Monday, December 10, 2012


Sometimes beer writers seem to constantly compare their subject to the wine world. Other times we go to great lengths to avoid it.

Here's the thing: Sometimes it's apples-oranges. Other times it's apples-apples.

If you are geeky about beer and read about wine at all -- or vice versa -- how many times have you read about one drink and slapped yourself, realizing the same truth basically applies to the other? As economic commodities and cultural artifacts, fermented drinks of moderate alcohol have lots in common. Lots and lots.

That was an aside. Which is a poor way to start. Hey, have you heard about how Asians are buying everything that is cool? It's an exaggeration, mostly. But it's a narrative that's going to stick around for a while. For example: Some savvy Asian businessfolks just bought Wine Advocate. Eric Asimov of the New York Times writes that "the move recognizes a new reality, that the center of orbit for critics like Mr. Parker is now in Asia rather than North America."

You don't think similar things are happening with beer? Have you noticed where Belgian Beer Cafés (tm) are opening lately? For more on that, you may owe it to yourself to get a really large stocking, one large enough to fit the superb new World Atlas of Beer.

But that wasn't what caused my self-slapping. It was this bit, which touches on one of my pet topics:

In one sense, Mr. Parker and other like-minded critics planted the seeds of their own obsolescence. The 100-point scale and the vocabulary of tasting notes — those brief wine descriptions that break down what’s in the glass to a series of aromas and flavors — are meaningful only until people start to develop a sense of their own taste. Wine-lovers discovered that these were merely intermediate tools, and that with confidence and ease comes a curiosity that goes beyond what’s in the glass.
Sub in Ratebeer and Beer Advocate for Parker et al, and let me know what you think.

Full disclosure: I was recently asked to be an admin on Ratebeer. I declined, so that I wouldn't feel obligated to write things like, "Full disclosure, I was recently asked to be an admin on Ratebeer..."

Monday, November 19, 2012

Familiar Faces in the Ardennes.

During the summer visit to Belgium I had a rental car for several days. The day I arrived in Luxembourg was not one of them. Starting that morning in Antwerp, I took trains to Gouvy. Then I hopped a bus to Houffalize, and from there lugged my wheeled suitcase down a bumpy path between pastures -- the cows were amused -- to the Vieille Forge.

The Vieille Forge is a B&B which is also home to the new-ish Inter-Pol nanobrewery, but I'll get back to that. This is in Mont, a village with a strategic location for beer travelers. From the lodge you can take a 15-minute walk through more pastures and down the hill to another village named Achouffe, which has basically been taken over by the eponymous brewery. Beer lovers can go to the Taverne there and enjoy Chouffe Houblon. Soup lovers who prefer copious coriander to hops can drink one of the other beers instead.

Here I wrote a rant about the travesty that La Chouffe has become. Then I deleted it. Much more interesting to talk about Pol's little brewery, as he puts it, the second largest one in the Achouffe valley.

Beer-traveler types were coming to Vieille Forge for years before there was a brewery here. Andy Neil, he of Bier-Mania tours, was the one who turned us on to it. Tine and Pol let us camp in the yard when the inn was full once, for the Grand Choufferie. (And what a piss-up that is, lots of folks drinking 8% Chouffe from kegs like it's lager, then attempting to climb stacks of beer crates. Highly recommended.) People came for proximity to Achouffe and Luxembourg's many natural charms, and for Tine's cooking, but they stayed to hear Pol talk about his brewery. He dreamt, then planned, then worked on that stone shed in the driveway -- the old forge itself. It opened in 2010.

The main two beers are the Witte Pol and the Zwarte Pol. The white is classic Belgian Witbier laced with citrus zest, refreshing, while the black one gets light sweetness from milk sugar and some bitterness from cacao. Both were intriguing and more than a bit mysterious, the types of beers you can sit and get to know over a couple of bottles. Neither was overdone in its spicing. Maybe Pol knows things that the brewery down the hill, where he leads tours from time to time, has forgotten.

Pol's beers (and those of the neighbor, and its parent company) are available at the Grand Café, the petit bar that takes up half the old forge. It opens Fridays and Saturdays at 5 p.m., very handy for guests who have been touring all day. It seems to have a few local regulars as well. Past and present brewers from down the hill have been known to appear.

It's worth noting that this makes a serviceable HQ for exploring the Ardennes, whether it's war monuments, trout fishing, or breweries you want. Or some combination thereof. Near enough are Trois Fourquets, Ferme au Chêne, Fantôme, Oxymore, and others.

Good thing my friends showed up the same night I did. With a car.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Like "Happy Ending," Get It?

Back at Costa Rica's first craft beer fest in April, folks were buzzing about, well, a lot of things. In fact there were many buzzes going around. And there was much interest in the big-flavored beers of Treintaycinco.

Pictured are the beers that comprise the familia completa. Attractive, eye-catching labels. Note the strengths on those suckers: Two are at 8% and two others are at 9.8%. Then there is the Japi Endin, a lighter "tropical lager" made with local tapa de dulce sugar and checking in under 5%. I've tasted a few of them a different times and here are my early impressions: They have been very good at times, based on solid and interesting recipes. Consistency isn't quite there yet. But when these babies go legal, they will immediately be among the most interesting beers available in Costa Rica.

Co-founder Ignacio Castro Cortiñas says that the permit process is far along, and that "very soon" the nanobrewery will have news on where to find the beers. I'll try to keep you posted but a safer bet is their Facebook page.

Also, here's more info from a post that David Ackley did on his Local Beer Blog in June.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I Refuse to Name This Post "Reflections on" Something or Other.

Love that tiled mirror ceiling. Excellent for peeping into glasses and shirts and taking not-so-clever photos.

Some of you U.K. folks will see the face on the right and know right away where I am in this photo. For the rest of you: That's Tom Cadden, manager and geek extraordinaire at the Craft Beer Company in Clerkenwell, London. It's an ideal visit for any tourist who wants to see what the evolving British version of the craft beer movement is all about, while still having the option of well-kept cask-conditioned ales.

There were 21 keg taps and 16 cask pumps, by my count. Tom told me that about 40 percent of what he sells is cask, versus 30 percent in keg. The fridges were full of real lambics and other fun bottles; those are another 20 percent of sales. The other 10 percent would be wine and spirits, i.e. "I don't think I like beer but my friends brought me." (Occasionally, they're the ones dragging their friends along next time.)

I drank Moor Top, a 3.6%-strength, aromatic deep-gold ale from Buxton. It is among that new-ish wave of citrus-hopped, session-strength ale that has become one of mankind's greater cultural achievements, the culmination of millenia of just messing around. It seemed to be in many places when I was there in August. Suited me well.

I asked Tom (and lots of other people) what "craft beer" means in Britain. He said it's an unanswerable question and then proceeded to answer it pretty well. More to come, including better but still not-so-clever photos, in an upcoming issue of Draft.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Caution: Overlords at Work.

Old Masters! I'm unsure of which way to go on that. It has two distinct connotations for me: dead Renaissance artists, or scary science-fiction-fantasy overlords. Right. I'm going with the second one.

You'll heed the Old Masters and drink this if you know what's good for ye! 

OK. That's a Palm Ongefilterd from the tap at Belga Queen in Brussels (please turn to p. 24 in your textbooks). The BQ is uppity Belgian cooking with impressive surroundings and magical toilets stalls, if you don't know. Beer list is Palm-Rodenbach-Boon-heavy. Mixed reviews on service but the food is usually good, they say. I can only vouch for the raw bar. You can do worse than a large, iced pile of various mollusks and a bottle of Mariage Parfait. (That was my birthday lunch one year. It was a good one.)

Back to the Old Masters. It is a label Palm has given to three its rare draft beers, which for years now have only been available to a small number of pubs. Among geeks the most coveted Old Master tick would be, I guess, the Rodenbach Foederbier, typically found only at the Zalm in Roeselaere (occasionally there are rumors of appearances elsewhere). The third member of the Old Masters is Boon lambic, three years of age. Besides Belga Queen and the Zalm, other cafés that get one or more of these beers include the Vosken in Gent, the brewery's own Brouwershuis in Steenhuffel, the Horta in Antwerp, and Engelbewaarder way up in Amsterdam. That's about it, as far as I know.

