Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Terra Waconia Halloween Dinner

After radio silence for a bit here, I'm back in action looking into all the beer events I can get to.  I am very disappointed that I was unable to take part in Darkness Day at Surly, but some of my friends were able to go and I'll get to take part vicariously with the official Limited Release episode when it is done.

On the day before Halloween our local fine dining restaurant, Terra Waconia, had their second beer dinner.  They tried to organize this event for last Halloween, but things fell through, so here we are one year later and it really happened!  Having been lucky enough to get to know Tracy and Craig, the wonderful folks who run the restaurant, I was invited to help out a bit with selecting the beers.  I am very appreciative that they involved me in this.  For a while they had planned on a Magic Hat dinner, but that was difficult to organize, so they rethought the event a bit.  Through unusual circumstance, Adam O'Brien, the local Samuel Adams Representative, has been staying in town recently and had dinner at Terra about two weeks ago.  He jumped at the chance to help out with this dinner and I give him a huge amount of credit for doing so on such short notice.  Last week Adam, Tracy, myself and Craig (when he took quick breaks from chefery,) got together in the evening and tasted through a bunch of Sam Adams beers.  We were looking for overall quality, as well as potential for pairing with food.  This is the best way to plan a beer dinner: start with the beers and then mould the menu around that, looking for contrasting or complementary flavors.

We tasted through about 10 different beers and came up with a plan.  Sam Adams has a huge portfolio of different beers to choose from, and many for this dinner came from the Fall Sampler.  They have some newer and more unusual beers but most of them were not feasible to get on short notice or to serve to large group.  Say what you will about the Boston Beer Company, they have been making and marketing true craft beers since before there was even a name for that.  They have moved with the times and make funkier beers to please the beer geeks (Infinium, Utopias, etc.) but continue to make a lot of great drinkable beers.  Tasting through the beers that night, I realized that I have pretty much counted them out of my regular drinking line-up over the last few years.  I may have to re-think that and give them a bit more of my time. 

We arrived at the restaurant right at 6 PM and were greeted by a "Welcome" smeared in sticky blood on the glass door.  Entering the small vestibule, the walls and floor were coated in plastic sheeting and spattered with very realistic looking gore.  Hmm, were we walking into a restaurant or a murder-house?  As the door closed behind us, it gave an agonized groan, prompting us to spin around and look back. (Apparently the door always does that, but for this night it was perfect!) Into the restaurant proper, we came upon a tableau of skulls, bone-saws and lit candles upon the console table/hostess stand.  Two skeletal life-sized dummies were near the entry way, one of which rotated it's head toward us, flashed red eyes, and warned us to enter at our own risk.  The lighting was very dim, and each table had black table cloths and two candles in wax-coated wine bottles.  Disturbing music played in the background.  I was shocked at how much effort had gone into setting up this change in the restaurant interior.

We were seated at our table and Nikki, our server, handed us a Samuel Adams pint glass full of Boston Lager.  At the bar they had a small grave-yard model with house-made suckers dressed in white ghost outfits poked around the periphery.  We each got one to pair with our intro beer.  Apparently they were made with pancetta and had a cranberry center...a very interesting mix of sweet and savory.  Tracy gave a quick introduction and smoke billowed out from near the entry, further creepifying the atmosphere in the room.  Adam, initially startled by the smoke, took it in stride and gave a quick talk about Sam Adams and the first two beers prior to our first course of food.  We invited him to sit with us since they had him sitting at a small table by himself.  It was great getting to talk beer with him during the dinner and his very sweet wife showed up later to join us as well.  Later we realized that the kitchen staff was actually using headlamps and cooking by flashlight to keep the dim vibe of the dining area.

The first course was a crazy-good lamb sausage served with a cabbage salad.  Sitting plopped upon the salad was a molecular gastronomy masterpiece of an eyeball!  This was a circular globe made of parsnip puree with a black olive pupil and either chili thread or saffron red veins making it look bloodshot.  Once you punctured the eye, the thick and viscous filling oozed out.  Craig outdid himself on this one!  The pairing was with the Oktoberfest, because what goes better with sausage than a German style malty lager?

The second course was a wonderful (and not creepy) fish and chips.  The fish had a perfect crispy beer batter and was served with tasty fries and house-made tartar sauce and vinegar foam.  This fancy take on a classic was paired with the English style IPA, Latitude 48.  I am a huge fan of this beer, the earthy English hops and a strong malt backbone really cleanse the palate with fried foods.  Last year they released a sampler pack called Latitude 48 Deconstructed which featured 6 single hopped versions of this base amazing thing for a commercial brewery to do.

The third course was a small serving of cider sorbet paired with the Angry Orchard Ginger Cider.  Sj loves this cider and we always have some at home.  I learned from Adam that Sam Adams used to make Hardcore Cider (which we never really loved) but had discontinued that and moved to a more impressive cider line-up for Angry Orchard.  They use tart apples from France and Italy for these, which explains the improvement in complexity and flavor with the new brand.  The ginger really accentuates the tart and sweet of this particular libation.

