Friday, December 30, 2011

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

This is the last post of the year, and I would like to thank all the followers here for their interest!
Looking back at 2011, a lot has happened. The idea for the brewery has matured from a dream in the mind of 1 man to a project worked on by a team of 3 professionals. The discussions we have moved from mere conceptual to practical, which is very exciting.
As 2012 progresses, we will keep you updated about how Saint William Brewery is taking more and more shape, beginning with presenting our team in early January. This will be the year we will start brewing, so a lot will be happening!

So, may your 2012 be as exciting and full as ours is shaping out to be!

The Saint William team

The label of a small unofficial test batch made as gift for friends and family.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Day

Today Americans everywhere gather around the table with their family and closest friends, eat a copious meal with turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, beans, jello, sweet potatoes, corn, pumpkin pie... They celebrate Thanksgiving Day, started with the Pilgrim Fathers in 1623 in thanksgiving for the bounty of their harvest, for surviving the first years of settling these new shores. Beer was involved in the choice of the location, landing at Plymouth Rock was not planned! (If you haven't read this blog before, this might be new to you, but beer really is the foundation of civilization!) The Mayflower, the ship that brought the Pilgrim Fathers to American shores, was running low on beer, so the crew kicked out their passengers when they realized this, so they could sail back to the nearest port before they ran out of their beer supply!

The official day was instituted by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, but as early as 1789 this day was celebrated. There are many earlier dates for Thanksgiving parties, but those were local or state wide celebrations. I really like the proclamation written by George Washington, as it eloquently states the reasons for this day's festivities:
By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation. 
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor-- and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be-- That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks--for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation--for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war--for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed--for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted--for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions-- to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually--to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed--to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord--To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us--and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best. 
Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
 George Washington
It is a most American celebration, one I fell in love with the first time I was allowed to partake when I first arrived here. Sometimes people -even Americans themselves- say that Americans have no culture, being a relatively young nation, made up of this mix of other peoples and cultures. When I hear that, I always disagree, and point to Thanksgiving, observed in a very similar way by Americans everywhere, from Alaska to Florida, and from Hawaii to Maine. Granted, the ingredients are not unique to the United States, but how they are put together is. A meal that anywhere would be considered a grand feast! It ties together a sense of history, a common life, a gratitude for what we've been given and the blessings in our lives, with a celebration of the Giver of those blessings and of the first settlers of this country, shared with the Native People already living here. A very layered and rich day it is, then, one that citizens of this country can rightly claim as their own, with a sense of pride.

Whether or not you are an American citizen, let's all stop for a moment to give thanks for our life and all we have. Then, raise a glass of beer to it! Cheers all, and happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 11, 2011

November 11, 2011 Armistice Day and Veterans Day

November 11th is a solemn day, celebrating the armistice ending World War 1 in Europe, and in the US it is a day remembering and honoring its veterans.
A while ago I wrote a post mentioning my great-grandmother and briefly touched some of her exploits during WW II. (See post here) This a good day to give a more full account of this extraordinary woman. But to make this post come full circle with this commemorative day, first a word about my great-grandfather, Edmond De Ridder. As a young man, not even 20, he was conscripted in the Belgian army in 1914 at the outbreak of the first World War. His experience as a soldier met a quick end, and he spent the next years in a German POW camp, an experience he never really talked about. My mother only recalls him talking about having to eat nettle soup. The young girl she was when she heard this story, she was shocked at the cruelty of having to eat nettle soup, imagining the experience of drinking a soup stinging her grandfather on the inside.

It did spare him the horrors of trench warfare. After the war he returned home again, and married Maria Maes. At the birth of their son, he had to go to the town hall to declare that at the office of civil registry. But he 'celebrated' too much on the way there, and forgot the name that he and my great-granny had settled upon. So Carolus De Ridder was officially registered instead of Albert De Ridder. One can only imagine the talkdown my great-grandfather had to endure when he had to tell my great-granny what happened... Solution was simple: no one knew him by that name, and he was called Albert by everyone. Fast forward to 1942. Belgium suffered under the German occupation, with a military 'Kommandantur' installed in the Town Hall. Young men were forced to do labor in Germany, and both Albert and his brother Leon were called up. Neither went, with Leon hiding for a few months by nearby farmers, and Albert just stayed home. The Germans kept demanding my great-grandparents to send in their two sons. At one time, an officer and some soldiers came to their house, questioning the neighbors, in an attempt to find Carolus De Ridder and send him to Germany. The neighbors looked puzzled when asked where Carolus was, and could not have betrayed him if  they wanted to. 'Carolus who?'
 Meanwhile, he was sitting right there at his home, under the noses of the Germans!

To get the heath of her other son, my great-granny went to the Kommandantur to speak with the officer in charge, after she had heard that the Allies had bombed Wilhelmshaven, where her son was supposed to have been sent to. The conversation when something like this:
German Officer: 'Come in, Mrs De Ridder. Where is your son, Leon? We've sent repeated notices to report for labor!'
Great-Granny: 'Excuse me?!' (angrily, with rising voice) 'I have put my son on the train, and from that point he is YOUR responsibility!!'
German Officer: 'Eh...'
Great-Granny: 'So, where is my son?! I gave him to you, and you have to give him back to me!'
            Followed by a series of strong language we better censor.
Great Granny, thinking: 'They wont imprison a woman now, would they?'
German Officer: 'Well, eh, perhaps we can pay you the pay we give each laborer?'

In that tumultuous time right after the Germans left and before the Allied troops entered the town, resistance groups started to round up 'collaborators and traitors', beating them, shaving their heads, burning their homes, in an outburst of rage after 4 years of German oppression. Great-grannies neighbors had a daughter who had studied, and was fluent in German as well. So the Germans forced her to work for them in the town's administration, which in turn gave her access to a lot of privileges, such as extra food rations. Hearing a lot of yelling and crying on the street, my great-grannie came out as well, only to see a gang of 'resistance fighters' dragging out the daughter of the neighbors, guns at the ready, and beating her.
immediately she started to yell at those guys, in utter rage. 'You there, and you! How dare you!', she shouted at them, ignoring the circle of armed men around her 'Last week I saw you here with your hands held up, asking for bread and food and butter! She's always been helping all of you, and this is how you repay her?! Does your mother know you're here playing hero?'. They left, tails between their legs, and left this poor girl alone again.

