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Archive for the ‘Beer Travels’ Category

This month I’m coming up on a beer anniversary of sorts.  Last October, I took a trip with some friends of mine to some of the Trappist monasteries of Belgium.  It was my first real experience delving into the world of Belgian brewing and ended up being the impetus for my awakened passion for all things beer.  One of the disappointments of that trip though was missing out on a visit to Brussel’s most well-known Lambic producer, the Cantillon brewery.

As a commemoration of that momentous occasion, I decided to take a day trip this past week back to Belgium.  My primary concern this time around though was logistic.  Since Belgian beer is so hard to come by in my neck of the woods, this would be a perfect chance to stock up on some of my favorites.  Essentially, I was going for an international beer run.  But, like a good beer tourist, I was determined to utilize the opportunity to hit a few must-see beer locales in Brussels with Cantillon at the very top of my list.

You really can’t pick a more nondescript location for a brewery.  Nestled in a narrow warehouse-type building in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood of the city, the brewery has been in continuous operation here for over a hundred years.  Still owned by the Cantillon family (actually run by Jean-Pierre Van Roy, the son-in-law of the last Cantillon), this establishment is a monument to tradition craft of brewing.  It is indeed the last remaining brewery in Brussels that brews Lambic beers using completely traditional methods.

While guided tours are available in many circumstances, most people who make the trek to Cantillon get treated to a very informative self-guided tour through the brewery operation.  And, for someone who has done his fair share of brewery tours, this one is probably the most unique experience I’ve ever had.  The hallmark of the brewery is its vintage nostalgia.  Most of the equipment used in the brewing process by Cantillon are the same machines used over a hundred years ago.  Large copper brew kettles and rows of oak barrels are the standard here.

One of the most interesting features of Cantillon’s atmosphere are the cobwebs.  Brewing traditional lambics, Cantillon stresses the use of organic ingredients in their brewing process.  That means dealing with lots of grains and fruits like cherries and raspberries, which, in turn, translates into lots of insects hanging around looking for a feast.  Since the brewery shies away from non-organic methods such as pesticides, they combat this menace more naturally using spiders.  The entire brewery is strewn with thousands of cobwebs and spider webs.  We were told that its forbidden for any employee to disturb a web no matter where it may lie.

All of these features give the inside of the Cantillon brewery a very earthy mystique.  But, their methods certainly translate into some amazing beer.  At the end of the brief tour, visitors are offered a tasting of a few of the brewery’s main beers – a Gueuze, which is a blend of young and 3-year-old Lambics, and either a Kriek or their Gambrinus, which are Lambics with sour cherries or raspberries respectively.

I confess that I’m really not a Lambic fan.  The barnyard funk of spontaneous fermentation is definitely an acquired taste.  But, the beers produced by Cantillon are amazing.  Of course, all of their beers have the typical sour flavors found in Lambics, but each of the beers I sampled had an outstanding smoothness and drinkability.  Once your palate grows accustomed to the sour tastes, the many subtleties of the Lambic emerge.  These beers seem to have the flavors and character of brews from a long-forgotten age.  Back before the sterile mechanization of modern brewing methods, all beers would have at least some measure of this earthy, natural sourness.  It’s this traditional flavor along with the highly crafted subtlety that make Cantillon a historical treasure.

On my first trip to Belgium over a year ago, I was able to pick up a few bottles of Cantillon Lambics at a beer store in the city.  Since that time, these bottles have been sitting in my dark, cool closet aging slowly.  I’ve been waiting for the right time to whisk them out of their lagered state and pop them open for my enjoyment.  After this most recent visit, I definitely have a much deep appreciation for this dying art of brewing.  Perhaps this is a poetic moment to pull out those forgotten bottles in salute to this one-of-a-kind brewery.

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I have always found it comical that the state tag line for Indiana is “Crossroads of America”.  Essentially, with this statement you are verifying that Indiana is merely monotonous countryside one drives through on their way to somewhere else.  Perhaps it is an oversimplification to say that Indiana is just a 140 mile wide expanse of farmland.  The dedicated Hoosier can certainly point to places like Indianapolis to show that the state has its cosmopolitan side.  Regardless, anyone who has driven through Indiana on I-70 can testify to the state’s overwhelming rural uniformity.

