Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Mighty Mites 2011

The Mighty Mites small beer festival that was held Saturday at Coalition Brewing was a phenomenal success, at least from the perspective of the festival-goers. There could have been a little more shade, but the beers were fantastic, they didn't give you a hangover, and there were no lines to speak of. I expected a bigger attendance than there was -- hopefully Coalition at least broke even for their effort.

The collection of 18 beers, half of which clocked in at under 4% ABV, was curated by Beervana's Jeff Alworth. Note that 4% ABV is 3.2% ABW -- yes, that 3.2%, the reviled number that is still the limit for grocery store beer sales in several states.  The Mighty Mites beers were a far cry from those blander-than-usual industrial lagers.  I restricted my sampling to the sub-4% brews on the list -- with one exception for the lovely 4.4% Stone Levitation Ale -- and there wasn't a bad one in the lot.  Some favorites:
  • Brewers Union Local 180 Little Sir John Ordinary Bitter: smooth, light roasted malt flavor, pretty hoppy
  • Hair of the Dog Little Dog (Fred and non-smoked Adam) Small Beers: light body but plenty of flavor, and tons of hops
  • Lompoc Brewing Voodoo Mild: perfectly dark and bitter
  • Beetje Brewing The Knoll American Pale Ale: light body, very nice bitterness
  • Block 15 Berliner Weisse: refreshing and tart, but not too tart
As I said, I didn't have a bad beer at the festival, but those stood out for me.  I was mostly doing one-ticket samples, though I did venture back for a full -- well, almost full -- pint of Little Sir John pulled from Ted Sobel's mobile beer engine.  That was some good drinking.

The atmosphere at Mighty Mites contributed to the good time.  Everything was very casual:  no wristbands, bring your own mug or get handed a compostable cup, generous pours, no lines and no silly festival whooping.  There was no entry fee or penalty, just buy as many or as few tickets as you wanted.  Interestingly, many of the pourers were the brewers themselves, as in the photo at the right where you have (from left) Ted from Brewers Union, Alan from Hair of the Dog, Mike from Beetje, and Krister, one of the brewers from soon-to-open SE Portland brewery Base Camp.  There were three people from Base Camp pouring at once during the early afternoon: Justin and Faye joined Krister.  Nice community service, guys.

It's worth talking about the Little Dogs.  As you may already know, they are small beers made from the second runnings of the malt used in Hair of the Dog's giant flagship beers.  Great way to reuse and recycle, and it lets Alan squeeze another dollar out of his malt bill.  They're also very tasty beers, thanks in part to the lavish dose of hops administered to them.  The two on tap at Mighty Mites were Little Fred -- made from a batch of Fred, of course -- and Little Adam, but not the smoky Little Adam that has been served in the past at the HotD tasting room.  Alan explained that his runs of Adam consist of five parts smoked malt to one part dark (not smoked) malt.  The Little Adam at Mighty Mites -- also currently on tap at the tasting room -- is a small beer made with the unsmoked part.  I love the smoked version, but there was also something special about this unsmoked one -- you got more of the beer and hops flavor instead of the smoke gimmick.

There were a few breweries that I was surprised were not represented at the fest.  Hopworks has a wonderful hoppy session ale called Cool Grand that would have fit in perfectly; the Lucky Lab has been known to dabble in the light arts also.  Surely big boys like Deschutes, Widmer, and Laurelwood would also jump at the chance to do something special for a fest like this.  Not that there wasn't enough good beer, but if small is beautiful, the more the merrier.

With all the recent attention on "session beers", it's high time Portland had a festival of this kind.  It's fitting that Jeff had a hand in it: he first evidenced a desire to throw a small beer fest in Portland over two years ago at the bottom of this post.  By that time Lew Bryson had already instigated session beer festivals in Philadelphia in 2007 and 2009.  Of course Lew has been a vocal proponent of lower-alcohol beers for a long time, but it's nice to see that Portland has now jumped on the bandwagon in a serious way.  Kudos to Jeff and Coalition for making Mighty Mites happen, and let's hope it will become an annual event.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Honest Fresh Hops

The hop harvest season is upon us. This is one of my favorite times of the beer year, and it's the reason I started It's Pub Night in 2007.  The last couple of years, Deschutes' fresh-hopped batches of Mirror Pond have been so good that I can't shake the feeling that it is the best beer anyone in history has ever been privileged to taste.  This year they're actually going to bottle it, so people outside our little lupulin bubble are going to get to try it for themselves.

