Monday, February 28, 2005
Between performances by the Finns, we adjourned to Baxter Station Bar & Grill for dinner and drinks.
Baxter Station remains one of Louisville’s finest independent, local bistros. Nestled in the heart of the Irish Hill neighborhood on Payne Street, it’s located in an old shotgun building that once was a grocery store and later a tavern, and now offers a pleasing brick ‘n’ beam ambience in which to enjoy dining that is a full notch or two above what one would expect from such a casual venue, plus excellent lists of beer, wine and bourbon.
Owner Andrew Hutto favors maltier microbrews (Goose Island Hex Nut, Great Lakes Dortmunder), but doesn’t neglect the hop in the form of drafts like Rogue Brutal Bitter and Anderson Valley Hop Ottin’ IPA.
Standard imports ranging from Guinness and Smithwick’s to Hoegaarden and Pilsner Urquell round out 20-plus tap choices.
Baxter Station’s food is unfailingly well prepared, combining elements of international flavor with familiar regional dishes like red beans and rice, crab cakes and fajita burritos.
Andrew currently is spearheading an effort called Louisville Originals, which is a cooperative venture of independent eateries designed to combine local resources against the encroachment of the chains. I couldn’t agree more with this strategy, and lament that Louisville’s brewery owners (myself among them) have not been able to duplicate such a project.
Baxter Station recently changed its hours, closing on Monday but opening on Sunday evenings. It is highly recommended.
It will be the seventh edition of Gravity Head, a month-long draft beer festival that stands to last well into April, 2005.
As in previous editions, I've gathered 45 special kegs of the finest “big” beers in America and the world.
When the doors open at 1:00 p.m. on Friday, March 11, the first 15 Gravity Head selections for 2005 will be tapped. The rest will follow one at a time as the first wave disappears. Pricing and portion sizes vary according to alcohol content and style, but most will be available in 8- to 10-ounce pours.
Read the Gravity Head press release and beer list here.
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
The brewery began operations in 1997, and has an annual capacity in the range of 4,000 barrels. In Grand Rapids, there is a brewery taproom and live music on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
But I'm not in Grand Rapids. On to the bottles.
Founders Dry Hopped Pale Ale
American-style Pale Ale from the Cascades template, which is not to demean by any means. There is accomplished balance between the malt and hops, with a hint of lime defining the citrus character. Can Sierra Nevada’s yardstick Pale Ale be beaten by Founders’s price point? If not, it’s hard to imagine where this one fits, but I’ve been told that the half-barrel pricing actually is going to be below Sierra’s. Worth watching.
Founders Black Rye
“Dark ale” says the bottle, and “American Brown/Brown Porter” says the aroma of chocolate and a pleasantly roasted flavor that offers a tease of rye before yielding to a mild finishing hop bite. Rye possesses the potential to add an intriguing dimension to several conventional beer styles, with the problem being that brewers can’t use enough of it owing to the absence of a husk and subsequent problems with muddiness during the sparge. Strangely, this ale reminds me of what Pete’s Wicked Ale once thought it was, but wasn’t then, and is even less now.
Founders Centennial IPA
Reminiscent of Anderson Valley Hop Ottin’ IPA in the sense of body and an amber orange color, and now that Bell’s Two Hearted Ale has dropped a point in alcohol percentage (from just over 7% abv to 6% abv), and accordingly tastes lighter in the mouth, Founders has one of the better standard-gauge IPA’s to emerge from Michigan.
Founders Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale
The nose is malty sweet with perhaps a hint of peat, nothing more. Once again, an obvious respect for the virtues of balance has rounded the sweet malty edges with enough peat and hops to keep the ale from being cloying. A very credible imitation, lacking the fruity esters of British Isles yeast strains and vaguely burned toffee quality of the best classic Scotch Ales, but quite tasty for those preferring the sweet malt accent.
Of the four Founders ales sampled tonight, only the Dirty Bastard stands a chance of being added to the Rich O’s bottle list. Affordable and representative Scotch Ales are difficult to find, while even at a slightly more favorable price point, the Pale Ale and IPA would likely be lost in the shuffle at Rich O’s.
Black Rye is a toss-up; there’s not enough rye character to qualify as a rye specialty, but perhaps a space in the rotating bottle selection can be found. Again, price point is very important here. Only the Pale Ale is below 7% abv, but the other three brands, although quite well done, are not sufficiently “extreme” to challenge Stone or Three Floyds in straight flavor comparisons.
At the same time, they’re all good. It’s all a matter of finding the proper niche, package and price.
My guess is that these ales in bottles are better aimed at package stores and off-premise accounts.
Draft is another story. I’m told that the Pale Ale will be the first point of emphasis as Founders enters Indiana, with the possibility of special order draft following shortly afterwards. I can see devoting a tap to several brands of Founders, assuming I’m allowed to cherry-pick according to my preferences.
Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Not to worry, Tim.
At the conclusion of the hour-long tour, which was predictably laden with sugary hagiography and sheer statistical overload, we were allowed to have three beers as a reward.
These were served from the tap in heavy-duty throwaway plastic drinking vessels with the consistency of glass.
I sampled Budweiser (my first in a decade), Amber Bock (“stamp out and eliminate redundancy”) and A-B’s newest contribution to world brewing culture, Bare Knuckle Stout.
As for the former, well, the best any ordinary lager beer can be is pouring from the tap at its place of birth.
Drinking Amber Bock, I was reminded that when the factory in Louisville that supplies food-grade red dye shut down temporarily due to an explosion, A-B common stock nudged down.
Dry and creamy, nitro-infused, the Bare Knuckle Stout seemed a credible, if thin and indistinct, imitation of Guinness. Served blind, I’d guess it to be a microbrewed stout, and a decent one. Nothing more, nothing less.
At the time, sitting in the A-B hospitality room, I lectured the earnest young summer intern tour guide: Will brand-loyal Guinness drinkers drink Bare Knuckle under any circumstance? Will the price point have to be lower to coerce them? Given that Bud and Michelob Ultra drinkers are unlikely to trade up, then who’ll buy the new beer?
It’s now winter, 2005, and A-B’s Bare Knuckle Stout has arrived in the Southern Indiana market. We begin to see the giant brewer’s marketing methodology.
As a “jump ball,” my friend and regular customer Dave sent the following note:
“My cousin has confirmed that Hooters in Jeffersonville is indeed charging the same price to customers for Bare Knuckle as they did for Guinness.”
That’s right. First, Bare Knuckle actually replaced Guinness at Hooter’s, which leads one to speculate on the nature of, ahem, incentives offered above or below board.
Then, even more bizarrely, the price point for Bare Knuckle is the same. You’d expect to see a lower price as an introduction, then an escalation once the hook is set.
Is it profiteering?
Quite some time back, when Foster’s Lager for the American market first ceased to be brewed in Australia, retailers were told pointedly that the brand’s transplanted home in Canada meant that (a) Foster’s still was “imported,” (b) that consequently the wholesale price would be less than when it was imported from Australia, (c) the same price as before could be charged the consumer, and (d) “Foster’s is Australian for Beer.”
Of these premises, (a), (b) and (c) were true, but (d) was and remains false.
Actually, much to my surprise, a quick phone call to L. C. Nadorff, New Albany’s A-B house, reveals that Bare Knuckle is available only in 1/6 barrel kegs (5.16 gallon). Factored for unit size, the wholesale price is almost exactly the same as for Guinness.
What does this mean? I’m baffled. It’s true that 1/6 kegs are easier to handle for retailers and require no special tap fitting, but without a lower price point, little of it makes sense.
Back to the “incentive” program, anyone?
Sunday, February 20, 2005
Once again, I’m organizing a group tour, our eighth European beer-hunting excursion since 1995, and the first under the banner of Potable Curmudgeon, Inc., my new consulting and travel company.
The same great experience is at hand. The tour dates are September 8 – 20, 2005, and all friends, beer lovers, customers, FOSSILS club members, and adventure seekers are invited to make the trip.
Please contact me if you’re interested. Participants are limited to 22, and it’s first come, first served.
Roger A. Baylor/Potable Curmudgeon, Inc.
Here’s a brief chronological overview:
AMSTERDAM & HAARLEM
Both the old and the new Netherlands. Our lodging will be in Haarlem, and Amsterdam is minutes away by train.
One of the most beautiful cities in Europe, with beer cafes aplenty, including ‘t Brugs Beertje (Daisy’s place), where we’ll enjoy a guided tasting.
Learn about spontaneously-fermented ale where it is brewed, with visits to Lindemans and the Drie Fonteinen restaurant, brewery and lambic blending house.
Ardennes scenery, food and beer. Tours of Achouffe and Fantome, and an excursion to the Battle of the Bulge museum in Bastogne.
HAINAUT BREWERY PICNIC
The Wallonian countryside and farmhouse ale are synonymous. We’ll revel in both.
Restored medieval guild city & Great War heritage center, our base for West Flanders.
WEST FLANDERS MOTORIZED PUB CRAWL
Classic sites of Belgian beer culture like Dolle Brouwers and Westvletern’s Café de Vrede.
POPERINGE HOP FESTIVAL
Absolutely charming small-town celebration, with a parade that features the entire community and ample portions of local and regional ales.
Belgian capital & center of European integration.
LAND AND AIR PRICES
The land-only price for the trip will be $1,975.00, and it includes:
¨ Motor coach & escort.
¨ Excellent hotels.
¨ All breakfasts.
¨ Brewery tours.
¨ One evening meal.
¨ Guided beer tastings.
¨ Most sightseeing.
¨ All service charges.
Note: The price for the land portion is based on double occupancy of rooms; a single supplement must be paid by solo travelers.
As in the past, flying arrangements will be handled by Mary Pat Bliss at Bliss Travel in New Albany. It is expected that airfare from Louisville to Amsterdam, and from Brussels back to Louisville, will cost in the range of $850. You may purchase the group flying option through Bliss Travel, or make travel plans on your own.