Polish and Canadian troops liberated Sint-Niklaas
Definitely not a woman to mess with! She lived to be 89, and until her last days, she would enjoy her trappist beer. Which, looking back, was probably the source of her courage and strength. She never served officially, but I think that today is a great day to remember her, together with all the others who served to protect their country and loved ones. Cheers!

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Stirling Hotel

The Stirling Hotel at 227 Main Avenue in Stirling, NJ 07980

My favorite watering hole is by far the Stirling Hotel. Located at Main Avenue in Stirling, New Jersey (just a stone throw away from the train station), it is an old historic building. Founded in 1903, it was from the beginning a well known eatery in the Long Hill Township. The current owners, Tom and Dori Baldassare, purchased the building in 1983, with a dream to revitalize the place and establish a casual, family style tavern. Together, they are a great team, very unassuming and humble. They see themselves not as the 'owners' of the Hotel, but rather as caretakers or custodians. Tom puts it like this: "We want to keep this building the same as it is now for the next owner, the next generation. Buying this place was the best thing that ever happened, it is a passion to work here. I get to wear many hats, so every day brings something new."

As I was talking with him, he was busy with gas heaters and broom sticks, trying to remove accumulating snow as quick as possible from the outside tent area to prevent it from collapsing. And always with a smile. Food has always been important, bringing old and proven family recipes to the place from the beginning, and they still can be found in the kitchen whipping up the next special of the day. Tom calls it 'peasant dishes', and explains that in these hard economic times it is becoming 'nouveau' again. For him, it is what he grew up with, and something he and Dori love to pass on.

Dan manning the taps during a Founders Brewery event
Beer became a really important part in 1997, when they hired Dan Schneider. Fresh out of college, he brought a passion for craft beer with him, which started with that Sierra Nevada his older brother brought him years before. When he started, the Stirling Hotel offered a selection of bottled beers. In 2000-2001 they installed draft lines, and started with a small selection of imported European beers and American craft beers. From that early start, Dan oversaw the evolution of the Hotel into a real Craft Beer bar, at a time that Craft beer in New Jersey was virtually unknown. Currently, the choice of beers on tap is geared to represent various beer styles: there will always be an IPA on tap, a pilsner, amber,... Apart from that, he now oversees a selection of kegs they age in their cellar, kept for a special offering now and then. I can speak from experience that coming in only 2 hours after they start such a keg can be too late.

Dan has seen craft beer really take off in the last 3 to 4 years. "Craft beer is only going to get better," he says, "as local movements, more accessible and with  more styles." Now the Stirling Hotel does its part, with a great knowledgeable staff, bringing people from Long Hill Township and beyond a great place to hang out. Simple, unassuming, it will give you the kind of food that hits the spot, and beers that are hand picked to give you a taste of great brews from all over. A mix of the familiar, with the thrill of exploration laced in between. If you're around, a place you should not skip.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

October snow surprise

We've had quite a weekend and week, so far!
This past Saturday, October 29th, an early snowstorm battered the Northeastern corner of the United States. It broke all kinds of records, most of them about early snowfall maximums. It was, for example, the first such storm since the civil war. Here where we live, we had about 6-8 inches of heavy, sticky snow. Since it came so early, the trees still had most of their leaves. That proved to be a bad combination: branches and even whole trees broke off and toppled down under the heavy accumulated weight of the snow. This knocked out power lines everywhere, resulting in over 3 million people without power in the Northeast.
Power companies have hundreds of repair crews out, around the clock, but given the massive extent of the damage, our area will be out until Thursday, perhaps even Friday.
I was out at the Stirling Hotel, talking with the owners in preparation of an article here about how they made the Stirling Hotel into one of the best craft beer bars in Central New Jersey. Coming home, I found we had lost power. Today I am at a local coffee place to send this update, so look out for an article about this great bar soon!
Losing power means for a lot of people losing heating, and for those with well water, loss of water as well. The only bright point is that it gets so cold inside the house, that the beer from the powerless fridge stays nice and cool to drink. Always look at the bright side of life, someone has famously said... Any reason to celebrate is a good one, having no reason probably the best of them all. Loosing so much of our comfort only shows how blessed we are and how much we have and so easily take for granted. Now that is a lesson I happily toast on, with a Dogfish Head Punkin Ale at a nice frosty room temperature. Cheers all!

A picture's worth a thousand words:

The trees in our back yard could not bear the weight, even as I tried to save
the furthest tree by throwing snowballs at  its branches in an effort to
 relieve some weight.

Never knew trees could be that flexible...

I heard that the state of New Jersey has ordered 10,000 new electricity poles..

This happened all over the area. Still wondering what made that pole in
 the previous picture  snap?

Blocked streets everywhere, and live wires all over. Ignoring that, the snow
 does give a nice early Christmas feel, doesn't it? Feel like a nice stout
or dubbel Trapist beer... 

Friday, September 30, 2011

Pumpkin season: a family recipe

It is that time of the year again. The weather is getting chillier, cloudy days are more numerous, the leaves start to slowly turn. Mostly reds this early, but soon in that great palette of browns, yellows, reds, greyish, purple,... But the most unmistakable sign that fall is here, is the number of pumpkin beers appear on the shelves of our preferred liquor stores or bars.

One of the things that most surprised me when I made the voyage across the Atlantic to settle here, was Thanksgiving. Let no one ever dare to even think that Americans have no culture. I will point to the lavish Thanksgiving meal, with all it's delights as celebrated virtually all over the 50 states in similar fashion, right before I stuff their bellies. Standing out was the pumpkin pie. Served slightly chilled, with a nice layer of frothy whipped cream, is a taste of heaven. I must confess I repeatedly over-indulged on this treat.

