Friday, December 12, 2014

Beer Advent Calendars - Bottled Disappointment

Add caption
Please tell me this advent calendar gets better
Actually angry now
Bottled disappointment

Those are just a few of the comments that have been splattered on Twitter over local craft beer advent calendars in the first 11 days. So why all the anger? Well you see, boys and girls, when beer kiddies open that magical door and mark off one day closer to that fat guy coming down the chimney, they want WOW! Pizzazz! a beer that is unique and delicious. I get it, I want that too but when you dissect it, it’s not very realistic.

A local craft brewery has limited time, space and resources to make 24 unique beers. Yep, they can team up with another brewery – and one box was a collaboration of two breweries – but that adds additional complexity and coordination. They need to agree on the marketing, box, beers, price and on and on. If you want to have a box of BC beers, all unique, maybe that’s something the Guild would have to coordinate assuming they want that headache.

Bottom line, pick a local box and you’re going to get very few unique beers. Granted, some of the choices in the box were meant more for a sunny beach than chilly weather, but there aren’t many local imperial stouts around and the ones we have are seasonal.

On the other hand, I’ve seen tweets from people out of the province, and those new to craft beer, who haven’t had a lot of these beers and they appear to be quite happy with the selection. Win some, lose some. I’m actually feeling badly for the heat the local breweries are taking. They wanted to make a fun box but they didn’t design it to please the beer geeks (which is why I didn’t buy it). Guess that’s hard to market up front unless you state that it’s a collection of your old favourites or something to that effect.

For those that have sworn off an advent calendar next year, here are some ideas:

1. If you want a new beer every day, don’t buy the local box.
2. The imported box will have unique beers in it but haven’t been known for picking beers that travel well (i.e. low ABV) and they sit in Alberta for months before you see them in a pretty box. Take that into consideration.
3. Trade with a friend – you’ll both be surprised. Try to shop out of province if you can so they get unique beers.
4. No friends? No problem. If you have a bad memory like me, buy 30 beers and randomly pull 24 and stuff them in that box you have from this year (yes, save this year’s box). Every beer you pull out will delight you because you bought them so they must be good. Now swim around the bowl again, goldfish, and tomorrow’s beer will also be a surprise.
5. If you have your cellar list in a spreadsheet, select your small bottles (unless you want a bomber every night) and use a random generator to select from your list.
6. If you’re part of a home brewing club, many of them do an advent calendar with their members’ home brew. Here’s hoping your fellow home brewers don’t suck. Also, be polite, tis the season to be jolly and all that.

There are 13 days left in your calendar. You’ve already spent the money for the pretty box, which you can keep for next year, so try to have some fun with it. Beer pong? Hope you all get a couple more unique beers in there and less ones that anger you.
the first 6 days from our calendars
I, on the other hand, am enjoying the boxes my husband and I made for each other. It was a good way to get 48 bottles out of our hoarding inventory and so far it has included gems like Lost Abbey, Crux, De Molen, Westvleteren, Hair of the Dog, Avery, De Struisse – ok, I’ll shut up. Ah, the benefits of making your own.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Antwerp, BE

Next stop, Antwerp. Diamond capital of the world so, of course, Kelly stepped off the train, saw the row of diamond stores and promptly looked the other way. Good thing I’m not big on jewelry – he dodged a bullet there.

The train station is gorgeous and huge with four levels of tracks. The best waffle we had on our trip was at a kiosk on the main level near the tracks. Seek it out. We continued our frites quest in Antwerp and found a few good places around the main square including Frituur No 1. If you want to spice up your frites, ask for the Samurai sauce. This stuff is hot! Lots of mayo and sauces to choose from at all frites places to go with the glorious deep fried taters. 

While we’re frying things, check out the counter display for mystery meats and gel like substances that you can fry. Bitterballen can be found everywhere – a Dutch meat-based snack, typically containing a mixture of beef or veal that’s formed into a ball and fried up, baby. I’m not sure what the rest of the items in the case were but if it was on a stick or rolled into a ball (and fried), it can’t be all bad, right?

