Friday, June 29, 2007
The goal of the 2007 edition of Lambic by the Glass, our fourth such tasting, is to make it easier and less expensive for patrons to sample the olfactory joys of this style of rare and challenging Belgian ale. As in the past, we’re going to try dispensing at least 20 types of lambic priced by the glass, including two draft examples and an experimental American microbrewed nod in the direction of Belgian microflora (note that the projected second American example did not arrive in time).
When the day comes that we can legally buy Boon, Girardin and other examples of the craft, they'll be added to the assemblage.
STRAIGHT LAMBIC … $4.00
Cantillon 1900 Bruocsella Grand Cru … DRAFT … Straight, single-batch lambic aged three years before packaging. Minimal carbonation; usually almost still. This is the fundamental lambic flavor unit.
GUEUZE … $4.00
Cantillon Organic Gueuze … DRAFT … the famous Cantillon house blend of one-, two- and three-year old lambics.
Hanssens Oude Gueuze … from Belgium’s last independent blender, which uses lambics brewed by others, comes this traditional dry blend of variously aged lambics.
Lindemans Cuvee Rene … lambics of various ages, brewed and matured at Lindemans, then blended.
FRAMBOISE … $4.00
Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus … fresh raspberries are added to year-and-a-half old lambic, with a shot of young lambic used to bottle condition the finished beer.
Lindemans Framboise … DRAFT … sweetened version of a traditional raspberry lambic.
KRIEK … $4.00
Hanssens Oude Kriek … traditionally, cherries are the fruit of choice for steeping in lambic. Hanssens uses black cherry pulp.
Lindemans Kriek … sweetened version of a traditional cherry lambic.
Two Brothers Project Opus 10 (Kriek) … (USA microbrew) … the “pseudo-lambic” ringer of the bunch, brewed near Chicago; oak-aged, with cherries.
MISCELLANEOUS and FLAVORED LAMBICS … $4.00
Cantillon Iris … a totally unique variation on the lambic theme, brewed with 100% malted barley (no wheat), hopped with 40% fresh Styrian Golding hops, wild-fermented, then dry-hopped. Lambic meets ordinary bitter?
Cantillon Vigneronne … lambic fermented with white Italian Muscat grapes.
Lindemans Cassis, Peche and Pomme … flavored with currants, peaches and apples, respectively, and sweetened.
VINTAGE/SPECIALTY … $7.00 (unless noted)
Cantillon Lou Pepe Gueuze
Cantillon Lou Pepe Framboise
Cantillon Lou Pepe Kriek
Only the brewery’s finest two-year old lambics are blended to produce the Lou Pepe line, with raspberries added to make the Framboise and cherries for the Kriek. The intent in all three cases is to yield the undiluted flavor of the base lambics.
Cantillon St. Lamvinus 2006 … two-year old lambic fermented with red Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, generally from different vineyards for each year’s batch.
Drie Fonteinen Oude Gueuze 2006
Drie Fonteinen Schaerbeekse Kriek 2006
Drie Fonteinen Oude Kriek 2005
Blending commenced at Drie Fonteinen in 1953, and Belgium’s first new lambic brewery in 80 years was added in 1999. House brewed lambics now are added to other one-, two- and three-year old lambics sourced elsewhere to yield vintage-dated nectar.
Hanssens Mead the Gueuze 2004 ($4.00)
A blend of Hanssens Oude Gueuze and English mead from the Lurgashall meadery. We cellared these bottles, and the result is some oxidization and diminished carbonation, but with a whole different dimension to the character.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
It meant that someone was reading. You should know that writers are vain that way; we like to be read, as opposed to unread. If any of us tell you differently, don't believe it.
Following is the original letter and the response that I was asked to compose. Since then, I've thought at some length about the perspective expressed by Mr. Knisely, and while I'm sticking with my answer -- rather diplomatic by my usual standards (thanks, Cary) -- it seems to me that his complaint is analogous to that of Harpo Marx, as explained by his brother Chico, who watched as the silent comic angrily tore a book to shreds:
“He gets mad because he can’t read.”
Frequently in Roger Baylor’s Mug Shots column, we readers receive lessons about why we should drink delicious local craft beer, and why we should never waste our time or money on mass-produced and mass-marketed megabrewery beer.
I can relate to the sentiment. Seriously. Being a fan of independent restaurants and music and movies, I naturally see the good reasons for avoiding McBeer or Wal*Beer. But I am consistently frustrated by Baylor and the microbreweries in town for taking such a good idea and making it almost completely inaccessible to those of us who do not enjoy heavy, hoppy beer.
Some of us who do love beer just so happen to honestly prefer a light-tasting (if not low-cal), smooth lager that doesn’t taste like a glass full of hops. What are we to do? Does Baylor’s NABC (New Albanian Brewing Co.) offer us the quality craft beer that we want? There’s BBC, and sure, they rarely have Darby on tap, but it’s never bottled and sold in stores like their other brews. Cumberland Brews? Nope.
If we can’t go to one of the local brewing establishments and get a non-hoppy smooth lager, let alone go home with a couple six-packs to put in the fridge for at-home enjoyment on a Sunday afternoon, is it any wonder that we’ll end up just going to the liquor store on the corner to obtain a light lager that we can afford and whose taste and availability we can rely on? Please, Mr. Baylor & Co., scolding us into drinking beer we don’t like doesn’t help us. We sincerely want to frequent your establishments and stock your local brews in our refrigerators. Please consider crafting a lager that isn’t all humulus, and we’ll gladly consider swearing off the McBeer.
--Derek Knisely, Louisville
***Editor’s Note: LEO ran this letter by Roger Baylor to see if he had any comments or recommendations. Here’s what he had to say:
I sincerely regret that Mr. Knisely isn’t into Humulus lupulus, but fortunately there are less hoppy styles of beer to suit every prospective beer advocate like him. As these pertain to Louisville’s craft brewers, it should first be remembered that apart from the downtown BBC brewing and bottling facility (Main & Clay), they deal primarily in draft beer, not bottles. Finding a locally brewed “light-tasting … smooth lager” that is both golden and bottled and coming to you at a price point similar to regional and multinational brewers won’t always be easy, because economies of scale differ when it comes to production and distribution.
Furthermore, small craft brewers generally don’t aim to fill stylistic niches like light lager because industrial brewers do them benignly and cheaply. That said, BBC (Shelbyville Road) brews Kolsch; BBC (Main & Clay) has Gold; Browning’s has a Helles; Cumberland Brews makes Cream Ale; and NABC does the dark but very light flavored Community Dark. All of them fit Mr. Knisely’s description, albeit it on tap. Growlers, anyone? —Roger Baylor
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
5. Belgian beercycling 2000: An evening at Cave a Biere, Danes included.
4. Belgian beercycling 2000: Brewing day with Jean-Louis at Brasserie A Vapeur.
3. Belgian beercycling 2000: Tournai warm-up, Cave a Bieres and Pays du Collines.
2. Belgian beercycling 2000: From Brussels to the Tournai base camp in less than 15 drinks.
1. Belgian beercycling 2000: A prologue.
“The (German) attack had not penetrated to the decisive heights of Cassel and the Mont des Cats, the possession of which would have compelled the (British) evacuation of the Ypres salient and the Yser position. No great strategic movement had become possible, and the Channel ports had not been reached. The second great offensive had not brought about the hoped-for decision.”
--From the official German account of the offensives on the Western Front in 1918, as quoted by John Keegan in his book, “The First World War.”
When the fatigued quartet arrived by train on Sunday lunchtime in the Belgian “hop town” of Poperinge, a place that had the good fortune to remain somewhat safely behind British lines throughout the Great War and accordingly was spared the wholesale devastation suffered only ten kilometers away in Ieper (Ypres), the street called Ieperstraat that leads from the tiny train station to the center of town was packed with shoppers, strollers and snackers. The festive atmosphere was a complete surprise, as most stores and shops aren’t open on Sunday, but we later learned that it was a special annual shopping day, precisely the sort of phenomenon to make a beercyclist thirsty as he waits for the next spoked fix.
Checking into the legendary Hotel/Restaurant Palace, we found our newly arrived comrade Kevin Lowber carving a massive slab of beef, anxiously awaiting us in the shadow of an equally oversized bottle of red wine. He’d just come in to Poperinge from Brussels. Biking in and around the town was slated to begin on Monday, and this seemed to merit a map study and strategy and tactics session. Adjourning across the hall to the hotel’s cozy world-class beer bar, we discussed the riding itinerary for the coming days.
A plan of attack quickly fell into place. Monday would take us to Ieper for a ride through the battlefield sites south and east of town. On Tuesday, we would meet Luc Dequidt, chief of Poperinge’s amazingly comprehensive tourist bureau, for a two-wheeled tour of local attractions: The St. Sixtus abbey (home of the scrumptious Westvletern Trappist ales), the brewing town of Watou, the Helleketel forest, and row after row of the hop trellises that take on a life of their own each three years during the town’s hop festival.
Wednesday was chosen as the day for us to attempt what German military might had failed to achieve more than eight decades before: Seize the heights of Mont des Cats and Cassel. From our Poperinge base, this projected foray into France wouldn’t be very difficult, totaling less than 30 miles roundtrip; more importantly, it would provide a glimpse of northern French beer culture, which naturally was my ulterior motive all along.
