Sunday, January 24, 2016

Thoughts on Evans, 1905 - Beers and Brewing Systems of Northern France

When I started this blog, I expected one of the focuses to be discussing the scientific brewing literature. The main reasons for this were because my training/background is in science and I enjoy reading the scientific brewing literature. And that these papers are not always open access, so by writing about them I could share a bit of the ideas they discuss for those who don't have access. There was a bit of this discussion in the early days of this blog, but not very much. So now I'm deciding to get back to it with some shorter posts talking about specific texts

To start this off I'll write about an article titled The Beers and Brewing Systems of Northern France written by R.E. Evans in 1905. Articles from this era of British brewing journals are pretty cool in that they are presented as the article, which was read by the author and a board of similar brewing scientists, and then discussed with a questions and answer section which is transcribed after the article. This text (and others from the era are similar) may seem more like a historical document now than a scientific one. This is because rather than an in depth investigation of the impact of some specific process/ingredient/etc., this type of text serves to introduce British brewers and brewing scientists to the way brewing was being carried out in other regions. So in this way this era of UK brewing science is a great resource for the modern Anglophone interested in historic brewing in the UK as well as some bits in non-Anglophone countries.

This text comes at a unique time for French brewing, and a unique time for western European brewing in general. Perhaps Evans knew the full magnitude of this when he wrote it and perhaps not, but it does seem like he has some good awareness of what is going on. Imported lager beer was becoming popular, fueled by recent advances in pure culture and also general advances in the ability to package and distribute beer well, and it was challenging the native beers. Local/regional and traditional breweries, and with them the regional/local/traditional beers that they made, were on their way out. Large scale brewing was growing significantly, and technology was allowing breweries to become this large. Evans acknowledges some of this change when discussing the acidic and vinous Biere de Garde brewed in some areas of Northern France. In Lille, he says that Biere de Garde accounted for 50% of the production in 1900 but by 1905 it was down to only 20%. Most of my following discussion of this text will focus on this Biere de Garde.

To speak further to the looming changes in French brewing WWI, which would greatly change the landscape of brewing in places like the North of France and Belgium, was not so far away. So in these ways the research by Evans captures a unique a moment in French brewing history - an industry in a upheaval with significant social/political/economic changes on the horizon.

Here is a quick write-up of some of the things that stood out to me in this text, focusing mainly on production of Biere de Garde which at the time is presented as an acidic, regional, top fermentation beer:

Regional split:
We see already that France is being split to a good degree regionally in regard to beer. Of course there had been regional beers for a long time and regional differences are not new, but this is a different regional split of 'new' beer and 'old' beer. With the influx of lager beer, some regions such as the north of the country, held out longer. Evans describes 6 counties/regions of France still producing top-fermenting beer (the old type) which contain about 2,355 total breweries, or roughly 85% of the total breweries in the country. These are preferentially clustered in the north of France and they combine for roughly 75% of total French production. Meanwhile the remaining 80 counties/regions, which contain only roughly 400 breweries, account for the remaining roughly 25% of national production estimated by taxes (suggesting that they a produce disproportionately high amount of beer given their number).

The largest top fermentation brewery at the time was in Lille and produced roughly 85,000 Hl. Evans notes that this is generally small relative to English brewing. He also notes that in general beer is not a major drink compared to what he and other English brewers are used to. No big surprises there I suppose.

Biere de Garde:
Part of this text discusses the production and characteristics of Biere de Garde (much of this is in describing the mashing as one of 4 main mashing systems employed in France).Biere de Garde is presented as a beer with a regional following, but generally restricted to that region (and not even universally appreciated there). As discussed above its favor was falling. Evans describes Biere de Garde as purposely allowed to become acidic and as vinous. They acquire this from extended storing/fermentation (vatted 6+ months). Evans lists a representative Biere de Garde as having an OG of 1.041, an FG of 1.001 and an ABV of 5.2%. Hopping rates were on the higher side when compared to other beers and were 1.75 lbs/barrel or more.

The mashing process described for the Biere de Garde of Lille (which Evans terms 'Thick Mashing') falls somewhere between modern decoction mashing and turbid mashing. Below is a schematic of the process which I created with my excellent artistic prowess (and to include an image in this otherwise text-heavy post). The process starts rather thick and cool, similar to turbid mashing and some saison mashes (see the Brasserie a Vapeur post). This is followed by an infusion to bring the temp up to roughly 50 C / 131 F. Immediately following this first infusion, wort is pulled out as in lambic mashing until the grain bed is nearly dry. This is heated in another vessel (a boil kettle will work, or dedicated decoction kettle) for 15-20 min.

The decoction of almost all the liquid has to do something to the enzyme activity. Perhaps the cool mash up until this point has limited extraction from the grain. But this process does differ in important ways from decoction in regard to the relative amount removed and that it is wort and removing it leaves the grain bed rather dry. Following the boiling, as with decoctions, this added back to raise the mash temp into the saccharification range where the mash remains until lautering and sparging. Given the total mash time listed and the steps so far (making some general assumptions for mash in and infusion times), the saccharification rest seems to be on the long end around 90 minutes or maybe a touch more.

Biere de Garde 'thick mashing'.

Evans asserts that this process is designed to yield as much free (which I presume means fermentable) sugar as possible. This is somewhat contrary to what I expected based on the decoction of so much of the wort and the impact that would have on enzymatic power. The decoction is described as wort, and encompassing basically all of the liquid, so I think I am correct in interpreting that it is not a traditional decoction of both liquid and grain. It is possible that by free sugar Evans meant extract from the mash rather than extract which is fermentable to saccharomyces. Either way, the extraction and preservation of unfermentable carbohydrates might be fitting in a beer that was intended to become acidic.

