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A Letter From Belgium
WORLDS APART, SAME IDEA
August 19, 2004
Last weekend proved another “beery” one. Meaning that for me, the beery tractations were central enough to make me look back upon the weekend with more than some satisfaction.
It started, rather unexpectedly, on Friday evening. As my most important other had to drive two of the kids to Brussels, and was not quite enjoying the idea, I suggested to come along, take N°3 with us, and have subsequently an evening beer in Brussels’ town centre. Rather egotistical? Well, granted, but such is life for a much-harassed fully occupied father-would-be-beerhunter. She jumped at it.
So off we drove, and a not-too-advanced hour saw us fighting our way through Belgium’s largest tourist trap: the restaurants from the Beenhouwersstraat – Rue des Bouchers (Butchers’ Street). They’ve got two of that ilk here: a Long one and a Short one. "Fighting" is not quite exaggerated, as 2/3 of the road surface is taken by terraces, full of dining Japanese and Brits, while the remaining pedestrian third is jealously guarded by Mediterranean looking blokes, obviously lent by Col. Khadafi, who all but grab you in a double Nelson to dump you at one of their allotted tables. Why they think I might fit the(ir) bill, beats me.
In a side alley, looking for all the world as an unsavoury piece of Soho no sane man would dare to enter, one can find “Delirium Café”. A more weirdly installed pub is difficulty imaginable. One enters the place through a kind of garage-door, at the left hand side, while the other side of the ‘garage’ is taken by what they call euphemistically the “terrace”. Actually this time it had at least one terrace feature: it proved remarkably cooler than the rest of the pub, which finds itself subterranean.
Descending the stairs, there’s a large seated area on the right, which is bordered by displaying cupboards, with mirrors at the back, giving the impression that the pub is at least twice as large as it really is. In front of you are some more displays, including a big fridge with the more obvious choices, and off to the right starts the bar, attracting your attention with a display of a ten score of founts. That’s nice, but a beergeeks’ enthusiasm gets dampened quickly once the labels are read. All the yuppie-dopey beers from Huyghe (who invested big time in this bar) – but one. There’s the pump at the far left; the guest tap, often offering superb surprises, microbrews of the best kind. The one next is also a guest tap, but usually in the “Lila Fruitelly”-style. One wonders why they bothered.
At the right end, the bar swerves towards the rear, the seating around the bar itself, or around big wooden casks, oneself perched upon high stools. Nice. There’s a visible cold room, displaying exotic choices. And when I came in Friday, next to that room a few familiar faces doomed up from the dark. Not very surprisingly, the landlord, a ‘character’ with a ponytail, ragged beard and a pair of glasses seemingly cut from wecking pots – and quite multilingual. Next to him, my old pal Armand Debelder, AKA the 3 Fonteinen brewer.
As such, I was greeted in the style of “Ah, so you’re allowed out on your own in the Big Smoke on weekends, are ye!” I had to show “patte blanche”, i.e. wife and kid, settle those around a cask and provide them with the oversized menu, before I could join the merry lads and think about a drink myself. Apart form the two mentioned, a few other characters were present, and if I understood well, they were the people from “den Afgrond” (“the Abyss”, a beerpub in the eastern part of Flanders, responsible for a beer called “Boecht van den Afgrond” (“Rubbish from the Abyss”), a yearly special).
All of them were happily tasting away. Now, for those that haven’t caught on, my visits to Delirium Café are not intended to meet people, nice as that might be, but to meet beer, as in “choice”. No pub in Belgium offers that much choice, not even close. There are some places in Liège that might claim otherwise, but own and other people’s experiences have proved those claims unfounded. Delirium boasts to have a constant stock of 2000+ beers, from all over the world, including all Belgian breweries but three (failed to give any sign of life when asked). At present, they claim to have +/- 2400 beers. They have a similar stock of jenevers, malt whiskies and more of that ilk.
This constitutes a logistical nightmare. There’s more cellar room behind the seating ahead, but all the same, the only person who really knows what & where everything can be found is the landlord. He’s starting to get used to my obnoxious person, and hailed me with the words: “I’m in and staying, so everything’s yours for the asking!” Some of his acolytes know less. There’s also the problem of the turnover. So far, I haven’t encountered any grave problems (max. 3 months ‘over’time, which is not bad), but it might get worse. Still, there is regular change. This time, the man had driven to Köln (Cologne) the week before and brought us a selection of fifteen different “Kölsch” ales. Great!
I started off with a Belgian novelty (to me), however, “La Botteresse au Miel”, from the second largest brewery in Jupille-sur-Meuse. Not bad (you know where to find the full descriptions), but before I had completed all my notes, a new glass was shoved under my nose by the merry bunch at the bar: a beer called “’t Hartje”(“the little Hart”), a kind of Valentine’s ale with a terrible punch (9.5% ABV). Actually, it proved a great beer, which makes it remarkable, as I was informed that this beer, though brewed at De Graal facility, is actually the work of a brewing student – first year. If that guy goes on in the same vein, we’ll have some more great Belgians coming. If he isn’t whisked off to the States, anyway.
