Impressions of Ostend and Brussels: Bizarro World

Ceci n’est pas un travelogue.

There is a man with a piece of pencil lead under his fingernail drawing nudes in a notebook while drinking a milky coffee.

Two bar staff are danc­ing and mim­ing along to ‘Dolce Vita’ by Ryan Paris as they wash glass­es. A man with a shop­ping trol­ley, dressed head to toe in cus­tom embroi­dered den­im, lum­bers in and rais­es a hand at which, with­out hes­i­ta­tion, he is brought a small glass of water; he downs it, waves, and leaves. On the ter­race, two skin­ny boys in art­ful­ly tat­ty clothes eat a kilo of pis­ta­chios and sip at glass­es of Pils. A group of Eng­lish­men in real ale T‑shirts arrive: “Triples all round is it, lads? Aye, four triples, pal.”

Every take on Tripel is a take on West­malle, which marks the cen­tre line. Some are more sub­tle, like the one from De Ryck; oth­ers are all caramel and spice­less sug­ar, like De Ranke Gulden­berg. De la Senne Jambe de Bois is West­malle in the throes of a midlife cri­sis, great fun but in your face, and per­haps a touch unsta­ble. Some, like St Bernar­dus, seem exact­ly like West­malle until you have West­malle when the enchant­ment drops from your eyes and you realise there can be only one. Eight per cent, nine per cent, ten per cent, and yet three in a row is no prob­lem at all – the hang­overs don’t arrive, even if they knock on the door in the small hours only to be seen off with a glass or two of holy tap water.

Three hun­dred bot­tled beers, six­teen on draught, and the bewil­dered young man with the trans­la­tion app orders a Moji­to, even­tu­al­ly. Mus­sels shells scat­tered across the floor, kicked out of the way or crushed under foot as the evening wears on. A den­im dude in red suede shoes mounts a stool and stares at us, or through us, as he mulches a mouth­ful of free peanuts. Twen­ty stu­dents crowd around a table for six, order­ing the occa­sion­al hot choco­late to keep the wait­er on his toes; behind their backs, he rolls his eyes. Kwak on draft is irre­sistible to sea­side trip­pers who order it by the litre, served in a ver­sion of the famous horn-like glass the size of a con­cert trum­pet. Speak­ing of which, the brass band from the square comes in, uni­form but­tons popped and peaked hats askew, hop­ing for lubri­ca­tion after a tough hour blow­ing ‘Lon­don­der­ry Air’ and ‘Super­man March’ into a Nordzee breeze. The voice of an Eng­lish­man car­ries over it all: “These are pre­mi­um beers, these, and I mean pre­mi­um,” where pre­mi­um means strong, as the sly mar­keters always meant it to.

Belgian bar late at night.

What’s wrong with Rochefort 10? It’s one of the most expen­sive beers around – more than €5 per bot­tles in most cafes and around €3 even in super­mar­kets – and yet we strug­gled to enjoy it. But­ter. Rub­ber. The store cup­board tang of dust and card­board. Oh, that’s just com­plex­i­ty, you might say, and maybe it is, but, oh, give us sim­plic­i­ty if so. Then there’s St Bernar­dus 12 – every­where, sud­den­ly, on draught and in bot­tles, refus­ing to be a lux­u­ry prod­uct despite its fla­grant, self-evi­dent lux­u­ri­ous­ness. Bel­gian beers have their ups and downs, though – Abt 12 was dull and explo­sive for a stretch about five years ago – which is why you have to feel your way with it, and believe the evi­dence of your sens­es.

Between the remains of Ger­man coastal for­ti­fi­ca­tions and the air­port, a patio scat­tered with cheap fur­ni­ture and pro­mo­tion­al umbrel­las, with pushchairs and mobil­i­ty scoot­ers parked side by side. Insult­ing­ly bad food at insult­ing­ly high prices is the price you pay for an hour of tran­quil­i­ty and glass­es of Duv­el just out of the mid­day sun. Pen­sion­ers drink beer, par­ents drink beer, wasps drink beer… The Nazis drank beer, too, or at least the man­nequin tableaux in the exhi­bi­tion sug­gest they did. A plane screams over and sets the cut­lery drum­ming. The end of the sea­son, the end of all sorts of things.