SOME TRIP LINKS
‘t Arendsnest (Amsterdam)
‘Ij Brewery (Amsterdam)
‘t Brugs Beertje
Drie (3) Fountains
Hop festival in Poperinge
Houffalize (only in French and Dutch)
Sept. 9, 10: Hotel Amadeus, Haarlem
Sept. 11, 12: Hotel Karos, Brugge
Sept. 13, 14, 15: Hotel du Commerce, Houffalize
Sept. 16, 17, 18: Flanders Lodge, Ieper
Sept. 19: Hotel Vendome, Brussels
Wednesday, February 16, 2005
In February, 2005, a press release arrived heralding the return of Daniel Bradford to the "Some About Beer" family business, his previous position as head of the Brewers' Association of America having disappeared when it was merged with Association of Brewers to yield the Brewers Association. It's too early to tell whether this means anything. Stay tuned.
‘Round here, in the Curmudgeonly lair formerly occupied by Dick Cheney, we no longer subscribe to the beer magazine formerly known as “All About Beer.”
Instead, we’ve bestowed a new name on the publication: “Some About Beer.” With principled firmness, we’ve refrained from paying its yearly tithe. With relaxed contentment, we’re electing to consult the regional pages of the various “Brewing News” print publications when in need of comprehensive information about beer and brewing.
We feel much better already.
It may come as a surprise to some, but the Curmudgeon does more than drink and think beer. For him, the mother language is important.
Words have specific meanings, and are used for specific purposes. As an example, for one to have “all” of something, one must possess the complete and whole quantity of it. Anything else, and one has only some of it – not all.
Therefore, it is inaccurate and misleading to suggest “all” when what one really means is “some,” or when obvious evidence exists to validate the observation that the entire quantity is in fact absent.
Hence, the magazine’s change of names. If “All About Beer” doesn’t include the entire quantity, then it isn’t “all” about beer any longer.
No, not at all.
To be sure, at its best, “Some About Beer” can be very good. Contributing writers generally include heavyweights like Michael Jackson, Fred Eckhardt and Roger Protz. Our friend Stan Hieronymus used to contribute wonderful “Beer Travelers” essays. Another friend, “Beer Dave” Gausepohl, currently writes about breweriana. Although the immediacy of the Internet has diminished “Some About Beer’s” value as a timely purveyor of beer and brewing minutia, it remains a good place to begin an examination of the beer writer’s craft.
On the other hand …
Ominously, “Some About Beer” also is the same publication that for several years has featured the infamous “Buyer’s Guide” centerfold. The Buyer’s Guide is billed as an blind, objective comparison of marketplace beers from America and the World, conducted by the vaguely tri-partite-sounding Beverage Tasting Institute in Chicago.
However, to read the BTI’s beer reviews in “Some About Beer” is to revisit the lost halcyon world of Soviet social propaganda, wherein a perfect society awaits the visitor – or, to echo the long forgotten Ray Stevens, where “everything is beautiful, in its own way.” BTI awards a failing grade as often as NBA commentator Bill Walton utters coherent analysis … as often as Anheuser-Busch tells the truth about Budvar … as often as Radiohead makes a bad album.
Which is to say, damned seldom.
The not-so-shocking reason for this is that the Beverage Tasting Institute’s real reason for being is to make a profit from its services. The BTI charges brewers and importers a fee to submit beers for professional judging, then gives the donors their money’s worth by reviewing a stupefyingly large percentage of these beers positively.
Everyone claps hands in a circle, dines on sherbet, sugar cookies and lemonade, is assigned feel-good participation “championship” medals designed to dupe the public into believing that genuine merit somehow comes attached to what is otherwise a shameful spectacle of irrelevance, and watches as the sham results go straight into “Some About Beer” as paid advertising – month after month, year after year.
So much for full employment, equal opportunity and civil rights in Donetsk.
Bear in mind that I don’t doubt the blindness of the tasters, just the benign nature of a scoring system designed not to offend producers who paid good money to submit to it. It is worth noting that rumors persist that the process is prone to hands-on corruption after the fact, but these stories need not be referenced to assemble a strong case that the Beverage Tasting Institute and its judging process both are jokes.
Indeed, all this would be as laughable as class-system high school basketball if not for the pretentiousness with which one and all, from BTI to “Some About Beer,” insists on treating a demonstration of back-scratching chicanery more in keeping with an paper-mache exhibit in P. T. Barnum’s museum of grotesque oddities than a beer magazine espousing credibility.
I seem to have digressed. Alas, it is likely to happen again.
“Hell, we serve all the beers – Miller, Bud and Coors.”
Since the New Albanian Brewing Company has no intention of paying someone to be told what we already know – that our beer is good – the ensuing feeling of liberation is such that other flagrant editorial flaws with “Some About Beer” can be explored, an example being the magazine’s January 2004 issue (Vol. 24, No. 6).
For obvious reasons, my immediate attention was drawn to a feature article entitled “Brilliant Beer Bars: Where Everybody Knows Your Name.” In it, 70 luminaries described by the magazine as “writers, industry professionals and beer lovers” were asked for the names of their favorite beer bars, both in their hometowns, and elsewhere in places they’ve visited.
In the final tally, only 28 states out of 50 were represented in the article. Six multi-tap, multi-state chains pubs were mentioned. Six other countries outside the United States also found their way onto the list.
An opening disclaimer warned that the list should not be considered comprehensive, which begged the question of why it would be of any value other than as a cheap, easy tease to casual readers. Actually, “Some About Beer’s” editor, Julie Bradford, subsequently echoed this underachieving assessment in e-mail to the Curmudgeon.
Members of the general reading public enjoy fluffy lists, cooed Bradford before logging off to deposit another BTI check and assemble another fluffy list.
Still … how could the beer-crazy state of Michigan, possessor of the most vibrant microbrewing culture in the Midwest, be entirely omitted from such a collection? What about Bell’s Eccentric Café and Kraftbrau, both in Kalamazoo, and right across the street from each other?
Staring at this piece of random selectivity from a magazine bearing an official title that alleges completeness, I suddenly felt a stinging slap to the face. Neither the state of Indiana, nor Rich O’s Public House, was to be found on the list of brilliant beer bars. What about the BW3 in downtown Indianapolis? Chalkie’s on Indy’s northside? Herot in Muncie?
Kentucky? Also omitted.
“All” about beer? Hardly.
Several e-mails have been exchanged with Bradford, whose attitude might be summarized as exasperated flippancy. She has defended the “brilliant beer bar” article, the BTI ratings and subsequent adulatory drivel on the topic of low-carb beers as the sort of editorial content beloved by readers.
Lowest common denominator, anyone?
Bradford has offered a dizzying array of semantic thrusts and attempted exculpatory feints, ultimately arriving at a rhetorical shrug: Gee, why would any of this upset someone – after all, it’s just something used to sell magazines, eh?
Somewhere in the distant Rockies I can almost hear “Some About Beer” contributor Charlie “Empire – What Empire?” Papazian chiming in by reminding me to relax and have a homebrew.
The shameless mercantilist Papazian notwithstanding, the problem is that I can’t relax when I’ve been slighted, intentionally or otherwise. I believe the proper word to describe this root motive is “pride.”
Look at it this way.
In spite of my conceptual differences with Julie Bradford, I’m sure that she is fiercely proud of the work she does at the magazine. However, the simple act of empathy seems beyond her personal or journalistic range. She might feel differently if the roles were reversed.
If a major newspaper offered a survey of beer magazines and did not include “Some About Beer,” I’m sure that Julie Bradford would feel exactly the same hurt and annoyance that I did when her magazine failed to include Rich O’s in its listing of brilliant beer bars. I’m sure she would complain to the newspaper, just as I have to her.
Only then, perhaps, would she be able to comprehend. After 12 years of hard work devoted to building a good beer bar in a geographical vicinity where good beer used to be as common as vegetarians lunching on picnic tables by the rendering line at a packing plant, and having succeeded, to be snubbed by people who should know better is a personal insult, plain and simple.
Hell hath no fury like a Publican scorned.
Those who remain ignorant of good beer are excused, but those deriving their livelihoods from good beer have no excuse. Besides, bemused and condescending powerlessness is unbecoming a person who bears ultimate responsibility.
Note to Julie Bradford: By definition, editors are responsible. Did you get that memo?
The myriad joys of divorce.
A few weeks back I received my annual subscription renewal letter from “Some About Beer,” and I took this wonderful opportunity to formally sever my ties with the house organ of haphazard editorial content and “buy a medal” beer rankings.
My e-mail to circulation chief Natalie Abernethy read:
“Some weeks back, I expressed a desire to terminate my subscription to 'Some About Beer' in light of the magazine's inability (or perhaps unwillingness) to publish complete, factual articles, and the inability (or unwillingness) of it editor to understand why this rather annoying and flippant tendency is a problem for people like me who work damned hard and expect to recognized for it in a responsive and responsible journalistic fashion. If ever the magazine actually reverts to truly being 'all about beer,' then I'll be back. Until then, don't spend all those insipid 'beverage tasting payola institute' ad checks in one place, and please stop sending 'Some About Beer' to me.”
Julie Bradford’s response was quick:
“Thanks for your courteous and thoughtful message. We always enjoy hearing from you. We're glad you work damned hard. I'm sure your customers appreciate it, and no doubt you will receive the recognition you expect. Now that she has your information, Ms Abernethy will be happy to terminate your subscription. I look forward to your someday finding our publication worth reading once again.”
Meanwhile, Abernethy wrote to confirm our new business relationship:
“Thank you very much for your email. I will take care of canceling your subscription for you. Your subscription is expiring with our June/July issue, which you will still receive because mail data has already been sent to our printer. So, if you wish to not receive All About Beer anymore just ignore the renewal information you are sent.
“I have also taken the liberty of removing you from our Brewpub Finder online since you do want any affiliation with All About Beer.
“Please let me know if I can be of any help in the future. We are always here for all people in the brewing community. Have a great day!”
Humbled and impressed by Abernethy’s crisp tone of efficiency, I mailed this to Bradford:
“In her prompt response to my message, ‘Some About Beer's’ Natalie Abernethy added:
‘I have also taken the liberty of removing you from our Brewpub Finder online since you do want any affiliation with All About Beer.’
“Blushingly, I stand corrected: At least one person in your organization detects merit in being thorough about something. She should be promoted.”
Bradford hasn’t written back.
Interestingly, her husband Daniel, who serves as “Some About Beer’s” publisher and also finds time to run the Brewers’ Association of America, a trade group for small brewers, recently conferred with Julie Grelle of the Brewers of Indiana Guild as to the importance of Indiana microbrewers to be members of the national organization.
Funny, I didn’t realize the Bradford family knew that Indiana existed.
