Category Archives: beer & travel

Dates Announced for the Pocket Beer Guide 2015 October Tour!

Cover North AmericaThe new edition of my and Tim Webb’s Pocket Beer Guide, officially titled Pocket Beer Guide 2015, is out next month, and as per my recent habit, I’ll be taking to the road to do a bit of promotion. Here’s the schedule:

September 30, Seattle, WA: I’ll be signing books and sipping rare beers at the new Toronado Seattle, 1205 NE 65th Street (at the corner of 12th Ave), all night long. Drop by to say hi, share a beer and maybe even buy a book! (NOTE added 9/29: Unfortunately, books will not be available in time for this event. If you want to come out and chat beer for a while, though, I’ll still be drinking at the Toronado. Look for me or ask the bartender!)

October 1, Denver, CO: In my first ever appearance at a cabaret venue (!), I’ll be onstage with Charlie Papazian, Green Flash’s Chuck Silva, our host Marty Jones, plus several bands and burlesque dancers at Marty Jones Brew Night Show. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure what will be happening, but I’ve known Marty for a number of years so I’m sure it’s going to be fun, and there will be great beer, too.

October 2 – 4, Denver, CO: I’ll be signing copies of the new book plus a few older ones in the Bookstore at the Great American Beer Festival. Check here for times.

October 5, Nashville, TN: I’ll be hosting a very special, 5-course beer dinner at the Nashville location of the Flying Saucer. At a mere $45, and with the beers and food we’ve got planned, it’s a bargain and a half!

October 6, Austin, TX: Another Flying Saucer appearance sees me in charge of what they’re calling a “Brewer’s Summit,” featuring Real Ale, Jester King, Austin Beerworks, Thirsty Planet and Karbauch. Taste beer, eat food, listen to me talk about the beers the brewers bring, and hear them tell me why I’m wrong. What’s not to like?

October 7, Garland, TX: The Flying Saucer again, and another “Brewer’s Summit,” this time with Rahr & Sons, Real Ale, Sierra Nevada and Founders Brewing. Worth it just for the opportunity to sample great beers in an idyllic setting on Lake Ray Hubbard.

October 8, Addison, TX: I admit to being a little nervous about hosting a beer dinner in what the Addison Flying Saucer people call the “Pub of Love,” but the menu and beers look great and I’m assured that the setting will be cozy and, dare I say it?, intimate.

October 9, Fort Worth, TX: This is going to be a fun one! Taking a break from the tour’s all-beer theme, I’ll be hosting a beer, wine and spirits dinner in the Bird Café, located where the original Fort Worth Saucer used to be, collaborating once again with ex-Meddlesome Moth chef David McMillan. The menu looks spectacular!

October 10, Fort Worth, TX: Another Flying Saucer and another “Brewer’s Summit,” this time with Rahr & Sons, Community Brewing, Lakewood Brewing, Revolver Brewing and Martin House Brewing. Keith Schlabs, the head beer wrangler for the Flying Saucer group, assures me that all the brewers have promised to bring their “crown jewels,” so this should be a tasting for the books!

October 11, Fort Worth, TX: I’ll be taking things a bit easy on the last day of my tour, if you can call attending the Flying Saucer’s 9th Annual BeerFeast “taking it easy.” I’ll have books available for signing and look forward to some casual chatting about beer.

Sometime in October: Once I’m back in Toronto and sufficiently recovered, I’ll be hosting a book launch event in the city’s downtown. Stay tuned for date and details.

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It’s NOT “Belgian” or Even “Belgian-Style”

Hey, you! Over there, the brewer or beer sommelier or certified cicerone or just plain beer drinker. You know that beer you’re brewing/serving/drinking, the one produced in the USA but fermented with a yeast which, many years ago, had its origins in Belgium. There is something you need to know about it, so pay very close attention.

It is NOT Belgian.

Belgian beer is NOT beer fermented with Wyeast #1214 or White Labs WLP550. It is NOT beer affected by Brettanomyces or any odd variety of yeast or bacteria. It is NOT wheat beer spiced with coriander and orange peel. And it is NOT beer fermented with cherries or dosed with cherry juice.

Belgian beer is beer that is brewed and fermented in Belgium. Period.

Okay, so there’s that dealt with, now let’s move on to “Belgian-style.” There IS one sort of beer that may be properly termed “Belgian-style” and that is a wheat beer brewed with a significant portion of unmalted wheat and flavoured with coriander and orange peel. You may also call it a wit or a white beer or a bière blanche, if you wish. But if you’re going to use “Belgian-style” please be sure to include the “style” part – see above – and follow it with “wheat beer.”

