I just awoke from a massive slumber here at the farm after a week of real, solid work. Urbain had Roger and me busy packing boxes of Black Albert for the U.S. market (I switched the addresses - all 315 cases are being sent to Alstead, NH) and preparing the schoolhouse for its grand opening this Friday. I parted from life at Struise for two days, however, to join another giant in the Belgian and world beer scene for some brewing and bottling. Nino Bacelle and Guido Devos of Brouwerij/Brasserie De Ranke in Dottignies kindly allowed me into their brewery to wreak some hoppy havoc. It was two days of brewing and bottling on a new system designed after the familiar Deca brewery of which I have become so fond. My heart beats only for Deca... Nino and Guido had originally started just as Urbain had: renting out Deca to brew their own bubbly. After ten years of service to the Deca brewery gods they got the chance to build their own playground and designed the system after Deca to capitalize on its familiarity and tradition. De Ranke uses mostly whole hop flowers in the boil and in the lagering tanks; the beers produced right after the fall hop harvest are a trip, aromatically and nasally speaking.
I shadowed Guido on Friday as he brewed XX Bitter, Belgium's first popular bitter beer and an incredibly crisp, zesty piece of work. It's got some great floral hop character in the nose and a special Belgian spiciness from the yeast. I got there at the ass-crack of dawn as the grain was being hoisted dustily into the mill; malt boogers don't make a complete breakfast. After the mash Guido ran the filter from several drains in the mash tun. The first runnings of the wort (the "malt tea," essentially) are usually cloudy due to suspended malt particles, but eventually the wort runs clear as it's filtered by the husks of the grain. We had a 20-minute delay when the wort coughed and started to run cloudy in the middle of the filter, but, as the Belgians say in their ebullient English accent, it was "no problem."
Saturday was a bit monotonous, wrapping paper around hundreds of stylish De Ranke bottles, but there was company and a retro stereo that played half Belgian pop and half American hits from two years ago. Some lucky Americans will be getting some XX Bitter wrapped by blue-blooded American hands. Noir De Dottignies, their dark, bitter stout-ish option, and Guldenberg, a solid strong blond named after local abbey ruins, were also wrapped and bound for USA. Meanwhile, Guido and Nino bottled their Christmas sipper Père Noël, spiced with just a tingling touch of licorice.
I was starstruck for a second, too. Well, it happens with all brewers, but this time it was an author. Yvan De Baets has authored some books about beer and I had just finished Farmhouse Ales about traditional French and Belgian agrarian refreshers, to which he contributed a chapter. He was there with Bernard Leboucq, and both are brewing their own beers at De Ranke under their Brasserie de la Senne label. Luckily I had been wasting my life away on youtube recently and had seen him exploring some German beer caves, otherwise he would've just been another mysterious brewer.
The bucolic Mediterranean crags and shores of Italy beckoned me on Friday night. Guido and Nino were kind enough to invite me along to an Italian beer tasting led by the country's finest beer ambassador, Lorenzo Dabove. 'The Prince of the Payottenland' gave the local beer club several samples of Italian beer whilst waxing poetic about each and expounding on their emerging craft beer scene. While I have to say I wasn't entirely impressed with all the beers (some were funky, some were flat), I applaud the creativity and spiritedness overall and the raw quality of some. Macca Meda, a new beer from Birrificio Barley (Sardinia), was fantastically hoppy, crisp and characterful, a cousin to American IPAs. Chocarrubica from Grado Plato (Turin) stole my heart, though; a moderately strong oatmeal stout with cocoa beans and carob? For a guy who actually enjoys - no, craves - carob? C'mon, it's an easy win. Thanks again to the De Ranke dudes for the insider weekend and beer tasting.