Ratebeerian rauchbier paid a visit to Belgium last month...
<P><u>Thursday 4th March </u>
<P>There are many ways of getting to Belgium from London, but by far the most relaxing and satisfying is to take the Eurostar service from Waterloo Station direct to Brussels. If you plan far enough ahead of time you can pick up return tickets for around £60, which also allow you travel to any Belgian station. The journey takes around 2½ hours, giving you time to consume a couple of Duvels to get you in the mood. I passed up on the Belgian beer as I had something far more interesting burning a hole in my backpack. Many years ago I was given a bottle of Courage & Barclay Russian Imperial Stout which I believe came from either the late 1950`s or early 1960`s, so at least 40 years old. I had resisted its temptations many times in the past but finally decided to share it with an old friend (John White) who has organized trips to Belgium for some years. He started his drinking career in the early sixties so it seemed highly appropriate to give him a taste of a beer that he would have been able to try back then.
<P>The beer itself was muddy brown with a little condition and faint head but any fears of deterioration were soon dismissed by the huge liquorice and roast barley aroma. Obviously alcoholic in the mouth, with traces of whisky and oak followed by a very long, lingering, oily liquorice finish. The beer had stood up remarkably well, and I am glad I opened it (as was John).
<P>After a change of trains in Brussels we got to Antwerp around 7pm, dumped our bags at the hotel and headed straight out to the Kulminator café. This bar is widely recognized as one of the finest in Belgium, if not the world. It is relatively small, a coach load would fill it, but a lot of space is taken up by the large cellar filled with aged beers. You could spend a week here, and a lot of money, and still leave many interesting beers for your next visit. Stand out beers of the night were a delightful Westy 12 from 1997, a 1985 Hoegaarden Grand Cru - which was incredibly good - and a bottle of De Dolle Brouwers Speciaal Brouwsel bottled in 1982 to celebrate the brewery’s first birthday. This was truly special, and you would sell your soul for more of this nectar, but amazingly it only cost 7 euros. The Kulminator attracts beer lovers from around the world and I seemed to recognize half the people in there. By the end of the weekend I knew the other half.
<P><u>Friday 5th March</u>
<P>The morning started quietly with a tour around Brouwerij Het Anker in Mechelen in the company of four Wisconsin homebrewers followed by an excellent meal of chicken breast cooked in Gouden Carolus Tripel. The tripel itself was also available on tap and was superbly spicy, one of the best triples I’ve tasted. After a quick train ride to Brussels we headed towards the newly opened Delerium Café, which has an enormous list of over 2000 beers from around the world, 600 from Germany alone. Some of the prices for US and UK beers were a little hard to swallow but the German and Belgian beers were attractively priced. The bar itself looks like a former night club but is well situated and is worth a visit just to see the old brewery plaques that line the walls, and of course, to find lots of new beers to rate. Around 5pm we headed off across town to catch a bus to the small village of Lennik a few miles west of Brussels to visit a bar that specialises in lambic and gueuze.
<P>In De Verzekering Tegen De Grote Dorst (the name means “Insurance Against The Great Thirst”) is a place that few people will have heard of, and even fewer will have visited. Its location in a small village means it won’t be on most beer tourists’ maps and its unusual opening hours make it a difficult place to plan a visit around. It opens when there is a service at the nearby church, i.e. Sunday, and whenever there is a funeral or wedding. It changed hands last year and the new owners started to make a few improvements with the ultimate aim of opening it on a more regular basis. Unfortunately on Christmas morning last year a fire in the bar threatened its continuing survival. Thankfully the damage proved a mere set back and soon more people will be able to visit this truly atmospheric Pajottenland bar.
<P>As a result of a conversation between Jeremy Gray of the Burgundian Babble Belt and the owner of the Grote Dorst, Yves Panneels, it was decided that as a prelude to the ZBF festival in Sint Niklaas a few beer lovers would meet at the bar to show their support for it. The power of the Internet took over and by early February the list of people planning to attend had grown to a point that a beer tent was booked to accommodate the expected numbers and most of the lambic producers intended to have beers available at the event. It was decided by Yves that it should be less about the bar itself, and more a celebration of lambic and gueuze and the people who produce this truly unique style of beer. They had also been through a period of uncertainty after local officials started to express some doubts about the whole lambic brewing process. By the end of February it was clear that this would be a truly special evening. Armand Debelder of 3 Fonteinen would be there in his capacity as chairman of HORAL (the lambic producers association), several well known beer writers and brewers planned to visit and the local press had also expressed an interest in the event. Finally, in early March it was announced that a top level Belgian government minister would also attend.