Actually Boon Oude Lambiek is available on draught in several places around Brussels and Payottenland, but only in those few pubs does it get the "Old Masters" treatment.

Are you ready for the strangeness?

The Palm website has a page devoted to the Old Masters. (Caution: Marketeers at work.) As the special glassware suggests, there is a CONCEPT at work here. So let's see what one of Belgium's largest breweries does with what are arguably its three most interesting (noting that interesting ≠ best) beers.

oh boy.
Appearances are important too!

Flat beers are very digestible and moreover they spare you that bloated feeling in your stomach. However, a nice head looks good, which is why OLD MASTERS are served through a nozzle spraying fine jets of beer that absorb nitrogen from the air.
Really? And did you know... 
The consumption of carbonated drinks is dropping globally:
Flat water sells better than sparkling water
Lemonades are being replaced by fruit juices
This why the “Old Masters” are trendier than ever!
Maybe I should say that I'm just poking fun and don't really have any great point to make. But promoting three beers of pedigree and mystique as "flat," and comparing them to water just before serving them via sparkler, is a head-scratching decision.

Or maybe it's best if we not question the overlords and just drink the stuff.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

C-A-S-K in the U.S.A.

Cask ale in America. Tricky topic, if you're used to understanding cask ale as something like the "real ale" defined by CAMRA. Good luck with that in the States, outside of certain festivals and a very few pubs where casks actually manage to turn over quickly because people are drinking them quickly. That's why God invented cask ale, after all. So people could drink it quickly.

I'm still working it out -- I have this feeling that the answers are all up there in my brain, but the parts are still disassembled -- but in the meantime I share three ideas. Directions of thought. Conversation starters. Theories. Things. Meanwhile I'd like to thank Tom Cizauskas for educating me in July when I was in the D.C. area (Fireworks Pizza and Galaxy Hut that evening, if you're curious). My lack of clarity on this topic is no fault of his.

1. American cask ale is not new. We can see it as trendy, if we want, since beer-specialist bars have been adding more of them lately, or so it seems. But let's call it a comeback. Cask has been part of the American micro/craft beer movement for a good long while. Got that, whippersnappers? Let's keep this in perspective. In Maryland alone: Bertha's Mussels, not what anyone would call a beer bar, has had cask ale since the 1980s. The Wharf Rat, also on Fell's Point, has had a beer engine since the mid-1990s, Cizauskas said. Maryland had Steve Parkes' British Brewing Company starting in 1988, later re-named Oxford. According to Cizauskas, British was Maryland's first micro since Prohibition, and its first beer was the cask-conditioned Oxford Class Amber. Let me re-state that: Maryland's first modern craft beer 24 years ago was a cask ale. I suspect we'd find similar stories elsewhere, especially on the East Coast.

2. Without breathers, there would be much less American cask ale. CAMRA wouldn't approve, so let's call it a practical American compromise. Cask breathers allow a small amount of Co2 to enter the cask, extending its life. Most American beer bars simply can't turn over a cask in a few days, not if they want to keep them around at all times. One example on my summer jaunt: Old Speckled Hen at the Farmers Gastropub in my hometown, Springfield, Missouri. Not my favorite beer, but I love the idea that I can have a pint of cask ale there. Without a breather it wouldn't be possible -- except on those special nights when Mother's brings in a firkin. Folks drink it the same night, naturally, as they do for special cask events at brewpubs and beer bars across the country these days. Special cask events are nice. Reliable, ever-present casks are even nicer.

3. Choices for what to put in those casks is often interesting, often poor. In Missouri and again in the D.C. area, most of the cask options I saw this summer were 6% or stronger. Often they were IPAs or otherwise high in bitterness, missing the extra bubbles that are frankly needed to scrape the resin off the tongue and help make them drinkable. The thinking, if there is any, might be, "Casks are special, the beer in them ought to be special, and special beer ought to be strong and hoppy!" Meanwhile brewers and bars are missing a chance to showcase the beauty and complexity of lighter ales, where cask has its real advantage over keg. Another way to think about it: Cask conditioning can help not-so-special beers taste very special indeed.

Like I say, I'm still working it out. I'd love to hear more thoughts and arguments on American cask ale from absolutely anyone. More than anything, I think, I'm unclear on what all those beer bars out there are actually doing with their casks -- breathers? turning it over faster than I think? key kegs? -- so it would be interesting to hear some examples.

Top photo is from Pratt Street Ale House, home of Olivers Ales, Max's Taphouse in Baltimore. Lower one is from Fireworks Pizza in Arlington, Virginia. Text CORRECTED to say that Wharf Rat has had cask since mid-1990s, not 1980s.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Atlanta Airport to Get First Belgian Beer Café™

It's been a year or so since I ranted about the news that the InBev-run Belgian Beer Café chain wanted to open locations in the United States. Specifically, I targeted a beer list "weighted with saccharine and fakery." It was a gut reaction fueled by the realization that many people would get their first taste of Belgian beer from a global behemoth that profits from efficiency and mediocrity and efficient mediocrity rather than beer of much character.

Sorry, Leffe. Sorry, Hoegaarden and Stella. You have your fans but you are what you are.

A necessary clarification: A-B InBev cannot legally own their own cafés to sell their own beer in the United States. So the firm that works with InBev to design the cafés, Creneau International (and give them credit, many are stunning), has the rights in the United States. It sounds like sleight of hand but I reckon the lawyers have their ducks lined neatly in a row.

I haven't changed my mind about that sample beer list. It is patently weak next to the better-curated Belgian beer lists around the world, in bars or restaurants where people know what they are doing. I see a few reliable gems greatly outnumbered by dull cack of sugar and spice. I grant that a beer list can be like a Rorschach test and we will not all see the same picture. But when I apply my perspective, as far as it goes, that is what gets spat out. I stand by it.

On the other hand...

Well, I'm a practical man. I travel a lot. And just as I'm more inclined to drink a Hoegaarden in Costa Rica than in Belgium, due to complex algorithms of relative quality and availability, well...

Airports. Against all odds they remain beer wastelands, generally speaking. Yet they are those places in the middle of those sorts of days when we most often think, "Fuck, man. I need a beer."

And they are where the first U.S. Belgian Beer Cafés are going.

The very first one will be in Atlanta, scheduled to open in two weeks. The second will open in Newark.

I fly through Atlanta sometimes. Like most airports, it is shit for beer. Best you can find there, last I checked, is a Sweetwater IPA in one of those closed-up bars where they quarantine the smokers. Not an entirely pleasant experience.

But the announcement says this: The beer list in that Atlanta bar will include, among some other stuff, Chimay Blue on draft and Saison Dupont in bottles.

Well, like I say, I'm a practical man. I know where I'm headed next time I'm passing through ATL. I'll probably be plucking down $14 or some absurd price for a certain farmhouse ale archetype.

After the airports, there are plans to open locations in New York City and Philadelphia. And just a wild guess but I'm guessing they won't be right next door to Gramercy Tavern or the Monk's Café.

And a final thought: I am not anti-corporate. I am anti-mediocrity.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

In Heaven There Is No Football, Either.

I was just writing something up on the Kunstemaecker in Steenkerke, West Flanders. That beer café's slogan is "In de Hemel is geen bier." In Heaven there is no beer, just like that old polka song. (That's why we drink it here.) That got me to wondering about the song itself.

There is a version of that song in the language of most if not all major beer countries, plus a few more. Maybe you knew that. I didn't.

Here is something else I didn't know, and since I'm currently about as wound up as I could be for the start of (American) football season, I'll share it: The song, like so many other pleasant and beery things, is deeply embedded in the traditions of American college sports.

Thank you, Wikipedia, which as always we do not take as gospel but use relentlessly anyway:

Students at the University of North Dakota sing the song after every Fighting Sioux goal during hockey games at the Ralph Engelstad Arena.