Pumpkin beers is another new thing, one I am still warming up to. Some are just horrific experiments with a taste of vegetables that I prefer in a more solid form, on my plate, with a beer to accompany them without any such off-flavor like smell and taste. Others are actually quite enjoyable, Punkin Ale by Dogfish Head as an example. I have a Southern Tier Pumking Imperial Pumpkin Ale in the fridge, waiting to be sampled. (What pumpkin or fall beers are your favorites? Leave me a comment and let me know what to try next!)

In this great Pumpkin Onslaught I cannot forget to mention that great pumpkin launching festival and competition, called Punkin' Chunkin'. Trebuchets, air cannons, catapults, torsion catapults, centrifugal, and human powered launching platforms are constructed by fans from all over the country, who gather early November to test 1 thing: who can chuck that pumpkin the furthest? Crazy, but awesome! If you want to combine beer, pumpkins, that Roman or Medieval or engineering side of you that rarely has a chance to shine, this is definitely the event for you.

But let's add a traditional flavor from the old world, with a family recipe for a great pumpkin soup! Rich, thick, creamy, it is a perfect meal to nourish you and heat you up when coming in, that autumn chill in your bones. And yes, pumpkin beer pairs well.

So here goes:
For 3-4 people:
*a 12-15 lbs pumpkin
*8-10 strips of bacon
* 6oz. of heavy cream
*1 roll of Pillsbury Crescent Seamless Dough Sheet
*1 medium sized yellow onion
*(1/2 lbs of ground beef, optional)
*salt, pepper, powdered nutmeg and allspice, dried basil flakes

-Cut the pumpkin in 4 parts, remove the seeds and inner soft parts
-Cut the parts in thinner strips, which you then peel (potato peeler is a great tool)
-Cut the strips in cubes, about 1inch square.
-Place the pumpkin cubes in a large cooking pot, and add just a shallow bottom of water
-Cook on the stove for 30 minutes on medium-high, closed with a lid.
-Add pepper, salt, some nutmeg, allspice and basil
-Brown yellow onions and add them as well.
-After half hour (or when the cubes are soft) puree the cubes and onion. (I use an electrical hand mixer) so you get a thick, homogeneous liquid.

Pumpkin soup, pumpkin pie, Punkin Ale. Life is good!
When the cubes are on the stove, take 8-10 strips of bacon, cut them in small pieces, and bake them crisp in a pan, and keep them apart (only add them after mixing, one can also add very small pre-cooked balls of ground beef). Take a tube of Pillsbury Crescent Seamless Dough Sheet, place on an oven sheet, cut with a long knife or pizza cutter in cubes, half an inch for each side, sprinkle salt, pepper and dried basil flakes on top, and place in the oven for about 15 minutes or until golden brown.

Now add the bacon to the soup, bring to taste with some more salt/spices per your own taste, and serve at your table. Pour some heavy cream in the soup on your plate, garnish with the baked dough squares, and some parsley or something to add some green. Voila! Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Beer styles: relic of the past, or cherished tradition?

Since the boom in homebrewing and breweries started in the early 1980's, a lot of new styles have emerged, and  the freedom the (home)brewers have enjoyed in creating their beers have made a good number of people question the need for styles altogether. Before we tackle that question though, we need to look at some of the facts (and some of my own more subjective opinions, for what they're worth).

Great chart from the pop chart lab.
The American craft beer revolution definitely has impacted the world of beer. But there have been other places as well where movements, similar to the American craft beer movement, have come up more or less independent. In Belgium, for instance, a number of very small breweries started to challenge the 'traditional' beers, and added new tastes. Similar moves happened in other countries as well. It is helpful to note that the American craft movement really broke through only in the last 3 or so years. After a slump between 2000 and 2006, the number of breweries started to bounce back again, and Craft Beer somehow became part of the mainstream. Every self-respecting restaurant or bar, for instance, has at least some craft beers on their lists (I know, a lot of room for improvement, notably on the vision behind the beers, and teaching the bars and restaurants that there is so much more to craft beer than to treat it just as the hot novel thing). People are now much more aware that craft beer exists, and that is huge. The exchange with other breweries around the world has really come up in these last few years as well. You see Belgian breweries making American styles, or beers mainly intended for the American market (IPA's, Belgian IPA's, sours, saisons,...) and those new flavor profiles and vision is trickling down to the beers they make for their local drinkers as well. Some of my friends in Belgium tell me that they really like the more bitter beers (meaning the IPA's), brewed with hop varieties hereto unknown to them (Simcoe, Cascade,...).

With this explosion of growth and the continued new discoveries of so many beer drinking people, it isn't but normal that the old styles are shaking in their foundations, being challenged, replaced, added onto, etc. Some people think that is the new norm, in a very post-modern worldview that does not really like 'strict rules'. But I would contend they are mistaken, and that this is only a phase of finding a new equilibrium. One that in a later period of time can be challenged of course, but a new equilibrium nonetheless.

People mistake freedom as 'absence of rules', where that absence would only be the worst kind of nihilism. True freedom is having rules in place, but with the ability to choose whether or not to follow them. Beer styles work the same way. A brewer is under no circumstances obliged to follow any set of style guidelines, does not need to understand the tradition and heritage from any given beer style or substyle he or she wants to brew. But it offers a much deeper understanding of their craft, that more often than not will allow them to make better beers.

To me, beer styles are like different cuisines. Each has their own traditions, styles, history, a different understanding of the ingredients and flavors and how to put them together. If you want to name your beer a 'Belgian Triple', you can follow that tradition and understanding closely, or give it a twist by applying them more loosely. But there is a point where your beer will cease to be a Belgian triple or a triple altogether, which is something you as brewer need to understand and acknowledge (by no longer calling it a Belgian Triple, to begin with). An overly assertive hopped triple is not a Belgian Triple, regardless of the yeast you used. It will be a pale ale, leaning closer to IPA. A triple derives most of its flavor and character from the yeast and the way the malt was treated, not from hops. Understand that, and you can make awesome triples, even playing with the new hop styles as you now know how these hops can add to the beer, in a supportive role, not leading. Similarly, adding too many jalapeños to a shepperd pie, will make it much less a British dish and more of a Mexican or fusion type dish. You can do it, it might taste delicious, but it isn't British anymore.

