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.