Beer and Mood #1

Every once in a while I feel like writing something a bit different. I could hop on the beer trend bandwagon and do pieces on beer and food pairings, but I find all that a bit ridiculous. Not the beer with food, that’s just logical to me, but everyone seems to be making this a “new” idea. Plus I kind of throw some of that into my cooking posts anyways. How about Beer and Mood pairings? A look at enjoying beer and matching it with a mood, atmosphere, event, music or whatever floats my boat. This will not be a regularly scheduled series of posts, I will just write something up whenever the mood strikes me (read that as probably not too often).

Beer and Mood # 1 – The secret delicacy
“So what is your favorite beer?” It’s the dreaded question for most beery types. Many have some lame answer along the lines of “the next beer,” or “I haven’t tried them all yet,” or even worse they go off on a diatribe about beer styles. I don’t really mess around anymore. I throw out a couple commercial beers and a homebrew. One beer that always gets mentioned is Oerbier Reserva from De Dolle Brouwers. Despite my favoritism for lower ABV beers, this 13%ABV brew always tickles me in places I probably shouldn’t admit.

Oerbier Reserva is a complex dark sour ale. Each vintage has its own variation on a theme of utter brilliance. I am always surprised with the all around balance, layered tart and funk, and the way it dances around my mouth doing back-flips off my tongue. Dark fruit compote tainted with rich balsamic vinegar, infused with a hearty bordeaux, prodded by autumn spice, poked with tannins, and at times sprinkled with cocoa. That only begins to describe some of the aromas and flavors you have the privilege of discovering when drinking this beer. More simply put, it’s a damn fine glass of beer.

Oerbier Reserva vertical @ De Kulminator

Normally, big beers like to strut their stuff in front of a group of beer snobs, while they talk at length about its many facets and compare the various vintages. While I have definitely enjoyed a vertical tasting or two of this beer with like minded nerds, this is not the best way to enjoy it.

Mrs. Smokey has a day job that involves thinking and all that smart stuff that I don’t have to worry about. Due to this daily brain-drain she tends to watch the more mindless programs on TV in the evening. The kind that normally make me fearful for the future of mankind… I’m talking to you Kardashians! While I detest these shows, it is at this time when I find my own bit of beervana. After making sure Mrs, Smokey has her cola I sit down in the corner of the couch and begin to pour the beer. Already the world starts to get a little foggy. As I lean back and put one arm around my wife and stick my nose in the glass, the world completely falls away. The only things left are the beer, my tastebuds, my wife and an occasional glimpse of the TV. At this point I can actually appreciate the hilarity of the intellectually challanged rich celebrity on TV (normally they just make me angry). It’s a bit of a secret moment. Since Mrs. Smokey doesn’t drink beer I feel no need to share or talk about the beer. Its all mine. No beer geekery to get in the way or take away from my moment of pure enjoyment. Brain-off, beer in. The flavors intermingle with the comfort of the couch and the warmth of Mrs. Smokey while the lighter side of life floats on by. One of the beer world’s greatest achievements paired with the worst that pop culture can throw at you. A real double rainbow moment in my head.

rant: hit with the ugly brick

The monks at the Sint-Sixtus abbey have been well know for brewing up some top-notch beers. Look at any beer ranking site and Westvleteren 12 is sure to be close to the top. It is also one of the facts that every Belgian likes to spout at Americans who start talking about beer. That statement is then usually followed by something like, “much better than your Bud, eh?” Of course that proud Belgian has probably never tasted Westvleteren (or Budweiser) and if it’s not available at the corner store for next to nothing, he/she will never taste it. Of course there are people here who do care about good beer so I don’t let me paint too grim of a picture.

Back to the cheap and wide availability of beer. About a year ago it was announced that the monks had struck a deal with Belgian low-cost-leading grocery store chain Colruyt to sell a limited release gift pack of Westvleteren beer. This was to bring in some much needed funds to renovate the deteriorating buildings of the abbey. Seeing that Colruyt is a client of the product design firm where I work, my boss decided that I, being the beer guy and all, should throw together a quick concept for the gift box. A few hours later we sent our vision of how it could be done to Colruyt. Eventually they got back to us saying that they really liked the concept but said that the packaging had already been settled upon long ago. Oh well, it was worth the try.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago: As I was reading through my daily feeds I came across a post on Danny’s site saying that a date had been set for the Westvleteren/Colruyt release. I clicked on through to read the details when all of a sudden my beer-loving mind was smashed against a cliche covered brick. Photos of the gift packaging had been released. It wasn’t a pretty sight. (and I’m not the only one who thinks so)

Someone must have thought “hmm beer, monks, and rebuilding. I’ve got it! Lets create the most uninspiring drivel we can think of and make this special fundraiser with one worlds most sought after beers into nothing more than a cliche. Brilliant!*” WTF! There was no thought put into this box. In this case, I know the beer will sell itself, but now it just seems like a silly marketing stunt rather than a worthwhile fundraiser for the abbey. Ok, sure, the idea behind the box is a brick and by buying “bricks” you are helping to rebuild the abbey. Really? That’s the best you could come up with? And the over-used ye olde font and gothic arches? Oh right, they are monks and monks are religious and religion is old. Have you seen the plans for the new buildings? They are modern and sober and there are no effing gothic arches!

