Friday, September 19, 2014

3. Belgian Beercycling 2000: Brewing day with Jean-Louis at Brasserie A Vapeur.

(Bear in mind that this account was written in 2001; some facts may be factual no longer)

Wallonia is the primarily French-speaking half of Belgium. The cultural and linguistic divide between Wallonia and the Dutch-speaking Flanders is deep seated, politically charged, well documented and completely beyond the scope of this account, so I’ll confine my opening comments to observations that are safer and more relevant to beercyclists: Geography.

Landscapes in Wallonia vary. To the south and east, the low, wooded hills known as the Ardennes are darkly mysterious, enduringly scenic and sparsely populated. North of the Ardennes, stretching westward through the Meuse River valley from Liege to Namur, then along the Sambre River to Charleroi and Mons, runs an area similar to what Americans now routinely refer to as a “Rust Belt.”

The industrial revolution on the European continent took root and exploded in these environs during the early 19th century, with an emphasis on coal mining and heavy industries producing steel, glass and cement. As in other regions of the developed world, these old industries have been steadily contracting for decades, and the goal of every fair-sized municipality is to relieve the European Union of wheelbarrows filled with developmental money and to use the largesse to create miniature Silicon Valleys behind the slag heaps, brownfields and abandoned factories.

The city of Mons (a battleground in World War I) is the capital of Hainaut province, the westernmost in Wallonia. Beginning in Mons, and continuing westward to Tournai, the terrain begins to flatten into what eventually becomes the Flanders plain stretching to the Atlantic. The industrial zone remains evident along the Sambre River and then the Scheldt, but it is intermixed with landscape of a more pastoral character.

The towns and villages reflect these differing influences. There are tidy modern cottages and the homes of people who commute to work in the larger towns. Next to them, one might see the manure-caked tractor of a family still engaged in farming. Crops in Hainaut include wheat, oats, sugar beets, chicory – and yes, barley. A simple bike ride through the countryside yields abundant olfactory evidence of hogs and cattle.

Even in the tiniest settlements, there usually can be seen sturdy, drafty brick buildings and rust-stained ground. Back in the day these were workshops and factories, the smaller satellites of the industrial complexes concentrated elsewhere. Many of these relics now are dilapidated, while others have been reclaimed and are used as auto body shops, storage facilities, art studios, or for whatever modern purpose that they can be adaptively renovated to serve.

Although it’s certain that all these archaic red brick buildings have historical stories to tell, it’s just as unlikely that one would find any of them, apart from farming structures, still being used for the purpose and work originally intended. Even if that would be the case, it’s a considerable stretch to fantasize that the work performed would still be done substantially the way it was in olden times.

Yet, in one of these utilitarian relics of the 19th century, located in the sleepy village of Pipaix, this thoroughly “retro” fantasy is precisely the case in reality. At the Brasserie A Vapeur, the indefatigable Jean-Louis Dits brews beer at a brewery founded in 1795. All heat and power for the brewing operation is generated by steam power, this being the result of an extensive “modernization” -- undertaken in 1895!

Upon closer examination, the boiler is of recent vintage, and there are stainless steel fermenters (open fermentation having been abandoned several years ago). Various spare and replacement parts also are of newer vintage, but in amazing measure the brewery operates as it would have when Queen Victoria reigned and Louisville had a major league baseball team.

I’d seen the Vapeur (“steam”) brewery previously in 1998 during the first homemade group tour of Belgium, but in 2000 our biking group had a timely opportunity not possible two years before: We would be able to visit Vapeur during the actual brewing, which takes place only once each month and is open to the public. Riding bikes to the Vapeur brewing day? Priceless.

Saturday morning in Tournai was cool and cloudy. It had spit rain intermittently the night before as we crawled from café to couscouserie and back to café, absorbing ales great and small. Neither were we expecting rain Saturday, nor did it matter; as there was far too much planned for the day and if we became wet, so be it.

The morning’s ride began, sans precipitation, along the bank of the river in the center of Tournai, taking us quickly to the outskirts and an access road to the highway east toward Leuze. Although heavily traveled, the bike lane provided suitable buffering from the roar of passing traffic. Pedaling through a succession of villages clustered around the old highway, it was noted that the scene was similar to that glimpsed along roads anywhere: Gas stations, video stores, cafes, and dozens of ordinary people tending to weekend chores.

Upon spotting a sign that pointed the way toward Pipaix, we exited south onto a smaller, less noisy highway and entered a verdant countryside filled with fields, farms, villages, rows of trees ... and breweries.

In fact, and blessedly so, our quartet of amateurs was cycling into a veritable Golden Triangle of artisanal Belgian brewing, because located in this portion of rural Hainaut province, almost within walking distance of each other, are three world-class breweries: Vapeur, our archaic destination for the day; Dubuisson, home of the heavenly 12% Bush Beer (known as Scaldis in America); and Dupont, preserver of the tradition of Saison, or Belgian farmhouse ale.

Dubuisson dates from 1769, and the eighth generation of its founding family runs the business today. In addition to brewing, the company is a beer wholesaler, and it exports Bush/Scaldis throughout the world. Since the 2000 trip, a sleek new tasting café has risen on the site, testament to the family’s faith in the future of quality ale.

In like fashion, Dupont began its working life in 1850 as the Brasserie Rimaux, which was taken over by the current owning family in 1920. The family now brews, malts barley, bakes bread, makes cheese, and does a little farming on the side. Dupont was a Belgian pioneer in brewing organic beer, and in contract brewing for other companies in the country. The brewery’s ales, which like Dubuisson’s are aggressively exported, include Saison Dupont (I), Moinette (II), and the delicious seasonal Avec les Bons Voeux (III).

Where else in Belgium can be found three breweries of such high quality, located so close together? We’d have liked to make a pilgrimage to each of them; however, because of the novelty of Vapeur’s brewing day, it would be the sole destination, with the others reserved for subsequent journeys.

After a hard left off the main road, perhaps two kilometers and a few puzzled moments trying to locate the village of Pipaix, the unprecedented and grudging step of asking a village passer-by to point the way to Vapeur was undertaken. He shrugged and pointed. It was the building just behind us, perhaps twenty yards away.

Embarrassment ensued. Couldn’t we smell the mash?