The FAQ section of the BJCP website has the following paragraph:
The groupings in the Style Guidelines are somewhat arbitrary, and often did not represent a unanimous decision of those on the Style Committee who worked on the document. There are two conflicting schools of thought represented in the guidelines. The first says that Style Guidelines should describe beer in the way you would think about it historically, or the way you would teach it in a study class. Similar to a Michael Jackson book, subcategories of beers should always belong to a logical style family from which they are derived. The other school of thought says that subcategory descriptions are the vital notion, and that style categories are simply logical groupings of similar beers for purposes of judging. This group believes that beers from many style families can be combined into judging categories so as to reduce the sensory differences a judge will encounter in judging a single flight from that category.
As you might have guessed by now, I am firmly in the first school of thought. Beer styles are not solely there to help judge a beer in competition, but to tell the drinker what to expect. The style designation will give a lot of information about where it comes from, it's history and tradition. It is a way to respect all the brewers before us, who put their heart and soul in their brews, making them unique, to the point of becoming a style. Honor them in their achievement, and find new ways of brewing to create your own style (you'll find that very hard, and will gain new respect for the brewers of old). Above all, do not hijack an existing style to hide your own limited grasp of the rich diversity of beer.

So, drink your beer tonight, with a toast to the old brewmaster, and enjoy the brilliance of how they managed to create a style, with all those elements and ingredients so well put together to offer you that well balanced and rich brew you're sipping.

* The first image is a chart from the Pop Chart Lab. Check out their site to purchase a print from this great beer style chart!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Politics made easy: the beer example.

As I was browsing through some articles in Belgian newspapers, reading up on the political situation there (after more than 450 days of negotiations, Belgium still has no government!), I came across a very interesting and clarifying post by a certain Mark Pollentier.

First some background information. Belgium is a parliamentary monarchy, meaning that we have a king, who officially is head of the country, but basically has only ceremonial powers. Elections between a multitude of parties put in place a parliament and a senate, with the Prime Minister coming from the party with most of the votes. The northern part of the country is Dutch speaking (Vlaanderen, or Flanders), and the southern part is French speaking (called la Wallonie). There is a very small part in the east that is German speaking, annexed after the first world war as compensation. Brussels, the capital, is officially bilingual Dutch-French, but lies entirely in Flanders. (Please bear with me, there is a point to this that involves beer!)

There has been a lot of animosity between the Flemish majority and the politically more powerful French speaking part, since the beginning of the country in 1830 (a rebellion against the Dutch king Willem I, instigated by French agents and with French money and aid). From this moment on, the French speaking part and the upper and middle class in Flanders, who also were French speaking, would regard Flemish as an inferior language, reflected in one policy after another. Examples are numerous: Flemish (a regiolect of Dutch) was initially not recognized as an official language of the country, it took about 70 years before the Equality Act of 1898 ruled that the written text of laws and royal decrees in Dutch would have the same legal value as those in French, and only in 1932 was Flemish officially the language for education in Flanders. This developed the territorial principle: the official language is determined by the location. This means that in Flanders, Flemish is the primary language, in Wallonia French, and Brussels, the capital, would get a bilingual status.

In modern history, Belgium has been divided in 7 parts: 3 regions, based on territory (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels-capital), 3 communities based on language (the Flemish, French and German speaking communities), and a federal level governing above these regions and communities. In Flanders, the region and community were combined to ensure a more streamlined and efficient system.  (See the Wikipedia page here for an overview and more background)

Now, back to the beginning of the story. Today, Belgium still has no government, since the elections of June 13, 2010. One of the main, if not the most important stumbling block in the negotiations between the Flemish and French speaking parties, is the electoral jurisdiction Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde. As it overlaps the bilingual Capital and several Flemish counties, it creates a lot of conflicts. The French parties are trying to expand their influence in the Flemish ‘randgemeenten’ (peripheral municipalities) around Brussels, to create a large Brussels Capitol Region under their control. These municipalities have large French speaking communities, who received special privileges, called ‘facilities’, meaning they can receive official documents and services in French, even though they are living in Flanders. These ‘facilities’ were meant to be phased out, but they have only been strengthened.
The Flemish demand to end this bundling of Brussels with a part Flemish electoral region was enforced by a Supreme Court ruling, with a deadline of 2003, which has still not happened (meaning that all electoral results are de jure invalid because violating the constitution). The French speaking parties demand compensation for the split of this electoral jurisdiction, the Flemish oppose that and insist that there should be no compensation to execute the constitution.
So, there you have it, a very quick overview, still incredibly complicated. This text I mentioned earlier does a much better job. Which clearly must be because it uses beer as the vehicle to explain this situation. Here goes:

Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) explained with beer:
Every evening your new neighbor comes by to drink a nice cool pint of beer: he happens to have no fridge yet.

So you gladly allow him the beer out of your fridge (facilities).
But days become weeks, weeks become months and months become years, and your neighbor now feels so at home at your place that he decides what and when can be drunk (the contrarian mayors of the facility-municipalities who refuse to speak Flemish).
When you bring that up to him, he reacts furiously and seeks the support of his family who lives down the street (the French speaking people in Brussels).
They support the behavior of your neighbor, and demand you open up your house for the whole family (continued ‘frenchification’),
whereby your fridge becomes property of the family (attaching the facility-municipalities to Brussels),
but where you still have to keep the fridge filled daily (financial transfers from Flanders to Wallonia and Brussels).
When finally the peace justice declares that you are right and that the neighbor has to go drink his beer with his family (ruling of the Supreme Court),
the neighbor and his family demand that you buy them a fridge (compensation for the French speaking), and that you come fill it again daily (continued financial transfers).
That is what BHV is all about!

Why be complicated, if some beer can help explain it so much better?

