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


  1. Titsmouse- I like it. But did you really mean to feel us all in on the details? That reminds me of a friend I had in college who used to say "I just want to get a since of how things are going." I could never tell if he actually knew that it was sense and not since...

    As always, loved the post. Can't wait to hear more about your awesome visit with your charming and generous brother. ;)

  2. Ha! That's hilarious. That was unintentional but I'm going to keep it. I wonder what was on my mind...