Wednesday 25 March 2020

I’m free! (again)

Today is mostly free. I'm in no rush to rise. After a quick shower I'm down in the breakfast room by 8:30.

Because I do have one appointment: with Doug Merlo at 9. He's driving a bunch of us loafer judges around for the day. It's going to be quite a tour: a distillery, a brewery, a cheese maker and another brewery. It's going to be a busy day.

As six judges are going along (Martyn, Ben, Peter Bouckaert, Pete Slosberg, Stephen Beaumont, and, of course, me) we're in two cars.

I'm particularly excited about the distillery. Never toured one of those before. Plus I'm really intrigued by cachaça, which is the local spirit. I annoyed the Brazilians in Chile a couple of years ago by saying: "Oh, it's a kind of rum." when told it was made from sugar cane juice. "No, it's totally different from rum." I wasn't convinced.

The Xanadu distillery looks like it's in the middle of the jungle, even though it's technically in Blumenau. Surrounded by palms and loads of other exotic trees. A beautiful spot.

We begin with a tour. Everything kicks off with cane juice, which is about 16º Plato. After 24 to 48 hours of fermentation it’s 9% ABV. At which point it goes into the still. Where it’s distilled just once. The spirit is 50% ABV.

The heads and tails are distilled again to be used as sanitiser or fuel for their cars.

Premium cachaça has 1 to 3 years in wood, extra premium more than three years. Casks which are being aged are sealed by an excise man and are also unsealed by the same one when ready for bottling. The casks can’t be sampled in the meantime, which surely makes life difficult.

Different casks aren’t blended at bottling time, meaning every bottle is single-barrel.

When we get to the tasting, the owners pride in his products is obvious. You can see that they're like his children. Working logically, we start with the youngest and work our way through to the strongest. Even the ones with just a year in wood are really good.

"What's the origin of the name cachaça?"

"No-one knows for sure. It could come from an indigenous word. Or the Spanish word for the handle of a knife"

Well that's cleared that up.

As we work up through the ages, they get better and better. Then there are the different woods. Some of their barrels are oak, as you would expect. But there are also one from balsam, chestnut and a tree whose name I don't recognise. Some of the woods add incredible notes. Not just spice but even chocolate. It's an eye-opening experience.

I get a really nice bottle for Andrew: 6 years old, aged in American oak. It's like a combination of rum and bourbon. The price is a bit steep - about 9 euros. But I'm prepared to splash out this once.

Next stop is Cerveja Blumenau. A very significant brewery, but we'll come to that later.

The brewer starts by showing us his barrel-ageing room and gives us a few samples. The very technical way of just bashing a little spike through the head.

First, the base beer, which is a Belgian Blonde Ale. We then try a couple of older, fruited versions. They seem to be coming along nicely.

We have a wander through the brew house, which is surprisingly large. Full of shiny things, of course.

Once we're done, we have a buffet lunch. Been mostly buffets, so far. Ok by me as I can dodge the carbohydrates and stuff myself with meat. Sorry, eat a healthy balance of protein and vegetables. I hadn't expected beetroot to be so popular here. Not a problem for me. I love the stuff.

As we're eating, I notice Stephen is looking through the bags of condiments.

"I was hoping for some hot sauce. The Feijoada (bean stew) is good, but I'd have preferred it hotter."

The chat also turns to Catharina Sour, the new Brazilian style. One which was first brewed in this very brewery.

I'd assumed it was named after the state: Santa Catarina. But it wasn't. The first example - Son of a Peach - was inspired by the peach pies given to the brewer by his grandmother, who was named Catharina. With an "h". Which explains the difference in spelling between the state name and the style.

"Here's a myth in the making." I say to Martyn. "Good to have got the story from the source. Though I guess we'll be arguing about this for years."*

Before we leave, Martyn gets himself a T-shirt. Seems to be a thing of his. Though the one he would have preferred - one with those big rodent things on it - only comes in women's form.