Other thoughts
Some other general parts that I found interesting were the overlap with Belgian systems from around the time that I've seen/heard about. That isn't especially surprising, but I did appreciate the crossover. There was a lot of iron equipment which Evans worried could leach into the beer and cause problems. I've seen (and tasted) the same thing in beers from Brasserie a Vapeur. The iron leaching issue seems to be sorted out now with a Vapeur, but a good amount of old iron equipment remains. Continuing with equipment thoughts, Evans notes that most breweries have two kettles, one main kettle and a second smaller kettle for producing low strength beers (and that this used to be required by law). The mash tun seems surprisingly large for the boil kettles. (the large main boil kettle is 1/2 the capacity of the mash tun). Evans also wrote that nearly every brewery did some malting in house, and this was generally floor malting.

The fermentation system describes seems unreasonably complicated, with beer overflowing vessels, collecting in tubs, and then being added back or not after varying degrees of settling and/or mixing, depending on the beer. This seems somewhat reminiscent of the Burton Union but much less elegant and much more manual. Perhaps those with more familiarity in British brewing could add a bit of insight into how the system here compares.

There were a couple unique beers that received quick mention but a whole lot of details. One of these was a regional beer from Douai which was not boiled and which received high hopping rates. Hops were added at a rate of 2.5-3 lbs per barrel at 194 F / 90 C. Just as the beer reached boiling the heat was cut. Evans describes this beer as destined for casks. He mentions a couple other rather highly hopped beers (one of which was bottled, so it likely had some reasonable shelf stability). This bottled beer, from Cambrai, was mashed on the cooler side (no hotter than 143-149 F / 61.7-65 C). To speak to hopping in general, Evans describes two classes of hops based on origin which were used differently (worse hops for bittering and better for finishing). The Belgian and Northern French hops were not in the finer category...

There's some good info in there about barley origins and malting. It seems that the use of African barley as fairly common. Other mashing procedures (which were more common than the Lille one which I described above) are discussed as well. And there's a bit in there about lower strength standard beers. Evans also includes recipes and processes from some brewers (with more or less detail, depending on the brewer) that might be of interest to folks trying to brew beers inspired by older French brewing and as further insight into the sorts of things the brewers are doing.

There more in the text as well and it's worth a read if this is the sort of thing you are interested in. And look for more discussion brewing articles in the future.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Visiting Lambic Producers

As prefaced in this first general post about beer traveling in Belgium, I often compile lists of places, how to get there, when to go, etc. for friends making a beer trip to Belgium. The general post covers intro and some of the basics about getting around Belgium and prompts for thinking about what you want in a trip. This post is more focused and gets into the destinations. So here are some guidelines from my experience for visiting lambic producers. I'd like to do that same sort of thing for saison breweries at some point, so keep an eye out for that.

I won't really cover anything about lambic cafes here (at least not yet). For those purposes your best resource is the book LambicLand. If you are going to put some serious time into visiting lambic cafes this book is a must. If you're only going to visit a few big name spots and the more easy to access breweries then you can probably get away without it, but it really is an excellent resource and I highly recommend it to anyone who has the time/interest to dive into the world of lambic producers and cafes.


The Senne River
If you want to learn about lambic and lambic producers, their beers and their history, lambic.info is an amazing resource and I won't try to cover that sort of stuff here. So I'll focus more on what places let you do (taste, tour, etc.), how to get there, and when to go. In the brewery sections I've included some special events that they do and at the bottom I've included some general lambic special event times and times of the year to visit producers and/or drink a good selection of lambic.

This is not a comprehensive list of all the spontaneous beer producers in Belgium, but it covers most of the ones focusing more quality lambic. I used to have a strong bias of lambic producers that I felt were worth my time and those that were not (based in which ones were spending more time on unsweetened products and which were not). While this has been upheld to some degree by having the more traditional beers from producers focusing less on traditional products, there have also been times when my mind was changed (or at least my biases relaxed). As I saw posted on facebook a few months back by a Belgian lambic enthusiast named Werner, there are so few producers of lambic around that we shouldn't really take any of them for granted. I think this is a valuable point of view and while I certainly wish there was more traditional lambic and I don't have an interest in sweetened products, some producers who are making sweetened products still contribute to traditional lambic by either their products or by supplying wort to blenders (professional and home). It does seem that some of the larger industrial producers who make a lot of sweetened products are turning some focus a bit back toward unsweetened characterful lambic, but we'll have to wait and see on the full extent and results of that. I've tried to strike a balance here by including some producers doing more sweetened stuff and if I make visits to some of the places that I left off this list then I will definitely add them with notes about my visits there.

As a disclaimer, to the best of my knowledge this info is accurate as of the time I posted it. But lots of it is subject to change. As I become aware of changes I'll update, but it is probably best to look into these a bit more to ensure that you know what opening times/availability/event dates are. Directions to get places are all by public transport and walking as I'm assuming you've got some navigation method figured out if you are driving.

Here are some of my other posts about lambic and lambic producers:
Gueuzerie Tilquin Visits
Cantillon Visits part 1
Cantillon Visits part 2 (these are a bit dated now having been written in late 2013)
-See also these videos of wort entering the coolship and barrel cleaning as well as some miscellaneous pictures including racking cooled wort into barrels.

