Saturday, August 14, 2010

Master of toast

This is the first speech I gave in Toastmasters. My feedback was that I should never apologize and I should try to do my next speech without the whole thing written out. I'm sure that is a good idea, but I'm so afraid my mind will go blank. Also, it was suggested that I get out from behind the podium and to gesticulate more. I could have sworn we were told we could do our speeches in the front of the room, if we were comfortable doing so, or at the podium if we preferred. I know for a fact that I would have been shaking like a leaf if I were not behind the podium. I have a lot to overcome, that is for sure!

Good afternoon Madame Toastmaster, fellow toastmasters, and guests.

I hesitated to do my first speech on the topic of beer because I plan to do a future speech on that topic. But there's quite a bit I can say about beer, so I don't think it will be a problem.

This story is also not about me alone, but anyone who knows me knows that beer is a big part of my life. There is no way that I could tell you my whole life story in 5 minutes (and a lot of it is boring anyway -- I was a normal kid, I went to college, I had some jobs, I got married, blah blah blah), so I chose this particular aspect of my life to focus on.

This story begins in November 2003. I was visiting Canada for the fourth time and Montreal for the second time with my boyfriend Jeff. Jeff had proposed to me (I said yes) and we were floating around Montreal on our excitement.

To escape the cold, we stopped in a Tin Tin-themed bar, which turned out to be a beer bar. We didn't recognize any of the beers on offer so we went with the one called La Fin du Monde. Who could resist a beer called The End of the World?

La Fin du Monde is named after European explorers' belief that they had reached the end of the world when they discovered a new world, which turned out to be America. That Belgian style golden ale, similar to a Belgian triple, opened up a new world for Jeff and me.

It took us a little while to become fully ensconced in beer culture. But with our eyes open to the craft beer scene, we discovered that almost everywhere in the world has locally made beer. Some are certainly better than others and a lot are not available for export.

Yes, there are beers made in Austria, for example, that you are not likely to find here, but my advice to you would be that if you travel to Austria you might want to stick with the wine. And there are some lovely Austrian wines.

Some people travel to scuba dive or to collect antiques or just to get away from it all and lie on a beach. Jeff and I travel for beer. We started off by combining trips to Pennsylvania, upstate New York, Virginia, or California with side trips to famous beer bars or breweries.

And then in 2005 we took our first trip to Belgium together. At the time, we were heavily into Belgian beers and to us, Belgium was mecca. If you've been to Belgium, you know that it has a lot more to offer than just great beer, so we fell completely in love with not only the beers, but also the people and the food. It was on that trip that we went to THE Belgian brewery to trump all breweries.

Westvleteren is one of seven Trappist monasteries in the world that produces beer and their beer is believed by many to be some of the best in the world. We rented a car expressly to drive out to this monastery because you could only buy their beer on site. It was the dark ale -- the Westvleteren 8 -- that they were selling that day so that is what we got. We bought a whole case because heck, when were we going to be back?

Jeff and I HATE to check luggage, so bringing back 24 bottles of rare beer was an experience I hope to never relive. This was before the 3 ounce liquids rule had come into effect, so we wrapped all the bottles in our dirty laundry and split them up between our bags. I had most of the bottles in my bag since mine was the one with wheels. I got caught at the gate and was told to gate check it. I did not want to give up my bag, so I took it on the plane anyway. The gate agent then came looking for me! On the plane! All the way in the back! The last row! And took my heavy bag of beer away from me. I was certain at this point that my bag -- and all that beer -- was going to wind up in Timbuktu.

It made it just fine. Not a single bottle broke.

Belgian beer was a good entry point for Jeff and me. The Belgians tend to adhere to a couple of standard styles. But after a while, seeking out Belgian beer was not enough for us. For one thing, the more we searched, the more we found that many of those beers we thought we could only find in Belgium are available in Belgian bars and beer stores around the world.

Our pilgrimage to Westvleteren will probably always remain one of our top experiences, especially since now you have to make an appointment weeks in advance -- if you're lucky enough to get one at all. When we went back to Belgium in 2008, we called and called, trying to get one of those elusive appointments in hopes of scoring one of the other two types of beer they make, but the phone would just ring and ring. As it turns out, the Westvleteren beers are sold (not for cheap, mind you) in at least one beer store I know of in Bruges.And on eBay, too, of course.

Now that we have learned a bit more about beer, we don't have to go as far as Belgium to try new beers. What we seek now is on the opposite end of the spectrum. We look for start-up breweries that are crafting something unusual, maybe using a unique combination of spices or aging the beer in certain type of wood barrels.

This is not to say that I would ever diminish the experience of being invited to stay after-hours at a bar in Belgium and getting to share some bottles of Belgian beer that had been aged 20 years. I still seek new and unusual beer-related experiences. I don’t suppose I will ever again discover a whole new world in craft beer, so to speak, like when I first tried a beer that was not a Bud Light or a Heineken.

And, as it turns out, we did not have to travel to the end of the world to find great beer. There are plenty of amazing beers to be found right here at home.