As for all other beers brewed and fermented outside of Belgium, regardless of what they contain or how they have been fermented or conditioned, they are NOT “Belgian-style.” They may be “abbey-style” or “Belgian-inspired” but not “Belgian-style.” Here’s why.

Although a small country of 11 or so million people, Belgium is nothing if not a diverse brewing nation. It has been said, and not without some accuracy, that Belgian beers have no style, since each brewer crafts their brands in their own particular style or styles. If you really tried to sort it through, as my colleague Tim Webb does in his Good Beer Guide to Belgium, you can probably whittle it down to 30 or 35 very broadly defined sorts of ale and lager – with very few of the latter – but none of those can or should be solely defined as being of “Belgian-style.”

“Belgian,” as I recently noted on Facebook, is not so much a style as it is a huge mix of idiosyncratic brewing philosophies. (Sorry to quote myself, but I really like that line.) To describe a beer not brewed in Belgium as “Belgian” or “Belgian-style” is to do a great disservice to the country’s long brewing traditions and current diversity, not to mention the beer, the brewer and the drinker, the last because it necessitates an assumption that said individual is geographically ignorant.

So, to recap, Belgian beer is beer brewed in Belgium, and “Belgian-style” is a largely meaningless and belittling adjective. Now, get back to your beer.

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Three Quaffers from Wisconsin

When I think of Wisconsin, I think of cheese and beer. I like cheese and beer, which is probably why I spent last week in Wisconsin.

The cheese was varied and for the most part lovely — especially the super-secret truffled buratta from BelGioioso! — as was the beer. The difference is that I’m here to tell you about beer, not cheese.

One I found quite enjoyably gulpable was Wisco Disco from Stillmank Beer, presently brewed under contract in Milwaukee but soon to be a Green Bay native son. Rich gold in colour, this ale might have been called a pale ale in the early 1990s, as opposed to simply a “Wisconsin ale” today, with a biscuity, off-dry aroma and a flavour that begins slightly malty-sweet but gradually turns leafy, tannic and ever so slightly citrusy in its hoppiness. The finish is bone dry and mildly bitter, making this a solid ale that is properly packaged in pint cans for simple enjoyment.

Also building a new brewery is Green Bay’s Titletown Brewing, and when they finish it I hope that they will brew some more of their Randy’s Pale Ale, a tribute beer to a now-departed local homebrewer that would do any brewer proud. The nose has a light but complex fruitiness while the body is wonderfully balanced with apricot and berry fruit, biscuity malt and a long, dry and thoroughly quenching finish. This is a pale ale for pure enjoyment.

And finally, on my return home I found a pair of bottles of Yokel, a straight-from-the-conditioning-tank lager from New Glarus that with one sniff sent me to a Munich biergarten. Floral, lightly sweet, softly yeasty and fresh as a spring lawn, this might err a bit too strongly on the grainy side for some, but with its gently sweet body that segues from notes of fresh hay and light caramel to a dry finish that sucks in your gums and cheeks ever so slightly, I think this is a beauty that lives up well to its “every guy” image.

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Looking for the El Bulli of Spanish Beer

There are a multitude of excuses one can use to justify a trip to Spain: tapas, incredible landscapes, Spanish cider (sidra), the Costa de Sol, Gaudí, jamón in all its many forms, flamenco.

What you don’t use as the basis for an Iberian excursion is beer. Which, I suppose, is precisely why I did so.

In the years since Tim Webb and I signed a contract to produce The World Atlas of Beer, and especially since we decided to follow that with The Pocket Beer Guide, I have become borderline obsessed with countries boasting nascent and developing craft beer cultures. First for me was Italy, an interest which I must admit predated the Atlas by a few years, but was kicked into overdrive by my research for the book. Then arrived Brazil, a nation known by few North American beer aficionados, but which is making astonishingly rapid improvements in both quantity and quality of craft beer. Then Argentina, Singapore, France, Poland.

And Spain. So when we decided to make The Pocket Beer Guide into an annual publication and our intrepid Anglo-Spanish-Czech correspondent Max Bahnson wasn’t available to get the inside scoop on Iberia, as he did for the first edition, I volunteered to do the research myself. After all, I was going to be in Belgium anyway, and since Madrid is but a mere 1,000 or so miles from Brussels, by the deeply twisted logic of the chronic beer obsessive, it really did make a lot of sense.

