09 May, 2008

My Visit to the Struise Farm Brewery

Since it was such a beautiful day today, I decided to take a little 3 plus hour trip to the Belgian coast. Well about 15 minutes from the coast actually to the town of Lo to visit the Struise Farm. The farm is basically the headquarters for one of the best breweries in Belgium. In addition to being an ostrich farm and a bed & breakfast, the Struise Farm also has a small brewery where they brew certain of their beers and other test beers.

It turns out Struise is about 10 minutes from the Abbey at Westvleteren so I decided to make an afternoon of visiting Struise for a few beers and then heading to the Westvleteren cafe for lunch.

I arrived in the town of Lo at about 13:00 and found myself on a bunch of very small farm roads. As I found out quickly, these roads are really only passable by 1 vehicle at a time when I came upon a huge farm tractor and had to pull off the side of the road and partially into a field to let him go by. Thankfully I didn't come head on with any others before I arrived at Struise. I got to Struise about 15 minutes later and was first unsure about heading down the private driveway but after reading on Ratebeer.com that the brewer Urbain was going to have a keg of their new and rare stout, Black Albert, on tap and open to the public for free, I knew it would be ok to visit.

When I got out of my car I was greeted by a very friendly woman, that I found out was Urbain's sister, and a large dog. When I annouced why I was there, I was led up to an office where Urbain was talking on the phone. His sister offered me coffee and water and let me sit down to wait. After taking a few sips of a water, I got to to meet Urbain and as a thank you for letting me visit, I gave him a few American craft beers which he seemed to really enjoy. In return he gave me a bottle of beer from a brewery friend of his. After talking for a few minutes we headed down to the farms bar.

In talking to Urbain, the bar is in an old farmhouse that he and his family has refurbished over the past 10 years or so. Although the bar looks private, it would be a really cool bar to hang out at as it is rustic and full of charm. After taking a few minutes to setup the sinks to wash our glasses properly, Urbain poured us each a glass of Black Albert which they have termed a Belgian Royal Stout. I think it lives up to the name. It rings in at 13% abv and poured a very deep black hole color with a thick bubbly tan head.

While sipping on this fine brew, Urbain showed me the keg system that they are testing with this beer. Instead of using stainless steel, they had this beer in a keg that comprised of a cardboard outer system with a foil type bladder on the inside that holds the beer. It would of course be a much cheaper and lighter way to keg beer and based on what he said and I tasted, there is no impact on the quality of the beer in such a system.

Since there was no one else around at the time, we went outside on the patio to enjoy the days sun and to chat a bit about various thinks including of course, beer and other things like the environment. He mentioned that about an hour before I arrived, a large group of folks stopped by to try the Black Albert and he envisioned that a good number of people would show up later in the day as well so I was lucky to try the beer while it was still available. It won't be bottled and available in Belgium for a few more weeks and will eventually make it to the U.S. but may not be very soon.

After filling our glasses again with Black Albert, we wandered around the farm a bit. First to take a look inside a large military tent that was currently holding all of the brewing equipment while they were renovating the brewing building. We then walked down to the brewing building and got to see where the equipment will be reinstalled and will allow Struise to brew on an 8 barrel system and to play around with different yeast, sugar, and other combinations that can only lead to good beer. Urbain then opened up the cold room and was kind enough to give me to bottles as a gift for visiting the brewery. A 750ml bottle of their Struiselensis and a 750ml bottle of Tsjeeses Reserva which is a beer not really released to the public. I Can't wait to try both beers but will probably sit on them for the right time to try.

Urbain mentioned a few beer projects upcoming that were interesting. They are going to brew another batch of Struiselensis in the coming months and about 1/6 of the batch will be laid down with kriek to form a nice lambic which I can't wait for. He also mentioned that they will be brewing an imperial porter in the near future that will mainly be for a private group but it will also be available at the farm brewery at times. I smell another trip to the farm in my future....

While we were wandering around the farm I saw a handful of farm cats roaming the grounds and protecting the beer! The large doggy was also roaming around but behind a fence which was good because a group staying in the B&B arrived and with a dog that could only be described as a large black bear! This dog jumped out from the back of their van and ran over to the farm dog and they did some looking and sniffing and barking but no fighting.

Not far from the brewery building is where the ostrichs live. We got close enough to look eye to eye with these interesting creatures. They seemed to be interested in people, at least the females did. The males apparently are not very friendly and held back in the pack.

Overall my visit to Struise was a great day. The beer was great, Urbain was a great host and is very generous with his time and his beer. Since there is a B&B on the Struise Farm, I am thinking that this would be a great place to stay on future trips to Belgium as it is a great place to have a beer, it is very close to Westvleteren and the Belgian coast.

After leaving Struise, I drove the few minutes to the cafe at Westvleteren but was dissapointed to find out that they were closed. Maybe for the upcoming holiday in Europe. Needing a lunch after having 2 glasses of Black Albert, an Royal Belgian Stout of 13%, I found a cool looking cafe not far from Westvleteren. I knew it was a good place to stop as a beer truck had just pulled up to unload a bunch of kegs and crates of beer...and water. I stopped at 't Vleterhof for some food and maybe another drink. There were already a few locals sitting outside having drinks. I think they were all in their 70's but they looked like they were having a good time so I thought I would also. I sat outside and ordered a Struise Pannepot, why not, and a coke and a croque monseuir, basically a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. While I was there two older ladies stopped by for some drinks. Their drink of choice, Pannepot, just like me. Those Belgian ladies can really have a drink as this beer rings in at 10%. There were also a handful of bikers that stopped by for some refreshments. No Harley bikers but the biking that is typical of this part of the country, the peddle powered type bikes.

