Thursday, October 17, 2013

Flowers, Candlelight, Long Walks on the Beach, Movies with Happy Endings.

Duvel Moortgat is not a brewery. Not exactly. Not anymore. It is an international company that takes control of regional ale breweries. It has a strategy. Duvel is "determined to occupy a leading position as a niche player in the profitable segments of speciality beers and premium brands, both in Belgium and in priority export markets."

And you know what? There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Is there?

At the end of the day what matters (to you, or so you say) is how much you enjoy their products. They are producers. We are consumers. We fulfill our roles. Even if we don't assign scores to our beer, we assign a certain amount of our money to it. That shows up as a number. That number is higher than the one that refers to how much Duvel Moortgat spent on making, marketing and sending it somewhere. The difference is called a margin. And at the end of the day that's what matters (to Duvel Moortgat).

Romantic, isn't it?

I'll be straight with you: The news about Duvel taking over Boulevard disturbs me. I'm a belgophile who happens to be from Missouri. I'm a Missourian who happens to write about Belgian beer. I grew up with Boulevard. I've also watched what Duvel has done in Belgium (and consumed more than my share of their products). They've bought regional ale breweries. They might have saved a couple, but they also turned Achouffe into Achouffe (Duvel Moortgat). They turned Liefmans into Liefmans (Duvel Moortgat). De Koninck (Duvel Moortgat). Ommegang (Duvel Moortgat).

And now my home state brewery--a favorite, if I'm honest--will be Boulevard (Duvel Moortgat). Another link in a strategy to become "a niche player in the profitable segments of speciality beers and premium brands."

I have not read a single article about this purchase yet. Not one. I promise to do so after I publish this post. Someone sent me a link. I didn't click on it. I saw a couple of tweets. Still haven't clicked. I wanted to record my thoughts--why not here?--before wading into the inevitable bullshit. I reckon it will be thick. No, don't tell me. Is there stuff in there about how this is a natural fit? About how, hey, the brewmaster is Belgian too? About how Duvel Moortgat can take Boulevard products national or international? About how Duvel Moortgat prioritizes quality and lets regional breweries pretty much do their thing?

And do you believe it?

Here is my opinion: It depends. De Koninck seems more or less the same to me, so far. Achouffe does not. Liefmans now sells something called "Fruitesse" and suggests that we serve it on the rocks. The flagship Duvel beer has, er, flagged, but the Tripel Hop is interesting in a way that is not especially original these days--but still, interesting.

Here is what we write in the next Good Beer Guide Belgium: "In its various plants DM now packages more than 800,000 hectolitres of beer per year, ensuring that none makes a bad beer but less active in their pursuit of of the memorable."

I'm not sure that's 100% correct though. Fruitesse might just be a bad beer. La Chouffe, while decent and cleaner than it used to be in bottles, can be an boozy-hot coriander-spiked mess on draft. Memorable? Sure. But that's my opinion, opinions are like assholes, and so am I.

Boulevard, though. Will I still reach for my stand-by Pale Ale when I head home for the holidays? Probably. Eventually. But I will be annoyed. I will wonder when things will change, for change must come eventually--and how often do bigger beer companies improve the breweries they acquire? In the American experience, not often. In the Belgian experience, not often. People saying that they will not change does not make it so.

But Boulevard will still make mostly good beers. A few may be great. And, like I say, there's nothing wrong with any of this, mind you. It's just not very romantic. I happen to like romance, especially when it swirls around beers with which I've long nurtured a relationship.

Also, just in case this matters to you, it's not "craft." Not exactly. Not anymore.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Can. Most Will.

This is a giant jug of cider in the keller.

His word for it is 'Most', even if that usually means the unfermented stuff. This has been fermenting since last October, going on nine months of age now.

Pours a clear copper in the glass, smelling of orchard, leather and lambic. It tastes juicy and tart with a natural roughness to it and a light sparkle. They like to mix it with sparkling lemonade to make it easier to drink. But it's better straight.

He tells me it's about 9% alcohol. This is a man who makes wine and owns a refractometer, so I believe him. He adds some sugar and just a bit of yeast to the juice, and that's it, plus time. Apfelwein, in truth, but we still call it Most.

There is a lot left in this jug to drink. Also, there are little green late-summer apples everywhere, the first of the season. Where we currently live apples are precious imported things, but this corner of Swabia seems to be lousy with them. They need help eating them. 

