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.