You certainly wouldn’t know it by reading “Some About Beer.”
Television is not a major part of my life. Sporting events constitute the bulk of my otherwise limited time spent in front of the boob tube.
Consequently, I am generally spared heavy exposure to commercial advertising on television, which is just as well, because whenever I see too many of these 30-second testimonials to the decline of the human race, bad things happen within the deepest recesses of my psyche. Pretty soon, I’m heading for the soapbox.
A lengthy exception to my policy of avoiding television occurs each year during the NBA playoffs. Numerous corporate entities sponsor the games, among them sporting wear monoliths, auto manufacturers, cellular phone service providers and fast food restaurant chains.
By its very nature as the sales arm of a mass-market medium, television advertising must be conducted at a very low common denominator, and no one understands this better than an industrial brewer. America’s merchants of swill have long grasped the dynamics of television advertising, especially the connection between these precepts and the typical viewing audience for sporting events. People who watch sports are doltish and male, their scant intelligence begging to be insulted early and often, and demanding that their self-defining brand loyalty be constantly reinforced with references to the wide world of stereotypes and clichés, none of which have even the most remote connection with the actual product being sold.
It is a source of endless fascination for me that I am engaged in the beer business, yet have so little in common with the ethos of beer as it is depicted and touted on the commercial advertisements during basketball games and other sporting events.
My business instincts and practices depend on the dissemination of real information. How is beer made? Where do the various beers originate? What accounts for the myriad of flavors and textures? Why does it taste this way? Not all pub-going patrons are seeking to learn more about beer, but in the end, knowledge is the key to happiness in the craft beer business.
Conversely, America’s industrial brewers do not pretend to provide information during their 30-second commercials, as facts would only confuse the issues at stake. Instead, ad agencies sell beer by using techniques that would be interchangeably appropriate for any product in our consumer society, which is to say that they are selling “lifestyles,” not beer.
According to Pete Coors, his namesake Light is the preferred fuel for men’s night out and testosterone-laced partying. The incredibly talented Auggie Busch IV’s Bud Light is a juggernaut that attracts all planetary life forms and repels most of the brainpower therein. Whether snatched by one of Anheuser-Busch’s ubiquitous critters (most recently, a bird) or inspiring a bored hubby to come to bed for a romp with the missus, Bud Light reduces all comers to blithering idiots, who will do or say anything for the tasteless, odorless liquid within the aluminum-clad delivery device.
Miller Brewing Company, still deservedly reeling from a decade-long slump in creative ad campaign ideas, now positions the once formidable Lite as the ideal swill for 20-something pretty things to swap asinine stories about their clueless hijinks, and Killian’s Red is offered as the perfect beverage for men to drink while they ogle gorgeous women who are in the process of embarrassing themselves in various knee-slapping ways.
The latter is indicative of a trend in the advertising campaigns of the big industrial brewers that I find more disturbing than is usually the case. To be sure, the swill merchants are accustomed to portraying women in a sexist manner, as misogyny plays so well to the mass of clueless males who constitute the core of support for cheap beer, which costs as much as it does only because of the advertising it takes to propel it in a marketplace as saturated as the babes in a beer commercial’s wet t-shirt contest.
Lately, this shopworn practice of utilizing commercial advertising to demean women has been taken to a new level of offensiveness. Females enter the wrong restroom as men smirk, and are sprayed with seltzer-like bottles of Bud by corpulent would-be Casanovas. Port-a-cans with women inside are toppled down a hillside. Girlfriends are told brazen lies by their boyfriends, who had spent the previous evening PARTYING like juvenile delinquents in the company of semi-naked ladies and bottles of ice-cold Coors Liteweight, but can’t bring themselves to admit it when asked.
When it comes right down to it, television advertising by America’s industrial brewers is as insulting to men as it is to women. The only creatures to come away from the ordeal with a shred of dignity intact are the Anheuser—Busch menagerie of animals, whose fondness for Bud can at least be explained as the irrational actions of entities that can’t be expected to know any better.
Human beings are different, right? We have minds and can think, right? Wrong. We just like to PARTY with a cold Coors Light, and those hot chicks on the dance floor drinking Smirnoff Ice and Skye Blue … well, they’re looking like another topic for another time.
Sunday, February 13, 2005
(Part 3 of 3)
A customer asked if we could get cases of Samuel Adams Double Bock, Boston Beer’s annual winter/spring seasonal lager.
My wholesale rep was out of town, so I elected to search for the information by pointing the browser to the Sam Adams web site in expectation of a quick and easy search for release dates.
The age verification page materialized.
Judge, sir, I know it was late in the evening. Yes, it’s also true that I’d had a beer, maybe two. What kind? Well, I’m afraid to say they were imports … Belgians … not world class beers at all compared to Sam Adams. Yes, I’ve seen the television ads, sir.
But judge, I didn’t take typing in high school, and the ol’ hunt ‘n’ peck just failed me … no, I didn’t mean to fill in the wrong date of birth, it just happened, and then those alarms started going off … and I just snapped.
Up came the “sorry” message.
“We take seriously our responsibility to limit website access to adults of legal drinking age … If you have questions/comments about our age verification process Click here … For more information regarding programs dedicated to beverage alcohol responsibility, please visit www.centurycouncil.org.”
I saw the icons listed below: Cyberpatrol, Cybersitter, NetNanny and SafeSurf, and it all seemed to me like swatting flies with a baseball bat.
Was this site somehow pornographic and consequently unsuitable for tender young eyes?
Or was it about beer, the beverage that possesses a noble history stretching back to the very beginnings of humanity’s time on Earth, and which Boston Beer’s founder, Jim Koch, always has referenced in his educational sales pitches about beer?
Following Donald Fagen’s sage advice, I tried to return to the title page and “do it again,” but to no avail. Koch’s mercenaries at the Internet division of the age police had my IP, and they weren’t letting go of it.
To stock, or not to stock.
Clicking where advised, I registered this brief complaint:
“So, because I hit the wrong button, I can't get into the site in
spite of (a) being 44 years old, and (b) selling your beer at my pub? You know, (a) is set in stone, but (b) could change anytime.”
The following day, the predictably automated response greeted me with palpable cyber warmness:
“Thank you for contacting us regarding the age verification process on our samueladams.com website. We are excited to share our new website with you, and apologize for any inconvenience you may have experienced in entering the site.
"We understand that the age verification process may seem cumbersome. However, it is very important to us that we take every reasonable precaution to ensure that the only visitors to our site are those who can legally enjoy the great taste of a Samuel Adams beer. We take this responsibility very seriously, even to the extent that it may cause someone like you to become frustrated.
"There may be instances in which a user like you is of legal drinking
age, but is denied access to the site. If this occurs, you should close your web browser completely and then re-launch your browser and revisit the samueladams.com site. Carefully enter your birth date on both age verification pages, and you should be allowed access to the content of the site.
"Thank you again for your feedback and for visiting our website. Cheers!”
Shiny happy people blue penciling.
Cheers to censorship, to “reasonable precaution” in studying the history of fermentation science, in bowing to the dictates of Puritanism!
I couldn’t resist the impulse to cast a line and see if there were humans somewhere on the other side.
“Thanks for the template. Does this mean that we shouldn't allow children to study automobiles until they're old enough to drive? It would be refreshing for Samuel Adams or a brewery like it to stand up to the idiocy of age requirements in cyberspace. But balls aren't something associated with Jim Koch, anyway.”
There was a nibble, but a feeble one, from Mary Woo of Boston Beer Company. Sadly, corporate America just isn’t interested in dialogue, but credit her for answering.
“I am sorry you feel that way about our company and about Jim Koch, but unfortunately we have to face the reality of today's technology and monitor our own site. Good luck with your brewing.”
Here's the pitch ...
Does the preceding constitute Jim Koch’s third strike, which if called, would result in the removal of Boston Beer’s products from my pub?
Perhaps it will, but not until we hear from Koch. His response (if any) to this and previous curmudgeonly commentaries will be the deciding factor.
(Part 2 of 3; written in 2004)
Although Americans as a people tend to accept commercial advertising as something unavoidable - not unlike death and taxes - the genre is at best dubious.
At its worst, which is far too often, it is something worthy of hoisting the black flag in violent revolt, with heads duly rolling and the forced exile of those who have made their living from the execrable “art” of the shill.
The televised variety of incessant, inane hucksterism that has polluted our lives since the mid-point of the 20th century far exceeds the scurrilous idiocy of the sum, combined total of political propaganda spouted by history’s many totalitarian regimes.
At least America periodically declares war on the latter, but to me, a concerted series of military assaults against the legacy of Madison Avenue makes better sense, as it would result in a quantifiable improvement in the quality of my life.
Now for more words from our sponsor.
Not unexpectedly, America’s bloated megabreweries have long stood at the forefront of this shrill, vacuous genre of salesmanship in which anything except the genuine essence of the product itself becomes the prime focus of the sales pitch.
Mere irrelevance is one thing, and perhaps we’ve become immune to it, but malevolence is worse, and the same megabreweries that bombard us with bikini-clad bimbos, bumbling urban morons and talking Canadian bears manage to sprinkle a good number of attack ads into the already intolerable mix.
Most often, the megabreweries loudly clang pots and kettles while attacking each other, inventing veritable parallel universes in a frantic effort to prove which of their brands of swill tastes less like beer than the other, but they also find frequent opportunity to assail any concept that might threaten the brand-loyal complacency of their docile, clueless target audience.
Once upon a time, Anheuser-Busch went so far as to deride homebrewers and their murky, syrupy concoctions.
Meanwhile, Coors ceaselessly boasts of its “never bitter” Keystone, in the process casting the innocent hop cone as America’s public enemy number one, and portraying its watery, aluminum-clad products as public service announcements warning of the potential threat of beer flavor.
Miller High Life lobbed a recent potshot at fruit-flavored beers, including Belgian raspberry lambic, which is fascinating when one considers that SAB/Miller produces fruit-flavored “malternative” beverages by taking advantage of a loophole in federal guidelines pertaining to beer, which suggests that the company criticizing fruit beers actually brews fruit beers. Miller also wants you to believe that the Plank Road Brewery is freestanding, the check’s in the mail … well, you know the rest of the equation.
Yours is not to question why.
