Wednesday, May 14, 2014

“This seems like the kind of place people might have stopped by after a beheading.”

Today, I introduce you to my friend, whose formal name is Tripel van de Garre, aka, de Garre, the house tripel of de Garre, a quaint, intimate alley beer café in medieval Bruges.  De Garre is Dutch for, The Alley.  This luscious beer is brewed by Brewery Van Steenberge, located about 45 minutes east of here in the burgh of Ertvelde.  It’s a good ambassador for the tripel style, which is one of my favorites, and the one that seduced me into my lust for Belgian beer.  It’s blond in color, well balanced, just slightly yeast forward and ruins you for the rest.  It tastes sublime from start-to-finish and leaves you wanting more.  But at 11.5%, for most people, two glasses is enough.
Part of what makes de Garre so special is its presentation, poured with the proper 3” head in it’s special pregnant tulip glass, served on a doily, on a small oval tray with a side of cheese cubes skewered with toothpicks as a warning to other would-be cheese cubes who might come here.  And of course, the label is always served facing the seductee and always with classical music in the background.
The beer is rarely seen outside of the confines of this pleasant café.  I saw it one time van ‘t vat (on draft) at a popular bottle shop with a tasting bar in Seattle.  That’s it.  So, if you have some special connections, it’s possible it will surface elsewhere, but don’t count on it.
The atmosphere at the de Garre is what really makes the tripel experience, so to have it out of context would never be the same.  The café, with it’s timbered, stucco and exposed brick walls, and hand-hewed massive dark beams exude history.  So when you drink this beer in these hallowed halls, you are drinking history.   This seems like the kind of place people might have stopped by after a beheading.
The café, established in 1984, is hard to find on your own, it’s down a narrow “alley,” what most of us would just call a narrow 4’ wide gap between medieval buildings, traditionally built as fire escapes.  There is no sign at the entrance to the alley, you just have to know it is down there.  It’s funny to watch people intrepidly and gingery push cautiously down the alley on their first time here.  Once inside, there is the choice of the intimate main floor seating area or the mezzanine level above which provides a nice perch in which to people watch the consumers below.  
Writing and drinking; kids don't try this at home.
And just this year, they have developed the attic on the third floor into more seating area, increasing their capacity by about 45 seats.  This is good news, because on more than one occasion, I have been turned away due to lack of room.
Keep in mind when visiting, they close early, often by midnight, with last call falling randomly and usually, between 11 and 11:30.  So to avoid disappointment, and it can be very disappointing, don’t wait too late to go.
But my favorite part of the de Garre experience is the playing of Ravel’s Bolero at closing time.  As the music naturally gets louder as it goes on, newcomers wonder what’s up.  Alumni of de Garre know all too well that Bolero means the evening is coming to a ritualistic close.  Time to finish your beer, take a moment to soak in the rustic atmosphere, reflect upon another incredible day in Belgium, then depart.  Goodnight, de Garre, until we meet again.

De Garre
1 de Garre
Bruges, Belgium

* Can be closed toward the end of January and June and other random days.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Rolf Nelson: 'A Man's Man'

Rolf Nelson at the Göller Brewery stammtisch.
Having limited foreign-language skills sometimes has its unexpected advantages when travelling.

In fall of 2010, I found myself visiting some small breweries around Bamberg, Germany.  This day, I was in the village of Drosendorf at the Göller Brewery, the only one in this forgiving little burg.  I was trying to speak with the bartender about how many beers they offered and which one was which.  And, I was making marginal progress with my limited German-language skills, when an English voice belted out the answers for which I was looking, “They have a Helles and a Pils!”  This unsolicited information came thundering from a white-haired gentleman likely in his 70s, sitting by himself at the stammtisch.  The stammtisch is the table reserved for a select group of regular customers found in most German taprooms.  The man, recognizing my clearly-American accent, introduces himself as Rolf Nelson and invites me to sit at the table and have a beer, which I of course did.  When someone invites you to sit at a stammtisch, you don’t say no.  You make time, even if you don’t have it.  Even if it is some seemingly strange old guy with a weird accent yelling at you.

Rolf Nelson and Stu Stuart at Kundmüller Brewery.
Turns out Rolf was a retired U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major from the nearby Warner Barracks Army base in Bamberg.  He and his wife had built a house in the village back in the 60s when his neighborhood was just a cow pasture.  Ralph was born in the United States to Norwegian immigrant parents, but spent his formative years in Norway since he was a child.  Rolf’s accent was hard to put a finger on: Part Norwegian, part German and part raw unbridled emotion.  When Rolf told a story it was full of passion, grit and expletives, mostly “Gawd Damn” this, or “Gawd Damn” that.

Göller was Rolf’s home brewery, because he could walk to it in about 15 minutes from his nearby home, which he did most days at noon for his daily beer.  I happened to be there one day when Rolf was enjoying his daily ritual.

