Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Beer Blogger Gets Around

Aaahhh... Sint Bernardus
"Raise your bows! The farmers are coming, and they're fuming!"
Hennepot and Westvleteren blond. Why not?
Chris and I above Ghent

Just the briefest of headlines: I’ve been traveling quite a bit these last two weeks, from my return to La Ferme de Laubicherie to a jaunt down south for a chestnut festival in Villefranche-du-Perigord to a high-speed train buzz back again to Belgium where my friend Chris Duffy visited for a few fun-stuffed festive days. We saw Brussels under the comfortable wing of our couchsurfing host, discovered Namur for a day, headed north again to Ghent where the genever runs freely and flavorfully, and biked around Westvleteren in West Flanders, where we parted and Chris returned to Greece (he’s teaching English for a year). I am now reunited with my good friend Wim, whom I met through couchsurfing, and will finally, finally, be moving in with Urbain for several months. This morning we’re going to be brewing Pannepot, my current favorite Struise beer. I will keep you updated (but on your eager toes, of course) these next few days, with more details about the past few weeks and more scrumptious tidbits about the future. The highly-hyped De Molen festival near Amsterdam is this weekend, so start drooling… now.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

BLES Fest and an Epic Lambic Tasting

The hop fields of Poperinge

Frothy open fermentation of Black Albert
Bottling line at Alvinne
Glenn fixes us a special lambic blend

Dear Readers,

I’m back in France now after what seemed to be a heavenly eternity in Belgium. My last few days were spent studying some more of the mundane tasks of brewing – bottling, packing, cleaning, racking, etc. – but perhaps “mundane” is too harsh a word. I’m still at the point where anything is interesting. A brewer’s work would be nothing without the reward, though. To conclude my trip I assisted Glenn and the Alvinne cause at the 16th annual BLES beer festival in Zottegem (“crazy town”) and was an active witness to an incredible tasting of everyone’s favorite spontaneously-fermented malt beverage, lambic.

On Friday Glenn drove me to Zottegem to prepare the table for Alvinne. Afterwards we had a meal of some damn juicy skewered meats (Belgians make some tender meat, man), washed down with an Orval for each. That night I sawed many logs in the warmth of Glenn and his girlfriend’s home. I woke Saturday morning to a thunderous snore from beside me; Glenn’s friend Uli, from Germany, had arrived late in the night and would be helping us at the festival as well. Well, I’m more than glad I lost a little sleep for the guy. He brought with him a collection of some incredible lambic experiments. Lambic is, to the uninitiated, a most interesting wild-fermented beer that really takes time both to produce and to appreciate. Only a handful of traditional producers still exist in Belgium. Lambics require a moderate portion of raw wheat and historically use aged hops that have lost their aroma compounds. Hops in this case are used solely for their preservative properties, as the beer is set to age for several months or years. Wild yeasts inoculate the wort and fermentation takes off, producing an incredibly dry, slightly tart and acidic, citric, flat beer that is wildly complex. I’m new to lambics, so this kind of blew me away. Uli, Glenn and I tasted sips of several lambic experiments that Uli, a hobby blender, prepared. First was a lambic from the Lindemans brewery that Uli aged in calvados barrels donated by Glenn. It smelled slightly sweet with a touch of green apples and acetic acid. The taste was intense: a puckering citric wave followed by an illusion of sweetness. Oaky vanilla tagged along at the end. Next was Drie Fonteinen lambic on new American oak barrels. The shimmering gold color, contributed by the new oak, was more apparent than the calvados lambic. It was a more suppressed lambic in taste, though, with must and leafiness in the nose and on the tongue, but more rounded and fuller. Third was Lindemans set in the same new oak barrel, but this was the first batch they aged; Drie Fonteinen was second. The oak was much more apparent in the nose, and I thought it had a touch of smokiness. We also played around with them a bit: next was 1/3 calvados Lindemans and 2/3 Drie Fonteinen followed by half and half of each and succeeded by 1/3 of each of the original lambics. Why stop there? Uli then broke out a kitschy plastic mini-keg of three-year-old Hanssens lambic that we later blended with the 1/3-of-each mixture to get a well-rounded, thoughtful concoction. A semblance of this ratio of lambics will be used for a future Alvinne release, set to be ripe in 2011. The initial blend will have an additional… addition of young lambic, still containing some unfermented sugars. The sugars will provide the yeasts of the blend to start fermentation again to produce a wee bit of carbonation. Blending of old and new lambic allows the designation of “gueuze”, and if the sum of the age of the beers is greater than one year, “oude gueuze”.