<P>The night itself was a resounding success, with over 700 people turning up much to the confusion of many locals who had no idea what was going on. Tim Webb (Good Beer Guide to Belgium and Holland) made a speech, as did Yves. Lorenzo Dabove held a wonderful tasting session of all the styles of lambic beers and its derivatives, a film crew captured the event for Belgian television and Mr Hermann De Croo, Minister of State and Chairman of the Belgian federal parliament did indeed attend (with a total lack of any visible security). He later sent a letter to Yves thanking him for the night and stated “I have already seen many things in my life, but the fact that a very skilled Italian beer connoisseur praises the beers of the Pajottenland in English to beer lovers from London and Washington, is unique.”
<P>The beers on offer were superb with some rarities available, and the local police reported absolutely no trouble (English drinkers have a bad reputation in some parts of Europe, and I think they feared the worst). I met a few fellow Ratebeerians (the three Danes Jacob Lövenlund, Ungstrup, MartinKubert, and FrankenBier from California) and many people from the Burgundian Babble Belt and the Belgianbeer group on Yahoo. Stephen Beaumont and Chuck Cook were also at the event (and the ZBF) so I expect you will hear more about the weekend in the next few months.
<P><U>Saturday 6th March</u>
<P>We rose early in order to attend the Cantillon open brewing day. Twice a year you can turn up at the brewery, pay 4 euros and spend the day following the process from mashing in, wort boiling and the pitching of the wort into the coolships in the brewery roofspace ready for the lascivious Brussels wild yeast to have its wicked way with the soon to be lambic. Regular tours in a variety of languages guide you through the brewery although you can make your own way around using a handy leaflet. A free coffee and croissant are available if you get there early enough, plus one free drink (the freshly made Faro is superb) is included in the entry price. During our trip around the old brewer Jean-Pierre Van Roy presented John White with a glass of lambic and asked him to see if he could spot which type of barrel it came from. It was passed around all our group (which now included the three Danes) and a guess was made at a Calvados cask, which was wrong as it turned out (Cognac was the correct answer), but the beer was superb anyway. Later we sat around with Lorenzo Dabove in the bar area where you can buy more drinks (one is never enough!). Take away bottles are also available and I picked up 750ml bottles of St Lamvinus, Lou Pepe Gueuze and Lou Pepe Kriek for just 6 euros a bottle.
<P>Jean Pierre reappeared with ten glasses, set them out on the table and proceeded to pour out a mystery “gueuze” for us to try. After a sip we all professed it to be excellent, and Jean Pierre revealed it to be Loerik, the lazy lambic blend that refused to become a gueuze from 1998. Much scribbling in notebooks ensued. The blend seemed to have started to wake from its slumbers with a gentle effervescence now apparent but still quite subdued.
<P>We left Cantillon at around dinner time to catch a train to Sint Niklaas, the location for the new Zythos Beer Festival which replaces the old Antwerp 24uhr event which for various reasons is no longer held. The ZBF had beers from around 50 Belgian breweries, each with their own (but identically sized) stand. Often the brewer was the person who served you, and every beer cost 1 euro for 150ml regardless of strength or rarity. Beers of note were the new Dolle Brouwers Extra Export Stout which is destined for the US market, Regenboog Naamloos which had the most unusual blend of spices and aromas (like liquid pizza), Le 3 Fourquettes wheat beer from Achouffe’s new brew pub and the always superb Fantôme beers (if you asked the right questions at the Fantôme stand, Dany would present you with a free bottle of the new BBBrr Fantôme beer!). Dolle Brouwers were also selling another unusual “beer”. Called Hop Dink it was a 0.2% abv drink made just from hops, and a presumably a small amount of yeast and sugar to bottle condition it. Four different test versions were available, using different types and amounts of hops, ranging from pale green and delicately hoppy to snot green and intensely bitter. One for the hop heads who have to drive.
