Thursday, November 16, 2017

Hello from 35,992 feet.

This Delta flight, on which we are traveling back to America for a little more than a week to celebrate Thanksgiving, has complimentary cans of hoppy liquid on board. Sweetwater 420. Never thought I would see such a day.

Now you will tell me this is becoming somewhat more common, on trans-Atlantic flights or even domestic U.S. ones. I don't know. The great majority of my flying in recent years has been on Squeezy-Jet or Ryan Air. Because cheeeeeeaaaap. Flew from Berlin to Brussels for €10 one way a couple of weeks ago. However many euros I saved, I just see those as gueuze tokens.

On this plane: When the beers are for sale they cost $8. Or you can go cheaper and pay $7 for... Miller Lite. Which is the better buy?

Then they charge you nearly $30 including taxes to use wifi so you can hustle and get that next section of manuscript to the publisher. Robbery, or another miracle at 36,000 feet? We take our joys where we can find them.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Berliner Weisse, Brett, and a Kürbislagerbier.

There is a lot of hype that inflates the reputation of "craft beer" in Berlin. Much of it is insular and unjustified, where quality is concerned (and some of the better stuff is not brewed in Berlin at all).

Meanwhile, the trendy set tend to overlook the longer-established local breweries.

Lemke is an obvious example here. Oli Lemke started at Hackescher Markt in 1999 by making loads of different styles on a wee brewpub kit --  In that sense he was ahead of his time in Berlin -- but soon settled on a few types that sold reliably to locals and tourists. The variety-beer trend kicked in much later, and Lemke got back into things like IPA, imperial stout... and very recently, after years of tinkering, a proper Berliner weisse.

Another Berlin brewery too often overlooked is Brewbaker, despite the fact that founder Micha Schwab has contract brewed for -- or rented out his kit to -- some of the local upstarts. Schwab jokes that he has "the world's worst marketing since 2005."

Like the much newer Schneeeule (which also rented his kit for a while), Schwab makes a Berliner weisse whose mixed-culture fermentation includes brettanomyces along with lactic bacteria. So does Lemke's new one, incidentally. It's become conventional wisdom here that an authentic Berliner weisse needs to have brett in it. Schwab was doing that before it was cool.

If the Schneeeule beers are bretty in the way that IPAs are hoppy -- they can punch you in the face with funk, very enjoyable to those of us that like that sort of thing -- Brewbaker's weisse is more elegant in the way of a finely tuned pils or pale ale. The beer is tart, lemony and dry, and the brett is relatively subtle, like cellar must in the backdrop. Schwab, who opened a few bottles for us Tuesday at the Bar Convent trade show, said that the brett is "stinkiest" after about six months in the bottle. But personally I found it more pronounced, with more "horseblanket" aroma, in the 2013 Jahrgangsweisse he uncorked than in the 2017 version.

The other one I couldn't pass up is Brewbaker's Pumpkin Lager. Living abroad the past 11+ years, I don't get drowned in pumpkin spice beers this time of year like those back in the US. I figure I'm missing out on a dubious cultural experience. This was an enjoyable beer, pale like a pils, with spice in the nose and flavor but not overly done, with enough bitterness to more than balance it out. Schwab said the mash is 10 percent pumpkin, which he buys whole and cooks himself first. Also notable: All his beers are organic these days.

Thanks to this decrepit old blog I learned that nine years ago I missed drinking his Pumpkin Lager by a only few days. Back in 2008 on a trip to Berlin my wife and I twice visited pub he had started in 2005, under the railway arches at the Bellevue S-Bahn station. We enjoyed the food and beers immensely, though he only had a pils and dunkel on that week.

These days you can find Brewbaker near the Buesselstraße S-Bahn station, with beer for purchase during office hours (Mo-Fr 09.00-17.30). You can also find the beers at several shops and pubs around town.

However, I don't notice them as often as I'd like.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Beer Awards: Poke at Them.

There are more beer firms than we can fit into the next edition of Good Beer Guide Belgium. By "beer firms," I mean those marketing offices that sell brands but are not breweries -- though some of them are happy for us, the consumers, to assume that they do have one. They are happy for us to assume all sorts of things.

That's a hobby-horse issue for me and I could go on at length. Today I'd rather home in on beer awards.

