It's all about the beer and finding your way to it

Friday, May 28, 2010

Bamberg: Beer Country

Earlier this month was a trip to Bamberg. If there is a beer city, this is it. 10 breweries in town and most with their own taverns. We visited Spezial, Fassla, Keesmans, Mahrs, & Schlenkerla.

All were excellent but Spezial and Mahrs stand out for me. Spezial had a wonderful smoked lager and marzen while Mahrs had their Ungespundet or U-bier. As the late Michael Jackson described it: Ungespundet "means 'unbunged', indicating that the maturation was in a vessel open to the atmsphere (ie not controlled by a pressure valve). This makes for a lesser carbonation. With a diminished gassiness, there is less carbonic "bite" on he tongue, so the drinker is more sensitive to the flavours in the beer". In Mahrs they serve it from a gravity barrel (see below in the photo).

The smoked beers from Spezial were also a real treat as they are more lightly smoked than the more well known  Schlenkerla brands. I enjoyed the subtleness that came with them. Overall Bamberg is a place that they beer lover must see.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Beer in Italy

A recent trip to Italy has helped to revise my opinion of Italian beer quite a bit. Recent years have seen a growth in Italian craft brewing as brewers try to take the Italian reputation for fine quality ingredients into the realm of beer. Last year I tried a couple different Italian beers in NYC but was left underwhelmed by them. They either tried to imitate existing styles, like Belgian tripels, or come up with their own, most often by making a chestnut beer (Italy grows a wide variety of chestnut types). Prices for these beers were quite high (~$15/glass) and I did not see how it was justified when I could, for example, get a much better actual Belgian tripel at a less cost. Similarly, the chestnut beer I tried tasted like some sort of chestnut juice drink and not a proper beer.

Visiting Rome changed that. We went to both Bir & Fud beer restaurant (only serving Italian beers) and the Domus Birrae beer store while there and every beer we had was quite good. There was an excellent chestnut ale from Birra Amiata that came across as a rich brown ale with a teasing hint of chestnut. Another one was the Orso Verde Rebelde a beer that uses american hops to create a very drinkable and refreshing american pale ale. Great one for a summer day. Probably my favorite was Magut, a crisp hoppy pilsener from Lambrate. It was really spot on with its hop character and body.

So I will revise my opinion and readily say that I was impressed with the quality of craft brewed Italian beer. Try it out if you see some of it.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Open Breweries

The last Sunday in April was the 2nd annual Open Brewery Day in Belgium. Many breweries that do not normally give tours open their doors to the public and most include a free beer. Most of these were pretty big brewing companies and even included ones owned by multinationals (AB Inbev did not open its massive factory in Leuven but they did open the Hoegaarden brewery).

Mechelen's Het Anker brewery and Kobbegem's Mort Subite were on my schedule for the day. Het Anker, makers of the excellent Gouden Carolus brand, is a privately owned brewery in a small but rambling complex of old buildings on the ring road west of the city. They have some beautiful old copper kettles as well as a state of the art bottling line that pumps out 3000 bottles an hour.

The (mostly sweet) lambic producer Mort Subite is in the rural town of Kobbegem just northeast of Brussels. While it is now owned by Heineken it is still an old brewery a lovely brewhouse. Most of their output is syrupy sweet lambics like Kriek Xtreme where, if there even is any, the spontaneous fermentation comes from air pumped in rather than traditional open fermentation, any fruit flavor comes from syrup, and it is aged in steel. Still they do produce some traditional oude gueuze and kriek in their old wooden barrels that is not half bad.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Aged Beer Porn

A bottle of 1990 De Neve Kriek served from the cellar of the Spytighen Duvel . I know, I know not a classic example of the style but the 20 years have toned down the sweetness nicely and given it a hint of sourness that made it very pleasant to drink.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Beer & Bicycling in Belgium

Belgium has a reputation as being mad about cycling (as I write this the La Flèche Wallonne road race is on live TV). A large proportion of the people also love beer. The abundance of rural beer cafes, often along bicycle routes, brings the two together regularly. In the warmer weather you can almost always find someone in spandex with a beer in front of them at a countryside cafe. On the weekends you can often find large gangs of riders taking over sections of cafe terraces. And why not? Nothing on earth is more refreshing than a crisp Belgian blonde ale after a leisurely pedal through the countryside.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Finely Aged Beer At The Kulminator

In the Flemish port city of Antwerp is the classic beer cafe called the Kulminator. A cozy, if somewhat cluttered, candle-filled establishment with plants growing from containers by the windows and classical music wafting through, it opened in the 70s and wears its age well. Its strong point is aged beers and their phenomenal list has many beers from many different vintages. It also has a small but quality draft selection.