Bikes were abandoned and we followed our noses into the brewery, where Jean-Louis Dits, his assistant and Jean-Louis’s wife were hard at work before a handful of interested onlookers.

By almost any standard of measurement, Jean-Louis is a Renaissance man whose talents extend beyond brewing renowned ales like Cochonne, Saison Pipaix and Folie. He is an educator, a naturalist, a museum curator, a cheese maker and a bread baker.

To visit Vapeur is to attend an eclectic seminar about all things germane to Pipaix, one taught by a passionate, patient, bilingual instructor. You will learn about the medicinal lichen that once was an ingredient in Vapeur’s beer, but that has been degraded by air pollution. You will learn of the many breweries that once operated in the area, and how so few remain today. You’ll learn about the power of the steam and the system of pulleys and shifting drive belts, and just when stirring of the mash grinds to a halt and it’s time to let nature work, the lecture abruptly ceases, the bell figuratively rings, and recess begins – thankfully without dodge ball.

At Vapeur on brewing day, to rest the mash is to rush the growler. Everyone is guided across the courtyard to the tasting room, where ample pitchers of draft house brews are passed along the wooden tables and a contagious communal appreciation envelops the surroundings.

Jean-Louis noted that lunch would be served for those willing to ante a small fee. In the pre-Euro times of 2000, roughly $12.00 sufficed for the museum admission, the many “recess” beers and the meal. He described lunch as a simple plate of bread and locally made cheeses. It turned out to be anything but simple: Two enormous platters laden with cheeses – hard and soft, white and yellow, stinky and mild, some incorporating locally grown herbs, and taken together, all quite overwhelming to the already besieged senses. Crusty crumbs and cultured shards flew, pitchers of Cochonne continued to appear with breathtaking speed, and we began to fear the ride back to Tournai.

As trained professionals, we persevered, toasted, drank, and ate more cheese than any human should attempt. Back in the brewery, it was approaching the time for the boil (the wort is pumped upstairs to the brew kettle), but we concluded with much sadness that because of the evening festivities planned in Tournai, it was time for us to bid “adieu” to Jean-Louis and his grand, archival Vapeur brewery. He graciously consented to a photo-op in the courtyard, which for some reason turned out somewhat blurry to the camera lens, and we were off to retrace the path.

It never rained … but the deluge was only just beginning.

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Tomorrow: Returning to Tournai, we discover Danes waiting in ambush at the Hotel d’Alcantara, and lose contact with Mission Control.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

2. Belgian Beercycling 2000: Tournai warm-up, Cave a Bieres and Pays du Collines.

The city of Tournai seldom surfaces as part of prospective Belgian beer-hunting itineraries, and on the surface of it, the omission is perfectly understandable. The city itself no longer possesses working breweries, and there is only one specialty beer café, Cave de Bieres, that is worthy of mention in the British writer Tim Webb’s essential book, “The Good Beer Guide to Belgium and Holland.”*

In spite of this, we elected to make this city of 70,000 people our home for the first three full days of the biking and beer-hunting Belgian holiday. Our choice reflected Tournai’s relative proximity to good beer and the breweries that make it, and also because our choice of accommodations, the Hotel d’Alcantara, had inexpensive bikes available that we could use to reach the beer.

In the end, our choice proved to be a quite good one. To be sure, Tournai’s tourist infrastructure is scant compared with better known Belgian destinations, but as a bonus beyond the reasons of beer proximity cited above, Tournai is intriguing in its own right. The city was founded as a Roman settlement, and like most comparably sized urban areas, it was ceded, swapped and passed around to various feudal and imperial powers for much of its history. There is a relaxed and pleasing mixture of new and old Europe.

Tournai suffered damage in both of the 20th-century’s European conflagrations, but in WWII it had the distinction of being the first Belgian city to be liberated from the Nazis. Tournai’s trademark postcard photo is of the imposing, five-towered Cathedrale de Notre-Dame; there is a squat but massive 13th-century bridge across the Escaut River; and the Grand Place (or central square), which otherwise functions as a huge car park, boasts a strange on-again, off-again sidewalk fountain made possible by EU developmental funds. The square is ringed by respectable, if not spectacular, pubs and cafes where the thirsty beer traveler can reliably find mid-range selections as well as predictably good espresso and snacks.

Roughly ten miles west of Tournai is the French city of Lille. We didn’t have time to visit Lille, but it is considered a center of northern French brewing, with many beer bars in the city center and breweries in its outskirts. The Brunehaut brewery is located ten miles south; it dates from 1992 and makes several fine ales available for sampling in Tournai. One beer that stood out from the rest was a specialty Brunehaut ale spiked with genever, Belgium’s distilled counterpart to gin.

Twenty miles northeast of Tournai is the region known as the Pays du Collines, which is a rural area of low hills, towns, patches of woods, farms, and a recently renewed focus on eco-tourism. With the invaluable assistance of a Hotel d’Alcantara staffer, we booked a guided mountain bike tour of the Pays du Collines for our second day in town.

Ten miles east of Tournai there is perhaps the best concentration of small breweries that you’ll find in Belgium, all of them situated in perhaps a two-square mile area: Dubuisson, maker of the incredible Bush strong ale (known as Scaldis in the USA); Dupont, brewer of classic Saison ales; and Vapeur, the archaic steam-powered museum/brewery that we scheduled for a visit on Day Three.

Before mountain biking Friday and brewery schmoozing Saturday, there was an open biking day Thursday. We had plenty of raw adrenalin, but not much of a plan. Having examined the four bikes and found them to be rickety but serviceable, we chatted with the friendly hotel manager, who suggested charting a course for Mont St. Aubert, a few miles north of Tournai. This choice was as good as any, so we followed the manager’s directions.

Along the way, our quartet received an introduction to the joys of biking and bruising over dry cobblestoned streets; wet cobblestones were yet to come and provide thrills of an even greater magnitude. These gave way to smoother paved roads as we left the inner city area and entered the more modern districts on the outskirts. We followed the signs into the countryside, where we could clearly see the hill ahead looming of us. Climbing it was a challenge, with each of us having only a handful of gears in operating condition, but we made it to the top and were rewarded with a spectacular view of Tournai and the surrounding region.

