Monday, October 8, 2012

Euro Trip 2012

Let me start by stating that I had never been to Europe.  Let me then follow that up with the statement that I love many European beers.  In planning our trip to Europe my girlfriend's number one request was that we visit a country she has never been to (she's been to Europe a lot) and my only request was that we got to experience some great beer.  The result: We spent 4 days in Belgium with visits to Cantillon in Brussels and De Halve Maan in Bruges. Our original itinerary also included Koln (home of Kolsch) and Dusseldorf (home of Dusseldorf Alt) but due to time and cost restraints we cut Germany entirely (it was still a bit of a whirlwind).

The itinerary was:

Now that I'm back I understand that there is no way I can do all the beers and all the experiences I had in Europe justice with a blog post.  That said, I'm going to do my best to keep it concise and record what I can.

I'll start with brewery tours:

Heineken Experience in Amsterdam, flashy and modern
While the Heineken Experience isn't as much of a brewery per se, it is the site where their main brewery once stood and, combined with De Halve Maan in Bruges, Belgium and Cantillon in Brussels, Belgium the 3 gave a very interesting view into the world of beer.  The Heineken Experience was a fun (but pricey) display of Heineken's history and ability to market itself. Much of the attractions inside are either wholly unrelated to beer (digital displays or soccer uniforms) or are high tech displays of the brewing process (films about the first 3 generations of Heineken or the We-Brew-You 4d ride.  The experience shows a world wide macro beer producer doing what it does best: putting forth a consistent and well advertised product.

A poster at De Halve Maan (formerly Henri Maes) brewery in Bruges,.
The second brewery we visited was De Halve Maan in Bruges, the only remaining brewery in a city that had 8 as recent as 50 years ago.  How has De Halve Maan managed to stay around?  A mix of modernization while holding some of their history and uniqueness.  De Halve Maan showed that the beers they offered have changed over time and that where once they malted their own barley (seeing the malting room and kiln were great parts of the tour) they now have it malted by a huge malting company.  While continuing to make ales with belgian yeast character, they have adopted their beers over time, to the point where their top seller currently is a Belgian pale ale using hops from the Czech Republic.
Old bottling line at Cantillon Brewery, Brussels
The third brewery we visited was the biggest blast from the past.  Built in 1900 Cantillon brewery still uses the equipment and practices utilized over a century ago.  Only one beer is brewed: a lambic with 65% barley, 35% barley, a lot of 3 year old aged hops and water.  This beer is then aged in oak barrels (we tried some of the 20 month old, still version straight from the barrel) and is either blended with 1, 2 and 3 year old versions (Geuze) or the 2 year old version is mixed with fruit (cherries for kriek, raspberries for rose gambrinus, apricots for fou foune). Cantillon is the only lambic producer remaining in the city of Brussels and they remain profitable by sticking to this style.

The three breweries were very different yet each had consistently stuck to their image of what beer should be and how it should be made with Heineken always using the most modern microbiology and marketing techniques, Cantillon the most classic processes and De Halve Maan moving forwards while holding on to their geographical style and past.

While the breweries were great, I made it a point to drink at least 1 beer every day of the trip and have one local beer from every region visited.  This taught me two valuable things:
1. Real Ales (especially very sessionable bitters) are very common, tasty but also expensive.  These 3-4% ABV beers typically cost around 5 GBP (about $8).
2.  Trappist (and Trappist style and lambic) beers in Belgium are extremely common (most restaurants seemed to offer a handful of each of these styles) and are extremely cheap.  It is about the same cost for Rochefort, Westmalle, Chimay, Duvel and Cantillon in beer shops and bars as it is for Heineken, Hoegaarden and Stella Artois!  Suffice it to say I LOVED Belgium and the problem was much more often too many beers to choose from than not enough.  I had my fill of a number of Geuzes.  In that arena Cantillon came in second to Drie Fonteinen in my book with a slight lead over Boon and Tilquin and way better than Oud Beersel. As for Trappists I liked Chimay more than I remembered but also enjoyed Rochefort a lot (wasn't a huge fan of La Trappe or Westmalle) and brought a Westy 12 and Achel home so I can try the only two trappists I'm yet to have experienced.

While I could write books and books about my trip, European beer or even just Belgian beer I think that's more than enough for one blog post.

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