Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Year of Magical Drinking

I have now returned to the United States following 11 months in Belgium, the lovely and peculiar country in between France and the Netherlands (and Germany and the United Kingdom). Brussels and Belgium do not sweep you off your feet, but they contain multitudes of treasures cultural and historical, located as they are in a major crossroads of Europe. It became home, and Belgium is in my thoughts today after the terrible grenade attack in Liege.

One of the more conspicuous treasures of Belgium is that this little country, the size of Maryland, has the best beer in the world. It's part of a common culture that unites Flanders and Wallonia. From frites to waffles to chocolates to beer, Belgium takes its food seriously and takes the time to deliver a well-crafted product.

For me, Belgian beers were already the best before I ever visited the country. Germany perhaps does "normal" beer best, with quality standards enforced by its early 16th century Reinheitsgebot, or purity law. But Belgian brews tend to be more interesting, more flavorful, and more to my taste. Third place among the nations is more up for grabs. (The Czechs deliver pretty consistent quality... Britain and Ireland have some classics... Mexican beers, at least the ones I've had, are consistently refreshing if a bit watery... the United States would probably be my winner though, as a growing and entrepreneurial microbrew scene makes up for the banality of the many of the major brands).

Wishing to make the most out of my opportunity of living in Belgium, I endeavored to sample as many different Belgian beers as possible. There are roughly 1,000, so it was simply a matter of time and effort, trying the readily available in Brussels and finding rarer ones in shops and bars. Before I left the county at the beginning of December, I managed to try 135 different ones.

A few introductory notes about the types of beer are worthwhile. Belgians actually drink crappy beer all the time - I would rate the ever-popular Jupiler as worse than Budweiser. The good stuff isn't much more expensive, but it tends to be heavier and have a higher alcohol content. Belgian beers can be divided into categories of quality and type. Trappist beers are made by monks, six abbeys within Belgium and one just outside are producing beer. The best known and easiest to find of these is Chimay. Westvleteren, made by the monks of Saint Sixtus Abbey, is not even distributed beyond the abbey's cafe, and its rarity has helped delicious Westvleteren Bruin 12 be hyped as the best beer in the world. Abbey beers (Bieres d'Abbay or Abdijbier) are based on the recipes of monks. Leffe, for example, is mass produced by Anheuser-Busch InBev from one of these old recipes. Many of the best Belgian beers fall into one of these two categories, which contain different styles. Dubbels (doubles) are dark beers of about 6% alcohol, tripels golden beers stronger than dubbels, quadrupels dark beers even stronger than the tripels.

Another specialty is lambic beer. Lambics are produced by spontaneous fermentation. They are known for fruity flavors - kriek, or cherry; framboise, or raspberry; pecheresse, or peach - but gueuze, a sour lambic, is quite popular within Belgium, and faro is made with brown sugar, sweet but not fruity. The Belgian white beer or witbier, exemplified by Hoegaarden, has entered the American microbrew lexicon as a style producing beers like Blue Moon. Flemish red ales are another popular local style. And Belgium also produces pilsners and other less extra-ordinary beers.

I kept a list for the year, but not notes. However, most of my favorites were beers I tried on multiple occasions, not rarities, so I am able to produce an annotated list of some of my top favorites without too much difficulty:

1. Westvleteren Bruin 12
2. St. Bernardus Abt 12
Honorable Mention - St. Bernardus Christmas

Westvleteren 12 is the holy grail of Belgian beer. I discovered it in a Brussels beer shop by April or so, but I still waited. The monks of Saint Sixtus Abbey do not distribute their highly sought-after beer, except on site on the western edge of Flanders, near Ypres. You can try to call and give a license plate number to reserve a time to pick up a case at the abbey, or you can get the beer at the abbey's cafe, In de Vrede. I had made up my mind to make the pilgrimage along with a trip to Ypres and its war memorials, and this finally happened at the end of November. A few weeks earlier, the monks actually did sell Westvleteren 12 in stores across Belgium - one supermarket chain that is, for one day until it sold out, and you needed a coupon to get the six-pack with two glasses for 25 euros. 93,000 of the packs were distributed. It was a one-off fundraiser for repairs for the abbey. My boss gave me a coupon, but I arrived at the store too late. Still, I made it to In de Vrede with my friends on a late Sunday afternoon, and enjoyed the deliciousness of Westvleteren 12, a highly complex, sweet, dark brew. Their other beers, a darker but less strong Bruin 8 and a blonde, are good but not essential.

