Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Great Belgian Beer Run Part Two: United States Version

I was beginning to feel depressed. I started growing my beard at the same time that I did last year. For some reason, beards were a key element to our first Beer Run to Belgium. Why? I don't know, it just was. This year I felt like I was growing my beard with no purpose. It had finally hit me that we were not returning to Belgium in January of 2013. I never expected it to be a yearly event, or even something that was necessarily ever going to be repeated. Kevin, Lou, and I had discussed doing it every ten years potentially. So as we approached the anniversary of the trips conception, it surprised me to feel sad about the adventure not happening again.

For me the highlight of our trip was our time spent at Cantillon Brewery in Brussels. They brew a style of beer there called lambic. Lambic can only truly be produced in and around that area of Brussels because it relies on the natural flora and fauna to ferment their beers. In my opinion, spontaneously fermented beers made in other areas can be wonderful as well, but that does not make them true lambics. The brewmaster at Cantillon is Jean Van Roy. He gave an inspiring interview on The Brewing Network where he further elaborates on his brewery, his family history with the brewery, and brewing lambic. You can't listen to him discuss his beer without getting fired up. In another interview on the BN Head Brewer Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewery in California said that Jean Van Roy had called their sour beers American Lambic. This of course is an enormous compliment. This is where part two of The Great Belgian Beer Run comes into place.

The idea was hatched to head to California with two purposes, both of which are dreams of mine. The first, being a guest on The Sunday Session, the podcast that taught me how to brew, and discuss the beers we are brewing at Cranker's. The second is to further delve into our exploration of sour beers, but this time from the US perspective.

So once again, the three of us, all bearded will be heading off to California at about the time that the original beer run was being hatched. I will be keeping up blog accounts in the same fashion that I did in Belgium.

PS: Happy Thanksgiving!

Drink good beer with good people!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Remedial Chaos Theory

Timelines were not merging the way they were supposed to.

The plan was for me to start brewing at Cranker's during my sabbatical from teaching during the 2010-2011 school year. After listening to countless interviews with professional brewers from around the world on The Brewing Network, I knew better than to think that everything was going to fall into place according to our time projections. When you are dealing with construction, alcohol, and all levels of government bureaucracy breweries almost never open on time. Still though, I figured I would have had months to brew at Cranker's prior to my March deadline to tell my school district my plans for the following school year. As it happened, I had to tell my superintendant that I would not be returning to teaching before I even brewed my first professional batch of beer.

At first the transition away from teaching was pretty smooth. When my teacher friends were going back to work after their summer off, I was beginning to volunteer at Arbor Brewing two days a week. My time there ended in late October. After that I spent my time working from home on social media for the brewery, piloting recipes at home, starting this blog, and label design for our beers. Honestly, the transition to being home was tough though. I had a major career switch that was looming and there wans't much more I could do to prep for it beyond waiting for the brewery to be operational. Looking back I was trying to accomplish all of these 'work' tasks, while in reality I was doing more important work. Thankfully with the patient example of my wife, in time, I managed to meld pretty well into the pace and schedule of our household.

Earlier that year we were blessed with our fourth child, Isaac. He was the first baby to be born in the summertime. Our first three were January/February babies, so I was always at school for the majority of our kid's infancies. With Isaac things were different. I fielded far more dirty diapers, logged extended rounds with the Baby Bjorn, and jammed my iPhone full of baby pictures. I just realized it today that I was experiencing this stressful time on sabbatical, but in reality, the most important task I was accomplishing was a deeper connection with my kids, and in a special way our new baby Isaac.

Transitioning from teaching to brewing has been a challenge, but it has been an amazing ride that I do not regret. I have left a one job that I loved and was passionate about, for another one that I am equally as crazy about. The unexpected concequence of this whole escapade has been a closer relationship with my family. I am in a good place and I am at peace.

Drink good beer with good people!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Great American Brew Trial

Here is a clip that we shot with the people from the Great American Brew Trial. We had an awesome time with them and they have been doing a great job with the other episodes in their first season. I can't wait to see ours. I will try and post a more detailed essay on the day we shot our footage. It was a blast.

Follow the link below is a discussion we had about Belgium and sour beers.

Drink good beer with good people!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Michigan Craft Beer Challenge

Sometimes I think that I take for granted how lucky I am to live in such a great state. Michigan is beautiful: the beaches, the rivers, the mountains. There is so much natural beauty, but that is not all. Just yesterday the family and I headed into Grand Rapids to take the kids to John Ball Zoo. We had a blast! Sure it could have been a touch cooler, but I won't complain. After the zoo, we headed over to Brewery Vivant for dinner. The food was top notch, the tap room gorgeous, and the beers tasty. It got me thinking about how great it is to hail from our awesome peninsula.

