Session #91: My First Belgian

The-Session-87-636x310This is my first time participating in the session and what could be a more appropriate topic than “My first Belgian”. I became conscious of the craft beer movement in the mid-nineties during what was to become the first of ten Christmases spent in Vermont. Unable to drink due to the unnecessarily restrictive drinking age of 21, I had to make do listening to conversations about beer by enthusiastic drinkers. Whilst some of the Von Trappes were living close by, it wasn’t Austrian beers that seemed to be lusted over but Belgian ones. Indeed, this trend continues today when US breweries are so influenced by different styles of beer produced by a country 28 times smaller.

I can’t recall for definite when I first tried a beer from Belgium. The older brother at times was gifted beers chosen more for their alcoholic strength than style or origin. At times he’d share some of these when I was under-age but that being said he also gave me Buckfast at one time too. It is possible that an early introduction was via Leffe and Stella Artois would’ve been a likely candidate as well. Unfortunately, I never did get to go to Belgo while it was open in Dublin.

imageThis year marks the centenary of the outbreak of World War One and it is fitting that my first Belgian beer is coincidentally linked to a trip to see the battlefields back in 1999. It was the Easter weekend during my Leaving Cert year and I spent it in Brussels. Dinner with my parents on Good Friday required the observation of no meat (on my mother’s orders) so it consisted simply of a plain-enough pizza. Back in the hotel with the parentals retired to their room, I visited the bar. The bar of the Gresham Belson Hotel was non-descript, functional and modernist. The counter was small with space for a solitary barman behind.

Wondering what to drink, the barman was quickly on hand to make some suggestions. This is a feature of Belgian bars. Their suggestions on the other hand may not be always welcome (a friend is just back from Antwerp where a barman tried not to serve her Rochfort 10 because it might be too strong for her). However, suggestions offered may lead visitors discover some rare treasures. It was one such suggestion in Delirium, back when it was just the one bar, which led me to discover Saison Dupont almost ten years ago now. So what did the barman offer me on this occasion? Well, given that Easter is a time for reverence and observance, he felt it was appropriate for me to try a beer produced by monks.

Chimay

My first real Belgian beer experience was a bottle of Chimay  Rouge. The barman was Flemish so addressed it as Chimay Dubbel. I had great fun the next morning asking at the front desk how to get to Yprès, only for the reply to be a mini-lesson on how to pronounce Ieper (from recollection it’s like eeeee – p – rrrrr). The barman told me the importance of decanting it into a glass, the right glass of course. This glass was a chalice. It was so different to Dublin where people were still getting excited over consuming Miller from bottles as the height of early Celtic Tiger sophistication. The beer was different to any dark beer I had tried before. The sweetness and pleasant carbonation grabbed hold of me. Instantly you could get a sense of localism in their beer and cuisine. I had a waffle or two and come chocolate of course earlier that day.

Was this beer a game change for me? Well, it would be over-stating it if I said it was because of previous experience watching people around me trying some American craft beers, trying some that would be purchased on my behalf and some limited special beers available in Ireland in the late ‘90’s (it wouldn’t be until that autumn that I would venture into the Porterhouse in Temple Bar). However, I still remember it. Clearly. This was before I was into photographing unusual beers or ticking them off a list. It was a beer that I would go on to having a fair few of when I could get my hands on them in Dublin. There were times when I could be found consuming them in the Buttery Bar in Trinity. It wasn’t quite the same experience as back in the Belson but enjoyable none-the-less. I would get a bottle or two from the Dunnes Stores on Stephen’s Green and sneak them into the bar. I couldn’t get away with using a glass. It clearly looked completely different to any beer on sale and there was the fear of attracting the attention of concerned patrons or worse, the bar staff, that I got a “ropey” Guinness. I had to settle for the next best thing a Styrofoam cup but whilst doing little to the enjoyment of the beer, it did have one useful advantage. The beer’s tan head gave the impression for any inquisitive eyes that I was merely having one of the god-awful cappuccinos from the machine in the canteen next door.