Actually, some of us made it in better condition than others. When you see Buddy Sandbach at the Public House, ask him the French pronunciation of “Ralph.” Curiously, it’s almost the same as the American.

Bob Reed had thoughtfully procured a map of the area, and using it we rode off on country lanes, through the surrounding farmlands and their reassuring aromas of fodder and dung, eventually coming to the town of Pecq. From there we took immaculately groomed bike paths along the river back into Tournai.

It was unlikely that we rode more than 15 miles all day, but the historical significance of this inaugural bicycling foray simply cannot be exaggerated. It didn’t matter at all that the bicycles were inferior. During the course of European travels dating back to 1985, I’d traveled by rail, bus, boat, automobile, and on foot. All of the previous experiences were special in their own way, but in the year 2000 – for the first time in years – I felt exhilaration and the pure joy of discovery. Perhaps rediscovery is a better word. Kevin Richards and I had talked about it for months, and now we’d done it, and I immediately understood that I was hooked. Puffing up Mont St. Aubert, I knew that Europe would never again be the same for me.

We were judicious in keeping it short the first day, and spent the remainder of the afternoon walking through town, pausing to have a restorative ale in the since-departed street level café of the Hotel Europ (a Bush Blonde, arguably the easiest drinking 10.5% ale that Belgian brewers have conceived), then dining on beefsteak and fries at a nearby restaurant.

One must wait until 5:00 p.m. to enter the aforementioned Cave a Bieres, Tournai’s finest specialty beer café, which is located by the river in a former storage cellar. It’s worth the delay.

Cave a Bieres is a variant of “shotgun” bar filling space below street level in a venerable old European warehouse. The walls and vaulted brick ceiling are painted white, with a small bar, big wooden tables and chairs lining both sides of a central walkway, and Belgian brewing memorabilia nailed everywhere. The café is run by a male head waiter and a female chef, perhaps husband and wife, perhaps not, but with the latter being firmly and fixedly in charge of the proceedings, which in addition to a bottled beer list of 75 to 100 choices includes typical Belgian café snacks, and as we were to discover on Saturday evening, excellent full meals on weekends.

Settling in, I concentrated on regional ales: Brunehaut, Quintine and Dupont. Vapeur was available, but there’d be plenty of that on Saturday at the monthly brewing day in Pipaix.

On Friday morning following an exemplary hotel breakfast, it was time for yet another new adventure. We were met in the lobby by our guide for the day’s pre-arranged mountain biking excursion. Etienne, a teacher, coach and superbly conditioned all-around athlete, loaded us into his pristine van for the trip to the rural Pays du Collines.

At a sparkling new athletic club in a town on the periphery, we were introduced to our bikes and to Etienne’s bubbly aunt, who would be following us in her car and stopping with us to provide periodic commentary in English. Etienne confessed to speaking only French, but as usually is the case in such times, we were able to communicate wonderfully through gestures and snippets. With regard to mountain biking technique, Etienne showed us what to do, and we followed his lead.

Off we pedaled into the beautiful natural area for an unforgettable day. For Bob, Buddy and I, it was a first-time experience on a mountain bike off road in the rough – over steep hills in the mud, across dirt paths in wide, cleared fields, and through old railroad cuts in the woods. Kevin and Etienne bonded immediately, finding in their love of all sporting endeavors a common language. Along the way we stopped at a traditional farmstead to view an ancient mill under restoration and visited a museum of local culture.

Two hours into the ride, Etienne took us to his mother’s rectangular brick farmstead for juice, coffee and pastries, and then later in the village of Ellezelle there was a much appreciated re-hydration sag at the Brasserie Ellezelloise. The isolated country micro/brewpub makes high quality ales familiar for their stopper bottles, including Hercule, an intense, high-gravity sweet stout, and a style rarely seen in Belgium.

The brewery’s beer occasionally is found at other outlets in Ellezelle, including specially scheduled festive appearances at a local waist-high pedestal, upon which a statue of a mythical regional witch squats and glowers. The statue often is compared to the Mannekin-Pis in Brussels by virtue of its plumbing, meaning that on normal days one puts coins in the adjacent slot, and if the person is unlucky, only water comes out from beneath the witch’s skirt … but during those magical times, beer flows instead.

At the end of the afternoon, we retired to the posh local club within the athletic complex and drank a round of Hoegaardens: To Etienne, a superlative guide and true gentleman.

For a second consecutive evening back in Tournai, the consensus choice for dinner was couscous (kews-kews), the North African ethnic delight that is as widely available in Tournai as Chinese or Mexican food is in Louisville.

Perhaps it should be noted at this juncture that my newfound joy in biking was not accompanied by what I viewed as unnecessary restrictions like dieting or moderation in drinking. It struck me that the whole point in hard riding during the day was to justify the pleasure of massive meals and fine ale at night. This acknowledged, couscous proved to be ideally suited for an exercise regimen like ours. The tiny rice-like granules are in fact pasta; grilled sausages and skewered meats accompany the rich vegetable-based sauce, all of it uniquely spiced and smothered with fiery harissa sauce. Chickpeas and pine nuts appear alongside raisins and dates. The red wine is memorable.

At the hotel, sated, with a final round of ales safely beneath our belts, we slept well. Saturday would be the highlight of the Tournai segment of the trip: The ride to and from the monthly brewing day at Brasserie A Vapeur (the steam-operated brewery), followed by televised Eurocup soccer in Tournai, then a special meal of lobster at the Cave de Bieres, and best of all, the delightful company of three of my best European friends, Danes Kim Andersen, Kim Wiesener, and Allan Gamborg. They were in Belgium for the Eurocup, and had booked rooms at the a’Alcantara to meet us for one evening’s dining and drinking.

Tomorrow: Would the novice beercycling team survive?

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* It's been 14 years. Is this still the case? And does the Cave still exist?

The city's discussions with Harvest Homecoming should be transparent and inclusive of downtown business owners. Maybe next year?


(Late note: I'm told that Harvest Homecoming's Art Niemeier will be at the meeting)

"The next scheduled meeting for the Downtown Business Organizations group is Thursday, September 18th, 8:30 am. Donuts, juice and coffee will be provided. This is an opportunity for you to receive an update on City of New Albany projects. If there are any issues or discussion items you’d like on the agenda, call or email me so I can add them prior to the meeting."

