Empyreal Brew Day

Empyrean Brewing Company in the Haymarket district of downtown Lincoln.

Empyrean is an old-fashioned word meaning ‘the heavens.’ I admit to having to look it up. Empyreal is the adjective meaning ‘heavenly.’ And heavenly was generally my experience, Thursday, while I was able to brew my Dark Horse Münchner Dunkel recipe with Empyrean brewmaster Rich Chapin.

The power of positive, peripheral thinking is what got me to this opportunity. The facts in the case are as follows: it was my first time entering the Empyrean Beer Quest competition. Being new to town, I was unfamiliar with Lincoln’s water chemistry. I did not have expectations about how wooing of the public vote took place, nor did I have very much time to make the beer. All entries had to be lagers and I only had five weeks.

I analyzed these facts while wearing dirty underwear. Though it may seem at least a non sequitur, if not a downright disgusting image, the underwear thing is symbolic of letting go of expectation. It comes from a long ago discovery that when I just went out with dirty clothes I was more likely to meet up with attractive, friendly ladies than when I bathed and primped. Maybe it was pheromones left unwashed. But I think it was likely due to opening up a well of possibility in the universe, rather than trying to constrain outcome. There was something about putting distance between me and success that actually brought me closer to it. This is the peripheral vision part of the philosophy… I mean, not looking straight ahead at the positive outcome I desired, but scanning the horizon, ready to notice that cosmic opportunity I had denied direct focus. Have you lost a contact lens, and after much searching given up, only to find the damn thing the moment you stopped looking for it. That’s the phenomenon.

So this is where I put myself as I considered the aforementioned facts.  It would be a beer best suited to using undoctored  Lincoln water, therefore a dark lager. It needed to be of average strength given the time available, but have a rich flavor attractive to all sorts of beer drinkers. That left me with either a schwarzbier or a Munich dunkel. The latter is a little sweeter and showcases decoction mashing, so that’s the beer I chose. In a sense, none of this was up to me, the facts put me there. Then again, I might have come to the same conclusion by just making an intuitive decision. We can never know.

I have heard a lot of stories about Beer Quest. They range from how the event is jury rigged to how the winning beer brewed on the 15 barrel system will never taste like the original. Axioms and idioms have appeared in the parlance of the local brewers. “You’re better to finish first or eleventh, than anywhere in between.” That’s because the winning brewer gets a free keg of the scaled-up beer, and brewers finishing out of the top ten don’t have to share their beer with anyone.

Based on this one experience, I can tell you that the contest has rules. Some are abided by hard and fast, others lack a referee. There are inequities and home field advantages. Like a political race, you can induce voters to vote for you, the brewer, rather than for the best beer. It is a real life contest. It is fallible. The frustrations it engenders are synonymous with those in everyday life: when your favorite team loses the homecoming game, when the wrong candidate gets elected, when every restaurant in town serves the same spinach and artichoke glop. You are not going to change the occurrence of these things, anymore than I could change the brewing system my double decoction dunkel was brewed on.

Base malt for the recipe was 588 pounds of Munich malt - toasty, bittersweet loveliness.

After a two-temperature mash program, the mash is transferred to the lauter tun.

The first runnings from the lauter tun enter the bottom of the kettle. The chestnut color and malty aroma were much like my homebrewed version.

Once all the sweet wort was in the kettle, Rich took a sample for measuring the sugar content with a refractometer. So far, so good. Looks like we'll hit our target gravity.

In go the hops - French Strisselspalt - just like my recipe called for. Soon a wonderful lemon aroma captured our imaginations.

The wort was whirlpooled, then chilled right to 55 degrees. It travelled underground to the adjacent building where the fermentation vessels are located. Here Rich pushes the beer, a sizable yeast pitch (in the keg), and adds oxygen.

Here's where the Dark Horse is now busily fermenting. In a few weeks I'll be sitting at the bar trying it out! Hope you will be, too.

If anything, the trials and tribulations of Beer Quest mimic real life. For me, it was a personal test of attitude and vector. For others it may be a frustrating series of hems and haws trying to get outside the box of expectation and entitlement they’ve constructed for themselves. I know only this: that the more I know about beer, the less I know, and that as I contemplate what to brew for the next Beer Quest I will burn my road map and start a new journey from scratch. Winning is not everything. I’ll settle for 2nd through 10th.

Cheers! TPJ

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Getting Cheese Delirious

Chèvre interior, blue mold exterior! Served with a refresher from Leuven!