The song is frequently played by the Yale Precision Marching Band with the added verse: "At Harvard there is no ale (No ale?!) / That's why we go to Yale / And when our livers fail / We'll still be glad we went to Yale"

The University of Nebraska Cornhusker Marching Band sings this song after being dismissed at the end of every home game.

The song is played frequently at home hockey games at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD), University of Minnesota, and University of Wisconsin by the schools' bands.

This song has been adopted by the University of Iowa as their victory song, to be played by the band after Iowa Hawkeyes wins. Some know it as the Hawkeye Victory Polka.

It is an unofficial school song of Michigan Technological University, as played by the Huskies Pep Band. Along with the original lyrics, the students sing 4 original verses whenever the song is played.

The song is a performed at all home games at the University of Wyoming[1], where it is known as the 'beer song'. The fans chant for the song to be played, until the band leader relents. This cycle may happen multiple times during a sporting event.

The song In Heaven There Is No Beer is played at every football and basketball game at Fort Hays State University, Kansas.

The song is also performed after every NDSU Bison football and basketball victory by the North Dakota State University Gold Star Marching Band and Bison Pep Band.

In Heaven There is No Beer is played after every football and basketball game at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

The University of Idaho's Vandal Marching Band performs this song after every sporting event they play at, regardless of whether the Vandals win or lose. The band's Sousaphone Section also performs it at various tailgate partys before home football games.

The Ohio Northern University Marching Band during the fourth quarter of every home football game, while the pep band often plays it at the end of men's and women's basketball games.

The song is performed monophonically at football games and various homecoming events by the pep band of Wartburg College in Waverly, IA.

The song is often played at home UNH Hockey games by the Beast of the East Band.

The song is often played by the West Virginia University Tuba Corps.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

As Seen On TV.

We noticed a lot of ink in K.C. Just one of many things that reminded us that we (a) are old and (b) have been away from America for a while. Lots of tatts. Oh, they've been around forever but they're definitely more mainstream than they used to be. Especially in the hospitality industry. For whatever reason.

Or maybe it's just the places we like to hang out.

Vader and Boba. Any dude who doesn't know who they are, she can immediately strike off the list.

The tattoos were on legs which were on a server who was working at Grinders, a Kansas City dive that is among one of the few actual dives to be featured on that show with that guy who is supposed to go to these types of places. She was nice enough to let me snap a photo.

I drank a Deschutes Twilight Ale, an easy-going golden-pale with plenty of hop flavor and aroma and so a bit like Mirror Pond and that was A-OK with me. Possibly inspired by the previously mentioned artwork, I went to the Dark Side afterward with a Green Flash Double Stout. A naughty thing, that one, thick and sweetish and smooth with plenty of chocolate flavor and stealthy alcohol. For the inner child. Appropriate, given what I ate with it.

That pizza: Bacon, cream cheese and jalapeño with a pile of tater tots, chili, cheese and green onions in the middle of it. The tot thing is a Grinders option and no doubt part of what attracted that guy on that show. It is an eyebrow-raiser. It is something you order because you know that you will remember it, and if it turns out great, well, that's just a bonus.

The pizza was what I ate in college. The tot pile was what I ate in elementary school. And then a strong, almost dessert-like black beer. If that isn't comfort food, I don't know what is.

Places like this existed 15 years ago. Never doubt it, teenagers. But the beer options would have been fewer. Now, 10 or 20 taps of real beer and loads of bottles... shoot, that's mainstream.

Or maybe it's just the places we like to hang out.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Snapshots of the Postmodern: Craig Allan.

That fourth bottle going from left to right, with the colorful swirly label and 37.5cl bottle, is the Cuvée d'Oscar from brewer Craig Allan. As I wrote in my recent article for Draft, Allan is a Scot living in France who brews at Proef in Belgium. So there is another slice of the transnational craft beer movement for you.

Those bottles were displayed on the mantle behind the bar at the Kerelshof in Cassel last December, something like the "beers o' da month" shelf. Hence the Christmas beers. The Oscar isn't a seasonal but rather one of Allan's regulars, alongside his American-citrus-hopped Agent Provocateur. The Oscar, meanwhile, might be an ideal route for anyone wanting to get to know Nelson Sauvin -- grapes and berries? -- a bit better. Allan is big on hop flavor and aroma, with plenty of late- and dry-hopping. Meanwhile the bitterness is kept in check. I found each beer to be a joy.

While there we heard some gossip that Allan, who lives in Picardy -- about halfway between Lille and Paris, if that helps -- wanted to open a brewhouse of his own in Cassel. A couple of days ago I finally remembered to ask him about it. It turns out the place he was looking at hadn't been used in about 10 years, needed a lot of repairs, and the owner was asking for too much money for all that. "So unfortunately c'est tombé a l'eau as they say in France," Allan said in an email, "a shame because as you know Cassel would be perfect for a brewery..."

And more, in case you're curious:
I am currently based in Picardy where my French wife is from and am back to looking at an installation in this region. My wife has started a new job here so we will probably stay around here now. ... At the moment I have around 40 professional clients in Paris, about an hour's drive away, including some very good restaurants (my wife studied wine in Burgundy and used to sell to some of the best Parisian restaurants so had some good contacts) and I think there is enormous potential in Paris so perhaps Picardy isn't too bad after all! I am looking into brewing in a brewery in the north of France to supplement the beers produced at de Proef but the ultimate aim is still to have my own brewery.
Like a lot of people, Craig Allan is making some fine beers at someone else's brewery. Like a lot of people, in fact, he is doing so in Lochristi, Belgium, at Proef. Yet I find myself hoping that he gets his own brewhouse going and settles down. Why? Will the beer be better, or have more character? No guarantees there. I'm a hedonist and I shouldn't care. But I do.

I like it when a brewer faces more risk and challenge to achieve a vision for what ends up in my glass. Maybe it's because I'm a writer and adversity makes a better story. Or maybe I'm just a sadist. Anyway, I find it reassuring that he says he wants his own place. There seem to be many other brewers these days content to do otherwise.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Where to Hide in Limburg.

This is my favorite table at the Wedelse Molen, one of at least 600 reasons not to limit a Belgium visit to the big cities.

It's in Overpelt, a rural part of Limburg province, and surrounded by corn fields along the Dommel river. The Wedelse Molen is basically two things: (1) a protected landmark, as there has been a mill here since at least 1259, when the Count of Loon sold it to the Floreffe abbey; and (2) a pretty excellent if out-of-the-way beer bar. On my visit last month it was stocking more than 160 beers, including 14 drafts and lambics from Cantillon and Girardin.

The mill still cranks along, as you can see, although I'm not clear on whether it's just for show or provides some measure of hydroelectric power. In any case, it also provides a nice backdrop for a beer and a snack. Or if the weather is fine, the back terrace offers views of corn and a lot full of cars with Dutch plates.

That's where I sat, until I saw this table. To get to it, you have to climb and step though a couple of timber beams. A good place to hide; it might be smart to order at the bar first.

Posted by Picasa

Thursday, August 16, 2012

I Take the Long Way to Veurne, and There Is a Party On.

Two things I always said I'd do in Belgium, and never did when I lived there: Take the coastal tram from end to end, and visit Veurne. Knocked both off the bucket list on the same day, two weeks ago.

You can have a day pass on the Kusttram for a measly five euro-bucks. I start up in Knokke and ride down from there, popping off now and then to walk the seaside and look into certain cafés that need looking-into. I skip Oostende altogether to focus on the smaller towns along the way. If you can call them towns. At times the Belgian coast looks more like one long, skinny metroplex of high rises, blacklight mini-golf, cocktail bars, and trampolines. I'm there at the beginning of August, smack in the middle of high season. Tots are popping like corn on those trampolines while their guardians throng the beach bars and theoretically look on.