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I'll be unable to attend.

I'd say the single most important issue, given that next to nothing has been done about it to date, is for the city to explain how Harvest Homecoming's annual expropriation of downtown is going to be less injurious this year than it has been in years past.

It's nice to be informed periodically that the city’s people have been talking with Harvest Homecoming’s people, but it would be transparent and productive if Harvest Homecoming officials were compelled to sit with actual downtown business owners AND the city to begin hashing this out, as opposed to the ritual issuing of proclamations from Harvest Homecoming, and seconding by the city.

This has not happened in spite of the city's frequent promises to the contrary. Since Harvest Homecoming's management recently took to the newspaper to demand that WE understand THEM, I'm forced to conclude that the city hasn't really faced up to this issue at all. When can we actually observe a dialogue taking place?

More importantly, there are fundamental, root issues. Why does the city, via the Board of Works, abdicate control over a large portion of its territory during Harvest Homecoming, to the continuing detriment of existing downtown stakeholders who are there, hustling, 24/7/365?

As my friend Jeff recently put it:

When citizens, businesses, or other groups go to the City to ask about using public space and are told they have to get permission from a private, non-elected, non-accountable, third-party, there are obviously issues. Eventually, someone is going to have to push the conversation along via civil disobedience. It would be helpful if the business/property owners most directly impacted would do it en masse. If HH doesn't have to go before the Board of Works to secure the space in front of your building for that time period, then neither do you, right?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

1. Belgian Beercycling 2000: From Brussels to the Tournai base camp in less than 15 drinks.

Here’s to us.
May we never quarrel or fuss.
But if by chance we should disagree,
#%@* you, and here’s to me.
-- A toast to cycling togetherness, as masterfully articulated by Bob Reed.


I was in the process of stuffing bags into a coin-operated storage locker at the disconcertingly subterranean Centrale (rail) Station in Brussels when suddenly Buddy Sandbach popped around the corner, having spotted Kevin Richards strolling out on the concourse. Buddy was freshly arrived in Brussels from Amsterdam, where he had spent several days fulfilling his longtime dream of viewing Holland’s many and varied species of, er, tulips.

Kevin and I had flown together from Louisville, via Atlanta. Buddy’s unexpectedly early debut in Brussels put us squarely ahead of schedule, which loomed large, for it might easily translate at some point down the road into free time for an extra beer.

And besides looming large, free time for an extra beer almost always is a good omen.

After a pitfall or three in pursuit of a place to store Buddy’s various bags and prized bulbs -- these obstacles being overcome in spite of the best efforts of an obstructionist baggage room bureaucrat named Eric – the transaction finally was arranged, stairs were mounted, and we met the bustling streets outside the station. Signage and a handy public map determined the course that would take us to the famed Grand Place, the ornate central square pictured on boxes of Belgian chocolate shipped worldwide.

The giddy enthusiasm one feels when returning to a great city, as in my case, or visiting it for the very first time like Kevin and Buddy, always makes it easy to ignore trifles like kamikaze taxi drivers and intermittent drizzly rain, and so we dodged these impediments and rushed into a bustling, vibrant urban environment filled with touristy restaurants and their multi-lingual menu offerings, the delivery vans of florists and family butcher firms, tacky souvenir stands, suavely attired Euro-businessmen and even the occasional tattoo parlor.

Would they really etch a genuine facsimile of the famed Mannekin-Pis-Boy into your virgin rump while you wait? I wasn’t eager to know, but too cynical to rule it out.

The Grand Place remains the place for aficionados of gilded guild halls, and the ambience was duly photographed even if it cannot be adequately captured on film. When the clicking of shutters had subsided, I broke the news to my friends as gently as I could: From the beer traveler’s rarified point of view, truly noteworthy cafes from which to view the splendid architectural setting weren’t likely to be found around the square itself, where rents are sky high and cautious sightseers demand predictable pilsners.

However, there was time to kill before Bob Reed’s arrival at the pre-arranged meeting point of the front door at Maison des Brasseurs (a brewing museum), and the steadily escalating rain suggested to us that any nearby café would do in a pinch. Accordingly, we entered the café known as the White Rose, which had an above average list and provided the perfect vantage point to watch for Bob.

The uniformed waiter brought the first of three rounds to our low wooden table by the open window. Through it wafted the echoes of scattered throngs in the square and the steady drumbeat of rain on cobblestones, and while the White Rose isn’t the best beer café in Brussels, it is by no means the worst. My first three beers of the trip were Palm (Belgian pale ale), Rodenbach (sour red ale from West Flanders) and Rochfort 8º (heavenly Trappist ale) -- three choices you’d love to have anywhere while mulling the meaning of life.

Many soggy tourists crossed the expanse beyond our window, and among them we soon spotted an angular Bob loping across the pavement wrapped in a brilliant reddish-orange rain poncho. We motioned him inside and had another round. Soon the rain dissipated, and we were back on the streets in search of food and drink.

Historically, Brussels and environs are lambic country, and on previous trips to Belgium I’d begun to develop a taste for the funky nectar. The next two cafes we patronized both were located in the warren of streets beyond the Grand Place, and they yielded good examples of Belgium’s indigenous, spontaneously fermented specialty.

At Notredame, there was Timmerman’s Faro; although by definition sweetened, the characteristically tangy lambic character still was present. At Toone, a textbook example of sharp, sour and rigorously authentic lambic, Cantillon Gueuze, was chased afterward with a smooth glass of Antwerp’s signature De Koninck ale. Three hours, six beers, and a veritable cross section of Belgian brewing … and all before dinner.

Our quartet’s quintessentially Belgian evening meal was composed of four pots of mussels, just as many baskets of crusty bread for soaking up the broth, and mounds of fries. After all, one must always eat vegetables for a balanced meal. My delicacies were washed down with famously balanced, deceptively drinkable Duvel, Belgium’s signature golden ale. It followed a draft portion of forgettable Jupiler mass-market lager, allegedly “bought” for us by the restaurant’s street hawker as an enticement to eat there, and which served as a valuable calibration beer in the sense that everything else I drank the entire day represented an improvement on the Jupiler.