I've only tried Westvleteren 12 this one time, but I feel like I can rate it the highest because I've been drinking its cousin all year. St. Bernardus Abt 12 is an abbey beer made in nearby Watou, based on the Westvleteren 12 recipe, and it is the only easy to find beer in Belgium that I would rate above the classic Chimay Blue. Westvleteren 12 was great, but not surprising - basically a slightly more interesting tasting St. Bernardus Abt 12.

As a side note, on my third night back in the US, I had dinner at Pizza Paradiso in Washington, and discovered St. Bernardus's Christmas brew on the drinks menu. It was lovely, just as good as either version of the 12, and I found a bottle of it in an Annapolis liquor store a few days later. So that's one of my Christmas gifts to myself.

3. Chimay Blue

Chimay produces more beer than the other Belgian Trappist brands (Westermalle, Rochefort, Orval, Achel, and Westvleteren). Its blue label is my favorite of its three, darker and sweeter, my favorite Belgium beer before I went to Belgium. You can find this one pretty much anywhere in Belgium and its not hard to find in the States either. And though I sampled plenty, I did not find much that was better.

4. Gouden Carolus Cuvee van de Keizer - Blauw

Mechelen brewery Het Anker's Gouden Carolus Classic is a very good beer which I wish I ran across more often, but this special version of it is even better. It is produced one day a year, February 24, in honor of the birthday of Charles V, the Ghent-born and Mechelen-raised Holy Roman Emperor who ruled most of Europe and South American in the 16th century and spoke Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to his horse. It only comes in large bottles and you can keep it in the cellar for years. Fruity, complex, dark, and very good (you get the picture of what kind of beer I prefer). I actually was given a bottle by a friend before my departure for Brussels, but drank it before I left and liked it so much that I had it a few more times in Belgium.

5. Tripel Karmeliet

One of Belgium's best rated, for very good reasons. This is the best tripel I've tried.

6. Papegaei

The name means parrot, and it has a cool bottle and glass. The beer is light, yeasty, and a little fruity, though strong at 8%. It was the hundredth beer I tried on the year, and one of the keepers.

7. Leffe Brune
8. Leffe Blonde

If gentlemen prefer blondes, then perhaps I'm not a gentlemen. Nevertheless, my relative estimation of Leffe Blonde grew in the year that both were readily available to me. I still give the edge to the Brune however. Both are excellent, reliable beers, although in one of Belgium's quirks, more reliable when served from the bottle than the tap.

9. Lindemans Pecheresse

The peach beer with the sexy bottle (the name pecheresse plays on the French words for peach and "sinner") is my winner in the lambic category.

10. Kasteel Rouge

My first taste of Kasteel Rouge in Belgium (I may have had it a few years ago in New York) was a shock. I had thought it to be a red ale, but it was a cherry beer twice as strong as most krieks. I also prefer the taste to most krieks - sweet but not light, darker and thicker, almost like a liquor. And delicious.

11. Barbar

Another sweet one. Barbar is a honey beer far tastier than any mead I've tried at renaissance fairs in the US. The James Joyce near Schuman always has it, otherwise I usually had to buy it in a beer store.

12. Kwak

The best thing about Kwak is its ridiculous serving glass, bulbous at the bottom and fitting into a wooden holder. It was the carriage drivers' beer, designed so they could drink it while driving. The reddish beer is pretty tasty, too.

13. Rochefort 6

The 6 is probably the least celebrated of the three Trappist Rochefort beers, and the weakest, at 7.5%. But I was disappointed by the others, and when I tried this one I thought it was delicious. We called the Rochefort glass "the chalice" in our household.

14. Lindemans Faro

Faro is the brown sugar lambic. This is the only one I ever tried, but it's quite good - and cheap, and available in my local Carrefour.