The whole area is ripe for specialist beer bars that know what they're doing. There are surprisingly few. Among those worth mentioning:

Toogoloog in Middelkerke is getting buzz among the geeks, and rightfully so. It keeps a smart list of 120 beers at last count. Recently being the only café in Belgium, as far as I know, to have Dupont Speciale Belge on draft gives you the idea. Naturally, the day I make my coastal swing is the one day a week that Toogoloog is shut. May you have better luck.

In Blankenberge, a block inward from the beach, next to the Casino, is the Royal and its wraparound corner terrace. You are watching crowds rather than waves, but it keeps 150 beers these days, including a couple of saisons and the odd curiosity, such as Seefbier. I make due with a St. Feuillien Saison, again noticing that the brewery has started listing Vitamin C as an ingredient. What's that about? Clever way to say "orange peel"?

In De Haan, a.k.a. the Cock-by-the-Sea, the great advantage of Torre is its location bang next to the tram stop. From my terrace table I can see the schedule of upcoming southward trams. Its card has 52 beers including Drie Fonteinen, hypothetically. My first couple of choices are out of stock so I enjoy an Oerbier and notice that Moinette is on draft.

Middelkerke has the ever-reliable Iceberg, with nearly 100 beers and seaside views. Like many in this region it is a Palm-Rodenbach-heavy list, but this one includes the stable from Gouden Carolus. I go with coffee. The day is long, and so is the Kusttram.

For now I'll leave out another handful of worthy cafés, because I said "specialist beer bars that know what they're doing." I'm not even sure that applies to all the ones I mention above.

The tram ends (and starts again) in De Panne. Now, many geeks will immediately think "Pannepot!" And they will hope that surely someone in De Panne is smart enough to stock it for the odd beery traveler. Well, they'd be... right, as it turns out. The Verloren Garnoare -- yes, the "Forlorn Shrimp" -- is where you drink while waiting for the train. It has Pannepot among its 50-plus beers, which also include Verhaeghe, St. Bernardus and Boon.

My train ride is a short one to Veurne, where a carnival is on in the Grote Markt. It seems I have just missed the town's procession of the penitents by a few days. (If there is anything the Flemish love more than beer, a friend once said to me, it is penance.) A sign says the party also marks an international kayak polo tournament. Initially I worry that I misread the Dutch, and that the reality is surely less weird than an international kayak polo tournament. I needn't have worried.

I check in at the Old House, which I can now recommend (classy and spotless former government building, converted to B&B, with a solid breakfast). It is now evening. Hunger pangs demand that I dispense with a scheme to rent or steal a bike and make for the Kunstemaecker. Instead I go with a local's recommendation: the Vette Os, a candlelit grillhouse attached to a shop specializing in unconventional world wines.

A well-marbled Irish ribeye and a not-so-unconventional bottle of Côtes du Rhône are my guilty pleasures on this night. It is easily the best steak I've eaten in Belgium, and I can recommend it as heartily as any coastal beer café. It's all a bit self-indulgent, but hell... I can celebrate penance and international water polo tournaments with the best of them.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Up Late, Doing Whatever You're Doing. I Don't Want to Know.

What's up, teenagers? Let's rock.

In an ideal world I'd be throwing up little posts every day. But who has time? Other bloggers, I guess. Not me, not so much. Plus I need to save a lot of stuff for later -- articles and such. Still, here are a few bits that come to mind:

The world-class Kunstemaecker is in Steenkerke, near Veurne. Steenkerke, Steenkerke, Steenkerke. Not in Lo-Reninge. That's where the new Seizoensbrouwerij Vandewalle is. Which is a story for another day. For now I'll just say that I wish more longtime beer historians would up and start their own breweries just to make old recipes.

In Brussels: Remember how the Kafka closed? Then it re-opened. But, er, then the Monk closed. Well, there is a sign on Monk's door that says, essentially, "Be back soon." We shall see.

Moeder Lambic these days has been selling most of their draft beers in half-liters as well as 25 or 33cl glasses. I've always thought a half-liter ideal for those hoppy, lower-alcohol beers from Senne and others. But then I am a thirsty person. I might have mentioned that before. Band of Brothers, something like a lean-and-mean Zinnebir at 4%, but in a larger portion... yes, please.

If you want to do the Sainte-Catherine seafood splurge but don't want white wine or Champagne with your shellfish, consider the Vistro, which is the tavern side of L'Huitrière. It is not the best restaurant in Brussels. Neither is it the worst. What makes it above-average: its location, laid-back ambiance, cartoons on the walls, and a drink card that includes Saison Dupont, Boon Oude Geuze and Taras Boulba.

Finally, food for thought: Spaghetti bolognaise is as Belgian in Belgium as pizza is American in America.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Hunting for Finesse: The Exceptions Are Still the Exceptions.

So I've been in America for some weeks and, to be honest, not much has changed here lately -- not on the beer front, anyway. Oh, there are more and more breweries and more and more beer specialist bars with more and more taps, and there are more and more regular bars and restaurants with growing lists populated by small and regional brewers. But the products are basically the same: resinously bitter and/or highly alcoholic. When not overly bitter they tend to be overly spiced, as with the caricatures of Belgian ale that seem to be flourishing.

So much for the sweeping generalizations. There are some highly drinkable options out there, beers full of flavor and finesse. But it takes some hunting. It falls to us to share tips on what and where to hunt. Anyway, there ought to be more.

A few we've found along the road:

A true "session" took place last night at Meridian Pint in D.C., where five of its taps have been pouring beers of 4.5% or 4.6% strength. It wasn't a special event or anything like that; it just appears to be a priority for the landlord. A highlight for me was the Caledonia from Williamsburg Alewerks, a orange-amber "session IPA" full of herbal, floral hop flavor. Afterward I walked home in a straight line, more or less.

Back in St. Louis, the Civil Life (pictured) is filling dimpled mugs full of stuff that most geeks would find boring. Good. Let the regular drinkers and seasoned pros mingle without the whale-hunters. The Rye Pale and Brown were the popular girls, but I fell for the wallflower Bitter, dry and golden, full of floral Goldings with just a touch of fruity Centennial.

Also in St. Louis, Perennial is making some oddities but seduced me with its simpler saisons. The Hommel Bier has compelling character, matching American hops with what I think is the Dupont yeast strain. In my hometown of Springfield, Missouri, I found the Saison de Lis on draft in Patton Alley and couldn't seem to stop asking them to refill the glass. Its chamomile is understated and adds depth. If you didn't know it was there, you wouldn't know it was there.

Now for breweries with numbers in their names. On the acidic end: 4 Hands put out a Berliner Weisse named Prussia that wields a refreshing lactic tartness. It's difficult to put down and weighs in at a whopping 3.5% abv. And at 2nd Shift in New Haven I tasted a barrel-aged half-wild ale named Katy, a "Brett beer" for lack of better title. Pale, lightly tart, lightly tannic, heavily addictive at 5% strength. A future star, I think.

The hunt continues. I look forward to a day when the exceptions can no longer be called that.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Monk Closed, Kafka to Re-open, and Get Your Pants Patched.

A few quick hits on the Brussels café scene for you today. If you're headed there soon with fresh or dog-eared copy of 80 Beers in hand, mix-and-match with this post from April. As usual, all reports welcome. Really helpful folks are sure to get free copies of the hypothetical second edition, vandalized by jokes from my ink pen if that's what turns you on.

Monk has closed. That would be the hip-yet-old-school wood-paneled café across from the Nordzee fish counter, near the Ste-Catherine cathedral. Handy location and swell place for a De Ranke or Senne beer at friendly prices. Similar to Kafka in April, the place has shut for the owner's financial troubles. Both spots are on the neighborhood's extensive Flemish hideaway circuit.

But perhaps there is hope. Some of the local news reports have staff from Monk heading over to help re-open Kafka by late July. With luck the café will still have fresh Zinnebir on draft.

A couple of bits from Ixelles: The Belladone indeed remains open, with its interesting beers and vodkas in a high-ceilinged mansion. (There was some doubt after a brief closing last year and stale website.) And on Place Flagey, a new dive called Flip will appeal to poor but thirsty students with holes in their pants. The lovely Dame Cath might be there with her sewing machine to patch them up. Dupont and Ellezeloois beers, at least.

