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

January 19, 2010

Sneeking a peek at the beer book — Bob, Beer, and Me — the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels

The Beer Book is moving along well, though late, and I’m excited to finally see it’s ending on the still somewhat distant horizon.  So here’s an excerpt from the book which takes us to the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels, Belgium where we entered the strangely organic world of  lambic and gueuze beers.  Hope you’ll take a look.


The Cantillon Brewery — Brussels

There is nothing glitzy about the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels.  If you’re looking for shiny stainless steel and squeaky clean equipment, you’ve come to the wrong place.  Think dust bunnies.  Think stray cats rummaging around accumulations of cobwebs and musty smells like peat, compost and orchard floor.  Think reverence for indigenous spiders who keep the brewery clear of other more pesky bugs. Think Mother Nature because, even in the midst of a bustling city, that’s what you’ve got in Cantillon – Mother Nature at work preparing sweet delicacies for those who wait.

Traditional lambic beer, like that brewed at Cantillon, is made from 35% raw wheat, 65% malted barley, and flavorful three-year-old dried hops[1] added at a ratio of 5 grams per liter of beer.  First produced more than five centuries ago, today’s lambic retains much of the same old-fashioned dry, sour funkiness of lambics of old – as long as it is brewed under the same conditions of old – which is exactly how the brewing of beer goes down at Cantillon.


And I mean that literally.  While the Cantillon brewers certainly know better and are perfectly capable of controlling and orchestrating the product of their labors, they are happy to sit back, wait on nature, then harvest the half-millennium-old extraordinary process in which wild ambient yeasts floating naturally through the air convert barley and the sugars from raw wheat into this unusual, yet elegant brew called lambic beer. Hence the cobwebs, open windows, and dust bunnies visitors find when peeping behind the scenes at the magic that is Cantillon Brewery.

If you have tasted lambic beers at home you may find yourself equating it with fruit – and there’s a good reason why.  Young (year old) lambic and aged (two to three-year old) beers, called gueuze,[2] are often blended with one another to produce a variety of tastes that can range from sparkling and sour, if the young lambic takes precedence, to off-sweet and fruitier, if the gueuze does.  When the young and old beers are blended, the unfermented sugars in the young beer cause a second fermentation to take place in the bottle.  If fruit has been steeped in the beer, as it often is, the process will result in the classic dry kriek beer you may have tasted when sour cherries are used, or frambois when raspberries are the fruit of choice.

According to Belgian beer expert Tim Webb, there are vagaries in the Belgian beer regulations which may create some confusion as to whether or not a brewer has to use spontaneous fermentation for a beer to be considered an authentic lambic.  In other words, some brewers may avail themselves of short cuts by using prepared yeast in the brewing of their beers, rather than the natural spontaneously occurring yeast, endemic to the Senne River valley.

But not Cantillon.

We entered the warehouse-type building somewhat skeptically and stood near the door for a few moments trying to ascertain the procedure for viewing the premises.  A knowledgeable looking guy with a large pallet of empty bottles rolled through just as we were taken note of by one of his few co-workers, given a pamphlet and told to follow the numbers posted along the way for our self-guided tour.

The tour started in the mashing house where wheat and barley[3] are put into a large crushing machine in the middle of the floor to be crushed before they are mixed with warm water in the mashing tun.  The sugar-laden liquid, called wort, which is eventually fermented to produce alcohol, is extracted from the tun then pumped into beautiful red copper hop boilers.  Next, the mashing room led us to the granary, an amply ventilated room where hops, malted barley, and wheat are stored during the brewing season lasting from mid-October until the beginning of April.

But it was in the next room along the route, the cooling room, where we realized how different the Cantillon brewery tour is from many of the generic brewery tours we had been on before, or have been on since.  We accessed the room by climbing a short set of stairs into an attic-like space with shuttered windows in the walls.  Sitting in the middle of the floor was a huge, but shallow, hand-riveted, open-topped, copper vessel, looking more like a sculpture than a tank, called the cooling tun.  The tank was empty while we were there but we immediately knew that we were where the miracle that is lambic beer takes place:  the place where spontaneous fermentation occurs.

