Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Slow and Sturdy Wins the Race

I think I've found a goldmine. More like stumbled into a goldmine, actually. Last month I was researching breweries to stay at in Europe and I thought I'd try posting a forum topic on both beeradvocate.com and another site, ratebeer.com, to see what kind of input the online beer community could muster. They mustered fairly well, especially the ratebeer folks, so I found myself with a couple more places to contact. One such place, De Struise Brouwerij in Belgium, had apparently hosted two Americans the previous winter as an apprenticeship project that eventually lead to the establishment of a new American brewery, Pipeworks Brewing. I had heard of Struise (pronounced STROY-suh) beers through my late-night beer website binges but it wasn't until I perused the website and scrolled around ratebeer.com that I began to realize the scope of the brewery's influence. And so, after a month without a response to my email, I had virtually forgotten about my foolhardy attempt to stay at Struise.
A bit about this place: in 2008 De Struise was rated as the world's best brewery. Ratebeer.com compiled the data and crunched the numbers for this award, and the website expounds on the scope of the competition: "As it has been for the last 8 years, RateBeer Best was again the largest beer competition in the world -- over 1.97 million reviews of 91,000 beers from over 8700 brewers worldwide were tallied." This quote is from the 2009 competition, but I suspect the numbers are similar for both years. This year, De Struise dropped to the number 10 spot, but I suspect that the ratings are heavily influenced by the amount of 'buzz' a brewery gets, especially if it releases a special or buzzworthy beer that year. In addition to this overall rating, Struise boasts 5 beers in the world's top 100 (numbers 5, 11, 30, 46, and 91). And, to flog a dead horse, Struise produces the 3rd best stout; 4th best Belgian session beer; 3rd, 4th, and 5th best Belgian strong ale; and brews 10 of the best beers produced in Belgium.
OK, alright, alright. So you get the picture. Basically, I was certainly not expecting the email I got from Urbain Coutteau, owner and operator (brewer) of Struise, apologizing for the late reply and mentioning, in broken but deliciously understandable English, that he could use some help in the mid-winter months of January through March. I almost soiled my pants. To be clear, I made my first-ever call to Belgium and spoke directly to Urbain. His jovial, chipper voice rang clear through the phone: yes, you are welcome to stay at my place, I will provide you with a room and food if you will ease some of the heavy load of running my brewery. All of this is tentative, dependent on the (apparently good) chance that Urbain will not have guests at his B&B-type farm during the cold winter months.
I am eternally grateful for this potential opportunity. Though I haven't met him, nor even tasted any of his beers (their distribution is limited), Urbain appears to be a man of high quality. Our conversation, albeit brief, was friendly, engaging, and his voice resonated with a contagious gaiety. The two Americans that stayed with him kept a blog during their stay (which can be found on the Struise website), and it portrayed Urbain in the same light but illustrated more his work ethic and philosophy about beer. Urbain seems to truly embody both the artistic and scientific aspects of brewing, and experiments, creativity, and mistakes weave together to give De Struise Brouwerij its distinctive image and beers. If this opportunity works out, I'm excited to talk with Urbain about my own thoughts and attitudes about beer, and I can imagine that this will be a huge learning experience for me. Expect more than a few entries about De Struise and its beers in the future.
Struise, by the way, means 'sturdy'. It also has something to do with ostriches, but the exact relationship lost me. Urbain does, though, have an ostrich farm. I look forward to getting slapped with an ostrich foot.
Check out this short video segment produced for Belgian TV. It features Struise and is hosted by a couple of goofy European TV personalities. It's in Dutch, I believe, but most of the speaking is in English.

In other news, my brother and his wife just had their east coast wedding celebration last weekend. The party and people were great, and the beer was excellent. More on that later (hopefully). I will also post something about my summer at Orchard Hill Breadworks. Just gotta make some pictures look pretty. And I'll be leaving for France next Friday. Good lord, I can count the days on my fingers and toes. I'm getting thirsty for summathat truffle beer!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Sleeping With Skunks

Dear Reader,

Snag yourself a comfy quilt you don't mind getting grassy, swindle a soothing iced coffee or soy latté, find respite under the shade of an aged and august maple or apple tree, huddle around the buzzing screen of your laptop, and prepare yourself for another episode of the blog show. We've got quite a bit to discuss, so I'll probably start with some long-winded updates, then once my patience dwindles I'll probably wrap it up quick. I wish I could tell you to expect a long entry, but it'll probably be normal-length.

