Sunday, December 23, 2012

Lambic Discovery Center (Beersel, BE)

My tour guide for the day and new beer friend Werner

After my tour of Oud Beersel, Werner brought me to the Lambic Discovery Center (local name: Bezoekerscentrum Beersel de Lambiek) and he literally changed shirts to switch jobs from Oud Beersel tour guide to discovery center worker.  It's located outside Brussels in the city of Beersel, the heart of the lambic region.

A theme of the day talking to Werner was that Belgians don't appreciate lambic they way some of us beer geeks might imagine.  Many of us have probably read of the intrusion of macro-lagers into the Belgian beer culture, especially with the young.  So the center is for educating Belgians as much--or more--than foreign tourists.  The local government even supports the center to generate tourism. Very few visitors today, but it's the low season since many Europeans are on holiday elsewhere in late July.  I understand that tours and reservations fill the place other times of the year.

Walking around the spacious center, the life size aging barrels are fun to play in.  Everything is in Dutch but there are English translations, plus the very helpful staff will answer any questions.  I counted ten brewers and blenders of lambic from the local area, each with its own display along the near wall.  Besides the beer samples, the center is a multi-sense experience: smell machine, touch the ingredients, sounds of the brewing process, etc.  Even in a beer centered culture like Belgium, they are working hard to educate.  Evidently, according to Werner, some Belgians past 20-30 km from here don't know lambic beer at all.   

And then, it's to the nicely appointed cafeteria styled tasting room.  Most beers on the list were for three euro. What a price!  First sample is free, which is a rotating draft in a small gueuze glass.  My free sample was Drie Fonteinen. Lambic.  Werner brought out a cheese sampler that was excellent and good to have something to snack on while tasting more local bottles.

Recommended as rare by Werner, I tried De Oude Cam, Oude Geuze, which was highly carbonated with a beautiful fluffy white head of small bubbles.  Hazy orange gold, but was more clear early--I wasn't as careful as I should have been pouring.  Clean, mildly assertive sourness in the nose with some light spice and sweet apple underneath.  Slight sweetness perfectly balances with the sourness, even though the spice of the nose is subdued.  Well worth a try.

An even better bottle was Oude Gueuze Tilquin by Brouwerij Tilquin.  Shimmering orange to gold from the light of the clearing sky from an afternoon rain.  Head dissipates quickly to nothing.  Light sweetness and bready sourness in the nose that's light and follows into the taste.  My tasting notes are thin, but this was my highest rated beer of the stop and I searched out Tilquin later in the trip.

As with all great beer trips, the beer can catch up, especially when I hadn't had anything since my light, hostel breakfast.  Mentioned I was hungry and, because it was not busy, Werner drive me to a local sandwich shop and I ordered a Hollandia:  sliced boiled egg, tomato, cheese, veggies and mayo on crusted bread.  Similar to what I had yesterday across the street from Bosteels, but that one was a bit better though the eccentric owner in Beersel was worth the price of entry alone.  Girardin Kriek 1882 goes with this one well enough; normally, I wouldn't think to have a sandwich with a lambic, but it was originally a working man's beer so it probably makes sense when eating a local.  Werner even mentioned that drinking a refreshing lambic is a great "lawnmower" beer. Like saison, I think we deify these beers too much because of a lack of availability.

The Bezoekerscentrum Beersel de Lambiek is a great experience, especially with the combined tour of Oud Beersel.  Before I found out about the tour, I did some research and it's possible to get to Beersel by train or the De Lijn bus route.  However, there may be some walking or a cab involved.  I didn't test this since I had the convenience of the tour and Werner brought me to the train depot to ride back into Brussels.  Regardless of how a beer geek gets there, the center should be a top priority.  Leave plenty of time.  Had I been able to return, I would have loved to drink deeper into the various local-only offerings.  Such is beer touring, so I won't complain for having a truly amazing start to my week in Brussels.  In the future, I plan to set aside an entire day to return to the center the next time I'm in Belgium.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Brouwerij Oud Beersel (Beersel, BE)

Barrel aging room--my goal for the trip
to be in a dank lambic cellar.  Check.  

I heard about the tour of Oud Beersel and the Bezoekerscentrum Beersel de Lambiek (Lambic Discover Center) from a Belgian Beer blog.  Making the reservation via email, I think the organizer Werner was surprised that an American had heard of the tour.  I love when research pays; too bad I can't share such triumphs with my students.

