I've spent some time in the brewery, and not a moment too soon. Gerolf allowed me into his concoction room last week for the brewing of what I assumed was his blonde. It was a bit like the day of the rabbits; I did a lot of observing and not too much participating, but it was helpful nonetheless.
When I awoke at the usual time, Gerolf had been up for a couple of hours heating the water and "mashing in" the malted barley. He heats the water to a specific degree, adds the grains, and lets them soak at various temperatures to extract the sugars and proteins from the barley. Gerolf's set-up is as follows: two vessels for heating the water (called kettles... I think both have 1000 liters in capacity), a smaller mash tun to soak the malt, four fermenting/conditioning tanks, a filtration system, and a bottling machine that can fill six bottles at once, plus a variety of hoses, tubes, and tools. I stepped into the steamy brewery as he was rinsing the bed of grains to get the last bit of extracted sugars from the malt. This sweet liquid was pumped back into one of the kettles that had heated up the water previously and was further heated to reach a boil. When it boiled, Gerolf added the hops and allowed this "wort" to boil for another 1.5-2 hours. Finally, he pumped this hot wort (it's not "beer" until it has fermented) through the filter and into one of the fermentation tanks, where the added yeast will gobble up all that delicious maltose, maltitriose, and whatever other sugars are yeast-friendly. Pretty much all of this was performed by Gerolf while I hovered over his shoulder, but he did allow me to mop up and clean the mess on the floor.
Yesterday I helped Gerolf clean his bottling machine, which I assume is in preparation for a bottling session. Looking forward to it. I think a total of 10 beers are made on a regular basis here, 6 of which I've tried. He makes a blonde and an ambrée, three fruit blondes (raspberry, blueberry, and peach), a chestnut blonde, a walnut ambrée, a truffle blonde, and a blonde and ambrée with cocoa beans. They are all quite lively with carbonation, fruity on the palate (some mellow tropical fruits), and just ever-so-slightly acidic, which makes them refreshing though I'm not sure if this is intentional. The blonde and ambrée thing is typical of this area, and of France and Belgium in general. It basically means the brewery's light and dark options. The concept of different "styles" of beer is largely an American phenomenon, where the cliché of a melting pot holds true in the brewing world. Without a lenghty brewing history, American brewers have looked to their roots to figure out what to brew, and with the adventurous craft brewing revolution in the 70s and 80s the idea was to provide more and better choices for beer drinkers, hence all the styles we have available. In France, you really just brew beer. It is what it is - it's the French "style".
Anyway, in other news, I took a trip to Bordeaux and spent most of the day on my feet, exploring the beautiful architecture and the riches that were (and still are) the wine trade. I walked up and down the city, entered a wine cave-turned-museum that was a bit over my head because wine is still very foreign to me, and found a lovely market with charcuteries, fromageries, boulangeries, and fruit and vegetable stands. I bought my very own chèvre, a loaf of bread, and an apple and enjoyed a very French picnic in a garden in front of the endless rows of wine merchant houses, facing the Garonne River. I have Erica to thank for the cheese! It was a lightly-aged, creamy, tangy cheese with just a hint of that goatiness that you either love or hate. I happen to enjoy it, and the mini-wheel kept me satiated for the 20 miles I think I walked that day.
This Tuesday, my birthday, is also the day I will be driving to Belgium with Gerolf. I know this won't be the last time I will be in Belgium, but it will certainly be the first and is shaping up to be a whirlwind, life-altering trip. I plan to take full advantage of the couchsurfing site. On the menu: a visit with Urbain Coutteau of De Struise, perhaps a little detour to Westvleteren Abbey, a night with a Belgian couchsurfer, a visit to Picobrouwerij Alvinne, an attempt to convince De Ranke Brouwers and/or Brasserie Thiriez to apprentice me, and puh-LENTY more in and around these destinations. I'm not planning on sleeping for a week.