This morning, when I saw postings online about Michigan Craft Beer Month it got me thinking about this challenge. Let's celebrate our states craft beer scene by extending our beer boundaries and trying one new Michigan craft brewery per week. As you do, post pictures of your pint, on Facebook and Twitter, and tell your friends about it. Also, challenge them to do the same. Make sure to tag your post #MichiganCraftBeerMonth or #MICraftBeerMonth.

So head to your bottle shop or your local pub and get to buying some Michigan craft beer! I look forward to seeing your celebrations of craft beer on the interwebs!

Drink good (Michigan) beer with good people!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

It's The People, Stupid

Drink good beer with good people. It has been my closing line for my internet ramblings since I started this blog several months ago. If I remember correctly it came from one of many work sessions that I had with my friend David Phelps as we tried to hammer our the branding message and label concepts for Cranker's Brewery. We work well together. David is far more talented than he knows, and when I am in proximity of his creativity, he gives me credit for being a part of it.

We spent hours in his house upstairs bouncing some good, but mostly bad creative concepts off of each other until we created a label line up that we are both quite proud of. These sessions were facilitated by samplings of the homebrewed pilot batches of beer that I was tweaking in preparation for the brewery's opening. Even though the majority of these work sessions consisted of each of us buried in our respective iDevice, it was always a tremendous amount of fun, and one of those memories that will always remain with me. Seeing these images in the brewery today helps to make work feel like home.

Ever since I started homebrewing and I stopped making beer that tasted like wet cardboard I have had the dream of brewing professionally. I never actually expected to, but the concept was always there in the back of my mind. Then somehow, the stars aligned, and here I am at the helm of a fifteen barrel brewhouse. I always imagined myself watching people drink my beers and enjoying their time out. I figured that would be the best part of the whole head brewer thing. That proved to not be the case. Don't get me wrong, it is awesome to see patrons enjoying the brewery. However my best times as a brewer have come from visits from friends old and new.

I guess it spills into some of my past commentary on food, family, and beer. I view food and family as one. The dinner table is where my family congregates and celebrates. It is were we share and mourn. In many ways, it is our hub. Also, beer is food. It brings people together in the same way that food should. I find that I feel the same way whether I am putting a beer in front of someone, or a rack of ribs that I just slow cooked on the grill. There is always pride and emotion behind those items. I want people to enjoy their time. This is why my favorite role in the brewery is that of host.

Jestin and David, childhood (and still to this day) friends. Lee and Kim, he was the first person I judged beer with. Pat and Ray, homebrew buddies turned bff's. Isaac and Megan, two charter members of the Brewing Network: Homebrew Division. Jeff, potentially the finest cider maker in the country. Seth and Laura, beer bloggers and foodies (insert plug here: Rick and Kim, my favorite local beer tasting buddies.

The fact that these people have taken time out of their schedules to support me is the most edifying part of what I do. Some of them drove from several hours away. Others carved time our of their busy work and family schedule to visit. To all of those who have visited, and to those of you who will, you make this experience special. Thank you for supporting me, the brewery, and in extension, my family.

 Drink good beer with good people!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Dust Settles

I could tell that life was getting back to normal when I began thinking of messing around on Facebook and Twitter again. For so long, writing blog posts and attempting to create a social media base was my work. When school ended in June of 2011, I had no idea that I would not begin working in the brewery until April 2012. I had things on the brewery front to keep me busy: recipe design, equipment research, contributing to branding duties, and trying to grow the aforementioned social media opportunities. However, those things did not stack up to anything near full time work.

Once I could get into the brewery and start cleaning the world around me sort of shrunk away. I tend to get tunnel vision when it comes to the things that I am passionate about. I started working 12-14 hour days seven days a week. I have listened to countless interviews with brewers who participated in launching a new start up like I was. I knew that things would be demanding and exhausting, I didn't walk into this blind, but I didn't realize how intense the whole thing would be. I know that the journey is not over, but I feel as if I have started to come out the other side.

I am proud to say that I have brewed a total of 120 barrels of beer so far and that they have been clean and in the ballpark of where I want it. Sure the will be tweaks made along the way, but I can live with the start that I had. It is pretty wild watching a restaurant full of people drinking the beer that you have made. The local community has really embraced us at the brewery and have been very supportive. I have met a lot of great people. The biggest thrill for me thus far has been speaking to people who drink Bud Light only, sit down and drink my IPA, and then order a second.