The tour met on the Rue du Kardinal Mercier, which is a small side street near Centraal Station.  The location has a lot of buses from various tour companies; it was much easier to find that I than I had feared.

Because late July is vacation season for Europeans and they tend to be elsewhere, the tour wasn't big enough for a bus. There were supposed to be a couple of other guys on the tour, but after 10 min of waiting for them in the rain, it was just Werner and I heading to Oud Beersel in his car, for which they only charged me 10 Euro instead of the 21.50 on the flyer.  I was extremely happy that they didn't cancel it all together.  For the second time within a few days, I was getting in a car with a local to drink Belgium beer.

Oud Beersel is open on Saturdays to tour, but mainly to sell beer to the locals for the week.  The picture at left of Framboise also shows the bottle shop.  The brewer/blender Gert was there working and I chatted with him briefly.  My notes say that I had a draft of their Kriek at Town Hall Brewery in Minneapolis in 2006, which Gert assured me isn't possible. The brewery reopened in 2003 after being shut down when the last family brewer Henri stopped production.  Unrelated to Henri, Gert took over the business and it takes three years to have gueuze old enough to blend, so there was no draft when I supposedly tasted it.  Not sure what that entry from Town Hall was then, but now I've had bottles on site to replace it.

Starting up Oud Beersel is reminiscent of the Anchor Brewing story.  Gert and Werner are friends from college and heard the brewery was closing.  They investigated and worked to bring the three generation brewery back to life.  Gert is a brewer, but now the base wort is made at Boon Brewery and he ages and blends Oud Beersel without brewing on site.  Werner volunteers in the shop and at the Lambic Discovery Center, and he organizes the tours for both locations.

A short history of the brewery  in the old brewhouse. 
Werner's tour covered the history of the brewery in depth and because we were chatting one to one, I didn't take notes and fear getting the details wrong.  But, I learned more on this tour than any tour I've been on, covering every detail of the lambic process.  Werner clearly has a passion for lambic beer and this was one of the best beer experiences of my life.  Besides the simple fact of a personal tour, the dedication to the craft comes through in all that they do.

Instead of trying to repeat the information, I'll summarize the philosophy of this 2000 hectoliters/year brewery.  Each lambic brewer/blender is aiming for a particular taste that represents their unique contribution.  Oud Beersel's goal is to blend their beers to have a light sourness accented by a slight hop bitterness compared with other lambics.  While still a quite complex beer, Oud Beersel is more approachable and refreshing compared to a more sour lambic like Cantillion, which I have to admit is too sour for me at times.  I really like the Oud Beersel line up, especially the straight lambic, gueze and kriek.  While the framboise was my least favorite, it was still quite good.  The kriek is much better, in part, because of the high concentration of sour cherries: 400 g/liter.  I've noticed on other kriek bottles that the grams per liter of cherries is listed; one I saw said 125 g/liter, so Oud Beersel is really pushing the fruit on this beer.

What I enjoyed most about the visit was the dusty funk and history of the brewery, especially the barrel room.  The dank, musty cellar exudes bugs to make great bee--exactly the sort of lambic experience I was hoping for.  Later in the week, I'm going to Cantillion and Boon, but happy that Oud Beersel was first on the list.  A special thanks to Werner for making my first trip to a lambic brewery memorable.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Bed, Bath and Beyond Beer

 While out shopping at Bed, Bath and Beyond for items to host Christmas, I noticed a beer display.  Time was short, but a quick look through the book showed mostly visually descriptions with some explanation of how the taste of various ales and lagers could be maximized by the proper glass.  And, it just so happened, that they had the exact same glass set pictured on the book for sale just to the right.  Not something I'd be interested in at this point, but a nice starter for a recently initiated beer geek.  I even saw a real Mr. Beer Kit for sale.  While these starter homebrew kits are infamous, I've never actually seen one for sale in the wild.

While Mr. Beer is old news, I like the direction the glass kit and book are going.  Bed, Bath and Beyond has always had a nice collection of cheap glassware.  However, the fact that a marketing put together a glass set to sell points to the power of the craft beer revolution.  It's one thing to have a craft beer bar for those in the know, but when good beer finds it's way into the nooks and crannies of society like Bed, Bath and Beyond, something more important is happening: it's normal, not a novelty.

