Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Struise, Beer Cities, and Berliner Weisse.

There is a unifying theme today. That is: You are all grown-ups who can make up your own minds about these things. (But there's no reason we can't argue about them in the spirit of deliberative democracy.)

Struise and Alvinne in the Washington Post: Read the article here. A very savvy piece from Daniel Fromson.

Two questions for you. First: What do you think of Wendy Littlefield's suggestion that non-traditional brewers like Struise and Alvinne "really, arguably, are hurting the very culture that they claim to be arising out of."

Second, a bit more obscurely: De Leite and Senne are mentioned in the next paragraph as other young upstart innovators. For those relative few familiar with all four breweries: Does it make sense to include those with Alvinne and Struise?

Another Best Beer Cities List. This one from Travel + Leisure. In theory it's about the best places to drink craft beer, according to a reader poll. I'll save you having to click through all 21 pages:

1. Portland, Ore.
2. Denver
3. Seattle
4. Providence, R.I.
5. Portland, Maine
6. Savannah, Ga.
7. Boston
8. Austin
9. San Francisco
10. Nashville
11. Kansas City, Mo.
12. Minneapolis/St. Paul
13. Charleston, S.C.
14. Chicago
15. Anchorage
16. New Orleans
17. Philadelphia
18. San Diego
19. Phoenix/Scottsdale
20. Houston

Lots of notable omissions, including NYC, D.C., and St. Louis (which surely ought to rank higher these days than Kansas City). Seattle and Providence seem awfully high. What is it that makes a great beer-drinking town anyway? Where da pubs at?

To Schuss or Not to Schuss? That is the question asked by Joe Sixpack in regards to Berliner Weisse. He tells us his answer up front, as he's a "total sucker for that green syrup."

Cheers to him for confessing his sin. But remember what I said about you being able to make up your own minds? Forget it. Just say no!


  1. I always forgo the syrup — but the best BW I have had recently was the Bahnhof Bayernischer one made with Brett
    Best beer places — on a smaller scale I rated Burlington VT

  2. After the first couple of entries, the list looks more like just a ranking of the cities taking into account all vacation aspects - food, history, and, oh, yeah, beer.

    i mean really, Philadelphia is #17 and Providence RI is #4?? I'm from New England and Providence shouldn't even be on that list.

  3. Stiv, what you say makes sense. The methodology is basically people who travel a lot (i.e. Travel + Leisure readers) scratching their heads and thinking of places they've been and drunk good beer. With better beer more widely available these days, it makes sense that good vacation spots would float to the top of their minds.

    However, it seems as valid a way to make such a list as any other.

  4. Yeah, I gotta think sheer craft beer production has some influence on that ranking. That's my thought as to why KC is so high. Boulevard produces a ton of beer. After them, though, there's not a lot going on. I live in Kansas City and while there are a several good beer bars, there are very few breweries. And lets face it, you can't get a lot of the great craft/world beers in Missouri.

    Oh, and the T+L article had a mistake. There's not a brewery on 7th Street. It's 75th Street.

  5. I really can't understand where Wendy Littlefield's comments are coming from, considering that Vanberg & Dewulf is trying to position Lambrucha as one of their flagship beers. Doesn't get much more "extreme" than a lambic brewed with kambucha.

  6. It's a rare thing when I encounter a best beer cities list that I don't find annoying in several ways. It's probably best to look of interesting places that you might not have otherwise thought of (having been to Anchorage on several occasions, I appreciate it popping up) rather than focusing on the order of what's there, or trying to imagine how, in God's name, a place like, say, Asheville is missing.

    Re: the article and Littlefield's statement, how dare those Belgians play fast and loose with their brewing traditions. Despite the obvious popularity of breweries like Struise and Alvinne, no one really has a clue how this will all play out. Let them experiment. Somehow, I don't see how this threatens the continued existence of Cantillon or Chimay. Well, as long as we Americans continue to snap up Belgian beers to the extent we have in recent years.