It doesn't stop with Fresh-Hopped Mirror Pond:  there are plenty of excellent fresh-hopped beers made in the Northwest and elsewhere.  Enjoy them while they're fresh!

Every rose has its thorn, however, and the thorn in fresh hop season are those breweries that label their wares as Fresh Hop beers, when 100% of the hops in those beers have been dried.  Sure, they're the first hops of the season.  Sure, most Fresh Hop beers contain some dried hops as well.  But if all the hops in a beer have been dried, don't call it a fresh hop beer.  Last year I got so worked up about this that I had to follow up my Attention! Dried Hops are NOT Fresh Hops with a second rant about fresh-hop fakery. The breweries that I know faked it last year are:
  • Hales
  • Hopworks
  • Sierra Nevada
  • Widmer
I got a hint from Widmer that they might do a true fresh-hop beer this year; let's hope Hopworks will also get it right. Sierra Nevada does make some of their Estate Harvest ale with fresh hops, but most of the Harvest Ale is done with hops that have been dried.  SN pushed it even further last year, labeling Celebration Ale as "A Fresh Hop Beer".  They make a sophistic distinction between "dried hops", "fresh hops", and -- this is clever -- "wet hops".  As I said last year, do you go into the grocery store and ask for "wet parsley", or do you ask for "fresh parsley"?  Wouldn't you be surprised if you asked for "fresh fish", and you were handed a dried cod?  "I'm sorry, I didn't know you wanted wet fish.  This one was freshly dried as soon as it was caught."

Talk to your local brewers, and insist on honest fresh hops.

Lucky Labrador Hop Harvest

This coming Tuesday, August 30, 2011, you are invited to participate in one of the sweetest and most rewarding events you can attend in Portland: the Lucky Lab Hop Harvest.  It's basically a shucking bee held on the patio of the Hawthorne Lucky Lab.  People donate their homegrown hops for inclusion in the Lab's fresh hop beer -- aptly named "The Mutt" since its hop parentage is completely unknown and very mixed up.  This year's Hop Harvest starts at 5:30 PM, a little later than in previous years, so you don't have to play hooky to join in the fun. If you have hops in your yard that you don't plan to brew with, bring the vines in, preferably within a few hours of cutting them down.

Hood River Hops Fest

The Oregon Brewers Guild teams up with Oregon Bounty each year to put on a few Fresh Hop Festivals around the state.  The first one is always the Hood River Hops Fest, and the selection in Hood River always seems to be broader than that at the following fests.  It's happening October 1, 2011, noon to 9 PM, between 5th and 7th Streets and Cascade and Columbia Streets in downtown Hood River.  Minors are allowed until 6 PM.  For being such a fresh-hop fiend, it pains me to say I haven't been to the Hood River fest before, but I plan to go this year.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Moeder Lambic Fontainas, Brussels

It was the last night of our European vacation, and we were in Brussels for less than 24 hours.  We took a family stroll around the Grand-Place, and once the girls had been nourished by bland cheap pizza slices, they announced they had no intention of hanging around with Carla and I as we sat around enjoying some Belgian beers on the last night of our trip.

That turned out to be a good thing: with the girls in tow we probably would have just hunkered down at someplace like the Delirium Café in one of the crowded alleys off the main square.  Instead, we dumped them off at the hotel, and wandered over to the stellar beer bar Moeder Lambic Fontainas, around the corner from the famous statue of the little peeing boy.  It's just off a fairly busy boulevard, but separated from it by the sleepy Fontainas square.  The interior was rustic and comforting, but since the weather was finally beautiful for the last day of our trip, we sat outside on the airy patio with most of the other patrons.

As you might have guessed by the name, Moeder Lambic has quite a selection of sour Belgian ales in the Lambic and Gueze categories.  I'm far from expert in those kinds of beers, so it seemed novel and exciting to see on the menu that not only do they have a fair number of those wild ales on tap, they also have several of them served on cask, like the Drie Fonteinen Kriek in the picture here.  If you know what you're after, the bottle list evidently has a lot of good choices also.  A party of serious gueze lovers at the next table from us had a couple of vintage bottles brought out in wicker baskets.

