Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Beer trekking in Alaska

With a population of just 735 thousand, spread over an area of almost as many square miles, Alaska is both very large and very sparsely populated. One wouldn't expect this to be much of a state for good beer, unless you happened to know that Alaskan Brewing Company was the 67th craft brewery to be founded in the United States back in 1986 and that new breweries and good beer bars are popping up all over the state. And since I've always wanted to "go north to Alaska" I decided to finally do so as part of a longer trip to the US Pacific North West the summer of 2014.

View from the Mount Roberts Tramway in Juneau

To be the capital city of Alaska, Juneau is remarkably provincial and peripheral in the far southern corner of the state, some 800 miles from the greater metropolitan area Anchorage, where the majority of Alaskans live and work. But despite many discussions over the years Juneau seems destined to keep the state capitol, with its public offices, which is the main reason about 32,000 people still actually live here. Since Juneau is also home to the oldest brewery in Alaska, I decided to make this city my first stop as I flew in from Seattle.

Juneau actually has a decent public transportation system, in the form of several bus lines, taking passengers between Douglas and downtown, in the south, up to the airport and Mendenhall valley, some 13 miles to the north. The key to taking buses between the north and south is The Nuggett Mall, located along Glacier Hwy, which is the terminal point both for the northern and southern lines and thus where you have to change bus lines. I stayed at a hotel close to the airport so I relied on buses to get to downtown. I had printed out the bus schedules before going, which turned out very fortunate as the wi-fi at my hotel (and around most of Juneau) was down after an earthquake struck the area early the day I arrived. This earthquake also knocked out credit card payment terminals so I was forced to use cash several places that first night. Ye have been warned.

After doing the normal tourist activities, such as visiting the State Capitol Building (one of only ten in the US not to have a dome), walking by the dismantled St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, which is currently being "anchored" to keep it from slipping downhill in case of an earthquake, and taking the breathtaking Mount Roberts Tramway to enjoy some spectacular views of the city and of Douglas Island across Gastineau Channel, I started my beer exploration with a stop at what I thought was the highly rated Hangar on the Wharf but turned out to be a small neighboring pub, The Flight Deck.

View of the bar at The Flight Deck in Juneau

The Flight Deck
When I entered from the waterfront, where the sea planes take off and land, I thought I had found The Hangar on the Wharf, the highest rated beer place in Juneau. So I was slightly puzzled and a bit disappointed to find only 9 taps, not the 20-something listed on RateBeer. Still, the beer selection was excellent, with four from the local Alaskan Brewing Company and one from Midnight Sun. The service was fast and flawless and I really enjoyed the quiet and cozy atmosphere, sitting in the bar and looking at the sea planes and cruise ships in Juneau harbor.

When I was about to leave I expressed my surprise that they only had 9 beers on tap, to which the kind waitress informed me that I must have mistaken them, The Flight Deck, for the Hangar. Slightly embarassed, I asked her for directions and she pointed next door.

The Hangar on the Wharf
The Hangar on the Wharf is located right on the Juneau waterfront and is actually a restaurant, a very popular one too, with a surprisingly good selection of draft beer. I counted 30 taps when I sat down at the bar, many of them offering good US or Alaskan craft beer.

Unlike The Flight Deck, The Hangar was more or less full of people and thus very noisy. Apparently this is the norm rather than the exception, so you will have to be able to stand children screaming and lots of loud talking and laughter if you want to have a few beers here. I could only stand this noise for an hour, then I left to save my hearing.

Despite the great beer selection and interesting food menu (I never ordered from it though) at The Hangar, I actually enjoyed the visit to The Flight Deck more. But then again I'm a barfly.

The tiny shop and taproom at Alaskan Brewing in Juneau

Alaskan Brewing Company
From downtown Juneau I caught a bus back towards Nuggett Mall but got off at the stop before Lemon Creek. I walked up Anka Street, taking right onto Shaune Dr and immediately saw several large storage tanks in the distance, so I knew I was heading the right way. When I approached a blue and brown painted wooden building, with the large tanks in the back, I saw the sign that confirmed I had arrived at my main goal in Juneau: Alaskan Brewing Company.

Alaskan Brewing is one of the oldest craft breweries still in business in the US. It was founded as early as 1986 by Marcy and Geoff Larson, who still own and run the company. The brewery has introduced a number of well known beers over the years, I can still remember discovering Alaskan Amber during a visit to Seattle back in the late 1990s. And their Alaskan Smoked Porter, which has been around for more than twenty years, is an early and very good example of this style of beer and one of my all-time favorite smoked porters.

When you enter the building you arrive in a small room that functions as the brewery shop and taproom. It really is surprisingly small, with people looking to buy t-shirts or beer glasses standing shoulder to shoulder with people tasting one of the ten beers Alaskan have on tap at the small bar. The great thing is that you get six tasters for free, so I immediately went to work sampling several (to me) novelties, such as the Freeride APA, Hopothermia Double IPA and the aformentioned Smoked Porter, of which I bought several bottles to bring with me home.

View from the outdoor deck at Snow Goose in Anchorage

Getting from Juneau to Anchorage is possible by car, but I wouldn't recommend the 21 hour, 840 mile long drive, which would take you through the largely desolate Yukon territory of Canada. The only sane way is to take a plane, which gets you to Anchorage in 1 hour and 40 minutes. So I did that after my brief but nice stay in Juneau.

Anchorage is located in south central Alaska at the mouth of the Knik Arm, one of two narrow branches of the Cook Inlet which empties out in the Gulf of Alaska. Unlike the interior and northern parts of Alaska, the climate in Anchorage is surprisingly temperate all year around and the metropolitan area accounts for more than 50% of the state's population with roughly 250 thousand living in the urban city center.

I knew before arriving that Anchorage had the biggest and fastest growing beer scene in Alaska, so I was anxious to explore its many pubs and breweries, some of them located a bit outside downtown. Fortunately, I had a local driver who took me to the more remote places - thank you, Jeffrey!

I started my exploration on foot, since many of the best pubs and breweries are located in the northwest section of downtown, from 6th to 3rd Avenue.

Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse
Sporting more than 50 beers on tap, Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse on 610 W 6th Ave must be the best stocked beer bar in Alaska, with a breathtaking selection of Alaskan craft beer. Combine this with a very decent kitchen and some of the best and fastest service I've had anywhere in America (even with a full bar, surrounding him at 270 degrees, the bartender would spot my empty glass, virtually within seconds of me setting it down, again and again), this should be the obvious top spot for good beer in Anchorage.

However, there are some caveats. 

One is the noise level, created by a combination of poor acoustics and people talking loudly to be heard over the din of TV screens showing sports. This would have gone well at a sports bar, but an alehouse shouldn't resort to TV screens to keep people entertained - we come here for beer and food and for talking with similar minded people. 

The other thing that that pulled down the overall impression, which I guess is more of a problem for beer geeks than the casual drinker, is the lack of beer flights or beer tasters. I asked the bartender but he said they only sold beer by the pint. At most I could get a small taste of a beer if I considered ordering it but not a series of small glasses of different beers. When a place offers 50+ beers on tap, there's no way a guest can get through most of them in one, or even several nights, if you have to drink a pint of each! So my suggestion to the owners of Humpy's is to start offering flights of beer in small 5 oz tasting glasses ... and please remove those TV screens.

Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse in Anchorage 

Located in the same building, but around the corner in F Street, and with the same owner as Humpy's, Sub Zero may look like a modern, soulless drinks bar; the huge windows along the sidewalk lets in lots of light, making the red painted room very bright, the tables and chairs are simple, functional and the shelves behind the bar are stacked with whisky, brandy and other hard liquors. But appearance can be deceiving.

The reason I visited Sub Zero was to meet some locals who had recommended this bistro because of the many rare beers you'll find here. And the service at Sub Zero proved excellent, as soon as the bartender realized we were there for beer he ventured into their cellar to bring out several well aged barley wines, imperial stouts and sour ales.

In addition to a decent selection of six draft beers, which included the tasty New Belgium Le Terroir 2014 - a wonderful sour beer with an elegant brettanomyces character, Sub Zero offered more than a 100 types of beer on bottle, including a number of really hard to get beers that wasn't even listed on the menu. Among the most interesting bottles I shared was the amazing Ol' Cattywhompus, an English style barley wine from White Birch Brewing, and the equally impressive Anchorage Calabaza Boreal, a delicious and rich saison brewed in collaboration with Jolly Pumpkin from Dexter, Michigan.

Another good thing about Sub Zero is that it had a quiet and relaxing atmosphere, unlike the bustling and noisy atmosphere at Humpy’s, which makes it a great spot for beer tasting while in Anchorage.

All in all I came away with a great impression of Sub Zero and though Humpy's offer a lot more beer types, especially on tap, I would recommend visiting Sub Zero first, just to sample their exquisite beer selection.

The bar at Glacier Brewhouse in Anchorage

Sitting at the bar of Glacier Brewhouse, enjoying a local draft beer while taking in the view of the actual brew house, visible behind large glass windows at the end of the bar, isn’t the worst thing one can do in Anchorage. Located a block north of Sub Zero and Humpy's, at 737 W 5th Ave, Glacier Brewhouse is a very popular brewpub and restaurant in the heart of downtown. 