Riding east towards Ieper on Monday, the French hills almost always could be seen rising on the horizon to the south, and although they aren’t particularly big, the flatness of Flanders magnifies their significance and one can readily understand their strategic importance in wartime. There were constant reminders of combat on Monday, as our journey took us past numerous Great War monuments and cemeteries of the British Commonwealth forces, whose final resting places attested to the global scale of the First World War: Irish, Australian, Canadian and Indian soldiers, buried alongside lads from Manchester and Newcastle. The resting places of Belgian, French and German soldiers also were seen.
Monday’s midday break brought us to the center of Ieper, a town utterly devastated from 1914-1918, then painstakingly rebuilt in the years preceding the next world conflagration. When the second war swept through Belgium, one young Ieper native resolved to escape. He made it somehow to then-colony of Belgian Congo, and later to South Africa, where he enlisted in the British armed forces and fought against the German occupiers until war’s end in 1945. Later he founded a restaurant and pub, sold it, then opened another, called Ter Posterie for its location opposite Ieper’s post office.
I can’t remember this man’s name, and certainly he would have no reason to remember mine, but nonetheless I met him on three different occasions and have always enjoyed the beer, food and hospitality at Ter Posterie. By 2000, active control of the business had long since passed to his daughter, but the old man still frequented the establishment, and when glimpsing an English speaker, would spin his life story for the visitor in a narrative honed over thousands of ale-side retellings. Ter Posterie is another Belgian classic, with many dozens of bottled ales, a few more on draft, savory food and an outdoor terrace, where we sat and discussed our first half-day’s ride.*
Tuesday’s riding schedule was light, but rich in intangibles owing to the presence of Luc and his wife, Jeannine. We kept a leisurely pace on the country lanes radiating from Poperinge, never very far from the smell of manure and the sight of hops. It was a pub crawl on human-powered wheels: Westvleteren 12-degree Trappist at the terrace of the newly built tasting café opposite the abbey, then through the woods and fields to the fabled “brewing village” of Watou and refreshing Witbier from the small town’s Van Eecke brewery, then south and east via wooded lanes back to Poperinge.
At the edge of the Helleketel forest there is a small brewery and tasting café known as the Bie**; unfortunately, it wasn’t open on Tuesday. Amazingly, yet another brewery is located near Watou, which is really no more than a collection of houses: St. Bernardus, which used to produce beer by contract for the monks of St. Sixtus under the Sixtus name. The contract was terminated, and the brewery began to brew its own line of abbey-style ales that arguably is the finest of all secular recreations.
Wednesday proved to be the highlight of the Poperinge interlude, with the group primed for climbing the two French hills and having lunch in Cassell. Arriving winded at the summit of the Mont des Cats, we saw a conveniently situated Trappist monastery, which might have provided liquid incentive had it been situated a few miles north in Belgium. Unfortunately, there are no Trappist breweries in France, so instead the monastery makes acclaimed cheeses and butter, some of which were destined for sampling later at our midday feast.
For beer, one must descend the Mont des Cats and proceed to the small town of St. Sylvestre Cappell, home to the brewery that produces Trois Monts, or “three mountains.” Wherever the third one is located, we did not climb it. Trois Monts is exemplary proof that good beer and France are not mutually exclusive, although this view continues to be held by many otherwise intelligent and discerning beer aficionados, whose Francophobia is permitted to hold sway at the expense of their taste buds.
They’re missing good things. Bieres de garde perhaps are best understood as a sort of appellation of origin, describing beers from northern France, but beyond that there are few hard and fast rules. Often they are made with top-fermenting yeast, but not always. Usually they are aged in a process akin to lagering. Colors and strengths range across the spectrum. Many, but not all, are bottled in 750 ml corked bottles. If there is any one characteristic that seems common among the better French bieres de garde, it is a richly complex malt character. These are beers that taste fine alone, but better when they accompany food.
Thus, having scaled the heights of the Mont des Cats and scrambled down the other side in pursuit of a restorative glass of Trois Monts, we found it in a tiny roadside café where the proprietor spoke no English but was happy to learn that we weren’t “English”, and who seemed amused by our interest in the local brew. Temporarily sated, our final and more formidable objective lay before us: Cassel, the town straddling the top of the hill of the same name.
A half-hour’s ride along the highway brought us to the foot of the hill, and we began the winding ascent that culminated in the town’s main square. A narrow lane took us further toward the top, ending in a wooded park with a large windmill situated to our left. I knew from previous research that this was the Grail, for located just beneath the windmill was our real reason for coming: T' Kasteel Hoff.
The windmill is the highest point in Flanders, with unobstructed views far and wide even on a hazy day, and the café just below it, one that clings to the side of the steep hill, is considered the finest beer café in France. I’ve been to few others, but it would be difficult to imagine any better.
T’ Kasteel Hoff specializes in all things local. The food is from French Flanders, as are the beers. We found seats on the patio after walking through the crowded main room, where spontaneous applause greeted our entrance; bowing in appreciation of this unexpected acknowledgement of our collective biking prowess, we were disappointed to learn that the group of senior citizens actually was applauding a speech of some sort by one of its own.
Instructed that the kitchen was being overloaded by the tour group and only cold food was available, each of us opted for a mixed cheese and pate plate. Three would have sufficed for all five beercyclists, such was the size of the portions. Three 750 ml bottles of French Bieres de Garde were shared: Hommelpap (four hop varieties, earthy and a moderate 7% abv), Kasteel (the house ale) and Pot Flamand, the latter two falling on the sweetly malty side of the flavor spectrum, as I expected.
As if a convivial atmosphere, bountiful food and delicious beer weren’t reason enough to seek out t’ Kasteel Hoff, the pub also boasts a shop for carry-out sales: Bieres de garde, local honey and jam, liqueurs, post cards and souvenirs -- more of each than any of us were able to carry, and Kevin Lowber drew the short straw in this regard: He had made the mistake of bringing his backpack, which was filled with booty gathered by the others, our rental bikes being unequipped with panniers or hauling apparatus.
With ground to cover back to Poperinge and expressing ample regrets over having to leave so soon, we lugged our booty to the bikes and debarked in a meandering northerly direction, enjoying the countryside and melting away the lunchtime caloric intake. The group seemed hale and hearty, except perhaps Buddy, and therein is yet another story.
On the night preceding our Cassell reconnoitering, after benedictory drinks with Luc, we’d dined as a group in the Hotel Palace’s restaurant and enjoyed several bottles of French red wine with the uniformly excellent meats, breads and pastas. After dinner, adjourning once again to the nearby bar and seeking the inimitable service provided by Guy, the owner, Kevin Richards elected to continue drinking wine. For reasons that remain obscure to this very day, Buddy felt emboldened to undertake a suicide mission, attempting to match Kevin bottle for bottle.
Knowing better from previous experiences, the remainder of the contingent nursed Belgian ales and retired to bed early in preparation for the big day. For those readers who have witnessed such ill-conceived ventures in the past, it should come as no surprise that during our ascent of the two French hills, Buddy began to perceive the error of his ways, particularly during lunch, when he was overheard to remark that a nap would feel good. On the ride back to Poperinge, he was flagging. For a while, it seemed that Bob might have to offer last rites, but he rallied and finished the course. Back at the Hotel Palace, bikes safely returned to the shop, and with appetites stoked by the day’s activities, Buddy went straight to bed.
For the rest of us, a meal on the main square at Café Paix and a few ales during the evening’s televised Euro Cup soccer match capped off a long and fruitful day. Not for the first time, I asked myself why it had taken me so long to discover the joys of biking in Europe.
As a reminder, once every three years (next in 2008), Poperinge celebrates its heritage of hops with a festival that captures the attention of beer lovers throughout the world, but remains consummately local in orientation, with much of the town actively participating in the fun. The town welcomes visitors at all times, not only during the festival, and it is hard to overstate the many charms of the area, especially for those infatuated with Belgian beer. Poperinge is eternally friendly, relaxed, tidy and efficient. As has happened so many times since, it was with grudging reluctance that my friends and I group departed on Thursday morning, walking back up Ieperstraat to board the train to Brugge and travel to the final phase of a remarkable trip.
* During the course of several visits subsequent to the 2000 trip recounted here, Ter Posterie’s colorful founder was observed to be sadly descending into advanced Alzheimer’s disease, and I believe he has now passed away. He will be remembered.
** In 2007, the Bie’s rural tasting room remains intact, and the company has a few other outposts in the region, but the brewing now is done a few miles away in Loker.
Monday, June 25, 2007
At the conclusion of the last installment, the fledgling bicyclists (but veteran beer hunters) Kevin Richards, Bob Reed, Buddy Sandbach and Roger Baylor had wrapped up a visit to the Vapeur brewery with a bountiful lunch of multitudinous cheeses and the patron Jean-Louis’s wonderful ale. Now it was time to meet the Danes back in Tournai for an evening of sports and ale.
