Your Assignment This Weekend – Drink Something Different!

Last night, while chatting with a couple who run a beer and spirits importing business and a whisky sales rep, we found ourselves discussing the curious matter of prejudiced drinkers. No, I don’t mean drunken bigots, but rather that odd breed of individual who swears by one sort of alcoholic beverage to the exclusion of all others.

You know the type, I’m sure. You may even be the type, if you’re honest enough to admit it to yourself. They are the people who scorn beer as a plebeian offering, espousing instead the greater glories of fermented grape juice, or complain bitterly about the taste of the big brewery lager they were “forced” to order because the bar had only a slender beer selection on offer.

(This sort of behaviour is rare among spirits aficionados, primarily, I believe, because it’s tough to stick to whisky or gin in all circumstances, although there are those who will dismiss most or even all other spirits in deference to their chosen tipple.)

The oddest part of this behaviour, to me, is the fact that these folk are usually the first to chastise their opposites to their attitudes. “Why can’t restaurants offer me a decent beer?” the self-professed beer lover bemoans, oblivious to the bottles of plonk their wine aficionado friends must endure at their favourite beer bar. Or: “What’s with the fancy beer?” from an oenophile with a cabinet full of $80 a stem wine glasses at home.

In truth, almost all of us are guilty of this attitude to a certain degree, whether it’s dismissing out-of-hand an entire category of drinks – all spirits, perhaps, or lambics or maybe beer cocktails – or swearing that we can’t stomach a certain drink due to an unfortunate teen-years experience. (I have proven several times that the latter is all in the mind, often starting with a cocktail for the individual and then leading them to different flavours in what is usually a spirit category, but always with their full knowledge.) In some cases, it’s simply due to lack of opportunity or access.

In the end, however, drinking is, or should be, all about taste experiences, and so I present you with your challenge for the weekend. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, pause at some point to try something new. Not a beer previously unknown to you if you’re a beer aficionado or a new single malt if you’re a whisky geek, but something from an entirely new category. Seek guidance, if you wish, through a specialty bar or a friend with knowledge in a field previously off-limits to you, but approach whatever you pick with an open mind and an unjaded palate, and take your time.

You might just find yourself opening up entirely new and decidedly flavourful horizons.

All You Need to Know About Beer for Thanksgiving

Turkey. Great stuff. I think it’s a damn shame we tend to only eat it a couple of times a year, although not so much so that I would resort to cooking those horrible, grotesquely large “turkey breast roasts” they sell year round in supermarkets.

So, Americans, you have one of your great turkey-eating opportunities approaching next week, and if you’re a fan of matching good beer to your food, you’re probably already wondering what to pair with your bird. Lord knows there is no shortage of stories in print and online offering you advice, from wines like riesling (a safe bet) to zinfandel (whaaa?) and beers from Sam Adams Boston Lager (more safety) to Rogue Dead Guy (double whaaa?).

I’m here to tell you, though, that for your Thanksgiving table you need know only one word: Gueuze. Or rather, make that two: Oude Gueuze. Because that “old” designation means that it’s traditionally crafted, unless it’s a Cantillon Gueuze, which are all traditionally crafted and so see no need to add the “oude” modifier.

I’ve been testing beers with turkey for years, and I can assure you that nothing pairs with a roast turkey better than a dry, tart, sparkling gueuze. Even if you think you don’t like gueuze, and I know there are plenty of you out there, even among die-hard beer aficionados, one sip alongside a forkful of turkey and savoury stuffing will change your mind. Trust me.


One Sentence, Four Mistakes

On my way home from the Cheers Beverage Conference in New Orleans, I picked up the latest issue of Men’s Journal and found a small item entitled “Super Bowl Party Upgrade: Barrel-Aged Beers” in its “Notebook” section at the front of the magazine. Said item, which highlights some very worthy brews, is introduced with the following sentence:

A handful of U.S. brewers have adopted an old European tradition of aging beer in wooden casks – generally, used bourbon or zinfandel barrels – to impart a richness of taste that modern production can’t touch.

Huh? Where to begin? Okay, at the beginning…

“A handful of U.S. brewers…” – Actually, no. Far from a handful, barrel-aging has been embraced by a multitude of breweries large and small from coast to coast and even – gasp! –  outside of the United States. In fact, the practice is significant enough that, at the aforementioned Cheers Conference, I featured a barrel-conditioned ale in my tasting as an example of a burgeoning trend.