Rolf essentially tells me his life story about having dual citizenship,  his career in the U.S. Army, being in Vietnam,  getting married, having two grown daughters and how his wife bought this piece of cow pasture one time while he was deployed.  As it turns out, Rolf say, “It was the Gawd-damn-best-thing she could have done” because the house had appreciated so much in value, more than they could possibly have imagined during this Cold-War era.  His wife, I learn is in a nursing home and he faithfully goes to visit her each day.

So, over a beer and an hour conversation, Rolf and I become friends and each time I would visit Bamberg in the upcoming years, I would always see Rolf and have a beer with him.  I got to see their lovely home and manicured rose gardens surrounding the pristine-looking house.  I basically had a fascinating window into the world of Rolf, who I had met ever-so-randomly.

John Smoller, Ross Sellens, Jeff Evans & Rolf Nelson at
Höhn Brewery beer garden.
In the years to come, I would bring my beer tours to meet him at his house, Göller or we would take him on the road with us visiting breweries.  He loved meeting the people in the group.  He especially liked Dr. Ross Sellens from Australia, who has come and continues to come on  more of my beer tours than anyone.  He also really liked big John Smoller from Denver, who is also a U.S. Army veteran formerly stationed in Germany.  He and Rolf hit if off right away.  John describes Rolf as “A real man’s man.”  

On a visit with Rolf in Fall of 2011, Ross and I learned Rolf had lost his wife since we had last visited.  While we could tell Rolf missed her dearly, we could also tell he felt she was in a better place now and no longer in any pain or discomfort.  It was touching as he shared with us this sad news.

In spring of 2012, Rolf had lunch and beers with us at a Hohn Brewery in nearby Memmelsdorf.  He wore his American flag imagery shirt and a U. S. flag hat.  He had a blast  meeting everyone, telling stories and having beers with them.  And, the beer travelers enjoyed meeting Rolf and hearing his passionate stories about his life.  Some for example, involved fishing with hand grenades, dynamite and claymore mines during the Vietnam War.  People really enjoyed Rolf.  Sometimes, beer tours can be too self-contained and you only meet people in the immediate group.  Meeting a friendly and colorful local, such as Rolf, is always a treat.

In October of 2012, Rolf travelled with my tour group to a Kundmüller Brewery in nearby Weiher, to have lunch and beers.  In all his years of living in the area, he had never been to this brewery.  He truly enjoyed the visit and going some place, practically in his backyard, for which he had never been.  In all fairness, with more than 300 breweries in this region, this is going to happen.
Through the years, I would send Rolf photos of our visits and his visits with the beer tour groups.  He loved getting them.  Then when I would visit, he would get them all out for us to see again.

In spring of 2013, I called Rolf from the United States to give him the heads-up we were coming to visit him again and I must have misdialed the number because I got a message that read, “Invalid number.”  So I dialed again with the same results.  Then again.  Same thing.  “That’s odd,” I thought.

So, when I got to Bamberg, I tried again thinking I was dialing something wrong.  I got the same message, “Invalid number.”  So I asked the hotel front desk receptionist, Viola, to try.  She got the same thing.

I thought, “Well, we can just call the taproom at Göller Brewery and they will know what happened to Rolf.”  My first thought, was he may have died.  Then I quickly got more optimistic and thought maybe he went into a nursing home or went to live with one of his daughters.  Viola called Göller and they were closed that day.  No luck.

A few days went by and I saw Viola as I walked through the hotel lobby.  She asked if I was able to get ahold of my friend, Rolf.  I had been so busy with the current beer tour I had not had a chance.  So, Viola offered to call the brewery again.  This time she got an answer.  She eloquently stated  in perfect German my dilemma to the brewery.  She talked to them for about a minute.  From what I could gather, and from the non-plussed look on her face, it sounded like he may be in a nursing home.  Then she softly hung up the phone and said, “I’m sorry your friend has died.”

My heart sank.  

My initial inclination, unfortunately, turned out to be correct. “Gawd Damn it!”, I thought as my mind clicked into Rolf’s way of speaking.  “You son-of-a-bitch, just checked out on us when we weren’t here!”  Viola could tell by the look on my face and my eyes slowly tearing, that I had lost a dear friend.  “I’m sorry for your loss,” she  said quietly.  They told her he had died in January of 2013.  He was 75.  I thanked Viola for her persistence and help finding out what happened to Rolf and shuffled off to my room.

Little did we know in that fall of 2012 when we left Rolf off at his home and he waved goodbye to us from the front porch, surrounded by his rose gardens, that would be the last time any of us would see him.  All my beer travelers, who met Rolf, and myself will miss him on this and future visits to Bamberg.  He was part of our history here and one of the most interesting and colorful people of a handful of memorable characters I have met in my beer travels.