And more apples are coming, with surplus going into more Most. They need help drinking it.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Slaughtering the Fat Ox.

Seems like I was working on some kind of list here. I had it scribbled down on a long skinny piece of paper ripped from a reporter's notebook. It was hanging right. there. Now it's gone. I reckon some toddler snatched it down and put it somewhere, a waystation en route to the trash, long gone.

I don't remember the rest of the list. But I do remember this: the Fat Ox.

The Vette Os is a steak restaurant in Veurne, West Flanders. Give me a moment to put my visit there in context.

I was two-and-a-half weeks into a fairly intense Belgian beer café research tour. That means, however fun it was: Lots of beer and lots of coffee and lots of snacks. You can't drink beer in all those places, especially if driving to the four corners. And you can't eat full-on meals in all those places, even if you wanted to. So you end up nibbling. And drinking lighter beers. And coffee. And water.

This was the day of the coastal swing. I took the train from Brussels to Knokke-Heist and then, stopping several places along the way, took the coastal tram all the way down to De Panne. Northeast coast to southwest coast. Lots of vacation, lots of sandy-people-watching, and good cheap fun. (Look for an article about the Belgian coast in an upcoming issue of Draft.)

From De Panne in the evening I jogged in on the train just a bit to reach Veurne. Despite having lived in Belgium for a while, this was my first visit to Veurne, last summer. Every bit as quaint and cobbled as they say. And there was a party on. Hence the photo above. A local fest, and oddly for Veurne and this part of the country, it had nothing to do with penitence. They love penitence down there. They feel really sorry about some old stuff that was not really their fault, and then they party. It works.

I checked in at a B&B-ish hotel called the Old House. Smallish rooms, but they took an old administrative building and somehow made it feel like a stately manor. It was nice. And its bistro, with a top-rate breakfast,* stocked St. Bernardus ales and other goodies. It was just a block or two off the main square.

There were a few cafés on and off the Grote Markt I needed to check out. I wasn't especially excited about eating in any of them. So I asked the B&B owner where to eat. And he sent me to the Vette Os. I'm glad I listened.

Candlelit and cozy, it was full of couples and families and groups of friends. I gathered that I was lucky to get a little table to myself. I don't think they even had beer, probably a token pils if I had asked for one. Meanwhile they also ran a wine shop next door, specializing in bottles from unusual places. I drank a bottle of something with my Irish ribeye. Not a glass, but a bottle, because whatever it was I wanted wasn't available by the glass. I don't remember what it was. I don't remember if I finished it. I didn't take notes. I wasn't working.

I do remember that the ribeye was the best, most flavorful cut of meat I've had in Belgium. Thank you, Ireland. No need for a rich sauce to ladle over it (although I wouldn't have turned it away). There were no mediocre beers I felt the need to try. No little bowls of nuts or crackers or gouda. No espresso watered down to coffee-cup-size. Just a great meal, good wine, and good company (myself).

That was a highlight.

And while I am slightly buzzed and thinking about this, let me say: What a wonderful job I have. It is so wonderful that I am taking a second job, just so I can afford to keep doing it.

It's important to remember those moments as I embark on a different sort of trip tomorrow. The highlights will be different. My better half and our two kids are coming.

My four-year-old son says he wants to come on a brewery tour. He wants to take pictures for me. I am very much inclined to let him. I promise to post the results here. Unless he throws them away.

* In much of Western Europe, "top-rate breakfast" means to an American not just bread and jam and cold ham, but also an egg or two made to order. Bacon is nice, if you can get it.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Bruine Café Visitors' Center

I haven't been there yet. I'd like to go. I mention it here because I think others might like to go too. So here is some useful info about the Bezoekerscentrum 't Bruine Café.

One of the newer, smaller and quieter breweries in Belgium is the Stadsbrouwerij Aarschotse, city-sponsored makers of the retro local beer, Aarschotse Bruine. It's a sourish local brown ale style whose existence had been flickering. Larger, more distant breweries had made it on contract for many years, its authenticity leaning toward the dubious side.

This new brewery, which opened late last year, is a city effort to re-claim the beer, stoke some civic pride, and perhaps draw some tourists in the bargain. Upon launching they announced—and I find this promising—that the revival of Aarschotse Bruine was a response to "the sweetening and commercialisation of our tastes," which threaten "the link between taste and region."

