Thursday, June 12, 2014

Zythos, Vapeur and and End to Beer Trip 2014

Days 13 and 14 of our epic Beer Trip across the Netherlands and Belgium.

Waking up with surprisingly little aftereffects of the Night of Great Thirst, we had a quick breakfast and boarded our coach.  We drove for a bit and shared some of Hassan's Westvleteren 8 bottles (so he wouldn't have to pack them and get them home).  At least by this point we had tasting glasses from La Rulles instead of plastic or paper cups! 

In a small town in the countryside, we arrived at our destination before 11 AM: La Brasserie A Vapeur.  This is an old brewery from around 1902, whose claim to fame is that it is still run by a turn of the century steam engine!  Anchor Brewing can claim the name "Steam Beer" but this place has been actually brewing with steam for over a century.  We luckily arrived just in time to catch part of the mechanized brewing process.  Our group entered the old brewery building to a whistling, hooting, ratcheting mayhem of a great old steam engine.  Pistons scraping and whooshing out clouds of billowing steam, rotating belts and wheels all across the room.  The mash rakes in the mash tun were rotating, being run by the engine.  My camera (and Sj's glasses) instantly fogged up at the steamy onslaught!  I should have worn my steam-punk outfit!

When you do beer journalism and see a ton of modern breweries, it is hard to get excited about a brewery tour, but this was a truly unique experience for me.  Other than Cantillon, this is the coolest brewery I've visited in my life!  I took many a picture in the dark and steamy environs but not too many came out well.  After a time, one of the brewers took our group up a pair of rickety and narrow stairs to the second floor brewing area.  We saw the old coolship, but they are not using it any longer, the area now home to a family of swallows.  Ancient tanks and an only slightly more modern brew system were also up above.  Our tour guide spoke a bit of English, but mostly French so I understood only about a third of what he was telling us, but he was very friendly and helpful.  With all the easy falls, loose boards, flying pistons, and whirling belts, the place is dangerous!  No way would this brewery be able to do tours (or even be open for brewing) in America. 

Across the small road was a farmhouse building where the other functions of the brewery take place.  There is a large room in front filled with benches and long tables.  In the center of the building is a small kitchen and a tiny tap room, where they poured us glasses of their beer.  Another, smaller back room hosted the tiny shop, bathrooms and miscellaneous junk storage.  Everything here exuded an air of age and long use, conjuring up memories of my grandma Ruth's old antique store.  Wonderful smells of cooking food wafted from the kitchen, making my belly rumble.

I sampled both of their beers, the saison and the Cochon while there.  At first both are interesting with heavily spiced aromas and unusual complex flavors.  However, as they warmed, both showed severe flaws--sourness, hot alcohols, and other medicinal and even enteric flavors.  So, this was one of coolest breweries I've ever been to, but not in my top for actual beers.  The label art (and some of the wall art in the brewery) were done by a local comic artist and included disturbing images of naked pigs with human "anatomy".  I want to post a pic, but don't want my blog to get tagged as pornography, so I'll leave it to your imagination! 

This is the toned down American Export version of the label!

We eventually settled down for a large lunch in the front seating room.  Our group took up one table, but the rest of the place was filled with a loud bunch of French tourists.  The brewer tried to give a presentation in French, and was trying to translate to English, but the second he stopped speaking French the large group got rowdy and needed to be shushed down before he could go on.  He ended up just giving up on the presentation all together.  Before the lunch I had seen the chef out gathering up mash and wort from the current batch being brewed.  The food was great, and nearly everything was fairly local and involved beer in the recipe.  A fantastic soup using grain from the mash started the meal.  Hearty beer bread, ham, salami, beer pate, beer marinated salmon, was all heaped upon our plates.  The place was crowded though and we really had to fight to get in line.  Since we had a deadline and lunch had already started late we may have bulled our way to the front of the line a few times to get done quicker.  Before we left they brought out an enormous cheese board with over 20 different local cheeses (yes several made with or soaked in beer!)  Being lactose intolerant is a drag sometimes. 

We escaped the crowd as quick as possible, and actually left before desert.  Last on the coach was our guide Mike, bearing soft and yummy take-away tarts for us to eat on the bus.  A good tour guide always looks after his flock! 

We arrived at Leuvin after a bit more time on the coach.  We checked into our hotel as quickly as possible and headed out for the culmination of our Belgian beer trip.  Zythos Beer Festival is Belgium's answer to the Great Taste of the Midwest or GABF, drawing an international cadre of beer geeks over its two days.  A few of our group decided to explore the city instead of going straight to the festival--leaving it to us die-hards to head out there right away!  The hotel was a very easy walk to the bus station where they had free shuttles to the Zythos Beer Festival.  When we arrived at the station however, there was a great milling centipede of a line to get on the shuttle.  Since we were already a bit late for the game, Mike turned us around and promptly found us a cab to the festival.  We took a 20 minute ride, to arrive at a large festival hall outside the city limits. 

