Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Crazy, Delirious, Kulminated, Delayed, and Amsterdamned

Oh, I’m falling behind again. Too much is happening. Right now I’m sitting in a florally-upholstered chair in the Eden Amsterdam American Hotel, patiently waiting for two good friends from Brown, Max and Zahra, with whom I’ll be celebrating the holidays this year. How did I end up in Amsterdam? It’s been a thrilling two weeks back at Struise, and they went so fast I’m not quite sure how I did end up here. I’ll try to bring it back…

The day after I returned from Esquelbecq, Urbain and I were once again joined by those British troopers I’ve dubbed “The Geeks.” Ian, Mes, Mes’ brother Nick, and Mes’ fiancée Sim sloshed through rain and mud, tunneled under the Channel, and crawled to our doorstep, tired and, of course, very thirsty. We had a full Sunday, though; why wouldn’t we? First we took a tour of an old, retired brewery and maltery called De Snoek, filled from cellar to roof with dusty iron and wood brewing devices of all functions. We all looked like kids in a candy shop, ogling at and drooling over the history and gravity of it all: this place could be completely functional, providing the most traditionally-brewed beers in the world, if only someone would spend the effort to put it to use! Of course, it would probably take two full days of hard work to complete one brew, but it could be done in shifts…

It was a chilly Sunday, too, and we’d had our fill of the old, cold historical brewery so we hopped over to Esen, hometown of De Dolle Brouwers, or The Mad Brewers. Next to a steadfast fire with pillowy warmth in the tasting room spotted with the brewer’s art, we sipped and slurped our De Dolle beers in the Sunday quiet. I tried Stille Nacht (Silent Night), their robust holiday brew. The brewery’s slogan is “strong and wet”, and this was certainly wet and quite strong, at around 12% abv; it was a stille afternoon for me. I think I would keep it cellared for another year to let it dry out and pick up some wildness for a little extra spice. We said hello to Kris Herteleer, the brewer and artist, on our way out and were treated to a special goodbye tasting. Kris brought us to a room in the brewery, unscrewed the top of a plastic jerrycan, and poured us a sample of some thick, slick, dark and chunky liquid. My curiosity piqued. A sip gave me notes of dark, tart cherries and bittersweet chocolate, soft alcohol, and a smooth acidity that coated my mouth and slid down my throat. Yum. This was Cosmos Porter, a reserve stock of their real old-fashioned British porter. The chunks were slightly stringy, and I thought they might’ve come from the strain of Lactobacillus that inoculated the wild brew and like to colonize the top surface of the wort. Sounds nauseating, I know, but it was good, trust me.

De Dolle's tasting room

The next day, without a chance to exhale, Urbain, Carlo, and I squeezed into the pine-green Berlingo and gassed off to Brussels. Along the way we stopped at CoEnCo, a Belgian brewery engineering consultancy company that is helping Urbain with a certain project that might get some press soon. Stay tuned, of course… The visit was coincidental, though, since I recognized the style of the minibars that CoEnCo constructs; the bright copper, stainless steel, and stylized writing were unmistakably similar to the minibar of my former host Gerolf. And, in fact, he was a customer of theirs, nine hours and one country to the south.

In Brussels the three of us parked by the gigantic pointy church (can't miss it if you go) and hurried to our final destination: Delirium Café. It was my second time, but this time it was business. Well, almost. Urbain and Carlo exchanged words and laughs with the owner, Claude, in a foreign tongue (French, Belgian-style) and reviewed which Struise beers should be ordered next. What was in the works at the brewery. We then worked our way past the bar and into the catacombs of Delirium’s beer cellars. The expanses were cavernous but cramped as well, stacked floor to arching ceiling with endless bottles of beer waiting to be enjoyed. The café has or had the world record for most number of bottled beers available – something like two thousand. As the grown-ups meandered the corridors and talked business, I snuck off with my camera and rifled through all the dusty bottles I thought might be something special. In fact, I didn’t even need to do my own searching. Claude must have been pleased to have an eager American beer lover in his cellars, since he nonchalantly handed me a small bottle, caked with dust and label-less, of perhaps one of the most sought-after beers in the world: Petit Orval. The low-alcohol, "session" beer is brewed for the monks at the abbey and is only available to the public at the on-site café. I plan on saving that one for my deathbed. After a full tour we made our way to the upstairs draft bar and sampled just a few of their huge selection. I tried a Speculoos beer from Het Anker, just for kicks. Blegh.