As we're on our way out, Peter asks: "Can we get a beer for the car?"

"Of course." I love Brazil. And thankful to Peter for bringing the matter up.

As it's boiling, I get the perfect hot weather beer: an Imperial Stout.

"That's an odd beer to be drinking in the heat." Peter remarks.

"Not at all. In the 19th-century, strong Stout was popular in the West Indies and in Asia. And I have a reputation to maintain."

It also has the alcoholey goodness I'm craving at this moment. But I don't say that aloud.

The fucking heat today. I was lulled into a false sense of security the first couple of days when it was a pleasant 25-27 C.

Next stop is Pomerode. "Our little Germany" as the sign on the way in claims.

Our destination is a cheesery, Pomerode Alimentos, run by the Mendes family which used to own Esienbahn, the largest brewery in Blumenau, before they sold up to AB Inbev.

"That's the largest Easter egg in the world" Doug tells me. "It's in the Guinness Book of Records." What an odd claim to fame for this small town.

It's even hotter than earlier. Even though the cheesery is just over the road from where we park, I'm doing a pig impression by the time we get there.

After I've finished putting on all the protective gear, I'm even sweatier. It doesn't help that the room where the cheese-making process kicks off is 28º C. There's a layer of sweat between me and the plastic protective shit.

They make mostly French-style cheese - camembert and brie - but also others. The next room, where the cheese is maturing, is thankfully much cooler. Which brings my temperature a treat. It's fascinating to look at the ones of slightly different ages and how the rind develops.

Sadly, we leave the lovely coolness and re-enter the furnace outside. Where we get to taste some cheese. They're so good, I almost forget that I'm melting. The St. Marcellin is outstanding. Dead, dead good.

Surprisingly, Martyn doesn't buy a T-shirt.

Our final spot of the day is just 50 metres away: Schornstein Brewery. I'd noticed the old chimney on the way in. The brewery began in the building to which the chimney belonged, a former brickworks. There's now a production brewery in the former indoor market next door.

We enter through the shop, which is beautifully air-conditioned. Then continue on into the brewery, which isn't.

They're canning an alcohol-free Weissbier, and we're given one each to try. I'm not a great fan of beer without the best bit and can't finish it.

"Throwing in a triple vodka would improve it." I say to Stephen.

We pass through to the fermenting room and are given samples drawn straight from the tank. I don't even bother with the second, a Dry Stout. I'm about to do an Andrew and collapse. All I can think is: "When will this torture end?"

"I'm going back into the shop to cool down." Pete says. Why didn't I think of that? I follow him there.

After a while the others trickle in and Martyn starts looking through the T-shirts.

"How many of those things do you have?" I ask.

"Quite a few."

"What do you do with them all?"

"Wear them, of course."

I hadn't considered that. After all, I haven't read most of my book collection and I've a pile of undrunk beer.

On the way back, Doug buys some petrol.

As we pull into a petrol station a red-haired, pale-skinned attendant attracts both mine and Martyn's attention.

"I doubt he has much Portuguese heritage." Martyn quips.

I get myself a bottle of water. Need to keep hydrated. Did I mention that it's fucking hot?

We get back to the hotel just about in time for the most important event of the week: the old beer tasting.

It's not an official event, but a random thing me and Martyn have organised. We did the something similar at Williamsburg a few years back and it was a real blast. The venue then was Paul and Jamie's room. As the rooms here are tiny, we're doing it in the lobby.

We're aren't expecting many of the beers to be drinkable. They are all petty old. My money is on the Samichlaus being the only one still in any sort of shape

We start with the most likely fucked beers. Like my weird old La Chouffe. With an Italian label, with the wrong volume. It says 75 cl, but it's a 33 cl bottle.

"Do you know how old it is?"

"I got it about 25 years ago. And it was old then. It was sitting on a shelf in a pub I used to be a regular in and the landlord gave it to me."