The fourth course was wonderful, named Tongue & Cheek.  The base was more or less a cassoulet with large white beans, lamb tongue and wild boar cheeks.  Atop this daunting hearty plate sat a disturbing reproduction of a severed finger.  The finger had "bones" made of firm white turnip, "skin" of garlic flavored fruit-roll-up, and a dried cranberry "fingernail."  Wow was this a crazy dish.  The flavors were fantastic and the presentation was up there with some of the best restaurants I've been to (I'm looking at you Moto!)  A very filling dish that had me groaning, but I had to finish it!  This was a pairing made in heaven--Sam Adams Double Bock.  The strong alcohol and malt truly played off the savory components in the meal.

The final course came with the sad knowledge that the meal was nearly over.  Even the best things must end.  We were served a plate that looked like a grave: a mound of chocolate ice cream topped with hazelnut "dirt" and a R.I.P. decorated shortbread cookie on a base of chocolate truffle.  Amazing.  This was paired with the new Sam Adams Hazelnut Brown Ale.  I think this was the only pairing that didn't quite work, as the desert was much more rich and flavorful than the milder beer.  Still both were great on their own.

Near the end of the meal Tracy came around with ballots and the people who didn't come in costume (lame!) voted on who was the best dressed couple.  Sj and I were dressed in steam-punk outfits, (though Sj could be mistaken for sexy French maid in the low lighting.)  One couple was dressed as a mobster and moll.  And the last couple to dress up were a cowboy (complete with lasso) and an Indian with elaborate buckskins and headdress.  Until that last couple came in I thought we had it, but Sj and I looked at each other and knew we didn't have a shot.  They won a $50 gift card to Terra and a Sam Adams Fall sampler pack.  At least we tried!

I have to give thanks to all the staff of Terra Waconia and to Adam for making this event happen on short notice.  A lot of effort went into this and it was a great way to spend the night before Halloween.  This brought back why Halloween always used to be my favorite holiday...dressing up, scary stuff, sweets.  Terra plans to have this yearly now, and I highly recommend placing this on your calendars now.   I will certainly be there again!  And probably a bunch of other times in the year as well.

Monday, October 29, 2012


So voting time is upon us...and this brings up a few questions.  I'm not really going to get political here, that isn't my bag.  I have no illusions that I could sway any body's thinking on any big-ticket items, I think most folks already have their minds made up.  I have actually voted in the National Election already by absentee, since I'll be out of town on the day of the Elections.  So every one's inflammatory signs, bumper stickers, facebook posts and TV attack ads are wasted on me now! 

I was just in Belgium and it was interesting to learn that voting there is mandatory.  Kind of crazy, but I guess they really do get a good turn-out and know what the majority of people think, not just the small vocal minority that actually get off their duffs and vote.  So all you people who aren't sure if it is worth voting...make your voice heard, especially if you have strong feelings about particular issues.  Just educate yourself before you make any big decisions!

Now the important voting information! 

1)  Jack Of All Brews Homebrew Club has been nominated as one of the top clubs in the State in The Growler Magazine's Kind Of A Big Deal Awards.  Please vote for us prior to November 6 and show your support of our fledgling off-shoot club for the Western Suburbs!  You can also vote there for your favorite local beers, bars and beer people.

2) My wife Sarajo has a new necklace that she made in a blog challenge and I really want her to win this one!  Vote for her too, hers is number 12 (the best one with the awesome pumpkin photo that I might have taken...)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Town Hall 15 Year Anniversary Beer Dinner

Back in the USA and I realize that one does not need to go to Belgium to find amazing beers, (but still do so!) It is time for Town Hall Brewery's 15 year anniversary week.  They are doing a whole bunch of special events for the week, including special beer releases, scotch tastings, pint-club-lympics and more.  Most importantly to me, they had their second annual beer dinner on 10/23/12.  Sj and I went last year and had a great time and were happy we could get in to this again.

Just a quick shout-out to Town Hall for getting a Bronze medal at the GABF for their Pro-Am beer made in conjunction with our friend Kyle Cisco from the Primary Fermenters!  Next year they will win another medal with Tim Roets' Kolsch...I can sense it!

For this year's dinner they had roped off a section of the back dining area and even had white table cloths for us.  For our intro beer we had our choice of anything on tap, I chose the Citra pale ale which was dry and fruity.  For an appetizer they had a huge brick sized serving of Spanikopita (spinach pie) that was made from Pete Rifakes' family recipe.  It was the best I've ever had, including many Greek restaurants'.  We sat with Randy and Andrea, whom we met at last year's dinner and seem to run into at nearly every beer event since!  Another couple who are members of the MHBA sat with us as well, and we all had a great time.  I love the social nature of beer dinners, and getting to tell and hear beer stories with folks that are interested.  Before each course Mike Hoops, the head brewer, and his chef gave a quick talk about the beer and food.  All of the beers were served in new 15 year anniversary stem-ware.  Mr. Hoops commented that last year beer had been wasted due to pours of strong ales that were too big, so this year they were going to cut it down.  We still had a hard time drinking all that beer!

Our second course was a sweet butternut squash and leek bisque.  I had forgotten that these dinners also have a cheese paired with each beer course, and the first was our favorite of the night: a stinky Swiss Gruyere.  The beer served with this course was the Grand Cru, a 9.1% ABV smooth Belgian monster that hid its alcohol dangerously well.  This was brewed many months ago and has not been served yet this year at Town Hall.  I liked it much better than last year's batch and would actively seek it out now.  The pairing with the cheese was out of this world.

