer?
I've wondered the same. Yet I find it hard to swallow that many brewers are chasing geeky Internet glory at the expense of dollars. Rather, I think they are often trying for both. A bit of hype over a couple extreme beers can be good for publicity, after all. Meanwhile publicity that showcases more useful (if less exciting) workaday beers might be what's truly lacking.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Warm Water Café May Continue.

One of the last real lambic cafés in Brussels might very well live to see another day. But it's not a done deal yet.

As I mentioned before, Warm Water owner Lieve Polet has been planning for a while to retire at the end of June. Those plans haven't changed. Meanwhile, those of us fond of this bruxellois institution in the Marolles have been holding our collective breath, hoping that a buyer or somebody would come along to keep the place open. That may be happening now.

"There is a real possibility that Het Warm Water continues," Polet told me yesterday. The discussions are happening today, presumably between Lieve and the prospective buyer. She promises to let us know what happens. I'll keep you posted.

The Warm Water specializes in dialect, atmosphere, vegetarianism, bruxellois breakfast, and Girardin lambic. For more details, crack open your copies of Around Brussels in 80 Beers or LambicLand.

It need not be said that we hope this buyer is no architek just having a zwanze at our expense.

Belgian beer and cooking: The Naptime Chef has declared it Belgian Beer Week, with a bunch of Belgian-inspired, ale-involved recipes. She has developed the recipes in cooperation with the folks at importer Vanberg & DeWulf.

When I first read the name "Naptime Chef" and saw the beer-marinated pork tenderloin recipe, I thought maybe she specialized in meals that make you want to take a pleasant nap afterward. But no: The recipes are aimed at foody parents who love to cook. So they try to do it during the kids' naptime. Get it?

I do. I get it, better than you could know.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Brewpubs, Drinking Local, Session Beer, and Tax Cuts.

In case you're still trying to work out where to take your summer vacation, the USA Today's travel section asks Andy Crouch to name 10 of the country's most interesting brewpubs. And it works in a plug for Andy's Great American Craft Beer book. So did I.

In a recent Beer Advocate column, Andy opines on craft brewers reducing their distribution rather than trying to compete in all 50 states. The Great Beer Retreat, he calls it. "We are entering a new era of craft beer, one in which selection around the country may shrink but where local beer will grow increasingly strong and entrenched roots."

Have a look at your own hometown. What do you see? In my hometown of Springfield, Mo., I see a brand spanking new brewhouse that sold 120 barrels to locals in its first two weeks. It has lots of room to expand. Now in Springfield there are people drinking craft beer who never gave it much thought before. It's easy to weigh that against a few hypothetical geeks ringing their hands over not being able to find some Dogfish Head special release. Very easy.

Three of my favorite things: St. Louis, D.C. and beer. So I was tickled to hear recently about the collaboration between Schlafly of St. Louis and three D.C.-area publicans of quality watering holes: Greg Engert of ChurchKey, Greg Jasgur of Pizza Paradiso and Sam Fitz of Meridian Pint. I was even more tickled to learn that the collaboration was a 4.2% abv dry-hopped pale ale called House in Session. The idea is to raise awareness about proposed cuts in excise taxes that would make life easier on smaller brewers. More info on that from the Brewers Association, if you're interested.

Yes, craft brewers lobby for handouts just like everyone else. At first glance it would appear to be a positive thing for drinkers as well, possibly leading to wider choice and (dare we hope?) lower prices. Here's more knowledge from the Washington City Paper.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Destinations: Japan, Berlin, St. Louis.

Slate takes notice of Japanese craft beer, and it's a lot more than Hitachino Nest. Tim Webb and Stephen Beaumont know all about it, as they slog away on the upcoming World Atlas of Beer. As an exercise, how many developed countries can you name that don't have burgeoning craft beer scenes these days? I'll even get you started: What's up, Portugal?

Speaking of Tim, his Cogan & Mater outfit has a new one out: Around Berlin in 80 Beers. It's been available for a couple of weeks but deserves more buzz. Do a small, independent publisher of quality guidebooks a favor and spread the word via your preferred social media vehicle, if your friends wouldn't think you odd for doing so. More about the book when I get a copy.

Which city will be next in the series? As you might expect, if called upon, I am ready to write Around San José in 5 Beers.

And speaking of beery books about cities, check out Post-Dispatch columnist Evan Benn's Brew in the Lou. It's more a primer on St. Louis beer culture and history than it is a guidebook per se, although most of the logistical info you could want is there for the finding. It's a really-ought-to-own for St. Louis beer lovers and a something-to-seriously-consider for those who'd like to visit and put their thirst to good use. More later, I think.