Even if you aren't attracted by the sour selection, there are plenty of taps of other Belgian styles, plus 15 rotating guest taps.  When we were there, the guest taps included a hefeweizen, a rauchbier, and a pilsner all from Germany, a Dutch tripel, an Italian cask ale, and even something from France.  Carla doesn't care for most Belgian beer, and certainly not sour beer, but she lived happily off the rotating taps, first with a Viven Imperial IPA, and then with a Mikkeller Citra single-hop.  Viven is an impressive brewery -- we had really liked the porter when we tried it at Cambrinus in Brugge, and the IIPA was very solid, leaving Carla a little disappointed in her Mikkeller.

Service was very friendly; our waitress replied smoothly to Carla's English, the Flemish of our gueze-drinking neighbors, and my rusty French.  A small bowl of roasted barley appeared on the table as something to crunch on as we drank our beer, but we also ordered a salad and a cheese plate from the menu, and both were excellent and reasonably priced.  Decent portions:  I'm usually a clean plate guy, but I had to leave some cheese behind.

There is obviously a lot more going on in Brussels than just this one place.  I had been hoping to get there early enough to take the fabled self-guided tour of Cantillon, but it didn't work out that way.  There is another, older Moeder Lambic location, but the Beer Advocate reviews seem to favor the Fontainas location we went to.  I recommend it, especially if you're a sour ale fan, but even if you're not.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

In De Vrede, Westvleteren

One of the most sought-after beers in the world is Westvleteren 12, the quadrupel ale brewed by the Trappist monks of Saint Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren, Belgium.  Adding to the mystique is the fact that the brothers do not distribute their beers through wholesalers or exporters.  The abbey has a cumbersome system where individuals can call the brewery during certain hours to reserve a maximum of two cases of beer for pickup on a different date.  Phone numbers and license plates are tracked to restrict each buyer to one such purchase per month.

This limited distribution not only makes beer from Saint Sixtus taste better, it practically guarantees that a tourist won't be able to stuff his suitcase with a case of Westy.  A few bottles of Westvleteren -- the aforementioned 12, a dubbel called Westvleteren 8, and a hoppy golden ale called Westvleteren Blond -- make their way via the black market into bottleshops and bars in Belgium and Holland at a premium price. I shelled out about 20 bucks for a 33 cl bottle of the quad at Gollem's Proeflokaal in Amsterdam.  The other way you can sample these beers is to visit the Abbey, where the cafeteria -- In De Vrede -- will serve you the quad, dubbel, or blond for the reasonable tariffs of €4.7, €4.2, and €3.7 respectively (about $6.60, $5.90, and $5.20).  It's bottled beer, not draft, but poured into the official goblet.  An attached gift shop apparently used to sell six-packs -- limit one per customer -- but on the day we visited there were only "tasting kits" for sale:  €23 for two bottles of the Blond, one 8, one 12, and a goblet.  Sheesh.

We visited In De Vrede ("Vrede" means "peace" in Dutch) on the way from Brugge to Brussels.  It was a little bit of a detour, but well worth it for the chance to try all the Westvleterens at a reasonable price.  It's an odd place, nothing like a bar or pub  I called it a cafeteria above, and that's truly what it is.  At 1:30 on a weekday afternoon, the place was packed, and it seemed to me to be largely a local crowd, demographically on the older side.  The food is very simple and inexpensive, basically cheese sandwich, ham and cheese sandwich, or house-made paté sandwich, to which you could add a side green salad.  I loved the paté; the salad was fresh and good.  The girls got ice cream sundaes that were kind of lame, but the ice-cream made with Westvleteren Blond served to neighboring tables looked much more interesting. The servers all seemed to speak English well, and were very polite and helpful.

Westvleteren 12 is a dense, complex quad, with the usual Abbey ale yeast flavors, a nice balance of bitterness, not too sweet, and with no sharp edges to any of the flavors.  The 8 is recognizable as 12's little brother -- much of the same flavor in a less boozy package.  The Blond is a nice surprise -- a fairly light-bodied ale, 6% alcohol, with lots and lots of hop bitterness.  It reminded me of some of Hair of the Dog's Little Dog small beers -- which also combine light brews with tons of hops -- though of course it's about twice as strong as the Little Dogs.