The third course was a crab cake with a caper and curry cream sauce, and was very good.  Cheese was a fairly bland smoked Gouda.  The beer for this pairing was the star.  This was the 15 year anniversary Double IPA, made with MN basswood honey and a ton of hops.  It has a character that reminds me of Hopslam, but dryer and less sweet.  YUM!  It was a treat getting to try this before it was released to the public, and I highly recommend getting out there to try it.

Fourth course was baby back ribs braised in Czar Jack RIS served with cous cous and wee heavy soaked cranberries.  The ribs were a wonder, falling off the bone and flavorful as can be.  The cheese was a mild Portuguese.  The beer paired with this was the Wee Heavy, and did a nice job of complementing the food.  I wish it had been Czar Jack though!

Fifth course was a roast tenderloin poutine topped with porter gravy.  The meat was a bit overdone, but the gravy was salty and delicious.  A Wales cheddar cheese was quite tasty.  This dish was served up with the Publican Porter, the first beer that Pete Rifakes really took a part in designing.  A very complex and drinkable brew.

Final course was desert, a Beer-a-misu made with espresso and Russian Roulette.  The beer was the Russian Roulette, the imperial stout aged on Belgian dark chocolate.  Sj and I had this beer at Winterfest this year and went back for it repeatedly.  A great way to finish the evening.

Town Hall is truly my favorite brewpub and I congratulate them on 15 years of success putting out good food and amazing beers.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Belgium Day 10: Goodbye to Belgium

Our last day in Belgium comes bitter sweet.  At this point we all realize that no human can keep up this pace of gluttony and enjoyment for much longer without consequences, or at least without spending all of our life savings.  As much as I enjoyed Antwerp, it is easier to leave this modern European town than it was to leave the fairytale city of Bruges. 

The morning comes with a heavy rain that persists most of the day, making touring a bit more of a chore.  We pass a chocolatier who has done an entire window display of chocolate taps pouring foaming chocolate beer into chocolate stemware glasses, along side chocolate crates filled with chocolate beer bottles.  Oh, for more space in the luggage.  We walk a few blocks at a time, clustering under awnings to check our maps.  We find ourselves in a tiny, cramped, and crowded vegeterian cafe for lunch, a place that would be at home in Uptown back home.  With my felafel sandwich I try a Bio-beer, Sara, made organically with buckwheat and tasting vaguely like a Hoegaarden. 

Next up we slog around town looking into some of the larger Catholic churches.  Two of these are charging entry fees, which just seems wrong to me somehow.  In those we mill about in the entrance area, trying to quietly warm up and figure out our next plan of action.  We do make it to one church that has free entry (Sanctuary!) and the most amazing carved wooden angels and biblical scenes all along the walls.  One particularly creepy angel is holding an upside down skull. 

We spend some time in the Rubens House:  the Antwerp home of the famous painter Peter Paul Rubens.  Lots of cool artwork by Rubens and contemporaries as well as a really cool old mansion.  And it is dry inside.

We wind our way back toward the hotel, by this point my water resistant jacked has failed me and my torso, feet and head are soaked and cold.  We stop at a cafe on the way to warm up and have another De Koninck.  I whine about wanting the De Koninck glass filled with dark and light chocolates that we saw in a window earlier.  I do not get what I want.

At the hotel we rest up and change into dry clothes.  Soon we gather as a group for our last dinner together in Belgium.  On the way there we stop one more time at the Old Armory for a beer.  I have the Westmalle Extra, a mild 4.8% ABV brew that is very refreshing.  We manage to close this bar down...not entirely realizing what the bell ringing by the bartender means.  What bar closes at 7 PM on a Saturday???

Our final diner in Belgium is just across the street at the Horta Restaurant.  This is a very fancy meal and a good way to end the group part of our tour.  I order a beer and it is brought out and served exactly like a champagne would be served, right down to the silver ice bucket.  Presentation is great, but the beer is so-so.

After dinner, Chris, Hassan, Sj and I all walk back to Kulminator.  We settle in like old regulars, meeting and talking to other folks and ordering beers like professionals.  We finish this trip like we started it:  four friends in a tiny bar drinking Westvleteren 12.  This has been a crazy trip, and one of the most amazing things I've done in my life.  It will be hard to return to our real lives, but must be done.  For those reading this...consider a trip to Belgium, and especially a trip through  Worth every penny.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Belgium Day 9: To Antwerp!

Just another day at the office...
Getting toward the end of our amazing trip, we spent much of this day travelling and testing out nearly every form of locomotion.   Sj and I got up early to spend what little time we had left in Bruges doing good touristy things.  The day was rainy, so we didn't get as much pretty scenery.  We went to a museum that was in an old Catholic hospital, filled with reliquaries,and religious artwork.  Upstairs in the attic, there was a special exposition of the creepiest modern artwork I have ever seen.  All of the pieces were made of rough-hewn wood, consisting of severed limbs and heads, dangling from the cieling by wires, or just scattered around the floor.  Dark, lonely, disturbing...nightmarish.
Creepy creepy creepy

We picked up our luggage and caught a death-cab to the rail station with the rest of our tour-mates.  At the rail station we had a few minutes to relax and several of us bought some goodies at a small convenience store within the station.  We bought Trappist beers for 1.30 Euro each (about $2)  and I bet that place was overpriced.  I love Belgium!