Until then, carry on ye parched wayfarers.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Giddyup Roundup: Cans, Sessions, Notch, and Senne.

Cans and session beers: Financial news site The Street decides those craft trends are worth a brief article featuring Chris Lohring of Notch and Joe Tucker of Ratebeer.

Speaking of Lohring, I asked him last month how things were going for his session-oriented outfit, which has been getting its share of press lately. He's found fans of the product but not everyone is wild about what he's trying to do:

My two new beers have been well received, especially my Pils, and I’m barely keeping up with initial demand. Just kicked-off my cask only series (one-off beers that only get packaged in cask), and first up is a Dark Mild. Could not have picked an more unfashionable beer style in the age of hop and alcohol. But, I am mucking up some conventional wisdom on where craft beer is headed. Amazing how many who are entrenched in the craft industry loathe what I am up to. Like I am calling their baby ugly, which based on the Black IPA tasting I did recently--it kind of is.

On that note, I have discovered a whole new beer consumer that has been cultivated in the past 5-10 years. The insufferable 20-something beer snob born on rare, imperial, double and sour, and are as closed minded as a Bud drinker. Worse than a wine snob, and the craft beer industry created them. Glad I do not have them as a customer, I’d quit brewing. More on that in a blog post.

Other than that, I’m [really digging] brewing again, experimenting left of the dial, and getting beer snobs in a tizzy about what constitutes good beer. People are getting it--especially pubs, and the craft beer consumer who is getting gray on top.
So there's your report from Boston. Ready for a report from Brussels?

Here's the word from Yvan at Brasserie de la Senne on the beer called Brussels Calling... It won't join the regular lineup but it might make yearly appearances.
Brussels Calling was our first attempt to make a beer in the new Brussels facilities, on December 22, 2010. Of course, we couldn't have claim to make a Taras or a Zinne from the first batch, so, this is a new recipe but very close to Taras. Just a bit more malt and a different hop (Hallertaü Hersbrueker) for the aroma. It's a 5% abv blond ale.

It is not a new beer in our [year-round] range: it wouldn't make sense because the proximity with Taras. It will become our anniversary beer, the last batch we'll be brewing every year, to be drunk in Spring, most probably with a different recipe each time.

The guy on the label is our friend Herbert Celis (no relation with another Celis...), from the Brussels' band Frown-I-Brown. He has a song on Taras Boulba and another on Zinnebir. So, this is a tribute to his support. It is also a tribute to London Calling from the Clash, and marks our new start in our beloved city.
I haven't had the chance to try it yet. It seems they won't be exporting it to Costa Rica, go figure. Reports, anyone?

Monday, June 13, 2011

What Should the Labels Tell You?

Depending on where you live, the label on a bottle of beer may or may not tell you how much alcohol is in the container. How useful or important is that information to you?

Should the government require all breweries, large and small, to put that information on a label? What about a restaurant or bar menu?

Does making that information obvious lead to "strength wars," where breweries compete for the business of those who want the most bang for the buck? (And might that explain the boozy trend we've seen in craft beer over the past several years?)

Your thoughts would help me improve an upcoming magazine article. I'd love to hear some different views on those or any related issues.

Pictured: The Belmont Station beer shop in Portland, Ore.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Where to Find Cantillon Sorbet in Brussels.

The Châtelain is a trendy neighborhood in the Ixelles commune, south of central Brussels. The young and/or well-heeled go there to sit outside and sip Stella, munch on Italian food, and watch each other walk by. The Place du Châtelain is at its friendliest on Wednesday evenings, when the same folks descend on its mostly overpriced open-air market for sausages, oysters and glasses of white wine.

Sometimes we walked down there for a beer, or to check out the market. More often we walked down that way for ice cream.

Strolling past the bars and boutique gift shops that line Rue du Bailli from the Sainte Trinité church toward Avenue Louise, look for the big ice cream cone on the left. This is one of a few excellent glaciers in a part of town that seems to excel in them (Zizi and Il Gelato on Rue Vanderkindere are also popular with locals).

What makes Framboisier Doré especially interesting to us is the regular presence of two sorbets--Cantillon Gueuze and Kriek--sold by the scoop or in frozen blocks wrapped in brown paper, to take home. The brewery approves; Cantillon serves the same sorbet for its annual Quintessence, the progressive-style lambic-and-snack party.