Up in Jette, check out the Excelsior Stam Cool café and the 77 bar. And then let me know what you think.

Major hip-hop head nod to the great Podge for waking me from a Missouri barbecue-induced stupor by noting the Monk and Kafka news. And one more to the intrepid Simon Croome, who is just a few cafés short of hitting every spot in Brussels 80.

More to come.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Zooming In to a Familiar Spot On The Global Beer Influence Map.

There is an international marketplace of beer ideas, and we usually oversimplify it. For example: One arrow of influence might point from the U.K. to the U.S., and then another arrow would point right back. Taking a step backward and looking at the global picture, everybody is influencing everybody these days. A more accurate way to think about the aforementioned marketplace would be one of those airline route maps, with the number of curvy lines multiplied many times over.

Back to the simple view: British ales have had massive influence on Belgian ones over the years. It is nearly impossible to overstate that fact, which goes well beyond the Belgian pale ales, stouts, Scotch ales and other familiar categories. Eugene Rodenbach, or so the story goes, learned about barrel maturation and blending of young and old ales when he visited England. He then had a taste for that sort of thing when he took over his father's brewery, creating a distinctively tart beer that has inspired many others.

Why do I mention all this? Sometimes it helps to go back and dip into the old well. Recently I asked Belgoo brewer Jo Van Aert where he got the idea for his new Saisonneke, which weighs in at a light and hoppy 4.4% strength. I expected him to mention something about how Wallonian saison was traditionally lower in alcohol. But that's not what he said.

Instead, he said got the idea for Saisonneke from a recent trip to the U.K...
... where I tasted different great beers from relatively young breweries, with extremely low alcohol percentages. I personally prefer drinking low alcohol beers, but there are not much options on the market. Brewing low alcohol beers is also the most challenging from a technical point of view.

I talked to several U.K. brewmasters to find out about their “secrets” on getting so much body with such a little alcohol percentage and used some aspects for my Belgoo Saisonneke. Their main thing is, as you know, their cask ales method, where fermentation has been stopped by cooling after three to four days down under 10°C, with as a result lots of unfermented sugars and thus body, which would be impossible to do in Belgium. 
I tried to get the body by using different malts with more proteins and taste, an above-average European bitter hopping [33 IBUs] and an exuberant late- and dry-hopping (250g/HL) with European aroma hops with a discrete citrus touch.
Van Aert suggests that cask ales are "impossible" in Belgium, but I think he means "very difficult." After all, there have been cask ale sightings at Moeder Lambic Fontainas and a handful of festivals over the past several years. That global influence map is getting more complex, but those tried-and-true routes remain as well-trafficked as ever.

The photo comes from the Brussels chansons bar Goupil le Fol, where I tasted Belgoo for the first time nearly four years ago.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Malting Pot, The Festival, and Wise Counsel.

Many thanks to local agents Darin and Anne for snapping this shot of the new Malting Pot bottle shop on Saturday, its grand opening. Here is last week's post, in which we all learned about the shop together.

The owner's name is Sam Sarmad, and he knows how to open in style: free beer on tap. And just look at those happy families, drinking Senne's Jambe de Bois and two from Binchoise, including the Belgoo Saisonneke.

Now, let's stop and notice that last beer together: a new Wallonian saison at 4.4% alcohol by volume. Haven't tasted it yet, but it does speak my language. If you're keeping score, yes, Belgoo's Jo Van Aert is still brewing at Binchoise in Binche, home to that crazy carnival in Binche where the guys put on those creepy masks. A nice label too, which someone at ZBF was nice to snap here. That's a beer I'll be hunting this summer.

Back to the shop. The prices are a bit higher than what one would pay from a drinks market like SBS or BVS, but that is to be expected from a bottle shop. We will see if the locals take to the idea. Certainly that is Sarmad's hope.

"The purpose of the store is to offer Belgian and foreign craft beers not available in supermarkets and other shops in Brussels," Sarmad told me in an email. "Even though tourists are welcome, I wanted a beer shop for people living in Brussels and offer them an assortment of beers they don't know, while trying to keep affordable prices. After the recent hoppy/IPA revolution in Belgium, I also wanted to offer to the 'beer geeks' some Belgian and foreign craft beers, very difficult to find in Brussels."

Incidentally, the Malting Pot will be closed from July 22 to August 6. Plan accordingly.

Other news: Last week I updated an earlier post about The Festival, the one organized by the Shelton Brothers in Worcester, Massachusetts. In case you missed it: The ticket prices have dropped to $60 per session. A weekend pass for all three sessions is $160. It's not cheap but it's also not out of whack with a lot of U.S. beer festivals these days (a topic for another day, I think). And if you're into some of the world's most interesting beers and meeting the people who make them, then it will likely be worth every penny.

If you are one of those folks getting irked by expensive craft beers and festivals in the States these days -- and who isn't? -- then I have some simple advice for you. Stop buying whales and instead subsist on that local pale ale you've always liked but always ignore. Save those duckets, buy a plane ticket, and go to where the beer is cheap. Make a trip your whale instead.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Brussels Gets New (Serious) Bottle Shop.

The Malting Pot, not to be confused with Malt In Pot, is well off the tourist track, a block's walk from Place Flagey. That wide open square and its cafés are popular with locals of all stripes, but tourists rarely venture down there. That tells us something about the shopkeeper's hopes straightaway.

The shop's official opening is tomorrow, although it appears to have been open in practice at least since April 18. The posted hours are noon to 7 p.m., Tuesday through Friday. Address is Rue Scarron 50.

I note the shop's proximity to a few other places worth drinking (last I checked): quiet and divey student bar the Pantin (Chaussée d'Ixelles 355), the popular Café Belga and its (occasionally) sunny terrace on Place Flagey, and the artsy Murmure (18 Rue du Belvédère). A certain guidebook could help you with further details and help me avoid further parentheses.

The Malting Pot's inventory should more than please aficionados, with very little, if any, nonsense there. To thicken the plot, there are beers from Schneider, Schlenkerla, Thornbridge, Mikkeller and Brewdog, among others. No doubt more will come. It's yet another sign that Belgian beer lovers are waking up to the international scene.

Watch this space for more details.

*Hat-tips to Toine and Darin.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Beer Moments, Plural.

It eviscerates the meaning of epiphany to talk about it as a gradual thing, experienced through a series of moments throughout life. Anyway, the word is too dramatic. Sudden learning is for neat storytelling and problem-solving cartoon protagonists, not for meatbags like us who struggle with the awkwardness and complexities of life. Our learning takes time; that includes learning what we like. The fun of it is that we get to have lots and lots of moments.

Like that sip of what you've chosen for the evening, just after sitting in your favorite sitting place but before you've cracked the book. When you dig into the book it will distract you, a joy of its own, so that first sip is the one.

There is the first one after a long day's work, easily surpassed by the one after a long week's work.

There are also lasts. Here in Costa Rica, for example, there is the zarpe. Literally it means means something like bon voyage. It's what the locals call the final drink of the night. In practice it always seems to be penultimate rather than ultimate, but that is educational too.

There is the thousandth-odd time you have drunk a favorite, which you know intimately. Yet you seem to learn a little something new each time.

There is the one just after the kids go to bed.

The first one and all the ones with the friend you haven't seen in years, but especially the heartfelt toast.

You know, we have these receptors on our tongues and in our noses to analyze taste and perfume, and these connectors throughout our bodies to feel (and occasionally not to feel) the effects of the contents. Somehow this connects with all the memories and impressions we've gathered over time. Amid all the awkwardness and complexities, there are indeed a few certainties.

It's all right, you know. Being a meatbag, I mean.

*This is my part of Session #63. More info here.

Brussels as Culinary Amusement Park.

Don't you like articles that make you hungry and thirsty? It would be masochistic, but I reckon we are mostly gastronomes and people of plenty. We like hunger and thirst because we're pretty sure the next plate and glass are just around the corner. The anticipation increases the joy when we arrive.