So, you and me, we're the tourists. Want to visit? Unless you want a guided tour of the brewhouse, you won't need to round up a bunch of friends and book ahead (although you can, if you want). Individuals can roll up unannounced to the Bruine Café Visitors' Center, at 22 Gasthuisstraat in Aarschot, during these hours: Tuesday to Friday, 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.; or Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Closed on Monday.

Local tourism officials will be there, in the brown café homage, to serve the beer and fill you in on its history and how it's made. Many thanks to Annabelle Verhaegen of Toerisme Aarschot for the details. The photo comes from their website, too.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Highlight #7: Ribbekes on Planks and Magic in Baskets.

An unpaid spare-time blog should never promise things. Like lists. Especially the kind that count backwards. If I were counting upwards I might have left this at, say, No. 3. Or even No. 4. But no, now I must trudge onward under the absurd hypothetical that someone is waiting with bated breath for Nos. 1 through 7.

Well, maybe we will all learn something and grow from this experience.

This is an easy one, though: loads of serious lambics and ribs in a nicely converted Pajottenland barn. That is the Boelekewis. Go on, have a click. I like that picture at the top. Their rib racks look like beards.

This is not a complete list of their bottled lambic beers—for example, Tilquin should be there—of which I believe there are more than 40. They stock all the serious gueuzes and many of the better fruited ones too, like Fou'Founne (apricot) from Cantillon and Oudbeitje (strawberry) from just down the road at Hanssens.

So you will drink well. But this is a restaurant, and you must eat too. Like at most Belgian restaurants (as opposed to bars, cafés and brasseries), people who only want to drink make them feel all awkward and they might just shoo you away. Especially at meal times: Tue-Fri, noon to 2 p.m. and 6 to 10 p.m.; Sat 6 to 10 p.m.; and Sun noon to 10 p.m. with cooking all day. Not home on Mondays.

American meat eaters deserve fair warning: We are spoiled by barbecue. We believe that word stands for slowly smoked meat, probably with sauce. In Belgium and most other European countries, ribs are oven-roasted with some herbs and spices. Ideally this is done slowly and lovingly but that's not always the case, and there are some chewy, gristly messes out there. But we found the ribs at Boelekewis to be on the tender side and had no complaints. And it's hard for anyone to say no when you see a wooden plank of them floating past your table.

While you're down there: This is Dworp, just off the E19, which is part of the loop that goes around Brussels and dips south to touch Waterloo. It includes this chunk of Pajottenland that also has a few other spots within easy reach: The excellent Zwaan café is a little farther down the road, and I'll tell you more about them as these numbers get lower. Den Herberg café and brewery is just on the other side of the E19. And jump an exit north and you are in Beersel for Drie Fonteinen and, if it's Saturday, Oud Beersel.

Ribs and gueuze though... That was a highlight.

That's a highlight from a Belgian beer swing. At this rate I will begin this summer's list before I finish last summer's. No. This is the last list, ever. Here's an explanation.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Highlight #8: Death by Beer Bar in Hainaut.

This one is easy to explain.

The Walloon city of Tournai has a case for being Belgium's oldest. It's got plenty of sites to sight, like the eight-centuries-old Notre Dame cathedral, and a bustling Grand-Place with oodles of cafés.

As a beer town, though, it's sleepy. Most of those cafés are tied houses to various regional breweries offering little in the way of surprises. Among those, the Beffroi and Imperatrice are probably your best bets.

For its attractions and size Tournai ought to do better. There was a bar called Cave à Bière, but it closed and was still shut when I went last summer. (It appears to have been resurrected more recently as a less beery all-you-can-eat rib shack. Not that there is anything wrong with that.)

But we did have a tip, short on details: the Cornwall.

In certain Belgian bars there is an effortless overlap between metal, Celtic, Gothic and medieval. I'm thinking of the Porte Noire in Brussels as an example. Maybe you need to be non-European to understand what I mean by effortless in this context. For us, heavy metal was real but all the Iron Maiden-esque dungeon and torture imagery was really cool euro-fakery. Likewise, we are overly fascinated by castles. But when a European metal bar puts up some medieval weapons and torture implements, it is not only a fake heavy metal thing. There is some history there. Particularly in a place like Tournai.

Not to say the Cornwall is anything like a museum. My point is, its tongue-in-cheek evil is cool and breezy. Of course there are sickles and (fake) decapitated heads on display. Of course there is no actual list of the 150 or so beers. You need to go to the fridges and have a look yourself. Among them were De Ranke, Ellezellois, La Rulles and St. Bernardus. Unfortunately I stuck with the theme and went for a Gruut Inferno, which I think was named for its blazing flavor of alcohol. Followed it with an XX Bitter just to put the fire out.