Soon the mussels were gone, as was our afternoon in Brussels. It was time to return to the train station to reclaim luggage and embark for the hour-long ride to Tournai, a city located in French-speaking Hainaut province that we had chosen as our base for three days of cycling in the Wallonian countryside. Blessedly, we were early getting back, so there was the chance to have that extra, cherished, final beer -- and free time for an extra beer always is a good omen -- at a café across the street. Mine was Brugs Tarwebier, a citrusy, representative Belgian-style wheat ale. Blessedly, there was no orange slice to throw angrily at the server.

Rumbling through the suburbs aboard a nearly deserted train, our bountiful harvest of opening day libations suddenly became even more fruitful as Kevin magically produced a bottle of 40-year-old Noval port wine, technically a tawny port with indication of average age as pertains to the blending stocks, and not a vintage port as such, but no matter. Kevin Richards had cleverly procured the bottle from our fifth wheel, Kevin Lowber, who would be meeting us in Poperinge later in the trip. Having done so, he resolved to drink it early and often, and dissenting voices could not be found.

With little choice except to thumb our noses at propriety and universally accepted decanting protocol, we happily took turns imbibing the sinuous, concentrated nectar from two of Buddy’s souvenir Parisian shot glasses, watching tidy fields and shuttered small villages fly past as dusk approached. A taxi waited in front of the queue at the Tournai station, and two hundred Belgian francs later, we were deposited at the gate of the hotel.

This momentous first day in Belgium ended without bicycling, but with Chimay Trappist “blue” ales on the pleasant, landscaped terrace of the Hotel d’Alcantara, our base in Tournai. As we drank, toasting ourselves and the surroundings, which included bright hotel flower boxes and the lovely vista of a floodlit church spire, four ancient bicycles were spotted chained together in the corner of the walled courtyard. In a few hours, these would be our introduction to European biking … and my travel world would begin to change.

In the next installment: Tournai, couscous, a beer “cave” and steam-powered beer.

Prologue: Belgian Beercycling 2000.

Work. Drinking beer. Play. Marriage. More drinking beer. Laundry. Blogging. Work again. Good meals now and then. Sweeping the floor. Walking. Riding. Movies. Reading. Community involvement. Still more beer.

The preceding episodes are brought to you by everyday life, and taken together, they have conspired to prevent me from the intended crowning achievement of my writing “career,” such as it is – namely, chronicling the travel and beer lore that has been haphazardly compiled over the course of the years spent on the road. Far too much of it has been passed on through the Homeric tradition of oral storytelling, generally undertaken while holding court at the pub, and not enough of it by inscribing the tales on paper for a better stab at posterity.

But my Muse, she of the inconsistent periodic arrivals, made a long overdue appearance this evening, scolding me rather harshly and suggesting that perhaps it is time to make another try at diligence in compiling the historical record. So, although I can’t predict how long it will last, let’s nonetheless randomly revisit the year 2000, and the first ever European excursion devoted to hunting beer while riding bicycles at least part of the time.

To this day, it is impossible for me to explain why it took so long for me to rediscover the joys of biking (beer was a given all along), and yet in 1999 this reawakening occurred at home in Indiana … and almost immediately, I began plotting and scheming as to how it might play out on the road, in my beloved Europe.

A willing and experienced bicycling co-conspirator was at the bar: Kevin Richards, a cyclist of long standing. One day we went for a ride up the Knobs to Edwardsville, and while resting at Polly’s Freeze, the venerable ice cream haven, an earnest discussion began. Might we venture a biking trip to Europe?

And have a few beers, too?

We might, and we did, opting to pre-arrange a handful of beer-oriented Belgian urban venues and accompanying rental bikes for day trips at each stop. Faxes and e-mails were sent, and the itinerary came into shape. As the calendar turned to June, 2000, there were five of us ready to make the journey, and it proved to be a classic. A beercycling group was born, and my European travel instincts were reborn. Nowadays it feels awkward to be without a bike, whether in Europe or right here at home in New Albany.

Oddly, when the 2000 trip ended and the workaday world was reinstituted, I eventually sought some semblance of self-discipline to write about the experience, and found it in 2001 through the medium of the monthly e-newsletter compiled for the FOSSILS homebrewing club. Titling the effort “FOSSILS on Bicycles, 2000,” I explained to readers: “As an inducement to finally finish writing about last year’s biking and beer trip to Belgium, I’ve elected to run the article in installments. Here’s the first.”

History repeats itself. With a few revisions, expansions and contractions, I’m beginning the series again; it will run daily through September 24.

Later today: A beer orientation in Brussels, and arrival in Tournai.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Recalling my first visit to the Café Abseits in Bamberg.


A highlight of our 2009 Christmas stay in Bamberg was the comfy, specialist Cafe Abseits. I'd always dashed straight to my favored breweries, but here was a place where the best of many breweries could be sampled, in a relaxed atmosphere very familiar to me.

In the run-up to 2014, I briefly conversed with owner Gerhard via Facebook, and he provided this update:

Tibor Pleiss, the young basketball player you have met, will play next season for the FC Barcelona (one of the best European teams). Before he played two seasons for Caja Laboral in Spain.

The Brose Baskets game we watched in 2009 came during the campaign that kicked off a dynasty, with a bundle of league championships and cup titles. The team now is rebuilding.

Another significant Cafe Abseits factor for a beer lover:

Café Abseits is the only pub worldwide where you can drink beers of the lab brewery of the maltery Weyermann.

Now that's exclusivity. Here is my account, first published in 2010 at the PC blog.

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I have no excuse, plausible or otherwise, for having traveled to Bamberg so many times before without once setting foot in the Café Abseits, at least until Monday, December 21, 2009, which at long last marked my first foray into this comfortable and friendly specialty beer bar.

Like another, eerily similar place close to my heart, the NABC Public House, Abseits began life more than a quarter-century ago as a student hangout, steadily evolving into the beer lover's haunt while retaining its convivial, Bohemian character.

Perhaps the café’s location (Pödeldorfer Straase 39) always threw me, but never again. Like the Weyermann malting firm, Abseits is on the east side of the train station, and because there isn’t a direct eastern exit under or over the tracks, getting to either one of them requires leaving the station, turning right or left, and doubling back. At the same time, Bamberg’s historic inner city, tourist attractions, nine breweries and numerous taverns lie to the west, and it's the easiest thing in the world to walk right down the street in front of the station and keep going until you reach the front door at Schlenkerla.