Cooling of the wort happens most often during the night and always during the coolest months of the year.  It is then that tiny micro-organisms living in and about the room inoculate the wort with a variety of airborne wild yeasts[4] which will ultimately result in spontaneous fermentation once the wort has been transferred to the oak and chestnut barrels in which the wort will be stored.[5]

We next wondered through the bottling area where Cantillon beers, rather than being capped, are closed with crown corks like Champagne bottles and transferred via conveyor belt to the cellar where they are horizontally stored.  The brief tour ended where it started and we were ready to taste some of the funky, sour stuff we had been learning about.

[1] Until the twelfth century flavors like rosemary and coriander were used where hops are today.

[2] Pronounced “gurze” or “kurze”.

[3] Cantillon has used only organic cereals since 1999.

[4] At least 86 known yeasts are present in lambic beers.

[5] The folks at Cantillon are quick to remind us that in the days of old, all beer was produced by spontaneous fermentation – today, only lambic beer is.


January 14, 2010

Be true to your school, I do, they dance, no day but today, & Beer! Beer! Beer! — + strings & jeans

It seems that life is getting back to normal these days — the parties are over, the garland is down (most of it, anyway), and the routine is starting to set in — if you believe in routines, that is.  I’ve never been one to dig into the rut — too claustrophobic for me.  I can see why some folks find the rut functional –it’s safe and can be comforting, I guess.  But if the rut gets too deep, it becomes harder and harder to see out of it and the next thing you know, it becomes a maze — and then — you’re trapped.

I’ve always been a fan of second and third careers, changing majors mid-stream, and letting the flow take you where it may.  Life never gets dull — it’s a sin to be boring.  That said, this is what we’re doing this weekend, starting tonight.

On Thursday at 7, my eldest and her beloved are going with me to see the Women Gamecocks play some mighty bball at the Colonial Center.  The Beer Doc drags me to as many of his little sporty events as he can, but never seems to be going in the direction of the arena when the Big Girls play.  Yesterday, after mentioning that the guys were playing LSU last night and that we should all Go Cocks and the like, one of my new students, the amazing Ms. Ebony Wilson who happens to play guard for the Women Gamecocks — and no, don’t give me any of that “lady” Gamecock crap until you’re ready to call the boys the “Gentlemen” Gamecocks when they play ball — asked me if I was going to their game tonight.  Zap!  What kind of Women’s Studies instructor am I if I don’t go out and support some of the toughest and most talented women of the university?  So, I’ll be there waving the garnet foam finger that Annie gave me for Christmas — Gamecock women are #1, in my book now, and Ms. Ebony Wilson happens to wear a #1 on her jersey.  Tonight’s game will be preceded by the best chee-boogie & brew in town at my beloved Hunter Gatherer.

And then there’s Friday night.  If you read my last blog & review of the film, you know that I’ll be attending the 5:30 showing of La Danse at the Nick, which will be preceded by some used-to-be surprise nuptials of two dear friends.  For all intents and purposes, the I dos are still a surprise if you haven’t been formally invited to the wedding or if you aren’t friends with the folks — of friends with their friends — on Facebook.  So, everything that I wrote yesterday still stands if you find yourself still in the dark — and I hope to see you there. In the light, before the film starts.

But for me and the Beer Doc, we’ll be darting out the back door of the theatre about half way through so we can grab some snacks and libation before we head down to TRUSTUS to see Rent.  This will only be like my umpteenth time of seeing this play, all other times on Broadway, but I am just so excited about seeing Kevin Bush play Mark — a role that both he and Doogie Howser were made for.  It only runs through next weekend and tickets are slim pickin’s, so if you have your heart set on going, as well you should, call the theatre at 254-9732, and beg Joe for a ticket.

After Rent we hope to make it down to CMFA at 914 Pulaski Street to take part in my friend Aaron Pelzek et. al.’s artist-driven extravaganza, Playing After Dark #4 — Free Form.  Aaron and buddies have brought together an awesome group of artists who will bring you everything from art-in-the-making via my friend Karen Storay, to Sherry Warren’s choreography (also my bud), a local band called The Noise, puppetry, poetry by Charlene Spearen (yes, a bud), scenes from Jaques Brel is Alive and Well — a play I was just writing about in the Beer Book, oddly enough, and, hell, I don’t remember — a bunch of stuff.  My friend Jeffrey wrote a nice little ditty on this event on his blog at  The shenanigans start at 7:30 — which is why we’ll be coming in at the tail end, but never fail — the whole shebang is going to crank itself back up again Saturday night at the same time, same station.  Tickets are like $5, so seriously, head out to this event and show some love to local artist driven arts.  It’s the way it should be.

