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 ratebeer.com 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..."