I have plans to start posting more regularly. I am excited to share some of the things I have learned about hopping techniques, malt crushing size in relation to extract efficiency, and maybe some general interest stuff. Until then...

Drink good beer with good people!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Without a Net

I knew that the day would come. For the past seven months I have been on sabbatical from teaching. I have taught in alternative high schools for a decade, servicing an 'at risk' student population. It is challenging work and I love it. Once you have earned the trust and respect of my students, they are fiercely loyal and very loving in their own way. Teaching is a secure profession for the most part, job stability, good pay, quality benefits, and a comfortable schedule.

I took my leave from all of these things to explore the possibilities of becoming a professional brewer. My teaching job is 135 miles away from my house, while the brewery is half a mile away. Brewing is a real opportunity for me to be more a part of the day to day routine of my family. It was my hope to be able to be brewing for the majority of my sabbatical, but it did not work out that way. Anyone who has been part of a brewery startup will tell you that delays in the process come with the territory. Then with my March first deadline looming, I had to officially make my decision. Was I going to roll the dice on a career in brewing, or return to the safety of my teaching job?

As I was writing the letter to my Superintendent informing him of my decision, an array of emotions washed over me. I am a bit of a safety cat by nature, so to see the words I was typing on the screen was admittedly a bit frightening.

"I regret to inform you that I will not be returning to teach for Kelloggsville Public Schools at the end of my sabbatical"

I felt that I was truly stepping off of a ledge.

I don't know about you, but for good or for bad, my career identifies so much about me. I remember when the first school I taught at abruptly closed it's doors leaving me jobless. I felt empty, nameless. 'Teacher' was and is a big part of what I am. In part, it was that title that forced my hand, demanding that I grow up. It is a profession that has given me some of my loftiest highs and some enveloping lows.

There is a small part of me that fears I have made the wrong decision for my family. Time will tell. I hope to be able to look back at all of this and be able to honestly say that I was fortunate enough to have two careers I loved.

Drink good beer with good people.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Great Belgian Beer Run: Day Three - In Bruge

Jet lag got the best of us.

After sleeping for only a handful of hours the night before, my travel partners and I expected another short night of sleep. Due to that assumption, no alarm was set. We woke up at 10:30 am. We had hoped be have been on the road for hours by this time, but we continued to embace our mantra of just rolling with the punches. We cleaned up fast and took off on foot for the Diegem train stop. Despite the short duration of our stay in Belgium, things were beginning to feel more familiar. Our goal for this, our last full day in Europe would be to take in Bruge.

Our free-wheeling (read foolish) travel plans were to go to Bruge, find beer, and drink it. It had worked for the previous two days, so why would it stop now? The train ride out continued to hold charm for me as we sped away from Brussels. The particular train car we were in was more comfortable than others that we had been on, so I took advantage of the time to settle down and to work on previous blogs in this series. About the time we arrived in Bruge and got off the train was when I realized how poorly I had scouted the city, both for beer and food. Mercifully, my phone was recieving enough of a signal to help navigte us on foot into the historic portion of our destination.

We had always planned for our trip to just be about beer, but Bruge caught us off guard. It was georgous. All of the places we had been in Belgium had a wonderful distinct visual flavor, but Bruge is on another level. The city center is wreathed by various waterways. Many ease through the city center itself, creating picturesque scences wherever you look. The canals encouraged a romantic Old World feel that made me promise to try and bring my wonderful wife out there with me for another among many trips I hope to take back. This is an area that demands that you take your camera out. Despite our intent to remain beer-centric, the beauty of the city turned us into tourists.

With our patented travel approach that has come to be known as "walking around", we managed to find the city's historic center. In all honesty, we set off to see things that we had only seen in the movie In Bruge. I know what you are thinking, and yes we are super savy travelers. The city center was swarming with tourists just like us, picture taking, posing, and being buffeted by heavy warm winds blowing in from the coast. We took our share of pictures and marveled at the archetecture. Lou saw that a nearby museum had a Salvidor Dali exihibit that he wanted to check out, so we did. All I knew about him prior to viewing the hundreds of pieces they had on display was the painting with the floppy clock, what can I say, I am well rounded.