When it comes to brewing, then, Indiana would not strike the casual observer as a hotbed of great craft beer.  Seeing the repetitious scenes of farmland and prairie rolling past your car window would probably dispel any notion that this land could be fertile ground for a brewing revolution.  In fact, if one were so inclined to make stereotypical judgments based on socio-economic level, you would probably believe that you were in staunch BMC country.  Whether these judgments are accurate or not, I won’t venture a guess.  But, it was surprising to me that one of the most respected breweries in America can be found in the Hoosier State.  For those of you out there who love beer, you have probably already realized that I’m talking about Three Floyds Brewing in Munster, Indiana.

Although Munster is situated in the northwestern most corner of the state – which is essentially an extension of Chicago – the area and its brewery are firmly imbedded in the life and culture of Indiana.  I actually have a personal connection with this part of Indiana.  My mother was born and raised only a few miles from Munster in the suburban town of Highland.  My aunt, who still calls this area home, would proudly call herself a Hoosier.  Even though I was raised in neighboring Ohio, I still try to make it back often to this place that half of my family calls home.  And, indeed, our trip from Chicago to Ohio a few weeks ago provided the opportunity to reconnect with this side of the family as well as the chance to make a very important excursion – a stop at Three Floyds!

Aware of the immense popularity of Three Floyds, I decided to hit their brewpub on a quiet Thursday afternoon.  I had also invited a very dear friend and fellow beer lover to drive up to Munster and meet me at the brewery so that I would have a drinking partner in my beer odyssey.  However, the recent outrageous gas prices convinced my friend to stay home.  Not wanting to pass up this opportunity, I headed to Munster by myself.  “Just great,” I thought. “Drinking alone – one step closer to alcoholism.”  Alas.  No use letting a silly little thing like alcohol dependence stop me from an amazing brewery experience.

The drive into Munster from where we were staying was a journey through American suburban sprawl.  Strip malls, Rite Aids, and Wal-Marts littered the path to Three Floyds.  The brewery itself is located in a bland, unassuming industrial park surrounded by distribution warehouses and tech firms – not exactly the type of place you’d expect a brewing operation.  Like a hermit crab, the brewery and brewpub inhabit the shell of one these old warehouses.  I was really surprise to see that the ample parking surrounding the brewhouse was completely occupied.  Not an encouraging beginning to my evening.

Walking into the brewpub, I was met with a completely packed out bar with a dozen or so people just standing around waiting for a place to sit.  Considering it was 6pm on a weekday, I was surprised to see the place so crowded.  As it turns out, the fact that I came alone proved to be an advantage in muscling myself a stool at the bar.  The dark pub had a very indie, Greenwich Village feel (not that I have ever been to a bar in Greenwich Village, but you know what I mean) – various pieces of pop art as well as beer paraphernalia hanging on the walls; a couple of tattooed, post-modern twenty-somethings tending the taps behind the bar; and a host of young suburban professionals enjoying their craft beer at dark-stained oak tables.  In all, a very appropriate locale to enjoy some world-class beer.

I ended up sitting next to an older gentleman at the bar who I found out was a regular at the brewpub.  He let me know that the crowds I was so surprised to see were a normal thing for Three Floyds.  In fact, if I had arrived any later, he said, I would have had to wait in line outside.  I counted my blessing that I had found a place to sit and proceed to peruse their beer menu.  Naturally, they had on tap the line up of standard Three Floyds offerings – Alpha King, Gumballhead, Robert the Bruce – as well as some intriguing limited selections that you’d only find at the brewpub.  Additionally, I was surprised to see them offering beers from other craft brewers from around the world including some of their competitors like Founders and Sun King.  Good for them.