Nearby beers: One close option is the Châtelain café, on Place du Châtelain, with Moinette, a few Trappists, and bollekes of draft De Koninck pale ale. Unfortunately I've often found the better beers missing and the De Koninck in poor condition. Luckily, brisk walkers should be able to reach Moeder Lambic St-Gilles in about 15 minutes. Carry along a double-scooped cone of sorbet, and you'll barely notice the time.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Down With an Update?

One of these days maybe I'll post a full list of updates to Around Brussels in 80 Beers. Closings, movings, openings, dramatic changes in opening hours. Ideally it would only make sense to someone who already owns a copy of Around Brussels and be totally useless to everyone else.

One of these days. Today is not that day.

Instead I've compiled a handful of, um, bits. Tim Webb would let you believe that he has a vast, secret network of informers to help him compile the Good Beer Guide Belgium--and it's not far from the truth. Me? I have, like, five people.* And I don't keep secrets. The most prolific informer has been Simon Croome.

Simon lives in the UK but makes sporadic visits to Brussels. He's been working his way through the "80 Beers" with the sort of madness that can only approach the madness it took to research and write the damn thing in the first place.

OK, hang on. Check this out. Importer Vanburg & DeWulf throws me into some esteemed company, including Tim, M.J., Stephen Beaumont and Chuck Cook--and that Waerebeek cookbook is seriously excellent, by the way. "Ooh, we just love Joe Stange’s blog, Thirsty Pilgrim, which chronicles his take on the Belgian beer scene. How he remains so 'au courant' when he lives in Costa Rica is a minor miracle." Well, it ain't a miracle obviously. I send emails. I make phone calls. Plain old journalism. And I get tips from people like Simon.

Anyways. Maybe this will be useful.

Closed: Belladone. Chapeau d'As. Ultieme Hallucinatie. Greenwich, although there is talk that it could re-open under new ownership, which is bound to be better than the previous ownership. Warm Water on June 30, unless a buyer comes along. Please buy it. And there's a nagging feeling that I'm forgetting one or two.

No longer very beery: Laristo. Imprimerie, unless it decides to start brewing beer on a semi-regular basis again. We don't even mind if they keep they late-night disco. Hotel Galia, although the website suggests maybe the café has re-opened with a few decent beers, even if the traditional lambics are not among them. Reports?

Changed opening hours: Too many to list. As I'm sure we warned you somewhere in the book, opening hours in Brussels are a moving target. They're often unreliable in the first place and subject to change in any case. But a good example would be Stella Solaris, about which I've heard a few complaints from people going there to find it closed. Now it appears to be open Thursday to Saturday 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. only, with Monday to Wednesday "by request." Which I take to mean private parties, or "owner might let you in for a beer if you happen by and ask nicely." If you find it frustrating as a customer--and you should--imagine trying to pin it all down for a guidebook.

Opened: Moeder Lambic Fontainas. Brasserie de la Senne. Little Delirium. And more, but I'm going to save them for later.

That's what I've got so far. Now, here are some fun notes from Simon:

Belga: "Knowing we had a bit of time to kill we grabbed a 75cl of St Feuillien Saison and a couple of snacks to tide us over and sat down to give the papers a good going over. Really like the decor and also marvelled at the total mix of clientele--young families, hip & cool dudes, retired gents, even a couple discussing estate agents papers."

Bizon: "Wow, what a lovely feel to the place. I could definitely see us doing a session here, friendly and with great atmosphere. Good beers too, J went Cantillon while I had a Rochefort."

DNA: "Another wow moment walking in; not sure too many beer tickers would appreciate this place but it's right up our street being old metalheads 'n all. Surprisingly good beerlist for such a place with J having draft Chouffe and me the Witkap Stimulo."

Fous de Terroir: "What a good little place it is. The quality of both food and drink is amazing with several good 75cls available. Cuvee des Trolls & Biologique both went down very well with plates of pasta and duck salad."

Gougoutte à Pépé: Very friendly and after a while several of the guys who had been in Murmure started arriving and were interested in knowing why we were going around the local bars--so we had to show them the book which they enjoyed a lot, especially the part about sitting in the window seats to see the trams (obviously where I'd gone to sit straight away). Tried the Gougoutte shots as well which made a change from all this beer.