But I digress.

Just wanted to point out today's Birmingham Post (that's England, not Alabama) piece on Brussels foodie fun, connected to this year's Brusselicious -- a city-wide, yearlong food festival. It's got Michelin-starred meals aboard moving tram cars, praline tastings, veal cheeks, bintje potatoes and Moeder Lambic. It's got Cantillon Kriek, Taras Boulba and Géants Gouyasse. I read it twice.

(An aside: When are Brussels world-class top-shelf eateries going to start taking the beer more seriously as an accompaniment to their food -- more fitting and usually more compatible than French wine -- and not just a rustic ingredient? There are some who do but they're not usually the ones with Michelin stars. On the plate many are bruxellois but in the glass they are still trying to be Paris.)

While we lived there we treated the place as a round-the-clock food festival. But that was not quite correct. There is something to be said for those moments when the collective minds of Brussels get together and demonstrate their ability to go over the top... all at once.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Is This The Best British Restaurant Not in Britain?

What you see here is a shot from a place called Farmer's Gastropub. I haven't eaten there yet but I mean to rectify that. I've drank there, however, and can recommend the atmosphere and surprising beer selection.

The Telegraph recently named it the winner for best restaurant in the newspaper's Best of British 2011 competition. This came as something of a surprise to local residents, who were fairly certain that they were living in the United States.

Here is the summary:

Dining at Farmers Gastropub gives you the very Best of British in the Midwest USA, from the Authentic fish & chips, home made sausages in the Bangers & Mash and curry with fresh naan, to the Duck confit, Bison Wellington or trout almondine followed by house made chocolate gateau, creme brulee or bread pudding.

The fresh ingredients sourced locally from small farmers and producers or from natural and sustainable sources like our fresh line caught Haddock or wild caught Alaskan Salmon ensure you a meal to remember. Eating at the bar, in a booth, at a high party table or out on the patio you are assured great food great service a great selection of beers, wines and spirits and a great time.
The weirdest thing to me: It's in my hometown and Brad Pitt's, Springfield, Mo. I wonder if Brad's been there yet?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Take This Post With You to Brussels.

Here is another brief supplement to Around Brussels in 80 Beers. An update of sorts. There have been a couple of others, but never mind them. This is a new one.

I do this because I know you've been wanting to order several of the 500-or-so remaining copies from their stacks in Cambridge, England, so that you can then give them to loved ones for the summer travel season. Now you can print out this post, fold it neatly, tuck inside the pages, and then your friends will know how much they mean to you.

Anyway: This one began as a simple post to tell you that the café Kafka on Rue des Poissonniers has closed. (Then things got out of hand.) This article suggests that Kafka was a popular place but not quite popular enough to pay its rent. The management had other troubles, yet the peanut gallery is quick to blame the smoking ban. That's just politics and gossip to us. The point is that a good watering hole -- with loads of character, Zinnebir on draught, and real lambics in bottles -- has shut. Bummer.

Places do that sometimes. Shut, I mean. But others open or else become interesting. I have a working theory about Belgium's brown cafés in the smoking ban era: Some survive by widening their beer selections. I would not call it a full-on trend, and like I say it's a working theory. But there are examples.

Check out the Cambridge on Rue de Malines 37, a useful beery sanctuary at the far end of the bustling Rue Neuve shopping gauntlet. A clean and well-lit brown café is still a brown café if it has gambling machines and potato chips. I counted 94 beers on the list including Senne, de Ranke, Cazeau, and a few other surprises.

If you like your brown cafés really brown, then you might like the Coq at Rue Auguste Orts 14, very near the Bourse. A few years ago it was mainly InBev beers. Now there is Zinnebir, Saison Dupont and Oud Beersel to go with the long benches, ample wood paneling and mahogany rafters. When I was there in December the beer of the month was Avec Les Bons Voeux. To give you an idea.

Near Nüetnigenough, Poechenellekelder, Moeder Lambic Fontainas and at least half a dozen other good places to drink, the Lombard at Rue du Lombard 1 is an odd mix of early 1900s class and beery kitsch. Despite tourist prices and a chandelier with pink Delirium elephants, it gets a place on the circuit for 130 bottles and the sheer utility of simple brasserie food.

One welcome trend is a wider availability of Saison Dupont, which once was rare in Brussels but now appears in places that might otherwise lack something of interest. An example is Bebo, Avenue de Stalingrad 2, with 20 beers heavy on InBev, but also with the aforementioned saison, Moinette, La Chouffe and a few Trappists. There is an elaborate awning with a wide sidewalk for stretching out the legs on warm days. Just the place for an aperitif ale before the big splurge next door at Comme Chez Soi.

Another example is Cool Bun at Rue Berckmans 34 in Saint-Gilles, a gourmet burger joint where you can wash down the gorgonzola-bacon with any of Dupont's organic range.

The Ste-Catherine fish district used to be mostly devoid of decent beer, instead preferring white wine or Champagne with its mussels. That may be changing. There are positive reports on Merlo at Quai aux Briques 80, with friendly atmosphere and beers from Senne and Oud Beersel, among others. Closer to the church at Quai aux Briques 16, the Huitrière and its Vistro tavern have the steep dining prices typical for this neighborhood but also Boon Geuze, Taras Boulba, Saison Dupont in bottles and Redor Pils on draft.

On the edge of town, the Rob gourmet supermarket in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert has more than 120 beers with better taste than the local chains. To go with hefty wine and cheese selections Rob has beers from Cantillon, Dupont, Senne, Tubize and more.

Two giants that were not yet open when the book came out: the world-class Moeder Lambic Fontainas on Place Fontainas and the Brasserie de la Senne in Molenbeek. Sadly the latter is not open to drop-in visitors, but large groups can make arrangements in advance. Then there is the aptly named Little Delirium at Rue Marché au Fromage 7, also know as Pita Street or Pita Alley. It's got 30 taps. There is much to be said for combining late-night kebob with a couple glasses of Rulles Estivale.

Greenwich has reportedly re-opened after some rehab work and a change of owners. It was never known for the beer but rather the incredible début-de-siècle atmosphere and popularity among chess players. No word on the beer list yet, but fingers are crossed. A halfway-serious bottle selection would instantly make it one of the city's best places to drink. It's that pretty.

The classy and quiet Belladone did close for a while in spring 2011 but appears to be open again.

The excellent Restobiéres expanded into a space on the other side of Rue des Renards and left the old one open as a beer bar at what I presume more flexible drinking hours. Owner-chef Alayn Fayt also wrote a beer cuisine cookbook, and buying one is high on my to-do list.

Closed: Chapeau d'As, StekerlapatteStella Solaris, Ultieme Hallucinatie. No longer beery: Hotel Galia, Imprimerie, Laristo.

The Sleep Well hostel and its bar are shut for now, until it rebuilds after a recent fire.

The Warm Water on Rue des Renards has changed owners, ditched the lambic, and become Zabo. New ownership promises to serve a few local beers and might even be doing so by now.

I've got a longer list of places that may or may not be worth investigating, depending on how you value your time. If anyone out there is feeling intrepid and thirsty, drop me a line.

Additional reports welcome. Insults are welcome too, as long as they accompany useful tips.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bloggy Quickness, Featuring Amsterdam.

Are you following my twitter thing yet? It's that thing over there, down on the left. I've been using it for stuff that I don't have time am too lazy to blog and yet might be useful. I resisted for a while. Now I'm not sure how I ever got along without DRUNK HULK.

So... spring and summer travel plans. What are yours?

Maybe you'd like to go to Amsterdam. There's an 80 Beers guide for that, you know. Ron Pattinson still maintains his guide online, although you can also buy a dead-tree version. I own one, although I think it's an older edition. But I've used it. It works.

Finally, here's a free one: Mr. Chris Owen put this five-pager together for his own use. He has generously agreed to share it with you.

Then there's the Van Gogh museum. Saying you don't like Van Gogh is like saying you don't like the Beatles, it's either ignorant or a fucking lie.