The combination of death, darkness, youth and tattoos may frighten away the normals but we found it all very friendly. Narrow place though, with just a handful of tables. More action around the bar, and the party does seem to spill outside at times. The address is 14 Rue des Puits l'Eau, opening at 3 p.m. most days and 5 p.m. on Sundays.

The little beer-mat sign hanging under that fellow's neck says mauvais payeur. Deadbeat. In other words, he didn't pay his bill.

That's a highlight from a Belgian beer swing. Will I ever get to #1 at this rate? I have my doubts. Here's an explanation.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Highlight #9: Idealistic Beer, Idealistic Prices.

We were getting toward the end of a day bouncing around the Ardennes when we finally went in search of the mysterious Periple en la Demeure.

So we found it, and we drank, and we solved no great mysteries. Had a nice time though.

Periple en la Demeure--something like "Journey in the Abode"--is the home of Brasserie Oxymore, in a village called Limerlé. It's an easy drive from the Trois Fourquets, makers of Lupulus, or the Vielle Forge B&B, home of Inter-Pol. You could easily do all three in an afternoon, rolling into evening.

Oxymore is one of several tiny outfits that get a full listing in Good Beer Guide Belgium because it is officially a brewery, even if it doesn't brew on any sort of regular schedule. I'd never met anyone who had actually been there and tried the beer. So someone has to do it, right?

Let's get this out of the way: I still haven't had their beers. They were all out of Oxymore. You can see it scratched out in the photo of the chalkboard. It was said to be an odd blond ale around 5% strength.

They did, however, have Saison Dupont at €1.50 a glass. There are more direct routes to my heart, but only my wife and children know them.

You see, they are interested in many things at the Periple en la Demeure. Profit is not one. I am a huge fan of communitarian ideals when they arrive in the form of world-class beer, bought cheaply. It's not a business. It seems to be more of a project based on the arts and an ideal of agrarian sustainability. You can come to play music, screen films, bake bread, talk philosophy, plant veggies, or raise a cow. I'd like to be more specific, but I'm not sure I understand all of it. It's not that I don't speak French. It's just that it's been years since I was fluent in idealism.

For our purposes: Periple has a bar, with more reliable hours in summertime. Weekends only, I think. Atmosphere is honest, simple. There are a few tables in the lot, while the bar is cellar-like and cozy, with a lot of brick and artwork. It sells a few wonderful beers at cheap prices, and even makes its own from time to time. And the people there--at least the ones we met--are really tickled that travelers might pop in for a beer.

The one that Oxymore makes is no longer called Oxymore. It's a new recipe, called Hypallage. So they are continuing with a theme of literary devices. You can see the old-timey label here. Benoit Toussaint of the Periple told me that it's a red-amber ale of about 6% strength. The concept is "low mountain beer, brewed with pride."

This is my translation of his French, so apologies in advance, but he called it a "peasant beer, evolving, exploring the possibilities of brewing with a certain tendency toward building autonomy." In modern English we might say sustainability, using ingredients that are as local as possible. (I have no doubt that they would grow all their own if they could.) He said specifically that they want malt made from local barley, and that they would like to distribute to places that share their ideals. That includes searching for local solutions, and the belief in décroissance, or degrowth. Making a smaller footprint, and so forth.

"In other words, we reason and act for beer as for bread, since the products are cousins. The bread we bake ourselves, stone, wood-fired, and prepare with local grains. We grind in a watermill that we restored and returned to work. We plan to increase the production capacity of the brewery. In summary, this is not just a beer, it is also a process."

The cynical side of me finds most of that very naïve. But here is a really elegant way to shame cynics and get them to think seriously about your ideals: Sell them excellent beer at low prices.

I'd be willing to sweep aside all remaining skepticism if the beer turns out well. Let me know if you find out.

That's a highlight from a Belgian beer swing. Will I ever get to #1 at this rate? I have my doubts. Here's an explanation if you're wondering what I'm up to.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Mysterious Belgian Bar Snacks, Part III: Choesels.

It's been a quick five years or so since I posted a couple of entries in a hypothetical series called Mysterious Belgian Bar Snacks. Then this choesels thing came up. A long-delayed sequel, like the Color of Money and Wall Street II: Gecko's Revenge, or whatever that one was called.

