Wednesday, December 15, 2010

OBER Kerstbier (Christmas) Beer Fest

(Photo, above: an OBER member pouring a Christmas
beer in 2007. Note the tie. These guys are serious
about their beer fest!)

O.B.E.R. (roughly translated as "The Objective Beer Tasters
of the Essen Region") has been organizing what is
arguably the world's greatest festival of Christmas
and winter beers for many years now. Surely it is
easily the best for Belgian beers in those categories.

I attended in 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2009.

(Photo, above: Slaghmuylder's yummy
Kerstbier on draft.)

Sadly, I'm stateside this year, but for any of you
in Belgium this weekend (or wishing you were too!)
here's a little preview-and look back.

(Photo, above: Brewer Hans Depypere of Brouwerij
St. Bernardus in 2009, with his lady friend.
St. Bernardus Christmas was named the top Christmas
beer of the 2009 fest.)

For 2010, word from my friend and OBER webmaster
Gunter Mertens is that there will be around 155 beers
on the list, with about 25 new ones not available in 2009.
This includes 20 beers on tap, the rest in bottles.

Ones beer lovers are excited about include Zwet, a
Drie Fonteinen-De Proefbrouwerij collaboration beer,
and Hof ten Dormaal Winter 11, among many others.

(Photo, above: OBER member Hans pouring De Glazen Toren's
special Christmas Saison in 2007.)

The article below, about the 2009 event, appeared in the
February/March 2010 issue of Celebrator Beer News.

(Photo, above: shot of the hall in 2009.)

Fifteen Years of Christmas Beers

The world’s greatest Christmas beer festival just keeps getting better and better. Organized by O.B.E.R. (The Objective Beer Tasters of the Essen Region) the 15th edition of the “Kerstbier” fest, held at the Heuvelhall in Essen, Belgium, offered 157 beers, with 22 on draft.

(Photo, above: the beer list is seen above the
taps here, and bottles begin on the right.)

“We even have five mulled cherry beers, called gluhkrieks, that we are offering hot today, at 65 degrees Celsius (nearly 150 degrees F)” Gunter Mertens, Secretary of O.B.E.R., told me during my visit to the fest on Saturday, December 12. “The rarest is perhaps the De Cam Hiete, from lambic blender Karel Goddeau. It is a genuine artisanal kriek with 40 kg (88 pounds) of cherries per 100 liters. We sweeten it a little with honey; it is then spiced at a rate of one small stick of cinnamon, twelve cloves, and one bay leaf per liter” Gunter mentioned.

(Photo,above: the five mulled/heated beers
at the 2009 event.)

It didn’t take very long for me to traverse the fifteen or so feet separating me from the Hiete. It was delicious! I also tried the Timmermans Warme Kriek Chaude, Van Honsebrouck Premium Gluhkriek, and perhaps the original, Liefmans Gluhkriek. All were very good. Of course, it was a cold, windy day in Essen, and these warming elixers hit the spot at the beginning of the fest.

(Photo, above: shot in the hall just a few minutes
after the fest opened. Note the line to buy glasses
and tokens.)

Other interesting brews on draft were Kessel X-mas, from Brouwerij De Vlier; Tournay de Noel from Br. Cazeau; Loterbol Winterbol; and De Ryck Christmas. There were too many bottled brews to mention all my favorites, however several new ones are worth a mention, such as La Grelotte from Br. Grain ‘d Orge; Kerstbier from De Scheldebrouwerij; Pere Canard from Sint-Canarus; and Nondedju de Montaigu, a strong blond ale with a smoothness that belies its nearly 11 percent alcohol.

(Photos, above: here is where you buy tokens
and glasses.)

Most beers cost one token (1.5 euros, about $2.25) for a 15 cl/5 ounce glass, while a few special and rare brews cost 2 or 3 tokens. Such brews included Bush (Scaldis) de Nuits and Prestige (both 13% abv, and 3 tokens each) as well as four special Mikkeler beers that cost 2 tokens each, and were brewed at De Proefbrouwerij in Belgium, sent to Denmark, and reimported to Belgium for the fest. That’s dedication.

