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 clich├ęs 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...


  1. Best (and best-beer-educated) houseguest EVER! On your next visit, please bring back a Tactical Nuclear Penguin to share with Tala and me?

  2. Great to have you around, brother seamus. Congrats on the next internship, btw, and make sure to bring your Vitamin D supplements with you to that island. Stave off the darkness...


  3. mizz S: TNP is yours, but you gotta wear your HAZMAT suits. and give me a sip.

    brother maynard: yeah, it'll be dark, but mom says springtime is nice in scotland. i wonder if the heather's a-bloomin'.