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A Letter From Belgium

The Beeriest Weekend, Part Three
Beer Travels January 6, 2005      
Written by JorisPPattyn

Wilrijk, BELGIUM -

Part 4 Saturday

Saturday, as you know, is the <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/events-detail.asp?eventID=1284>big festival day (I have decided not to decide on Sunday, before having seen and taken my be(e)arings at the festival grounds). Now, as it starts only at 14.00h, this leaves us a free pre-lunchtime. All three of us would have embraced long hours of sleep with alacrity, there’s just three 6 and 7 year old ones convinced otherwise. My wife furiously silences them, but it is too late. I get up, and after crashing the RB database by uploading all those new beers, I move into the cellar and try harnessing my thoughts on the daunting task ahead.

You know, all you XXI-century computerfreaks might have trouble understanding this, but, as jolly as I might be as a kid in a candistore when going to a beerswap, it fills me with utter dread as well. DID I promise specific items, and if so, to whom? With how many babblers, RB’s and other beergeeks did I conclude beerswapping pacts? To whom do I owe a favour from earlier experiences? And worst of all, if no exact deal has been struck, what do I bring? What will cancel out a gorgeous bottle of…?

PHWAH! I start grabbing bottles left and right, mark a few mystery ones, and end up filling near to three crates, with quite varied contents, shove them in the back of the car, and go back to the screen. David has also made his entry, and somewhat later, the wife appears, and pushes me off to the butcher’s. We dine, stuffing our stomachs for the onslaught. At 12.30, we lift anchor, having sworn to go for the toll-paying tunnel at Liefkenshoek rather than round Antwerpen in a traffic jam (they’re more or less permanent). It actually saves us at least half an hour, compared to last year’s journey. Somebody else must have discovered this, as the toll has more than doubled since. Nice – NOT. We reach Essen, the festival grounds and all ought to be rosy.

Until we discover another kind of jam. Arriving at 13.50, we spot a row of patiently waiting people halfway into the parking lot. This CAN’T be for the festival already, can it? Of course it can, and it is: familiar faces abound amidst the waiting. We sigh and join. Later we learned that the queue had even been longer before, and OBER started issuing tickets and glasses 15 mins in advance. As it will be, the guys at the glasses and tickets stand will have a full job, no second of pause until 16.00. Awesome. Then we finally enter the hall(s), no table in sight offering some sitting relief, it seems. Fortunately, our good guardian angel Jeremy has secured a big babbler’s table where we find some empty chairs. He has endeared himself to the organisers by turning up a full hour early, and starting to help them in practical things – a trick I performed two years ago.

Doubt seizes me immediately: the central core of the table is already occupied by an unbelievable assortment of exotic looking bottles with mouthwatering names. No, not the waiting Christmas beers, but the swap beers. I have to fight lassitude once more, as <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/ViewUser.asp?UserID=10971>Marcusfromthebeerdesert informs me he has bestowed my promised Normandy selection on Björn and Anders from Sweden. I should have been at <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Places/ShowPlace.asp?PlaceID=533>Kulminator the other day. Yet I can hardly have a swing at the two Swedish interlopers, as Björn pounces down upon me, putting two outsize plastic bags in my hands, full of untried Scandinavian goodies from the most varied kinds. His group later on lets me in for a (new) taste of Cloudberry lambic, and ends up giving me the leftover doubles-of-the-day. Anybody interested in <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=19201>Mysingen Midvinterbrygd or <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=5946>Jämtlands Jul-Öl? And Marcus will return with more Normandy beers on the next meeting.

‘Tis time for me to get my own goodies, and I bring the organisers to despair hauling over three crates of beer through their kitchen, in order to avoid the still growing queue. Thank God, Gerard didn’t know what I planned to do, or he would have showed me the way out… So I completely fill up the rest of our tables, completing the mess, and drawing curious from all over the hall. I feel like a vacationer without a flyswatter to drive away the wasps from the jam of his picnic. I set out to give beers to eager hands – beginning with the Swedes, of course. Babbler MikeK gets out a sac, and thrusts <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/Brewing-Company-241.htm>Weyerbacher gems in my hands, telling me he loves the old gueuze.