4. Belgian beercycling 2000: Brewing day with Jean-Louis at Brasserie A Vapeur.
1. Belgian beercycling 2000: A prologue.
As we rode our bikes down narrow Wallonian country lanes not far removed from the outskirts of Tournai and our base camp at the Hotel d’Alcantara, a clear and warm Saturday afternoon suddenly turned blustery and overcast. The Cochonette-laced warm fuzzies from a lengthy session at Brasserie A Vapeur on its monthly brewing day dissipated rapidly in the face of a brisk headwind, made more formidable by legs still tired from the previous day’s mountain biking excursion in the woods and fields of the Pays du Collines.
However, the sobering return workout was all for the best, because a celebratory and surely taxing evening lay ahead.
Awaiting our return at the hotel were three Danes of the apocalypse: Kim Wiesener, Kim Andersen and Allan Gamborg. Coincidentally, they had gathered in Wallonia for the European soccer championships being held in the summer of 2000 at various venues throughout Belgium and the Netherlands, and after being made aware of the beercycling visit, conspired to include us in their itineraries.
These three cosmopolitan natives of Denmark are bosom friends of long standing, each of them multi-lingual, well-traveled and professionally accomplished in his chosen field. When a soccer match is taking place, each of them also is prone to reverting with dazzling speed to a childlike state, one understood internationally and intuitively by all sporting males.
Their life stories would fill a volume, and such a biographical rendering lies beyond my immediate task of describing the 2000 beercycling trip, but according to tradition, I’m permitted one digression. Here it is. Back in the day …
My friendship with the Danes goes back to 1987, and is inexorably intertwined with that of my illustrious longtime partner in crime, Barrie Ottersbach, who was unable to join us in Tournai in 2000.
That fateful summer of ‘87, an unsuspecting Kim Wiesener was the tour leader for a “youth” travel group visiting the Soviet Union and Poland, and Barrie and I were enthusiastic and only marginally youthful participants (we were 27).
Legend has it that Kim fell under Barrie’s spell (or was it the other way around?) on a hair-raising Aeroflot flight from Copenhagen to Moscow, where I joyously met the group, having arrived in the capital of the evil empire by way of a 36-hour train trip from Hungary during which I was kept company by a bag of fresh cherries, two loaves of bread, a salami from Szeged and two bottles of Bull’s Blood wine.
On the morning following the boozy evening of the group’s belated arrival, all of us were supposed to meet in the hotel lobby before setting out for a bus tour of Moscow. Kim was mildly concerned when Barrie failed to appear for roll call; I reassured him that all was well, and that Barrie was in safe hands, having ventured into the Soviet underworld with “Bill,” the friendly neighborhood black market sales representative who I’d met earlier under similar circumstances.
At that point, and not even a full day into the excursion, Kim understood that it would be a long journey, but he was reassured when Barrie appeared later that afternoon brandishing a softball-sized wad of colorful rubles. For the remainder of our stay in the USSR, Barrie gleefully depleted the ridiculously huge bankroll on lavish restaurant meals, caviar, vodka and champagne; beer was difficult to find, and the rubles worthless elsewhere in the world. For a brief time, Barrie himself occupied a sales representative position on the fringe of the black market, profitably reselling rubles back into hard currency for those members of our group who were too frightened or squeamish to trade on the streets.
This introductory lesson in entrepreneurial initiative duly completed, we moved on to Leningrad by overnight express train just in time for an impromptu Fourth of July celebration. Kim, Barrie and I gathered on the grassy, mosquito-infested bank of an urban canal, a scene made complete when a bottle of the finest Russian vodka materialized from Kim’s backpack. Illuminated by the White Night, we were introduced for the first time to Allan, who was passing through the city with a tour group of his own.
Ominously, as the bottle was passed around, its contents ingested and people slowly got to know each other, Kim and Allan began speaking in hushed tones about Denmark’s answer to Barrie: Kim Andersen, hereafter to be known as Big Kim. Their descriptions of Big Kim were offered to us in impeccable English, although occasionally they would lapse into Danish or even Russian in search of the proper words to explain this larger-than-life phenomenon.
Brief stays in the oppressed Baltic lands of Latvia and Lithuania followed Leningrad, and then Warsaw and Krakow, with too many anecdotal tales to remember, much less relate: Hoisting Nick’s American flag above the hotel in Leningrad, and then watching him trading it to a railway employee for a huge tub of caviar … an elderly fellow tourist mistaking the liquid in our vodka bottle for mineral water and gulping it down on a scorching hot day at the Polish-Soviet border as we waited for the train’s wheel carriages to be changed … building the “Leaning Tower of Pivo” from empty export Carlsberg cans in a Riga hard currency bar … the well-endowed Danish lass Metta’s provocative push-ups at a meet-and-greet with Lithuanian students … wild going-away parties in Warsaw, where Barrie and I drank wine with our leggy blonde Polish tour guide and a few of the group’s stragglers before departing for the city’s cavernous train station and commencing desperate and futile foraging for food and drink prior to the long ride to Prague and our first taste of draft Pilsner Urquell.
Our amazing, hyperkinetic tour leader Kim W. was right in the thick of most of these anecdotes, and at the conclusion of the trip we exchanged addresses with him, promising to keep in touch. In fact, Barrie and Kim agreed to meet later that summer, when Barrie would return to Copenhagen for his flight back to the United States. You can bet that even then, Kim’s wheels were spinning: What could be done to bring Barrie and Bik Kim together in Copenhagen?
In the meantime, Barrie and I embarked upon the beer-based itinerary that we had plotted in advance for the remainder of our time in Europe, first traveling from Prague to Munich, where we met Don Barry and Bob Gunn for three epochal days of Bavarian beer hall carousing, then in the company of Bob to Paris and the D-Day beaches. Barrie and I crossed to Ireland aboard the “Guinness ferry”, meeting Tommy, a newspaperman and good friend of Don’s, and later watching U2 perform at the Cork soccer stadium, then experiencing the wonders of Brian and his “High-B” Hibernian Pub, and marveling at the classic pleasures of the Irish countryside.
As the revelry continued, I didn’t think there would be enough time for me to accompany Barrie to Denmark and then double back to Brussels and my own return flight, but at a pub somewhere in Ireland, after my tenth pint of Guinness, I changed my mind.
Barrie and I concocted a plan to surprise Kim Wiesener with my delightfully unexpected presence, and we refined the insidious plot over smoked salmon and Bailey’s Irish Cream (both charged to ever groaning credit cards) while aboard the ship back to France. In Paris, we caught an overnight train to Copenhagen, and contrary to so many plans that Barrie and I have made over the years, this one came perfectly to fruition.
Soon after debarking in Copenhagen we were reunited, burrowed safely in Kim’s tiny apartment with chilled Tuborgs in hand and songs in our hearts. Following opening toasts, our devious host divulged his own surprise: An evening with Big Kim had already been arranged. Finally, Ottersbach would meet Andersen, and the world was advised to forget the “Thrilla in Manila”; instead, onlookers were to get ready for the “Battle of the Titans,” to be held in the beer venue called the Elephant & Mouse, or Mouse and Elephant, where we were informed there would be copious quantities of draft Elephant beer, Carlsberg’s fine, sturdy and strong lager.
It was to be our first visit to the M & E, a small and dignified pub near the main square, where the only sign of identification above the front door is a small plaque depicting – what else? – a mouse and an elephant. On the second floor of the pub, a handmade elephant head adorns the wall behind the wall. Draft Elephant Beer pours from the snout; the tusk is the tap handle.*
Big Kim arrived along with Graham, a British friend who, like Kim Wiesener and I, chose to nurse just a couple of half-liter glasses (at $7 a pop, somewhat financially burdensome at the time) while watching the spectacle unfold. As predicted, Big Kim and Barrie proved to be perfectly matched human beings, both with a fondness for alcohol of any sort, hot and spicy food in large quantities, impossibly tall tales and jokes, and endless, infectious tsunamis of irresistible laughter.
Big Kim and Barrie approached the high-gravity Elephant Beer at full throttle, and much merriment ensued. Somewhere around the fourth or fifth one, Barrie stumbled; accounts vary, but we’ll gently infer that some of the Elephant Beer didn’t stay down.
After several hours, and with monetary reserves reaching dangerously low levels, we decided to continue drinking at an establishment where Metta (of Lithuanian push-up fame) worked as a bartender. As we stood on the street corner contemplating taxi strategies, Big Kim suddenly broke free of the group and wildly staggered into the middle of the street in an effort to hail a cab to take him home. We quickly subdued him, dodging cars and loading him into our own taxi to proceed to the next planned stop.
With this unforced error of Big Kim’s, Ottersbach had again pulled even.
Now it was a brutal battle of attrition, with the clock ticking and everyone involved drunk and fatigued. Both Barrie and Big Kim made it through big export bottles of Pilsner Urquell at the second bar, after which we returned to Kim Wiesener’s apartment for obligatory nightcaps, the outcome still very much in doubt. Barrie and Big Kim both opened their bottled beers. Barrie finished his, but Big Kim stole away, ostensibly to use the toilet, and was found a short time later sleeping on the host’s bed.
Seemingly, it was a victory for Ottersbach, but as all concerned were physically unable to tally points in their besotted condition, the Battle of the Titans was fittingly declared a draw.