The place seems to be particularly popular with families, many bringing their children or retired parents for lunch or dinner. On my first visit the place was packed and every second table served a family, while others were occupied by couples on a date or groups of friends. The beer geeks were far between, which gave the place a very nice atmosphere in my view.

Glacier Brewhouse only serve their own beer, naturally, which meant 8 draft beers and one on cask when I visited at the end of July. The beers ranged from the decent Amber and Blonde ale to the very tasty Imperial Blonde and Maker’s Mark Stout. The food, I had a herb crusted halibut, was delicious, so I can see why the locals flock here for lunch and dinner. And, unlike Humpy's, they also do flights of beer, which is a great thing for us beer tourists.

Snow Goose / Sleeping Lady
Two blocks north of Glacier Brewhouse, on 717 W 3rd Ave at the very edge of downtown Anchorage, you'll find the Snow Goose Restaurant which is a remarkable place. When entering the building the first thing that greets the eye is the fermentation tanks, visible through large windows, of the house brewery - Sleeping Lady Brewing Company. As I'll refer to later, this brew house also supports another brewery, located in the basement, but more on that shortly.

In addition to the brewery and a smaller seating area on the ground floor, most of the restaurant is located on the second floor. Here you'll find the bar, with about a dozen beers on tap - all of them brewed at Sleeping Lady, and a large seating area. In the summer season you can also sit at one of the tables on the outdoor decks, of which there are two - both accessible from the second floor - one on the second floor and one on the third floor, on the top roof of the building.

Snow Goose quickly became my favorite hang out in downtown, mainly because of the great views from the outdoor decks and the excellent food they served, which included a delicious reindeer burger and fresh cod. Their Sleeping Lady house beers were all decent and usually good pairing with their food, I really enjoyed the Portage Porter with the reindeer burger, or just working well as thirst quenchers in the warm weather, such as the refreshing Gold Rush Golden Ale and Urban Wilderness Pale Ale.

Another plus with Snow Goose is that the bar offers bottles from Anchorage Brewing Company, the brewery I alluded to earlier, which is currently located in the cellar of the building.

Reindeer burger and Snow Goose Urban Wilderness Pale Ale 

Anchorage Brewing Company
Since its foundation in early 2011 (and for a few months more), Anchorage Brewing Company has been located in the cellar of the building housing the Snow Goose restaurant and Sleeping Lady brewery. This was done on purpose by its founder, Gabe Fletcher, since he didn't have the financial means to buy his own brewhouse at the time.

Fletcher started his brewing career at Midnight Sun Brewing Company in Anchorage in 1998, becoming the head brewer one and a half years later - a position he held for 13 years, until he left to found Anchorage Brewing Co. His aim was to perfect barrel aging of beers in the same vein Ron Jeffries has done at Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Dexter, Michigan. No matter what beer style, IPA, Porter, Saison or Wit, Fletcher will age it in large wooden foudres until he deems the beer right for bottling.

Whenever Sleeping Lady has spare capacity, Gabe Fletcher will brew his own beer there and transfer it down one floor, into a large wooden foudre where he ages it for months or even years before he bottles the beer.

During my late July visit, I got a quick tour in the cellar while Gabe Fletcher and his brewer, Jeremiah Boon, who had also worked under Fletcher at Midnight Sun, was cleaning up after filling another foudre. It was then I learned that a plot of land had been bought on the outskirts of the city where a brewery would be built in the fall. It would have a lot more space for more oak barrels and a state of the art brew house. According to recent Facebook updates, the roof was put on the building in mid September which means they can soon start to install the brew house, fermentation tanks and move all the old and new foudres from the cellar at Snow Goose to the new brewery.

I expect great things from Anchorage Brewing Company in the coming years, hopefully Fletcher will also open a taproom at his new brewery.

When you've had your fill of downtown Anchorage I suggest heading a couple of miles south, walking is not that far, to 530 E Benson Blvd #3, right next to the Wallmart Supercenter, for a visit to the ultimate beer pub in Anchorage.

Cafe Amsterdam
Cafe Amsterdam can be a bit tricky to find if like me you approach it on foot from downtown Anchorage, as the entrance is tucked away around the corner of a shopping mall and not visible from E Benson Blvd. But it's really worth seeking out so don't give up.

The current owners, Shauna and Ken Pajak, bought the pub in May 1999 with the aim of creating a great beer pub that also served good food. Both had plenty of experience, Ken as a brewer at the first brewpub in Alaska, the Regal Eagle Brewing, and Shauna having served as bar manager for quality beer bars such as the Fancy Moose and Sophie's Saloon. Fifteen years later I found Cafe Amsterdam to be up there with some of the best beers bars in the nation, not far behind Brouwer's Cafe in Seattle, with an excellent draft beer menu, and equally exciting bottle beer menu.

The cafe is split in two, with a large room for lunch and dinner guests and a smaller containing the bar and a limited limited number of tables and chairs. The cafe sports a quiet atmosphere, with no loud music or TV screens flashing sport results, exactly how a good café should be. And unlike the nearby Mooses Tooth Pub & Pizzeria, as well as many of the pubs and restaurants in downtown, Cafe Amsterdam never felt packed at night, making it more pleasant to visit for a beer or three.

With a total of 16 taps, Cafe Amsterdam offered a good selection of Alaskan craft beer from breweries such as Kenai River, Midnight Sun and Alaskan, but they also offered some rare treats from out of state - most notably the delicious Black Butte XXIII from Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon. On bottle I enjoyed several rare German beers that I haven't even found in Germany, such as the Berliner Weisse from Bayerischer Bahnhof in Leipzig (which I visited in 2012 without finding this beer!) and the Curator doppelbock from Klosterbrauerei Ettal.

Combining the excellent selection of draft and bottled beer with a good atmosphere, tasty food and the knowledgeable Shauna in the bar, I personally think this place is the best one in Anchorage to have a good beer experience. And it gave me a chance to take a deep breath before diving into the next place ...

Cafe Amsterdam is the ultimate beer pub in Anchorage

Mooses Tooth Pub & Pizzeria
Located two blocks from Cafe Amsterdam on the west side of Seward Hwy, just were Seward Hwy and Old Seward Hwy splits, Mooses Tooth Pub & Pizzeria must be one of the most popular restaurants in Vancouver. I tried to visit on the night of my arrival, but there was no space in the bar and when I asked a waitress she suggested 30-45 minutes of waiting for a table. The next day I returned just as it opened at 11 am, 15 minutes later half of the chairs in the bar had been taken and an hour later most seats in the restaurant!

As the name suggests Mooses Tooth is a pizzeria, and a great one too, I only tried one pizza but it was really top class. From what I understood, the place used to be a brewpub but now the brewing is done at another and bigger location in Anchorage, known as Broken Tooth Brewing. And those are the only beers they sell at Mooses Tooth, up to 16 different Broken Tooth beers. Fortunately, you could ask for flights of beer which made it possible for me to taste my way through most of their beers in one sitting.

Among the more noteworthy beers from Broken Tooth I wrote down the Fairweather IPA, a 6.1% india pale ale with a good malt body to balance the fresh, piny hop character. Another was the Beam Me Up Scottish, a tasty scottish ale aged for 6 months on whisky barrels to give it a mild peated character.

Though I really enjoyed the pizza and several of the beers, Mooses Tooth was too noisy and too crowded for my liking, this could never be a place where I stop by for a beer after work or to meet a friend. For that I would take Cafe Amsterdam any day. Still, Mooses Tooth is worth a visit, just make sure to be there at 11 am. Sharp.

While Gabe Fletcher's Anchorage Brewing Company remains my favorite Alaskan brewery, there are two other competent and, to varying degrees, innovative breweries within the Anchorage city limits. Both are located some 6-7 miles south of downtown. Fortunately, my local friend drove me there to visit both.

The Loft at Midnight Sun Brewing Co in Anchorage

Midnight Sun Brewing Company
Founded in 1995, by homebrewers Mark Staples and Barb Miller, Midnight Sun Brewing Company is located in the Abbott Loop area of Anchorage, about 6 miles south of downtown, so you really need a car to visit. The brewery sports a great taproom and restaurant, called The Loft, which is open 7 days a week and located directly above the brewery.

When I visited, the taproom offered an impressive line-up of draft beers. From the tasty Cache Bière de Garde and Panty Peeler Abbey Tripel to the Brewtaility Baltic Porter, Hop Dog Double Wheat IPA and the delicious Big Fish 2014 - Aestivator, which is an 8.6% doppelbock that won Humpy's Big Fish Homebrew Competition this year.

On bottle they offered many of their big classics, such as Barfly 2014 Vintage, Arctic Devil Barley Wine 2013 Vintage and Bore Tide Wheat Wine. Needless to say I had to bring a few bottles of these amazing beers with me home.

Midnight Sun offers free brewery tours but only on Thursdays at 6 pm, so I never got the chance to see the brewery but The Loft was a nice place to visit in itself and highly recommended if you're in Anchorage and have access to a car.

King Street Brewing Company
Located at 7924 King Street, in a warehouse district less than two miles west of Midnight Sun, King Street Brewing Company was founded by Shane Kingry and Dana Walukiewicz and opened up in late 2011.

At the front of the brewery you'll find a small taproom and brewery shop, even smaller than the one at Alaskan Brewing, with a modern feel and hard steel garden furniture that didn't invite to a long stay. It's open six days a week, only closed on Sundays.