We caught some lunch at one of the little restaurants that line the heart of the city. The beer list looked descent, and there were a lot of french speakers inside eating mussels. This was my cue to follow suit. I like trying to eat local specialties where ever I happen to travel to. In Belgium, one of those items are mussels. I would rate lobster, crab, and shrimp all above mussels when it comes to personal preference, but when in Rome. The food was excellent, and the beers were fine. There was a local 'gueuze' that they served, which was tasty enough, but it did not have authentic flavors. The body was too full and you could tell that it had been back sweetened, robbing it of what should be it's textbook dryness and refreshing snap of acidity.

The rest of the afternoon was filled with picture taking, and nabbing some presents for friends and family back home. As we were walking about town, we were confronted by a jovial man that was dressed as a castoff from a Renaissance Festival here in the USA. He wanted the three of us to take one of those propped and staged tourist photos. I believe that at one point that he called the three of us "Zed-Zed Top" due to the beards we had. Despite his flattery, we moved on.

As the sun approached the horizon and hunger began to stir once agian, we decided to head back to Brussels for dinner and beers. Despite the fact that Day Three of The Great Belgian Beer Run had more of a sightseeing spin, I was glad for it. It gave us another opportunity to take in a culture that is not our own, and provided what ended up to be one of the more invigorating days that we spent abroad.

Drink good beer with good people!

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Friday, February 17, 2012

Brewery Construction: A Check In

Things are really coming into focus. This week I stopped in to the brewery to help Bruce, our Operations Manager, place our serving tanks in the mezzanine. 

Tanks in the loft prior to being set in place

When I first walked in and looked at the four 15bbl serving tanks I was wondering how we were going to get two more 7bbl tanks up there. Bruce and I climbed the ladder to begin situating the the tanks with a hand truck. After some manipulation and a lot of talk about the final look and functionality of the loft area, I feel as if we came away with some really workable space and a look that will really be cool for the patrons of the bar and restaurant. 

In the loft with tanks arranged.

On the functional side, I was really excited to see the pitch of the floor, or the way the floor angles to the floor drain. That will really help out a lot for clean up, and the like. 

This was the first time that Bruce and I could really take a walk through the building that we will be working in and our time was very productive. We ironed out some issues with cleaning and sanitation that are particular to our equipment as well as concepts for spot keg filling and beer line chilling.

The interior walls are all studded out. The final flooring coat is going in on the brewery in days, then the brewhouse, various fermenters, etc. will be placed in the final week of February. As far as opening dates, a lot of that will depend on when we get our final inspection from the Feds. Stay tuned...

Drink good beer with good people!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Great Belgian Beer Run: Day Two - St. Sixtus Abbey

Jet lag effects some people differently than others. For my traveling partners and I, it manifested itsself in us all waking up at 3am. Since we had been up for well over thirty hours straight the day before, I figured we all would have hauled in more that the five hours or so of sleep that we did. We took our time getting around for the day as we had a few hours to kill before we could get started on our beer adventure of the day: the beers of Westvleteren. St. Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren produces some of the most highly sought after beer in the world. They produce a 6, 8, and 12, or a Blonde, a Dubbel, and a Dark Strong. To add to the mystique of their beers, they are label-less and can only be defined by their different color caps.

These beers are not distributed (this will soon change), as the goal of the monks of the Abbey is to sustain their cost of living, not to generate as much profit as possible. The 12 has taken on mythic proportions for hardcore beer lovers as 'The Best Beer in the World'. Also, it was the original goal of The Great Belgian Beer Run.

 Train stop near our hotel.
Diegem: Home base

We left our hotel after a delicious (and over priced) breakfast. It was a ten minute walk to the nearest train station. We all had empty packs on in expectation of bringing back large volumes of Trappist beer from the day's travels. The train stop was, as usual at that of day, sparsely populated. When our train came, we boarded, en route to a small town outside Westvleteren, a place called Poperinge. Train travel was definitely one of the interesting parts of our travel abroad. It is convenient, fairly comfortable, and not very expensive. We spent close to ten hours of our time in Belgium on the trains, I much preferred that to the concept of us driving unable to read the french signs. Yikes.

 Keeping it real on the train.
I loved view from my train seat. I don't know why it is so fascinating to watch the urban landscape meld into country side, but it is. The further we moved away from Brussels the wetter our surroundings became. The water table must have been high, as the further west we moved, cemeteries began to show above ground vaults. Each adorned with simple to elaborate, but always prominent crosses. The small towns we sped past looked so much like the rural sprawl I grew up with, but with some exceptions. All roofs are pitched much steeper than home. Most house's downspouts are recessed into the line of the homes. Several homes that looked like they belonged in subdivisions here in the US, still had pens for livestock in the backyard.