Which brings me to Saturday — the day of the second annual Columbia hosting of the World Beer Festival at the Columbia Convention Center.  There are two sessions, afternoon and evening.  Having made the mistake of attending as many sessions of beer events as offered before (read about this in Bob, Beer, and Me, coming out this spring/summer, by god!), we will only be attending the afternoon session — after which we will promptly crawl to our hotel room in the Vista and snooze until the evening festivities commence with yet another freaking basketball game — the Gentlemen Cocks, this time.  Is it possible to OD on sports?  Is that something that happens to the hard-core — read Beer Doc — or has he developed an immunity or a tolerance — built it up in his system, as it were, leaving him protected while his neophyte woman remains susceptible to sports poisoning and may just have to sneak out at half time, already clad in her blue jeans, to the Koger Center for some strings?  It is time for the Philharmonic’s Beethoven and Blue Jeans, after all.

After running in and dropping off a coat closet of old coats at the Art Bar last night — thanks to Chris Bickel for his generous offer of collecting a scad or two of coats for the cold during karaoke — I felt the yearning for the good Art Bar people in my soul, so the night should finish us up, just a few blocks from our hotel, at the best place to be in the city after 1 am.  We are so lucky to have that place.  Really, take a minute and thank your maker for the Art Bar.

Whatever your drug of choice, get drunk on the goodies going on in our beloved city this weekend.  I’ll see you around town.

Cheers, Y’all.

November 12, 2009

Zen & the Art of Being Busy, plus Ladies’ Night Out at the Columbia Museum of Art

I like being busy — doing different things all the time, dipping into the arts, politics, travel, intellectual pursuits, and even sports (but only for Gamecock athletics and on Super Bowl Sunday when I arbitrarily pick a team and cheer for it as if my brother were the QB.  I also like to hear when Clemson loses, but I don’t really care who beats them, and I sure as hell don’t want to watch the game.)  I’ve never been much for going to bed early, which is why I often write these posts in the wee hours of the night, and I resent the fact that I have grown to need between 6 and 7 hours sleep.  Sleep feels like lost time to me.  I don’t mind the demands of teaching a couple of classes at the university, writing freelance articles, and working almost constantly on the beer book which has turned into behemoth, but what I hope to be a nerdy beer-drinker’s dream.  (Did somebody say edit?)  But when I get too busy to do all the things I want to do, that’s when I’m sad.

Tonight is Ladies Night at the Columbia Museum of Art, and I’m going to be a big girl and do the right thing and stay home and keep working.  I’ll be honoring the zen of going out by staying  home, chained to my computer, getting shit done.  But that doesn’t mean that You have to.  Here’s the blurb, fresh off the museum’s website — go have a drink for me.   Cheers, Y’all.

Ladies Night Out
6:00 – 8:00 p.m.

The 5th annual Ladies Night Out – one of the most talked about events of the year celebrates the Museum’s fall exhibition, Ansel Adams: Masterworks in style with beauty products from Pout! boutique, Nana by Sally purses, Jewelry from Unforgetable, Children’s apparel by KD’s Treehouse and Swift Water Beads & Jewelry Supplies. Enjoy gourmet cupcakes from Cupcake in the Vista, libations and entertainment by DJ Peter A.

Call 803.799.2810. Tickets may also be purchased at the door.

Cost: Admission includes hors d’oeuvres and wine/beer and is $20 or $10 for members. Admission fee can be used toward the purchase of a new membership at the event.

July 13, 2009

Bob, Beer and Me excerpt — Heidelberg

            While not necessarily known for its beer, Heidelberg, Germany is known for its university and, as everyone who has ever matriculated into an institution of higher education knows, a college town is a beer town.

