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 Bar....in 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.