I’ve got a serious case of ‘ants in my pants.’ Look what UPS just delivered for Friday’s cheese and beer event! He was smirking as he bounced down the stairs. Was it the fact that I was caught listening to SOMA-FM’s Underground 80s music at a volume sufficient for a block party? I wouldn’t know, because I was momentarily distracted by the lyrics…

A little something to make me sweeter
Oh baby refrain from breaking my heart
I’m so in love with you
I’ll be forever blue
That you give me no reason
Why you’re making me work so hard

Erasure was the one-hit-wonder, in case you must know. Kismet, synchronicity, or just the hollow-graphic nature of New Wave? Dunno. As an old friend used to paraphrase from a very different band in the 80s “Nous sommes des fromages.” Cheers! TPJ

Cheese and Beer Runup

With just a couple of days before our inaugural cheese and beer event in Lincoln, we received a nice writeup from Star City Blog’s beverage reporter Alexis Abel.

You can link to it here. Oh yeah, that fellow Cory was a trip – hope we see him on Friday!

If you live in these parts and haven’t gotten tickets yet. Do it while they last. Cheers! TPJ

A Convoy of Flavor Wheels

A couple of winters ago I made made my own maple syrup in Vermont. It started out more as a reminiscence of when my Dad would do it, tediously cooking down the sap over the two burners of a Coleman stove. Or maybe it was to relive the childhood smell memories of wood smoke and tree sugar forged in local sugarhouses. It is almost sugaring time again and that reminded me of something peculiar that happened when making that syrup last time.

It didn’t taste like maple syrup. It tasted wonderful, but nothing like what a New Englander would call essentially maple. Then I remembered the maple syrup flavor wheel I saw on the wall at Bascom’s, the place I’d bought the used sap buckets, lids, spouts, a razor sharp drill bit, and a hydrometer.

I saw that wheel from a distance and thought to myself, “C’mon, how many flavors can maple syrup really have?” I looked closely at it. There was mention of clove, smoke, molasses, forest humus, dried herbs, plastic, you name it. It wasn’t until I had that sap boiling – this was sap that only ran for two days before cold weather stopped the flow for anther few weeks – that I became aware of a corn-syrupy aroma. It was definitely corn. Then I discerned lightly toasted marshmallows, vanilla, and cocoa powder. Everything was clean. I hadn’t made candy or cake in any pots. It was the syrup made from the earliest runnings of sap from my trees that grew in a certain place on shallow soil atop slate ledges made of fossilized Lake Hitchcock clays, those clays made of the fine, fluvial residues of glacial till. I was befuddled – there was no trace of maple.

So here’s that flavor wheel, courtesy of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

The way my mind works, or doesn’t on a given day, naturally leads me to think about other flavor wheels. Sadly, the first thing to pop up was “whatever happened to Flavor Flav?” The rapper with big clock around his neck.

I don’t know if he likes maple syrup. Hard to believe, but true, I’ve met people who don’t like the taste of real maple syrup having been brought up on the artificial kind. Flavor Flav has all that gold dentistry. It’s called a grill in case you missed that one on TV.

 

Grillin' 'n chillin' with Flavor Flav. Take that Bobby Flay. (Source: http://www.themoderndaypirates.com)

Slightly more seriously, I began to think about all of the other flavor wheels out there. One I use regularly is Dr. Morton Meilgaard’s beer flavor wheel, though I admit that it isn’t as robust as I wish it were. It doesn’t list “deteriorating vinyl from the dashboard of an ’87 Buick driven by a four-pack-a-day smoker of menthols” or “burnt hair caught fire in the bunsen burner when she leaned too close to her lab partner.” But I’d say it is normally adequate.

There are flavor wheels for wine, cheese, tea, cannabis… all sorts of things. In fact, I’m inspired to start collecting as many flavor wheels as I can.

Here’s a good one for coffee, from gourmet-coffee.com.

And another fun one for chocolate from Chocolopolis. It is a little hard to read on the light background, however.

And the last one for today, also hard to read on a light background, is the Cognac Aroma Wheel from Cognac.com. It is arranged by season of the year. Ahhh. Cheers! TPJ

Orchestrating Successful Cheese & Beer Pairings

Cheese and beer go really well together. They have for centuries. They grew up hand in hand in small settlements where early people first harvested grains and domesticated milk-giving herds. That may be old news. The newsbreak, though, is that today we live in a global village ensconced in thousands of cheese and beer choices. We have limitless possibilities to pair artisanal cheeses with craft beer from any place, anytime we want.

So why not get together with a few of your friends, or a few hundred of your customers, and orchestrate a perfect cheese and beer pairing?

Overture

Let’s begin with some precepts and traditions that leave your audience clamoring for an encore.

For cheese pairings that are not tied to a specific brewery or distributor’s line, it is best to select your cheeses first, then find the beers that harmonize. Fine cheeses are expensive, and at least in most places in America, selection is limited. If you have access to a huge variety of cheese or are planning on a tasting that pairs beers from a single source, say a brewery or a locality, choose a variety of beer styles to allow more flexibility in cheese selection.

