Journal (31Jan13)by Ron on Thu 31 Jan 2013, 10 PM CEST
Readers of this blog will know that I try and make a conscience effort to seek out those cultural experiences that help one truly understand the local populations of any city/country Rachel and I go to. We’ve gone to Munich’s Oktoberfest, Bad Münster Wine Festival, checked out an international beer festival in Prague, and even sampled the legendary smoked beers of Bamberg.
Well, OK …maybe I just like to drink.
Vices aside, diversity is everywhere in Europe. Unlike the States where life is becoming more homogenized by the day, even cities within the same European country can have glaring differences.
Many of these City-States, after all, spent thousands of years maturing and evolving into their own cultures. Life in Germany alone differs greatly from the Bavaria to here in Rheinland Pfalz (the German state we live in). Now, sure, States in the US differ greatly too, but keep in mind the small relative size of countries here. Virginia is as wide as Germany along its base. Even all of Italy is only the size of Arizona, …and yet even there the dialects are so diverse there that people from Venice (in the North) can’t understand people from Naples (southern Italy) at all.
So, while I’ve visited Belgium a dozen or so times already (via via work at SHAPE), and Rachel and I even spent a long weekend in Brussels, I have yet to really appreciate what is it about Belgium beer that the European world goes nuts for.
I have to admit, living in America I was taught that Budweiser was the King of Beers, and Coors was the workin’ man’s beer. Sure micro-breweries were starting to pop-up all over that were beginning to cultivate American palettes to an extent, but nowhere in my recollection was there this standard that we were trying to compete with Belgium for any sort of recognition.
Now, in Wine, that was more obvious. Folks living in Napa Valley and Sonoma have been trying to stand up to their French equivalents for decades now. But in beer, America is all I needed to know, …right?
Well, enter my buddy Todd …beer connoisseur, aficionado and general drunkard. OK, I was kidding about the first part.
No, but seriously, Todd has taken a very particular interest in the “*craft” of beer and beer making for a good ten years now. He even makes his own beer regularly (which we would be doing later this weekend). And he has a lot to share about the wide world of beer, and why there are such diverse definitions of what “good” is.
Ultimately, he says, it comes down to 2 things …taste and function. Like any type of alcohol, there is no one spirit for everyone. There are just too many variables at play. Additionally, many people don’t want to simply sip on a well-crafted beer and experience its broad range of complex flavors and subtleties, …they just want something to wash down their BBQ wings with. And there is nothing wrong with that.
But, just like some folks like to slam back shots of whiskey, while others want to savor a nicely-aged double-malt in a tumbler glass with a cigar …there are also those who look to gain the same levels of appreciation from high-end beers. And for those people, …Belgium is nirvana.
I guess I never wondered why I never had an American beer with a giant foamy head, thick enough to float a bottle cap on. Or why American beer was served so cold your hand left frost prints on the glass. And I always assumed it was natural to be able to knock back a six-pack in an evening. I know now this is because this is the type of experience Americans want. They want cheap, low-calorie beer, that is easy to drink (or chug), and containing a low enough alcohol content that you can do this all night.
No problem, …enter Bud Light stage right. Again, there is nothing wrong with that. German Oktoberfest beers are basically designed around this same model., ..it’s called social beer.
The key lesson here, though, is just to be aware that other types of beers do exist. There are beers designed specifically to be paired with certain foods, and beers heavy enough they would take half an evening to finish one pint. There are beers with an alcohol content 20 TIMES that of an American beer, and beers so rich and flavorful that they contain as many calories as an entire loaf of bread (yah, they even show up on your bill as Beer Dinner).
Understanding this broad world of beer from Ales to Lagers, from Pilsners to Stouts can take a long while, particularly if all you’ve got in your fridge is MGD. But who’s got time for that when Belgium is only 2 hours from my front door, and I’ve got a hops-certified beer tour as a best friend.
So, off Todd and I went to Brussels, to get a crash-course in Beerology.
LESSON ONE: Home Brew Store
First stop on our tour was Brauwland. An entire multilevel building dedicated to providing the materials and ingredients to make your own beer, aka “home-brew.” Entering it, I thought I was in some bizarre mash-up of a mad-scientist’s lab …and a farm. There were bags of grain stacked to the ceiling, while also long aisles of beakers, and test tube looking things. On one side I had stuff clearly designed to hold, crush and process oats and what-not, while on the other there were long tubes, and cylindrical copper vessels for handling water. There were even fridges holding other pre-packaged materials. Check out my full photo album here, …kinda bizarre, eh?
My head was spinning looking at it all. How the hell did people figure this all out so many thousands of years ago without modern science to help them along, I wondered?
Well, turns out that the basic mechanics of making beer are pretty, well, …basic. So basic that many times it actually just actually happened on its own naturally. Now, however, to make a consistent, flavorful beer with a predictable alcohol content, is a lot more work. That level of consistency is where the science comes in. But, on its own, the basic magic of beer-making is actually pretty straightforward.
By soaking broken up barley (a grain) in hot water, and then filtering out the grain part, you make a hot soup containing all the sugar from the barley. Probably something American colonists and Medieval Europeans did a lot anyway to make meals. Well, if you boil that soup up and toss in a handful of yeast, or just waited till some yeast just floated by in the air (which is actually the way they used to do it), you trigger a bit of a chemical reaction. This yeast (an actual living microorganism like bacteria) will eat the sugar in this hot soup, and discrete alcohol. Yes …alcohol is yeast poop.