We’ve all come to expect this sort of fluff and thuggery from the merry crew of megabrewery imperialists that dominates the American beer business. Megabrewers actually have little choice in the matter. Consumer behavior that emphasizes knowledge and critical thought represents code-red danger, for it may lead to treasonable infidelity to the imperative of brand loyalty. A slavish devotion to brand identity is crucial to the sale of a product like mass-market beer, which resembles its purported essence so very scantily.
However, I wouldn’t expect a smaller brewer (note my intentionally not using the word “microbrewer”) to pursue the same objective. Sadly, one brewer does.
Jim Koch enthusiastically re-enlists in eternal struggle against consumer intelligence.
Some of you will remember that in the spring of 2003, I wrote about “certain obstacles to the pursuit of enlightenment.”
Among the conditions that stand firmly in the path of beer flavor appreciation are tobacco in any form, the refusal of the “bottle baby” to use a proper glass, freezing liquid temperature, and the annoying barroom custom of screaming like a banshee to friends seated fourteen inches away from the speaker’s mouth.
At the time, my ulterior motive for listing these impediments to taste and decency was to propose that television commercials then running for Boston Beer’s Sam Adams Light represented overtly hypocritical sabotage against the same good beer ideals that the company’s founder, Jim Koch, had always loudly embraced during his arduous climb to the top of the contract-brewed heap.
Never mind Koch’s seeming (?) arrogance and his tendency to paint florid pictures of his single-handed struggle against the swill market, naturally undertaken by Koch alone with a couple of like-minded partners based in the Sierra Madre mountains, battling hunger and cold, but convinced of the efficacy of the revolution … wait, that’s Fidel and Che, and a different story entirely.
But Jim wouldn’t mind at all if it were confused with his own Horatio Alger tale.
Consequently, I awarded Koch the Curmudgeon’s first-ever “Self Inflicted Oxy-MORON of the Year,” congratulating him for watering down America’s “world-class” Samuel Adams beer to meet the lower expectations of the Liteweight lobby, then compounding the outrage by dumbing down Boston Beer’s advertising to exalt the very excesses of behavioral idiocy that genuinely good beer seeks to cure.
The ad campaign in question, which featured a clueless young urbanite male screaming in ecstasy as he sipped straight from a bottle of Sam Adams Light, disappeared shortly thereafter. At least, it ceased appearing on the channels I watch, and for that I’m grateful.
It was replaced by a strange, embarrassing series of boob tube spots for regular Samuel Adams Boston Lager, each with a brief “story” line that always ends with the camera rushing to a character draped in Colonial-era costume garb who toasts the viewer in a stentorian tone of voice apparently developed during a long gig supervising the Island of Misfit Wax Museum Exhibits.
More bizarre than offensive, these at least seem to possess a low-key dignity that the Sam Adams Light spots – and, perhaps, any and all light beer flimflammery – lacks.
There Koch goes again.
A few weeks back, I saw the latest entry in the Sam Adams Boston Lager canon of television advertisement.
In it, three oblivious but breathtakingly airbrushed males stroll into a “beers of the world” type of pub. Odd, humorless music is heard playing. The sultry female bartender hands the trio a thick, musty, leather-bound volume and informs them in a sexy Euro-accent that the bar’s beers from 150 countries are described therein.
She starts to walk away, but our heroes already know what they want: Sam Adams Boston Lager … and you “won’t find a better beer if you travel the world over,” as we’re informed by our familiar guide, the Colonial Waxworks Statue, who suddenly appears and hoists a stein in the viewer’s direction as the ad comes to a merciful end.
As the late, unlamented Gussie Busch - currently rotting in swillmeister’s hell - is my witness, right up until the hip young dudes ordered three Samuel Adams Boston Lagers, I swear I thought the commercial was going to be for Miller, Bud or Coors, or maybe all three in tandem.
Alas, it wasn’t, so hear ye, hear ye! Jim Koch has been added to the list of people who’ll not only be refused service in Rich O’s, but who’ll not make it through the doorway to ask for it.
If it were a matter of comparing Samuel Adams to the wide variety of watery and tasteless Euro-lagers that flood the market … if it were a paean to the superiority of Sam Adams compared with insipid and tasteless mainstream American lagers … if it were the suggestion that sometimes it’s good to think, to try something different, to take a chance for Christ’s sake, to pour the swill down the toilet where it belongs and roll the dice for once … then I would feel good about the ad.
But it’s none of these. Put simply, the Samuel Adams ad exalts the very same plain, lazy, willful stupidity that is the default human condition I vociferously oppose each and every working day of my life.
Exactly how does one compare lager with stout, or Trappist ale?
The world of beers offered at a good beer bar include dozens of beer styles that are not comparable to a golden-hued lager, and that’s precisely the reason for the good beer bar’s existence, in addition to being at least part of the motivation for beer drinkers to move up the ladder – from Bud to Sam Adams Boston Lager, and then wherever the palate desires, which might even include the other styles of beer that Koch’s company brews and markets, including Oktoberfest, Stout and Wheat.
But Koch’s current advertisement urges an unthinking brand loyalty that is directly analogous to the refusal of 9/10ths of American beer drinkers to try anything other than “their beer,” and which of course remains the major barrier to them trying Koch’s own “world class” lager.
The ad perpetuates the myth that good beer is somehow inaccessible and mysterious, completely beyond the understanding of the confused, disoriented beer drinker. If this really were the case, then there would be no surviving good beer bars to encourage the upward and outward journey afforded the beer drinker who’ll give good beer a chance.
While a case certainly can be made that the mood and ambience in some good beer bars are ripe for satire, Koch’s current ad misses the target by lampooning the adventurous and expansive impulse that leads beer drinkers to his beers in the first place.
Go to the mirror, boy.
This makes twice in a year that Jim Koch has blown it, and perhaps a pattern is discernable. Let it be known: I have consistently supported his company’s mission over the past decade, pointed to how it’s nice to have a beer like Sam Adams at places where otherwise there would be no good beer to drink, and lauded the seasonal Sam Adams beers because they’re good for timid beer drinkers to cut teeth.
So, what’s Jim Koch do in exchange for my advocacy? He dumps all over it, not once, but twice. The first time was his encouragement of moronic consumer behavior, and that one resulted in my decision not to carry his Sam Adams Light brand – in fairness, not that I would have, anyway.
This second outrage means that I’ll no longer carry any of Boston Beer’s seasonal drafts, although I’ll not let my annoyance dictate a loss of the only genuinely noteworthy bottle beer that he makes available on a regular basis, Triple Bock, which although an idiotic, bastardized term, remains a fine and unique beer.
The third time’s a charm for me. Jim, one more strike and your beers are out. One more strike, and you have made an enemy. Put down the stock listings for just a moment. Pour yourself an ice-cold, world-class Samuel Adams Boston Lager – better yet, just drink it from the bottle. Look in the first available mirror:
Is there any trace remaining of the idealist looking back at you, or just a piece of shiny silver?
What was that?
Oh, I see.
Answer just a few questions?
Sure - what’s on your mind?
Uh-huh. You want to follow in our footsteps, have your own place, preside over a specialty beer bar just like this one, formulate an ambitious beer-vending agenda in the metropolitan Louisville area, rake in the big bucks hand over fist … cool. I’m for it. But there are a few things you should know …
It’s not just a job – it’s an adventure.
The good news is that the pleasures deriving from living and working the life of beer far outweigh the pains associated with the lifestyle (my liver begs to disagree, but who ever listens to body parts, anyway?) Most of the time the gratification is immediate, the vibe genuine, and the personalities a marvelous tapestry that yields a different perspective each time one looks at it.
The bad news? Money, time, toilets, frozen pipes, endless solicitations, garbage in the parking lot, and keeping the dishwasher happy and reasonably sober on a busy Friday night after his girlfriend calls to say that while she’s pregnant, at least the baby isn’t his.
Good beer in Louisville? We have proven that it can be done, and for this, I am proud, grateful and thankful.
At the same time, one must interpret success in a niche market within the context of the larger majority. Truly, the majority defines the niche. Most consumers of beer have been weaned on a lifetime of vapid swill. They cannot be successfully taught to experience the true flavor of beer until an aggressive intervention strategy of deprogramming has been undertaken and completed.
As we have become more popular, it has become more difficult to educate the newcomers. The physical requirements of serving swarms of people attracted by newspaper reviews, for whom a basic understanding of what we’re trying to do in terms of beer is lacking, unfortunately make it almost impossible to explain the nature of the mission.
Thus, the oft-repeated spectacle that goes something like this: “We saw your review, and wasn’t it great about all these beers you serve, the list is so incredible, and all those drafts – now, I don’t like anything dark or heavy or bitter, and my wife, well, she doesn’t like beer at all so just give her a white zinfandel … Heineken’s fine for me … unless you have something, well, something a bit less sharp … and did I say I like my beer cold?”
Those muffled screams you hear are ours. We cherish the opportunity to meet new people, and are frustrated when we don’t have the chance to at least try to exorcise their adherence to the lowest common denominator in beer. All things being equal, and with time, we can save some of them. Others are beyond our help, primarily because their everyday existence is a narrow one that revolves around rabid fear of the unknown.
Certain obstacles to the pursuit of enlightenment.
Setting aside the irony of 250+ million fellow countrymen who are firmly convinced of their individuality even as they unquestioningly obey the directives of television advertisements and fundamentalist preachers, there are other behavioral patterns that stand firmly in the path of beer flavor appreciation.
Here’s an obvious example: It simply isn’t possible to experience beer flavor when tobacco in any form is involved in the equation. How do know this? I smoke cigars, but never when I want to actually “taste” a beer. After a few pints, when I’ve experienced new beers or old favorites, and the olfactory perceptions have been dimmed … that’s when I light ‘em up. Arguably, a cigar can taste good with certain stronger beers, yet it must be conceded that in such a pairing, tobacco is the dominant partner, one that detracts from the optimum beer flavor experience.
I have witnessed bizarre, surreal occasions marked by earnest discussions about beer flavor undertaken by beer drinkers who dipped smokeless wintergreen tobacco throughout the session, washing it down with expensive imported specialties. It’s very hard to imagine any beer capable of overcoming Skoal, but there it is.
Wrap your lips around this long neck.