To stay consistent with our theme, when we arrived in Poperinge, we wandered about the downtown area trying to figure out how to get to Westvleteren. The typical method during the summer months is to rent a bike and ride out to the Abbey. We were of course traveling out of season. Back home in Michigan, temperatures were well below freezing. That day in Poperinge in was a near balmy 45 degrees. Lou encouraged us to take bikes anyway. He figured it would make for a more memorable experience, and a better story. You be the judge.

We rented our bicycles from a friendly man in his mid forties. His shop rented out bikes frequently, but not usually at this time of year. He drew us a crude map:
How could we go wrong?
He stressed many times that we needed to have the bikes back by 6pm. He said too many times he has had to wait until late in the night for people to find their way back into town with his bike after they over indulged at the Abbey. We assured him we knew what we were doing.

We figured that we should take our bikes back over to a local cafe, for a quick beverage break before hitting the Abbey.
It was just a small little place, probably not more than ten tables within. I love the fact that you can walk into a place like this and order a beer like this:
Add to that, the fact that every beer we drank in Belgium was properly poured into the appropriate glassware, this really is Beer Nerd Heaven. After some Prior 8 refreshment, we headed out perched atop our bikes, bound for Westvleteren.

Three guys who definitely don't look like tourist.

The ride out to the Abbey was not particularly difficult. It was windy, and we didn't really know for sure where we were going, but once again the kind people of Belgium helped us out again. We asked a young man who was also on bike if he knew if we were on the right road to St. Sixtus. His english was poor, but he pointed us onward before he pedaled on ahead of us. It ended up that he was showing us the way. At the point where our paths diverged, he waited for us to catch up, and he pointed us down the road to the Abbey.
The ride is several miles, but due to our excitement, it seemed to be much longer than that. We passed hop fields that lay dormant and large plots of brussel sprouts that were not too far removed from harvest. The wind blew strong, but the majority of the trip was downhill, a fact that was lost on me at the time. Finally we arrived at St. Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren.
 Gates to heavenly beer

Post bike ride face of anticipation

The Abbey is not where beer pilgrims purchase their beer. Across the street from the Abbey is a building that looks a bit like one of the newer fancy turnpike rest stops (no offense intended), this is the In de Vrede Cafe. We parked our bikes and walked in with great excitement and anticipation. Soon after finding our own table and sitting, our server came over to take our orders. We figured we should progress numerically, so we requested three number 6's, and two plates, one of cheese, and the other of their pate. The next three hours are one of those 'all-time beer experiences.'
 Westvleteren 6

Westvleteren's beers deserve the hype. The 6 was light, crisp, and flavorful. All elements were in balance. Their beers do not beat you over the brain with phenols, alcohol, or cloying sweetness (take note american brewers of the style). The 6 was subtle and direct: firm pilsner/crackerlike malt as it's base, punchy herbal and spicy hops up to a medium-low level both in aroma and bitterness, and a gentle suggestion of banana and clove. The medium to high carbonation is not stinging on the palate, but rather it creates a pillowy softness that helps to put this beer on another level.

Case with four 6's, and one each 8, 12, and Westvleteren chalice
It paired wonderfully with the pate and cheese, the pate tasting like a blend of smooth fatty smoked meat and hints of black pepper. The cheese was buttery and smooth, with a gentle nuttiness that suits all the beers that Vrede has to offer.

Westvleteren 8 is the finest strong ale I have ever tried, belgian or otherwise. It was aromatically superior to the St. Bernardus Prior 8 that we had all drank hours before.
Westvleteren 8
Big dark brown sugar aromas wafted up off of it's two fingers of gauzy off white head. With the mild spice of the phenols, it almost took on a warm molasses cookie aroma. No hop aroma, simply a malt showcase with a touch of alcohol, but by no means hot fusel alcohol, like in spirits. High carbonation fills the mouth and creates a soft, silky mouthfeel for the beer. It sports flavors of plum, rummy burnt sugar, and a medium-low hop bitterness and flavor (spicy, herbal) that really drives home its splendid balance.

Westvleteren 12 is capped with a large meringue-like tan head that stuck around to the bottom of the glass. Magnificent lacing on the glass. Visually it is majestic.

