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.