Welcome to the new normal.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Brouwerij Bosteels (Buggenhout, BE)

Fresh Kwak on site.  Simply, wow. 

Got my first lesson on how to ride a train to a small town in Belgium. Since I'm typing on the steps of Brouwerij Bosteels, my train skills seem to be coming along nicely.  Of course, being me and unsure of the route, I'm here several hours early. Oh well.

I had a nice chat with an Italian family trying to see if Bosteels was doing a tour. The younger man with passing English said he found the brewery on Wikipedia. I saw them leave a bit later in a small motorhome and he wished me a nice day on the tour since they weren't waiting for the 1:30 pm time.

My first venture into Flanders feels very comfortable. It looks like Iowa--flat and full of corn and cows--and everyone reminds me of a relative. When I initially located the brewery, I wandered around the courtyard  and a farmer was just leaving with a wagon load of spent grains, I assume for his cows. Otherwise, Buggenhout is a charming small town with only a few businesses near the center and a beautiful old church.
Elke, Sven and family listening to Bosteels owner

Bosteels doesn't do many tours and usually only groups of 15 or more. I was added to a Dutch language tour as the only option, but it should be fine. As long as I see beer stuff and hopefully some samples, it will be success.

As we started the tour, a young women, who I saw arrive with her family out front in a mini-van, offered to translate for me.  I found out later her name is Elke and she has a master's degree in tourism and recently starting blogging about beer as well.  Elke does tours in Belgium, beer related or not as the case warrants.  Based on her recommendations, my wife and I, on a later leg of the trip, spent as much time as we could get in Ghent.  Because our hotel was in Antwerp that night, we only spent the day in Ghent but it was one of our best stops. Ghent is at the top of our list of places to return to in Belgium.

While I didn't catch a lot of the details, I found the small family brewery to be a mix of old and new, a theme that repeated itself on this trip.  The brew kettles showed signs of being repaired and welded many times over the life of the brewery.  However, other sections, like the lab and bottling line, were clearly carved out of newer space in nearby buildings.  The brewery is almost a metaphor for Belgium--an ancient art trying to survive in the modern world.

View of front of Bosteels from sandwich across street
After walking and talking in Dutch, we're in the tasting room, which was specially built in one of the buildings with a wood framed ceiling in a brick building. Then the big surprise. A full draft of Kwak was given to us in its own glass. Very cool. This tour just became worthwhile.

The Kwak is shimmering copper in the glass. Fresh and clean, as expected on site, but the main difference is the increased hop and spice notes in the local version.  Again, not surprising, but very fun to drink in proper form.  And I (and most I've seen in the US) am drinking it wrong. The stand is used as a mug holder and the glass doesn't come out of the stand. FYI.

Bosteels brew house
As most people paired off at the large tables, I wandered over to sit with my new friends that translated for me on the tour.  Elke and I chatted about American beer geeks and beer in general, and then her husband Sven and I talked for a while as well.  Most of her family spoke English to varying degrees, so we traded beery information back and forth across the table over glasses of Triple Karmeliet (best draft of TK ever).  Most of the people on the tour left after their first draft of TK, but we were offered a second while the owner of Bosteels talked with Elke and Sven's family.  Also in Dutch, so I didn't understand enough to write about but the atmosphere was great.

As we started to pack up to leave, Elke and Sven invited me back to their house is Wetteren, which I kindly accepted.  I don't normally go home with friendly people after a beer tour.  And, since I was travelling alone for this part of the trip, my wife had just warned me just the day before at the airport to not be overly trusting.  She knows me--I often make friends while drinking beer.  Bosteels was my first tour in Belgium, so my wife's words were still ringing in the back of my head.  I'm glad that I went along for a wonderful night of Belgian beer, local frites and conversation with new friends.  Truly one of my best beer drinking experiences ever. Thanks Elke, Sven and family.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Samuel Adams Utopias 10th Anniversary (Boston Beer Co, Boston, MA)

I decided last time Utopias was released that whenever I could purchase a bottle, I would take the opportunity.  Last month when I saw a post, I called the Ale Jail; one was left, so I drove right there, but missed getting the last bottle by fifteen minutes.  Petschen's was my ticket to my own bottle of this unique beer and I got the last one.  Being that getting this gem released a month or so before my birthday on 12/12/12, it seemed like the perfect way to celebrate.  Not going to try to explain Utopias--here's the description from Sam Adams if not familiar. Be sure to check out the tasting video for the 2012 edition at the bottom of the page.