Westvleteren 12
The malt profile starts with a breadiness that is taken over by dark fruit (fig) and burnt sugar (this is a good thing, think dark caramel). I assume that we were drinking fresh examples of these beers being that we were drinking them from the source, that being said, the alcohol was pronounced in both aroma and flavor. It is still not boozy hot, but we were probably not drinking this beer at it's peak. Remember this is a 11+% abv beer. I found the alcohol almost port-like, as it fills the sinuses with alcohol that can be perceived with exhaling. The alcohol bitterness contributes to the hop bitterness. I cannot wait to try this beer after some proper cellaring.

We loaded up on beer, chocolate, and other Westvleteren swag and tried to figure out how we would handle it all while on our bike ride back. We all had around 30-40 lbs. of beer and goodies strapped into our packs as we started the ride home.

This was where I realized that the majority of the trip back would be uphill. We struggled though high winds, aching shoulders, and a uncooperative bike chain to get back to the bike store just short of 6pm. We stopped back into the Poussecafe for a little dinner and our final beer of the day.

After that, all that was left was trying to catch up on a few z's on our way back to the hotel. A wonderful end to day two. Poperinge is especially beautiful at night, by the way.

Drink good beer with good people!

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Great Belgian Beer Run: Day One - Part Two - Brewery Cantillon

Blogging from Belgium on the train: My excuse for crazy typo's

They were outside settling up with the cab driver as I tore open the unassuming front door. I usually attempt to maintain some semblance of manners with others, especially my friends, but in my excitement, I nearly ran in to Brewery Cantillon. This was one of two real crown jewels of our travels. Day one was for Cantillon and day two was for Westvleteren, home of the Trappist beers of St. Sixtus Abbey. To me however, Cantillon was the real prize for so many reasons. 

Upon entering Cantillon I was immediately struck with how rustic it was. It propelled me back in time to my years growing up on a farm with all of the requisite outbuildings. The walls were rough stone covered with plaster and paint. There is a simple set of tables and shelves to display there various wares, a small tasting area with tables and barrels to place your glasses on and to sit, and at the tasting rooms center a small potbellied stove that was fed wood by staff members a few times an hour. The decor was simple. They left the complexity to their beers. 

For 6€ you can receive the tour. They allow you to wander about freely with a guidebook to explain the various stations the brewery was broken in to. The breweries equipment looked to belong in a museum rather than in the work place of an actual operational brewery. My friends and I examined every inch of the brewery that was made available to us. As a brewer, a lover of history, and a beer enthusiast, it could not get much better. 
Brew Kettle
At the end of our tour we seated ourself in the tasting room awaiting our two samples that are a part of the tour's end. A young woman brought us each a glass of gueuze. Before I go further allow me to give you the abridged version of what these beers are, how they are made. 

These are low alcohol beers that usually include a solid portion of wheat in the recipe. They also utilize aged hops rather than fresh. They do this gain the preservative qualities the hops bring to beer, but without the hop flavor and aroma that leaves the hops during their aging process. Once the brewer is done boiling the wort (unfermented beer), they transfer it hot, up to the top level of the brewery into something called a cool ship. Their cool ship is a large copper vessel, wide but shallow that helps the wort to cool, due to the large amount of surface area exposed to the cool winter's air. 
 Cool ship
 Vents open to the outside

What is unusual about their beer is that they do not add yeast once the wort is cooled. Instead they open up large slats in the walls that allow the natural airborne yeast to find the surface of the wort and begin the process of fermentation. Said fermentation takes place in large oak barrels for one to three years prior to being bottled. 

The base beer that Cantillon makes is their lambic. It is still (uncarbonated) and served at cool. A gueuze is a blend of a one and three year old lambic, that is blended to maximize the final beer's complexity. This beer is carbonated, as the younger lambic still has some sugar in it, and the blended beer completes fermentation in the bottle, leaving a carbonated beverage behind. From there, the brewers will blend the gueuze with various fruits: wine grapes, apricots, raspberries, cherries, etc. 

Our goal as a three man tasting party was to taste every beer that they have available. It is not a difficult task as all of their pours are small, around four ounces. Add to that the fact that they all weigh in at a moderate 5% abv, and you have a broad horizon for beer appreciation. We tasted out way through the menu, thoroughly impressed with the depth of character that each beer displayed. I was and am wary of posting too high of praise for this brewery due to their reputation and my expectation of greatness. However, I think I can confidently say that there beers are supremely complex and so well balanced. I have tasted a long line of sour beers, and none are as consistently complex and as skillfully handled as Cantillon.  The gueuze is my favorite. 