Last updated: 14-January-2016

Lambic Brewers

Cantillon:
Cantillon
Being centrally located in the city of Brussels and much better known internationally than any other producer, this is already a main stop on the radar for most. And I've talked about Cantillon a fair bit in a two part post from the early days of this blog which focused mainly on a public brew day (part 1 and and part 2). Cantillon offers self-guided tours 6 days a week (open 9-5 mon-fri, 10-5 sat). Around noon and the early afternoon it gets more crowded with tourists (pretty much every day I've been in there in that time frame). The plus side of that is that there are generally other people to share bottles with. But I tend to try for earlier in the day. Note that they close at 5pm, last tours at 4 and last bottles at 4:15.


The cover of Cantillon's mash tun
I regularly stop there in my mornings in Belgium as they open at 9 am. So as long as you are amenable to morning beers (at least on vacation) here is how I would suggest you start a normal day in Brussels that doesn't require you to get an early start to head into the countryside:

-wake up in Brussels at a reasonable time such as or before 8-ish (sidenote - Belgium is basically all reachable in day trips from Brussels unless you need to make some tricky connections and/or have early or late times you need to be places, see the general Belgium travels post). Do whatever sort of thing you do for breakfast.
-Go to Cantillon at 9-9:30 (assuming it is a weekday). If you're tight on time, get a glass of gueuze or lambic or something else. If you have more time, get a bottle and have a leisurely morning there before it gets busy while deciding what to do for the day and/or getting ready for it if you've already decided.
-Leave in the late morning to do whatever you've planed for the day. Chances are you can still get wherever you want by about noon even with a leisurely morning at Cantillon.

The full coolship on a brew day
Best times to visit: Really any day (but it can get pretty busy). They have a couple of special events that let you either try more of their beers in a short time or get a little more insight into their processes:
  • Open brew days (November and March) - If you're interested in the production of lambic, then checking out a Cantillon open brew day is pretty cool. This is also the best chance to get a word or two in with Jean van Roy. On normal days he is working and not always around the tasting room but on the open brew days the point is that you can watch the production so Jean is much more accessible. Cantillon gets unreasonably busy on these days (and any other special event days really) so I would recommend getting there early. If you can stick it out until the wort hits the coolship that is sweet to see as well. Early afternoon is probably the worst time to be in there. At times it can be tricky to move around. Check Cantillon's website for updated open brew day dates.
  • Barrel room on a Quintessence morning
    Quintessence (generally a public holiday near the start of May on even years) - This is a beer 
    and food event that Cantillon hosts inside the brewery every other year. In previous years they have also invited other brewers to join in the event with them. And it seems this is the trend for now. Tasting stations are spaced throughout the brewery and you get access to rooms that are not generally open to guests. There is also often some special beer to go along with the event that is not normally available. In previous years a certain number of people were let in every half hour or so with tickets corresponding to each beer that was served, and they were free to wander as long as they wanted and have their beers at their leisure. I could see this changing in the future (though not sure how such a change would be implemented) as it got super busy in the afternoon because much of the morning crowd didn't want to leave. And why would they? Anyway, if it keeps the same format in years to come then getting in early has definite advantages in terms of no crowds and better chances to talk with the visiting brewers (beers probably won't run out, so there is no danger of that).
  • Zwanze day (September 19th) - At Cantillon this is a normal day, but the yearly one off beer is released at some Brussels bars. Some years this release has been accompanied by a really impressive list of current and vintage Cantillon stuff, but on other years there isn't much special on offer. Following Zwanze day bottles are generally available on-site at Cantillon.
  • Regular yearly releases generally tend to fall around the same time and as time goes on they last  to go for less time (they are still available for a good amount of time for on site consumption), so if you are looking to pick up something specific you might want to plan accordingly. Sometimes they also announce well in advance roughly when less frequent releases are coming.
Getting there: It's in Brussels and is easily walk-able from the Central or Midi station. Go early and often.


Armand at 3 Fonteinen
3 Fonteinen:
With their (relatively) newly acquired brew system, 3 Fonteinen (3F) is back to brewing their own lambic. They may still be transitioning from mixed origin lambic to blends of purely their own, but they are well on their way. And with a young brewer/blender training to take over for Armand and an administrative/marketing/etc. partner joining the business (facebook link and news article in Flemish), it looks like 3F is securing their future well. They currently have lambic spread all over the Beersel area in various cellars, but that they are looking for a new building to centralize all of this in the nearby town of Lot (see here and here). Such an acquisition may change visiting options for the better.

Generally the brewery and cellars at 3F are closed to the public, but there are a few times a year that the public is welcomed in. The first of these is in their open brewery days in the beginning of September. This is generally accompanied by pulling vintage stuff out of the cellar for sale to go and/or special new releases. The other open time to visit falls around the end of April to coincide with Zythos, the major beer festival held in Leuven every year. 3F has decided in previous years that rather than attending the festival they'll invite those with a real interest in lambic to come out to them for a tour of the brewing facility and one of their multiple barrel cellars (and hopefully this continues).

You can't have beers on site at the brewery shop, so for that you'll need to head to the restaurant, where they serve lambic and geuze in addition to some vintage/special bottles (for quite reasonable prices given what they are). Note that while the restaurant is still in the family and right around the corner, it is a separate business from the brewery. It sounds like the new location in Lot should improve on-site bottle options when that is up and running.

