Tag Archives: the session

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.

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