Category Archives: Beer Travels

The Session #93: Beer Travel

This is my first foray into group blogging (kinky). The Session has been going on for many years; I have been reading them for just a couple; now I find the opportunity to contribute. Excellent. Here is the topic, presented by The Roaming Pint (and my scattered response):

Why is it important for us to visit the place the where our beers are made? Why does drinking from source always seem like a better and more valuable experience? Is it simply a matter of getting the beer at its freshest or is it more akin to pilgrimage to pay respect and understand the circumstances of the beer better?

It so happens that I recently returned from just such a mission. It dawned upon me while writing an entry for The Bier Stein’s newsletter that travelling great distances to try beer is like going to my neighborhood brewpub, but with more history, culture, and canals.

I had made a Google map of all the breweries I wanted to hit, and brought along CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide to Belgium, ever hopeful to meet my goals. Before leaving, I thought of the trip like a hajj, and was excited to step through so many old brewery doors, to feel the cobwebs brush my cheeks, and to proselytize to people about where I work in hopes of a deeper connection.

As it turned out, the act of getting to the beer was just as valuable as drinking the stuff. Our poetic limitations were transportation and communication: no car, no cell/smart phone– just an iPad with wifi. We relied on trains and trams, bicycles and our feet, paper maps and handwritten directions. The Guide was employed several times a day, and proved to be a sherpa worth its salt. Navigating the contoured streets and alleys of Belgian cities and towns broke us down; you have to get lost to find your way. Randomly spotting a good beer bar was satisfying; I felt like I did it myself.

“I made it!” I thought, and it showed on my face, as Liz would point out. In my head, walking through a door was like walking out of an Arctic blizzard; the hasp clicks and the screaming wind dies. Every pour was a new acquaintance, every acquaintance a new friend.

Tromping around the Belgian countryside, past fields of Brussels sprouts, cows, and hop trellises, you might imagine absorbing the local terroir and commiserating with your beer that way. Or breathing the air in Beersel, perhaps, would give you a preview of the flavors to come out of Drie Fonteinen’s barrels a few years down the road. It’s all in the mind, you know, so make the most of it.

Of course the beer is fresher; it is absolutely delicious, especially at a place like Het Waterhuis in Ghent, where they clearly take care of their draught system and glassware, or De Garre in Bruges where the owner is the bartender and pours beers like they were his kids. I got to admire a method of pouring that was not business-savvy, but made the beer better: from a height greater than 4 inches, plenty of foam that spills over; just before the foaming action peaks, it is scraped off the top with a flat knife so that the final bit billows and creates a lovely aromatic pillow for your upper lip. Dip the bottom of the glass in water to rinse, serve with a coaster and a nod.

Economically speaking, going to the source versus drinking at home is the same as going to the show versus buying the CD; the closer you are, the more your support counts. Personally, I feel more enriched having visited. I can attach memories of places to beers, which helps me in a number of ways:

-I sell beer as part of my job, and stories sell.
-I brew beer as a hobby, and now have a new challenge to brew a beer I feel is “legit” Belgian, to work the yeast the right way.
-Ray Daniels and the Cicerone website said it would boost my Ciccy cred to visit a famous beer brewing country. Oregon does not count as a beer brewing country yet.
-Time away from the drinking culture at home showed me just how ingrained beer is, and can be, in culture.
-I got to experience some flavors and textures I never had before. Nothing like a good old fashioned palate expansion.

[On the flip side, I’ve come back home with a renewed distaste for American IPA. I was slipping there for a bit (I actually enjoyed a can of Heady Topper from the mail!), but after that two week reset I’ve come to realize that the amount of hops being put into beer out here crosses the line from an entertainment dose to a medicinal dose (the subject of future rants, I’m sure). Somehow the general craft-swilling populace has adapted to the sedative quality of these beers, which are served by the entire pint rather than the moderate glass pours of the strong beers in Belgium. Or I’m just a sensitive little butterfly, I don’t know, I just don’t have the hop fetish that seems to grip the nation right now.]

Now I get to share stories with friends, to pass on the mystique. I get to open bottles and think “I was there!” How cool.

Pit Stops: Terre Haute, Denver, Bend

You never know what you’re going to get driving into the heart of a giant landmass. –Aaron I credit my Dad for turning me on to good beer, and so it was with pride that I got to show him a slew of great watering holes on our transcontinental tour of the Interstate system. Let the record show: we are extremely lucky. Mere hours after we had battled severe rain between Terre Haute, Indiana and St. Louis, Missouri, several tornadoes caused I-70 to shut down in the area. Significance junkies would wrestle with the whys and hows of our fortune, try to decode reality as Carl Jung would interpret a dream. As for Dad and I, a beer was in order. Let the record also show: Colby, Kansas is not the place to be a beer snob. Negra Modelo is awesome, especially when you are in the Mexican restaurant-in-a-hotel-across-the-street-after-10-hours-driving. Thankfully, we had a cooler with some East Coast reserve bottles stashed back in the room. That’s all I have to say about that. Day 3 got us into Denver, Colorado: the most centrally located Beer Heaven in the country. If you can find your way around (I suggest a detailed map), there are wonderful suds to be had. Vine Street Pub, the Denver outpost of Boulder’s Mountain Sun consortium, is tucked into a neighborhood with great old bungalows and Craftsman homes. The atmosphere is decidedly homey in the just-out-of-college sense; classic concert posters adorn the walls, and the menu is simple and tasty. My first experience with Mountain Sun beer, on a road trip in 2005, was revelatory: Colorado Kind Ale on Nitro gave me shivers back then, and it is still one of my all-time favorites. It is extra smooth and malty from the Nitro, but a good dose of bitterness and classical American hop sensations keep everything in balance.