The amount of cheese you serve depends on the event. If it is a course in a dinner, choose two or three cheeses and provide no more than one ounce of each cheese per guest. For full blown cheese and beer tastings you will want four to six varieties, serving between an ounce and an ounce and a half of each. A beer size of four ounces works well. You may also have some condiments, crackers, plain bread, and drinking water.

Cheese flights ready for the curtain to come up. (Source: ontolondon.blogspot.com)

There is a tradition in cheese tasting of working around the plate clockwise from the 6-o’clock position. Your guests may not be experts in cheese and may not recognize which cheese is which simply hearing the name of it. Starting at a set position allows everyone to stay together and pair the right cheese with the designated beer.

Just as with tasting a flight of beers, there can be palate fatigue. It is generally advised to move from mild, low acidity cheeses to blues or washed rind cheeses of greater intensity. Occasionally, the cheeses will be ordered more in relation to their milk type and age, putting younger goat’s and sheep’s cheeses first, then the older cow’s milk cheeses. The tasting order is really up to the planner where the judicious juxtaposition of textures, age, and rind can create exciting cheese drama. (Yes, I said that, cheese drama.)

First timers will benefit from a straightforward methodology for the tasting. Each should begin by getting familiar with the beer by sniffing and sipping some. This is a good time to recognize the major flavors in the mouth, including: grainy, toasty, malty, fruity, bitter, resinous, herbal and floral. More on beer flavor can be found at beersensoryscience, along with a nice version of the famous Meilgaard Beer Flavor Wheel.

After the beer has cleared the throat, place some cheese in the mouth. If the cheese has a distinct rind, start with some pâté from the center of the cheese, leaving the rind for a subsequent bite. Let that cheese soften on the tongue forming a paste. This only takes a moment, but it can be hastened by pushing the tongue upward until the cheese hits the roof of the mouth. Make a mental note of the principal cheese flavors and textures, which might include: creamy, buttery, nutty, sweet, tart, minerally, salty, musty, mushroomy, herbal or grassy. More cheese flavors are listed in this Italian cheese wheel, this French wheel specifically for Compté, and this source, too.

With the cheese soft on the tongue, add a sip of beer and notice how the cheese and beer combine in the mouth. At the very least there should be a happy balance between the flavors and intensities of both. Notice how the beer lightens the cheese texture and lifts it from tongue. Though we don’t usually eat this way, swishing the cheese and beer in the mouth enhances the reactions between the two and brings about a crescendo of flavor. In the best pairings you will observe harmonies, where the beer and cheese ennoble each other releasing hidden tones related to terroir and ingredients.

Providing a note card for people to jot down impressions is essential for commercial tastings. Casual sessions at home will benefit from this, too. It is common for a guest to enjoy a particular pairing and not be able to remember the names of a peculiar cheese or beer the next day.

Improvising

Cheese-beer tastings do not require a theme, although thematic pairings can be instructional. One approach is to have a “milk vertical.” Start by picking a type of milk, specifically, cow, goat, or sheep. Offer a range of cheeses made with that one kind of milk, working from the mildest to the strongest and saving blue mold and washed rind cheeses for the end.

You might pick all cheeses with a manufacturing similarity. For instance, bloomy rind or blue mold cheeses, or perhaps cheeses made by the cheddaring process. Cheeses could be grouped by texture, by region, or even a crazy, aesthetic theme. You might plate various cheeses that all have holes in them. On game day, say if you’re a Princeton fan, you could play off team colors with orange cheeses paired with black beers.

Generating Applause

Your cheese tasting can only be as good as the cheeses. You must find a reliable cheese monger and take the time to explore new styles. Most will happily give you a small taste of cheeses that interest you. Grocery chains may have the best price, but most of these cheeses will be produced by large factories and will typically be tamer in flavor. You want idiosyncratic cheeses from smaller producers that have been handled and sold by cheese experts.

Seek out local cheese producers. Their products haven’t suffered in transport, you can support local agriculture, and save a few dollars. As with craft beer, it is possible for artisan cheese makers to make almost any style they set their mind on. Absolutely first rate cheeses of many classic and emerging styles are now made in America. You just have to find where they’re hiding. Of course, finding treasured cheeses offers value to your guests, who can now purchase good local cheese instead of industrial imitations.

Researching pairings is key to finding the best combinations. Here a flight of mostly goat's milk cheeses are tasted with three different styles of wheat beer: German hefeweizen, Belgian witbier, and American wheat beer.

If holding a professional tasting for a paying audience, you must conduct trial tastings. What people are paying for is not just some cheese and some beer. We’ve probably all been let down by ill-rehearsed food-beverage events. Guests deserve to be entertained, educated, and wowed. Time permitting, trial tastings are even a good idea for a home pairing.

