Sunday, March 31, 2013

Mendota Liquor (Mendota Heights, MN)

Found Mendota Liquor when we had dinner the night before at Teresa's.  Always looking for another local option for picking up beer, I decided to check it when I happened to be in the area the next day.

This small mom and pop shop is jam packed with alcoholic options.  Head to the back left for the beer cooler with a strong selection of craft beer.  On this trip I went home with six packs of Victory Golden Monkey, Flying Dog Raging Bitch and Lagunitas Little Sumpin' Sumpin' Ale for a party that night.  Out of frame to the left of the cooler is a decent selection of large bottles.  I might return for a few of the Stone Old Guardian 2013 bottles.  

And it seems to truly be a mom and pop shop with mom at the cash register as dad stocked the shelves.  Their young son held the door while dad worked.  It felt good to support this hard working family that's been through several recent break ins according to a KSTP story.  With a slightly different variety compared to my other local options, I think an occasional trip to Mendota Liquor is in order for me.

Teresa's Mexican Restaurant (Mendota Heights, MN)

Out shopping for a new car, we were exhausted, late for dinner on a Friday night and looking for a place to chat over the evening's research.  Googled restaurants nearby and Teresa's Mexican Restaurant looked to fit the bill.  Checking the website, Teresa's is a small chain with locations in mostly Minnesota plus Georgia and South Carolina.

Neither of us had every heard of Teresa's but driving up on it in the middle of a strip mall in Mendota Heights, I would never have guessed how large it is inside.  Massive bowl of chips and a container of salsa with individual containers for mixing with hot sauce to a personal hotness was a promising start.  Veggie fajitas were excellent with no weird vegetables; again massive, we plan to split the order for one next time.

My draft with dinner was a Negra Modelo, a slightly better than adequate south of the border interpretation of a dark lager.  Nothing much surprising there except I have never had a draft of this standard Mexican restaurant beer, so it and Teresa's made the database.  In addition, the restaurant has a higher than average number drafts served in 12, 22 and 32 oz sizes. Where most Mexican restaurants will offer the same beers in a bottle, the wider selection of drafts gives Teresa's a bit of an edge for me.

We're planning take our family there on their next visit since they like slightly Americanized, kinda authentic Mexican restaurants with larger portion sizes.  Big booths and lots of tables makes it an excellent location to gather after work or for an evening get together.  Living on the edge of the cities before it goes barren on Hwy 52 by the refinery, it's nice to have a new local restaurant to have an easy dinner without having  to drive to Minneapolis or St. Paul.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Beer Authority (New York, NY)

Taking the A train from JFK to Manhattan for G's birthday weekend, we emerged from the Port Authority station directly across the street from Beer Authority.  After a long flight, it was a great way to start our weekend.

On a Thursday night, there was a DJ playing music a bit loud but we survived sitting around the edge.  Our waiter was friendly and efficient, bringing beer and the daily special in short order: a vegetarian shepherd's pie.  Dinner was great with a lentil based that tasted a lot like our favorite camping dish but with a thick, creamy head of mashed potatoes.  We just wonder why this sort of meal isn't readily available in Minnesota.

Believing in drinking local, I started by trying a couple of brews from Spider Bite. Eye Be Use, a Double IPA, was disappointingly unrefined but I still followed up with Boris the Spider, a Russian Imperial Stout.  Slightly better but the blunted hops couldn't come through the unbalance RIS.   Nice experiment but I'm not a fan.  I accidentally spilled the last of this beer on my blue jeans; generously, our server brought me a short pour to replace my clumsiness.

During research, I came across the new Bronx Brewery and happily got a chance to try their Black Pale Ale.  No Sublimely Self Righteous, but this American black ale has a solid malty base and a clean dark bite that makes is a good choice.  We ended with a draft of Dogfish Head Noble Rot, an earthy and interesting saison that we returned to on Sunday.

We tried to repeat our first stop on Saturday night after seeing Tom Hanks in Lucky Guy.  An extremely poignant play based on the life Mike McAlary, a 1980s tabloid columnist in New York. Not only did we intimately learn about a part of NYC history and culture, but the gritty, authentic underbelly of the newspaper business written by late Nora Ephron.  Unfortunately, we weren't able to discuss any of this at Beer Authority.  The band joked about playing too loud and continued to shake the rafters.  We put in ear plugs while I drank a beer and finally starting texting each other out of desperation, leaving disappointed and had to talk over the play while kicking our way through the late night crowds of Times Square.

On Sunday afternoon, we needed to head back to the hotel to pick up our bags after a visit to the 9/11 memorial.  I wanted to give Beer Authority a chance in the daylight and to give the mac & cheese a try.