I then must admit that went on to ignore this beer over the years as different and more exotic beers became available. Chimay Grande Resérve being one of them.  I recall the popularity of Duvel in the early noughties and becoming almost the international standard-bearer for Belgian beers. However, for me Duvel is sadly not as good as it once was. I rekindled my interest in Chimay Rouge when I moved to Brussels in 2005, which came as part of a wider exploration of Belgian beers once the day’s work finished. Tripels are easy to get people interested in them and people overlook dubbels due to factors such as colour and lower alcohol content. I like using both in beer tastings because it can open people’s eyes to two styles, and the dubbel I tend to use over others is what has become my longstanding companion, Chimay Rouge. I even served it during the main course during last year’s Christmas dinner. It has become a mainstay of my drinks list for Easter and Christmas and my wife has even managed to source a few bottles for when I spend Christmas over in Nashville.

So that’s the story of my first Belgian…

Thanks to Breandán for arranging this session and for inviting me to participate. He’s an Irishman living the Belgian beer dream. Read more from him & Elisa at http://belgiansmaak.com/

On the radio talking about beer and “various things like that”

It’s been quite some time since I was on the radio for an entire show. Well gone are the days when I hosted a Saturday morning music show on Dublin Weekend Radio. So it was a nice to have been invited onto Food Talk on 103.2 Dublin City FM on Tuesday 5 August by the show’s host, Margaret Scully. The subject of the show was what else but beer and “various things like that”. I must say it was an enjoyable experience (especially finding out that the previous interviewee was Michelin-starred chef, Kevin Thornton) and the 30 minute chat just flew by, covering everything from beer sommeliers to how to taste beer to the vibrant craft beer scene in Ireland.

You can listen back to the show:

http://foodtalk.podomatic.com/entry/2014-08-22T04_35_28-07_00

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Check out Food Talk, which is broadcast on 103.2 Dublin City FM every Tuesday at 1pm.

Celebrating the independence of US craft brewing

This year saw the passing of a true revolutionary, Jack Joyce, co-founder of Rogue Ales and patriarch of Rogue Nation. He was a firm believer in “freedom of expression, absence of bullshit, variety, and the pursuit of beer with taste” even challenges the conventional craft beer mantra of small, independent and traditional. A former lawyer for Nike and who had negotiated Michael Jordan’s early shoe deals, Joyce was committed to “doing things differently, a desire and a willingness to change the status quo” and be believed that being a “leader doesn’t mean you have to be the biggest”. He like Fritz Maytag, Ken Grossman and even Jim Koch and Steve Hindy (although he reportedly didn’t agree with contract brewing) left an indelible mark on the US craft brewing scene. So when he checked out on 27 May 2014 what shape was the US craft beer industry in?

Jack was toasted at a beer tasting I hosted at the beginning of June
Jack was toasted at a beer tasting I hosted at the beginning of June

There are now 2,768 craft breweries in the US out of 2,822 total breweries. This represents the continued upward trajectory of craft brewing. There was an increase of 15.3% in number of craft breweries n 2013 than the previous year. In keeping with year-on-year growth in market share and production output, there was a significant increase in the number of regional craft breweries in 2013.

USCraftBrewers-Growth

US Craft Brewing Facts:

  • There are 2,768 craft breweries in the US (overall 2,822)
  • Craft breweries increased by 15.3% in 2013; regional craft breweries (+22.6%), microbreweries (+22.8%) & brewpubs (+7.1%)
  • Slight decrease in total number of microbreweries opening in 2013 (304) to 2012 (340)
  • Sales up 17.2% in 2013 (overall beer sales down 1.8%)
  • Market share stands at 7.8%
  • 49% increase in US craft beer exports
  • 18% increase in craft beer volume production (overall beer down 2%)

This time last year, I posted a piece on Fritz Maytag in Revolution in Red, White & Brew because I wanted a US feature for July 4th. He was a pioneer not only in terms of what he did in saving and transforming Anchor Steam but more generally what he did for inspiring independence in US brewing. A group of us were only discussing his contributions to the revolution during the European Beer Bloggers Conference (EBBC 2014). This year, I’ve decided to focus on an Irish-American connection in Dundalk-native and now resident of Lexington, Kentucky Dr. Pearse Lyons.

Dr. Pearse Lyons addressing attendees at the International Craft Brews & Food Fair (source: Alltech)
Dr. Pearse Lyons addressing attendees at the International Craft Brews & Food Fair (source: Alltech)

At EBBC 2014 I had the opportunity to have a beer with Brian Yaeger and it was in his 2008 book Red, White and Brew that I first came across Pearse Lyons and what he was setting out to do in terms of brewing in Kentucky. The Southern US states, with a couple of exceptions (e.g. Texas, Florida etc), were fairly late to the craft beer revolution. Today the State of Kentucky is only 39th in number of breweries and 45th in terms of breweries per capita. On this side of the Atlantic, few had heard of the Lexington Brewing Company up until recently.