Parts of Antwerp are more modern than some of the other Belgian cities we’ve visited and it is easy to get lost walking as none of the roads are straight. Lots of American stores line Hopland (seriously, that’s the name!) and Schuttershofstraat – it’s the Antwerpen Robson Street.

Decent tap and bottle list at this small bar. I had a paddle with Gouden Carolus, Cantillon Single Barrel 1-year Lambic, 2013 Cantillon Lambic and a Pannepot. The paddle came with some Westmalle Trappist cheese (bonus!). We finished off with a glorious bottle of 3 Fonteinen Hommage. So yeah, their bottle and tap list is pretty decent!

Only our second planned dinner of the trip, this quaint restaurant is housed in an old Convent building from the 15th and 17th Century. You will find Flemish cuisine (stew, rabbit in Westmalle sauce) and good beer such as the 2010 Gueze Mariage Parfait that I enjoyed. Highly recommended. 

Gollem Bier – en Eetcafé
Another bar to check out as it has an extensive tap and bottle list.

I saved the best for last. You may have noticed that the link for Kulminator is to the ratebeer site but once you visit, you’ll see why they don’t need no stinkin’ website. Owned by Dirk and Leen, their bar has minimal seating, a slew of skittish cats, a year’s worth of bottle recycling hanging about and a huge and impressive cellar list. Dirk knows where everything is in the cellar, even if it takes him half an hour to find it. It’s not what I expected at all. Prior to going to Belgium, I imagined this place to be large and modern not a dark, cramped space with cats darting between your legs.

Kulminator is Beer Geek paradise especially when you visit with friends and can share some of the larger bottles. Word to the wise, do NOT sit at the table with all the papers as that is Dirk’s table and he will boot you out faster than you can say vintage ale.

The upper part of the cellar - that's my nose print on the glass

Kelly, Simon and I had a Chimay Blue vertical from 1994, 2004 and 2014. It’s a rare occasion to find bottles of anything from 1994 (their list had Chimay from 1981) and to try all three at once, well, it likely won’t happen for me again. 2004 was fantastic and because of this, I now want to buy a Chimay each year and age it for ten years. The young 2014 was good and the 1994 had oxidized somewhat – still decent, but it had that slight cardboard aftertaste.

Other great bottles I had were the 2007 Pannepeut Old Monk’s Ale and Black Damnation II & IV (Mocha Bomb and Coffee Club). The cellar list is about twenty pages long and freakin’ amazing. I’m not sure what Dirk is going to do when he retires (maybe sit in his cellar and drink all the beer?) but if that cellar is ever sold, it will fetch a fortune. This guy had the foresight decades ago to save beers and whereas some don’t age as well as others, to have a vintage bottle list in a little hole in the wall bar is unique and remarkable. I hope to make it back before they do retire.
A ladder holding up a tree on the patio. That's about right.

Antwerp was a beautiful city and definitely should be on your Belgium itinerary. Hope to see you and your exquisite beers again soon, Antwerpen.

For specifics on our trip, see the following links (once I write them all):

Utrecht, NL
Rotterdam, NL
Amsterdam, NL

Someone got lazy and didn't finish the second tower?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Oostende, BE

As Brugge is a short 15 minute train ride from the coast, we headed to the beach. It wasn’t bikini weather by a long shot, but it was a pleasant day for a walk.

We spent a good amount of time taking photos of the beautiful Sint-Petrus-en-Pauluskerk (Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul), which is the main church of Oostende. This Roman Catholic Neo-Gothic church, with spires measuring 72 metres high, was built on the ashes of a former church. King Leopold II supported the new, magnificent structure and it was constructed between 1899 and 1908.

The church was the best thing about Oostende as for some crazy reason, many businesses are closed on Mondays – yes, including the bars *sob*. 

