New beergeek.TV Episode – Belgians, Trappists & Kerstbier

YiB-12“Belgians, Trappists & Kerstbier” is the latest Year in Beer episode of One Pint at a Time.

With December being the last month for the Year in Beer, we wanted to make it a special one. And what can be more special than a beer tour of Belgium. We had two main goals for the trip: visit all seven Trappist breweries and reach 450 breweries. The Year in Beer culminated at the Kerstbierfestival, a Belgian Christmas beer festival in the town of Essen.

So enjoy our adventures in Belgium…

For all the episodes of One Pint at a Time go to beergeekTV.

Merideth’s Year in Beer Top-10

By now you have already read Chris’s top-10 beer experiences from the Year in Beer. And now, you’re getting mine.

We decided on two different lists primarily because we have differing criteria upon which we base our determination of what is the “best”. Our lists overlap a bit and since I had the honor of publishing mine second, I risk looking unoriginal. Please bear with me as I offer to you my top-10 experiences from the Year in Beer (in no particular order).

Meeting our friends Matt and Michelle
Meeting them in Alaska for the first time, Matt and Michelle helped create a great kick off to the Year in Beer. Had it not been for a shared love of beer and our determination to pull this whole endeavor off, we would have never met them. It’s reassuring to realize that you’re not the most geeky of all the beer geeks in the world.

Getting stuck at Pug Ryan’s
Going to a pub and expecting to catch a cab home is not always a given, as we found out at Pug Ryan’s in Dillon, Colorado. There are apparently no cab companies in Dillon. Completely shocked and dismayed, I felt like a big city folk mocking the small mountain town, but it really was just absolute surprise. The owner was good enough to offer us his bartender as a ride home. Thanks, Chris the Bartender!

Showing our German friends around Munich
It was a bit strange and even a little awkward to have known Munich better than our German friends. Chris acted as tour guide and successfully wrangled our group to several of our favorite Munich beer halls. Wolfie thought Chris was the best tour guide he had ever had, even if he was the only one he had ever had.

Surviving 9 days of drinking real ale
I can’t say that our trip to England made me want a hand pump in my house, but surprisingly my complaining was minimal during the trip. I think I had a German-style lager on only a few occasions. Quite a personal accomplishment. You afraid of a little taste lager girl?

Volunteering at Great British Beer Festival
We had no idea what the beers were. We couldn’t handle the money without turning over every coin to check the denomination. But festival goers and fellow volunteers alike were incredibly nice and it was a fun time. Plus, where else can you watch a guy in drag sing traditional English drinking songs?

The Year in Beer tastings
Packing the beer for travel home is always a pain and not one of my favorite activities. However, our Year in Beer tastings made it all worth it. The tastings united the Monterey Peninsula beer community and I really enjoyed sharing our discoveries with others. Those others are now people I consider to be my friends.

Wearing my dirndl to Oktoberfest
Despite being cold, I felt very festive being at Oktoberfest in my outfit. This year, I participated in Oktoberfest, not just attended it.  Now if I can only get Chris in some lederhosen.

My Birthday
I’m not thrilled about careening towards 40, but what better way to celebrate a birthday than a trip to one of the best and most famous beer cafes in the world, ‘t Brugs Beertje. Daisy and her staff were awesome and I even have a little stuffed brown bear to commemorate the occasion. If he only had a beer in his hand…

The Kerstbierfestival
Our kind of festival. Out-of-this-world beer in a mellow, yet lively and fun atmosphere. Dignified without being douchey. We met a few new people and ran into Tom Peters. “Dank u” to the festival organizers for creating a great event.

Developing an appreciation for Belgian beer
For those of you who know me, know that I am generally defined by what beer I don’t like and Belgians were at the top of the list. Not so anymore. I think they’re pretty darn good.

The Year in Beer Top 10 – Chris’ List

With the Year in Beer now over, we would be remiss not to come up with a list of top 10 experiences from our amazing year. The original plan was to come up with a combined list, but within the first minute of discussion, it was clear that wasn’t going to work. So, here is my list not necessarily in order…

The Kerstbierfestival
Our kind of festival where great beer, friends and conversation seem to be the focal point. Maybe the perfect end to the Year in Beer.