Cheers, and 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Beer bloggers and brewers at the Ship Inn

This weekend, I had a very good trip to the Ship Inn in Milford, New Jersey. It is a great English style brewpub, very nicely built not too far from the banks of the mighty Delaware, right next to a small stream that connects with it just about a hundred yards further. It boasts to be the first brewpub to brew beer for consumption on premise since the prohibition. Ann and David Hall converted this 1860's Victorian style building into a pub, and in January 1995 opened up their brand new British style 7 barrel system. On their website they describe themselves very nicely as follows:

The Ship Inn offers casual dining, British and American pub savories, freshly brewed beer, and live entertainment in a traditional English pub atmosphere. We endeavor to provide simple, honest, home-made food from local and ecologically responsible sources when possible.
Now that is a great place to go, if you ever make it to the Lehigh Valley area. (With fall at the doorsteps, this region is just beautiful to drive through, with some very scenic roads along the Delaware river, following an old canal, with the occasional bridge to jump from the Pennsylvania side to the New Jersey side of the river. If you're not too far from here, this is something you should do this fall, and then make a stop at the Ship Inn for some great food and beers!)

So, I came down here to chat with Greg, a.k.a. the Pour Curator. Goal was just to chat about beer, about the brewery I plan to start, my background. One of those great moments where you get to meet cool people because of a shared love for beer, and make new friends. We had been emailing back and forth a bit, and finally had a chance to meet in person over a beer. Talking about beer over email is not nearly as satisfying as talking about beer in a bar, with a nice cold brew in hand. It was a great meeting, and we both loved the beers we tried. Some were very sessionable at about 4.1 to 4.6%, and Greg correctly noted that this was quite an achievement: making a low ABV beer like that, that is still as balanced and nicely flavored as the ones we had, is not a simple thing to do!

But then I had a great chance meeting with Lea Rumbolo, 'In charge of all the brewing' at the Ship Inn, who was working to make an improved version of their first Belgian style beer, a very nice Wheat beer called Giggling Monk. Apart from being one of the few female brewers around (there seem to be more and more brewmasters like her, and I am glad to see that, spearheaded by these women-brewers, more and more women start to enjoy great beers, with a passion that belies the old notion of beer being a male monopoly), what struck me most was her background. She is a trained chef (studied at Northampton Community College), and was/is chef at the Lovin Oven and at the Red Spoon, and was at the right place at the right time, asking to be allowed to learn to brew at the Ship Inn. She brings this whole different mindset to brewing, a sense of cleanliness that was drilled into her at cooking school (any brewer/homebrewer knows how easy it is to mess up a beer because of equipment that wasn't sanitized properly), and a very solid understanding of flavors and how they work together. In the updated recipe for the Belgian style wheat, for example, she uses this one extra ingredient, very lightly, to help create a fuller body, while not really being noticeable itself: she knows that adding certain ingredients with not too much flavor of their own, or in really low amounts, can be a tremendous help in bringing out the flavor of the other ingredients. So great and balanced beers is what she is coming up with.

Personally, I find it very intriguing to see her combine those different skill sets in the Ship Inn brewpub. Instead of the hit-or-miss approach, she tries to put together her beer recipes with a lot of thought and understanding of what she wants to accomplish. And all that while being a woman-brewer, in the great tradition of the (very) old brewers, reflected in the fact that the beer deities of Egypt and the Ancient Middle East where all female. It seems a winning combination to me, and I will be checking out the beers she will come up with for sure!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

About beer culture (and happy birthday, Dad!)

The last day of August was always special, growing up. It marked the last day of the summer vacation, as on September 1st school would start again. It also meant party time, as our family celebrated my dad's birthday. Today they are celebrating again, with an open house where the whole extended family and friends and neighbors are welcome to stop by, partake in great food and ample drinks. Central in this, of course, is honoring Luc Vanraes, patriarch of the clan. And a lot to celebrate there is!
Apart from a loving father, hard working, who loves his wife dearly, he was always close with his children. Strict, but fair (even when at times we would have disagreed with that, of course, hard headed teenagers that we were).  One of the greatest things he gave us, was his example of how to live life. His joie-de-vivre and hospitality are legendary, literally around the world (for some reason, we always had guests in our house, from all 5 continents). So often we would take these guests around and show off our beloved Flanders. A typical stop would include touring Brugge (Bruges), a medieval town that is often referred to as the 'Venice of the North', and a true gem. We loved going there, and after a few times we had our tour down, to show the most beautiful and interesting places. A standard stop was always the Brewery "De Halve Maan", famous for their Straffe Hendrik and Brugse Zot. It is an old brewery, right near the idyllic Beguinage. They have an operating brewery in a small part of the original building (the green beer is cellared elsewhere), and the actual installation of the old brewery is open for tours, put together in a very nice overview of the brewing process and history. The entry ticket you have to buy for the tour also gives you a free beer at the end of the tour. Very often we would start the afternoon in the bar area of this brewery, talking about our country and the countries of our guests, over a shared beer.
Bonifacius Bridge, Bruges
One of my dad's favorite places to go would be the fish market. There he would buy 'maatjes', some sort of sardine-like fish, eaten raw (slightly pickled with onions). He would relish in the horror of some of our poor guests, who did not dare refuse their gracious host in his insistent encouraging to taste. Some people had no qualms and were asking for more of this delicacy. Either way, they would be rewarded by a stop at a nearby chocolates shop.
Cathedral of our Lady, Antwerp
Another city we would often go to was Antwerp, a great port city with very old roots. There was this nice 'cafe' (pub) we would go to, in this old building with a very picturesque open inner court. We'd bring our guests there, and had them try some more of our delightful beers. Very often, people had their first encounter there with 'Kwak', from Brewery Pauwels. My dad would explain the name as derived from the sound made by the beer, once you reach that tipping point when the beer suddenly rushes out of the ball shaped lower end of the glass, held in their classic wooden holder. A good number of people had their first real encounter with beer at this place! Needless to say they were converts ever since.
Back at home, he would spare no expense preparing the best food he could find, together with of course the best of beers.
So apart from honoring the man who taught me how to savor beer, there is another point. These stories about my dad (believe me, I did not even scratch the surface) show something important: beer is meant to be enjoyed and shared. As we grew up, we often were allowed to sip from the beers of the grown-ups, without any taboo. We learned that drinking means savoring quality, not pounding down quantity. The rich encounter over beers with so many different people who each brought their own culture to the table, was fabulous.
That is what beer is about. That is what we want to bring here. An example of how to enjoy life, and how to savor beers, in moderation, but often and in good company. It is our wish that Saint William Brewery, together with the other craft breweries here in New Jersey, can help create such a culture, and become part of that meeting place where people can come together, to share and enjoy each other's company and culture, over a glass of cold brew.