So, then it was off for some more fun. The three of us packed up and headed for the BLES beer festival. BLES stands for something like Beer Lovers and Enjoyment Society, only in Dutch. It was crowded, with a lot of happy people, and the breweries of the east were represented well. Uli broke out some more lambic, like Drie Fonteinen dry-hopped on East Kent Goldings hops and a blend of all the traditionally-produced lambics of Belgium, and I even saw some celebrities. Jef Van den Steen, a prolific beer writer, was there with his mad-scientist beard, and Jean Blaute, of Belgium’s Canvas television channel was strolling around with a stylish scarf. Before the night was over, though, I had to catch my ride back to France. Luc Smekens, an organizer of the giant ZBF beer festival in March, and his wife kindly drove me to the airport to meet my host, Gerolf. A testament to the kind-heartedness of beer people, Luc even bought me a dripping dinner of frites and mystery meat. It was tasty, but I think it also gave me food poisoning.

So, I’m back en France, but not for long. The fig-pickin’, apple-peelin’, and weed-pullin’ will be no more next week when I return to Belgium for a lengthier stay. I will miss the refreshing farm labor and the picturesque pastures, but I’ll be closer to meddling with my passion. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Another day, another bottle

The pipes bleed with Black Albert

Hey folks, I think I'll keep posting my entries on this site, too, but don't forget to visit the blog at Struise's website:

Here's the latest:

It’s been just a week here in Belgium for me, but I’m afraid it’s got me hooked. It’s not just the beer, of course. Well, you could certainly design a Belgian vacation just around beer and I’m sure you’d have a hell of a time – that’s basically where I started – but the people are what make traveling worthwhile. Good beer can be damn good, but it’s also all about enjoying a good beer in great company, and perhaps that’s why Belgium has retained such a strong culture of beer; the Belgian people are some of the friendliest on this sphere of teeming life. They remind me a bit of what I imagine most Midwesterners are like. Any Chicagoans out there?

So, I’m having a good time with the beer, the buddies, and the bikes. has been both a lifesaver and a friendbooster. Krist, my host in Kortrijk, took me on an 85-kilometer bike ride along part of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Belgium’s world-famous bike “race” (it’s called something else, like “premier” or “tour” or something more official). The crisp, cool Belgian countryside was comforting in its agrarian stillness and beauty. My ass, however, was not comfortable despite the skin-tight, padded biking garb. In Poperinge I’ve stayed several nights with Wim, a soft-spoken, overly likeable young organic farmer. His hospitability is unbelievable, and his dinner portions are plenty to get me through the heavy days of biking in the rain. I wish I could stay at Wim’s for the whole winter.

I’ve got some more good news. Good news for me and good news for you readers out there, all five of you. The news means I’ll be posting more eye candy for several months to come, so get yourself hungry (or thirsty) for this sweet and spicy commentary. The news is that I’ve almost solidified my schedule until March, and there are some big shots in the mix. My plan is to develop a home base with Urbain, working for Struise on and off when his farmhouse is empty of visitors. When the farm inn is booked, I will jump from brewery to brewery. Glenn and Davy from Picobrouwerij Alvinne have been very welcoming, so I hope to spend more brewing and bottling days with them. I’ll be tagging along with Glenn this weekend to a festival in Zottegem and also at the end of this month near Amsterdam, at a festival De Molen brewery is hosting. In late February I’ll be staying at Glenn’s folks’ home to help Alvinne prepare for the pre-ZBF fizz-fest. Pre-ZBF is the smaller, gourmet, all-star beer festival right before the big ZBF fest in Belgium. Daniel Thiriez, of Brasserie Thiriez in Esquelbecq, France (right across the border), has agreed to host me for the second half of November. Daniel’s beers, so I’ve heard, are of his own brand; he brews them fresh and zippy, full of both French and Belgian farmhouse character. I’ve also met with Nino Bacelle of Brouwerij De Ranke in Dottignies, Belgium. I will be helping out on several occasions over the next few months, though since they only brew once or twice a week I won’t be resting my dome on their pillows. Perhaps couchsurfing will come to my rescue then. Perhaps there will be more breweries to visit: Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, or Swedish. English, Irish, Scottish, or German, too. “Networking” is the new buzzword these days, and the brewing industry is not immune to such trendy business concepts.