In my not so humble opinion they really should have put some more thought into it and designed a package which links to what they are doing, sans cliché. I am not saying that my design (below) is the end all be all of monk-made-beer packaging, but it’s certainly no brick with gothic arches.

(if you want to see the PDF presentation we put together for Colruyt then click here)

Obviously I am biased, but sometimes I look at the state of Belgian Beer labels and graphics and just get pissed off at the level of creativity and care. I guess brewers here just take the nonchalant path and say that it is the beer in the bottle that counts and not the look of the label. True, in an ideal world that’s right, but here on planet Earth we can’t taste the beer through the packaging while we are at the store. The label is all we have to go by. If you see a beer with a beautiful label next to one with a crappy photo and some comic sans text, then you know which beer will be selling fastest (in this case I know the Westies will have no problem selling, but that doesn’t excuse the other 500 belgian beers with sh**ty labels). I also think it gives an impression of how the brewery works. If they care enough to put some time, effort and thought into a nice label then they probably don’t cut corners on the beer behind the label either. Of all countries, Belgium has the most exceptions to this rule. So many good beers get overlooked because their packaging looks like a 10 year old designed it.

Keep up the good work you wonderful Belgian beer label designers*

*read with a shot of sarcasm

the more the merrier – part 1 (smoke)

Friday July 2nd was a busy day for the Smoking Bottle. Picobrouwerij Alvinne was having their first (hopefully annual) Nocturnal Brew Session. 30+ friends were invited to join them while they brew a special night brew, opened up a collection of beer from around the world  and served some tasty BBQ. The reason it was so busy for me is because I was asked to provide the beer based BBQ (and more, but thats for Part 2).

the production line and some chips, salsa and guacamole

The prep/cooking started at 10am up in De Proefzolder (The Tasting Attic). An attic is usually not the best place to be on a very hot day, however we pushed on and proceeded to slice, dice, bake, marinate, mix and clean up before guests started arriving at 6pm. Once they did they found themselves greeted by cold beer and tortilla chips with freshly made Salsa and Guacamole. The salsa was very nice and had a touch of Alvinne Tripel thrown in for an extra twist. The Guacamole was also a hit. I’ve been on a mission lately to show the Belgian folk what guacamole is supposed to look and taste like. The jars of radioactive goo that people buy here is a disgrace. It doesn’t even taste like guacamole. The fresh stuff was almost a revelation for some people.

the "outdoor kitchen" and ribs in the smoker

Next we threw Alvinno and olive oil marinated shrimp onto the grill. The tasty shrimp were able to tide people over until the ribs were ready. Almost as fast as I could get the 15 racks of ribs out of the WSM they disappeared. I barley had a taste of them. To be honest I wasn’t all that happy with them but everyone else seemed to like them quite a bit. I think they needed just a little more time on the smoker and less sugar in the rub.

Abracadavre steaming up the attic and pork smoking up outside

After a great performance by brewery friends Abracadavre it was time to for the main course, smoked pork loins. This is basically my go-to grilling recipe but done on the smoker. After being marinated and then smoked for an hour and a quarter (until 66-67C internal temp) with a combination of Cherry and Pecan wood, the pork was served with a honey-mustard-beer-cream sauce, good old Coleslaw, Cornbread, potatoes, and a melon salad with mint and feta. It all turned out really nice. I heard someone say “I didn’t know barbecue could be so good.” Mission accomplished.

Glenn whipping up some Sabayon and Moink balls doing their thing

To finish all that meat off, Glenn made his world famous Sabayon with De Struise Brouwers Mocha Bomb. Sabayon is one of my absolute favorite deserts and the Mocha Bomb suits it so wonderfully. Excellent stuff! But thats not the end. To further feed our caveman like urge for meat and fire we threw together an interesting “Belgianized” version of Moink balls as a late snack. I think that was around 2am… or was it 3am?

I am certainly not used to cooking for large groups, and I tend to over analyze everything, but at the end of the day it was an enjoyable cooking session with great people. If only my wife and baby girl would have been there then It would have been perfect. Fire-cooked food, great beer and good people… what else do you need?

click on the photos above to see more.

Sorry that this was just a bit of a run down of events, but I will post all the recipes soon. I don’t want to have a 3000 word post… no one wants to read that. I sure ain’t no good writer.