There is a small museum behind the cafeteria called "The Claustrum". As with the beer sales, its hours are idiosyncratic, and all of the information is printed in Flemish, but it's worth a quick gander if you're there when it's open. The picture at the top is from the brewery exhibit at the Claustrum.

Since we were driving through Belgium twice during our trip, I did actually try to call from Paris and order a case of the Westvleteren, even though the abbey's website showed that they were only only accepting orders at that time for the not-as-collectible Blond. But I gave it up when the abbey's beer line rejected my phone call placed through Skype. We didn't have a phone in our Paris flat and our rental car was already completely full with no room for a crate of beer, so I decided not to flagellate myself any further with Saint Sixtus' convoluted procedures.  The owner of the hotel we stayed at in Brugge confided to me that later this year the monks will begin limited distribution in Belgian grocery stores, but BeerNews.org reported the same rumor last year, so readers in Belgium should not break their piggybanks just yet.

I don't know if Westvleteren 12 is really the best beer in the world. But it certainly is a fine abbey ale, and if you have the chance, you should try it. In Amsterdam we tasted it alongside the fairly similar St. Bernardus Abt, and the Westvleteren was indeed the more complex and refined beer. Get it if you can, and certainly pay a visit to In De Vrede next time you're in Flanders.

Further reading:  Check out this excellent tale of walking around the Westvleteren area on Jeff's blog The Beer Cave!

Monday, August 15, 2011

De Bier Tempel and More Brugge Beer

Last week I told you about the fabulous Bierbrasserie Cambrinus in Brugge, Belgium.  There are a number of good beer places in Brugge -- it is located in the beer-obsessed region of Flanders, after all -- so this time I'll expound on a few of them we visited during our short stay there.

De Bier Tempel

First I want to relate to you a story about the miraculous power of beer, and the shrine to fermented grain known as De Bier Tempel (no translation needed).  How's your attention span?  Got room for more than 140 characters?  Here goes...

Driving into Brugge from Amsterdam, of course we took a wrong turn just as we got into town.  Actually, we do this everywhere we go: it's my superpower.  In the small French town of Bléré we were lucky enough to spot a roadside tourist map that set us straight.  Driving into Paris, our wrong turn led us into a nerve-wracking ninety-minute waking-life stress dream meandering through the suburbs before we got back on track.  Amsterdam was a cinch: we went the wrong way on the ring road around the city, but since it's so compact, we just completed the circle and it only took us about 20 minutes longer to get where we were going.

We didn't have a map of Brugge, but I thought the town was small enough that eventually we would run into a street that looked familiar from the driving directions I printed out. We never did. When Carla accidentally drove right out onto the no-cars-allowed main square, she carefully backed out of it and informed me in no uncertain terms that we were going to take the desperate measure of asking a fellow human being for help.  "I'm parking this [inaudible] car right here, and you're asking directions from the first person who looks nice."  Yes, dear.

There happened to be a man standing in the doorway of the shop we had just parked in front of.  I smiled at him and nodded good day through the car window, and he nodded back before going inside.  That must be the nice person Carla was talking about, I thought to myself.  When I got out of the car, I looked up at the sign above the shop: De Bier Tempel.

My jaw dropped, because before we left on our trip, Pub Night buddy and soon-to-be contributor msubulldog put me in email contact with his friend Regnier who does Belgian beer tours and who also works in a Brugges beer shop -- none other than the aforementioned Bier Tempel.  I dashed into the store.  "Are you Regnier?!?" "No, I'm Serge, but Regnier is in the back." Long story short, we accidentally landed on the doorstep of the one person we had a connection with in town, it was five minutes to quitting time, and he was kind enough to squeeze into the car with us and navigate us to our hotel.  That is the power of beer.

De Bier Tempel is a nice little bottleshop.  A great selection of bottled beer is on the shelves, and they sell glassware from nearly any Belgian brewery you can think of.  You can drink a bottle in the store, though I was kind of surprised that we weren't offered a glass.  I suppose they would have to insist on it being exactly the right glass, and a small shop can't keep one from every brewery in circulation.  That, or they don't like doing dishes.  So we swigged right out of our bottles as we browsed the store.  There are a few kept cool in a refrigerator, but the shelves full of unknown-to-us beers were what drew us in.

