Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Belgian Beer (Vacation) - Part One

I know. I know.

I went about a month without posting a single thing in this space. But, can you blame me? Everyone in Europe takes vacation in August, and it was my first vacation this year. Well, not counting the seven days I had to take off in March to use up the vacation days I had left over from last year. The policy is, use them by 31 March or lose them forever.

August turned into a stress fest mostly because of the six work days we were taking off. Which meant we both had to work overtime to get the work of those six days done before we left.

It didn't happen. But we still went. I was barely able to check my email, and even then, only replied to those emails that couldn't wait. I even ignored my twitter stream for six days. And when I returned, all my replies were gone.

So it goes.

So, instead of boring you with pictures of my Belgian Vacation. I am going to bore you with pictures of the beers we drank during the vacation.

In case you think that Stella Artois is a true Belgian Beer- it's not. Yes, it is brewed in Belgium, but it has not been brewed since 1366 as the advertising seems to indicate. There has been a brewery on the site since then, but it was introduced in 1926 as a Christmas Beer. Even though everyone knows the name, the beer itself is rarely found in Belgium. Most of it is brewed directly for export.

Why do I mention this? Well, because the Belgians, actually do drink a similar beer, brewed by the same international conglomerate that brews Stella. It's called Jupiler, and while it is also a pilsner, it's actually a very decent beer. Despite the presence of maize in the mash, it's actually better than most German Reinheitsgebot-adhering pilsners found in Berlin. Despite the presence of some really great beers, Jupiler remains the best-selling Belgian beer in Belgium. It's kind of the same in the States: even though you have some really great beers, people insist on drinking fizzy yellow beer.

After a weekend of beautiful weather in the middle of August, it began to rain. On one of those rainy nights, we ended up at the Camargue in Antwerp-Berchem. I have no idea where the pub was, since we parked two blocks away and were trying to avoid all the muddy puddles left over from all the construction that seemed to have taken over the neighborhood.

Amy had this beer. It's named after the dog Patrasche in the story A Dog of Flanders. Apparently, there is a companion beer named Nello, after the dog's owner. Though the glass states that it's brewed at a brewery in Hoboken, it's not. There's no brewery in Hoboken. We were there. It's actually brewed at De Proef, which is a contract brewery.

My first beer was from one of my favorite breweries of all time, Het Anker, which means, The Anchor. We ended up walking by the brewery, but they've apparently been remodeling for months, so it was closed. Judging from the state of things, they've got many more months to go.

This beer was called Hopsinjoor, named after Mechelen's 17tn century wooden mascot, Opsinjoorke, a really ugly doll, judging from the postcards we bought. The beer was super-hoppy, just the way I like them, with very floral hop notes, a grapefruit-like bitterness, ending in a soft bitter hop grassiness.

My second beer was a Rodenbach Grand Cru, which is an Oud Bruin, a beer that has been aged on oak, and then blended back with younger beer. Though I've had this one before, I'm always surprised at the mouth-puckering lactic sourness. It's a very interesting beer, but Amy and our travelling companion Ariana both refused to try it after taking a whiff of it. This is one of those beers that defies description. It's like biting into a piece of oak that has been pickled with sour milk and vinegar. But in a good way.

This beer, made by the Slaghmuylder brewery in Ninove was a bit of a surprise. It's a blonde ale, but tastes more like a wit. I'm not sure if it's because the coriander is a bit heavy in this one, but it was definitely one that caught my eye, or, tongue, despite the fact that I don't like witbier.

Now, if you want to know about some of the beers that are my absolute favorites, you've got to include the Trappists. Yes, Trappist monks. Who make beer. Originally, the beer was brewed as a supplement to Lent fasting. Most monasteries allow the brothers to have a daily beer, but most of them only drink on special occasions.

However, the history of this particular beer, St. Bernardus Abt 12, is a bit more complex. The St. Bernardus brewery used to contract brew for the St. Sixtus monastery at Westvleteren. When the agreement ended, in 1992, St. Bernardus continued to brew its own beer. The pub we were at had one of the original St. Sixtus glasses, and served it in that. The Abt 12 is a very complex brew. Notes of plum and raisins, and at the forefront, this unmistakable taste of something like Christmas Bread. But bread it is, and, in many ways, this beer epitomizes the saying that beer is "liquid bread".

The funny thing was that we ended up at the bar, speaking to a man who was half-Flemish and half-Swiss. He, in turn, introduced us to the owners, who were apparently unaware that their little bar was in Tim Webb's Good Beer Guide to Belgium, our primary guidebook for the trip. For the introduction to the book, the owners rewarded me with a bottle of Avec Les Bons Voeux from Brasserie Dupont, one of my favorite breweries. I know. I have many favorite breweries.

Two days later, we found ourselves in Ghent, at Het Waterhuis Aan de Bierkant, "The Waterhouse on the Beerside". Despite the choice of 170 beers, with nary a dud in the bunch, I went straight for the jugular.

A while back, in my Basic Sourdough Bread post, I mentioned a bunch of beers that are spontaneously fermented by wild yeast, much in the way that sourdough is made up of wild yeasts and beasties that ferment bread dough. So, this is the sourdough of beer. Gueuze. It's made by blending young and old Lambic, which is basically, wheat beer fermented with wild yeasts, and aged in oak barrels bigger than most people's living rooms. It is stinky much in the same way that sourdough is stinky, some would say "horse blanket". It's true, this term is often used in the beer world to describe these beers.

Gueuze Girardin Unfiltered is the Black Label version of this beer, and one of the prime examples of the beer style. It is acidy, lactic, almost vinegary without any bite, but is very smooth. It's not like drinking a jar of pickle juice, but more akin to the tanginess of yogurt. Again, I can't describe this beer, other than to say it is earthy and milky sour. And very much near to perfection.