Best Times to Visit: The brewery shop is open on Fridays on Saturdays from 9:00-18:00. It is easier to get there on Fridays but coming through on Saturdays (as long as its the 1st or 3rd Saturday of the month) lets you combine the trip with a tour at Oud Beersel (see below). The restaurant is quite good and is open for lunch and dinner on Fridays and Saturdays (also Mondays and Sundays for lunch and dinner and Thursdays for lunch, closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays). Combining trips to the brewery shop and restaurant lets you drink some lambic as well as having an excellent meal.

For special events, the brewery open doors in the beginning of September generally means special releases and the rare opportunity to peek into the barrel cellar. If you miss that, late April may provide another chance to see the barrel cellar for a special open brewery day coinciding with the Zythos festival.

Getting there: During weekdays there is a commuter train that runs into the Beersel station, from which it is a short but rather uphill walk to the brewery and restaurant. It is easiest to head to the Halle station from Brussels and then backtrack to Beersel. On weekends you can get there by a combination of streetcar and buses from Brussels, by bus from Halle, or walking from the train station in Lot (it's a bit more of a trek at almost 3 km and with the same Beersel hill, but if you're used to walking it isn't too bad). When the Lot location opens, that will be reachable every day of the week by train from Brussels.


The new copper brewing system at Girardin
Girardin:
They don't allow visitors inside, so if your time and/or luggage space is limited I would de-prioritize a visit to Girardin They do sell 10 L bag-in-boxes of lambic and kriek lambic to go which is pretty cool. But tricky to transport, especially if you are short on time. If you just want to try straight Girardin lambic then LambicLand has a good list of cafes that have that available by the glass. So again, if you are tight on time and luggage space then Girardin might not be the stop for you.

Ok, if that hasn't dissuaded you/if you have plenty of time and space to store and drink or blend 10 L of lambic then this is probably a good stop to make. As I mentioned, you don't get to go inside so you meet them in their courtyard parking lot to tell them what you'd like and then you go into the office to pay. Their opening hours are a bit limited, but they are open early in the morning so this makes another good early day stop that still gets you back to Brussels in the morning with plenty of time to head elsewhere. You can see into their new copper brewery from outside, but I believe they are still using their older system for traditional lambic production.

Times to visit: No special events, so the general opening hours: Monday and Friday 8-12, 13:00-18:00, Saturday 8-12, 13:00-15:00.

Getting there: It is a pretty easy trip by De Lijn bus #136 from Brussels to Molenberg (town of Groot-Bijgaarden, map here) with a short walk. You can do this either from a Metro connection or straight from the Midi station.

Boon:
I haven't visited Boon. It seems they take groups for visits and possibly one day a week of visits via the nearby tourist office. If I have any updates here then I will update this section.

Lindemans:
I haven't visited Lindemans. If I have any updates here then I will update this section. Their website says they allow tours during weekdays at a group rate, so if you want to take a tour try to get a couple other folks to go with you and/or try to join an existing tour.


Barrel cleaning at De Troch
De Troch:
De Troch is possibly best known for making a banana lambic as part of a line of sweetened products that don't seem much like lambic. But they do make some traditional products as well (they have made an Oude Kriek with Schaerbeekse cherries that seems to be well regarded). Their lambic cellar feels old and unpolished more so than any other that I've seen. And their barrels have definitely seen some years.

Times to visit: The brewery is open Monday through Saturday (check their website for hours). Brewery visits must be arranged in advance.

Getting there: I got there by car, but it looks like bus #128 from Brussels toward Ninove will work (this is the same bus you'd take to get to Eizeringen to visit Grote Dorst). You'll pass the abandoned Eylenbosch brewery and the stop is a about 3 km past that. From there it is about a 2 km walk to the brewery.


Geuzestekerij De Cam
Lambic Blenders

De Cam:
To me De Cam is the best combination of Flemish culture and lambic that I've experienced so far. I'll save most of what I have to say about them for a post in the works. In brief, Karel and Steven at De Cam care greatly about their heritage. Lambic is a portion of that heritage, and it is the portion to which they dedicate much of their time (the blendery is a side job). Karel is very passionate about the preservation of traditional lambic. However it is clear that lambic is a component of their culture and the passion that leads them to spend weekends and evenings keeping De Cam alive is driven by an all around love for the Pajottenland heritage. This is a great spot to experience both lambic and the greater Pajottenland in one place. I'd recommend a visit to De Cam as highly as (or more highly than) I'd recommend any other lambic stop.

De Cam doesn't have a production side and a visiting side - the two are the same. So a visit to De Cam means talking with Karel in between the barrels. Likely with a sample or two of lambic and possibly also with some traditional local food if you're lucky. There is no official tasting room but the (unaffiliated) cafe across the street serves De Cam lambic. And usually there is a barrel open for tasting. The overall production at De Cam is small, especially compared to other lambic producers, but their beers are certainly not lacking in quality. De Cam lambics can be harder to find around Belgium, and are generally more expensive when you find them due to limited availability, so a trip to the stekerij gives you a chance to buy some bottles as well.

Best Times to Visit: De Cam is open 3-5 on Sundays. There are some Gooik festivals that it seems they may open up for, but I can't confirm that. It might be reasonable to combine a trip to In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst (opposite the church in Eizeringen and open 10:00-1:30 on Sundays) with a trip to De Cam. The two are potentially walkable, though combining the two by bus is a bit trickier. There may also be special open brewery days throughout the year.