The tap list was pretty ordinary, at least compared to their closest neighbor, Midnight Sun, with an Amber Ale, Hefeweizen and Pilsner to name just three. I found the bottle selection more interesting and was positively surprised by the very elegant Irish Gael, a barrel aged imperial stout with mild peat notes, and the delicious English-style barley wine called Nobility.

Overall I couldn't get away from a factory outlet feel, so while King Street offers some good bottled beer it's not a place I would list as a must to visit in Anchorage. But if you're paying a visit to Midnight Sun and have some time to kill, you might as well stop at King Street on your way back to downtown.

Just as I was about to finish this blog post I learned that Jeremiah Boon had left Anchorage Brewing Co for a position as brewer at King Street, so that bodes well for more exciting beers from this brewery in the future.

On the Alaska Railroad GoldStar Dome Service to Fairbanks

Fairbanks is located in the interior of Alaska, about 360 miles north of Anchorage. I was tempted to fly but when I learned about the scenic train ride through Denali National Park, near the foothills of Mount McKinley, I decided to go for that mode of locomotion. Making the most of it I booked myself a seat on the Alaska Railroad GoldStar Dome Service, which provided me with great views as long as the weather remained clear (about halfway into the 12 hour long train journey).

I wanted to visit Fairbanks not so much for the beer scene, I wasn't even sure there was one, as to visit the world renowned Museum of the North, on the campus of the University of Alaska. This museum is so interesting that I could have written a separate post just about its collection of pre-historic animals, such as mammoths and other extinct species, many surprisingly well conserved due to the layer of permafrost they were found in.

While Juneau and Anchorage had been selected specifically for having good local beer scenes, with pubs and breweries of high standard, I was more unsure about what I would find in Fairbanks. Especially as the only places listed on RateBeer were bottle shops and two to me unknown breweries.

After settling in I started walking around downtown, which is fairly small, to look for bars or restaurants with some craft beer on tap. This hunt proved fruitless, I found only one place with a resemblance of craft beer on tap: Big Daddy's BBQ & Banquet.

Located on 107 Wickersham St, Big Daddy's looks more like a standard American sports bar than either a pub or a restaurant, but the place did have 18 beer taps of which 12 were craft beer and a number of these of Alaskan origin - including three from Alaskan Brewing Company, two from Silver Gulch, two from Glacier Brewing and one from Denali Brewing. The food was decent (but stay away from the dry chicken, it was awful) and the service reasonably fast, but as mentioned above it did feel like a sports bar, thanks to the many TV screens around the room and the rowdy music, so it's not a place I would usually spend much time in. Except for in Fairbanks where choices are very limited.

If you have a car or can get a good deal with a cab, there are two other places that focus more on beer. One of them is Silver Gulch Brewing, located about 11 miles north east of Fairbanks. Because of my limited time and lack of wheels, I never made it out to Silver Gulch. Instead I focused on a fairly new addition to the Fairbanks beer scene: HooDoo Brewing.

Paul Johnson doing a tour at HooDoo Brewing

HooDoo Brewing Company
Bobby Wilken is a Fairbanks native who received his brewing education at the Siebel Institute in Munich, Germany, and in Chicago. After finishing his education he worked for almost three years as a brewer and control technician at Alaskan Brewing Company in Juneau, but Wilken always dreamed of returning to Fairbanks to start up his own brewery there. HooDoo Brewing, which opened its doors to the public on Halloween 2012, is this dream come to life.

HooDoo Brewing is located in the Railway district, about two miles north west of downtown Fairbanks, though I probably walked twice that distance because I missed a turnoff as it didn't carry the expected street name (Fox Ave).

From the outside, the building at 1951 Fox Ave looks very unassuming - like many other gray painted buildings in this warehouse and industrial section of the town. But in front of it you'll find a small gravel covered biergarten with several large wooden cable reel drums, turned on their sides, used as tables. There are no chairs so this is a standing only beer garden and probably only in use during the brief summer season. Inside you'll find a large taproom from where you can look in at the brewery and the shiny storage tanks behind the bar.

In their taproom, HooDoo Brewing offered four beers on draft; an English and an American IPA, both a bit unremarkable, a decent Scottish Export Ale and a Belgian Tripel that I really enjoyed. The latter was by far the best beer I had in Fairbanks.

On Saturdays they also do a free brewery tour at 4 pm, which is worth checking out if you're in town. For my tour I had co-founder Paul Johnson as tour guide. He could tell us that HooDoo Brewing has no intention of growing big, the goal is to remain a locally rooted brewery and making only so much beer as the local market demands. From what I could gather there were two reasons for this. The first is that you don't need a costly distribution agreement if you only sell your beer locally, and Paul Johnson should now this as he used to work for a distribution company. The other reason is that by selling most of their beer directly at the taproom, HooDoo Brewing can be certain that customers always get top quality, not aged or in other ways ruined beer.

According to Paul Johnson, HooDoo Brewing has a fairly small 15 BBL brew house on which they brew two batches to fill up one of their four 500 gallon stainless steel fermentation tanks. In 2013 they produced about 30,000 gallon, so we're talking a fairly small output by US standards, but still sufficient to supply the market in Fairbanks. After almost two years in the business they still sell most of their beer directly to customers at their taproom, which I think is pretty amazing.

Thus, to taste the HooDoo beers you really have to go to Fairbanks and visit the taproom.

HooDoo Brewing Belgian Tripel
- my favorite beer in Fairbanks 

For more photos from Alaska check these Flickr sets from Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Bergen beer festival and scene 2014

In the year since my previous visit to Bergen and Bergen Ølfestival 2013 a lot has happened in the city with regards to craft brewing; 7 Fjell Bryggeri has started brewing, UNA Kjøkken & Bryggeri is just about to while the two year old Baran Bryggeri discovered that their brewing capacity was too small and have installed larger equipment to expand their business. This post is an attempt to take the beer pulse of Bergen in the autumn of 2014 and also give a quick review of my impressions from Bergen Ølfestival 2014.

A banner for Bergen Ølfestival 2014 flying over Skostredet

Bergen Ølfestival 2014
As I pointed out in my post last year, Bergen Ølfestival (BØ) had outgrown its location at Bryggen. Thus I was happy to learn that the organizers were of the same opinion and had secured a new, supposedly larger, location this year. The new location is in Østre Skostredet in Vågsbunnen, a couple of blocks south of Fisketorget. That and the fact that they had ditched the smart payment system (which failed so miserably last year) going for the well tried and simple token based system, for purchasing beer samples, made me very optimistic about the 2014 festival.

BØ 2014 retained the Norwegian focus from the two first festivals, making it the largest beer festival of its kind in Norway (and in the world for that matter) offering visitors more than 150 different beers from the following 18 Norwegian breweries (Carlsberg Group owned Ringnes is perhaps a borderline case):
  1. 7 Fjell Bryggeri: Craft brewery launched October 2013.
  2. Aass Bryggeri: Norway's oldest brewery, founded 1834 and still family owned.
  3. Austmann Bryggeri: Craft brewery launched June 2013.
  4. Balder Brygg: Craft brewery launched June 2012 .
  5. Berentsens Brygghus: Family business founded 1895. Turned to brewing in May 2005.
  6. Fjellbryggeriet: Craft brewery launched August 2013.
  7. Grünerløkka Brygghus: Craft brewery launched August 2013.
  8. Hansa Borg: Norwegian brewery group, owns Hansa, Borg, CB and Nøgne Ø.
  9. Kinn Bryggeri: Craft brewery launched December 2009. 
  10. Lervig Aktiebryggeri: Craft brewery founded 2003 in protest of Tou Bryggeri shutdown. 
  11. Lindheim Ølkompani: Craft brewery launched November 2013.
  12. Nøgne Ø: Norway's largest craft brewery, launched 2003. Part of Hansa Borg since 2013.
  13. Nøisom Craft Beer: Craft brewery launched August 2013.
  14. Ringnes: Largest brewery in Norway, owned by the Carlsberg Group since 2004.
  15. Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri: Brewpub opening on October 1, 2010.
  16. Sundbytunet: Brewpub opening on 11.11.11 (November 11, 2011).
  17. Voss Bryggeri: Craft brewery launched March 2013.
  18. Ægir Bryggeri: Brewpub and later craft brewery opening in May 2007.

Bergen Ølfestival area map and brewery list

For me it was the many west coast craft breweries that attracted most of the attention, ranging from seasoned veterans Lervig Aktiebrygeri, Kinn Bryggeri and Ægir Bryggeri to intermediate (in size and age) Balder Brygg and Voss Bryggeri to the new generation, opening in the last 12 months or so, Fjellbryggeriet, Lindheim Ølkompani and Austmann Bryggeri. The latter two are not strictly west coast breweries but still exotically distant from my Oslo perspective.

Like last year, entrance to the festival was free but in order to taste beer you would A) need to be older than 18, B) have the official tasting glass that holds 1 dl samples and C) offer a token or two for each beer. Tokens could be purchased at several locations around the festival grounds, making it easy to obtain them. You got 4 tokens for 100 NOK. Most beers cost 1 token, but some limited releases or high ABV beers cost 2 tokens. I bought 20 extra tokens, in addition to the three that came with the tasting glass, and that saw me through the entire first day.