So with that, cheers to you, papa, and thanks for the lessons learned. May this coming year be the best one yet for you, and the worst of those still to come!

Monday, August 22, 2011

'Big beer' and Craft beer, at odds?

As promised in my previous post, a new article to tackle a very interesting question. The large breweries (Budweiser, Coors, Miller, to name the infamous 'Big Three') are looking for inroads to profit from the booming craft beer market. I just read the half year numbers from the Brewers Association:

Boulder, CO • August 8, 2011 - The Brewers Association, the trade association representing the majority of U.S. brewing companies, has released strong mid-year numbers for America's small and independent craft brewers¹. Dollar sales were up 15 percent in the first half of 2011, excluding brewers who left the craft segment in 2010². Volume of craft brewed beer sold grew 14 percent for the first six months in 2011, compared to 9 percent growth in the first half of 2010.
Barrels sold by craft brewers for the first half of the year are an estimated 5.1 million barrels. Despite many challenges, the mid-year numbers show signs of continued growth for craft breweries. The industry currently provides an estimated 100,000 jobs, contributing significantly to the U.S. economy. (excerpt from a press release, found here)
 Seeing this continued growth, when the big breweries are seeing a continued decline, their move into the craft beer segment doesn't come as a surprise. By definition, their beers are not 'craft beer', as they are not brewed by independent breweries. Some people hate to see the large corporations trying to wiggle between the small craft breweries and take away from the profits they could (should) be making. Or that they might even drive the smaller craft breweries out of business because of their overwhelming economic power and organisation. Other people take a different view, and point out that the huge success and nationwide distribution and marketing of, say, Blue Moon, has helped a growing number of people who would otherwise never stray from their mass produced lager to try something new. In this case a Belgian style White. Which then opens up the door to all the other craft beers. Many bartenders will undoubtedly be able to tell you about people at their bar asking: 'Hey, I really like Blue Moon, what else like that do you have?'

Some people would even go as far as to point at Hoegaarden, and say that since they are owned by InBev, who also owns Anheuser-Busch, that Hoegaarden is not craft beer. Well, it isn't, it is Belgian beer. When InBev tried to relocate the brewery from the original brewery in idyllic Hoegaarden, in the Flemish part Belgium, an uproar of discontent and even a difference in taste brought it back really quickly. So corporately owned? Definitely, that is indisputable. But therefore any less tasty and important? I would disagree with that.

The size of a brewery is not important. What should matter is the quality of the beers they make, the efforts they support in maintaining and fostering a diverse and quality drinking culture. I can only applaud that the big breweries are recognizing that there is more to beer than watering down lagers to the cheapest and most singular form possible. In a way, they are admitting defeat. The single pebble from David lodged in Goliath's forehead. What they are saying is that there is so much more to beer than what they have to offer. And there is no way that any single brewery can satisfy the huge diverse range of different tastes that American beer drinkers have developed over the last few decades. Their attempts to get into the market will only serve to give craft beer a broader appeal, bring it to more drinkers who would never have tried new, more tasty beers. And that is where this creates a golden opportunity for craft breweries: make great beers, that can appeal to everyone. Not necessarily very courageous new, style definition redefining brews, but superb examples of established styles. Beers that everyone can enjoy, and that can become standards for their respective styles. Become 'comfort beers'.

Gravensteencantus, beer and culture in perfect marriage, celebrating
the KVHV student club's occupation of the castle in the heart of Ghent.
The wonderfully new and bold off-centered beers have conquered for themselves a place to stay. There will always be a place for the small local nano-breweries, brewpubs, and the larger craft breweries who devote themselves to pushing the envelope. This as well I applaud and am thrilled about! But we need to understand that the American craft beer movement was a reaction against bland mass produced lagers. As such, they will (and have) go all the way to the other extreme, before there will be a natural move to a more balanced approach, where the distinction between 'mass beer' and 'craft beer' will blur into the artificial distinction it really is. Beer is beer. People want not just good beer, but great beer. Beer is culture, and the brewery that manages to evoke that 'joy-de-vivre' in celebrating life with friends and good beer, will always thrive. Beer is social, so the small brewery in the neighborhood will locally always have the advantage over even the biggest brewery in the world. Lets not overly focus on the definition and the distinctions, but indeed promote quality in beer and the culture of enjoying that quality in good company. That is what beer is about. And it so happens that this is what Saint William is all about. Live life to the full, but balanced. So go out, and savor the legend!


Do you agree or not? We are very interested to hear your comments and opinion, so let us know!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Market research: sampling competitor brews. Hard work.

Last night I tried a few new beers. There is this almost childlike excitement when you found some new beers you haven't tried before, bought them, and have them chilling in your fridge, waiting for that right moment to be opened and sampled.
Part of the fun is the 'Russian Roulette' feel it has: you never know what you're gonna get. Even a very sleek stylish bottle from a trusted brewery can contain a beer that really does not work for you, or that bottle you really did not want to buy but ended up with anyway proves to be the revelation of the year! I'm sure we've all had similar experiences, and that makes sampling and trying new beers ever so exciting and rewarding.
Well then, I first had in my glass a Ommegang Aphrodite.
On the Ommegang website they introduce this beer as follows:

In Greek mythology, Aphrodite rises from the foam of the  waves of the sea, enchanting all who see her, and inciting thoughts of love and lust where ever she goes.
We could hardly say it more eloquently. Our Limited Edition Aphrodite Ale is ethereal, intriguing and mysterious – as the Goddess Aphrodite must have been. Aphrodite has champagne-like carbonation, much as the foam of the waves of the sea. Plus enchanting flavors with whispers of raspberry and pear, and hints of funk and tartness created by the Brett yeast. The refreshing dryness comes from the unusual combination of Ommegang and Brett yeasts, and incites feelings of love and thirst, though we don’t know about lust. Grains of paradise are infused into the nectar, and when poured Aphrodite is crowned with a luxuriously  shimmering rose-pink head. 
It has a very outspoken raspberry flavor, is very easy to drink with only a hint of tartness, not overly sweet either, and a very nice balance of flavors, with not only raspberry but also pear and plum, and grains of paradise that add a nice spice layer that goes well with the funk of the wild yeast (Brett yeast, from Brettanomyces) which is not at all overpowering. It is almost 9% ABV, but this rather high alcohol content is well hidden. A dangerous fruity drink when you're thirsty! It made me think of the 'Framboise' lambics I drank in Belgium, but it is clearly different, with a quite light body and a different tartness/funk. My wife really liked it, so guys, if you need a fun dessert drink and want to treat the lady, get her some of this brew!

The other bottle I tried was a Blue Moon Vintage Blond Ale. I saw the bottle in the liquor store, which is quite appealing. A different format of label, the wine-like bottleneck 'hood', and the maple leaf booklet give a very stylish first impression. I do enjoy the regular Blue Moon as a simple go-to beer when it is hot, and I have nothing else to try, so though I would give it a shot. The bottle said it was a blending of a wheat beer with Chardonnay grape juice, a perfect follow up beer after the raspberry earlier. It pours very thin, almost champagne like, with a full foamy head of fine bubbles, that dissipates quickly. A very clear pale color makes it even look like champagne. Tasting it, I was confused, as I did not feel I was drinking a beer. To me, that evening, it was so much more some sparkling wine or cider. Somehow sweet, fruity, definitely the grapes, even hints of apples, with a slight dry tartness. Only in my last glass, with the last bit of beer that had time to warm up, did I notice the wheat maltiness I could not really detect before. So it left me confused. I love cider, I love a nice white sparkling wine, and I love a good refreshing wheat beer. But drinking this, I wasn't certain which of the three I had in my glass.

I am fairly certain I will have it again, but now knowing not to expect a clear beer taste, but rather a light fruity refreshing drink with a nice little sparkle. Definitely a surprise, one that left me wondering what exactly I was drinking. But hey, that is the fun of the exploration!
From what I read about it, Blue Moon is only offering this beer in 5 markets, Northern New Jersey being one of them, to test the response of consumers. That means I am one of the lucky ones to get my hands on it already! It also has won a Gold Medal at the Great American Beer Festival, under the name "C Blonde", in the category Fruit Beer. Owned by Coors, it is Coors' attempt to breach into the Craft market. This beer definitely has been crafted, and well crafted, I should say. But that brings me onto another topic that I will leave for our next article. Coming out this week, so stay tuned, and don't forget to stay thirsty, my friends!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Beer Flavor Exploration part 2

Last night we had the second and final part of our beer flavor exploration. It was a great evening, and very pleasurable as this time we did take a closer look at the 'good' flavors. This are flavors that are usually wanted in certain beers, but if present in large amounts or in other styles of beer signs of trouble (infection, poor yeast health, or problems with brewing technique/equipment). A lot is determined by personal taste as well.

One of the main factors that determine flavor and aroma are called esters. Typically fruity, they are produced inside the yeast cells, and then leak out into the beer, imparting with typical flavors. A famous one is called Isoamyl Acetate, and gives that typical aroma and taste of bananas. Typically found in weizen beers and some other heavier beers (Westmalle Tripel, for example), it can signal problems with yeast health, fermentation temperature or oxygen supply in the beer if found in large amounts or in beers that should not typically have this flavor. Another common flavor was 4-Vinyl Guaiacol. As a metabolite of ferulic acid, it is formed by fermentation of barley malts by certain top-fermenting yeasts, but could also be produced by wild yeast as well. It has a characteristic taste of cloves, or a hint of phenolic, and gives beer a more 'spicy' touch. Another flavor discussed was Ethyl Hexanoate, another ester, but this one imparts hints of aniseed or ripe apples to the beer. It is also a pheromone to certain insects, including the fruit fly (drosophila).

The blind taste test at the end of the evening proved challenging, as some of the flavors were very subtle. Jessie DiNizio won this blind tasting test as the only person to reach a perfect score, congratulations! She won a cool key chain bottle opener from Beers Not Bombs, a group that makes jewelry and bottle openers from bronze. The bronze has a very unique source: the copper needed to make it comes from disarmed nuclear weapon systems! "Beating swords into ploughshares" is a great ideal, but beating nuclear missile silos into bottle openers, now that is just excellent! Of course certified radiation free...

Anyways, another great event discovering new ways to look at beer and to enjoy beer. If you need a drink today to help you cool down in the heat wave currently hovering above the US, may I propose either a Paulaner Heffeweisen or a Sly Fox Royal Weisse? Very refreshing, and I am sure you will be able to pick up some of the flavors described above... Cheers!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Pictures of the beer flavor exploration

With thanks to Tim Besecker for being the unofficial photographer of the evening!

Giving an overview of the sources of the flavors, when and where they can be found.

Drinking beer that tastes like stinky feet, and still paying attention to isomerizing alpha acids
that also oxidize and split of an isovaleryl group that becomes the source of the funk. Great group!

Tasting attentively, John Harmon lays the foundation to win the blind tasting.

The quick overview sheet for the evening

Part of the prize, 'Pannepot' by Flemish brewery 'De Struise Brouwers', top rated on RateBeer,
second only to the Westvleteren Trappist Brewery.

Beer Flavor Exploration

When you learn to cook, a great way to build up an understanding of flavors and what does and does not match, is to sample the foods. Or one can grab some basil, crush it between their fingers, smell the aromas, then put a pinch on their tongue to get a sense of the taste. This works with any other possible ingredient, and when you later on eat a meal, you will be able to discern (depending on how much you practiced), to tell what kind of ingredients and spices have been used. As it would be your turn to cook next, you will also know how the tastes work together, what spices you can or should not use to get that specific flavor and touch that you want to bring out.