One of those many Belgian beer firms is Tripick. Their office address is Boncelles, just southwest of Liège. I'd never heard of them -- they are new, and there are hundreds of these little firms -- until someone mentioned they were "the" "Belgium Winner" in the World Beer Awards. You can go to the website and see. They post the golden logo on the front page. Scroll down to the news section and you'll see the headline, "Tripick elected as best Belgian beer." If you look closer or read the article you'll learn that they won the "categories Lager and Strong."

(Disclosure: This year I was one of the WBA judges at a first-round session in Germany, and a few years ago I was one of the judges for the final round in London.)

Let's clear up a few things. Tripick won only one category --  Lager: Strong -- and only for Belgium. (See the country winners here. They are legion.) There were 1,900 entries from 36 countries in the 2017 World Beer Awards. There are 71 style categories in the WBA, and it's possible for any brand from any country to enter any of those categories.

How many Belgian entries do you suppose there were for the Strong Lager category? I asked. They said it was confidential. My guess: very few. Maybe only two -- Tripick Blonde and Tripel -- since there were no medals given at all, and no other awards given in that category for Belgium.

A couple of things must be said: If you are looking for great beers to try, you could do much worse than peruse the list of WBA's international winners, here. A beer doesn't get that far without technical quality, a winning personality, and some luck.

Also: I've never encountered a Tripick beer in the wild, so I've never tried it. They might be amazing, I can't say. It has existed for less than a year.

But there are things I can say. The brand sells two beers, Blonde (6%) and Tripel (8%). Both are top-fermented -- not lagers, so why did they enter that category? -- and bottle-conditioned. The levels of bitterness sound right up my alley, probably more balanced than the usual, sweet-ish tripels and blonds. There are a few technical specs on the website, plus all sorts of promo materials you could download, if you were into that, but nowhere on the website does it say where the beer is actually brewed. Sadly this is standard operating procedure for many of Belgium's beer firms.

Ratebeer lists Tripick as a "client brewer," with the beers made at 3 Fourquets (which recently changed names to Lupulus to match its beers). Using the contact form on the Tripick website, I wrote them about a week ago to ask. I haven't heard back yet, but I'll update this if I hear back.

(Another disclosure: I have admin privileges at Ratebeer, so I can help to keep the Belgian stuff accurate. But generally the two Belgian admins they have are so on top of things that there is not much for me to do.)

Lupulus, led by Achouffe co-founder Pierre Gobron and his sons, is in my view one of the best breweries in Belgium. It has gradually improved its spicily-hopped, technically excellent beers over the years, and they were already good when they debuted a decade ago. If I were hiring them to brew the brand I was selling, I would boast about it. Lupulus is not likely to let a bad beer escape its gates. If they are brewing Tripick, that says much more to me about the beer than the "award."

About beer awards: The cynical view holds that they are really for brewers and marketing folks, not for consumers.

That's not a view I want to hold. Given the immense variety of beer we have these days -- much of it overpriced, much of it mediocre, some of it poorly made -- taking a look at reputable beer awards can be a useful way to cut through the bullshit and identify beers that in all likelihood are worth trying.

But does anybody do it that way?

I like to think about an imaginary shopper in the beer aisle, checking the labels to see if there is a gold or silver of this or that award competition stuck on there. If the prize is there, and only if the prize is there, the shopper will buy it, because that's how he or she knows it's a really good beer.

Why do I like to think about this shopper? Because it makes me laugh. It's absurd. Nobody does that.

I mean, it's plausible that someone iffy on whether to buy a beer sees that award on the label or website, and that information provides the final nudge that gets that beer into the shopping cart. More likely: We peruse lists of awards for breweries that we know or that are in our backyard, or possibly for the styles that we drink most often, for a couple of ideas on what to hunt. Then, maybe, we remember to keep our eyes out for it. Maybe.

But there are oodles of these competitions now -- some of them very well organized, some more mysterious, some international, some more local -- and I have to imagine it's increasingly difficult for typical drinkers to care or even notice them. In the absence of information, award inflation has devalued the prizes.

That is not to say that consumers can't use them for good. It would be helpful to identify the strongest competitions. Find out how many entries each competition gets, and from how broad a base in terms of geography and brewery size, and then look at how many prizes they give out in the end. I don't know what the percentage of prizes-to-entries ought to be. But it ought to be small. (And to the credit of the WBA, at the international level there is only one award for each style category.)