De Bier Tempel also stocks various beer-related souvenirs and snacks.  We were tempted by the autobiography of Pierre Celis, but found that the English title "My Life" belied the fact that the book was written in Flemish, so instead I walked out with a cheesy deck of playing cards, each with a different Belgian beer on it.  Check out De Bier Tempel for some of your Brugge beer shopping, though I can't guarantee that they'll escort you to your hotel.

Staminee de Garre

The historic main square in Brugge is lined with brasseries, but none of them looked appealing enough for us to get over our resistance to their high prices.  Instead we sought out the tavern called Staminee de Garre, which is located down an alley whose entrance looks like a doorway into an adjacent building.  I looked for De Garre all day on our first day in town, and finally found the place on the second day.  Beer Nerds has some good pictures of both the entrance to the alleyway and the inside of the tavern towards the bottom of this post.

It's a cool looking old tavern, and pretty small.  When my daughter and I popped our heads in, the barman shooed us out sternly.  "No.  No.  We're full."  This is not unusual for customer service in Brugge.  Don't take it personally, the place is overrun with tourists from around the world, and I'm sure they -- we -- become a nuisance after a while.  The two of us went and brought Carla and our other daughter over, just to show them the cool hidden alleyway.  About that time a party of five or six walked out of the Staminee, so when Carla peeked inside the barman gloomily indicated to her a table where we could sit.

De Garre has four or five nice things on tap -- including the "house" tripel brewed by Van Steenberge served in a satisfyingly hefty snifter -- and a nice bottle selection.  We were amused at the little dish of cheese cubes with toothpicks that arrived with the beers.  A certain amount of food was available, though it seemed to be more of a drinking bar than a restaurant.  They also have a large rack of ceramic bottles of aged genever on the wall which we weren't brave enough to dabble in.  Great atmosphere; it's a nice place to have a beer or two.

't Brugs Beertje

I've been a little critical of customer service when talking about De Garre and Cambrinus, but I don't mean to single them out.  In Brugge you're just as likely to be brought to tears by the waffle lady or the clerk in the chocolate shop as by your waitress or bartender.  For example, as we tugged for a few minutes at the locked door of one shop -- well within the posted opening hours -- a worker inches away behind the glass grimly continued her shelf tidying task while studiously avoiding any acknowledgment of our presence.

Of course, every stereotype has exceptions, and I found a notable one in this case during my all-too-brief visit to the classic beer bar 't Brugs Beertje.  The folks behind the bar at the "Little Brugge Bear" were smiling, patient, and joking around with the patrons. I was only able to stay for a quick Straffe Hendrik tripel before my hungry and cranky womenfolk came to fetch me off to dinner, but I can see why this place is on everyone's list of must-visit bars in Brugge. The friendly staff and cozy, pubby atmosphere make it a place where you could stay for hours.

We were only in Brugge for less than 48 hours, and not specifically on a beer mission. Even so, I enjoyed what I saw of the beer there, and wouldn't mind spending more time exploring it.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Bierbrasserie Cambrinus, Brugge

After leaving Amsterdam, we spent a couple of nights in the well-preserved medieval city of Brugge, Belgium. It's undeniably an amazing place, but because its sole purpose today is as a tourist center, our family was divided on how fun it was to be there. Me, I'm not afraid to be a tourist when that's what I am, and I give Brugge (pronounced Brew-[throat-clearing-noise]-Huh in Flemish) a thumbs up. It's easier to say the French version of the city name, Bruges, with a soft "g" like the second one in "garage", but it is in Flanders and most of the people in the area seemed to speak Flemish first. The post after this one will be a compendium of a few interesting Brugge beer spots -- including the story of accidentally wandering right into De Bier Tempel in our hour of greatest need -- but today I want to single out an outstanding gastropub in Brugge: the Bierbrasserie Cambrinus.

We were advised to call ahead for dinner reservations, but we wouldn't be pinned down like that, and the four of us stumbled into Cambrinus about 7:30 PM on the Monday night that we arrived in town.  At the door, we were greeted somewhat coolly by a pretty hostess who was exasperated by our foolish lack of reservations, but she told us we could sit at the bar -- even our two teenagers -- and see if anything came up.  Luckily there were four seats at the bar, and the place had such a lively atmosphere that we didn't mind hanging out for a beverage, even though the bartender had no time for conversation and it sounded like there was no way we would get a table.