With so many different beers to try, even though I had just 1 dl of each, there was no way I could taste all of them, even in two days. So I sat down before the festival opened, writing down a shortlist of what I really wanted to try and what would be nice to taste if I had the time. It was also important to find out which beers were limited, such as Balder Turken which was available in one 20 liter keg only and Nøgne Ø Skog & Mark, or beers that would be available just one of the days, such as Nøisom Corvus and Nøgne Ø Dragonwort Stout.

At beer festivals you always have to make trade-offs, ideally you would want to start out light and progress towards higher ABV and IBU. But there are two caveats with such an approach. The first is that your taste buds will deteriorate even as you drink light pale ales and lagers, so you really should try the "best" beers early, to get the full aroma and flavor impact. Secondly, it's usually the strong, intense beers that are most limited and will run out first, so if you spend too much time drinking the lighter stuff, which usually run out last anyway, you may miss some of the beers you had on your shortlist. Thus, trade-offs must be made. Start with a few light ones, then jump to a few strong and limited beers. Then take a break, drink some water and get something light to eat (nothing too spicy) to let your taste buds recover, then start the cycle all over again.

For me some of the most exciting new beers at BØ 2014 came from the well established craft breweries. One of these beers was Nøgne Ø Skog & Mark, a limited beer brewed with a number of local herbs for Sundvolden Hotel. Its green floral character and fine spices should make it a wonderful beer to pair with meat of wild game. I was also really impressed with Ægir Hyrrokkinn, listed as a 6% India Peated Ale, which had an aroma of fresh hops but a flavor that brought out a wonderful, mild peated note towards the finish - adding another dimension to the good malt body and fresh hops. I also got to taste Kinn Tradisjon brewed with kveik, an old Norwegian farmhouse yeast, which I quite enjoyed with its sweet bready yeast character. Once You G-o Black, a 13.5% Bourbon BA imperial stout from Lervig Aktiebryggeri, impressed me with its smooth, rich taste with a delicious chocolate and vanilla character. Another interesting newcomer was Nøisom Corvus, apparently a "saison imperial stout", which worked surprisingly well.

Stelliger Divum on tap at BØ 2014

Among the highlights of the festival, I'd like to mention the often underrated but always well made and elegant Sundbytunet Blond, a 6% Belgian-style blonde ale, brewed at Sundbytunet brewpub in Jessheim where Swedish brewmaster Frank Werme holds sway. Another tasty favorite was Stelliger Divum 2013, a 19% abv doppelbock brewed once a year by Berentsens Brygghus. Aged for about one year and served on draught, Stelliger Divum is a sweet beer with a lovely dried fruit character, reminding me more of an aged port wine than a beer, it was dangerously drinkable for such a strong beer!

Another excellent beer, actually from last year too, was Balder Turken - a smooth, ripe fruity doppelbock brewed with smoked malts. And Ægir Natt was as impressive as always, a rich and delicious imperial porter. Kinn Svartekunst 2014, on the other hand, was still a bit sharp but should age well, as it said on the label - "best after 2015".

In addition to the huge beer selection, the festival organizers had engaged several local restaurants and food producers, such as Haugen Gardsmat, Bølgen & Moi and Smak av Kysten to run three separate food stalls at the festival. I really enjoyed the fish soup at Smak av Kysten and the awesome deer burger from Haugen Gardsmat. Yummy! Nothing beats local food served with local beer!

As for the new location in Østre Skostredet, even if it was slightly larger and didn't have the narrow bottlenecks of the previous location at Bryggen, it did get terribly packed both Friday and especially Saturday. On Friday I could move freely around for the first four hours, until people started arriving from work, but by 6 pm it became so crowded I left to seek shelter at Baran Café. Saturday was even more crowded, but I was there for the noon opening and managed to enjoy a couple of hours of relative quietness before the noise and queues overwhelmed me. Next year I hope the organizers will either put a strict limit on the number of visitors allowed inside or move the festival to an even larger location, such as Koengen. But that would be sad as I really enjoyed the charming and central location of Østre Skostredet.

A final tip for next year: Don't put the initial tokens that a visitor gets with the tasting glass inside the glass, they tend to get stuck at the bottom of the glass and are really hard to get out. It's just an unnecessary frustration, so don't.

All in all, Bergen Ølfestival 2014 was really well arranged and deserves the title of the best beer festival for Norwegian beer, with a top lineup of new and older Norwegian breweries and catering to 13,000 guests in two days. My warmest congratulations to the organizing committee and to the large number of volunteers from all over the world who helped making this such a great festival - thank you everyone!

Bergen Ølfestival 2014 - crowded but awesome!

New and expanding breweries
Since my visit to Bergen a year ago two new breweries have opened up, a third one just finished expanding and a fourth is under installation.

7 Fjell Bryggeri
Named after the seven mountains surrounding Bergen, 7 Fjell Bryggeri was founded in 2013 by three local patriots and business men, Jens Eikeset, Steinar Knutsen and Morten Dale, who felt the time was ripe to start a proper craft brewery in a city that had been dominated by the industrial brewery Hansa for more than a century. The founders enlisted the help of beer judge and veteran homebrewer Ghar Smith-Gahrsen as brewmaster.

7 Fjell was launched in October 2013, actually before they had a real brewery. The early launch was possible because they had signed a deal with Lervig Aktiebryggeri in Stavanger, allowing Smith-Gahrsen to brew the 7 Fjell beers there until the brewery was ready.

But in order to purchase a top quality brewery the owners needed to raise more money. In March this year they got lucky when the former Mayor of Bergen and famous coffee magnate, Herman Friele, invested 3 million NOK in the company. For that money Friele received 20% of the shares and could put his wife, Renate Hjorteland, on the board of 7 Fjell.

A suitable location for the brewery was found at Bønes, south of Bergen, where the brewery equipment was installed in the late spring. In June 2014 the 7 Fjell brewery was finally operational, with a 20 hl brew kettle and two 20 hl fermentation tanks. The plan is to keep adding fermentation and storage tanks until the brewery reaches an annual capacity of 420 thousand liter which the owners think is sufficient.

Baran Café where the beer from Baran Bryggeri is served

Baran Bryggeri
Baran Café had become an institution in Bergen, famous for its Persian food, when current owner Ali Mostofi took over the reins from his father in 2007. But Ali didn't only want to run a café, his great passion for beer and homebrewing led him to the idea of starting a micro brewery for serving beer at his café. This became a reality when he and Lasse André Raa launched Baran Bryggeri in Fana, south of Bergen, in June 2012.

Baran Bryggeri was among the local breweries attending Bergen Ølfestival 2013, so I had already tried some of their beers when I returned to Bergen this year. To my surprise I didn't find Baran on the program for BØ 2014, but I found out why when I stopped by at Baran Café after the first day of the festival.

It turns out that Baran Bryggeri had been struggling to meet demands, the brewing capacity was simply too small, so a new brewery had been ordered and the old equipment thrown out this summer. However, the new equipment got delayed which meant they couldn't brew anything at all this summer, which caused them to run out of beer - both at the café and for the Bergen Ølfestival. Thus Baran Bryggeri were forced to cancel their participation at BØ 2014.

When I stopped by Baran Café in early September, the bar was still out of their own beers, though they had some excellent guest beers on draught instead - including Flying Dog Snake Dog IPA and the Swiss sour ale Trois Dames La Tentation. I also got the chance to speak with Lasse André Raa, who happened to be bartending that night, and he told me that the new brewery had been installed and that the first batch would be brewed the following weekend. So, if all goes well the Baran beers should start coming back on tap at the café in early October and next year the brewery should be back at Bergen Ølfestival again.

The bar at UNA Bryggeri & Kjøkken with 20 draught beers

UNA Bryggeri & Kjøkken
Back in May 2014 a brand new beer place opened up on the tourist trail at Bryggen in Bergen, with the intriguing name UNA Bryggeri & Kjøkken. It is listed by RateBeer as a brewpub, but that isn't really the case. At least not yet. Instead, when I made my visit at the beginning of September I found an excellent gastropub, which offered 20 beers on tap and a tempting food menu, with the Fresh Catch of the Day being a great choice for me.

Behind UNA you'll find three local business men, Terje Johan Skjelbred, Per Jørgensen and Steinar Knutsen. The last one is also one of the owners of 7 Fjell Bryggeri, which is probably part of the reason why the "house beer" - the 4.7% UNA Blonde Ale - is brewed at 7 Fjell.

The owners of UNA do have a higher goal than just opening up a good gastropub, they want a proper brewpub at Bryggen where passers by can look in through the large windows at a working micro brewery on the ground floor. When I visited UNA, I overheard one of the owners discussing the design and floor layout of the micro brewery, with a mason or carpenter (not sure which), so it's obvious that work on installing the brewery is about to start.

Fortunately, the future head brewer at UNA Bryggeri, Jan Thomas Nybak from Moss, was in the bar when I visited and had time to talk about the brewery plans. He said that the goal is to have the brewery installed late this fall and hopefully be brewing beer by the end of 2014. Nybak said that his aim is to brew more exciting and varied beers than the larger craft breweries, such as 7 Fjell, can afford to, since his batches will be a lot smaller. He also alluded to someone named Joel who will help out at UNA Bryggeri and apparently has brewed at Partizan Brewing in London! Name-dropping Partizan, like that, made me all ears. If Partizan is the inspiration for UNA Bryggeri, Bergen and Norway is in for some exciting new beers next year. I can't wait to be back!

