Monday, April 29, 2013

The Frog & Princess (Paris, France)


I made The Frog & Princess for happy hour: pints only 5 euro, off from 7.  Pricey for mediocre beer but they will also do a free rack of samples, though each was the size of a shot glass. Free is free.

Of the lot, the Dark de Triomphe seemed to be the strongest with some Guinness-like flavor but watery with more chocolate, as described by the bartender. Weak and thin, I now feel that I've tasted what one would stereotype craft beer as in wine-crazy France. As it warms, a clear diacytl buttery note. Brasserie O'Neill nearby felt much more local and and the beer was brewed cleaner.

Appetizer with my new collection of event themed coasters. 
Both bartenders admitted to the young American couple nearby that neither were particularly fans of the beer in the pub and worked to crush mint for mojitos, a specialty of the bar evidently.  Evidently, each "Frog & something" pub does have it's own brewer and separate beers: five in Paris, one in Toulouse, and one somewhere else that I missed. But, in this case, I think I'm going end my pursuit here.

Dark de Triomphe with a coaster of the
queen in track gear
Unfortunately, I left the other pub hungry, so decided to give a starter a try that sounded adventuresome: onion bhajis, described as an Indian dish with onions and spices that's deep fried. Greasy as hell with some tang and rawish hunks of fried onion inside.  A sauce similar to tartar saucer at first, but was clearly lighter and something else, tempered the heat a bit.

Next, I tried  a pint of the next favorite sample: Ginger Twist. Actually, not a bad beer. The lemon, lime and coriander spices blend well with a full bodied gold to amber lager. It's pretty in the glass bubbling up to clean off white head. Much better brewed beer than the previous pint and it is almost cutting through the grease of the bhajis. Glad I ended with the better beer of the lot, though still just adequate.

The bartender I met before opening had an accent clearly of the British Isle, was personable and, I sense, made the local expats feel at home. Commenting that I liked the queen in track gear beer mat, he went downstairs to get me the Euro 2012 soccer mats from earlier in the summer. A very fun stop, but I wish the beer had been a bit better. I could see coming here if I was a Brit expat who was very lonely for home, but can't recommend it otherwise.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Ten Tips for Drinking Belgium

Flower carpet in Brussels
Summer 2012

While many a beer geek dreams of drinking Belgium, the obstacles were daunting at times.  Here's a few tips to improve any Belgian beer experience, roughly in order of importance:

1. Plan brewery stops carefully. Except for places like De Halve MaanCantillon, and In De Vrende (Westvleteren) that have tourist friendly schedules, many breweries are only open a day a week or less. For example, Brewery Boon has a 25 person minimum to book a tour except every Wednesday at 3 pm in July and August. Showing up without a plan will mean very few actual brewery tours and tastings.

2. Consider a beer tour. Because many brewery tours in Belgium are for groups of 15 or more, a solo beer traveler can find it difficult if on-site tours are desired.  Breweries with individual tours like Cantillon are the exception to the rule.  To my surprise, I am seriously considering signing up for a planned beer tour in the future to take care of entrance and transportation next time, plus add the obviously social element of the like-minded.  Or, give up on the idea of brewery tours and just drink the country through fabulous bars like In de Vrende for Westveletern, The Kulminator in Antwerp,  Het Waterhuis in Ghent, Staminee de Garre in Brugge, or Delirium Cafe, Moeder Lambic, and Al a Mort Subite in Brussels.

3. Send emails and ask to join a tour group. Most said no or ignored me, but Brouwerij Bosteels said yes.  In spite of the tour being in Dutch, it was one of the best experiences of the trip and I met my new beer friends Elke and Sven and their family.

4. Visit the Lambic Discovery Center.  Bezoekerscentrum "De Lambiek" is the local Flemish name.  Not as convenient to the train as one would hope from Brussels, this slightly out of the way beer trip is a must for any lambic lover.  A local bus gets closer, but will take more time.  In my case, I signed up for a tour of Oud Beersel that included a stop at the center.  Because there weren't enough people for the planned bus, Werner of Oud Beersel picked me up in Brussels and dropped me off at the train station.  An excellent day that I recount in my brewery's post.  The ten lambic brewers and blenders are small and difficult to tour, so the center is really the best place to taste a range of them.  Plus, Werner and I chatted off and on all day as he worked and I drank lambic to my heart's content.  In Brussels, on Werner's recommendation, I visited A La Becasse for authentic lambic just off the Grote Markt, an experience I loved and may not have done without guidance.