There were two further investigative visits to Abseits during my most recent Franconian idyll in December, 2009, and there’ll be even more in the future as I continue to cope with my profound embarrassment at having unfairly neglected this wonderful institution for so long.

In the end, it's true that I’ve only hurt myself.

Oddly enough, it was basketball as much as beer that finally brought the Publican and Café Abseits together. During the planning stages of our trip, the Café Abseits’ owner, Gerhard Schoolman, fortuitously popped up on the Franconian Beer Message Board to answer one of my questions.

As the chat progressed, it transpired that not only is Gerhard a rabid basketball fan in a city that prides itself on its hoops tradition, but also that tickets for the Brose Baskets, Bamberg’s entry in the top German round ball league, were available from the Café Abseits as part of an annual promotion of the team. Gerhard held two tickets back for us to pick up the day before the game against Paderborn, and the rest is belated history.

As an aside, the Brose formerly Jako) Arena serves local beer from Eschenbach, a few clicks down the road to the northwest of Bamberg, and also provides previously unseen concessions delicacies like the Leberkäse Wrap, which combines the old (bologna-like meat loaf) and the new (flat bread) in hand-held form.

However, it’s always about the beer, and Café Abseits offers a distinctive interpretation of the classic specialist bar’s theme of a small, well-chosen beer list. The emphasis at Abseits is on local and regional beers from the brewery-rich Franconian hills and valleys in and around Bamberg. Four drafts are constant and another rotates seasonally (Mönchsambacher Weihnachtsbock during my visit), but it’s the bottle list that really shines.

30-35 bottled selections are constant, grouped in categories that reflect the Franconian brewing tradition: Kellerbier, Rauchbier, Dark Lager, Weizen and (I think) Helles/Pils. The only foreign beer I recall seeing on the list is Guinness Extra Stout, and only a handful come from elsewhere in Bavaria (beers from Kloster Weltenburg, Schneider and Andechs prime among them).

Better yet is the seasonal rotating (monthly) bottle list. In December, 2009, it featured six regional Bocks for the holiday season, which in most cases translates into Pale/Helles Bock, blonde, rich and malty, and ideal for the cold weather. Personal favorites were Hummel-Bräu Leonhardi-Bock and Nankendorfer Schroll-Bräu Bock, the latter far more along the lines of Doppelbock.

The food at Café Abseits reflects diverse origins, with a weekly special menu, breakfast items, Tex-Mex, wings, a touch of curry and Asian influences here and there. Excellent pizza is served in the evening, beginning at 6:30 p.m. In short, it’s broader and better than the usual pub grub, and provides a welcome contrast to the heavy, pork-laden fare at Bamberg’s historic watering holes – cuisine that I dearly love, but can happily step away from every now and then. Apart from beer, there are coffees, teas, liquors and wines.

I made a final stop at Café Abseits just before its 2:00 p.m. closing time on New Year’s Eve, not to eat lunch, but to cap a brisk stroll from Altstadt with two of the seasonal Bocks. Glancing around the intimate confines, I saw that each of the ten or so persons present looked to be drinking a different beer. There were glass half-liters, stoneware mugs and tall wheat beer glasses, and shades of liquid ranging from blonde to reddish-brown to black.

After a bit, a strangely long shadow descended over my bar seat as a customer came forward to sign his tab. The gals behind the bar had been visibly fawning over him, but I thought nothing of it until he stood and blocked the ceiling lamp. It was Tibor Pleiss, the 7’ 1” starting center for the Brose Baskets, also a member of the German national team, who had returned from a road win against Trier the night before to drop by Abseits and polish off a huge bowl of spaghetti and a fruit drink (not beer).

No autograph requests from me, just admiration for a “good beer bar” that accommodates both Brose Baskets and Bocks. Very, very nice.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Bamberg beer forever: Schlenkerla revisited (Part Two).

Matthias more recently. Photo credit and fine story here: Schlenkerla tavern taps 609-year-old tradition, by Kerry J. Byrne (Boston Herald)

It can be seen that a proper respect for tradition is the norm in the Schlenkerla pub and brewery, but Matthias prepared for his career with thoroughly modern diligence after assuring his parents at an early age that he fully intended to go into the family business.

The same grandmother who rejected public lip-locking contact out of wedlock and shunned the tourist’s flowery Bermudas heartily encouraged the notion that Matthias should first attend university for a degree in business and economics before immersion in beer and brewing.

Afterwards, Matthias studied at the prestigious Weihenstephan brewing institute near Munich and served an apprenticeship at Zum Uerige, the most traditional of Dusseldorf’s Altbier brewpubs. He then worked the family brewery from top to bottom alongside the maltster, brewer and forklift operator.

When German Trum passed the baton to his son Matthias and retired from the business that he had directed for three decades, he did so without qualification, and has not visited the brewery since. It would appear that capable hands run in the family.

Meanwhile, Bamberg’s remaining breweries cope. Contemporary Germany is no different from any other Western consumer society. Its citizens are forever being offered “new and improved” beverages, foods, entertainment options and lifestyle choices.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, beer consumption has been on the decline in Germany for many years, and in Franconia, home to 500 or more breweries as recently as the 1980’s, the number has dropped to just above 300 now.

British beer writer John Conen, a close observer of the Bamberg brewing scene, says that the hemorrhaging has slowed of late, but to return to the analogy of disappearing species in the Amazon, the continued attrition of these small, distinctive breweries bodes ill for the future of German brewing.

I’m not speaking of German brewing in the sense of it functioning on its largest level as a multi-national business enterprise, for there are no shortage of large brewing companies actively pursuing acquisition, consolidation and the transformation of beer into a standardized supermarket commodity in Germany just as in the rest of the world.

Rather, I’m lamenting the inevitable decline of brewing in the artistic and cultural senses, for it is in these milieus that individualistic, highly localized attitudes and methods, once lost, can never be regained.

Bamberg’s nine breweries deal with problems of survival in varying, generally complementary ways.

