Chris Rush Cohen

Advanced Cicerone & Beer Consultant

Chris Cohen is a San Francisco based Certified Cicerone. He can help you take your beer service & knowledge to the next level.

Beer tasting in Belgium

After spending ten days tasting beer and whiskey in Scotland (and checking out castles and stuff), my fiancée and I headed to Belgium for a week...for more beer tasting, culture, and scenery.

Once again, the bottles of Pliny the Younger I brought with me proved helpful in making friends and obtaining rare bottles to bring home! I ate and drank some truly amazing food and beer in Belgium, it's reputation as a beer lover's paradise is well earned. 

Here's my list of must do's (and two warnings) for Belgium: 

  1. Stay at La Vieille Forge in Houffalize. This is also the location of Inter-Pol Brewing, where the owner, Pol, brews up magic on what is essentially a fancy homebrew set up. It's a legit brewing company and Pol serves his beer in the adjoining bar on the property. The inn and brewery/bar are about 100 feet apart. It's a small and chill spot, don't worry about noise keeping you up at night or anything. Stay on a Friday or Saturday so you can have beers at the bar, those are the only nights it's open. You can have Pol's beers at La Vieille Forge anytime though, so if you stay on a weeknight you'll still get to sample the good stuff. The Houffalize area is beautiful, it's worth a trip to this area! 
  2. Visit the La Chouffe brewery and restaurant in Houffalize. It's right down the street from La Vieille Forge and is in fact where Pol earned much of his brewing chops. It's also a great spot to sit outside in the sun and sip amazing beer, plus the food is pretty solid. 
  3. Visit Cantillon Brewery in Brussels. Does this require elaboration? You can almost certainly walk here from wherever you're staying in Brussels (it's nearish to the Grand Place), don't try to drive and park. The self guided tour is very cool, but the best part is that at the end, you can get yourself insanely delicious and rare beers to drink on site (Zwanze, Lou Pepe, and 50 North series beers) and you can purchase 750ml bottles of gueuze and/or their fruited lambics for around $7 each. That's just insane when these beers sell for $25+ in the US, if you can even find them. The same beers at bars a few blocks away can be four times as much. Bring an extra bag to check on the way home and fill it with Cantillon.
  4. Eat at  Nuetnigenough (The Greedy Glutton) in Brussels. They are a cuisine de biere focused restaurant that will blow your mind without blowing out your wallet. They have a killer beer list, many of their dishes are made with beer, and the knowledgeable waiters can make great pairing recommendations. Bring them a Pliny for extra special treatment! 
  5. Go to Moeder Lambic in Brussels. They've got an insane beer selection, tons of sours, and a huge bottle list. You'll find beer geeks galore at these spots (there are two, the one closer to the Grande Place is the only one I visited...two or three times). Also, the quiche is killer, so it's a nice lunch spot. 
  6. Bruges. Just go there and spend a couple days. There are several beer spots here, two good bottle shops plus the famous  't Brugs Beertje, which you should definitely visit (you can skip the Half Maan Brewery).  Go to Bruges and forget about keeping a focus on beer for a couple days, just soak the place up, it's stunning. Stay at a B&B that will loan you a bike to ride around on, it's key to have a bike here and you'll end up renting one if your B&B doesn't loan them. FYI me and Carson just used Air B&B the whole time we traveled in Belgium and we found  good places, just make the arrangements several days ahead of time (we stayed on a cool house boat in Bruges!). 
  7. Warning #1 - most breweries that don't have a tasting room with regular hours will require you to make reservations in order to visit. Not only that, but if you go to a brewery on any random day (especially Monday) it's highly likely that the place will be closed and no one will be there. This happened to me at probably five different breweries during my visit, it was very frustrating. Call ahead, it sucks but you have to do it.
  8. Warning #2 - Westvleteren...I know this is heresy, but don't go here unless you're already really close by for some reason. Unfortunately, it has a real tourist trap feel to it. The food is terrible and the place has very little character, plus they don't even sell bottles to go at the cafe. You can find Westy beers at bottle shops and bars in Brussels and Bruges without looking very hard. Do that instead and you'll have the beer in a better environment and save yourself a long trip. Even better is to just get your Westy 8 or 12 at a bottle shop and take it home, they do better with age and your friends will be impressed when you break it out! 

Check out some of my pics from Belgium below!

Beer & whisky tasting in Scotland

I took the most amazing trip to Scotland and Belgium this summer. Initially, I wasn't nearly as excited about visiting Scotland as I was about Belgium, but after spending ten days there I must admit that Scotland is quite possibly my favorite country to visit in Europe! 

For one, the scenery and beauty of the landscape, which is dotted with castles, medieval ruins, mountains, and lochs, is incredible. In addition, the people are super friendly and culturally similar enough to your average American that it's almost too easy at a bar, say, to quickly fall in with a group of locals and be cracking jokes and having a great time.

Scotland is definitely a whisky drinking country, however, thanks to the success of the UK's CAMRA group, in their decades-long fight to keep the Real Ale flowing, the entire UK has a continuing tradition of great beer. Those traditional English, Scottish, and Irish styles are now being supplemented by a new wave of American-style craft breweries that are doing huge hoppy beers, barrel aging massive malty brews, souring fruity ales, and everything and anything else that challenges tradition. What was perhaps most exciting about the Scottish beer scene was experiencing the passion of the beer lovers and brewers there. The latest craft beer revolution is really just exploding in the UK and wowzers are folks super excited about it! My impression is that you just don't get this kind of hugh geeky excitement from beer communities in places with mature beer scenes, where it isn't as big of a deal...like in Belgium for instance. That's obviously a highly debatable statement and I'm painting with a broad brush, but that's how it struck me. 