Time for some disappointment. An American freelance beerjournalist tells me he has not the expected <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/Brewing-Company-101.htm>Victory and <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/Brewing-Company-202.htm>Tröegs beers. The idea of not having received a last e-mail made him think the former enthusiastic mails where no longer of any importance. Oh well. I go to greet the Backstage brewing crowd, and present <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/ViewUser.asp?UserID=2741>biergirl with some bottles – and lo-and-behold, she has some bottles for me – including the <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=19994>Mad Elf, I was already resigned to miss. She gets a resounding kiss on the cheek. One needs more women of that kind. Jean H arrives and she has a bottle of engine oil for me – well, by <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/Brewing-Company-1560.htm>Harviestoun that is. I love women.

Trust <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/ViewUser.asp?UserID=1782>Jacob Lövenlund for conducting the weirdest swap of them all. Whilst I have indicated him the contents of the crates, after receiving some choice bottles, and told him (without much hope, really) he’s free to search and find what he likes. Sitting back, he views the crates as the scene with some indulgence, and then starts giving me, every other ten minutes and a few sips, another bottle from the stack in front of him. Without a second look at my offerings. It’s only a full hour later, that against all odds, he burrows in a crate, lifts out the most unlikely bottle of all (I mean – I loaded that without even thinking I’d get rid of it), and asks could he have it? I’d have given him the money for the return, had he asked…

In the mean time I try to sample some beers, too. A stroke of luck puts <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/ViewUser.asp?UserID=5405&SortBy=3>MatW in front of my nose, so I have a try at his beers too. All the more as I arrive to the conclusion that I left the carefully printed plans, (with keen numbering for tasting, made in front of the screen the last few days) at home. Why bother? Lets start by the new ones and see to the “rateables” later. <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=42190>Authentique de Noël, easy one, that. Mat has got the <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=42200>Contreras X-mas. <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=42201>Toernichoise is another blank for me, but I wonder about its Christmas content. <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=42202>Zinnebir/St. Pieters have one too, and of course, the <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=42203>Antwerps Kerst one. Had I lived in Antwerpen still, I’d have walked to get it. <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=42204>Canaster-Winterscotch, another good one by Jef. <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=41486>Gribousine d’Hiver. Better than the one yesterday, but not great by any means. Time for a real surprise: <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=42205>Snaaskerstbier by <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/Brewing-Company-1708.htm>Deca Services. As well as the <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=9701>Karthuizer one, this brewer deserves more interest. I like these estery, nutty tries.

One of the main things at Essen is that everybody is there. One of the main nightmares is that you don’t have half enough time for all – some you even never encounter. I STILL haven’t met Manuel oudegeus. Michael Berger, however wears a face from now on, and I’m happy to find my great mate <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/ViewUser.asp?UserID=6758&SortBy=3>Todd Ashman, with father, and a choice Christmas ale. Hasn’t he some beers for me too! In fact, I’ve some for him, but I nearly have to put them in his bag. Seems he’s travelling way too heavy already. All the same, I LOVE <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/Brewing-Company-2040.htm>Ch. Merz products. Some would-be tradester keeps poking at my crates. She has a little bottle of <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=22904>120 Minute to trade. Having tasted that beer already, I’m not really hot, but as nobody seems to want it, I finally take out a bottle of <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=39256>Cuvée des Champions and propose a trade. She agrees, only to look as if I’ve bought Manhattan for some baubles from her… Ondank is ’s werelds loon..;