A familiar sight at Irish beer festivals
A familiar sight at Irish beer festivals

Over the past two years, the awareness of the Alltech, Dr. Lyons and the Kentucky brands both in terms of beer and whiskies has grown. He may have left for the US in the 1970s but he has always kept one foot on the island, just look at the Alltech investment in Dunboyne. He’s even building a distillery in Dublin. There’s a great team at Alltech and I’ve gotten to know a few of them over the past couple of years. However, one can see Dr. Lyons as the driving force behind all that they do and he describes himself as an “entrepreneur, salesman, marketer and scientist all rolled into one”.

The Alltech Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. produces a number of beers, all ales. Their flagship is Kentuck Bourbon Barrel Ale, which is the result of aging their 6% Kentucky Ale in bourbon barrels for six weeks. I’m not that much of a whiskey drinker and always found bourbon a unique prospect but I must say this beer has grown on me, especially when it’s served in a snifter. It tastes of good ol’ Kentucky bourbon. They have followed suit with a stout also aged in a bourbon barrel with the added addition of Haitian coffee (also owned by Alltech), which maries well with the bourbon smoke. They produce a good value IPA (although would love to see them bring the cans to Ireland) and a Kölsch-style beer, which when I first saw the beers on sale a couple of years ago in Nashville, was branded Kentucky Light. As a sign of encouraging new craft beer consumers, this name was thankfully dropped. They have produced three seasonals but only one of which has arrived in limited quantities in Ireland, the Kentucky Peach Barrel Wheat. The others being two collaboration brews, a bourbon barrel maibock (with Blue Stallion Brewing Co.) and the other being a blend of barrel aged stout that has been specifically aged for two years and Country Boy Brewing’s Black Gold Porter, oh and of course the blend is then barrel aged for good measure.

Alltech’s Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. was asked to supply beers & whiskey for ths US Embassy's Fourth of July celebrations
Alltech’s Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. was asked to supply beers & whiskey for ths US Embassy’s Fourth of July celebrations

A year ago this July, Alltech held the first International Craft Beer and Brewing Convention in Dublin and a second edition was held earlier this year. The good news is that the event (rebranded as the International Craft Brews and Food Fair) will return in February 2015. The first focused on entrepreneurship (see Brewing up new businesses) and the second had growing the market for craft beers (targeting customers and publicans) as a theme. There’s even the Dublin Beer Cup and opportunities for brewers to introduce their wares directly to consumers. N17, Rascals, Stone Barrel Brewing and Independent Brewing made their beer festival debuts in Febuary 2014.

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The two Dublin editions afforded valuable opportunities for people in the trade to network and form new connections, some of which have resulted in new business for Irish breweriers. For example, Galway Bay Brewing has just done a collaboration brew with Chicago’s Begyle Brewing, a conference alumnus. Hardknott from Cumbria got added opportunities to visit Ireland and ahead of this year’s conference, brewed Yerba with Metalman. Alltech has rolled out this conference in Kentucky and I’m sure a number of Irish brewers are itching to be invited.

For what he has done in terms of brewing and for what he’s doing in terms of promoting the industry more widely through conferences and numerous events, this is the reason I chose to feature his contribution to the craft beer revolution.

Worst pint of 2014….what, already?

As bloggers out there have recently published their Golden Pints for 2013 (big shout out to Beermack for recognition of this blog), I sadly missed the boat on this. However, last Saturday allowed me to gain a march on this year’s awards as I had a pint that hopefully is the worst that I’d experience all year, which was barely 4 days old at the time.

McGargles Irish Family Brewers has attracted a lot of criticism on the web because of its Alan Partridge-esque “oirish” feel, compounded by suspicions over its “product of the EU” badge of honour and not much else. Cynicism centres on who or what is it?