So, how 'bout this weather, eh? Southern New Hampshire is finally seeing some stiflingly humid, hot days. So it feels like summer, now that all my shirts are soggy.

My brewing days are over for the summer. I just bottled the second beer for my brother's wedding celebration, the IPA. After fermentation the stuff is essentially beer, just non-carbonated and a little... 'sharp', I guess. When it's put into bottles with a bit of corn sugar it will carbonate and the residual yeast will metabolize some less desirable compounds in the beer, improving the overall flavor. That said, the non-carbonated IPA tasted exceptional. It had a great biscuity backbone but the hops gave it its true character; I could pick out some great fruity blasts of papaya, mango, and pineapple. The IPA was 'dry-hopped', meaning some hops were also added after the boil, tossed directly into the fermenter. The Belgian Dubbel was put into mini kegs a week ago, and that beer tickled the tongue just as much, though with a spicy Belgian tingle and alcoholic kick. E'erbody at the wedding gettin' tipsy. Yes, J-Kwon, off of homebrew.

Racking the IPA into the bottling bucket

On the travel front, things are looking good, and I'm getting very excited and anxious. I've started drinking more caffeine, so that may account for the anxiousness. I have my one-way ticket to Paris and I bought a train ticket from Paris to Limoges. First-class was only 5 Euros more, but I decided to start off on the right foot and choose the more frugal option. I've been struggling a bit with travel logistics (and would welcome any advice). I've been considering but avoiding applying for a credit card. Apparently, I can use my debit card abroad without any charges or fees, but having a back-up credit card could be useful and CapitalOne also doesn't charge for using their card abroad, or so I read. I'm holding off both because of laziness and a slight concern about missing a payment or just being hoodwinked by the credit card company... Just bought a new GSM phone and SIM card for Europe, so I'll let everyone know what my international number is soon, though I think I'll be using Skype for calls to home. Let me know if you'd like to Skype! The next step in my planning is to investigate insurance options. If only I had future-vision I could know not to feed the pigeons in Paris, which would save me both from reconstructive plastic surgery and the need for health insurance...

On the home front, I have to say the summer has been a blast. I've adjusted to the bakery work/gardening rhythm and have spent my free time twiddling with exploits I love. The Irish flute experiment is still in its infancy, but I have a firm grasp on - count 'em - two tunes, The Galtee Ranger (or Callaghan's) and Kitty Gone A-Milkin'. I've also been supplementing the flute tooting with some pennywhistle screeching. The pennywhistle comes in handy when I want to focus on fingering and forget about trying to get a nice tone out of the flute. Additionally, I'm getting a second wind on the drums. I've discovered funk and acid jazz and I'm becoming addicted to the grooves of Medeski, Martin & Wood, John Scofield, The RH Factor, and all that jazz. I'll be bringing some sticks and a drum pad to France and will keep my eye out for any spare sets to jump in on. When I'm not squeaking around on my drum throne I've been soaking in the wonderful community vibes at Pizza Night at the bakery. Every Tuesday night Noah, the baker at Orchard Hill Bakery, hosts heaps of hungry homo sapiens and provides dough for the eager eaters to punch out into crusts and load with an array of pot-lucked toppings. He bakes these personal pizzas in the outdoor clay oven built just for these special nights. They've been wildly successful, successful enough for someone to even start a fanpage on Facebook if they so desired.

Noah shoveling pizza out of the oven

And finally, we had a skunk in our house the other night. I thought we dealt with it with absolute finesse and imagination. It all started when I was bumming around on the 'net late-night and I heard some odd scratching noises coming from the pantry room. It didn't sound like our cat, Duder, and it wasn't because Duder was softly purring on the couch in the living room in all her Sphinx-like grace and indifference. I shined a flashlight on the pantry corner and there was the big, bushy, striped tail I was expecting. "Perhaps Duder could help," I thought, so I brought Duder over to the skunk's vicinity and both reacted in the least possible way imaginable. I don't think either noticed either. I thanked Duder for all her bravery and continued on with just the help of my mom, whom I had roused just when she had fallen asleep in the hopes that she could provide a human shield between me and the skunk. I racked my brain for a way to depose the skunk without setting it off, but it was deep in the bowels of that pantry. Luckily, the pantry room is connected to the outside by a door (which is undoubtedly how it got in), so I decided to let entropy solve the problem. I barricaded the doorway that leads to the rest of the house, left the outside door open a crack, and retired upstairs to a restful night's slumber. In the morning, there was no skunk to be found, only some missing crackers. They were stale, anyway.