Many years have passed since that epic summer and our first meeting with Kim, Allan and Big Kim. Certainly all of us have changed, but the friendship lives on. We five have met many times, in many places, and too many for me to remember (Allan would love for me to relate the story of the “Danish lunch” at his apartment in 1989, the orange couch and the real meaning of P-F-L, but it will have to wait for another session), but they’ve all been special – as I knew the meeting in Tournai would be, even if Barrie couldn’t be a part of it.
So it was that the cyclists returning from the Renaissance brewer’s regularly scheduled seminar met the football-loving Danes at the hotel as scheduled, and we began haggling over the details of the evening’s festivities. The non-negotiable idea, as conveyed to me with much wagging of fingers, was to partake of the scheduled feast of lobster tail and ale at the Cave a Biere at the precise time of the hour-long break between matches, both of which were far too important for the aficionados to miss.
Barrie’s absence was widely lamented, and each of us resolved to drink one or more beers for him, although we recognized that it would have taken far more than that to keep him going had he actually been present.
We set off on foot to search for a suitable place to watch sports, and a big screen television was duly located in a café just off the main square. There we settled into the Turkey-Portugal match with the help of draft Hoegaarden Wit, which served as a gentle restorative following the biking and imbibing rigors of the day. I stole away and walked down to the riverfront to tell the matron at the Cave a Biere that we’d be a bit late for dinner owing to the imperative of sports. She rolled her eyes and smiled indulgently: Let boys be boys, and there’d still be enough food and beer left whenever we made it back.
Soon it became apparent that the critical match-up wasn’t taking place on the television screen. Much in the same way that Big Kim’s initial meeting with Barrie resembled a gladiatorial marathon, the merry Dane’s previous experience with Kevin Richards – an all-day beer-drinking session during one of Big Kim’s visits to New Albany – had been both effusive and expansive. Now there was renewal.
Appropriately, upon our arrival at the Cave for what was intended as a brief respite between matches, Kevin began urging Big Kim to join him at the high-gravity end of the Belgian brewing spectrum, and together they began despoiling the café’s excellent selection of Trappist ales: Rochefort, Chimay, Westmalle and Orval. The rest of us gamely followed suit, and to my surprise, as the stock of Trappists began to deplete to the accompaniment of a happily ringing cash register, the second soccer match was largely forgotten.
In short, yet another memorable evening had begun, and in the fashion of such gatherings, all betting ceased, and an internal logic took over. It would have to be respected.
Lobster tails and side orders of [potatoes and vegetables soon appeared on the table and were quickly devoured, and the steady stream of Belgian ale, divided among the usual suspects, produced the expected tomfoolery and an escalating series of tales that purported to depict exploits of past drinking bouts. I recall a cell phone appearing, and an attempt to call Barrie. In the general cacophony, it isn’t clear whether the call ever went through, although our absent Musketeer later swore that not only was the call duly received, but that the phone was never properly shut off and he was left with twenty minutes of jocularity recorded on his answering machine for perpetual enjoyment.
The otherwise stern matron of the Cave seemed much amused at our antics and presided over the international gathering with grace, going so far as to pose willingly for a photo with Buddy. I made no attempt to take notes on the beers or to record what I’d sampled, seeing as all were old favorites that had treated me well before, and could be expected to be as forgiving again.
Bob blessed the raucous group numerous times: “Here’s to us … ” Kim, Allan and I recalled our previous 1999 meeting in Moscow, reliving the evening of the metal detector at the brewpub, the private table dancer who wasn’t minding the mint, and shoes filled with Volga mud. Big Kim and Kevin continued knocking them back at a prodigious pace.
At some point much later in the evening, through the haze of three too many Trappists, but after there had been a monetary settlement, I watched as Kevin, Big Kim, Allan and Bob Reed suddenly rose from their seats and filed out with the solemnity of a funeral procession – except it was they who were embalmed. Their destination was unclear. Apparently it was time to go, so Kim Wiesener and I pulled Buddy from the arms of our hostess and the three of us began weaving back to the hotel through darkened, damp streets, kicking at the litter left behind by revelers on a festive summer’s evening.
It was a stone cold sleep. I was curious next morning, so I asked Kevin: When you left the Cave, was it because Allan had called a taxi to take all of you back to the hotel? Kevin scratched his head and confessed to not remembering whether they had been driven or walked. Moments later, I asked Bob the same question, and he couldn’t recall, either. Suspecting it would be useless to ask Big Kim, I received confirmation of the taxi order from a shrugging Allan.
We went our separate ways on Sunday morning after breakfast, the Danes moving out by rental car to attend the next Eurocup match-up, and the bikers heading west by train to Poperinge and the second phase of the journey.
In the next installment, we commence a love affair with the good people of Poperinge.
* 2007 note: Sadly, Big Kim tells me that draft Elephant is no more in Copenhagen.
Sunday, June 24, 2007
Last year, Jesse poured samples for almost three and a half hours last year (the fest runs for four hours), ran out of beer during the last hour, packed up the equipment and returned to New Albany.
By means of explanation, note that during summer fests, we tend to favor bringing “extreme” styles. This isn’t done to encourage drunken debauchery, but because other brewers tend to bring lighter beers appropriate for hot weather, and we favor expanded choice in this and all other similar situations. We also like to stand out from the crowd.
To reiterate, in 2006 our 15.5 gallons of beer lasted three and a half hours.
Yesterday, we were entirely depleted at 4:00 p.m., or just one hour after the gates “officially” opened. In truth, people were lining up at our tent at 2:30 p.m., so the tally should be roughly one and a half hours. The small street that is devoted to Brew-Ha-Ha was solidly choked with humanity by the time our last keg popped, so we tore down and drove further north to enjoy relaxed pints and snacks, first at the Broad Ripple Brewing Company and then at Brugs Brasserie. The NABC brew crew was on the road for New Albany by the time Brew-Ha-Ha “officially” ended at 7:00 p.m.
Obviously, we didn’t bring enough beer. Was it because Jesse’s experience in 2006 was atypical, or because this year’s crowd was far larger? Our designated serving area was in a fine location, adjacent to the Massachusetts Avenue entrance, and the first beer station spotted by those entering from that side of the street. This might explain the early crush, which only became knottier as the middle of the fest path became blocked by lines waiting for beer elsewhere.
These thoughts are to be taken as observations, not criticisms, although I couldn’t help remembering NABC's experience at the inaugural Brew at the Zoo in Louisville a few years ago. In the end, far more tickets were sold than had been incorporated in the original plan, with the result that almost all food and beer was gone with two hours remaining in the event. Did yesterday’s cool temperatures attract an unplanned extra crowd?
One thing's a given: We’ll be back next year, ... and with extra beer.
Saturday, June 23, 2007
3. Belgian beercycling 2000: Tournai warm-up, Cave a Bieres and Pays du Collines.
2. Belgian beercycling 2000: From Brussels to the Tournai base camp in less than 15 drinks.
1. Belgian beercycling 2000: A prologue.
Wallonia is the southeastern, primarily French-speaking half of Belgium. The cultural and linguistic divide between Wallonia and the Dutch-speaking Flanders is deep seated, politically charged, well documented and completely beyond the scope of this account, so I’ll confine my opening comments to observations that are safer and more relevant to beercyclists: Geography.
Landscapes in Wallonia vary. To the south and east, the low, wooded hills known as the Ardennes are darkly mysterious, enduringly scenic and sparsely populated. North of the Ardennes, stretching westward through the Meuse River valley from Liege to Namur, then along the Sambre River to Charleroi and Mons, runs an area similar to what Americans now routinely refer to as a “Rust Belt.”
The industrial revolution on the European continent took root and exploded in these environs during the early 19th century, with an emphasis on coal mining and heavy industries producing steel, glass and cement. As in other regions of the developed world, these old industries have been steadily contracting for decades, and the goal of every fair-sized municipality is to relieve the European Union of wheelbarrows filled with developmental money and to use the largesse to create miniature Silicon Valleys behind the slag heaps, brownfields and abandoned factories.
The city of Mons is the capital of Hainaut province, the westernmost in Wallonia. Beginning in Mons, and continuing westward to Tournai, the terrain begins to flatten into what eventually becomes the Flanders plain stretching to the Atlantic. The industrial zone remains evident along the Sambre River and then the Scheldt, but it is intermixed with landscape of a more pastoral character.
The towns and villages reflect these differing influences. There are tidy modern cottages and the homes of people who commute to work in the larger towns. Next to them, one might see the manure-caked tractor of a family still engaged in farming. Crops in Hainaut include wheat, oats, sugar beets, chicory – and yes, barley. A simple bike ride through the countryside yields abundant olfactory evidence of hogs and cattle.
Even in the tiniest settlements, there usually can be seen sturdy, drafty brick buildings and rust-stained ground. Back in the day these were workshops and factories, the smaller satellites of the industrial complexes concentrated elsewhere. Many of these relics now are dilapidated, while others have been reclaimed and are used as auto body shops, storage facilities, art studios, or for whatever modern purpose that they can be adaptively renovated to serve.
Although it’s certain that all these archaic red brick buildings have historical stories to tell, it’s just as unlikely that one would find any of them, apart from farming structures, still being used for the purpose and work originally intended. Even if that would be the case, it’s a considerable stretch to fantasize that the work performed would still be done substantially the way it was in olden times.