Apologies for the poor quality but the pub wasn’t one to be taking photos of the bar

Money has been put behind building this brand, the website, glasses and bar taps are case in point. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to establish a brand nor do I have a problem with contract brewing, I understand those that dare to aspire to following in the footsteps of Jim Koch’s Boston Beer Co. However, it misses one of the strong attributes of the craft beer scene, a certain localism or sense of place. Apparently the US is a target market for the company but it forms a market of 3000+ breweries all trying to carve out a identity for themselves that cheap paddy whackery will find it hard to overcome:

“The McGargles are a legendary brewing family on the island of Leannclann…It’s too small to spot on the map, but Leannclann still has room for the cantankerous auld ones, swearing dwarves, ambiguous Lotharios, flirty daughters, and out-of-control hippies that call it home….They’ve come a long way from brewing in the family bathtub. Their beers are thought to have fuelled the famous works of many great Irish writers, as well as a few battles and revolutions in between” (source: www.mcgargles.com)

So not to be unfair, I opted to sample a pint (as I would with any new Irish beer) and give them the benefit of the doubt while on a mini-pub crawl of Dalkey. The brewery currently has 3 beers on offer, each complete with names that any grown-up would voluntarily use to order a pint: Granny Mary’s Red Ale, Gravy Maevey’s Pilsner and Knock Knock Ned IPA. My cynicism was aroused however when after ordering a pint of the IPA, I was informed by the girl behind the bar in McDonagh’s that it was her favourite as it was quite sweet.

The infamously sweet IPA

The pint itself was produced in its own mason jar crossed with a tankard. It was dark amber in colour with a good head. But once I smelled the beer, there was no hop aroma. It smelled sweet, sickly sweet, butterscotch sweet. Was the beer afflicted by diacetyl? Surely an IPA couldn’t have been produced to this standard if it wasn’t. It’s perhaps unfair to judge this beer on the basis of the off-flavours in my opinion it contains (I checked the other reviews on ratebeer.com, all two of them and they both state how sweet this IPA is). Although, I do hope this is the low-point of my beer tasting in 2014.

Belated happy new year everyone!

Is there an end to craft beer scareways?

It is a sad thing that air travel it not-so-glamorous as it once was. Yes, I love travel and all the more so when the destination includes fantastic beers. However, craft beer during travel remains all too infrequent (not counting smuggled beers onto trains etc).

Dublin Airport does not have much variation in beer. You’d expect that with the city home to Guinness. There was criticism in the Twitter-sphere over a craft beer tasting being held in Dublin Airport some time back because of the lack of its availability at the airport. At least, duty free offers O’Hara selection boxes. But the potential in duty free remains to be exploited when you see the sheer range of whiskeys on offer, including those from independent distilleries. The Slaney bar in T2 is on a brighter more “international” feel than those in the old terminal. The taps demonstrate the determination of Molson-Coors to get a foothold through pushing Blue Moon. There are a few Belgian and German “usuals” in the fridges behind the bar.

The Slaney in T2 – there was more Irish craft beer available in Philadephia Airport

I don’t usually drink on the flight over to the States because the choices are never brilliant. On US Airways, it was either or Heineken. The airlines themselves could do more in this space. On most carriers now you have to pay for alcohol so why not carry better beer? Think about all the tech company employees travelling across the Atlantic. Some are serious craft beer heads. There’s a market to be cultivated there. With Aer Lingus re-opening their San Francisco route what better way to gain some added promotion than stocking West Coast beers in addition to Guinness. I have only been surprised by the on-board selection a couple of times, once I was offered a Leinenkugel Sunset What (yes, I’m aware it’s in the hands of SAB Miller) and from time to time I’ve been offered a Fuller’s London Pride. The trick will be to introduce airlines to the craft beer available in cans because glass bottles (and plastic bottles have some way to go) are out of the question. If only airlines carried decent beers because it would make watching the edited movies more palatable. There’s only so much “dirt plucker, what da freak?, spit jerk and air head” one can take!

Arriving in Philadelphia, I had two things on my mind. The first being to find a pint and a prior google search had alerted me to the fact that the Jet Rock Bar & Grill in Terminal B has a good craft beer selection. The second being to, find somewhere for a decent cheesesteak, well as decent as one can get in an airport. However, I was pleasantly surprised to come across a tribute to local Philadelphia brewing history on the way to the bar. It was particularly interesting to see the evolution of D.G. Yuengling & sons over the years but the final display case (also the largest) gave a great demonstration of the sheer number of breweries that have been set up during the craft beer revolution.