Amy had a beer named "Mammelokker" which refers to a bas relief on the side of the Cloth Hall in Ghent. It's actually made for this pub, and was pushed as a beer for women. I looked up the story behind it, and you can find it here, if you dare.

Ariana's sister's friend- whose name I have completely forgotten- was not a beer drinker. Shocking, considering beer in Belgium is as revered as wine is in France. But I don't know if she was a wine drinker either. Instead, she drank Lipton Iced Tea, which was served in a glass that echoed many of the beer glasses in Belgium. We can't get Lipton tea in Germany, though. I didn't try it.

Later on, after visiting many sights, we ended up at the Dulle Griet, named after a cannon in the city.

I had a Moinette, which is brewed by the Dupont Brewery, one of my favorites, mentioned above. While the Moinette is good, no- great- whenever I drink it I long for the complexity and smoothness of the Saison Dupont. Still, this was all malty and complex and with just a little bit of bitterness. Unfortunately, it was freezing cold, which killed much of the flavor.

Sometimes, when I get served an ice cold beer, I tend to warm it up with my hands. Of course, you're wondering why I would do such a thing. Well, it's because cold kills flavor. You know when you see commercials advertising an "ice cold one"? It's because the beer actually tastes bad, and if it's ice cold, you won't notice how bad it is, though you will be drawn in by the experience. I've cracked open beers at room temperature just to see how good they are. If the beer is halfway decent at room temperature, or, in the case of Imperial Stouts, awesome at room temperature, then it will be very nice when it's cool, but not too cold.

Amy's beer was a Slaapmutske (Nightcap) Bruin, also brewed by de Proef on behalf of the Slaapmutske Brewery. It was pretty decent. If I encounter this one, I'll try it.

Ariana's beer was a Tripel called Straffe Hendrik (Strong Hendrik) brewed by De Halve Maan (The Half-Man) in Bruges. I didn't try this one, but it did cause Amy to make funny jokes about it, and about her "Slap Me Silly" beer.

That night, we met up with one of Ariana's cousins who was soon to leave for the States. Unfortunately, I did not pick the place, so I had a slim choice in what I could drink. Fortunately, I can always find something. In this case it was the local beer, Caves. It's not actually brewed in the city, but I can forgive that. The beer was slighty sour, mixed with some syrupy sweetness, almost like a red lifesaver, in truth. Fruity, but not bold like the Rodenbach Grand Gru above. The carbonation was quite fine, so it did cut some of the sour and temper the sweet. I ended up buying two bottles later for the trip home.

Remember how I said that I can always find something? I drank so much Westmalle Tripel that I should now be unable to drink it. But guess what? I still can. This is one of the most delicious beers to grace this Earth. Bitter in that grassy way. Spicy like earth and smoothly sweet with a lingering hop aftertaste. Despite the high alcohol content (9,5% abv), this remains a highly drinkable beer. You can taste the alcohol usually in the background, but you don't really take it seriously until you try to get up and you've forgotten how to walk. So, you have to be a bit careful because its beguiling flavor may cause you to overindulge.

Usually, however, I drink this one slow, sipping it carefully, and making the sensation last as long as possible. These are not beers that you chug. On a hot summer's day even I will put away half a glass of Hefeweizen in one gulp. But with these beers, the glassware adds to the ceremony of the beer, and you really can't help but drink slowly, intent in every single sip.

Stay tuned for Part Two!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

BBA Challenge #41 Whole Wheat Bread

If White Bread is the candy of breads, then Whole Wheat Bread must be the- er- bread- of breads. It's pretty funny to make the leap from White Bread, which is known in some circles as the evil of the world, to Whole Wheat Bread, which is supposed to be the healthy bread, the one you buy out of obligation, but not because it tastes good. But such is the (alphabetical) order in Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice and in the Bread Baker's Apprentice Challenge.

For this bread, I was determined not to repeat the same mistakes that my other co-bakers had made. Some had made bricks and moved on, some were successful. But, the thing is, I think this recipe is not that good. There's all the makings of what would become Peter Reinhart's epoxy theory, but the recipe is just so-so. Whole Wheat Flour is notorious for being difficult to work with- I usually get pretty dense breads when I make whole wheat sourdough bread, so I usually go with the trick I learned from the Poilâne-style miche- I buy coarse-ground whole-wheat flour, and I sift out most of the bran.

Everything in its right place. I used every ingredient listed, knowing that eggs, oil and honey (the three in the center) act as natural dough conditioners, and would help the bread to be less brick-y.

Still, even with all of these additives, I was fairly skeptical. Like with the 100% Rye Sourdough bread, I just sort of cruised my way through the kneading of the bread.

I hardly thought it was going to work out.

But it did.

Unfortunately, when it came to the shaping, I sort of failed at it. The thing is, I don't bake loaves in pans anymore. I tend to just bake a boule and slice odd-shaped slices from it.

So, even though they did fit, they were a bit lumpy.

As with the rye bread, I forgot that I was even baking until I walked into the kitchen and found the that the dough had crested the loaf pans.

I went ahead and baked them and let them cool before slicing into them.

The crumb was rather open, but, in truth, I didn't care much for this bread. Yes, it did have that nutty whole wheat flavor, but the thing was that, for me, it didn't taste like bread. It was- gasp!- like cake.

So, this one can be seen as the cake of bread. Or, in other words, bread cake.

Pass. Move on.

At least the list of alphabetical breads is over with.

Bring on the cheese breads!