A disclaimer, in the tradition of long-delayed sequels that are inconsistent with their predecessors: Choesels are not really a bar snack. I mean, they could be, but like many weird old peasant foods they're more easily found in upmarket restaurants that pay attention to local traditions. On the other hand, they would traditionally be accompanied by beer--lambic, most likely, because this is an ancient Brussels thing.

So, choesels! What are they?

I asked that very question some years ago at Restobières. And the waiter told me they were bull's balls. Well, how do you say no to that? Especially in the presence of friends and/or loved ones who (a) know you will eat pretty much anything and (b) heard the question and answer.

So, the other day: I'm scribbling something about Brussels food and come across choesels again. And I remember: bull's balls. Then my journalistic skepticism--a ponderous burden for anyone trying to make money by selling words--kicks in. And I think, really? Bull's balls? For real? Because journalistic skepticism sounds like that sometimes. So I spend more time than I should have googling around and learning that sometimes they could be pancreas or other bits and ends of the cow.

Not satisfied, I write to Chef Alain Fayt of Restobíères, known as one of the few chefs and restaurants still serving this local treat. And some days later I get a really fascinating answer, with historical context. Specific years and everything. He either knows the subject cold or spent some time researching; either way, I really appreciate it. Then I fix the spelling and typos just for you:

In fact, the choesels were the meal of poor people. It is an old custom. It was a mixture of different parts (breast of veal, oxtail, heifer sweetbreads, calf testes and pancreas) of beef. In fact, Gaston Clément (1879-1973) a famous Belgian chef ([royal] chef of the Belgian crown) published a recipe of the choesels in his book (1954) within included pancreas and testes. In 1899 and 1903, Jean de Gouy wrote in the 9th ed. of his book, La cuisine et la patisserie bourgeoise, that choesel is pancreas. Miss Lucas, a famous Brussels chef, has never used pancreas in the recipe of her Choesels. My opinion of this issue is that Choesels is a traditional meal and everybody can realize them with [their] personal touch. Personally, I do not put pancreas in my recipe, but [just] testes of veal.

I hope that it is now clearer for you.
A recent frustration: I had lunch at Restobières last summer without taking a single photo that was worth a damn. So instead you get an image of his cookbook, La Cuisine à la Bière, which is hugely entertaining if your French is up to it. Choesels are in there. Rocky mountain oysters, Belgian style, and Fayt typically does it with lambic from De Cam. You can buy the cookbook at his restaurant.

Friday, April 19, 2013

More Fancied Beer, Less Fancied Prices.

Beerpulse posted a brief item yesterday, citing an Under My Host podcast, about Stillwater Artisanal Ales preparing to increase production nearly fourfold. I can flesh things out a bit.

The report mentions that he plans to lower prices but doesn't get specific. Strumke told me in late March he expects a retail price of $11 for a four-pack of Cellar Door, his best-selling beer. "That's re-inventing my company," he said, by going with bigger volume. Lowering prices, "that's been my goal from Day One, just takes time."

I also asked him about how often he is going to Two Roads, his new contract brewery. "As much as I have to be," he said. "Brewing at that level is very automated. I've been up there re-designing it, because it doesn't scale up. Once it's dialed in, it's more efficient, it's better. But you can't just multiply things. It doesn't work like that. You have to re-create the beer."

He added that his goal, of course, is keep the product exactly the same as before.

Currently Stillwater beers are available in 35 states. He said that now they'll go to "pretty much every state" and also more countries.

He is clearly excited about the idea of making "regular beer" but of a very high quality. "I want to re-invent the way that people look at beer," he said. For example, with his Classique--which will be canned--"it’s our grandfathers new beer. What is it? It’s not a saison. It’s not a lager. It’s a fucking beer."

I tasted the Classique on draft. It's an austere thing, bone-dry and pale, with nowhere for its spicy-resin bitterness to hide--fine with me, as I didn't find it abrasive. At 4.5% strength it can be drunk in volume, not just made that way. Like his Premium, it's got corn and rice, a nod to American lager tradition.

If he makes enough of this stuff, with the Brewers Association still think him "traditional"?

"Why can’t you make a good beer with corn and rice? That’s bullshit."

Now just for fun, here is something I wrote for DRAFT in 2010, appearing in the March 2011 issue:

His Stillwater Artisanal Ales are generally found in 750mL bottles that sell for about $12 in a shop. Not everyday beers, then, but ones to carry to a dinner party. I have no problem with that. My worry is that, in shop after shop, bottles like these are crowding out more affordable options for those of us who want great beer anytime, not just for special occasions.