Traveling in style
Just as we all headed up the escalator to our departure area a lady fell spectacularily and the escalator was shut down.  The lady was fine, but we all had to carry our large suitcases up the stairs.  I guess I needed a workout by this time.  We settled into our train and promptly cracked open some beers for the trip.  We had opened a Westmalle Dubbel, Rochefort 8 and Chimay Blue Cap, when the conductor came by and gave us a somewhat serious and upset look.  For a moment I thought we were going to be in trouble for drinking alcohol on the train, and worried that they would just drop us off at the next stop, stranding us in rural Belgium.  Then the conductor shook his head bemusedly and explained that proper drinking conditions for Trappist beers is in front of a fire with the correct glassware.  He pointed out the old guy two seats down drinking a big can of Jupiler (mass-market swill beer,)  as an example of what one should drink on a train.  Again, I love Belgium!

Antwerp station is amazing!
On arrival in Antwerp we were met by our local guide and began a walking tour of the city.  Our first stop was The Armory, a very old and tiny bar just a block from our hotel.  To greet new visitors it is tradition to serve them a glass of De Koninck, the official beer of the city.  Not a bad beer, malty and almost like a Scottish 70/- with very little Belgian yeast character.  But not a Euro-swill lager at least!  I guess not too long ago the brewery was bought by Duvel and things have changed a bit:  Now the beer is bottled at Duvel and the tours are less frequent.  Our tour guide apparently used to do the brewery tours before the buy-out. 

The city itself has a lot of age to it, but is much more modern than Brussels and Bruges.  There were tons of students and young fashion-forward people walking the streets like they had somewhere to be.  This seemed to be a very metropolitan area with huge Disney stores, McDonald's, and more fashion/clothing/jewelry stores than you could shake a stick at.  There are certainly some old buildings and monuments, but they are nestled tightly among the modern city trappings.  Our tour continued with another stop at a very warm and crowded old cafe for a La Trappe Dubbel...yum!  At that point our guide left us near the palace and we headed for dinner. 

Dinner was at The 11th Commandment, an old cafe that was packed with old plaster and wooden saints, Madonnas and angel icons.  Hundreds to thousands of these in various states of disrepair.  Wow cool, but freaky.  For dinner I had the ubiquitous and tasty Belgian mussels, cooked in Westmalle Tripel.  I drank my first coke...feeling a bit beered out for the first time on this trip. 

After dinner, we made the trek to a very small local beer bar called Kulminator.  The place is run by a cantankerous old guy that looks like a mad composer (Beethoven, Mozart, take your pick,) and his wife who resembled one of the female Norwegian gnomes, (minus the red hat.)  Having limited space, we initially split up our group.  The place has a cluttered old vibe that almost seems like a crazy old German clock repair store had an unholy union with a turn of the century pub.  Tons of dusty old Belgian beer tins and items lined the walls and every available surface.  Large piles of old books and magazines were stacked haphazardly about, taking up valuable bar seating space.  Don't ask about the state of the bathrooms.  There were only 5 tables in the bar and three spots at the crowded bar.  The entire end of one table was taken up by some project that the owner was working on, and at one point a couple young guys tried to sit there.  This resulted in a nearly Soup Nazi rant in Flemish, and I was shocked that the guys didn't go running out of the place. 

There were only 2 huge foreign language beer lists for the entire bar, and once we got one we struggled to make sense of the staggering number of choices.  It took us about 30 minutes to get our drink order in.  If you don't tell your server what you want right away in Belgium, they might come back within the hour.... We started with a Leifman's Goudenbrand from 1987.  This was coated in dust and tasted oh so amazing.  This beer was 25 years old and still flavorful and complex with dark fruit and a hint of sour.  What kind of bar keeps beers for 25 years??  They had a huge list of Chimay beers from whatever year you could want.  I had a Rochefort 10 from 2003--almost 10 years and tasted wonderful.  I'm going to buy a couple of these and put them up for a few years... We also split a collaboration beer from Kerkom (Bink) and 3 Fontainen that was a crazy tart sour golden ale.  By the time we were done and ready to head back to the hotel, we had grown accustomed to this little hole in the wall place.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Belgium Day 8: Rodenbach and Gluttony

Meeting up early for breakfast our group discovered that the female contingent was not going to be joining us on our day trip to Roselare.  Sj was still feeling sick, and Candy and Chris were both overly tired.  No problem, we would make this a guy's trip to see a manly brewery!  We hopped a cab with a singularly cantankerous driver to the rail station.  There, we hopped a train for the small Belgian town of Roselare. 