Kaiserdom, the largest and least interesting to me, seeks to maintain a niche export market and positions itself as up-market “premium” at home. By contrast, the late Maisel (closed in 2008) brewed the local working man’s Pils and Weizen.

In the neighborhood known as Wunderberg, arguably Bamberg’s Brooklyn, Mahr’s and Keesman occupy opposite sides of the street and both make great beer. It is alleged by certain observers that the workers patronize Mahr’s and the bosses visit Keesman, but despite long hours spent at both establishments, I cannot verify it. However, I can attest to the lip-smacking beers that both produce.

Close to the Rhine-Main-Danube canal on Obere-Konigstrasse, Fassla is a brewpub and guesthouse that unashamedly caters to the working man. It I more “real” than Anheuser-Busch ever will be. Directly across the street, Spezial brews the city’s gentler, delicious smoked lager and operates the finest beer garden (Spezial Keller, located a few kilometers away on Stephansberg hill) in Bamberg, and maybe all of Germany.

Klosterbrau parlays its Old Town location, monastic religious connotations and rich textbook dark lagers into a steady trade with tourist and local alike. Greifenklau possesses yet another lovely hilltop garden with a view, and runs a big hotel that is favored by tour groups.

And then, there’s Schlenkerla. The Trum family resides above their pub, so there are no overnight rooms, but an outdoor garden for warm weather seating has been added, and the historic pub itself is jewel enough. It oozes history. Half of its current floor plan originally was part of an adjacent monastery, and the location deep in the epicenter of Bamberg’s old town is exemplary. Insofar as tourists can stomach real, unalloyed beer, Schlenkerla draws them, but at the Stammtisch (i.e., reserved table) are clustered with regulars who have been drinking in the same spot since long before Matthias’s birth.

Small amounts of Schlenkerla’s beer reach aficionados throughout the world, and there are off-premise accounts in Bamberg and its environs, but by far most of it is consumed at the bustling tavern, lovingly drawn one pint at a time from the real wooden barrel perched atop a venerable metal-topped counter, and consumed alongside smoked ham, horseradish and pungent beer cheese.

Time spent with Matthias Trum convinces me that Schlenkerla will remain a safe house amidst the destructive tsunamis of the warring multinational brewing conglomerates, and for this alone I keep going back to Bamberg.

How I manage to convince myself to return to Indiana remains a mystery to me … but somehow, each time, I do.

Maybe someday this will change, and I won't.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Bamberg beer forever: Schlenkerla revisited (Part One).

Matthias Trum, me, Kim Andersen and Craig Somers in 2003

I've returned to Bamberg (Franconia, Bavaria, Germany) several times since this article was written in 2004, and I’m there right now. The city never ceases to amaze me. Of course, some things change in a decade, even in Bamberg. I’ve tried to make revisions only where merited by changes on the ground. 

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On April 1, 2003, Matthias Trum assumed control of his family’s business, becoming the sixth male in his family to take the reins since the mid-1800’s.

Stories involving dynastic succession are potentially interesting regardless of the time or place, but when the setting is Bamberg, Germany, a city that is home to nine breweries, and when the Trum family business is one of them – Brauerei Heller Trum, more commonly known as Schlenkerla, a classic brewery and pub enterprise - then special attention is warranted.

Especially if the observer is a beer lover hopelessly smitten with the lovely city in general and its fine beer in particular.

In personal terms, my experience with Bamberg dates to 1991, when I visited the Franconian city for the first time. Even before that, there was unmistakable infatuation. I’d read accounts of the city’s beer culture written by British beer writer Michael Jackson, and fairly salivated over his written descriptions of Schlenkerla’s trademark smoked lager.

Long before I tasted it, I knew that Schlenkerla would be an unquestioned, enduring favorite, and my first sip amply confirmed it.

Subsequent encounters with Schlenkerla have not failed to entice and impress, and these many trips since 1991 have confirmed not only that Bamberg is the place to go for smoked lager, an elegant retro-rarity in the world of beer, but furthermore, that the city simply has no serious competition as the finest setting for beer drinking in all of Germany.

The beer is sublime, and available in as many styles and variations as there are taste buds, but the truly priceless aspect of any visit to Bamberg emanates from the opportunity, one unfortunately threatened by the pace of modern life, to comprehensively experience a culture seemingly crafted from only the very best of beer’s numerous virtues.

From the savory and always reasonably priced German cuisine accompanying and complementing my beverage of choice to the city’s many traditional indoor and outdoor drinking and dining venues, Bamberg affords the enhancement of gustatory and olfactory pleasures in a way that larger cities cannot match.

Bamberg’s 70,000 residents enjoy the products of the city’s nine remaining breweries (down from as many as two dozen a century ago), and also have the opportunity to sample the selected wares of more than a few of the 100-plus breweries in a fifty-mile radius. Many of these breweries are located in charming small towns tucked away in wooded hills and pastoral valleys radiating outward from Bamberg.

Bamberg and its outlying Franconian environs are to German beer what the Amazon Basin is to species of flora and fauna: A diverse and unfathomable “zymurgo-system,” and a treasure trove of species, many of which are doomed to extinction owing to the relentless march of consumerism and mass-marketing.

In truth, few of these beers equal the mighty Schlenkerla Marzen, the Trum family’s everyday flagship beer. It is a full-bodied amber lager, and it would be delicious even if it did not burst upon the palate with an assertively smoky flavor deriving from beechwood kilning in the brewery’s micro-malting – a traditional method itself now largely extinct.

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The very survival and continued prosperity of Bamberg’s beer and brewing culture are best viewed as questions of tradition versus modernity, and all those who are exploring the equation, from brewer to tavern keeper to drinking customer, are answering the question in their own way by the choices they make.

Not least among them is Matthias Trum, who comes down squarely on the side of tradition … most of the time.

Matthias tells the story of his grandmother’s tenure stewarding the family’s lively, well-trodden pub and restaurant, and of her ironclad view of propriety. There was to be no kissing between unmarried men and women customers (her reaction to openly gay couples can be inferred), and men wearing short pants (other than lederhosen) were to be neither acknowledged nor served.

“That part of tradition can be relaxed,” laughed Matthias in 2003 as we savored Marzens and a platter of sausages in the section of the tavern known as God’s Corner, where a statue of Jesus looks out on the usually crowded room.