Tomorrow (or else pretty soon): London. Or England. Or Britain, even. Whichever turns out to be larger.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Drie Fonteinen to Close Lambikodroom, Install New Brewery.

It appears to be sad news for those looking to visit lambic house Drie Fonteinen on their travels this spring and summer... but I'm not convinced the news is all that sad, in reality.

Brewer-blender Armand Debelder plans to shut his Lambikodroom tasting café in Beersel starting April 1, according to the café's website (in Dutch). The blendery will also cease all group tours until October 1, during the installation of the new brewing equipment.

To catch you up: Debelder ceased brewing operations for lack of funds after a thermostat disaster in 2009, although he never stopped blending lambics brewed elsewhere. His series of seasonal lambic blends launched last year, sold at a higher price which geeks have been happy to pay, has raised the money to re-start brewing.

Already I've seen messages from troubled beer travelers who had been looking forward to visiting Drie Fonteinen. They are fearful that it would be a waste of time. So let's put this news into context.

First of all, the Drie Fonteinen restaurant remains open and is one of the finest places around to enjoy traditional lambic with regional cuisine. Anyone who's ever been there for a bottle of vintage geuze with the Pajottenland salmon knows that it is never a waste of time. In fact, in my view, those who visited Lambikodroom but skipped the restaurant missed a key part of the Drie Fonteinen experience.

Secondly, the fact that Debelder and wife Lydie Hulpiau are re-installing a brewery ought to be welcome news to any Drie Fonteinen fan. The artisan will have full control over his product again, from fresh wort to blended and aged geuze (not to mention various experiments).

My advice: Swing by the brewery and see if anyone is there, perhaps say hello, and buy some bottles if the shop is open. The head directly around the corner and have a meal that ought to be on the bucket list of any lambic enthusiast.

I've asked Debelder and Hulpiau for more details and will share them right here if/when I hear back from them.

*Hat tip and hip-hop head nod to Jimbo Kowalczyk for sharing the news on BeerAdvocate.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Beer Festival Porn.

Festivals. Can't do them all, but thankfully the calendar starts to thick with them this time of year. I wonder if other geeks get as excited about their festivals as beer geeks do. Maybe. Anyway, for the beer geek who loves to travel, the festival calendar becomes a particular sort of pornography.

So, where to find your festivals? No doubt you have favorite sources already. There is the precisely named Beer Festival Calendar. Jeff Evans keeps a broad list at Inside Beer. For Belgians and belgophiles, Paul Briggs maintains his list (and I post it to the left). There are the Ratebeer and BeerAdvocate event calendars. And more.

Generally one can sort the fests and their locations into three categories: Wish I Could Go There, Maybe I Will Be There, and Hot Damn I Am Already There. Here are a few examples from my own perspective.

Wish I Could Go There: The most intriguing festival of 2012 is not in Copenhagen or Philadelphia or Moen. It's in Worcester, Mass., on June 24 and 25.

Co-organized by importers Shelton Brothers and 12%, here are two reasons why the event named simply The Festival is top-shelf: (1) the brewers themselves will be there, and (2) the sheer quality and breadth of those brewers (and the cider- and mead-makers too, let's not forget them). I can't think of another festival more likely to have so much excellence served by the people who actually, er, excel.

Pardon my cherry-picking, but among many more in attendance: Anchorage, Blaugies, Cantillon, Dochter van de Korenaar, de Molen, Drie Fonteinen, Haandbryggeriet, Hill Farmstead, Jandrain-Jandrenouille, Jester King, Jolly Pumpkin, Mikkeller, Pretty Things, Senne, Stillwater, Struise, Thiriez and Tilquin. Whew.

I was going to ask how they can afford to fly in all those brewers from around the world, but now we can guess: Tickets for a three-and-a-half-hour session are $100 $60 each. There are three sessions. A weekend pass to all three runs you $235 $160. Sadly not in my budget, but I understand why they are doing it how they are doing it. I intend to live vicariously through those who attend.*

UPDATED on May 4 to explain that my sloppy guess about flying in brewers was just that: sloppy. I'm told they are paying their own way. Also, the Shelton Brothers have dropped the ticket prices. Still pricey compared to typical beer festivals, but there is nothing typical about that one.

Maybe I Will Be There: We'll spend a chunk of our summer in the States this year, but our plans shift and flow like so much Mississippi mud. But one that's looking pretty fortuitous is the St. Louis Brewers Heritage Festival, tentatively set for June 1 or 2. But as Evan Benn reported yesterday, the website is dead and the date might change. So we'll see.

One quirk of this festival is that the brand names of the beers get left behind at the festival gate. Instead of promoting a specific product, the breweries get together and provide the widest possible range of beer styles and recipes. You might know which brewery made that walnut brown ale, but the point is not who made it or what it's called, but the fact that this is what one particular walnut brown ale tastes like.

In fact, the next festival I'm about to mention plans to do the same thing. But instead of 80 or so different styles, there might be 15. And some of them will come from homebrewers.

Hot Damn I Am Already There: You surely know the old Frank Zappa quote about how you can't be a real country until you have a beer. But there are real countries and then there are real beer countries, so here is a corollary: You can't be a real beer country until you have a beer festival.

Costa Rica is about to get its first one of any consequence. The first Festival de Cerveza Artesanal is set for April 21 at Avenida Escazú. I reckon 98% of you have no hope of attending (maybe next year), but for those of you who are already here or with the wherewithal, tickets are available for 15,000 colones (about US$30) at the Bodega de Chema in Los Yoses, TicoBirra in Pavas, or Costa Rica's Craft Brewing in Cartago.

I won't use this blog to bang on about the festival, but I might use Twitter to relay information from the organizers. I'll be there, but not as a journalist or an organizer. I'll just be a homebrewer on that day.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Pub at the End of the World.

The Black Sheep Pub is not a business. Owners Joe and Helena Wygal might call it a particularly expensive hobby. One friend described it as a museum. The word I'm going with is shrine--as in, a shrine to pubs everywhere and the beer that flows through their veins.

"I love the pub culture," Joe said over nonic pints. The beer was cool and not cold,* but the glasses sweat anyway in Guanacaste's jungle heat. "I had to start my own down here. It's not a replica. It's just a tribute."

The pub is its own small building but is essentially a part of the Wygals' private home. It is up in the hills near Nosara, popular for surfing and yoga and for being pretty far from anywhere else. Coming from San José, depending on traffic, you might be in for four hours of pavement and 45 minutes of gravel road.

We arrived at our hotel in Nosara and called the number, according to prior instructions. Gunter came to pick us up, and that's when the road got really bumpy. His stories distracted us from the fear that the potholes would rattle his doors off their hinges. And he came from the same city in Germany, Kiel, where my grandfather was born. Of course he did.

The journey adds much to the gladness of arrival, as does seeing four or five different beers on draft, which is almost totally unheard of in Costa Rica. On our visit Tim the barman (also the neighbor) was pulling pints from two Volcano beers, the Witch's Rock Pale Ale and Malo Gato brown, and three from Costa Rica's Craft Brewing: the red and hoppy Segua, the golden Libertas, and the sweetish and full-bodied seasonal IPA. It's got bottled imports too, complete with proper glassware. (The Duvel I had in mid-session was a pleasant strategic mistake, for which I paid the next day.)

The walls are appropriately loaded down with bric-a-brac. There is an Irish corner and nods to Germans and Czechs. MJ was there too, in photographic form, with an autograph. He once stayed at the Wygals' place in Boston, where they had a similar private pub and did their part for the New England Real Ale Exhibition. (Sadly, no cask ale down here, yet.)

Utterly reasonable prices reinforce the fact that this is not a for-profit operation. In reality the prices are more like donations to keep the shrine going.

As a rule the Black Sheep is only open Saturday evenings, the occasional drinking holiday, and private parties. Prospective visitors should call 8928-5752 to inquire and ask how best to get there. Maybe Gunter will come pick you up.