With mutual friends, I met Strumke in Baltimore at The Brewer’s Art. We lounged on sofas and sipped strong Belgian-style ales beneath a really impressive chandelier. With my tact eroded by alcohol, I whined about the price of his beer and he offered a sensible response. Damned if I could remember what it was. So I contacted him again and just asked.

“First off, I don’t see my beer as being overly expensive,” Strumke said. Yet making beer in small batches means there are no bulk deals for materials, and, “with that said, I have set out to make uncompromising beers with the best ingredients I can obtain. Price is not a deterrent as the goal is extreme quality.”

Basically, Strumke is making a small amount of beer for a group of people who can’t get enough of the stuff. “Craft brewing is, like it or not, part of the epicurean and artisan movement,” he said. “In my case, I make beer for the connoisseur, those who understand what I am trying to do and appreciate my efforts.”

I like Brian’s beer and respect his view. He takes real pride in his product, and after that, sales are the only metric that matters.

Yet his argument worries me a bit. Epicures and connoisseurs tend to have larger beer budgets than typical drinkers. I don’t like a line of thinking that leaves ordinary drinkers with lesser beers. We know from experience that great beer doesn’t have to cost much. There are a lot of price points out there, and room for all of them. But I want to see more of them on the lower end. Somehow, I doubt I’m alone. ...
Apologies for that photo, which is poor even by my standards. Late night, lots of events, yada yada. I even had a real camera on me and apparently chose not to use it.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

'All-Day' Beers and Usefulness as a Useful Standard.

Yesterday I spoke for a while with Mike Stevens, CEO of Founders Brewing, for an upcoming article in Draft.  While I had him on the horn, there was something else I wanted to know about: the All-Day IPA.

When I first met this beer in 2011 at the Great Taste of the Midwest, there was an iffy, experimental air about it.  It was a brewers' beer, one they had been tweaking and enjoying for a few years, and I don't think they knew if it would really take off with a public making noise for Kentucky Breakfast Stouts and the like.  On this blog I've banged the session-beer drum, mainly for selfish reasons (i.e., I want to see more of them).  But aside from a few cranky writers there has not been much evidence of any wider session beer trend.  Most of the buzz and attention has gone, and still goes, to stronger, more extreme beers or those with weird stuff in them.

Session beers are not sexy.  But maybe that's the point.

My argument has been that there appears to be money in lower-alcohol beers, if anyone cares to make it.  The country's best-selling beers are light lagers that hover around 4.2%.  Granted, they're devoid of character, but they do say something about what people find useful.  More to the point of flavorful beer--as session beers ought to be--is the popularity of wheat beers in North America.  Boulevard Wheat (4.4%) and Widmer Hefeweizen (4.7%) have paid a lot of bills.  Is it because they're made with wheat?  Or maybe it's the lemon!

Or maybe people are just, I don't know, fucking thirsty.

Now we're seeing more session-strength hoppy ales.  Founders All-Day IPA is one of the more visible ones. So, two years later, how is it doing?

"It's killing it," Steven said. "It honestly is. ... We knew we had something great there, we knew we'd have positive results, but we didn't expect the results we're seeing."

Partly by design, Founders goes for variety and lacks an obvious flagship.  Meanwhile All-Day IPA is on its way to becoming the brewery's top seller.

Not bad for a "seasonal." For now the beer is only available from March to September. It was the brewery's second-biggest seller in the year's first quarter... and it was only available in March.

"We can't make enough of it right now. It's crazy," Stevens said.  Canned 12-packs of it will arrive in July.

(And let's watch what happens with Schlafly's new IPA, available in cans and clocking in at 4.5%.  I bet it sells very well. Without lemons.)

All this happens while Founders is in the midst of a $25 million brewery expansion.  It sold 70,000 U.S. beer barrels last year and estimates 130,000 this year, as the brewery expands its distribution footprint.  A session beer is part of that success.

Funny how that seems to happen when brewers sell beers that they particularly like to drink.  People who work with beer tend to--shocking, I know--drink it often.  There is utility in reasonable strength.

"It gets more and more difficult to do these all-day promos, so a session beer was sounding really good," Stevens said.