Metal Art at the beach

Our Bartender busy reading a book
whilst we wait for a beer
The bar we wanted to check out opened for the evening but we were only there for a couple hours around noon. We finally found a place to quench our thirsty souls – a tiny little hole in the wall 't Kroegske. The long, white haired dude behind the bar looked at us quizzically when we walked into his tiny bar (which may have also been his office and his home). The bar takes up half the establishment and the one table we were at, the other half. A few uninteresting taps and 5 or 6 classic Belgian bottles is the extent of the list. We had one beer then hopped on the train back to Brugge.

Love the paint job on the bar

I wouldn’t make the trip out to Oostende unless you’re dying to see the coast.

For the rest of our trip, see the following links (once I write them all):

Antwerp, BE
Utrecht, NL
Rotterdam, NL
Amsterdam, NL 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Brugge, BE

Brugge is lovely – absolutely lovely. If you squint your eyes and ignore the American retail stores and god forbid, Pizza Hut in the centre of town, you’re taken back centuries to a much simpler time. Although it’s flocked with tourists, it has charm and a quiet solitude that would lure one to retire there. 

Not a bad view on a run

Brugge is the only place I went for a run, along the scenic canal. In the other cities we visited, narrow cobblestone sidewalks and bicycles made it virtually impossible to run without landing on my face. The paved path by the canal was perfect.
Not the address, the year built

We stayed two nights in Brugge to explore the city and hit up some of the great bars. Every second shop sells chocolate, beer or lace - there’s even a lace museum (and no, we didn’t go there).

Rose Red Cafe

Rose Red is a quaint café/bar with a tap list that sports Cantillon, has tasting flights and a bottle list that requires them to make a trip to the cellar. Ahhh my favourite type of list. They serve all of the Trappist beers and it’s a place you could sit in for a few hours (which we may have done) and have a happy palate. We were lucky enough to have Mathias serve us and he invited us to visit the cellar. A real cellar, not the fridges that most of us “cellar” our beers in. I tried to curl up under some old bottles of 3 Fonteinen Geuze but alas, eventually someone noticed I was missing – or maybe they heard the cork pop as I pried a bottle open with my teeth (all lady, all the time). I settled for drinking a bottle of the 2012 instead.

Now this is a cellar
Our hand-written bill

Another spot to visit is Beetrje Café (closed Tues/Wed). We stopped in for a night cap after Rose Red and managed to snag the last table in this small bar. They have five beers on tap and over 300 Belgian beers. We ordered their Special Brew made for them by Brouwerij de Dolle Brouwers and finished with the Oerbier Special Reserva (2012).

So far in our travels, we’d sampled many beers but paced ourselves well. Our first night in Brugge may have seen a few extra beers consumed as one of us couldn’t remember the billion rabbits in the field that night (rabbits? What rabbits?), one fell asleep on the bed fully clothed and the third was unscathed (I think). 

This may be the coolest place I’ve ever had a drink. It’s set in a 13th Century cellar with exposed brick arches. They have ten taps, offer tasting flights and have over 100 beers from Belgium and around Europe. The bartender, who seems to have a penchant for the 80’s rock videos they were playing all night – on repeat, brought us a sample of the freshly tapped Brew Dog Punk IPA and the three of us were all shocked at how much better it is fresh. Like 100x better – I liked it before in Canada but I loved it fresh. I know, we shouldn’t be surprised that the bottled version we get that takes a long, arduous journey from being bottled in Scotland, swimming across the pond to a North American port, resting in a BC warehouse while the government takes their sweet time to release it, off it hops on a truck to your local private liquor store and then it finally finds its way to your fridge. Suffice to say that Punk IPA is an amazing IPA and months of travel don’t do it justice.

Le Trappiste
I had a flight here as well as a bottle of Hanssens Oude Geuze. My god am I ever getting my sour love on in Belgium. Simon is as much of a sour aficionado as I am but Kelly is less inclined to drink them every night – needless to say Simon and I were the ones to suggest sharing bottles. I could drink them every day and never tire of them. Oh how I miss you, Belgium.

