Sunday, May 31, 2015

St. Bernardus--the highlight of Watou, Belgium

    A few miles down country lanes from Westvletrren takes you to the village of Watou, practically on the border with France, pop. about 2,000.  The brewery of St. Bernardus, another mile south of the village, amid Flemish fields green in May, hums with activity.
The brewery was built in 1946, just after WW II had leveled much of Belgium, and has been expanded in recent years to a 100-hectoliter (close to 90-barrel) batch capacity.  The monks of St. Sixtus abbey in Westvleteren outsourced their brewing to St. Bernardus for a period of years, but when the popularity of their trappist styles really took off, resumed brewing as a monkish endeavor in 1992.  Still, the sense that St. Bernardus Abt 12 is a quadrupel a lot like the legendary Westvleteren 12 is hard to put out of mind.  Plus, you can get the St.B ales readily: I bought a bottle at Elizabeth Station in Bellingham shortly before I left.

The brewery had no tour the day we stopped in Watou, but it had something most breweries don't: a fine and comfortable little bed and breakfast right on the grounds.  In this picture, some of the 14  fermenters loom over the beautifully groomed courtyard of the inn. The grounds include a clay tennis court, koi ponds, a few pieces of sculpture, and inside, a refrigerator stocked with all the beers bottled here, which the guests pay for on an honor system, putting a euro or two in for each bottle they pop after supper at some cafe in the village.  Breakfast the morning after was great, too, the hostess, Jackie, will make you an omelette on request.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (Visited 05/27-28/15)

Friday, May 29, 2015

The legendary Westvleteren Trappist abbey

 Best beer in the world?  It's very fine, but the highest elevations (is Everest higher than K2) require more sensitive instruments than my taste buds and nose.  I drove our rented Citroen out there Wednesday (May 27), blowing a half hour going back and forth from the village of Westvleteren looking for signs to the abbey.
Must have been coming from the wrong direction.  When I finally found the monks' retail side, expecting some dusty little cafe at the end of the one lane road, there it sat: a modern building, probably seats 300 if the weather is good for the outdoor tables, a big parking lot with several tour buses and a hundred cars.  When a fair number of the sippers left the cafe to get on the bus, it sounded to me they were speaking German (Dutch and Flemish are close).
A sign near the entrance advised that the monks of St. Sixtus were not selling any beer in bottles to go this day.  They bottle all their production and the servers behind the bar were busy popping the caps off bottles of WestV 8 and 12.  I had bought a bottle of 12 in Bruges for 12 euros and I guess that's the one I'll bring back to Bellingham.  I may put it up for auction in some fundraiser, but gosh I had to taste a bit of this best-in-the-world ale.  So I got in line and had a glass here.  Oh, yum!

At 10.5% abv, I suppose this dark malty brew is more like a quadrupel than a dubbel.  It has a nice aroma--but I have sniffed more intense and complex aromas--the lambic-laced Henrik Strasse in Bruges most recently, and I would say Fremont and Wander have created some fine aromas with bourbon barrels in Washington lately.  Front-of-tongue is certainly great, a number of spices so it's hard to single one out, coriander of course.  And the mouthfeel has a good linger time.
  Well, I went to the shrine and I felt rewarded but not sanctified.

(Visited 05-27-15)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Halve Maan Brouwerij, Bruges: great tour, fine beer

     If there is a heaven for virtuous beer lovers, I would imagine it looking much like Bruges in Belgium's Flanders region.  Cobblestone streets crossing a network of canals, quaint old buildings; pure eye candy. Candy?  Half the stores are selling chocolates, Belgian chocolates, the other major food group this country does better than any other.  The rest of the stores sell beer, dubbels, trippels, lambics, geuzes, blonde ales, the styles invented here and now madly popular everywhere.
     In the heart of the city the Halve Maan (Half Moon in Flemish) brewery is making great beer in the same spot since 1856, through six generations of the Maes family.
 They have shoehorned a modern production plant (stainless steel vessels looking to be in the hundred-barrel capacity range ) into the old building, but the new bottling plant had to be built on the outskirts of the city, about two miles away.  Halve Maan is digging under the ancient streets and canals of the city to lay a pipeline from the fermenters to the bottling works; they claim it will be the world's longest pipeline devoted to beer.

