Monday, March 8, 2010

A Nice, Smooth Finish (to Belgium)

Less than two days is all I have left here in gentle Belgium, the country I've spent the most time in behind the majestic America. I'm not sure what I'm feeling now, if anything, as I reflect on my time here and accept my imminent departure. (I spent yesterday alone, packing for Scotland, eating a truly Belgian lunch of a hard-boiled egg surrounded by a meatball and a dinner of blood sausage, yet I'm not sure if I'll miss or celebrate leaving this unique gastronomy.) Emotions are stewing, though, and will undoubtedly bubble to the surface as soon as the familiarity of this place is lost to the rhythm of another. Years down the road I look forward to flashes of nostalgia and bursts of longing to come back as I whiff a Belgian scent (mustardy farm rot, perhaps), ingest a Flemish morsel (stoofvlees, or beef stew, maybe), or catch a note of the soft staccato of Dutch from an ex-pat in America. Mostly, I will miss the people that made this a most welcoming and enjoyable trip. When, not if, I return to Belgium to visit, I will retrace my steps and visit all the families and individuals that hosted or shared a few beers with me. Next time, though, I think I'll come during the summer.

The Elliot mash

Above all, I have to thank my two primary hosts, Daniel and Urbain. Despite what Urbain says, I feel enormously indebted to them. (I feel a little like Greece might about the EU, but I haven't yet approached Wall Street for help. Too soon? OK.) Thoughts of them will surely come to me even when I'm old and decrepit, after I've passed the reins of my empire of beer onto the next generation, and my mood will brighten. Their impact on my ambitions, aspirations, and motivation, both professionally and generally, is comparable only to my family, close friends, and a small handful of others. In fact (and of course), I consider them close friends now; with the help of modern communication developments, they'll stay that way for a long time to come.

Menno and Urbain talk Black Damnation logistics

Since last week and that flurry of auctions, we've been as busy as ever. It was a mad rush of blending beers, filling kegs, brewing beer, and transferring the zeitgeist of Struise to Lakebosschen Castle in Ruddervoorde in preparation for the Pré-ZBF beer festival. Urbain's chin-length locks were again a blur as we scrambled around the school brewery and Deca, dragging kegs around, looking for parts, and organizing the eternal clutter that typifies, well, everything. I just got my ears lowered, so my hair was stiff as close-cut Kentucky bluegrass. Otherwise, we might have gotten lost in our mess of hair. Thursday morning was brewing time for Elliot, a crazily-hopped double IPA named after Jeppe's son. It was formerly a Struise/Mikkeller collaboration but Urbain has adopted the recipe. Deca was filled with a spicy, fruity fog of American noble hops and pale ale malt as the brew was successfully mashed, filtered, and boiled. At noon, Menno from the Dutch Brouwerij De Molen rolled into the brewhouse with a tank full of something black, thick, and alcoholic; he said something about Hel and Verdoemenis. I think he had used some of it as fuel to drive to Belgium, but Urbain pumped the rest into a tank filled partway with that Black Albert we brewed the other week. Rootah, Vootah, Zoot! Black Damnation!

Carlo whips up sumpin' good

After the yeast was happily swimming in 32 hectoliters of beer, and with no time to lose, Urbain and I drove to the castle to set up for the big dance. Crap, what a place! By no means particularly medieval, this place was still so grandiose that I fell silent and felt a pang of envious wonder at the thought of living in such an other-worldly domicile. It's not a big castle, and its architecture is a bit mix-and-match with stone, wood, and metalwork intermingled, but it all basically worked and was plopped in the middle of a maze of woods, gardens, and water. A few white geese honked royally to announce our trespassing. Set-up was rushed but perfectly timed, as thirsty beer hunters wandered in just as the kegs were tapped. Struise had an epic line-up for the two festival nights: Struiselensis, Pipe Dream, Earthmonk, Pruned Monk, Dopple Strauss, Pannepot, Sint Amatus, and old-school Dirty Horse. There might've been more, but I was swept away, most coincidentally, to serve beers for another brewery that was missing its representative. That turned out to be BrewDog, the very place I'll be in a few short days.