I think about how if my German had been better that day I was at Göller brewery in the fall of 2010, I would never had met Rolf and we would have never had him as a friend.

Coming to Bamberg won’t be the same without Rolf.  Godspeed, my friend; Godspeed, our friend.

To view more images of Rolf, visit the Essential Rolf Nelson Album on the Bamberg Beer Me! Facebook page.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Beer Travel with Rick Steves

Rick Steves enjoying a beer at an undisclosed location. 
A couple days ago I found myself sitting in a lone chair at a table in a large empty room, in a snow-covered building deep in the woods of Northern Michigan.  It looked like a scene for a possible KGB interrogation.  But no,  instead I was recording two episodes of Travel With Rick Steves*, hosted by, that’s right, Rick Steves, who was more than 2,000 miles away at his studio in Edmonds, Washington.  I was at the public radio station in Interlochen, Michigan, which was procured by Rick’s producers for the interview.

I, as with many of you, have been a fan of Rick’s public tv show Rick Steves’ Europe, his public radio show Travel with Rick Steves and his countless travel guides and videos.  So, to have the opportunity to be interviewed by him for an hour on two of my favorite topics, beer and beer travel, was a dream come true.

The first show was about Finding the Best Beer in the World and the second one was Belgian Beer Touring.  Rick interviewed me with his great sense of curiosity, some listeners called in and others posted questions by email.  I answered all the questions, made some recommendations on beers, food and books, and told some short stories to the best of my ability, but in the end, I felt like we had just touched the tip of the iceberg on all the topics.  Rick told me afterward, “That’s the general nature of all this, but it inspires people to learn more about it.  I think that’s a good thing.” 

Looking back, I thought of so many other things I could have said, questions that were not completely answered, erroneous statements that were made by callers that I did not have a chance to refute or add to with more information.  In the end, it’s like travel itself.  It’s not perfect, it is what it is and it is a journey from which you learn, and armed with this new knowledge build upon and hopefully do better the next time.

One thing is clear, Rick Steves in a busy man with lots of people vying for his time, so to be able to have an hour window into his world was a privilege, exciting and perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  My gratitude knows no bounds.  I can’t wait to hear the final production of the two episodes in their broadcast format.  I’ll post the air dates when they become available.  I hope you will tune in or download the podcasts.

So, did we find the best beers in the world during the interview?  No.  We didn’t have enough time, but we did get a little closer.  Maybe next time.

* Travel with Rick Steves is a fun, hour-long, practical talk show with guest experts and questions from travelers. This weekly program is a lively conversation between travelers and the experts as we learn to explore our world smartly, smoothly, and thoughtfully. The show is currently broadcast on more than 200 station in North America.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Beer Festivals: One More Excuse to Visit Belgium

Thirsty festival goers enjoying the Bruges Beer Festival.
If you really needed one more excuse to visit Belgium, I suggest for the incredible beer festivals, built around the needs, wants and desires of beer enthusiasts.  Each year, Belgium hosts dozens of beer festivals, some more well known than others and each with its own character and personality ranging from the granddaddy of them all, the Zythos Beer Festival (ZBF) all the way down to the Heikant Beer Festival, which is fundraiser for a scout troop.  Yes, a fundraiser for a scout troop.  Where were these guys when I was a tenderfoot?

My favorite four Belgian Beer Festivals are the Zythos Beer Festival near Leuven, the Christmas  Beer (Kerstbier) Festival in Essen, the Modeste Beer Festival in Antwerp and the Bruges Beer Festival, which is why I include them in four different annual tours I offer.  The beauty of attending a festival as part of a beer tour is hundreds of beers and brewers come to you in one convenient and efficient place.  This saves a lot of time, especially if you are only in Belgium for six or ten days.  It would otherwise take months, maybe even years, to get the same beer experience.

The Belgians really have the beer festival model down, which makes for typically a really great, user-friendly experience for the consumer.  Most are pay-as-you go, using tokens, which allows you to just have as many beers as you would like at a leisurely pace, as opposed to the American system, where you pay an often-times huge set fee, generally around $50-$75, then people go crazy for four hours trying to get their money’s worth, then people start breaking glasses on the floor and things can get ugly.  You generally don’t have this at the Belgian festivals and it is part of what makes them such a joy.

The sheer variety of incredible-tasting beers at Belgian Festivals is daunting, exciting and fun all at the same time.  As many times as I have been to Belgium, I am always tasting new beers I’ve never had and seeing beers I’ve never heard of.  Most of these festivals are rather intimate, too, compared to say Oktoberfest.  Also, many of the beers are only available at these festivals as seasonal beers, one-of-kinds, or because they don’t bottle or export it.  So, you have to go there to get them.  There is simply no other way.