I was lucky to get to sample a good deal of the amazing new UK craft beer at excellent bars including BrewDog and The Hanging Bat in Edinburgh, The Anderson in Fortrose, and Tomlinson's Beer Shop in Inverness. Newer breweries like Brodie's, Magic Rock, organic Black Isle, The Kernel, and dozens of others are following in the trail blazed by new big shots like BrewDog.  

And jeez, that's not even mentioning the incredible Scotch whisky. I tasted at Oban, Tomatin, and several bars that specialized in whisky. I learned a ton about whisky on this trip and realized I need to dig deeper into it and really start tasting and analysing it like I do with beer.

As for food, we found that despite the UK's reputation for being all about greasy pub food, we ended up having a slew of amazing meals. I credit this largely to talking to locals about where to go and using RateBeer Places to find fine beer and food spots. By the way, try haggis, it's actually pretty damn good...it's very much like scrapple, if you know what I'm talking about. 

All I can say in conclusion is...get your ass to Scotland on your next trip to Europe, because it's amazing! Here are some of my pics, about half are beer and whisky related, the other half are shots of Scotland. Enjoy!

I passed the Certified Cicerone test!

I received the news that I passed the Certified Cicerone® test during my recent beer and whiskey tasting trip to Scotland and Belgium. I was already having a great time, what a cool bonus!  

The test is no joke. It takes four hours and consists of a written portion with short answer and essay questions, a tasting portion for which you must correctly identify styles and off flavors, and a demonstration of a service technique. I spent about a month preparing for the test, but it would not be possible to pass without years of being mixed up in the craft beer and homebrewing scenes. I feel really great about having passed and I'm looking forward to putting this certification to work!  

By the way, we tack the "®" symbol on after the term Certified Cicerone because only a person who passes the exam administered by the Cicerone program can call themselves a "Certified Cicerone," the term is protected by trademark. The term "Sommelier," on the other hand, is a job title, typically for a person who advises customers on wine selection at fine restaurants (go see Somm, an excellent documentary that captures the intensity required to pass the "Master Sommelier" certification test!). Some sommeliers get formal education and test for certifications, but it is not required for a person to call themselves a sommelier. 

Epic California brewery road trip and bottle share!

This is a huge summer for me when it comes to beer travel. I kicked it off with an epic week-long California brewery road trip with my buddy Steve of Beer By BART and contributor to Celebrator magazine. 

The ultimate goal of the trip was to arrive at a friend's place in San Diego, where we met up with a crowd of uber-beer geeks for a massive bottle share that included some of the world's most exciting and rare sour and barrel aged beers. After two days of bottle sharing there, we rode in the short bus over to Escondido for the 7th Annual Stone Sour Fest and partook of more tart and funky brew. 

The trip involved taking several days to drive from San Francisco down to San Diego. Along the way, we stopped at a litany of breweries, many new ones and a few old favorites. There are new breweries popping up every month in CA right now, it's actually hard to keep up with them all! Here's the list of breweries we visited, in order:  

We had a really excellent time meeting many of the brewery owners and brewers, checking out their brewing spaces and gear, and tasting their freshest beer. Simply put, it was awesome! They REALLY know how to do IPAs down in Southern California, I have to say. I thought the NW had it locked up, but the brewers are out of control down there.  

Here are some pics from the brewery visits: 

After finally arriving in San Diego, we met up with a bunch of guys who run what has to rank among the world's most amazing of bottle shares. The stuff they had gathered over the year for this event made me feel straight up guilty about the beer I had brought (which wasn't at all shabby and would've been among the better beers at a regular beer geek bottle share!). They had even made a multi-page list of the beers they had gathered for the first evening's tasting.

The bottle share included the Port Brewing Track Series Ultimate Box Set, a $450 set of thirteen 375ml bottles in a road case, like a band would use to haul audio equipment. These sets are super rare and hard to get. There were less than 600 of these box sets released and they went to winners of a lottery. When someone noted that there were too many people at the bottle share for us to all sample from 375ml bottles, our host replied, "that's why we got two sets." WHAT?! In addition, there were sets of gueuze and other sours brought over to the States from special events in Belgium, such as Tour de Gueuze, as well as from South America, there are just too many rarities to list (see the pics!).

This will put the Epic Bottle Share into perspective: someone brought four Westy 12's and at the end of the weekend they were all still untouched. They weren't as interesting as the other options. Yeah.  

This bottle share went on for two days. Yes, that's right. Friday and Saturday, two whole days. So what did we do on Sunday? Headed over the to the 7th Annual Stone Sour Fest! Frankly, there was no way the beer at Sour Fest was going to outshine what we'd had over the previous couple days, but we did get to sample loads of great sour ale in Stone's beautiful World Bistro beer garden. I highly recommend stopping there if you're ever in Escondido. I flew back home on Monday morning already looking forward to next year's San Diego trip!

Below are some pics from the epic bottle share and Stone Sour Fest. 

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