vine street pub
Colorado Kind Ale at Vine St. Pub in Denver, CO

These days, the most desirable beers tend to be the least available, especially of the wild/sour variety. Crooked Stave, the brain/love child of Chad Yakobson, is a particularly tasty example of this phenomenon. Yakobson, following a Masters dissertation on Brettanomyces, brews all of his beers with some combination of Saccharomyces, Brettanomyces, and/or Lactobacillus. Many are fermented in large oak barrels, some are dry-hopped or otherwise augmented. Our final beer destination (aside from landing in Eugene) was Bend. Bend is beer country. Actually, Bend and Eugene are beginning to share a desirable trait when it comes to microbreweries: proximity. You can walk less than two miles in Bend and hit at least 5 breweries (Silver Moon, Bend Brewing, 10 Barrel, Good Life, Boneyard); Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood has just gotten a sudsy facelift; now you can walk from Ninkasi to Oakshire to (in a few days) Hop Valley. From Whiteaker it’s just a short jaunt downtown to Steelhead (where I’m waiting for brewer Ted Fagan to make another round of awesome lagers), Falling Sky, the Rogue, McMenamins, and of course the Bier Stein (or you can just come here– we’ve got it all!). Finishing the trip was bittersweet, but well-punctuated by pints of tasty homebrew (home is where the homebrew is). Thanks to the wonders of wireless internet, our six days of travel didn’t leave us lacking good beer, even in the middle of nowhere.

East Coast Sippin’

Of course I’d start up a blog and then ditch to the East Coast for two weeks..

A year ago when  my college roommate Mark called to announce his engagement,  I was naturally thrilled and honored to be included in his cadre of groomsmen. My anticipation of the event, marked by a current of nervousness at performing a reading and jitters at the prospect of seeing so many people after 5+ years, somewhat abated after hearing the beer lineup: Sam Adams Summer Ale, Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, and Allagash White. The former two are readily available in Oregon, but Allagash has fallen through the cracks of distributorship here, sadly.

Allagash White pairs well with garden weddings!
Allagash White pairs well with garden weddings!

When I started drinking craft beer in college (I would buy a 30-pack of Schaefer and a 6-pack of 60 Minute, feigning financial efficiency), and then started home brewing in my junior year, Mark hopped right into the hobby with me, and was, while in med school, far outpacing my own output until I got to Eugene. Now as a doctor he brews less, but enjoys more.

The groom enjoys a pre-wedding beer...
The groom enjoys a pre-wedding beer… you gotta make sure it’s good!

Anyhow, another upside to the eastward sojourn was the opportunity to do some extensive “research” on the craft beer scene in the DC area, whence I hail. Surprisingly to my Oregon-centric mind, there are breweries sprouting up all over the Mid-Atlantic states. I have to throw in another aside here:

Customers frequently request Yuengling, which is the oldest brewery in the country. Having been gone so long, I had dismissed it as “just another pseudo-craft lager,” lumping it in with National Bohemian and Olympia as passable alternatives to PBR and BMC products. But while it is not the shiniest of examples, I have to laud it as a mild, pleasing Amber Lager– not quite a Vienna Lager like Negra Modelo, but far toastier and smoother than your standard large-scale American Lager, especially if served at higher-than-freezing temperatures. If you’re back east, give it a whirl and a nod as the best “old standby” out there.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to try them all. Otherwise I’d be at Churchkey in D.C… I managed to sample some of the District’s finest: DC Brau. Their pale ale is of Northwest descent, with a dry-hop haze and grapefruit + floral aromas that belie a gentle bitterness. Also in the fridge were two from Duck Rabbit Craft Brewery in Farmville (yes, it’s a real place) North Carolina (no, the beer didn’t taste like blue cheese buffalo wings…). Their Brown Ale was smooth but somewhat roasty for the style (it went great with sesame/ginger kebabs), their Porter was spot on, just darn tasty.

Whenever I travel, the challenge is to drink beer that the Stein can’t get; this way I learn about local flavors, local palates, local trends. For instance: the sour beer craze has not fully hit the Mid-Atlantic states. IPAs are, overall, more malty than West Coast versions (my opinion: there is nothing wrong with that unless it is too sweet!). Many restaurants are catching on, and adding good beer stock with their good wine stock.

Next up: a whirlwind (literally!) trip across America, mostly Denver and Bend.