Obviously, it tastes like shit. But not as bad as the Greene King Coronation Ale from 1953. Which reaches new levels of awful. The crown cork disintegrating while opening wasn't a good sign. Nor the black stuff on the underneath of it.

There are two Silver Jubilee Ales from 1977: Tetley's and Hook Norton. The former is surprisingly OK, with some hop character remaining. The latter is pretty crap.

As we open the Samichlaus, Stephen tells a story about it. When the LCBO were going to import it into Canada, they asked him to write something about the beer. Unfortunately, his article mentioned that Samichlaus was Swiss German for Father Christmas. On learning this, the LCBO cancelled the order.

Which prompts a discussion about the Portman Group's recent idiotic rulings. The beer itself is surprisingly dreadful.

When we're about halfway through the tasting, we start getting hassled about boarding the bus to the awards ceremony. Learning that there's a later one, we continue with our delightful tasting.

"Do you know the history of this beer?" I ask when we get to my old bottle of Carlsberg Special Brew. "It was originally brewed for Winston Churchill when he visited Denmark shortly after WW II. They knew he was a pisshead, so brewed something strong."

The last beer is by far the best. Hansens Kriek. It's not that old. And Lambic is basically indestructible. I've had ones from breweries which had been closed for decades which were perfectly drinkable. The Hansens is delicious. But it is a personal favourite.

Arriving at Vila Germanica, we spot a mass of people hanging around outside the hall. The doors aren't open yet.

"I'm glad we didn't get the earlier bus." I say.

"Beers in Bier Vila?" Chris sensibly suggests. He won't have to twist my arm.

Though I don't have beer. Instead an oak-aged cachaça. I'm getting a taste for this stuff.

We order some food. Chris suggests a mixed grill. "It's enough for four." As there are eight of us, we get some other bits and bobs.

Chris tells me that they’ve been taking the piss out of me in the Whatsapp group. As I don’t have a smart phone, they’ve been joking about how to contact me: fax, telegram, post, semaphore or carrier pigeon. Very droll.

When the mixed grill arrives, it's only slightly larger than the one Martyn had yesterday for himself.

We notice the crowd outside the hall is dissipating and trail over ourselves. Though it's a while before anything happens. Chris suggests that we stand at the back. Directly in front of the curtain concealing the bar.

"At a certain point they'll start serving all the beer left over from the competition." Good tip.

Though he's unlucky enough to pick a minute before the curtain rolls back to go for a piss. I, on the other hand, am second to the bar.

The awards are real fun. As I tasted all the gold medal winners in the Best of Show that I spent 3 hours judging. I give a running commentary to Martyn on which were OK, which were shit and how the discussion went amongst the judges.

After the awards were all awarded, we head off to one of the winners, brewpub Balburdia. It's jacked, as all the judged have tipped down there.

I get myself a pint of Imperial Stout. It is still quite hot, after all.

Me and Melissa had what you might describe as a forthright discussion at some points during the final judging. She apologises for being cranky yesterday.

"No problem, Melissa. I actually found the discussions quite fun." Better to be opinionated than dull and bland.

After a second pint of Imperial Stout, I'm starting to fade. And it is 1:30. We head back to the hotel.

Where there's just enough time for my traditional Islay eye-closer.

Hopefully the planes will still be flying when it's time to go home.

* It turns out that, as always, the story is more complicated. It seems there was one earlier example than Son of a Peach. I did have it all explained to me, but it was after a few beers and I can’t recall all the details.

R. Euclídes da Cunha, 1837
Velha, Blumenau.

Cerveja Blumenau
R. Arnô Deling, 388
Itoupavazinha, Blumenau

Pomerode Alimentos
Rua dos Atiradores, 71
Centro, Pomerode.

Rua Hermann Weege, 160,
Centro Pomerode,

Choperia Bier Vila
R. Alberto Stein, 199,
Velha, Blumenau

Rua Antonio da Veiga 464,

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