Archive for the ‘Beer’ Category

It Has Been a While Since Visitors Passed This Way

Although I would like to pride myself on being a hearty traveler, I suppose everyone has their breaking point. Late May,wearing my winter coat, in the rain, Bamberg, Germany, I hit it.

The excursion to the eastern Franconia region of Germany was to be a practice run for our campsite routine and an opportunity to sample the legendary brews at the outdoor kellers, or beer gardens. The weather reports depicted low temperatures with the chance of rain, but we had prevailed over an Ireland-like trip through Italy with daily showers and were confident we could do so again.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Then it began to rain. It did not stop. My fingers grew cold despite my gloves — gloves! May! These were followed by my nose and toes. After 24-hours of saturation even the dependable little tent sighed as its seams began to weep. After a long winter and the coldest spring in 60 years, the weather had beaten us down and we retreated, by way of a detour to the “Romantic Road,” back to Belgium.

Perhaps we should have known better than to try our luck at another tourist destination during an excursion bogged down in ill fate. Or perhaps we are the kind of couple of irony who, looking to redeem a trying trip with a little romance, find the Romantic Road closed.

Apparently, as part of the country-wide infrastructure stimulus package, the Romantic Road is under construction.  The detour signs lead us away from the promise of charming towns and idyllic views, past visitor information signs crackled with time and outdated with irrelevance.

Meistertrunk Festival

Eventually we made it to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, called the best preserved medieval city in Europe, with which I could not disagree. It was there that we were reaped the rewards of our weather-induced travel traumas.

The only draw back to this gem is that it suffers from serious overcrowding
Frommer’s Germany

Warm and Welcome

Unless, that is, you are there at 5 p.m. on a gray, wet and cold Thursday in May. Why, then you have the city wall ramparts entirely to yourself (they are covered too, conveniently enough). And it will be just you and a handful of random other soggy visitors who catch part of the city’s annual celebration of itself: a parade of locals — men, women and children — dressed up in medieval costume who parade around town and congregate at the Rathaus (city hall) all for their own amusement and not for ours.

Of course, all this whining is meant in jest, at least partially. We saw lovely towns, sampled some of the best beers in the world, enjoyed the historic beer hall culture and ate hearty meats laid atop mounds of sauerkraut. But my memory will be struck with that sense of appreciation for the fact that the locals seemed as peeved about the weather as me. In response, and to my relief, they cranked up those ceramic-tiled ancient wood stoves and kept their places cooking.


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In preparation for The Great Tulip Caper I have been biking for about a month now. I have pedaled through outer space, several professional kitchens, a medieval church and several soccer pitches. That is to say, my exercise has been confined to a stationary bike in the living room, in front of the television or a book. To test my progress (and assess the very feasibility of The Great Tulip Caper — more about that later) we ventured out onto the road on a couple of locally rented bikes.

Fairly quickly two ideas of relief spring to mind: Holland’s tulip fields are absolutely flat, as opposed to mostly flat, and Belgians love cobblestones much more than the Dutch.

There we were pedaling through serene wooded parks, no one around but the cheering birds in the trees. Them wam, or wama-wama-wama-wama-wama-wama-wama-wama-wama. The dirt path turns into an old cobblestone lane, much to my teeth- and bone-chattering chagrin. What I had once admired as a beautiful and historic aesthetic touch to Belgium was now slamming my soft brain into the hard sides of my skull. Think I’m exaggerating? Just take a look at this video link.

But relief was soon within sight. Accompanying the Flanders bike route maps is a brochure listing each of the watering holes that your green line of progress passes through. And by water, I mean beer. In Bierbeek we selected In de Molen, which just happened to also be mentioned in someone’s Good Beer Guide to Belgium. Although an unimpressive yellow brick building from the outside, inside we sat at polished wooden tables beneath heavy wooden beams in the company of locals sipping their afternoon beer or coffee. The refreshing La Trappe Wit helped dull the bike-seat pain and hush the whirring in my ears from the parts of my brain that had liquefied. Nourished by a tiny bowl of cheese cubes, served with compliments beside your beer, we set off to further explore the local countryside.

Biking the rural landscape around our little city proved one of the best ways to casually explore its lovely bits and pieces. Past ancient farmsteads and more recent castles, we stopped and admired the green pastures, growing fields and livestock: a typical mix of cows, sheep and, of course, emus.

Emus? Yes. Emus.

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A Country View

A small frame of country beauty just minutes from our home delivered here to your computer screen for vicarious enjoyment.

This was taken at the property of the Hof Ten Dormaal brewery. The family-run business includes farming the ingredients that go into the beer, as well as nurturing a few native farm species — including a few of the mighty and massive Belgian draft horses shown here, along with sheep, cows, chickens and five of the most alluring herding dogs I have ever met. Throw in the authentic Belgian-made iron coal stove in the cozy brick tasting room crowded with copper brewing tanks, and the Jannsens are lucky I find the courtesy to leave at the end of our pleasant Saturday afternoon visits.

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There are certain cultural phenomena that produced by one country are almost entirely consumed by another. Over the course of several days of uber-beerfest enthusiasm here, I have come to the conclusion that Belgian beer in its finest form, manifested from resident creativity and tradition, is enjoyed predominantly by a foreign market. Belgium’s finest microbrews are to Americans and Brits what America’s David Hasselhoff is to throngs of tone-deaf Germans.

This is not to say that no Belgian drinks or appreciates a fine beer. Just as there are pockets of Americans who cling to the nostalgia of Knight Rider — myself, for one — there are Belgian Belgian beer cognoscenti. Each city has its beer club of enthusiasts, but for a country so incredibly good at  producing the best beer in the world (well, in my opinion) they are not so good at producing people to drink it.