Crowding behind door #2, we have those who readily identify themselves as “bottle babies.” For the bottle baby, it is gospel that the pinnacle of any beer drinking experience is reached by being able to lift a bottle of beer to his or her lips, while at the same time proudly and loudly refusing the assistance of a proper glass.
Once I saw a self-identified bottle baby purchase and consume a 750-ml Chimay Grand Reserve straight from the bottle, and this action constituted a profound moral dilemma for me. Should I call 9-1-1, or simply smash the empty bottle over the offending, fluffily soft head? The point here goes far beyond Miss Manners: Much of taste is derived from your sense of smell, and you cannot smell beer when it is consumed straight from the bottle.
It’s certainly no coincidence that mainstream swill is tailor-made for the “bottle babblies” of the world. It’s usually served cold enough to deaden any taste buds that may have managed to survive previous assaults, and if the liquid is slugged straight from the long-necked bottle (anyone for phallic interpretations here?), then there’s no chance of sensory simulation. This in turn permits a free, unimpeded flow of easily digestible alcohol straight to the stomach, the brain and the pool cue being wrapped around a fellow drinker’s neck.
Besides that, have you ever noticed that “bottle bubblies” never manage to finish their beer? There’s always an ounce of liquid left in the end. Isn’t that wasteful?
On the other hand, is it logically possible to “waste” swill?
The congestion is easing, and the Curmudgeon’s inhibitions are starting to melt away.
Praise the Lord and pass the mute.
Yet another aspect of the human condition that stands in the way of aesthetic appreciation, whatever the topic, is the local custom of screaming like a banshee to people seated, say, fourteen inches away from the speaker.
I’d have thought that the NASCAR generation would grasp the wisdom of the old admonition to “put your brain in gear before you put your mouth in motion,” but this seldom is the case. Instead, barroom discussions of philosophy, geography, history and the pristine amateurism of college basketball generally take place at deafening volumes that remind passers-by of airport tarmacs, rock concerts, civil defense sirens and machine gun shoots.
So why is Jim Koch stepping all over my buzz?
It feels ever so nice to vent, but my ulterior motive for listing these irritants is to establish a handful of “ideals” for the appreciation of better beer.
Ideally, the beer is in good condition and is served properly at somewhat the right temperature, and in an appropriate glass.
Ideally, the drinker doesn’t chew mango-flavored bubble gum, much less chewing tobacco; nor does he suffocate within range of a half-dozen varying colognes and perfumes.
Ideally, the venue is conducive to the experience, and the person seated at the next table isn’t a lout, a boor, or a serial obscenity spouter.
It is my belief that those of us in the business of serving better beer must at least aspire to these ideals, while of course acknowledging that perfection is elusive for human beings. Those in the better beer business who sabotage these ideals consequently are deserving of the Curmudgeon’s wrath; thus – the envelope please – the winner of my first-ever “Self Inflicted Oxy-MORON of the Year” award goes to … Jim Koch of Boston Beer/Samuel Adams!
Congratulations, Jim, for watering down your (and America’s) “world-class” beer to meet the lower expectations of the Liteweight lobby, then compounding the outrage by dumbing down your company’s advertising to exalt the very excesses of idiocy that I try to alleviate in my clientele on a daily basis.
The designer water in question.
Most readers are aware that our supermarket and airport lounge “choices” now include Samuel Adams Light, an American low-calorie “light” lager brewed by the fellow (Koch) who said he’d never brew such a beer, and promoted on the tube with advertisements that features a young pretty-something male drinker orgasmically shrieking like a titillated banshee as he praises the flavor of Samuel Adams Light, which he is swallowing straight from the bottle.
I don’t have to visit Sam Adams’s web site to know that somewhere within, located on the curb of a cyber-space cul-de-sac, there are instructions on how properly to enjoy craft beer – something about the glass to use, the way to pour the beer, how to taste the product of so much slow-brewed care.
Accordingly, my long-held proposition remains valid: Light beer leads inexorably to brain death.
Yes, I’ve tasted the beer.
Neither screaming nor the spontaneous reading of poetry ensued. My groin remained unperturbed. Samuel Adams Light is harmless, odorless, and largely flavorless. Trying desperately to make sense of it all, I have a question for Mr. Koch: Who’ll buy it?
There’s far too much flavor for the Liteweights, for whom mortal terror of olfactory stimulation is a defining point of all existence. There’s not enough flavor for the more discerning beer drinkers who have learned to think with their big heads and not the little one that operates the remote.
This leaves only the clueless, trendy urban younguns, whose ephemeral fidelity is likely to be tested by the first malternative beverage to come sauntering by dressed only in a high-priced, hip hop-laced ad campaign.
If drinking Sam Adams Light means they’ll be coming into my establishment, yelling and carrying on and pounding light beer straight from the bottle -- well, then, Jimmy boy, we’ll not be selling Sam Adams Light. I haven’t spent ten years attempting to educate my clientele to suddenly throw it all away for Koch’s folly.
As Casey Stengel once remarked to the hapless New York Mets of 1962: “Does anybody here know how to play this game?”
Friday, February 11, 2005
When I was a child, persistent and grand notions of world travel filled my mind. During long hours spent gazing at encyclopedias, collecting postage stamps and watching 3-D View Master slides, my imagination ran wild, freely roaming an unexplored, mysterious planet.
Very early on, certain geographical entities became consciously fixed in my dreams, prime among them the Acropolis, Red Square and the Great Pyramids. There were other places and other times, but these were the “Big Three” that I resolved to visit when grown.
35 years have passed, and of the three, only Egypt has eluded me. The remains of ancient Athens were subjected to intense scrutiny in 1985, and Soviet-era Moscow welcomed me two years later (also in 1989 and 1999). In both cases, the endlessly fascinating tapestry of real life bolstered and abetted those lingering fantasies from long ago.
Because dreams are not the exclusive province of youth, fidelity to them is balanced by the inevitability of adjustment to fresher hopes and visions fostered by personal growth and experience.
Geography, history and travel remained educational priorities for me throughout high school and college. Early in the 1980’s, beer began to be a topic of conscious reflection for me, something to be studied and absorbed academically as well as consumed religiously.
Previously, considerations of beer were limited to determining which of us had enough gas to drive to Louisville’s West End on Sunday afternoon and buy a cold suitcase or two of Old Milwaukee. Now, this wasn’t enough.
Over time, there had developed within me an urgent desire to know more about beer. Where does it come from? How is it made? Why are some beers more interesting than others? Where do I look for answers? I was in desperate need of guidance.
Unbeknownst to me, a literary guru was about to appear on my horizon, one capable of connecting the dots between beer, human culture, history and geography, and doing so with considerable style and unimpeachable erudition.
The father of us all.
As with so many others, my personal tutor for understanding beer was the pioneering British beer writer, Michael Jackson. His “World Guide to Beer” was to me in 1982 what Nirvana was to a generation of garage bands a decade later.
Today, the Internet boasts dozens of beer-related web sites, including one (www.beerhunter.com) devoted to Jackson’s own works, and the notion of writing about beer, while regrettably still not universal, at least isn’t regarded as indicative of mental illness as it was in the past. In those dark days, the only beer road map was his, and I pored over it hundreds of times in search of direction.
Jackson’s nom de plume, “The Beer Hunter,” derives from his career as tireless worldwide pub crawler, and from his far-flung chronicles arose my own fresh new dreams of beer and travel. Jackson wrote of drinking smoked lager in Bamberg, cask-conditioned bitter in London, and funky lambic in rural Belgium. He described the pursuit of stout in rural Sri Lanka, a hop harvest in Washington state, and the principles of floor malting in Central Europe.
Soon it became abundantly clear that beer dreams borne of reading and sampling in adulthood were running concurrently with travel dreams formulated as a wide-eyed child.
Almost overnight, I became a wide-eyed beer tourist.
It became imperative that I experience not just Red Square, but also the Soviet cafeteria-style beer hall a short distance away on Kalinin Prospekt (I found it). The sweaty uphill walk to visit the Acropolis was meaningless to me without the subsequent downhill prowling of adjacent neighborhood tavernas in search of local brands of Greek lager (there were none).
Someday, I hope it will be the same in Cairo, and I am not dissuaded by the rumors of formaldehyde in Egyptian beer.
In December 2003, it was the same in Ireland.
See what one or toucan do.
Specifically, my holiday time on the Emerald Isle provided the opportunity to eat fresh local oysters and to wash them down with Irish dry stout. Having done so will not impress every reader, but for an idea of what the experience meant to me, I refer again to Jackson’s road map.
He wrote early and often about the joys of pairing stout with oysters, noting that the dry roastiness of the former serves as perfect complement to the subtle, elusive flavor of the latter. To be sure, I’d taken Jackson’s advice several times previously in other locales, including once at the London branch of Dublin’s excellent Porter House restaurant and brewpub. But the Irish geographical imperative had been missing, and I intended to rectify this gustatory oversight while making plans for the journey.
The prelude is worth noting. My partner Diana and I spent seven leisurely days sans rainfall roaming the venerable hills, freshwater lakes and craggy shoreline along Ireland’s western coast, savoring the island’s striking natural beauty – the majestic Cliffs of Moher, the rocky Burren badlands and the primeval tableau of Connemara.
Of course, there were occasional pauses for pints of Guinness and Smithwick’s (a low-gravity Irish red ale), in pubs both traditional and modern, and much rumination as to the changing state of the Irish people and nation.
For a travel book, I had chosen Robert Kee’s “The Green Flag,” an account of Irish nationalism that struck numerous chords, some inspiring and others profoundly melancholy. The fortuitous purchase of a recently released Dubliners CD provided soundtrack music. Altogether, the trip was joyous, but the best was yet to come.
“Go to the Weir.”
The oyster dreams had been back-loaded into our itinerary. With travel days dwindling, our path led southward from the soulful vistas of Connemara. A shopping morning in Galway City proved enjoyable, and by mid-afternoon we were checked into a comfortable bed & breakfast outside the village of Kilcolgan, near the slightly larger town of Clarinbridge.
The choice of accommodation was no accident, for the confluence of waters in the estuary bordering the green fields of Clarinbridge, where fresh river water meets the sea brine, is home to a particularly succulent variety of Galway Bay oyster. In fact, Clarinbridge hosts an annual September festival dedicated to exalting the very same bi-valve mollusk that I intended to unashamedly devour for dinner.