My crazy-insane theory: a beer that is useful for a brewer tends to be useful to other working people too...  and those may be the drinkers who, aside from a few cranky writers, make the least noise.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Highlight #10: Le Resto des Saisons

The name of the place is La Ruchette, and it's in a village north of Charleroi called Viesville. That's about four kilometers from the optimistically named Brussels South airport.

I knew nothing about the Ruchette a few days prior.  It was not on any of my maps or to-do lists.  But a brewer recommended it, and that can lead to surprises.  So we went to check it out.

Near as we could tell, the "Hive" is the main attraction in Viesville.  It's on a square called Place des Combattants, complete with requisite war statue.  Its wide terrace on this quiet square allows outdoor eating and drinking in fine weather.  It was, and we did.

As it turns out, Viesville's village pub stocked 120 well-chosen beers, heavy on Hainaut regionals, saisons, hoppy things, and 75cl bottles.  Not bad for a little surprise.  In the refrigerator by the bar we spotted other bottles not on the beer card, a sign that the owner is always looking for new things.  He said as much to us later, and recently told me by email that he's updated the list again.  So the number may be bigger now.

It's a meat-heavy menu; we went for the daily "lunch rapide" special: house steak-frites.  The frites were not dumped on the plate but nicely presented in one of those dainty cone stands, like this one.  We were pleased.

Oh, and we drank.

The list features Dupont, Ellezelloise, Géants, Rulles, Senne, plus some lambics, all the Trappists.... We knew right away we wanted something saison-ish in a 75cl bottle to share, but which?  In the fridge we spotted a bottle from the would-be Brasserie Deseveaux, a buckwheat saison called Sarazen.  But you already knew that, because you peeked at the photo.  Turned out to be a fine food beer.  Just barely off-dry with a touch of caramel, but its most endearing trait was an honest sort of graininess throughout.

Incidentally, I recently contacted brewer Sébastien Deseveaux, who makes the beer at Proef, as well as a newer one with oats called Saison Avena.  He aims to have his own 15 hl kit installed this summer.  We'll keep an eye on it.

Anyway: one or two more there for you Saison Road-trippers to add to the list.
So for me, that's a highlight. More to come. Here's an explanation if you're wondering what I'm up to.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Highlight #11: The House of (Beer and) Cheese.

These are in no particular order, did I mention that? OK. Why, then, am I going in reverse numerical order, as if to make a big fat deal out of #1 if I ever actually get there? I don't know. Shoulda coulda woulda.

Oh, hey... do you like beer? Cheese too? I gather it's a big thing these days, pairing beer and cheese. No, scratch that, it's been a big thing for at least a decade now. Hey, you know who else loves beer and cheese? The Belgians. And they are pretty good at both of them. Don't get upset that most Belgians would prefer to drink wine with their meals, including their cheese. That's a global affliction, and Belgium is very close to France. But the beer-and-cheese thing, that's catching on there too.

OK, let's talk about meccas. Not the Mecca but small-m meccas, the kind that all travelers have. They're like bucket lists except you don't scratch them off the list and you don't worry about kicking the bucket. Instead you just feel a pull to visit there one day, or again, or repeatedly. In the Belgian beer world, the Kulminator is a mecca for people who like old Belgian ales. Moeder Lambic Fontainas is a mecca for those who like hops and lambic on draft. Westvleteren is a mecca for those who like the holy and hard-to-get. And so on.

So, how about a new mecca for the beer-and-cheese heads?

I might have been there. In the sprawl that shoots south of Antwerp, there is a town along the A12 road called Aartselaar (which in the competition for Belgian-town alphabetical supremacy is up there with, I don't know, Aalst I guess). In this town is a groovy little shop called Camembière. It's a good name, a name that signals exactly where this is going. Out front the canopy even says, "Kaasaffineurs, Biersommelier." This is a place of expertise.

Philippe Wagman and Mieke Foubert are the proprietors. Philippe is a former construction engineer who followed a childhood dream to be a cheese monger. "I let everything fall down for this, and it's much nicer. ... I wanted to do this since I was 13, but I think my parents didn't take me seriously. And I never got it out of my head. ... I found cheeses amazing. How do you start with cow's milk and end up with so many different kinds of cheese?"

The beer part came later, "about 10 years ago," he said. "I was frustrated when I ate good cheeses and a bottle of wine. I like wine, I have nothing against wine, but I found it frustrating. ... The wine didn't match with most of the cheese I was eating. So I thought, 'Why don't I try it with beer?' And I found some really nice combinations. Everybody speaks about beer and cheese combinations now. Ten years ago it was, 'What are you doing?'"