After ducking in from a cold driving rain and shedding our wet coats, we decided on a 1998 Rochefort 6 and a 2001 Rodenbach Grand Cru. They both were in good condition and tasted superb, the Rodenbach especially. Like the 2000 Grand Cru from a few posts ago, it had mellowed nicely while keeping a nice sour touch to it. The Rochefort 6 was a bit more alcoholly that a fresh version is but it was a little more rounded.

Kulminator is certainly a place that has to be experienced of you are in Antwerp and you should be sure to take your time with the beer menu as there are so many wonderful choices.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Wow! Kriekenlambic

Time for another trip to the Pajottenland, home of lambic and geuze. The De Cam gueuze stekerij (meaning essentially 'blendery') in Gooik has been around for about 10 years now and buys their lambic from Boon, Girardin, and other lambic makers to age, blend, and then create their own oude gueuze and oude kriek. Blenders of gueuze are not an uncommon thing in the region as the blending and aging is the most important factor in creating a unique final product. Hanssens and Drie Fonteinen are other well known blenders.

Right next to the De Cam stekerij is the De Cam Volkscafe where, along with hearty meal, you can find the wonderful De Cam kriekenlambic on draft. Kriekenlambic is what is left after steeping cherries in a barrel of the original lambic for many months. Most of it goes for bottling to become oude kriek after further bottle aging. Here though they serve some of what's left on its own without further aging. It is a flat and served in a earthen mug. The taste is full of the wonderful rich cherry flavors of the fruit and melds nicely with the sourness of the lambic. Perfect on a spring day.

In addition to this treat you can also find the other De Cam products like the outstanding and beautifully dry Oude Gueuze.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Moeder Lambic, The Original

Moeder Lambic, a bastion of good beer in the St Gilles commune (neighborhood) of Brussels, is located in the shadow of the town hall. Even with the opening of a new location closer to the center of Brussels, the original continues to hold down its deserved place at the top of the Brussels beer universe. This is due to a great list of bottles and thoughtful selections of draft beer along with a nice comfortable location with big windows looking out on the goings on in St Gilles.
A while ago I made a trip there to sample some Saison d'Epeautre from Brasserie Blaugies. This was the first time it was on draft, something first noted on the Thirsty Pilgrim blog. This beer is from southern Hainaut province, almost on the French border. It has a soft golden yellow hue and a wonderful dry grassy bitterness that is very refreshing on a spring day.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Time For A Paasbier

Easter weekend (Paasfeest) is here and that means it is time to crack open some Easter beers (or Paasbiers). Aside from Christmas beers (background story here), Belgium does not have as much of an overwhelming seasonal beer fad going on as there is in the US where many/most breweries release beers for each season. Easter beers in Belgium number nowhere close to the amount of Christmas beers produced; I could only find four of them.

There is no style for Easter beers and therefore these beers range across the board. The Slaghmuylder Paasbier (5.2% abv) is a crisp all malt lager that uses local hops and with it's refreshing flavor has a taste of spring. On the other end is the Gouden Carolus Easter Beer (9% abv) which is a dark heavy ale with a hint of liquorice. This sort of recalls the more weighty religious overtones of the holiday. In between you find the Bos Keun from De Dolle, a sweetish ale of high alcohol (10% abv) but with a lighter body than the Carolus and the new St Feuillien Forårsbryg ("spring brew"), a 7.5% abv amber ale. It is brewed for the Danish market but sometimes on sale here (although it is not on their website at all).

Happy Easter and enjoy whatever beer you may be drinking for the holiday!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Mixed Beers

An interesting combination that you see occasionally in Belgium is the blending of lambic and beer to create a sort of hybrid beer. These are bottled drinks that are blended in a very specific way at the brewery. A person at the Dilwyns brewfirm explained that they do not just pour them together but they are done in specific proportions. 70 beer/30 lambic is one I have seen quoted before. The lambic usually comes from Girardin or Drie Fontainen.