We expected to have a beer there and then move on to someplace less crowded, but a nice table was found for us before Carla and I had even finished our beers.  They never asked our name for the waiting list, so I can only assume the entries were something like "unkempt American with wife and two daughters" or "drunk Australian couple".  Whatever the system, we were quite grateful to be seated, and our waiter patiently helped us figure out the next beer as we waited on our food.

Oh my goodness, the food.  It was a little pricey, but it was one of the most memorable meals of our vacation.  The picture at the top barely does justice to the giant steaming pot of delicious mussels that was served me, and I'm sad that I cut the accompanying fries out of the picture.  Nor did I get a photo of Carla's Flemish beef stew with a side of homemade applesauce, but it was also fabulous.  Even the vegetarian in our party was content with her French onion soup.  If you want to drool over the menu, it's posted here in English, though for some reason it omits the various mussel options.  I believe there were 8 beer taps, but the choices weren't that stunning.  The real beer action was in the large wood-bound tome that listed the hundreds of bottles available.

We enjoyed Cambrinus so much that -- after taking a look at a couple of other restaurants -- we ended up there for dinner the next night also.  Same modus operandi: walk in at 7:30 to a frosty reception; "you don't have reservations?"; wait at the bar; here's your table.  They aren't kidding about being busy -- every table was always full -- but somehow our timing was right both nights to get us a table in a comfortable amount of time.  Another stunning meal was had, accompanied by some mighty fine beer.  I especially liked the Viven Porter that Carla ordered, and the Straffe Hendrik quadrupel from local brewery De Halve Maan.

I can't recommend Cambrinus enough.  Excellent beer, food, and atmosphere.  The service is a little bit brusque, but that seems to be the nature of a tourist town, and the servers were actually quite professional under their hard shell.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Bikes and Beers in Amsterdam

For a person who has been wedded to bicycle transportation for about 25 years, it's a wonder that it took me so long to visit Amsterdam, where nearly every resident of every age rides a bike in every kind of weather, without making too big of a deal about it. Well, I finally made my pilgrimage, and had a great time biking the canalside streets and parks of the central area on a clunky rented one-speed girl's bike with a flowered seatcover and chopper handlebars that let me lean back until I was almost horizontal.

The icing on the cake is that Amsterdam is also a fabulous beer destination, as I noted in previous posts about 't Arendsnest (my favorite place in Amsterdam) and Gollem's Proeflokaal.  I had a great beer time there even though I missed several of the "must-visit" beer establishments: bars In De Wildeman and Café Belgique, and bottleshop De Bierkoning.

I did make it into one excellent bottleshop -- De Gekraakte Ketel (the Cracked Kettle) -- across the alleyway from the original (and currently closed) Gollem's location. The picture above of the bicycle with the crate of Westvleteren empties is the Cracked Kettle's sandwich-board -- it would make a better picture if the front tire had air in it. The rambling split-level shop had a good selection of Dutch and Belgian beers -- I grabbed a bottle of Columbus strong pale ale from 't IJ brewery, and a bargain-priced 750 ml Cantillon Iris ($10.50). I inquired about Westvleteren based on the crate out front, but all they had in stock were a few 1996 bottles of the 12, priced (if I remember right) at €50 ($70) each.  Other geek-worthy beers were to be found there also, including some American offerings, and BrewDog's viagra-laced Royal Virility Performance.

Seeing as how Gollem's was closed, a clerk at the Gekraakte Ketel recommended a replacement bar for us: De Zotte Belgisch Bierproeflokaal. The jawbreaker "Proeflokaal" that you see in these bar names means "tasting room". It was a nice place on a quiet side street just outside the canal district. At a little after 4 PM on a weekday, we were alone in the place with the bartender, the pub cat, and some kids from across the street that came in to use the restroom. The cat became quite interested in the block of cheese that was coming out of the refrigerator below the bar, and hopped right up there for a taste. There was a good selection of Belgian bottles, and a few taps (6-10 if I remember right).