Yet, in one of these utilitarian relics of the 19th century, located in the sleepy village of Pipaix, this thoroughly “retro” fantasy is precisely the case in reality. At the Brasserie A Vapeur, the indefatigable Jean-Louis Dits brews beer at a brewery founded in 1795. All heat and power for the brewing operation is generated by steam power, this being the result of an extensive “modernization” -- undertaken in 1895!
Upon closer examination, the boiler is of recent vintage, and there are stainless steel fermenters (open fermentation having been abandoned several years ago). Various spare and replacement parts also are of newer vintage, but in amazing measure the brewery operates as it would have when Queen Victoria reigned and Louisville had a major league baseball team.
I’d seen the Vapeur (“steam”) brewery previously in 1998 during the first homemade group tour of Belgium, but in 2000 our biking group had a timely opportunity not possible two years before: We would be able to visit Vapeur during the actual brewing, which takes place only once each month and is open to the public. Riding bikes to the Vapeur brewing day? Priceless.
Saturday morning in Tournai was cool and cloudy. It had spit rain intermittently the night before as we crawled from café to couscouserie and back to café, absorbing ales great and small. Neither were we expecting rain Saturday, nor did it matter; as there was far too much planned for the day and if we became wet, so be it.
The morning’s ride began, sans precipitation, along the bank of the river in the center of Tournai, taking us quickly to the outskirts and an access road to the highway east toward Leuze. Although heavily traveled, the bike lane provided suitable buffering from the roar of passing traffic. Pedaling through a succession of villages clustered around the old highway, it was noted that the scene was similar to that glimpsed along roads anywhere: Gas stations, video stores, cafes, and dozens of ordinary people tending to weekend chores.
Upon spotting a sign that pointed the way toward Pipaix, we exited south onto a smaller, less noisy highway and entered a verdant countryside filled with fields, farms, villages, rows of trees ... and breweries.
In fact, and blessedly so, our quartet of amateurs was cycling into a veritable Golden Triangle of artisanal Belgian brewing, because located in this portion of rural Hainaut province, almost within walking distance of each other, are three world-class breweries: Vapeur, our archaic destination for the day; Dubuisson, home of the heavenly 12% Bush Beer (known as Scaldis in America); and Dupont, preserver of the tradition of Saison, or Belgian farmhouse ale.
Dubuisson dates from 1769, and the eighth generation of its founding family runs the business today. In addition to brewing, the company is a beer wholesaler, and it exports Bush/Scaldis throughout the world. Since the 2000 trip, a sleek new tasting café has risen on the site, testament to the family’s faith in the future of quality ale.
In like fashion, Dupont began its working life in 1850 as the Brasserie Rimaux, which was taken over by the current owning family in 1920. The family now brews, malts barley, bakes bread, makes cheese, and does a little farming on the side. Dupont was a Belgian pioneer in brewing organic beer, and in contract brewing for other companies in the country. The brewery’s ales, which like Dubuisson’s are aggressively exported, include Saison Dupont (I), Moinette (II), and the delicious seasonal Avec les Bons Voeux (III).
Where else in Belgium can be found three breweries of such high quality, located so close together? We’d have liked to make a pilgrimage to each of them; however, because of the novelty of Vapeur’s brewing day, it would be the sole destination, with the others reserved for subsequent journeys.
After a hard left off the main road, perhaps two kilometers and a few puzzled moments trying to locate the village of Pipaix, the unprecedented and grudging step of asking a village passer-by to point the way to Vapeur was undertaken. He shrugged and pointed. It was the building just behind us, perhaps twenty yards away.
Embarrassment ensued. Couldn’t we smell the mash?
Bikes were abandoned and we followed our noses into the brewery, where Jean-Louis Dits, his assistant and Jean-Louis’s wife were hard at work before a handful of interested onlookers.
By almost any standard of measurement, Jean-Louis is a Renaissance man whose talents extend beyond brewing renowned ales like Cochonne, Saison Pipaix and Folie. He is an educator, a naturalist, a museum curator, a cheese maker and a bread baker.
To visit Vapeur is to attend an eclectic seminar about all things germane to Pipaix, one taught by a passionate, patient, bilingual instructor. You will learn about the medicinal lichen that once was an ingredient in Vapeur’s beer, but that has been degraded by air pollution. You will learn of the many breweries that once operated in the area, and how so few remain today. You’ll learn about the power of the steam and the system of pulleys and shifting drive belts, and just when stirring of the mash grinds to a halt and it’s time to let nature work, the lecture abruptly ceases, the bell figuratively rings, and recess begins – thankfully without dodge ball.
At Vapeur on brewing day, to rest the mash is to rush the growler. Everyone is guided across the courtyard to the tasting room, where ample pitchers of draft house brews are passed along the wooden tables and a contagious communal appreciation envelops the surroundings.
Jean-Louis noted that lunch would be served for those willing to ante a small fee. In the pre-Euro times of 2000, roughly $12.00 sufficed for the museum admission, the many “recess” beers and the meal. He described lunch as a simple plate of bread and locally made cheeses. It turned out to be anything but simple: Two enormous platters laden with cheeses – hard and soft, white and yellow, stinky and mild, some incorporating locally grown herbs, and taken together, all quite overwhelming to the already besieged senses. Crusty crumbs and cultured shards flew, pitchers of Cochonne continued to appear with breathtaking speed, and we began to fear the ride back to Tournai.
As trained professionals, we persevered, toasted, drank, and ate more cheese than any human should attempt. Back in the brewery, it was approaching the time for the boil (the wort is pumped upstairs to the brew kettle), but we concluded with much sadness that because of the evening festivities planned in Tournai, it was time for us to bid “adieu” to Jean-Louis and his grand, archival Vapeur brewery. He graciously consented to a photo-op in the courtyard, which for some reason turned out somewhat blurry to the camera lens, and we were off to retrace the path.
It never rained … but the deluge was only just beginning.
Next time: Returning to Tournai, we discover Danes waiting in ambush at the Hotel d’Alcantara, and lose contact with Mission Control.
Friday, June 22, 2007
2. Belgian beercycling 2000: From Brussels to the Tournai base camp in less than 15 drinks.
1. Belgian beercycling 2000: A prologue.
The city of Tournai seldom surfaces as part of prospective Belgian beer-hunting itineraries, and on the surface of it, the omission is perfectly understandable. The city itself no longer possesses working breweries, and there is only one specialty beer café, Cave de Bieres, that is worthy of mention in the British writer Tim Webb’s essential book, “The Good Beer Guide to Belgium and Holland.”*
In spite of this, we elected to make this city of 70,000 people our home for the first three full days of the biking and beer-hunting Belgian holiday. Our choice reflected Tournai’s relative proximity to good beer and the breweries that make it, and also because our choice of accommodations, the Hotel d’Alcantara, had inexpensive bikes available that we could use to reach the beer.
In the end, our choice proved to be a quite good one. To be sure, Tournai’s tourist infrastructure is scant compared with better known Belgian destinations, but as a bonus beyond the reasons of beer proximity cited above, Tournai is intriguing in its own right. The city was founded as a Roman settlement, and like most comparably sized urban areas, it was ceded, swapped and passed around to various feudal and imperial powers for much of its history. There is a relaxed and pleasing mixture of new and old Europe.
Tournai suffered damage in both of the 20th-century’s European conflagrations, but in WWII it had the distinction of being the first Belgian city to be liberated from the Nazis. Tournai’s trademark postcard photo is of the imposing, five-towered Cathedrale de Notre-Dame; there is a squat but massive 13th-century bridge across the Escaut River; and the Grand Place (or central square), which otherwise functions as a huge car park, boasts a strange on-again, off-again sidewalk fountain made possible by EU developmental funds. The square is ringed by respectable, if not spectacular, pubs and cafes where the thirsty beer traveler can reliably find mid-range selections as well as predictably good espresso and snacks.
Roughly ten miles west of Tournai is the French city of Lille. We didn’t have time to visit Lille, but it is considered a center of northern French brewing, with many beer bars in the city center and breweries in its outskirts. The Brunehaut brewery is located ten miles south; it dates from 1992 and makes several fine ales available for sampling in Tournai. One beer that stood out from the rest was a specialty Brunehaut ale spiked with genever, Belgium’s distilled counterpart to gin.
Twenty miles northeast of Tournai is the region known as the Pays du Collines, which is a rural area of low hills, towns, patches of woods, farms, and a recently renewed focus on eco-tourism. With the invaluable assistance of a Hotel d’Alcantara staffer, we booked a guided mountain bike tour of the Pays du Collines for our second day in town.
Ten miles east of Tournai there is perhaps the best concentration of small breweries that you’ll find in Belgium, all of them situated in perhaps a two-square mile area: Dubuisson, maker of the incredible Bush strong ale (known as Scaldis in the USA); Dupont, brewer of classic Saison ales; and Vapeur, the archaic steam-powered museum/brewery that we scheduled for a visit on Day Three.