But, I wasn’t there to partake in anything other than the best that Three Floyds had to give me that evening.  So, what about the beer?  For my first selection, I decided on one of their special offerings, their Baltic Porter called Topless Wych.  I had never tried any type of Porter before, so I was somewhat flying blind on this tasting.  The beer poured a deep black with creamy, off-white head that quickly dissipated. The aroma was heavy with roasted malts with notes of coffee and chocolate. After a few swigs, it became obvious that the taste was similar to the nose with coffee being the most predominant. On top of this, there was also hints of licorice and dark fruits.  What I really liked about this beer was the medium but delicate body and smooth mouthfeel which revealed the craftsmanship behind the brew.

For the second round, I wanted to diversify my experience by trying something paler but with a stronger hop character making an IPA the ideal choice.  Enter Three Floyds Dreadnought Imperial IPA.  Let me just say off the bat that this beer was amazing.  The appearance is what you’d expect from an IPA – slightly hazy, light orange color with medium head. The nose was what really blew me away.  As soon as the bartender pushed the half pint in front of me, an aroma of citrus especially mango and peach met my nostrils. The taste was just as extraordinary with the huge mango and peach flavors up front and a nice malt base underneath. Then there was the hops. Floral and citrus hop flavors were really powerful in this beer leaving behind a strong bitterness on the palate. Although the hops were heavy, the bitterness was not overwhelming being balanced by the malts. This was truly an outstanding beer.

Unfortunately, I had to bring my evening at Three Floyds to a close.  Being alone, I had to wisely limit my alcohol intake knowing I had to get behind the wheel eventually.  But, the trip was definitely worth the effort.  As a parting gift, I grabbed a six-pack of their Alpha King Pale Ale to go.  As I enjoyed this beer and a few others since my trip (including their Robert the Bruce Scottish Ale – Yum!), this amazing place is quickly climbing my list of favorite breweries.

Three Floyds has confirmed, as far as I was concerned, its elite reputation among craft breweries.  These guys have really proven how brewing beer can be an art.  I was sad to leave, but excited to continue exploring all that this brewery has to offer.  Although Indiana may be least among the states, it has shown through outfits like Three Floyds and others to be a real player in the craft beer scene.

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If you’ve followed this blog for any amount of time, you’ll know that my wife and I have been living the expatriate lifestyle here in Germany going on two years.  Living on this side of the Atlantic has afforded me the opportunity to delve deeply into European beer culture – particularly Germany and Belgium.  In fact, it was a trip to Belgium that first inspired me to learn all that I could about the brewing arts.  Although I’ve really loved experiencing all that Europe has to offer beer-wise, I regretted the fact that I didn’t discover true beer enjoyment while I lived in the States.

I have always enjoyed good beer though.  Even when I knew nothing about the craft beer scene, I was aware that there was a difference between the BMC stuff and the high-end, quality brewing.  However, the most exposure I have ever had to the American craft beer world was a memorable trip to New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado.  Aside from them, I have virtually zero experience with true American craft beer.  Fortunately, that’s about to change.

This coming week, my family and I will be making our very first trip back to America since we left almost two years ago.  Since I’ve last seen those amber waves of grain, I have become an entirely different beer drinker – hopefully, a bit wiser and more discerning.  So, I’m really looking forward to taking advantage of our time in the States to become more acquainted with amazing American beer.  I have even come up with a “most drink” list of particular brewers that I want to concentrate on while I’m there.  Since all of our time will be spent in the Midwest, I’m focusing on some of the most well-known breweries from that region.  So, without further ado, here’s my American Beer Tour 2011 road schedule:

1.  Three Floyds Brewing in Munster, Indiana. We will actually be flying into Chicago and from there making are way across the Midwest visiting friends and family.  Luckily, my aunt lives a mere 10 minutes away from Three Floyds brewery and pub in northwest Indiana.  This world-renown brewery is going to be my first stop.  Unfortunately, I’m going to miss Dark Lord Day by a few weeks, but that’s not going to dampen my excitement for getting my mitts on some of their other beers.  In particular, I’m looking forward to trying out their Alpha King pale ale and Dreadnought IPA on top of anything special they might be serving at their brewpub.