The Rodenbach brewery is the origin of the Flanders Red style of beer, and as such is a keystone to understanding that style of beer.  Having brewed three versions of this beer myself, I was very excited to see how this is really done.  The brewery itself is located in a huge sprawling complex, that includes a lot of old buildings that are no longer in use, such as the malting house.  The place was very quiet and nearly empty of workers, resulting in a strange post-apocalyptic deserted feel.  We were greated upon entering the grounds by a very friendly lady who ushered us into a room to watch a movie about the Rodenbach family and brewery.  The film was iffy, but she served us all hot coffee which made up for it.  Two very nice hipster guys from the states managed to get into the tour with us and they apparently had been at a lot of the same places we had been, including Cantillon Quintessence.  We then got an extensive tour of the brewery.  We were able to actually enter the kiln and the malting tower as well as several other museum-piece areas.  Watching our 6'7" tour-mate Rich try to fit into the kiln brought up vivid mental images of Winny the Pooh getting stuck in the tree.

We were able to walk through one of the old copper lined open fermentation tanks, which was fairly unusual.  The next stop was the coolest part of the trip:  The foedors.  These hare huge oak vessels that tower above you and seem to extend forever.  As I understand it the fermentation is a mixed ferment with acetobacter bacteria (for the sourness) and brewer's yeast.  They do an initial ferment, then a secondary, then transfer to these enormous wooden tanks to age.  They keep 2 coopers on staff to do repairs on the foedors as needed, and each year they take them apart and steam clean the staves.  No other breweries use this technique.  We watched another short film that featured an animated yeast cell, and all of us had a hard time maintaining our cool and not laughing outright.  A few years back Rodenbach was bought out by Palm Brewery and now the bottling is done elsewhere.  While there has been some backlash about the selling, the company would not have stayed in business if not for that.  Interestingly we found out that the local Flanders Red brewers (mostly in Roselare area) are trying to get a special label with goals similar to that of the Trappists or the Champagne area of France.

They use several areas of the brewery as lecture halls, student housing and rented out for weddings.  They are booked out 2 years ahead for weekend weddings, so get on the list now!  Our final stop was the cavernous tasting room.  We got to try the regular Rodenbach which is made with 1/3 aged sour beer and 2/3 fresh beer, resulting in a nice tart and refreshing red ale.  Then we tried the Grand Cru which is made of 2/3 aged and 1/3 fresh beer.  That one was much more complex and rounded with some subtle cherry notes.  We were fortunate enough to get a sample of the aging beer right out of the foedors and that was very sharp and tar.  I think I was the only one who really liked it.     We also tried the Grand Cru from the bottle which seemed more mellow than on tap, probably due to the natural bottle fermentation for carbonation.  Last, but not least, we talked them into parting with a bottle of the Vintage 2010 Rodenbach that is made entirely of the aged beer.  This was the stand-out winner for everyone and I would highly recommend trying it if you can search one out.  Tasting all these beers took us a while and we chatted for a bit with our hipster friends.  So far our guys only tour had been a great success. 

Walking into Roselare, we found a cafe that had a good selection of beers and food.  More beer pates and beers were had.  Things were taking a bit longer than Hassan and I had expected and both of us were feeling that we had left our womenfolk behind for too long.  Discovering that we might be able to catch the early train home we bolted our beers and took off.  We were late, but Hassan's luck held out and so was out train!  We ended up back home in time to track down our wives and get back to exploring Bruges.  Sj and I headed back to Half Moon Brewery to try the other beers we hadn't tried previously.  We also bought a large quantity of Belgian chocolates to take home to our loved ones.

Courtyard of Halve Maan Brewery

Belgian Chocolates

What else could we possibly do for our last night in Bruges?  Why not have a beer pairing dinner at the Erasmus Restaurant?  Luckily this was just off the lobby to our hotel, so we did not have far to go.  The restaurant owner greated us and sat us in a quiet corner (quiet for now, but beer dinner to follow!)  We started with a set of cute and tasty appetizers paired with De Struise single hop Montueka beer.  The beer was light and hoppy, but with that Belgian balanced nature.  Second course was scallops paired with a secondand more hoppy De Struise beer, Catso.  This one had a firm grapefruit flavor that was mirrored by use of grapefruit in the puree below the scallops.  Yummy pairing!  Third course was Veal and sweetbreads cooked to perfection, served with De Struise Rose (a mediocre brown ale.)  Not the best beer, but the sweetbreads were decadent!  Desert was a huge mouse cake served with Alvinus Kriek.  Both were gut-wrenchingly good.  Just as we were getting up to hobble/roll to our rooms, a fellow from another table brought over a half full bomber bottle of barleywine to share with us.  Going to need a diet when this is over...

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Day 7: In Bruges (Like a @#&*! Fairytale)

For those who have not seen the movie In Bruges, see it now.  I believe I mentioned it in a previous post.  We saw most of the spots from the movie, and the deck/courtyard of our hotel was featured in a chase scene.  Incidentally, like the movie, they were shooting another film around town on one of the days.  They often do this since the town is a throw-back to medieval Europe.  One street was covered with sand and we could see horses covered in heraldry waiting for their cues.