15. Pannepot

Pannepot is one of the more unique Belgian beers. It's thick and chocolaty with no carbonation at all. It's made by De Struise (the Ostrich) Brewery near De Panne, on the south end of Belgium's coast. In this case, my trivial beer knowledge enabled me to read the word "Struisevogel" on a menu and enjoy some ostrich medallions at one of my last meals in Brussels. The beer isn't too easy to find in bars, but I split one three ways with my sister and her boyfriend at the legendary Delirium, and picked up another at the Beer Temple soon after.

16. De Koninck

I feel like this amber beer is more easily found in New York or Washington than in Brussels. It's essentially the official beer of Antwerp, Belgium's second city (and coolest city). Thus the hand on the glass - the legend of Antwerp is that a hero cut off the hand of a mean giant who collected tolls at the river, then threw the hand in the river. Antwerp basically translates as "hand throw." And it's a great place to have a few drinks with friends and catch the last train back to Brussels, round midnight.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Tony Judt as Nostradamus

One of the wisest commentators on post-war Europe, Tony Judt, passed last summer, and his piercing analysis is missed as Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, Herman van Rompuy, Jose Manuel Barroso, Mario Draghi and others struggle to prevent the Eurozone from falling apart while credit ratings agencies and Tory backbenchers sharpen their knives and Barack Obama breaks a sweat. But a short book by Mr. Judt has reappeared on the bookshelves of Brussels. A Grand Illusion? is a Euro-pessimist essay based on lectures given in spring 1995 at my alma mater, Johns Hopkins University's Bologna Center. Judt appreciates the EU's accomplishment but doesn't see "Europe" expanding on equal terms or defeating nationalism. While the integration of Poland and other eastern states has been far more successful than Judt predicts, he's got plenty of salient points, and the book is well worth a read. To be honest, very little seems out of date. For example:

"The recently touted German idea of a small inner core of European states moving at full speed toward integration and setting demanding macro-economic criteria for membership in their club is merely the latest evidence that the future of Europe will be on German terms or not at all. It is unlikely that Italy, Spain, or even Britain will ever qualify for such an exclusive club, and even more absurd to envisage Poland or Slovakia doing so. Actually, no one except Luxembourg really qualifies according to the criteria set out in various position papers from the Christian Democrats, but to make the idea even semi-plausibly 'European,' Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands have to be in, rules or no rules."

And that's your probable core of a new two-speed or three-speed or four-speed EU, with the possible additions of Austria, Finland, and top pupil Estonia... and just maybe, in a few years, Padania.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


In several days, I will depart a Europe that is on the brink of falling to pieces. It is nearly impossible to predict the specifics of the break-up of the Eurozone and the effect that will have on the European Union and the social cohesion of Europe's countries. But we are headed towards a disaster. Germany and the European Central Bank may still have the power to come to the rescue (Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski gave a great, impassioned speech addressed to Germany on Monday), but it appears it may be a matter of days before something snaps. It's a scary and depressing situation. The failure of the euro was not assured from the start, despite the EU not being an optimum currency area, etc. This could have been avoided, even as late as the last few weeks. I pray it still can.

Some talk of war. I worry about resurgent nationalism, I have worried about that for years. Does a major economic crisis make the election of a radical like Newt Gingrich or Marine Le Pen more likely? Yes. Is actual violence in Europe likely? Europe's suicide in 1914 and the carnage of the two world wars have probably extinguished the likelihood that western Europe will erupt into violence between states anytime soon. Also, most countries are embedded in NATO and have sold most of their tanks and planes. More likely is riots along the lines of what we saw in London this year.

But things can change quickly in times of upheaval. And even without violence, politics in a crisis could rip Europe apart. And that would be an unspeakable tragedy. 93 years ago, the armistice ending the Great War came into effect between the Allies and Germany. November 11 is a holiday across the European continent. It fell on a Friday this year, and I happened to be in Paris for a long weekend.