Another thought: Shops or pubs are in a position to know more about which awards and ratings are serious enough to be useful as recommendations. Tagging the shelves could help sell better beer to those who hunt it.

And this should go without saying, but if you see an award plastered on a label, website, or a brewery's office walls, don't take it for granted. Interrogate it. Looking at the fine print might tell you something about the quality of the beer. Or it might say more about those doing the boasting.

*First pic of a Lupulus, not confirmed to be the brewery that makes Tripick but it probably is.
**Second pic of the Brussels Beer Challenge, which in my view (biased, as a frequent judge there) is a world-class competition.
***More disclosures: WBA paid me a small stipend for judging a few years ago and covered my train ticket to Hamburg this year. Brussels Beer Challenge usually pays for my hotel room but not travel expenses. Airfare is cheap so I rationalize it as research and education. But also it's fun to do.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Beautiful Things: De Troch Oude Kriek.

Surprisingly dark in color, deep like burgundy or blood, absolutely plump with fleshy cherry, under-girded by the rustic funk of proper lambic. Redolent of lemon, cherry, almond, amaretto -- those from the cherries -- and oak, musty old bookshop, dusty old stable -- those from the lambic. Sourish but not puckering, its acidity checked by lush cherry, drying out to a lingering fruity-vinegar tang.

An astounding beer.

If that doesn't surprise you as much as it surprised me, I should explain: Two of the worst drinks I've ever experienced came from that old lambic brewery known as De Troch.

One of them would be Chapeau Banana. It tastes to me like soda pop made from candy made from banana essence made from -- somewhere farther down the line, perhaps -- actual bananas, badly overripe. You should try it! What an experience.

The other would be De Troch's actual unblended lambic poured from casks at the brewery. This was a decade ago as part of the Toer de Geuze. This young-ish amber liquid was either badly flawed or simply in those awkward stages of metamorphosis where one should never, ever walk in on what's happening. It reeked badly of cooked, rotting vegetables. (In retrospect, the smell might have been mercaptan, a nasty compound produced by some anaerobic bacteria.) 

I've talked to enough lambic brewers, blenders, enthusiasts and know-it-alls over the years to realize, eventually, that I was unlucky (in the second instance). Most of them regard the base lambic at De Troch pretty highly these days, even if they look the other way with the jokey fruit beers.

Even so, I can't help but take it with a fat grain of salt whenever people praise the more austere, traditional 'Oude' beers coming out of Wambeek -- the Chapeau Cuvée, a.k.a. De Troch Oude Gueuze, and the De Troch Oude Kriek, the latter of which re-appeared in 2015 after nudging from U.S. importers. It says '2014' on the bottle because that's when they brewed the base lambic.

Anyway, I grabbed a bottle at Dranken Geers last month. Popped it open a few nights ago. Some like to sit on their fruit lambics a while and see how they evolve. I say, drink 'em if you got 'em.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Is Berlin Over-saturated with Craft Beer? Only in Parts.

My educated guess is that Berlin can handle plenty more variety-beer bars... but not if they all keep opening in the same few neighborhoods. Maybe you can spot some of these symptoms in parts of your own cities.

Another cool beer bar seems to open every other week. Is this new bar going to attract new people? Or is it hoping to share the same drinkers with all the other bars?

Faux-Coney-Island-frito-pie-hipster bar the Pier in Mitte shut not long ago (after Brewdog opened nearby, notably), but I can't think of too many others that have closed. More will close, no doubt, but many more will arrive. So my pessimism just is a hunch, based on some anecdotal observations:

1. You go to these new bars and see the same people you saw at the less-new ones. Are they still going to all the other ones?

2. Often they're not very crowded.

3. Many bars try to saturate the calendar with special events, which smells of desperation. Would people not want to go to them otherwise? Why not?

4. There are finite limits to the number of people who will spend a bit extra on variety beer, how much beer they can drink, and the number of places they can visit in an evening or a week.

5. Most of these bars are concentrated in the same few neighborhoods, all roughly on the eastern side of the Berlin map.

It's that last point that sticks out to me most, because I am a selfish hedonist and I live on the western side of the map. Thing is, so do lots of other people -- people with money who like to drink beer.