  7. I've heard other "in the know" Belgian beer people talk less than fondly of Struise and Alvinne. Usually the criticism is restricted to the beers, which are always fair game IMO, whatever the brewery.

    At other times the remarks are more directed at the brewers themselves and their often rabid following. Usually those remarks smack more than a little bit of jealousy. They have a set of hard-core fans who treat them like rock stars. It can get a bit absurd but I'd rather blame the fans than the brewers for that.

    I'd like to think that most of us aren't interested in the hype. We're interested in what's in the glass.

  8. About the whole "hurting the culture" thing... What is that supposed to mean? In my opinion, the brewing culture in Belgium is simply that there is a culture of brewing. If nothing else, these guys are helping to revive a Belgian interest in Belgian beer. This inspires more brewers in Belgium which in turn can only help to maintain the brewing culture. Culture is one thing, traditions arising from the culture is something else.

  9. I don't understand what's wrong with doing something different. If you are stuck to traditionalist style beer/food/[insert noun here] that's fine, you have something like 500 beers to choose from in Belgium. When appealing to the rest of us who simply like good beer, whatever that entails, it makes sense for smaller startups to make a name for themselves doing something different where the market isn't so saturated. Besides, killing the traditional Belgian beer culture/practices would be impossible.

    I'm in England right now, and as much as I love English cask bitters, I can only drink so much English two-row and British Crystal hopped with EKG and dry-hopped with Fuggles until I crave something different. Then I head down to The Craft Beer Company in London (fantastic place by the way) and get a blended hop farm in a glass. I'm not much a fan of BrewDog, but I'm glad Breweries like DarkStar are around to do a bit of old and new world style beers so I can switch things up.

    As far as the beer list goes, Seattle is so high because there are simply a ton of interesting American Craft and European options in and around the area. I practically lived at Brouwers for a couple years when it was a 5 minute walk from my place. Probably doesn't belong at number 3, but deserves to be up there. Can't really compare it to the other cities though considering I haven't been to many of them.

  10. A "savvy piece"? Yes, if you're American.

  11. "A "savvy piece"? Yes, if you're American."

    This is either insulting or needs some further explanation. Either way -- insult or meaningless -- a shame it's hidden by anonymity.

    For a national newspaper piece about Belgian beer, it is indeed savvy. It's clear the writer knows the breweries and the beers and more than a thing or two about the Belgian beer scene. I've seen plenty of pieces even in the British and Belgian presses that don't know the koelschip from a hole in the ass, so yeah... this is a savvy piece.

    So, Anonymous, care to explain further? Do you actually have something to contribute here?

  12. The guy knows about the Belgian beer scene? If that's what you think, they you don't know the Belgian beer scene. From the article: "a quadrupel, a traditional Belgian abbey ale"? Oh?

    American have chosen to worship beer in their own church. A church that creates myths about beer. Bizarrely, myths are even created about British beers -- Britain, a country that has conveniently written its history in the same language as Americans.

    A church where personal taste and fact are often confused. A church in which the sweetest or bitterest beers are routinely described as the world's best. A church where the phrase "a balanced-beer" has been banned.

    I could go on, but I think it's clear enough.

  13. "From the article: "a quadrupel, a traditional Belgian abbey ale"? Oh?"

    For better or worse (OK, worse), a lot of US breweries have taken to calling dark, strong abbey-style ales "quadrupels." So has the Dutch Trappist brewery, by the way. I can neither defend nor explain the American fetish for neatly categorizing that which should not be categorized. However, the writer is not writing for geeks, but for American beer drinkers in a language that they might understand. Sorry, but you'll have to do better. I can't take use of the word "quadrupel" as evidence that the guy is ignorant of Belgian beer when the opposite is clearly true.

    "American have chosen to worship beer in their own church. A church that creates myths about beer. Bizarrely, myths are even created about British beers -- Britain, a country that has conveniently written its history in the same language as Americans."

    Interestingly put, and I totally agree. If you read this blog with any regularity (and I'm starting to suspect that I know you), then you know I have a problem with the American version of "styles" for example, and their disconnection from historical reality.

