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!

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