Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Belgian (Beer) Vacation - Part Two

In case you missed part one, here's the link. I did get asked in my last post how long this vacation lasted, especially since we were trying all sorts of things. The entire trip lasted ten days, of which only nine were spent tasting beers. Of those days, these are only the beers that we had while we were out. Our friend's parent's house had a huge selection and the beers we had there were unfortunately not photographed.

Many beers in Belgium are bottle conditioned and often still have the yeast in the bottom of the bottle, something you really don't find in other alcoholic drinks. In the case of this beer, Hopus, the glass set includes a shot glass, not for a shot of Tequila and the beer as chaser, but as a holder for the yeast. These beers are poured into the glass slowly, being careful not to disturb the yeast that has settled on the bottom. However, some people prefer to have the yeast as well, often adding it to their beer at the beginning. For me, I sipped on the beer- a plain, smooth, malty ale, and then took the yeast as a shot at the end.

One of the biggest treats of the night was Tripel Karmeliet (careful, the website has music!). Take the description of Westmalle Tripel above, and double it, then add a bunch of flours in. I'm not saying that this was double as good as Westmalle. That would be impossible. However, this beer reeked of flowers. It was also served ice cold, and I had to use my hands to warm it up. Even then, you could tell the floral aroma. Almost like roses, but not quite overpowering. Maybe something akin to citrus flowers. Apparently, the beer is brewed with barley, wheat, and oats, giving it a full body and a smooth mouthfeel.

Again with the Iced Tea. I forgot who ordered it. Probably whoever was driving that night. The beer in the background is a Rochefort 10, made by Trappist monks at the Abbey of St. Remy at Rochefort. It is, again, one of my favorite beers, though I actually didn't have one until we came back to Berlin. I made sure to get 10 bottles, in order to age them.

Like wine, many beers benefit from aging or cellaring. Usually, this applies to beers that are refermented or bottle-conditioned, or beers over a certain percentage of alcohol. I use a minimum of 8% abv as a rule of thumb, though any beer with yeast at the bottom of the bottle will change, though not necessarily improve over time. Though there are examples of crazy aging- a bar in Belgium serves a 25-year-old Chimay- I don't think anyone has the will power to resist a beer that has been aging for more than two or three years.

About a year ago, I had a two-year old Rochefort 10 that I had saved from the last trip. The beer was amazing. All plums and figs and raisins and oh-so-very-smoooooooth. I could not get over how good it was. Since the beer has I still have a few bottles that I'm planning to take up to 10 years, though the beer is so good that I seriously doubt I will be able to hold out for that long. At 11,3%, this is a seriously complex beer that can hold its own up to maybe 10-15 years after it has been brewed. If you want to be astounded, surprised and convinced that world class beer exists, this is the one. Be sure to sip slowly, savoring it over the course of an evening.

I don't know how many 33cL bottles of Duvel I have drank in my lifetime, but it has been more than I can ever think to count. Duvel is one of those very drinkable beers with carbonation as fine as Champagne, and a smoothly sweet taste with a very pleasing spicy aftertaste. It is the embodiment of the Belgian Strong Golden Ale. I was once at the Knitting Factory in New York, and they had it amongst the mass-produced beers. After I offered a sip to a friend of a friend, he ordered it, and it cascaded until there were seven of us all having Duvel.

On one of the last days, we were in Bruges. I was trying to cross-reference the Good Beer Guide to Belgium with the small tourist map we bought at the train station. Unfortunately for us, the Beer Guide only provides the most rudimentary maps, which look nothing like the city itself. So we kept cross referencing. As luck would have it, however, we ended up stumbling across De Kuppe, in part because of their big signs advertising their selection of 100 beers.

After a scan of the beer list, I had a choice of about 15 that I really wanted to try. The one that really stood out was this one, from the Van Eecke brewery in nearby Watou. I have had this beer before, but it remains one of my favorites (I know, I know, I do say this quite a bit) because of its high hop content. All slight citrus and grapefruit with a fine carbonation. I absolutely love the flavor of hops, and wish they were used more often in European beers.

Amy opted for a local beer, Steen Brugge Dubbel, which we later found out, is brewed a hundred kilometers away in Steenhuffel. Still, it was malty and dark and barely chocolately, which is how Amy likes most of her beers.

Once had oriented ourselves, we looked for a place to have lunch. I don't remember where we ate, but I noticed that they had a lot of Trappist Beers on the menu, including Westvleteren. It was the only one without a price, though the others were about 4€ a bottle. I asked the waiter, "Is true that you have Westvleteren?" He gave me a funny look. He hadn't understood. I asked again, and pointed to the beer on the menu. "Ah, yes Westvleteren. Yes, we have it." I asked how much a bottle was, and he went in to check. When he came out he said, "25 Euros".

Now, the thing about Westvleteren is that it is brewed by monks who make a limited amount of beer. They say they make the beer in order to sustain their life as monks. In recent years, the beer's popularity has made the demand grow while the supply has remained exactly the same. Unlike other monasteries like Chimay, who are relatively huge businesses, Westvleteren prefers to stick with their monastic quietude. After their beer was named the best in the world, the monks got uncomfortable. The lines of cars waiting to buy beer stretched as long as 3km from the monastery, the only place where the beer could (legally) be bought.