After pouring a few 77 Lagers, everyone moved over to the main dining hall for a few drams of whisky, whisky-aged beer, and some bites of Glenn's beef stew made with Mano Negra and Mark's bread made with roasted malt and beer yeast. I stayed nearly dry that night but wolfed down that delicious sustenance as I was once again whisked away for work, this time dish duty (I was getting treated to a bed at a local B&B, beer samples, and food, so I kept my grumbling to myself and my dish partner, David). At the end of a late night, I relished the respite of my bed and hoped Friday would bring more socializing and less scrubbing.

Friday was, in fact, one of the best beer festival experiences I've had. The day started out well, as a spread of cheeses - bloomy, penicillined, and piquant alike - greeted us with full aromatic pomp. After breakfast I joined two guys from De Molen for a walk to the castle; the sun dissolved most of my sleep deprivation and gave me a kick of endorphins. To accommodate the surging influx of festival-goers, and because Friday evening was also the night of another beer festival elsewhere, the gates opened at 10 am. The four faces of Struise, Urbain, Carlo, Peter, and Phil, each had a hand on a tap and another in the hand of an idolatrous beer lover so I transferred my labor to the cozy BrewDog corner next to a crackling fireplace and was kept busy cracking open bottles with a guy I think I'll be spending much more time with soon; Martin, BrewDog's founder and brewer, arrived just in time to throw me a company shirt before the first tasters dribbled in.

The castle. One of three pictures I took during the whole festival. I'll put up a link to other photos as soon as other people put them up, unless they were all as busy as I was.

The first beer poured from the BrewDog stand, at 10:05 am, was Sink the Bismarck. Later in the day, I tried a sip myself; at 41% abv, the alcohol is unavoidably present, but the tasting experience isn't really comparable to taking a dram of whisky or a sip of rum. It's not quite flat, buoyed by a very fine, slight carbonation, and the taste creeps up exponentially in your mouth the way an intensely sour hard candy or fiery hot pepper gradually tickles your salivary glands. The flavor is sweet from both the alcohol and concentrated residual sugars, not overly bitter, yet so incredibly hoppy that some flavor notes were present that I never thought possible in a beer. Salty, piney, resinous, fishy, grapefruity - strange yet wonderful. I also tried the Tactical Nuclear Penguin, a 32% abv sixfold stout, and lavished that one mouthful that satisfied my sweet, bitter, and smoky "teeth" to the extreme. Until 8 pm, Martin and I sat behind the bar and served the happy customers samples of some of the UK's best beers. I think it was just loud enough, and my Yankee accent just twangy enough, for the Englishmen who passed through to not fully understand that I wasn't Scottish. At the end of the night, out of all the beers poured at the BrewDog bar, the one that kicked first was Nanny State, their nearly alcohol-free beer (0.5% abv) of surprising character and hoppy robustness. It's my new favorite, and I can't wait to get my hands on some for the muggy American summer that's approaching.

Pré-ZBF was a theatrical ending to my time here in Belgium. When all the characters in a play come back on stage for that song- and dance-filled finale, that's what it was like. Everyone was there: Glenn and Davy from Alvinne; Menno and the De Molen crew; the old festival volunteer crew of David, Mark, Stephan, and Youri; those intrepid beer journalists William, David, and Sofie; the English Geeks Mes, Sim, and Ian; Uli, that crazy German lambic-blending genious; those Italians Lorenzo Dabove, the Prince of the Payottenland, and Alex "Alora, Ciao" Liberati; Luc from Zythos; and some others I'm sure I missed. There were plenty of folks to meet, too; it ain't just, "Here's your beer, now scram, kid!" The Thornbridge brewers, Kelly and Matthew, were able to leave their stand for a visit, brewer Tom from Twickenham Fine Ales had a good spot next to fire and chatted with me for a while, Dominic from the Marble Brewery in Manchester enjoyed his time at the BrewDog nook, and I was able to meet a three-dimensional Ryan, known previously only through Facebook. I hope to see all of these kindred spirits in the future, perhaps for a beer or a brew, hopefully the latter.

I'm looking forward to Scotland. Martin was great company during the festival, and James was chipper and inviting on the phone. It'll be hard work up there, especially with the March winds whipping in from the sea, but I'll tack it up as more invaluable experience and perhaps have some good times with the Dogs to boot. My plans are still as open as a kilt, but I wouldn't mind seeing Scotland in the spring. Who knows, a summer back in Belgium might just have to happen, too...

1 comment:

  1. Hi Owen. You might be on a plane as I write this. Enjoyed the latest blog. The castle - what a great setting for your last weekend in Belgium. Good luck settling in to BrewDog.