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, by the Arc de Triomphe, surrounded by troops, tanks and dignitaries, President Nicolas Sarkozy stepped out of his vehicle to the pomp of "La Marseillaise," comically short next to a tall general in uniform. But the ceremony was completely somber. The head of state acknowledged a series of different groups of veterans, represented by guards with flags. He stood with the mothers, widows, and children of fallen soldiers from the past year, as an announcer read the names one by one, each punctuated by "Mort pour la France." The head of state laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc and gave a solemn speech. Only when the ceremony was over and he had walked past my vantage point on Av. Hoche did he reach out and shake the hands of his people, the politician rather than the national patriarch.

Two weeks later I visited Ypres, the Flemish cloth town resembling Bruges and Ghent which was absolutely demolished during the war, as it lay just on the Allied side of the front line for years. I lived this year with a former captain in the British Army's Royal Irish Regiment, Patrick Bury, and we had been planning a visit for months (he and my other roommates made it to another blood-soaked piece of Belgian soil, Bastogne, in Belgium's southeast corner where the German counter-offensive in early 1945 struck hard, for Armistice when I was in France). The supposedly can't-miss In Flanders Field Museum is unfortunately closed until June 2012, but the town was gorgeously restored, the huge and beautiful Cloth Hall looks much older than it really is.

We visited the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines, unveiled in 1998, months after the Good Friday Agreement, in tribute to all the Irish who died in the Great War. The German Soldier's Cemetery in Langemark, a few miles north, was the most haunting site. Small square stones are laid in the ground in a plot surrounded by a short wall and trees, each has a few names on it, many also say "10 [or 15 or 20] unknown German soldiers." We arriving in the dying light of the sun. I stood in front of a mass grave where another 24,917 German soldiers are buried. This is the site where I found my own surname among the names of the dead.

At 8 p.m., we came to Menin Gate, an imposing white marble arch at the eastern entry into town honoring the dead who have no known grave, who vanished into the muddy hell of the Ypres Salient. Churchill wanted to buy the entire town of Ypres; the Belgians declined, but they gave Britain the town gate. By the end of the 1920s the gate was constructed with about 55,000 names inscribed. The remaining 35,000 Commonwealth missing are honored at another nearby memorial, as they had run out of room on the gate. Every night at 8, buglers from the local fire brigade sound the Last Post to a gathered crowd. We looked at the names for a while, finding the Irish on the outside of the arch, then drove back to Brussels.

Decades of European integration have brought peace to the continent, along with prosperity and made most of its countries firmly democratic (there are always exceptions: Russia, Belarus, Liechtenstein, and the Vatican are not democracies and some of the democracies are pretty flawed). Western Europe in the past several decades has had about the highest standard of living of any place ever.

At the center of the European project stands the bilateral relationship between Germany and France. As I said, if the Eurozone and European Union fall to pieces in the next months over this crisis, instead of moving forward into deeper integration, it is very difficult to predict how it will happen and into what they will transform. But one scenario that seems likely it a more tightly integrated core Europe. Germany does not want to stand alone, and I would be shocked were it to give up on France. France will lose its AAA credit rating soon, but I expect it to retain a joint currency with Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and others. And though its debts are among the worst, Belgium will not leave the core either. Brussels is the capital of Europe, Belgium is economically healthy enough to grow. In a silver lining, the worsening euro crisis has led to a Belgian government after a world record 535 days - everything was agreed yesterday, and the new government will be sworn in on Monday.

The places where the fall of Europe will be most catastrophic, if it occurs, are on the periphery. Italy, one of the original six member states of the European Community, risks plunging out and into economic and political chaos. Greece's misery will continue. Portugal and Spain could be taken out by contagion. Further east, the EU's newer member states will have their economies damaged; Austria and Germany have already restricted lending to the east. Germany's other key bilateral relationship is indeed with Poland, and it would be devastated if the EU shrinks and excludes members who have done nothing wrong. The treatment of the Central and Eastern European member states is one of the real unpredictables of the crisis. And with a shrunken, inward-looking EU, the European dream could die in places like Belgrade, Sarajevo, Skopje, Pristina, Chisinau and Kyiv.

The crisis is scary and confusing. We can only hope that political leaders, particularly Angela Merkel, show braver and more enlightened leadership in the next days then they have in the last 20 months.