Other time-tested rules have not changed: The three “C’s” of Coca-Cola, coffee, and chips (French fries) are not available. “You can buy them anywhere in Bamberg,” noted Matthias, “but not when you come to Schlenkerla. Here, we offer a traditional menu.”

In similar fashion, the brewery (located several beautiful hillside blocks away from the tavern), observes old methods whenever possible. Almost no breweries have retained their maltings, but Schlenkerla continues to employ a maltster, who smokes the barley and prepares it for brewing.

Beer destined for the tavern is kegged in wooden barrels, themselves crafted by one of the last remaining coopers in Bavaria. The barrels must be kept in a damp environment to preserve the wood. When they are hoisted onto the counter and tapped, the beer flows straight out by gravity feed, almost like cask ale except that the yeast isn’t still alive.

Two sizes of barrel are filled, because when closing time draws near, the smaller barrel can be tapped so that no beer goes flat and is wasted overnight.

During our tour of the brewery, Matthias led my friends Kim Andersen, Craig Somers, Pavel Borovich and I into lagering cellars beneath the brewery. The cellars are part of a network of underground passageways extending throughout hill-studded Bamberg.

We were offered samples of cool, delicious Urbock, the rich, higher-gravity seasonal variant of smoked lager, and instructed in the uses of the mysterious Spundetapparat.

How Matthias managed to convince us to return to the earth’s surface remains a mystery to me.

(Part Two tomorrow)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Pilsners with Putin: 1989 Revisited (Part Four).

In 1989, Dresden was the sort of destination that merited two days of sightseeing before rejoining the train for Prague or Berlin. Before World War II, the city’s history, architecture and position astride the Elbe prompted frequent comparisons with the Czech capital. These comments largely ceased following the still controversial Allied bombings in February, 1945, which killed perhaps 40,000 residents, reduced the city’s center to kindling, and were witnessed by Hoosier soldier Kurt Vonnegut, who incorporated his experience in his 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.

To this very day, feelings are hard. In 1989, the East German the sluggish regime was lightning fast when it came to exploiting the past for political purposes.

It should suffice to say that with the exception of the Zwinger Palace and Opera House, the GDR didn’t make a truly serious effort to restore Dresden’s grandeur during the Communists’ 40-year run. Bits and pieces of pre-war Dresden, most of them pockmarked by unrepaired bombing damage, survived, resting uneasily alongside shoddy Communist-built, high-rise buildings built from unpainted, pre-fabricated concrete.

Culturally, the city was in a time warp even by the GDR’s standards, situated such that it was popularly reckoned to be the only part of East Germany unable to receive West German television transmissions – and in Communist countries, it wasn’t possible to stroll to the neighborhood Engels-Mart and buy a satellite dish.

But … there were certain advantages.

Maybe just one.

Analogous to West Germany, where the beer always seemed better in the southern region of Bavaria, the beer brewed in and around Dresden tasted better, and none more so than Radeberger Pilsner, brewed just outside Dresden, and served in the city’s most user friendly beer drinking venue, the Radeberger Keller. It was a below-ground restaurant downtown, and we went there every night of our stay to cool our heels, kill time and drink what for us was extremely cheap, good beer.

We had little else to do, although one evening Jeff and I entertained our fellow foreigners, especially the heavy drinking Finn, with a bout of “drinking wine spo-dee-o-dee, which we defined as alternate shots of Cuban dark rum and Bulgarian cabernet.

The service staff at the Radeberger Keller was a shade surly and inefficient in the typical fashion of the Bloc, which didn’t institutionally value such merits of customer service, but traditional beer hall etiquette was honored, and we were allowed to seat ourselves wherever open spaces permitted, with one exception.

One seating area, a gallery off to the side, was perpetually festooned with “Reserviert” signage, and not coincidentally, it was always filled with the privileged caste. In East German terms, this meant the friendly faces, brown uniforms and dingy black suits of the Soviet officers and bureaucrats who liberated Dresden from the Nazis in 1945, and never bothered to leave.

In 1989, there were almost 500,000 Soviet troops stationed in East Germany, and a sizeable contingent resided near Dresden, where a branch office of the KGB maintained a fraternal presence, and although there’d have been no way of my knowing it then, at least one of those KGB officers assigned to the area had come to develop as much affection for Radeberger Pilsner as my motley group of Western volunteer workers.

None other than Vladimir Putin, in fact.

You may recall that Putin became acting President of Russia on the last day of 1999 and was legally elected to the office a few months later. Around this time, an English language translation of a slim Putin biography appeared, and my friend Jon loaned me his copy. Putin’s first-person testimony about his six years as one of the KGB’s men in Dresden included the frank admission that he found Radeberger delightful, so much so that it threatened the continued viability of his slim, athletic build by distracting him from exercise. Furthermore, when not dieting, he confessed to frequenting the Radeberger Keller.

As an aside, having visited the former Soviet Union on three occasions prior to the 1989 stay in Dresden documented here, I can say with perfect candor that Soviet beer was wretched, indeed, and in general terms didn’t rise to the level even of the bilious beer occasionally brewed in East Germany. But Radberger was a famous export label, and there was profit to be derived from it, so the brand was not degraded. Presumably the hoarded hops were going in the Radeberger instead of the people’s lager.

In retrospect, Putin’s fascination with Radeberger seems quite reasonable to me in the context of the time and place. After all, I was right there in the same beer hall, equally fascinated, though not only by the merits of the beer, also by the denizens of that perpetually reserved gallery off to the side, with the officers and bureaucrats of what in effect was an occupying power, albeit in one with a steadily ticking shelf life, drinking beer and having it all in a captive foreign land.

And so, in the final, authorized version of my five days in Dresden in 1989, there can be no confirmation that Putin was ever among those fellow Russians in the Radeberger Keller’s reserved seating area, much less that he and I drank beer together. I still believe it, anyway. The only famous person I ever met was Alvin Dark, manager of the 1974 Oakland A’s world championship club, and laying claim to beers with the future president of Russia is both more interesting and validates the way I spent the late summer of 1989.

Along with the rest of his statue, Lenin’s shoes were removed from the Volkspark entrance after unification. I’d have liked to have them as souvenirs of one of the most unforgettable times ever.

I wonder what Putin remembers?