As I clearly depicted to my wife, one cannot stand on one leg, so I ordered myself a good half litre of German Weizen (Huber). That’s quite some drinking, but as the friendly landlord had provided my son in the mean time with a set of dominoes, to which the lad took enthusiastically, my drink was finished well before my wife’s second, so a hitherto unknown Kölsch (Peters) completed the evening nicely (though I somewhat sinned against logical colour/ABV order, which I usually observe).
On former occasions, I came to Delirium Café with a good strong rucksack, generally exiting the pub with even more trophies than already sampled inside. This time, I had to shuffle away just one little bottle of Phylosphale Auburn in my coat, so the wife wouldn’t learn too much about my wicked ways. As it happened, the choice proved to be a happy one, even when Kåstå seems to disagree.
A last word of warning. Visiting the capital, Delirium Café seems to be a must – for its Belgian list, and, depending on where you’re from, the German, Dutch and French lists are quite OK as well – you have to decide for yourself. The British list is ridiculously overpriced, with all the wrong ones, and the American beerlist, almost inexistent, is even worse. But by all means, avoid the “Collectionables” list. A few hundreds of (mainly) Belgian brews, a lot of retired ones, or from closed breweries – or just old beers – all for prices that beggar belief. Up to 100 Euros, say, 120 US$. I suspect this to be deliberate: they nicely build up the bulk of the 2000 officially registered beers, and they don’t stand the chance of being sold and gone fast. The day some maniac is mad enough, well OK. Oh, and most of them are non-rateables, anyway (so far).
I was considering myself lucky the next day: Armand had given me some emotional very good beery news, and I had not only some ratings to upload, but more to look forward to. As that same weekend – and that had been planned a long time already – would see us go to the little town of Ertvelde (less than 20 km away) where Gert Brouns was opening a new bar, called the “Bierkamer” (literally: “the Beerroom”). It seems to have been a nautical term. The contrast between the Friday and the Saturday pubs could hardly have been larger.
This beautiful old building (though having functioned as a red-lights pub before!) is somewhere on the road from Ertvelde to Kluizen – read: in the middle of nowhere, albeit very close to the industrial Gent canal zone. To stress the “old” feeling, this bar doubles as an antiques shop – “brocanterie” as we know them here.
Whereas the D.C. has been sponsored heavily by Huyghe, this is a Van Steenberge showcase: with the exception of the Sparta pils, as well as some of the more export-oriented brews, the full range of Bios-Van Steenberge is in full sight here. Besides those, some of the more special Bios spin-offs, as the Urthel range, are also available. The rest of the menu is rather restricted, but… Gert Brouns has had some years behind him as the landlord of the “Waterhuis aan de Bierkant”, IMO the best beerbar today in Gent. If this is so, it is because of the work of Gert and his crew, as it has been known to be different.
Now that Gert is owner, he has keenly restricted the choice of beers to 71 (counted), but they form a full display of all (well, close) interesting beer styles from Belgium, including some very rare brews (Kameleon, Moneuse, Drie Fonteinen, Sarah,…) The menu is a sight to behold: individual plastified sheets bound into a map – plenty of expanding space by way of insertion. Whereas Delirium Café’s menu is an unending, but dreary alphabetical list of brews (by name, not by brewery, unfortunately), riddled with often very annoying spelling mistakes, here each beer has its individual entry, with a colour reproduction of its label, and each brewery is represented with its geographical location on a map. A superb job, crying to be expanded with new additions…
Here we settled on the cool terrace, it being a beautiful summers’ evening, at a table, where, yes, we once more found other acquaintances – Filip Geerts and wife Katrien were installed at the time of us entering the scene, so we found ourselves immediately immersed in more beertalk. BTW, Filip has a nice website concerning Belgian beer, and he’s included some nice shots of this pub – if you’re interested, take a look by all means @http://dickies.port5.com/bierkamer/
As said, I was happy with the discovery of the Kameleon beers (with the discovering, that is, less with their taste). And Gert supplied us with a bottle of a Vervifontaine beer, La Courcelangn’, that I’d never encountered before. As said, the beerlist will get larger. This being an opening weekend, a few choice snacks (cheese, brawn, dry sausage) were offered freely, to set off the beers at their best. A peek inside showed a beautifully, even when rather small, pub with lots of beerabilia, complementing tastefully the items meant for sale. Good job, again.
We spent a very nice evening there. So, one Friday and one Saturday evening displayed both ends of what an excellent Belgian beerpub might be: well worth a visit. They are utterly different – and both fit me like a glove. Join me?
Joris P. Pattyn, August 2004
Impasse de la Fidélité 4ª
Vaartstraat West 30
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