Before mountain biking Friday and brewery schmoozing Saturday, there was an open biking day Thursday. We had plenty of raw adrenalin, but not much of a plan. Having examined the four bikes and found them to be rickety but serviceable, we chatted with the friendly hotel manager, who suggested charting a course for Mont St. Aubert, a few miles north of Tournai. This choice was as good as any, so we followed the manager’s directions.
Along the way, our quartet received an introduction to the joys of biking and bruising over dry cobblestoned streets; wet cobblestones were yet to come and provide thrills of an even greater magnitude. These gave way to smoother paved roads as we left the inner city area and entered the more modern districts on the outskirts. We followed the signs into the countryside, where we could clearly see the hill ahead looming of us. Climbing it was a challenge, with each of us having only a handful of gears in operating condition, but we made it to the top and were rewarded with a spectacular view of Tournai and the surrounding region.
Actually, some of us made it in better condition than others. When you see Buddy Sandbach at the Public House, ask him the French pronunciation of “Ralph.” Curiously, it’s almost the same as the American.
Bob Reed had thoughtfully procured a map of the area, and using it we rode off on country lanes, through the surrounding farmlands and their reassuring aromas of fodder and dung, eventually coming to the town of Pecq. From there we took immaculately groomed bike paths along the river back into Tournai.
It was unlikely that we rode more than 15 miles all day, but the historical significance of this inaugural bicycling foray simply cannot be exaggerated. It didn’t matter at all that the bicycles were inferior. During the course of European travels dating back to 1985, I’d traveled by rail, bus, boat, automobile, and on foot. All of the previous experiences were special in their own way, but in 2000 – for the first time in years –I felt exhilaration and the pure joy of discovery – perhaps rediscovery is a better word. Kevin Richards and I had talked about it for months, and now we’d done it, and I immediately understood that I was hooked. Puffing up Mont St. Aubert, I knew that Europe would never again be the same for me.
We were judicious in keeping it short the first day, and spent the remainder of the afternoon walking through town, pausing to have a restorative ale in the since-departed street level café of the Hotel Europ (a Bush Blonde, arguably the easiest drinking 10.5% ale that Belgian brewers have conceived), then dining on beefsteak and fries at a nearby restaurant.
One must wait until 5:00 p.m. to enter the aforementioned Cave a Bieres, Tournai’s finest specialty beer café, which is located by the river in a former storage cellar. It’s worth the delay.
Cave a Bieres is a variant of “shotgun” bar filling space below street level in a venerable old European warehouse. The walls and vaulted brick ceiling are painted white, with a small bar, big wooden tables and chairs lining both sides of a central walkway, and Belgian brewing memorabilia nailed everywhere. The café is run by a male head waiter and a female chef, perhaps husband and wife, perhaps not, but with the latter being firmly and fixedly in charge of the proceedings, which in addition to a bottled beer list of 75 to 100 choices includes typical Belgian café snacks, and as we were to discover on Saturday evening, excellent full meals on weekends.
Settling in, I concentrated on regional ales: Brunehaut, Quintine and Dupont. Vapeur was available, but there’d be plenty of that on Saturday at the monthly brewing day in Pipaix.
On Friday morning following an exemplary hotel breakfast, it was time for yet another new adventure. We were met in the lobby by our guide for the day’s pre-arranged mountain biking excursion. Etienne, a teacher, coach and superbly conditioned all-around athlete, loaded us into his pristine van for the trip to the rural Pays du Collines.
At a sparkling new athletic club in a town on the periphery, we were introduced to our bikes and to Etienne’s bubbly aunt, who would be following us in her car and stopping with us to provide periodic commentary in English. Etienne confessed to speaking only French, but as usually is the case in such times, we were able to communicate wonderfully through gestures and snippets. With regard to mountain biking technique, Etienne showed us what to do, and we followed his lead.
Off we pedaled into the beautiful natural area for an unforgettable day. For Bob, Buddy and I, it was a first-time experience on a mountain bike off road in the rough – over steep hills in the mud, across dirt paths in wide, cleared fields, and through old railroad cuts in the woods. Kevin and Etienne bonded immediately, finding in their love of all sporting endeavors a common language. Along the way we stopped at a traditional farmstead to view an ancient mill under restoration and visited a museum of local culture.
Two hours into the ride, Etienne took us to his mother’s rectangular brick farmstead for juice, coffee and pastries, and then later in the village of Ellezelle there was a much appreciated re-hydration sag at the Brasserie Ellezelloise. The isolated country micro/brewpub makes high quality ales familiar for their stopper bottles, including Hercule, an intense, high-gravity sweet stout, and a style rarely seen in Belgium.
The brewery’s beer occasionally is found at other outlets in Ellezelle, including specially scheduled festive appearances at a local waist-high pedestal, upon which a statue of a mythical regional witch squats and glowers. The statue often is compared to the Mannekin-Pis in Brussels by virtue of its plumbing, meaning that on normal days one puts coins in the adjacent slot, and if the person is unlucky, only water comes out from beneath the witch’s skirt … but during those magical times, beer flows instead.
At the end of the afternoon, we retired to the posh local club within the athletic complex and drank a round of Hoegaardens: To Etienne, a superlative guide and true gentleman.
For a second consecutive evening back in Tournai, the consensus choice for dinner was couscous (kews-kews), the North African ethnic delight that is as widely available in Tournai as Chinese or Mexican food is in Louisville.
Perhaps it should be noted at this juncture that my newfound joy in biking was not accompanied by what I viewed as unnecessary restrictions like dieting or moderation in drinking. It struck me that the whole point in hard riding during the day was to justify the pleasure of massive meals and fine ale at night. This acknowledged, couscous proved to be ideally suited for an exercise regimen like ours. The tiny rice-like granules are in fact pasta; grilled sausages and skewered meats accompany the rich vegetable-based sauce, all of it uniquely spiced and smothered with fiery harissa sauce. Chickpeas and pine nuts appear alongside raisins and dates. The red wine is memorable.
At the hotel, sated, with a final round of ales safely beneath our belts, we slept well. Saturday would be the highlight of the Tournai segment of the trip: The ride to and from the monthly brewing day at Brasserie A Vapeur (the steam-operated brewery), followed by televised Eurocup soccer in Tournai, then a special meal of lobster at the Cave de Bieres, and best of all, the delightful company of three of my best European friends, Danes Kim Andersen, Kim Wiesener, and Allan Gamborg. They were in Belgium for the Eurocup, and had booked rooms at the a’Alcantara to meet us for one evening’s dining and drinking.
Would the novice beercycling team survive?
*Editor’s 2007 note: The most recent edition of Webb’s book verifies the worthiness of the Cave de Bieres, and concurs with his decade-old assessment of Tournai as possessing a “boring” beer culture. In short, affairs are much the same now as then.
Thursday, June 21, 2007
Before Rich O's Public House (1990), before I became a part of the business (1992) and before the New Albanian Brewing Company (incorporated in 1994, and brewing 2002), there was Sportstime, occupying the space that previously had been a Noble Roman pizza franchise.
Rich O’Connell -- eventual namesake of the public house, husband of Sharon and the father of current co-owners Amy and Kate -- took over the Noble Roman operation in the summer of 1987. He pronounced it hopeless, began reshuffling the deck, severed the franchise agreement and changed the name to Sportstime Pizza. Around that time I began drinking (bad) beer there with my friends at the time, and eating the first of several thousand pizzas. Shortly thereafter, through sheer coincidence, Rich added bottled Pilsner Urquell to the menu and contracted to buy the whole building.
In 1990, two of his cronies opened Rich O’s BBQ, which passed to Amy’s control within weeks when they became bored with trite notions of labor and effort. In 1992 my tenure at what became the Public House began, and then Amy and I were married, and then her parents divorced … and in 1994 we formed the New Albanian Brewing Company with Kate, who later married Jeff. In 2002 brewing began, the following year Amy and I were divorced, and if this whole story sounds like something lifted from the pages of the afternoon soaps, I can assure you that all of it is quite factual.
Through these many roller-coaster plot twists, Sportstime has endured, and while lately we’ve made a conscious decision to market the NABC name as a means of increasing its visibility as a brand name for the house beers, it’s obvious that the Sportstime brand isn’t going away and has an enduring appeal for several generations of customers. For this, we’re thankful – whichever name one chooses to call us.
On Saturday, July 14, we’ll devote the day to a birthday party in Prost, with business as usual elsewhere in the building. Old photos and accounts are being collected, and if readers have any that they’d be willing to share just for the day, please let us know. Did you work for us at any point during the past two decades? If so, and there are no lawsuits pending, we'd like to hear from you, too. There’ll be beer and food specials and a few surprises, although my effort to engage Def Leppard for the day didn’t work out.
Roz Tate, are you and the 600 Hitlers reading?
Remember, this one’s about the venerable Sportstime dining area, which often gets short shrift compared to the cachet of Rich O’s and the brewery. But we've not forgotten our upbringings, and July 14th will be an observance of our roots. Both old-timers and newbies are invited to poke their heads into Prost and glimpse the progression.
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Here’s to us.
May we never quarrel or fuss.
But if by chance we should disagree,
#%@* you, and here’s to me.
-- A toast to cycling togetherness, as masterfully articulated by Bob Reed.