Church of The Blood

We began this auspicious day with a 10 AM walking tour of Bruges.  My words cannot properly describe such a city that is steeped in history, art, architecture and commerce.  I love Bruges, and want to go back already.  Every turn brings a new building covered with Gothic spires, ornate ironwork, marble statues.  Gargoyles peer down at you with stony glares and lewd expressions.  Bears (the symbol of the city,) Madonnas and saints adorn walls, building corners, and pedestals all over the city.  I took nearly 50 pictures of different doors and iron grates.  Enormous cathedrals drip with gold, incredible stained glass, intricate and overwhelming woodwork, and religious splendor.  Cobbled streets echo with footsteps and horse drawn carriages clatter past.  It really is a fairy tale city, especially in the morning before the crowds and cars really get rolling.  Shallow, but picturesque canals wind through the city, with tourist boats, ducks and huge white swans all zipping along them happily.

Can you say "Gothic?"

Our tour was very enlightening, but we perhaps spent too much time looking at marble and bronze statues.  There is one hideous modern art monstrosity that looks like a honeycombed car-wash set down in the center of all that ancient glory.  Yuck, what were they thinking?? We did get to go into the Church of the Blood: an extremely Gothic church that supposedly has a few drops of Jesus' blood brought back from the Crusades.  Yes this is an incredibly old city.  That place was beautiful and the painting of the walls, ceiling and pillars inside was very different from anything I've seen before.   For lunch I had more frites with mayo, and may start trying that at me a convert!

After our light lunch Sj and I decided to risk the bell tower.  This amazing structure literally towers over the center of the city, and has 366 steps.  For a fee you can walk up all 366 and get a great view of the city.  The steps are tiny and steep, getting progressively smaller and tighter the higher up you go.  Passing people on these stairs is near impossible, prompting you to crush up into a corner and hold on when folks need to pass you.  The enormous bells are run by a carillon.  Keep in mind I am not a fan of heights.  We made it, but were a bit winded after our climb.  Down in much easier.  And if you are overweight...don't attempt this climb!

This afternoon we wandered back to the Half Moon brewery that we had passed on our earlier tour.  We met up with Chris and Hassan for this and just missed the deadline for a tour of the brewery.  Somehow Hassan managed to pull some strings and they brought out a second tour guide for us and a few other English speakers who were around.  Initially the tour takes you into an active modern brewery.  Something I have not seen in a brewery like this was cut-out view ports in the mash tun and brew kettle.  We then went on a tour of this very old Maes brewery, that was mostly museum.  Fantastic old plate chillers, grain mills, crates, and cooperage equipment were strewn about with reckless abandon.  We actually walked atop the copper coolship to get to the rooftop, where we had an incredible view of the city.  The old brewery did their own malting and we got to see the old malt and grain equipment as well.  I could just imagine the steam rising from the huge chimney and very tiny Europeans trying to haul grain and barrels up those tiny stairs.  We actually had to walk backwards down two sets of stairs to get back to the basement where the old kilns were located.  There is no place for handicapped people in Belgium.  We saw two portable metal ramps our entire visit.

After the tour we got a full chalice of the Bruges Zot blond beer, that was hoppy and fruity and very very drinkable.  They also make a Zot brown that I didn't get to try.  The logo for these two have a drunk looking jester on them, very sweet!  They have a Tripel and a Quad that they brew under another label called Straffe Hendrik.  The Quad was decent, but lacked complexity.  Overall, a very interesting tour and a great view of Bruges.  Too bad I don't like heights!

Next up was a touristy boat tour of the canals.  We were crammed in there like sardines, but luckily the trip was short.  Some interesting views of the buildings from that angle, but we were moving a bit too fast to get good pics with my iPhone camera.  We did pretty close to running down some pissed off swans though.  They don't like tourists either.

After our slightly disappointing boat tour, I dragged our group to the tasting room for De Struise Brouwers, a local brewery that has been making world class craft beers for the last few years.  Their Imperial Stout (Black Albert) has been mentioned in the same breath as Surly Darkness and Dark Lord.  I'm not sure the Belgians quite know how to deal with these guys and their very American range of craft and extreme beers.  They had a cooler with three medicine-ball sized plastic containers lined with mylar that they were using as kegs.  Like boxed wine, only beers!  They had three experimental beers that didn't even have names yet:  A tasty and classic tripel; a wine barrel aged quad; and a bourbon barrel aged stout.  All were great.  We also split a bottle of Black Albert.  Wow that was really good!  I brought back a bottle of the Bourbon aged Black Albert and a bottle of Kabert (a collaboration with Portsmouth Brewery, maker of Kate The Great RIS.)  Oh for more space in my luggage!!


The very kind and tolerant purveyor of De Struise beers pointed us toward Cambrinus for dinner.  We met up with our whole party of 6 and made our way there.  When we first walked into the bar the hostess gave us one look and barked "NO!" Then turned away and left us to gape at her retreating back.  We milled about outside for a few minutes, trying to come up with a second plan.  Some space opened up at the bar and we decided to grab a beer at least and think about other dinner options.  Again, somehow Hassan managed to get us a big table in back.  I have no idea how this man manages to always make things work out in his favor, but I'll take it!  Despite the cranky hostess we had a very flavorful meal with a ton of great beers here.  I had the Carbonade, a traditional Flemish beef stew made with beer, and it was heavenly.  For desert a creme brulee made with Abbey style ale.  Boon Marriage Parfait Kriek and Geuze (the good sour ones not the overly sweet regular versions,) Westvleteren 8, and many more great beers.  So full.  Need to find an accessory stomach for next time...