After a good quick lunch, I was back on the road and made another quick stop, this time at the Deca Brewery where Struise sells their beers. I picked up a few large bottles of Pannepot for home and some 33cl bottles of Pannepeut which is a slightly different version of Pannepot, made for the Danish beer market.

After that last stop, I was back in the car for another 3 and half hours to Luxembourg. Overall it was about 7 hours in the car and 3 or so out of it but it was still worth it. I think the temp hit about 80 so it was the warmest day since we arrived in Europe!

Also, check out this short video I took while driving down some of the tiny farm roads leading up to the Struise Farm. If a car was coming at me I would have been in some trouble but luckily it was just me while I was shooting the video.

04 May, 2008

The Craft Beer Scene in Holland

In the time I spent in Holland in 2000 I didn't really get to enjoy any craft beer from Holland and at that time I am not really sure there was much of a craft beer scene in the country. We mostly drank Belgian beers and the main Holland beers like Amstel and Heineken.

Flash forward to 2008 and it looks like the craft beer scene in Holland is alive and well although maybe not known to the world outside of the Benelux (or outside of the "ne" in Benelux). I discovered a few of these Holland beers when we visited my favorite bar in Utrecht, Kafe Belgie. I also found a bunch of them at a great bottleshop we found in Utrecht, Bert's Bierhuis.

We also found a good beer scene in Amsterdam, one that I had not really explored in the past. We searched out and found 2 good beer bars and 2 good bottles shops.

Boom Chicago in Amsterdam

One of the most fun things I had done in Amsterdam when I visited the city on several occasions in 2000 was to visit the Boom Chicago comedy club. The club seems to be modeled after the Second City comedy club in Chicago which is a sketch comedy club with improv. Boom Chicago has the added bonus of basing alot of their shows on Amsterdam and the Dutch culture which is very interesting. It is probably best appreciated if you have visited there but the shows are funny none the less. The actors are mostly American but clearly live in Amsterdam or a nearby city as they are in tune with the wackiness of Amsterdam and Holland.

Paula and I decided to have dinner at the club before the show as they had a package deal that lets you have a 3 course meal before hand and then you get priority seating near the front of the stage. All the food that we had was excellent and the endless drinks were also a bonus.

At about 10pm we were all escorted down to the theatre from the restaurant area. We originally were seated at a 2 person table right at the front of the stage but they later moved us to a side booth along with another couple. This couple would later be picked on for the show, Miles and Tracy from London. The show we saw was called "The Last Person to Leave the Planet, Turn Off the Lights" and as you may imagine, it was about the environment. They had somewhat of a set plan for the show in general but they took tons of suggestions from the crown that they had to use in their skits or songs that sang. It was really, really funny.

The couple we sat next to got picked on for the show. Thank god we didn't get picked for this because they asked the girl what she hated most about her husband Miles and she said he farts! After asking them a few more questions, they used some of what they said in the show and they also brought Miles onto stage and we got a kick out of that.

At some point during the show they asked for some suggestions and some drink idiot from I think England or Scotland yelled something out that was not so funny and he kept egging on one of the actors. The actor made a bit of fun of him and eventually went down into the crowd and threw the guy out and everyone loved it. Eventually about 5 of his friends got up and left.

Overall the show lasted for about 2 hours and during that time we were served drinks as we wanted them. If you end up in Amsterdam for the sites, the culture, the red light district or the "coffee shops", be sure to check out Boom Chicago because it is a great deal of fun.

Check out this video on You Tube which is from Boom Chicago, they played this during the performance.

Amsterdam, Holland

Utrecht, Holland

Paula and I made our first trip to Holland this past weekend when we took a train from Luxembourg to Utrecht. Although the train, including connections in Liege, Belgium and Maastricht, Holland took a little over 5 and 1/2 hours, the ride was smooth and on time. We also booked a hotel right outside the doors of the Utrecht train station.

In 2000 I lived in Utrecht for about 4 months while working on a client project in the country. Although Utrecht is not the largest city in Holland, Amsterdam is the largest, Utrecht has a charm that is not present in Amsterdam. Along so many of the canals in town there are all kinds of shopping and eating / drinking options, with many of them being below street level at the canal level which is pretty cool. Alot of these canal side restaurants used to be old warehouses and were converted to restaurants of varying styles including Italian, Indian, Spanish, African, etc, etc, etc.

As with most cities in Holland, there are bikes everywhere. On the road, locked to every inch of metal that can be found along the canals or buildings and sometimes you can even find them floating in the canals.

Our Visit to the Keukenhof in Holland

As 1 May was holiday in Luxembourg and most of Europe I think, Paula and I made a long weekend and took a trip to Holland to visit the city I lived in back in 2000 for a few months (Utrecht), Amsterdam and Paula's most anticipated destination in Europe, the Keukenhof flower park. To learn a little bit about the Keukenhof click here.

The Keukenhof, which runs for nearly 2 months, is the most photographed event in the world and based on the number of pictures we took and how many other people were taking pictures, I believe it. I have never seem so may serious cameras out taking up close pictures of tulips and the other flowers in the park.