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.