The Belgian beer event, the Zythos Beer Festival, was held this weekend along with a flurry of side events scheduled to coincide with the influx of beer tourists to the country. There were two pre-festivals, a lambic festival, an open brewing day and a celebration of Cantillon on tap, just amongst those of which I was made aware. But although the theme at each was Belgian, the dominant slant of language heralded from across the sea. Filled with Brits and Americans reveling in the selection, delight and originality of the available beverages, some pre-events showed nary a Belgian to be found. And although Belgians could be heard in the crowd at ZBF itself, they did not amount to a majority.

Why is this? Expense, for one. The disposable income of a youngster whether just out of school or struggling through the first years of real employment is limited. When you can buy a Stella for under a buck, why spend three or more even if you know it will be better. But then, where do these people go when they turn 30?

One hypothesis says that for too long Belgian beer amounted to mostly the piss-yellow glass of pils your father drank at the smokey men-only corner bar. The next generation, wishing to distance themselves from the last, takes to sipping fine French wine — notably, available in fine quality at fine prices in Belgium.

And there lies the hope for the future. Perhaps the children’s children will chide their parents for their lack of locavore instinct, and coming into their own (wealth) will take to the fine microbrews and traditional abbeys that surround them.

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Today the Kerkom Brewery reopened following its winter break, which spanned from Christmas Eve to February 3. The inner beer geek (in at least one of us) was sure to make us the first customers of the New Year. And so it was that we were greeted by the wife of the couple who run the brewery just after she had stoked the coal stove in the tasting room and unlocked the front gate to the courtyard.

After warming up against the stove, we took our seats and ordered our beers. For me it was the Kerkom Dubbel — perhaps my favorite beer in the world — a dark brown brew that is deceptively light, sweet and beholden to an essence of honeysuckle. (You may have heard me crow about this magical drink last summer, when we last visited the brewery and came upon the shockingly delightful discovery.) From the first sip it did not disappoint the mounting expectations; indeed, it was brilliant.

As we had found on our previous visit, the Kerkom Brewery tasting room invites  diverse patrons. Today was no exception. There were the locals, whom grandma met with hugs and joined with a Bink Blond of her own. On our way out we were passed by an older British gentleman exchanging two cases of Bink empties for full. And our own early arrival was soon followed by that of a small crowd who had arranged a tour and a sampling. It was not until they returned from their walk around the facility — grandma having taken over bar-tending duties for her daughter — that we realized they were part of an organized trip for mildly developmentally disabled adults who had arrived by public bus and left  on the next scheduled departure following a couple beers and a plate of cheese. We could not imagine such a sanctioned event in the States, and marveled at the well executed escapade.

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Wandering Views

Our objective led us in one direction, and wandering led us back. We began our road trip to find a famed beer store (of course) but with the promise that we would take the time coming back finding something new.

And so we pulled out the map and selected a dot not too far from the shop and in the general direction of home. (The direction directly home ran only through countryside, farms and the accompanying livestock.) The dot on the map was followed by the name: Lier.

We took a chance on limited information that the town would fit our general qualifications of relatively small (the dot was a mere point) and at least somewhat charming (to which a beer guide alluded). And by the GPS mapping software estimates it was likely reachable before bladder emergencies had to be declared.

The town was indeed charming. Set on an open square (upon which an unfortunate ad hoc parking lot had been created) was a towering 15th century bell tower, a similarly historic town hall and rows of restaurants and shops set on the ground floor of charming buildings. After squeezing into a parking space we took a brisk jaunt around the square in search of, as always, the perfect place.

This marks the problem with wandering when one’s preconceived notions of what a wander should result in make it difficult to be satisfied by anything less, when anything more would require a great deal of strategy, quite the opposite of a wander altogether. (And when I say “one,” I mean “I.”)

This was made worse by the fact that the GPS software was clearly toying with me, and my now red-alert bladder emergency.

We settled, eventually, on a place for its look, knowing not to expect much else. It was a white brick building on the edge of the canal and inside the low ceilings were held up by ancient tree-trunk beams. We ate our mediocre pasta beside a flickering fire, and tried the local “Bier van Lier” (oh so clever, those Lier-ites).  And there was a bathroom, which was most appreciated. The restaurant was called De Fortwin, fortunate indeed to appear just when we needed it most.

Fed, watered and relieved, we were energized to continue our way home in an unexpected way. Using our GPS software once again, we plotted the shortest route back home. This lead us through no fewer than three detour (we’re-working-on-the-street-but-can’t-be-bothered-to-finish-so-you’ll-have-to-drive-elsewhere) signs, before turning onto a particularly wooded section of road. Understand that there are no wooded parts to the land in this region. Everything has long since been farmed out and formed into small towns or big cities. Random groves do not often pop up out of the flat landscape.

“Well at least we get a tour through the woods this way.”

Observing the precisely coiffed, dense and tall hedges that lined the road before the trees, she responded: “Or, I think this is where the rich people live.”

A black Lamborghini turns the corner, revs its engine and speeds way behind them.

“Yes, probably pretty rich.”

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All About the Beer

While in Belgium, it would be near impossible, and certainly a tragedy, to miss the beer culture. The range, variety and quality of the brews that have been created in this country throughout its history make it unique in the world. No other country can boast such a fine selection of beverages derived from a bit of malt, hops and yeast — amongst other ingredients.

But such a lofty topic as Belgian beer is best left to the experts or at least enthusiasts, in this case, my husband. And so I direct you to the latest installment — with many more to come — of A Considered Glass. If for no other reason, enjoy the adoring glam-shots of glass goblets and foamy heads.

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