Another place worth mentioning is The Beer Temple, which bills itself as an American beer bar.  It's owned by the Arend family that runs the fabulous Arendsnest.  There are an impressive number of American beers on tap, from the likes of Great Divide, Rogue, Left Hand, Anchor, and other quality brewers.  In addition, there are a few Dutch and Belgian taps, and some lighter fare like Beck's and Hoegaarden.  Nice pubby atmosphere like 't Arendsnest, but the beer selection is wasted on an Oregon beer snob -- too much focus on stuff I can get cheaper and fresher at home.  One interesting thing is that the Beer Temple was offering 20 ml -- about two-thirds of an ounce -- of BrewDog's Sink the Bismarck for €8.50, or Tactical Nuclear Penguin for €7.50 ($12 and $10.50). The British gents in the picture had ordered shots of TNP in tiny beer steins and were generously sharing it with the other patrons.  We decided it had an herbal character, kind of like an Italian Amaro.  Whoa, that's an SPE of $1277.58 for Sink the Bismarck!  It's just a lucky accident that the picture shows a BrewDog "Beer for Punks" banner reflected in the window behind them.

The proeflokaals and bottle shops will keep you busy and well-beered in Amsterdam.  Supermarkets also had a few drinkable options on the shelf -- some La Trappe varieties and some widely-distributed Belgians like Duvel.  On our first night in town, I grabbed a couple of "lentebocks" off the shelf, since we wouldn't be leaving the apartment that night.  Grolsch's was sickly-sweet, a real struggle to get through, but a brewery called Hertog Jan had made a very nice, copper-colored maibock with the right balance of malt richness and lagered crispness.  It was packaged like a cheap supermarket brand with a few different beer styles, but it was a solid choice for the refrigerator shelf.

I'm glad I finally made it to Amsterdam.  Now I've got to find a way to get back there again.

Monday, August 8, 2011

't Arendsnest, Amsterdam

On our recent trip to Europe, I expected excellent beer during our 3 days in Belgium, but the most pleasant surprise to me was what a wonderful beer town Amsterdam is. I already wrote about Gollem's Proeflokaal, but my favorite pub of the whole trip was  't Arendsnest, a beer bar in the western canal district of Amsterdam that only serves beer brewed in the Netherlands.  It's not just the selection of 30 Dutch taps and scores of bottles that makes it a great place, but the cozy, comfortable digs and the relaxed atmosphere.

On our first visit, Carla and I had very little idea what to order.  The only familiar names to me on the taplist were La Trappe, which I figured is readily enough available in Portland, and Jan Hertog, which I had seen alongside Grolsch at the supermarket in the Jordaan neighborhood where we were staying.  Luckily in scanning the taphandles I noticed that the "Rook & Vuur" on the chalkboard was actually a smoked doppelbock ("Smoke & Fire") from De Molen -- possibly also available in Portland, but never on tap, and pretty pricey in the bottle.  Now we had to figure out something for Carla -- treading around the abbey-style ales that she doesn't usually like -- but a quick consultation with the bartender led to an excellent choice: Jopen Extra Stout.  The Rook & Vuur had just the right touch of smoke on top of a deep, complex beer.  The Jopen was a delicious, dark, roasty, creamy stout that arrived with a thick, tan head that stood up over the top of Carla's goblet.

In the picture at the top you can see a sink of soap suds and a sink full of clean water.  When you order a draft beer, the glass is washed and rinsed before being filled, then carefully submerged first in the soapy basin and then in the clean basin before being handed to you, to keep you from having any sticky beer on the outside of your glass.  Is this outside rinse after the pour the usual Low Country ritual?  Maybe we tended to order bottles more often at other places, but 't Arendsnest is the only place I noticed the rinsing ritual.

Carla went bigger with her next beer, a fantastic 2009 Imperial Stout from Dutch brewing collective SNAB called Czaar Peter; I went for something lighter with a satisfying malty amber called Roodborst (Redbreast) from De Snaterende Arend, which is the house label of 't Arendsnest.  In trying to pin down the parentage of those two beers for this post, I see that both of them were likely contract brewed at De Proef Brouwerij, whose distinguished-sounding name completely obscures the Dutch joke that it is merely The "Test" Brewery.  (While we're doing a Dutch lesson, I'll reveal that 't Arendsnest means "the Eagle's nest", and is a pun on the owner's last name -- Peter van der Arend.  The 't is a contraction of het, which is the definite article for neuter-gender nouns, though it beats me when you use het and when 't.  "De Snaterende Arend" means "the clucking eagle", according to this very detailed history of the place on the White Beer Travels website, and is a pun on the names of Arend and a brewer named Snater.)