Dark brown with ruby highlights around the edges and served at room temperature, which is mid 60s in our house during winter.  Heavy, exquisite legs on the gratis Riedel glass from the 27% alcohol.  Complex nose of dried date, cherry, dark chocolate, fresh vanilla and spice.  All of which is subdued under a multifaceted, woody alcohol presence that somehow doesn't overwhelm in spite of it's sinus clearing strength.  Taste is lighter than expected from the nose with sweetness, dark fruits and alcohol blending together elegantly that drifts down lightly with no carbonation.

Happy Birthday to me.

1/27/13 update: Between hosting Christmas dinner, a trip to Copenhagen, and re-entry into school and the start of the speech season, I didn't get to the last pour until six weeks later.  I've read from other posts that one can simply seal the container and drink at your leisure.  That was true for the samples just after the 12.12.12 opening.  For the the early samples, including Christmas day with my nephew, I noticed no difference in quality.  However, tonight, there was clear oxidation and it had lost a step.  Since life made it inevitable anyway, it was a useful experiment.  In the future, when opening a Utopias, I'm going to plan to drink it within approximately two weeks.  Probably shorter than necessary, but I'm conservative—on beer quality anyway.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Trader Joe's beers

For the record--I love Trader Joe's.  Shop there almost weekly.  I especially love their pesto tortellini, which I'm pretty sure is Amy's repackaged.  But it's cheaper than when source my lunch elsewhere.  And, therein lies the issue.  Trader Joe's great products at low prices come at a cost.  In most cases, I'm willing to overlook the hidden nature of TJ's supply lines, but their beer is an exception.  

Ten seconds worth of googling yielded a small history of TJ's brewing.  Since I didn't do the research myself, I'm not sure if these attributions are completely accurate but the idea is clear.  TJ's generally finds quality suppliers to provide their discounted products.  An example discussed in this Texas example outlines the basic approach.

Here's the range of $1.99 beers:

Boatswain Twin Screw Steamer Double IPA.  Poured nice in the glass with an off white lace over a dull amber ale.  Double IPA on the bottle, but my first swig tasted more like an American lager.  Nose isn't bad if it was a light pale ale, but no where near DIPA territory.  Mineral and caramel with little to no hop bite.  Very disappointing, even for $1.99.

H.L.V Heavy Lift Vessel.  Mud brown and copper ale with light brown head.  7% alcohol comes through with chocolate and dark malt.  Acrid cold coffee taste with a metallic twang.  Out of balanced and inappropriately tastes of butterscotch.

American I.P.A.  Copper and gold IPA with a dirty white head that disappears quickly.  Some fruitiness and spice in the nose but overwhelmed by a musty stank.  Light caramel sweetness is cloying and has little in the way of bitterness.  Unpleasant version of one of my favorite styles.

Chocolate Stout.  Tan head of tiny bubbles piled thick and creamy over a dark brown to black stout.  Slight roast in an unassertive nose.  Velvety chocolate and coffee taste though the mouth is a little thin but not a problem.  While still not great, easily the best of the bunch and pleasantly drinkable.

2012 Vintage Ale.  This Belgian dark ale is brewed by Unibroue yearly.  Rocky, irregular tan head falls quickly over a dark chocolate ale.  Alcohol hotness and noble hops written on the bottle come through the nose nicely.  Dark fruit and surprisingly hoppy taste is adequate but not impressive.  Not a $1.99 beer but cheap for the target quality.

In a word: disappointed.  Evidently there's not a beer person working in the upper echelon of Trader Joe's.  My main concern is that people in Woodbury where I shop (and elsewhere) are buying these beers and thinking that they represent craft beer.  Rightly, they will turn up their noses and, sadly, return to the Three Buck Chuck wines without actually tasting a solid craft brew.  Sigh.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Piece Brewery & Pizzeria (Chicago, IL)

Nephew with newly arrived pizzas.  

This is our second, and much anticipated, visit to Piece Brewery and Pizzeria.  We stopped on a 2009 trip and loved it.  My favorite beer on that trip was the Moose Knuckle barleywine and G's was the Prodigal Porter.  I wouldn't have returned just for the better than average beer--the pizza rocks.  Beer and pizza together being a personal craving, the combo is hard to pass up.