The most popular beer made here is Brugges Zot, zot being a fool or jester (story going back to something some emperor said about the city being full of fools); it's a fruity blonde ale in the 5.7% abv range.  Another winner is their Henrik Strasse, brewed both by conventional fermentation and with wild brett yeasts.

The English language tour was led by Maggie from Juneau.  She

seems happy working here in beer heaven--but she did ask if I might have brought a bottle of Alaskan Smoked Porter across the pond in my luggage! Here she is demonstrating the levels of roasting applied to the barley.
    After a quick tour of the modern equipment, the visitor is led through the old brewing setup.  Wort was cooled up on the roof in big copper tubs.  The fermenting tanks were in a horizontal alignment, each with a hatch big enough to admit a (skinny) worker to get in and clean the tanks.  A second worker stood outside to watch the cleaner, pulling him out if he passed out from CO2 or beer.
   The tour includes a glass of Zot in the elegant, canal-level dining room; I had to linger over the soup and bread with a second glass, this of the wild-yeast Henrik Strasse.  Magnificent aroma and taste!
(Visited 05-26-15)

First stop in Belgium: Lamborelle in Bastogne

   We entered Belgium from Luxembourg, driving a Citroen rented in Nancy, France, and soon took a side road to Bastogne, site of the turning point in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.  The 10th Armored Division and 101st Airborne dug in and stopped the German counter-attack here; General McAuliffe responding to a surrender demand with one word, "Nuts."  A corporal from Illinois in the 101st went to find water for wounded buddies; finding beer instead, he carried that life-sustaining liquid back in his steel helmet.  To this day, Brasserie Lamborelle in Bastogne brews a brown ale, 7.5% abv, labelling it Airborne and serving it in a miniature helmet.
Can't wait to get back and order a pint at #wingmanbrewers in Tacoma and ask em to put it in this "steel pot."
(Visited May 23, 2015)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

From Kennewick back to Bellingham

     At the Untapped Blues and Brews Festival in Kennewick May 9, always a great time for rockin' blues bands, often with national reputation, smoky barbecue, and breweries of southeast Wash that we don't get to taste a lot, over on the wet side.  Chatted with Mike Sutherland of White Bluffs Brewing in Richland about his focus on the French farmhouse styles, Biere de Garde,Biere de Mars--mars being the month of March in france), Rocky Coulee from Odessa, promoting their fine Deutschefest in September, Bale Breaker and Yakima Craft from Yakima, the two Prosser breweries (Whitstran and Horse Heaven) upholding the worship of Ninkasi and Gambrinius in the temple of Bacchus, Ice Harbor from right there in Kennewick and Laht Neppur from Waitsburg. Richalnd is now up to five or six craft breweries, Atomic the most senior and Paper Street being the newest.
     On the way home the next day, I came via Wenatchee and stopped for lunch in Cashmere, at Milepost 111.  They have acquired some bigger brewing equipment since my last stop, a couple of fermenters
(3 bbl?) showing through the back bar glass, and a couple of their own brews on tap along with 20-odd well curated guest taps.  Then a brief stop in Leavenworth, for a passport stamp at Icicle and a look at how the town does "Mutters Tag" (Mother's Day) Bavarian style.  Over Stevens Pass and down the other side where I noted the sign for a new craft brewery in Index, but saved it for a future stop.  I did want to pause once more, in Monroe, where Adam's NW Bistro has now restored the old name of Twin Rivers Brewing to its beer-making side.  Chatted with brewer Dan over a pint of his good malty brown ale; he showed me a pair of barrels which had held bourbon once and then rum twice. I learned that spirits law limits whiskey makers to a single use of a barrel, but after that the barrel may be used for other spirits. This stout should be ready in December; I'm posting a reminder to myself.
#White Bluffs Brewing #Rocky Coulee Brewing #Milepost 111#Twin Rivers Brewing
(Visits 05/09-10-15)