Trial tasting can allow you to discover where the cheese and beer you thought would surely match… simply don’t work. While each is good on its own, together they somehow get metallic or ammoniac or sour. Just as one pale ale differs from the next, cheddar is big universe, from young, bland and rubbery to grassy, nutty, crumbly, minerally, sharp and quixotic.

There is no substitute for knowing your audience. If hosting a casual tasting among friends there’s no need to be formal. Set out the cheeses on a nice wood or stone surface, provide cheese knives, and a little sign with each cheese name, milk variety, and place of origin. You may find that even in the most casual settings your guests will want to jot down their favorites for later, so provide a pen and paper.

In a more commercial environment, make sure you’ve done your homework on each cheese and each beer. Anticipate audience questions and be an authority. Know the manufacturing basics for each cheese. What type of milk? Pasteurized or raw? Special finishing with white mold or washed in beer? What season of the year was it made? Who makes it, a nunnery in the Pas de Calais or an old woman in the Alps or a huge factory in Lille? Understand why this cheese is special. Know why you chose it and rejoice in the complexity and balance of the beer pairing that you have chosen.

And there’s one last thing, that little three-letter word: fun. Any two persons’ tastes will differ as much as two blue cheeses. There is no absolute answer. Approach your cheese and beer pairing with a healthy attitude of discovery and you will excite and inform while the ancient and magical rhythms of cheese and beer do the rest.

Cheers, TPJ.

p.s. If you are in Nebraska, don’t miss the Cheese & Beer – Far & Near tasting. Friday, March 4, 2011, 6 pm at the Derailleur Tap Room in the Bricktop, 1427 O St., Lincoln, NE. Tickets are $45 and on sale now. Here’s the poster for the event and more details on the pairings are found here.

Cheese and Beer ~ Far and Near

It has taken long hours in planning, scheming, and tasting, and now we’re just two weeks away from an awesome event: Cheese and Beer ~ Far and Near.

From the Press Release:

The Derailleur Tap Room at the Bricktop pairs their exclusive craft beer selection with handpicked cheeses from around the world. Cheese and Beer – Far and Near is a guided tasting designed to astound Nebraskans with exciting flavor combinations.

Five substantial portions of cheese with snifters of fine beer will be provided. The fascinating origins of traditional cow, goat, and sheep milk products will be described for cheeses from Nebraska, Massachusetts, England and France. Special ales and lagers from sought-after breweries in the US, Belgium, and Norway will be expertly matched to the cheeses and interesting facts of each beer’s production, ingredients, aromas, and flavors will be given.

The cost is $45.00 per person for the event, expected to cost upwards of $65-70 in larger cities. Tickets go on sale at the Derailleur Tap Room at the Bricktop at 4 pm on Friday, February 18th. Tickets are limited to the first 50 persons and are expected to sell out quickly.

For the past several weeks, Craft Beer Manager Jason McLaughlin, organic cheese maker Krista Dittman, and I have been tasting various cheeses against special beer selections. We’ve been looking not only for solid pairings, but pairings with synergies that release hidden flavors and liberate nuances. If you’ve ever added a few drops of spring water to a single malt whisky, or combined vanilla with lobster, you know what we’re talking about.

As a preview, I thought I’d list the courses in general terms. Maybe as we get closer I’ll provide more specifics, but that might take some prodding!

  • French abbey cheese, pasteurized cow’s milk, lightly washed rind, served with an abbey quadrupel from Belgium.
  • Artisanal chèvre log, blue mold exterior, paired with a Belgian witbier.
  • Rustic Spanish cheese, raw ewe’s milk, quite surprising with a Belgo-IPA and side condiment.
  • ‘Swissy’ farmstead cheese, raw cow’s milk, with a malty, nutty doppelbock.
  • English farmstead cheddar, raw cow’s milk, dances with a resinous American double IPA.

Jason and I will MC the event. He will describe the beer we’ve chosen, after which I’ll outline the cheese and guide the pairing of the two. We also have two special guests: Marty Wells from The Saucy Cook and Krista from Branched Oak Farm.

This is a high energy event that will last about an hour and a half. Come with an appetite and be prepared to be wowed. There will be cheese drama. Yes, that’s what I said cheese drama!

Cheers! TPJ

A Cheese Only a Mother Could Love

In her book on home cheese-making, author Ricki Carroll says blue cheeses are like children, easy to make but hard to raise.

Now that my four little Stiltons are born, well, see for yourself. About now I begin giving them little baths in salt water, helping them grow that skin that will keep their lovely moisture inside. Every day they must be turned and wiped and whispered sweet cheese-maker’s incantations. And man oh man, my cheese fridge sure does smell like, well, a cheese fridge.