Podge’s there – more beers for me, some great English ones. He has a bottle of Suffolk Vintage Ale for David too, who’s very pleased. Silly me, I thought I’d spotted the Suffolk Strong. I’ll get it, some day, no fear. I try the <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=42206>Lumière d’Hiver, from <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/Brewing-Company-1179.htm>de Brunehaut, while the inseparable duo Coleman-Becker make their intro. That just one swapbottle more – but as usual, these jokers have bought another stack of old beers to try on the spot. Johan B, Jeremy, David, Mat, we all stand queue to try “Bass Kings’ ale”. Doesn’t sound too adventurous? Well, the bottle says bottled February 1902. If you please! The beer is unbelievable, as dark treacle syrup, full of madeirisation notes, leafy, and ink-like. Completely opaque. Later I learn this beer would be an eBay joke. Seems the Bass Brewery themselves had rows of these old bottles, and refilled them from 1977. I’m not Thomas the Unbeliever, neither too gullible, but I’ve had many’s the beer aged for 30 years. None of them had these characteristics; having never tried a century-old beer, I cannot make a judgement.

The Decennium beer by homebrewer Marc Struyf is obligatory for this festival, but I’ve never dug our good Marc’s Triest-y beers. This one’s no exception. Meanwhile, Bill and Warren have opened a <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=39508>DFH Burton Baton ale. No chance of deception here, and as good as I find most Sam C’s beers. Love them. <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=42267>La Jamaigne de Noël is another aged one, but offered by the organisers. I wonder where all these stocks of the <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/Brewing-Company-2176.htm>Mibrana beers keep coming from. Did they sell any before going bankrupt at all? <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=19681>Slaghmuylders Kerstbier, then, is the start of the Rateables. Easy guess that, but a glass of (aged!) pilsener between all the spicey X-mas specials is somewhat of a letdown… OK, <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Reviews-9717.htm>Bartlehiemer from <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/Brewing-Company-862.htm>Du Bocq. Another brewery I thoroughly dislike, but this is one of their best.

Meanwhile, Lut has informed me twice that David has decided not to return to the festival. I have translated this as “I’ve managed to make David say he’ll be a good boy, and will not support you if you dare to suggest returning here…”, knowing her a little, but I’m beginning to see there’s some reason behind this madness. I’ve hardly tasted the beers, I’m constantly being hindered in thinking over my rating notes by people expressing their inner feelings to me. If they carry good beer, I’m all ears, but what to think about the joker who’s accosted my spouse, and made her promise I’d keep all those gorgeous-looking beercaps for him? Beer crown-corks, for pity’s sake, what do people want with those??? And I’m already collecting beerlabels for two other interested, and beercoasters for my oldest son. Oh, yes, and now a sack for the blasted crowns, why not? The life of a beertaster is one long hell.

So I decide that a tour via some good Flemish beerpubs might be a valuable alternative to do some more rating here at this great, but definitely overcrowded festival. Who knows I find something really new there, too? My great pals Bill and Warren make up for the Grand Finale. They brought over a <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=34434>J.W. Lees Harvest Ale, Calvados cask-aged. Wouldn’t you love those guys? It’s great, and I start shaking hands. We drive home. I am afraid that I cannot tell you what we had in the evening. A meal for sure, but whatever went along – I forgot…

Part 5 Sunday

So Sunday is pubs’ day. Don’t imagine a pub crawl downtown, or so. We’re talking of just two remote country pubs, quite some distance apart. Another long sleepy morning, this time no time worrying about what to take along. A roadmap will do. I’m even too sleepy to control and unpack yesterdays’ trophies. Small wonder, we have a hearty brunch again. Our first destination of the day shines by its unique opening hours. First of all, it’s only opened in weekends. They open Sunday for lunchtime, only to close again around 13.30, have a “holy” hour-and-a-half and reopen at 15.00. So it’s at an advanced hour we set out for Huise.