Three relatively available ones are Cuvee de Ranke by De Ranke, Tuverbol from Loterbol, and Vicardin from Dilwyns (brewed at De Proef). I would rate these in that order if pressed. The Cuvee de Ranke uses Girardin to make a very lambic-like brew but one that has a bit of grassy hop character to it. Where the Vicardin falls away is that they blend it with a triple that cannot match the strong taste of the lambic and just comes off as a somewhat weak lambic. The Tuverbol falls somewhere in between these two.

If you have not had any of these before, they are certainly worth a shot to try them.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Quenching a Great Thirst

A couple weekends ago Sunday morning took us just west of Brussels to the town of Eizeringen and a visit to the cafe In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst. This area is part of the Payottenland, the center of traditional lambic and geuze production in Belgium. Translating to 'In the Insurance against Large Thirst' this is a classic Flemish small town cafe that is located across from the town church. It only opens on Sundays from 10am-1:30pm. It was bought and restored by two lambic aficionados after its proprietor retired in about ten years ago after decades of steady service. They wanted to preserve the authentic character of this small town cafe.

The cafe has an extensive selection of lambic and geuze that includes vintages going back to the 1980's along with select draft lambics. We relaxed on wooden benches as the fire in the iron stove at the back crackled and people filtered in as after church let out. I opted for a Moriau Oude Geuze with the bottle served in a traditional basket. It had a lovely sour dryness. Truly a wonderful experience as the modern times slowed down just for a moment.

Monday, March 22, 2010

La Tournee Belge

This past weekend the local Zythos beer group, the Leuvense Beertherapeuten, held their annual beer festival. Each good sized city in Belgium (in Flanders at least) has a Zythos affiliated beer appreciation club that occasionally holds events through the year. They often host at least one beer festival and have various tastings and beer trips scheduled (brewery visits for example).

This year their festival was called La Tournee Belge (Tour of Belgium). They presented 66 beers gathered from the 11 provinces of Belgium.While the list may sound small, the key thing here is that the selection was expertly chosen and covered the range of Belgian beers styles with some top-notch examples. The fest was held in an event space set among ponds and trees in a park just outside of Leuven. The combination of  beer selection, festival arrangement, and location made it one of the best beer festivals I have been to.

We started the day with a 10 year old bottle of Rodenbach Grand Cru and it was just tremendous. The years gave it a nicely mellowed sourness with some faint notes of wood. There was a good selection of newer breweries and trying the Belle Cies from Den Tseut was a nice surprise. The brewer puts a single hop flower in the bottle for 'continued hopping'. Another interesting beer was Rick's Abbesse which used an old type of cherry from the Limburg region to flavor the beer with a subtle balanced tartness.

Overall it was a fine way to spend the last official day of winter- discovering the beers of Belgium courtesy of the Leuvense Biertherapeuten.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A once a month kind of place

In the Flemish Brabant town of Diest is the cafe-brewery of Loterbol. It is an elusive establishment that only opens on the first Saturday of each month for eight hours. Loterbol makes a tasty blond and a brune as well as an very intriguing and recommended beer/lambic mix that are available in beershops.

In the cafe they serve on draft a refreshing lower strength blonde that has a nice sharp bitter character but lacks a bit in complexity. The cafe itself is a typical Brabantine town cafe with small wooden tables and some antique beer knick knacks here and there. It fills up with locals sharing some beers and chatting with the owner as well as coming in to exchange empty cases for full ones.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Main Event - ZBF

The main festival last weekend (at least in terms of number of breweries) was the Zythos Bier Festival. This essentially is the closest Belgium comes to a national beer fest. Zythos is technically a national group that has member clubs locally in most towns of reasonable size (they mostly happen to be in Flemish towns though). This fest excludes the big international brewers in favor of the smaller Belgian breweries (and beer firms- places that have their beers contract brewed by others) .

ZBF runs Saturday and Sunday and features brewers serving their beers from rows of boths. It gets very busy on Saturday so getting there when it opens is essential. Planning some of your beers in advance is also recommended as the number available can be overwhelming.

