A few weeks ago, as the wolves were dropping a depressing "should’ve won" game, I consoled myself with the fact that I would soon be heading to Belgium to enjoy some delicious beers. Uncle Rico asked for a review, so here it is.
A little background- a family member works for airlines so I can occasionally fly standby for next to nothing. The catch is that you often have to go where nobody wants to go when nobody wants to go. Belgium does not have the tourist allure of Rome or Paris. Nobody wants to go there in January. For that reason, I have gone there several times over the years, and I have also gotten more and more into brewing and trying different kinds of beers over the same several years. With apologies to Wim in Belgium, to whom this may sound like a description of Times Square-esque tourist traps to be avoided at all costs, here is a review of my trip to Belgium last week. My brother, a couple of friends and I spent 2 nights in Brugge, a beautiful medieval village, and a night in Brussels.
I should also mention the Dutch word gezellig. Gezellig is an adjective that doesn’t translate directly to English. It refers to a good feeling that you get from being in a certain place with certain people. It can apply to people, places, or things (which, I guess, is true of adjectives), but as a non Dutch speaker I think of it in the context of places that are cozy, quaint, and inviting. Think ski lodges, fireplaces, soft light, and Christmasiness. Many of the centuries-old bars in Brugge and Brussels are positively oozing with gezelligheid.
Our first stop in Brugge was at ‘t Brugsche Bieratelier near Minnewater Park. It is around the corner from De Halve Maan brewery where Brugse Zot and Straffe Hendrik are produced. We had an hour or two to kill before check-in time, so what better way… I think it is a relatively new place, but it is designed to look old and quaint. Unlike most Brugge and Belgian bars, it focuses on offering beers on tap. I tried the Pannepot by De Struise. It was a delicious, dark, strong ale (possibly a quadruple?) that really kick-started my day. A couple of my friends tried some new local offerings. Bourgogne de Flanders was a tasty sour Flemish Red, and Fort Lapin was a golden tripel produced at a new brewery in Brugge.
Every time I visit Brugge in January, I expect at least one bar I want to visit to be closed. This time, Café Rose Red, Terrastje and Estaminee de Garre were all closed. I have never been to Rose Red, but de Garre is a great place- with its own house brewed tripel and a serving of cheese with every beer you order, and Terrastje is one of the most friendly, quaint places I have ever been.
Poatersgat is built under an old church a little ways north of the main square on Vlamingstraat. It is a beautiful locale with a great selection. I had a drie fontainen oude geuze, a cantillon oude geuze, and a la chouffe. It starts to fill up with hipsters as the hour gets later, so go early if you want quiet and late if you want scene.
Café Vlissinghe has become one of my favorites in Brugge. It is billed as the oldest pub in Brugge- operating continuously since 1515. The inside is impossibly charmingly quaint- with fireplace and lots of old stuff. The real draw to me is that there is also a terrace where you can play "petanque" or enjoy a cigar. The selection is not mind-blowing, but the usual trappists are well represented. Another reason I like this place is that Vlissinghe is the dutch word for Flushing- vlissinghe was the original name for the neighborhood in Queens in which I now reside.
One bar I was intrigued about but had never visited in Brugge was De Kelk. As it opened late and was near our rental, we decided to go there last. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I were more into "white whales" and fixated on trying aged sour beer from particular vintages. That, however, is about where I draw the line on my beer geekiness.
The next day, we rode bikes all over the place. The ride to the village of Damme is a beautiful, flat, straight 5k shot along a scenic canal. In Damme, there are a number of restaurants and bars that are less crowded than those in Brugge. Sitting along the canal at the entrance of Damme is Sint Pietershoeve. Sint Pietershoeve is a cherming, gezellig place with a couple of good beers, a great view, and an indoor smoking room. It looked like a nice place to eat as well, but our funds were earmarked for other things. Into town, we stopped at Café ‘t Wapen van Damme for a Maerlant Tripel and an Uilenspiegelbier. I thought these were beers that were made in Damme and could only be found in Damme until an internet search to spell check let me know that they are Bornem dubbel and Bornem tripel repackaged with a different label. I feel like I’ve been had. They were good, though.
On our second night, we made similar rounds, but we added Le Trappiste- another hyper-quaint underground location with a huge selection including Westvleteren 12 (at 12 euros a bottle, I sat that one out.) We skipped De Kelk and ended our night at Vlissinghe.
Upon arrival in Brussels, we found our apartment and bought some souvenirs and groceries. Westmalle, Orval, and Rochefort are all around 2 euro per bottle in the grocery store. Our first stop was the new outpost of Moeder Lambic. I tried a lambic on cask. It was not my favorite. I enjoy the sourness of lambic, but without the carbonation it tasted like wort. Moeder Lambic had a great selection of draft sours. It was contemporary with a nod to the old school. It was a place I would drink if I lived in Brussels. Alas, I am a tourist and I do want to drink in old, gezellig bars that are found down alleyways and are hundreds of years old.
Our next stop was A La Becasse. At the end of an alley, waiters dressed in bizzarely tied aprons serve sour beers in earthenware pitchers. We had a pitcher of Timmerman’s Lambic mixed with Oude Geuze. It was delicious. It was also time to move on.
The next bar was near the mannekin pis and sports a name that I will have to google, the Poechenellekelder. This place is full of gezelligheid and puppets (true story- the puppets are everywhere!) Au Bon Vieux Temps is another alleyway treasure. It looks like Dickensian Christmas in here every day. Lots of dark wood, a stove, and Westvleteren. This time I coughed up the 12 euros for a Westy and another 6 for some cubes of young Gouda cheese with celery salt (I thought it was only for Bloody Marys!). Is it only delicious because of the mystique and the miles traveled to consume it? I dunno, but it was real good. It may not be three times better than a Rochefort 10 (which cost about 4 euro in a bar,) but it was delicious. The last old-fashiony alley-way bar we went to was A L’Imaige de Nostre Dame. This place seems like it may have once been great, but I think it is under new management. Has a bit of an identity crisis with salsa blaring and middle-aged Belgian drunk guy getting in people’s faces.
A La Mort Subite just might be my favorite bar in Brussels. It doesn’t have as many beers to choose from. It can be super crowded (but not on a Sunday in January.)
There is something about the sprawling hall with its yellow-stained walls. Drinking Mort Subite geuze from a giant chalice doesn’t hurt either. A LA Mort Subite is a great place to be introduced to the sour beers. It is also one of the only places I have ever seen Westmalle beer on tap. The good beer and art deco ambiance just make this feel good.
Delirium Café boasts to have over 2000 beers available. The first time I went to this crowded, smoky bar I had my then 6 week-old daughter in tow. Bad dad. They no longer allow smoking, and I no longer bring children there, but I like this bar a little less every time I go. For one thing, I spend most of the time reading the menu and little time conversing or enjoying. More choices don’t make us happier. For more on that, see "The Paradox of Choice" by Barry Schwartz. In addition, the crowd skews a little young. I would have loved to have known about places like this when I was a lad of 22. In any case, Delirium is a place that should be visited once, but I may leave it off the agenda next time.
A bullet point recap:
· If you like beer, Belgium is awesome.
· Favorite places in Brugge: Café Vlissinghe and Poatersgat
· Favorite place in Brussels: A la Morte Subite
· Favorite Beers (standbys)- Orval, Rochefort 10, and Westmalle Tripel
· Favorite Beers (new): drie fonteinen oude geuze, de struise pannepot,