In a few scattered hotel rooms around Bruges, alarms are beeping just a few hours after we had finished drinking and talking. We gather our things and our wits and walk frozen streets to find our frozen cars. It is dark, it is bitterly cold, and it is a 50-minute drive to Dottignies. Mash-in starts early at Brouwerij De Ranke.
The occasion is a collaboration brew to mark the 10th year of America’s oldest and most influential “Beer Week,” an idea that took off nationally and even internationally. There are probably hundreds of them now. There are beer weeks in Shanghai and Berlin, and there are several in Britain, to name a few examples.
The idea for the first beer week came, as many good ones do, over wine.
Philly Beer Week co-founder Tom Peters, owner of the popular Monk’s Cafe, said the conversation took place after a beer dinner with beer writer Michael Jackson. Peters and fellow co-founder Bruce Nichols both had palate fatigue, so they drank wine instead of beer. Jackson was in town for the annual Book and the Cook fair, which brought famous authors and chefs to events at various restaurants.
They thought, “Why not do something like that for beer?”
Jackson was supposed to be the main attraction at the first one in 2008. He died in August 2007. “He was really excited about the idea,” Peters tells me, just as boiling is getting under way here at De Ranke. “We used to do beer dinners with him, and they would sell out in a nanosecond.”
Now the Beer Week can celebrate its first decade. In Philadelphia, there was a raffle to decide who gets to pick a local brewer and enjoy a Belgian tour (including this brew day). The raffle raised cash for the nonprofit that coordinates Philly Beer Week; that group has just renamed itself Philly Loves Beer, to reflect the fact that they are busy all year, and not just during the 10 days of the citywide festival.
They are busy all year, including a freezing mid-January morning in Hainaut. Raffle winner Felicia D’Ambrosio is here with Peters. She is something of a Philly beer personality herself, having spent years writing about the local food scene, making friends from behind the bar at Monk’s, and going on to communications work and part ownership of Federal Donuts. Without a hint of shame, Peters says he stuffs the box (thus contributing lots of money to the cause) with ballots featuring the names of Monk’s Cafe employees and friends.
The raffle ballots also must name a local brewer for the collaboration beer. D’Ambrosio’s ballot chose 2SP’s Bob Barrar, a quiet, friendly, and impressively bearded man who would not be able to walk under the weight of his World Beer Cup and GABF medals if he actually wore them all. He has brought brewer/head cellarman Andrew “Ruby” Rubenstein with him. The rest of us watch comfortably, sipping coffee, as the two of them join De Ranke’s team to do things like scrape and clean the mash tun—in this case, at least, the collaboration is more than some back-and-forth emailing to work out a recipe. These guys are here to work and, maybe, learn a few new tricks.
The recipe in this case is a hoppy porter, its recipe worked out by 2SP and De Ranke co-founder Nino Bacelle. The process and ingredients are decidedly Belgian and decidedly De Ranke: whole hop flowers from a nearby farm, multistep mash, and higher attenuation for a drier beer. It will get De Ranke’s favored yeast blend and fill an over-large fermenter only two-thirds full, so that the yeast can breathe and have its own way with the beer. It will be both keg- and bottle-conditioned, spending time in the warm room before heading to Pennsylvania.
Bacelle is strict when it comes to whole hops. When we arrive at the brewery in the morning, the De Ranke team is shoveling wet, heavy hops out of the 4,000-liter kettle from yesterday’s brew. “You put in 40 kilograms of hops, and you take out 300 kilograms,” Bacelle says. “You lose a lot of wort.” It’s inefficient but makes for better beer, in his view, so that’s that.
Bacelle explains that he and fellow co-founder Guido Devos used to add about 20 percent of hop pellets late in the brewing season, when the whole hops started to age and lose their freshness. But now they have a special contract with their farmer to bale and deliver their hops swiftly after harvest, to be stored in a specially built cooler. They keep better now; the brewers like the results; and they can hang their hats on 100 percent whole hops.
This year, their all-Belgian hop delivery included an experimental one known only as No. 7784. (I wondered about the first 7,783 experimental hop varieties, until I realized that 7784 is the postal code of the farm in farthest-west Hainaut, south of Ieper and not far from Poperinge hop country.)
Crushed in the hand, hop No. 7784 smells juicy, like limes and basil. With Barrar and Rubenstein, Bacelle adds a burst of it as a late aroma addition to the Philly collaboration beer.
Bacelle also using the hop for a new beer, lighter than the classic XX Bitter, called Simple X. It’s not quite ready, but we taste it from a small wine glass filled from a tank in the cellar. The hop’s flavor shows through in the 4.5%-strength beer, a blond quencher that I hope will be widely available, eventually (from much larger glasses).
It would surely be available at the Brugs Beertje, a mecca beer pub in Bruges where we spent last evening, talking later than we had planned (because that’s what happens there). As Philadelphia marks its own milestone, Brugs Beertje has one of sorts: new ownership. Beer travelers from around the world knew Daisy Claes, who recently announced her retirement.
It’s fun to ponder how many good ideas must have occurred within those walls, under her eye. For example: Claes was there one night 30 years ago, when some British writers—including Jackson, Roger Protz and Tim Webb—drank and hatched a plan to start the British Guild of Beer Writers, as well as the publishing arm of the Campaign for Real Ale. (The latter idea led to Webb’s “Good Beer Guide Belgium,” which I now co-write with him).
I met Barrar and Rubenstein at the bar there, accidentally but without surprise. Peters and D’Ambrosio wandered in later, after attending a retirement dinner for Claes.
I asked Peters about what sort of beer they drank at such a dinner. The answer? None. They drank wine.