2.  Bell’s Brewing in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Originally, we had planned on making a stop in Michigan which meant that a side trip to Bell’s would have been warranted.  Unfortunately, plans change and we won’t be going near Kalamazoo.  That isn’t going to deter me from making this awesome brewery a priority.  I’m hoping to procure various beers from the brewhouse formerly known as Kalamazoo Brewing Company over the course of our trip.  At the top of my list are, of course, the famous Hopslam Ale and Expedition Stout.  But, anything else I can come across, I’ll probably pick up too.

3.  Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland, Ohio. Being a native Ohioan, there’s a good amount of pride knowing that one of the best breweries in America can be found in good ol’ Cleveland.  What I like most about this brewery is their excellent pale offerings.  In a craft beer world, where the heavy hitters like Stouts and IPAs seem to get all of the glory, it’s refreshing to find a brewery that can make some mind-blowing pale brews.  I’m especially looking forward to GLB’s Dortmunder Gold and their Burning River Pale Ale, both of which have earned high praise over the years.

4.  Hoppin’ Frog Brewery in Akron, Ohio. Just south of Cleveland is the old rubber capital of the world, Akron.  In this rust-belt town of some 200,000 people, you’ll find this small but quality brewery.  It’s definitely the least known of all the brewhouses on my road tour, but it’s definitely got some great beer.  In particular, I’m hoping to try their B.O.R.I.S. the Crusher Oatmeal Imperial Stout as well as their intriguing sounding Hop Master’s Abbey Belgian-style Double IPA.

Well, those are the highlights.  Of course, there will be specific entries in the weeks to come sharing my experiences of these various breweries.  Aside from these four, I’m hopeful that I will also encounter a few random surprises along the way.  If you have any suggestions of Midwestern breweries or beer that I have to try, feel free to point me in the right direction.  Bottoms up!  We’ll see you in America!

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During the first half of our day in Belgium, we scored some really nice weather.  We were graced at Orval with warm sun and blue sky.  But, as we drove into Brussels that evening, that distinctive northern European drizzle started rolling through.  Because of poor planning on my part, we ended up hitting the outskirts of the city right when rush hour traffic picked up.  Sitting in traffic is not the best way to start your evening.  After a good bit of stop-and-go, we finally reached the city center, where we made our way to our first planned stop – the famous brewer of Lambic beers, Cantillon.  Well, our initial disappointment with Brussels continued as we found out when we arrived that we had missed the brewery’s visiting hours by a half an hour.  Nuts.  So, after an hour in Belgium’s capital, it was already Brussels 3, Visitors 0.

Well, Cantillon would have to wait for another day.  We made our way through the rain-soaked streets to the historic center of town where we parked our car and proceeded on foot.  Our goal was the world-renowned bar and beer mecca, the Delirium Cafe.  However, the moment we stepped out of the garage in which we parked, the light northern European drizzle turned into southeast Asian monsoon forcing us to flee for cover under the nearest awning.  It seemed that our time this city would end in futility.  But, whenever you think things are at their worst, something always seems to come along to shine light on a dreary situation.  For it just so happened that the awning under which we took cover belonged to a quaint little store called Beer Planet!  Things were looking up!

Beer Planet would have to wait though for soon the rain let up enough to allow us to continue on to Delirium.  Delirium is known around the world as the bar with the most available beers for sale – totalling over 2,000!  The bar is located in a narrow side alley a mere few hundred meters away from the extravagant Grand Place.  The inside would remind you of just about every other bar you’ve been in before – worn down wooden bar stools, antique tin signs on the walls, young people sitting around chatting while drinking and smoking.  But, the real treasure of the place is not in the decor but in the beer offerings.  First off, there is no menu per se that you use to select a beer you want.  You actually have to spend 5€ to purchase a magazine-like catalog with a list of all of the beers available.  Once you figure out how to procure that, then the real challenge begins.

Looking back it was probably a good thing, but I didn’t really know enough about Belgian beer to make the massive selection terribly overwhelming.  I knew that I would choose my first beer based on a recommendation from a friend who lived in Belgium.  At the bar, I picked myself up a bottle of the Trappist Rochefort 8.  This Belgian Strong Ale poured a beautiful dark brown color with a medium head.  The aroma was rich with dried fruits and dark sugars.  The taste was complimentary with a strong raisin flavor combined with alcohol making it almost rummy.  But, this fruitiness wasn’t overpowering, and it didn’t remain – the light hop finishing balanced out the malty sweetness.  This was a worthy follow-up to the other Trappist delight we experience that afternoon.