It won’t be too long now, before I’m in front of the counter at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London asking for a taste of the real Stilton.

Here’s an interesting story about Stilton, which, as it turns out, isn’t made in Stilton.

Say Cheese! TPJ

 

Palate Jack Winter Tune-up

This post is coming direct from email – just to tell you that I’ve updated the look and functionality of my site. I’m getting ready to be able to post articles from wherever I am by different means. This will be handy when I’m traveling abroad in the coming months and when I’ve hooked up with interesting people at festivals. Cheers! TPJ

Winter Migration Memoire – Departure

Journey is often on my mind. Not the irksome 70s band, I mean journey the process of moving through life. A journey, to my way of thinking isn’t a little undertaking. It isn’t trudging through of foot of snow to pick up some beer before the shop closes. Though I’ve done that and labeled it ‘epic.’

Journeys takes planning and commitment, or at the very least, powerful external forces acting upon us. How come? Because on some level we know that to journey is to toil. It may tire the body or challenge embedded beliefs. We have to accept that it is going to get harder before it gets better. And it does get better, it’s just that becoming comfortable with that notion might require some trust in yourself or your chosen itinerary or your ambitions of self-renovation. Journey is unclear. If the path is fully illuminated it is just a walk through a foot of snow to the beer shop.

Real journeys are not limited to the physical sort, those involving arduous travel. They can be of the emotional-spiritual sort with inner travails of cellular reprogramming… biochemically morphing your physiological response and your neural pathways.

Changing your religious beliefs involves journey. Journey could be finding a new attitude towards life while healing from a could-have-been-fatal disease.

Journey can be nearly freezing death while winter camping in Nova Scotia as images of an ice-bound bearded trapper and Micmac funereal stands and a fearsome man-bear spiritual figure taunt you to stay awake or else suffer the same frozen fate as that begrizzled long ago man motionless in ice.

Journey can be finding a ‘new’ interest in something halfway through your life, then gradually discovering that you know all about it, that you have known all about it all along. It could be music or woodworking or hospice care or abstract math or bass fishing or Tai Chi or growing vegetables or loving people unconditionally.

Journey will have unexpected consequences, synchronicity, unlikely meetings with average people who somehow peer right into you and know you and love you and teach and heal and surprise. Journey is supposed to be tough. That’s alright, it has rewards. When the voyage embodies both the physical and the metaphysical I am always left with more energy than I started with. You wonder why people go on a fast or run ultra-long distances or travel in non-touristic places. They are simply people who value certain kinds of journey. They have undertaken them before, they have realized growth from what they assimilated, and now they want more. I call this ‘growing forward.’

I am this way, too. At least I hope to be so.

My new seasonal migration route is between the expansive prairies of Nebraska and the tightly nested hills of Vermont. It is a formidable drive between two places that are important to me. These are places where I am rooting into the fabric of daily life, smelling the earth, noticing the distant horn of a freight train, writing. They are the same place really. You might not agree, if only because you think first of the physical world. That’s fine. I’m not trying to convince you of either place. These places are the poles of my pendulum and I expect most of the journey takes place as I swing from here to there.

As I said, it is a demanding drive, the better part of 30 hours. And while parts of the Interstate system are familiar to me from other migrations, parts are also new. More importantly, the main line of this drive opens up possibilities of discovery in places like central Pennsylvania, the Southern Tier of the New York panhandle, and the cities and farms of central Iowa. What lies in these places? I mostly don’t know. But I will surely get off the main track and see-feel-know for myself.

About a week ago I made the drive from hill to prairie. I wanted to have time in the daylight to close things up and that left me with a shorter first day, say seven or eight hours of driving. As the distant, white and fuzzy winter sun crept cautiously into the barren tree tops I made the last efforts to pack the truck, lock down the buildings, pack a lunch, say a prayer, and descend from my icy roost.

During this trip I knew my inner process would shift across what I call the five stages of journey. There is a planning step in which you gather your provisions, again the cache could be literal, things like food and maps and a coat and a toothbrush. Provisions could be the deals we make with people, Please do this if I don’t come back. You won’t have everything you need and you won’t need everything you brought. This truth leads one to pack fewer and fewer things as one become more experienced in journeying. This lightens the load, so to speak, and emancipates the voyager.

Embarkation follows. This is a period of excitement and alertness. There is a joy in celebrating that you’ve gotten this far, that you are underway. Your fertile imagination grows bounties of ‘what ifs?’ But you will end up realizing few to none of these dreams, because in order for journey to do its medicine you have to let go. Let go of preconception. Let go of path. Let go of need. Let go and just go.