Una Bryggeri & Kjøkken on Bryggen in Bergen

Lysefjorden Mikrobryggeri

During my trip to Bergen last year I sat in the bar at Henrik Øl og Skjenkestove when a fellow beer enthusiast sat down next to me and we started talking about beer and brewing. He revealed that he had been brewing beer at home for quite a while, using a number of different herbs and spices in his recipes. He had even brewed a sour ale with rowan berries. He then said he was working on plans to open a commercial micro brewery sometime in the next 3-7 months, with a capacity of 350 liter per batch.

I didn't think more about this conversation until I came across the registration of Lysefjorden Mikrobryggeri in BDB.no and realized I must have been talking to Rune Birkeland, the founder and daily manager of this micro brewery. Though it seems to have taken a bit longer than Birkeland anticipated last fall, he managed to set up the brewery in his home community of Lysekloster (Lyse Abbey) and get all the necessary permits in order by the summer so that he could start brewing his beer commercially.

Around the time I left for Bergen, at the start of September, the first Lysefjorden beer - a 4.7% Pale Ale - was shipped to grocery stores in the Lysekloster area, in Fana and Bergen. Unfortunately, I never had time to visit Matkroken Natland, one of the stores that got a shipment from Lysefjorden, but I will certainly do so on my next visit. And perhaps some good beer bar in Oslo would care to order a case?

The impressive tap list at Henrik Øl & Vinstove 4 Sep 2014 

Except for a couple of nights at Henrik Øl & Vinstove, my favorite beer bar in Bergen which had expanded its draught beer menu to 53 (plus one cider), I didn't get the chance to check on any of the other beer places I've visited earlier, such as Naboen, Pingvinen and Kontoret. Hopefully I'll get time next year.

In the meantime, enjoy the rest of my photos from Bergen at Flickr.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Night of the Great Thirst

Nacht van de Grote Dorst or Night of the Great Thirst is a biannual beer festival held to promote and celebrate one of the most unique Belgian beer traditions: Lambic. The 2014 edition of this festival, held on Friday April 25th, marked its ten year anniversary and was the biggest to date.

Saint Ursula church in Eizeringen with some festival tents

Some background
The first Nacht van de Grote Dorst was held in 2004 as a protest against the Federal Food Agency (FAVV) in Belgium who wanted to close down a number of lambic breweries because they thought that fermenting beer in open coolships were unsanitary. The main problem was that the FAVV food inspectors were unfamiliar with the age old brewing process of spontaneous fermentation.

Fortunately, since then the FAVV has backed down and the relationship is now good between the lambic brewing community and the food inspectors. But the original festival turned out so successful that the organizers decided to hold it every second year from then on, in order to celebrate and promote the lambic way of life.

The festival is arranged by HORAL (the High Council of Artisanal Lambic Beers) together with the famous lambic café In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst in the village of Eizeringen, just off Ninoofsesteenweeg (N8) - the long straight road that heads west out of Brussels to Ninove:

Eizeringen is located about 15 km west of central Brussels

Café In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst, Flemish for "In insurance against the great thirst", is located opposite the Saint Ursula church and has the look and feel of a 1940s era Flemish café, there is no modern technology visible inside - even the bills are tabulated on a piece of paper. As mentioned in an earlier post, the café is only open on Sundays and church holidays when the owners - the brothers Kurt and Yves Panneels - have time off from their regular day jobs. For them, the café is a labor of love, a way to keep an old tradition alive.

The festival is usually held at the café, but this year the organizers had acquired the use of the entire church square as well as the church lawn, for erecting big party tents and movable toilets, as it was expected that some 3,000 visitors, from all around the globe, would show up. Apparently, the café had been turned into a gallery for famous Belgian cartoonist Erwin Vanmol, displaying his drawings of beer related topics.

Getting there
In the late afternoon on Friday April 25th, a friend of mine and I got on the bus (line 128) at De Brouckère, a few blocks from Grand Place in Brussels, and enjoyed a scenic 30 minutes bus ride west, passing along the way the red brick stone buildings of the old Eylenbosch lambic brewery in Schepdaal, before getting off the bus at Eizeringen Kruispunt. From there it was just a five minutes walk to the church square.

The festival
I arrived about an hour before the 7 pm opening, so I got the chance to look around the festival area to find a suitable table but also speak with some of the volunteer helpers before things got hectic. It seems that most of the inhabitants of Eizeringen had been called upon to help organize this event, helping with the selling of tokens, the pouring of beer, carrying stuff around, cleaning up etc.

All the beer stands were in the big tent on the church square

In order to get beer you had to purchase a small 15 cl tasting glass, with the Nacht van de Grote Dorst logo printed on it, as well as some tokens to pay with at the different stands. Beer prices varied from 1 token for lambic from cask to 8-10 tokens for a bottle. Some of the rarer bottles could cost as much as 20-30 tokens. Because you had to buy a full bottle to taste a beer it made sense to join a group of people to share with, so my friend and I invited a couple of American visitors, sitting on the neighboring table, to share the bottles we bought. And they did vice versa for us, so that we managed to taste more beers than if we had been on our own.

This year the festival had outgrown the small café so guests either had to find seating outside or stand around the tall tables inside the big beer tent. The latter becoming very packed a few hours into the festival, making it difficult to get more beer. Another novelty this year, one I'm not particular fond of, was the stage next to the big beer tent where live music was played from 8 o'clock. For me, such a festival is all about meeting like minded people and enjoying good beer, so loud music really is a nuisance. I hope the organizers will skip that part of the program for the next festival, just let us talk - that will be noisy enough.

The food was catered for by a butcher that has been at several of the previous events at De Grote Dorst, he had a big food stall on the church lawn where burgers, meat and that traditional dark blood sausage of Flanders were grilled and served. It was really tasty beer food!

... and the beers
At the 2014 festival lambic based sour ales from all the traditional lambic producers in Belgium were available, mostly in bottle but a few also offered lambic or kriek from small casks or bag-in-box systems. With 14 different brands, each with multiple beers, I certainly didn't stand a chance to get through the entire selection in one night. Here follows a summary of lambic breweries and blenders that had beers at the festival.

Brouwerij Boon
Brouwerij Boon is a lambic brewery and blending business in Lembeek, founded in the 1970s by Frank Boon who still runs the company. Frank Boon is one of the reasons we still have traditional lambics; together with Jean-Pierre Van Roy of Cantillon and Armand Debelder of 3 Fonteinen, Frank Boon worked hard to promote traditional lambic in an era when some of the biggest names sold out and started making sweet fruit based ales. Boon brought along the famous Geuze Mariage Parfait and Kriek Mariage Parfait to the festival, and I swear I also saw a few bottles of Oude Geuze Boon VAT 44, released for the Tour de Geuze 2013, though it wasn't listed in the official program.

Geuzestekerij De Cam
Founded in Gooik in 1997, this is a small lambic blending business run by Karel Goddeau on his sparetime (his real occupation is as a brewer at Slaghmuylder!). Gouddeau learned the art of blending lambic from Armand Debelder (while he tought Armand how to brew), and today makes some of the best oude geuze available. For Nacht van de Grote Dorst, he sent along De Cam Kriek Lambiek and Oude Lambiek, but unfortunately none of the excellent Oude Geuze.

Founded in 1900, when gueuze was all the rage in Brussels, Cantillon is a small, family owned and operated brewing and blending business in the Anderlecht area of Brussels. It is also a working museum in the sense that visitors can go on tours to see all parts of the brewery, from the mechanical mash tun on the ground floor to the shiny copper coolship just underneath the ceiling. Since 2009, the brewery has been in the hands of the 4th generation of the Van Roy-Cantillon family, the dynamic Jean Van Roy. Cantillon sent along a number of exciting beers to the festival, such as the Vigneronne made with white wine grapes and Saint Lamvinus made with red (Merlot), Fou'Foune made with apricot and the rare Lou Pepe Gueuze - a geuze made with 2 year old lambic only. To complete the line-up, there were also bottles of the regular Gueuze, Rosé de Gambrinus and Grand Cru Bruocsella.

Brouwerij de Troch
This old lambic brewery, founded and based in Wambeek since 1795, was the first to add fruit to geuze and is mainly known for their Chapeau series of fruit beers which is largely exported to the US. For this festival, Brouwerij de Troch sent their Oude Geuze and Kriek.

Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen
Beersel based Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen, headed by HORAL co-founder Armand Debelder, is one of the most traditional lambic producers in Belgium, refusing to offer geuze on draught since that is historically incorrect (as Armand likes to say, "You won't find good Champagne on tap, so Geuze shouldn't be either"). For the festival, 3 Fonteinen sent along several fairly new creations, such as Intense Red, a kriek relased for Tour de Geuze 2013 and made with 400 gram cherries per liter beer and the brand new Golden Doesjel, made by blending 75% of Doesjel and 25% of Golden Blend. 3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze Vintage 2007 and Schaerbeekse Kriek 2005 were also available at the festival.