Some highlights for me were: Saison de Dottignies from De Ranke- a hoppy new saison; Koriala from Lupiline- spiced with coriander but still with a strong hop bitterness; and an experimental new beer from De Dolle that was light and had a hint of Brettanomyces. It was also great to see a lot of the newer brewers there like Hof Ten Dormaal, Zonderik, and Den Triest.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Belgium Beer Weekend Wrap-up #3: Cantillon Brew Day

In between the pre-ZBF and ZBF festivals I made it to Brasserie Cantillon's Opening Brewing Day where they open the doors to the public at their brewery/museum in Anderlecht while they are brewing a batch of lambic. As a huge fan of lambic and gueuze I found this to be a wonderful experience.

Cantillon dates back over 100 years and a lot of the brewing equipment there is still old and traditional. I have been there a number of times before but this time was different. We gathered before 7am to pass the time with coffee and croissants before a guided tour began. It was hugely exciting to see all the belts that power the brewing implements spinning and to smell the cooking malt amidst the steam around the mash tun as we toured the brewery. Seeing the barrel cleaning device in operation was also a real treat. The photos I took and posted here only can partly convey the whole experience.

After a glass of lambic at the end of the tour, it was off to Sint Niklaas for the ZBF fest.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Belgium Beer Weekend Wrap-up #2: Nacht van Grote Dorst

After the pre-ZBF festival, Friday evening brought a brief rainy and cold stop at the Nacht Van Grote Dorst in Eizeringen. This is festival of lambic and gueuze that began in the early 2000s. It focuses solely on the lambic and gueuze producers of Belgium. There were two firsts this year- Cantillon from Brussels was there and even bigger was the appearance by the American brewery Allagash.

The last few years Allagash has been producing and aging spontaneously fermented beer in Maine. They just released the first of it late last year. It is made in the traditional way that lambic is made but just happens to not be made in Belgium. They make a point to not call it lambic or gueuze out of deference to the homeland of those libations. At the festival they had four beers available- the basic Spontaneous, the Coolship Red (aged on local raspberries for 4 months), the Coolship Cerise (aged on Montmorency cherries for 4 months), and Resurgam (a blend of two year old, 1.5 year old, and 6 month old spontaneous beer). I tried the Cerise and enjoyed it quite a bit. It has a subdued sourness and a faint note of the cherries lurking the background. While quite dry, it is still distinctly different from the Belgian fruit lambics in its taste.

One gripe I would have about the festival is the way that beers are served by the whole bottle. While the prices were reasonable, it make it harder to sample a wider selection of beers if you are not in a large group. Another observation here was there seemed be a distinct lack of Belgians there. Groups of Americans and British abounded as we walked around, a number of them populated by members of coach tours that came for the festival. While I understand the draw to sample great beer like this in its homeland, it takes a bit away from the festival if there are barely any native festival goers there. Just my two cents.

Belgian Beer Weekend Wrap-up #1- Pre ZBF

What an amazing few days have just passed. The Zythos Bier Festival (ZBF) was this past weekend and was preceded by the pre-ZBF and the Nacht Van Grote Dorst Lambic fest. The pre-ZBF was an absolutely stellar time with an amazing array of beers from a small selection of unique, adventurous breweries from Belgium, Holland, and the UK. Held in a lovely wooded property south of Brugge it spread over two buildings dating from the 19th century. There was an open wood fireplace amongst the brewery tables and a roving oyster seller.

Highlights were trying two identical russian imperial stouts that were aged in different scotch whisky barrels (one highland and one islay) from Thornbridge in the UK, trying Alvinne's new Cuvee Freddy, sampling De Molen's Fris & Fruitig, and trying two of the hop trilogy beers from Alvinne- Simcoe and Centennial. Another highlight was trying the new 0.5%ABV Nanny State from Scotland's Brewdog, a reaction to the flak they got in the UK from releasing a 32% ABV beer. For a light beer it had an amazing hop aroma.

Next post will be about the Nacht Van Grote Dorst.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Possibly THE Beer Weekend of the Year

This coming Friday, Saturday, and Sunday look to be the biggest beer days of the year here and quite possibly the world (at least in terms of variety).