(Photo, above: a table of beer lovers enjoying the fest
in 2009.)

As usual, the OBER crew had snacks like Vlaams Carbonnade (Flemish beef tips in a gravy sauce) on offer, as well as a new feature: cheeses from three Trappist breweries: Chimay, Orval and Westmalle, served with bread.
Kudos to Gunter Mertens and the whole OBER crew for 15 Years of Christmas Beers!

(Photo, above: if you see the gentleman in the
Stone shirt at the fest, be sure and buy him a beer.
Especially if he's wearing a Santa outfit. No, it's
not me.)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Monk's Stout, a new beer from Brasserie Dupont

(Photo, top: Monk's Stout debuts at the HORECA Expo
in Ghent last month. Photo by Stu Stuart.)

My friend Stu Stuart (who I hear runs some great beer
tours to Belgium) was over in "Belgie" last month,
and visited the superb HORECA Expo in Ghent, held
November 21-25.

HORECA stands for "Hotels, Restaurants and Cafes"
and the Expo is a trade fair for anything you'd need
for such an establishment in Belgium.

Including beer.

In fact, when I attended in 2008, there were at least
25 breweries set up with miniature pubs serving great
Belgian beer. Yes, it was heaven inside, as it snowed
outside. You could check out the latest, greatest new
restaurant equipment, have a beer, then return to
whatever you might be shopping for.

I stuck with beer.

The EXPO is often used as a place to debut new brews,
as with Brasserie Lefevbre's Hopus and Brouwerij's Bockor's
Omer in 2008.

(Photo, above: an old Monk's Stout sign
hanging on the wall of Cafe Les Caves Dupont in
Tourpes, right across from the brewery.)

This year, one of the new brews is one I already knew about,
at least as far as concept. Brasserie Dupont Brewmaster/
Director Olivier Dedeycker told me on my June 2 visit to
the brewery that the next new brew on his agenda would
be Monk's Stout. This is a beer his grandfather brewed
in the 1950's.

(Photo, above: Dupont Brewmaster/Director
Olivier Dedeycker.)

The first had been the dry-hopped Saison Dupont seen
in Belgium in the Spring. Yum. You get the picture.

As Dupont has extra fermentation capacity now,
Olivier has the luxury of crafting some new brews, or
re-creating some old specialties.

(Photo, above, by Stu Stuart.)

There are two versions of Monk's Stout. Both are 5.2% abv.
One is dry and roasty, and another is said to be a little more
rounded. Initial tasting reactions are that they are both
very tasty beers. I'd expect nothing less from this superb

Monk's Stout is available in 33cl bottles and 20 liter
kegs in Belgium. Whether we'll see any stateside is yet
to be seen. Cross your fingers.

Or buy a plane ticket.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

LambicLand, and Gueuzerie Tilquin

The long-awaited second edition of LambicLand was recently
published, and I'm happy to say it was well worth the wait.

Tim Webb, Chris "Podge" Pollard and Siobhan McGinn have put
together a thoroughly well-researched work that covers all the
lambic producers in Belgium's Payottenland. They also discuss
other makers of spontaneously fermented beer, such as
Bockor and Van Honsebrouck.

Bars and restaurants stocking lambic brews are also covered
in great detail. If you are planning a visit to Belgium's lambic
country, or want to learn about lambic brewing and blending,
this is the book to have.

(Photo, above: Tim Webb, pulling an authentic Kriek from
3 Fonteinen at the superb Moeder Lambic Fontainas
in Brussels.)

(Photo, above: Pierre Tilquin (left) of Gueuzerie Tilquin
talking with LambicLand co-authors Chris "Podge"
Pollard and Siobhan McGinn inside the blendery.)

The book is richly illustrated with photos from breweries,
blenderies, bars and much more.