If I had to stop going to pubs, with one exception a year, or so, I would opt for this one: “De Gans” in Huise near Oudenaarde. In the beautiful rolling countryside, known for its walking trails, between Kruishoutem and Oudenaarde, the setting is as for a forgotten locals’ boozer, with <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=42900>Roman Pils from the bottle. In reality, it has one of Belgium’s keenest beerlists, impressively long, and with a lot of old beers. The pub owners, a great couple, Hein and Ingrid (who are always young in my idea, even if they have an adult son), have their own jobs in the week. During the weekend they run this gem.

For some reason or another, you’re always made welcome upon entering. OK, the pub exists for 22 years now, and the first time I ever went there is more than 20 years hence, so they more or less know me by now - but I see all people get the same treatment here. It’s a way of life. Not surprisingly, the punters are very varied here. There’s a constant small trickle of beergeeks as us, but the majority are local people on Sunday family outings coming to eat pancakes, followed by country hikers, drinking a hot fluid. These days, the open fire is always roaring, and that has even some beery connotations. The atmosphere is the best bar none.

Also these days, they have an additional menu with Christmas beers. As said, they start to know me, and I bring Ingrid to near-despair (if she could be brought to such, which I doubt) when she presents proudly a bottle of the new Contreras X-mas, and I have to inform her I had it just the other day. No harm done, my attention is attracted to a curious entry on this list all the same. <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=42305>Strubbe Kerstbier, and on magnum bottle at that. I’m pretty sure there was no such beer to be had yesterday. But 1.5 litre is a bit much – David would have been game, but Lut has a better idea: purchase it and take it home –“so I can have a glass, at least”. The idea has its merits, as we are both eager to have more (and as such less voluminous) choice. I spot a bottle of the <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=42268>Shii-take beer, a special brew that was made by/for a mushroom farm in the north of Antwerpen. I used to have one in my cellar, but didn’t dare to rate it, thinking it too old, and not being sure of its origins. Now’s the time to remedy that – B.E.S. attributes it to <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/Brewing-Company-1187.htm>De Proef. David opts for some Belgian classic. Lutje, poor thing, starts sipping coffee. Not too downcast, as she maintains De Gans have the best pubcoffee she knows, which, I suppose, means hardly coloured hot water.

There’s a couple of fine gentlemen sitting next to us, and one of them decides for a house speciality: the hot Chimay. A glass of <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=51>Chimay “red” is poured out in small measures, and every other few sips, a red-hot poker from the fire is slowly stirred into the beer, which causes the head to rise dramatically, getting a very special creamy substance, and offering special sensations due to the instantly caramelising sugars. David’s attention is roused so much he even takes pics. He was supposed to be the official photographer of this week (the idea camera is anathema to yours truly), but usually he forgot, content to walk after me, and enjoy his beers.

<IMG border=0 SRC=/images/features/214_1425.jpg height=300 width=200>
Hot-pokered Chimay @ De Gans

Another beer is due. I suggest the <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=15928>Frater Ambrosius, the raspberry-lambic from <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/Brewing-Company-2756.htm>Eylenbosch. Cannot leave these ratings to the Danes alone, no? David joins – we agree the nose is just superb, all the right fruity-acid notes. The taste is an absolute letdown: jam-like, fruitdrops-like taste, and we both suspect an artificial sweetener. A bummer. The <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=7008>Oud Zottegems that follows is a lot better, and allows me to repair the gaffe from Wednesday evening. We talk to Hein, and learn that the Strubbe I let him haul out of his cellar, is actually his last one. He’s finally out of some of his classics: like the Petre-Devos, an Oudenaards Bruin from a long-lost brewery. And we learn that he had to give that one out unopened too: to the owner of the very pub we want to go next: ‘t Kroegske in Emelgem. We ask directions (not that we never did this route before, but it never harms to make sure), and we get strict instructions of giving the couple running our next destination the best regards from our current hosts. If that isn’t good fellowship?



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start quote ‘Tis time for me to get my own goodies, and I bring the organisers to despair hauling over three crates of beer through their kitchen, in order to avoid the still growing queue. end quote