I was in the process of stuffing bags into a coin-operated storage locker at the disconcertingly subterranean Centrale Station in Brussels when suddenly Buddy Sandbach popped around the corner, having spotted Kevin Richards strolling out on the concourse. Buddy was freshly arrived in Brussels from Amsterdam, where he had spent several days fulfilling his longtime dream of viewing Holland’s many and varied species of, er, tulips.
Kevin and I had flown together from Louisville, via Atlanta. Buddy’s unexpectedly early debut in Brussels put us squarely ahead of schedule, which loomed large, for it might easily translate at some point down the road into free time for an extra beer.
And besides looming large, free time for an extra beer always is a good omen.
After a pitfall or three in pursuit of a place to store Buddy’s various bags and prized bulbs -- these obstacles being overcome in spite of the best efforts of an obstructionist baggage room bureaucrat named Eric – the transaction finally was arranged, stairs were mounted, and we met the bustling streets outside the station. Signage and a handy public map determined the course that would take us to the famed Grand Place, the ornate central square pictured on boxes of Belgian chocolate shipped worldwide.
The giddy enthusiasm one feels when returning to a great city, as in my case, or visiting it for the very first time like Kevin and Buddy, always makes it easy to ignore trifles like kamikaze taxi drivers and intermittent drizzly rain, and so we dodged these impediments and rushed into a bustling, vibrant urban environment filled with touristy restaurants and their multi-lingual menu offerings, the delivery vans of florists and family butcher firms, tacky souvenir stands, suavely attired Euro-businessmen and even the occasional tattoo parlor.
Would they really etch a genuine facsimile of the famed Mannekin-Pis-Boy into your virgin rump while you wait? I wasn’t eager to know, but too cynical to rule it out.
The Grand Place remains the place for aficionados of gilded guild halls, and the ambience was duly photographed even if it cannot be adequately captured on film. When the clicking of shutters had subsided, I broke the news to my friends as gently as I could: From the beer traveler’s rarified point of view, truly noteworthy cafes from which to view the splendid architectural setting weren’t likely to be found around the square itself, where rents are sky high and cautious sightseers demand predictable pilsners.
However, there was time to kill before Bob Reed’s arrival at the pre-arranged meeting point of the front door at Maison des Brasseurs (a brewing museum), and the steadily escalating rain suggested to us that any nearby café would do in a pinch. Accordingly, we entered the café known as the White Rose, which had an above average list and provided the perfect vantage point to watch for Bob.
The uniformed waiter brought the first of three rounds to our low wooden table by the open window. Through it wafted the echoes of scattered throngs in the square and the steady drumbeat of rain o cobblestones, and while the White Rose isn’t the best beer café in Brussels, it is by no means the worst. My first three beers of the trip were Palm (Belgian pale ale), Rodenbach (sour red ale from West Flanders) and Rochfort 8º (heavenly Trappist ale) -- three choices you’d love to have anywhere while mulling life.
Many soggy tourists crossed the expanse beyond our window, and among them we soon spotted an angular Bob loping across the pavement wrapped in a brilliant reddish-orange rain poncho. We motioned him inside and had another round. Soon the rain dissipated, and we were back on the streets in search of food and drink.
Historically, Brussels and environs are lambic country, and on previous trips to Belgium I’d begun to develop a taste for the funky nectar. The next two cafes we patronized both were located in the warren of streets beyond the Grand Place, and they yielded good examples of Belgium’s indigenous, spontaneously fermented specialty.
At Notredame, there was Timmerman’s Faro; although by definition sweetened, the characteristically tangy lambic character still was present. At Toone, a textbook example of sharp, sour and rigorously authentic lambic, Cantillon Gueuze, was chased afterward with a smooth glass of Antwerp’s signature De Koninck ale. Three hours, six beers, and a veritable cross section of Belgian brewing … and all before dinner.
Our quartet’s quintessentially Belgian evening meal was composed of four pots of mussels, just as many baskets of crusty bread for soaking up the broth, and mounds of fries. After all, one must always eat vegetables for a balanced meal. My delicacies were washed down with famously balanced, deceptively drinkable Duvel, Belgium’s signature golden ale. It followed a draft portion of forgettable Jupiler mass-market lager, allegedly “bought” for us by the restaurant’s street hawker as an enticement to eat there, and which served as a valuable calibration beer in the sense that everything else I drank the entire day represented an improvement on the Jupiler.
Soon the mussels were gone, as was our afternoon in Brussels. It was time to return to the train station to reclaim luggage and embark for the hour-long ride to Tournai, a city located in French-speaking Hainaut province that we had chosen as our base for three days of cycling in the Wallonian countryside. Blessedly, we were early getting back, so there was the chance to have that extra, cherished, final beer -- and free time for an extra beer always is a good omen -- at a café across the street. Mine was Brugs Tarwebier, a citrusy, representative Belgian-style wheat ale. Blessedly, there was no orange slice to throw angrily at the waitress.
Rumbling through the suburbs aboard a nearly deserted train, our bountiful harvest of opening day libations suddenly became even more fruitful as Kevin Magically produced a bottle of 40-year-old Noval port wine, technically a tawny port with indication of average age as pertains to the blending stocks, and not a vintage port as such, but no matter. Kevin Richards had cleverly procured the bottle from our fifth wheel, Kevin Lowber, who would be meeting us in Poperinge later in the trip. Having done so, he resolved to drink it early and often, and dissenting voices could not be found.
With little choice except tom thumb our noses at propriety and accepted decanting protocol, we happily took turns imbibing the sinuous, concentrated nectar from two of Buddy’s souvenir Parisian shot glasses, watching tidy fields and shuttered small villages fly past as dusk approached. A taxi waited in front of the queue at the Tournai station, and two hundred Belgian francs later, we were deposited at the gate of the hotel.
This momentous first day in Belgium ended without bicycling, but with Chimay Trappist “blue” ales on the pleasant, landscaped terrace of the Hotel d’Alcantara, our base in Tournai. As we drank, toasting ourselves and the surroundings, which included bright hotel flowerboxes and the lovely vista of a floodlit church spire, four ancient bicycles were spotted chained together in the corner of the walled courtyard. In a few hours, these would be our introduction to European biking … and my travel world would begin to change.
In the next installment: Tournai, couscous, a beer “cave” and steam-powered beer.
Belgian beercycling 2000: A prologue.
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
The preceding episodes are brought to you by everyday life, and taken together, they have conspired to prevent me from the intended crowning achievement of my writing “career,” such as it is – namely, chronicling the travel and beer lore that has been haphazardly compiled over the course of the years spent on the road. Far too much of it has been passed on through the Homeric tradition of oral storytelling, generally undertaken while holding court at the pub, and not enough of it by inscribing the tales on paper for a better stab at posterity.
But my Muse, she of the inconsistent periodic arrivals, made a long overdue appearance this evening, scolding me rather harshly and suggesting that perhaps it is time to make another try at diligence in compiling the historical record. So, although I can’t predict how long it will last, let’s nonetheless randomly revisit the year 2000, and the first ever European excursion devoted to hunting beer while riding bicycles at least part of the time.
To this day, it is impossible for me to explain why it took so long for me to rediscover the joys of biking (beer was a given all along), and yet in 1999 this reawakening occurred at home in Indiana … and almost immediately, I began plotting and scheming as to how it might play out on the road, in my beloved Europe.
A willing and experienced bicycling co-conspirator was at the bar: Kevin Richards, a cyclist of long standing. One day we went for a ride up the Knobs to Edwardsville, and while resting at Polly’s Freeze, the venerable ice cream haven, an earnest discussion began. Might we venture a biking trip to Europe?
And have a few beers, too?
We might, and we did, opting to pre-arrange a handful of beer-oriented Belgian urban venues and accompanying rental bikes for day trips at each stop. Faxes and e-mails were sent, and the itinerary came into shape. As the calendar turned to June, 2000, there were five of us ready to make the journey, and it proved to be a classic. A beercycling group was born, and my European travel instincts were reborn. Nowadays it feels awkward to be in Europe without a bike, and what’s more, it feels just as awkward to be in New Albany without one.
Oddly, when the 2000 trip ended and the workaday world was reinstituted, I eventually sought some semblance of self-discipline to write about the experience, and found it in 2001 through the medium of the monthly e-newsletter compiled for the FOSSILS homebrewing club. Titling the effort “FOSSILS on Bicycles, 2000,” I explained to readers: “As an inducement to finally finish writing about last year’s biking and beer trip to Belgium, I’ve elected to run the article in installments. Here’s the first.”
History repeats itself. With a few revisions, expansions and contractions, I’m beginning the series again … on Wednesday.
Tomorrow: A beer orientation in Brussels, and arrival in Tournai.
Monday, June 18, 2007
One good aspect of media attention is that it generates questions and comments that are stimulating to the keyboard of a beer writer who, these days, seems to be doing more beer drinking than beer writing.
After the Saturday piece in the Courier-Journal, the following came to me via e-mail. I sent back my answer as written below, and did so with trepidation, because I know that the probable outcome won't be his acceptance of my invitation to come to the pub and enjoy a personally guided beer tasting meant to illustrate my points.
But maybe I'll be able to use it when writing my Beer Bars for Dummies book. The original note that came to me is in italics, with my response afterward.
