Saturday, January 30, 2010

Empire/Bay/Granite State of Mind

As I mentioned before, I've just returned from a week and a half back stateside. I said I felt all tingly, and it really was true. I suppose I've situated myself so comfortably here in Belgium that visiting home was really a vacation within a vacation. I'm spoiling myself, I really am. Back in "sprookjesland," (i.e. New York City, Massachusetts and New Hampshire - well, Vermont, too), I was generously hosted and kept thoroughly contented by my friend Sophie, my brother Will and his wife Carmen, and my parents, Kathy and Randy.

As the plane floated shakily down onto the New York runway the travelers were serenaded by contemporary piano melod(ramatic)ies; on any other flight I would've cringed at the cornball sentimentality, but damn if the cityscape didn't bring a wistful tear to my homesick eye. I was in New York, fa cryin' out loud, a wayworn wanderer returning to the cultural capital of his beloved motherland. As I stepped out of the airport I was surprised at how familiar everything remained. I remember how pleasantly shocking everything about everyday European culture was when I first arrived: the downsized cars and buildings, the abundance of leather shoes and clothes, the intense bursts of women's perfumes and men's colognes as people walked by. By the time I left for New York I'd become accustomed to all that, and I figured I'd have to get used to the American standard when I returned. But no. The SUVs and baseball caps and constant noise made me feel right at home.

Behind the bar at McSorley's, New York's oldest operating pub. Notice the ales come in twos.

My friend Sophie, a year ahead of me at my Alma Mater, Brown, was the world's best hostess for the week I spent with her in Queens. Her flatmate, Tala, was the epitome of sweetness as well, and tolerated this stranger's intrusion with the utmost compassion. I was there with an open schedule and a three-day, MLK weekend so we were able to spend plenty of time breathing that slightly acidic yet overpoweringly invigorating (to a tourist, at least) New York air. Our days were filled with walks, food, pub visits, and quiet retirement as the jet lag set in with a vengeance and seemed to exhibit contagiousness. Saturday was our Brooklyn day, so Sophie and I set off beneath blue skies to the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. It took a healthy twenty minutes to cross as we dodged bikers, runners, and photo-snappers alike and worked up an appetite for some authentically Brooklyn bagels and lox. After polishing off what seemed to be half a smoked salmon each, we found or way to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. It was really a forest of twigs - more an exhibit of postmodern art than a garden in winter. But it was still stunning, and we soaked up the sun in a calm crabapple orchard. On the way home, to fuel our trendy caffeine yearnings, we bought some beans at Gorilla Coffee. I really liked the stuff; it was aromatic and fruity (mangoes, anyone?) with a velvety finish. Didn't give me the guerrilla jitters, either. We took another walk along the High Line on Manhattan's West Side, a park-like path that once boasted train tracks. It's still under construction but the views are lovely, the landscaping is nifty, and the mix of wood, metal, and greenery are balanced to give it a sleek, well-blended feel. As a good beer enthusiast and semi-beer-blogger should, I'll also mention that you can see Chelsea Brewing Company from the High Line. Didn't get to try their beers but I will, I will...

Sophie creeps up behind the wild saison at d.b.a.

