The Reluctant Writer: Something Else to do When I Should Be Writing

July 7, 2009

Brussels, Delirium Cafe, How to (Properly) Taste a Beer (and previews)

I haven’t written for a few weeks because, glory of all glories, I’ve been working diligently on the beer book — and not being the reluctant writer! 

That said, I bring to you an excerpt of the book that I hope you’ll enjoy.  (I also promise to finish my story of the wine journey in Burgundy soon — as well as the recounting of a lovely beer tasting from Greenville’s own Thomas Creek Brewery held recently at my favorite place in Columbia, the Cellar on Greene.)

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Brussels is famous for its waffles (gaufres), its mussels (best served as moules frites– a delicious working-class combination of mussels and French fries), and its sprouts.  But more importantly Brussels is famous for its beer – not necessarily the brewing of beer, although one of the most unique beer experiences we enjoyed was our tour of the Cantillon Brewery in the Anderlecht area of the city – but the drinking of it.  And while there are a number of places to enjoy the distinctive selection of beer that accumulates in Brussels, a few places stand out famously.

Delirium Café, hidden in the medieval area near the free township of the Ilot Sacre, has the distinction among watering holes of housing the official world’s record of most beers on one menu.  Located in an 18th century cellar, the Delirium Café might be mistaken for just another drunks’ bar and, given that such a large part of the character of any establishment is determined by the patrons within, sometimes I guess it is just that.  But don’t let the rowdies and the tourists deter you: Delirium has much to offer the beer connoisseur – starting with a menu the size of a major metropolitan area telephone book.  With more than two thousand beers available in bottles and on draft, a good five hundred genevers, and a vast collection of rare, vintage and hard to find beers, particularly Belgians, Delirium Café is not to be missed when visiting Brussels.

We dropped by Delirium Café twice during our time in Brussels and both times found the bar crowded, but not boisterous.  Vintage beer signs line the walls and metal beer trays are affixed to the ceilings.  The place is nothing fancy, but few good beer bars are.  There is no table service so patrons have two options:  gather around one of the huge old beer barrel tables, grab a stool if you can find one, and make relays to the bar; or, do as we do wherever we are, make yourself at home at the bar and enjoy all the added benefits of having bartenders at hand who, if the spirit moves them, may just enlighten your palate even further.  While the crowds at the café during our visits were for the most part made up of patrons born many years after us, there was a respectable number of mature beer aficionados, as we have come to call ourselves, and we were able to strike up conversations with several other folks just as young at heart and palate as are we.

Delirium Café is also the place where we first encountered one of the many beer-raters we were to meet during our travels.  This particular rater had wisely taken his seat at the bar as did we.  We first noticed him writing carefully in a small booklet that he lovingly guarded close to his chest.  Then we noted that he approached his beers much in the same manner as us.  First he took a good look at his beer as it set before him on the counter, appraising the color and liveliness.  Then he picked the beer up in his hand and searched in the darkness for a clear white light to which he could hold the glass in order to more fully assess the beer’s color.  Is it amber?  Yellow?  Cola-colored?  The color of weak or strongly brewed tea?  Is the beer clear or cloudy?  How lively are the bubbles – sedate like a British real ale or vivacious like a top-fermented kolsch?  Each beer is an organism unto itself; don’t be surprised to find that beers from different kegs served at different bars at different times of year look, well, different.  Such is the nature of real beer.

Next, our beer-rater friend looked at the beer’s head – the foamy, frothy meringue-like substance that floats on top as the carbon dioxide within rises up through the beer to the surface, holding fast to the malt-created proteins along the way.  Beer head can vary in appearance and consistency depending upon, among other things, the type of beer, alcohol content, the glass and the condition of the glass in which it is served, and how quickly or slowly the beer is poured.  Tiny, tightly knit bubbles will result in a head that is smooth and creamy, but heads can vary from appearing foamy and sudsy like bathtub bubbles to heads that are rocky and large, standing up of their own accord over the edge of the glass.  Color is dependent upon the style of beer, snowy white to light brown, taupe or darker, like the foam on a root beer float.  Too many people are surprised when they find that their dark beers taste sweet or mild and their lighter colored beers taste strong.  Color in a beer is created primarily by the malt in the beer and the manner in which the malt is dried.

The next step for a beer-rater is to smell the beer.  Smell, not sniff.  The beer-rater we studied brought his glass to his face, as if to drink, then thoroughly introduced his nose into the odors and fumes and mists that his beer released as it slid down the side of the glass.  Smell deeply, when you’re investigating the olfactory components of your beer.  Smell, exhale through your mouth, then smell deeply again.  Between eighty and ninety percent of what we call tastes is actually attributable to smell.  Fundamental elements of taste and smell tell us whether our beers are sweet, salty, sour and/or bitter, but beer can smell like so much more:  fruits, herbs, spices, leathers, meats, milk, coffee, chocolate, tea, tobacco, even barnyard and bubblegum.  Don’t disregard the smells you think you smell in your beer – if you smell them they are real.

Finally comes the fun part.  Tasting our beer.  Few things can be as personal as the way in which beer-lovers approach the tasting of their beers.  Unlike with wine, it is difficult to splash beer around in one’s mouth by swirling air into the liquid mix, but it is equally important to be sure your beer blankets your mouth, stimulating all the taste receptors found lurking on the surface of the fifty to one hundred taste cells that each taste bud holds.  We watched as our Delirium beer rating friend took his initial sip of beer – a smaller amount to start with allowing him to let the beer wash over his tongue and into the back of his mouth.  Swallow.  Breathe.  He then took his next and more substantial mouthful, swallowed, breathed and then, the important part: he thought about what he was tasting. 

But it doesn’t stop with the first or second taste.  Notice how the passage of time affects your beer:  how it settles into itself as the head erodes (if it does erode) and the temperature drops.  And temperature is something to actively consider.  The flavor of good beer has been done a disservice by all the hype over drinking a cold beer.  It’s not that drinking a cold beer isn’t enjoyable – but think about what you’re enjoying:  is it the beer itself or the fact that something liquid and chilly is traveling down your throat?  As with wine, overly chilled beer has a numbing effect on the palate, potentially disguising the myriad taste sensations hiding there and waiting for your tongue to find and celebrate them.

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