More good beers were had on a second visit.  I pressed the light and hoppy Jopen Gerstebier into service as the beer side of a kopstootje, somewhat to the amusement of the Arendsnest bartenders, but I was a little disappointed that the shot of genever wasn't served in the tiny glass that gets filled up past the rim.  Carla continued her imperial stout mission with an Emelisse on tap.  I wasn't all that happy with my next beer, a low-gravity De Molen rauchbier called Geboren & Getogen ("born and raised").  I was hoping for something like Rook & Vuur's little brother, but they seemed to be totally unrelated; Geboren had some "band-aid" phenols that I didn't care for, and a tiny bit of sourness that didn't go well with the smoke for me.

I consoled myself for that beer disappointment with a taste of barrel-aged 3-year-old genever from Zuidam; as luck would have it the bar didn't have enough for a full shot, so I was compensated with a half shot of 5-year-old genever from the same distiller.  It was more along the lines of a whisky than a gin, but still pretty dry and with nice aromatics.  The 5 was much smoother than the 3, and that's what I'd get if I were having it again.  (By the way, It's Pub Night sponsor Master of Malt sells Zuidam 5 Jaar Zeer Oude Genever, including small samples.)  The evening was capped off with the Java Tripel from Holland's De Halve Maan brewery (not the one in Brugge).  Don't worry, it wasn't a coffee tripel, just a straightforward, decent abbey-style ale.

A little bit of snack food is available at 't Arendsnest, cheese or sausage trays and a few variations on the peanut -- I liked the crunchy corn-battered borrelnoten.  The pub is not terribly large, so I imagine it might get a little crowded, though we easily found spots at the bar on both of our visits.  If you have a large group and you want an introductory lesson on Dutch beer, 't Arendsnest takes reservations for guided tasting sessions that are held in a separate area in the basement, though you'll miss the ambiance and camaraderie of the ground floor.

'T Arendsnest is a knockout.  Don't miss it if you're in Amsterdam.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Session Beers? Or Smaller Pours?

On the plane back from Belgium last week, I read Andy Crouch's opinion piece in Beer Advocate entitled Thinking Small. In it, he discusses America's "Session Beer" movement -- the push for tasty, well-made beers that are nonetheless low enough in alcohol to allow drinking quite a few in a row.  The word "session" comes from the English custom of drinking many rounds of big pints of not-so-strong beer over many hours at a pub.

While Andy doesn't quibble with the worthy goal of having some good-tasting lighter beers available, he thinks that the Session label might be misleading, since most of us don't have the same pub-drinking culture as exists in the British Isles.  In his own words:

In adopting the session moniker as opposed to simply calling their efforts a campaign for lower-alcohol beers, these brewers face target consumers who are not given to long stints in the pub or hours of uninterrupted drinking. Our drinking culture is goal oriented: have a beer to accompany a meal or fill a short window of time after work and before a commute.

His article is a good read, check it out.

Reading it as I returned from vacation in Europe, it made me reflect on the beer-drinking culture I'd seen in Amsterdam and Belgium.  The beers were not low-alcohol -- that's a 10% Westvleteren in the picture above -- but serving sizes were generally very small:  often 25 cl (less than 8.5 ounces) or 33 cl (less than 11.25 ounces).  Instead of simply beating the drum for lower ABV beers, maybe we need to start calling for lower alcohol servings.  If it's a lighter beer, the serving can be larger; if it's a higher-gravity beer, serve it in an appropriate volume.

Now, I've been known to scream for Honest Pints almost as loudly as anyone.  In Portland, that started off more or less as a push for bigger glassware -- the 20-ounce glasses popular at several of the finer pubs in town.  In my mind, though, the emphasis should be on Honest, not Pint, which to me means draft beer is served in glassware with marked volume lines, as it is everywhere in Europe.  That way you know that you received exactly what you paid for.  So "smaller serving" does not contradict "honest pint" -- it just requires marked glassware.

What do you think?  Is it worth calling for smaller beers?  Or just smaller glasses?