<P>Whenever beer geeks from around the world gather together a beer trade will be organized and this event was no exception. The Danes excelled themselves with some hard to get Danish brews, and a few interesting US brews that don’t get over to Europe also appeared. Inevitably people couldn’t wait to try some of these and those sat around them got to try some interesting beers. Many thanks to MattW for sharing a bottle of New Glarus Raspberry Tart, which was world class, and also an interesting taste of the Ommegang Three Pilosophers courtesy of Todd Alström. Yes that one.
<P><u>Sunday 7th March</u>
<P>Sunday morning I decided to absorb a little Belgian culture by paying a visit to the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels to see the collection of paintings by Brueghel and Rubens, before heading back to Sint Niklaas to absorb a lot more Belgian Beer at the ZBF. The hardest part about beer festivals is the short time in which to try as many beers as possible whilst still remaining in a fit state to enjoy them. Working in a group with some like minded drinkers certainly helps you try more beers than you would on your own, but one beer soon blurs into another and I was quite relieved when the Danes had to leave early for a visit to Café Joris. This gave me a chance to go back and try some of the more interesting beers I had sampled earlier, and an opportunity for the blood level in my alcohol to rise to a safer level. The festival ran from 10 am to 10 pm on the Sunday so around 9 I headed back to Antwerp. A quick night cap in the centre took me to Het Elfde Gebod in the shadow of the Cathederal. It looks pretty normal from the outside but the interior is decorated almost entirely with old religious statues, which is quite bizarre. The beer list is small but it is worth paying a visit to check out the décor.
<P><U>Monday 8th March</u>
<P>A mid-afternoon train from Brussels left little opportunity for drinking, but thankfully the Oud Arsenaal in Antwerp opens at 9am so we had a quick beer or two just after breakfast. First on the list was a 1984 Chimay Bleu for only 4.50 euros. Speaking to the barman revealed some cases had been sitting around in a store room at Antwerp docks for nearly twenty years when an export deal fell through and finally someone decided to get rid of the stock. They offered them to a friend of the bar owner who jumped at the opportunity. It had stood up to the rigors of time remarkably well and I suspect that there were few of the original seven cases left at the end of the ZBF weekend judging by the sheer number of people who had tried them. Next I had a Liefmans Odnar which is surprisingly difficult to find at the best of times, and was enjoyable but not spectacular, before finishing off with a 3 Fonteinen Oude Gueuze.
<P>It was then a train back to Brussels for the Eurostar to London, where we had a hotel booked close to Kings Cross. This gave us the opportunity to visit a couple of London bars to finish off the trip. First to the Skinners Arms just round the corner from Kings Cross for a superb pint of Tim Taylors Landlord, then off to The Wenlock Arms to meet SilkTork and Spiesy. We got there a little early and had a couple of pints before realising that Chris_O was sitting next to us. Scribbling notes as he sipped at a beer was a bit of a giveaway! Finally SilkTork and Spiesy rolled through the door, both decked out in fetching flat caps and we had a few more pints. I cracked open a Swedish beer that I had got from the Danes and we had a surreptitious tasting session whilst the landlord’s back was turned. The Wenlock is a wonderfully atmospheric place with friendly staff and customers but is situated a little off the beaten track. And yes Joris, the toilets are not the greatest in the world, but some Belgian cafés would give them a run for their money. The old urinal outside the Grote Dorst springs immediately to mind.
<P><U>Tuesday 9th March</u>
<P>Just time before heading back up to Lincolnshire to have a meal in the Founders Arms, a Youngs pub close to Tate Modern with great views across the river Thames of St Paul’s and a good selection of Youngs cask ales. Strange then that I chose Youngs Pilsner and a bottle of Light Ale, but they needed to be rated! Finally a trip to the Pitfield Beer shop close to Old Street tube station to stock up on a few more beers to fill the gap until the next trip (Ølfestival in Copenhagen in May)
<P>Finally may I give you a date for your diary: next year’s Zythos Beer Festival is 5th and 6th of March 2005 in Sint Niklaas, just outside Antwerp. I hope some more of you can make it next year