When we asked our hostess for her choice of best local venue for oysters, she was decisive and effusive: Moran’s Oyster Cottage, located “on the Weir” and just a short hop down the highway from her rooming establishment. Noting that there was barely an hour of sunlight remaining in a short Irish winter’s day, she urged us to leave immediately and enjoy a stroll behind Moran’s along the waterfront bluffs overlooking the 700-acre oyster bed.
Moran’s is housed in a neat, clean building that seems the very essence of nondescript, at least at first glance. A few other houses are clustered next to it, and all are within yards of the inlet that leads west toward the estuary, then the bay, and eventually, the open sea. The “weir” locator refers to an old wall built across the river for the purpose of catching salmon. It has become local patois for the vicinity.
As we arrived, there was a fiery red sunset accenting the blue waters and green fields. Nearby, a collection of apathetic cattle shuffled heavily between salt blocks. Ruins of an old castle could be seen to the south. It was a clear, brilliant ending to the daylight hours, and an aperitif to the meal soon to be enjoyed.
Entering the restaurant through the old pub front requires squeezing through a tiny set of wooden doors surely intended to remind Americans that we’re terminally overfed. The entryway leads to a warren of barroom snugs, beyond which a vast rear seating area of more recent vintage is revealed. You begin to sense that there’s more going on at Moran’s than at the usual Irish pub … but apparently, it wasn’t always that way.
Moran’s currently is operated by the sixth generation of its founding family in a line that goes back more than two centuries. For much of the pub’s long working life, it was a typical Irish country pub, sharing the dock with three other watering holes.
All of them thrived for so long as their bayside locale remained a trading spot for seaweed (used as fertilizer) from the Aran Islands and turf, the peaty stuff of Irish fireplaces, which the farmers brought in on carts and transferred to waiting boats.
By the 1960’s, highways and trucking firms had put an end to the weir’s two-way trade by boat, and Moran’s very nearly joined its erstwhile competitors in bankruptcy. Little more than a sense of familial honor kept the doors open, but eventually the decision was made to carry on by concentrating on two things to the exclusion of all else: Oysters and stout.
Subsequently, a fiscal corner was turned when a visiting Guinness official decided to use Moran’s as the site of the brewery’s VIP party during the Clarinbridge oyster festival, and soon word of mouth led to a dramatic and lasting transformation of the pub’s clientele.
People began driving from Galway City and Limerick to sample the wares, then from Dublin and Cork, and Moran’s prospered. Almost miraculously, a worthy tradition was preserved, but in an unapologetic, modern fashion. The list of diners now includes the Emperor and Empress of Japan, Woody Allen, Naomi Campbell, Roger Moore, Bono, the Edge, and a veritable who’s who of Irish politics and entertainment.
Steady expansion, menu diversification and the predictable gentrifying effect haven’t compromised the core values at the oyster cottage, and we’re all lucky for it. Here’s to another two hundred years for Moran’s. Slainte!
And now for the Nitty Gritty.
It was time to eat. For openers, I opted to go straight for the jugular with a dozen oysters on the half shell and a pint of Murphy’s Stout, while Diana opted for twelve garlic-fried mussels.
Her choice was delicious, and may well have been the highlight of a hundred other meals, but on this occasion the oysters lived up to their reputation in a stunning fashion far more rarified than I’d ever guessed. The oysters were silver-dollar sized, crazily plump and mouthwateringly redolent of the estuary from whence they’d come so short a time before.
The first six were consumed straight up, with the back half-dozen treated to a squirt of lemon. A basket of rich brown bread with butter was an added indulgence.
While I’m happy that we have jet planes and sophisticated shipping methods that make it possible for seafood to be brought to places where in former times canned tuna would have sufficed, there can be no comparison between the oysters at Moran’s and the otherwise spindly, humble creatures I’ve eaten near home.
To wash down these gems of the nearby bay, Murphy’s proved to be a perfect complement. Ireland’s “second” stout is softer and fruitier than the more widely known Guinness, but still maintains the dignified dryness demanded by the oyster’s texture and flavor.
As Michael Jackson suggested, the oyster and stout combination was an olfactory winner, and aptly fulfilled my dream in every way.
Understandably, the appetizers were fated to “make” the meal, but the main courses weren’t shabby: Tempura prawns, smoked wild salmon, boiled potatoes and salad, joined often by more Murphy’s. For dessert, taken in the solitude of the bar in the oldest part of the building, my choice was a final pint of Ireland’s second stout and a surprisingly fresh H. Upmann Robusto, Havana-style.
A final day in Ireland remained to us, and it was spent as guests in an opulent castle-turned-hotel that once belonged to the family of an Irish rebel, yet my high point was dinner at Moran’s.
The remarkable eatery sates both the hunger and the imagination of the visitor, but more than that, it symbolizes a transformation of the Irish Republic from subsistence to affluence without the loss of those qualities of hospitality and generosity that have always marked the Irish people as distinctive.
It may seem a bit much to draw such far-reaching inferences from a plate of mollusks and a jar of ale, but not for those of us raised on the magnificent writing of Michael Jackson and the dreams thus engendered.
The thing that often occurs is never much appreciated.
It’s the first drop that destroyed me; there’s no harm at all in the last.
He is like a bagpipe; he never makes a noise till his belly’s full.
(Originally published in 2004)
For Robin Garr's complete review of the restaurant, go to Maido Essential Japanese.
My wife and I had a very tasty meal at Maido last night. Sake Slinger Jim Huie has expanded/reworked Maido's beer list. The new list reminds me of Rich O's (circa 1992), short, diverse and very well thought out.
Jim has added my favorite German lager (and I'm a hoppy ale guy), Kostritzer Schwarzbier, to his draft line-up.
The complete list follows:
Draft: Kostritzer Schwarzbier, Grant's Perfect Porter, Rogue American Amber, Kronnenbourg 1664, BBC APA, BBC Nut Brown
Bottled Beers: Epherme (Unibroue - Canada), McEwan's Scotch Ale, Bell's Amber Ale, Hoppus Maximus (Thirsty Dog), Rogue Oregon Golden, Left Hand Milk Stout, Grant's Mandarin Hefeweizen, Sam Adams Cherry Wheat, Bitburger (Bitte ein Bit) Pilsner, Aspen Edge, A-B World Select
Dinner Bottles to share (750ml. range): Rogue Morimoto Imperial Pilsner, Rogue Morimoto Soba Ale (a crisp buckwheat ale), Talon Barleywine (Mendocino Brewing Co.'s 11% ABV monster), Kirin Ichiban, Asahi Super Dry
Maido always has had the most complete range of Sake in the city, and now it has a beer list to match.
Now for the truth ...
Thursday evening, March 30, 1995. Seven residents of the Louisville metropolitan area are seated at a table deep within a huge building somewhere overseas.
They are drinking. Drinking beer. It is the seventh day of the 1995 Doppelbock Viscosity Tour, and things are about to get ugly.
Then, without warning, it happens.
"Meinen Damen und Herren -- Ladies and Gentlemen -- we have a very special request for Biggus Dickus of Kentucky."
Oom-pah players in authentic Bavarian attire pick up their instruments and follow the practiced hand of the bandleader, and soon the oversized main hall of the Matheser Bierstadt (a.k.a. Beer City) in Munich is filled with an uncharacteristic, yet oddly pleasing sound.
A neo-Tijuana brass riff rockets through the cigarette smoke.
"Love is a burning thing ..."
I choke on my Triumphator Doppelbock and look across the massive wooden table at Barrie Ottersbach, who looks back at me and gleefully croons "fur is a burning thing."
The music continues.
"I fell into a burning ring of fire ..."
" ... burning ring of dung," echoes a delirious Ottersbach.
Biggus looks pleased, and he should be. Three empty liter masses are in front of him, and his tape player is rolling.
It is Big Dick’s (a.k.a. Rick Lang) first trip to Europe, and I had drawn the lucky raffle ticket entitling me to be his chaperone. Never did I imagine that it would entitle me to a rendition of Johnny Cash performed by the Tuba-Teutonic Waltz Kings.
Sometimes, things just don’t work out like you’d planned.
Hardy Bands of Travelers.
The doppelbock search was the first of three European journeys that I had the good fortune to undertake in 1995. I was accompanied by Lang, Ottersbach, Rick Buckman, Dave Pierce, Bob Reed and George Schroeder, and this merry band visited Prague, Bamberg and Munich for a total of ten days. Kim Wiesener (see below) joined us for the Prague portion.
In August, I flew to Prague, via Zurich, to meet George Hrabcak and Frank Thackeray, and to visit with George’s family in Ostrava and Prague before setting off with Frank to Slovakia and Hungary, again for a total of ten days.
Finally, in October I tagged along with Pierce, John Dennis and Ron Downer (a Tennessee microbrewer and friend of Dave’s) for a whirlwind, ten-day beer tour of Dusseldorf (one day), Cologne (four hours) and Belgium, during which I took a brief two-day side trip to Copenhagen to visit Danish FOSSILS Wiesener and Kim Andersen.
This adds up to the staggering (believe it) total of 30+ days, 12 FOSSILS members, between 150 and 200 different beers sampled (not counting multiple samplings) and pubs and drinking establishments far too numerous to mention, not to mention the sheer weight of humor and happenings springing from the places and the camaraderie -- all of which defies my ability to recount.
In the following, I’m attempting to do no more than sketch the high points of these three wonderful learning and imbibing experiences.
Prague, Woodrow Wilson Station, March 24.
The train from Germany had come and gone, and contrary to plan, it had not disgorged six eager tourists from America looking to drink the fascinating city of Prague dry of Pilsner Urquell.
It could mean only one thing. My friends had missed their rail connection, and now they were doomed to flounder around Frankfurt and drink that city’s odious Binding Pils while dodging the Polizei cars speeding past them on the way to apprehend the drug dealers who congregate in the parks barely a beer-cap finger-flip away from the towering, atypical skyscrapers of Germany's banking capital and prime transport hub.
Hardly. Indeed, the first train had left Frankfurt without them owing to the unexplained lateness of the US Air flight from Pittsburgh (at least it didn't crash), but the group made the next train, and Danish FOSSIL Kim Wiesener and I were again at the platform to meet it.
It was a momentous occasion as Biggus Dickus, Barrie Ottersbach, George Schroeder, David Pierce, Rick Buckman and Bob Reed emerged from the rail car, heavily laden with baggage and the vast debris of the nonstop, seven-hour party that had broken out on the train.