Entry to the festival was free and the entrance was the only area not filled to bursting with people.  Like the previous beer festival, tokens were involved, but this time one token got you a uniform pour of beer at each stand.  You did have to buy the 8 oz taster glass as well, and it wasn't until later that we discovered they had given me one from last year's event.  There were over a 100 different stands pouring beers at the festival, having anywhere from 1 to 15 beers at each!  Every place had a glass rinsing and scrubbing station.  The Belgians respect their beer and do not want you pouring their beer into the dregs of an Imperial stout or a sour!  My biggest complaint about most Minnesota festivals is not enough dump or rinse stations, so these guys have us beat!  The biggest issue for me was trying not to get drunk in record time!  Even when told to just give a little pour, every station would give you a full glass.  And nearly all of these beers were between 7% to 12% ABV!  So I ended up having to waste a lot of really good Belgian ale in order to try more things. 

I didn't bring my real camera to the festival, and almost every picture I took with my iPhone turned out blurry.  Oh, well you will have to use your imagination!  Some dimly remembered highlights from the festival, in no particular order since the whole thing was crowded and chaotic:

1) Silly looking people wandering around wearing Fluffy pink Delerium Tremens elephant hats. 

2) Silly looking people wandering around wearing Chouffe gnome hats. 

3) Getting to tell the brewer at Brasserie de Blaugies about trying his 20 year old Darbyste two nights before.  It turns out he had already heard the story and was very happy that it had held up that well.  We also tried his Saison d' Epeautre--which was probably the best beer of that style I have ever had in my life!  I got to try the borderline too hoppy collaboration with Hill Farmstead--La Vermontoise --there as well.

4) The universal shout that rings out at all American beer festivals from a broken glass is apparently universal.  With the large indoor space and strange acoustics there was a very strange reverb and sussuration from this that would rotate throughout the packed hall.

5) The De Struisse folks had over 20 beers on taps and could have supported their own festival!  Many were barrel aged, sours and crazy American styles.  The Gentleman Sour and the Beer Geek Wedding stood out for me above others.  They were already out of Blackberry Albert.  These guys are the Surly of Belgium! 

Seriously… look at all those beers!

6) The beers of Brasserie de Cazeau were so well balanced and perfect that they really stood out to me.  Tourney Noire was a beautiful Belgian Stout, and the elderflower saison was remarkable.

7) They charge 1.50 Euro to use the bathrooms!  At a beer festival!  Since men are by nature, cheap, this resulted in a horde of drunken dudes urinating all over outside the building.  While waiting for the bus home later I counted no less than 5 guys urinating in one large hedge at once.

8) I got a chance to try the Kriekenlambic (unblended but fruited lambic) from Girardin that had been snaked away from me at the Night of Great Thirst.  Not bad, but not sour enough!

9) Some brewers were absent--I didn't see Kerkom, and some of the lambic producers were not there.

10) Watching the complete emptiness and lack of a line at the In-bev booth was somewhat rewarding in a schadenfreude sort of way.

11) Hof Ten Dormaal was a surprise gem.  They had a peated whiskey barrel aged blonde ale that was extreme!  That one left behind smoke and tartness for ages...luckily this was one of the last beers I had in the evening!

All of our group did eventually make it to the festival, but we ended up leaving long before the end, mainly because our group had not had dinner yet!  Overall the festival was quite fun, especially once we figured out how everything worked.  I was sad that we were not able to stay another day for the Sunday session and try all the beers we missed the first day! 

After we arrived at our hotel, we were in desperate need of food to soak up all that fine Belgian beer.  We walked to Domus, a large brewpub specializing in creating mainly lager beers.   The place had several levels and like the Tardis, seemed bigger on the inside!  They had a very huge food menu, including a three course beer pairing menu made specially for the Zythos festival goers.  This was our final group event and all of the group made it to the dinner--some of us barely made it there in time due to missing the shuttle back to the hotel.  We ended up on the upper level, and poor Arthur had been there for quite a while already.  At least he had a head start on the beers!  I ordered the tasting menu--of course!  The food was excellent and the beers were surprisingly well made.  I would recommend this place wholeheartedly.  With some hugging and final tour toasts, we ended this fine evening and our official Beertrip was finished. 

The next day Chris, Hassan, Sj and I all travelled back home, but not before a couple of Belgian ales in the airport in a farewell toast to that amazing land of beer!

Thanks Mike Saxton for running a great tour and showing us all a wonderful mix of things on this trip.  For those who enjoyed these write-ups, the reality of doing these things is far, far more impressive!  Please check out for details of Mike's other trips--he does trips to Germany, Czech Republic, even Spain and Italy! 

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