            We chose Heidelberg as the first stop on a short beer journey in the early spring of 2008 for three reasons:  it is easy to reach via train or bus after flying into Frankfurt; it is known for its historic university-oriented “drinking clubs” as well as Vetter’s Brauhaus, a revered brewer among the drinkerati; and, it has a castle.  Both Bob and I are suckers for castles, having spent hours when our girls were young either climbing over the ruins of castles and abbeys on one of our escapes to another country; reading about the people, both real and mythological, who had inhabited castles in days past; or planning, saving for, and daydreaming about our next trip when we’d be able to go castle hopping again.

            For so many of us Americans, castles are depicted in our minds as imaginary – crayon creations that fade easily into the clouds, or miniature sand structures that wash away before they’re even completed.  That’s one thing so many European children have over America’s kids – castles exist right in many of their back yards.  Their entrances and aprons are rarely roped off and seldom will you find black and yellow safety tape limiting children from climbing the ramparts or peering out through arrow loops or murder holes.  The castles are stone cold real.  And with this reality comes intrinsic connections to two vital pieces of the puzzle that help construct life and life expectations for a child. 

            One is not just a link, but a relationship with the past.  It is tangible.  The evidence is there.  While America’s children have been asked to believe in a combination of the vagaries of an ideological identity shaped by Hollywood, the executive office and the power of pride, the best they can hope for is an occasional en masse field trip to a Civil or Revolutionary War battlefield.  The past is not even past, for so many American kids; it never even existed.  For kids growing up in cities like Heidelberg, with a castle dating from 1214 AD, they need only look over their shoulders to Heidelberger Schloss, to witness scenes from a living history book on a daily basis.  Preservation of the past is an important lesson to learn from our elder countries.

            The other and equally important puzzle piece that castles can offer children is the association of the imaginary with the real.  When castles and palaces and thatched roofs and stone cottages can only be found in story books, it may serve to encapsulate fantasy, imagination and creativity – turning the act of making the impossible possible into a box that can be shut – a book than can be closed – a dream more easily dismissed than believed in.  Maybe castles that we can touch and feel and climb through can serve as reminders that what we imagine can come true no matter how fanciful it may seem.

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.)



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.

May 3, 2009

Wine snobs not allowed

Filed under: aging,beer,beer book,not writing,wine,writing — cynthiaboiter @ 22:59
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Instead of writing yesterday, I spent most of the day working in what Bob and I surreptitiously call our “wine cellar.”  Don’t worry though, when we say it we look at each other and snicker like South Park characters.  What our “wine cellar” (nheh, heh, heh) consist of is several shelves in the pantry, a wooden wine box, a cardboard box and two wine fridges which we purchased from Lowe’s and stacked on top of one another in the mudroom.  So, though not technically a cellar — we don’t actually have to go down stairs or anything —  we do have to squat a lot to see what we’ve got in there, and that counts for something.

I’ve always wondered a lot about wine.  It’s fascinating to me how the taste of the earth and weather and fruit can be transformed into a liquid indulgence, and that people devote their lives to perfecting the ability to detect and evaluate these ingredients in a bottle of wine.  There’s also the cultural history that wine imbues, going back way beyond Jesus; wine has always been a lifesource, but only recently a source of controversy.  Both revered and reviled, wine has been a part of every known culture.  And then, of course, there’s the taste, the ritual, and the buzz — three of my favorite parts about being alive.  No wonder I’ve wondered about wine.

A few years ago, Bob and I decided that life was getting short, just as our parents had promised, and that if we were going to truly embrace and learn deeply about some of the things which we’d been yearning to learn, then we would need a plan.  Bob’s 50th birthday was approaching and, given that he has been both a beer aficionado and brewer for quite a while, we came up with the concept of the Year of Beer.  We would spend his 50th year reading about, traveling to, and tasting as many of the greatest beers in the world (and some not so great as well — see Lisbon, for example) as possible.  It is from this research that our upcoming book, Bob, Beer and Me, springs.  “The Year Of” was such a personal success that we decided to adopt the plan indefinitely.  So when I turned 50 this past November, we kicked off the Year of Wine.  (Future “Years Of” might include anything from castles to Dickens to Ireland — anything that we have an interest in and that allows us to learn and experience and travel.)