My research started with the good folk at Iberian Beer United, importers of numerous Spanish breweries, and the operator of the Twitter account for the Barcelona Beer Festival, who later revealed himself to be Mikel Rius, one of the young fest’s founders. As often happens in beer circles, they led me to others, who in turn led me to still others, and before long my week divided between Madrid and Barcelona was promising to be a whirlwind of tasting and discovery.

My only hopeFabrica Maravillas was that at least some of the beers I’d be sampling would stand up to serious critique.

Arriving in the Spanish capital on a Sunday evening, I was faced with both great hunger and the realization that most of Madrid’s beer joints are closed on Sundays. Except, that is, for a brewpub called Fábrica Maravillas, shoehorned into a modest storefront in a district just north of the city center. And so off I went. (Continue reading at The Celebrator online…)

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Repeat After Me: There Is No Such Thing as a “Best Beer City”

Oy!

Just two days — TWO DAYS! — after I responded to a Facebook post about yet another list of supposed “Best Beer Cities,” and sagely decide not to follow further the fruitless path of argument, I come across still another such list. It’s orchestrated in a different, although by no means unique, fashion, but is as flawed as the other and all the rest for one simple reason.

There is no such thing as a frigging “Best Beer City!” Or Cities! Period. End of story.

Look, I enjoy a good list as much as the next guy, and I’m not exactly the kind of person who back down happily from a robust debate, but there are simply too many factors at play to ever resolve the issue of best beer city. In the mind of the drinks guy over at the Seattle P-I, whom I will neither name nor link to for reasons related to past conversations, brewery count would seem to be the defining factor. For Magnolia’s Dave McLean, it’s history, longevity and food and drink culture. For Jeff Alworth, the deciding factor is craft beer in dive bars. And for me, well, I like a great beer bar over a great brewery and think that the ability to get a diversity of local, regional, national and international beers is key, as is the opportunity to enjoy a really good meal with a glass of really good beer.

But that doesn’t mean I know what city is best any more than it means Jeff or Dave or P-I guy does, mainly because, like the beer I drink, where I like to drink it changes with the circumstance! Put me on the west coast and I might be happy as Larry in Seattle or Portland or San Francisco, and in awe of the beer scenes in each city. Pick me up and plant me in Denver or New York City or Philadelphia and I’ll be equally delighted there. Teleport me to Montreal and you’ll soon find me at Dieu du Ciel or Cheval Blanc or Au Pied du Cochon, most likely with a wide grin on my face.

Let me put it another way. The northern German city of Köln, or Cologne, is known for a single style of beer, one which most people find rather unremarkable. It has not — to my experience, at least — fine dining restaurants where you can sample excellent beer with your meal, and neither has it a plethora of good beer bars. Yet thanks to its general pedestrian friendliness, fabulous old city district, exceptional culture and, dammit, the superb quality of some of those kölsches that others sweep aside as ordinary “lawnmower beers,” it is one of my favourite places in Germany, Europe and the world in which to drink beer.

And please note, that was “favourite,” not “best.”

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A Look Back: Visiting Achouffe in 2002

 The following column was written in November of 2002 for the Celebrator, following a visit to the Brasserie d’Achouffe in the Ardennes region of Belgium. Since then, of course, many changes have occurred, including the brewery’s purchase by Duvel Moortgat and the rise of the hoppy Houblon Chouffe as a major brand. Despite or perhaps because of this, however, I enjoyed this trip down memory lane so much that I wanted to share it with you all.  

In 1987, I took a job at a now-defunct Toronto pub managed by a couple who had just arrived fresh from Belgium. Nobody in the city knew much about Belgian beers back then, and of all the experiences I had working at that pub, by far the most positive was my introduction to Belgian ales like Duvel, Chimay and Hoegaarden, the last hand-carried back for me from the brewery itself.

Prior to this experience, my range of experience in beer had been pretty much confined to a few trips to the west coast of the U.S. and the limited offerings of the Ontario marketplace: early craft brews, a handful of German and British imports, and of course, the all-too-homogeneous offerings of what were then the Big Three breweries of Canada — Labatt, Molson and Carling O’Keefe. (Molson and Carling eventually merged to make the Big Three into the Big Two.) The exposure to the first trickles of Belgian beer arriving on these shores opened my eyes to the full flavour potential beer had to offer.

Our productsAbout a year later, already entranced by these new tastes, I discovered another Belgian ale. This one came from a tiny, five-year-old brewery in the Ardennes, Belgium’s densely forested southeast, and sported an easily identifiable label featuring a curious gnome. It was called La Chouffe.