Speaking of beer, Sophie was patient and polite enough to humor my hunt for beer in the city. At home we explored some red-blooded American brews (including one I had carried from Rome to Belgium to New York). We thought Magic Hat's Howl (a black lager, or schwartzbier) was toastfully tasty and chocolatefully crispy, and we followed it later in the week with a more assertive dark beer, North Coast's Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout. It was my first time trying this classic American craft beer, and I found it cunning and lip-smackingly good. It's incredibly more tasty near room temperature, so make note of this. The bottle from Rome was Port Brewing's High Tide Fresh Hop IPA, a real grapefruit of a beer. Juicy, pungently hoppy, and clean. On the streets I peeked into The Ginger Man and Sophie and I graced McSorley's Old Ale House and d.b.a. with our presence. The Ginger Man is a classy place where good beer runs free and men in business suits chat loudly about such clichés as baseball and golf. It was a relaxed place, and the bartender was knowledgable; I tried Sixpoint's Brownstone, an American brown ale with a nice hoppy zip and thick malty backbone. Sophie brought me to d.b.a., a beer bar she'd visited and fondly remembered. As it was just a hair past noon we shared a beer, Saison Dupont, the immortal Belgian farmhouse ale. We also peeked into McSorley's to take in the gravity of the place. I returned a subsequent afternoon because of the wonder of the establishment; founded in 1854 by an Irish immigrant, McSorley's is steeped to a bite in history (I highly recommend perusing their website) and retains original everything, worn to the wood. Ancient articles pepper the walls and sawdust covers the floors as patrons sit contemplatively and sip their beers next to a wood stove. They serve two beers: a light and a dark. Not being one to fall for such warming but nostalgic gimmicks I enquired by whom were they brewed. The barman mumbled an inaudible answer, so I was left to search the 'net. I thought he said "Latrobe," the company that brews Rolling Rock, but the 'net has told me it's Lion Brewery, owned by Pabst, that does the work. Either way, neither the light nor the dark were very memorable, but they contented me fully while I read my book by the fire. The experience was memorable.

Some Ginger fans at The Ginger Man

While I'm talking about stuff you put in your stomach, Sophie and I enjoyed some real culinary treats as well. I wasn't taking a tally or anything, but we enjoyed several of the city's best cupcakes, a number of the city's best hot chocolates (including one from Jacques Torres with a titillating touch of pepper), some home-cooked vegetable delights (Sophie's crispy roots roast and my friend Wim's recipe for pumpkin soup), and two other amazing, amazing revelations: dim sum and Bare Burgers. Sophie, Tala, Tala's friend Jonah, and I waited for many drooling minutes for Sunday morning dim sum in Chinatown. Check it out. If you're a dim sum virgin it'll blow your mind (and spare your wallet). At Bare Burger, Sophie and I shared an elk burger and an ostrich burger, two juicy firsts for me. What I didn't get to try that Sophie said she "enjoyed" at her father's friend's lodge was a mountain lion steak. That is an American meal, for real.

The Berkshires in Williamstown

I was having too good of a time, so I cut myself short and took a magical Peter Pan bus up to Williamstown, Mass., for a couple days respite with my brother and his wife. It was a nice breather, and we spent a lot of our time just relaxing, enjoying the majestic Berkshire mountainscape. The tops of the mountains looked like rolling waves of earth dusted with powdered sugar; Will told me this wasn't snow but rather frozen fog that had collected on the limbs of bare trees. The sweet white Berkshires served as our backdrop to a couple afternoons of book reading and Scrabble jousting. Will and Carmen were both fairly busy with work, though, so I took the liberty of visiting the Clark Art Institute just a stone's throw from Buxton, the high school where they worked and lived. I padded around the permanent exhibits, floorboards groaning under my boots, and admired the American landscapes, all the beautiful women in portraits, and the delicate, creamy hard paste, soft paste, and bone china. On Thursday evening my ever-lovin', green-eyed bro took me to a double dose of sensory excitement. First, we stopped at Pittsfield Brew Works for dinner and a drink. I muscled down some fine gnocchi with sausage and mushrooms whilst sharing a sampler of all the beers available. They ranged from quite nice (the lively Extra Special Bitter) to unfortunate (the much-too-hazelnutty Hazelnut Brown) but all was good as we walked to the next stop: a 3D viewing of Avatar. Ju-HEE-sus, what a show! I mean, I'm no friend of science fiction, but when it's so thoroughly and carefully thought out and represented it really brings you to another world. And that other world that's portrayed in the movie is stunning; it's total eye candy, especially for a biologist, because of the attention paid to detail. There are elements about the story that can make for some interesting discussions, too, but I didn't think any were really explored in great enough detail. Maybe I just need to see it again and forget the jaw-dropping visuals, focus on the story.