Happily, this visit was pleasant.  I started with a Green Flash West Coast IPA, a favorite hoppy treat when I get the chance. By the time we ordered the mac & cheese, I was on to Ommegang Barrier Relief, a Belgian IPA that's a collaboration ale with Barrier Brewing to rebuild that Sandy ravaged brewery. A beautifully blended IPA with a Belgian funk was a solid choice for a last beer in NYC. The beer paired surprisingly well with the mushroom and garlic Mac & Cheese, unusual and intriguing, I would gladly order it as a meal again.

On the way out, we ran into an intrepid band of beer hunters, one also a blogger at Hoptical Allusions.  Need to leave for the train to fly home, we didn't have to time for more than a pic and a cheers on the way out.  Each had a tray of four tasterssixteen on the table.  After two trying visits, a third with a chance encounter with fellow beer travelers bolstered my spirits and our experience.  With great beer that is well served, Beer Authority is the go-to place in the heart of Manhattan for craft beer.  However, in the future, I will make this our pre-show stop to relax and unwind before hitting Broadway, saving the post-show discussion for a much quieter place.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Kulminator (Antwerp, Belgium)


After a day with a medieval castle and a canal tour in Ghent, we headed to Antwerp to spend the night and drink at the Kulminator, a world class bar with free roam cats--perfect.  Or, so we thought. Easy walk from our hotel in the historic heart of Antwerp, which was terribly confusing to drive.  I would take a train next time.  Entering the bar, it may be the highest density of beer I've ever seen.  Taking a seat in the back patio, it was hard to decide what to drink.  Just so many beers to chose from that it can be paralyzing.

So I started in familiar territory and ordered a La Trappe Quadruple.  This 1995 bottle was poured hard at the table without a decant. Small bottle. Head falls flat quickly and there was only the faintest pop on the cap. Dusty, dirty bottle with a label style that I haven't seen before. Musty, oxidized cherry and port like flavors. The normal oiliness and full flavor has dissipated. Lighter bodied, as if the yeast had thinned it out. Alcohol not apparent either. Interesting but I won't let quad bottles at home go this long.

Then, so I could justify being at the Kulminator, I ordered an Evolution of Chimay bottles: 1992. 2002 and 2012.  Very fun side by side tasting, including the oldest aged beer that I've ever had at a 20 year old Chimay. The young Chimay is fresh, but the better than adequate beer that I've always thought it to be. It doesn't match up La Trappe for me. The 10 year version is showing some signs of age with clear cherry and port notes from oxidation and the alcohol is apparent in the nose. The 20 year old is very flat though a small head appeared briefly on the hard pour and the oxidation of the 10 year old is in full bloom in the 20.  Comparing similarly aged bottles really made the differences from the cellar clear and apparent; it pulled together years of tastings from my own cellar.  On a learning level, very worth the trip.  It's an extraordinary experience without having to wait for 20 years in my own cellar.

Kulminator in a fine place with an amazing list. However, I will never return during the summer, particularly to avoid the gnats lurking the plants and the uncomfortable lack of air conditioning. The bar is hot and the beer served at room temperature, which affects the aging process. Today is clearly beyond any recommended temperature for aging. I'm not sure where the bottles are coming from but it seems to be just from the shelf; the bottles are clearly room temp on sweltering day. And, no kittens for most of the stop.  They made a late appearance and were not very friendly.

Returning to our hotel the Hilton Antwerp, the AC was not keeping up, so we moved to a colder room. While walking, the desk clerk said it was the hottest weekend since 1994. Talk about hitting a bad day at an open air beer bar.  With a beer geek dream of a cellar, I see why it's so revered but it's not my favorite bar.  I would happily prefer a day at 't Arendsnest in Amsterdam, the former Brickskeller in DC or Rattle-n-Hum in New York.  Another day, another time, especially in winter, I would like to give the famous K another try.

Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant (Ghent, Belgium)


From a couple of different sources, we were told to visit Ghent over Bruges.  Enamored with the movie In Bruges, we spent our overnight time in Bruges before heading to Poperinge to drink Westvleteren.  So we hit Ghent for the day on the way to Antwerp for a disappointing trip at the Kulminator.  After our short day in Ghent, it is the top of our next trip list for Belgium.    

To maximize our day, we left early and got on the first canal boat tour of the morning.
Our tour guide Matthew gave us a personalized tour of the city because we were the only ones to buy a ticket.  While chatting, Matthew told us of a local beer named after the largest bell of the city center clocktower: Klokke Roeland.  We saw the famous bell while walking. Google the image to check it out—it's a bell. This part of Belgium is known for it's clock towers, especially to the west around Bruges. In Bruges the day before, there was a list of historic Belgian clock towers in the area. Evidently, some people collect clock towers like I collect beer. We missed a lot of small breweries in this area, so a combination clock tower tour while beer hunting is definitely a good vacation possibility.