As the toil of the journey wages on there is a time of uncertainty, of second-guessing of one’s motives, of self-doubt. This midpoint, though not necessarily right in the middle, can seem endless and monotonous. It is the time in a long race when you fantasize about a juicy hamburger or when that ache in your leg seems to dominate your perceptions above all else. This is the time, since having been on previous journeys, that you know is a passing feeling and that however interminable or uncomfortable you must push through.

The fourth stage is “horse coming home to the barn.” If you’ve ever seen the phenomenon, you know it is only a metaphor when applied to people. Horses really do pick up their energy when they know they are almost home. There is a downhill feeling at this time. It’s as if the real ‘work’ of the journey has taken place in the hard part, the interminable midsection. When I’m on my way to the barn I feel exhausted but not sleepy. I keep on going.

When I’m traveling with others this is the time they really resent me. I seem to just keep going and going, while they might be succumbing to the wear and tear of the mid-section, the germ they breathed on the plane a week before finally taking hold. If I had to explain why they get run down while I don’t, I would say it is because they didn’t embark on a journey. They didn’t plan, they didn’t schedule, they didn’t imagine when and where we would go off the plan, when we’d let go. They just went on a trip, while I was undertaking a journey. There is no better or worse, right or wrong here. Journey is fundamentally a personal pursuit.

The fifth stage hits me after arrival. I am alert and immersed in a glow of being self-aware and present in the moment. Someone will say, “You must be tired!” And I have to watch the signals I give, because I’m not tired yet, I’m thrilled. I reflect on the journey and take stock in the experiences. I marvel at how certain people and places seemingly conspired to make me see something or learn something about myself, or give me hope for this sorry lot we call the human race. Yes, there is fatigue, but it is a well-earned, rich and satisfying exhaustion from which one plunges into restful sleep.

So I drive from the hills to the prairie… by way of hours of backed up New Year’s Eve traffic on the Connecticut freeway system. Carl knew better. He always took the Taconic Parkway. A little longer, curvier, hillier and serene. The New York State Thruway is a blessing, too, not because I would ever take it, but because it runs parallel to the Taconic, just on the other side of the Hudson River. Most everyone takes that road instead.

Taconic Parkway view facing the Catskills.

The Taconic is a proto-interstate built on old Indian byways. It winds through the foothills east of the Hudson. Beyond the river valley old towns with Dutch names lurk in the forest and above them tower the Catskills. On this day they look positively massive as they peer through wintery clouds, as the first mantle of this year’s snow merges with the clouds like a forgotten Japanese ink drawing of Mt. Fujiyama hanging in a long-abandoned motel room.

The views from this road never look the same to me. It is as if the roadway slithers around its general course and each time I drive upon it I see places I don’t remember seeing before. I like to say Taconic the Algonquin way: make a mouthful of spit and say taghkanic. It gives me chill, like whenever I hear bagpipes – a reminder of distant lifetimes that I know something about. I know something about it, but I do not deign to explain it. I would just be making up stories. Next trip, no more Danbury Dip. Take the Taconic.

Then on to Pennsylvania, a northeast state that always surprises me how long it takes to traverse. I had an appointment with a homebrew shop in Akron the next day. I had to get pretty far along, at least halfway across the Commonwealth. And so it happened that I had looked around for breweries near where I thought I might end up. It was a loose plan, one that allowed for me being energetic enough to carry on for a couple of more hours. But I also knew that I’d be in the third stage, the self-doubt and time-moves-slowly stage. There was a little town called Millheim, somewhere off the freeway and in the folded limestone hills east of State College. A beer writer I trust had said some good things. The only accommodation nearby was a family-run place, a cluster of five single cottages, a mile to the east. By the time I arrived they would have “rolled up the sidewalks,” as my mother was fond of saying.

It was dark now, and had been for a couple of hours. I managed to not overshoot my exit and soon found myself at a stop sign, headlights peering through inky dark into impenetrable woods. No buildings, no lights, no sign of habitation. Left turn. Winding road warning sign, whew, down to 20 miles per hour just to stay out of the woods. I needed to come down from the highway speeds to this new place, a place with such a winding, plummeting little road that I thought I might be in Dummerston, VT. Had I really been driving for nine hours? Had I left Vermont? How could I be this turned around?

With a new breath the lay of the land began to agree with me and after going down into a stream valley and up the other side, and down again, the road straightened out somewhat and I came upon two flashing red tail lights on an as yet invisible and slow-moving thing, a tractor I thought. But as I pulled on by I saw it was an Amish buggy, a sleek black pony clopping along sending frosty spirals of steam from its nostrils, nearly the only thing illuminated by the light on the front of the craft.