But, let them do that for a few weeks, and voila… beer. That is really all there is to it.
Hot barley soup plus a little yeast equals beer.
In fact, it is commonly believe that making beer is so easy, that early man stumbled across it by luck. But beer had an important medical quality that actually made it truly magical. No, it’s not that it enabled ugly people to get laid. The alcohol in beer actually killed off any other bacteria in the water, like a disinfectant. Early settlers had no idea what was going on, but soon made a connection between drinking beer instead of water …and not getting sick.
This was nothing short of a miracle for early civilizations. With water supplies so easily polluted, and dysentery and cholera outbreaks capable of killing an entire town, finding a way to dependably drink from a water supply was of paramount importance. See …beer makes everything better.
Soon, early man began truly paying attention to this beer thing. They finally made the connection to yeast (which they had been using for thousands of years to make bread anyway), and the pieces started to fall together. In order to keep the yeast from spoiling, and eventually to add in flavor, early beer makers began adding in another ingredient, hops, (a type of flower) to the mix. Hops somehow stabilized the yeast reaction, and, well, tasted better. And, thusly, beer gained its full four ingredients: Water, Barley grain, Yeast and Hops.
And thousands of years later, beer is still only made with these 4 elements. Now, yes, you can add in all sorts of other stuff to beer if you wanted (honey, syrup, wheat, rye, … marijuana ), but you don’t need to. In fact, in Germany, you actually aren’t allowed to. The German Beer Purity laws (the Reinheitsgebot) forbid it (more policy than edict these days, though). Yep, beer is a big deal around here.
And soon, enough Todd had a cart filled with just that …barley grain, yeast and hops.
Now with such simple ingredients, how is it possible for beer to have so many different flavors and appearances? Well, while the ingredients are straight forward …the exact types of those ingredients (light barley vs dark barley, top-fermenting vs bottom-fermenting yeast), their respective amounts, and your approach to cooking them (low temperatures vs high temperatures etc) has an exponential number of possibilities. Looking at the recipe Todd was looking to make (an English beer called Woodforde’s Wherry), I could tell there was definitely a lot more to it than just making barley soup.
Now, for a discourse into examples of all of those options we move onto…
LESSON TWO: Pelgrims Beer Emporia
So, what does 600 different types of beer look like all together? Well, if you live in Europe you can venture out to Pelgrims in Aarschot, Belgium. You remember that seen at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark? Well, kinda of like that …but with beer. OK, not nearly that big, but an archeological dig non-the-less (and just as dusty). Wandering through the rows and aisles it was hard to find a rhyme or reason to the organization of it all.
But by the prices of the beer, it was clear …this was serious beer. $20 for a single bottle, wow. Many beers here were corked like wine, and sometimes wrapped in wax paper like wine. Plus piles and piles of Chimay, the mysterious beer bottled by monks in a monastery. In fact, so much beer is bottled by monks around here it has its own classification… Trappist Beers. Yah, if there are monks involved, you know it’s gotta be good.
Todd and I wandered around picking up beers here and there, wiping the dust of some as we went. Yah, a lot like an excavation. But Todd knew his stuff. Every now and then he’d translate a sign (in either French, German or Dutch), get excited and go digging into some crate, and pull out a single bottle. A huge smile would spread across his face, and he would delicately place the bottle on his cart with the others … no two the same. Some of the beers he pulled out were close to five years old.
There were even entire sections of beer glasses. Apparently *every* beer comes with its own glass. Perfectly designed to suit the needs of the beer. Tall and thin, if it was to be kept cool; small and wide if was to breath (very similar to wine in that regard). Some glasses weren’t even flat on bottom! Check out Todd’s own amazing beer glass collection, some are real works of art. Pelgrims even gave out *free* beer glasses just for making the, uhm, pelgrim-age. Even I picked up a custom beer glass …and how cool is this guy?
Now, Todd’s journey through Pelgrim’s was not merely a leisurely stroll, …he was on a mission. True beer connoisseurs (and the guys who wrote blogs about them) always have an eye out for the rarest of beers … Kerstbier.
Kerstbier (German for “Christmas beer”) is made by beer suppliers around Europe only for a few weeks at the end of each year (hence the name). They are typically higher in alcohol (and therefore preserve for years longer), and are considered a delicacy of sorts. Their flavors can be very intense, and unique …offering a lot for the already cultivated palette.
However, because of their extremely low production numbers and higher quality, they are swallowed up (literally) by beer enthusiast within days of release. However, a place like Pelgrim’s had a reputation for always having a few of these hard to find bottles tucked around their warehouse. Know what to look for, and have a keen eye, and you can find & experience a Kerstbier for yourself. Knowing how to say Christmas in four different languages also helps, ha ha.
Not to be disappointed, Todd added several of these Xmas brew to his growing pile of ales and lagers. Mission complete, we rolled our cart of handpicked, hand crafted beers over to the register and out to the car with all of our beer making ingredients.
Now beer making would have to wait for another day, as Todd and I had one more stop before heading back to Germany, …the Guinness book of World Record holder for most beers on tap: Delirium.
The insanity that is a 250 page beer menu, the opulence of Brussels and my first foray into making my own beer from scratch will have to wait till next week my friends. For now, … I’m a bit thirsty