    "A church where personal taste and fact are often confused."

    Personal taste is personal taste, but I've seen many people try to propagandize their own taste as fact... especially in Belgium, by the way. Too often I think people confuse criticism with statements of fact.

    "A church in which the sweetest or bitterest beers are routinely described as the world's best."

    Sadly true.

    Hope we can continue the conversation. Feel free to drop me a line privately if there is some reason you'd rather remain anonymous on the blog.

  14. Let me start by saying that I am surprised, pleasantly surprised, that you seem to have an open mind about something that for many other Americans seems to be a difficult subject.


    "For better or worse (OK, worse), a lot of US breweries have taken to calling dark, strong abbey-style ales "quadrupels." So has the Dutch Trappist brewery, by the way."

    That is not a valid comparison. The Dutch brewery created a beer called the Quadrupel. They never said it was a style. The US breweries describe it as a style. That is a pretty big difference.

    One of the primary tenets of the US church is a fetishistic obsession with beer style. I've been drinking beer for many, many years and style has never come up in conversation nor has it ever had any influence on what I choose to drink or not. I've come to believe that the primary purpose of beer styles is to assure that the fora at Hate Beer and BeerSucks remain active and lively.

    Back to the article. The author's point of view, it seems to me can be summed up here: "Belgium has lagged behind its neighbors in its acceptance of U.S. beer trends; elsewhere, American-influenced brewers such as Denmark’s Mikkeller and Scotland’s BrewDog have thrived."

    I don't know about "thrived". The fact is there are a handfull of European brewers (most mentioned in the article) who do follow the US, but also, sell most of their beer in the US. Not really surprising, after all.

    The quote from Alvinne I found very interesting and to this point: "We could do just regular beers and try to sell it in the neighborhood, but that’s kind of dull." Well, there are a lot of Belgian breweries making "regular" beers and doing quite well. Alvinne recently renamed their "pre-ZBF festival" to "Alvinne Craft Beer Festival". Who, beside Americans", use the phrase "craft beer"? It seems pretty clear who the brewer is aiming this festival at.

    The author writes: "But these sorts of brewers, who often sustain themselves through exports to the United States, are distinctly un-Belgian." That I find an accurate (or savvy, if you will) statement. However, he then writes: "So during a trip to Europe this year, I spent two days in Belgium’s province of West Flanders to visit Alvinne and Struise and see what the future of Belgian brewing might look like."

    How can the same breweries be "un-Belgian" and, at the same time represent "the future of Belgian brewing"? There are about 125 breweries in Belgium of which two are "American-influenced". Does that mean it is a trend? A wave? No, it is insignificant in the bigger picture.

    He also writes: "In a country where beers are often brewed by monks..." Of the 125-odd breweries, six are run by monks. By my maths, that's less than five percent. Since when is five percent "often"?

    And finally (this could go on forever, and I'm sure neither of us are THAT interested): "Quality, however, is only part of the reason for Alvinne’s popularity..." Earlier, he said it was innovation that they were known for.

    That he has found two breweries in Belgium, one in Denmark and one in the UK (there are in reality more, but not many more) that have, for what are undoubtedly commercial reasons, joined the US beer church is hardly a story. The story in European beer is tradition.

    There always have been and probably always will be people who travel along a different road. This is not news.

    I don't really have a lot more to say about the article. Sadly, I found it rather typical, although not in a mainstream newspaper.

  15. Now we're getting somewhere. And you're hitting on some of my favorite topics.

    Regarding so-called "quadrupels"... I think we're on the same page. It's a trivial issue indicative of a larger one. There plainly is no recognizable style of that name in the eyes of Belgian brewers and drinkers. There is something weird about the compulsion to classify a vague set of beers just because they are darker than tripels and stronger than dubbels... And if you want to make an American homebrewer's head explode, tell him that some tripels and dark and some dubbels are pale.

    "I've come to believe that the primary purpose of beer styles is to assure that the fora at Hate Beer and BeerSucks remain active and lively."