Murmure: "Here and Gougoutte show their shared ownership pretty heavily as both have funky drawings on the walls, only Murmure has the metalwork also. We got a bit excited when we saw the seasonal beer listed as 'Cams back' but unfortunately it turned out to be a long lost regular not some delicious De Cam lambic, just had to settle our sorrows with some Zinnebir and Lamoral triple."

Pantin: "J made friends with the cat and I discovered that the drink we call De Ranke XX was known locally as just Bitter (well it probably is the hoppiest thing they see) causing much confusion when ordering."

PM1: "Marvelled at the combined beer/whisky/cigar range."

Terra Incognita: "Very pleased to have made its acquaintance. The beer list wasn't huge but with regulars like Zinnebeer, Bink Blond & Moinette we're not complaining; I did find a new beer for me - Montagnarde from Abbaye des Rocs which was a pleasant surprise. Good plate of cheese & salami too."

*Maybe you have some tips as well? Send them to me. I'll buy you a beer if we ever meet, and maybe send you a free book if there's ever a second edition.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Craft Beer in Gringo Bars.

It's a bit of a shit photo, but it should give you an idea of the best sort of beer selection you can hope to find in Costa Rica or Panamá, which are probably a half-step ahead of the rest of Central America. A few international lagers, with the Japanese well represented. Sam Adams. Paulaner Hefeweizen and/or Helles. Leffe and/or Duvel. Bottled Guinness "Draft" as well as the mighty Foreign Extra.* North Coast beers are possible but sort of a rare bird. Distributors are notoriously flaky too, so rarely will everything be available at one time.

Most notable would the Libertas and Segua, upper left corner, from Costa Rica's Craft Brewing Co. Drink local, right?

This particular fridge is at Los Amigos in Jaco, right on the Pacific Coast and about an hour from San José (that is, it takes an hour unless weather, landslides or construction work shut the autopista). Popular spot with tourists and expats of all stripes -- families, fishermen, surfers, gamblers and whoremongers. I call it a gringo bar. Gringo bars often have better beer selections, catering to those with the hankering and cash for something besides Imperial. They often have better food as well (that imported U.S. ribeye was a thing of beauty). Just the remedy for a Yank expat tired of lean, chewy, grass-fed Brahman beef.

Another great gringo bar, with probably the best beer list in the country: Time Out Tavern in Escazú. And another: El Estribo in Santa Anna. Sportsmens Lodge in downtown San José. Most of them are also sports bars. And there are plenty more, here and there.

Rumors: I've heard about another guerrilla brewer in Guanacaste, brewing, bottling and selling his own to locals. That's makes at least three of them that I've heard about. They appear to be popping up spontaneously, with little or no communication among them. If nano-brewing falls somewhere between home- and micro-, then I think these guys are in that nebulous space between home- and nano-. Basically: They're homebrewers who are selling it because (a) people like it, and (b) they can get away with it. People want something different, they're willing to pay for it, and the authorities surely have better things to do than come around and ask for permits. Especially from someone brewing just 10 or 15 gallons at a time.

I'm trying to learn more, but what they're doing is not technically legal. My fear is that sharing the details could send the wrong sort of attention their way and shut them down.

Still... There's definitely a story there.

*So far, no true draft Guinness has appeared in Costa Rica, to the best of my knowledge. Might be just a matter of time.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Brussels Calling, to the Faraway Towns.

Good morning, biéreophiles.

Want to try the new Gueuze Tilquin on draft, from Wallonia's first latter-day lambic blender? Then wander into Delirium this Friday, June 3, anytime after 4 p.m. If you want to meet Pierre Tilquin and ask him why he would do something so completely insane -- or perhaps just thank him for it -- then look for him there around 10 p.m. For more on the Gueuzerie Tilquin, check out Chuck Cook's interesting post here or my previous posts here.

UPDATE: The gueuze will also be on tap at 4 p.m. at both Moeder Lambics. So Friday is officially Pierre Tilquin Day in Brussels.

Also new in town: a label from Brasserie de la Senne called Brussels Calling. I'll have more on that for you soon. Shelton Brothers will import it to the States, as they are wont to do.

Speaking of the Sheltons, Dan will be giving a talk on saisons and biéres de garde during Philly Beer Week. Hey, that's next week. The talk will be on Wednesday, June 8, 7:30 p.m. at the Farmer's Cabinet. Dan Shelton is a man of deep knowledge and strong opinions -- two of my favorite qualities -- so if you're in Philly and interested in farmhouse beers then you really need to be there.

Gueuze, Senne, Saisons. Damn. It's far too early to be this thirsty.