A bottle of 3 Fonteinen Golden Doesjel
- at Nacht van de Grote Dorst 2014

Hanssens Artisanaal
Located on a farm in Dworp, this small lambic blending businesses is run by a husband and wife couple on their sparetime. When lambic brewer Jean Hanssens retired in 1997, his daughter Sidy and her husband, John Matthys, decided to keep the old business alive and established Hanssens Artisanaal. They stopped brewing but has kept up the blending business, purchasing their lambic from other brewers. Hanssens was the first blender to start using the Oude Geuze and Oude Kriek denomination for its beers. Both of these were brought along to the festival, along with the weird strawberry lambic - Oudbetje

Brouwerij Girardin
Located in Sint-Ulriks-Kapelle, Brouwerij Girardin is a small family business but still one of the most important lambic breweries in Belgium, not mainly because of its own beers but because they sell lambic wort, for aging and blending to others; both 3 Fonteinen, De Cam, Hanssens and Tilquin buy their lambic from Girardin! Of their own beers, Girardin sent along the Oude Lambiek, Kriekenlambiek, Gueuze Black Label, Faro and Framboise to the festival.

Brouwerij Lindemans
This old family brewery in Vlezenbeek stopped making traditional geuze when the market folded in the midt 20th century, but the new EU designation of traditional lambic and the awakening interest in old style geuze caused Brouwerij Lindemans to start up production again in 2005. Lindemans may be best known for the sweet Lindemans Kriek, the first sweet kriek to become popular in the early 1970s. But Lindemans now also make some decent sour ales - two of which were available at the festival: Oude Lambiek and the Oude Geuze Cuvée René.

Brouwerij Moriau
There was a stand for Brouwerij Moriau at the festival, a lambic brewery in Sint-Pieters-Leeuw that was known for their Moriau Geuze but which closed in 1992. Recently, the beer has been revived by the Boon brewery which blends and release the Moriau Geuze.

Mort Subite
Named after the famous bar À la Mort Subite in Brussels, the De Keersmaeker brewery in Kobbegem was famous for brewing the Mort Subite sour ales until acquired by brewery giant Alken-Maes in 2000. Though the old Keersmaeker name is largely forgotten, the brewery still exists and do make sour ales in addition to sweetened beers (such as the terrible Mort Subite Xtreme series). For the festival, visitors were offered bottles of Oude Geuze and Oude Kriek - decent, unsweetened sour ales.

Oud Beersel
As the name implies, Oud Beersel is the oldest lambic producer in Beersel, founded in 1882 and in regular operations until 2003 when the aging brewer retired without a heir. Fortunately, two fans took it upon themselves to revive Oud Beersel and in 2005 the business re-opened but only as a lambic blender, the brewery equipment having been sold. Today, Oud Beersel is run by Gert Christiaens who travels to Boon for brewing the lambic which is then aged on oak in the cellar at Oud Beersel. For this festival Oud Beersel Oude Lambiek, Oude Geuze and Oude Kriek was on offer.

Gueuzerie Tilquin
The newest lambic blending business in Belgium, Gueuzerie Tilquin, was founded in 2009 by Pierre Tilquin, a young brewer from Wallonia who had studied under Armand Debelder at 3 Fonteinen and Jean-Pierre van Roy at Cantillon to learn how to brew, age and blend lambic. Located in from Bierghes, just south of the Flanders Walloon border, Gueuzerie Tilquin has grown quickly in fame and production volume with lambic bought from Lindemans, Girardin, Boon and even Cantillon (Cantillon usually never sell their lambic but made an exception for Tilquin). Tilquin Oude Lambiek, Oude Geuze and Oude Quetsche 2013-2014 were on sale at the festival.

Brouwerij Timmermans
Founded in 1702, Brouwerij Timmermans is the oldest lambic brewery in Belgium and one of the most spectacular, located in the heart of Itterbeek in a white painted brick building with what must surely be the biggest coolship in the world. The brewery was sold to the John Martin Group in 1993 and stopped making traditional geuze for a few years, until re-introducing the Oude Geuze in 2009 and the Oude Kriek in 2010 - both bart of the Timmermans Tradition series. For the festival, Timmermans offered several Tradition beers, such as Oude Gueuze, Oude Kriek and Blanche Lambicus - the last one a wheat lambic.

In addition to the above Belgian producers, the festival had an exclusive guest from America. What, you may think, an American brewery at a Belgian sour ale festival?! Yes, really - Allagash was present!

Allagash Brewing Company
Portland, Maine, based Allagash Brewing Co has been inspired by Belgian beer styles ever since its founding by Rob Tod in 1994. A few years ago the brewery acquired its own coolship, one of those shallow, open metal tanks where wort is cooled over night and inoculated by yeast from the ambient air - to undergo what is known as spontaneous fermentation. Which is exactly what traditional lambic brewing is all about! Allagash sent along three of their Coolship beers to the festival and they turned out so popular that Allagash was the first beer stand to run out of beer! Fortunately, I had been sensible enough to get a bottle of each, shortly after the festival opened, so I got to try all three of them.

A bottle of Allagash Coolship Cerise
- at Nacht van de Grote Dorst 2014

Allagash Coolship Red (5.7%): This is their version of a framboise, made by steeping raspberries for four months in a two year old, spontaneously fermented sour ale. It poured a reddish amber color and smelled and tasted strongly of raspberry, but with some funky notes and a good acidity.

Allagash Coolship Cerise (8.1%): This is their version of an oude kriek, made by steeping sour cherries for four months in a two year old, spontaneously fermented sour ale. It really tasted of sour cherries with notes of cherry pits.

Allagash Coolship Resurgam (6.6%): This is their version of a traditional geuze, made by blending a two year old spontanesouly fermented beer with an 18 months old and a 6 months old ("jonge lambik") before refermentation in bottle. The one I tried had been bottled in May 2011, making it almost three years old, it tasted of sour fruits, lemon peel and had some funky barnyard notes in the aftertaste - very tasty and refreshing.

Concluding remarks
A little before 10 pm, the beer tent was so crowded that I found it hard to get through to the beer stands to get more beer, and there were queues for the toilets, the food stall and to buy more tokens, so I decided it was time to call it a day and catch the next bus back to Brussels.

My overall impressions of Nacht van de Grote Dorst 2014 is that this is an excellent addition to the much older Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation festival in Buggenhout, the two festivals differ both in style and popularity so they complement each other really well. I will probably return for Nacht van de Grote Dorst 2016, but intend to do like this year - be there at the opening and call it a day as soon as things get too crowded for comfort.

Visitors queuing for tokens at Nacht van de Grote Dorst

More photos can be found at Flickr in this album.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Belgian road trip autumn 2013

Every September I attend the great Borefts bier festival in Bodegraven, Netherlands, but in 2013 I added a twist by going on a beer road trip in Belgium after Borefts. I was accompanied by two friends and in the span of seven days, in late September and early October, visited breweries and great beer places across Belgium. I've already posted about the visit to Koningshoeven and the tour of Het Anker, so in this post I'll wrap up the rest of the tour which includes stops in Beersel, Ypres, Poperinge, Watou and Hainaut, visiting great beer bars, a hop museum and the breweries Brouwerij St. Bernadus, Brasserie à Vapeur and Brasserie des Légendes.

Taking a stroll in the Zenne valley with Zenne river on the left

Beersel - the heart of lambic
After picking up the rental car in Utrecht we drove south, towards Belgium, making one beer related stop at Onze Lieve Vrouw van Koningshoeven, outside Tilburg, before entering Belgium. In order to get to Beersel we just followed the main highway towards Antwerp and then Brussels. Near Brussels we took off on the E19 which goes around the western outskirts of the city until we were almost due south of it, there the E19 turns south along the Zenne river valley. After a few kilometer you'll see the exit to Beersel which takes you off the highway and onto a winding country road that leads up the hill to the east of the E19.

The town of Beersel is perched on top of a hill, above the Zenne valley, about 15 km south of central Brussels. It's possible to get there by train from Brussels, but I've always gone by car or even taxi (but the latter can be fairly expensive since most cab drivers in Brussels are unfamiliar outside the city and may take a number of wrong turns on the way!).

The main reason for visiting Beersel is related to the valley mentioned above. Zenne, or Senne in French, is the historical area for brewing the spontaneously fermented beers known as lambic or lambiek. The reason for this is probably the many cherry and fruit farms that used to dot the valley, along the small, meandering river of the same name. Just like wine grapes, many fruits carry yeast cells on their skin - yeast that can become airborne and thus trigger spontaneous fermentation if landing in an open tank of cooled wort.

A hundred years ago, every small village in the Zenne valley would sport a lambic brewery to supply the locals with fresh beer. The larger towns, in particular Beersel, would have many. The largest breweries would often sell unfinished or "jonge" lambic to cafés in Brussels or special blenders who would age the lambic for one, two or even three years before making a blend of several vintages to create one of the most popular beers in Belgium in the early 20th century: Geuze. Such a blending businesses, known as a Geuzestekerij, required a skillful master because you had to age each lambic just right and then know how much to blend from each vintage. Some of the blenders also played around with fruits, most commonly sour cherries or raspberries, creating fruit lambics known as kriek and frambozen in Flemish (the latter is probably better known under its French name framboise).