The 3 hammers roundabout of Gooik
Getting thereFor making it to De Cam (without a car) you're going to be taking De Lijn, the bus system in the Flanders region of Belgium. But don't worry, taking the bus from Brussels to De Cam is about as easy as it gets. Starting from the option of a couple of stops on the south west end of the number 5 metro line in Brussels, the number 141 and 142 buses (alternating, one total per hour) take a pleasant bus ride through smaller towns of Pajottenland (possibly past a new Lindemans brewery location if you pick the right bus) and a left turn onto one of the more major roads is a give away that your stop is coming up. If you miss your stop then the roundabout with the three hammers, the familiar sign found on De Cam labels, should clue you in that you are there. From that point it is a simple walk into and through town until you see a patio on the right hand side with a three hammers flag.

The new barrel room at Tilquin
Tilquin:
I've written about visits to Tilquin in this post, and I think that sums up my feelings well. This is a great place to learn about lambics and lambic blending. Pierre readily shares information and while both he and the Gueuzerie are relatively young, based on his collection of lambics he has more extensive experience with lambic from a thorough selection of different producers than many others. Their gueuze is one of my favorites as well. For now the only access to 'special' beers from a visit that one can't get elsewhere are beers that have sold out elsewhere. But that shouldn't deter a serious lambic enthusiast from a visit. And, in case it does, with the possible plans of a tasting room in the works there might be some onsite only beers in the future. I'm not sure how expansions will influence the opportunities that visitors have to walk between stacks of barrels, and hopefully this doesn't change. I'd rather walk between barrels and talk lambic with an expert than drink a hard to find beer (and there are enough cafes with vintage lists to satisfy that need).

When to Visit: Aside from special opening times such as the Tour de Geuze or special events, Tilquin is only open from 10:30-13:00 on Saturdays from September to June. Touring at other times is possible with a group and prior arrangements. Pierre organizes some special events such as English Beer Festivals with open doors at the Gueuzerie (once a year, 2015 was late April/Early May around the time of the Tour de Geuze). These provide a chance to try more Tilquin stuff than usual (maybe with some special releases) as well as some other great English beers, with maybe a Belgian or French guest brewery or two.

Getting there: You can take a train from Brussels to the closest train station: Enghein/Edingen. From there you can walk a reasonably flat 5 km or try to work out a bus option (I've only done the walk, and looking quickly at Google maps a bus doesn't seem so promising).
Rows of barrels at Oud Beersel

Oud Beersel:
After nearly closing down not so long ago, Oud Beersel is doing great work in the lambic blending world. Unlike other blenders, all of their wort is derived from one location - Boon. Oud Beersel is expanding their capacity quite a bit and is also interested in moving toward brewing, so we'll see where that leads.

A group of local enthusiasts, De Geuzen van Oud Beersel, organize tours (including one in English) on the first and third Saturdays of the month. This guided tour takes you through a few of their different barrel cellars, old equipment, and a tasting room with a good small collection of old lambic brewerania. The tour includes a tasting of straight lambic as well as the options of the bottled Oud Beersel lineup. The lambic enthusiast guides are pretty well informed and lead a good tour. They may not be able to answer more technical questions about what exactly Oud Beersel does, so for those purposes the owner Gert can often be found in the main downstairs tasting room/shop and you may be able to ask him a few quick questions.

Getting there: Unfortunately the local commuter train to Beersel (see the 3F section) doesn't run on Saturday. The simplest option might be to take a train to the Lot station (note that there is only 1 per hour from Brussels) and to walk from there (2.6 km and a bit uphill, map here). As a plus, this will let you walk across the famous and stunningly beautiful Senne river (it's small and fairly murky, and you might even see a drainage outflow). If that isn't to your liking then you can piece together other options by some combination of train and bus (Halle is the closest major station) or metro, streetcar and bus from Brussels. You will get closer but it might be a bit trickier to navigate.

Times to visit: First and third Saturdays of the month for the English tour at 12:30 (make sure this timing hasn't changed). This can be followed with a late lunch at the 3F restaurant and a trip to the 3F brewery shop (see 3F section).

Hanssens:
I've never been to Hanssens, and I've generally heard that it isn't really available for visits, though this may be wrong as I've never tried to go. I'll update this if I learn anything different.

Events to look for throughout the year

This is not a comprehensive list and is just a couple general events covering multiple different producers that might be of interest to the lambic enthusiast.


The mellow beginnings of the Nacht van de Grote Dorst
The Nacht van de Grote Dorst is an evening full of spontaneous beers which falls in late April on even years. It is held in Eizeringen just outside In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst. Beer is sold only by the bottle (except for possible one or two cask/draft options) so you're going to want to go with friends or make some new ones there. The 2014 edition had a thorough selection of normal offerings from many of the producers and a couple more limited more from notable Belgian brewers (that sold out fairly quick) and even some beers from the Allagash coolship series. If you're looking for a night to hang out with other lambic drinkers in a small Belgian town and try a wide array of lambics all in one place, this is your night.

HORAL's Tour de Geuze runs on odd years in late April/early May, opposite the Nacht van de Grote Dorst. For the tour a number of lambic brewers and blenders open to the public, allowing many producers to be toured and lambics and geuzes to be tasted in a short time frame. In addition to the tour, a one-off geuze produced by blending lambic from Horal's members is released. I've never made the Tour de Geuze so I can't offer any person insight here, but if your goal is to see inside as many lambic breweries and blenderies as you can in limited time, this seems like the event for you.