Pierce was incoherent, mumbling something like "Lolita, Lolita ..."
Ominously, Ottersbach waved an enormous pepper-coated salami that nearly impaled him when he tripped over a carelessly discarded bottle of beer. A money clip tumbled from Dave's pocket and was effortlessly scooped up by the slick-fielding Lang. Rick Buckman attempted to shake my hand but couldn't without first putting one of the beers into a coat pocket. Within seconds, Kim and I understood that all were helplessly swizzled.
We led them into the subway, rode one stop, bolted from the escalator and guided the weaving group of foreigners to the Hotel Opera, which is conveniently located ten minutes by foot to the east of Wenceslas and Old Town Squares .
After registration and the stowing of packs and suitcases, it was decided to venture off in search of beer, but the pickings were slim in the immediate vicinity of the hotel. We finally spilled into a small pub/restaurant, where draft Gambrinus was available. Contradicting the signs on the wall, the indifferent people on duty let us know that the kitchen was closed. The beer tasted flat and old. We left, but not before learning a lesson as to the way it used to be during Communist times.
The next two days were filled with long walks through the city, rest stops in the many pubs and reflections on the ways that the city has and hasn’t changed since the demise of Communism. Although the graceful Baroque arches of old Prague are gradually yielding to the golden McDonald's variety, and the facades where rote pronouncements of socialist solidarity once were unfurled now bear the neon language of multinational commerce, most of the classic virtues of the Czech capital remain intact.
Herzlich Wilkommen nach Deutschland.
On the 27th, we left Prague for Germany, stopping along the way to visit the Pilsner Urquell brewery in Plzen.
Urquell, the most famous Czech beer, has been a constant in my travels since 1987, when Barrie Ottersbach and I made our first, unsuccessful visit to the brewery in Plzen. Our 1995 visit enabled Barrie to fulfill his dream of being able to pass through the hallowed Urquell gate, but it also served to illustrate the extent to which things have changed in eight years.
We learned that the renowned wooden fermenters and aging vessels have entirely given way to stainless steel, and that the lagering time has been cut in half, from three months to a month and a half. We saw the way that Pilsner Urquell’s management has adapted to the post-Communist market by emphasizing cleaner, updated labels for the brewery’s line of products, with the result that the archaic "Prazdroj 12O" signs once seen everywhere are being supplanted by contemporary ads and promos.
We were surprised at having the opportunity to sample the brewery’s new German-style wheat beer, and pleased at its faithfulness to the Bavarian prototypes. Finally, the group was able to enjoy several after-tour beers in a facility that would have been unimaginable in 1987: A huge, new, German-style beer hall capable of seating 700 people that occupies the site of at least part of an old malting.
Next stop was Bamberg. It snowed, and we walked through the storm to find the taproom of the Mahr’s brewery, where weizenbock kept us warm. A tour of the Kaiserdom brewery was interesting, but little was learned about smoked lager, which we drank in abundance at the Spezial brewpub and the restaurant of Schlenkerla, Bamberg’s most justifiably famous Rauchbier. The food at the Maisel Braustubl, our small hotel, was as good as I remembered it, and locals taught us something each evening when we shared tables with them at the pubs.
Too few Americans visit Bamberg, and that’s good.
The tour ended in Munich, home of excess and overkill in almost every aspect of the beer drinking experience, and a place where Barrie Ottersbach feels at home like nowhere else. The Munich portion of the trip featured a brewery tour of Spaten, which in itself was rather ordinary, and yet it ended with a grand lunch at the brewery’s banquet room atop its grain silo, with tremendous views of Munich and as much beer as we cared to drink.
It was a fine day, but the next day was better.
Guido was the nicest Italian man we never met in Munich. Although he didn’t know us, he took us on a trip to the countryside, bought beers and food, and even paid for taxi rides.
On our last day in Munich, as David, Rick Buckman and I exited the Pension Hungaria to go into the city center for shopping, we passed a phone booth only yards from our door. Dave glanced in and spotted a billfold, which contained cash (both German and Italian), credit cards and an Italian passport.
Diligently, our local brewer turned in the wallet to our landlady, Frau Wolff ... but not before extracting the standard, universally-recognized fee for getting your things back, 200 Deutschmarks.
We thanked Guido profusely, and after arming ourselves with beers and recruiting Bob Reed, we set off for the 40-minute train ride to Kloster Andechs, a Benedictine monastery and religious complex set on a hill in a beautiful rural area, which in summertime would provide sweeping vistas for those drinking from the vantage point of the beer garden that surrounds the buildings on numerous levels.
The brewing is now done in the village below, but the old brewhouse is visible at one end of the indoor drinking area, which comprises several rooms. We barely found space in one of them -- the place was jam-packed with locals on a Saturday afternoon -- and consumed liter masses of Double Bock and Hefe-Weizen. Beer as well as food is self-service; the pig’s knuckle that Guido bought me was the approximate size of a basketball, oozing grease and porcine yummies, and defeating my efforts to finish it.
Grazi, Guido. I’ll never forget you.
Summer in the Czech Pubs with George.
I didn’t intend to take two trips in 1995, but the lure of visiting the Czech Republic in the company of George Hrabcak and Frank Thackeray turned out to be an irresistible temptation. Back in 1989, I’d spent a month with George’s parents in Ostrava and his aunt and uncle in Prague, and it was quite enjoyable to meet them again, especially George’s dad, Vladimir, who is an amazing human being.
The beer highlights of the August trip involved two very different pub crawls, one in the environs of the village outside Ostrava where George’s parents now live, and another in Prague with George’s cousin, Ales. A microbrewery in the small town of Hlucin was also visited, and is described in a sidebar.
The first began at the village pub (in Czech, hospoda) in Dehylov, which was accessible to George, Frank and myself by foot, perhaps ten minutes up the hill from George’s parents’ home. A few local luminaries, all of whom were known to George, had gathered for an Ostravar Brunch, Ostravar being one of the three generally preferred regional beers. The other local favorites are Radegast (my preference) and Zlatovar.
From the hospoda’s terraced entryway, industrial Ostrava’s smokestacks can be seen a few miles away past hay fields and wooded areas. The city, which I’ve discussed previously in WTD, is entirely comparable to the Pittsburgh of several decades past. Frank suffered several violent nostalgia attacks because of this fact -- or maybe he had just had too many Ostravars.
After a solid, food-based lunch prepared by George’s mom, we walked down to the river, and near the river we drank. This area was one of George’s youthful haunts, where kayaking is done. Appropriately, a rustic drinking site, U Lodenice, is maintained for the use of sportsmen and spectators, and fine pints of Radegast are to be had at picnic tables in the shade of big hardwoods. Clouds of cigarette smoke and the reeking presence of Czech beer cheese complete the olfactory feast.
At this point, it was decided that we would go visit George’s uncle in the neighboring village of Dobroslavice, which George guaranteed was only a short distance away by route of a shortcut over the hills. The ensuing death march through the timber along several logging access roads left me soaked with sweat, gasping for breath and in desperate need of a beer ... bringing us to the next stop of the tour, the village pub in Dobroslavice, where we met an interesting young high school student who had spent time in Michigan as an exchange student and who had mastered English vernacular. We had a lengthy discussion about Beavis and Butt-Head as I downed my Radegasts.
Finally, George’s cousin drove us back to Dehylov, where we were alarmed to discover that the pub had shut down for the evening. There was a final hope, Restaurace U Kurtu, at Dehylov’s new sports and tennis club.
It also was preparing to close, but we caught a break, as a man drinking there turned out to be Mirek, who on my previous visit in 1989 had guided me on a walk to a rural church and an examination of the architecture therein. He is a guiding force behind the club, and so everyone was persuaded to stay late. Very much like home.
Prague Mirror Ball.
Recollections of the Prague pub crawl are considerable hazier, as we were guided into more establishments than any drinker could be expected to remember.
Suffice to say that there is no better way to spend an evening in Prague than to be guided by a native through the city’s amazing warren of watering holes, including places where malodorous Czech beer cheese can, in summer, be smelled at least a block away -- small, wood-lined, smoke-stained places with beers like Staropramen, Velkopopovicky Kozel and Krusovicky (unknown and excellent pilsner from the hop-growing area north of Prague) on draft, all tucked into the city’s Byzantine alleyways and archaic streets.
On the very long day of the Prague pub crawl, we were climbing one of the streets below the castle when we saw a ravaged poster that announced a concert: Neil Young and the members of Pearl Jam at the ice hockey stadium, scheduled for the evening of our departure on the overnight train for Kosice. A quick glance at dates and time confirmed that Frank and I could pull it off by stowing our packs at the central station, riding the Metro (subway) a few stops to the Holesovice district, then making it back in time for our train around midnight.
And so it went. Despite assurances by George and his cousin to the effect that hardly anyone would attend such a high-priced concert (approximately $16 per ticket), the ticket lines were long and the place was full. I’ll avoid a concert review, except to provide a point of reference to Neil Young aficionados who may be reading this: "Cortez the Killer," "Rockin’ in the Free World" and "Down By the River." These were the last three songs performed. There were quite a few kids drinking beer, in this case Staropramen, and Neil made one memorable statement when he drank deeply of a bottle of beer, held it aloft and asked the crowd "is this a Budweiser? Is this the real Budweiser from Czechoslovakia?" After the roar subsided, he added "it sure tastes good."
Neil Young is baaad.
Do I Hear Three?
I didn’t intend to take three trips in 1995 ...
Dave Pierce and my travel agent conspired to make me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and with a little fancy footwork, I found myself back at the airport in mid-October. Packing was simple, since the bag hadn’t been emptied after the August trip.
The October excursion to Germany and Belgium (and for me, briefly to Denmark) was something special -- not that the other two trips weren’t good, but in the sense that almost everything about the fall trip worked out favorably. The flight schedule was the best ever, bringing us in to Amsterdam at 7:00 a.m. local time. The ground transportation posed no problems, with the trains running on time. There was brilliant, sunny autumn weather without the rain that often interferes with fall itineraries -- in fact, it was so warm that the lambic brewers were having to wait a bit longer to begin their batches.