While I understand your disdain for domestic megabrewery lite beers, I don't understand the commercial decision to ban them. In my group of friends, 5-6 couples, eating out and drinking beer is our primary recreation. Among those 5-6 couples, there is one spouse who will drink "good beer" and a spouse who will not (ever). My wife has tried many times, and has given up. Yours looks like an establishment we could really enjoy, but if my wife can't get her Miller Lite, we won't be there. It is a shame to let your opinions about mega brews reduce the amount of business you do. (Maybe you don't need it??) We'll just keep going to Za's and wonder about your pizza and beer selection.
With all due respect … and from my personal perspective … the real shame is that one person’s opinion about the necessity of Miller Lite reduces the range of options that a substantial majority of your recreational dining and drinking group might enjoy exercising. If I understand your scenario, there are as many as 10 to 12 people involved in the group’s collective choice to eat and drink out, and yet the preference of just one of these people can make or break the choice of destination. Does someone else eat only Armour hot dogs, thus precluding any area eatery that doesn’t serve them?
That’s doubtful, of course, because almost no one willingly eats the same food at every meal. Sadly, beer is a different story, and my career has been predicated on the alternative of “my” brand of beer: Hundreds of beers and beer styles for every meal, every mood, and every occasion. While the mass market beer business in America is based on the reinforcement of brand loyalty, my business is based on helping to provide the beer consumer with the sufficient knowledge and skills to navigate the labyrinth of multiplicity, and catering to the consumer’s increased knowledge by means of an intelligent, superior selection of beers.
In my experience, there are perhaps five people out of one hundred who, for whatever reason, are entirely and utterly resistant to the notion of embracing the notion that there might be something fairly similar to the standard preference of their comfort zone, and in such a case, I’ve found that little can be done to help them beyond having available that single branded item, whether it be Lite, or Michelin tires, or Crest toothpaste.
I’ll readily concede that another 50 or more out of that hundred would prefer their everyday brand of beer, and if it is available, they’ll stick with their safety net as a default rather than explore. However, the difference is that with these 50 drinkers, if the default isn’t available, and they’re offered an alternative somewhere within the range instead, usually they’ll be comfortable with it and enjoy the change, even if they remain brand-loyal by instinct in most other cases. In other words, they can be taught to exercise different thought processes when patronizing our establishment.
I’d guess that maybe 25 of the 100 people can come to genuinely enjoy the numerous beer alternatives, to revel in them, and to become part of the regular returning customer base.
By this tried and tested reckoning, I expect to be able to please up to 95% of the beer drinkers who walk through the door, because even if their regular brand is not available, something similar to it is – and a compromise (if not more) is readily attainable. That’s why we have Spaten Premium Lager on tap – it’s the largest selling guest beer in the house, precisely because most mainstream lager drinkers find it suitable – and also carry a mild golden ale in bottles called Reissdorf Kolsch. There usually are other choices, too, both on draft and in bottles. Our staff is good about suggesting these.
It comes down to a fundamental question: Why compromise everything that the business stands for in terms of choice and diversity just to attempt to please occupants of the five percentile, when the five percentile generally announces far in advance that it is capable of being pleased in only one way?
None of this is intended as disdainful. Rather, it’s simply an expression of the niche business principle that is the philosophical underpinning of what we try to do with beer selection. Consider that as a mass-market brewer, Miller makes Lite so as not to offend the majority of beer drinkers. Conversely, I’ve tried to construct a beer business knowing full well that this Lite-drinking majority possesses numerous outlets, while the minority of beer aficionados has correspondingly few. I’d rather have 90% of 10 frequent customers who know I cater specifically to them rather than 5% of 90 infrequent ones who can get their brand anywhere.
Rest assured that I know quite well what it feels like to go out into the world and not be able to get the beer I’d like to drink. Given that Miller Lite is served by 98% of Louisville area dining and drinking establishments, and three-fourths of these still haven’t heard the news that there’s a craft beer explosion underway, it’s almost certain that I’ve been disappointed far more often than those unable to buy Miller Lite in my pub.
Numerous times in my life as a “beer snob,” I’ve been a part of an extended group of 10-12 people, and have known from the start that the restaurant, bar or ballpark that we’d be visiting that day or night would have none of the beers I prefer. In such instances, it hasn’t made me overjoyed to be the one willing to compromise, but that’s usually what I’ve done – though not without taking the opportunity to try to educate the management. Some times I’ve had wine, other times a mixed drink, but most often I drink water or a soft drink and save the beer for later.
I’m genuinely sorry that your group can’t come to visit our pub and allow me the chance to introduce all of your friends to the many flavors and textures in the world of beer, but there are times when one must stick by his core principles, and this is one of them. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to explain them.
Sunday, June 17, 2007
My recent shameless press release about the annual RateBeer beer bar rankings generated a fine piece in the Louisville Courier-Journal:
Go Rich O's!; World-class beer bar is in our backyard, By Sarah Fritschner.
As always, all due props to Sarah for a job well done.
Saturday, June 16, 2007
Here's a .pdf of the poster for printing: Promo poster.
Friday, June 15, 2007
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Back in New Albany, I received a text message from Jared at 6:10 p.m.:
40 gallons in 4 hrs. 1st out of beer.
Sounded like a success to me, and then came another text:
2 silvers: mens and womens choice – Hoptimus.
Even better. It turns out that a “fan voting” is conducted, and Hoptimus was the second favorite of males and females. Since a different beer was the “gold” in each category, that would seem to make Hoptimus the highest vote getter and overall choice of the fest goers. In this vein, the brew crew might enjoy reading this endorsement from a Beer Advocate correspondent:
… Forgot to mention that New Albanian once again stole the show. Great cherry imperial stout, Hoptimus IIPA, Kentucky Common (sour ale), CA common (grassy as can be CA common) and Imperial Pilsner. I have to take a road trip to their brewery as some point - killer quality from these guys. They got two silver metals - I'm not sure what for since they couldn't even tell me what they won them for. Long day, lots of beer, who can blame them for not knowing.
Well, 40 gallons in four hours at a couple ounces a throw would give anyone temporary amnesia. Here’s another nice comment that arrived via e-mail:
I tasted your beer again this year at the STL Microfest, you guys are excellent. You brew a "brewers" brew. Excellent, really great beers, my favorite at the festival.
My purpose in recounting the St. Louis experience is to make sure that Jesse and Jared get the credit they deserve. I realize that sometimes this isn’t the case, as the Publican has been known to attract a disproportional amount of attention and to suck all the air out of big rooms.
However, I understand that our future growth as a company is highly likely to come from the brewhouse far more so than the other things we do as a business, so kudos to the brewers. You’ll be hearing more about them in the months to come.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
As the 75-72 Spurs victory over Cleveland Tuesday night played out before our deadened eyes, we considered the merits of Weyerbacher’s wonderfully named barley wine, which Jay had scored on a recent visit to Ohio.
We noted a highly fruity (figs were mentioned), malt-dominated attack, with little hop presence, and overall a flavor that variously reminded me of English-style barley wines and strong Belgian ales along the lines of Abbaye des Rocs or Gouden Carolus. Blithering Idiot was quite drinkable for the alcohol content, and we both liked it. It was different, though ... in a good way.
Only today did I manage to skip to Weyerbacher’s web site, where the brewery describes Blithering Idiot thusly:
At Weyerbacher, we prefer to brew things true to European style guidelines. Consequently our barley wine is on the malty side, yet not overly sweet. Notes of date or perhaps fig on the palate follow a pleasurably malty aroma to your taste buds. The finish is warm and fruity, and begs for the next sip.
Indeed. Looks like we had it pegged far more closely than most of the Cavalier shot attempts.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
I'm told that Speakeasy, downtown New Albany's newest restaurant (also a jazz venue), will be doing "soft" lunches this week from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, and 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Friday, as preparation for the big grand opening show on Saturday, June 16th. I'm assuming that regular hours will commence beginning next week, and will inform readers when the information is known.
The Speakeasy is located at 225 State Street (between Main and Market, just adjacent to the retro Firestone auto service center. The phone is 812-981-0981. Owners are Brad and Lori Tharp, and the chef is Kevin Crum.
The Saturday grand opening event, featuring the Glenn Miller Orchestra, is sold out. Develop New Albany is the primary sponsor of the event along with Holiday Inn Express (Dee Cunningham; the hotel provided all the Miller band's rooms); Tumblebus (Larry and Brenda Scharlow); Lopp Real Estate (Mike & Terri Kopp); New Albany mayoral candidate Doug England and wife Michelle England; Sturgis Carpet Cleaning (John and Amy Sturgis); and Community Bank in New Albany.
Three draft New Albanian Brewing Company beers will be served (Mt. Lee, Elector and Community Dark, at least to start) along with two from Bluegrass Brewing (Main & Clay). A short list of craft beers and imports from World Class Beverages also will be offered. The food menu is Cajun-influenced, and the physical setting is compelling and likely to become an immediate classic.
With four taps at Bistro New Albany and two at Connor’s Place, the Speakeasy's three NABC taps bring the downtown total to nine -- one more than at the pub and pizzeria. If that isn't progress, I'm not sure what is.
Thanks to Mike Kopp for fleshing out this posting.