At the conclusion of our tour, Matthew sent us to the Bierhuis to taste Klokke Roeland.  The bar's proper name is Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, which seems to mean beer on the water's edge (according to google translate). Right on the canal in the historic center of Ghent, the Bierhuis is clearly the place of choice for thirsty tourists. We had two drafts.  First, Augustijn Blonde. Straw gold with an off white head, slight spice in the nose with a solid light malt. Smooth flavor, easy drinking.

Next, Klokke Roeland. Shimmering amber beer with a dirty white head served in the same styled glass as the house tripel at Staminee de Garre.  Earthy malt nose with a little spice and only a trace to betray the high alcohol. Sweet malt and a light spiciness from the alcohol in the taste.  Easy and dangerous to drink, it's slightly off balanced but a nice beer.  BA rating is less than stellar, but I thought the beer to be a bit better than the reviews.  The reviews I looked at seemed to be of stateside kegs at east coast bars; I would guess drinking local probably helped improve my sample.  

I'm glad we stopped to try the Klokke Roeland, but the fourteen taps are of middling range of standard Belgians.  The beer was well served and I wouldn't hesitate to have a quick, easy draft here again when being a tourist in the heart of this historic city.  However, a perusal of BA bars in Ghent implies that a savvy beer geek could find better with some time and effort.  However, it's our first bar after our day at Westvleteren and we are suppose to drink at the world famous Kulminator tonight, so the Bierhuis may have suffered by comparison.  I look forward to giving it another try on our next trip to Ghent.  

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Drinking Westvleteren at In de Vrede (near Abbey St. Sixtus, Westvleteren, Belgium)

In de Vrede 

I had a bottle to Westvleteren 12 at the Locus Publicus in Delft in 2003 before I understood what I was drinking and Gloria didn't drink it that night for some reason.  We didn't have another opportunity until a December 2007 trip to the Netherlands.  Having had a sample a month earlier during a BJCP class, and now fully understanding what I was after, I was on a quest in Amsterdam to get each of the Westvleteren beers.  So I headed to the first bar on my list selling beer geek market Westvleteren, ordered a 12 and promptly lost it to my wife.  It's been one of her favorite beers since.  She's always had good taste.

Fast forward to Belgium 2012: a trip to In de Vrede to drink Westvleteren as close to the brewery as possible was a no brainer (no public tours of the abbey).  For those learning the background, Westvleteren is technically not sold off site except for the rarest of circumstances and has just recently been sold in the US for the first time in limited quantities   Buying the limited production of Westvleteren on the level takes a reservation and a trip. So, yes, the bottles I've had elsewhereas is true of nearly all beer geeksare quite illicit.  Since we were travelling light, I only bought a six pack besides what we drank on the pub.

We stayed at the Palace Hotel so that we could get an early start and be able to walk to bus stop.  To get to In de Vrede, an intrepid beer drinker can take the De Lijn Belbus 69.  A reservation can be made up to two weeks in advance, according to one website I read, but the official information said at least two hours in advance. The De Lijn representative, who spoke excellent English, said that it's a minimum two hour wait from the time a pick up call is made. When making a reservation to drink Westvleteren, the local name seems to simply be "the abbey." Saying anything else is superfluous.
Church across the street from the Belbus stop

In Poperinge, the bus stop is either at the train station or at the market downtown. We did the market downtown location that's just off the main square between the public bathrooms on one side of the road and a big church on the other. It showed up right on time. Several locals were on the bus and we were the only ones to get off at the abbey, which is conveniently the first stop. It's August now, so the hops are full and heavy on the vine as we see the town sign for the village of Westvleteren.  The bus stop is right outside of the abbey itself.  Head down the asphalt road beside the abbey, follow the large flags that say Westvleteren to the right, and stroll leisurely down a tree lined sidewalk to In de Vrede.

Belbus stop near the St. Sixtus Abbey
and In de Vrede
It is a beautiful day, so we sat in the bier garden in the back. Table service was fairly quick and it's whatever waiter is available.  From what I can tell, it's pay as you go so no one has to keep a tab. We paid cash for the convenience, so never tried a credit card.

Gloria, naturally, started with the Bruin 12, and I got a Blonde 6 to taste up the ladder. Unfortunately, it's the height of summer corn and hop crops here, so my allergies are acting up and my senses are not at their best for this bucket list adventure.  Imagining a visit to Westvleteren, I never considered that my hay fever that I tried to leave behind in Iowa would re-emerge in this very home-like part of Belgium.  Since a non-summer visit isn't an option, I resolve to have a fine day drinking world class beer between sniffles.

