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October 15, 2008

High on the Old Country

Two weeks ago, I returned from another visit to the Old Country: Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany. Six of us rented sturdy Dutch 4-speed bicycles and roamed the landscape in search of good times and better beer.

There was liquid tradition on tap or in bottles at each stop, with Belgian brewery visits to Het Anker and Van Honsebrouck (makers of Gouden Carolus and Kasteel, respectively) and Huyghe, the more recent originator of Delirium Tremens.

From the West Flanders town of Poperinge during its hop fest weekend, we cycled to the nearby French hilltown of Cassel and lunched on local cheeses and pates matched with big bottles of various Bieres de Garde. 

On a memorable Cologne evening, the city’s unique and classic tavern ambience was savored at Paffgen, complete with the obligatory steak tartare topped with raw onion and chased with too many tasty 6-ounce Kolsch ales to count. 

Bamberg, the epicenter of venerable Franconian brewing customs, yielded its usual bounty of smoked lager, pork knuckles and matchless service. 

There was tradition aplenty, but nothing remains unchanged forever, and so it goes with the European beer scene. The late, great Michael Jackson’s masterful descriptions of the brewing landscape circa 1976 remain recognizable today, but sometimes only barely. 

It’s too easy to focus on what has been lost, because many of the changes have been quite good. In Haarlem, Netherlands, our favorite publican reserved a keg of Jopen Rock and Roel, a seasonal ale spiced with Scotch bonnet peppers, for our pleasure. Also, both Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor and Kasteel India Pale Ale are hoppy, Belgian-style ales, something that didn’t really exist until the past decade.

Jackson’s writings helped spawn an American craft beer market that once seemed a pipe dream, and across the pond, European brewers similarly evolve.

Roger Baylor is co-owner of the New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany. Visit www.potablecurmudgeon.com for more beer.