Today only a handful of lambic breweries and geuze blenders exist in Belgium, two of them in Beersel which has remained at the heart of lambic culture in Belgium. Bezoekerscentrum De Lambiek, the official visitor center and museum for all things lambic, opened up at Alsemberg, just outside Beersel, in May 2011. Here visitors can learn about the history of lambic brewing and geuze blending while also tasting authentic, lambic based, sour ales from all 11 members of HORAL - the "HOge Raad voor Ambachtelijke Lambiekbieren" or "High Council for Artisanal Lambic Beers" - which was founded to protect and propagate the knowledge of traditional lambic beers. Cantillon is the only lambic brewery that is not a member of HORAL.

I've earlier posted about my visits to 3 Fonteinen, both to the brewery and blending business run by Armand Debelder and the excellent café run by his younger brother Guido Debelder. My most recent visit was during Tour de Geuze 2013, so I won't repeat myself in this post just stress that if you're in Beersel you really must visit the brewery and try their lambic and kriek served on tap at the café. And if you're lucky, the café may still have a bottle of Hommage 2007 left in the cellar.

Hommage 2007 at Café 3 Fonteinen, in 2013

The other lambic producer in Beersel is Oud Beersel. As the name implies this is the oldest one in town, founded as early as 1882. However, about a decade ago Oud Beersel almost came to an end. In its 120th year, owner Danny Draps - who had taken over the reins after his uncle, Henri Vandervelden - decided to retire, and with no heir to succeed him he was forced to close the brewery. Fortunately, Henri Vandervelden was still alive and a vigorous 76 year old, and he refused to see the end of Oud Beersel, so when two young fans of the brewery contacted him he was quick to act. Together with Gert Christiaens and Roland de Bus (who has since left), Vandervelden drew up plans for a revival. In 2005 Oud Beersel was relaunched as a pure geuzestekerij, Christiaens brewing his lambic at Brouwerij Boon in Lembeek but still aging and blending it at Oud Beersel. The first "new" Oude Geuze from Oud Beersel was released in 2007 and today the business is thriving under the sole owner Gert Christiaens.

Just like Cantillon in Brussels, Oud Beersel is a working museum that is open to visitors on the first Saturday of every month. In fact, Oud Beersel was the first lambic brewery to establish such a "living" museum, and it was that very same Henri Vandervelden who did so in 1973, five years before Cantillon! So set aside some time for a visit to this historic lambic brewery.

In addition to the two lambic business and the highly rated Café 3 Fonteinen, Beersel has a couple of highly rated pubs that I'd like to say a few words about - but for different reasons.

Centrum Hotel
Centrum Hotel is located just "around the corner" from 3 Fonteinen, at the start of Steenweg op Ukkel, and it was here we decided to stay the night in Beersel. Despite being under heavy restoration works, with parts of the dining room closed, the place turned out really great. Besides being very cheap (€55 for a night) and close to 3 Fonteinen, the bar is by far the best hotel bar I've been to in Belgium. In addition to several decent beers on tap, including Tripel Karmeliet, La Chouffe and Girardin lambic, the bar had an amazing bottle beer menu that would have allowed us to spend many nights there and not exhaust the alternatives. And it didn't hurt that the hotel kitchen served hearty dishes of hot food and that we found the atmosphere of the bar cozy and traditional.

The bar at Centrum Hotel in Beersel

In de Oude Pruim
Located further down Steenweg op Ukkel, In de Oude Pruim was rated very high on RateBeer, second only to Café 3 Fonteinen, when I checked out places to visit. However, it turned out to be anything but great. The old couple running the place had all the time in the world (in itself not a sign of bad quality in Belgium) even if we were alone in the pub. It was so quiet in there that I could hear every raspy cough made by the woman, and the ticking of the old clock seemed so loud it brought back childhood memories from the dentist's waiting room. We didn't care for the pils they had on draught and it took several failed attempts, sending the old man scampering down the cellar - or so it seemed - in an attempt to locate a beer from the menu before we finally ended up with bottles of the regular Rodenbach that I had spotted behind the bar. After quickly finishing the beer we left the place as courteously as circumstances allowed. None of us will ever come back. If you plan to visit Beersel, stick to Café 3 Fonteinen and Centrum Hotel.

If you're staying a night in Beersel I would also recommend a nice morning hike in the Zenne valley, it's about 1 km to walk from the church square down into the valley. Just follow Puttestraat and Lotsestraat downhill, in the direction of the railway station, there you take the pedestrian underpass, below the railway lines, and simply follow the small country road ("Langestraat") through the fields down to the valley floor where you can walk along and even cross the meandering Zenne river. It's a tranquil and fairly scenic walk, with cows grazing along the lush river bank.

Oostvleteren and Ypres - in Flanders fields
After the night in Beersel we followed the highway west towards Ypres in West Flanders, a region that still bears the marks of the bloody battles on the Western Front during World War I. The goal was the small town of Oostvleteren, home to De Struise Brouwers, but we also made a stop in Ypres.

Ypres, usually written Ieper in Dutch, is home to the famous In Flanders Fields war museum which anyone with even the smallest interest in our history should visit. Located in the rebuilt Cloth Hall, right next to Grote Markt, the museum offers visitors a shocking reminder of Europe's recent, violent past. From the museum you can also follow a set of stairs up to the belfry, from 70 meters above ground you'll get a breathtaking view of the city and the surrounding Flanders fields - all the way to Passchendaele.

When we'd had our fill of history and great views it was time to check out a new beer place in Ypres, the Brasserie Kazematten.

Brasserie Kazematten in the old city wall of Ypres

Brasserie Kazematten
Prior to the trip, I had read about a "joint venture" between the breweries Rodenbach and St Bernardus that piqued my interest. Named Brasserie Kazematten and opening up in April 2013, in the Ypres city wall just east of Grote Markt, this was apparently a brewpub, the very first to open up in Ypres.

However, upon our visit in early October 2013, the pub was still very much a work in progress - with construction going on both outside and inside - and there was no brewery to be seen. When I asked the bartender, she told me that the brewing would actually take place a couple of blocks away, so Brasserie Kazematten isn't going to be a traditional brewpub, though it will serve its own, unique beers brewed nearby. But Kazematten is still a nice place to visit, the pub offered 8 beers on draught, all from Brouwerij St Bernardus, including their Abt 12, Tripel, Prior, Wit and Tokyo - the last one is specially brewed for the St Bernardus pub in Tokyo, Japan. The hot food was also nice, I went for a tasty meat and pasta dish. If you're in Ypres, definitively check out this place.

Other than Brasserie Kazematten, Ypres doesn't really have any good beer pubs that I know of, so after this pit stop we left for Oostvleteren - about 15 km north west of Ypres.

The town of Oostvleteren is home to one of the most famous craft breweries in Belgium, De Struise Brouwers. Normally it's possible to visit their small brewery, which I did in July 2011, but this time it was closed because of their Borefts attendance a few days earlier. So instead we visited two of the local pubs and stayed the night at a wonderful bed & breakfast.

Walking along Kasteelweg to Vakantiehoeve Schraevenacker

Vakantiehoeve Schraevenacker
The bed & breakfast in question is called Vakantiehoeve Schraevenacker and is part of a working farm, with goats, sheep and horses grazing around. It offers several large rooms on the ground floor, each individually named and with private bathrooms. The owners also operate a restaurant, where you have your breakfast in the morning, but where you can also have dinner or just enjoy a beer outside in the beer garden. Their bottle beer menu was surprisingly good, offering many different De Struise beers - including some rare gems such as Aardmonnik 2008.

Vakantiehoeve Schraevenacker is located in Kasteelweg, about 15 minutes walk after turning off from the N8 highway through Oostvleteren. The reason for mentioning this fact is that both De Struise and two very nice pubs are located around this intersection, so it's just a short walk back to bed after enjoying some good beers at the pub!

't Molenhof
Located on the opposite side of the intersection from De Struise, Het Molenhof was actually recommended to me by Carlo Grootaert before my first visit to De Struise. It's a charming, old place with a wooden windmill right next to it - hence the name - so you really can't miss it. Het Molenhof doubles as a restaurant, but the kitchen closes early so when we got there at 8 o'clock only the pub section was open. But they take pride in their beer menu and you can't really fault a place where you can do vertical tasting of De Struise Black Damnation!

Restaurant and pub 't Molenhof in Oostvleteren

De Sterre
If you crave food and arrive after the kitchen closes at 't Molenhof you can just cross the street to the neighbor pub, De Sterre, they serve a wicked pasta dish and are on friendly terms with 't Molenhof (I even left my bar tab open at the Molenhof while eating at De Sterre - with no credit cards left behind for security!). The beer selection is also decent though a bit smaller than at Molenhof. The couple running De Sterre are quite something, calling them old hippies would not do them justice, but you will not leave the place without a memory for life - I assure you.

Among my many visits to Belgium, this visit to Oostvleteren stands out spectacularly - the two pubs gave me such a good vibe, followed by that peaceful walk back to the bed & breakfast, under a starry night sky, between fields of tall corn and with various animals still up and grazing on patches of open field along the road. It was such a perfect ending to a day of exploring beer and history in Flanders fields.

Poperinge - hop capital of Belgium
After at hearty breakfast at Vakantiehoeve Schraevenacker we left Oostvleteren and headed south into the heart of Belgian hop country - the municipality of Poperinge. The idea was to make a stop in the town by that name before turning west to our main target, Watou.