Wheat beer is out. It’s bare­ly on menus except as a token offer­ing, one of a hand­ful of brands. When you order it, wait­ers look star­tled, as if you’ve men­tioned an ex they’ve not thought about in years. It’s a joke, a drink for old ladies and tourists, an embar­rass­ing rel­ic of the recent past. In its mug, with slices of fruit float­ing around under the scum, Blanche de Bruges looks unap­petis­ing, too. Tell you what, though – it still tastes great.

Cheese cubes.

Brus­sels, Thurs­day night: EU offi­cials, lob­by­ists and camp fol­low­ers off the clock and on the town, sharp shirts unbut­toned, hair down, lan­yards swing­ing. Twen­ty-eight por­tions of fries, please, for me and my friends at the Europe-wide Union of Train Buf­fet Oper­a­tors, with six ketchup, six may­on­naise, six Andalouse… Out­side an embassy, three young peo­ple run by with glass­es of wine and chunks of cheese lib­er­at­ed from a recep­tion that is still under­way against the win­dows above. On the square, snatch­es of Ger­man, Ital­ian, Span­ish and accent­ed Eng­lish, the com­mon lan­guage of “Can you spare a cig­a­rette?” and “Who wants anoth­er round?”

A cube of cheese, speared on a cock­tail stick, swiped through mild mus­tard and dust­ed with cel­ery salt – the per­fect counter to, and prompt for, a mouth­ful of strong beer. Some­times, often, it seems to be made of the same mate­r­i­al they use for stress balls. Occa­sion­al­ly, it has the added bonus of fridge burn, cubed hours before in the lull between shifts. And you nev­er quite know if €6.50 is going to get you half a kilo or five miser­ly nuggets. But that’s all part of the fun of the por­tie kaas.

Cluttered bar.

In the win­dow of the coastal cafe sits a yacht-dweller with the fig­ure of Hen­ry VIII, eat­ing mus­sels and sip­ping Cham­pagne through kiss­ing lips. Real­ly, Beer Guide? This one? Inside, Cham­pagne Char­lie aside, it’s a caff, albeit one with pre­ten­sions, where locals prop paper­backs against the salt cel­lar while they work on ham­burg­ers and vol-au-vents. Most of the tables are emp­ty – the sum­mer sea­son is wind­ing down, the week­end is over – and the wait­er is already checked out, surf­ing on a Span­ish beach. Two beers, of course, come with a com­pli­men­ta­ry Kil­ner jar of bar­be­cue flavoured corn balls. The EPOS is bro­ken and the repair­man arrives rid­ing pil­lion on his girlfriend’s motor­bike, the pair of them creak­ing past Cham­pers Chuck’s table in their leathers. He rais­es an eye­brow as he sucks white wine and gar­lic from a shell.

The thing about Bel­gian Pils, the prob­lem, is that it looks so beau­ti­ful. Those small ribbed glass­es, sparkling amid the relent­less brown; the beer itself, clear and gold­en, with foam eter­nal; and the con­text, the ordi­nar­i­ness of it, the lack of pre­tence. The two-Euros-a-glass­ness. We used to drink it, and enjoy it, before we Knew About Beer, but know we Know About Beer, it seems a waste to drink Jupil­er or Maes when there’s Chi­may to be had. We got close more than once on this trip, though, and next time… Next time, we’ll crack.

Tus­sling at the bar, jab­bing and head­lock­ing, two roofers get car­ried away and one goes crash­ing across the Art Nou­veau tiles, drag­ging an enam­el sign off the wall with a sound like orches­tral cym­bals. The wait­ress tuts as they rehang the sign, sheep­ish as school­boys.

Because Bel­gian beer tends towards rich and sweet, it’s excit­ing to find beers that are dry, bit­ter and light on the tongue. De la Senne has this mar­ket nailed with Taras Boul­ba and Zin­nebir but De Ranke’s XX does the job bet­ter again, find­ing space for spice and sug­ar, too. “What do you have that’s dry?” would be a good phrase to learn in Flem­ish and French for next time.