At The Clark: Winslow Homer's The Bridle Path, White Mountains

Anywho, my next stop was home. But before I hit home I had some fine Mexican/Mayan food with my grandmother at Three Stones in Brattleboro, VT. It was a good feeling, filling my tummy with empanadas and tamales and having a visit with the wonderful woman who's nearly singlehandedly allowed this trip to happen for me. At home in New Hampshire, where the moose run free, my parents provided all the creature comforts and made the journey back to Belgium just a tad difficult. I was able to get in a visit with Tim Roettiger, a new friend and fellow homebrewer, who has plans to start a microbrewery in my hometown, East Alstead. It's incredible for me to witness this, given my recent interest in brewing and the scarcity of people in my town (pop. less than 2,000); I'm excited for Tim and wish him all the best (check out his blog here). I tried his Hemlock Ale, New England Cream Lager, and, later, his German Pale. All were brewed with character and were rich in body and taste for their alcohol level - my taste buds are still trained to those ten-percenters! That same evening my family convened at a pub in Saxtons River, VT, where my dad played a night of tunes with his band of musical buddies, Jake, Roger, and Ross. While savoring Ommegang's tantalizingly malty, raisiny, cherry tart-tastic Three Philosophers quadrupel, I sat amidst the buzzing crowd, played a board game with Will, and let the fiddle and flute relax me into a content inertia.

Ross, Jake, my dad (Randy), and Roger rock Vermont

One last bit o' news: I've landed my next apprenticeship! It'll be at BrewDog in Scotland, after the Pre-ZBF festival here in Belgium in early March. More on the development and the brewery in my next post - just had to get it out there...

Friday, January 22, 2010

Now, Where Was I?

This is bizarre. I'm not sure how exactly it happened, but right now I'm sitting in my brother's kitchen in the stunningly serene Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts, watching tufted titmice (is that the correct plural? It's probably not "titsmouse") have a mid-morning snack from the feeder outside the window, listening to the confident crooning of Ludacris. It's a tingly kind of feeling to be more of a tourist back in my home country, and perhaps I should start to feel you in on how I came to be enjoying American soil (or permafrost) at this moment. I won't be back home for long, mind you, just for another couple days, then it's back to Belgium for the month of February (leading up to the Pre-ZBF beer fest) and hopefully on to Scotland for a month or so.

Brasserie 4:20 (see below)

Anyway, perhaps I'd better start from where I left off last. I believe I was in Amsterdam for Christmas. After that expensive but invigorating visit I moved south to a little village called Trooz, just outside of Liège, in the French-speaking region of Belgium. There I reveled with a couchsurfing contingent from the Liège area, enjoying escargot and champignons, a few watery Jupiler beers and boules et frites, a Liège specialty that is really just a couple big-ass meatballs and fries. My days in Trooz were relaxed, filled with lounging, some engaging and rather racy conversations by the fire, and some nice therapeutic runs among the wooded hills of the near-Ardennes. I put on my tourist face (it's rather squinty) for Liège and Aachen, Germany's westernmost city. Liège captured me with stunning lookouts, a barrage of (medieval?) steps, and rosy-cheeked holiday merry-makers at the center market. Aachen offered sulfurous egg salad water, Charlemagne's lasting impression, historic and grandiose buildings (i.e. the Town Hall and Cathedral), tooth-chipping cookies, and wafts and wisps of that beautifully brusque language that is German.

As soon as I felt like I was settling in to this tucked-away corner of Europe I moved again, this time north-west to the Belgian coast. You might remember my friend and former couchsurfing host, Wim. He and two of his friends invited me for a few days of New Year board game debauchery. We rented a house in Nieuwpoort, a stone's throw from the coast and also Urbain's place of birth, and warmed up amidst the falling snow by cooking, walking (well-bundled) on dunes, and engaging in epic battles of the mind. Chess and Settlers of Catan were most popular, and we spent hours upon hours eating soup, sipping champagne, and sinking into our little fantasy world of colonies and sheep where someone always comes out a victor. I can't do justice to the fun I had on these trips and with all of these semi- or full-on strangers, and I'm afraid of writing a book here (I'm a terribly slow and wordy writer), but one project I must do upon my return to the States is document all the people that were important in making this trip as enriching as it has been. Then I might be able to give them the written credit they deserve.