For more information on beer tours, which include these beer festivals, visit  The next one is the Great Zythos Beer Festival Tour in April and there are still some seats open.  Join us, won’t you?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Proud Beer Heritage of Luxembourg

What comes to mind when you think of Luxembourg?  I know, trick question, you do not think of Luxembourg. And, why would you?  It is the smallest country in the European Union with about 1000 square miles.
I am here for three nights doing some beer hunting and learning about the country.  They speak French, German and Luxembourgish, which is similar to German, but mostly they speak French.
What comes to mind for me when I think of Luxembourg are the famous cycling brothers Andy and Frank Schleck.  You may know them from a little thing called the Tour de France or Liege-Bastogne-Liege, or any number of famous cycling races.  Amazingly enough, for the two guys who put this miniscule country on the map, there is virtually no trace of them as far as souvenirs, public tributes, displays or commercialism of any sort, which is too bad.  I would have bought a hat or a shirt, or something.  I visited their nearby home village of Mondorf and discovered their home cafe, which did have some photos of them and some other momentos.  It was pretty cool, really cool.  I admire cyclists such as like the Schleck brothers.  The physical fitness level, endurance, stamina, disicpline and mental tactics they have are beyond me.  I do not know how they do what they do, but they do, and this is simply amazing.
I should mention that Mondorf is bang on the French border, so these guys are almost French.  You could probably throw a rock from their homes into France.
But, back to the reason I am here,  beer.  How do I put this...while trying to remain listed Mousel Zwickelbeier number one...and they were is also made by AB this is from where you have to lower the bar of expectations.  Most of the beers here are pale lagers or what some people call Euro pils.  There are some wheat ales.  There are some Belgian, German, Mexican and Portugese imports, too.   It is what it is.  Having said that, my visit to the old taproom of the former Mousel brewery was one of the highlights of my visit.  Mousel is now brewed outside of Luxembourg City, but the Mousel Cantine remains with its wood panelled walls and carved wood details, murals, nostalgic photos, classic oak bar, and stunning old-world atmosphere.  The food and service are excellent, too.  I had mushroom pasta and ling cod for lunch.  If you visit only one place in Luxembourg, make it the Mousel cantine for a meal and a heavy  ceramic stein of Zwickelbeier, which is an unfiltered lager, that has some flavor to it beyond the common pils found here.
The rest of the old Mousel brewery grounds and buildings have been turned into a Disney Land of thumpin, bumpin, techno beat night clubs.  One is called the Big Brauweri and still has the giant steam machines and other gadgets anchored forever in place in the floors of the old building.  People just dance, eat and drink around it all.  This equipment survived two World Wars, it can withstand someone hurling on it.  Wed., Fri. and Sat. are the big party nights.  I do not know how Thursday fell out of favor.
I tried a bunch of other local beers, too--Bofferding, Ourdaller, Simon Regal, Battin Gambrinus,  Diekirch Grand Cru and Christmas beer.  The latter three, all AB Inbev products.  Nothing jumps out at me.
I also visited a brewpub in Bascharage, rhymes with cah garage, called Brasserie Meyer.  They brew Beierhaascht beers.  A helles, dunkel and an amber.  All clean, distinct and brewed to their German styles.  The place reminds me of an American brewpub in atmosphere, except the building also houses a hotel and an incredible butcher shop.  If I had only had a refrigerator...or a barbeque.  Except for some tastey hunters sausage, I did not eat there, but  food looked superb.  This town is also home the the giant Bofferding brewery, which only takes large groups with reservations, so, I did not get to visit their taproom.
It is hard to do this Euro melting pot of Luxembourg justice in a short blog, but it is worth a visit with its history, architecture, scenery, fortresses, fine cuisine and, proud, historic, but limited beer culture.  I based out of the Youth Hostel in Luxembourg City, which is really more of a hotel than what most Americans think of when thinking of youth hostels.  European hostels have retooled themselves to appeal to adult travelers and its working.  This is one of the best I have visited, complete with a really nice restaurant and very helpful staff.  I highly recommend it and other hostels, too.  Luxembourg is very user friendly.  As an example, you can ride buses anywhere in the city and country for only four Euros a day.
This morning I woke up and realized that I had left my boots, and my  only shoes with me, in the lobby the night before when I was drinking a beer, tired and working on the internet.  I came downstairs and they were gone.  A sinking feeling.  My only pair of shoes in Luxembourg gone and now I am barefoot.  How do you go shopping for new shoes, when you have no shoes?  It is a sinking, embarassing, perplexing and yet somehow a  humorous feeling.  I had to tell my innerself, “Stu, do not laugh.   This is have no shoes.  Seriously, dude, you are barefoot.”  After I asked the front desk for the second time, turns out someone had turned them and once again I was with shoes.  They just did not see them the first time they looked.  
Note to self--pay more attention to where you take off  your shoes.