According to the website, it's New Haven style thin crust pizza; I wouldn't know what that means except it is very reminiscent of Bru Rm @ Bar.  While the Bru Rm is actually in New Haven, Piece's version is far better.  Very thin and cooked at high heat, it comes out crispy with a few burnt spots.  However, since even a small is oversized, it's an acceptable loss in the pizza process.

We left the car downtown and exited the blue line very near the pub.  Just a block or so walk.  Our last visit was on New Year's Day and, somehow, much quieter than it was on Black Friday.  Music was too loud today and the patrons were struggling to talk over it and each other.  So popular a place, even at 2 pm on a Saturday afternoon, that the very close tables makes it impossible to not hear a neighbor's conversation.  With a little understanding, everyone still has a good time.

Started with The Weight, a pale ale, since there was a sign advertising its GABF silver medal.  Full bodied with a big grapefruit and biscuit nose that leads to a hefty bite.  Nice start.
Though the wait staff was working hard, it was a little tough to get a second beer because they were overwhelmed.  Next up was Swingin' Single, their spot-on interpretation of an abbey single.  Top beer of the day was the Top Heavy Hefeweizen that I shared with my wife to finish.  I very much liked the Top Heavy sample last time. However, the hefeweizen shines in its own glass--a must draft.

Great stop that I love for the double punch of good beer and great pizza.  The atmosphere lacked today, but still fun and I will definitely repeat at some point in the future.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Haymarket Pub & Brewery (Chicago, IL)


Happy Thanksgiving!  For our turkey day we're at Haymarket Pub & Brewery with a few other lost souls.  Thanks to The Beer Mapping Project, it was fairly easy to find an open pub so that the highlight meal of my Thanksgiving Day wasn't the fish sandwich meal deal at McDonald's en route to Chicago.  The manager Janna was especially helpful with an email to confirm veggie options on the reduced menu.

After an eerily quiet, few block walk from the L, we crossed the street into Haymarket with the bar up front and restaurant tables and booths in the next room.  We skipped the dimly light, long dark wood bar that had a smattering of happily celebrating folks for a large booth in the back.  The easily seen but not obtrusive big screen TVs with Dallas getting it's butt kicked was a nice addition.

Our very friendly and knowledgeable waiter gave honest recommendations and and his humor complimented our good cheer.  Our niece and nephew reported that the wings were mildly hot, flavorful and great.  We tried the sweet potato tots with ranch; good, but not sure if we'd get them again.  Oddly, too sweet.  The very thin crust veggie pizza was really excellent.  We topped off dinner with chocolate stout cake with peanut butter that wasn't the OMG we were hoping for from the description.  Blending with syncopated patron noise in the background was an eclectic music mix from alternative to folk that was a little loud but not enough to interfere with conversation.

Between Ben and I, we tried all of the Haymarket brews.  Lucy's Belgian Tripel was the low point that was still more than adequate with the remaining brews all highly rated by us; it came down to the Passion House Coffee Porter, Rubber Monkey Belgian Wheat IPA and the Effigy Black IPA for a draft: Effigy won but I would start with the Rubber Monkey next time.  From the guest tap, Gloria liked a quadrupel  from Uncommon Brewers called Sinister Twin and was happy with her choice for the night.  When I was undecided for my final draft, our waiter's frank evaluation of my choices got me to the Butterfly Flashmob, an excellent Belgian IPA from new local brewery, Solemn Oath, that was a perfect digestive while we chatted.

Our server said the bar fed them so well before the 5 pm opening that he was lethargic from the multiple types of turkey offered.  Got a great vibe from Haymarket: a well brewed and interesting beer list, a range of food for veggies and meat eaters, a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere, and a drinking & writing theater. For Christmas, a radio play styled production called "A Beer Carol" was playing Wednesday and Saturday nights on location.

A former student recently discussed with me her love of living in Chicago, pointing to the unique neighborhoods as one of the reasons.  Haymarket seems to be a strong part of the local neighborhood, forming an intelligent and bonded drinking community that I think I would enjoy.  My long held belief has been that Chicago is cold and blustery--the weather and the people.  However, Haymarket helped me see another side of the windy city, a side that I look forward to trying again in the future.