The Day of the Lambic, in December on even years, provides a unique opportunity to try unblended lambic and blended or fruited lambics from a number of brewers and blenders (and even excellent some home blenders). I should note that for the most part when I say lambic above in this post, I was using it to be inclusive of geuze and various fruited lambics rather than meaning straight unblended lambic, but this is a great chance to try some unblended lambic. Although unblended lambic can be found here and there, it is still relatively difficult to find (especially from certain producers and when compared to geuze). As straight lambic is the often-untasted root of geuze and fruit lambics, it can be especially informative to the brewer interested in making lambic-inspired beers. Tasting lambic of various ages and from various producers can help the brewer know what to expect their spontaneous beers might taste like at different times (such as knowing when not to be worried by a strange tasting 1 year old beer) and to help learn what is added from blending. And for the non-brewer enthusiast, tasting the roots of the more available lambic products you've had is pretty cool. I've never made it to the Day of the Lambic, but as someone interested in brewing spontaneous beers I do look for opportunities to try unblended lambic and this seems like a great event to go to.

There are other various lambic oriented events throughout the year or every other year to possibly keep an eye out for (such as the day of the kriek).

Putting this all together

For my personal top picks for places to visit, I would say De Cam and Cantillon followed by Tilquin. Visits to 3F and Oud Beersel are great as well, and they combine easily to make for an excellent Saturday if the timing is right. When 3F's new location opens that will add another attraction in the neighborhood as well. Depending on your luck at Tilquin (i.e. how busy it is) and how much you want to ask about blending questions versus trying special stuff, you may lean toward combining Oud Beersel and 3F for a Saturday trip over Tilquin. But for the brewer/blender interested in asking questions about the blending process, Tilquin makes for a great visit.

Combining all the above and balancing for getting good coverage of geuzes, tours, and lesser available releases, if there is one time of year to visit Belgium for lambic, I'd say it is late April/early May on even years. Multiple breweries have special open brewery days in late April (3F and possibly also De Cam as well as Tilquin's festival/open doors). The Nacht van de Grote Dorst is an opportunity to try a bunch of different lambics/spontaneous beers in one place (and perhaps if you're quick some special seasonal fruit lambics that might not be available elsewhere). And then there's Cantillon's Quintessence. So April/May on even years makes for a great coinciding of special events and brewery visit options.

It does mean that everyday trips to lambic/general good beer spots in Belgium will be more crowded than usual with people coming into town for these events, but on a limited time frame without too many trips I think this offers the best access to brewers and really good lambic. I've never been able to make the Tour de Geuze, and that might be a similarly excellent event for the access to breweries (maybe even a bit more so) but I'd suspect it doesn't offer as much/as thorough access to more limited release and vintage lambics and maybe with the tighter time frame, more coverage but less thorough access to the brewers/blenders. September is another good time with 3F's brewery open days and Zwanze day.

This is, of course, assuming that you want to go in a bit deeper and schedule your trip around bigger events. If you'd prefer a more mellow time and want to avoid (or at least aren't prioritizing) the events, I'd say go in any warmer and more daylight time of year and plan to hit a first or third Saturday of the month. Go to Oud Beersel and 3F on that day (if you can sneak two Saturdays out of your trip go to Tilquin on the other one). Follow that up with Grote Dorst and De Cam on Sunday. Make that the central (planning wise, not necessarily timing wise) point of your trip and in two days you will have covered 3 great producers and one of the top cafes. Through the week hit other beer destinations (cafes/bars and/or other breweries) or tourist stuff after mornings at Cantillon. If you're going to be around for a while and want boxed lambic around put a quick morning run to Girardin early in the trip (maybe the Monday after De Cam).

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Beer traveling in Belgium - Introduction

I've been fortunate in that I've been able to make a good number of Belgium trips over the years due to either a flexible schedule or work in Europe. And I often get asked by friends who are planning a trip to Belgium about where they ought to go for the best beer experience. I generally spend quite a bit of time compiling places, how to get there, when to go, etc. from scratch for each person.  Since I'm back to Europe for a bit and will be visiting and re-visiting some of these places, I decided to compile some guidelines from my experiences with beer travels in Belgium. I figured that this might be useful to others and compiling it centrally might save me some time next time someone asks. This is mostly written for people who have never been to Belgium and who don't know much about it, so if you're a seasoned Belgian traveler there may not be as much in this first post for you.

Rochefort 10 - breakfast of champions
This is not meant to be an exhaustive guide to traveling Belgium. This is based on my experiences in Belgium, which as of now are based on about 3-4 months overall spent in there over 4 'trips'. One of these was an 8 month period spent living in Germany and another is a ~5 month stay in Germany that is currently ongoing. Both of these allowed for repeated long weekend to week long visits. The other two were more standard trips over the years. These visits have ranged from a pretty simple discovery of what Belgian beer is to directed time spent visiting out of the way saison and lambic producers for the purpose of personal studies of brewing and blending. There are plenty of great resources out there to find the best beer spots and this isn't meant to duplicate that. Rather, it is to help you prioritize what you want out of the trip and how to get there once you know where you're going (and to get around Belgium in general).

I'll put up some more targeted posts about visiting producers and/or cafes, and will link them to this when they are posted. But to simplify those posts, I'll try to get most of the logistical stuff out of the way here. Also, some of this is standard trip planning/common sense/be polite stuff, but based on how often I've seen/heard some things, I've included it here.