The economy being what it is, I’m not sure we’ll be able to travel quite as much for the wine year as we did for the beer year, but we have spent some time in Napa and Sonoma, (see my previous post on how to break your nose in wine country), and we’ll be leaving in a few weeks for a combination anniversary/wine trip to France.  And we’ve drank some wine. And bought some wine.  Hence our new wine cellar (nheh, heh, heh).  I just got up from the computer to get another Diet Pepsi, (coke is for dopes), and counted the bottles of wine that we have managed to purchase over the past few months, and it made me dizzier than if I had sucked down the whole bunch in a setting — there are one hundred and sixteen bottles of wine in there!  And that’s not counting the case of chard sitting in the corner of the kitchen for the graduation party next week.  

So if you’re out Muddy Ford way and feeling a little parched, please stop by and let me take you on a little tasting tour of our brand new wine cellar (nheh,heh, heh).  And if you have any empty cardboard boxes laying around, we’re taking contributions for the cause.

February 18, 2009

Writing about Lisbon

Filed under: writing — cynthiaboiter @ 03:27
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Below is another excerpt from Bob, Beer and Me — complete with footnotes.  It’s about the very first place we visited when we began our quest for the world’s greatest beers – an unlikely place to seek out great beer. 


            The quest began in Lisbon, oddly enough.  And that’s only because we’re cheap – or we would like to be.  Annie, our oldest daughter, herself well-traveled but only at the heels of her parents, was anxious to try out her solo wings for a journey and knew that her dad and I were looking for a travel bargain to the continent as well.  So in the process of scanning the web she found what sounded like an amazing deal on a flight to Lisbon.  Lisbon?  We had never actually considered going to Lisbon.  In fact, the entire Iberian Peninsula had somehow escaped us as travel destinations over the years, despite a great love for European travel and several years of college level Spanish.  The deal sounded too good to be true when Annie rang me on my cell, catching Bob and myself on our second beer at a local Columbia pub.  Lisbon?  Surely, they have beer in Lisbon, we thought, given that beer is the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage and, other than water and tea, the most consumed as well. There could be a trove of beer knowledge to be gleaned from a gambit in Portugal – and we might be among the first to tap it.  Right?

            Not so much.  Actually, the reality of the “deal” to reach the continent via Lisbon was a bit tenuous as well.  While Bob and I had purchased more than a dozen flights to Europe over the past two decades – sometimes with a particular city or country destination in mind, and sometimes just looking for that amazing bargain on a flight that would get us to the continent, saving us money better spent on the ground than in the air, we had always looked more toward central Europe – France, Italy, or maybe the UK with the plan of taking the Chunnel[1] to Calais and then make use of Europe’s vast railway system to get us where we needed to go.  In reality, we hadn’t in recent history actually looked at Portugal on the map.

            Fact is that not only is Portugal in Western Europe, it is the most western of Western Europe.  And Lisbon?   Lisbon is the most western of Portuguese destinations.[2]  Having succumbed to Annie’s campaign for this flight and opted in on the purchase of three more round trip tickets to fly from Charlotte, North Carolina into Portugal, to accompany the two that she and boyfriend Kyle would be purchasing – always with the mindset that you can get to anywhere in Europe once you get into Europe itself, we consulted the large glossy world map that we keep posted below our kitchen counter.  Spreading our fingers from our thumbs to connect Lisbon with one of the primary beer countries where we knew we wanted to go – Germany, Belgium or the Czech Republic, for example – we noticed that the delicate tissue between our digits were stretched quite thin.  We dug out our travel books and rail guides.  As it turned out, it would take no less than 12 hours just to reach Madrid from Lisbon – and Madrid was still further west than we had imagined going on this venture.[3]  But the refund-free tickets were purchased and there was no turning back.  Lisbon here we come!

            Research told us not to expect a lot in the way of beer in Portugal, despite a beer festival scheduled to take place in Lisbon during one of the weekends we would be in town that was subsequently canceled.  But we took heart as we were exiting the Aeroporto de Lisboa after our flight over the Atlantic and met with a number of large advertisement murals displaying colossal murals of a surprisingly light colored cerveja called Super Bock.  It was just the kind of greeting we needed to assure us we were on the right path.