Ques­tion 14b.

Jes­si­ca and Ray­mond check out of their hotel at 11 am. It takes them 30 min­utes to get their bags to left lug­gage, 15 min­utes to walk to Saint-Gilles, 30 min­utes to drink cof­fee and buy wool. If they want to eat lunch and make a 2 pm check-in for Eurostar, how many beers can they drink? (Show your work­ing.)

We hit Snack Murat at mid­day and order two don­er kebabs with fries. It’s an ordi­nary kebab shop on a typ­i­cal­ly untidy Brus­sels street cor­ner that has some­how become our go-to. Turk­ish pop on TV, Ital­ian nanas and Ara­bic-speak­ing lads nosh­ing from plas­tic trays, accom­pa­nied by the con­stant crack­le of hot oil. We’re done by 12:20, which is why they call it fast food, and in Cafe Ver­schueren by half past, leav­ing us an hour and a quar­ter for a final beer in Bel­gium. Or two, we hoped, if we played it right. You don’t drink Tripel fast, or you shouldn’t, but we do, and then it’s deux saisons et l’ad­di­tion, s’il vous plaît, to avoid 30 min­utes try­ing to catch the waiter’s eye. Sai­son isn’t designed for down­ing, not with that explo­sive car­bon­a­tion, but down it went and out we went, and farewell to Bel­gium until next time, with a feel­ing of farewell for­ev­er.

This piece was made possible with the support of Patreon subscribers like Lorraine Moulding and Jan Hjalvor Fjeld who got to see us write it in real time over the course of a week. Do consider signing up.

8 thoughts on “Impressions of Ostend and Brussels: Bizarro World”

  1. This is an out­ra­geous­ly enjoy­able bit of writ­ing that makes me yearn to go back to Bel­gium once again.

  2. Loved the full ver­sion, and the pre­cis is remark­able. I will book mark it and try to do the whole lot in one day next year. It could become the With­nail and I drink­ing game for the craft beer cog­nis­cen­ti

  3. We used to drink it, and enjoy it, before we Knew About Beer, but know we Know About Beer, it seems a waste to drink Jupil­er or Maes when there’s Chi­may to be had.’

    Always feel like that in the US, deter­mined to drink Bud or PBR in a dive bar, but as soon as I go in, all ready to order it, I waver, and think, I’ll have a glass of what­ev­er the local major-league craft is.

    Nice piece btw.

  4. I usu­al­ly have a Maes when we go to Leon (not that one) in Brus­sels, as that’s what the prix fixe mus­sels come with (and, for the edge of the Grand Place, they are good and not out­ra­geous­ly priced). It’s per­fect­ly aver­age, noth­ing to com­plain about. Hav­ing said that, could­n’t see myself order­ing one (or sim­i­lar) in an actu­al bar…

  5. This is your best piece this year and up there with the best all round – you’d bet­ter enter this into at least a few bgbw cat­e­gories!
    Jokey threats aside this post makes me want to get back to Bel­gium (and Brus­sels specif­i­cal­ly) ASAP so much more to see (and revis­it)

  6. I hap­pi­ly lived in Brus­sels for 7 years and this is a beau­ti­ful reminder of what it’s like to drink there. Great writ­ing.

    The patre­on updates were superb too – so glad that you made it to Stoemel­ings in Brus­sels, a favourite old haunt. Next time try Monk near Place St Cather­ine, named after Thelo­nious the jazzman rather than trap­pists.

  7. Sounds ter­rif­ic. Did you stay in one of the resorts on the coastal tram­line? We were con­sid­er­ing that one year- or pos­si­bly that plus Brus­sels – but the weath­er looked a bit brac­ing…

    I love Rochefort 10, though, and won’t hear a word against it. Think stewed plums, or pos­si­bly rhubarb.

    I’ve also had that “how am I putting away all these 8% beers?” moment, but it’s not that sur­pris­ing when you think about bot­tle sizes – 330 ml is ~7/12 of a pint, mak­ing an 8%er the equiv­a­lent of a pint at 4.3%. Pos­i­tive­ly ses­sion­able (although that guy with the litre of Kwak is going to feel it in the morn­ing).

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