Being in Belgium and knowing we had missed out on Cantillon, I thought it almost a duty that I try at least one Lambic beer.  So, beer #2 on the hit list ended up being Oud Beersel‘s Oude Kriek.  Now, I must say, I’ve never been a fan of Lambic beers.  I never quite developed a taste for that funky sourness that marks the style.  But, I figured that this trip was all about being open-minded, so I gave it a whirl.  Poured into a nice sniffer glass, the brew looked attractive enough – a nice deep red color like cherry wine.  The beer, however, didn’t quite do it for me.  The cherry-like sourness combined with a sort of beer-esque hoppiness is probably acquired taste.  But, it was an interesting enough taste experience that I wouldn’t consider it a waste.

On our way to our final beer destination of the evening, we made a pit stop at our former rain sanctuary, Beer Planet, to shop for a few bottles of take-away beers.  This place had within its tiny confines essentially every Belgian beer out there for sale.  It was a convenient place to pick up a few souvenirs.  However, there was one particular brew that Beer Planet could not offer us.  The Trappist monastery of St. Sixtus in western Belgium produces what many consider to be the most coveted beer in the world – Westvleteren 12.  This beer is even more difficult to find than its six other Trappist brothers owing to the fact that the monastery only sells it by reservation at their location in Westvleteren.  But, fortunately for us, we found out about a pub in Brussels that served this rare brew.

But, it turned out finding the Best Beer in the World would be a bit more challenging than we had expected.  We ended up wandering around the streets of Brussels for a good hour trying to find the locale.  We finally stumbled upon it in a dimly lit back alley not far from the Grand Place.  Walking into this pub was like being transported back 100 years to the time of aristocrats and robber barons.  The place looked like one of these swanky old establishments that have been around for centuries catering to Brussel’s upper class residents – genuine wood-paneled walls, brass bar rails, old gentlemen sitting in the corner booth smoking pipes.  My friends and I definitely de-classed this joint a few rungs simply by walking in.  But, if you tried to imagine the bar the served the Holy Grail of beer, you figure it might look something like this.

We would not be intimidated though.  We found a nice quiet corner to sit down and flipped open a drink menu where we found spread out on one entire page in large type: “Westvleteren 12 – ‘The Best Beer in the World’ – 10€”.  The deep dark brown brew came to us served in a typical Belgian goblet.  The aroma was nice enough – spicy and caramel smell with a nice dried fruit sweetness.  But, honestly, I was a bit disappointed when I took my first sip.  The taste was a lot more mild than I figured it would be.  I guess it was a problem of expectations.  When you anticipate drinking the greatest beer on earth, you might expect the first sip to send you into immediate convulsions of rapture.  Perhaps we were expecting too much.  But, in the end the beer did indeed satisfy.  As I took more sips, the real complexity and subtlety of the beer began to emerge.  By the end of glass, we knew we had experienced something special.

By the time we left the place, we knew the hour had come to make our way back home.  After walking around the city center in order to work off some of the lingering effects of the night’s consumption, we climbed in our car and hit the road back to Cologne.  After a full day of Belgian beer exploration, I was struck by a few things.  First, I realized that I had seriously misjudged the Belgian brewing tradition.  There was a whole world of beer here that I had never taken seriously but was now open to me.  Secondly, my foray into Belgian beer had expanded my appreciate for beer in general.  After experiencing Belgian brewing, German beer in my eyes was not any less wonderful.  On the contrary, the Belgians gave me an even greater love for the unique and beautiful aspects of the German art.  In the end, it was this trip that led to the creation of this blog and my desire to know more about beer.  Each beer style and culture has something to offer – whether it is German, English, American, or Belgian.  Our joy as the consumer is that we get to find out what that is.