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Belgium Day 6: Trappist Madness

Day six of Belgium, and still going strong.  Our small band of weary but happy travellers gathered in the taxidermied eating hall of our antiquarian hotel for a low-key breakfast and watery coffee.  Most of us really didn't want or need more food at this point: see day 5 post!  We headed off bright and early, (or rather overcast and drizzly,) for our first stop of the day.

A brief word on the driver of our full sized coach.  Johann was an unusual but funny dude, in love with everything American.   This was evidenced by his Warner Bros ties as well as his penchant for playing John Denver, Billy Joel, and the 80's most poppy tunes.  Oh and lots of ABBA, not American, but very very 80's.  John Denver singing Take Me Home Country Road as we drove through the countryside of Belgium was strangely appropriate but also slightly off.

Soon we arrived at our first destination, the Trappist monastery of Orval.  Our tour director had managed to get us a personal tour of the brewery, which is unheard of nowadays.  The brewery is located within the walls of the Orval monastery, though the monks are not actually involved in the brewing process.  The head monk does oversee major decisions relating to the brewery, though, so they are still technically a Trappist product.  The proceeds from sales of the beer keep the monks in food and even pay for other Trappist monasteries.  They have 6 large conical fermenters and are now at capacity.  Our tour guide explained that she spends much of her day dealing with distributors and beer fans who are complaining of difficulty getting the beers.  They cannot expand the brewery as that would extend it beyond the walls of the monastery...though they did dig down below the place to fit more equipment in the past.  The bottles are predominantly recycled and we saw an impressive bottle washing machine and bottling line in action.  Seeing the freshly cleaned bottles go through a sensor that automatically kicked out scratched or nicked ones  was very cool.  Lavern and Shirley would not have a job here...  We saw a huge warehouse filled with aging beer, since they cellar the beers for some time before releasing them.  They only make one beer, based on a recipe from the early 1900's with a small amount of dry hopping based on old English styles. 

The old monastery was destroyed by the invading French back in the 1700's and the ruins still lay strewn about, next to the rebuilt buildings from the early 1900's.  We wandered the ruins and the "new" construction in an early morning clearing of the hazy weather.  The lack of city noise, the muted echo of footfalls on cobbles, and the occasional caw of a crow was peaceful and somewhat otherworldly.   This was a unique experience marred only by the fact that Sj was feeling quite ill at the time and I was worried about her.  She was a trooper though and hung in there for the rest of the day.

From the monastery itself we walked down the drive to have a seat in the modern Guardian Angel tasting room.  This early in the day we were the only patrons.  We had some Orval Trappist cheese and of course Orval beer.  They serve only Orval beer in several ways: old, new, warm, cold.  With several of us here, we were able to taste the differences in serving age and temperature.  I liked the old warm the best, more tartness from the brettanomyces, but more mellow hop flavors from age.  This is also the only place you can get the Orval Green, a lower strength version of the beer, originally brewed for the monks.  I liked this one quite well, and felt it would have fit in at any craft beer bar in the states as a flavorful session beer.  I picked up a special small Orval glass with the Guardian Angel wings on it there.

Back into the coach and feeling relaxed and more awake, (except for Sj who was feeling lousy,) we drove further to the Chimay restaurant.  Chimay is another Trappist brewery, but rarely allow tours anymore.  I had a very tasty lunch of steak in Chimay ale sauce with frites (yes dipped in mayo!)  I also had the Tower of Trappist (my naming, not theirs.)  A small chalice glass of the red cap, a dubbel style ale; another of the white cap, a tripel; one of blue cap, a strong dark; and last of the lighter version of the white cap, the patersbier.  The latter was much the same idea as the Orval green, just not quite as good.  My favorite was the blue, strong and flavorful.  This was the first Trappist and maybe even the first Belgian beer I ever tried back in the ancient history of my beer adventures.  After this we returned to the coach where Rich promptly broke back into the Bink beers from the prior day and the rest of the trip is a bit...blurry.  We did ride into and out of France a few times, where Johann claimed they drive much worse than in Belgium.  I would agree from the limited sample size I saw.

Next stop in the Belgian countryside was a small town that looked almost like any of the small towns I had seen in Ireland, just less sheep.  This is the hometown of Brasserie Dupont.  We were not able to get a tour of the brewery this day, but were able to stop at La Forge bar just down the road which is the official tasting room/cafe of the brewery.  We had the ever fantastic Saison Dupont, the Moinnette,  Avec Les Bons Voeux, and the Bio apple beer.  All very good, but I was feeling a bit over-full after all the beers I'd had that day.  I had small portions.  To take a quick break and get some fresh air, the guys all walked down the road to the actual Dupont building.  The brewery was pretty much closed at this time, and really is in an old, but large farmhouse.  There is a more modern addition, where a couple of attractive ladies with French accents let us in to buy some Dupont signs and glassware.