The place is spacious and after the bus tour left (damn tourists), one of the locals came by and chatted with us. The bartender and our new beer geek friend bought a couple of bottles of Hemel & Aarde Octomore to share with us - fantastic beer and great conversation ended the night. 
We stopped in many of the beer shops and did some shopping at Bier Tempel, Bacchus Cornelius, The Bottle Shop and 2be. Westvleteren 8 and 12 were in many shops at €8 and €10/€12.

2be bottle collection
Lastly, food. We were on a quest for the best frites in Brugge. It was a challenge posed (well, by us) and we chose to accept it. We tried, and tried, but didn't find any REALLY good frites in Brugge. One of you has to continue on this quest. I pass on the torch - go forth and eat frites.

For the rest of our trip, see the following links (once I write them all):

Antwerp, BE
Utrecht, NL
Rotterdam, NL
Amsterdam, NL 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Gent and Oostvleteren, BE

We chose a car over taking the train as there were two bottle shops we wanted to visit but in hindsight, taking the train and a cab to the bottle shops would have been a better way to travel. Getting out of Gent was a half hour experience of two-way streets converted to one-way and it felt like the GPS was taking us in circles. Returning to Brussels via car was also a slow moving, painful process. The rental was expensive and a headache so trust me, just take the train.


On to why we went to Gent. Beer shopping, of course. We stopped at Hopduvel and Dranken Geers and walked out of both places with some amazing beers. If I had to choose between them, stop at Hopduvel as they had a bigger selection.

We headed to the city center and canals for lunch. I don’t think we got a good sense of Gent given we only walked around the canal for about half an hour and spent some frustrating moments trying to leave the damn city. It was beautiful, but seemed more touristy with the multiple canal rides and every restaurant trying to lure you in. Lunch at a restaurant along the canal wasn’t great- I’d suggest venturing away from the tourist traps to really experience a sense of Gent. A friend visited Gent after us and loved it so our very brief experience isn't really valid. On that note, please ignore this paragraph and ask someone knowledgeable. 

Obligitory windmill picture in Oostvletern

From there, onto de Struise in Oostvletern. Unless you’re staying in Poperinge, you need a vehicle to get to de Struise. We planned on visiting  Brouwerji de Sint-Sixtusabdij van Westvleteren, more commonly known as Westvleteren or Westy, but alas, their café was closed during our visit. We still found a few bottles to purchase of Westvletern 8 and 12 in a store in Brugge, but it would have been nice to visit the café of the Trappist brewery.  

Big draught system, when tourists don't drink them dry
De Molen has thirty taps but when you arrive after a bus load of thirsty (greedy) tourists, there are only nine on tap. Say it isn’t so! The brewery is located in an old school house and is worth a visit even with the limited beer we had. We sat out in the courtyard listening to Mr. Head Brewer/Home Brewer/CAT Scan Reader (see Brussels post for the full story) continue his merry web of lies to a pleasant lady and her very friendly dog (who may have gotten some pets from me – the dog, not the big hairy liar). It was a brief trip to de Struise but I’m glad we were able to visit.

For the rest of our trip, see the following links (once I write them all):

Antwerp, BE
Utrecht, NL
Rotterdam, NL
Amsterdam, NL 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Brussels, BE

Brussels has a lot of old charm to it, cobblestone streets and unique shops. I didn’t see any American retail influence here, unlike other Belgian cities we visited. The Grand-Place was under construction, but it didn’t deter from the beauty of the 14th Century buildings. As it’s the home of Tin Tin, we came across comic murals on the sides of various buildings – now that’s the way to spice up boring exterior walls.

A few Tin Tin murals


After a long day of travel, we arrived in Brussels, changed into clothes from our carry-on (see, husband, putting a change of clothes in your carry-on is a wise thing to do), and took off to find a snack and Délirium Café.

One list from Delirium
With almost 2,500 beers on the menu, it’s wise to check this out. With three levels, downstairs has the same taps as the main level but they have the large book of bottles. Word to the wise, go to the bar with a few choices of bottles as it’s hard to keep an updated beer listed and many were sold out. The main level is crowded and taps only (but you can bring your bottles to your table). Upstairs, the Hoppy Loft, has a different tap and bottle list. We started on the main floor and migrated upstairs where it was quieter and easier to get bottles. Although many of the bottles were sold out, we happily found a bottle of 2010 Pannepot.