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I am a complete Germanophile.  I absolutely love anything having to do with Germany – the culture, its language, and the people.  This bias toward all things German was also prevalent from very early on in my love affair with beer.  After all, I reasoned, Germany is the land of beer!  It just seemed to confirm my suspicion that German was the greatest living culture on earth.  As I learned more about beer though, it became evident that there were competing claims to beer supremacy.  In particular, I was confronted with those who touted Belgian brewing tradition as the vastly superior example of fermented goodness.  No, thank you, I said.

One of the things I’ve always loved about German brewing is the tradition going back centuries.  Specifically, I loved how the oldest statute in German law is the so-called Reinheitsgebot of 1516, which declared it illegal to brew beer with anything other than malted barley, hops, and water (yeast was added to the list in the 19th century).  This absolute commitment to purity in brewing appealed to me – especially when most large American commercial brewers supplement their barley with cheaper grains like rice and corn.

When I first learned about Belgian brewing, I could do nothing but scoff.  How could those Belgians dirty up their beer with things like fruit, spices, and other ridiculous things.  Spontaneous fermentation, indeed.  Belgians were like your crazy, coked-up cousin who likes to set things on fire.  German beer, on the other hand, represented order and purity.

Well, I’m writing today to declare that I have eaten my words.  A few weeks ago, while some friends were visiting from the States, we drove to Belgium to do a little sightseeing.  Included in the trip was a few visits to beer producing locales around the country.  The experience would challenge my deeply held Belgian beer bigotry.

Fortunately, Belgium is a pretty small country.  Since Cologne is only a mere 80 km from the Belgian border, it makes quick jaunts into the country rather easy.  We set off early in the morning for our first stop in southern Belgium near the border with France – the Trappist abbey of Orval.  As one of only seven brewery/monasteries allowed to carry the name Trappist, we figured that this community of brewing monks would know a thing or two about beer.

Incidentally, I don’t think I had much of a concept at that point of how significant the Trappist brewing tradition actually was.  These monks, drawing on centuries of brewing wisdom, produce their special brews – not for commercial profit – but as a means of sustaining their charities and insular monastic communities.  Most of these monasteries brew only a limited amount of beer each year making their offerings highly prized and sought after.  The monks themselves generally shy away from outside attention.  They are simply content to live their lives of solitude and prayer while at the same time brewing their amazing beer.

Like most of the Trappist monasteries, Orval does have a small visitors center attached to but isolated from the main monastery, which handles the numerous beer pilgrims attracted to the place each year.  But, Orval is unique because it allows visitors to tour the ruins of the original 13th century monastery that was destroyed by the French in 1793.  The tour of the ruins provides a really interesting insight into monastic life and community.  And, it’s an absolutely beautiful place to boot.

Along with the beautiful sights, the visitor’s portion also includes a nice gift shop where you can purchase Orval ale as well as their various cheeses which the monks also produce at the monastery.  However, if you actually want to sample their tasty beverage, you have to make your way to the welcoming restaurant just off the monastery grounds.  Here you can sit outside in the sun enjoying a few glasses of Orval and some of their amazing cheese.

So what about the beer?  Well, I can say that Orval changed forever my perception of Belgian brewing.  The beer itself is a Belgian Pale Ale that is bottle fermented.  Served in a traditional Belgian goblet, the beer pours to a nice golden brown-yellow color with a rather dense head.  What sold me immediately about this beer was the aroma.  Wow!  Waves of citrus, spices, and wheaty hoppiness fill your nose, and you know at that point this is going to be a good beer.  The taste is nice and complex with lemon citrus and wheat hay flavor on the front end and nice clean hop bite to finish.  I had been converted.

We left southern Belgium a few hours later with new excitement.  What else does the rest of Belgium have to offer the eager beer palate?  Unfortunately, the various Trappist breweries are spread all over Belgium (with one in the Netherlands), so further visits to these remote beer hideouts would have to wait.  However, we were soon to find out that Belgium is no one-hit wonder.  The brewing arts run deep in this small country.  So, we decided that the most appropriate place for a concentrated sampling of this multifaceted beer culture would be the capital.  Therefore, we set out on the 3 hour drive north for our next stop – the city of Brussels.

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