5. Carry cash.  And research where your ATM logo will work. The Rick Steves advice of carry little and get it as you need it doesn't work well at the moment because a US credit card can be hit or miss anywhere from hotels to bars to the train station. In fact, my hostel was unable to process my card, so I had to spend nearly all of my initial beer money for lodging. Much of the EU uses a chip/pin card and not everyplace can process a chip less credit card.  Friends going to Barcelona bought a recently updated tour book (by Rick Steves) that had a recom for a US based chip/pin card, which may be a good idea for the next trip.  Not a major problem, but it added a level of anxiety to every financial transaction.

6. Ride the train. And then the bus. Brouwerij Het Anker is only open for individual tours on weekends and the train to Mechelen was fast and efficient even on my Sunday tour.  The only confusing part is that  Flemish/French dual language issue; the Mechelen stop was listed as Malines.  Keeping the navigation of the Belgian cultural divide in mind, the distances are short and the trains efficient.  Driving in Belgium is tough and an GPS is a must. Road markings are impossible to find or read and they switch between Dutch and French (or both in Brussels), parking can be expensive and difficult to find, and it complicates the driving immeasurably if you want to park in the heart of a city so you can walk and us public transportation later.  We rented a car to Brussels to go to the farther reaches like Poperinge, but I would only use the train next time.  In Poperinge, the Belbus was invaluable to drink Westvleteren at In de Vrende and it could be used more extensively with some research, including to the Lambic Discovery Center.  
Night time reflection of canal in Brugge.  Photo by Gloria
7. Drink small. Glass sizes are 25 or 33 centiliters,which allows one to taste a greater range of beers compared to ordering pints in the US. Stick with the small beers and expand beery horizons. Pints are expensive, unnecessary and seem out of place, especially when the smaller glass is often the brewery's designed glass when in Belgium.  It makes sense to me to drink a beer as intended by the brewery whenever possible.

Climbing the clocktower in Brugge.
Photo by Gloria.
8. Money for water. Rare to find a water fountain in Europe. Buy water, drink and then fill from a faucet.  I found it hard to hydrate, especially when many seemed confused when asked for tap water (France was better than Belgium in this respect). We simply resorted to bringing the water bottles we had used for our touristing for the day with us into the bar to sip: took the idea from locals use a similar tactic.

9. Research Belgian breweries. Lists can be daunting at times, especially when at one of the pubs of the Delirium Cafe.  In spite of more than a decade of beer hunting and a lack of time to read one or two more specific Belgian beer books, I repeatedly found myself at a loss as to what to order.  While stumbling upon that rare find can be exciting, vacation time and locations are expensive and fleeting, so I prefer to have the knowledge in my head or organized well enough to increase my odds of drinking well.

10. Drink on the street. Evidently, it's perfectly fine to buy a beer and walk around Brussels. Any length of visit will show this to be true, but I asked to double check. Something liberating about drinking a beer while window shopping.

Please follow up all advice with your own research.  This was my experience and I don't pretend to be an expert on Belgium. Plus, information can change fast.  In writing up this post about ten months after the trip, I've noticed several changes in websites.  Have fun and be safe.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Grumpy's Bar & Grill Downtown Minneapolis (Minneapolis, MN)

A friend of mine, Matt Mauch, was having a reading of his new poetry book If You're Lucky Is a Theory of Mine at The Loft Literary Center, so a dinner stop at Grumpy's for a few worry-free pints to relax into before a night of poetry.  I've only been to Grumpy's a few times because I find it hard getting past Town Hall down the street, which was too far to walk tonight and I didn't want to re-park.  As it turns out, Grumpy's was convenient enough that it turned into a good sized party of poets and friends.

Started the night with Indeed's Midnight Ryder, which was well served, very clean and fresh.  Switched to Surly Furious for a hop bite, but it wasn't 100% in the glass.  Not bad and not sure why, but not what Furious can be.  Afterwards, Al found Dark Horse Double Crooked Tree on tap, so that finished the night on a high note.

For dinner, I ordered the fish sandwich with house made tartar sauce and onion rings substituted for chips and a pickle.  The rings were over-hyped on the menu with the fish sandwich being better than average but rather plain.  The house tater tots that I bummed off of Matt's huge half order were much better and will be my choice next time.  The chili crock ordered by one of our party looked delicious, so the vegan version may be my entree on a return visit.