The “Four”
I still need to come up for a better name for our July-October stretch of the Year in Beer. In these months we went to four of the premier beer events in the world; Oregon Brewers Festival, Great British Beer Festival, Oktoberfest and Great American Beer Festival. A lot of beer geeks would be happy to make all four in their lifetime; we did it in consecutive months.

Anchorage in January
The first month for the Year in Beer and there was some worry about how it would turn out. Not only was Anchorage’s beer culture quite amazing, the community was so nice and welcoming. We couldn’t have started the year in a better fashion.

Cologne, Munich and Vienna
After the Bergkirchweih beer festival, we joined our friends Ute and Wolfgang for Flogging Molly shows on consecutive nights in Cologne, Munich and Vienna. Day one was Kölsch, day two was beer gardens with liters of beer and day three was our first visit to Vienna.

Hallertau Hop Tour
One of the fringe benefits of the Year in Beer was that we got a tour of the Hallertau hop growing region by Anheuser-Busch’s European hop guy, Willy Buholzer. Thanks to Willy for being a great host and hop guide.

The Beer Bars
The Year in Beer gave us the opportunity to go to some of the best beer bars in the world… Toronado, Monk’s Cafe, Standard Tap, Brouwers, Falling Rock, Kulminator, Arendsnest, In de Wildeman, ‘t Brugs Beertje, Cafe Delerium, Liar’s Club, Cafe Amsterdam, O’Brien’s… to name a few.

Visiting All Seven Trappists
One of the main goals of our December trip was to visit all seven Trappist breweries. The worry was that in December, the six that were open to the public, would have limited hours or be closed. The beer gods were smiling down on us as we were able to visit all seven and drink the beer at the six that were open to the public.

One of the side trips we made during 2008. Big thanks goes out to the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing  Corporation for inviting us out for Philly Beer Week. If they hadn’t, we would still be talking about someday we need to get to Philly. We knew about Monk’s Cafe, and it is truly amazing, but there is a lot more to Philadelphia’s beer scene than just Monk’s.

Seeing Our Friend Win Beer Drinker of the Year
Another 2008 side trip… Being into beer, for me, is not just about the beer, it is also about the great friendships you make. And to be on hand to see our friend, Matt Venzke, win Wynkoop’s Beer Drinker of the Year, was not only a great time but was worthy a Top 10 Year in Beer experience.

OK… this is probably number one. I got to spend the Year in Beer with my best friend and better half. It truly doesn’t get better than that.

The Kerstbierfestival

YiB-12Our trip to Belgium finished with our first ever visit to the Kerstbierfestival, a Christmas beer festival in Essen, Belgium. The Kerstbierfestival was an event I targeted pretty early in creating the Year in Beer schedule because it seemed unique. Belgium in December drinking Christmas beers seemed like a good way to close out our year.

Saturday, day one of the festival, was the coldest day of our trip. We hopped off the train in Essen and started on a brisk 1.85km walk to the Heuvalhal, site of the festival. Easily finding the hall, a gym actually, we took our place in the queue.

We have made this statement before and risking crying wolf one too many times, we had really no idea about what to expect from the Kerstbierfestival. There were over 100 beers and most were unknown to us. As we found our seats within the hall, we reached that crucial point in the day. What beers do we try?

I should step back a bit and explain how the festival works. The Kertbierfestival is a token fest. One token cost 1.50 euro or 11 for 15 euros. Most beers were one token but rare or special beers could be two or three tokens. The pour was 15cl. Whole bottles could also be purchased. For example, the Rochefort 8 Cuvée 2007 would set you back 20 tokens.

Armed with the festival guide which had extensive notes in English, I picked out beers that sounded interesting. The first three beers I sampled, I didn’t really care for. After these first duds, I honed my strategy and concentrated on the special and rare beers, the ones that were two or three tokens. Here is where I found all my festival favorites, such as:

  • Rochefort 8 Cuvée 2007
  • Fra… Till… from Mikkeller
  • Santa’s Little Helper from Mikkeller
  • Bush des Nuits from Dubuisson
  • Malheur Bière Brut

In the end, I tried somewhere around 22 beers, give or take a few that I forgot to record. Most of them fell in the ‘pretty darn good’ category.