My traveling partners were encouraging me to speak with Cantillon's brewmaster, Jean Van Roy. He is one of my brewing heroes, not just for the beers he makes, but for his brewing philosophy. I remember an interview he gave with the Brewing Network on their show, the Sunday Session. When asked if Jean had ever felt pressure to produce his beers faster, Mr. Van Roy replied, "We do not want to betray our lambic, we do not want to betray our beer." When I finally worked up the courage to approach him, I told him that I had heard that quote from him, and I explained how it was so inspirational for me, and now, the bedrock of my philosophy on beer and brewing. 

He I could tell that he was a touch embarrassed by hearing his words recited back to him, but then he continued in that same vein. He explained to me that his brewery is his family business, and that he feels as if they are maintaing a piece of history that was almost lost a few decades before as flavorless maco-beers were sweeping the globe. He took over brewing from his father, his sister does tours and sells their wares. This is why the brewery is so familiar and comforting, it is an extension of the family for them. 

It ended up that the woman who had been serving us beers all day was his sister. She interrupted Jean and I's conversation to speak with him in french. Having no idea of what she was saying, I watched her gesture to where we had been sitting as she went on for some time. Jean replied in french, but he started to say some words that I understood: Cuvee, Gueuze, and 2006. They were discussing which off the menu reserve beer they would pour us. His sister walked away to be back moments later with bottle of their six year old gueuze. It was poured, Jean told us to enjoy, and excused himself back to his work in the brewery. 
 2006 Gueuze with tasting room
2006 Gueuze merchandise counter in background

At his point my friends were enjoying their gueuze at the counter by the merchandise. I withdrew to a corner of the tasting room with my beer. As I have done with every beer I have tasted on is trip, I took pictures of it, and took audio notes. It feels silly to admit, but I held back tears while drinking our reserve gueuze. It was for so many reasons, the enormity of our trip and how unexpected it is, the time I was spending with friends, lack of sleep, Cantillon, and the people that brought it to life. It was obvious that I was near tears. Jean's sister saw this and asked my friends what I was doing, and they explained my pictures and note taking. 

When I approached the counter after finishing our six year old gueuze, I began speaking to Jean's sister. I asked her how long she had been working there, at this point I still did not know that she was family. She held her hand out and down to her knees and said, "forever." I asked her what her favorite beer was from the brewery and she admitted the gueuze to be her favorite. I asked what was her favorite place that was not Cantillon. She smiled as she said, "There is only one beer, one brewery, and one girl." gesturing to herself. Despite her joke, she gave me a small brochure for a lambic bar near by that offers a wide line of beer, cheeses, and breads that she highly recommended. When I asked to purchase a block of their cheese and a tulip glass, she would not allow me to pay, insisting that it was on them. I don't know why she extended me this kindness but it will never be forgotten. It was the perfect end to a perfect first day in Belgium. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Great Belgian Beer Run: Day One

When TGBBR was conceived, it found it's roots in spontaneity. The process was simple: passport, tickets, and hotel. 
 Swanky room
The Golden Tulip Hotel

We had a rough idea of the places and days on which we would go to those places. The was the depth if our planning. We failed to secure € before we left. Because of that we payed some fees that would not have had to had we planned ahead. Live and learn. We wandered around downtown Brussels for a while looking for a place that could exchange money for us. There are either few places to do this, or we are terrible at finding them. The reader should put stock in the latter. 

Our goal for day one was Brewery Cantillon, then in the evening, the Delirium Cafe. As part of our search for appropriate coinage, we began to walk some of the side streets. They proved to be lined with innumerable small seafood restaurants boasting fresh seafood, mussels especially, and their native land's trademark beers. As we were walking along I spotted a sign that I recognized. It was the baby blue background featuring their large pink elephant on it. The Delirium Cafe. 

I was relieved to find it. I was beginning to feel as if I had really slowed our trips progress by my poor planning. As we entered the lower level of the Cafe, those concerns vanished. The place is covered from top to bottom with beer collectibles of all types: signs,  bottles, glassware, etc. 

It was warm and welcoming inside and good refuge from the rain that we have learned is near constant in Brussels. We found ourselves a table and attempted to take on the menu. The beer menu was no problem as I was familiar with the large majority of them or the styles of beer. The food was another matter. 