I was to pass five more identical buggies in the few miles it took to get to Millheim. My first thought was how undereducated I was to think that the Amish only lived in Lancaster County. Of course they would be here, in verdant vales and foggy meadows, along age-old farm roads, atop rich damp soil. Of course. I’m traveling these twisting, late night roads with Amish buggies and snorting ponies and it should be said, with headlights and taillights, the price of a high speed society “evolving” around this idyllic existence. The long barns and white clapboarded farmhouses, dimly lit by their Spartan inhabitants… A sliver of moon just hinting at the murky meadow’s edge where it meets the deer-filled old sugarbush… A dip in the road, a narrow concrete bridge, a trout stream passing beneath. I’m beginning to understand this place and I haven’t yet seen it in the daylight.

Somehow I already knew I would be back, especially if the beer was good. Every great pilgrimage needs a few good way stations and I’m not averse to returning to a place. But I can become jaded by so many brewpubs. Sometimes I just go to say I’ve been, to check them off a list. But beneath that is the real reason I hunt down new beers: because every one out of so many is really delicious, made by interesting people, set in a fascinating backdrop, or otherwise hints at a little bit of treasured and elusive synchronicity that happens when my spirit guides just happen to be in the same room with me. It has been a while since I found one of those amazing places. I was overdue. I did not want to become a curmudgeon, a stiffy, a person with ever-narrowing beliefs, such as happens with age. I see it all around me. Part of this journey was the sometimes difficult rehearsal to keep my eyes open and not tell my eyes what to see. It takes practice to let go and be only in the present moment. Journey is ironic like that, that while one usually plans the undertaking, at some point the planning has to evaporate. When that transition occurs you find yourself in another place that you see as if for the first time. It is like waking up in a friend’s guest room all disoriented. Where am I? How did I find myself here? Where is here? That changeover from planned to purely spontaneous is the thing that happens in the midstretch of journey. For me it is what journey is all about. And you can’t predict it, you can’t wait for it. It might never come. It’s like happiness. You know it when you experience it but you can’t always know how you got to that state. You find yourself there, and in that place you can find yourself.

Though I felt the unknown was just around the bend I was still being practical, still conscious of a plan, but I could feel effort and posture and itinerary blowing away, like the last durable brown leaves of winter finally dislodging from their oak and beech limbs. My last conscious thought for the day was that it might not be worth coming back here. While trying to keep an open mind my mind began to open.

Was this a place you could ride a bike, fell a tree, organize a lawyer’s records, patch a broken soul, any of these or all? Does it have the local-ness, the genuine full-bodied lifestyle I crave these days? Whole-some-ness? These are questions that shot past me. Were their answers relevant, worth seeking? I’m writing them down so fast, so fearful of missing a thought, that I’ve broken a sweat. That’s what happens when the richness of being present overflows me.

To be continued… TPJ

LambicLand – Getting the Scoop

Tart cherries added to lambic (wild-fermented wheat beer) will mature into a wine-like delicacy called kriek. (Source: beermad.org.uk)

As a beer traveler and sometimes tour guide I admit to a certain one-upsmanship. That being the occasional need to outsmart the geekiest of the beer nerds. I dig out tidbits that never hit the mainstream websites and aren’t in the more well-known guidebooks. If I’m on top of my game I don’t even make a big thing of it, but behind the scenes I am really doing my homework.

Of course it’s work. You have to shuttle yourself through the warp and weft of local customs, language, and geography. In Belgium, I dress in plain, dark clothes, speak softly, and don’t ask anything important in the first hour. Unlike a lot of American tourists, I have no objection to changing my dress code and lowering the volume of my voice in a beer café. I’d like to think that I’m not the American that gave American’s a bad name in the first place.

Point being, it’s the little nuggets you accumulate while exercising discretion that really make you worth hiring as a tour guide or as an author. Same’s true for an earnest traveler with a thirst for experience: little facts just make the journey more tangible, more memorable.

Once, in Namur, Belgium, I met an interesting chap named Georges. He told me he had found a great beer near Charleroi that nobody knew about. By telling me, he was giving me, in his words, “a scoop.” Georges’ mom was American and his pop was a Walloon. In true Belgian style he spoke a basket full of languages. His English was so good he spent Saturdays translating British comedies into French.

“It’s called Cuvée de Trazegnies. It’s really good,” he told me. “Go there and find it. Then you can tell your people about it.”

Right! So, on to the little town of Trazegnies (pron: trazsh-knee). I gassed up in the small town and asked directions.

“Excusez-moi monsieur. Connaissez-vous la bière Cuvée de Trazegnies?”

“Ah, Brasserie Lannoy…” and then some patchy directions, which managed to get me a few streets closer. Repeat. Get closer. Then finally to a shop window with said beer. But the place was closed. The lady in the market across the street told me the father of the man who made the beer ran a charcuterie, through the next town, near the motorway. He might have some beer in the cooler.

