Friday, August 22, 2014

Drinking order philosophy: Go Big

Al and I going big at Great Taste.  
On the path of beer geekdom, most of us have read the same advice for tasting samples: drink light to dark. In theory, sampling light to dark will allow a drinker to not blow out the taste buds by starting with the double IPA. For years, I slavishly followed the advice.

I changed my drinking order philosophy after a short night at Spuyten Duyvil in Brooklyn. With a small but legendary draft list, there we're several that I wanted to try. We settled in and I ordered a Chelsea Blizzard IPA, which was disappointing, and then moved up to La Merle, a saison from North Coast. While a good visit, I had been eyeing a barleywine on the board (that I can't remember the name on now). If you haven't been to Spuytin Duyvil, it's a pretty sketchy walk through Brooklyn. And, in our search for an affordable hotel in New York, we tried a hotel in Jersey, which required a late night train transfer. The combination sent us packing to the subway before I got to the beer I was most interested in drinking.

Not a catastrophe, but enough disappointment to make me re-think my approach, especially on vacation. Now, I go big early and drink whatever looks best on the menu regardless of style or size. This approach will often get me a quizzical look from fellow drinkers when I order the 10% plus barlewine or triple IPA for the first draft. Working through a rack of samples, I will still follow the light to dark guideline (leaving samples that are unimpressive half full or more—another change). But, when ordering drafts, I go big early and drink the best I can find.
First draft and biggest on the menu that
day at Hammerheart Rune Stone Stout

I'm happy with my new philosophy over the last six years since Spuyten Duyvil and our recent trip to Lagunitas is a good example of the approach. Drinking for clear reasons, I started with their IPA because it was 57% of sales (info from the tour) and I couldn't remember it's taste. Then, we jumped right into a sample tray of all the special beers, including some big barrel aged offerings. As a result, we found the fantastic Rye Barrel Aged Gnarley Wine that we were delighted to drink it in spite of the 100 degree day.

This philosophy does have a downside. It will inevitably reduce the overall number of beers you can drink before heading home, whether driving or not. To drive home, a single beer before water and dinner might be required. At the most recent Great Taste, Al and I started with a 16% barleywine and a couple of bars later I ordered New Holland's Pilgrim's Dole wheat wine that comes in a 11%. Even taking a bus home, the big beers slow down the night pretty fast. While this approach takes some discipline and may not be for everyone, it's gotten me to better beers faster and improved my beer stops by simply stepping off the trodden path.

Friday, August 15, 2014

La Trappe (Berkel-Enschot, Netherlands)

La Trappe beer garden with brewery
in background
7/1/14 and 3/8/03 visits

A few weeks before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the price of airline tickets to Europe plummeted and we flew nonstop from MSP to Amsterdam for a long weekend because it was cheaper than any domestic vacation we tried to book. One of the best trips we've ever taken, a highlight was a train to Tilburg to taste La Trappe at Koningshoeven.

Returning this summer to the Netherlands with our niece for her college graduation trip, we took the opportunity to stop again for the tour. La Trappe was both familiar and changed at the same time.
First round of Wit and Quadruple

In 2003, we walked into the tasting room and the tour guide, Berrie Verhagen, asked if I was Cal on the first beer I ordered. I asked "How did you know?" We were the only Americans there. We toured the brewery with Berrie giving English translations of the previous Dutch explanations from each stop. Today's tour is very similar minus the walk through the bottling room. Also, at the end now, there's a video covering all things La Trappe while samples are poured. English speakers drank first, which was a nice bonus for coming so far.
Salad with fenugreek goat brie, apple, nuts
and apple-syrup dressing (minus bacon
to be vegetarian)

If my memory is correct, the present gift shop was the old tasting room.  Back then, cheese made with the quadruple and brewery bread, while great, was the best on the menu. For this trip, we showed up early enough for the 2 pm tour to have lunch first. My salad was pretty incredible, but my wife hit the jackpot by ordering the raisin-nut bread with Brabant blue goat cheese, pear compote, and nuts (grantinated in the oven). Not even sure what to call it, but the bite I was allowed to savor was spectacular. After the tour, I had Brabant strawberries with "hang-op," a uniquely Dutch topping according to the waitress. Even without the trappist ales, this is a place worth visiting just for the food. Magnificent. If you make the trip to Tilburg, please leave enough time to eat. And, of course, there was beer: before, during and after the tour.

My wife predictably startedand stayedwith the Quadruple. Easily distracted by something new, I got the once brewed 25th Anniversary Ale called Jubilaris and followed with Puur, La Trappe's organic pale ale.  Ended with a bottle of the Oak Aged Quadruple, batch 16. According to the waitress, each batch of the oak aged quad is tweaked a bit differently. In beer press, La Trappe sometimes doesn't get the respect of other trappist breweries, but I love their line up, especially the quad.

Tilburg is a bit off the beaten tourist path, but public transportation to Koningshoeven is easy. Bus 141 drops off right in front of the abbey and it's an easy walk to the tasting room. The bus runs hourly, so timing is important. To return, the bus pick up is across the road and down a little bit.  In 2003, I read the time wrong because we didn't realize that the return bus was on the other side of the road, which resulted in a us walking back to the train station in a light rain. Our first trip, we took an easy train ride to Tilburg from Amsterdam for the day and returned that night. This trip we had rented a car for a few days, so simply got a room at the Bastion Hotel (cheap, basic but perfectly adequate) because it's the closest one to the abbey. We just missed the bus from the hotel to the brewery, so we walked the 20 minutes rather than wait for the next bus. In the end, we've ridden the bus each directionjust a decade apart.

Two years ago, my wife and I visited Westvleteren in Belgium, which was also a great day, but much more difficult to get to with public transportation. While I've only been to two trappist breweries, La Trappe is an easy visit and well worth the effort, especially with the serious upgrades to the food and tour structure. I encourage you to settle in for an afternoon and leisurely enjoy the full range of La Trappe beers.