Delirium Cafe

It was also the first time I saw what appeared to be 14 or 15 year olds sitting around drinking beer. Off to google I go – turns out the legal drinking age in Belgium is 16 for beer and wine and rarely enforced. Rough day in math class? Turn up at Delirium for a few pints with your friends. Belgium, you’re my new hero (says my 16 year old self).

After a breakfast waffle, we walked over to Cantillon. Oh Cantillon, how I love thee. I had a sample of the recent Gueuze and then we drank a bottle of the Kriek and 2012 Zwanzee ,which was the rhubarb version. It was utterly delicious.
Look up! There are barrels in the attic

While at Cantillon, I overheard a guy taking to Jean van Roy about the sour he brewed last year. I bet Jean has excited home brewers wanting to talk about their beers every day and he was gracious and did a lot of head nodding while pouring. When this guy sat down near us, and he’s a loud talker, we found out that he was the head brewer at a Californian brewery. When he was asked for his business card as the people he was talking to were going to be in California, his story changed quickly to being a guest brewer to a home brewer. We googled the brewery and it’s in a small strip mall. We saw this same clown at De Struisse the next day and his story to some new, unsuspecting friendly visitors, was that he had been in Belgium for six weeks in 2013 and returns at least once a year. His wife’s a doctor and he reads CAT scans. For someone that spent six weeks in Belgium last year, I’m surprised he pronounced Fou Foune as fru fru and had no idea about Zwanze Day. Sadly, we didn’t see him day three to find out that he had transformed into Clark Kent.

My only regret from Cantillon was that we didn’t do the self-guided tour through the barrels and we didn’t hide somewhere and never leave. We purchased four bottles, two glasses and two t-shirts for a mere €68. Next time we’re in Brussels, we will make multiple visits to Cantillon.

With two locations in Brussels, we went to the Fontainas location and drank Cantillon Faro on cask and shared a bottle of Cantillon’s 50 Degrees N – 4 Degrees E (2012) with our friend Simon. Their rare bottle list is definitely worth perusing and if you don’t do the currency conversion, it’s a reasonable indulgence.
We returned here for the next day for Zwanze Day September 20, 2014. Yahoo! How awesome to be in Brussels on Zwanzee Day and have Jean two feet away from us giving the toast with the Cuvée Florian. Tickets were €10 and shockingly still available when we arrived on the 19th. This year’s Zwanze was excellent and it was one of the highlights of the trip to experience it in Brussels. To end the night, we shared a Lou Pepe Gueuze (2010), again from the amazing bottle list. Moeder Lambic has a great tap list as well but if you have the opportunity, take some friends and have multiple bottles.

2014 Zwanze - Cuvée Florian
Jean,within poking distance

We rarely had a meal in a restaurant our entire trip as we often just had cheese and sausage while at a bar. I’m glad we made the time to visit Neutnigenough as the food was delicious, they had a great beer list and the server was very knowledgeable about beer and food pairings. The restaurant is small so be prepared to wait or hit it at non-peak times like we did.

Brussels is a good central location to stay as the train system is excellent and inexpensive. Thus, instead of moving around too much, we did a day trip to Gent from Brussels. We headed to Midi Station to rent a car to Gent and on the walk to the station, around 9am on Saturday, we came across a gaggle of hungover or still drunk young adults. I use the term adults loosely.  As we’re walking towards them, two of the dozen get in a scuffle and start an awkward skinny boy fight in the middle of the street. They were still smacking each other when we passed and I was just hoping they didn’t want to play punch a tourist. Other than that weird incident, I felt very safe in Brussels.

I would return to Brussels and could spend multiple days going back to Cantillon and Moeder Lambic. A bit more time to explore the streets would have been preferred, but off we went to Gent.

For the rest of our trip, see the following links (once I write them all):

Antwerp, BE
Utrecht, NL
Rotterdam, NL
Amsterdam, NL