New Year's Eve came and went. I returned, always happily, to Urbain's pad in Lo-Reninge for a couple days of construction work. The upstairs office is almost all in place (frankly, I thought the flatscreen TV should've been the first thing installed) and it looks professional. Underneath the office we drilled up some shelves and a packing area for the Struise Web Shop Wizard, Peter Braem, who will be sending out all the cybernetic orders from this little nook. Next door is the warm room, where crates of freshly bottled beer will be kept to develop their carbonation. Owen's Bubble Cubby, I call it. Speaking of the world wide web shop, I was honored to be asked to take a few photos to entice potential web-surfing thirsties. It was a very involved process, and Urbain helped to set up the "studio" and get the lighting just right. I got to compose the shot, pour the beers, take the picture, take a couple sips of the beer, and repeat the process for something like a dozen beers. It was a fascinating vertical Struise tasting for me, and I'm surprised the pictures came out so well, especially towards the end there. Luckily, I remained vertical myself.

Peter plays with something in the web shop corner. Bubble Cubby to the right, office upstairs.

(By the way, I'm now back in Belgium. I told you I'm a slow writer.) As work on the web shop progressed, we found it time to take a little break. Urbain, Carlo, and I RyanAir'ed it down to Rome for a few beercentric days sponsored by Alex Liberati and his Brasserie 4:20, a specialty beer bar in the heart of the city. Signor Misfortune knocked seasonably, as the itch in my throat that emerged on the plane to Rome was a full-blown chest cold by the time the wheels touched ground. I chained myself to my hotel bed, drank (water) like a fish, and managed to piss out the timely cold. Within two days I was up and strolling around Trastevere, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and, of course, the beer bar as I soaked in the Italian winter sun. I lived off fast-food (but Italian) pizza, blood orange juice, water, and a couple vitamin-rich beers brewed by Alex for his bar. Juniper berries were featured in one devilishly tasty pale ale, and his porter was a well-balanced and rich (but not too strong) quaff of a drink. Alex treated his visitors like, well, what they were: royal beer ambassadors. Brewers, writers, bar owners, and apprentices alike gathered in Rome for four days at 4:20, where a collection of quality beers were introduced on the hour and tokens were sold for curious beer-loving patrons. The special attendees (us) were also treated to evening meals featuring seafood cooked with beer. I sat down with Carlo for one of these meals and, by the look on his face and by the appearance of each dish, it was perhaps one of the best meals I've ever had the pleasure to partake. Too bad I had a stuffy nose and couldn't taste a damn thing.

The bar's beer cellars

The Struise boys was there, of course, and we were joined by the crews from Mikkeller, De Molen, De Proef, as well as beer industry folk from all over the world. I met a beer writer from New York and an Athenian online homebrewing supplier, among others. On one particular afternoon we gathered at the location of the bar's beer cellars and miniscule brewery. A forty-minute drive lead us to some nameless farmland outside of Rome, the site of a former winery. The spacious, barn-like interior of the building trickled down to some true wine caves where old vats built into the wall had been converted to storage areas for beer; the dark, quiet, temperature-stable environment seems a perfect place for beer affinage. The beer ambassadors were treated to cured meats (one of which used to 'neigh') and a barbecue, as well as those beers produced by Revelation Cat, the brainchild brewery ("brainbrewery"?) of Alex. The brewery itself is also located at that same building where we barbecued; it's about the size of a 10-gallon homebrewing set-up. So, tiny. But he makes it work (the beers were very, very nice) and does a number of collaboration brews as well.

Alex (left) shows us some fermenting brewskies

Rome was other-worldly. I suppose it felt like that since I was in and out of consciousness, induced by the chest cold, for most of the trip, but here I was, in an historic European capital, walking around a city that is millenia old, eating fine cuisine, drinking world-class beers, surrounded by knowledgable beer enthusiasts from all over the world. I'm not sure it even happened, or if it was some bizarre feverish hallucination. I think I actually saw Marcus Aurelius trotting on horseback around the alleys of Rome once. Anyway, when I woke up in Belgium, I decided it was time to visit home. So I flew to New York City for a week and a half, and I'll tell you all about those adventures in a new post, soon to come (despite teasing you of this new development at the beginning of the post. Ah, that's how this blog works, I guess.)...

Central Park in January