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A Letter From Belgium

Rules of the Beerhouse
Features September 18, 2003      
Written by JorisPPattyn

Wilrijk, BELGIUM -

For a Belgian beerdrinker learning about the diversity of American craft brews, it is as the reconquest of the Garden of Eden. Learning about the diversity of State-laws concerning the trade, transport, sale and consumption of beers, is the same as discovering the Serpent is still residing in the Garden.

In the same vein, I suppose an American discovering the laws – or rather, the absence hereof – governing the consumption of beer in Belgium, must seem as entering the Heavenly Paradise; at least, that’s what I extrapolate from the reflections made by the Brits, who preceded their overseas colleagues in landing here in droves to sup from the Holy Grail, filled with (what else?) Trappist.

As the British beerlovers did, the American visitor will have to discover that where the official rules lack in strictness, the laws of entropy step in with self-regulation. We Belgians tend to take this kind of thing as normal, but having been abroad to try the cerevisial blessings of other countries, I came to realise that this presumption lacks the backbone of self-evidence.

The utmost restriction here is a direct result from the lack of a “Three tier”-rule, as you know so well in the USA. Hence, the larger the brewer, the more pubs he owns. Pubs, where the only products available hail from his kettles, or arrive via his minions. On this point national and EU rules are trying to intervene, in the sense that limits are being imposed, and in general, it can be stated that the exclusivity contracts tend to restrict themselves more and more to the draught beers, the bottled ones being relatively free. As such, it depends on the interest and the stamina of the landlord, how narrow or how broad the contractual restrictions are applied.

And here we come to the gist of my letter. In the end, it is the landlord of the pub who draws up the rules of the beerhouse. Belgian landlords are a peculiar breed. Personally, I know a few who seem to be made for the life behind the counter, but on the other hand, I once witnessed somebody stating that ‘only the most androphobic, antisocial elements seem to take up the trade’.

If I go to a beerpub, unconsciously I expect it to offer me a broad choice of local and international ales, presented to me by a person who is both interested in the good beer as in its worshippers. However, in reality, my first worry is to find the door open. Short of being on holidays, skiing vacation, summer recess, the Belgian landlord keeps strictly to his (own) holy hour, his closing day and his weekend. Or, as in some cases, the weekend is your only chance to find him ‘home’ – behind his counter, I mean. The most beautiful example I’ve ever encountered was a small village pub named “’t Buitenland”, which roughly translates to “Abroad”. On the barricaded door, a little note cynically stated: “Sorry, but we’re abroad”.

There is no such thing as an official closing hour. In practice, we tend to think that means that the landlord will close in the wee hours in the weekend, and maybe a little earlier during the week. Alas. If the landlord thinks his esteemed clientele is not drinking as much as it might, he might lock the door, to come ostentatiously over to unlock the Hades’ gates again, every time a subdued punter shows signs of wanting to retire. And if the brewer’s delivery is scheduled tomorrow at 08.00 AM, the opening hours’ note at the front door might as well been added by the last joker passing by. As compilers of Belgian beerguides painfully had to learn, the “opening hours” disclosed to them by a Belgian pubowner is a declaration of intention at best, left to change by the international exchange rates, the season of the year or the mood of the pubs’ housecat. Newcomers I would warn for the captions in the dear guide you purchased so judicially before leaving.

There is no law either regulating the actual interest the landlord has to have in his public. You, as an enthusiastic foreign explorer of our beery delights, might want to discuss your intended menu with the person manning the bar; he, however, might feel no compulsion to oblige you in this way. Find yourself marooned for some reason in a pub with such a landlord, a prolonged stay might eventually turn you into a habile interpreter of a series of grunts, oomph’s and sneezes into a more humane language. Do not take your landlord therefore for a more or less dangerous psychopath. He might have just received his latest IRS estimation (and in Belgium, that is a bitter pill indeed), or similar.

Whereas few things are taken so strictly in the USA, in Belgium the legal drinking age limit is as grey a zone as anything. There IS a national law regulating – officially , it is 16 years - but on the premises, a grey hair on the coat of an otherwise pimple-faced youngster might be taken as conclusive evidence of drinking ability. Do not think however, that finding the pub open, the landlord in a good mood, and your children at marriage age, will open you the beery Belgian Sesame. After all, the landlord might take offence at the number of your group, the colour of your shoes, the presence – or maybe the absence – of tattoos and piercings around some bodily orifices.

In fact, I’m starting to wonder how I ever managed to squeeze into a Belgian alehouse.



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start quote the “opening hours” disclosed to them by a Belgian pubowner is a declaration of intention at best, left to change by the international exchange rates, the season of the year or the mood of the pubs’ housecat. end quote