We were kind of shocked, at first, by the civility of the fest. A better word than civilized might be dignified. Most festivals in the States degenerate into drunk fests, but the Kerstbierfestival seemed different. There was no whooping nor hollering. No one tried to get the crowd to do the wave. Rather, the festival goers talked with friends, drank their beers and sometimes took notes. Even the 32 person stag party who were pounding cans of Jupiler (a Belgian macro-lager) in the queue to get in behaved in this manner.

Most pleasing to me was there was no blasting music, though at one point a gentleman busted out an accordion and people started singing.

I don’t think every festival needs to be this way, but it was nice to be at one where beer, friends and conversation seemed to be the focal points.

The crowd was mostly Belgian and Dutch, but there were also a number of Brits and Americans in attendance.

One American we ran into on Saturday was Tom Peters of Monk’s Cafe in Philadelphia. We had met Tom earlier this year on the press junket to Philly Beer Week as he had hosted our first night events. It was nice running into Tom again. If there is one person to talk beer with at a Belgian beer fest, it would be Tom.

We returned to the festival on Sunday, but our festival day was short as we needed to get to Brussels to see some friends. So we shot the last of the video we needed, tried a few more beers and just basked in the moment. The Year in Beer was over.

As we left the hall mid-Sunday afternoon, I couldn’t help feeling a little bit of sadness that the Year is Beer was complete. The year went so fast, just yesterday it seemed like we were landing in Anchorage.

But thinking back on all the great trips, the people we met, the friends we made, the beers we drank, the places we visited, I cannot help to feel a great sense of accomplishment. We did it.


We Reached Our Goals… almost…

YiB-12We had two main goals for this trip; to visit all seven Trappist breweries and to both reach 450 on our list of breweries. Well, I am happy to report that we reached 75% of our goals.

The part we fell short on was that while I reached 450 breweries, it looks like we will return to the States on Monday with Merideth stuck on 448. Some conspiracy theorists will think I did this on purpose, but the blame all rests on the shoulders of Brasseries Caracole and Bouillion for having messed up winter hours. It was always in the master plan for both of us to reach 450.

We left Bruges Friday mid-morning driving east across foggy Belgium headed to the largest of the Trappist breweries, Westmalle. They are famous for having developed the Dubbel and Tripel styles of beer. Merideth successfully navigated us around Antwerp and to the door of Westmalle’s very fancy brewery tap, Cafe Trappisten, only 12 minutes behind schedule. We would have been only nine minutes behind schedule if we hadn’t wasted those precious three minutes driving around the Abbey even though we had read that the Trappisten was across the street.

Westmalle was my #450 so I was pretty excited. We quickly found a seat in the massive dining area and ordered two beers, Dubbels.  They also have a weaker beer called Extra that is brewed for the brothers. Only rarely does it make an appearance in the brewery tap and today was not one of those times. So we stuck with the Dubbel and Tripel and resisted the temptation of adding grenadine for an extra 30 euro cents.

The Trappist breweries also usually make cheese so on each occasion when there was an opportunity to try the cheese, we took advantage. The Westmalle cheese came with mustard that was super hot, just the way we like it. Unfortunately, it didn’t come with celery salt, also how we like it.

Having had our fill of monk beer and cheese for the moment, it was time to move on. I was concerned about the time as we had only a small window of time visit the seventh and final Trappist, Koenigshoeven. Their winter tasting hours were a scant three hours in the afternoon.  So leaving Westmalle, we drove the 50 or so kilometers across the Dutch border and easily found the Abbey Koenigshoeven in the outskirts of Tilburg.

Unexpectedly, we saw the biggest crowds at the Trappist breweries that we had seen on the whole trip. Two different tour groups of 20 or so arrived and battled with our peace and quiet for supremacy. We also had some filming to do so the din of a tour group is never good.

Known as La Trappe in Europe, they had six beers beers to try. I noticed that the one loud group was getting taster sets, which was perfect for us. So, I asked for one. And the beers came in these cute little 25cl glasses.

We tried their Witte, Blonde, Dubbel, Tripel, Bock and Quadrupel. And of course we got an assortment of their cheese, too. While their beer cheese might have been our favorite Trappist cheese of the trip, their beers were my least favorite of the Trappists. They were good, but I guess I am just a Belgo-phile now. If it isn’t Orval, it is crap!

So, that was it… we visited all seven Trappists and added six of them to the “the list”. Now, we return the car and get ready for the last phase of our trip, the Kerstbierfest.