The week hasn’t just been an orgy of organizing (though I did lose a whole night of sleep just thinking about my plans). I joined Urbain at Deca again, this time for some cleaning and transferring. We (mostly he) cleaned two conditioning tanks where the Black Albert he brewed recently was pumped for further development. I spent a good ten minutes scrubbing the inside of one tank, all alone in the dark cavern with only my green scrubbie to give the surface a good rubbing. Urbain cleaned another and proceeded to fill both with Black Albert. One tank got a special treatment: five kilograms of the finest Colombian coffee beans was added as an experiment. I’ll keep you updated on that. Urbain’s method of sanitizing the tanks is certainly unique. He insists on using a lovely substance (that old-school science teachers know all too well) to rid the interior of the tanks of any lurking microbe. A pot of the stuff is set on a small propane burner, placed inside the tank, and lit. The door is closed and the substance evaporates, coating the inside and making it clean enough to eat an endive salad on. Or chocolate pudding, if you’re like me. This step is necessary to keep the beer free of infection. Urbain treated me to a delicious sandwich with some reddish mystery meat, accompanied by a solid, earthy Struise Pannepeut. The beer was a meal in itself.

My meeting with Nino of De Ranke was, as it is with many brewers, more than just a meeting. Nino, a stylish man with stylish tastes and stylish hospitality, brought me from his home to the brewery for a tour and tasting. I guess when I say stylish I mean classy but workmanlike. His beers perfectly reflect his character: clean and smooth, robust yet refined. We made our way through the aromatic Guldenburg, solidly hoppy and characterful XX Bitter, caramelly Noir de Dottignies, bitter Christmas brew Père Noel, and the Cuvée and Kriek De Ranke, two blended beers using a young De Ranke beer and a lambic from the Girardin brewery – the kriek is aged on whole cherries. After our rendezvous at the spotless and ingeniously designed brewery (it’s brand new but designed in a very traditional way), Nino brought me back to his home and bought us some real Belgian fries. We ate with his wife and had a nice visit, replete with mayonnaises and sauces in pastels of red, green, and yellow; I could’ve replicated a Monet on the kitchen wall, but for some reason I didn’t. Anyway, fries are treated differently over here.

Yesterday was another, shorter day at Alvinne. Davy and I worked the bottling line, filling bottle after bottle with their tripel and a “smoky bock” beer brewed specifically for the De Molen festival on Halloween. Davy fed the bottles and caps into the machine and I packed them into boxes and crates for all the happy customers. Tomorrow I’ll be back for another brew day and then Glenn and I are off to the Zottegem festival before I head back to France. But for now, I’m taking a day off, lounging in a sleeping bag and being thankful that I’m dry. Be back soon.

Finally, a few photos!

At Alvinne: Davy, left, and Urbain, looking a bit blurry in the morning (or is that the photo?)

Deca Brewery, where Urbain conducts his magic. Ten points if you can find him.

Evidence of the mash at Alvinne. If you look closely, past the big face, you can see whole hops in the mash. This adds an even further hop presence to Pipedream.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A move to Belgium

Well, followers, I've hit it big time. The blog is getting a new home. I'm blowin' up, as the young'ns say. I will now publish my new posts on the website of De Struise Brouwers of Belgium, under the tutorage of Urbain Coutteau, brewmaster at Struise. Check it out from now on at their website, under the Buckets to Barrels Blog page. That's, if you don't like automatic links.

I've been in Belgium only a couple days, but it has already been a wild ride. Keep on reading, 'cause it's only going to get better. Here's my first post on their website about my first impressions of Belgium...

"Friends, yeomen, countrymen, lend me your beers!

It’s quite an honor to be both nestled cozily under the Struise wing for a bit and to be taking the reigns from two other adventurous Americans, Devon and Beejay. Their initiative and writing ability made me want some of the same, so I picked up my bags, nearly fresh from university, bought a one-way ticket to Europe (with help from my ever-lovin’ Grandmum), and began a quest to learn the art, science, and gustatory delights of the world’s best beverage. Er, that would be beer.

I started in central France at a farm with a small hobby brewery (check out my previous blog for archives of my trip so far… this will take the place of that for a bit). The food was great, the sheep were cute, the roosters were noisy and boastful, and the figs were fresh and sweet. The month of September, my first month of this trip, was a picturesque beginning. But there was a problem: I hadn’t done any brewing. I felt the farm’s brewing schedule was a bit too far and few between, so what did I do? Headed on up to beer Mecca. That’s, well, Belgium.