Legend now has it that both the gnome on the bottle of La Chouffe and his ‘Scottish cousin’ who graces the brewery’s other primary brand, McChouffe, are ‘chouffes,’ a type of local forest elf. The truth, however, is that the chouffe idea sprang from the fertile imagination of Christian Bauweraerts, co-founder of the brewery and the affable face of the Brasserie d’Achouffe.

Both the brewery and the beer are actually named after the town of Achouffe, a tiny village near the border of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. And, as I learned during a recent visit, the name truly means, well, nothing.

Like several other Belgian breweries, including its Wallonian neighbour Fantôme and the well-known Flemish brewery De Dolle Brouwers, Achouffe got its start as a hobby of Chris and his brother-in-law, Pierre Gobron. The direction the owners took their hobby, however, was unique and remains today a model for other artisanal breweries in Belgium, especially those plagued by the difficulties of distribution in a market increasingly dominated by the big players. Rather than focus their marketing efforts on domestic sales, the partners elected to look instead internationally. By the time I made acquaintance with the brewery, they were selling between one-quarter and one-third of their entire production in my home province of Québec, where to this day they sell almost double the amount of beer than they do in all of the United States combined.

Of course, those amounts — roughly 600 hectolitres in the U.S. and 1,000 in Quebec, plus another 1,000 brewed under licence in la belle province —  are relatively small compared to the large volumes that Achouffe sells to the Netherlands, where it is far easier to find a draught La Chouffe than it is anywhere else in the world, including Belgium. In fact, Chris told me that those Dutch sales are largely responsible for the brewery selling just over one half of its production in draught form.

In all, Achouffe expects to sell about 18,500 hectolitres of ale this year, roughly three-quarters of which will be the blonde, 8% alcohol, coriander-spiced and curiously refreshing La Chouffe. The stronger (8.5%), darker — made so through the addition of dark sugars rather than dark malts — and rounder McChouffe will make up most of the remainder, with the brewery’s sole seasonal, the concentrated, 10% alcohol and thinnish but intense N’ice Chouffe, accounting for only about 2.5%.

For a regional brewery still unrecognized in many parts of Belgium, and one located in a town so small as to hardly rate a mention on the map, Achouffe’s brewery is large and modern, the result of careful years of controlled expansion. Bottling, kegging and the warm-conditioning vital to bottle-fermented ales are done off-site about six kilometres away, while the pair of on-site brewery buildings are divided into brewing and fermenting facilities. For the visitor, however, the real draw of the brewing side of the operation is the small café built into the back.

While not actually operated by the brewery — they lease the space out to independent operators — the café is without doubt an integral part of the Achouffe experience. To begin with, it may be the only place in Belgium where you can find both La Chouffe and McChouffe on tap. Then there is the beer cuisine offered on the menu, such as the tender though meaty brook trout poached in La Chouffe — only in Belgium would such a dish be offered as an appetizer rather than a main course! — and the wonderfully rich sauce maison which topped my entrecôte de boeuf, made from cream, La Chouffe and a local blue cheese. And finally, it is a place where an air of community dominates, where children run and play and the occasional argument between pet dogs scarcely raises an eyebrow.

After spending but a single evening at the brewery tap, eating my fill and discovering how surprisingly easy to drink an 8% alcohol draught can be, I was left wondering how the inhabitants of a country as impassioned about beer as is Belgium could possibly ignore such a delight within its borders. It must be that they simply don’t know what they’re missing.

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Shifting Sands in the Northeast

Craft beer in North America was born in the west, that much is pretty well documented – Anchor and New Albion in California, Horseshoe Bay and Granville in British Columbia, Yakima Brewing in Washington, etc. It thrived there, too, in the early days as well as still today, but thanks largely to Jim Koch, what we then called microbrews came to national prominence via not the west, but the northeast.

I refer, of course, to the Boston Beer Company, based in and typically associated with its namesake New England city, even if its beers were then, as they still are now, largely brewed outside of Massachusetts. The somber face of Boston Beer’s “Brewer Patriot” Samuel Adams was what introduced most Americans to craft beer, and the expansion of the Boston Lager to state after state after state played a huge role in opening up the national beer market to small, independent beer brands.

It was with this in mind, and after far too long a hiatus, that I returned to the U.S. northeast this past summer. After one hundred-plus beers, about 1,600 miles of driving and a whole lot of thinking, I arrived at the following conclusions and observations:

(Read more at The Celebrator…)

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