In Limburg there is a vocational school for professionals called SYNTRA, and it's one of the programs in Belgium offering a "beer sommelier" or zytholog certification these days. Philippe got one to put alongside his long-held interest in cheese affinage.

The question of what to pair with what is the subject of ongoing experimentation, but Philippe and Mieke have no shortage of ready suggestions. Some useful results came out of a judged tasting that put 12 of the country's more interesting beers against a varying selection of three cheeses per beer. The judges then ranked the strongest pairings. The top four pairings, for your reference:
Rodenbach Grand Cru with Grevenbroecker
Westmalle Tripel with Old Brussels
Oud Beersel Oude Geuze with fenugreek Geitenkass
Saison Dupont with Pas de Rouge
I took some Grevenbroecker and Pas de Rouge with me to munch with the chosen beers that evening. Not an organized tasting but I had a hell of a time. And one of these days I ought to scribble something on Belgian craft cheese and its parallels with Belgian craft beer. But not today.

Camembière stocks about 90 beers at last check, with plenty of good taste and an eye toward what pairs well. Also a wide variety of cheeses, plus charcuterie and other nibbles. There is a small table or two for sitting down for a snack, but large groups will need to make other plans. There is a De Lijn bus stop nearby for the ambitious, but those with cars will find it easier. It's pretty close to Steenhuffel, if you want to check out Palm's Brouwershuis tap. Bring some stinky cheese in there with you, while you're at it.
So for me, that's a highlight. More to come. Here's an explanation if you're wondering what I'm up to.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Highlight #12: Best of the Browns.

Q: What's better than a shiny, modern, specialist beer café with hundreds of great bottles and taps from which to choose?

A: An utterly brown one, with a small handful of great beers.

I'd like you to meet the Brumaire. This is a real neighborhood brown café in Saint-Gilles, a corner bar that looks like so many others, with Stella Artois signage and smoky regulars sitting out front, holding court. Once inside you have the requisite gaming machine and little bags of potato chips or sausage bites. Inexplicably for such a small place, there are stage lights and a disco ball.

I counted 37 beers on the wall-mounted list, made from those slats and little plastic letters like you used to see in hospitals and elementary schools. To my shame, I took no photo of this. But among the usuals were Jambe de Bois, Witkap Stimulo, Hommelbier, and a few Trappists than included Orval, Rochefort 10, Westmalle Tripel, and Chimays blue and white, the latter being on draft.

Plus Saison Dupont.

Translations are imperfect, but maybe this is like an American hole-in-the-wall dive that happens to have Sierra Nevada on draft, or a British "community pub" that happens to have well-kept Taylor's Landlord. A jewel.

So there I was in the middle of a long foot-trek from central Brussels to Moeder Lambic St-Gilles -- which is just a couple of blocks away -- drinking a Saison Dupont in one of the brownest cafés in Brussels, which automatically puts it in the running for brownest worldwide. Nibbling on those awful, wonderful little sausage bites. Trying to figure out where they boogie when the disco ball goes into effect.

So for me, that's a highlight. More to come. Here's an explanation if you're wondering what I'm up to.

Highlights of a Belgian Swing.

So my current project is a big fat book full of Belgian stuff. Tell you more soon. What I want to say just this moment is that I got to 156 beery cafés across that country on a three-week swing last summer. That includes several that were shut, and it also includes 15 breweries. I mean "café" in the broadest sense here, encompassing restaurants and brewery taps and night spots and museums with bars (in Belgium, a museum without a bar is a paltry thing).

The number is nothing to boast about. Many were unremarkable, and I drank a lot of water and coffee between scenic country drives and city tram rides. I could think of better things to do, and often I did. But as work goes, you know, it was all right. OK, better than all right. My point is this: There were highlights.

So I have some pretty swell suggestions for you.

I've come up with a list of a dozen favorite places from my summer swing. I hope they'll help other folks plan their own. Bear in mind, I'm not calling these the 12 best cafés in Belgium (although a few would certainly be on that hypothetical list). These are just my 12 highlights, the spots and moments that pleased me most. Best I can remember. In no particular order.

I'm going to ration them out, partly because I hate really long posts. Also because each of them deserves a post of its own.

Stay tuned for the first:

11. House of (Beer and) Cheese: about Camembière.
12. Best of the Browns: about the Brumaire.