Ok, so some general guidelines:

Recognize why you're going - This is an important first step, and may often be overlooked in the excitement of going. Recognize why you are going to Belgium. Is it focused on visiting breweries and meeting brewers? Is it hunting for some previously unknown or rare beers? Is it an introduction to Belgian beer? Or Is it a mix of sightseeing and beer? Is it part of a general Europe trip? There is no way I could write a couple posts that could specifically address all possible ideal trips, but knowing what you're after will help you prioritize options and ask the right kind of questions when looking for more directed trip advice.

Also think about with whom you are going, and how much they want to spend their daytime in dark bars and breweries. This is important for organizing and prioritizing when and where to go. Finding that right balance based on your personal objectives, how long you can stay, and with whom you are going is key. Remember Belgium will always be there to go back to if you miss something, and you will likely want to go back once you've been once if you are serious about visiting Belgian brewers and/or finding certain elusive beers.

Panorama of Ghent from the Belfry.

Language - As you likely know, Belgium speaks two main languages: French in the southern (Wallonian) part  as well as the primary language of Brussels, and Flemish, a dialect of Dutch, in the northern (Flemish) part. As a general observation, the Flemish are likely to speak both French and English rather well while the Walloons may be less confident speaking either of those. The brewers, especially those selling more beer internationally and the younger brewers, are generally more fluent in these languages than the average person so you should be good with them. Generally you should be able to get around alright with English and a few phrases here and there, especially if you don't spend much time in the Wallonian countryside trying to ask directions. Of course if you are relying on English exclusively, keep in mind that you are in someone else's home expecting them to speak your language to you.

If you know some French, it might be better to not use it in the north (Flemish) part unless necessary. There is a bit of a Flemish-Walloon tension in Belgium and perhaps some frustration for the Flemish that while they know French, the Francophone Belgians don't often know Flemish. So English might be the more acceptable non-Flemish language when speaking with the Flemish. note that some Belgians may say that to claim a bit of tension is a massive understatement...

Generally finding whatever city you are heading for is fairly straightforward, but the dual languages in Belgium can add some tricks. Most have names that are easily recognizable in both Flemish and French but in some cases they can be confusingly dissimilar (the Wallonian city of Mons is Bergen in Flemish - makes sense when you know the meanings of those words but otherwise not so much) and even major cities can be a bit dissimilar (Liege = Luik, Antwerpen = Anvers). Note also that there are two Leuvens: Leuven (Louvain in French), a university town near Brussels, and Louvain-la-Neuve, another university town near Brussels.

Beer fermenting in an open square fermenter at De Dolle
How long should I go?
Obviously opting for longer opens up more possibilities. It is possible to have a good trip if it is only couple days, but the longer you go, the more opportunity you will have to get out to places more off the beaten track, whether they are breweries/blenderies, cafes, etc. It will also be more likely that brewery opening hours and/or events coincide with your stay. And it will give you a chance to maybe start to build some connections and experience the local culture instead of (or in addition to) being limited to more tourist-heavy bars in the major cities. I've done trips anywhere from a bit over a week to one month in Belgium when flying over from North America and down to long weekends when living in Germany. Every time I go I realize new things I wish I had done differently and I come back with a new list of stops for next time. So if you don't get to stuff and can only go for a tighter window you can still have a good trip. But I do think it is hard to make the most of quick trips of only a couple days if you haven't been before.

I've got friends in the area so I can't offer much in the way of long term housing advice, but it is probably a good idea to try to find a place on something such as airbnb that can serve as a home base. Belgium is small and lots of stuff (including many trips worth of beer stops) is doable as day trips from Brussels or with at most one night away, by public transport/walking. And if you're there for beer then you're probably buying some to drink during the trip and to take home. You don't want to lug that around wherever you go. There can be some benefit to spending more time in other cities, especially if your time is split between general sightseeing and beer-focused destinations. But much of that sight-seeing can also likely be done in day trips from Brussels presuming you are willing to miss the nightlife of whatever destination you had in mind. Find the right balance for you in convenience and spending nights all around Belgium.

The opening hours of Girardin
Check hours! - In general some places in Belgium keep hours that would be strange to the average North American and breweries are no exception. Some of the breweries you might plan on visiting are weekend/side jobs. So the hours that they are open will be limited and possibly strange. Likely all of the breweries you want to visit are functioning breweries, so even if there are people there in normal daytime hours they may not be equipped to deal with visitors/beer tourists. And even if they are, keep in mind that it is a functional brewery (and the reason you are there is probably that you like their beer) so be careful to not obstruct their work.

It is often worth it to contact the brewers ahead of time (and some basically require it). Be polite, tell them why you want to visit them specifically. They are busy, and having people visit might mean they can't get the work done that they need to do to make the beer that made you visit them in the first place. Understand that and be especially gracious for their time. Many Belgian brewers get tons of messages from beer tourists wanting to visit and talk to them. Sometimes so many that in the high tourist season they pretty much couldn't get any work done if they accepted (or even responded to) all the requests for visits. With that said, if the place has clearly posted opening hours/tour times for the general public then an email is probably not be necessary and you are good to show up at those times.

Not every place has a tasting room/bar, so there may not always be an 'official' place to have their beer. But some places (especially smaller ones) may be happy to give you something in the brewery while you talk beer.

Signs point to nearby towns (blue), and sometimes your destination (Brasserie au Baron)
Getting around
I used to say over the years that if you are really interested in visiting the small breweries of Belgium and Northern France, you should get a car. However I said this without ever getting one, and the more I travel without one the less I think you need it. So that advice has a some truth to it, but not nearly as much as I used to believe. I've been able to get to all the places I've wanted to go through some combination of public transport, walking, and rides offered by other beer enthusiasts (locals, tourist, and the brewers/bar owners I'm visiting).