Backstage at Delirium

Well, exactly one week later Urbain and I popped our heads into another must-go beer bar, The Kulminator, in Antwerp. Urbain stayed close to home with his choice of beer: the killer Struise Mikkeller. I wanted something vintage, since Kulminator’s known for its array of well-kept old gems, and I told Urbain on the ride over that I wanted something “figgy”, so I chose a 1999 Rochefort 6. It was slightly oxidized, giving a bit of a cardboardy taste, but was robust, raisiny, slightly nutty, and perfectly figgy. While Urbain went to a dreaded business reunion, I hung out in the peaceful bar, enjoyed their Mozart and Bach playlist, and read my book.

In between these outings and my next adventure, the brewery was relatively quiet, but we were productively abuzz with activity in the boss’ apartment. I helped Urbain install insulation, a floor, and a closet corner after a trip (my first) to IKEA. They say ee-KAY-uh. I say eye-KEE-uh. I’m not sure either is right. Nobody knows. But it blew me away, and it took us the whole day to wander the store, pick out some furnishings (including a new bed) and pack it all in the car. Apart from the home projects, we also prepared several orders of beer for export. At one point, Urbain received three calls in a quarter of an hour, all orders for beer: one from Canada, one from Italy, and one from Japan. We once used packing tape to hold beer in the van. It didn’t quite work well enough, but it worked.

The farm under snow

Think it's gonna work?

As I previously said, I’m now enjoying Amsterdam with a couple friends. After a three-hour train ride turned into a nine-hour train fiasco, I finally found my way to my couchsurfing host. Belgium and The Netherlands have received more snow than most people can remember and, although this kind of snowfall happens weekly in New Hampshire, it has been wreaking havoc on just about everything here in the lowlands. The day I arranged my travel to Amsterdam the train system in all of Holland was out of commission. I was able to befriend a native who helped me jump from train to train to eventually snake our way to the city. But I’m here and will be spending certainly my oddest Christmas in the hustle and bustle, then I'll be moving to another couchsurfer’s welcoming abode in the Belgian Ardennes to hopefully find some cross-country skiing. After a few days of the Ardennes I’ll be scooching up to the Belgian coast to the town of Nieuwpoort (where Urbain grew up) to spend New Year’s Eve with Wim, my couchsurfing friend from Poperinge, and some of his friends for a few relaxing days of board games. Then it’s back to Struise! And there’s a lot more to do at Struise, so stay tuned!

Amsterdam, strung up

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Flanders, French to Flemish

It's been too long since my last post. It's a vicious cycle; a busy night gives me plenty to write about but no time to write it down, and busy nights have been a dime a dozen. I'll put all I've got out for you, but feel free to ask me more about what I've been up to, I will get back to you.

'T'ain't gonna be too long of a post, despite all the cultural stimulation I've been absorbing, but it'll be a start. SO, dear readers, I've just returned to Belgium, back at Struise beerquarters, after almost three weeks working for (and with) Daniel Thiriez and his Brasserie Thiriez. I can't say enough positive things about Daniel and Marielle and the ship they steer over there in Esquelbecq. It was quite a bit like home for me, a pretty little village with a handful of small but thriving businesses, with Daniel and Marielle's good company, scrumtrulescent cooking, and and rhythmic brewing schedule that I adapted to fairly quickly. I will miss my time at their place in the flatlands of French Flanders.

Marielle and Daniel kindly posed for a shot

Well, since I published my last post, I've seen, done, and ate things I never knew could provide so much pleasure. There was the 1920s 'horror' film screened alongside live music. The Unknown, starring Lon Chaney and directed by Tod Browning (Freaks also - never seen it but multiple generations of critics have raved), is the bizarrely tragic love story of a circus performer who feigns armlessness and falls in love with the beauty of the ring. You'll have to see it, but with a live, experimental orchestra resonating amorphous, really creepy music it was otherworldly. And now I've got Lon Chaney's craggy face forever ingrained in my brain. Oy...