    Don't discount the influence of beer books, homebrewing texts and competitions, which are where many craft brewers get their start. It all begins innocently, trying to learn the different types of beer the world has to offer. Later, the brewpubs open with a list of beers: "Kölsch, Biére de Garde, Quadrupel." Usually honest attempts to replicate beers made elsewhere, they nonetheless reify drinkers' minds into categories. All of this was going on long before Ratebeer and Beer Advocate. Let's give both of those sites credit for at least advocating hedonistic rating -- i.e. "how much do you enjoy it?" -- rather than clumsy attempts to rate according to arbitrary style guidelines.

    I'm getting off topic, but I'd like to see more American breweries take advantage of the fact that they are making American beers no matter how hard they try to do otherwise. A typical American brewer, pro or amateur, thinks he is making Belgian beer if he is using Belgian yeast. But there are Belgian brewers quietly using American and British yeasts, and yet the beers remain stubbornly Belgian.

    "Who, beside Americans", use the phrase 'craft beer'?"

    These days? Every English-speaking, beer-making culture uses it. Including the U.K., although it seems to be only British cask ale geeks who have a problem with the phrase, because it's difficult to fit into their worldview. Understandably so. In other languages there are other words for the same concept: ""biére artisanale" in France and Belgium, or "cerveza artesenal" in Spain and Latin America. There are others. The point is that these are relatively smaller breweries rising up as a reaction or counterpoint to much, much larger ones... usually global in size, in fact. The phrase reeks of marketing in any culture, but then so do "slow food" and "real ale." It's nonetheless accurate for describing an international phenomenon.

    But I think your issue is not with the phrase "craft beer"... or at least, it shouldn't be. Your issue--I think--is with the buying power of American beer geeks, for whom Belgian (and British, and Danish, etc.) brewers are making beers that lack balance. Because they know they can export and sell every drop of it.

    You call it the "US beer church." But it's really just a large and thirsty market. And you say that "the story in European beer is tradition." Obviously, that's not the story for every brewer. Personally, I'm thankful that many brewers are willing to preserve traditions while a handful of others are willing to color outside the lines. My options as a drinker are richer for it.

  16. And note that while the thirsty US market might have a taste for 'beers that lack balance' isn't it also the case that we buy a LOT of, well, traditional Belgian beer (any imports, really) that aren't produced specifically for those drawn to stratospheric IBU numbers and ABV percentages? So much so that the survival of those traditional breweries relies heavily on this continued demand?

  17. About quadrupel: I think it's the other way around: it's only the Americans (and the handful of followers in other countries) who recognise it.

    Your point about styles sounds correct, however, unfortunately, it still doesn't make it any better. It is precisely this obsession with style that caused the quadrupel error and has created many completely fictitious Belgian, British and German beer styles.

    It is true that many people beside Americans KNOW the phrase "craft beer", however, it is only Americans and their followers who actually USE it.

    I do not at all agree with your comparisons. Both real ale and slow food describe a process of preparation. "Craft beer", however, is an evaluation of quality. The butcher I often go to I would describe as artisanal, however I would never call him a "craft butcher."

    To assume that an entire industry or sub-section of the industry produces, without exception, a well-crafted product is just not valid.

    No, it is like a church - as I said originally, there is a mythology that is widely believed, there are priests (beer geeks), there are rituals (beer tastings, food & beer matching, style classifications, attendance at religious festivals - those events held by brewers for the annual introduction of a popular beer, etc.)

    I am European. I travel for beer. Why? Because I know that in certain sections of certain countries I can drink beer the same way my father and perhaps even his father drank it. I know a farmhouse/pub in a very small village in Germany that has pictures of Otto van Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhem on its walls. The pictures look like they were cut out of a magazine - a magazine that was published when those two men were still alive.

    Experimentation has its place. However, based on my experiences, I would say that tradition is held in much higher regard by the vast majority of people in the European beer belt.

    If all the experimental beers of the past 10-20 years were suddenly lost, it would be a shame. However, if all the traditional beers of the last 100 years were suddenly lost, it would be a tragedy.