*Update: Joe and Helena sent me a message, concerned that the everyday drinker would misinterpret this and think that the beer is un-cold. They prefer to describe it as "just cold enough." So there you go.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Session: What Makes Local Beer Better?

The thing that makes local beer better is the same thing that makes my family's garden tomato better than the neighbors' garden tomato, even if it's not. Because it's fucking ours.

All things being equal, tie goes to the home team.

*More on the Session here.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

More Educational Hedonism in Belgium.

Where you might like to be this weekend, given your proverbial druthers: the Alvinne Craft Beer Festival, at Brouwerij Alvinne in Moen. For pleasure and for learning. Many of the selections on the list were carefully engineered not only to please the taste buds but also to raise eyebrows. And there is much to be said for that. On the other hand, you've also got a range of fairly reasonable cask ales coming down from the U.K. To rehydrate, or to reset the palate perhaps.

If you don't like the alphabet (and who does?), one way to organize these beers could be alcohol content. In that respect, Struise provides both bookends. At the high end, it brings along what was once a blonde ale before being concentrated by fractional freezing. Now, what is it? Barley wine? Liqueur? Who cares? It's 25 percent alcohol and called 5 Squared. If I were there, I might roll my eyes right before getting in line to taste it.

Then, on the other end of the spectrum, the Struise Single Black. That's "bob" stout of 2 percent strength, for designated drivers. In one place I saw this promoted as a "ridicule" stout. I'm not clear whether that was clunky English or a response from Struise toward those who would ask them for lower-strength beers. Either way, I'd be game to try it.

That reminds me: I posted an updated link to Paul Briggs' studious beer festival calendar a couple of weeks ago. Out of love. On Valentine's Day. You can find it here. Plan holidays accordingly.

Also, here's a bit of info from Chuck Cook on a newish and small brewery in Hoeselt, called Toetëlèr. Its flagship, of the same name of the brewery, is a Witbier flavored with elderflowers. They are doing other experiments.

Last but not least: I've got a handful of excellent newish places in Brussels I've been meaning to tell you about. I'm going to ration them out like treats. So here is the Rits Café at Rue Antoine Dansaert 70, a five-minute walk from the Bourse. Local aficionado Steven Vermeylen has become something of a beer curator there. (He helps to organize the always fun Vilvordia Bierproeffestival, which is coming up on March 24.)

At Rits, there are a few commercial beers but featured breweries also include Cantillon, Senne and De Ryck. Vermeylen says that storage is an issue so the list is always changing, but soon he will add another list, the "master's choice, with a dozen rare Belgian and foreign beers." He calls it his "playground," and it promises further fun and education for the beverage-inclined.

*Photo by Lena Van Goethem.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

How a Couple of Really Interesting Beers Are Made.

L'Enfant Terrible and bottled Oude Faro from De Cam are the subjects of our discussion today. A couple of new, hard-to-find, sourish Belgian beers made in funny ways.

The first one, from the still excellently named Dochter Van de Korenaar--I told you how fun that beer is. But I had no idea how it was made, besides the label's vague clue that it is a "gueuze-style ale brewed with wild yeast." Based on taste, my guess was an ale blended with Girardin or other lambic and allowed to mature. As usual, when it comes to me guessing about these things, I was wrong.

Here is the whole explanation, from Ronald Mengerik of the brewery in Baarle-Hertog:

L'Enfant Terrible is an odd beer. The basic beer is Bravoure, my smoked beer. After about two to three weeks fermentation as Bravoure the beer is transferred to oak wine barrels, where the beer is infected with lactic bacteria and Brettanomyces (both are local). Then, in four to six months the beer undergoes a lactic fermentation followed by a wild fermentation.

Smokey esters are changed into fruity esters by the Brettanomyces, which is a mystic and wonderful process. Then the beer is bottled by hand, and gets a refermentation of about two months.

Until now the production was very limited. I'm trying to upscale the
production. The demand is very much increased after winning a silver medal on the
'European Beer Star' this year.
About the smoky esters that go into a cocoon and emerge as beautiful butterfly fruity esters... pretty weird, right? I can vouch for it, as far as not noticing smoke. Oaky, yes. Smoky, not so much. But I've had the Bravoure a couple of times and, while fairly subtle, it is definitely smoky. So much of that smoke just disappeared in a puff of, er, fruit.

I don't want to give you the wrong idea about L'Enfant Terrible. It had a rough edge and could use some refinement... The oak might have been a bit much, and there was some alcoholic heat. But it was a very tasty beer and damned interesting and I would buy another bottle given the chance.

Next: Bottled De Cam Oude Faro, about which there have been whispers, scant photographic evidence, and a small number of reviews.

I itched my scratchy head when I heard about this one. De Cam is a traditional little blendery. Bottled faro implies non-traditional corner-cutting nonsense. It implies pasteurization and/or artificial sweetening, basically. The background: Faro denotes aged lambic with candy sugar added. In hundreds of Brussels and Pajottenland cafés around the turn of the century (no, the other century), that often meant lambic from the cask and sugar from the little bowl at your table, stirred up with a spoon. But when you try to bottle that, the wild critters chomp on the sugars and churn out enough gas to make exploding bottle bombs. Hence the trickery.

I'll say it plainly: If the only faro you've had has been from bottles, then you still haven't had faro. For the real thing you'll need to book a trip to Brussels. And you should.

Digression over. I contacted De Cam blender Karel Goddeau. At first he was reluctant to let me write about it, as "we are only starting to experiment with it." I told him the cat's out of the bag and that it might be useful for lambic geeks to know that this one's a work in progress. So he relented.

Here's what Mr. Goddeau is up to: adding candy sugar to "very old lambic" and waiting to see what the wild critters do with it. In other words, they are fermenting the sugar and leaving behind a bit of extra flavor. He said the bottled beer should be nearly flat, "almost not foaming."

In his words: "I try to get it in the bottle the same as on draft on beer festivals, but I need to convince more then 99 other micro organisms to share my opinion."

Is there a common thread here? Maybe. Remember these two beers when someone says unthinkingly that Belgian brewers do not innovate. They do. But they do it at a different pace and within a different framework than anyone else. At times, it might as well be another dimension.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Adventure as an Excuse for Beercation.

So it's been a while since we checked in with Volcano Brewing up near Tilarán. That's on the northwest side of Lake Arenal, if you want to unfold the map and have a look.

Sly folk looking to work crafty beer into their honeymoons or adventure travel would do well to mark it down. Two of the most popular destinations in Costa Rica are Volcán Arenal -- a proper, active cone rather than a big smoky hole in the ground -- and the laid-back beaches of Guanacaste, on the Pacific Coast. The smart way to get from one to the other is to rent a car and drive the northern route around Lake Arenal. Conveniently, that takes a thirsty gentleperson right by Volcano Brewing and the newly re-badged Lakeview Hotel.

No long ago it was called the Hotel Tilawa. We stayed there once, to meet the owner, J.P. Cazedessus, who was trying to get the brewpub started. The place was rough-and-ready; "in need of some TLC," was how we put it. In the off-season it felt like a private hostel. Now the hotel is under new management and a new name, while Cazedessus focuses on the brewery and eco-friendly housing projects. It remains a windsurfing destination, and there are options for hiking, fishing, boating, riding horses, whatever. Most importantly for our purposes, the beer is flowing.

Meanwhile: The flagship is called Witch's Rock, an American-style pale ale, and there are seasonals from time to time. The beer's name comes from a dramatic chunk of Planet Earth that juts out of the Pacific Ocean and enjoys a reputation for excellent surfing. Volcano Brewing is now connected to Witch's Rock Surf Camp in Tamarindo, where the pale ale ought to be on tap at Joe's place. So that could be your Guanacaste destination, if you're in need of one.

We stayed in Tamarindo not too long ago, and it was nothing if not versatile. You can get your high from wining, dining and massages, from surfing and sunsets, or from that friendly dude out on the sidewalk selling weed. Mix and match according to interest. Now, I reckon, we can add crafty beer to the list.