            Lisbon is a beautiful old berg with great potential.  As it was the starting and the ending point for our wanderings, we scheduled a weekend both coming and going in this city of less than 600,000 people.[4]  Lisbon also served as one of the few gathering points for this trip during which our party of five would meet, separate into groups of two and three as Annie, boyfriend Kyle, and youngest daughter Bonnie backpacked across the continent and Bob and I flew over their trails below; meet again in Prague where we would share an apartment with Bonnie, who was scheduled to dance there for a week, while Annie would show novice traveler Kyle some of her favorite spots in Italy and France.  The five of us would meet up once again in the picturesque and kitschy Rothenburg ob der Tauber, from where we would see a bit more of Germany together, then split up one more time into groups of young and old before we reassembled back in Lisbon for one last weekend and then our flight home.

            Bob, Bonnie and I actually arrived in Portugal a day before the young sweethearts, giving us time to scout out the city, as we like to do first thing, be brutally overcharged for a taxi ride from the airport , discover that the Elevador da Bica,[5] the funicular connecting the Bairro Alta (upper quarter) of the city where we stayed with the streets far below, had been out of service for a good six months, and sleepily stumble into the touristy section of the city for a rip-off meal of the poorest quality.  Welcome to Lisbon!

            But the beauty of the city cannot be denied.    Built on seven ancient hills, we followed Lisbon’s slippery black and white tile walkways, made from basalt and limestone, like a yellow brick road across the great boulevards and into the different city districts, each one unique and drenched in history.  The medieval downtown district, called the Baixa, is home to the Praca do Comercio and Rossio Square, certainly the oldest and arguably the most important plazas in the city.  Much of the Baixawas destroyed in 1755 by an earthquake so large that the tsunami it generated was felt as far away as Galway, Ireland; so devastating that 85% of the city was destroyed and as many as 40,000 died.

            Our home, for the first of our Lisbon visits, was nestled high up on Lisbon’s seventh hill in the Bairro Alta, the center of city nightlife. The Portuguese version of New York City’s Flat Iron Building, Pensao Londres is wedged into the Rue Dom Pedro where it rises four floors even higher to afford travelers an unrivaled view of the city, from the Lisbon Cathedral and Castle Sao Jorge in the Alfama district to the Monument to Christ the King, built on the far side of the Tagus after World War II to celebrate and give thanks that the city was spared.

            On the following day when our group was complete, we only had to walk a few blocks into the Barrio to find the tangible essence of the Portuguese soul – fado music.  There is more than one theory on from whence this melancholic celebration of longing came, but most people attribute fado’s origins to the Moors who stayed in areas around Lisbon even after the crusading Christians took back control of the country in 1147.  Taverns and fado houses, where the fado contado is sung, are recognizable by prevalent black shawls and Portuguese guitars, with  fadistas singing of immutable destiny – fado, literally translating as “fate” – in four line stanzas of unrhymed verse, usually concentrating on miseries, lost loves and the dead.[6]  It was sitting within the stone walls of a fado house where we sampled an ample supply of Lisbon’s brews.


[1]The Channel Tunnel, or “Chunnel” as it is often referred, is the second longest underground rail tunnel in the world, connecting the United Kingdom at the Strait of Dover to Calais in Northern France, by burrowing under the English Channel for more than 31 miles.  It was opened in 1994 after six years of construction.  In 1996, the Chunnel was named as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers.  And it makes your ears pop when you go through it.

[2] If Lisbon were a dead Hollywood celebrity, it would be John Wayne. 

[3] Our knowledge of Spanish beer, or cerveza, was limited to the occasional San Miguel; upon further inspection, the only others we could find to choose from were Cruzcampo, Damm and Mahou.

[4] The population of Lisbon proper is roughly 565,000 people with a total of 2.8 million living in the Lisbon Metropolitan area.

[5] There are several such funiculars, or elevators, in Lisbon: the Elevador da Santa Justa, a gothic revival elevator built more than a century ago that connects the medieval Baixa with the Chiado below, the Elevador da Gloria, and the Elevador da Lavra – all of which are dedicated to saving the knees and hearts of Lisbon’s citizens and visitors – that is, when they are working.

[6] In short, the Portuguese version of country-western music.

[7] Interestingly enough, while Super Bock leaves much to be desired as a beer, it has become something of a cult favorite among the British traveling football teams and their fans – particularly those from Manchester United who actually featured the beer in a song about their legendary player, Wayne Mark Rooney.