Toer de Geuze 2009

barrels TDG2009Sunday was the Toer de Geuze. a wonderful event that I have missed every year since I moved to Belgium. I had planned on joining one of the official tour busses but due to my laziness I was too late. All available seats on the buses I preferred were taken (each bus had a different route). Another year without being able to enjoy this event. Or so I thought. As I mentioned on here before, “Beery people are good people” Don S (from the Babblebelt and Celebrator Beer news) and his wife offered to let me join them in their rental car. Great people! While the buses are nice, I think that this may be the way to go. We were able to see more breweries and do them as quickly or as slowly as we wanted. My day started at 6am so I could hop on the train and try to get to Lembeek just before 10am. There I met my two fellow travelers for the day. From the station in Lembeek you could literally fall into Brouwerij Boon. You know its going to be a good day when you start your first brewery tour at 10am! I won’t go into a ton of detail about each brewery, I’ll let the badly taken photos do that, all I need to say is that all these breweries have something great to offer. Us beergeeks sometimes passover some of these breweries because of some of the products they put out. While those products may be lack lustre, the breweries can also make a pretty mean jonge lambic and oude geuze. After Boon we headed up to Hanssens. Then to 3 Fonteinen, Oud Beersel, Lindemans, De Troch and finally Mort Subite. The day ended with a quick Girardin jonge lambic at De Koekoek before being dropped off at the train station in Ternat. It was a quite fantastic day full of tasty surprises! I really can’t complain about any of the beer I had. Of course I only stuck to the traditional products. It was also nice because this event reminded me that there are great events like this that do put better beer into the eyes of the Belgian public. So its not all doom and gloom like in my rant “Beer in the gutter” … but its still partly true 😉

oh, and by the way, the Mega Blend that all the participating breweries helped in creating… really awesome!

click on the photo to see more.

Beer in the gutter

gutter_geuzeAlright, I may as well start my ranting: Belgium is a fantastic place for beer. Beer tourists come in the thousands every year to discover the darkest corners of this country. After touring Belgium for a few days and visiting many watering holes that they find in Mr Webb’s book, they leave with this image of a deep rooted beer culture in Belgium, where every local is proud of their small local brewery and serves wonderfully inventive beers with each meal. Celebrations with these beery folk must be something really special!

Well, no. Beer has an very bad reputation with Belgians. They will tell you that Belgium produces the best beer in the world and has many breweries… as they sip on their Juplier, Maes, or Stella. And forget about serving beer with food, “don’t ruin the meal by serving beer! Are you crazy?” Instead a cheap bottle of wine comes out. To most people here, beer is nothing more than a “pintje,” a mass produced lager that is best suited to be served cold, and drunk quickly for fear that you may actually taste it. All those other beers that have color and aroma… those are what their forefathers had to put up with, but now they can afford to import wine, so who needs beer!

Have no fear, the many beer organizations and festivals will come to the rescue! There have been quite a few events in the recent past that have been praised for their helping hand when it comes to getting Belgium’s lesser known breweries into the public eye. Events like the “Internationale Streekbierenfestival” . According to their website they are a small group of beer lovers who wanted to start up an event to promote smaller breweries (both national and international). Huzzah! Lets celebrate! Break open the bottles of bee…. bubbly? Looking through all the press photos and reports on their own site and other blogs it is hard to find a beer. Lots of wine and champagne though. I mean afterall.. they are celebrating the award of the Golden Glass at the Regional Beer Festival so naturally bubbly is in order! The categories for the awards at this event are classic (excuse the literal translations): Best Thirst-quencher, Best Sweet Holder, Best Cautious Sipping Beer, and Best Pronounced Sipping Beer. Huh? The winners were beers like Cuvee de Trolls and Timmermans Kriek. Hmmm, I can go to any supermarket in Belgium and pick those up, and the Timmermans is one of the poorest examples of a lambic possible.  And where is the “International” part by the way? I guess, breweries that are owned by bigger international giants?

Lets look at what else is going on. Ah, here we go. A government sponsored group “Tafelen in Vlaanderen” has their Vlaanderen Lekker Land campaign. The theme for 2009 is “Leven in de Brouwerij” (life in the brewery). They kicked off their campaign recently with a press event. In attendance was a handful of government ministers, brewers, cooks and others. Lets see what was served. Timmermans again!?, this time Timmermans Strawberry. ..And Mystic? They also served Tongerlo, Kaizer Karel and Duvel (Mystic, Tongerlo and Kaizer Karel are all from Haacht who brings us wonderful treats like the grocery store brand 365 pils for Delhaize supermarkets, and who also likes to market many of their beers under 3 or 4 different names). This is what happens when people are actually trying to make a point about how good Belgiums small breweries are? Does this actually help or hurt small breweries?

Now, there are holes in my arguments, but this is a rant.. just let me get it out. Belgium produces a hell of a lot of quality beers, but if it wasn’t for export there would be fewer breweries left here. Belgians are more concerned about being chic and refined than actually embracing something traditionally Belgian… something that has been brewed down the street by skilled and passionate artisans. Artisans who will be going bankrupt soon. Beer has a real strong history here, and it is sad to see it poured into the gutter in favor of boxed wine and Cava. I know there are a lot of passionate beery folk around the country, but we are completely outnumbered, unheard, and laughed at for our silly remarks. I enjoy good wine too and can really appreciate a fine margaux, but come on people, give your real beer a chance!

Please support your small local brewery.