My fellow travelers were great, and I learned more on this trip than the previous two combined. My last visit to Belgium had been in 1987, and that eight-year absence was proven to have been too long to stay away from the most diverse brewing country in the world -- it would be a beautiful, thought-provoking place even if the beer was bad, but it’s not, and so we drank much of it, and were sated, and are currently thinking seriously about doing it again.
A note to Bob Capshew: Okay, you've been right all along. Just don’t rub it in.
First, We Examine Dusseldorf and Cologne.
We didn’t pause in Amsterdam to do any more than flash our passports and hop a train to Dusseldorf , not even to wash down a raw herring with a Dutch pils.
Treats of far greater gravity awaited in Dusseldorf, where by some act of divine intervention our day in the city was found to coincide with the crucial autumn "Sticke" day, where the brewpub Zum Uerige (and maybe some others) rolls out a special version of its ale. It happens only twice each year, and it isn’t something to be missed.
Dusseldorf’s best Alt is brewed by the small brewpubs in the city’s Altstadt. The ale is copper-colored, clean by virtue of cold-aging, complex in the malt flavor and pleasingly hopped in the finish. We dropped in on all four of the brewpubs in the Altstadt, including Goldene Kessel (Schumacher Altbier), Zum Schlussel, Im Fuchschen and Zum Uerige.
As expected, Zum Uerige’s Sticke was the high point. It has a higher gravity, it is dry-hopped, and it is orgasmic. I can say no more.
The following day, we set out for Belgium, pausing first in Cologne for a brief tour of the brewpubs and bars in the Heumarkt area that serve Kolsch, Cologne’s local specialty style. Kolschbiers are mild, golden ales, and are most often described as delicate. They are good and poundable, as Ed Willard has noted elsewhere in this year’s Travel Dog. On my last trip to Cologne, I favored P.J. Fruh’s Kolsch, but this time I leaned more toward the fruity Malzmuhle variety and the hoppier Paffgen.
After four hours of strolling and sampling in the shadow of the immense Cathedral, we hopped a westbound express for Belgium.
A change of trains was necessary at Liege, and we made for the station buffet to have an inaugural beer. There were 35 choices on the menu, which by Belgian standards were rather elemental choices, but ones that spanned the range of the brewer’s art.
In America, if you can find a train station, you also have a choice: Bud or Bud Light.
Also in Liege are two beer bars, each owned by the same person, each open 24 hours a day, and each with 1022 beers on its list. We chose not to go there because we wanted to see the rest of the country.
Namur is located in the Meuse river valley in southeastern Belgium, which is referred to as Wallonia and is French-speaking. The northern part of the country is filled with speakers of Flemish, which is similar to Dutch.
The linguistic divisions reflect the respective cultural heritages of the two halves, and in Brussels, the national capital as well as the most important administrative point in the European Union, a local dialect is spoken that it is alleged not even the natives truly understand.
As a tourist, the best strategy is to speak English, so as not to trample the sensitive issue of language. The next best strategy is to drink Belgian beer and to know something about it, because the natives are delighted that foreigners appreciate their brewing heritage.
In Namur, which is a clean and scenic city with an old citadel on a hill that provides sweeping views of the surrounding countryside, our first move after settling in was to take Tim Webb’s Good Beer Guide to Belgium and Holland and seek out Eblouissant (The Dazzling), a bar featured in the Namur section therein and one highly praised by the author.
Unfortunately, we had an old edition of the book. We found the address, but it was a different establishment. Because the bartender was kind enough to give us directions to the new location (27 Rue Armee Grouchy) of the bar we were seeking, we drank a round anyway before walking across town. Even then, we almost missed it, as there’s really no sign other than an authentic Irish pub front boasting draft Murphy’s Stout.
Inside were two dozen locals who were gathered to celebrate their return from a tour to Sri Lanka. Owner Alain Mossiat welcomed us -- a bit warily at first, then more enthusiastically as we were able to demonstrate our earnest instincts as beer pilgrims. The bar specializes in ales from the Wallonia region, which Alain feels are poorly represented on beer lists elsewhere in the country. After our first selection, we let him choose for us the remainder of the evening. The pinnacle was an aged, homebrewed mead from his personal cellar, which quite simply was the best that I’ve ever had.
It was an eclectic place that set the tone for most of the specialty beer bars we would visit in the following days. We were seated in an interior room that was piled full of junk, bottles and beer advertisements, this being done to get us out of the way of the party. Having embarked upon our sampling and finished eating our spaghetti, a spirited argument ensued as to the true nature of craft-brewed beer in America, with Alain interrupting occasionally to explain the next selection. Expatriates abroad. Drinking, talking. Very cool.
A Quick One to Denmark.
At this juncture, I went on a road trip from Brussels to Copenhagen to participate in a birthday bash for Kim Wiesener. This afforded me the opportunity to take overnight train trips in both directions, drink bland Belgian Jupiler lager from cans with two Norwegians (on the way up) and watch a Chinese girl get arrested at the Danish-German border (on the way back), enjoy the herring buffet at Nyhavn the first day and a traditional Danish "lunch," complete with various herrings and tidbits washed down by Carlsberg and aquavit, on the second, and then actually attend the party itself, where beer ranked second to an incredibly strange, multi-alcoholic jungle juice.
Which is to say, it was an entirely debauched affair and one fully worthy of Kim’s considerable talents in this regard.
I met my compatriots in Bruges on Sunday morning. We stayed there for the remainder of the trip (except for the last night in Antwerp), taking side trips by rail and sampling the wares at the city’s many good beer bars, particularly the Brugs Beertje (the Little Bruge Bear) at 5 Kemelstraat.
Bruges might be the best preserved old city in Europe. At one time, a canal that girds the town and other waterways provided access to the ocean, the Bruges was an important port. Several hundred years ago, everything silted up, and the city remained mummified in pristine isolation until it was realized that the potential for tourism justified maintaining the old buildings and streets. Now the old town is a showplace, and it is relentlessly touristed, particularly by Brits.
However, October proved not to be too bad, and despite the obviously commercial aspects of the experience, it is a city not to be missed.
Jan and Daisy, owners of the Brugs Beertje, are central figures in the revival of artisanal brewing in Belgium, and their establishment is considered by Webb to be one of the best beer bars in the world. They are fierce purists, refusing to stock pilsner because it is not a native Belgian style.
The place is small and cramped, with battered wooden tables that during the course of an evening are moved to and fro according to need. A few munchies are offered, including cubes of cheese with celery salt (try it some time). The walls are plastered with Belgian beer signs, classical music is played all the time and the beer list numbers 200. Like the other bars mentioned in this article, the shelves sag with glassware, as each beer has an accompanying glass meant to be used with it.
One evening I went to the bar to order a Rochefort 10-degree Trappist ale (11.3% abv). It turned out to be my favorite Belgian ale, but not right at that moment, as Jan wouldn’t serve it to me if it wasn’t to be my final beer of the evening. So, I waited, and it was worth the wait: A velvety, big body with complex flavors, deeply warming and about as smooth and satisfying as you can imagine a beer of that strength being.
Our side trips were many, including one to Brussels for a look inside the Cantillon lambic brewery Gheudestraat 56, in the Anderlecht district), where they have that big "tub" in the attic and the slats in the roof just like we’ve always read. There is nothing funkier in the study of beer than the story of lambics, Belgium’s traditional, spontaneously-fermented ales, which are made nowhere else in the world. Visitors to Cantillon are permitted to give themselves a tour of the facility, and are entitled to a brief lambic sampling at the end.
Another day, I set out for Ieper (Ypres). The objective wasn’t beer. Ieper was the site of some of the First World War’s bloodiest and most senselessly protracted fighting, and the medieval city was reduced to kindling by incessant shelling from 1914 to 1918. It has been rebuilt, and was a very pleasant place to spend the day and to reflect on the lessons of the Great War.
Mussels and Ale Won’t Make You Ail in Antwerp.
My travel year ended in Antwerp. Once more, with Webb’s guide in hand, we sat out from our hotel to find a few good bars. These are in abundance in Antwerp, a bustling and energetic port city on the River Schelde. Enjoying yet another beautiful day, we walked from the Centraal Station into the center of the city and found a number of fine bars surrounding the massive Gothic cathedral, including ...
First, Paters’ Vaetje (Priests’ Little Barrel; 1 Blauwmoezelstraat). A list of 75 to 100 Belgian beers in the shadow of the cathedral wall, including draft De Koninck, Antwerp’s brassy pale ale.
Then, Elfde Gebod (The Eleventh Commandment; 10 Torfbrug). Not a huge beer list, but the most singular atmosphere that I’ve ever experienced in a decade of traveling in Europe. It is filled from top to bottom with religious artifacts and statues like the ones out on the lawn at Catholic institutions.
Behind the bar, there is a huge pulpit. Upstairs, bizarre paintings seem to attest to some twisted religious vision, although it’s difficult to tell exactly which one.
Very, very weird.
For a late lunch, we dined on mussels in one of the many restaurants near the cathedral that specialize in them when they’re in season. The classic Belgian way of serving mussels involves placing a pot that is somewhat the size of an Ottersbach brew pot, filled with dozens of mussels in their shells swimming in broth, on the table before each diner, then lining up beers until the last shell is spent.
After the mussels were gone, a ten-minute stroll led us to the final stop,
Kulminator (32 Vleminckveld), described by Webb as an "elegant cafe" with "a superb collection of beers." Indeed. There are over 500 Belgians available here, including up to 200 vintage selections, some dating to the early 1980’s. Some are bottle-conditioned, including many lambics, while others are just plain old. One of these, a now-extinct brand of strong ale called Breughelbier from 1985, was on special the night of our visit. Aging had given it a dark, smooth nuttiness not unlike that of a barley wine, and it was enhanced by a Romeo y Julieta Churchill, the two combining with a stomach full of mussels and ale to provide a storybook ending to the trip.
Much has been omitted from the preceding owing to the author’s perpetual state of disorganization. Many FOSSILS have asked when the next trip to Europe is going to be, and at this stage it’s impossible for me to say, but it’s worth noting that there’s no need to depend on one of the "veterans" to organize such excursions. Check with your travel agent, or if you have none, call Mary Pat Bliss at Bliss Travel in New Albany (the semiofficial travel agency of FOSSILS; no endorsement fee paid) and check the fares. Do some research, plan an itinerary, buy a guide book or two, ask us for our advice, pack your bags ... and get the hell out here.