Like us. Most of the time we are content with our well-stocked fridge and proximity to Foersters, which for my money and particular taste is the best pub in town. But when we're feeling daffy we hire a kid-sitter and ride an hour-plus on the train each way -- more than two hours of the evening counted already, money in the sitter's pocket -- to get over to Kreuzberg or Friedrichshain or Prenzi.

Hey, nothing like a romantic pub crawl.

That's what we did weekend before last: Munched on salty-lime peanuts and tasted Mexican-inspired house brews at Tentacion Craft Beer/Mezcalothek -- lovely beers, balanced, well-made, and adequately smacking of the agave (Mala Vida) and corn (Gualicho) that went into them; stopped into cozy, antlered Friedrichs Wirtschaft for a Rittmayer Kellerbier and promised to come back sometime for the food; popped by the Getränkefeinkost shop to say hello and walk round the block with hoppy cold ones (me a Zinnebir, her a Lemke Spree Coast IPA); tried the new bar across the street called Protokoll with 24 taps -- we didn't even know it existed -- where she did a sour-sweet pairing thing with BRLO beers while I enjoyed a Weiherer Keller-Pils; had quickies at Hops & Barley, reliably some of the best beer in Berlin; looked in on Home, rather snug with the upholstery but chasing us away with iffy avant-garde live music; ate some late-night Sudanese, which is a thing, and is characterized chiefly by lakes of peanut sauce, and I am cool with that; and finally to the last spot of the evening, easily my favorite, called Victoria Stadler.

Sometime maybe I'll go back and scribble notes to craft a wordier post about this one bar, but here is the gist: it's a dark, affordable Eckneipe (locals' corner pub) that only pours Schönramer beers -- the Pils being a special favorite of mine. Now, you may or may not know that Schönram is waaayyyy down in southern Bavaria, near Berchtesgaden and the Austrian border. Its beers show up in Berlin but to find a pub totally devoted to Schönramer here is a strange and wonderful thing to me. (My impression is that Schönramer have something like a cult following soon to get less cult-ish; they just picked up three golds and a bronze at the rather competitive European Beer Star awards.)

Sadly, it's an hour and 15 minutes for me to get to Victoria Stadler by train. And it's there among a thousand other bars. The saturation is good for pub crawling, obviously. But that's not how most people do pubs, most of the time.

About the western Berlin beer spots: BRLO, Foersters and Vagabund, among others, appear to be doing quite well. Lots of people in those places, and not the same faces you see in the places out east. Upmarket craft-beer-and-sausage restaurant Meisterstück just opened a second restaurant on Ku'damm. That one is well backed, and I reckon they've done their market-research homework.

Berlin is a sprawling city of neighborhoods, you see, and the western ones are far from saturated. There's my counsel, should you be looking to open a Berlin bar specializing in fancy variety beer.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Long Road to a Fine (Belgian) Pils.

Once upon a time I remember telling myself: Hey, a blog post doesn't have to be about anything important. It only has to be daily. You can throw any old nonsense up there. It will be fine. Just keep it going.

Fine, fine. So I see my last blog post was in January 2016. No biggie, only eight months, wait... [blows dust off of calendar] Shit. Twenty months ago. In that time my wife and I had seven children, they all grew up and moved out of the house, I earned two additional useless college degrees to bring the total collection to 17, I grew rich on royalties, pissed it all away on donuts and cognac, grew three beards, and even read a book. Dog is still here though. Old damn dog, pees on the rug more than he used to, back in January 2016. Time is trippy, that feels like only 19 months ago. But no, says here it was 20.

I have about a million things about Belgium to share. Notebooks full of stuff, hundreds upon hundreds of photos. I aim to do something useful and (spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch) profitable with them. Oh, and half a million things about Germany, especially Berlin (where I live) and Franconia (where I hope to retire). And too many odds and ends about other places I have managed to go, thanks to a tolerant spouse and the magic of discount airfares. I aim to regurgitate some of it here in the sort of beautifully unrefined form that takes, I hope, very little time each morning. Lots of not-very-well-thought-out jokes too, inevitably.

Well, here is a moment I wanted to share. It happened, as so many fine moments do, on a Wednesday. Five weeks ago to be precise, though it feels like only four and a half. This was toward the end of a long-ish day in the middle of a long-ish week of visiting as many Belgian cafés as possible. This was all, as you might have guessed, for the next edition of the Good Beer Guide Belgium. We are about a month away from deadline on that. Look for fresh copies of it in spring 2018, if nothing goes awry. It's the best book on Belgian beer that I know, and also the most useful guidebook I know, but I admit I'm biased.

