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! 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

#TGBBR - The Great Belgian Beer Run: Brussels Bound

This is what did it.

Thanks, monks.

My friend Kevin came over hours after finishing his last test to complete his degree. To toast and celebrate his success, he brought along three small 11oz-ish bottles from the Trappist brewery of Rochefort. He brought the 6, the 8, and the above enshrined 10. For those of you that have to claim these beers as untasted, do the humane thing and remedy that.

It was our third five ounce pour, the number 10 that lead to this discussion.

Me: This (the internets) says that the 6 is difficult to get. Speaking of which, the 'Greatest Beer in the World' Westvleteren 12 isn't even legally available in the US.

Kevin: Really?

Me: Yeah, you can only buy it directly from the monestary, or from the cafe across the street from it.

Kevin: That would be an awesome trip. Just fly to Belgium, go there drink their beers, then come home.

Me: Yeah, hahahaha! That would be amazing!

Then we crossed the line into the land of Why Not?

Fast-forward seven weeks later. We are about to step on a plane that will begin our whirlwind beer run. Our goals are simple: Westvleteren,  Cantillion, and whatever else we can get into. I will keep you posted.

If you have any tips or suggestions for breweries, beers, eateries, or the like, comment below or on my Twitter.

Drink good beer with good people! (I know I will be)

I will post tons of pictures and other updates while we are on the ground. Follow me on Twitter for the latest: @adammmills 

Also, if you have any questions about the trip as it is happening let me know, and I will try to answer them.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Brewing With Oak

I have finally started using a brewing technique that I have wanted to try for years, brewing with oak. It all started for me by listening to an amazing show on the Brewing Network. One of their shows, The Sunday Session, had Shea Comfort on as a guest to talk about wine yeast and oak in beer. Shea is amazing. His knowledge of wine and oak is incredible. He lays out basic flavor and aroma expectations for oaked beers, oaking techniques, and information about the various types and toast levels of oak. Now I am finally putting that information to work. Click here to link to the interview with Shea. (Please note, adult language is used in these podcasts, use headphones if the kids are in the room). Also, do yourself a favor and check out these articles on oak from the Brewing Newtwork's Jason Petros. Jason has also done a lot of work with oak and cacao nibs in beer. Click here to see Jason's oak article and discussion of his oak and dry nibbed oatmeal stout from his blog. There is a ton of great info in these two sources.

You have a couple ways you can use oak in your beers, during fermentation and post fermentation. First, when you utilize oak in the ferment you lose some of the compounds that will be metabolized by the yeast, and oak aromatics will blow off with the vigor of fermentation. So why oak the ferment you ask? For body and structuring tanins. French and Hungarian oak especially lend slight notes of spice, roast coffee, and mild woodsyness, but these oaks in particular will lend a fullness and complexity to the body of the beer. Secondly, you can use oak after fermentation. This is where you will get the fullness of what oak can contribute to a beer: aromatics, flavors, and structuring tannins. You can mix and match these techniques to crate very unique beers.

Before adding oak to beers, this is how I handle it. I use one ounce of oak at a time. I put that ounce into a small microwaveable jar with 1/4 cup of water and microwave it until it just starts to boil, let it sit for a bit, then repeat. Do this with your container covered to effectively steam your cubes (I use cubes for the greater flavor complexity they offer over chips). Then they can be added to your fermenter or keg for aging. This steaming method also helps to extract flavors and aromas from the wood to jumpstart the oaking process, sort of like an instant infusion. You will see what I mean after you smell the container you steamed the oak in. Oak your beers to taste, usually shoot for one to two weeks. Please be patient with your oaked beers, and give them at least a few weeks to put themselves together after packaging. Your patience will be rewarded.

I did my only me second oaked beer just a few weeks ago, a batch of my Old Siberian Winter Warmer.

As brewed for the first time as a pilot batch, it is like a slightly strong malt forward english brown ale featuring American medium toast oak post fermentation. Early tastings of it have encouraged me to make my next two beers oaked as well.

Later this week I will be brewing my Fifth Voyage Coconut Porter.

For this beer I will utilized medium toast Hungarian oak during fermentation. Again, the goal here is to capitalize on the positive structuring tannins that the Hungarian oak is good for, along with very minor flavor and aroma potential. I am using this as a way of fleshing out the complexity of my porter's body, in hopes of an interesting complex beer.

In short order after Fifth Voyage, I will be brewing my Irish Breakfast.

Irish Breakfast is an oatmeal stout that will get fed oak at both stages, fermentation and post ferment. It is a standard oatmeal stout brewed to 4.7%. I like the idea of brewing low gravity, high flavor session ales. The first year of my homebrewing career was spent on these small beers, they can be wonderful. With Irish Breakfast I use a blend of oak, both French and American. I plan on using heavy toast French in the ferment to, again, bolster and add complexity to the body, and American medium toast to drive in some of the vanilla, caramel, and aromatic sweetness notes to the beer.

I will keep you up to date on the progress of these beers, and I hope that you would touch base with me about your own adventures into the world of brewing with oak.

Drink good beer with good people!

Follow me on Twitter: @adammmills