Friday starts out with the pre-ZBF festival put on by the guys at Alvinne with a tremendous lineup of small batch beers from Belgium, Holland, and the UK. Then Friday evening brings the Nacht van Grote Dorst in Ezeringen, a festival of lambics and spontaneously fermented beers. All the lambic and gueuze producers and blenders will be there along with Allagash Brewery. Before sunrise on Saturday the Opening Brewing Day at Cantillon gets underway. Then at noon the Zythos Beer Festival kicks off. Zythos is essentially Belgium's national beer festival and has most major brewers there. This year it also has a number of smaller brewers as well, Montaigu, Den Tseut, and De Leite among them. At the same time as all this is going on Moeder Lambic Fontainas in Brussels is having what is essentially a Cantillon festival by serving up various versions of their lambic and gueuze beers.

It will be epic.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Farm Brewery

In between rainstorms last weekend we ventured to the farm brewery of Hof Ten Dormaal in Tildonk. This brewery opened a bit more than a year ago. Pulling up to the farm there was a tractor parked out front and various farm implements in view. The brewery is actually housed in one of the farm buildings and they use grain from the surrounding fields in the brewing. This is a genuine farmhouse brewery where they produce and bottle everything on site. The tasting room shares space with the mash tun and brew kettle along with an old coal stove.

Hof Ten Dormaal currently makes an amber ale of 7.5% abv and a blonde ale of 8%. The brewer Andre Janssens says his focus is not on making a large range of beers but on doing just a few really well. The blonde has a nice bitterness to it with a dry yeasty character. The amber has a faint sweetness with a touch of coriander spice. The beers are bottle conditioned at the brewery before being shipped out. It was a great to see a true farm brewery in action (they actually were finishing up a bottling run when we arrived) and to taste beers not just locally but made using local ingredients.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Meantime in Greenwich

A recent visit to the Greenwich Union pub in London presented a excellent introduction to the range of beers brewed by Meantime Brewing. This pub is the brewery tap and serves all the Meantime beers along with a number of notable other beers. We made our way here for a late lunch after a long bus ride and a soggy cold morning traversing Greenwich Park and its museums.

I previously had tried a couple of their British style beers in the US and was surprised to learn that Meantime also has a range of lagers that they brew along with some of the standard British ale styles. This portfolio of lagers certainly differentiates them from other British brewers (that the founder studied and brewed in Germany explains this different focus). They also have a number of draft only beers they make seasonally.

Meantime has pursued a modern design look to set it apart and this is reflected in the proprietary bottle designs they use as well as the labeling and glassware. This is also seen the the decor of the Greenwich Union pub which moves away from the traditional British pub look. You have wood in the interior but it is lighter colored and gives a bit of a Scandinavian style.

At the pub the London Pale Ale was one of three cask ales (the other two were from other microbreweries). It veered from the traditional in using some American hops to give it a stronger floral character but it was quite good. The Smoked Bock they were serving was influenced by the smoked beers of Bamberg, Germany and comes across with light smoky character that I'd say may be a little too suble. It was good with a burger though.

The lunch pub fare was reasonable and the dishes we had were quite good, especially the enormous aged angus burger. The chips were also delicious. Overall the Greenwich Union is a place to seek out if you are a fan of Meantime beers or are visiting Greenwich.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Pubs and Cask Ale

A recent visit to London meant the chance to sample some British cask ales. There are a number of great British ale styles and for most of them they are always best when served from a cask. Examples range from best bitters to milds to pale ales. Most of these beers are lower in alcohol compared to Belgian and American beer styles. They are very refreshing and whether they have a nice sharp bitterness or a full bodied maltiness they showcase their stylistic characteristics best when served from a cask.

True cask ale is unfiltered and unpasteurized and is served from a cask without additional nitrogen or carbon dioxide pressure. The conditioning of the beer in the cask adds natural carbonation and a secondary fermentation occurs that changes the complexity of the beer.

The focus on serving this type of beer has grown in the last few years. Many newer breweries make a broad range of beers that are sold on cask only now. My experience in London was that most pubs seemed to at least have 2-3 of cask ales and some had over a dozen. This is in spite of many UK pubgoers still choosing to drink bland lager over the more traditional ale.

Here are some the great ales I was able to sample: