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!

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