This was followed by trying to solicit more help from a lady in the next village’s town hall. We were going nowhere fast until she realized my French pronunciation was not due to being a Dutch-speaker from the north of Belgium. See, dressing like the locals confused the locals!

“Vous-êtes flamande?”

“Non, je suis americain,” I replied.

“I speak a bit of English,” she offered, now that she didn’t have to defend her heritage to one of those Flemish brigands. There were soon maps being photocopied and outlined in yellow marker, and in due time (actually about three minutes down the road) I came to said charcuterie. Indeed the beer was there. I bought a bottle of the blonde and bottle of the brune.

That evening I ended up at another brewery. I brought the beers with me. The brewer and his wife studied the labels, scrutinized the corks. Tasting seemed to be secondary. After a short tête à tête they said they had no idea who made the beers and knew nothing about this brewery. It was less than 20 minutes away from them! We decided the blonde was a good one and the brune “not so good.” I still didn’t have my scoop. I hadn’t met Monsieur Lannoy, I hadn’t seen the brewery. To make matters worse, my companions told me that the labeling on the two bottles was so precise and equal, that this beer could only have been made at a large and somewhat modern brewery.

Cuvée de Trazegnies wasn't made by Brasserie Lannoy after all. It was made in neighboring Binche at the Brasserie la Binchoise. (Source: http://www.lionnet-th.net)

Later, after more research on my own, I discovered the beer was being brewed on contract for Lannoy by Brasserie la Binchoise. It was a bière d’etiquette (literally “label beer”), a contract beer made on behalf of someone who didn’t even have a brewery. Well, it might have been a scoop.

I’m telling this cautionary tale to make a point: that it takes a lot of effort to chase down beer in Belgium. Same’s true for a lot of places. This was just one example. Similar pursuits have lead me to all sorts of wondrous places, like a cheese ripener’s caves or a Vermont farmhouse cidery with big dogs (but no cider in sight) or a descent into private lambic maturation cellars. The outcome may or may not be important, but the process can bring on a mighty thirst.

Esoteric beer guidebooks and travelogues are some of my resources. Wherever there is beer there will be some person with too much ambition and a spouse with a good salary. They take up the cause and chronicle this region or that style or other. I have a shelf load of out of print doozies. And what’s odd, half the time the book is written by an outsider. Sure Michael Jackson came to America and told us about real beer. Larry Hawthorne wrote the best book on the Munich beer scene. And a sometimes dodgy clutch of Brits have devoted themselves to describing beer in Belgium, Holland, France and elsewhere.

LambicLand is THE scoop.

Today I’m giving up on one of my trade secrets. Why? Well, I’m not running any trips soon and the landscape of lambic beers is so tenuous that I’d be just plain mean for keeping this timely information to myself. Take my little story about Cuvée de Trazegnies and multiply it by a hundred. That is what Tim Webb and his co-authors have endured to produce the second edition of LambicLand – A journey round the most unusual beers in the world.

California brewer Lee Chase, the author, and Tim Webb in a well-known little Bruges beer bar...

I met Tim a few years back in a Bruges beer bar. I found him easy-going and super knowledgeable. I already owned an earlier edition of his Good Beer Guide to Belgium, now in its sixth incarnation. One thing I’ve always liked about his books, they don’t draw arbitrary lines between the brewery and the retail establishments where you can find the beer. Sure, sometimes the brewery itself is atmospheric, but it can be anything from awkward to impossible to get into some breweries. Continental formality really requires advance appointments for most brewery visits. If you’re contrary to that, if you’ve coerced brewers to give you tours on just showing up, then you are the Americans that give Americans bad names. Pay attention.

Mr. Webb, along with Chris “Podge” Pollard and Siobhan McGinn, have chronicled every lambic brewer, gueuze blender (geuzesteker), cherry steeper (kriekenweker), and diminutive local serving everything from faro to kriek to oude geuze to the most challenging vieille lambic. One of the peculiarities of the lambic scene is the small number of actual brewers and the vast number of permutations created from their beers by the brewers themselves and blenders and steepers.

When I think back to my escapade of looking for that scoop on Cuvée de Trazegnies, I realize I have nothing on these guys. Their level of dedication and effort at once humbles me and pisses me off. Why am I pissed? Because with a short, claustrophobic jump through the Chunnel, these bastards are there drinking lambics and gueuze while the rest of us are destined to take what little the importers can wrangle, or be happy with armchair travels through the most peculiar and rewarding beer landscape that ever draped the planet.

My hat is off to the authors for this excellent work. I hope they at least break even. If you are planning explorations of any kind in the great Republic of Belgium, this book is a must-have. Available from Cogan & Mater, along with several other great titles on beer.

Cheers. TPJ.

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