(Photo, above: Pierre Tilquin pouring a sample of lambic.)

I am a contributor to the book: I wrote the section on Belgium's
new lambic blendery, Gueuzerie Tilquin. I also wrote an article
about Tilquin in the August/September issue of Celebrator Beer

(Photo, above: barrels at Gueuzerie Tilquin.)

Copies of LambicLand can be purchased here. I'm sure Tim will sign
your copy if you ask.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Brouwerij Rodenbach and Max's Taphouse Rollout Event

(Photo, top: Rudi Ghequire, Brewmaster, Brouwerij Rodenbach.
He has just pulled a sample of an eight month old brew from foeder
293. Yes, it was really good!)

Did I ever mention I like sour beer? Sure I did.

On Tuesday December 7, you can too. Barring any unexpected
developments, Devin Arloski of Latis Imports and yours truly
will host the Maryland rollout (well, re-rollout, so to speak)
of Rodenbach. The venue: Max's Taphouse in Baltimore. Yep,
the same place that holds that superb Belgian beer fest in

(Photo, above: A row of massive 650 hl foeders. That's
over 545 US barrels of beer per barrel.)

I plan to show some of the 500+ images I have from my 2008 and
2010 visits to the brewery, as well as talking about the history of this
Belgian national treasure. I'll also discuss the brewing process.
There should be Rodenbach, Rodenbach Grand Cru, and Vintage 2008
on hand. Several Steenbrugge Abbey Ales and Palm will also be
available that night.

Rodenbach is one of the world's great Oud Bruin breweries.
Yep, Old Brown Ales. Michael Jackson called them Flemish
Red Ales: he coined that term.

'Vlaamse Oud Bruin' is what the locals call them in Belgie. That's
tradition. Call them what you like, these refreshing, tart, dry brews
are a real delight. Rodenbach is the benchmark. Let's have a look
(and read) below.

This article article was first published in Celebrator Beer News in August 2008.

"Brouwerij Rodenbach: the Masterpiece of Roeselare"

Rodenbach: the very name is synonymous with the tart, refreshing
red ales of West Flanders, Belgium. The burgundy-colored Rodenbach
Classic and Grand Cru are benchmarks of the style.

(Photo, above: you can see Rodenbach written on roof of the
old brewery in this photo.)

The Rodenbach site-a 15 minute walk from the train station in the
town of Roeselare, near Brugge-is a complex of numerous buildings
with various purposes, past and present. Rodenbach is one of the
most impressive breweries I have had ever the pleasure to visit. In
late May, brewmaster Rudi Ghequire greeted me and two
friends-including Daisy Claeys, owner of the famous beer cafe,
't Brugs Beertje in Brugge-and gave us a superb tour.

(Photo, above: Rudi with an 1830's map of Belgium.)

"You can see Roeselare here" Rudi told us, pointing to a spot on
a very rare map of Belgium dating to the 1830's. "Over there are
portraits of the Rodenbach family. The family played an important
role in the creation of the country of Belgium."

(Photo, above: images of some of the Rodenbach family members.)

Much of Rodenbach is a museum-even in the office space, there
are display cases with items related to the history of the family
and brewery.

"Let's have a look at the old brewery first" Rudi said, as we
entered hallowed ground.

(Photo, above: these copper brewkettles date to 1864.
They are among the oldest in Belgium.)

"This brewhouse dates to 1864. The two copper vessels are
among the very few in Belgium that survived the occupation
of the Germans in the First World War. The Rodenbach family
paid the Germans 26,000 gold coins not to take away these
brewkettles to make armaments with." Rudi told us.
"The filtration kettle dates to 1929" he continued.

(Photo, above: the filtration kettle, dating to 1929.)

The old brewery building is several stories tall, and also houses
dozens of copper-lined open fermenters, rooms with stained-glass
windows, beautifully painted Rodenbach advertising plates, colorful
old flags, and other breweriana.

(Photo, above: inside the old brewery.)