Jet has a decent selection but at typically inflated prices that you find in US airports. The beer list came without prices and when asked at the bar for an indication of what they might be, I was told it was complicated to explain. I decided to opt for a local brew to start off with and had Dirtwolf from Victory Brewing, a double IPA weighing in at 8.7% on the basis that any beer was going to be expensive so why not enjoy it. Dirtwolf features plenty of citrus and pine, thanks to copius amounts of Citra, Chinook, Simcoe and Mosaic. It also comes complete with an immediate and apparent dryness that remains throughout. With time to kill before my next flight, I decided to have one more and opted this time for Great Lakes Nosferatu from Ohio. On draft, it had little-to-no aroma with a classic ruby-red colour. Initially sweet, it gave away to a pleasantly dry bitterness. It gave way to a ponderous bitter sweet finish, all the more so when the bill arrived and it worked out to be $8.50 for a 12 ounce (350ml approximately) pour of both beers and not including the tip. Oh and by the way, O’Hara’s stout was on sale in Philadelphia airport.

As I was on my way to Nashville, I was looking forward to trying out the new Yazoo presence at the airport but my wife’s flight was early so there wasn’t time to partake of some local brews. I wasn’t too disappointed as there would be plenty of time to try them over the holiday. The bars in Nashville airport sum up one of the challenges facing craft breweries. They tend to be operated by large concession companies that only the likes of the biggest independent breweries, which of course means Sam Adams features prominently. There may be some regional differences between airports such as Brooklyn beers being available in the New York area but there is also the opportunity for the “non-craft” beers such as Blue Moon and Goose Island to be the backbone of choice at airport bars. Did I mention that Nashville airport also has its very own Tootsies, the famous Broadway bar? It’s a sanitised version (which has its good and bad points) as well as live music.

Recognisable figure in Tennessee

According to Draft Magazine, these are the top 5 US airports for craft beer:

  • Denver International Airport (DEN)
  • Portland International Airport (PDX)
  • Cleveland Hopkins International Airport (CLE)
  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)
  • Boston Logan International Airport (BOS)

Returning home, I had the opportunity to stop over in Charlotte, North Carolina. This may be my first and only visit to the airport due to the fact that the airport might lose its hub status resulting from US Air merging with American. North Carolina famous for its tobacco industry is now finding itself becoming a major player in brewing terms. Taking advantage of its location, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium have established major new East Coast breweries Asheville, NC. It provides major access to the North and South of the easter seaboard (hopefully it means that we might also see New Belgium making its way onto ships bound for Europe).

The stopover in Charlotte gave me the opportunity for another first – I was able to order a sampler of different local brews in an airport bar.

  • Carolina Blonde (Foothills Brewing, Winston-Salem) was golden in colour with slight sweetness and light hop bite. It was smooth but slightly lacking in the body. Balance wasn’t quite right as it became almost watery at times.
  • Natty Greene’s Wildflower Witbier (Natty Greene’s Pub & Brewing Co., Greensboro) was supposedly a “classic Belgian style white ale spiced with corinader, curacao, orange zest and home grown elder flowers from Ft. Collins, CO” but it wasn’t. It was golden yellow in colour, malt forward with a slight spice edge. Didn’t have the body of a witbier and drank like a lager.
  • Olde Mecklenberg Copper was described by the brewery as an “authentic Dusseldorf Altbier”. The name wasn’t misleading as a vibrant copper colour was visible from the off. There was little discernible aroma on the nose but the beer drank smoothly with a dry, crisp finish.
  • Hop, Drop and Roll™ (NoDa Brewing Company, Charlotte). A trade mark beer, literally. It presented a hazy orange body. There was citrus and sweet toffee on the nose. Starts with a citrus bitterness due to lashings of Citra and Amarillio that continues long into the finish. Seriously bitter (when compared to the others) and was at 80 IBUs.
Rare to be given the option of a beer sampler in an airport bar

On my last stop over in Philadelphia before heading back to Dublin, I had the opportunity to stop for a quick pint at the obligatory Irish pub that is conveniently located to the Irish gates. I had time for one last IPA and thankfully this pub was slightly more reasonable both in terms of its pricing and size. It called for another local brew because afterall I always seem to do an awful lot of airport terminal tourism, without ever going out and seeing the town in which it’s located.  I ordered a Yards IPA from right there in Philly, which had a rich amber colour with a fluffy white head. Fresh pine was instantly recognisable on the nose. It tasted initially sweet but citrus bitterness takes over. After watching the end of an American football game (the last 5 minutes amounted to time it takes to drink a pint), it was time to board and head home.

Yards IPA – one for the road or in this case air