Since I've never rented a car (or bike) in my travels in Belgium, I don't know as well first hand what I am (or am not) missing. But I'd say I've been able to make it to a good number of small breweries which are removed from direct public transit access without a car. I had ample time and was frequently traveling alone so maybe that influences things, but the point is getting around to many of the small breweries is definitely doable without a car or even a bike as long as you are fine walking a bit and taking a bit more time. And the idea of driving to spend a lot of time drinking and/or limit my drinking because I have to drive (even though the main reason I'm there is for the beer) doesn't appeal to me enough to change my methods. To add to that, if you are focusing on the major cities then trains are easy and you'll be fine without a car.

If you're pressed for time then maybe this public transport/walking plan isn't the route for you. But then maybe visiting the small country breweries also isn't the route for you, because it does take time getting out there and the opening hours are often limited.

Anyway I may be missing something by not getting a car but if you are willing to put some time into figuring out the local transit and don't mind doing a bit of walking you can get most of the places you'll want to. And one of my favorite parts about visiting these out the way beer destinations is that you learn about the region in a way you'd otherwise miss when you make the effort to get there without a car and take a bit of time in doing so. This all adds to the experience of finally reaching that destination and trying the beer.

Make friends with locals:
This quick addition to the original post was suggested by a Belgian whom I've made friends with through my travels and who has helped me get around and discover new excellent places. Making friends with locals is a great way to get more out of your trip. In addition to a new friend you'll get inside and more tailored advice for spots to visit. And you may even get some help getting there. There's a good chance that whatever the purpose of you trip is, there are locals that share your priorities/interests. There are still many hidden gems in Belgium that aren't in guidebooks and/or aren't highlighted to the degree that they are really excellent. Locals may be able to help you discover these spots.

Much of the legwork for getting to know locals may be easier to accomplish before you go by finding them and getting in touch with them through some shared interest (beer, mutual friends, music, cycling, etc.). Feel free to let their suggestions mold the plans you've made so far. If you don't find them before you go, you can still find them as you go through your travels. There's a good chance that the locals similarly happy to find someone with their shared interests and will be quite open.

Evening in Bruges
Trains
SNCB-NMBS - The Belgian national train system. In most circumstances this will get you pretty close to where you want to go, if not directly there. Some trains to small towns may only run on weekdays as commuter trains (the Beersel station is an example of this) so make sure your routes are active when you want them to be. But generally it is pretty easy to navigate.

Belgium has a easy and inexpensive way for people under 25 to travel around on the train system - the Go Pass. It's good for trips between any 2 points and can be shared with multiple people (so not every person need their own Go Pass, you just have to fill out one line per person). Using the go pass saves you money on almost every train trip you'll take between any 2 points in Belgium. If you're over 25 there's the rail pass (confusingly, not the 10 journey card as that seems to only apply to one route). It isn't quite as cheap and requires a bit more planning to determine which routes are worth it and which are best taken by buying a normal ticket but most are worth it so it can still save you a good amount of money and/or time. Especially if you are running to catch a once an hour train and don't have time to wait in a ticket line. One pass can still be shared among multiple people the same as the Go Pass.

SNCF - The French train system. You might need it for getting to some Farmhouse breweries in the north of France (like Thiriez). Remember that for French trains when you buy a ticket you will need to stamp it at a machine at the station to validate it before you get on a train. You can probably play ignorant if you forget/didn't know, but try to remember. Sometimes the ticket machines will validate the ticket for you when you buy it.

Local transport
STIB/MIVB - This is the metro system for the Brussels area and it is separate from both De Lijn and TEC. The system includes a subway as well as buses and trams. For getting around the inner city you can generally walk (if you are comfortable with walking a bit) but you might need this to get to outer parts of Brussels or stops out of the city to switch to another bus system to reach some destinations.

De Lijn - This is the regional bus/tram system for Flanders, the northern Flemish speaking part of Belgium. They all use the same system so if you get a prepaid card you can use it for all the main destinations including Bruges, Antwerp, Gent, as well as small towns like the lambic-producing outskirts of Brussels. It is cheaper if you get a prepaid card, which I've gotten at grocery stores in Flanders. If you don't have a prepaid card you can still pay the fare when you board but it will cost you more. When I was last on the buses they did not announce their next stops, so have some note of your route down in order to find your stop. Hopefully this changes soon...

TEC - The Wallonian regional bus service. I have less experience here but it operates with the same basic principles as De Lijn. As with De Lijn, the last buses I was on did not announce next stops.

Cheers and happy travels!
Resources
Use-It - Use-It is a non-profit company that makes maps geared towards young tourists. They started in Flemish Belgium and have since expanded all over Europe. They provide free maps with recommended things to do from locals (new cities are added to their list when a local group of that area puts the map together). The maps update every year and you can download and print them or pick them up locally. If you think you're too old to use a map that is designed for young travelers I have a secret - the street names don't change depending on how old you are. Some of the recommended destinations may be some of the beer spots you're looking for. And they may have some interesting non-beer related stuff that you wouldn't otherwise know about.

Lambicland - If you are serious about visiting lambic breweries and cafes, this book is amazing. There are other good books (see the offerings from Books About Beer, I don't have personal experience with any others besides Lambicland) as well as travel books. They are probably a good idea.

Finally, don't be the shitty tourist who goes around stealing glasses. And try not to be the shitty tourist who drinks too much and is obnoxiously loud and aggressive in a bar or pukes in the street.