Our first round of Westy beers, as close as possible to on site
The Blonde 6 is a hazy orange with an off white lace down the side of the glass. Slight yeasty nose and spice over a base of a light malt. Not an assertive nose, but pleasant, especially when sipped; the spice is strong in the mouth with a yeasty supplement.

For lunch and a second round, we sat for about 15 minutes to get the attention of a waiter. I feel like I'm being rude asking for attention, but it's just my American sensibilities. The default in Europe is to assume that one wants to be left alone unless asked instead of a server asking when a customer is near the end of a glass.  After several weeks here, I've improved, but haven't mastered, my negotiation of this cultural dynamic.

Abbey St. Sixtus.  Walk past this closed
entrance and turn right to the pub. 
Our new friend, who we
cleverly named Westy
The Bruin 8 is similar to the 12 at first blush. Very similar but lighter all around: color, body and taste. So, on to the 12.  Incredible. The hints and tendencies of the 8 are in full bodied flavor for the 12. Exciting that it's so good. I had a secret fear that drinking on site might be disappointing but I should have known better. Thin brown head leaves an elegant lace, which has been light on pours of all three beers, that falls over an opaque, almost root beer colored body. Yeasty spice in the nose supported by fig, dark chocolate, overripe cherry and an almost sour earthiness that even our light summer breeze can't waft away. Taste has a slight yeast and carbonic bite. Sweet finish from a sugary center that balances the beer from front to back. Great beer that rightly deserves its reputation as one of the world's finest.

Cheese sandwiches for lunch--and my Westy.  
Lunch was very good but the only option for vegetarians is essentially a cheese sandwich with buttered bread. However, I'm pretty much happy with a big hunk of Gouda cheese. A very Belgian/Dutch lunch that was just fine to get us through the afternoon.

The bottles of Westvleteren to take home came into the gift shop and the word spread like wildfire through the pub. From my research, I thought it was supposed to be a mixed six pack, but, today at least, it seems to be all the same blueish cap.  Not sure what I will get when I make it to the front: Bruin 8 is the answer. Oh well that it's not the 12, but still pretty good.

Stack of Westvleteren 8 for sale today.
The quarter of cheese on the wheel went home
with us as well. 
Finally being frustrated by the table service, I started getting 12s from the bar myself to make more of our drinking time.  Being served on the patio, I didn't see any of our early glasses poured but confirmed later that everything is served from bottles and not on draft, something I hadn't thought about or seen in my research.  When we got a waiter to get us a mid-afternoon dessert, he suggested the Coupe "In de Vrede," which is ice cream made with the bier (though I didn't understand which one but guessing a bruin). Too much whip cream on top for my taste but the sprinkled malt (like the inside of a malted milk ball) made it worthwhile; the beer clearly shows up in the ice cream near the bottom. Pricey but fun to order and probably worth the price of admission for most beer geeks.

Overall, it's a grand stop.  Such a pleasant day with piles of cumulus clouds and endless Westvleteren. The only downside is that the patio is smoker friendly, so drifting smoke is also triggering my allergies. Gloria was happy with not only the beer but also an amorous stray cat who was begging for scraps for much of the afternoon until several patrons with dogs sat nearby and scared her away.

Our bus is coming at 16:55, which was probably a bit longer than we needed but we happily wiled away the hours.  The bus ride back continued on the rest of the 69 route and was an interesting driving tour of the region. Gloria saw another brewery on the route, so that may be an option to add to a visit.  Also in Poperinge, we saved the hop museum for another day.  One surprise at In de Vrede was the almost continuous stream of bicyclists stopping for a beer.  The pub is on a 43 km bicycle route through the hop fields called the Hoppeland Route, which is a day with a locally rented bike that I am dreaming about for the future.

End of the day beer infused ice cream before heading home. 
In the grand scheme, we pretty much devoted a day of our vacation to sitting at a bar in the middle of farm country that looks a lot like Sioux County Iowa with an inordinate amount of brick houses. But, then again, we don't understand folks who sit on a beach suntanning with overpriced umbrella drinks.  We decided that this is our day at the beach, a vacation of sitting around, connecting through the experience and drinking some pretty great beer in the process.
Belbus 69 returning us to Poperinge after a scenic drive.  The driver kindly waited while I took a picture.  But, I didn't get my finger out of the way in my rush.   To the right is where we had dinner, 't Smoske, which was some of the best frites of the trip and a fish sandwich that I still think about. Our opinion may have been influenced by beer hunger.