(Photo, above: stained-glass window in the old brewery.)

(Photo, above: old signs in the old brewery.)

"The first brewery on this site was called Brouwerij and
Malterie St. George. Alexander Rodenbach purchased it
in 1821, and another relative purchased it from him, in
1836" Rudi mentioned. He continued: "There is a coolship
on the roof. A gueuze called St. George used to be brewed

(Photo, above: the koelschip/coolship on the top
floor of the old brewery. It was used until 1990.)

I had no idea Lambic and Gueuze had ever been produced in
Roeselare, but you learn something new every day!

(Photo, above: you can see the coal-fired malting kiln
at this entrance to the brewery complex.)

(Photo, above: inside the malting kiln.)

Another historic structure is the old coal-fired kiln, which is
recognizable by its cone-shaped black roof. "The building dates to
1864, and is protected by the government due to its historic
significance. The brewery used to do its own malting, until 1974. The
kilning was done on two levels, which helped the malts achieve a
darker color" Rudi said. There is a history of the malting process on
the walls of the kiln, in English, Dutch and French.

(Photo, above: the new brewery building. The brewhouse
is inside the glass at the left end.)

(Photos, above: inside the new brewhouse. The old brewery
is on the left.)

"Well, let's have a look at the new brewery now. Note
that 21 people work here at present" Rudi said. The
Meura brewhouse, located in a cube-shaped building,
is visible through clear glass windows from the outside,
and was installed in 2001. It has a batch size of 250
hectoliters. The brewery produces about 75,000 hl per
year, of which about 5% is the superb Grand Cru, and
most of the rest is the Rodenbach Classic, a mildly tart,
highly drinkable beer with just under 5% abv. The late,
great Michael Jackson called it "The most refreshing
beer in the world."

(Photo, above: Rudi discussing the types of fermentation
in Belgium.)

"For our purposes, the most important thing about the
brewhouse is to produce a very good wort. It's really the
wood aging and mixed yeast culture that gives our beers
most of their distinct character.
For the primary and secondary fermentation in stainless
steel vessels, we use the same mixed fermentation culture
that has been used here for 150 years. It is a blend of
top-fermenting yeasts and lactobacillus. We never re-start
the yeast culture! " Rudi exclaimed. After the first
and second fermentation, the beer is transferred into
wooden barrels, called foeders in Dutch, for maturation.

(Photo, above: the oldest oak barrel at Rodenbach,
dating to prior to 1836.)

Ah, the wood: the heart of Brouwerij Rodenbach. Foeders
are large barrels (also referred to as vats or tuns) made from
oak, which are capable of holding thousands of gallons of beer.
"The majority of our 294 foeders hold 180 hl of beer. They are
80 mm thick, weigh nearly 5 metric tons each, and hold 18
tons of beer when full" Rudi said. "We also have 18 foeders
that have a capacity of 650 hl each. They weigh about ten
metric tons empty, and can hold 65 metric tons of beer!" He
added. Rudi continued: "Let's have a taste from a few of them!"
Rudi's offer-a rare treat-was accepted without hesitation!

(Photo, above: a row of 180 hl foeders.)

The first brew was a very young beer, which had only been
in its vat about a week or two. It was evident that the
maturation process had started, but had a ways to go for the
kind of complexity and tartness Rodenbach is known for.
The next brew Rudi poured from a foeder was very fruity
and very complex, and a favorite of the four of us. A third
was very tart and acidic-and I mean Cantillon territory!
I quite enjoyed it. A fourth sample was in between-tart
and fruity, and also very good. All were different in their
own way.

(Photo, above: Rudi pulling a sample. For research
purposes only, of course.)

"As you have tasted, each foeder has its own flavor. No
beer is exactly alike. We achieve some consistency by
blending from different barrels. The Classic is a mix
of 25% old beer (matured for at least two years in
foeders) and 75% young beer, with less than a few months
of aging. The 6% abv Grand Cru is a blend from several
different foeders, averaging 18 months old. Additionally,
we add about 6 grams of sugar per liter to the Classic,
and 10 grams per liter to the Grand Cru, to balance out
some of the sharpness of these brews" Rudi stated.