Overall, Grumpy's a great stop when nearby, especially for The Loft or the Guthrie, and time is of the essence.  A small but better than average line up of taps that will definitely have something worth drink, though it might not be new or overly edgy.  I even have a fair amount of confidence is their beer handling.  Plus, our server tonight was amazing.  Tab said her name was Tif Dynamite and she was fast, efficient and extremely professional, including getting separate checks for each of us at our three tables pushed together.  Since many of my reasons for going to Grumpy's involve limited time, the service makes it a low anxiety dinner and a pint to start an evening in downtown.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Firkin Fest 2013 @ The Happy Gnome (St. Paul, MN)

I spend most Saturdays from February to April coaching my speech team, which I love.  However, it means spring beer festivals are a rare treat for me.  I made the tail end of the Firkin Fest 2009 for the leftovers after a tournament.  Being on Easter weekend, 2013 is my first opportunity to take in the entire fest.

And, I showed up an hour late.  On Saturday morning, my wife and I decided, just hours before the fest, to finalize the purchase a new car.  Between a test drive and the paper work, I walked right in the fest at 1 pm.

Food options on the HG patio
Just inside the tent, I jumped right in with a new breweryBad Weather Brewing. Their amber ale Windvane with Simcoe hops was a promising start. Only a handful of people that I recognize and the crowd seemed youngish for real ale. As with other Twin Cities beery events, the attracted crowd is expanding and the days of the veteran TC beer geeks gathering at the Firkin Fest seem to have passed.

Crowded in the tent around 2 pm-ish, movement was slow going and I decided on a geographical attack of breweries to save time at this point. Heading to tent's end, I sampled Lift Bridge and Surly. LB's Manhattan Barrel Project, a bourbon barrel aged imperial stout with maraschino cherry that had a sweet body with vanilla and clear bourbon in the nose that leads to slight alcohol in the taste and more than a hint of cherry. Nicely balanced beer that was smooth and fun.
Last view of our beloved Bug 
before trading her in

Other top beers of the fest were Flying Dog's Wildeman with Centennial hops with a light sweetness and lemon peel spice that compliments the hop excessively well. Down 'N Dirty by Tyranena was aged a year in a rye barrel that was oatmeal smooth with a chewy chocolate body that was light and alcoholic—easy, sweet and dangerous brew.  And, I would like a pint of Hinterland's White IPA, a delicate and extremely refreshing ale with a Simcoe kick. Themed beer of the day goes to Badger Hill's Toasted Peep Marshmallow Foundation Stout. Can actually taste the sugary sweet peeps burnt to 'smore perfection. Dry hopped and novelty ingredients on base beers was the word on the day.  On recommendation from a respected beer source, I sampled the Bell's Kalamzoo Stout straight up—and was reminded not to forget the simple, beautiful things in life.

As for the practicalities of the fest, it was a beautiful, chilly day that was cozy inside the tent until the east side brewers opened the flaps to drop the temp. Be prepared for a variety of temps and dress in layers. By the end of the day, the crowd thinned considerably and the chill crept in again with the lack of body heat but movement was much easier to hit the beers that were left. 

For taking notes, the program was accurate and specific, so it was easy to rate and remember the myriad of samples on the day. Assuming a real ale reveler shows up on time, slowly hit top choices and work down as the crowd falls to the wayside late in the day to finish easily with remaining beers. In 2003, I attended one of the last hostings of the Real Ale Festival in Chicago, a trip I regret not repeating. However, while I am glad to have made most of a Firkin Fest at the Happy Gnome, I am going to stop lamenting not being able to go more often.

By the happenstance of life clashing with beer hunting, I experienced the passing of two eras today. First, I'm the tentatively proud owner of a new Ford C-Max hybrid to replace our VW Bug that took us to our rim to rim hike of the Grand Canyon and the Mayo Clinic every Wednesday for nearly two years while my nephew waited for and eventually received a heart transplant. Second, at the fest, I knew only a Town Hall pint club member, a couple of beer writers and several brewers. The old beer gang that could be counted on at every beery event in the early years has moved on and been scattered by the flood of younger beer lovers (many still learning how to pace at a festival). For me anyway, today was a transformation, and, while for the best on both counts, leaves me a bit melancholy.