After the film we stopped at a bar and soon after ordering a drink were bombarded with an explosion of some of France's most unfortunate music. It was jarringly loud. Just unbearable. The table next to us seemed slightly amused, though, even whilst cringing under the sonic weight. As we left the bar, the 'tender had a quick chat with Daniel, gesturing and speaking excitedly. I found out on our walk back to the car that the man at the table next to us (I remember he had quite a flowing mane of golden locks and looked a tad bronzed for the season) was the official (state-sanctioned?) impersonator of Claude François, one of France's most well-known, glam-heavy singers. Hence the wall of, dare I say less than pleasurable, music...

Reflective boudin noir

Then, Paris. Ahhh... Paris. I spent one whirlwind, tornadoic day with Daniel driving around and through the impossible alleys and intersections of the macrocosm that is Paris. Despite the speed, my eyes were glued to anything and everything. Yeah, perhaps I'd fallen prey to the tourist attractions, tread too hastily into the jaws of that bear trap, but I think we spent the better part of the day swerving around the backalleys, and that's what really drew me in. With a van-load of beer we cashed in at half a dozen small and aromatic restaurants and another half-dozen caves du vin, where beers from Thiriez were often the only beers sold. Our first stop was the original Pink Flamingo, one of a couple pizza shops around town claimed by Daniel to make Paris' best 'za (and featured in a travel article from The New York Times - I remember reading it this summer) and owned by another, former New Englander. For lunch we dined at a prospective client's restaurant, Le Vin au Vert. I had a creamy, bready boudin noir (blood sausage) with carrottes râpées (grated carrots), purée de pommes de terre (mashed 'taters), and a salad of roquettes. We washed 'er down with a dark ruby, slightly tannic, mildly fruity red wine from the Loire Valley region. I got a quick wine lesson from Patrick, a long-time friend of Daniel's who also acted as our guide/backseat driver around Paris. Patrick is a genial, expressive Parisian resident and history buff as well as aspiring wine shop owner, and his company was both enjoyed and necessary for our tour de Paris.

Drive-by Notre Dame-ing

Daniel and Patrick peruse La Cave à Bulles

An especially special treat for me was our stop at a specialty beer store tucked away along an ancient cobblestone vein branching out from the more main streets. It was specialtaculous. Called La Cave à Bulles ("the cellar with bubbles") and owned by a warm and welcoming certified beer geek, Simon, this "cave" had perhaps one of the best selections of French beer in the country. The atmosphere, the walls of beer, and the enthusiasm with which Simon spoke about beer gave me a nice, warm feeling inside. If I owned a beer store, it would be like the Bubble Cellar. I ended up purchasing a handful of French beers and the last two American beers he had in stock, a pair of Sierra Nevada Porters, for Daniel and Marielle to enjoy on one of these rainy, stormy winter days.

French beer haul (St. Rieul de Noël 8˚, La Delinquante from des Vignes, the Blonde from Brasserie de la Vallée de Chevreuse, and the Blonde from Bière de Brie)

And after Paris, I had to part with Daniel and Marielle and the romance of France. But, I'm happy to be back in Belgium, living at the Noordhoek ostrich farm and changing gears from the more regular, rhythmic schedule at Thiriez to the more whimsical improvisation at Struise. Not to say either is better; they're different worlds and they both get the job done with perfection. Yesterday, my first full day back with Struise, I met Urbain, Carlo, and Pieter at the school to see the incredible progress there. The new office floor is looking good as electricians were installing new outlets for that flatscreen TV that will be distracting the brewers from their work. We were then blessed with the company of more geeks, the Geeks, from England; Mes, Ian, Sim, and Mes' brother Nick showed up and joined us for lunch (I had scampi in garlic butter) and, of course, a bit of tasting. The new Black Albert and Black Damnation are maturing orgasmically, and Mes and Urbain are scheming with a new experiment... Black Mes. Think peaty, aromatic Black Albert. I will say no more, but stay tuned... And meanwhile, check out Ian's web project, pubsandbeer, for all you need to know about UK's real ale scene.

PS - If you are confused as all get-out whenever I lapse into brewing jargon (and if you have been for some time, I'm late in apologizing), a friend sent me a goofy little cartoon about beer. It's quite informative, especially the part about goat titty beer. Thanks, Sophie!