When brewing beer, that is not quite possible. One can taste some of the malt, to get an idea of what flavors they will carry over to the finished beer, and hops will allow that as well. But brewing is part magic. Someone once remarked: "A brewer does not make beer, only wort. The yeast makes the beer." There are so many chemical reactions that go on throughout the whole brewing process!

So last night I invited a number of friends and the New Jersey Beer Club for a small 2 night beer flavor exploration at the Stirling Hotel (next Wednesday is the second part). The first evening we explored 5 so called 'off-flavors', flavors you should NEVER find in a beer(with few style related exceptions), as they are surefire signs of errors in the brewing/packaging/tapping process, infections from various sources, etc. If you ever get a beer with such a flavor, sending it back is the only thing to do... The next evening we will present 5 flavors that can be found in normal beer, and that define styles. We discuss in a very accessible way what those compounds are, where they come from, what beers you can find them in, what beers you should not find them in.

How will this work? There will be a generic light beer with little flavor of itself. We will spike 1 liter of this beer with the concentrated and isolated flavors in 5 pitchers, plus a pitcher of unspiked beer as a reference. The compound of each flavor will be present in 3 times the taste threshold. We'll pour two thirds of each pitcher to give each 6 glasses, 1 for each flavor and the reference, and then we'll discuss each, as they have the opportunity to sample them as they explore each flavor as it is presented on its own. After this first round, we'll dilute the remaining beer by filling it up again to 1 liter, so we get to sample the flavors at 1 time the taste threshold. At that point we give a blind tasting test, so they can put their newly acquired skills to the test, and win a special beer prize!

This was a great success, and everyone went back home having learning something, after a lot of fun as we went through a bunch of quite horrible off-flavors, from creamed corn/canned asparagus over stinky feet to cardboard. Some of the group were home brewers, so they had encountered some of these, and we could give some pointers as to why those flavors appear in beer, and how to avoid them. A very common one is DMS, or Dimethyl Sulfide. Tasting and smelling like bad vegetables (asparagus and corn), it is a normal in-between step in the brewing process, and a very volatile element. So during the boiling most of this will dissipate out of the wort. Unless, of course, you had the boiling pot covered for some reason... Another one, Diacetyl, tastes like butter/butterscotch, and if encountered in a beer from a tap, almost always a sign of tap lines that are dirty and have become infected. Another 'favorite' was Isovaleric Acid, a compound that comes from oxidized iso-alpha acids that can be found in hops, and are a sign of stale or old hops. This tastes like bad cheese, stinky or sweaty feet,... A real crowd-pleaser! You can, however, get this in much softer form because of either voluntary use of wild yeast, or by contamination, specifically in sours (think lambic style beers).

As a brewer, it is important to be able to identify these bad flavors during brewing, for purpose of quality control (we would never want you to taste these in our beers, and you never will!), and to be able, if we find them, to keep the beer from being sold and to pinpoint the source of the contamination or error so we can fix it. For beer lovers, it was just fun to explore this normally inaccessible side of beer. We all are looking forward to next week, as that night we will tackle good flavors! 

Monday, July 11, 2011

July 11, 1302: Battle of the Gulden Spurs

Happy feast day to all Flemish, and to all those who carry Flanders in their hearts!

On this day a Flemish army, consisting mainly of peasants and militia from the free cities, completely defeated an army of French knights, the pride of the nation. This was one of the first times an army of knights was defeated by commoners, and it sent shock waves throughout Europe. 5 years earlier, in 1297 the Scottish, led by William Wallace, defeated the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. This and the battle in 1302 were only the first to mark the end of an era where knightly armies would dominate.

Another important feature was that this battle was one of the very few popular uprisings of the common people against their lords (in this case, king Philip IV from France) that was actually successful. It underscores the strong sense of freedom and justice the Flemish had, which indirectly but in an important way contributed to the writing of the Declaration of Independence. For a great article about this, read this article by a good friend, David Baeckelandt.

Of course, namesakes of the great saint William were present, in roles of leadership and with feats of bravery. One William, named William van Saefthinge, was a lay brother at the abbey of Ter Doest. A really tall and strong man, he is said to have rushed to the battlefield when the armies gathered, donning an old rusty suit of armor he found in the barns of the abbey. Upon reaching the site of the battle, he traded his horse for a sword, and entered the fighting. It is told that it was he who threw Count Robert II of Artois, the french commander, from his horse, after which the count was killed by other soldiers.

William of Jülich was one of the main leaders of the uprising, being strongly opposed to the annexation policies of the French King. He was archdeacon at the prince-bishopric of Liège and the son of William of Jülich and Maria, a daughter of Guy of Dampierre, Count of Flanders. His connection to the count and his wish to avenge the imprisoning of his uncles Robert III of Bethune and William of Dendermonde by the French king presumably explains his support for the Flemish resistance. An extra incentive for this support could have been the murder of his uncle Walram of Jülich by the French after the Battle of Bulskamp in 1297. The Flemish resistance led to the unexpected victory over the French during the battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302. (excerpt from wikipedia). Legend has it that William of Jülich, who died in at the Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle as he had broken so deeply through the ranks of the French that he and his knights were able to wound the King and made him flee the field, and who's remains were never found after the battle, will return when Flanders is in direst need.

After the battle, hundreds of golden spurs -sign of knighthood- were collected from the battlefield and hung up in the Church of Our Lady, giving this battle its contemporary name: the Battle of the Golden Spurs. A modern day monument, erected near a highway leading to France, depicts a large spur in concrete, with the point of it aimed directly at Paris. The battle gave Flanders only a short lived independence, but it ensured that it was never fully integrated in France, keeping its language, culture and identity.

So ponder with Mr. Baeckelandt the many Flemish influences on the Americas, and toast to the heroes of long lost times who kept that Flemish identity alive! With the unfortunate near absence of beer in French culture, it is safe to say that on this day, our rich beer culture was saved as well! Cheers to that!