“…an old European tradition…” – In the sense that all beer was once kept in wooden barrels and beer has been brewed for millennia longer in Europe than in the U.S., yes, I guess so. But to equate bourbon barrel use in breweries in the States to the aging of porter in England or Flemish reds or lambics in Belgium is misguided at best.

“…used bourbon or zinfandel barrels…” – Okay, I’ll give you bourbon barrels, but zinfandel? More like, generally bourbon barrels but also numerous assorted wine and spirits barrels, including casks that previously held zinfandel, chardonnay, pinot noir and other wines.

“…impart a richness of taste that modern production can’t touch.” – To impart different flavours, I’ll buy, or even a collection of spirituous or tart, fruity flavours otherwise unobtainable, but don’t tell me that a non-barrelled beer can’t be as rich as a barrelled beer.

For My American Friends: Thanksgiving Dinner Advice

Tomorrow being Thanksgiving and all, I’m anticipating that many of my American readers are at this exact moment wondering what to drink with the Thanksgiving turkey. Well, wonder no longer, as I am here to help.

Traditional gueuze!

There you have it. And note I am talking about “traditional gueuze,” not the sweetened stuff from the likes of Lindemans and St. Louis. I mean the marvelous elixir that is so dry and tart it can bring a tear to your eye, even two tears. Simply, where turkey is involved, there is nothing better.

Sure, a case can be made for champagne, traditional lambic’s vinous cousin, or riesling, that oh-so-versatile of food wines. Or any number of different sorts of beer, from pale ales to strong Belgian-style goldens. Or even a nice, dry cider. But to my experience, and that of pretty much anyone I’ve served the combination, nothing beats a typical, dry gueuze, such as that of Cantillon, Boon (Oude only), Drie Fonteinen, Hanssens or the difficult to find De Cam. Even non-beer drinkers and the Brettanomyces-challenged have sung its praises.

Happy Thanksgiving, America. Enjoy it with a Belgian at your table!

New Books You Need to Own

I said I’d be back later today with more news, and true to my word, here I am. And while the news might not be the biggest ever, it is important if you enjoy drinking in the Benelux.

More specifically, if you share my great affection for the city of Amsterdam and beers in the style known as lambic, Cogan & Mater and have two new titles you need to own. They are the second and greatly expanded edition of LambicLand and the latest in the …in 80 Beers series, Around Amsterdam in 80 Beers.

(Full disclosure: Tim Webb, who runs Cogan and Mater, is a friend of mine and a writer whose work I respect greatly. That said, I still think these books are terrific additions to any drinks library.)

The first book, LambicLand by Webb, Chris Pollard and Siobhan McGinn, has not only been expanded to twice its original size, but also taken to unilingual English rather than the original English/Dutch edition. Simply, there is no resource that I know of which more comprehensively covers the eclectic world of these wonderful, spontaneously fermented beers.

Around Amsterdam in 80 Beers continues the series that has already covered 80 beers in Bruges, London and Brussels with a methodology that is as simple as it is effective: highlight 80 worthy bars and suggest a single beer to be consumed in each. While Amsterdam arguably doesn’t boast the wealth of notable places that the other cities do – the entry for Kilimanjaro, for instance, speaks more of the food and Ethiopian coffee than it does of the beer and ambiance – this Tim Skelton book is still a must for any visitor seeking libation while touring the back alleys and canals of Amsterdam.

As a bonus, the website is selling the other three …80 Beers books in a package for only £20, so go ahead and get them all, why don’t ya! You know you want them.

I Agree, Joe, Vive Jean-Pierre!

In case you missed it – I know I did – Joe Strange over at the Thirsty Pilgrim offers a four paragraph tribute to Jean-Pierre Van Roy, a lion of a man and a hell of a brewer, who gave birth to his last batch of Cantillon lambic earlier this month.

There’s little I can add to Joe’s words, except to reiterate that, in addition to all he has done for the survival and betterment of traditional lambic brewing, Jean-Pierre also deserves credit for instilling in his son, Jean, the same sort of passion and tenacity that he has displayed throughout his brewing life.

Félicitations, Jean-Pierre! Et mille fois merci!!