The town of Poperinge is known as the hop capital of Belgium, surrounding it you will find many hop farms with those characteristic tall poles erected to hold up a system of trellis, to allow hop bines to grow up in a controlled way and to ease the harvesting. You can spot such farms from far away, thanks to the 6-7 meter tall poles erected in the open fields. Thus, it's only fitting that the first thing greeting a visitor, coming by car from the direction of Ypres, is a large, green painted metal hop cone placed in a roundabout on the outskirts of town.

Bins of fresh hop cones with the new "beer wall" to the left
- at Hopmuseum Poperinge in October 2013

Hopmuseum Poperinge
For a beer tourist, the town of Poperinge may not offer a world class beer bar to visit, but its museum dedicated to the history, farming and use of humulus lupulus - aka hops - is outstanding. The Hopmuseum Poperinge is located in Gaasthuisstraat 71, about 500 meter west of Grote Markt, in a remarkable 4-storey building known as "Stadsschaal" or Municipal Scales. This building was used for weighing, drying and storing hops until the mid 20th century. Visitors can rent a very informative audio tour guide that will guide them through four floors of hop history and culture, from the labor intensive hop farming of yesteryear to the mechanized modern farming methods.

The museum also presents statistics showing that hop farming in Poperinge (and the rest of Belgium) has declined dramatically over the past one hundred years. In 1909, there were 665 hop growers with 1.100 ha land in Poperinge, producing around 50% of the hops in Belgium. In 2010 only 32 hop growers operated on 185 ha land in Poperinge, they produced just 285 tons of hops but that still accounted for 95% of the entire Belgian production! Thus, Poperinge isn't only the hop capital of Belgium it is almost the only remaining hop growing region in the country (the remaining 5% of hop production is in Aalst).

On my most recent visit, the museum had just completed its "beer wall", similar to the one in Bruges, which showcases the regular beers brewed in Belgium - about 1,400! The museum is also host to an annual hop competition, where the best hop farmer in Poperinge is chosen by a jury that sniffs fresh hop cones from every farm in the region. We were so fortunate to visit the day before this competition, so we got to smell the fresh hops, neatly sorted into a hundred different numbered bins. Oh heavens!

In a mild hop induced euphoria we got back into our car and headed west ... to Watou.

Watou - abbey beers
Any person with even the slightest interest in abbey beers should visit Watou, this small village lies at the heart of a great region of full bodied and rich abbey beers; Van Eecke brews the excellent Het Kapittel beers in Watou while Brouwerij St Bernardus is located just 3 km outside Watou, along the appropriately named Trappistenweg. Trappist abbey St. Sixtus, home to the world famous Westvleteren 12 - which is available at Café In de Vrede next to the abbey, is located 14 km east of Watou, just past the town of Poperinge. You get my drift?

Taking a stroll along Trappistenweg in Watou
- notice the hop field in the background?

If you plan to stay in or near Watou, I highly recommend contacting Brouwerij St. Bernardus to ask for a room at their bed & breakfast, right next to the brewery. This 2-storey house complex, hidden from the road by a vine covered wall and gate, offers half a dozen large guest rooms, with private bathrooms, and a large terrace covered by glass so that you stay warm and dry while enjoying breakfast on cold or rainy days. On my October 2013 visit I paid just €35 for my own room, which isn't bad when you get to live next door to one of the best family breweries in Belgium!

The hostess, Jackie, will welcome you with a big smile and can help you get a tour of the St Bernardus brewery. More importantly, Jackie makes sure that the refrigerators in the living room are full of fresh St Bernardus beer, so that guests don't have to worry about the lack of pubs nearby. The closest pubs are in the village of Watou, some 3 km or 30 minutes walk away. Unfortunately, poor business seems to have taken its toll on Watou between my 2011 and 2013 visits, since many of the pubs and restaurants closed early or even stayed closed many days of the week. On my last visit, the village square was virtually deserted after 6 pm on a Wednesday!

Because most restaurants in Watou were closed the two nights we were there in October 2013, we ended up eating at De Strooyen Hen a bit outside Watou. Situated exactly midway between Poperinge and Watou, in Watouseweg 54, this restaurant also functions as the neighborhood pub and festival hall, hosting weddings and parties. The kitchen makes really tasty dishes, I enjoyed a delicious rack of lamb, and the menu offers good local beer from both Van Eecke, located down the road towards Watou, and St Bernardus. But beware that De Strooyen Hen, like many rural establishments in Flanders, is closed on Mondays.

Distances to many interesting places are short from St Bernardus bed & breakfast, which makes it such a great place stay. Places such as Ypres, Poperinge, Watou and Westvleteren are within easy biking distance or 5-10 minutes of driving. You can even borrow bikes for free at the bed & breakfast, if you don't bring your own and would like to ride through the flat landscape of West Flanders.

Brouwerij St Bernardus located on Trappistenweg in Watou

If you feel extra adventurous it's only a couple of kilometers to the French border, from St Bernardus you can actually see the mountain of Mont des Cats, also known as Katzberg, on the opposite side of the border. Going there makes for a nice daytrip on a bike, though the road up the small mountain can be taxing if you don't have a bike with low gears. Near the top you'll find Trappist Abbaye du Mont des Cats, which commands great views of Flanders. The abbey is worth a visit in itself but also for beer historical reasons - it is the mother house of two important Trappist abbeys that still brew Trappistenbier: St Sixtus, founded by monks from Mont des Cats in 1831, and Koningshoeven, founded 1881. The abbey shop sells a Mont des Cats abbey beer, but it's not an authentic Trappist beer since it is brewed at Chimay and not locally - but it's still worth picking up a bottle if you visit the abbey.

Hainaut - old and modern breweries
On the way back from West Flanders to Brussels, at the end of the week, we drove through the province of Hainaut, in the French speaking Walloon region of Belgium. The reason for this small detour was to attempt a couple of brewery visits, even though we had no prior appointment. The two breweries are run very differently, one of them is a steam powered, old style mechanical brewery while the other is a shiny modern brewery, but both are independent and brew high quality, unique beers.

Brasserie à Vapeur
Our first stop was at Rue du Maréchal 1 in the small village of Pipaix, which is about 3 km east of the Dubuisson brewery and 9 km west of Brasserie Dupont, in other words smack in the middle of Waloon beer country! The reason for stopping at this address is that this is where you'll find a small but very old brewery which has changed name and owners several times over the centuries, until acquiring its current name, Brasserie à Vapeur, in 1984.

That year a young couple, Sittelle and Jean-Louis Dits, heard that the Biset brewery was up for sale. This was an old steam powered brewery, founded in 1785. The couple wanted to keep the old brewery and its history alive, so they bought it, renamed it Brasserie à Vapeur which is French for "Steam Brewery", but changed very little else. They've spent the last thirty years maintaining status quo but brewing a great line-up of beers with weird and funny names and often weirder and funnier label artwork. Since 1992, the artwork has been created for them by Belgian cartoonist Louis-Michel Carpentier.

19th century mash tun and malt mill at Brasserie à Vapeur

When we arrived at the brewery on a Thursday afternoon we were initially told that they didn't do tours that day, the small brewery usually allows visitors on Sundays only - to watch the brewing process. But after praising them on the well kept old brick buildings we were allowed inside on a short tour of the old brewery. For those of you who have been to the Cantillon brewery in Brussels, Brasserie à Vapeur will seem similar but even older (which it is, by a hundred years!).

Walking into the Vapeur brewery is like walking back in time; the wet and well worn cobblestone floor looks like it has been there for hundreds of years, the mechanical malt mill, the mash tun below and the old steam engine, connected by belts and steam pipes, gives an impression of early industrial era. Even the smell is old, of damp stones and iron with hints of wort, lingering in the air from the last brewing session. My mind started racing and it struck me that if the brewer from 150 years ago had suddenly woken up and returned to his old brewery he would not have noticed any changes  - this is a genuine, 19th century, steam powered brewery.

After the brief tour we thanked the lady profusely, returned to the bright daylight and started up the car, driving east towards our next and final stop that I'll mention in this post.

Brasserie des Légendes
About 17 km east of Pipaix, on the outskirts of Ath, there's an old castle named Irchonwelz which has given name to the small village nearby. These days the old castle is home to a modern brewery, founded as recently as 2006 when two smaller breweries - Brasserie des Géants and Brasserie Ellezelloise - merged to create Brasserie des Légendes.

Unlike the brewery we had just visited, Brasserie des Légendes is a modern high tech wonder of a brewery with a shiny new brewhouse in the courtyard of the former castle. You enter through the main gate of the castle, from a large gravel covered parking lot outside, facing the brewery straight ahead and the shop / tasting room up the stairs to your left.

There were no brewery tours that day, but the large main door to the brewery was open so I quickly took a peek inside before joining the others for a beer tasting session at the brewery shop which doubles as a tasting room. Because the shop / tasting room has no beers on tap you'll either have to buy some bottles and bring them home or find someone to share the bottles with. Fortunately, I had several people to share with and we managed to get through the entire selection of Goliath beers on offer in the shop.

View inside the modern brewery of Brasserie des Légendes

I appologize if this post seems a bit all over the place, which in a sense it had to be given the nature of the trip through so much of Belgium, but I hope it inspires you to do a beer road trip of your own through this small but still so varied beer country.

For more photos from this trip, check these Flickr sets: Ypres, Oostvleteren, Poperinge and the rest.