No really, it's awfully fucking good. Anyway.

I got to more than 90 cafés that week. Also 10 breweries and four museums. Sounds like a hoot, right? Well, it is! But not like you imagine. Most of this is by car, self-driven. That means drinking a lot of coffee and water (I like the fizzy kind). Later on, once I've earned it, I may indulge in a small, lighter beer while still touring. That's what happened here, in a village called Dikkelvenne, along a cycle path near the river Scheldt, about 15 crooked miles south of Ghent. (Later on, once I get to where I'm staying for the night, a few more beers are inevitable -- maybe at a nearby pub, maybe with local friends, or maybe sitting in a room with the manuscript, tasting from bottles picked up along the way.)

This café is called the Rotse, and it's the lovely sort of simple country pub at which Belgium seems to excel. This one is not loaded down with tacky beery bric-a-brac -- though I enjoy that -- but instead is neatly appointed like Grandma's house out in the country: white walls, antique wooden furnishings, a few select pictures hung. It has all the beers from Contreras of Gavere, so we call it an "unofficial brewery tap." I like these. I'm not sure why anyone would want to visit a brewery when they could visit an atmospheric local café where all the beers are enjoyed in their proper setting -- the local culture from which they sprouted. But then, I've toured hundreds of breweries and I get bored with them. They are all a bit different and yet they're all the same. I don't seem to get bored with visiting cafés/bars/pubs. You can learn a lot in either sort of place.

So here I am out on the front terrace, on the small crossroads. This is where a poshy-quasi-suburban area near Gavere finishes leaking out into cow pastures and bike paths near the Scheldt. A few of the punters drive here, as I did, but several more arrive on bike or foot. I'm the only foreigner (I think) and the staff are not friendly -- this aloofness is so normal in rural Flemish cafés, and in Berlin for that matter, that it doesn't bother me anymore -- so it's mostly old fellers drinking and laughing and chatting, all in Flemish. There are cows across the road, and their smells and that of the warm grasses remind me of, well, my own Grandma's house. Not sure what your Grandma smells like.

The beer -- which I felt that I had earned -- is the Contra Pils. Lots of Belgian breweries make a pils mainly for local consumption, and Contreras is one. Most of them, like Belgian pils in general, are totally unremarkable. Just imagine Stella without all the marketing. Nothing there, right? Their most enduring features are freshness, low price (should be €2 or less), and those elegant, narrow tumblers with the finely ribbed bottoms that are so nice to hold in your fingers -- one my of favorite drinking glasses in the world.

Too bad the contents are so often disappointing.

Man, Belgian pils. I could write an eloquent defense of it as a cultural practice, as local tradition. I think every beer tourist ought to try it, to participate in it. But to look at the stuff objectively, as beer, and compare it with the world's better lagers, well... It's empty stuff.

But then, I'd argue that Belgian pils isn't meant to be characterful. Not everything has to be.

This one is though. I'd had Contra Pils before and found it to be a bit more bitter than most, if nothing special. This glass of it, poured fresh from the tap, is not only more bitter than I remember but also with plenty of hop flavor -- herbal, earthy and edged with citrus, like they had some extra Saaz and said "fuck it" and just dumped it all in the kettle at flame-out. It's not IPA-ish, mind you, it doesn't punch you in the face with aroma or bitterness, but it does offer plenty of flavor to that light-bodied, thin-cracker-malt frame. And so we have one of those rare nexus of personality and drinkability that makes a beer worth hunting.

I can't say for sure if Contra Pils has recently improved, if the beer was always like that but my palate returned to Earth in the decade or so since I last tried it, or if just tasted especially good that day because, as I said, I'd earned it. But given the success and quality of the Valeir range in recent years -- on the watch of Frederik de Vrieze, who took over in 2005 -- it would not surprise me to learn that they added some zip to the Pils. (Well shit, now I'd better ask.) It's a remarkable brewery, really, and I know that without even seeing the kit. Next year it will be two centuries old but the range is fresh, not especially hindered by unnecessarily conservative traditions or cynical recipe. Belgium's other long-established family brewers could learn some things from Contreras.

So, there's some nonsense for you. Let's do this again "tomorrow." See you in 2019!