We approached the bar to order and spoke to the young man that was tending. He was very helpful in helping us pair our cheese and bread plate with our beer selection. The cheese whose varietal now escapes me, was a wonderful semi hard cheese that had a pleasant creamy character that melded well with the nuttiness of the bread. But those two items really sprung to life with our beer pairing. We had originally planned on trying the Delirium Tremins on tap. We had tasted this beer back home a week before and we had wanted to examine the impact of transport and poor storage on the beers we get in the States. When we asked the bartender for the beer, he suggested a different one, admitting it strange that he suggested a beer other than the beer of the brewery that employs him. He seemed to view Tremins as more of a mainstream beer and he offered us what he seemed to more of an artisanal choice, La Rulles Tripel. Pairings like this help to prove how beer is food. 

Quite easily the finest Tripel I have had.

St. Feuillien as suggested by the bartender, dude knows his beer.

We systematical destroyed the cheese and bread platter as it was the first real meal we had had in a while. My Italian heritage I am sure bled through with my various sublingual utterances of excitement with our food pairing. As we drained the last of the La Rulles Tripel, which was a huge hit for all of us, we moved on the the St. Feuillien Saison. With this, our second fresh Belgian offering, a theme was developing. These beers are far more crisp and balanced when enjoyed young and properly handled. They are far hoppier, more hop flavor, and a firmer bitterness than the bottled product we get post transport. As much as we were enjoying our surroundings, we decided to continue the search for currency exchange so we could move on to Cantillon. 

After some more fumbling, we found a Western Union, and located a cab. I approached the driver and held up the address of the brewery and asked if he could take us there. He said, "You aren't going to drink the beer are you?" That made me smile. He agreed to take us so we piled in, and off we went on what would turn out to be one of those beer experiences that I will always view as one of my finest. 

To be continued...

Drink good beer with good people!

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Great Belgian Beer Run: Getting There

The two could not be more different, aside from the fact that both of the crafts possess the ability of flight. The first leg of our Beer Run required us to travel from Grand Rapids, MI to Chicago in the most cramped accommodations as possible. Small, and I feared rickety, our first tiny plane got the job done. Sporting only three seats across and a surprisingly spacious 13 inch wide seat, our first plane was quite half pint (BEER PUN!!!). As we taxied along to the runway, I couldn't help but wish that our recent snowfall weren't so present. Full disclosure, I am not afraid of flying, but taking off and landing do tap into a very primal level of anxiety for me. Sweaty palms aside, leg one of our journey went off without a hitch.

O'Hare was ok, biggest ding against them was that they do not offer free wifi, but they are swell enough folk to let you purchase it at an hourly rate. I would have loved to be tweeting my little buns off during our time there but this post will have to carry the load. Before picking up a bite to eat,  we surveyed our wing of the airport and found that Goose Island brewery had a tap room there. 


They make great beers, and had an offering especially well suited to our occasion, a Belgian inspired ale called Matilda. I am a big fan of this beer with it's soft bready malt presentation backed up by pleasant pear and pineapple-esque esters of moderate intensity, accented by gentle peppery phenols. There is a dash of herbal hop flavor and balancing bitterness that really makes this beer refreshing. We all enjoyed it, and can not wait to see how it compares to the beers that inspired it. 

Plane number two is much bigger. Not being part of the 1% (too soon?) my traveling partners and I passed First Class with lust in our hearts. It was ever so plush and inviting. Crazy recliner-type Freedom Sofas (is that a thing?), an assortment of beverages I dared not touch, and leg room that I would later learn to covet like my neighbors wife. Not to be out done, my Coach seating offers narrow seats, butt numbing flotation devices for seats, and come with a complimentary four foot tall woman seated behind me who uses the back of my seat as a speed-bag while yelling loudly in french every time I prepare to greet sleep. I will admit that the little 'asian' chicken meal that I had was rather tasty, as was the miniature brownie that was all served with love. Well played United. 

We left Chicago at 6 pm on Thursday. Our eight hour flight should get us there, allowing for time change at around 9am the following morning, which is really 2 am for us. I have only dozed occasionally as previously mentioned, thanks pint-sized lady! I am not too worried about it though. Nothing can mess this trip up. It is going to be amazing. I am going to get to delve into one of the richest beer cultures on earth with two of my closest friends. Friday's plan of action is landing, finding the hotel, the hitting Brewery Cantillon. We will roll with the punches from there. 

Anyhow, as I type this there is only another hour and three quarters until we touch down in Brussels. The little map on the seat in front of me says we are almost over the UK  I will try to update when I can. If you have questions or want more of the hot beer by beer action as it happens, follow me on Twitter @adammmills. Until then...

Drink good beer with good people!