February 11, 2009

A Sneak Peek at the Beer Book

Filed under: beer,beer book,writer's life,writing — cynthiaboiter @ 05:11
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If you’d like to take a sneak peek at the book Bob and I have been working on, Bob, Beer and Me:  A Year of Beer, then go to www.stircolumbia.comand click the “view on-line now” toggle, and finally flip through to page 38.  Clicking the photo will enlarge the page, making it easier to read.  And check out that cutie pie positioned above the first text there.  A happy boy, no? See why I’ve been married to my high school sweetheart for almost 30 years?  Life is good.

February 5, 2009

Northern Exposure?

I was writing in the beer book today about a place we visited during the Portland expedition on one of our ventures out into the magnificent highs and lows of Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge.  Mount Hood Brewery is located just south of Mount Hood and north of Tom, Dick and Harry Mountain (seriously) in a little community called Government Camp.  The commercial part of the community is pretty tiny, consisting of little more than the Ice Axe Grill where the brewery is housed.  As indicated by the multiple layers of snow still visible on the Sunday we visited in June, there may be more money in skiing in Government Camp than there is in beer.  Ski resorts are nestled around the pristine mountains and valleys, hidden from view, as is the Timberland Lodge, a WPA construction that we’ve all seen at least once in the opening scenes of The Shining. 

We parked in a rutted parking lot and hopped over puddles of melty snow to get to the Ice Axe Grill where we would belly up to the bar and begin sampling from the Mount Hood Brewery’s finest. 

As much a part of the beer book as the beer are the people we’ve encountered on our quest.  Looking around the Ice Axe Grill I was pleased to find many of the typical characters one might expect to see on a snowy day in June when you’re almost 6000 feet above sea level.  A sedentary balding guy who seemed to have gathered dust around the perimeter of his mug while he nursed his beer.  A lost looking tattooed girl whose eyes betrayed the innocence of the story she wanted to tell.  A trio of large bearded men dressed in flannel and gathered into a covy — or should I say den?  And us. 

Recalling this today put me in mind of one of my favorite fantasy destinations — Cicely, Alaska.  Home of Joel Fleischman, Holling Vincoeur, Mourice Minnifield and Chris in the Morning.  I’m the kind of person who claims to not watch a lot of television (de rigeur, right?), but will often fall in love with one or two specific series.  Right now it’s True Blood and Weeds; in the past it’s been Boston Legal, West Wing, Six Feet Under, St. Elsewhere and MASH.  I always inevitably fall for shows that are destined to be canceled, too — think Sports Night and Studio 60.  But I never loved a show like I loved Northern Exposure.  The theme song was my ring tone for a while.

I loved the purity of those characters — how they all seemed to know and own themselves and their eccentricities outright.  Mourice knew he was a puffed up, patronizing asshole and he reveled in it.  Maggie O’Connell loved being the bush-pilot bitch that she was.  Joel was prepared to take his particularly Jewish neurosies to the grave.  But mostly, I loved the idea that somewhere up north, if there wasn’t a Santa Claus, then at least there was a place where people lived an honestly thinking life; freed of the harsh boundaries of the suburbs and car pools and the daily commute.  I thought the characters were unique, diverse, intelligent and purposeful.  And, as humans are wont to do, I based all my assumptions about the real Alaska and its inhabitants on the characters in this TV show.  It was a lovely fantasy.

But on August 29th, 2008, that pleasant fantasy was ripped from my head like a scalp full of hair when presidential candidate John McCain approached a lecturn in Dayton, Ohio and announced that  Sarah Louise Heath Palin would join him on the Republican ticket.  For the next two and one half months I was reminded daily that not only is Alaska not the diversity heavy, cerebral haven I had hoped for, but that the residents of said state were thick enough to elect a hollow-headed Caribou Barbie as their governor.

There are a lot of things I will forever hate John McCain for.  Race-baiting and re-raising the Red Scare as he accused Barack Obama of being a Socialist notwithstanding.  But forevermore he will remain the lone individual who tore a big moose-shaped hole in my fantasy world by taking away my dreams of a better place on earth — a place like Cicely, Alaska.

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