Instead of dealing with it, the monks asked themselves- How can we maintain our monastic values, and save the town from the hassle of cars coming in and out all the time? Instead of the lines of cars, they set up a reservation system. The telephone line is open two hours every week, and there is only one monk answering one telephone, taking down names and license plate numbers in order to fill reservation slots to purchase the beer. For the monks, it makes life easier. For everyone else, it makes the beer more impossible to get, and that much more rare and desirable.

I've had the beer on two occasions. Once with my brother-in-law- we shared a dusty bottle I had found at a beer store. The second time was in Belgium at the home of a friend's uncle, out of the proper glass. It's good. Really good. But in truth, I'd rather avoid the hassle and get a St. Bernardus or a Rochefort 10. They're on par with the Westvleteren 12 without all the hassle.

So, why didn't I pay the 25 Euros for the beer? Not because I'm cheap, because I'm very rarely cheap when it comes to beer. It's because when you buy the beer at the monastery, you promise not to resell it. And while I think paying maybe double of what the beer cost- 2€ a bottle with deposit included- I don't think paying a 1000% markup is helping anyone but the cafe owner.

So, instead, I opted for a local beer, the Brugse Zot, which means, as you can deduce from the label, the Fool from Bruges. It's made by De Halve Maan brewery, the same brewery that makes Strafe Hendrik from the previous post. It was light both in color and body, with a delicate slightly grassy flavor with just a touch of sweetness. A good summer quencher, and the perfect accompaniment to the omelet I had for lunch.

After much walking around and exploring the city, we ended up at 't Bruges Beertje, one of the ultimate destinations in all the world for beer. Well, to be fair, it mostly has Belgian beers, but it has almost all of the good ones there, in one place.

After studying the menu (over 300 different beers, broken down by region) for several minutes, I decided on a Kriek from Boon from the Mariage Parfait (Perfect Marriage) series. Remember when I wrote about spontaneously fermented beers in my last post? Well, this is similar, but instead of blending three year old beer with one year old beer to make a Gueuze, you add cherries (with the stones) to the beer after a year and a half, and allow their sugars to ferment out.

You get a beer with a tart cherry flavor, and all the lactic sourness you can handle. The best thing about this beer, is that the Mariage Parfait series is no longer made for the Kriek, so the beer is rather rare. The second best thing is that the base beer for the Kriek is selected from the best tasting barrels of fermenting lambic, so this beer is pretty much the best of the best from this brewery. The beer was well rounded, not too sour, and not too tart, with just the right amount of full in-your-face cherry flavor. As the afternoon light faded, I took sip after sip.

Amy, on the other hand, somewhat overwhelmed by the huge selection of beer, asked me to pick something for her. I decided she should have one of the local beers, and in this case, picked a dark Brugge Zot, the companion to the blonde ale above.

It's odd how one beer can somehow create a thread that runs through an entire trip. On the very last day, we took an excursion to Hoboken, just outside of Antwerp to look at the statue of Nello and Patrasche from A Dog of Flanders. Patrasche is the name of the dog from the story, and also the name of the beer Amy had on the first Sunday that we were in Belgium. Unfortunately, the tourist office was closed, and the statue of Nello and Patrasche was actually quite small. Since the book is taught in Japanese schools, we were expecting to find a group of Japanese tourists milling about the statue, but I guess they only visit the Antwerp Cathedral.

So, after taking the required tourist pictures next to the statue, we looked around for a place that sold the Patrasche and Nello beers. Unfortunately, we couldn't find any. So much for Hoboken being a mecca for Patrasche lovers. Instead, we sat down at a typical Belgian cafe, and ordered typical Belgian beers. Amy, being the rebel in the group, ordered a "Scotch" which is what you call a Scottish-style beer. I thought it was funny that she was ordering a beer that was made in Scotland and imported for the Belgian market. I later found out that this dark and sweet beer with notes of dark caramel is now brewed in Belgium itself! What Amy didn't know is that Gordon's Scotch ale is pretty high in alcohol- 8% abv!

Our friend and host Ariana had a Hoegaarden Speciale, in one of my favorite glasses of all time (I'll say that quite a bit as well). She was shocked that it was available, since it is pretty much an autumn/winter beer. I've had this one before. It's like a deep witbier with an orangey flavor. Unfortunately, I really dislike witbiers, so I don't have very much to say about this one.

Last, I ordered a bolleke. I felt it was the most fitting beer for the trip. It was smooth and delicious, and just right. I sipped it in the warm summer air, and when it was done, photographed the hand on the glass that graced the beginning of the first post.


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  2. Hey... I am from Belgium and it's cute to see how tourists are raving about our beer, chocolates and fries. I'm glad you liked your stay. Greetings.

  3. belgian beer in Berlin. check out the yuma bar in neukölln -