My first day in Belgium was also my birthday. My second day in Belgium, and subsequently my third, were filled with more brewing and beer tasting than I could have wished for. I spent Wednesday in and around Kortrijk, Poperinge, and Watou in West Flanders. My first beer in Belgium was Gouden Carolus, and it hit the spot with its dark, rich, creamy texture and smooth finish. After some train travel I swiped a bike and pedaled from Poperinge to Watou where a friendly chap named Marco showed me around the Sint Bernardus Brewery. Its sizable (but still small) brewery holds a handsome copper kettle and mash tun amidst a labyrinth of stairs and rooms filled with towering fermenters and tanks of various sorts. It was a quick tour, but I was hungry so I hustled back to Poperinge, wolfed down a meal, and headed to my next stop: the Poperinge Hop Museum. Housed in an old hop-processing building, and with four floors of hops, iron tools, and rusty machines, it was hardly a disappointment. Neither was the pub next door, where I gulped down a Hommelbier (with Poperinge hops), a Rodenbach Grand Cru (very nice), and a Hopus (accompanied by a shot of yeast). The night was completed with another local fave, Sint Bernardus Abt 12. This was all well and good, but I had yet to brew (or, at least, watch someone brewing), and that was about to change.

I had contacted Urbain over the summer about the possibility of some similar apprenticeship experiment and had to steady my wobbling knees when he welcomed me for a portion of the winter. I couldn’t believe that one of, if not the, best brewers in the world would accept such an absurd offer from a complete stranger. The initial plan was for the winter, but I couldn’t resist calling up Urbain anyway for this first trip to Belgium. I also contacted several other breweries to increase my chances of joining some other brew days. One of the most welcoming responses was from Davy Spiessens at Picobrouwerij Alvinne in Heule, West Flanders. Little did I realize that Struise and Alvinne were so tight. Turns out Urbain would be brewing none other than the beer Devon and Beejay helped design, Pipedream, in Alvinne’s brewery the very day I was scheduled to visit Davy. Killed two birds with one stone.

That day, Thursday, was long, but it blurred by too fast. Urbain and Davy were up early and had started the mash. Glen, the other half of Alvinne, joined us later that morning. Alvinne is truly a “pico” brewery, brewing at capacity but experimenting with the beer at the other end of the production cycle. They’re aging in oak barrels that have held everything from Bourgogne to Calvados and seem to want to make their way down the alphabet. I highly encourage them to do so. In between shoveling out the spent grain and becoming very intimate with the hop schedule, I was forced to spend the day tasting some of the world’s best beers from this tiny two-man beer studio. I stopped taking pictures of the beers I tried after only the second, but I’m not sure I would have made it past the tenth anyway. It was more than I expected, and rather difficult to remember every beer I tried, but every single one was an exciting new journey for my taste buds. Of Alvinne’s own brews, I thought those with the most unique and compelling character were their oak-aged series. Alvinne’s Alvino is a Bourgogne barrel-aged belle of a beer, inoculated with some controlled wild yeasts that give it a sourness and vinous side. Melchior, their abbey-like beer, was aged in Bourbon, Bourgogne, and Calvados barrels to create three unique beers, each with a pleasant touch of vanilla and fallen autumn leaves from the oak and an extra kick in the butt from their respective liquid precursors. On the more roasty, darker side, Mano Negra is their masterful “true” Belgian Imperial Stout, while the classic Podge Imperial Stout was also aged in Bourgogne and Calvados barrels to amplify its sophistication. A special treat of Alvinne’s young kriekbier, Kerasus, was pulled directly from the plastic tubs in which it rests on whole cherries while finishing its funky fermentation by wild strains of yeast.

Urbain left Alvinne before noon, but he invited me to join his brewing of Black Albert, that devilishly dark export stout of his that has won many accolades, not only including the world’s best beer. On Friday morn’ Glen and I drove to the Deca Brewery, where Urbain stews his brews. Without his own brewery at this juncture, Urbain is renting out the Deca space and is now brewing more than Deca, though Struise is developing its own space in an old school building in Oostvleteren. I haven’t been to the third home base of Struise, but I hear that Urbain has a tiny pilot brewery at his farm in Lo as well. For now, though, Urbain is hustling around the very-much-100-year-old Deca brewery, fiddling with some large copper kettles and vats and juggling pipes on a mutli-level system with more grace and control than the creaky brewery was built for. Call him the ballerina of brewers. On that day, the Black Albert day, Glen and I watched and conversed with Urbain as he did his work. We got there as the sweet, sweet wort was seeping out of the mash tun and pumped into the boiling kettle; the malt tea with thick, oily, black, and smelling of my mom’s best chocolate cake. We discussed some Struise brewing methods, one of which illustrates the creativity and practicality of Urbain’s brewing; Urbain explained that the water at Deca is particularly alkaline, which isn’t great for brewing. A certain acidity aids enzyme activity and the extraction of sugars from the malt, so instead of treating the water with additions of acidifying agents, Urbain simply leaves his bags of crushed malt out in the open for a day. The humidity in the air is absorbed by the malt and naturally “sours” it to a more acidic pH. Bingo.

