Sunday, November 2, 2008

Beer of the Month - Special Belgian Edition

We arrived, unloaded and had calamari and Vedett at the Arcadi Cafe. Vedett was a true find -- it's everywhere around Brussels and yet this was the first I'd heard of it. It's crisp, refreshing and very blond -- or blonde, a word used to describe a style that you hear a lot about in the area. Most beers break down into Blondes, Dubbels, Tripels (which I'll call BDT) and Wittes (White/Wheat beer). So if you're looking for an easy going beer, say you're a Bud man and dipping your toe in the Belgian pool, Vedett is an excellent, solid beginning. There's a Vedett Extra White as well, but this was relatively unseen outside of the Duvel Brewery Depot -- which is a shame since it's also a great, tasty beer.

Yes, we did get a tour of the Duvel Brewery while in town. Which is kinda misleading because the Duvel brewery is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, or rather Breendonk, the small village town that surrounds it. Duvel is one of the beers that is everywhere in Belgium and really, it might be the easiest Belgian beer to get your hands on wherever you are in the world; and so the brewery was somehow surprisingly small. I wasn't expecting an Anheiser-Busch type operation, but the brewery had a very cool, personable feel to it. It's a big place, but if you work there, everybody knows your name. Of course the beer is fantastic. Duvel, Vedett and Maredsous (an abbey-style ale that is brewed BDT and is also prominent in the area) are all brewed here and there's not a bad apple in the bunch. The Maredsous Tripel is especially eye opening. Our tour guide mentioned that she highly prefers the Duvel aged at least one year but I have to say I don't think I've had a better Duvel or Maredsous than the one we had poured for us from the Depot.

At Cafe Bizon, decorated with much Americana, I had the best Westmalle I've ever had (a dubbel). It's the perfect representation of the dubbel style -- it's a rich golden color, it's not going to knock you on your ass but it isn't kdding around either. It's the beer you go for when the blonde has lost it's gentlemanly charm but you don't want to deal with the responsibilities of the tripel. Bizon is also where I discovered that there's more than one Hoegaarden. They're all still whitbiers (white/wheat beers) but America is missing out on the Grand Cru. It's like the darker, boozier, tastier papa of the easily accessible Hoegaarden you can find in the states. At Monk I think I had my first Blanche de Bruges, another witbier that is absent from my menus at beer bars around home. It's absolutely great and possibly because I had a couple more of these that I rate it higher than the Hoegaarden Grand Cru.

After our tour of the Duvel brewery, before venturing to our brief rendezvous with Antwerp, we took a side trip to Westvleteren. Home of the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren where they brew the holy BDT trinity. Their tripel is regarded in some circles as being the best beer in the world, but let me tell you the blonde is a strong contender for that throne as well. Of all the souvenirs we brought back -- getting the mixed six pack of Westvleteren beers safely back home is a treasured thing. It's no easy task getting to Westvleteren or even obtaining their prized libation. There is a cafe across the street from the monastery where they sell six packs and other hand made goods, but you get the impression that if you're not an early bird you may be out of luck. The only other way to obtain this precious beer is to make a deal with the monks that involves giving them your drivers license info and signing an oath that you won't resell their beer. In Antwerp we confirmed that there is a grey area where the monks may indeed strike deals with a choice few local bars to sell their beer.

We found this rumor to be true at the Antwerp destination of the Kulminator - possibly the best beer bar on the planet. The kind of place where you could drop 40+ euro on a finely aged bottle of Piraat. I came close to doing just that and am a little saddened that I didn't. Probably the gold star find of our time well spent at Kulminator was the beers from Abbaye des Rocs. We tried the brun (Dubbel) and the blonde and both were pretty amazing. Their beers were recommended to us by a mildly boisterous gentleman who had moved to the table next to us and took the term "beer geek" to a heretofore unknown level. I've been to plenty of beer fests so I suppose I've walked amongst the man with the Excel spreadsheet filled with the hundreds of beers they've sampled from around the world, their personal ratings and ABVs and so on... I've simply never witnessed their particular force of nature up close and personal. But without him I might have missed out on Abbaye des Rocs and Black Jack, a Swedish Imperial Porter from the Struise brewery that was pretty damn tasty as well. Also imbibed was the Moinette Biologique, an organic blonde from Dupont, and a couple beers from St. Feuillien (not St. Freulien as I liked to call it) including their memorable xmas beer which was on tap as was as an excellent blonde from Kasteel. Honestly there wasn't a bad beer to be had at Kulminator. If I ever make it back to the area, a trip to Kulminator will be considered a necessity.

Back in Brussels, we made a stop at Morte Subite after taking in the Comic Strip Museum. Morte Subite is a bit of a renowned place -- they've been in business since the 20's and brew their own beers as well as serving a good variety of other Belgians. This may have been the place that I had my first Dupont while in Belgium. Saison Dupont is certainly a contender for best Belgian beer. It's a beer I've had in the states but I think it's impossible to not have beers such as Dupont, Duvel and Hoegaarden taste infinitely better when had in Brussels.

At the legendary Delirium Tremens bar I finally had that first local, delicious Piraat as well as the Corsendonk Pater Dubbel and a Chimay Premiere. There was definitely a thrill in getting these rare-in-the-states variations on familiar brands. And of course some Delirium was had. The bar actually had the best list of American beers that I'd seen during the whole trip. The bar itself was pretty packed, not the most comfortable place to have a drink, but I enjoyed the experience -- be on the look out for some video footage of this place.

Soon after Delirium we were on to Amsterdam. The highlight of this excursion was Cafe Inde Wildeman. I sincerely was worth the rediculous amount of time it took to find the place -- nestled in a corner of the strip mall that is Nieuwendijk. Cafe Inde Wildeman is a soul warming place in the middle of the surrounding disillusionment. Many great beers to be had -- the best list of beers on tap I'd seen during the entire trip. Two beers under the name of Jopen (Koyt & Rock n' Roel) that were amazing; Budels Parel, Achel 8 Brun, La Trappe Dubbel & LT Bock, Texelse Hazeloth, Hemel Helse Engel... so many amazing beers that by the end of the trip it seemed not all that crazy to turn into the guy at Kulminator and end up carrying around your laptop with a spreadsheet to keep track of it all.

So what's the beer of the month? It's no easy choice. I haven't even mentioned the everyday beers like Jupiler and Maes or the taken for granted amazing beers like the St. Bernardus line or the Rocheforts. It being November already I'm tempted to call it the St. Feuillien Xmas beer. It's easily the best xmas beer I've ever had -- winter beers are generally pretty lousy in their use of spices in my opinion. But I'm going to give it to Vedette. It's an unassuming beer. One that I possibly would never of had unless I made the trip out there and the beer that I most likely would make a staple of my diet had I stayed there longer or if it made it's way out here. I think Vedett is primed to break into the states. It's one of the few beers from Belgium that has a bit of hoppiness to it (in this regard it might not be the best beer I could pick to represent Belgium but so be it) and I could easily picture it becoming a huge hit if it found its way into the tap rotation of Redbones, Bukowski's or the Publik House. Therefore it is the beer of the month.

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