Rudi continued "Note also that the maturation in the
wood is not really a third fermentation. We do not
add any yeast when the beer is put in the foeders, as
this tends to produce a bready taste, which can be
unpleasant. There is some acetic acid imparted by
the wood, and, as well, the burgundy color of the
beer is produced by both the dark malts we use, and
through contact with the oak. Tannins in the wood
create this effect, for the most part."

(Photo, above: Cafe De Zalm.)

He continued: "We also offer Rodenbach Foederbier in a few select
cafes in Belgium, such as De Zalm here in Roeselare. This brew is a
blend of beer from three to five different foeders, with an average
age of two years on oak. If you like the tartness and complexity of
the Grand Cru, you should like the Foederbier as well, as it is even
more tart!"

(Photo, above: Rodenbach Foederbier at De Zalm,

Like it? Absolutely! I had dinner at the excellent Belga Queen in
Ghent the following evening, and savored several glasses of
Foederbier, served via handpump. 't Vosken in Ghent, Belga Queen in
Brussels, Grand Cafe Horta in Antwerp and Het Vijgeblad in Beringen
also occasionally have this brew available, as well as unblended Boon
Lambic and unfiltered Palm pale ale. Palm owns Rodenbach.
"We have two coopers on staff to repair and rebuild the oak vats.
It's a full time job to keep so many barrels, some of which are 150
years old, in working order" Rudi mentioned.

(Photo, above: rooms where the barrels are made and repaired.)

When asked about how the Rodenbach yeast culture might
evolve over time, Rudi mentioned that the University of
Leuven is currently studying the very same subject.
After the tour, we headed into the visitors center to savor a
few more of the Rodenbach brews. Quality control, of course.
Rudi told us: "You have to have a philosophy to make beer.
Our overall philosophy here is to use modern techniques
where it makes sense to, and to use traditional methods
where it makes sense to. It gives us the best of both worlds."
"My personal philosophy is to make beers with a lot of taste
and flavor, but without too much alcohol. It's not too difficult
to make a complex high-alcohol beer, and these types of beers
are popular in Belgium. But I prefer beers such as our Classic
and Grand Cru, as well as Orval, as they have lots of character,
but without overwhelming alcohol" Rudi said.

(Photo, above: Vintage 2008 is the newest Rodenbach.)

He continued "However, I do like to experiment. We just
released a new beer, Vin de Cereale, last year. It's a
barleywine of 10% alcohol, packaged in corked, 375 ml
bottles. Reports have been very favorable
about this brew. I think it has a slight honey flavor to it."
I found Vin de Cereale a very good, complex and flavorful
brew. Seek it out!
Does Rudi have any more experiments in the planning
stages? "Of course I have ideas and dreams. But I may
not discuss anything until it is a reality." He told us.
I look forward to tasting whatever the next reality may be!

(Photo, above: inside the visitor's center at Rodenbach.)

There is a visitors center in the brewery complex where groups can
visit (the brewery receives about 20,000 visitors per year) and where
parties are often held on weekends. "We have our own kitchen and
well-equipped bar, with of course our Rodenbach brews, as well as
several Boon Lambics and Palm beers. This hall is very popular,
We host 70 to 80 wedding receptions a year, plus other events!"
Rudi told us, smiling.

(Photo, above: I visited on a Saturday morning in June, 2010.
They were getting ready for a wedding reception in the hall.
What a great place to have a reception. Anyone getting married
next summer???)

(Photo, above: foeders in the Visitor's Center.)

Inside the visitors center hall, several of the large foeders have
been cut open to create a museum, where a multimedia presentation
about the history of the brewery and family can be experienced. The
visitors center is quite a fine place to savor the brews crafted just
yards away! See for more info.