Brewing does involve some waiting. Patience is a virtue when heating water, filtering the mash, and boiling and cooling the wort, but tasting beer in between makes it go faster. Urbain brought Glen and I into the tasting room for some samples of a few special Pannepot-prefixed Struise beers. First was Pannepot, both fresh from the tank and more developed at half a year. As with the other big, bold, complex bottle-conditioned beers, the young beer is always less carbonated, sweeter, and brighter, while the old develops a smooth, creamy texture from the beautifully small bubbles and a mellow, well-balanced taste profile as the yeast continues to work on the sugars. Pannepot is subtly but perfectly spiced, caramelly and dark but richly fruity, with a robust but smartly-cloaked alcohol boost. Pannepot was also my first Struise beer, sipped at a beer bar in Portland, Maine. Following Pannepot was Pannepot Reserva, the same beer aged for 14 months in French oak barrels, then bottle-conditioned. We were then brought Pannepot Grand Reserva, aged for two years on oak, the last 10 months on Calvados barrels. This further aging gives a mutli-dimensional complexity to an already mind-blowing beer. Among the Panne- beers, we tried their special winter beer, Tjeeses, against its oak-aged counterpart, Tjeeses Reserva. The description of Tjeeses on the beery website is priceless: “Deep to orange blond abbey triple winterbeer which has been lagered for 8 months on different stonefruits. Tsjeeses was born out of a 5 year brew experience regarding x-mas beer without being capable of finding a suitable name up to now. With the name came a face, a caricature actually, that was drawn on the day Urbain, our brew master and master brewer, drank too many Tsjeeses’s. Every time he drinks one, he says “Tsjeeses, what a beer”. Therefore the name is more an expression of stupefaction than a curse. We have had already many discussions around the pronounciation of ‘Tsjeeses’. Very close would be that you say ‘cheeses’ or cheese in plural.” In any case, I cannot do justice to these beers in writing; my advice is to seek them out at select places, perhaps on the east coast, or just bring your ass to Belgium.

Finally, the day was almost over. But not quite. Urbain and I spent the afternoon at the soon-to-be brewery in Oostvleteren. We had the good intentions of perhaps doing some bottling there, but we ended up opening quite a few instead. Carlo, a Struise co-conspirator, joined us for a bit more tasting. We compared three more related beers, the common thread of which was Struise’s Black Albert, perhaps the world’s best strong stout. Black Albert sat next to Black Damnation, a blend of Black Albert and Hell and Damnation, brewed by Dutch brewers De Molen. While Albert had a strong Belgian character of both dark chocolate, coffee, and heavily-pigmented fruits, Damnation also showed the character of De Molen’s beer, with more of an American influence of burnt coffee, toffee, and pipe tobacco. Next to Black Damnation sat Cuvée Delphine, Urbain and Carlo’s project of aging Black Albert on oak, Four Roses Bourbon barrels to be precise. I thought this beer, with a slight funkiness and pucker from some wild yeasts in the barrel, was deliciously innovative. Among a few other very special American beers, including Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout and Lagunitas’ Hop Stoopid, Urbain heard that I hadn’t tried Westvleteren’s offerings yet, despite our proximity to the abbey. Well, that wouldn’t do. So we tried two: Westvleteren 12 at 6 months and a year. The year-old was very noticeably more developed and riper. Its carbonation was smoother, its body drier and more balanced, and its incredible aroma and flavor plump and well-rounded. I believe the hype about this beer; it was juicy and cake-like, with fig, prune, date, and rum-soaked raisin goodness, like a moist scoopful of molasses cake.

Well, it’s been a packed first few days in Belgium. My plans are still shifty, but I should be here and there in Belgium for several months, sharing my time with a few brewers. Urbain has already proven his hosting abilities, and as I plan to spend more time helping him in and out of the brewery I hope I can equal his hosting with my contributions. Glen and Davy have also been more than generous and have invited me back for a few days here and there at the brewery and also for a couple weeks in late February/early March to prepare for Pre-ZBF, a tiny beer fest with a muscular, Schwarzenegger-esque beer menu. I also might spend some time at Brasserie Thiriez in Esquelbecq, France, and possibly at De Ranke in Belgium, but I have yet to meet with them to see if I can charm my way into an apprenticeship. In any case, this blog will cover my adventures for a few months with ample, if sporadic, updates. I hope that beer geeks (excuse me, “enthusiasts”), family members, friends, and friendly strangers alike will enjoy it and perhaps be inspired to explore further the realm of world-class beer. Cheers,


PS - I will upload some pretty pictures very soon. My computer is five hard-working years old and it took me half a day to unsuccessfully upload four photos, so I will look for a faster computer..."