Monday, November 16, 2009

Santa is officially in town!

For those of you who haven't experienced the holidays in Europe, you might be surprised by a few of the quirky traditions they have over here.

Yesterday was just another average grey-skied Amsterdam Sunday when out of the blue, I hear the sounds of a high school marching band pounding away on the street.
I live off of the Vijzlestraat, which is a fairly central avenue used by almost everybody, including Sinterklaas.

Sinterklaas is the Euro equivalent of Santa. He's got the characteristic white beard and comes bearing gifts. But the Dutch Santa has a much more unique background. This guy is arriving with his horses fresh off a steamboat from Spain - and this spectacle down below is his welcoming party.

Now, this scene is basically your standard scaled down Macy's parade, with small
floats pulled by little Euro-sized trucks. But, there is one thing that makes this parade a complete spectacle - and it's called Zwarte Piet.

This guy is a little black coloured Sinterklaas helper who used to be the right hand guy. Today, there are a bunch of little Zwarte Piets, just like the elves troop Santa Clause rolls with. But, these guys are all decked out with black painted faces.
That's right, black face!
It's really quite the thing to see good ol' Mister Santa come to town followed by a crew of little black-painted faces, but he does, and it is completely normal here. Many others would balk at the idea, with easy throwbacks to the slave trade and what not. And, there are many such stories to explain the painted faces, but most of us just accept he got that way from climbing down chimneys - with Sint's presents of course!

And truth be told, everybody loves these little characters. Particularly by the children who sing Sinterklaas songs with them in exchange for handfuls of pepernoten.

Out on the street with the children, Santa, and his parade of Piets, I couldn't help but be filled with a little Christmas spirit. But, not too much. I'm an American after all, and we do Thanksgiving first!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Bock beer festival: Education meets inebriation

Man, do I love a good beer festival. Any opportunity to mix great beers and the pretense of learning about booze is my own personal paradise.
My first taste of beer sampling shenanigans was back in my Boston days at the annual Beer Summit. Each year my friends and I would meet for an excess of drinking that gave us the gumption to ask stupid questions like 'what's a hop'? or declare a beer to 'taste like candy!'
These festivals were also where I found my love for European brews, so naturally I was psyched to hear that Amsterdam hosted a yearly bock beer festival.
Bock beer is a seasonal brew, which oftentimes reminds me of the many October-themed American beer variations that come out about now (think Sam Adams' Octoberfest). Flowing freely from the taps that virtually lined the 1900's commodities exchange building, the Beurs van Berlage, bock beer was the topic of debate among me and my beer drinking buddies this evening.
We did our best to maintain a beer tasting guide, with witty comments ranging from "carmelised sweetness" for the amber coloured Phoenix Sofie HerftstBock form Het Klaverblad brewery to "like a dirty malt" for the Ossenbock out of Massland brewery.
As the night wore on, and our tastes were simultaneously subdued and sublime, we resorted to a few simple "No!" ratings and even one "YUCK" for an unnamed bock that did not go down well with
our trio.
But my favourite of the evening was a special double bock that I convinced an experienced silver-haired brewer to share with me. "It's a double bock," he warned, squinting. "I can handle it," I assured him.
And indeed I could - Jopen brewery's 4 Granen Bok Bier was my best in show!

The bock beer festival is held annually in Amsterdam, but it's just one of a number of beer drinking events organised by the Netherlands' PINT association. Bringing the best of beer to its members with various tastings, festivals, and other beer excursions, their events section is the number one place for beer connoisseurs to plan their Dutch drinking adventures.

PINT Association
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Chairmen Jeroen Carol-Visser
+31 (0)64 823 4294