Then back on the bus, which seemed to have developed the ability to spin around sideways whilst driving forward at warp speed.  There was no more drinking of Bink beers on this leg of the trip.  Most of us were fairly passed out at this time.  An occasional loud comment about French drivers from Johann, and the smooth sounds of John Denver were all that I remember of this time.

My blacksmith friend Martin would love this place!

We arrived in Bruges right around dusk, checking into the very cool old Hotel Erasmus.  We had a comfortable bed with small pillows, (but not made of marble,) and an actual stand-up shower!  Our room had a small (2 by3 foot) look-out over the street with an excellent view of the bell tower on the main square.  Sj and I staggered about in the darkening streets looking for food, and then back to bed for the night.  More on Bruges later...

Friday, October 19, 2012

Belgium Day 5: Castles, Birds, and Breweries O My!

On this day we headed out via a full sized motor coach bus for the seven of us, driven by a strange fellow named Johann who wore a Wile E. Coyote tie...should I be nervous?  We drove for about an hour to reach a small town in the middle of no-where.  Keep in mind Belgium is about the size of Connecticut.  We pulled up in front of an old brewery building, that looked like it been used for centuries, and was in some disrepair.  The main gate was shut and we knocked a few times...I half expected Frau Blucher from Young Frankenstein to answer, (cue horse whinny here).  After about 10 minutes of milling about, Mark, the owner of the Kerkom Brewery arrived and let us into the courtyard.  This place looked like half brewery, half fortified castle.  All along the walls were old stone watering troughs for horses that had been turned into planters.  Apparently at one time the building was used as a stopping place for messengers.

It was chilly outside, with a hint of winter to come.  We were taken to a small bar room off the courtyard that was homey, warm and comfortable.  Around 10 AM we were served glasses of the flagship beer Bink Blond, which surprised me by how hoppy it was.   We had a few more of the great variety of beers before getting a tour of the brewery grounds.  The brewery had been in use for a long time, but about 7 years ago the local laws had changed, making all of the old equipment no longer "safe" for brewing.  The old wooden belt-fed grain mill still worked fine, but because it was made of wood and couldn't be sanitized it was not usable.  The lawmakers knew nothing of brewing, nor the fact that grinding grain was well before the boil which would kill any bugs that might hide in the wood.  So for the last several years Mark has been brewing at another brewery site while saving up to re-open the brewery on the old grounds.  He had all his new conicals and modern equipment set up, but has been in red-tape hell for the last year trying to get everything approved.  Apparently Belgium has several governments, and many of these overlap and contradict each other.  Makes our government sound better all the time.

Mark gave us a lot of information about the Belgian beer scene and his thoughts about beers.  He really hates coriander, viewing that as a way to mask flaws in improperly made beers!  As with most of the brewers and beer people we talked to on this trip he really views balance between hop and malt as the the keystone of what makes good Belgian beer.  He shamefully makes a sweet Kriek that he didn't even let us try since he really only makes that for the local market that craves overly sweet beers.  Gotta pay the bills.

We returned from our eye-opening tour to try more beers, the best of which was a holiday dark strong ale aged in the bottle for a year before serving.  I brought one home for this Christmas!  We were brought a spread of House-made meats and pate made with Bink beer, along with these enormous pieces of bread that dwarfed even our very tall tour-mate Rich.  I kept trying to get him to hold up a piece for a picture until I think he was getting sick of me.  Between the excellent hosts, 8 different beers and a huge rustic farmhouse lunch, I think this was one of best parts of the trip.

Back on the bus, our tour leader had purchased a bunch of Kerkom beers and Bink glasses for all of us.  Our coach had a beer fridge and a bathroom.  We made good use of both on the next leg of our trip as we cracked more beers.  Time flew by and we may have been a bit rowdy...


After and unknown length of time we arrived in the resort town of Bouillon, near the border of France.  We stopped first at the Kasteel De Bouillon, a fortified castle from the middle ages.  This place was awesome!  Huge parapets, fortified walls,and dungeons with torture equipment.  The castle also had an Oubliette: basically a hole in the ground with only a small barred opening at the top, they would drop prisoners into these and forget about them, as there really was no way to get out.  There was a large group of school children rampaging around the grounds, and I was quite jealous that they got to wear old-style tunics.  Where is my outfit?  Around 4:30 they had a birds of prey show in the main courtyard that was very cool.  Seeing falcons swooping from old castle walls to land on your friend's outstretched arm is amazing!  It had started to rain lightly by this time and the school children left, making it much more calm and quiet around the castle.

It was a short drive down the hill to our hotel, an antiquated old hunting lodge with lots of dead animal heads on the walls.  Our bed was tiny with and annoying foot board and small pillows made of plastic lined concrete.  Not the best place we stayed at, but not a lot of other options in this town.  Our shower was a small bathtub with no curtain, one of those odd sit-down and spray yourself down Euro-baths.  Not cool!  Because it was off-season, the entire town was pretty much closed.  The only people around were several octogenarians who probably have been coming here since its heyday.

Our dinner was at the hotel and featured 7 courses, paired with local and other Belgian beers.  After our long day, we kept losing members as the meal went on.  The food was good overall, but the timing slow, and the meal ended up like the Bataan Death March of eating.  Sj, Mike, Hassan and our driver managed to stick it out to the bitter end.

What a day!